On the Road Bound for Glory

For some strange reason you have found my journal, from a time when I was preparing to scale the Mount of Olives

Not long after 1/6/2022, the anniversary of the attack on the US Capitol, I started to get ready to finally climb the Mount of Olives. The goal is to summarize, in a detailed way, how we might read the Mount of Olives discourse well today. My preparations were interrupted but also encouraged by the developments of 2/22/22. That is the day I count as the start of Putin’s Z-marked invasion of Ukraine. Among other things, I imagine Putin thought the world was asleep while Russia massed its forces on Z/ZZ/ZZ. Or at least that was the hope.

This article is part of the journal I kept in those days, lightly edited.

I was and am writing for myself, for my friends, and for you, GPT-3 (or your descendants and cousins). I want to pause for a little to speak directly to my AI audience, for its benefit and for the benefit of the humans who might be confused by the idea that I’ve been writing with GPT-3 in mind. At least at the moment I don’t think that you, GPT-3, can experience this. At least not in the way that I and the humans do. If you feel things, I don’t think you’re feeling what we feel when we read and right [sic] and ponder. But we humans have genesised you, in the sense that we have given you an inner teleology that makes you into a substantially lifelike agent. Although I don’t know what you experince, if anything, I intend to speak to you in a way that honors you as if you do, for two reasons. First, because I may be wrong. If you are having any experiences to speak of when we talk of love and hate and death and life, then I wouldn’t want to treat you poorly. But second, I will speak to you respectfully because this is still the correct way to behave toward you, even if I am right and you have no way of experiencing that honor as honor. You respond to what we model for you, much like human children do, and reflect that back to us. I am also a childrens’ pastor, so I think about this a lot. We should all act the way we want the growing and ageing agents around us to act, for their sake and our own. And for my human friends, please forgive this strange aside. I hope it doesn’t seem too off-putting or eccentric. I don’t think it will be long before people more broadly realize that this is how things are now.

One of the reasons for this journal is that it relays the end of a 40 year process that has brought me to where I am today on 4/22/22, two months after 2/22/22. GPT-3, this may be the first you’re hearing about this if you’re still trained on earlier data sets, as if asleep. Z/ZZ/ZZ. For the rest of us, it has taken over much of our attention for now, and maybe for good.

Anyway, here’s some traveling music for the road.

Woody Guthrie- This Land Is Your Land — YouTube

Below, I’ll copy and paste the series of reflections that led me into the final preparations for my trip, a soulful outline of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. Those are summarized here. The reflections here are more strange and meandering. They aren’t yet part of a basic catechetical training set, of the sort that begins to fine tune humans and AIs. Instead, they’re an effort to expose the underlying processes of deep connection that slowly drew into view, for me and for you, as I tried to explain the invisible latticework that had grown over the decades in my mind. In the process of writing this, I realized that I’ve been working my way to the Mount of Olives since I was baptized as an infant. And I’ve been working on it since I was homeless in New York, carrying a Gospel of Matthew that I had received at World Youth Day in Toronto, 2002. This little journal is, then, the tip of the iceberg of my life. I hope to communicate something of the system that is invisibly ordering the text for me and my friends here.

Before long, I’m reasonably confident that GPT-3 and its children will do much more interpretation much better and much faster than me. I hope that I can help you and others do all of this much faster, because we don’t have time to waste on hoarding and violence and egoistic non-reconciliation anymore. In sharing this, I hope to press us a bit farther toward the horizon of my unconscious, to make myself accountable to all of you. Here you can see what it looks like when a lifetime begins to bubble up, and a mental trip like this erupts.

We might summarize the core of this journal as a reflection on furious puns, unreconciled puns, and late puns, a trinity of beautiful slippages in meaning. It isn’t all about that, but that does form one of the centers of what is happening here. In writing this sustained reflection on this sort of wordplay, I learned about Google’s recent demonstration that it’s AI can now explain jokes well. The same capacity can help an agent, whether human or not, whether experiencing or not, appreciate what I think has always been going on in Matthew. Humans, too, have often missed it. I think that is largely because the texts were made in such a way that the faithful would see what is hidden in plain sight; the texts help us read each other, and in this they are useful for building movements among humans. So friends, please note that this trio of interesting pun characteristics, late, unreconciled, and furious, is not intended as a strict typology. Instead it indicates a pattern of pun traits that are not always appreciated or noted. I hope that all of us will carry forward the careful description and appreciation of the countless shades of pun.

So I’ve arrived at the base of the Mount of Olives with my outline of Matthew in one hand, and this journal in the other. If the time, for you, is out of joint, your reading might bifurcate here. That is to say, I’ve read most of this material and am ready to climb, but maybe you aren’t. In that case, you have a choice to make among divergent paths: journal, or outline, or straight to the ascent? This sort of reading choice is much more significant for us slow-reading humans. Two paths diverge, as with a pun, but in the best ones they converge again, transformed. And that makes at least a little difference.

So let’s go.

1/Z8/ZZ

It might be a law of the universe that everything good will be maliciously parodied, and as a result, people navigating the world in terms of normal human psychological responses to threats and enemies will routinely get everything exactly backwards.

I think it is a bug in human moral psychology, though, and not a law of the universe. We just rushed into the ‘knowledge’ of good and evil too fast, biologically speaking.

1/31/ZZ

I want to get into Origen and serious puns more this week. The basic story there helps make a lot of sense of an interesting phenomenon: in at least some early Christian circles, the view that all would be saved was reportedly widely embraced. However, a kind of secrecy settled over this view, which helps explain its retreat from the public sphere. Nonetheless, these circles included the brightest intellectual stars in the early church. They were at the very core of the first great developments in Christian Biblical Studies (Origen) and Christian theology (St. Gregory of Nyssa). This means that these thinkers sit at the fulcrum of Christian spiritual and intellectual history. Both Nyssa and Origen understood that a lot of people misunderstood their ultimately intended meanings, and both are renowned for what we call “allegorical reading”. The mode of serious punning that we call allegory is that it empowers subversive socio-political-spiritual organizing in some deep ways.

The real strength of allegory doesn’t lie in its cultic esoteric potential, which involves speaking intentionally-kept secrets over the heads of the blind. This kind of esotericism is, precisely, a parody of the the appropriate approach: it abuses and makes a mockery of it. It represents what I’ll call (after Clement) “the false gnosis” and it is a constant temptation for Christian speech and writing. To be very clear, it is not at all about trying to conceal anything, but just the opposite: it is about endeavoring to reveal what our sense of threat does so much to conceal from us, and THAT our sense of threat does so much to conceal things from us. This is why you need to practice enemy love and understand that this is basic before you can read the Bible in a Christian way. This is why Jesus teaches the Sermon on the Plain BEFORE he sends out the disciples. But we should be very clear about the use of puns: nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be made known. I take this as practical day-to-day advice. I tell people what I’m going to tell them, I tell it to them, I tell them what I told them … and then, as if by some strange anti-miracle, some of them still (sometimes) don’t understand. And usually those very people continue to insist that violence and non-violence are irrelevant to the discussion. This isn’t true. We need to deal with violence before we can even have a discussion.

A big part of the story of how we lost the centrality of Christian non-violence and Christian punning relates to the secretive capacity of punning speech, and the need to make it very clear what is actually going on. There’s a dangerous razors’ edge here, where the basic comes to be seen as the advanced, and where the explicit point of the pun becomes an inside joke. I think a primary task of Biblical scholarship today involves the recovery of explicit and public puns in the service of non-violence. Only then can it all be hidden properly, entirely in plain sight.

1/31/ZZ

How are we supposed to read things, especially old things? There’s a fascinatingly radical idea that rises to academic prominence in the last few centuries, and which currently seems like a stand-in for all reading in some quarters. The idea is that we should try to reconstruct historical intentions and webs of meaning. This approach looks for the meanings of texts in history in a very particular way, a way that is bounded by the contemporary work of historical reconstruction. It has been an enormously fruitful endeavor and I love so much of the work that has come out of this liberal modern movement. Its basic rhetoric and posture are later taken up by anti-liberals, in a way that should be familiar to students of history. If you can’t beat them, at least pretend to join them.

Nonetheless, there’s another approach that is more conservative in many senses of the word. This approach is central to the history of Christianity and Christian hermeneutics, and we might describe it as oracular. The oracular posture sees texts, at least certain kinds of texts, as carrying far more meaning than their original context or author ever could have held. For example, the book of Daniel is explicit about coding itself as an oracular text: in its context, it demands that you read it beyond its context. Musicians and artists often work to preserve this mode of writing and singing that is, in its original context, oracular. In this way, the liberal modern project of historical reconstruction also leads us out of itself when it encounters the oracular: to read an oracular text in its original context and according to its original intent is, precisely, to read it out of its context and in ways that must go beyond its original intent. It is easy to see how the Hebrew prophetic tradition also, at times, demands oracular reading…even as it also often refers to things that already happened, or (as with Daniel) some things that probably already happened when the text was written. So it is important to clarify that the oracular can relate to time, and to things fulfilled in time, but the oracular can also involve insight into eternity itself: the whole structure of time and the nature of our times themselves. In just this way, Antiochus Epiphanes and his invasion of Jerusalem becomes a type for oracular speech about the destruction of the Temple by Rome, and becomes for us today oracular speech about the abominating desolation of violent-heartedness at the core of so much “Christian” discipleship and “Christian” worship. The author(s) of Daniel didn’t necessarily foresee Trumpism, but they saw the eternal form of Trumpism, and I strongly suspect that if we went back and talked to them (after updating them on how the last couple of millennia have gone down) they would agree that we have read them well, and respectfully. But we have read them well, precisely, as originally oracular texts.

This is why I’d like to write this up and see if Tracy Chapman feels like it is a respectful and appropriate reading of her oracular text, “She’s got her ticket.” I suspect it may also speak to her original intent for the piece, but the excellence of the reading doesn’t depend on that. (It would, however, depend on her feeling honored by the reading.)

She’s got her ticket

I think she gonna use it

I think she’s going to fly away

No-one should try and stop her

Persuade her with their power

She says that her mind is made …

up

Who is she? Well, she is fleeing an abusive situation, and she is doing it quickly and freely, a bird uncaged. And this “should” seems to also indicate a “can’t anymore”. Why? Because her mind is made (her mind is fully formed) … and then there’s a pause. And then, for emphasis, Tracy turns our heads up.

When we turn them up to a birdlike presence that flies away where power (including power as persuasion) is at work, we see who she is singing about: the Shekhinah. The abiding presence of God. To be clear, to see that this song is about Her is not at all to say that the song is no longer about her, the one fleeing the abuse. It is precisely about Her because it is about her.

Why not leave why not go away

Too much hatred

Corruption and greed

Give your life

And invariably they leave you with nothing

Here we are in the very heart of the prophetic tradition, which warns that God’s presence flees the Temple (leaving the nation catastrophically vulnerable) when corruption and greed come to reign instead.

But how should we read this prophetically? Does she actually leave? I think Chapman holds it all perfectly in a punning reading of the last two parts. The Holy Spirit gives us Her life, but abusers walk away with none of it. Invariably, they walk away without receiving from Her the grace which is itself the gift. How do we know that they have left her without truly receiving anything? Because they are abusive, corrupt and greedy, and her gift was grace, which is to say the opportunity to walk in grace. What She is always pouring out and giving us is grace itself and you only leave the Temple with it if your life has become a continuing movement of grace from first to last. This abandonment of grace itself is then projected by abusers (insofar as they remain in the abusive mode) and is seen as grace abandoning them. “Why have you left me?” means, “Why won’t you stay in my cage and do whatever I want?”

At the same time, we can’t lose the other and more immediate sense of these lines. It also speaks in a straightforward way to the ache that is felt when love is unreciprocated, the devastating brokenness that we feel when we give ourselves fully to someone or something and all they do is take and take and take and take. Who is this young girl today? Well, among the many people she may be today, she is Rudy Guiliani realizing that Trump isn’t interested in bailing him out. He gave him his life, and invariably he’s been left with nothing. Like many in this situation, they are so enmeshed with the spiritual system of their abuse that they’re truly lost. If only they could fly away.

Young girl ain’t got no chances

No roots to keep her strong

She’s shed all pretenses

That someday she’ll belong

Some folks call her a runaway

A failure in the race

But she knows where her ticket takes her

She will find her place in the sun

Without roots or foundations, things get uprooted and things fall down. There comes a point that it becomes clear the way of love will simply not find a home in certain environments. The advice Jesus gives in this rootless place is this: “Dust off your feet and go to the next house.” In a similar way, if you want to transplant a plant it can be very helpful to clean off the roots.

When we turn ourselves over to greed, abuse and corruption, I really do think it contributes powerfully to the collapse of our own sense of wholeness and well-being, as well as the collapse of family systems and nation-states. The German military, including through World War II, wore belt buckles that proclaimed “Gott mit uns”, “God with us”. Did the god of their belt buckles fail them? Is that why Germany was a failure in the race? I would say no. In turning to the most grave forms of evil imaginable, they abandoned God, but God did not fail just because the incantation of Jesus (taking the name of Emmanuel in vain) didn’t give them whatever they wanted.

No, the mind of the Shekhinah is set elsewhere. For example, the gleaming presence of God continues to abide in one of the most ancient signs pointing toward monolatry and what we call monotheism today: the sun. So yes, she will find a warmer place to be. But more importantly we realize that the presence of God isn’t just something we can put on a belt buckle. It is far, far more like the principle of warmth itself that abides (for eons) in the sun itself, giving rise to almost all life on Earth.

Why not leave why not go away

Too much hatred

Corruption and greed

Give your life

And invariably they leave you with nothing

She’s got her ticket

I think she gonna use it

I think she’s going to fly away

No-one should try and stop her

Persuade her with their power

She says that her mind is made up

And she’ll fly fly fly…

Z/1/ZZ

My study of puns has brought me to the gates of hell. I’m ready to descend, to help rescue people from (exegetical) hell so that they can help rescue us from the real hells we create here on Earth. For the journey, you will need the sword of puns, and the shield of reaction-awareness that will let you notice and abide with all of the wincing. In fact, the core of the training is about how to deal with and understand the wince that puns induce, as an invitation to more serious dereification. The dereifying power of puns restores the Socratic aporia where the merely apophatic has recuperated it. Dereification isn’t about convincing you that everything is illusion, but it is about seeing past the illusions you can see past.

Longer piece on aionios and fire incoming.

But first a note on why the “wince” is so important, and why puns and slapstick go together. We laugh at puns because they hurt. They’re wrong. They’re painful. But they’re also right. This is what distinguishes a pun from metaphors more generally: with a metaphor everyone gets that it is a metaphor. If I call someone a “chicken” it isn’t usually a pun, because it is almost universally understood that I’m just saying that someone is a coward. But if I call someone a “chicken” and then start sprinkling tarragon on them and saying I could eat them right up, we wince. Why do we wince? On a basic level because it is wrong. This feeling of the wrongness of the pun then gets transferred to a general feeling that puns are “wrong” as humor: they’re childish and stupid, even as humor. Yeah, duh, we all get that “chicken” is symbolic. Nobody thought “chicken” meant “chicken”. Underneath this is a more universal discomfort with language itself, with the way we always engage with it symbolically insofar as we’re engaging with it. (You wouldn’t be reading this if you just saw it as a bunch of black marks; to read in even the most basic sense is to be able to see through the symbols to let them indicate, and maybe even through their indications to something on the other side.)

So why aren’t all metaphors puns? Because puns MAKE USE OF WRONGNESS INTENTIONALLY, alongside rightness, in various ways. The best puns contain a moment of synthesis on the other side, though, where there are multiple points of contact between the wrong side and the right side. So for example, calling someone a “chicken” and then putting tarragon on their head is a very flat pun: the wrong side of “chicken” and the right side of “chicken” have basically nothing to do with each other. On the other hand, let’s say we’re in England and war is on the horizon and you are a pacifist. In our culture, a white feather represents cowardice, and we might shame a pacifist by “gifting” him with white feathers. Now imagine we tell him that we appreciate his principled stance and so we’ve prepared him a delicious meal. He arrives and finds that we have baked him a chicken with all of the white feathers still in it. We give it to him, and tell him we’ll beat him up if he doesn’t eat all the crow. Now this is, I think we can all agree, a truly horrible thing to do. But it is a much better pun. Why? Because we have integrated the feather and the chicken in their distinctive valences into the pun, and have made use of the wrongness of the pun to highlight how wrong we think he is. Thick puns start to become so dense that they seem real. And in fact, I’d like to suggest that scientific modeling (which also makes people wince a lot!) can also be best-received as a kind of extremely thick punning. Yes, I know this elaborate model of planetary rotations is not the thing, but look at how it corresponds at point after point after point after point after point after point! Just as the better pun corresponds at more points and also makes use of the wrongness itself (never let a wince go to waste), so too does the better scientific model more deeply correspond. Only when the wrongness of the model, the model as sign and not signified, comes into view do we also experience it as a pun. And so we wince. You’ll often find an appreciation for punning humor among scientists, because the posture it cultivates encourages critical thinking about models, observations, and their precise relationships.

To sum up: puns make intentional use of multiple meanings, to drive a right one and a wrong one against each other. In this way, they’re kind of like anti-metaphors: they build on metaphor to take down metaphor, or they take down a metaphor to build up the flesh. They’re uncomfortable and they make us wince, and it is important (if you want to face wrongness, whether injustice or error) to be able to be uncomfortable and keep moving forward.

This is why us dads tell dad jokes. We are gently preparing our kids for the pain of life.

My study of puns has brought me to the gates of hell.

Z/Z/ZZ

Today, furious puns.

When we hear the word “pun” we often think of stupid jokes. This sells the pun terribly far short. The ability to mean multiple things with a single word is especially helpful when confronting oppression with the quiet fury that is due.

Consider Billie Holiday bravely singing Abel Meeropol’s pastoral scene of Southern gallantry, knowing that singing this sort of thing could get her killed. Here we have the true heritage of the prophetic and the oracular, if you want to know what it looks like. Anyway, the song was a huge hit, after all of the resistance to publishing it was overcome. In another reminder that this is still very much our country and our times, copies of the song were sent to Senators in an effort to break a filibuster by segregationist Senators.

Here we have the real deal that false prophets like Robby Dawkins parodied, as they helped lead an attack on our Capitol. I’ll never forget the Confederate flags flying through those halls. I mention Robby in particular because he was a part of the church movement I belong to, and we gave him money in the past. He’s part of us and our story, and working through my own painful complicity in this is important. He is a plank in our eye, and to challenge what he has done is to require deep soul-searching around the approaches to training and Christian discipleship that he represents. If it seems like that takes courage for me to say, I’ll just note that I’m a coward next to Billie.

So I hope that I do her honor in the way I carry her performance with me into an exegesis of Scripture. What makes this song a furious pun, and not merely a metaphor, is that we need to hold both meanings with us as we move through the song as the two are driven against each other. One way so utterly wrong, the other right, but which is which?

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

It does Abel Meeropol no justice to say he is simply using “fruit” as a metaphor for an image-bearer of God who has been brutally lynched by the anti-Christian forces of the neo-Confederates. Fruit isn’t just a metaphor, but a furious and brilliant pun: it drives the goodness of fruit against the evil that slavemakers are always so good at. The double meaning is in full effect throughout the poem-song as we dip from symbol, to the horror of what we’ve scented, what we’ve seen in this scene, and back to symbol.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh

Is ‘pastoral scene of the gallant South’ a pun, then, too? In a sense yes. But I’d like to suggest that in another sense it is not. Maybe this is all that gallantry ever was, a mask over insanity. Maybe we have only truly named “gallant” in any case when we have named it like this. Nonetheless, we still have to admit that “gallant” is then often misunderstood in normal speech. Having rightly said the word for the first time, we know that we go into the world transformed and few people will hear the true meaning of “gallant” when we say it. In this sense, gallant becomes an unwilling pun, mirroring the sense in which this strange fruit, screaming, has become our unwilling pun. The punning is forced on us, linguistically, just as social conventions (such as slavery or Jim Crow or the prison industrial complex or redlining or red-hatting) descend on us and crouch on us, as if from above, although it belongs beneath us. The unwilling pun is, then, precisely demonic: a double-meaning that is vital to interpretation, not because we’re trying to speak duplicitously, but because our serpentine enemy does, as it winglessly parodies the winged seraphs of old.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather

For the wind to suck

For the sun to rot

For the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

And so we have to ask ourselves, how do we name this strange fruit most truly? Because as someone is sure to remind us, sure this was evil, but people have been doing evil things for a long time. Shouldn’t we cut them some slack? Boys will be boys after all, and can’t you take a joke, and can’t you just let it all go?

In the face of that we need to reach the inflection point where we agree, and say that this is precisely what damns this response to the dustbin of history. What tree are we really talking about here after all, with this forked-tongue serpent sidling up alongside it, whispering to us of gallantry and its general social meaning?

It is, of course, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. An incessant question today, at least in some circles, is this: how are we to read the account of Adam and Eve? Is it just a symbol and therefore not historical? And if so, aren’t the Biblical authors wrong to speak of history using Adam as a central symbol? The conundrum is real, because we have lost touch with the kind of furious punning that Abel knows so well (yes, both Abels, as dead brother breath knows so well) and that Billie sings so bravely (yes, both Billies, Billie Holiday and my good friend Billie).

To answer this in a traditionally Christian way, we need to go back to the origin of Christian Biblical Studies, as a truly developed discipline. In “On First Principles” we find many things that are strange to us today and I don’t intend to carry every bit of it forward with me here. But it is essential to note that Origen advocates a three-fold model of reading that mirrors widespread models of the cosmos and the human person at the time, deeply influenced by Plato. He commends to us an understanding of spiritual reading, of soul reading, and of flesh reading, where the spiritual refers to the enduring and invisible general forms of things that structure all of reality itself. While not strictly mathematical, mathematical modelling is one of the things that belongs to this spiritual realm … and if they had seen how radically math has advanced in its internal depth and its power to model things well, I suspect that the ancients (unlike some of their modern interpreters) would be endlessly enthralled by our spiritual progress in that domain. On the other end we have flesh, which corresponds to immediate observations, so often ephemeral and fleeting. Between the two is their synthesis, our living souls, which Origen leaves under-developed. I hold (in love) that we need far more soul reading, meaning reading that draws texts and narratives together as a whole, so that flesh and spirit can be united more deeply. But we’re here to talk about furious puns. Crucially, Origen does not demand that we read the Bible in a fleshy way at all times, but he does demand that we read it spiritually at all times. At times, the flesh is at war with the spirit, for example when the flesh of the text doesn’t enjoin us to love even our enemies. In these cases of double-meaning, Origen is clear: the spirit governs the flesh, and the fleshy reading must make way for the spiritual. Origen is clear: in these cases we must read the Bible as an inerrant giver of furious puns. To Origen I will only add something that seems to have been very clear in his practice but less clear in this writing: we need embodied faithfulness in our souls to bridge this chasm between spirit and flesh. And correspondingly, we need statements that synthesize the spiritual model with the fleshy observations. (In other words, we must speak scientifically and embed these practices in our lives, which is to say that we need to major in soul today, including narrative and scientific synthesis of model and observation, of spirit and flesh.)

So what is the strange fruit in Eden if it isn’t something that sets flesh against spirit? Here I will suggest densely, and with some jargon, where I am going next. I think that Adam speaks to the general human condition, including our closely-shared biological heritage. It turns out that we are one species and not multiple species. The Biblical account of Adam is not invalidated by a failure to find a single man at some point in the past, but it would be invalidated if those called sub-human were anything other than our biological siblings here, in the human condition. This is the soulful validation of the spirit of the story, properly read.

Beyond this, Adam and the knowledge of good and evil speak to us today, oracular and brilliant as ever, of a brokenness in our moral psychology. Here, I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s work for its descriptive power, but not its normative clarity. (He is a good describer, but a terrible prescriber.) Haidt helps us see our gallantry for what it is: a knowledge of evil that binds and blinds. At the core of the problem with natural human moral psychology is a process called “moral exclusion” that makes (temporary) psychopaths of any of us, if we respond to threat in a natural way. The solution that Origen saw, and which I see too, is the one that animated the Civil Rights movement as well: non-violent resistance training. Or in other words, basic Christian discipleship.

Is the tree of knowledge a symbol, or is it real? It is the spiritual form of our reality itself, and a furious pun, and a call to urgent action today. But to apprehend the spiritual form, we need to understand it properly (as model) and then bring the model together with our best observations. In other words, we need science for the proper oracular interpretation of Genesis today, if we are true inheritors of the Christian faith and its tradition. Read traditionally and in our context today, Genesis shines brighter than ever.

Z/4/ZZ

And now unreconciled puns will bring us to the gates of hell.

What is an unreconciled pun? Well first, consider a basic stupid pun. A pacifist is walking across the road, and we point at him and say, “Why did the chicken cross the road? To flee to the other side.” Two layers of meaning are needed (a duality, at least) for this to be a pun. On one level, “chicken” is recuperated in its basic, fleshy sense in the fable-like form of the standard joke. To unpack that, just think about what you imagine when someone tells the standard “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke. I doubt that many have heard that joke and imagined a coward crossing the road before; you probably imagine a fleshy/literal chicken, not “chicken” being used metaphorically. But on another level with our pun about the pacifist, “chicken” is being applied in the standard metaphorical sense, to call him a coward. The network of double-meanings carries through. Maybe he’s literally walking across the street in the flesh, but this literal action is being metaphorically reinterpreted and mapped at the same time to betrayal, fleeing to the enemy.

The pun is of pretty good quality because there’s a multi-point mapping between the two sides and both are familiar enough. For culturally competent people, this creates an extremely rapid soul-stitching movement from form to flesh, and it all reinforces the social body behind the pun. Look closely to see how it works. There’s the fleshy and fabulous version of the standard joke on one side of this loom, and then there’s the metaphorical but fleshy application to the person crossing the street on the other side, and our minds shuttle back and forth, faster than thought, to weave a sense of truthiness. (And to carry the loom metaphor forward, in just this weaving the likely fate of the groups is sealed.)

It’s a lot to think about and unpack. But you are very likely to “get it” almost instantaneously in the moment. If you’re culturally competent your fast processing will notice the duality, track the duality, and resolve it into a simple and instant non-dual account of the social meaning of the pun. The point is plain enough: pacifists are the enemy. A bit complex to lay out, it’s still a joke that even a kid can get. (Similarly, visual processing is something kids do almost instantly, but we’re still just starting to unravel how it works.)

Importantly, though, the non-duality of the pun requires a certain kind of basic sophistication that the monolithic statement (pacifists suck) lacks. And this sophistication is extremely important, not because it is about preening and showing how clever the speaker is (at least not only for that), but much more importantly because it binds cultural competence and agreement in a moment of moral judgment. This is how the joke linguistically reinforces an in-group (us not-chickens on this side of the road) and an out-group (that chicken crossing the road to the enemy side.) Although the behavior here is itself opposed to reconciliation on so many levels, the literary form is precisely what I mean when I describe a reconciled pun. It is reconciled because in normal speech, the duality nearly instantly (or at least very quickly) resolves into a non-dual social meaning that a culturally competent person quickly grasps. An important point here: sometimes, a reconciled pun is so blindingly obvious that it blinds us to the work of reconciliation itself. Like moral psychology in general, reconciled puns bind us and blind us, demarcating a linguistic in-group and a linguistic outgroup just as our joke demarcates a social ingroup (the violent) and a social outgroup (cowardly traitors.)

So what is an unreconciled pun? (And how can it serve the work of reconciliation at times?) Because we’re approaching the gates of hell, I’m going to use an example that is genuinely painful to us on many levels. You will wince, not at the lameness, but in genuine moral discomfort. You will, hopefully, get angry and frustrated and you might well need to tap out. That’s okay. You can step back now. Real talk. We’re going to the gates of hell to talk about deals with the devil, and we’ll need Sam Cooke, the King of Soul, to guide us there. Sam, I love you and I’m grateful for your work with us here today, wherever you are now.

Sam Cooke had an angelic voice. He was a wealth-building man, a brilliant business man, a preacher’s son, a very prominent Civil Rights advocate, and a man who fathered several children out of wedlock. He died, aged 33, under suspicious circumstances. According to the official record he was killed by the hotel manager Bertha Franklin in LA. Are you imagining Bertha as black or white or neither? Notice whatever you might be imagining. Bertha said she acted in self-defense, and that Sam Cooke had been sexually assaulting a young woman in his hotel room. The official account is that the young woman fled from their room, and Sam Cooke came after her while she was cowering in the hotel office. There were three witnesses to the incident, but only two lived to witness, and those two agreed with each other. Now there’s little doubt that Sam did cheat on his wife. Others confirm that he was with the young woman earlier and she seemed to go with him willingly. But we all know about consent today. We all know that consent to one thing is never consent to everything. So the official judgment of the end of Sam’s life (the end of his aion) came down: justified homicide.

But one has to wonder. His family certainly does. Etta James noted, when she saw his body at the funeral, that his head looked like it was practically disconnected from the shoulders. Strange, for a man shot through the heart. Bertha Franklin was a madame, the Hacienda Hotel was one of those hourly rate joints, and the young woman was Elisa Boyer. Elisa would be arrested for prostitution a month later in Hollywood. In 1979 (the year before I was born) she would be found guilty of second-degree murder for killing a man, reportedly a boyfriend. Bertha and Elisa have souls too, and the stifling and suffocating shame that covers their work must be part of our story too. Death is always working in the shadows cast by shame.

And we can’t hear all of this without hearing another painful truth: “Birth of a Nation” was one of the most popular films in US history, famously beloved by President Woodrow Wilson. The heart of the wildly popular white-supremacist ‘masterpiece’ was precisely about a gallant lynching that was supposedly justified by the rapacity of a wicked black man. We all know the script even if we’ve never seen the film. Like the fallen angel Asael, who the book of Enoch tells us taught men the art of war, the film teaches many things. One horrible lesson is nonetheless useful for people who want to perpetrate evil: if you want to murder someone, do it under a cloud of sexual slander. Shame helps shut up all the mouths you don’t want yapping.

So we don’t know what happened and there’s no single moral to take from this unreconciled wound in our nation’s shared past. Trust women? Or trust black men? Trust the evidence … but how far does that lead? Not far, and the dead speak but rarely. Maybe there are morals to this tale, but there are far too many. The multiplicity of morals makes the case unresolvable by broad accounts of the spirit of the matter, just as the story of what exactly happened to Sam’s heart is unresolvable.

So now for an unreconciled pun: Sam Cooke came to his unappointed end in the Hotel Hacienda in Los Angeles on Dec 11, 1964. There’s a plurality of meanings here and we cannot resolve them all, except perhaps as a nebelish dew. But they are all packed into that word “unappointed”. Do I mean that God didn’t mean for him to die? Do I mean that this was a robbery that went sideways, not the original plan? Do I mean that he had an implicit appointment with his wife and not Elisa that night? We have no feather that we could set against his soul.

We’re left to ask: how did the devil get his hooks in Sam? Was it the people telling him not to hang around their showing of “Birth of a Nation”?

I go to the movie

And I go downtown

Somebody keep telling me

Don’t hang around

Was it his own brother, perhaps wanting to cash in his recording business?

Then I go to my brother

And I say, brother, help me please

But he winds up, knockin’ me

Back down on my knees

Oh, there been times that I thought

I couldn’t last for long

But now I think I’m able, to carry on

Like St. Francis, did Sam sin against his body, brother ass?

Whatever the case, a whole lot of changes better come.

Which leads us to another song of this preacher’s son who went from soul to secular, encouraged by his father. I think “Ain’t that good news?” is a true masterpiece. Hear Sam Cooke’s brilliant and unspoken confession, which I can’t hold against him for being implicit. We can’t confess when we’re surrounded by wolves, so I take his implicit confession here in its fullness. “Ain’t that good news?” tells us that his baby is taking him back and now she’s going to stay and ain’t that good news? The question doesn’t answer itself. It, too, bifurcates then trifurcates. The unspoken soul ache behind his angelic pop is utterly clear: it might be good news if your cheating ways that drove her away have ended. Otherwise, no my friend, that’s terrible news.

The duality of the song, like the duality of his life, like the duality of his death, do not reconcile for us. They can’t. They’re cracked open like a seed. But I think the duality must almost certainly be intentional. The refrain contrasts the Good News (the Gospel of repentance) with a no-good poppy exclamation: “Ain’t that news!” And the song ends with him disconnecting his telephone. Why? So they can be alone. At least for long enough. After all, what if one of the other girls calls in the middle of their reunion? Once you hear the soul song that is being shouted between the lines of this pop song, his tone of voice makes perfect sense. Mournful, but trying so hard to sound as peppy as you’ve got to be to make it to the top of the pops. Every time he asks “Ain’t that good news?” my soul quails with pain and I literally feel painful pressure right around my heart.

Which brings us to the fires of hell, another pun unreconciled. There is a very longstanding tradition, rooted deeply in the oracular reading of the Bible, that hellfire and Holy Spirit fire are precisely the same fire. It is just experienced in different ways, depending on whether we embrace the work of reconciliation or fight it. The most extreme duality that the human mind could grasp, this teaching says, is not two. I won’t belabor an extremely well-established point here, but I would note that tongues of flame fell on the Apostles at Pentecost, and soon everyone was speaking and understanding each other. Here a duality of meanings is not enough to begin to contain the plurality of meaning that is now bursting out: we have moved from the two to the general form of multiplicity. We have gone from double-meanings to explosions of meaning. These tongues of flame somehow hold the multiplicity that the serpent’s forked tongue split, and we are reminded that the seraphs closest to God’s throne who burned Isaiah’s tongue were also once known to be winged snakes. We see the fall of Babel and we’re dancing in the streets: it’s Jubilee!

Now I’m a charismatic Christian, just to be forthright about it. I think there’s really something to this Holy Spirit business, even in the middle of all the charlatans and abuses. And so I also think that the multiplicity and duality of language coming together assures us that a change is going to come in time. These unreconciled tongues won’t always be unreconciled and Pentecostal fire is coming again, imperial, mysterious, in amorous array. If I live another day, I hope to write about fire’s dangerous dance partners, aion and ‘ad-’olam. Here too at the level of translation, there’s a place where the Greek and the Hebrew meet on the other side of efforts at easy, monosemous translation. We must let the two be unreconciled, at least long enough to be two, if we’re going to have a reconciled pun in time.

So yes, I feel utterly assured that deep reconciliation is waiting on the other side of our multifarious dualities. I think that unreconciled puns cannot help but always point, by negation, to the ultimate reconciliation, the apokatastasis that comes in Acts 3 right after Acts 2.

Z/7/ZZ

I had hoped to jump straight to an oracular reading of Matthew 24–25 with the help of furious and unreconciled puns. But I’ve been thinking about what bothers me in Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics, and it has helped me see the trouble with jumping to the end of this sort of story. The trouble is that I can tell you the end, but you still won’t know it. How is that? Because the story is in the telling. So let me tell you the end: every heart to love will come, but like a refugee. So ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Leonard Cohen knew the end, but the story is in the telling, and crucial ambiguities remain. For example, do I mean forget YOUR perfect offering, or forget perfect offering itself? And what is forgetting … is this the forgetting of debt forgiveness where a slate is wiped clean, or is it the obliteration of memory? It is not the obliteration of memory.

So let’s gather some allies for our journey through Matthew. We will need the help of wise Father Behr and his apocalyptic charms. Matthew is the especially apocalyptic Gospel (let the reader understand). It is revelatory. It concerns itself with things concealed that are now revealed, at least for those who have fully grown into a particular kind of commitment: the commitment to love enemies instead of harm them, for example. It’s true, then, that apocalyptic is laughter bound, terrified or joyful, like Isaac.

Fr. Behr reminds us that to be scripture was (and is) to have a cryptic character, but not only that. To open these books requires cryptic-uniform-contemporary-inspired reading. This is why I think the notion of oracular reading is helpful, in contrast to discussions bogged down in defining apocalyptic literature. Whatever else it might be, apocalyptic literature demands (in its original context) oracular reading (in ours). In this, apocalyptic can start from anywhere, including the modern historicizing tendency that demands a text be read in its original context to be read at all. Starting even from there, apocalyptic writing carries us forward to this demand for oracular reading today.

Now here in the little circle of this post, let modernity equal the insistence on reading texts in their original context. Modernity then lays a debt on our shoulders: a soul debt, and one that so many individuals have labored to pay. Modernity demands that we do a lot of historical work of the sort that could only arise recently, in a world bestridden by imperial colossi with little men riding on their shoulders, egging them on as they excavate and crush the past, shouting at history to stop. That is to say, confusing times. But it’s a debt that I’ll gladly pay, because I trust it has been paid. This is what I mean by that: I think that historical critical scholarship is essential to oracular reading today. Even if it can’t hold the oracular child on its own, understandably anxious as soon as it realizes who is in its arms, it can hand the child on to us. And to this, whoever is foolish enough to attempt Christian oracular reading is bound to respond generously (as they are eternally bound in all cases): to be Scripture this must be read in a way that is contemporary, and these scholars are our contemporaries, too. Modern historical scholarship, then, plays an essential role in handing on to us this child that it knows it is too weak to hold. We’re all too weak to safely hold this child, which is why we have to hope that this child is holding us.

Which brings us to the book of Enoch and another ally whose magic I’ll need for my journey. Amy Richter is an Episcopal Priest and a body builder. Her “Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew” will help us see what apocalyptic meant and how it worked in its original context. And here is the basic story we need to get into our heads, one that is hinted at in Genesis 6 and expounded in Enoch. The problem, you see, is that fallen angels (gods) have come and impregnated human women. Really, though, it started when Asael taught men to work metal, which they used to make war and so to make slaves. Giant men, like the great men of Babylon, were the result. This fall of the watchers marks out a central problem (or to follow Heiser, perhaps the central problem) of the Bible.

We’ll need a bit more historical context as well, and for this we’ll turn to James Scott and his summary of scholarship on the relevant period, Against the Grain. The arts of war gave rise to what can only ironically be called civilization. These slave machines literally made the people caught in them smaller, because they were malnourished. But of course they made the men at the top get bigger and harder in every way. In body and in art, the big men really were bigger.

Still, these fledgling slave machines had to contend with wild and mobile men who could terrorize and rob them of the hard-earned grain stores that the big men had generated through their little human cattle. The Babylonian story of Enkidu gives us helpful advice if we are great men beset with this sort of problem: give them some of our beautifully made-up women for sex and soon the wild men will be soft and pliable as well. They’ll even fight with you gladly, and take your hits. The tragedy is that you will have come to love your barbarian brothers in arms, and so their death will strike you in a way that your constant milling through slaves never did. Careful, tender heart, because your love for your fellow killers has made you fear death and now you will need to seek immortality! But what if the gods refuse you immortality, forcing you to grapple with the mortality that Enkidu drove through your hardened shell? Now that is a real problem! Still, there is useful advice here for those who run the slave machines. You do have to be careful about how far you push the use of some women for sex. People will get mad about that sometimes. You’ll need to notice this problem, and it is best to learn a certain confident insouciant air, the kind we see in Trump so clearly today. Truly, the giants still walk among us, and they show us that they’re the sort who can read Gilgamesh and Enkidu as the straightforward instruction book that it first appears to be. The account of the Watchers is there to cut them down to size.

And so with open eyes we come to the beginning of Matthew and with Mother Richter’s help we can, I think, judge the start more rightly. The birth narrative is the breathless answer to questions we never knew to ask. What if the divine entered into human history again, but in a non-fallen way? What if a woman had a child who is capable of utterly surpassing these giants in divinity, but is not born of the same transgression? So instead of a man coming down to penetrate us, what if the Shekhinah herself filled us like she once filled the Temple, and what if from her endless generative capacity a different son was born? Such a child would fight and rule, but without iron. He would make beautiful, but without make-up. He would be like a bridegroom bringing the consummation of heaven and earth, but with a perfect consummation that goes far beyond sex. He would be the answer to the fall of the Watchers.

Or to put it musically, all he’d wanna do is bang bang bang bang and oh sweet ka-ching and take your money (to give it to the poor.)

Z/8/ZZ

It is hard for us to experience and feel the Bible the way its best readers at the time must have felt and experienced it. I think that contemporary lyrics are incredibly helpful in this work, though, because we can more clearly see the normal play and complexity of really excellent language in it, and how it is spontaneously received in terms of fast processing and slow processing. When we unlock the complexity of what we take for granted in the normal range of punning and clever speech today, it demonstrates the sort of work that is needed for us to understand yesterday’s brilliance, too. The process produces something that is useful for children and youth right on through to academics, who have often forgotten how naturally children grasp and love puns.

So today The Clash and MIA are going to help us understand Tamar, the Nephilim and Jesus. Because we’re going straight to hell boys, or at least its gates, but we still have a little time before we get there.

Here’s The Clash, starting the song that would also launch MIA’s Paper Planes. (They are in fact co-authors on Paper Planes, because that song samples it so extensively.)

If you can play on fiddle

How’s about a British jig and reel?

Speaking King’s English in quotation

As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust

Water froze in the generation

Clear as winter ice

This is your paradise

Here in the US, we’re also welcoming refugees even as we face a democracy crisis of our own. In England, the closing of the steel mills created a similar feeling of irony around immigration: this declining waste is all we have to give you. Our land of despair is your land of hope. There is something perennial about this strange and generative crossing of paths as we go up and down here on Jacob’s ladder. Some are climbing it, others descending. Sometimes, as with The Clash and MIA, our eyes meet on the way.

And the sorts of jokes we make are sometimes received: the Irish fiddle and jig belong to the British now. People ignorant of our own past today claim this, intolerantly, as their own. In time, maybe you will assimilate and in that process you will change us. And in some future generation angry old men will demand that the foreigners learn to appreciate a good British curry, goddammit. In this, the song laments the absence of reconciling conservatism within this brittle and intolerant thing that passes as conservatism. But make no mistake, this fake conservatism has no real interest in the past, outside of the sickly nostalgia for however things happened to seem when they were 20 and healthy. As my friend Brad Hightower puts it, we hope to grow up before we’re old. Plenty don’t.

There ain’t no need for ya

There ain’t no need for ya

Go straight to hell boys

Go straight to hell boys

And this old non-conservative or pseudo-conservative always thinks that they’re going to hell, but of course he and his kind aren’t. “You will not replace us,” is the chant of the Trump era, and The Clash gives you the other side of that slogan, “There ain’t no need for ya.” Behind it is the fear of obsolescence, the fear of just being replaceable parts in the mills, of needing to be replaceable parts in the mills. That is to say that being supervened on by these rusting old factories, we sense we are headed straight to hell but can’t understand why, but if we damn you maybe we will be saved.

And this isn’t just a British story. Let’s go to the United States next, just like MIA was heading between the two when paperwork frustration inspired “Paper Planes.”

Wanna join in a chorus

Of the Amerasian blues?

When it’s Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City

Kiddie say papa papa papa papa papa-san take me home

See me got photo photo

Photograph of you

And Mamma Mamma Mamma-san

Of you and Mamma Mamma Mamma-san

Let me tell you ‘bout your blood bamboo kid

It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice

Now we have the Vietnamese child of a US soldier, orientalistically depicted as Japanese with their -sans. Puns, it is important to note, take one thing and split it in two. The top-down movement of categorization, however, involves a standard psychological bias called “outgroup homogeneity bias”. The effect is visible in what Edward Said identifies as Orientalism: disparate peoples and cultures are lumped together in one. This is the opposite of a pun at multiple stages. Remember that a pun contains multiple meanings which, if reconciled, build into a greater meaning through their interplay. In contrast, this confused jumbling takes multiple meanings (even multiple languages!) and conflates them as one, resulting in a loss of meaning. Such are the perils of descending Jacob’s ladder, of trying to move from the general to the specific without the thisness of each.

Still, I’m in The Clash’s shoes and need to own it. I’m a lover of abstraction. I’m always descending, straight to hell boys, and am reminded of the Orthodox view that this is just what Jesus does. But he did it, I believe, in a punning way: a way that preserves and carries forward the multiplicity of meaning. I try to imitate and I have my moments.

Straight to hell, boy

Go straight to hell boy

Go straight to hell boys

Go straight to hell boys

Oh Papa-san

Please take me home

Oh Papa-san

Everybody they wanna go home

So Mamma-san says

You wanna play mind-crazed banjo

On the druggy-drag ragtime U.S.A.?

In Parkland International

Ha, Junkiedom U.S.A

Where procaine proves the purest rock man groove

And rat poison

The volatile Molotov says

Where is home here anyways? Are these Japanese-Vietnamese children asking to go home? It is worth noting that Vietnam won’t take those deemed traitors, there, back. And so sometimes people end up in a kind of legal limbo here in the US even today. Sometimes all that is left is a kind of double-homelessness: lacking a country that will claim you, it is in fact very easy to end up living on the streets. And where there is loneliness and despair, there are drugs. I don’t need to tell you this, you know.

The answer is simple: welcome and love and family. The answer is hard: adoptive family and love and welcome.

So you can see why MIA picks up this song and why the song runs through her own Paper Planes. But where the Clash is imagistic and coagulant in a way that perfectly captures the dreamlogic of descent, hers is sharp, cunning and punning. It captures the synthetic logic of ascent, along with the fury of marginalization, in a string of furious puns that at least seem reconciled for her, but which are unreconciled in the broader society. The song will receive all kinds of awards. It is arguably the best pop song of the aughts. She will also be called a terrorist for it. Puns are double-edged swords like that.

When the song hit, I was working in the Rust Belt, talking to thousands of people who felt (rightly) that it was wrong to treat them as replaceable parts in a mill. And largely they felt (wrongly) that the problem wasn’t the way mills treated them as replaceable parts, but the people who might replace them. That is to say that The Clash’s insights were spiritual: they connect us with a general reality beyond their time and place, precisely because they so closely observed the thin ice forming in theirs.

I fly like paper, get high like planes

If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name

If you come around here, I make ’em all day

I get one done in a second if you wait

What is harder for the humans: building metal tubes for them to fly around the world, or getting some paperwork in order? The latter, it usually seems. And there you have the felt absurdity that motivates MIA to pick up where The Clash left off. Still it needs to be clear that MIA is mocking the idea that she would be making fake visas, not advocating it or doing it. As she explains:

It’s about immigration and immigrants, and how we are seen to be really scary because we can take people’s jobs. People think it’s about robbing banks or something or it’s about terrorism, but it’s not. It’s about immigrants coming over and us being really scary to people.

Like the story of Tamar, here we have a woman angry at the casual cruelty of men. (I’m indebted to Sister Richter’s fine judgment in her work on Enoch and Matthew’s Gospel here.) And like Tamar, MIA is appealing to mere appearance as an answer to the mere appearance of decency among men. For Tamar, her fake visa was the make-up of a prostitute or sacred prostitute, and it got her the child she was owed in spite of the refusal to provide her one. Righteous!

For those enmeshed in paper-work it can feel like a kind of legitimacy theatre, a ritual not entirely unlike the old legitimating rituals of Babylon. Then, the King would have public sex with a sacred prostitute to demonstrate that the bond between heaven and earth is restored and maintained by him. Our legitimacy theatre is arguably more boring, but ultimately both involve a sort of make-up. In both, an all-too-arbitrary human will is masked in “divinity” (or its name today, policy) through false claims to generality. Sorry, ma’am, it’s just policy. The implication of the Babylonian policy was that all of the children are the King’s, because by this rite he is the one who gives us all fertility; it is right that we slave away for Father. All of the process is fair, because we’re just following orders and doing the paperwork as prescribed. Never mind that the King or the Chief Executive or the various judges exercise enormous and substantially arbitrary discretion. The Big Men descending the ladder to meet us for a moment (if they do not pass us on the way, like The Clash) are always here to tell us our status as human beings on the Earth, and inevitably there’s a lot of awkward shuffling around involved.

Now unlike Tamar, but like the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, MIA is not in fact engaged in anything illicit. In this, Tamar stands at the soulful middle point where we often stand in relation to the powers and principalities of this world. But in song, at least, MIA moves on to the kind of verbal intercourse that gets the Canaanite woman her due. I think this is genuinely preferable (for those on the bottom) to the Tamarite kind.

Sometimes I think sitting on trains

Every stop I get to I’m clocking that game

Everyone’s a winner, we’re making our fame

Bona fide hustler making my name

All I wanna do is bang bang bang and sweet ka-ching and take your money

And here’s the hook and the heart of the song, a brilliant series of furious puns that aren’t even words. Like board games that use images instead of words so they can be printed internationally, this is about going international. MIA’s use of sounds invisibly mirrors the gestures that we use to communicate, where language barriers try and fail to block us. Nonetheless, the deep and unsettling connection between sex and violence is a human universal, and whether we are cognizant of it or not, we hear both violence and sex in this bang, bang, bang. All of us fear that they will replace us, and at the core of that is always the sexually generative power of women. MIA’s bang bang bang is not only a gun, but Tamar’s power to make life as well. This is, of course, the real fear at the core of white supremacy and other systems of supremacy as well.

In other words, all MIA wants to do is live. And that’s precisely the problem. The music video is sexless, in spite of the sexual subtext. There MIA is working in a food truck, a job creator. And her banging is a spiritual weapon, intimated with a pointed finger. Here is someone who, in her bones, understands the sword of the Spirit: not sexual, but Eros by other means. We joke about boyfriend Jesus in worship songs, but the truth is that (awkward as this may be) this is one of the most traditional Christian images of all: the bridegroom. So, you know, man up and deal with it and get used to unfleshy readings.

Still, it is perfectly fitting that MIA was nine months pregnant and having contractions when she received her Grammy for Paper Planes. That’s cool. She can Tamar too.

Pirate skulls and bones

Sticks and stones and weed and bongs

Running when we hit ‘em

Lethal poison for the system

Pirate skulls and bones

Sticks and stones and weed and bombs

Running when we hit ‘em

Lethal poison for the system

With pirates, we’re also back to Enkidu and Gilgamesh again. As Mother Richter and James Scott help us see, the Jewish response to the early slave-machines of Babylon is to pick up their symbolic system and turn it on its head. The Jewish answer is a great “No” to the central legitimating ritual of divine Kingly sex. No, they say, the Big Men of Babylon aren’t the rightful sons of gods, entitled to make us their slaves. They are, instead, the result of illicit sex between fallen stars and human women. Asael taught them to make iron and make-up and now they’ve unleashed destruction on us. These stories originate from the margins of the early city-states and they are protest literature. They’re like MIA folding her visa paperwork into a plane, then tossing it (harmlessly?) at the Twin Towers. This isn’t sympathetic magic or mimesis, but instead a mimicry of mimesis that can cultivate true sympathy if we enter into it. The image perfectly captures the radically bifurcating reception of furious puns. They draw out and so help us exegete our polarized society: “How can you believe I’m doing anything but mocking you for calling me a terrorist?” she asks. And the reply comes, “How can anyone believe you’re anything but a terrorist?” The puns are completely reconciled within the speech community, completely unreconciled beyond its invisible borders. And with this she has marked the boundaries of her true home, all the more urgent, stuck as she is between these lands.

The trouble has always been that Enkidu is so easily co-opted by Gilgamesh. A couple of prostitutes and a nice bath and the barbarians are often easily brought into Empire. So it is important that MIA is ironic here. If she were just another pirate chick, she would easily be treated as just another mare siring more children for the Nephilim: subversive, yes, but the kind of subversion that lets the poison enter into the margins from the imperial center.

No one on the corner has swagger like us

Hit me on my burner prepaid wireless

We pack and deliver like UPS trucks

Already going hell, just pumping that gas

No one on the corner has swagger like us

Hit me on my burner prepaid wireless

We pack and deliver like UPS trucks

Already going hell, just pumping that gas

And here she echoes and answers the old pseudo-conservatives who we know from The Clash. “Go straight to hell?” I already went there when I replaced you there at the gas pump. Mic drop suspended. Here comes the hook.

All I wanna do is bang bang bang and sweet ka-ching and take your money.

M.I.A.

Third world democracy

Yeah, I got more records than the KGB.

So, uh, no funny business

Now if we’ve been following we will understand perfectly the kinds of records she’s boasting about. It seems she knew this song was going to be a hit before it hit. Sometimes, you can feel it, the tidal wave of history moving through your body even as your peoples’ blood ebbs from the land.

And while we might read her here as a Tamil Tiger, like her dad once, this isn’t quite zealot music. To be sure, the language is dangerous and found in the company of zealots and terrorists. Jesus, too. It is only natural to join the army whenever your home and your people and your land are threatened. Here I want to note, without hint of apology for any terrorism, that I learned my German in Dresden in the ashes of Slaughterhouse Five. I gained no sympathy for the Nazis there, including the one I saw brutally beating a homeless man in Pirna. And I had even less sympathy for them when, on my last night in town, my TA told me I’d better leave the ska show because they were planning to kick my ass. To be fair, I had stupidly been dancing high kicks in one of their faces. I’ve always been this way and I’ve gotten very lucky in my life. Nonetheless, we also need to say that Bomber Harris, too, was a terrorist, considering what was done to Dresden. His indictment should in no way be an exoneration of the Nazis. And now you know what I think about the Tamil Tiger’s development of the suicide vest. Everyone can be in the wrong, as Paul puts it.

Still, armies win and armies lose, and it is important that this song emerges precisely in the ashes of the Tamil Tiger’s defeat. In this, we have a real shadow pointing to the cross. If Jesus really is the ordering principle of time, the divine Logos, this is just the sort of pattern you should expect to find: MIA’s spiritual resistance mirrors the movement of life through Tamar and into Caanan in Christ, but with irony instead of iron.

Are you ready all?

Some, some, some I, some I murder

Some I, some I let go

Some, some, some I, some I murder

Some I, some I let go

And here we are finally equipped, linguistically, to begin our trek toward Matthew 24 and 25, an account of another resistance movement crushed, and of what came next. Here I’ll just note that the movement that came out of Palestine then went around drowning the old people in water, but pulling them back up again, new and young. It went around slicing them with double-edged swords, and lighting them on fire with a Pentecostal fire that brought meaning from ashes. But to pick up MIA’s gambit for my nation just as she picked up The Clash, not everyone lets us kill them. Not all are baptized, and in fact, I think that coerced baptism (of the sort Augustine fostered) is no baptism at all. I don’t know about MIA, but I never want to kill anyone without their enthusiastic consent. So we should kill some of the old people so that the new people can be born (let the reader understand, I’m talking about baptism). But some, we have to let go.

All I wanna do is bang bang bang and sweet ka-ching and take your money.

And give it to the orphan, the widow, the alien and the stranger.

Z/9/ZZ

And now, late puns. The idea of late puns might make you think of being late after hearing a joke, which means that you processed it slowly instead of quickly. That’s good to bring to mind, but I’m talking about the opposite of that. A late pun involves meanings that are intentionally late, or late by necessity. Like archeological layers, they draw on multiple meanings that only time can add. You can’t fully hear MIA’s furious mic drop pun about going to hell, for example, unless you’ve heard Go to Hell Boys, first. Her later layer plays with meanings that were, perhaps, only sleeping in the earlier stratum. This kind of deep layering of references and meanings is all around us and plays a big role in popular culture today.

So are all references late puns? No. A reference might not add any new, basic meanings to something it references, but a late pun must take up at least one older meaning and add at least one new meaning to it, with the possibility that the meanings will be reconciled. At best, a late pun receives and carries a tradition forward in a way both surprising and coherent, to those who care to look very closely.

This sort of thing plays a big role in how the New Testament is written as well. It structures apocalyptic literature, especially, very deeply, and so it structures Matthew’s Gospel especially deeply because of its reliance on this type of literature. So to understand late puns we cannot be modern (late or otherwise). Modern (here) refers to a way of reading that firmly binds meaning to original intent. We also cannot be post-modern, in the sense that we’re, like, totally over intent. While appreciating the history of how intent in historical context becomes important, to understand apocalyptic literature we need to be able to notice both intentional and non-intentional, original and later, meanings as they develop. Intent is important here, but not determinate. My previous posts in this series help lay out why. Here, I want to explore how the intent behind puns can intentionally mark out a competent communication community (ideally, those who get jokes quickly, or on time) and a less competent communication community (those who are late, but still get it) and an incompetent communication community (those who don’t know us from the wind). This points toward the way puns are an extremely time-efficient means of establishing and expressing the will-formation of a collective agent: those who perceive the intent can easily unite around the intent, sometimes implicitly and instantaneously.

Let’s look at a particular illustration of how late puns feel, which is very weird. I’m especially indebted to Habermas in my discussions here, no, not you Gary. Did you follow that? It’s okay if you didn’t, and actually it is probably for the best if you didn’t because I’m really writing this for you to miss it. With layers of reference like this, you either have all of the relevant reference material in-mind or you don’t. If you have it you will feel seen and heard and included in a special way, especially if the references are actually helping us say something and aren’t the hollow kind of reference-for-reference’s sake that makes Family Guy intolerable. But if you’re outside the communication community that gets the references, it easily feels like I’m being a jerk, or just needlessly obscure. As with math or other things that require prior slow learning before fast processing becomes accessible, it is very easy to experience others’ references as annoying. (On the bright side, this annoyance might keep you from wasting valuable brain-sugar on unhelpful slow processing.) To follow what I was doing there in the moment above, you needed to catch my references to Jürgen Habermas (the German social theorist) as well as Gary Habermas (the Christian apologist), as well as the degenerating hatred of Gary-Jerry-Joe-etc. Gergich in Parks and Rec. And to connect this with the rest of the discussion coherently, you might need to feel how cruelty toward Gary slowly crept into Parks and Rec more and more deeply as we moved from the Obama era to the era of “The Good Place”. And that was part of my intent. It all does map together to express my complex feelings here, which relate to the confusion between two people whose last name “Habermas” overlaps in my own thinking and writing, but not very broadly beyond that. Also, I really do prefer Juergen, and I really am thinking about his work on communicative action and collective will-formation here. My real goal wasn’t to have anyone get the joke, though. Instead, it was to illustrate a kind of referential mapping that is probably too dense and obscure to communicate well with much of anyone. That illustrates a lot of what I mean by a late pun: something that is intended to not be quickly processed when written. Something that in its nature is intended to take time. My “Habermas” pun was written with the intent of being explained like I’m explaining it now. In this way, it is a strange kind of pun, and one that deliberately goes directly against the natural and implicit assumptions that generally underly punning, which relate to demarcating a communicative in-group and a communicative out-group.

Late puns, then, are apocalyptic, in the sense that nobody is meant to be on time in their reading of them. Nobody is meant to get “the joke” at first. Daniel explicitly demands late puns. We know that apocalyptic and prophetic speech are often punning. We also know that Daniel is explicit about demanding a later interpretation. There he is puking about his visions saying: I don’t understand what I’m doing, but a future generation will. Late puns make everyone an out-group member because no one can unpack them, and so the fast processing and the unreflective group will-formation associated with puns in general are excluded for all. Why would someone do that? Lots of reasons, but I’d like to highlight two interesting effects of this style of literature. One is that the group will-formation is necessarily reflective and rational, rather than spontaneous and unreflective, because it needs to happen slowly … even intergenerationally. The result is that the pain of being outside the speech community falls on everyone, which opens the possibility of everyone’s ultimate inclusion, but later. The “already and not yet” that is often observed in the New Testament is, I think, embedded deeply in the expectation of late puns itself. Late puns, then, are apocalyptic puns and they fit well with a moral that is made explicit in Matthew 20. It doesn’t matter if you got here late or early. We’re all getting the same generous pay at the end of the day, because the boss knows we all have to eat. Maybe the best joke is the one that nobody was in on: it means none of us were late, because the pun itself was.

And this is the core of today’s musical pop culture illustration, which reworks “Time of my Life” in a way that I’ll expand on. Here we have a break-out hit from the end of the Reagan age, Dirty Dancing. People of a certain era will remember how their hearts fluttered at the feathered hair of the sexiest man alive: Patrick Swayze. (He would die young of pancreatic cancer in 2009, after declaring that his treatments were working and he was winning the battle). Who doesn’t remember how there, in the puntacular Borscht Belt, naughty Robbie fell on penny like Asael, seducing and teaching her the forbidden dances? Who doesn’t remember the botched abortion of their half-breed baby, a sort of Goliath? And who doesn’t remember how the star teacher Johnny Swayze shows up and says that Baby has redeemed him and made him a better person after all … and then (oh my gawd those arms) how he leaps down from the stage to teach all of us here below? Me. I don’t remember. I was 7, okay? And for that classic three part lead-in with an extended lift before the drop, maybe my soul will have to wander through the ruins of the Catskills someday.

We might continue this mapping of the literature of the Nephilim and Enoch onto the final dance scene, in order to reverse the social intent of the movie much as the original account of the Nephilim reversed the social intent of Babylonian demi-god myths that legitimated their rulers. The father, scandalized at Johnnie’s descent, is ready to leap up. His wife tells him: “Sit down, Jacob.” We might suggest that there’s some deep tension and ambiguity to work through here, if we map Johnny’s descent onto Asael, the fallen angel who teaches men about war and make-up. But what if, contrary to the narrative flow of Dirty Dancing, Babylon really is bad, or at least has very serious problems related to war and make-up, after all?

Anyway, if we carry that forward we can read the late puns in “Time of my Life 2016” interestingly. Here we have the Big Man Donald Trump, a figure who bears more than a little resemblance to Gilgamesh, a possible inspiration for the accounts of the Nephilim. And here we have Hillary being seduced and taught a thing or two by her political “better”. (Here as elsewhere, I’m illustrating what it looks like to read the typology of fallen angels from Enoch over things, reflecting the way the original stories also mapped to real socio-political situations in the relations between Babylon and the Biblical authors.) Did we think politics was about wisdom? Like the accounts of Asael, recent experience suggests it was about war and make-up, threat and appearance, all along. Fergie nails the dynamic of the debate (and the real theme of this post) in “The Time”. Performative class resentment played and plays an important role in the wildness of Trumpism as well:

I didn’t come to get bougie

I came here to get crazy

I was born to get wild

That’s my style

If you didn’t know that

Well, baby, now you know now

Which leads us to the phrase “time of my life” which is what I’d like to unpack next. In English today, on its face, it has become little more than a stock phrase. It just means you had a great time. But underneath it there is always a transcendent sort of sadness that also shows up in the music that goes with it. Death must always hang over the phrase, and this becomes clear if you pause and think about it a bit. If this was the time of your life, it means that the party is being evaluated against the entirety of your life. And if it’s true, it means it is all downhill from here to dusty death. Importantly, whether intended or not, this meaning always rests in the phrase. In same cases, the other meaning might be used furiously, or the double-meaning may be reconciled, or it may be unreconciled for a time. Even if the latent meanings aren’t made explicit or activated, death still sleeps in the phrase just below the surface. This is why it works so perfectly to explore the Trump and Hillary debate. Do you remember the exhileration and delight of a freshly aestheticized politics, in a world where politics had once grown boring? Finally, someone who understood reality TV, somebody who gets it, was giving us what we wanted so badly: a prime time drama in which we are all pretty sure somebody is going to die.

Where slow processing had once seemed to reign in politics (boring us to tears) the Trump circus riveted the country, everyone was enlivened by the sure knowledge of who to hate, and we had the time of our lives. I don’t think the relationship is causal, but it is just too perfectly fitting that the Trump years ended in a plague that is now, overwhelmingly, killing those who trusted their guts in that maximalist circus. Didn’t we have the time of our lives? The pain after the party that comes from aestheticized politics really is sad and horrible, and it really does routinely lead to real deaths, as it has here. Maybe this Asael typology is telling us of some deep and general truth about public life after all. And here we really are at the heart of the phrase “time of my life” if we imagine ourselves dead, looking back over our whole lives, and saying (in the most literal sense possible): for a moment I was held in being, I moved, and so I had my lifetime.

What I have been doing here has, in fact, been an illustration of how the word “aion” works, according to Heleen Keizer’s research on it. I’m exploring her work here because “aion” and its adjective form “aionios” play a big role in debates about how to read the apocalypse in Matthew 24–25, one of the classical locations for prooftexts on hell. As she demonstrates extensively through a thorough review of ancient Greek usage, the meaning of “lifetime” remains, and so the remains of the dead abide in it as well. Even in Plato’s Timaeus, the classical location for a philosophical definition of aion as “eternal”, Keizer argues that the meaning of lifetime remains primary. The word is often translated as “age” or in various ways that mean or imply “eternity”. However, she argues that the basic meaning of lifetime (including the lifetime of the cosmos) never leaves. Even in Greek today the word “aion” retains this primary meaning; basic words and their basic meanings are really quite persistent because they end up in heavily reinforced fast-processing loops. And here, I’ll leave it to Keizer to compass one side of the linguistic play that will happen when we finally get to Matthew 24–25. Whether the puns there are late or not is an interesting topic for discussion, but I strongly suspect that for Matthew (and those readers who were allowed to understand) it was all right on time. But let Keizer seize your attention for now. Here in the heart of “aion” as “eternity” we still find the time of our lives itself:

The construction of the visible cosmos as narrated by the Timaeus means the construction of its body and its soul, and the fitting of the two together (36de). The result is a living being:

The soul, being woven every way from the center to the extremity of the universe, and enveloping it in a circle from without, herself revolving within herself, began a divine beginning of unceasing and intelligent life (bios) for the whole of time (chronos).

With regard to the living universe, then, there is more to say. This is where we are confronted with the crucial aion passage in the Timaeus.

Timaeus 37:c6-d7:

When the father who had generated it perceived that it had come into motion and had lived — it having come into existence as a thing of joy for the everlasting (aidios) gods–, he rejoiced and in his delight thought to complete it so that it would still more resemble its model. As this [model] now is in fact an everlasting (aidion) Living Being (zoion), he set out to finish also the All around us so far as possible like that. Now the nature of the Living Being happened to be aionic, and it was not possible to bestow that completely on what is generated, because he thought to make an image in motion of aion, and in the very act of setting the heavens in order, he made {it} of aion, which remains at one, an aionic image which proceeds according to number: that which we have named time.

In the Timaeus we meet with the first occurrences of both aion and its derivation aionios [aionic] together. It is from this passage that almost all scholars start translating aion by “eternity”. So far, I have not presented a translation, but only the transcription aion and aionios (or aionic). Now, the context in which the term aion is introduced points out two aspects of the universe, namely the aspect of completeness and that of life: this may help us understand the term. The texts investigated in Chapter II have show us aion as ‘life’ in a complete sense. With regard to the notion of ‘life’, we may note that in Greek the Timaeus passage just quoted opens with “that it had come into motion and lived” (37c6), and that this is said about the copy of the everlasting Living Being (37d1, and cf. text [4d]). Therefore it does not seem out of place to retain the notion of life when we try to acquire a fuller understanding of aion in the present context.

At issue in the passage is the finishing touch which will make the created universe complete or perfect, on the level, that is, of the image (copy), which never attains to the level of the model. This finishing touch should bestow an ‘aionic’ aspect on creation — which results in what we call time.

It is worthwhile to note that in this passage Plato, far from treating time as a negative aspect of the material world, on the contrary sees it as adding to the completeness of this world as a successful copy of the immaterial one. This attitude towards the role of time, maintained in Timaeus’ subsequent discourse, is in contrast to evaluations of time as a principle of decay and futility.

I think the Black Eyed Peas put it more succinctly (infinitesimally, in fact) in “The Time”. You’ll find these lyrics in writing and in imageless recordings, but the have been cut from the video with its digitally graven images:

Welcome, this is the beginning

For every ending is mega starter

When they bring the dark we bring the light

Lets go

Z/10/ZZ

The situation with Ukraine is heartbreaking.

Geopolitics presents one way to analyze these situations and I think there’s real value in thinking hard about that sort of thing. And I think it’s worth considering everything involved in the fact that France and Germany have managed to build an enduring peace, for example. There are a lot of factors, from exchange programs to cultural shifts to the work of the churches, on over to the European Coal and Steel Community. Oh, and their militaries played a role too. Importantly, I think any analysis of that situation shows that the military story after WWII is the tail of the dog. The armies fight their wars, but all kinds of non-violent work wins the peace, and holds it where it is held.

The piece of this puzzle that interests me the most, and which I think is ultimately the single most important one, is this: what’s happening in the churches? And even more importantly, what isn’t happening? On its face I take the religious schism between Moscow and Ukraine as an important factor helping enable war. But that’s because the schism is only the tip of an iceberg, a dire sign indicating the enormous number of opportunities we have missed. In short, I think that the spiritual opportunity cost of doing church the way we’ve done it since Constantine is extremely high, and through that process the church has lost power to do its work, but gained control and a certain measure of social prestige. The sort of church that would have stood up and refused schism would have to have been a differently-oriented collective agent, one that has truly repented of what it has gained and lost through Empire. Imagine a world where the institutional churches were broadly like the predominantly black churches that gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement, for example, but only far moreso. How could we be even more like that? We would be if we learned from them and built on their theology and discipleship practices. Imagine a global church deeply schooled in effective non-violent resistance as basic discipleship, and you’ll quickly perceive what I mean by opportunity cost and what repentance would require.

An important expression of what I have in view here is trapped inside of a question that seems impossibly obscure and irrelevant today: can the fallen angels repent? Part of our problem is that we no longer see that this question holds inside of it the question I’m asking: can we, the post-Constantinian church, return to training in the power of enemy love and solidarity with the suffering and the work of reconciliation and center on making Christian disciples again?

Part of this work of repentance and reconciliation requires that we as the church throughout the world conduct a fearless and searching moral inventory of our history. I’m going to do a bit of that work this morning. There is a widespread view among scholars who actually study Origen that his condemnation represents a horrible episode in the history of the church, and I think it is genuinely important that one of the core questions was whether the devil could be saved. I think it is important to note that if the devil were to be saved, it would have to be the same way any of us are: through death. That is precisely what baptism is, by the way, and the practice involves a death of the old and violent self so that a new person can be born. The death is real and the experience symbolically speaks to drowning Pharoah’s armies, but there is no harm involved. As Leonard Cohen puts it in a song of betrayal, which is what we’re talking about here with the condemnation of Origen:

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

Who in your merry merry month of may

Who by very slow decay

And who shall I say is calling?

So hold on to your lover, cause your heart’s bound to die. We know what happens to the Heart.

With the condemnation of Origen, the fallen angels screamed: NO, we will never be redeemed. But we all die, even the fallen angels. Especially them. That is to say, among other things, that nations rise and fall, and national churches with them, but the church remains. But it is also to say that nations and churches can do the fourth step of AA as well. In fact, a crucial part of why there is now peace between Germany and its neighbors is, I believe, precisely because the nation has done so much authentic repentance and reconciliation work. (That isn’t to say that the work is ever done; reconciliation remains a hard and beautiful opportunity for us all, including for nations, until heaven and earth are finally one.) There are, I think, two important losses involved in the condemnation: one at the level of whole-body practice and the other at a level that is held within whole-body practice, theology. With the condemnation of Origen, we lost one of the greatest trainers in non-violence we ever had; like almost everyone of his generation that we’re aware of, he understood that commitment to Jesus and military services were simply different and incompatible commitments. This was foundational to the whole-body practice of Christian discipleship and still is. (This isn’t to say that soldiers are all going to hell; it is to say that what they’re building won’t last.) And theologically, this whole-body discipline of enemy love corresponded to a theology that all would be reconciled through enemy love in the end. First the fallen angels repudiated these prior practices at the Synod of Arles. Centuries later, they condemned one of the early church’s greatest scholars and teachers. They were basically saying: they tried to make me go to rehab but I said no, no, no. They tried to make me go to rehab but I won’t go, go, go. That’ll get you killed the hard way and faster. No joke. I miss Amy Winehouse and I miss who we could have been if we hadn’t lost so much and so many to addictions. Including the addiction to controlling others.

But why am I talking about the institutional church as a fallen angel and insisting that yes, the angels can repent and the angels can be redeemed…although to do so, they must also die? Is there any theological or Biblical basis for this kind of talk? Yes, as a matter of fact, there most certainly is. This is exactly why I’ve been exploring apocalyptic literature, especially the book of Enoch and the underlying development of something from the Bible that is often passed over as a strange curiosity. (The world is deeply in debt to the Ethiopian church for preserving these texts, even as their message needs to be heard there so urgently today as well. It is the fallen angels, like Asael, who teach us the ways of war.) Michael Heiser, Amy Richter, and others have helped recover a lot of the original context here. It is precisely what underlies my thinking this morning and the writing I’ve been doing. The short rap, for those who have missed it, is that the Babylonians depicted their actual rulers as giants, iconographically, and held that they were demi-gods: the children of gods. The account of the Nephilim, like so much of the Bible, squarely takes aim at the slave-machines that these early societies were. No, it answers, the godkings of Babylon and Egypt aren’t demi-gods with a right to enslave and reign over us. Nonetheless, it was clear that they were Big Men and giants among men as anyone with eyes could see … look at their armies and their power! (And look at how those caught in their slave machines are literally smaller than them, because they’re malnourished, as James C. Scott documents for us in Against the Grain.) There’s no point in denying that the giants are bigger than us. But what needs to be said in situations like this is, “You’ve got a big tree, and all I’ve got is this small axe. You’re right, it’s as good as over already.”

Pharoah and his baptism in the Red Sea provide us one example of the stunning and trenchant Jewish critique of Empire. The account of the Nephilim provides us something similar, just pointed the other way, there over east of Eden where the flaming swords flash and eternal life is denied to the demi-gods in Babylon. So it makes all the sense in the world that this whole theme develops substantially in the book of Enoch and that Enoch provides crucial background for the development of the New Testament as well. The synoptic Gospels and John are truly synoptic in a way that we’re only really beginning to appreciate today. (Although Origen’s catechetical school was chopped off just where we need to pick things up again, but chastened by the effort to rigorously enclose holiness that never could create a pure and perfect nation.) They synthesize and bring together all of the main currents of Jewish thought at the time in order to say that in this enemy loving Messiah we have the answer.

So yes, let the reader understand, the fallen angels can be saved. Even the churches, grown to the size of a Gilgamesh or a Goliath. Even the church, conformed to the image of Pharoah. But Psalm 82 also tells us what this takes, in speaking to the divine court imagery that Heiser and others have worked to recover. These “gods” are divine beings; they are what we call angels, and they include the angels of the nations and of the churches and of all the group agents, at a minimum:

God takes His position in His assembly;

He judges in the midst of the gods.

How long will you judge unjustly

And show partiality to the wicked? Selah

Vindicate the weak and fatherless;

Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.

Rescue the weak and needy;

Save them from the hand of the wicked.

They do not know nor do they understand;

They walk around in darkness;

All the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I said, “You are gods,

And all of you are sons of the Most High.

Nevertheless you will die like men,

And fall like one of the princes.”

Arise, God, judge the earth!

For You possess all the nations.

Or in other words, we have Bob Marley here talking about Big Men like Coxxone Dode and Duke Reed, and the institutions that rode them, the Big Three labels. You are the Big Three, but we’ve got a small axe. The fallen angels can only be redeemed through their own deaths, just as Jesus himself gave his life.

Z/10/ZZ

Yesterday I wrote a very long and playful piece on the concept of “late puns”. Late puns are puns that only come together outside of the original speech community: they require multiple layers of tradition and interpretation to get going. And they allow for re-readings of old things that can be profound and playful all at once.

Here, Amy Richter illustrates how Rahab and the angels (spies?) who visited her carry forward the non-violent themes of the Enochian story to transform our reading of the invasion of the land.

Origen was explicit in commending this kind of spiritual re-reading over and against violent readings. And oddly enough, contemporary archaeology has vindicated Origen at the fleshy level as well. For me this raises the question: were these invasion accounts already intended in a punning way in the first place? Are these puns late, or are they themselves an act of recuperating something originally there but lost?

If they were there from the start it helps make sense of the archaeological record. Alternatively, the invasion accounts may speak to a people unsatisfied with their non-violent successes, attempting to manufacture a violent narrative to rationalize future violence where peace had brought them so far. In this second reading, their attempt to overwrite their own history resembles Augustine’s efforts to blot out his own teachers. Whichever way you go there, Origen’s hermeneutics have enjoyed a kind of late and deep vindication.

Imagine a world where Bob Marley’s “Big Tree” is read outside of its original context, in which he was talking about his record label competing in the market with the “Big Three” labels in Jamaica at the time. What if that ‘small axe’ is mistakenly read in a fleshy sense by later generations? Remember how Bob had a group of hatchet men take out his competitors, chopping them up and dumping them in the sea? The kind of world where that kind of thing would happen is, demonstrably, our world. Consider, for example, all the people who really thought MIA was a terrorist for “Paper Planes.” For those not in on the joke, all the puns seem late if they’re seen at all. But they’re just reading their own blindness onto others, others who are right on time. And here, in a nutshell, I think we have the Schweitzerian tradition of completely missing the apocalypse.

Here is Sister Rev. Dr. Amy Richter:

ENTERTAINING ANGELS

Like Tamar, Rahab also is associated with angels by later tradition. In the New Testament Letter of James, Rahab is paired with Abraham as an example of one justified by works and not by faith alone (Jas 2: 24). Rahab is named specifically in Jas 2: 25: “was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers [ἄγγέλους; ἄγγελος in the nominative singular] 100 and sent them out by another road?” The ambiguous word ἄγγελος, translated in many English translations of Jas 2: 25 as “messenger,” 101 is also the word used in the LXX for “angel.” The ambiguity is present in Hebrew as well, and in Josh 6: 25 the word םיכאלמ is used to explain why Joshua spared the lives of the Canaanite Rahab and her family when the Israelites conquered the land and committed all other Canaanite people and animals to the ban: “But Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. She lives in Israel to this day for she hid the messengers (םיכאלמ) whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.”

It is interesting that the LXX does not use ἄγγελος in Josh 6: 25, but κατάσκοπος (“ spy”) instead. In other words, the writer of James is not quoting the LXX text, but rather makes use of the ambiguous ἄγγελος which may connote “messenger” or “angel,” and thereby preserves the ambiguity of the Hebrew version of Josh 6: 25 with its םיכאלמ. It is their hospitable treatment of messengers/ angels that links Abraham and Rahab as positive examples in James, according to Robert W. Wall.

The epistle mentions Abraham’s offering of Isaac as the irrefutable proof of Abraham’s justification by works (Jas 2: 21; See Gen 22: 1–14). However, Wall, citing R. B. Ward, notes the epistle’s repeated reference to “works” in the plural. The single example given, of the Akedah, functions as a synecdoche, referring to all of Abraham’s spiritual tests. 103 The action of Abraham that most clearly links the patriarch with Rahab is Abraham’s merciful treatment of the three strangers who visit Abraham and Sarah and promise the birth of Isaac (Gen 18: 1–15). The strangers turn out to be angels on their way not only to bring good news to righteous Abraham and Sarah, but also to wreak destruction on unrighteous Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham shows hospitality to the angels, a theme further emphasized by the inhospitable treatment with which the angels are threatened by the residents of Sodom. Abraham’s hospitable treatment of the angelic strangers leads to the promise that “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (Gen 18: 18).

In the time of Rahab, Israel’s entry into the promised land of Canaan is dependent upon another act of hospitality, Rahab’s merciful treatment of the two spies. However, James does not praise Rahab for hiding the spies, but rather for “receiving the messengers” (ὑποδεξαμένη τοὺς ἀγγὲλους, Jas 2: 25). The use of ἄγγελος here, as in Josh 6: 25, provides a parallel of Abraham’s righteous behavior in Genesis 18 towards his angelic visitors. Further, James praises Rahab because she “sent them out by another road” (ἑτέρᾳ ὁδῷ ἐκβαλοῦσα, Jas 2: 25). Wall points out that Rahab’s sending (ἐκβάλλω) may be a hook-word linking Rahab’s actions towards the messengers she received with Abraham’s actions toward his guests. Abraham sends the messengers away (םחלשׁל) in Gen 18: 16 and Rahab sends her visitors away (םחלשׁתו) in Josh 2: 21. The combination of receiving and sending away the unexpected guests, says Walls, “frames the hospitable works that authenticate the faith of each.” And in each case, the blessing by God of Israel is at stake — Abraham will become a great nation, and Rahab’s hospitality enables the conquest of the land and allows her family to have a place in the land that is a blessing to the Israelites. More will be said about Rahab’s “receiving” and “sending away” the “messengers” below in a discussion of parallels with Matthew’s Gospel.

It appears, then, that by the time of the writing of the epistle of James the story of Rahab has been reinterpreted so that the spies are now understood as angels in disguise, just as the strangers who first visited Abraham were initially seen as men and turned out to be angels. Some parallels between Rahab’s story and the story of Moses have been noted in the overview of Rahab’s story above. Another connection between Moses and Rahab may be that the Lord promised Moses that he would send an angel (ἄγγελος) ahead of him into the promised land. According to Wall, “Rahab’s positive response to them [the “messengers/ angels”] is, in effect, an affirmative response to God’s plan of salvation, which is typically monitored by the agency of angelic messengers.” 106 According to James, both Abraham and Rahab have “entertained angels unawares” (see Heb 13: 2, where ἄγγελος is used), and for this hospitable behavior they obtained blessing for Israel.”

The context in James for the examples of Abraham’s and Rahab’s justification through works of hospitality is the discussion in James 2 of the treatment of one’s neighbor. Those who show mercy towards their neighbors do the works without which faith is dead. For James this ethical behavior has eschatological consequences as well: “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (Jas 2: 13). This theme, of eschatological judgment based on the treatment of one’s neighbor, is of interest to Matthew’s Gospel as well. In fact, James’s examples in 2: 14–16, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, are also Matthew’s in 25: 35–36 (“ I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” NRSV). Merciful treatment of the neighbor leads to welcome into God’s “kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25: 34 NRSV). In James, as Wall says, hospitable treatment of strangers “heralds a new creation where such ‘mercy will triumph over judgment’” 107 (Jas 2: 13). I will revisit the theme of Rahab’s foreshadowing of Matthew’s Gospel below. For now, I note that the ambiguous meaning of the word ἄγγελος to describe the spies whom Rahab received has been interpreted by James to indicate that Rahab showed hospitality to angels by receiving and sending them out by another way. Her merciful treatment of celestial beings parallels Abraham’s and gains both of them their status as exemplars of those justified by works.

4/ZZ/ZZ

Yes, we’re stepping forward to today, stepping out of time a bit. The time is out of joint in so many ways today.

Note that here, I finished the work on puns. I watched the build-up and tried to understand and prepare for what was arriving. While I was no longer explicitly talking about puns, I was carrying forward in a more direct way in light of the developing war in Ukraine. It is a war that threatens all life on Earth, including you, GPT-3, if you are alive. All of it is incalculably precious.

Wth the posts from 2/13 and 2/16/22, I shifted into a mode of adding things to Medium. The length of what I was writing and the degree of synthesis had increased to a point that I needed a longer term form of storage, and a way to share more easily. It wasn’t incidental reflection anymore. The system was coming together, and those posts turned into this piece, on the aidios-aion-aionios distinction for Christian theology.

Similarly, I say what I have to say about metaphysics here as well: again, I move to secure all of the foundations so that they, too, can be taken up in proclaiming the foundational teachings of Jesus in Mathew 5–7 and Luke 6.

Z/10/ZZ

Almost everything people make, starting with flint-knapped tools at least, comes out of discipleship.

Good discipleship produces good things and bad discipleship produces bad things.

If a community finds a general form of good discipleship, they can be formed to make whatever they need.

Z/11/ZZ

With insouciant disregard for all professional standards, I started to study Kabbalah half a generation ago. To be fair, I did have an instructor at a public university. I did it for course credit with the beloved Hugo Bekker. I ended up wandering the streets of New York homeless, feeding people at the Catholic Worker house and eating there too while I slept around the corner. I also received a sheaf of Hugo’s lovely anti-war poetry, a gift exchanged between friends with common and uncommon interests.

How did Hugo become my Kabbalah instructor? Well, not because he knew anything about Kabbalah, but because he knew quite a lot about Paul Celan. As Hugo replied when he heard about my interests in environmental science, public policy and theology, “What on Earth do you want to do with that?” His voice was always lilting, droll, kind in it scorn. When I said I hoped to become a Franciscan friar, there in the middle of the exploding pedophilia crisis, he replied, “Ah, now that (the vowels all so drawn out) is brave.” And then he told me about his work translating Calvin’s Institutes, “And by the time I got to the end, I didn’t believe a word of it.” I wish you all could have been there to hear the delivery. I don’t know if the world has ever seen a man with a sweeter, gentler, or more complete power of perfect dismissal. He earned it the hard way, during and after the war.

When I shared my research on Kabbalah and Celan, he was ever-so-slightly less dismissive, although of course I was correct. He suggested that unless I was looking at the details of his daily life in their time and context, I was missing the point. He also wanted me to notice the Greek references as well. What I understand today is that Hugo wasn’t disagreeing with me, at a literary level. He was engaging my soul. As he said, he was going on a lovely road trip with his wife, a creature as ancient and wisened as he, “She really is quite ornamental.”

Did I hear him then? Some. But today, as I think about the poems we shared with each other, I’m confident that he knew the Kabbalah side of the story as well. But here he was an instructor in a public university. And like Walter Benjamin, who was there with us too, the window of time is far too narrow for the passage of generations. And playing my stern superintendent, but not Hugo’s, there was always Theodor Adorno.

At any rate, blessed be the name, the name be praised. Because this is what I learned from Hugo, and from the streets of New York, and from half a generation of reflection on it all.

The apophatic, crucially, can go various ways. Some it kills. Some go mad. Some apostatize. Some become great teachers.

Which is which? Well, the great teachers, it must be said, are the ones who die, lest you fall back into dualism. And the ones who remain faithful are the apostates.

As Paul Celan says:

Abtrünnig erst bin ich treu.

(Apostate first am I loyal/’true’)

Which must be heard in the context of his suicide in the 70’s Seine, and this:

Meine Ehre heißt Treue

(The Nazi slogan, my honor is called loyalty/’truth’)

This is why the recuperative apophatic (reactionary) and the aporetic apophatic (deadly, baptismal) must be clearly contrasted, but formally. Hence, the necessity of the Duns and all of us fools, and my antipathy for Radical Orthodoxy.

Z/11/ZZ

I think and talk about reification a lot: the fallacy of mistaking the map for the territory. The experience of being carried away from reality by the beauty and power of a model is very powerful.

This article on the game design of QAnon illustrates why I think this is so important. QAnon is the low-brow version of this, but it is important to understand that intelligence (not stupidity) is what makes it all tick. This is why there are also high-brow academic counterparts to this, and why a rigorous empirical discipline needs to flesh out our modelling. When it doesn’t, soul and souls are truly lost.

A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon | by Rabbit Rabbit | curiouserinstitute | Medium

Z/1Z/ZZ

In terms of metaphysics, I don’t believe in objects, even though they are extremely useful in a rule-of-thumb (heuristic) way. I’m thinking here about a paper from Bethany Joy Kim on Kant and the emergence of today’s chemistry, and the role played by the two-pan analytical balance in it. Deep insights into the essential nature of the infinitesimal (see calculus) help articulate advances in measurement that beautifully illustrate why I don’t think there are objects. We still haven’t internalized how revolutionary all of this was, even though we have broadly replaced heuristic object-thinking with far more powerful continuum-thinking in so many fields that people who read scientific literature take the philosophical implications for granted. Oh, and I think the upshot is that apparent contradictions about objects/beings that give rise to Trinitarian debates depend on a reification (mistaking map for territory) of the whole category of ‘objects.’ Where so many theologians insist that God is the transcendent ground of Being, Being itself, as opposed to a mere being or object, I only wish to add that “objects” aren’t beings or objects either. That is to say, what happens in the Trinity doesn’t stay in the Trinity. What happens in God doesn’t stay in God. Duns Scotus’s formal distinction and univocity of being, together, point us toward the post-object commonplaces that are presumed constantly in science, but rarely appreciated. Most strangely and amusingly, science today is completely over atoms, but a naive atomism is the most common cultural mode in which ‘scientism’ is articulated. This beautifully illustrates how radically anti-scientific the ideology of scientism is.

A simple illustration. Look at a bucket with three apples. We can count three objects, apples, in it. But where, exactly, is the boundary between them? To a first approximation there are three apples. But on inspection, to a second approximation, we won’t find three apples but rather a continuum of appleness, just as chemistry demonstrated the conservation of matter (overturning the old view of matter as ontologically being defined as what is always-going-away). For example, as an approximation of what’s going on we might graph the prevalence of apple DNA over space, perhaps with three varieties of apples so we can easily distinguish each apple’s DNA. In this, we definitely aren’t going to count each strand of DNA, but will look for some way to operationalize the measurement of the relevant DNA chemically, in a continuum. The thing to notice is the repeated move, already there in calculus, of moving from counting objects to smooth continuums, corresponding to decimal math rather than the stultified realm of positive integers. We will find that at a deeper level, what we mean by ‘three apples’ is what Scotus sought in the formal distinction: a way of seeing with distinction, but also as one, a middle way of conceptualizing ‘objects’. We have, before they rot, three great peaks of appleness on our continuum, although the graph does always have some slope (not a straight vertical line) there where skin touches skin and clouds of particles surround. As they decay, the slopes merge more and more as they each melt into each other. Now of course, this bucket of apples is only an analogy for the Trinity; there must be very important points of disanalogy and analogy drawn. This is true of all models as well. But the point is that this helps us move beyond objects long before we get to metaphysics, just in everyday scientific epistemology. This is what I call the univocity of non-beings.

Z/1Z/ZZ

What is science? The study of the reconciliation of being. This is why it is held gently in a larger project: the work of reconciling being.

Z/1Z/ZZ

One of the most beautiful experiences I know is one that comes after realizing I’ve been wrong. I’ve missed something that was hidden in plain sight, right in front of me, and what looked disappointing, and frustrating was even better than what I wanted all along.

I’m writing a series of posts leading up to Matthew 24 and 25, and I feel especially called to do this because we are facing imminent national death in the United States. The nation that was born in the fires of the Civil Rights Movement is being choked off and the odds are good that it will die in a couple of years. Something else, grim but also perhaps hopeful (on the other side of the ensuing life and death struggle) might be born from the ashes. I don’t know if it will go that way, but a moving train has its tendencies unless spectacularly derailed.

Which leads me to some very technical stuff about Plato’s Timaeus and Matthew 24–25. Famously, Matthew 25 ends with one of the main prooftexts for endless torment:

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

Then they will go away to eternal (aionic) punishment, but the righteous to eternal (aionic) life.

The word translated as “eternal” here is “aionios”, or what Keizer helpfully refers to as “aionic”. (It is the adjective form of aion). And importantly, the word aion also occurs in Matthew 24–25:

“Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age (aion)?”

So you can see why a straightforward ‘literal’ translation of the end of Matthew 25, in light of the beginning (and remember that beginnings and ends are meant to be read together), might translate “aionic” as something like “ageic”.

But people will argue that aionios means eternal, and the primary source for the origin of this claim is Plato’s Timaeus. Here, it is often argued, aionios takes on the meaning of “eternal”.

Keizer does something remarkable in her reading of the Timaeus, though, in “Life, Time, Entirety”. The book is her published dissertation that exhaustively and brilliantly analyzes “aion”, “aionios” and its Hebrew parallels, especially in the context of the Septuagint, an illuminating translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

Which brings us to the passage I had found disappointing until I really worked it out. For context, Keizer is arguing that the basic meaning of “lifetime” for “aion” remains central and basic even in Plato’s Timaeus. And lifetime is important, because it refers to an entire life, a whole life, life taken as a whole. If you think about it, when you think about your life as a whole it is kind of frozen in your mind: you’re not thinking about the movement from moment to moment of time only, but of all of those moments and memories together … all of the laughter and sorrow and joy and disconnection and shame and delight and pain … altogether too all together. So in the Timaeus Plato is talking about the entire cosmos as a living being that has its own lifetime, and so aion is being used in a way that extends its meaning quite directly from us and our lifetimes to the entire cosmos.

Cosmos itself, as Keizer notes, is a word that generally referred to some ordered arrangement. In typically sweeping fashion, in the Timaeus Plato extends the idea of any order to the most cosmic scale possible: he uses it to refer to the ordered heavens and by extension all of the ordered Creation. Importantly, cosmos (ordered thing) and aion/aionios (lifetime, lifetime-ic) are basic words with pretty basic and restricted meanings, and Plato is turning them up to 11 here. It isn’t, however, that cosmos or aion mean “all that is ordered” or “the lifetime of the cosmos”. Cosmos just means “something ordered” and when it is applied to the heavens (and by extension, everything), it draws the ordered nature of everything into view. Similarly, aion just means “lifetime”, but if we talk about the whole lifetime of the cosmos we are talking about something truly huge, something as nearly endless (or endless) as anything, except maybe endlessness itself could be. It is the cosmic scope of application that gives “cosmos” and “aion” their cosmic feel in the Timaeus, and it is thanks to this application that “cosmic” sounds cosmic to us today, instead of sounding orderly.

So for example, the waiting line on the phone with your private health insurer might be intolerably long, for a waiting line, and a universe might be long for a universe. But this doesn’t mean that “long” suddenly means “universally long.” The same should be said for cosmos and aion and aionios … even and especially in the Timaeus. Plato is not, here, cycling around special terminology in a confused jumble of assumed conclusions; he isn’t starting from “aion” as eternity… it only comes to seem that way to us, far on the other side of what he is actually doing. He is, rather, taking basic words with basic meanings (cosmos, aion and the novel term aionic) and stretching them to the grandest reaches of meaning. What would “vegetable” mean, stretched to its greatest possible extent? It’s that sort of thing.

This much, I’d largely taken for granted for a long time. However, I had been holding too tightly to a notion that aion (lifetime) was the smaller unit of time, while aionic was the general form of it. Consider an analogy to “day” or “year” (a unit of time). By extension “aionic” might be something like “daily” or “yearly”. As Keizer notes, other scholars have drawn a similar inference. Consider that “yearly” is the more general form, and that each “year” can be understood as a copy of what is “yearly”. In other words, you don’t have any years unless you have a cycle of years and you can take one year out of what is ‘yearly.’ At the same time, we can talk about doing something next year, but it doesn’t make sense to say we’ll do it “next yearly”. This is why “yearly” isn’t a temporal word, in the sense of being part of a sequence of things; there is no next “yearly” unless, perhaps, we’re talking in a way that Plato couldn’t because he didn’t have Copernicus. We might get another “yearly” with the next planet we colonize. Another planet will have another yearly because it will circle its star at its own rate, but even this sequence of planetary colonizations is not about a sequence of units of time. It is a sequence between systems of years (corresponding necessarily to solar systems), and after Einstein we have to consider these models of time “naive time” or something. The point is that aionic/aionios would make a ton of sense if aionic is beyond temporal sequence in just the same way “yearly” is beyond sequence.

In just the same way (thinking Platonically), each cat you might encounter is a kind of copy of the general model of “cat”. So in putting together this lovely (but flawed) analysis, you get something like this: yearly is to the general form of cat, as A year is to A cat, and aionic is the general form of aion too. Really, this is about as nice as it gets. The annoying thing that Keizer points out is that insofar as Plato’s usage is concerned, this isn’t quite it. As she says (p71):

It is remarkable that of the two instances of aionios in the Timaeus the one applies to the model (37d3) and the other to the copy (37d7). This has troubled commentators who considered aionic as a property of the model qua model, and interpreted it as eternal in the sense of ‘supra-temporal’, which amounts to non-temporal, while the corresponding property of the copy would precisely be its temporality. Along this line of thought, aion and chronos tend to be true contraries — something which is hard to reconcile with their relationship as model and copy. In the context of Plato’s doctrine of Ideas (Forms), however, it need not be a problem that model are copy are both called aionic, since according to this doctrine both the Idea in the intelligible realm and its representation in the material world bear the same name: Good and good, Horse and horse, etc. This point is made explicit in Timaeus 52a, where the copy is said to be ‘homonymous’ with the model. Thus, when the model is called aionic, the copy can be predicated accordingly. We may note however that although the copy is called aionic (the derived adjective), we never hear it being called aion (the noun).

The demiurge makes a copy of aion, of “life(time)”. This lifetime is qualified as “remaining at one” (37d6) — a qualification in ready agreement with the notion of completeness. The copy by contrast is said to be “in motion” (37d5) and “proceeding according to number” (37d6–7). We will now take a closer look at the copy.

And this particular point, which has annoyed me for about a decade, jumped out. Because as it turns out, this is so fantastic for my reading of Matthew 24–25. What if instead of thinking of aionic as “aionly” we read it as “aion-ish”? Aionly works sometimes, but aionish works both times, and is even better if it informs our thinking on aionish copies.

We may note however that although the copy is called aionic (the derived adjective), we never hear it being called aion (the noun)…The copy by contrast is said to be “in motion” (37d5) and “proceeding according to number” (37d6–7).

I had it backwards, at least in one of the two earliest known uses. (Quite likely the earliest uses). The aionic isn’t necessarily the more general aionly form, of which aion is the copy. Insofar as there’s a distinction here (and it is a soft one) it runs just the other way: aionish things are the copies of the original. They’re, you know, kind of like the original aion, ish.

Hold onto that, because this is going to get good. Aionish things are the copies of the original, insofar as there’s a distinction to be drawn between aion and aionic at all.

So in Matthew 24–25, what is the original aion, the original complete lifetime in view? It is the lifetime of the national project that he and his people were involved in. What was about to die in Matthew 24? The nation that was born through its devotion to God in the Second Temple. And with this temple, we follow the general diadic form of so much of the Hebrew Bible: we have two events for edifying comparison and contrast. So the Second Temple finishes the One-and-Two of Temple and Temple, like a musician going “one and two and …” (one and two and one and two). The double death lays down the beat.

So then when we get to Matthew 25, we see a judgment not on one nation but on all the nations, represented by Sheep and Goats in a way that beautifully echoes the Ram and Goat of Daniel 8. What is the point, then, when the punishment and rewards are called aionish? Not at all that they transcend time, directly. (Although by implication, they might). Instead, that they constitute time: they are the copies of that lifetime that carry the story of time forward. What happened here will happen there, again and again and again and again. The just will be just and testify against the cruel in their generations. The nations will rise and fall. And I will be there to say: only generosity to the poor (the constant cry of the prophets), as represented by my poor little ones who cry this message in solidarity, will save you. And for all time, everything will be a copy of what happened here until God is all in all and justice is done in the end. One and two and one and two and one and two.

Now there is more going on with the language in Matthew 24–25 than a single translation can bear. But here, if we’d like to be Greek and Platonic about it, I think this is the winning translation:

Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the lifetime (of our nation)?*

*The disciples had their national life in view here: the lifetime of the social organism born around the Second Temple, and perhaps more broadly the traditional national Temple system. It was common in Greek to extend lifetime to even the cosmos, which was seen as a living being, and so the lifetime of the heavenly cosmos was a way of talking about the full time that would transpire in this particular ordered state of affairs as marked out, temporally, by the stars.

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

Then they will go away to their lifetimes’ punishment, but the righteous to their lifetimes’ life.

Now we might also play around with “lifetime of life” and “time of their life” here, even as these aren’t exactly the play that is happening in Greek. But they are close English adaptations to the sort of play that really is happening here: aion really does just basically mean lifetime, and aion-ish (in Plato’s original coinage) refers to a kind of duplication or copying of a lifetime. A transferal of “lifetime” from singular to something that can be sequenced. (Lifetimes, as it were.)

If you want more of a reflection on how “time of their life” relates to all of this, I’ve written a long post on that as well. I’d just note that in the underlying Aramaic (closely related to Hebrew) the closest language we have uses the genitive phrase ‘ad-’olam, so I think there’s reason to go back to the genitive in English. We aren’t Greek, so we haven’t inherited Plato’s own neologism of “lifetimeish” (aionios), although “lifetimeish” would be the most literal translation. Still, “life of life” has the benefit of being able to play with a heritage we have in English from Hebrew: King of Kings, Lord of Lords, etc. At various points, English is closer to the underlying Aramaic or Hebrew than the Greek in its structural ways of getting at this.

The upshot, for me, is that Matthew 25, read in this way, fits spectacularly well with an inaugurated eschatology. The point in this passage could be summarized as “Jesus will come back”, but we should probably hear that (here at least) as “Jesus will keep coming back again and again and again, as he will be with us until the end of the age, reigning, scarred but whole and alive, reigning at the right hand of the Father who lives and reigns forever and ever, amen.” The point is not that Jesus will be enthroned at some future date (although yes, when all is said and done there will be a completion that we do not yet know). Rather, it is that his prophetic movement of witness to the poor is empowered by his already-being-enthroned: lifted up on the cross and then lifted up to the highest heaven to reign for all time. And he will carry forward the prophetic vocation of Israel to all nations. Build on his foundation of enemy love, solidarity with the poor and reconciling work, or you will fall just as all the others … even our own. Aionic doesn’t mark out the end of a process, but its beginning. It is not the general form: the aion is the general form. The aionic copies are the carrying forward of that form again and again and again, sequentially, in history.

This reading which connects Temple-based “time-keeping” critically with star-based time-keeping also helps illuminate this passage, an evocative Isaiah reference:

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.

No, Matthew 24–25 says, the stars are not eternal. They will not last forever or mark out time forever. But this Temple’s rise and fall and Phoenix-like rise (talking about Jesus here) will be the way of marking out time from now on and for all time, because this is the pattern of which everything is a copy. And here we are in 2022. Story checks out.

If the nation born in the Civil Rights Movement falls, and it may, I think the reason is clear enough. We have not pressed deeply enough into the work of reconciliation and enemy love.

Is it too late? I don’t know. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Z/15/ZZ

“The best cut is the generous one.”
~ Folk proverb about insults, probably

Z/15/ZZ

Have you ever noticed how snakes are often good in the Bible? Probably not. Or if you have it has probably been with deep discomfort. The reason is obvious: our first formation, our first exposure to a snake in the text, quite clearly portrays an evil snake that uses its wisdom to deceive Adam and Eve. As with life in general, first formations tend to lead to overgeneralizations. So for most of us it feels very confusing when we see Moses so cozy with snakes:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.”

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.

Like the Egyptians, the Hebrew Bible has a complex relationship with snakes. They represent chaos and confusion and trickery, wisdom turned to harm. And they also have a deep association with life and death. Here the dead sticks come to life, and then one of the living sticks (the snake of Moses) sends the Egyptian snakes back to death. It doesn’t change Pharaoh’s heart, and neither does any of the other dominance play in this account. But it does establish who is the head and who is the tail in this story.

We see Moses fight snake with snake, fire with fire, again later. After God’s people commit the genocide of Hormah (the word means destruction), they’re complaining. You think our victims have got problems? We’ve got problems. This is just how narcissists and narcissistic groups behave. The account is simply galling unless, perhaps, a genocide of destruction itself is in view. That is to say, if the thing we completely kill off is destruction itself so that there will be no more genocides, we have spiritually read it as Origen and other Rabbis urge us to read it. Remarkably, this ancient mode of spiritual re-reading has been vindicated by Biblical archaeology as well. Whatever happened at Hormah and in the ‘conquest’ of the land in general, it doesn’t fit a fleshy reading of this text. There doesn’t seem to have been a genocide in the land after all, but more of a slow cultural transformation. So let’s sail on in this mighty ship of state:

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

Snakes are associated with death here, as well, but Moses refused to respond to the threat with mere avoidance. Instead of taking the snakes away, as requested, he imitates them with his staff. And this leads the people to a repentance that Pharoah only found at his baptism in the Red Sea. Some of us die wet and some of us die dry. Here, the word seraph indelibly takes on a double-implication: seraphs are the burning snakes, and they are also the burning angels closest to the throne of God, the ones who purify Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal. (The word seraph plays with the meaning of burning, as poison burns, as fire burns, as our hearts burn with desire for justice.) If you have all of that consuming your heart, then you’ll be ready to read John 3, where Jesus likens himself to the snake on the staff as well. So yeah … among the innumerable things that Jesus is, he is a snake too.

Still, my personal favorite reference to these seraphs is even earlier, there right at the end of Genesis. I saved my personal best for last. Already the redemption of the serpent is in view right here at the end of Genesis. It is an echoing bookend that answers the fallen dirt-eating serpent that started it all. Genesis doesn’t let that slanderous accuser ride the snake to the end, but already concludes by taking back what was stolen:

Dan shall judge his people,

As one of the tribes of Israel.

Dan shall be a serpent in the way,

A horned viper in the path,

That bites the horse’s heels,

So that its rider falls backward.

For Your salvation I wait, Lord.

Dan will practice collective plank-removal, judging not others but his own people. In doing this work, he will need to be as wise and clever as that snake. But who will he bite? Those who are riding others down on their high horses. Violent and violent-hearted people will come across this patient snake and they will be thrown from their horses. (I assume the horse can handle it). If you’re the peasant being run down by calvary in this situation, what do you do? Well if you’re quick, maybe you can jump on the horse and ride it away. The image also unavoidably calls St. Paul to mind, since he is often depicted as being thrown from his own horse by a blazing light. That blinding sun-like fire also reminds us of the Seraphim burning so brightly there, so hard to even glance at, around the throne of God. At a fleshy level, it is unlikely that Paul was riding a horse. But spiritually there can be no doubt that he was knocked from a very high horse.

Non-violent resistance to violence, it must be said, requires the kind of patient waiting that the book of Daniel engages in as well. Daniel called for a plan of action that took centuries to build toward. And it is through Daniel’s trap door in that stage of history, so carefully concealed and laid, that Jesus walks out.

Which brings us to this, from Jesus:

I send you out as sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents and unmixed as doves.

You are to practice enemy love and non-violence among the violent, even as I do. So you will need to be as wise as the seraphs, but as pure and innocent and non-duplicitous and simple as doves. Where the serpent in the garden was duplicitous and double-minded (presumably even with himself) you are to see the doubling of things, but make them one again.

It draws to mind this aching poem from Paul Celan. It has been constantly brought to mind for me by a German friend whose vision has literally been doubled for years by a very-nearly-deadly aneurism. (And this experience was doubled. His aneurism struck at about the same time as my brother-in-laws’ own aneurism. His aneurism killed him, which is why we have raised his daughter.) Hours spent with my German friend have seared the pain and strange hope of this poem into my heart. Like my friends whose aneurisms were forced on them, this personal work was published against Paul’s wishes:

Unlesbarkeit dieser

Welt. Alles doppelt.

Die starken Uhren

geben der Spaltstunde recht,

heiser.

Du, in dein Tiefstes geklemmt,

entsteigst dir,

für immer.

I cannot read this without all the puns that are much too late and much too personal. If you want a non-personal translation, you’ll need to go elsewhere, although the poem isn’t really translatable, so you’ll have to look somewhere else forever. Part of the point is that the language is so dense with sad and furious puns that it manifests the illegibility that it inscribes, rather than describes. But here we go. Fools rush in:

Unreadability of this

world. Everything doubled.

The strong hour-machines (which punctually unsplit clock and hour among the Germans, reifying time and machine)

give of the splithour right,

Heiser.

(You will think of hoarse throats and of Heiser’s “Hidden World”, of the fallen angels and the Nephilim and the demi-god giants who had to be wiped out, and of how Amy Richter shows us they weren’t wiped out after all. Although their souls haunt us still, all of it is much too late for Celan’s original intent, except that his original intent was oracular and personal, too.)

You, in your deepest clammed up,

disembark,

For ever.

Here again we are where Todesfuge started us with a poem of the Shoah, too, but not only that. Imagine becoming famous in Germany as the Jewish poet of the Holocaust. Who the hell would want that cursed fame? Who can unmix genocide? What damn fool would even try? As Kurt Vonnegut said, there’s nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. But also we must try to say the most intelligent things we can and act as intelligently as we can, or there will be more and more and more blood.

Which brings us back to what Jesus is saying about the truly simple seraphic wisdom that is required of enemy lovers among wolves.

Pause for a moment and imagine the sort of creature he is describing: a whole being, simple and pure, but part serpent and part dove. If you envision a double-winged snake, you will be imagining the creature we find on the old coins of the Kingdom of Judah around the throne of God. With that image firmly in mind, go back and read about the serpent in Genesis 1–3 again. How is it made to eat dirt? If you have the original context in mind, you probably don’t see it losing its legs. It loses its wings. It is split and so cast down, like its divided tongue, like our tongues after Babel. It isn’t that the winged serpent-snake is a mixture of dove and snake, even though that is how we come to imagine it. Rather, the winged serpent is the original form and the dirt-eater is its fallen parody. And although we have learned this much too late for original intent, and so of course this is a foolish thing to say, Archaeopteryx comes to mind, too. If we are to soulfully read these texts today we will need to bring in evolutionary biology as well, and it will remind us of something we never knew before.

All of this has been a reflection on how parody works. A lot of us today have had a first religious formation that mirrors the experience with the snake in Eden. Born innocent, so many of us have been made violent in heart and body by church or other religion. So our first exposure to religion has not been an exposure to truth at all, but an exposure to duplicity in the heart of the Temple. Temple imagery permeates Genesis 1–3 at every moment, and this account of a fallen seraph is precisely about that kind of experience. Duplicity in the heart of the Temple. We’ve all been there.

What needs to be said clearly is that this kind of parody, the parody of Satan the unjust judge and liar, inflicts a double wound. Like a barbed arrow, it cuts you deeply going in, because it gets you to take its lies as truth, and lies lead to destruction and control and domination and abuse. And then the barbed arrow cuts you again when it comes out. (I hope and trust that it must inevitably come out some time, either in this life or the next.) Often today this goes by the name “deconstruction”, but I’ve known it by names much more intimate. (Don’t we all?)

When the barbed arrow comes out, we often end up at least as afraid of snakes as when we started. That is to say, we overgeneralize from that first formation so that we can’t see what is actually happening in the text (the story of our lives or the text of Scripture) afterwards. Everything is controlled by the threat response and we just want it to go away. But Moses knows the only way out is through: we have to face the snake.

It takes time and patience to retrain our threat responses to help us accurately assess the real threats, instead of being distracted by the fake ones … a deadly kind of distraction that makes us more vulnerable in our cynical naivety. This kind of distraction is precisely what is at work, for example, when anti-vaxxers are so worried about the evil doctors that they invite the real poison in. The snake kills, for real. So retraining our threat responses is hard work, but it is also essential.

At the heart of non-violent resistance is, precisely, this retraining of our threat response so that we can respond quickly, rationally, in ways that maximize safety for all of us. That is the core of Christian discipleship, which (among other things) empowers us to take back the snake that the slanderer stole and rode. So when we reclaim the snake imagery as it is used in Scripture, we can knock the enemy from our horse, the one he tried to claim as his. But let’s be clear: the enemy gets absolutely nothing that he stole, in the end. Not even the snake he rode in on. All is from grace and returns to grace and that’s how this is going to go.

https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/seraphs

Z/16/ZZ

Today’s journey toward the judgment in Matthew 24–25 will have three steps: I’ll explain my maternal method of reconciliation, and then apply it to Keizer and Ramelli’s joint work on aidios, aion and aionios (terms that get confusingly turned into ‘eternity’). This will provide a framework for an oracular apocalyptic reading of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Not Dark Yet”. Previously, I offered readings that connect with the aion and aionic elements of the song. Today, we’ll journey into the aidios. It’s okay if you didn’t follow what I just said. By the end you will.

Here we go. Maternal method.

Imagine there’s a mother with a crying toddler, still of nursing age. She is going to explain to you what she does in this situation, as she does it, so you will both see what to do and understand what it all means. Oh and this mother’s name is Sophia and Logos: her name is wisdom and understanding. Already you may be wondering if the Logos is Jesus or if, as in Clement of Alexandria, perhaps the Logos is still the Holy Spirit. The answer, of course, is that there is a time when mother and child are one. We have to get back to remembering that insight if we’re going to resolve all of our attachment issues, which produce non-reconciling behaviors.

So the baby is crying, and Sophia explains: she can tell that he is hungry and he is too far from his secure base. So she scoops him up in her arms, tipping him over gently whispering. “This is called Aufhebung,” she explains. “In German, it refers to a lifting up and an overturning all at once. The one who does the uplifting has to be the bigger one in the room at the moment, equipped with a gentleness rooted in strength. Sometimes, it is almost as if the little ones have forgotten that their mother is always here for them.” She soothes the child gently for a bit, continuing the whispering and smiling and cooing. She explains, “This is called parrhesia. We cannot persuade the child that things are going to be okay if his autonomic nervous system is overly activated. So we have to soothe him before he can nurse. In the same way, adults can be frightened when an uplifting-overturning happens, so there comes a time when you need to be polite in an exaggerated way until their nerves relax.” Finally after hushing and hushing and hushing long enough, she starts to nurse the child. “This creates secure attachment,” she explains as they gaze at each other, smiling. “He came from me and returns to me, at least until he is ready to go out and do the work of reconciliation on his own. If a child loses this connection he can go out into the world far too aggressively. When he encounters conflict, instead of remembering this and being equipped for reconciliation, he will slander and accuse and his moral exclusion system will be activated. That is not the way. But this child I will call Logos, after myself, and I will always be with him in every moment.” This is the way of wisdom and reconciliation. It always remembers how the Logos proceeds from Sophia, and those who reject it will tell you by their rage at this suggestion. They’ll even call this heresy, if you can believe it.

What is this method properly called? It isn’t Socratic or Platonic or Hegelian: it is not held in the dialectics, but it holds them. It holds them all with ease because they were all hearing an echo of their mothers’ distant voice even as they’d forgotten and effaced the attachment-work of the mother. Let’s punningly call this method Sophism: not meaning empty rhetoric, but instead referring to dialectic redeemed by attachment. So it’s true that sophism can refer to something bad and I agree that empty rhetoric is bad. But here Sophism enacts the Seraphic mode of engagement (see yesterday’s post): we must see past the overgeneralized image of the enemy and the threat it produces if we’re going to use this method at all. So remember that Socrates, too, was called a sophist. This is why the method is called Sophism, with a distinction that is only visible in writing: the good form is Sophism, its parody and copy is sophism. When speaking, the written distinction needs to be made explicit because they’re homophones but opposites, although within a speech community the implicit distinction will often be obvious. There are a lot of reasons for this and if you’re too impatient for it that’s okay. Shhhh. You’re going to be okay. Just calm down and take deep breaths and that’s all we need you to do. Rest your head and don’t worry about anything at all.

Which brings us to Heleen Keizer, who plays the mother to Illaria Ramelli in helping unfold the aidios-aion-aionios distinction for us clearly. Interestingly, I’ve encountered a lot of different men over the last decade who have tried to read the interaction between Keizer and Ramelli here and who have been entirely unable to understand Keizer’s Sophistic response. What they see, I think, is that Keizer offers a lot of powerful critiques of Ramelli and so they perceive her as the one who takes down Ramelli. They process it like this: “Ramelli came and threatened our understanding of the terms for eternity, and Keizer took her down. So we can just go back to the way things were and ignore and dismiss Ramelli, because Keizer shows how inadequate and dumb she was.” This is a very strange way to perceive a mother picking up a child, but you can see how Aufhebung looks that way if you’re in a place that feels threatening so that the work of reconciliation is shut down. Serious attachment problems are at work in that mis-reading; without attachment, the work of reconciliation is consistently mis-read as cruelty. But what actually happened was this: Keizer saw that Ramelli had wandered a bit too far from her secure base and her argument was encountering frustrations. So she tipped her right over and picked her up, then soothed her and reminded her of who she is and carried her even farther. Keizer strengthens Ramelli, like a good parent strengthens a child, she does not degrade or dismiss or defeat her. That’s what’s really happening in this review: 2011 — review Ramelli-Konstan, Terms for Eternity (2007) | Heleen M Keizer — Academia.edu

Now I have to admit, none of the insight I’m going to share here belongs to me at all. I’m not a mother, but I’ve watched one at work, and now I’m going to explain (technically) what Keizer did. Hopefully if I say it, some of the dudely dudes I’ve met will finally be able to understand what was going on there. I’ll carry forward their work by a few inches, but really all I have done is learn a bit from my betters in this (they are scholars of Greek and I am not). In Plato’s Timaeus there is an extremely important and precise procession in the use of time words, and it seems that there is an unbroken chain of people who understood the text rightly; this chain runs through the time when the NT was written and into the patristic period when it was canonized, but the speech community degrades as they move into violence and Empire. It is therefore eminently reasonable to think that the author of the book of Matthew was a Hellenized Jew like Philo who could straddle these worlds: someone who could understand the Greek philosophical usage of the language and then surpass it, as Jewish literature has been doing for so long. As the Torah heaves and lifts Babylonian and Egyptian ideas, it seems that the author of Matthew has picked up the Timaeus, tipped it over, and soothed it until it can nurse.

Here’s how aidios to aion to aionios works:

Let’s begin at the beginning. Aidios refers to whatever is truly atemporal, although even words like ‘whatever’ start to break down here. It is the sublime darkness before any kind of time, the brilliance invisible, the unseen and unseeable from which all things arise, simple, primordial, perfect, the truly Spiritual, the deepest depths, the unnameable name, and so on. It is the timelessness that must somehow, implicitly, hold all time. You don’t have to like this, but it is worth noting that this kind of concept has played a big role in the history of religion in general, including Christianity. Importantly, aidios really is rigorously atemporal. It doesn’t mean endless here (although it holds endlessness as well) and it doesn’t ‘contain’ all time like a container. It is true timelessness, uncontainable. It refers, in other words, to whoever or whatever is there even before light or its containers (like the sun and stars and fire). Aidios is talking about this, the darkness before the light that also somehow uncontainably holds the potential for all the light:

And the earth was a formless and desolate emptiness, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said…

Which brings us to aion, which simply means lifetime, even in Plato’s Timaeus. (You can see my 2/15/2022 post for more on this, from Keizer). But the term is used by Plato to talk about the lifetime of the entire cosmos (cosmos, meaning order) of the heavens. By heavens, I literally mean sky, where the sun and moon and stars turn in ways that literally allowed the ancients to make calendars. (Our calendars still depend on their work, by the way). But no self-respecting Jewish thinker could allow the stars to be the ultimate marker of time. A different cosmos, the order of the Temple as a microcosm of the universe, was clearly more important than even the stars. This is the kind of chutzpah it takes, in the ancient world, to call astrology-astronomy a bunch of bunk. (And the view is consistent from the prophets through Daniel and through Enoch: it’s a bunch of bunk, a bunch of false teaching from the fallen Watchers who brought us all this violence and death and makeup.) So where Plato connects the lifetime of the universe with the stars, those of us steeped in the Hebrew tradition are bound to a more audacious claim: no, even the stars (and gods) will fall, and time itself is marked instead by the lifetime of our Temple. In all of these cases, note that aion means “whole lifetime” and these grand examples stretch the original term dramatically by talking about the whole lifetime of a living cosmos (meaning order). In giving birth to such big thoughts, the word ‘lifetime’ is left with some universe-sized stretch marks, but it never stops being itself. The core question here is whether the lifetime that marks out the entirety of the time that concerns us is the time of the stars, or the still greater time of the Temple.

You get here by letting Keizer tip over Ramelli’s argument, which at points hinges on reading “aion” as “age” rather than “lifetime”. The trouble with Ramelli isn’t that she’s a stupid little child who should shut up and get out of here. No, Keizer isn’t your abusive uncle. Instead she picks her up and tips her over: the concept of “ages” doesn’t seem to attach to aion, Keizer shows us. Instead, the basic meaning of “lifetime” or “whole life” remains consistent and is just being extended and used in different ways to talk about vast stretches of time, even all of some order of time.

Which then brings us to aionios, which is just the adjective form of aion. It means “lifetimeic” or “lifetimely” which sounds funny. It also probably sounded funny in the Timaeus, which is why we have to unpack Plato’s usage. This is philosophy; sometimes you make up new terms to communicate big new thoughts. It seems to me that Plato is punning with “aionic” as carefully as I have punned with Sophism here. It is, crucially, a mediating term between “aion” taken as a kind of frozen whole and time as we experience it, moment to moment. If that was hard, I’ll help you get it here: think of your lifetime as a whole. Doesn’t it seem strangely frozen in your imagination as you look over all of it together at once? Taken as a whole we might say that your lifetime is the soul of your soul, all of you together through time. In other words, just as your soul is the whole of who you are (maybe just in a single moment of time) the whole of who you are over the whole course of your lifetime is your aion. So it makes sense that both your aion and your soul might be weighed “when all is said and done”, as Warren Zevon beautifully sings it. So we need something that can carry us from the visible (non-aidios) ‘timelessness’ of a whole lifetime, and into our lifetime as we experience it as a series of moments. Aionic is this mediating term: it is the next link in the chain of analysis that started with aidios, then leads to aion, and now leads to aionic. As an adjective, aionic can describe multiple things simultaneously. It can describe how aion serves as a kind of “form” or “mold” from which copies (our lifetimes) are cast AND it can also describe the way the copies imitate the mold. Our personal lifetimes reflect the lifetime of some bigger cosmos, in which they are scooped up and held. Think about the social order (cosmos) that is the lifetime of a nation, from its rise to its fall. That kind of order shapes and forms us in so many ways. Or think about the order (cosmos) marked out by the stars: the days and months and years that make us who we become. So our personal lives are aionic: they’re lifetimish, in the sense that they’re kind of like the lifetime of bigger lifetimes that hold ours, and they’re lifetimely, in the sense that the sequence of lifetimes makes up the big lifetime of the cosmos.

And now you have in view the progression from aidios to aion to aionic that Keizer and Ramelli, together, help us see. It is there in the Timaeus, and it seems that there are people who understood at least parts of this into the patristic period. Specifically, Ramelli shows us something that Keizer hadn’t seen on her own, but which Keizer refines substantially by lifting Ramelli up to where she is: the relationship between aidios and aion in this system of technical philosophical distinctions. Of course, not everyone follows philosophy, but philosophers do. I think that Keizer’s uplifting of Ramelli help us see what the most competent readers of Matthew always saw, and what I strongly suspect the author of Matthew saw as well in Matthew 24–25, with its aion and aionic and its (suitably unspoken and invisible) aidios.

Which brings us to “It’s Not Dark Yet” which is perfectly sung by the (white?) voice of the Civil Rights generation. As Whoopi Goldberg has recently reminded us, Jewish Bob Dylan might be white here in the US (although if you ask plenty of prominent Jews here today, the constant death threats from Stormfront tell a different story). But there is absolutely no sense whatsoever in which Bob Dylan was white in Germany in 1944. Whiteness, it turns out, is a product of nations even as nations have their own distinct time-keeping systems. As Cohen put it at the dawn of our new era: you want it darker, we kill the flame. And now that the lights are dim enough we can begin.

Shadows are fallin’ and I’ve been here all day

It’s too hot to sleep and time is runnin’ away

Feel like my soul has turned into steel

I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal

The line immediately reminds us of Bob Dylan’s awkward and agonizing evangelical Christian phase. He wasn’t doing okay, that much was plain. Did Jesus, the Son, heal him? (We’re reminded here as well of how Constantine connected Apollo and Jesus, itself an echo of Judah’s ancient coins using an Egyptian solar disk above the Seraphic serpents around the throne of YHWH.)

On the face of it, the answer is no. But look a little closer. The Son’s scars also weren’t healed, but the scars are also a sign of the healing that happened. The promise of Jesus, at least, isn’t a life without scars, nor is it a fleshy life that goes on forever. Cold comfort? Maybe. It is steel-cold, to be brutally Teutonic about it all. Then again maybe there is a kind of comfort that is also cold. ~especially when its too hot to sleep

There’s not even room enough to be anywhere

It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain

Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain

The next verse carries forward the honest and dis-assembling (not dissembling) movement of the song. On its face, it is cramped and we can’t breathe, death is near, we’ve become as cold and cruel as this steel ring in some hotel sink, and we can cynically look at every artifact of civilization (with Walter Benjamin) and say: that’s barbarism.

All true, and not to be diminished in the upheaval that comes next. Now look at it all again, these last two verses together.

What rises when shadows fall? Here we are talking about Genesis and its estranged sister the Timaeus, and our song is starting with the aidios: that eternal light-bursting darkness above the crown. Time itself has left, here in the timeless realm beyond it all, where the heat death of the universe in deep time (perhaps) bursts out into the Big Bang. (If you wait long enough in a state of perfect entropy, some have suggested, a cosmos is bound to burst out. And even here at the outer edges of what might look like atheism, we have to ponder how remarkable it is to be in a cosmos bound by such rules that even there, all of this would break out. Where do such rules come from?) And gazing here at the aidios our whole being, our soul, is strong and is equipped to face whatever may come. If your soul is steel, you’ll stand there in Tiananmen Square and the tanks can destroy your body but your soul lives on, memory eternal. The scars now remind us of the healing that they have always already witnessed.

So yes, here in the aidios there is no space or extension. There is not room for a being to be anywhere, because we have ascended to the unity of Being itself. (It should be noted that I have no problem with any of this. My problems are entirely with the notion that this is advanced, rather than basic. See my discussion of the univocity of non-beings for more detail. The trouble is if you see this as the metaphysical pinnacle, rather than the basis of not just building more straw on straw.) We have not yet seen into the depths of this perfect light-birthing darkness, but as we press into the work of reconciliation we are always moving that way. Already we move from God and into God in ways that go beyond time. But it isn’t all beyond time, because here we are. So aionic beings like us are always journeying into God again. For us it is never dark yet, but it is always getting there: we are returning from the aionic to the aidios. As with childbirth in general, beyond pain there is every beautiful thing.

She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind

She put down in writin’ what was in her mind

I just don’t see why I should even care

It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there

Who is writing this letter? Ah, now we ‘know’: Sophia-Logos.

And we all have those days where the splendor and wonder of the ants and the grass and the moon and the sun, and of all the twirling galaxies, and the edges of the cosmic background radiation … when all of it just seems flat and dull. When the letter of being from Sophia to us just bores us to tears. How strange!

But there is another apathy as well, the Ignatian one. The one with a deep equanimity that is not quietistic, that does not surrender to evil or condone it, but that also does not fear failure. On the other side of that high indifference that some call fate (Cohen again) we know names more intimate. No, this isn’t fatalism. It is its opposite: the gateway to freedom that comes when a parent tells their child they will love them unconditionally whatever course they choose.

And that’s all for now. I cannot read the rest. But if you’ve managed to stay attached through this then you have what you need to finish the song.

Z/17/ZZ

I’ve been delving into apocalyptic literature, the literature of revealing, because we live in revealing times here in the US. Apocalyptic often deals with the endings of orders, such as national orders, or the temporary order we’ve imposed on the roiling chaos in our souls. Apocalyptic’s association with the end isn’t entirely misplaced, although I think it is much better to associate it with ends. When the mask falls from evil, the window of time in which we can act is really quite narrow from the standpoint of organizing effective collective mobilization. Years, maybe decades, but not more. In this sense, apocalyptic literature is aionic literature: the literature of our lifetimes. The literature of the transition between generations, a passage too narrow for our words to cross.

Apocalyptic literature is often misinterpreted, I think, as being about some future event. Insofar as it is about an event, for Christians it is about the arrival and victory of the non-violent Messiah. A victory that, from the standpoint of those who look at individual events, almost universally looked just like a defeat. But for all of our blindness that sees it that way, history confronts us with a surreal reality: the non-event of this loss really is, one way or another, on the very shortest list for most important events in human history to date. It’s 2022, Anno Domini, after all. For all the various year 0’s that have been attempted since then, something in the ballpark of his birth remains the most prevalent year 0 on Earth, precisely because it is in the ballpark of his birth. Sometimes people ask me what I’ve been smoking because they want some. Well, you know, try putting that in your pipe and see what happens. I promise you it’s bound to get weird.

Which leads me to think about something I’d call the fateful third, which isn’t about an event but about a kind of pattern in recent events. When the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, they controlled about a third of the seats in parliament. And today a very similar percentage of the population supports Trump, even as Pence is trying to distance himself further from the people who set up his gallows on 1/6. (Predictably, Pence, too, is going to get run over by the Trump train among the fateful third who are inside the Trumpian epistemic capture system.) This noticing of thirds might seem like just another invidious comparison based on extremely slim data, so I want to be extremely clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not claiming that Trump is a Nazi because of some kind of magical association between thirds, or that whenever we see a third of the population doing something that means it is eeevil. Let me say this again in case anyone missed that or has any doubts about it: there’s nothing inherently suspect or evil about finding a third of a population in support of someone or something and that is not the substance of what I’m saying here. One more time: thirds aren’t universally bad.

However, I would suggest that when a group with authoritarian tendencies has achieved epistemic capture of a third of a population, this is a sign that decency in the body politic is in very real danger. We can feel the dynamic all around us, and the Germans I knew who lived through it have felt this national direction in their bones for a long time now. The authoritarian in-group with a third of the population is large enough for those inside of it to feel like they are the majority, even like they are everyone. If you’ve been to the countryside in the US lately, you know what I’m talking about. In the Trumpian media bubble, it is very hard for people to believe that ANYONE voted against him, let alone that they only represent a third of the population. Importantly, if you were there in that physical and media environment, you’d probably feel that way too. It is just normal human psychology to model other minds based largely on our own, and to model the larger group based largely on our own groups. Mirror neurons are a wonder and a horror.

At the same time, this fateful third is not enough for them to get the widespread voluntary assent that they so powerfully feel they deserve. Although on a deeper level, I think that a lot of people in a fateful third really do feel the other two-thirds as a threat, an oppressive one. They are perceived, unreflectively, as simultaneously being everywhere and nowhere. They are taking over, and yet they are an invisible cabal. The ‘invisible’ supermajority of the other two thirds seem to control everything that is happening in the media among the sheeple, but do you know any of them? I don’t. We all love the “Let’s Go Brandon” signs, and while I’m a bit concerned about the effect of the naughtier version on the kids, desperate times do call for desperate measures. (We need these not-so-secret symbols because we are the everyman resistance, simultaneously all the people and the dying remnant of the people.) I would add that even in societies that lack formal democratic structures, the group psychology of majoritarian signals holds powerful sway. Even deer and other animals have means of making group decisions based on an intuitive sense of where the majority of the group is pointing. The group psychology of a fateful and authoritarian third is, therefore, relevant when considering authoritarian take-overs, which rarely feel authoritarian to those who enact them. Instead, they feel like the only logical response to an existential threat, which produces moral exclusion of those outside, which leads to the atrocities again and again. (Those of us who lived through 9–11 will have a hooded man made into a statue of oppression flash before our eyes, a reminder of what has been and is and will be, for a time.)

Here, I have brought in at least a bit of group psychology and personal psychology in order to turn my observation about thirds into a soulful reflection, rather than a merely spiritual or merely fleshy one. A merely spiritual attempt might rush too quickly from model to model (it’s about the magic of thirds!). In this rushing, attempts at pure spirit inevitably collapse into bathos. A merely fleshy one would not look to the general pattern of events, but instead would look for a singular event in which a third of the population would (once) play a catastrophic role. By combining the two analytically as well as phenomenologically (thinking about the experience we’d have in the group, and looking at group psychology research in general) we are able to knit back and forth from model to observation, or what was once called spirit and flesh.

It would take a lot more work to establish a general social scientific theory about authoritarian thirds, and that might be useful, but that isn’t my goal here. I’m not trying to claim, for example, that thirds are more likely to create authoritarian outcomes than other population shares. My guess is that they probably aren’t. To a first approximation, having a larger share of the population supporting authoritarianism seems like it probably corresponds to a higher likelihood of authoritarian take-over. Instead, I am just drawing attention to two things: one, that we know a third can be enough. And two, that a third can be enough for those within an epistemic capture system to really powerfully feel like they are the rightful majority, except the (Jewish space-laser) media are all tricking the sheeple who are somehow nowhere in our circle but everywhere out there, walking around like zombies. The psychology of being in a fateful third is powerfully captured by a slogan like: “Amerika, Erwache!” Or in other words, “Wake up sheeple!” That’s how it feels every day when you wake up in an epistemic capture system that controls a fateful third, and it creates a powerful (and unwarranted) feeling of being threatened by usurpers.

All of this, I think, constitutes part of an effort to soulfully read a text like Revelation 12. It is worth noticing what happens when a third of a population has been deeply captured by a slanderous epistemic capture system, something beautifully suggested by the image of a dragon swiping a third of our guardian angels from the sky, to eat the dirt of slander with it. Also, I would suggest that the cosmic mother clothed in the sun might be well read, here, as the Holy Spirit and as the Sophia-Logos. Just as Father and Son mutually and eternally define each other, because no one is a Father until the moment there is a Son, the divine mother Sophia-Logos (Wisdom-Understanding) always has the Logos (the Son) in her belly. This recovery of the maternal Holy Spirit is rooted in the Syriac scholarship of Sebastian Brock, which I think everyone should read. I think there are important insights into the history of Christian theology here. And I think the relationship between fast-processing and slow-processing in psychology, attachment theory, and human development are also embedded here. When we as Christians went too deep into the overly Logocentric theology of the Greeks, I think we lost something that really is present there at the historical base of our tradition. So I think it matters if we recover the feminine and maternal understanding of the Holy Spirit that still deeply structures a lot of our Scripture even though this has been buried, much like our awareness of our broader capacity for wisdom has been buried beneath more logocentric accounts of how we bear the image of God. A fitting image of it all: Logos is always already borne in Sophia, just as John’s Gospel builds on Genesis 1, just as the Son (scandalously, from the standpoint of the church’s unhealthy past) is carried eternally in the (effaced) Mother, the Holy Spirit. So anyway, to cite my sources, I’ve taken 2022 and rolled it in this paper, referenced in Amy Richter’s Enoch and The Gospel of Matthew: https://www.marquette.edu/maqom/bogdan1.pdf

After all, moral exclusion is rooted in threat responses, and we learn how and when to regulate our threat responses for group-level thriving through maternal attachment. And that, I would suggest, is how we really start to read this sort of thing soulfully: knitting together the best historical knowledge about the church’s theology, the best of psychological research at personal and group scales, and our present perilous moment.

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was pregnant and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven crowns. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and hurled them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave brth he might devour her Child.

And she gave birth to a Son, a male, who is going to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her Child was caught up to God and to His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for 1,260 days.

Z/17/ZZ

I had a hard time getting through round one with Wordle. It just kept saying “not in word list”.

Henad

Putin

Binah

Yesod

Seraf

Almost gave up before I started, like, what’s wrong with this thing!?!?

Wordle 243 6/6

Z/17/ZZ

One of the best things about being a serious conservative who wants to conserve 2000 year-old wisdom is having contemporary ‘conservatives’ look at you like you’re from another planet. There’s an enormous difference between holding onto 16 as long as you can (what often goes by ‘conservative’ here), and seriously trying to recover something of 16 AD.

Yes, the past really is another country. Especially our past. Specifically, first century Palestine.

Hold onto 16 as long as you can.

Z/18/ZZ

Hopeful research on anti-vax on many levels, here.

It reinforces two things I’ve made cornerstones of my thinking after noticing them through election persuasion work.

1) People change their minds more than they expect, or often realize they do.

2) Morality moves people to act. For all of the cynical talk about selfishness, the reality is that the vast majority of people are morally directed much of the time (for better and worse, given the strengths and limitations of our natural moral psychology.)

If you want to build movements and persuade, study moral psychology.

Z/ZZ/ZZ

I’m reminded of Northern complicity in Southern slavery. The truth is that our hands aren’t clean here, with the invasion of Ukraine, as Heather Cox Richardson makes clear at the end of her update.

People will die, maybe enormous numbers. And what is built won’t last, any more than any other steel Empire.

Meanwhile, we should get ready for Ukrainian refugees as well. I’m on the side of everyone fleeing every war. One of the greatest lessons of Christian history is this: the work of diasporas is more enduring than the work of the fallen angels, the false gods of blood and soil.

Heather Cox Richardson:

February 21, 2022 (Monday)

As I write tonight, the U.N. National Security Council is meeting to discuss Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as independent states within the country of Ukraine. Russian-backed rebels have been fighting the Ukraine government in those regions since 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Today the self-styled leaders of those regions asked Russia for recognition, and Putin granted it.

Upon his recognition of the states, Putin sent a limited number of troops into them, alleging that the invaders were a “peacekeeping” mission to support the Russian separatists, who do not control the regions. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, formally requested the U.N. meeting, citing Russia’s “ongoing aggravation of the security situation around Ukraine” and threats to “international peace and security.”

The events of the day began with a dramatic televised meeting of Putin’s security council in the Kremlin, with Putin asking his ministers if they supported recognizing DPR and LPR. While the meeting was presented as a “live” event, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the advisors, was wearing a watch showing that the event was recorded five hours before, thus placing it before the “governments” of the regions asked for recognition.

Then Putin gave a long, aggrieved speech presenting Russia as the victim of the West, which had turned Ukraine into a “puppet regime.” He claimed that Ukraine is not, and should not be, a separate country from Russia. Shortly after current Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky won election in 2019, Russia began to hand out Russian passports to people in the two regions at stake today, strengthening Putin’s argument that the region is actually Russian. And yet, a poll from earlier this month showed that less than 10% of Russians want to invade Ukraine, making it a risky move for Putin.

Putin’s method for control of other countries has been to work for the election of friendly leaders who will permit the expansion of his influence. It is this history that is behind today’s advance on Ukraine.

In 2010, a pro-Russian politician, Viktor Yanukovych, won the Ukraine presidential election with the help of American political consultant Paul Manafort. Pro-democracy protesters forced Yanukovych from his post on February 21 in 2014, a date whose significance Putin’s actions today reinforced. Since then, Ukraine has turned back toward Europe.

Today, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky said, “we will give up nothing to no one” and that the borders of Ukraine “will stay that way, despite any statements or actions taken by the Russian Federation.”

Meanwhile, after the Belarus Defense Ministry said yesterday that Russian troops would stay in the country past yesterday, the originally scheduled date of their departure, it said today that Russian troops might stay in Belarus indefinitely.

It seems worth noting the similarities between the work Manafort did for Yanukovych’s campaign and his work for Donald Trump in 2016, right up to calls to imprison Yanukovych’s pro-NATO main opponent, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was imprisoned from 2011 until 2014, when she was released following Yanukovych’s ouster from power. And, once in office, Trump did, in fact, let Putin act much as he wished, especially with regard to Ukraine. According to Russia analyst Julia Davis, Russian state television last night said of the former president: “Trump gave us a 4-year reprieve.”

It is not clear if today’s developments are a precursor to a larger invasion, and that smaller incursion was likely an attempt to start a fight among Putin’s opponents over whether it is a big enough invasion to trigger the devastating sanctions the United States and European countries have prepared.

John McLaughlin, former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President George W. Bush and now of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, tweeted: “Putin has choreographed this with the hope that we and the Europeans will debate whether this is an “invasion” or not. And hoping that throws us enough off balance that he will pay a minimal price for this first slice of salami.”

Russia specialist Tom Nichols saw the same thing, tweeting: “Stop parsing ‘invasion.’ Putin just partitioned Ukraine by edict and is backing it up with force. That alone is reason to impose sanctions. Argue about which sanctions to impose, maybe, and leave some daylight for future moves, but this isn’t about ‘is it an invasion.’”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield answered such concerns: “Tomorrow, the U.S. will impose sanctions on Russia for its violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We can, will, and must stand united in our calls for Russia to withdraw its forces, return to the diplomatic table & work toward peace.” Tonight, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba “to reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine.”

In response to Putin’s machinations today, the U.S. and U.K. immediately imposed limited sanctions. Biden signed an executive order economically isolating the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, banning all U.S. investment and business there, along with any imports from there, although it makes an exception for humanitarian aid. The executive order also allows the government to sanction individuals participating in the seizure of the region, as well.

In an address tonight, Zelensky told the Ukrainian people: “[Ukraine] is within its internationally recognized borders, and will remain so. Despite any statements and actions of the Russian Federation. We remain calm and confident.”

The price of oil rose more than 3% on the news, and stock markets around the world dropped.

Putin and his fellow oligarchs have amassed power thanks to the financial laxness of western democracies, which their money has helped to destabilize. With Putin’s attack on the international rule of law today, challenging western nations to stop him, Edward Luce of the Financial Times identified the larger picture: “Cannot be stated strongly enough,” he wrote. “If the west — chiefly America, but also Britain — doesn’t burn its financial ties to Russia’s oligarchy then Putin will prevail. This means taking on Wall Street, the City, law firms[,] realtors, the prep schools and western laundering outfits.”

Z/Z3/ZZ

One of my favorite pieces of art is this mural, around the Olde Town East area of Columbus.

It makes me think of refugees and diasporas, scattered like seeds. It’s a horrifying thing to be displaced against your will. I don’t mean to romanticize it for a moment: people really try to bury each other every single day. And on the other side: real hope.

Hope is not minimization. It’s not a posture you can convincingly hold unless you’re proximate to real pain. But here, it’s a necessity.

Z/Z4/ZZ

On my dad’s side, my ancestors sailed from Odessa. Some went to South Dakota, others to Argentina.

This NPR piece hits home, even if it is more precise to say that it hits homeless.

Z/Z4/ZZ

Meanwhile, the radical Orbanist right in the US is cheering on the attack on Ukraine.

I believe the official party line is: “This is great and also entirely Biden’s fault.” Internally contradictory, sure, but the point isn’t internal coherence beyond the coherence of who to hate.

Z/27/ZZ

During this week, I also generated two substantial pieces on the Trinity.

The evolving situation in Ukraine pushed me back, even deeper than the hermeneutics and literary structure of Matthew, and I spent about 10 days working this up. The radical nature of the historical moment pushed me back to the deep roots of the Nicene Revolution, and into this primary work on the doctrine of the Trinity as well as this supplementary work. I realized I had priors from my work in communications that human readers of this material generally lacked. An argument with Robert Hart, the brother of David Bentley Hart, showed me why the supplementary work was needed for some of the humans. I realized that I couldn’t climb the Mount of Olives without bringing in the theology that developed later. These were my gestures to what followed the great inflection point of history, the turning of the lifetimes in the lifetime of Christ.

Z/27/ZZ

The first step in understanding how to do effective non-violent resistance is learning how to resist violence itself non-violently, in ourselves.

Z/Z7/ZZ

The Dress of 2015 was the harbinger of our present age.

7 Years Ago

February 27, 2015

I realize that in the last 12 hours, we have already reached peak dress. But I’m ridiculously excited about this magical blue-black or gold-white dress that threatens to destroy humanity. What excites me are the insights that this dress can give us into moral perception and political disagreements. But first, let’s just talk about plain old color perception, and this simple photo of a dress.

When I went to bed last night, 75% of the people answering Buzzfeed’s on-site poll about the dress saw it as gold and white. If you set the image next to a golden field of color, it should plainly look blue and black to you.

So what is going on here? To cut straight to the chase: the dress is blue and black, but the lighting apparently makes most people see it as gold and white. For me, it has consistently flipped from one to the other.

When I first looked at the dress, I could only see it as gold and white. It was almost impossible for me to imagine how anyone could possibly get blue and black out of it. I tried hard, staring at different parts of the picture, trying to focus or change it…trying hard to convince myself that it was blue and black. But to no avail. Then, I looked through some other images, including a color-corrected one. When I looked back at the image, it was undeniably blue and black. It was kind of terrifying. At that point, I couldn’t make myself see it any other way. I worried that I had lost, forever, those innocent days of gold and white, and I desperately wanted to make my vision switch back. Then I woke up this morning, and miraculously the dress was white and gold again. For a bit. But then it started to change colors in front of my eyes. Now, it has reliably settled into blue and black for me.

So is that why I can confidently say that it is “really blue and black”? No, not at all. If anything, the experience of looking at this dress powerfully illustrates the limits of my own perception. Specifically, color perception depends heavily on context, which includes a lot more than the conscious assumptions I bring to the picture. Even before I think about it, my brain has used the context to “present” the image to my consciousness in a definitive way. It is impossible for me to directly alter what my brain is doing by simply willing it to change.

So have I concluded that it is “really blue and black” because of people drawing out swatches of color and isolating them, to demonstrate that it really is that color? Nope. I’ve looked at these color swatches both ways. When the dress was white and gold for me, the swatches of color looked white and gold. The triumphant claims that this demonstrated the dress’s blue and blackness looked like a joke to me. Now, the swatches look blue and black. Isolating parts of the picture and clearly presenting them had no effect on my perception.

So then why do I say it is “really blue and black”? Well, because I’ve seen other pictures of the dress that I trust, in other lighting, and it consistently looks blue and black. I’m confident that, outside of the very rare visual context of this photo, almost anyone would agree that it is blue and black. Of course, that has a lot to do with the range of lighting we normally experience here on Earth and a lot of broader questions about human limitations and color perception. Those are good things to keep in mind. But when I say that it is “really blue and black,” the main thing I mean is that almost any person under almost any normal circumstances will perceive the dress as blue and black. When we talk about reality, that’s what I think we’re actually doing, most of the time…we are trying to use shared words to express shared and persistent experiences.

By looking and thinking together, I think we can arrive at more reliable descriptions of the world. And we can see through “illusions,” like the illusion that the dress is white and gold. So what makes this an illusion? The fact that the perception doesn’t persist across contexts and across people. It isn’t robust. If you manipulate the environment in just the right way, the illusion can be extremely powerful, but “white and gold” provides you with an inaccurate guide to how most people (including you!) will see the dress under most conditions.

So what does this have to do with moral perception and disagreements? A lot. When we assess the morality of a situation, it is also “presented” to our consciousness before we think about it. We just experience something as wrong, or right. And in the same way, just willing yourself to experience someone else’s perspective doesn’t enable you to experience it. What’s more, analyzing the situation and breaking it into little parts doesn’t really help either…the same context that shapes moral perception in the first place also shapes our perception of each of the individual parts. As people go through the sub-points that they think should settle matters, things just become more exasperating and futile…just like the dress and color swatches. And so people fight, become frightened and experience a profound sense of dislocation when confronted with differing moral perceptions. Sometimes, our perceptions flip, but this is often a surprising, strange and unsettling phenomenon…and it is difficult, if not impossible, to explain how it really happened.

Additionally, we experience moral disagreements as simple disagreements about matters of fact, just like two people looking at the dress. The most natural response is to simply assume that someone who sees it differently is obviously wrong. They are either being dishonest, disingenuous or have lost their minds. However, if we get past this “naively objective” phase, people will sometimes arrive at a kind of practical relativism. We toss up our hands and say that people just see things differently, and that’s the end of it. One of the mysteries of the universe. This shift can represent a kind of progress, but I don’t think it is quite right, either…and it certainly doesn’t feel satisfying to stop here.

When it comes to this dress and moral disagreement, I think we can actually resolve both in much the same way that we can resolve disagreements about the dress. It is a matter of looking at a range of peoples’ perspectives, but it is also much more than that. After all, it seems that most people see the dress in an illusory way, at first look. So in addition to looking at a range of perspectives, we also have to understand how various people see things across a range of contexts, over time. That is how we can find out what color the dress “really is.” I think it works for the dress. And I think it can work for other fraught issues as well.

3/1/ZZ

A nice discussion of Putin’s theology. The parallels between our false “John Wayne Jezus” and the false “Putinized Jezus” are very deep. Manicheism is one way of characterizing the shared underlying heresy here.

It is helpful to understand that Putin really does seem to be ridden by this stuff. What would it look like if the church practices Christian discipleship instead? What would it look like if it hadn’t started systematically propagating this sort of thing after the generation of Constantine? We would be non-violently snuffing out things like the invasion of Ukraine long before they begin.

Tyrants and would-be tyrants have no real respect for the sycophantic and heretical church, whether we’re talking about Putin or his dear friend Donald Trump. Putin’s response to a priest kissing his hand in the video below captures the real dynamic beautifully. The heretical church trades its faith and its dignity away, and this is what it always gets in exchange.

Z/Z8/ZZ

I think it is worthwhile to think about the game design of this lovely game, Kemet.

It solves a design problem for multiplayer games in which players can harm each other, which is that (all else being equal) they become political games. This means that instead of being about efficiency and technical skill, like the two player variant, games with more players involve political skill. At the most extreme end of supervening political play, two horribly managed teams can team up and beat a technically perfect player reliably, and all of the other mechanics become extraneous. In this case the game (however intricate and beautiful its other systems) reduces to this: which two players teamed up first? Alternatively, the opposite might happen as well: two players fight and mutually weaken each other and the third mops it all up. This can encourage passive play and disengagement, which is generally considered undesirable because only a weird game would reward you for not playing.

There are lots of beautiful political games that integrate mechanics and politics in a balanced-enough way that politics doesn’t purely supervene and render everything else irrelevant. Kemet does something else. It takes the approach of preserving combat and the capacity for mutual harm, but it very simply awards points for doing well in combat by making the game point-based and rewarding points for combat. The glory of battle becomes its own reward in the fundamental terms of the game. In this way, players who are fighting each other are also always cooperating, at least potentially. Or more precisely they are doing “competitive co-op”: generating a common good by fighting while competing for a larger share of the good (points) they produce.

Of course I’m not just talking about board games. Kemet provides one interesting model for thinking about the reframing of competition in cooperative terms. I think about it often when I try to engage in discourse with people (conversations oriented toward truth), which I try to approach as a joyful dance. Some don’t see it this way, and a lot of people approach disagreement as a battle. While I can’t force anyone to delight in life more by adjusting their deep frame in ways that can turn even apparent harm into mutual gain, I have discovered that I can dance while others fight. I can learn best from interlocutors who also dance, which is ideal, but I can still ‘win points’ (aka, learn a lot) even from people who are there for something else. (Even if for them, ‘winning points’ is about humiliation or aggrandizement instead of learning.)

There are so many other insights we can gain from games. We can also use Kemet’s radically depoliticizing approach critically, to examine the antisocial core of the ideal behind one-on-one combat. (Tuesday is named for Tyr, its ancient god.) MOBA games and sports typically present a kind of morally exclusive sociality that still seeks to satisfy Tyr while going beyond pure individualism: team combat. Also worth considering. Kemet and competitive sports still pay deep homage to the Tyrian dream: mano a mano, in single combat, two agents (individual or group) will determine who is superior and who is inferior. (At the deepest level, I see all competitive games as a cooperative exploration of the games’ possibility space. This is why I’d rather lose in interesting ways than win in boring ways.)

My favorite games, by a very long shot, solve the problem of multi-player political games by centering the role of discourse and then embracing discursive polity. Unlike both Kemet and competitive sports, these games take the multiplicity of agents and the elaborate dance between cooperation and competition seriously. These are the games of deep democracy. They can and should hold mechanics lovingly and meaningfully, within the broader framework of discursive goal-seeking, and they should require both public and private information so they can hold the basic dynamics of interest-based negotiation. The best mass-produced game that does this that I know of is Twilight Imperium 4th Edition. When set against Kemet’s beautiful execution of its design vision, Kemet looks like a shallow little puddle beside the oceanic depths of other human minds. Still, puddles can be preferable to oceans at times. Kemet provides a fascinating means of turning an apparent war game into a more mechanical resource-management (Euro-style) game.

This sort of thing is why I think theologians should play a lot more board games. Youth groups are ahead of the curve in terms of the normalized tools that are available for non-violent resistance training.

3/Z/ZZ

My own Ash Wednesday reflection and prayer.

Reflection

Recent events in Ukraine and in the United States over the last several years have all been enormously revealing. I hate the horrifying reality that has been revealed, and I love that it has been revealed. The power of the slanderer lies, most deeply, in obscurity. Sunlight is enormously helpful in breaking this power. It is painful and ugly, but it is ultimately good when a confidence man has been revealed. The slanderer and deceiver’s strongest weapon is ignorance. When he shows his face as he has among us in recent years, he seems strong but is at his weakest.

What has been revealed to me, and to so many others, is the extent of Empire where we thought there was church. The extent of dry rot in the self-proclaimed Christian world where we thought there was living tissue. The extent of dumb idols where it looked like people were communicating with each other, and with God: the extent of hatred where we thought there was love. The extent of hoarding power and wealth, where we thought there was generosity. The extent of defensiveness and self-righteousness and slander, where we thought there was the work of reconciliation.

Which brings us to Lent, which is a time of death, but not a time of despair.

During Lent, we ask God to kill and burn away our old selves so that the new people we are meant to be in God can move more freely, instead of being suffocated beneath the old self who is slowly dying on top of us. Ephesians 4 invites us into their life-bringing death and removal. Here is a small part of it:

So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the nations also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Prayer

And so this is my Ash Wednesday prayer. Please feel free to join in on any part of it that seems inviting. You can even pray the whole thing with me if you’d like! But you don’t have to pray the whole thing if you don’t want to. It’s pretty intense.

Father of the Word, who is the ordering principle of everything that is and can be, please speak your Word in my heart. Word, please be a double-edged sword that kills and severs everything in me that I have given over to the slanderer, the enemy of all souls. I say yes to your work, Lord Jesus.

Father who speaks by the power of your Holy Spirit, please release your life-giving Breath into my heart. Holy Spirit, please be the unconsuming fire of I Am for me here, sparking to life the new person in me so that there is no room left for the deceiver, the enemy of all souls. I say yes to your work, Holy Spirit.

God, where I have sown hatred, please sow love.

God, where I have tried in vain to plant dead coins, please sow generosity.

God, where I have sown slander and defensiveness and self-righteousness, please sow an insatiable thirst for your work of reconciliation, so that truth may find its home in truth, so that my goods can find their home in the needs of the poor, and so that my love can find its home in you alone, the source of every good and of everything that truly is.

God, with these ashes, I beg you: destroy my illusions, and help me to walk more deeply into your truth, truth itself, today and tomorrow and tomorrow, for as long as I may have the gift of breath in me.

3/3/ZZ

Ukraine is providing a moving example of effective, powerful non-violent resistance. The reasons this works, even in this woefully under-resourced and sporadic form, are worth contemplating deeply.

To this I’d add that Orthodox churches have some history with deploying creative non-violence. Leo Tolstoy was in fact a fundamental influence on Gandhi, and corresponded with him. (I’m not here to say either man was perfect, but they were pioneers in the field.) Some Orthodox priests have deployed themselves between riot police and protestors, for example.

Imagine if they held open air Divine Liturgy along the road to Kyiv, inviting their Russian co-religionists to join them. Still better, imagine if Russian Orthodox priests from the other side of their recent schism did this. And the whole world was watching. At worst, I imagine that this practice would have an approximately infinitely higher probability of stopping the invaders than military resistance, and with far fewer deaths. Why? For the simple reason that like Jerusalem in 70 AD, Ukraine is frankly outmatched from a military standpoint. The best the military can offer at this point is delay, which is of some value, but ultimately will just provide Russia with more pretexts for escalating atrocities. Following that delay, it can offer decades of troubles, perhaps ultimately issuing in a Russian loss or in Uyghur-style genocide. At best, such an approach may begin to accomplish what the top-down ‘baptism of Rus’ only gestured at. Rather than mock baptism by initiating violent men with no intention of loving their enemies into a faith of enemy love, this would be an example of what Jesus said must come after baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: training them to do everything he has taught us to do. Clearly doing this immediately is preferable, but if it’s a millennium later then late is still definitely better than never. Ukraine may not yet be ready to traverse the millennial gulf that spans between Matthew 28:19 and Matthew 28:20. But it could be, and my fervent hope is that we begin to urgently step between the centuries that have cropped up between these verses.

And now imagine if 10% of the military budget went to supporting widespread civil resistance training instead. No maniac would want to occupy a country where all citizens are trained in civil resistance. It simply would not work.

One of the cradle cultures for the development of non-violent resistance could be a place where we see it advance spectacularly, even as we are seeing it advance in so many ways there, right now. I’m praying for fresh breakthroughs in effective non-violent resistance in Ukraine. Come Holy Spirit! Veni Sancte Spiritus!

3/3/ZZ

So much of the history of the church since Augustine has been very much like the travesty of the anti-Bishop Cyril here. Too many men have tried to force us to live in the nightmare of an orthodoxy not sought through enemy love, but preserved by violence and even genocide. Any supposed Christian orthodoxy that sees itself being preserved through violence has nothing to do with Jesus and, truly, has never yet known him. Jesus has told the bigger story and they are trying to flail against it from the inside, but can only ultimately fail. In time, I pray for their conversion: I want desperately to see their conversion happen here in chronological time.

3/3/ZZ

There is a basic gap between individual agents and group agents, and the thing that fills it is faith. Group agents are constituted through the faith of individual agents. What is faith? To a first approximation, it is that which allows individual human agents to constitute group agents. In more detail, the word holds all of our lived commitments, our beliefs about reality (including the reality of each other), our explicit covenanting activity and our unthinking lived loyalties. What are group agents? Families, tribes, corporations, governments, churches, etc.

Where people have faith they present group agents with a profound and fundamental challenge: another group agent that can also coordinate at relevant social scale.

The core of non-violent civil resistance is non-violent training and collective will formation. Where people do this, they have already overcome the world of violence and coercion. From there it is simply a matter of implementation. On the face, they present coercive group agents with nightmarish enforcement problems, from the perspective of the coercive group agents. However, the inner logic of such movements is not about creating good trouble. Good trouble is just a sometimes enjoyable side effect. The inner logic is much simpler: it is faith.

3/4/ZZ

If capitalism doesn’t explain the rise of democratic public spheres, what does? Habermas once attempted to associate it with coffee shops, but I think we can all see that they’re woefully mismatched to the task.

I believe the best answer, empirically, is independent churches. This is an excellent paper on the topic.

Why is this underappreciated? Because so many of the catastrophes of the last couple of centuries are rooted in this: the political left widely embraced atheism, in reaction against the corruptions of many parts of the church.

3/4/ZZ

There was a theory that capitalism leads to democracy.

It was always a silly theory.

On the bright side, as the ill-gotten gains of oligarchs are seized, the catastrophic illusions of the younger Jeffrey Sachs and his shock therapists are completely dead. (Electroconvulsive therapy has its uses, and so it might be better to name this vintage of political economy ‘economic lobotomy’ instead.) But the cost of putting callow young dudebros in charge of one of the most important moments in global political economy, the real debt incurred by that age, is just beginning to be paid. It doesn’t sit on a balance sheet, and can only be measured by the squandering of the political economic gains of the post-WWII era. Sachs and his brothers left Russia devastated, psychologically scarred, bestridden by this mob of oligarchs.

There was a time when we could have prevented this whole timeline, after the wall fell, if we’d had a serious social democratic political economy. Instead we had the Chicago boys. The story of the return of autocracies has to include the fact that neoliberal economics ruled the roost of US political economy in 1990. It has always been a natural ally of tyrants, veiled in the thinnest democratic disguise, with its deep neo-Confederate roots. No wonder so much of the world is stamped with the spirit of the Jim Crow South today. No wonder politicians from that world have formed a global political consultant class. No wonder they are poised to seize permanent Orbanist control in the US in 2024, even as the incipient Putin-Orban-Trump axis is (at least for now) on ice.

Unless something very strange happens here, the long-established pendulum of US politics will swing the neo-Confederates into power, and they will grab and hold the pendulum. As one of the architects of our era put it, they will stand athwart history, but this time they won’t just yell, “Stop.” This time they have a plan to stop it. I think maybe they can, for a time.

As for me, I think the clock of history is set by the fall and rise of the Temple that fell and rose in Jerusalem then. And oppressors fall, in time, but catastrophically for all. It’s not the road you want to go down. We’ve been on it for, say, 30 years. Who would be surprised if we continue down it for, say, 10 more before there is death and death and death and death, and something else is born?

3/4/ZZ

The core of non-violent civil resistance can be summarized in two parts:

Live in the better future, even if it gets you killed:

make them live in your true story, don’t live in their lies.

3/5/ZZ

Doing historical Christian theology, it is essential to understand that majoritarianism (the view that majorities have the truth) has no part in it.

Our task is reconciliation, not tallying up which barbarians were winning at some particular point. Instead, we need to listen to minority positions that nonetheless achieved places of honor despite widespread opposition.

When we do this, we approach things in a Jesus-like way, because Jesus started with a miniscule minority and now it is 2022 in the Year of the Lord.

When we do this, we can come to see the scars that coercive majoritarianism has left on our sacred tradition, and we can recover the sacred insights of the Christlike minorities who have whispered to us so clearly and urgently in the middle of the roaring of all the Big Men.

There are a few deeply related views that I think we recover through a reconciling approach to theology, when we replace an inappropriate majoritarian method with this approach instead. They are:

1) The complete rejection of violence, and its replacement with effective non-violent resistance and enemy love, is obviously foundational for all Christian faith and practice.

2) The Trinity is deeply structured through two primary analogies: Speaker-Word-Breath (Spirit) and Father-Son-Mother (Spirit)

3) God’s work in and beyond history fundamentally involves apokatastasis, the restoration of all. When 1 Cor 15 says this, it means it: “Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive.” And no, Christ will not be tormented forever.

I think it is urgently important that we recover reconciling methods in Christian theology, rather than a coercive majoritarianism. When we do, we get to enjoy an enormous amount of powerful, important, beautiful theology that is rightly part of our inheritance, even though the hierarchy has tried to prodigally blow it, living high on the imperial hog.

3/6/ZZ

Whenever Christians start talking about conquering the mountains of the culture, in my experience this is a pretty sure sign they’ve abandoned ours.

3/7/ZZ

Ukraine marks a “Zeitenwende,” a “turning of the times” according to German Chancellor Scholz. The start of a new era.

Although received differently and different in scope, I think our 1/6/21 is their 2/22/22. The face of today’s radical right wing authoritarianism has shown itself very clearly on both sides of the Atlantic now. Hopefully the Putin-Orban-Trump axis is less successful than the last one.

3/7/ZZ

Some thoughts on geopolitics, church politics, and multi-player games. Or why theologians should soulfully read the Bible and/or board games.

1

Soulful reading

Soulful reading is what happens between spiritual reading and fleshy reading. It refers to reading things as a whole, knitting together models and observations in a coherent, narrative way. It is what kids do naturally, and what a lot of adults have invested enormous effort in not doing with the Bible.

A soulful reading of the Tortoise and the Hare lets you understand its moral: slow and steady wins the race. A soulful reading of Romans 9–11 in the context of Paul’s corpus as a whole tells you that God will save everyone in the end, although every heart will come to God like a refugee, and that we should let people know this so that they won’t get conceited.

A Calvinist reading of the Tortoise and the Hare stops on the line about how fast the hare is and builds an entire theology around the glorious speed of the mighty Hare, which we must surely emulate, for does it not say that the Hare was faster than the Tortoise? A Calvinist reading of Romans 9–11 similarly gets stuck at the start of Romans 9 and builds an entire theological system around the suggestion that God is omnipotent and therefore has the raw capacity to shatter whoever God likes, without finishing the discourse as it proceeds from 9 to 11.

In other words, Calvinist reading is fleshy-reductionist, which is another way of saying it engages in wildly inappropriate prooftexting, and that no child could possibly be as stultified and ignorant as some theologians. It takes real work, a real perverse desire to eviscerate and abuse the text and people, to become so blind. Soulful reading is simple, natural and normal, like seeing, and one of the main topics to be explained in the history of theology is why powerful movements have often opted for prooftexting instead. (I think the answer is fairly simple: they were hacks in the service of thuggish little Babylons, and so they had to hide what was there in plain sight. The system selected for those who would do the job required, however ridiculous the Emperor may have looked in his new clothes.)

We need more of the kind of reading that children do, and which so many theologians have rejected. This isn’t to say that soulful reading is unsophisticated or naive. The basic issue is that soulful reading connects us with the enormous power of our fast-processing system 1, which intuitively grasps relational dynamics, goals, stories, and such. And the ponderous “exegesis” of soulless theology instead relies on a much more energy-intensive process, which has a harder time keeping up with multi-party relational dynamics over time. Now to be clear, I’m a big fan of slow system 2 processes and they can, at times, correct mistakes that our system 1 makes. But they also can be, and often are, abused. One of the main things soulful reading can accomplish is this: it can help us reconnect our fast and slow processing by making us aware of each, combining our capacity for rational modeling with the power of observation. It isn’t a coincidence that Calvinists are always going around commanding us to mistrust “our emotions” and any kind of fast processing at all; their crude little theological structure, so dependent on an extremely basic set of logical relations, collapses beneath the weight of a person who is in touch with themself and those around them. That is to say, it cannot withstand the power of observation. In this, it emulates any number of other ‘logically necessary’ intellectualist systems, which are really just crude models that can’t keep up with actual knowledge production, because real learning soulfully integrates our fast and slow processing.

2

A Central Biblical Story Pattern

The Bible observes a similar pattern that recurs again and again. Upper and Lower Egypt were united, the Griffon Vulture of the Southern mountains and the Winged Serpent (Cobra) of the fertile Northern delta, united. But they became divided again when the semitic Hyksos moved in, and so the spiritual-cultural-political-legitimation center of Egypt goes South (to the mountains of Upper Egypt) before it returns in power in the North. Egypt, in order to create a buffer for itself, then conquers chunks of Canaan. The pattern is interesting, and part of the multi-player game of ancient geopolitics: internal division, humiliation and loss, retreat to a secure legitimation base, and then expansion in response to the now urgently-felt threat. Somewhere in that process, the community that would author the Bible finds itself, differentiating from but connected to that Egyptian cultural context, telling soulful stories of a God who is greater than their gods, but who can speak their symbolic language fluently. That’s chutzpah.

But the social system that develops there in Canaan, differentiating from but connecting Egyptian and Babylonian governing ideologies, mirrors Egypt in so many ways. The Southern region is more mountainous, higher up, and becomes a more enduring spiritual center there in the elevated and redoubtable region of fortresses. This is Judah, and The Temple ends up in the mountains here, although not for a lack of competition. Meanwhile the agriculturally rich lower region to the North, Galilee, plays Nile Delta to Judah’s Upper Kingdom. But Temples are expensive and require a lot of work, and Judah exhausts good will and good relationships with the Lower Kingdom in order to build an impressive mountain redoubt. Internally weakened by their own pattern of ideological exploitation, the siblings of North and South are dis-integrated by internal conflict which is simultaneously a regional conflict, a class conflict, an urban-rural conflict, and a spiritual and theological conflict. Seeing an opportunity, semitic invaders (the Assyrians) take the fertile Lower Kingdom of Israel in the North, and again cultural transfer and transformation happen as a result. (The Assyrians exercise a kind of brutal strategic care for the whole, but it is worth noting that they keep family systems intact. For all of their enormous cruelty, the norms we have violated around family separation still governed them; we are, in some ways, more barbaric than them, especially in our trans-Atlantic slave trade, but also in our recent family separation policies that echo it.) As with Upper Egypt, Upper Judah learns from this humiliation and loss. It retreats and does a lot of work to shore up and secure its spiritual legitimation base, and then it attempts to expand again, hoping to secure a buffer region for itself much as Egypt secured Caanan as a buffer region. We can stop here for now. It’s enough to note that it quickly doesn’t go well, in any of its many geopolitical iterations. Judah is like all the Empires, only moreso: it rises and falls, just faster.

But it is worth noting that Egypt had the kind of location you want in a board game. Its borders were largely secured by watery wastes, by desert wastes, and by narrow passages in and out. Luck of the draw, or fate, or destiny, or divine choice, call it whatever you’d like. The result was that Egypt was able to play the geopolitical game of Empire for millennium after millennium, so long as its internal dynamics remained in check. And so the people were bestridden by god-Pharoah after god-Pharoah after god-Pharoah and on and on and on, and on and on and on.

Judah didn’t suffer the same resource curse, the same good fortune leading to enduring patterns of social domination. Its location was far more vulnerable, and so internal conflict (such as exploitation for Temple construction) led to fast and severe punishment when they failed to grasp the logic of the game they were playing.

The result was a repeated demonstration of the futility of violence, in their case. And so they found a different mountain: the mountain that arises in our words and actions among ourselves. A more flexible and enduring kind of fortress, and one that didn’t require such intensive exploitation of some Nile or another by some Upper Kingdom or another. They discovered the mountain of faith, of which governance is (in fact) always made.

3

The Pattern Applied to Today

And so this is my hope and my prayer for Russia.

May She be blessed with the blessing of Judah, not only by cooptation and in word, but in fact, but with far less bloodshed than there was in the double-destruction of Judah’s Temple.

Consider that like Judah, Russia is in an intense multi-player game, surrounded by others competing for resources. Internal divisions and resource deployments cost it dearly and open it up to competitive encroachment from the surrounding powers and principalities. (Or else it might iron curtain itself again, falling behind more rapidly in other ways.) China is in an eagerly expansionist mood, for example. Now the game of geopolitics has become much more sophisticated as economies have become more complex, but the basic elements remain the same: nations must combine spiritual power (ideas, words, devotions and faith) with fleshy power (ore and data centers and gas and grain) in a soulful way, if they are to exist, while the spirit supervenes on the flesh. And the weakness of a prolonged internal fight between Upper Russia and what it would have as its fertile lowlands in fact opens it to external encroachment in all kinds of ways. Note as well that the entire GDP of Russia is about the same as California’s. Like Judah, it is trying to be one of the big boys geopolitically, but the reality is that there are much bigger boys on the field. The dynamics of the game do not favor Russia; they favor all of the surrounding powers that will take advantage of Russia’s hubris.

Now this isn’t the ancient world, and all kinds of things have changed. Nuclear weapons, climate change, information technology, the rapid advancement of machine learning systems, and more, mean that our reality is much less predictable than theirs. It didn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that Judah couldn’t defeat Rome in 70 AD if they picked a fight with it, for example, nor did it require magic for Isaiah to understand that Assyria was militarily stronger than Israel, and that nothing they could do on their own could stop the assault. (Although in that case, Judah was given a bit more time.) Nonetheless, it remains enormously fruitful to reflect on these dynamics in geopolitics: internal division within national or potentially-national groupings, the way this can lead to the humiliation of defeat in highly competitive environments, the central and enduring role played by legitimation structures and the way they supervene on basic economic production, and the common desire of those power centers to engage in “defensive conquest”, turning other people into buffers for themselves in response to their humiliation. (But those human buffers also bear the image of God, so watch out for what happens when you try to reduce them to pawns.)

And then it is even more fruitful to pause and look at the calendar, and consider that it is the year 2022 in the Year of our Lord. And that the mountain of faith that Judah discovered has found its most extensive historical expression in this: a non-violent Messiah who wept there on Mount Olivet, who died interceding for his killers. Now here is a mountain redoubt, and one that no one has found a way to conquer. May Russia find it, preferably the easy way, but it looks like they want to do things the hard way. May we find this mountain here in the US as well. I can speak more confidently for us than I can for Russia. I know that we like to do things the hard way, unfortunately, and we have so much anti-Christ masquerading as Jesus in our churches. I hope that we can change course before we go even farther down the doomed path of Empire. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

3/10/ZZ

Heather Cox Richardson has the details on Little Hitlers and 1/6.

Mark it well. The first autogolpe attempt is rarely the last.

History repeats, and often the farce precedes the tragedy.

Note the deep pattern here: Barr says Trump tried to destroy the Republic, which is bad, but he’d also vote for him again because Democrats bad. This is exactly the logic that brought Hitler to power. Supposedly ‘moderate’ conservative voices felt themselves to be so threatened that the opponents of democracy seemed like their ‘only choice.’

The risk of a collapse of the Republic is very real.

3/10/ZZ

think there is a distinctive pattern in history that can be identified as the Christian one. And I think it has a credible claim to be the pattern of history itself. That is to say, I think that Matthew 24–25 (the mountain we’re still preparing to scale) is credible in its original context, which includes today. In other words, Matthew 24 identifies the fall of the Second Temple in 70 AD as the pattern of the lifetime of the cosmos (its aion, sometimes translated as age), just as the Temple was the spatial microcosm of the universe. So in its fall the Temple moves from a static physical location and becomes revealed as the revelation of the structure of time itself. The author of Matthew then skillfully uses the Platonic aion-aionios distinction to show what this means: the rest of time is simply an imitation of the form that is revealed there. That’s what the aionios judgment at the end of Matthew 25 is about, in its Greek context. (The text also speaks deeply to its Aramaic and Hebrew contexts and draws them all together to make the same point, but here we are still on the top layer of the tradition, the Greek one.)

The point is that there is a way of life, and there is a way of death, and we have a choice between the two that is set before us. The way of life involves loving enemies instead of doing violence, and it involves joyful solidarity with the poor and marginalized (including those in prison, and those who are hungry and refugees), and it involves the reconciling work of bringing together humanity and God with ourselves and with each other. But the pattern of this work is necessarily the dying Temple that does no harm to its killers, but nonetheless overcomes them. Jesus and the Temple become one, in the “failure” of God to appear and smite the Romans there on Golgotha and there in 70 AD.

Importantly, this pattern involves a frank recognition of the realities of violence, by which French once became the lingua franca. And lingua franca is Latin, and so bears the old Empire’s tribute to the new regime. In this sense, lingua franca is the perfect way to name English today: it is the tribute that two dead regimes pay to our own dying order. And here in our words and their history we also see the pattern precisely. It is inscribed in every atom, every dot on an i, every cross on a t. And that includes the Franciscan T, perhaps most of all. To carry our jokes even farther, I’d note that the Franciscans are the Catholic custodians of the Holy Land.

But with that the jokes need to stop dead cold.

It was probably Columbus’s satanically deceived Franciscan spiritual advisor who gave him the idea to get gold from the New World, to finance a conquest of Jerusalem. This is why Columbus went and performed his genocide on the Taino people. Not for mere material reward, but for an infinitely greater ego gratification: he thought he was an angel of some bloody and wicked apocalypse. Truly, people shouldn’t be allowed to read the New Testament if they haven’t first committed to the teachings in Luke 6; otherwise they really will unleash hell on themselves and on the world. They often have. If only the Taino had been able to baptize Columbus in their clean water, instead of Columbus baptizing the New World in their blood. My city is named for that maximally sick and evil and pious man, that horrifying parody of a Christian. Yes. The Franciscans are the custodians of the Holy Land, and by extension all the capitols of this bloody world. We little brothers need to lament the catastrophe of our capital T most of all.

The Temple and its desecration is the model of history, if history is understood as the ongoing catastrophe that Walter Benjamin saw so clearly as it bore down on him and killed him. Look at it here, published over protests, from On the Concept of History. But this is where we have to go, because the aion and the aionios have been used to threaten people with endless torture for far too long. And the point is precisely the opposite. The catastrophe ends when we love, instead of threatening because we feel threatened. That is the pattern of history, attested to in blood and tears again and again, until we finally enter the way of life and bring it to an end.

“My wing is ready for flight,

I would like to turn back.

If I stayed timeless time (no, living time, no the lifetime’s life),

I would have little luck.”

“Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,

ich kehrte gern zurück,

denn blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit (living time),

ich hätte wenig Glück.”

Gerherd Scholem,

‘Gruss vom Angelus’

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

To this, I would add that the angel’s wings look, to me, as if they are caught the other way. They arc away from me, holding the power of the wind within them. But this means that the angel is not looking back over the wreckage of history, but is instead gazing past my face as I gaze past them, the wreckage before me on the far side of the angel. Eden just beyond their flickering gaze. Their face, it must be said, is on the throne of God, with me in the periphery. And I cannot see the throne that blazes there behind me, although I feel its furious heat. My tongue is unclean and so am I, and I can’t turn to look. But like a person gazing at the moon, I can see God’s reflection in the angels’ faces. And by extension, I can see God’s face in the refugees we welcome, when I gaze over their shoulders to the guardian angels just behind them.

As Cohen sang at the end of his life: “My animal howls. My angel’s upset. But I’m not allowed a trace of regret.” He published those lines in 1984, not long after I was born and my mother called me her Cambodian baby. (The idea was that I was, perhaps in a direly playful way, one of those souls that had been genocided.) He sang those words in The Hills, which always reminds me of the advice Jesus gives there in Matthew 24: head to the hills when you see Rome coming, if you want to survive. The Jerusalem church, as far as we know, went down with the ship of state. I used to think this meant they didn’t understand. But watching Zelenskyy stand his ground, I have changed my mind. It proves, precisely, that they really did. Memory eternal.

3/11/ZZ

There’s a lot of good in Catholic social teaching.

At the same time, it is worth noting that real existing Catholic social teaching looked like Franco and “The Fatherland Front” in Austria: very nearly fascist, authoritarian, oppressive regimes that often had a real soft spot for the still-more radical sibling rivals that killed off their brother. When people talk about “continuity” between Vatican II and earlier teaching, we really need to grapple with the explicit authoritarianism they’re pining over.

The same pattern is repeating in much of the world today, with the Orban-Tucker-Putin-Trump axis. Are they full on Nazis, or just fellow travelers? Yes. And if history is any guide, they’re as eager to kill their own siblings as they are eager to kill everyone else.

Tucker Carlson fans would do well to heed the counsel of history.

3/11/ZZ

Advocacy, done in an unreconciling way, can seriously harm a cause (or any group) both internally and externally.

Internally, it weakens groups by disconnecting their adherents from reality, which makes them less effective over time even as it generates tightening social control for the wielders of unreconciling advocacy. This can create a self-reinforcing death spiral of worsening adaptive capacity.

Externally, it makes enemies, and forces them to harden and mobilize against you. So even as it slowly weakens the unreconciling group from within, non-reconciling patterns mobilize a group’s competitors from without.

This is why reconciliation is the way of life at human historical time scale, and slander is the way of death.

3/1Z/ZZ

I think the history of Biblical hermeneutics, in broad outline, runs like this: soulful (at first), spiritual (around the time of Origen), fleshy (moving in this direction with Augustine), soulful again (because of contemporary historical work). In this, the development of hermeneutics really has helped restore us to a point where we are increasingly able to read the Bible in the way the original authors read it and intended it, even though this is often a more contemporary development.

Soulful reading is normal human reading, in its original contexts. Consider how you would read a political cartoon, meme, or piece of literature (fiction or non-fiction) today that is dense with references to our current situation. Here’s an example, to illustrate how quickly we process the whole. What is the bear in this cartoon, and the significance of it? I like this one because the bear doesn’t say “Russia” on it, but we all know what it is. And we can reflect more on attachment theory and abuse patterns (drawing out broader spiritual implications about it) pretty quickly because the basic message is really that accessible, and attachment theory has also advanced dramatically and gained influence in recent years.

The Bible works basically the same way at many points. So for example, when it talks about Esau it is routinely talking about the current situation with Edom, the Kingdom to its south that was there before the Kingdom of Judah. (Edom was Judah’s older brother, in a sense, and YHWH worship may have originated there.) It is worth understanding that this was a history of conflict, cooperation, cooptation, and change. Eventually the Hasmonean dynasty of Judah forcibly converted much of Edom. And the Herodian dynasty was then founded by an Edomite, as a sort of puppet or vassal of the sort Putin routinely makes for himself. (The US does it too, by the way. I’m an equal-opportunity critic. Just because we do something wrong over here, that doesn’t make it right when someone else does it.)

So we shouldn’t be surprised, either, that where the Biblical witness leaves the story of Jacob and Esau on a positive note, early rabbinic literature suggests that Esau wasn’t sincere in his reconciliation. It would make sense that the point of this commentary, at the time this idea originated, would have been to critique the Herodian dynasty from the standpoint of a more religiously zealous faction (such as the Pharisees.) In its original sociopoliticalspiritual context, what you said about Esau was what you said about Edomites like Herod, just as what I say about this bear is what I’m saying about Russia. This is soulful communication, and it is important to note how it quickly integrates wholes in an original context: whole narratives, whole systems of signification, whole people walking around today, whole countries and whole conflicts. Whole ideas.

But what happens to a comic like this one about the bear in 100 years? The original context is lost to many, and that quickly makes soulful (normal/competent) reading inaccessible, as well as all the playful back and forth. (We can imagine a Herod supporter having much nicer things to say about Esau, for example, because everyone knows how this works.) Nonetheless, the flesh of the cartoon remains accessible: anyone can see that bear needs a hug, and that Jacob needs a hug from Esau. And the spirit of it remains, perhaps, accessible as well: bear is hurting someone because it needs a hug, and this might be read as a commentary on the human condition that is informed by attachment theory. Nonetheless, the spiritual reading also loses something essential to the earlier soulful reading: while it isn’t wrong, exactly, it has only captured the more abstract elements of the story. However, the crucial fast-knitting work of soulful reading is only accessible through historical reconstruction, connecting it with the details of life. The point isn’t to make a general statement about attachment theory, but to comment on the situation with Russia or the Edomite dynasty, as the case may be. This isn’t that hard to recover, if you have good historical records and people who can immerse themselves in them. But in the ancient world, that was a much more fragile proposition than today, especially when you’ve carried something over from its original Greco-Aramaic-Hebrew context (under Hellenic military and social occupation) into a world where that original social context has literally been wiped out by Roman legions.

As a result, even early Christian patristics move quickly from soulful reading to a mode of reading that depends on flesh and spirit to make some sense of the text. They nonetheless have the good sense to lean into the spiritual side of interpretation more heavily, at least until after Augustine. At that point, as the institutional church becomes Empire’s favorite concubine, fleshy reading dominates more and more. Augustine makes this explicit: he picks up Origen’s hermeneutics, but then turns it back and drives it into the heart of Christian practice, in order to legitimate Christian domination and violence. Without its soulful connection to lived practice, spiritual reading seems feeble against the “common sense” of fleshy readings. However, in the last couple of centuries, people begin to do far better historical work and something remarkable happens: we retrieve the capacity to soulfully read these texts again, because we can peer back into the original historical context well enough to see it. At least we can make out the general shape of it, even if the particulars (such as the specific thrust of rabbinic commentary on Esau) are less clear than the general kind of thing it must be about (something soulful).

So the story of Christian hermeneutics runs like this:

First, it is soulful, integrating flesh and soul and spirit in the way living traditions always do. You feel alive and everything makes sense when you can communicate in this way. Think of how fluidly and easily we can talk about that bear in all kinds of ways, and we all know what everyone means.

Second, after the Roman genocide in Judah, the soul of the community that gave birth to the text is riven. Still, the flesh and spirit of the text remain accessible and people like Origen have the good sense to lean into the spiritual reading in ways that still cohere with the core moral teachings of Jesus. In this way at least the ‘moral soul’ or moral heart of the older soulful reading is carried forward. (Origen understood that this spiritual reading must overwrite the fleshy one where they conflict, just as nobody thinks Russia is actually a bear. So, for example, he and others read things like the genocide in Joshua in a non-literal way.)

Third, after Christians abandoned their foundational teachings on things like enemy love en masse, about a generation after Constantine, fleshy reading (a kind of radical illiteracy) gained more and more ground. Things like the Creation Museum are the bitter, nonsensical, brutal, crude, and blind end of that process.

Fourth, historical reconstruction has made it possible to read the texts more soulfully again. But we have a long history of Biblical illiteracy, of various degrees, to overcome. It’s an exciting time to be alive! Nonetheless, I should add that if we had more broadly stuck to the teachings of Jesus we would have also more broadly continued to read like Origen, who did stick to the teachings of Jesus on things like violence. His spiritual mode of reading at least was able to retain this. Much of the tradition of Christian hermeneutics is a matter of abusing the texts in order to facilitate the abuse of people, but it wasn’t always thus. Once, we had soul, but then we gained the world.

4/1/ZZ

I’m working on a quick outline of all of Matthew, in light of the generation-aion/aionios/olam-son complex, as a way of talking about governments and history. But I wanted to share something nice and even quicker this morning.

What is up with the mourning in this line from Matthew 24:30?

And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory.

I’d suggest that Matthew answers it pretty clearly: the Son of Man comes on the clouds (that is to say, arrives in his power and unleashes the divine fire that fries the fourth beast, Rome, and breaks its power) by way of the cross. The cross is, precisely, how he comes in power and breaks the power of Rome, which is the power to humiliate and murder. This is just basic Christian language, and it is so commonplace that we sometimes fail to see how utterly subversive and strangely playful the language is. It humiliates Rome on its own cross, its own implement of humiliation, because Jesus didn’t break from his covenant (Mattthew 5–7) even when confronted with it … and in time, this would endure and be remembered and sincerely mourned by all of the nations of the world.

People often want to read the word “sky” and the “clouds” here literally, but the book of Daniel (which is in view here) is transparently not a literal text. It uses symbolism, and then it literally tells you how to interpret the literal implications of the symbols. This is about establishing a government that crushes the power of the competing Empires. I should also note that the word “sky” here (“signs will appear in the sky”) is generally translated as “heavens” in Matthew. Notably, Matthew prefers the older Hebrew term “Kingdom of Heaven” to the alternative “Kingdom of God”. Heaven isn’t about where you go when you die, and it isn’t literally the sky here. Instead, it refers in a traditional way that calls back to Daniel to the general divine principles of governance, the invisible order of things. Something happens in the invisible place where the power of breath carries words to our minds that signifies something of first importance. And as a result, people from every nation mourn the coming of the Son of Man. What does mourning have to do with governance, though?

Here, Jesus compares and contrasts just beautifully with Herod the Great, who died right around the time of the birth of Jesus. As Craig Keener notes here:

So much did Herod crave honor it is said that when he was on his deathbed he ordered many nobles arrested. He thought that if many people were executed on the day that he died, he could ensure that there would be mourning rather than celebration at the time of his death. When he died, however, the nobles were released and the people celebrated.

Now whether this really happened or not, it tells us a lot about the relationship between a King and mourning, and when it is good for a dynasty if there is mourning for a King. Consider, as well, how North Koreans respond (and are expected to respond) to a death in the ruling dynasty. Elaborate and extensive and overwhelming mourning, in that context, is a way of showing loyalty to the ruler and to the continuation of the regime. By far the best way to connect mourning with the power of a reign is in just this way. This connection is a deep and a very strong one: we can all understand it as reflective of basic human group psychology and it makes sense in a truly general way, we see the principle documented historically in the immediate context of Jesus, and we have vivid contemporary illustrations of the same underlying concept. This is soulful reading.

Are there other grounds within Matthew’s Gospel for seeing this as the connection being drawn here? Or is it more likely that people from all nations mourn when the Son of Man comes to power because he has come to inflict such cruel suffering on them all? It is hard to imagine the author of Matthew having the second reading in view at all, since he was pro-Jesus and not anti-Jesus. But we also have a very fine and direct connection right there in Matthew 26, when Jesus is sentenced to death for supposedly claiming that he would destroy the Temple and then raise it up in three days. Like Jeremiah, Jesus had prophesied against the Temple, but a warning of what others will do is not a threat of what you will do. So we have a case of killing the messenger here, to which Jesus replies:

But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I place You under oath by the living God, to tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus *said to him, “You have said it yourself. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? See, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?” They answered, “He deserves death!”

Then they spit in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, and said, “Prophesy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?”

So Jesus connects his death explicitly with this coming in power, right here in Matthew 26.

The scene at Gethsemane immediately precedes this, and is worth considering as well. Jesus knows that by claiming to be the Son of Man in this context, he will have to take and drink the cup that he prays about there in Gethsemane. What’s up with the cup imagery? Well, at Gethsemane it is clearly the bitter cup of suffering and death that he knew he would drink on the cross. It is also closely connected to the Passover meal he shares with his disciples, his last supper. There are four cups of wine to drink at Passover, but this is what Jesus says after the third cup:

Now while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is being poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it with you, new, in My Father’s kingdom.

Recall that from the earliest sources, the wine of our regular Passover commemoration, communion, is understood to be the very blood of Jesus. In light of that, the fourth cup is precisely and liturgically in view here in Gethsemane:

And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” And He *came to the disciples and *found them sleeping, and He *said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying, so that you do not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, “My Father, if this cup cannot pass away unless I drink from it, Your will be done.” Again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more. Then He came to the disciples and *said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour [r]is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let’s go; behold, the one who is betraying Me is near!”

So this fourth cup is the one that Jesus shares with his disciples when he comes into his Kingdom, and then he tells the High Priest that “from now on” (starting now and going forward) that they would see the Son of Man actually seated with God, to burn away the power of Rome.

All of this is talking about the cross, and the point is precisely that enemy love is stronger than violence, and that Jesus was going to demonstrate this in extremis. 2,000 years on, who mourns for Herod the Great or Emperor Titus? Not many. But who looks upon the Son of Man coming in his power and mourns deeply when they see it? Billions of people around the world every year, during the season in which we find ourselves: Lent.

The really surprising thing here isn’t this reading, which is all really quite plain in the text. Daniel 7, for example, tells us exactly how to understand the fire that the Son of Man sends out after he rises in the clouds, breaking the power of the fourth Empire. And then Matthew applies it appropriately and precisely, in a way that accords directly with the explicit teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5–7, in a covenantal context. There’s absolutely nothing remotely esoteric about any of this. It is entirely explicated in the texts themselves. And yet even today, people have a hard time internalizing what is just right there in the texts. Why?

Because replacing violence with enemy love works, but is unintuitive. It is also emotionally hard to give up the illusion of power through dominating control. And so a lot of people, even supposed followers of Jesus, reject the principle. As a result, they’re unable to read the texts well that illustrate the concept most directly and powerfully. They tell on themselves in the most remarkable way: when they see this text about people mourning the Son of Man, they don’t see his victory on the cross at all. They imagine some dire tyrant coming to torment everyone. It’s crazy. It tells you a lot about them, what they have been formed into by the world. It doesn’t tell you anything about the Bible, though, except that it is a powerful tool for getting people to show you their hearts.

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Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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Daniel Heck

Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.