Saturday, April 19, 2003

Holy Saturday

Having decided to keep up the date-appropriate U2 quotes, for Holy Saturday I reach back to a relatively obscure early tune called Tomorrow:

Who broke the window,
Who broke down the door,
Who tore the curtain
And who was He for?
Who healed the wounds,
Who heals the scars?
Open the door
Open the door

Won't you come back tomorrow?
Won't you be back tomorrow?
Will you be back tomorrow?
Can I sleep tonight?
Leviticus 1-7

The Book of Law begins with a long and incredibly detailed description of how to perform animal sacrifices. It sounds gross, but actually I was thinking about the meaning of sacrifice after the substitional atonement sermon last weekend. The pastor justified the concept by, among other things, appealing to the long tradition of animal sacrific in the OT. This struck me as a weird tactic: explain a concept from an alien culture by appealing to an even more alien culture! But it got me to thinking about the meaning of animal sacrifice. Like most moderns I tend to think of it as being rather barbaric, designed to propitiate selfish gods who demand a quid pro quo: give this to me and I'll send you rain, or something to that effect. It also implies gods who have strangely fleshly appetites.

I had a feeling there was more to it than that, though, especially in the case of the ancient Hebrews. Fortuitously, Dexter Haven of the Straight Dope just wrote a thorough column on that very subject. In a way it's an even better source than Leviticus, because the Levitical author(s) assumed the readers already knew a lot. It's worth reading the whole thing, but here are some of the major points:
First, a basic feature of the Israelite sacrificial system, as with that of most ancient Near East cultures, was that most of the offerings were eaten by the priests, and sometimes by the donors of the sacrifice. Eating a ritual meal in the presence of God was considered important, and the sacrifice would not be complete without such a meal. It was not "barbaric," except in the sense that slaughter of animals for meat is barbaric.

Biblical historian Richard Friedman says, "Modern readers often think that sacrifice is the unnecessary taking of animal life, or that the person offering the sacrifice was giving up something to compensate for some sin or to win God's favor. But in the biblical world, the most common type of sacrifice was for meals. The apparent rationale was that if people wanted to eat meat, they must recognize that they were taking life. They could not regard this as an ordinary act of daily secular life. It was a sacred act, to be performance in a prescribed manner, by an appointed person (a priest), at an altar."

You might say sacrifice in this case is the sacralization of killing -- the necessary killing of animals in order to eat. It does seem more respectful than the practical butchery we subject animals to today, not to mention the horrid industrial abbatoirs most of them go through.

I expect, though I have not researched the topic enough to really know, that human sacrifice often operated in the same way. Not for eating, obvioualy, but as a way of sacralizing the killing of people who would likely be killed anyway (criminals, prisoners of war, infants who couldn't be fed, etc.) by consecrated the deaths to deities. It's harsh, but again, it seems better than cheapening death. Consider the folks today who show up to revel at executions...
There were various types of sacrifices:

Burnt offerings ('olah) were certain animals or birds that were entirely burnt (except the hide). No portion was eaten.
Grain offerings (min-khah) could be raw or baked into unleavened bread. A token portion was burned on the altar, and the rest was given to the priests for a meal.
Peace offerings (zevakh shelamim) were a sacred meal, with sections of the sacrifice shared by the priest and donors. Only certain fatty portions of the animal were burned on the altar as God's share. The term is better translated as "gift of greetings" or "offering of well-being."
Expiatory sacrifices are what you're asking about. I was going to say that's the "meat of the matter" but thought better of it. They are primarily described in chapters 5 and 6 of Leviticus. The purpose of such sacrifice was to obtain atonement for one's sins and forgiveness from God. They were usually eaten by the priests...

It is important to say that expiatory sacrifices were only efficacious if the offenses were inadvertent or unwitting. Remember that there was no separation of church and state in those days--religious law was also the law of the land. In the case of crimes or deliberate acts, the law dealt directly with the offender, imposing real punishments and trying to prevent recurrences. The Hebrew prophets denounced the idea that ritual sacrifice could atone for intentional deeds.

The idea of having to do something to expiate an accidental offense sounds strange at first. But certainly the feeling of guilt, or at least taint, from an accident that had serious consequences is familiar to most people.
The first real challenge to the sacrifice system came from the Prophets (during the period from 800 to 580 BC). Max Dimont writes, "What they said was remarkable for their time: that ritual and cult in themselves were of no value to God. Humanity, justice, and morality were superior to any cult. They said God did not want rituals; He wanted higher moral standards from mankind. They said that God abhorred sacrifice [without heartfelt repentance], that it was no sin not to offer sacrifice, that the sin was corruption and the perversion of justice. These were fantastic and daring notions in those days when sacrifice and ritual were religion itself."

I do seem to recall Isaiah saying things to the effect of, "You make sacrifices up the wazoo, but does that mean Yahweh is happy with you? Nooo!" Dex goes on to explain that once the Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed, Jewish authorities ruled that sacrifices could no longer be made because they were supposed to happen only at the Temple. But as Dex points out, they could have gone back to the pre-Temple system of local sacrifice. The real issue may have been that the concept itself had fallen out of favor.

All this is rather interesting to think about in connection to the sacrifice of Jesus that we are now commemorating. Although I think it was Paul who first compared the Crucifixion to a "sin offering," the differences were obvious. Sin offerings only covered inadvertant wrongs; the animal's suffering could not really substitute for human punishment. Moreover, it's not like this was sacralizing a functional death, like an animal to be eaten; Jesus' death was completely about inflicting suffering.

Also, by Paul's day the animal-sacrifice idea was apparently already drifting out of favor within Judaism. Dex says that was one of the things that split the Pharisees and the Sadducees, whom we saw arguing back in Acts. The prophets' charge that God really cares about moral conduct rather than ritual seemed to work its way into both Judaism and Christianity. So appealing to animal sacrifice as a metaphor for the Crucifixion seems a little weird.

I do not, however, claim to have the whole sacrific concept nailed down. It's not a tidy thing. My study notes for Leviticus say:
Sacrifice is a flexible symbol that conveys a variety of possible meanings. The quintessential sacrificial act is the transference of proerty from the profane to the sacred realm; in other words, a gift to the deity. That this notion is also basic to Isralite sacrifice is demonstrated by fundametnal sacrificial terms that connote a gift... To date, however, no single theory can encompass the sacrificial system of any society, even the most primitive.... The common denominator of the sacrifices discuessed in these chapters is that they arise to answer to an unpredictable religious or emotional need and are thereby set apart fromt he sacrifices of the public feasts and fasts that are fixed by the calendar.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Good Friday

So last night I blogged a U2 quote about Maundy Thursday, and today I decided to post another one for Good Friday that's a bit less perverse:

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I've seen love conquer the great divide

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Holy Thursday

Hernan Gonzalez quotes J.R.R. Tolkien:
I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament.... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death, by the divine paradox, that which ends life and demands the surrender of all, and yet, by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.


Maybe it's the mood I've been in all week, but I've been thinking all day of the U2 song's version of the Last Supper in the snarky voice of Judas: "We ate the food/Drank the wine/Everybody having a good time/Except you -- you were talking about the end of the world."
Applied science

A researcher at U. Chicago is studying why there's always a line at the women's room. She finds restrooms are equal in square footage but not much else:
But because urinals are smaller than stalls, “men are almost always offered more excreting opportunities than women,” which likely accounts for longer women’s lines—not women simply taking longer. And more of the space in women’s bathrooms, she notes, is filled with vanity tables, fainting couches, and baby stations.

Her preferred solution strikes me a little funny:
Believing the law rarely should distinguish between males and females, she advocates “a model akin to the typical airline toilet,” providing ultimate privacy without segregation (though she’s learned that many women prefer a same-sex environment).

Yeah, I'll bet they do. Women's rooms have become real social spaces -- thus the oft-noted habit of women to go to them in groups. Plus, women's rooms are great places to check over your clothes and make adjustments you wouldn't want to make in public, which I can't imagine little airplane-type stalls would have room for. The "ladies' lounge" model is probably going to stick, although it's true you don't want to go so far with it you don't have enough actual toilets.

(Via Daniel Drezner.)
Acts 27-28

Paul is shipped off to Rome. This is a complicated business in this era; sailing technology is such that it's hardly a straight shot, but a series of hops between ports, with a lot of waiting around for favorable weather. At one stop on the coast of Crete, Paul warns that if they take off right away they'll lose the ship; and of course, he's right.

A storm hits and drives the ship off couse. It loses its cargo and drifts for weeks. Paul, characteristically, ends up running the show, using his clairvoyance to tell everybody what they have to do to survive. At line 33 he tells the crew, "Today is the fourteenth day that you have been in suspense and remaining without food, having eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads." He breaks bread, and they eat.

I'm puzzled as to why they haven't eaten in so long. They'd probably want to stretch their supplies our as long as possible, given the uncertain future, but two weeks is an inordinately long time to go hungry. I'd think everyone would be going crazy, and it's hard to magine there was food that just sat there that long.

The ship finally wrecks on the island of Malta, where they stay for a few months while Paul does healings. Come springtime, they finally hitch a ride on another ship and finally make it to Rome. There Paul preaches to local Jews and meets with a mixed reception, and says again that he'll take the word to gentiles.

And there, abruptly, Acts ends.

I must say, Acts has been more fun the second time around. I think stopping and writing about every chapter (well, almost every chapter) is a good way to do it, because trying to read it straight through you get lost in all the characters and subplots. Luke's narrative style takes some getting used to.

I'm kind of sorry it's over. Especially since the next book is Leviticus.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Accept no substitutes

I mentioned in my Palm Sunday post that I wasn't having a great day, so I reminisced about last year instead. I'm not going to go into all the troubles with Sunday, but one thing that didn't help was that the sermon that day was all about our old friend, substitutional atonement. The pastor described the theory, emphasized its centrality to Christianity, and got the crowd all roused about how great it was.

After the service, Telford, who knew how I felt about SA theory from this post, sent his wife and kids off to the doughnut shop while he took me aside to do "damage control." He assured me that, despite what the pastor had said, you do not have to believe in SA to be a Christian. There are other ways of interpreting the Atonement.

I told him I wasn't upset, and I wasn't. But that was mainly because I was only half listening to the sermon. Once I realized where it was headed, I sort of tuned out and thought about other things that were preoccupying me. But now that I think about it, that was a rather ominous thing to happen. Tuning out is what I tend to do when things go wrong; before I started going to the church last year, I had gotten so tuned out everything seemed to be in an unhappy, apathetic fog. Whatever I've liked or disliked since then, or agreed with or disagreed with, I have at least been engaged.

I've been thinking again today about exactly what my problem with the theory is. After I wrote the above-linked post Josiah Neeley wrote me an email that I partly reproduced in this post. (Scroll down to the part headed "In loco parentis".) That tells an allegory of a judge whose son is picked up for speeding. The judge finds the young man guilty and orders him to pay a fine. Then he steps off the bench, takes off his robe, and pays the fine himself.

I encountered a slightly different version of this story in a book Telford loaned me, written by a friend of his. In that version, rather than father and son, it was childhood friends who'd gone separate ways in adulthood.

The tale makes a kind of intuitive sense, but it doesn't transfer very well to the Atonement. I mentioned back then that the judge's gesture only makes sense as a one-off -- a kind of warning shot to the wrongdoer. Especially in the father-son version, it seems more like a way of easing a spoiled kid into the real world than like a substitutional atonement.

But the deeper problem, which I only thought of today, is that the story only works because the sentence is relatively light. The state may let you pay someone else's fine, but it won't let you serve someone else's prison term or be executed in someone else's place. The reason is obvious: there's no point to punishment if the innocent get it and the guilty don't. It's not justice, and it's not mercy either: it's cruelty. It's what happens when there's no justice system at all.

Telford tried to describe some other theories of the atonement, but I must admit that if I was only half listening to the sermon I was only about 80% listening to Telford, which is not the way to absorb his rapid-fire pedagogy. He mentioned that the Eastern Orthodox view is that "God became man so that man could become God" -- a view actually expressed by one of Peter Nixon's correspondents back in the January discussion. I'm not sure what to make of it, though, because it doesn't answer my question on what the dying was about. It seems to just be explaining the Incarnation in general.

Anyway, his main point was that you don't have to agree on exactly how the Atonement worked, just on what the outcome was. And actually, I still don't really understand that, and the dying-for-sins debate didn't really clear that up either. But one thing at a time.
From where it's fall...

I looked at Sitemeter this morning and saw an unusal number of hits, and an unusual number of hits from exotic domain names, and soon found that, yes, I got linked by Hernan Gonzalez. He's been reading up on St. Theresa, and sees some connections between her and my posts (the translation here is my own):
One, about justice and mercy (with a link to another blog), and the difficulties of reconciling both ... (Teresa did not feel the need, she could tell herself ... in her personal relations with God, she only saw mercy).

Two, and more notably, this reflection upon an aspect of St. Paul: his insistence on making himself an example:
There's a touch of the egotism here that I noticed in Paul's letters: he likes to hold himself up as an example to follow. I think if I knew Paul back then I'd find it kind of irritating. Hey, I came here to know God, not become you, pal!

And so it is. And Teresa would be one of the few saints to repeat this striking -- and supremely legitimate -- trait of Paul's. "Representative sainthood," Urs von Balthasar calls it. And in her case, it's a most paradoxical thing; considering what she said about her "desire to disappear," to "be forgotten."

He promises more later. This should be interesting.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Acts 24-26

The imprisoned Paul sloowwwly wends his way through the Roman bureaucracy. First he appeals to the governor of Judea, Felix. Then Felix's successor Festus hears him, along with the king, Herod Agrippa. No one seems to be able to pin down charges against him; the Romans barely seem to understand Jewish affairs anyway. But Paul insists on appealing to the emperor, largely because he feels called to proselytize in Rome. If he goes there as a prisoner, then whatever. He's still there.

It's here that the study notes start to get entertaining, as they dish the dirt on the Roman officals. Felix is apparently known for cruelty and immorality; his wife Drusilla is a femme fatale, daughter of a previous Herod, who dumped her Syrian husband to marry Felix. Herod Agrippa shows up with his sister Bernice, whom he's widely known to be sleeping with.

Paul doesn't mention any of this directly, but he does seem to disturb their consciences. We are told that when Felix hears Paul speak of justice, self-control and the coming judgement, he has Paul taken out of his sight and leaves him in the clink until he leaves office two years later. When Paul appeals to Agrippa -- not actually a Roman, but a local -- he asks if he believes in the prophets. Agrippa responds by asking, "Are you so quickly persuading me to become Christian?"

Whether he's actually wavering, or being sarcastic ("You trying to convert me, big guy?") isn't clear. Paul's answer is also rather peculiar: "Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains."

There's a touch of the egotism here that I noticed in Paul's letters: he likes to hold himself up as an example to follow. I think if I knew Paul back then I'd find it kind of irritating. Hey, I came here to know God, not become you, pal! The fact that already some Christians have criticized him back in Acts 21 suggests maybe he didn't rub everybody the right way. He may not have rubbed James the right way either. But then again, it always seems to take these outsized personalities to get a movement going. Paul had already been locked up for years and flogged at least once, and he still thought he knew exactly what he was doing. God? Ego? Both? I don't know, but it sure changed the course of world history.

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu.
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save where you are how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love that in your will,
Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.

--William Shakespeare

Monday, April 14, 2003

Acts 22-23

Here we leave off the episodic narrative of Acts so far and launch into a longer story. Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, accused of teaching against the Jewish law and of bringing Gentiles into the holy Temple. He wards off attack by saying he's a Roman citizen, which I guess means he has to go through Roman law before he can be executed. The tribune calls a meeting of the chief priests to hear Paul's case. When Paul says he's preaching the hope of resurrection of the dead, he sets off an argument between Pharisees and Sadducees on the council. Luke helpfully explains: "The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three" (23:8).

I have heard conflicting things from Jews about the afterlife, and I guess that was true 2000 years ago too. Some Jews (even observant ones) don't seem to believe in it at all; the recent First Things article by a rabbi described a system of reward and punishment in the afterlife, but pointed out that Judaism focuses much more on this world than the next.

The afterlife looms much larger in the Christian imagination, of course. At the last Alpha course, which was last week, I remarked that one thing that seemed to be missing from the course was any discussion of the afterlife. That seems like a very large omission; resurrection was clearly an important subject already to Paul and his friends, and has remained so ever since. Moreover, the picture of the afterlife has gotten so incredibly detailed in the centuries since, with the help of Dante and Hieronymous Bosch and the whole crew, that it's probably one of the first things most people think of when the think of Christianity. And it's certainly one of the most contentious subjects also -- certainly the concept of eternal hell appalls a lot of non-Christians, including me.

The trouble is, the Bible as whole doesn't tell us much about it. There's Revelation, but that was taken as early as St. Augustine to be allegorical. (Obviously the literalist interpretations never stopped, though.) Almost all the popular imagery of the afterlife came after the Bible. At Alpha, some took this lack of attention in the Bible to mean that we shouldn't pay a lot of attention to it either. But of course people want to know this stuff. It's about their eternal destiny after all; and ultimately it's about the mind of God.

Apparently the council that was trying Paul felt just as passionately about it, because their debate gets so heated the tribune stops it for fear of violence. Well, I hope that doesn't happen at Alpha...

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Palm Sunday

My day ... well, my day hasn't been great, but I've been thinking about Palm Sunday of last year. I didn't have a blog and wasn't going to church then, but I did end up in church on Palm Sunday. But I get ahead of myself.

On that Saturday a friend in San Francisco threw a housewarming party, so I used that as an excuse to spend the weekend there. I told my friend who goes to the Evangelical Covenant church in SF, and he invited me to go to the Palm Sunday service and have lunch with him afterwards. It was an ad hoc trip, with me throwing a few things into my backpack and taking off. I went to the party at my friend's flat in the lovely Sunset District, chatting with strangers and eating vodka jello, and then drove to my aunt's house in the East Bay, let myself in, and went to bed.

The next morning I wasn't actually hung over (since I had to drive, after all, I wasn't going to get that inebriated), but I was pretty tired. I got up and discovered some things I'd forgotten to pack: an extra pair of underwear, and a jacket for the chillier northern clime. The underwear I decided to do without (I don't know if it's sacreligious to attend Palm Sunday service with no underwear, but I wasn't sweating the details at this point), but the jacket I definitely needed, since I just had a T-shirt to wear with my jeans. So I asked my aunt if I could borrow something. She rummaged through the closet and pulled out a distinctly '70s-looking denim overshirt, which she gave to me remarking, "If you look in the pockets, you'll probably find ticket stubs to some good concerts."

So I went to the church in this curious ensemble, with post-party fatigue and no makeup, and watched in the pew while my friend sang in the choir. After the musical part was over he came and sat next to me. Leaning over, he whispered, "You look great!"

I thought he was crazy, but then I thought, God bless men. They're always exploding female expectations. If he says I look great, then I'll believe him.