Author Archives: devilatdivschool

It is finished

Well. Hello again. This is embarrassing. I mean, it’s just been a while. Anyway, yeah, I finished a Master’s at Duke – finally. Not the one I came in with. That was the Master of Theological Studies. But I finished a shorter degree called the Master of Arts of Christian Studies. Besides joking with people that I have become “divine” on completing Divinity school (and seriously I look more like traditional portrayals of Jesus now than ever before in my life – getting close in age, too…), I have told people my MACS degree means I “study the Christians”. Which may not be so far off, especially since I consider myself at least somewhat apart from that designator, but what I did with my MACS and the tone of the program is much less judgmental and removed than “studying Christians”. Duke Divinity would probably like it better if it was described simply as it is named – a Master’s-level education in the arts of Christian studies – those (academic) pursuits that people tend to be drawn towards due to (their) Christian faith.

I think that’s about all I want to say at this point. I am far less “gung-ho”, for lack of a better term, about my “agnosticism” now. I don’t want to say I’m a Christian, but I don’t want others to say I’m not a Christian, if that makes any kind of sense. And not because I want an “in” so I can bone Christian women, though, that would be a decent reason. But because neither of those are fully accurate. I am different now, but also very much the same as I ever was. Certain beliefs and values have gained vastly more or less importance than was true before, but I don’t feel there has been some entire kind of severance from the old – read, pre-doubting (~2011?) – me.

I’m not in any kind of rush to see where I will go next, or what I will think next, though I would like to return to “the fold” some day. I’m also not in any kind of rush to self-improve, which, meh, kind of bothers me, should probably bother me more. But then, I was burning the “All for Christ” torch of self-mastery for most of my life before all this, and I think I’m just tired. Teaching middle school will make you tired too. Really tired. But more on that for another day. For now- cheers!

And, Duke – meh. You were really not my favorite place. Your students were extremely pretentious, fairly profligate, and riding the environmentally/racially/gender/politically/theologically/socially-conscious train frequently less consciously than they should have. In contrast, your professors were largely brilliant, decent, even kind human beings. But stop trying to be an Ivy-league school. Your education just is not worth the price you put on it. Especially when I know thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of my dollars went unnecessarily to building campaigns and athletic programs.

Spectrum of spectra

Right and wrong, black and white, male and female, salt and pepper.

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking in binary; something was either one thing or the other.

My liberal arts education, even at a Christian college, helped rattle that notion, that things like morality were black and white, but the binary thinking is largely still there. I suppose another part of the reason it lingers is my hatred for ambiguity. Whatever the case I propose that we think more along a spectrum than we seem to about many things : politics, gender, race, etc. Here I want to consider sexual orientation, mental health, and belief.

I owe my housemate on this one. One night I was talking with a friend and my housemate at a bar about sexual orientation and my housemate offered up that he thought of sexual orientation as on a spectrum. This was some time ago, and initially I balked against this; my knee-jerk reaction was to think “No – what’s natural is for men to be attracted to women and women to men. Our society is pulling up its own anchors in the name of freedom and confusing its citizens by giving them the freedom to choose to be attracted to something unnatural. There is no spectrum; only the choice of affirming the natural heterosexual desire or denying it.” But, since then I have come more to agree with my housemate. The things we observe seem to support him: there are people who are attracted to people of the opposite sex, same sex, both sexes, neither, etc. And he used a helpful analogy. He said though he had a low score on the Kinsey scale he knew if he had to have sex with a man he would pick a man he thought was attractive (in this case, Brad Pitt). That he has an idea of who are and are not attractive men does not support his spectrum view of sexuality but that we can conjecture about the strength of our own attraction to men and/or women with something like the Kinsey scale does.

Thinking about sexual orientation in terms of a spectrum makes more sense out of human experience than the traditional binary I was raised with. Adopting this view raises many questions but it can also help someone (in this case a man) with an upbringing like mine (conservative Christian) to be at peace with a thought like “Wow — that is a handsome guy” and not worry that I have become homosexual or been abandoned to sin by God or something like that. I don’t think many conservative Christians intentionally push those messages, but they don’t try to eliminate them either. And, of course, “homosexual/gay” do not have to be bad words or be equivalent with “abandoned to sin” either. The American church, especially the conservative church, absolutely needs to abolish moral judgments made on others solely based on their orientations.

Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. All these are words we attach to certain sets of symptoms. We then typically define ourselves or others by them. People become “depressed” or “OCD”. Using labels we or others become the illnesses we have. And then, through Baconian-inspired evaluations of human bodies and minds, those with mental illnesses become inferior, lesser, worse, even more wicked than those “without”.

I talk with others about “my depression” to the point that I hate the sound of the words as they pass my lips. I think its helpful to call things what they are and speak frankly, but I say “depression” as if I am lumped in some category setting me apart from anyone without clinical depression and putting me in with everyone with it. Is my story as boring and simple as that? No, in fact I experience life in ways that could be common to anyone from Rasputin to Norman Rockwell and particular to no one but me. It seems the truth is that we all have ways we think or feel which are not ideal, which are harmful or debilitating to some extent. Because of this, I probably shouldn’t even use the word “depression” to define my own experience: I must be defined by something else. (That’s for another post.)

Lastly I wanted to address belief. Again, “my agnosticism” are words I have come to hate the sound of (the way I pronounce them is particularly grating to the ear any way, and I’m particular about sounds). But besides being discordant, perhaps such terminology is wrongheaded. Sexuality, emotions, thoughts, beliefs — these things are so personal and individuated. Rather than thinking in terms of either belief or disbelief/unbelief, would it not be better to think across a range? We would have to agree on the content first; the easiest example is god, or god’s omni-benevolence. But then rather than asking “Do you believe?” we could ask “How do you believe? What do you believe less? What do you believe more?” And talking about belief, or any of these matters, as if it’s something static, unchanging seems puerile too. We each have our own individual paths of belief and who can say where they’ll take us?

We’ve discussed the “spectra”; now for the “spectrum”. (This is where it gets meta.) I don’t want to get nominalistic or abuse our entire language of abstract ideas. But I want to consider some linkages. Sexuality, mental health and belief. Could these things not be each other? More than merely affecting one another, can I talk about sexuality as mental health and belief, and mental health as sexuality and belief, and belief as sexuality and mental health? Rob Bell talks such in SexGod, and better still, Rowan Williams writes beautifully about sexuality and faith in “The Body’s Grace.” We could tease these ideas out further but a benefit of this view is the integrating factor it bears on the individual.

These are just some thoughts I’m exploring. Feedback welcome.

 

Samson, Santino, Sex and Superiority

Recently I chatted with my Hebrew prof about the character of Samson. Apparently his name — sounding like “sheem-shone” in English — means something a bit like “Sunny” in Hebrew. Which got us thinking about “Sonny” (Santino) from the Godfather (surely the Godfather is never too far from a man’s mind). There are similarities there. Samson is hairy, brash, sometimes seemingly stupid, extremely confident in his strength, vengeful, prone to destructive outbursts. Sounds a lot like Sonny from the Godfather, as well. (James Caan is the man, by the way.)

However, I wanted to write about a interpretation, new for me, that helped me make greater sense of the Samson and Delilah story. This is Judges 16.4-22.

You may know that weird things happen in this story. Samson has fallen for Delilah. The lords of the Philistines know this and bribe her to discover how to make Samson weak so they can overpower him. She asks Samson, he lies, she tries it, he “escapes”, and she gets upset. This happens thrice; and his answer gets closer to the truth each time. Then she asks again, stronger, and he tells her the truth. Then she binds him and he can’t escape and gets his eyes gouged out by the Philistines.

I was always perplexed why Delilah thought she could get Samson to tell her how to tie him up when in the text the Philistines are always present. She ties him, then yells “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”, and he breaks free. I knew the Philistines were there and was confused why he eventually tells Delilah the truth.

Well, dramatic irony is part of the answer. Though the Philistines are hiding in the same house with Samson and Delilah (at least for the first three cycles), you will notice it never says they actually come out when Delilah yells “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” So, as the readers we know that the ambush is waiting there but Samson is unaware.

But this still leaves the question, “Why does Samson repeat this cycle at all? Why would he come closer and closer to revealing the source of his strength to Delilah until he actually does?” Sex, specifically foreplay, is my new answer for that. The chapter has already begun with Samson and sex (v. 1 — “Samson went to Gaza, and there he saw a prostitute, and he went in to her.”) Also, the Philistine lords ask Delilah to learn how to overpower Samson that they can “humble” him (v. 5), and later Delilah asks how Samson could be “subdued” (v. 6). The word here is “anah” which can also be used for sexually “defile” or “humiliate” as in Gen. 32.4 (“And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her.”). There is definitely something sexy (kinky?) about Delilah’s request: I mean, on the surface of things, she wants to tie him up.

When one thinks about it, sure, viewing this strange story as a game of foreplay used treacherously makes a lot of sense. But there’s a bit more complexity: it’s important that the Philistines need Delilah in order to defeat Samson, and that Samson gets defeated by Delilah and not the Philistine lords on their own.

In a patriarchal society, women coming out on top of men was an obscene embarrassment. Besides showing God’s displeasure with the male characters in view, this occurrence might signify that society itself was in disarray. The threat of female domination of male characters has happened, and been realized, in Judges earlier. In the story of Deborah and Barak (ch. 4), as in that of Samson and Delilah, we have the words “tent pegs/pins”, “thrusting”, and “sleeping”. However here there are some more layers. Barak, an Israelite man, defeats the army of Sisera, a Canaanite man. One point for the the Israeli boys. But in the beginning Barak had said he wasn’t going to battle Sisera’s army unless Deborah, Israelite judge, prophet and woman, went with him. She then prophesied that “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (v. 9). So let’s give a point to the Hebrew women for Deborah going and making this conquest possible. And then it is Jael, and not Barak, that ends up personally killing Sisera (with the tent-peg, in the tent). So maybe another point for killing Sisera and a second for doing it instead of Barak. Then we have three points for the Hebrew women team? But wait, Jael is not even Israelite! She is of another tribe (a Kenite). Thus a non-Israelite, non-male character delivers Israel from the Canaanites. Women humiliate men then here and with Samson and Delilah.

Sonny, sex, and stupid men/super women. The story of Samson and Delilah in a nutshell.

Scapeygoat

“Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another — physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.” — The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

‘Twas beauty and romantic love
Did gyre and gimble in her heart:
All mimsy was the dreamed-up stuff
That caused her dreams to smart.

Beware the mythic blue-eyed Doll!
The hair that’s blonde, the cheek that’s white!
Beware Maureen, she comes in Fall,
bewitching folks she’s right.

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the diz’ying drink he drought.
To rape his girl was not his plan;
To love a doll he’d sought.

And as in uffish state she cow’red
Old Soaphead Church, with eyes ablaze,
Came promising an iris flower,
But doll-eyed death, the gaze.

One, two! One, two! The blood is shed!
Pecola’s self-esteem and child,
She left for dead, and dropped her head
Gone crazy for a smile.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come, give an answer, Miss Pauline!”
Our sons and daughters in the stocks
Condemned; the Doll, serene.

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate.’  — Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

Voices from Beyond

Recent messages I have received from people from my alma mater. The first is a response from the alumni office about whether there were any alumni groups for non-Christians (I had offered to form/lead one if not). The second is from an acquaintance from my time at college.
“Hello, ____.  My staff passed your note along and I wanted to take a minute to respond.  Since all alumni events and groups sponsored by the College are representative of the College’s commitment to the Christian faith, we don’t have a formal group for people who no longer consider themselves Christians.  That said, I hope you’ll stay connected with ______ no matter where your faith journey takes you.  You’ll always be part of the ____ family, ____, and I wish you the very best.
Take care,
______”

Interim Vice President for Advancement & Alumni Relations
———————————————————————————————————————
“Hi ____.
I don’t know if you remember me from being in ___ at _____, but I wanted to tell you that I really find a lot of comfort from the blog you write. One of my former roommates from ______ sent me your blog because she thought I could relate to it, and I can. I went to _____ because I was losing my faith and I never really recovered from being on the fence. I wasn’t raised Christian, but became Christian in high school. I found a lot of meaning, comfort, and friendships in Christian circles and from what I thought was God. Its still something I deal with and can’t really walk away from or embrace. Its not fun to go through, but it is comforting to know that I am not the only former _____ kid who is dealing with this type of thing. Its really hard to find a niche to have doubts and not be ready to move back into Christianity or entirely away from it. So thank you for sharing your thoughts on your blog. I feel creepy reading it, so I thought I’d tell you I was a fan haha”

the California Raisins? (Steinbeck in Little Miss Sunshine)

Does anybody remember the California Raisins — the singing, dancing raisins that seemed to be racially black? What was with that? So Strange!

Anyway, I chose that name to introduce a short list of how The Grapes of Wrath (GOW) drives the plot of Little Miss Sunshine (LMS). (A fun, great movie!) This is old news and has been written about seemingly much (see this or that). But I just want to add my list to the inter-webs because I like having things in list, easy-to-read formats. (NB: list not exhaustive!)

Following the list I have an original note of analysis about GOW which I have not found on Sparknotes, Cliffsnotes, or Wiki. That’s not to say it isn’t in any commentary but I hope not?

Starts with one member coming “back from the dead”
-Prison (GOW)
-Suicide attempt (LMS)
Family in dire circumstances living in Am. South/Southwest
Opportunity arises in California
Family takes long car trip to California
Granddad dies along the way
The Law and Corporate America trouble them along the way
Every member experiences tragic personal failure
Youngest member is their last hope but that member also fails
-Baby stillborn (GOW)
-Daughter loses competition (LMS)
The family unit is their salvation

 

Here’s my hopefully new (but probably not) insight into The Grapes of Wrath.

Rose of Sharon. Her family calls her “Rosasharn” as Steinbeck renders it. SPOILER! In the final scene she lends her breast to a starving man to try to nurse him back to health.

Now, it’s nothing extraordinary that she plays a Madonna kind of role. For Steinbeck, I feel like almost every female character is the Madonna.

However, consider her name. “Rosasharn.” Sounds an awful lot like nothing in English. But sounds strangely like “Russia” in Russian, which I might render phonetically “ros-ee-ya”. Not perfect, but close.

Steinbeck got into trouble with this book. He was labeled a communist for this and other writings. He certainly portrays capitalistic America very poorly.

The take-away, in my read, of The Grapes of Wrath, is that the Law, corporate America, and the rich will not help the poor; the poor must help each other. Rosasharn’s selfless act of nursing a starving man is the one glimmer of hope in this story of attrition. Her baby stillborn, her family penniless, she does what she can for another suffering family. I don’t know much about Steinbeck’s political ideas. I know in the end he visited Russia and Ukraine and wrote scathing pieces about what he really found there. But in the 1930s, it’s plausible that he was taken with the idea of a country where the poor rose up to take destiny into their own hands, while his own country was squashing the poor further into the dirt.

So, yes, Rosasharn is Mother Mary, but she is also Mother Russia.

New blog?

I am getting ready to shed the skin of this identity: the devil at divinity school. I don’t want to be “a devil” anymore. I don’t want to be “a divinity school” student anymore.

I’ve thought about continuing blogging in another blog, a new one (you’d have to ask me the url; I might tell you). I don’t need a blog to help me define myself but I certainly may use one. The names I have thought of are “screwed-up, not a screw-up”, “bruised, not broken”, or “ashes”. These names kind of suck — suggestions welcome. The content would be on the same topics and ideas but also more writings about literature, movies. I am a fairly analytical reader, and I might use the blog to post my readings of certain pieces of art and get responses.

I also have some poetry I’d probably post to it. Below is a poem of mine on Endo’s Silence. This book has been pretty significant for me this past year and through this blog. I wrote this poem for a class I took first semester. It should be read after having read the book, but please enjoy even if you haven’t read Silence. (A “fumie” is a small wooden carving or image of Christ or Mary. Fumies were banned at this time in Japan.)

Sacrifice

“He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man…. The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.” — Silence, Shusaku Endo

christ s purest face in dreams i d see
i m christ s i used to comfort me
now christian faces all ablaze
surrender all to god for me

japan s a swampland and a maze
oppressing christ the silent gaze
of padre god are you still here
ferreira tempts my fall from grace

betraying what i ve held most dear
the screams of martyrs in my ear
a hideous christ shouts trample me
i join the mocking spitting jeers

i drop my foot the martyrs free
i m judas yet you died for me
a new life christs inside of me
a new life christ s inside of me

“‘My struggle was with Christianity in my own heart.’” — Okada San’emon, formerly Sebastian Rodriguez, in Silence, Shusako Endo