Sacred Books Project

Darkly Dreaming Daniel

January 22, 2014
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One of the themes that I noted upon my reading of Daniel, another rather nondescript later New Testament book involving Nebuchadnezzar is one that I have seen quite often so far, one that has always interested me. As stated by Nebuchadnezzar here, “I had a dream and my spirit is anxious to understand the dream,” (2:3) a common sentiment throughout the human experience, dreams and dreaming seem to be a reoccurring trope.

On most nights, in particular when I have the leisure to wake up naturally without having to wake up at a specific time, I am able to recall my dreams. I must admit that I am one of those people who has an avowed interest in dreams and dreaming, perhaps an inordinate, pointless interest. Throughout childhood my sister and I, along with a few select friends, enjoyed relating and analyzing the weird dreams we had had. I recall one dream I had as a kid in which I was transformed into a shrew, and thus, had only a year or two left to live. My sister told of how she dreamed she had been sat upon by a horse at a Renaissance festival. My dreams are surreal (I can fly), or at worst, unsettling (I am being chased by tidal wave). In both of our dreams, often our everyday realistic surroundings are quietly replaced with weird nonsensical scenes, imposing themselves upon the familiar. Dreams can filter into reality, in those weird, dark times in the middle of the night, 3:00 or 4:00 AM. In one dream my sister had to make sure that no one had really brought home a hideous albino opossum that terrorized her and in another I had to wake her up in the middle of the night to make sure that she had not been killed defending me from some sort of demon-thing. Recently, my grandmother has been subject to night terrors, dreaming of a dark, smokey presence filling her room; she has lost her ability to tell waking from sleeping and it is sad to see how her reality is being effected.

After chatting about some, to me at least, especially weird or interesting dream, though, I have found that a lot of people, perhaps most people, have no interest in dreams, or at least other people’s dreams. Other people’s dreams, they say, are inherently uninteresting. A lot of etiquette exists against discussing personal dreams under any circumstances. There is nothing more boring, according to many authorities, than someone who insists on telling you about their dreams, droning on about what is basically meaningless drivel. At least TV shows and celebrity gossip have a basis in the conscious world and have relevancy to someone other than the speaker. The Bible, though, seems to share my interest in dreams. I cannot help but wonder if so much of the Bible’s more fantastical elements might be more or less inspired by dreaming.

I was reminded of this again while reading the Book of Daniel, only the latest of the Biblical tales that have referenced dreams of various kinds; Daniel, a.k.a. Belteshazzar, has been granted by God the ability to understand “all kinds of visions and dreams.” As with the Pharaoh’s dreams interpreted by Moses way back in Exodus, Daniel then spends his time interpreting dreams for an despotic type leader (the only type of leader they seem to have in the Bible, of course), in this case, Nebuchadnezzar, who we recall from the Book of Ezekiel. It seems Nebuchadnezzar was having trouble sleeping due to dreams and demands an interpretation from his diviners* on pain of being “torn limb from limb” and their houses “turned into a rubbish heap.” Nebuchadnezzar cries “I saw a dream and it made me fearful; and these fantasies as I lay on my bed and the visions in my mind kept alarming me. So I gave orders to bring into my presence all the wise men of Babylon, that they might make known t me the interpretation of the dream.” (4:4) Daniel was the only one to be able to do this, obtaining his own answer from God in the form of “a night vision.” Among his dreams, the king dreamed of a growing tree to which he was told to chop it down in spite of all the fauna that sheltered under it; very literary, I am sure a lot of interpretations could be made here but Daniel could only tell the king that he was going to go insane on God’s orders. Apparently God had decided that the head of this sovereign earth government needed to run around in the wilderness eating grass and growing feathers for awhile.

This did not seem to effect the rest of the book, which followed Daniel’s travails working as this sort of magician/soothsayer in the Babylonian court, aiding not only Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar (how long did it take him to step up after his dad started the grass eating?) and the Persian kings Darius and Cyrus in succession, including that episode with the lion’s den, the only tale I had been familiar with before. Was this too a dream?

In later chapters, Daniel himself dreams. prophesy, predicting the future, seeing such bizarre imagery as “four great beasts were coming up from the sea,” a eagle-winged lion with a “human mind,” a bear, a winged four-headed leopard, and an ill described horned thing with large teeth. This dream, and the others like it, seem very revelatory, and these dreams appear to have the express purpose of foretelling the future, of prophesying I guess they call them prophets for a reason. So, are these prophets, specifically dreamers? The visions that they have are often described in similar terms to when various characters have dreams, so it would seem that Biblical characters, in opposition to common courtesy, find discussing their dreams extremely interesting.

Of course, that begs that question, what are dreams? Dreams still seem to be quite misunderstood, and even today are the subject of a lot of folklore and mythology. Are dreams random, with no more meaning that what we put into them? Perhaps, but it is certain that life effects dreams as well; even a trivial video game or stupid movie can pop up unexpected during dreaming. Even now, dreaming appears to be one of most enigmatic aspects in neuroscience, and scientific theories about the meanings and interpretation of dreams have evolved since the early psychology of Freud and Jung. While in recent years, technology has allowed scientists to focus in more on what exactly is going on in the brain during REM and NREM sleep, the function behind the phenomenon remains elusive. Interestingly, one of the major short comings of dream study is the “reliance on verbal reports,” the inherent difficulty in expressing by memory just what was going on during the dream state- apparently, even neurologists get bored listening to people describe their dreams. I guess that, in the end, you alone are able to interpret what your own dreams mean, as even under the best of times it can be difficult to dredge up the memories of the surreal imagery that flashed, without form, through your brain during sleep. Human nature grants patterns and meaning to many things, and it is easy to see how dreaming has an effect on the development of religions. They are, I feel, the most mysterious, downright magical, aspect of reality that most people are exposed to on a frequent basis and I will continue to note the use and presence of dreams in the sacred writings of other religions. Think I’ll end with a song about dreaming by one of my favorite bands, Dark Dark Dark.

*Oh, I like this word; reminds me of a character class from D&D- guess none of Nebuchadnezzar’s flunkies was high enough level!

Negotiating Nebuchadnezzar

September 11, 2013
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Last week, I got back from an exciting, informative, and rejuvenating family vacation to Toronto and northern Ontario. We crossed the border at Sault Ste. Marie and went down the northern shore of Lake Huron to the metropolis of Toronto, before heading back north through the rocky plateaus of the Canadian Shield and the north coast of Lake Superior, returning to Minnesota through Grand Portage. It was a great trip, and I was impressed, in particular, with the vibrant, bustling size of Canada’s largest city. About twice the population of the Twin Cities metro area, it seems even larger than that, a multicultural urban expanse where there was something amazing to see on every street. Cranes were everywhere on a skyline already packed with high rises, as there are now more than 150 new ones under construction in a building boom twice as large as anywhere else in North America. Only Mexico City comes close, with 88. I would love to go back, as it seems like a place that will continue to change by the month, and it seemed that new construction would pop up on a daily basis, even for the short time I was there.

One of my favorite sites I stopped by, though, was the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). I wished I had the time to fully explore this sprawling complex of knowledge and wonder, halls packed full of history, art, and science that one could, no doubt, spend a week in this storehouse of artifacts and still find new things to learn about. A year, that might do the museum collections justice. Even the building itself seemed to me to exemplify the vibrant city, with the classic historic core of the museum, built in 1912, encased in a cutting edge, breathtaking angular glass and steel crystalline structure, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. The old, historic designs commingle in a wonderful fashion with the cutting edge modern world, a very fitting style for a museum.

However, when I visited ROM was hosting a very interesting special exhibit, Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World, which will be its sole North American stop. Perusing the exhibit, I was reminded at once of my project, and in particular, seemed to compliment that particular portion of the Bible I have been tackling over the last few months. In curating this exhibit, ROM had partnered with the British Museum to explore the history of “the cradle of civilization,” and how ancient Mesopotamian cultures such as the Sumerians, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians, formed aspects of culture we still follow today. For instance, I had no idea, but many of our current conceptions of time originated with the Babylonians. They developed a Base 60 method of counting that explains the fact we count sixty seconds in a minute, and sixty minutes in an hour. Also, the Babylonian culture and astronomy was the origin of the Zodiac symbols still looked at to predict future events by enthusiasts.

Fascinating stuff, but even more so when I stumbled upon some interesting relations to my project’s recent Biblical readings. Among some of the artifacts displayed at the exhibit was a hefty looking cuneiform tablet, written sometime between 605-562 BCE that present a record of the successes of a rather interesting personage, King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BCE). According to the monument, Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt the city of Babylon “in all its splendor” after it had been destroyed a few centuries earlier by the Assyrians, in particular restoring temples. The Bible, I have been finding out, has some things to say about Nebuchadnezzar as well.

I have mentioned this usage of this historic figure in biblical accounts a few other times recently on my blog, in my account of Jeremiah and Lamentations as he led the resurgent Babylonian empire to exile the population of Judah to Babylon itself, the “Babylonian Captivity.” Who was this guy and how accurate is the Old Testament’s depiction of him? As I looked around in the dimly lit, cool interior of ROM at the various ancient artifacts from thousands of years ago, my project seemed to come into reality just a little more, learning a bit about this powerful Mesopotamian ruler.

A prominent king or ruler, Nebuchadnezzar brought Babylon out from under the shadow of the Assyrians and made the city, once again, a great center of political control. The name Nebuchadnezzar popped out as one that has been mentioned numerous times in the books of the Old Testament I’ve been reading. I always am very engrossed when some aspects of my readings show up in my daily life.  It is one of main goals in this project, after all, to aid my understanding of how the history of the world relates to the formation of various religions, and here was a perfect example of that. Sometimes, I must admit, it can be easy to forget that the Bible is not religion (or mythology) alone. The Old Testament was structured and written (or divinely inspired) during roughly this same period and mentions events, people, and places that existed.

At the museum, we learn that, in 600 BCE, Babylon was the largest city in the world and its architecture led to the story of the Tower of Babel, which appears in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, which I read very early in project. Also among its treasures, the Mesopotamia exhibition includes the exquisite terracotta relief of a “striding lion,” “striding lion” (Photo Credit ROM 2013)” which adorned Nebuchadnezzar’s immense palace about 2600 years ago.

I do find it interesting that the Tower, inspired by the great palace built by Nebuchadnezzar showed up in Genesis, the first book of the Bible whereas Nebuchadnezzar II himself is not spoken of until later books. How long apart were these various sections of the Bible written? There seems to be a sort of disorganization and lack of context in the Old Testament surrounding this figure. He is mentioned, in his role as the Babylonian conqueror and instigator of forced move of the people of Judah in the books of Kings and Chronicles, among other books, as in this example from Kings 25:1, “Now in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, camped against it and built a siege wall all around it.” It seems obvious that this would mark and important and tragic experience for the people who gathered these writings.

This week, I started going through the Book of Daniel, which seems to be, at least so far, all about Nebuchadnezzar II and is set in Babylon. Well, of course, it’s really about (written by) the prophet Daniel and his relationship to God but the figure of Nebuchadnezzar seems to be important so far. I am curious to see where this story goes, and what place these accounts of an ancient ruler might have in modern interpretations of the text. Anyway, the Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World exhibition will remain at ROM until January 5, 2014, so if you happen to find yourselves in Toronto I heartily recommend a visit.

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Lamentations and Punishment

July 14, 2013
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Things have been so dead around here at the Sacred Books Project blog over the last few months that, according to my stats, nobody, not one person, has visited for over a month! Not even the usual Google searchers looking for “the proverbial bullet” or “Song of Solomon” wedding vows (my most common referrals). I believe that this is as slow as it’s ever been. So it’s time to see if I can’t jump start things a bit on this sleepy, humid July Sunday.

A month or so ago, I finished the short, postscript book of “The Lamentations of Jeremiah.” It did not take long; compared to the Book of Jeremiah that preceded it, or the Book of Ezekiel that I am currently going through, I read Lamentations in no time at all.  I do wonder why this much shorter book was split from the larger story of Jeremiah, which dealt with the many prophecies and warnings spoken by God to Jeremiah, of which the painful events of Lamentations are the presumed result. Why were these mournful, self-loathing poems maintained as part of the Bible? It is quite a sad, but not unexpected, end to the epic warfare and prophecy of the previous Book of Jeremiah. God’s people “screwed up” so much (worshipping idols), in spite of the frantic warnings of the prophet Jeremiah, He allows the Babylonians, under king Nebuchadnezzar, to raze Jerusalem and send its inhabitants off into slavery (again). “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” (1:1), the opening of Lamentations sets the tone of desolation, misery and despair of losing so much, and of being responsible for this loss.  “Her enemies prosper,” it continues, “for the Lord has caused her grief, because of the multitudes of her transgressions (1:5).” Interesting that once again, the entire wayward group is referred to, as a whole, using a female pronoun. Little theology appears to be discussed during these cries of despair and regret about being punished for sinning.

But then, is theology really a concern of the books of the Bible? Is theology more of a concern of people trying to make sense of the cultural mythology and ancient beliefs recorded in it and other “sacred texts?” That is an interesting thought I just had while I was attempting to make sense of Lamentations. I mean, what is theology, anyway? From the term, I would assume the study of God but I have a sense that it might be more than that. Among Christians, it often seems to be more the study of the Bible in the hopes of figuring out what the best way to obey the Lord and be given eternal life. What does Lamentations have to say about this? After all, while God (or the Lord) is mentioned in Lamentations, it really seems to be written from the point of view of the people; so some of the people of Israel were attracted by other religions, apparently, a great sin and the Lord, in turn, punished them for this behavior. For a long time, I kind of thought it had long been disreputable in Christianity to hold that natural disasters and acts of war were “allowed” or even specifically “ordered” by God as punishments for various religious transgressions. In recent years, though, it goes without saying that some elements among conservative Christians in the United States have blamed such things, from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy on American tolerance of “sins,” (whatever they are), and it is easy to see how this view is supported in Lamentations. Lamentations 2:5 sums it up quite powerfully;

“The Lord has become like an enemy.

He has swallowed up Israel;

He has swallowed up all its palaces;

He has destroyed  its strongholds

And multiplied in the daughter of Judah

Mourning and moaning.”

So, does that imply that God not only allows, but abets such disasters, human and natural, as a punishment for the continuing imperfections of humanity? And not just the typical crimes such as murder, hatred, apathy in a world of pain and sorrow, but simply for not conforming to the spiritual demands of worshipping God in His preferred way. Or does he only really care about His chosen people? (much the worse for them). In this case, the enemies of Israel, the Babylonians, come out pretty well- does it imply that those foreign types are no more culpable for their actions than other natural disasters?

As I have been reading Ezekiel, God has been spending some considerable time hashing out again just what ceremonies and sacrifices He prefers, as if trying once again to get those forgetful humans to get it right, though of course, historically the kingdom he set up that would last “forever” later collapsed like all of the others.  It is such conceptions of indiscriminate pain and suffering meted out on everyone, even those of the “chosen people” that I find so repellent about much of the stories in the Bible. This is even acknowledged in the book itself:

“Our fathers sinned, and are no more;

It is we who have borne their iniquities.” (5:7)

To me, this just not seem like lessons one could base an ethical life on, except, I guess, to avoid infractions in order to keep your loved ones from being punished with torture and pain. This does not only seem not to be the actions of a “loving” God but a terrifying cosmic “dictator.” I don’t know if dictator, or “tyrant” would really be the right word for this, but I just cannot think of anything better. I am curious as I get closer to the New Testament, how much of the language and philosophy changes to reflect the God who does seem more popularly reflected in contemporary Christian denominations, but this dark legacy presented in such books as Lamentations is, for me, a rather disturbing, almost fatalistic legacy. The pain and terror experienced by the people of Israel reflected in this chapter, an all too real threat for many people of military conquest and subjugation, being leveled upon them as literal punishment for crimes that they themselves may even be personally innocent of horrifies me. Then, of course, I oppose even the death penalty for punishment of crimes today, let alone punishing an entire population for crimes less serious than murder, so I guess that philosophically here I just do not see eye to eye with Lamentations.

As the writer(s) of Lamentations here notes,

“I am the man who has seen affliction

Because of the rod of His wrath.

He has driven me and made me walk

In darkness and not in light” (3:1-2)

That does not sound very hopeful.

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Belated Anniversary Update

April 20, 2013
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Short update today; as I am preparing my thoughts on Lamentations (amusing name), the short “postcript” to Jeremiah I just completed, I have realized that a couple of weeks ago marks the fourth anniversary of my first post for my Sacred Books Project. It is, I must admit, a bit hard for me to believe that I have now been doing this, off and on, for four years now, since March of 2009. A person could finish a BA in that time! (Or an entire presidential term of office). And I have not even gotten past the Old Testament yet! Yikes. Students at my institution are probably expected to have done that in a semester for a few of their classes. Not only that, but this is the first of a lot of really long, convoluted religious texts I’ve compelled myself to read. Slow and steady, right? Ah, I’ve been slacking.

I recently got back from attending the Association of College and Research Libraries 2013 conference in Indianapolis. It is always interesting to see the diversity of the librarian profession and see all the new innovative projects people have been working on. This was the first time I attended ACRL and I feel I learned a lot, professionally, as well as had a good time in general. It really made me feel I chose the right profession, being surrounded by so many progressive, interesting people from around the world talking about sharing information in a world where information has become so powerful. The keynote speech by Henry Rollins, former singer in Black Flag and author, in particular, was awesome at articulating all that stuff that I’ve been rambling about; librarians are keepers of the information, and it is information that empowers people in our society. It’s always fun for librarianship to be linked to the punk ethos as well. It is this drive to uncover and share information that also spurred me into the Sacred Books Project as well. If I can be forgiven a few platitudes, I feel that knowledge about the religious beliefs of the world, discovering what people believe and why, is a very important ingredient in the human world, in North America and elsewhere. Yeah, pretty obvious stuff, well, maybe this is why I should not step away from just responding to religious texts in this blog. Ha!

Of course, another fun aspect of the trip was my love of just running off and wandering around in a new environment to sample local foods,  explore. Indianapolis seems to have only a superficial resemblance to the Twin Cities. There is a definite flat, Midwestern look that both share, and both have some heavy German heritage, but that is as far as t goes; to me, Indy feels much more Eastern and Southern than either Minneapolis or St. Paul. It is also a few decades older.  In downtown Indianapolis, there is this huge obelisk, the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Completed in 1901, it became the focal point for the former Circle Park (known now as Monument Circle), one of the oldest locations in the city. The monument commemorates the veterans of all the wars that Indianans participated in prior to 1901, from the Revolutionary War to the Spanish-American War, with the Civil War the most prominent.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, 1898, from Wikipedia

While checking out the massive spire, I noticed an interesting, very old looking church with a cool weather-vane on the steeple. A sign indicated that it had been built back in 1857. It was such an interesting piece of architecture, a solid, almost medieval looking building, nestled in the shadow of the monument, and even more in the shadow of the towering modern office towers of downtown Indianapolis. I was curious to learn more and found that this is the Christ Church Cathedral, an Episcopalian church.

What role did it have in the foundation of Indianapolis? The religious landscape of the city founders is still impressed upon the town, which I noted from my downtown hotel room, scanning the number of steeples, churches of various denominations, visible in the skyline. Christianity appears very prominent in Indianapolis, as it does in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Each congregation bases their teachings upon the Bible, but most take quite different interpretations and world views. The Episcopalians of Christ Church come to quite different conclusions from scripture than the Catholic church across the street from the Convention Center or the . This does not even take into account the growing signs of Muslim faith of new immigrant groups in some of the neighborhoods. As I continue to explore and learn, both in my profession and in the world at large, the shadow cast by religion remains a mystery to me, and seeking out new information through the worlds sacred texts will, I hope, help me learn. Next week, Lamentations!

Non-Prophet Status

March 31, 2013
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Well, for those who grew up in a Christian context, happy Easter! I had a pretty relaxing, low key day with family. It was a pretty nice day out, anyway, at least in the Twin Cities.

Alright, I am going to make an attempt to write a little about the Book of Jeremiah today. I have to say, at times during this project I have felt a little set adrift, not quite equipped for what I set out to do. Like I’m attempting to excavate an archaeological site without any tools or knowledge of what I’m supposed to use them for. Well, on this front, I’m probably not too much different from the majority of people who set out to read the Bible. In the beginning, when I started reading this tome, I thought I would stay away from other sources, religious or secular, so as not to be unduly influenced. I have been increasingly of the opinion that this might be an impossible conceit, and I’ve found myself a bit lost. This, in turn, causes me to hesitate tackling the project without an idea of what I should say, and this procrastination in turn causes me to lose what little idea I’ve had in the past.  I’ve really been feeling this over the last couple of books. I should do some more research, especially with all the resources I now have close to hand, but for now I’ll just rely on Wikipedia.

In the meantime, during the course of my work in the library, I’ve seen a lot of Christian theological materials go through, (I really should take more notes on them) and have noticed that Isaiah and Jeremiah are pretty popular sources for any number of religious arguments and situations. I myself am a bit mystified about this use; perhaps it is the epic, almost apocalyptic vibe that the writing conveys. So far, I have the impression that the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah seem to have quite similar themes and are structured in a similar way. They both follow the life and words of prophets, instructed personally by God, to interpret and deliver His will to the populace. They also deal with rival nations and a good amount of warfare between historical groups. They also deal with a whole lot of prophesy.

To me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of Biblical interpretation, and one that I do not think I have yet discussed. Isaiah and Jeremiah follow God’s interactions with these prophets and their role in the “world affairs” of the ancient Middle East. For instance, in Chapter 33:3, God tells Jeremiah, “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know,” setting up the direct God to prophet hotline, and over the book delivers up many dictates to Jeremiah, including God’s accounts of the future and then show, ostensibly, how they come to pass. According to Wikipedia’s entry on Nebuchadnezzer II, the passage in Jeremiah 4:7, “a lion has gone up from his thicket, and a destroyer of nations has set out; He has gone out from this place to make your land a waste. Your cities will be ruins without inhabitants,” is a prophecy referring to the Babylonian king. I did not notice this or connect it to the prominent role that the Babylonian would play in later events in the book.

As per usual, God’s chosen people just aren’t following God’s will. Surprising, I know. The Lord, peeved, informs his prophet Jeremiah, “Behold, I am about to give this city into the hand of the Chaldeans and into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall take it (32:28).” Because 28:30 “the sons of Israel and the sons of Judah have been doing on evil in My sight from their youth for the sons of Israel have been only provoking Me to anger by the work of their hands,” declares the Lord. I guess you can see why we needed Jesus as a buffer. Finally, in the last chapter of Jeremiah, Chapter 52, Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem is described in some detail, including how he “blinded the eyes of Zedekiah,” the king of Jerusalem (52:11) and, over the next few years, “carried into exile” some 4600 Jewish people (52:30). Thus, God’s words to Jeremiah in chapter 32 were fulfilled.

I am not certain how this could be considered really “prophetic,” though, being that the prophesy is expressed and fulfilled in the very same book. I am also not sure how long it took to complete the writing, either. Still, these events highlight the thought that Biblical references can be used to predict, or understand, future events in Gods plans for humanity. While the events in Jeremiah are not exactly apocalyptic, they do have a certain apocalyptic vibe to them and it is easy to see how they could be inspiring to those who look to the Bible for clues as to the coming of Judgment Day, or the Apocalypse, or whatever you wish to call it. People still comb the Bible, old and new testament alike, for clues to hidden messages and timelines for the future, and I will make this the subject for a later entry.

In the meantime, this theme seems somewhat appropriate for Easter, as I found a few passages that I could definitely see many Christians referring to this as a fulfilled prophesy referring to the forgiveness of sins that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ would make possible in later Christian theology. Chapter 33:8, for instance; “and I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against me and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned against Me and by which they have transgressed against Me.” Isaiah 9:6, which I mentioned earlier, is another case in point. While for a skeptic such as myself, it is impossible to use one source of information to prove itself, and historically it may be hard to pin down when exactly various passages were written, it illustrates how the Bible has a long history of being interpreted to “predict” future events, in this case the coming of Christ. This use of the bible for prophetic purposes seems to have been a major aspect of both the writing and study of the Bible and continues to a major goal of interpreting it today, it seems.

Posted in Bible, Christianity

State of the Blog: Sacred Books Project 2013

February 12, 2013
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Before I rekindled the Sacred Books Project last month, January 2013, my last post had been March 1st, 2012, a full ten months before. In the period between that, I switched jobs and moved back to the city I lived in while attending graduate school, and am now working at a very small, very orthodox Lutheran liberal arts college affiliated with a small, dogmatic synod. It has been a very interesting and educational experience, both for my professional knowledge and my interest in religious beliefs. I will be certain to expand upon my experiences and discoveries here as I continue my project, particularly as I move into Protestant sources. In the meantime after starting working in a new library, I guess I just felt a bit drained from the adjustment and stress of settling into a new environment; well, that and I major case of procrastination, of course. I hope I can put that behind me and press on to the end, analyzing more and, I hope, making it not as boring as I have traditionally been. Oh well! Anyway…

While writing my last entry I realized just how long it had been since I started up the project, trying to recall if I had said what I was planning to talk about before earlier in my writings. Hadn’t I written at least one other entry on the “problem of evil,” and how I had the impression that there had been less “good versus evil” themes earlier in the Old Testament? I thought that I had, but I really could not recall. Now that, in the books of the Prophets the good versus evil themes having become so much more evident, I wanted to look back to see exactly what I had said, so I spent some time reviewing my earlier writings, discovering things I had long forgotten about, themes and questions that I will expand upon in the future. I had almost forgotten what I had been trying to accomplish; an attempt to understand people’s religious beliefs in more detail by exploring the basis for their faiths, and in my new position, this has become even more relevant than ever before in my life and I come across Biblical references and theological arguments on a daily basis, my curiosity peaked about their significance.

Yep, it is good to have rekindled my blog writing after so long a hiatus. It dawned on me that, by March, I will have been working on the Sacred Book Project for four years! Yikes, that’s like a whole undergraduate stint! There are some interesting coincidences as well. I began the project to learn more about religion while living in Mankato and studying Scandinavian immigrant history and now I am back, working for a religious institution that sprang from Scandinavian immigrants. I will have to write more about his once I get into my Lutheran unit. Speaking of that, it’s been four years and I haven’t even gotten through the Bible yet! Not even the Old Testament. How long is this project going to take? Guess I’m in it for the long haul. Stay tuned for more Jeremiah next week!

Can you believe I have even been mulling over starting up a second blog?

The Stuff That You Love: The Prophets, Good, and Evil

January 30, 2013
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The other week, I was at the campus of the local state university, attending a professional conference. Taking a break for lunch, I took the opportunity to run off to grab a chipotle nearby, as I had been craving a burrito for some time. It was a bit nippy out, in the twenties, and a biting wind dropped the wind chill levels, but it was not that far a walk, plus, a burrito would be worth a short jog through the cold. I bundled up and set off across the quad, among a handful of students, faculty, and other passersby going about their business. I could see no more than half a dozen people. This made the man standing upon a crate, shouting about Hell, Jesus, and sin at the top of his lungs all the more noticeable. I could see students looking away, pretending not hear him as he shouted and ranted, fulfilling every stereotype of the fire and brimstone preacher.

As I walked by, the preacher said something that I found a bit amusing (not directed at me, it seemed that the lack of people listening or the cold did not deter him from continuing what seemed to be a well-practiced spiel. I could not help but grinning to myself, as I started away from the preacher. The phrase that I found so funny was when he shouted “God doesn’t love the things that you love, He hates them!” What, God is not much of a fan of peppermint bon-bon ice cream? God hates puppies? God hates your parents or your spouse? God, what does He like? The ludicrous nature of this bombastic pronouncement was laughable to me, but it did cause me to reflect on something that I had read recently in the Bible as I delve into the Book of Jeremiah, one that has concerned me throughout my project. The preacher’s next statement was “God loves righteousness,” implying that the things you love are not right, that they are evil. This brings to mind a passage from Isaiah that I’ve seen pop up several times in some of the strict apologist literature I’ve been cataloging at work, warnings against too deep an interest in the “fallen,” secular world we live in; Isaiah 5:20 “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” I imagine I call a lot of things good that would be thought of as “evil” in this context; the next passage is equally bad for me, “woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and clever in their own sight!” Crap, maybe I should dispense with this blog after all…

I recall writing soon after beginning my reading of the Old Testament that I was surprised at the lack of a “good versus evil” component in the earlier books. As I read further into the Bible, this apparent lack of what seems to be a very important aspect of the Christian faith became less noticeable to me, and the “problem of evil” began to pop up (especially in Job, but also, if I recall, in the Psalms). In any case, there seems to be some confusion and overlap between what is “good” and what is “evil,” versus what is “righteous” toward God versus what is a “sin.” Perhaps this is what the street preacher on campus was going for, conflating fuzzy boarders between these two definitions; i.e., the only good is what is pleasing to God, (what is “righteous), everything else is sinful.  These themes of good and evil, sin and righteousness are one of the most noticeable themes of these books of the Prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, at least so far. The first passage that was brought to my mind by the street preacher’s rants was in Chapter 24, in which the prophet Jeremiah is spoken to by God, who compares a basket of good figs to one full of rotten figs to those who obey God (the captives of Judah) and those who disobey Him (Zedekiah and his officials). And God’s reaction to these bad figs isn’t pretty, either (Jeremiah 24:10), “And I will send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence upon them until they are destroyed from the land which I gave to them and their forefathers.”

So, I guess the implication from this passage at least is if “bad” things happen to you, like natural disasters or disease, you probably had it coming, at least in this case. Of course, by nature humanity is not perfect and everyone screws up sometimes, no matter your religion or beliefs or lack of them. As written in Jeremiah (4:23), God says “For my people are foolish, they know me not; they are stupid children and they have no understanding. They are shrewd to do evil, but to do good they do not know.” So am I evil then for thinking it unjust that natural evils are metted out as punishment for this ignorance?  The stuff that I love, the stuff that we all love, will not protect us. These are ideas that I simply find difficult to accept; interesting that the argument that “people these days” call evil things good can go both ways; much of what the man on the quad preached I found deeply unethical, leaving me with a feeling of deep disapproval of his arguments. As I returned to the conference, the preacher was still at it, but now he had managed to gather a small, angry crowd about him by berating GLBT students and literally telling Somali students that the Koran was useful only as toilet paper. I guess publicly insulting people and enrage them is one way to further God’s definition of “good;” one horrible way. It took me a while to get over my shock at this deplorable display of faith; I had to wonder, why would anyone do this?

Isaiah: The Darkness

January 14, 2013
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Again, it has been far too long since I reported my progress, as I have recently (err, in July, anyway) started a position as catalog librarian for a small Lutheran liberal arts college situated on the bluffs above the Minnesota River. I have been really enjoying my time and learning new things, about both my profession, and traditional Lutheran belief as well. I shall discuss this in more detail in a future entry (which will be forth coming). Sometimes it feels as though the longer one neglects a project, the harder it is to restart, pick up where one left off- hey, it’s already been a few months, what’s one more day? And no, I did not go into hiding due to any fears of apocalypse during the Winter Solstice last month, even after having read so much apocalyptic imagery (dated joke, I know, this is 2013!). Well, no more! Sacred Book Projects presents, the Book of Isaiah!


The Book of Isaiah has been quite a conundrum for me. I have been finished with it for quite a while now, but I have been struggling to find something to say about it. Of course, procrastination (coupled with moving, a new job, and various other life changes) has, sadly, not kept the book fresh in my mind. I shall endeavor to do my best to regather my thoughts, for the main thing that has stuck with me is that Isaiah is a very interesting part of the Old Testament. Interesting, and dense. It is a dark, complex, conflicted section of the Bible, and it is difficult for me to fathom what I could write about now. This has contributed a bit to my procrastination, I fear, and I have not been devoting as much time as it warrants doing justice to Isaiah. There seems to be so much in the book that I could discuss, so much richly intriguing materials, with a definite tense, apocalyptic feeling. So much stuff seems to be happening in this book.

So, the book begins by noting that the following would be a vision had by the eponymous Isaiah (the son of Amoz), sent by God Himself. The rest of the chapter, then, seems to be God speaking personally, and it seems like it has been awhile since the Lord has had so much to say. Throughout the book, there seems to be a bit of an apocalyptic ambiance as God speaks of “sinful nation, people weighted down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly!” (1:4). Oh no, not this again! Chapters 13 through 19, for instance, have personalized warnings or oracles for a variety of rival nations and city-states, such as Egypt, Babylon, and Damascus, forecasting a lot of woe. It references great wars, the conquest by the Assyrians of much of the Israelites (sending them into exile), and the near destruction of Jerusalem itself by Sennacherib, an Assyrian king, whose forces were routed by “the Angel of Jehovah,” who “Struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, all of these were dead.” (37:36) Wow. Bleak. It’s been awhile since God has dealt with that many people in one swoop, but it emphasizes the dark nature of the book.

Over the long months that I have been pondering what to do about Isaiah, however, one of those weird phenomena of learning has been happening to me with unusual frequency. References to Isaiah have been popping up everywhere in all sorts of odd coincidences, some I cannot even remember now. Interesting how, when one leans of something, it seems to suddenly appear everywhere, even where it had not been noticed before. I can definitely see how this might cause people to feel that some meaning lies behind random occurrences of coincidence, even it merely means that one has become more aware of something that one had been ignorant of before. Christmas services, for instance. One of the Bible verses I can most clearly recall, after ears of listening to the Cambridge choirs Christmas pageants on MPR during the holidays have imprinted into my mind one, I found to be a quote from Isaiah, 9:6, “For unto us a Child is born,” (always remembered in a pre-teen British accent). I had always assumed that this came from the New Testament, but Isaiah seems to be one of the go to sections of the Bible for prophesy, and specifically prophets of Jesus, so I can see the reason that it continues to resonate in the Christian popular culture. I seem to have seen Isaiah quoted much more than many other Old Testament books that I’ve read in the course of my project. Why is this?

It is amazing how minor coincidences can really focus the attention on aspects of things that one might have missed otherwise. I wish I had kept better track of all the various places I encountered quotes from Isaiah, of which these are only an abbreviated list (of course, having paused for so long gave me plenty of time to gather examples). In addition to hearing Isaiah spoken of in several Christmas services I attended with my family during the holidays, Isaiah has popped up in songs, unrelated books I happened to read, and in books I’ve cataloged at work. One text I worked with had some interesting quotes from Isaiah Chapter 40, to show that God has precedent over geology, “Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; and the let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley” (40:4). Epic material, certainly, and no wonder able to provoke wonder in Bible students.

A great, heartrending essay by Kyle Minor, from the wonderful anthology 20 Something Essays by 20 Something Writers, “You Shall Go Out With Joy and Be Lead Forth With Peace,” draws deep parallels from Isaiah into Minor’s childhood as a victim of savage, brutal bullying in a fundamentalist Christian school. He explores this connection with Isaiah during those dark, terrible period in his life, Your country is waste, your cities burnt with fire. As Minor writes, “the difference between Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and New Testament disciples is that the joy in those old Jewish writings always rises from the deepest of darkness, and there is no gloss on the darkness.” During dark times, there seems to be solace in exploring a dark, violent prophet. (Seriously, check this anthology out; it’s good stuff).

This theme is also explored by musician John Darnielle, of one of my favorite bands, The Mountain Goats, who released a song that randomly shuffled into my play list as I was writing this, called “Isaiah 45:23.”

Like most of Darnielle’s song, it is a bittersweet reflection on mortality (in this case an ill elderly person in a nursing home looking forward to being free of their suffering). Isaiah 45:23, is quoted in the lyrics of the song, “let every knee be bent, and every tongue confess,” “‘cause I am not this body that imprisons me,” as the subject looks to their faith in a time of great personal fear and pain, and gaining consolation from this. The darkness and fear of Isaiah, it seems, inspires people during their own dark times. Darnielle’s intricate songwriting expresses this dichotomy with great style, singing “if my prayer goes unanswered, that’s all right, if my path fills with darkness and there is no sign of light, let me praise you for the good times.” Such expressions allow me to understand, at least a little bit, how people can gain meaning from the disparate writings of an ancient desert people, and I hope that remains one of the major goals of my project as I continue into the next mysterious book, Jeremiah.

Singing the Songs of Solomon: Music and the Sacred Books Project

March 1, 2012

I have been meaning to start a discussion of the aspect of musical and artistic expression in religions, and the Songs of Solomon make as good an excuse as any. The Song of Solomon (or the Song of Songs, Canticle of Canticles, and other translations) almost does not seem to fit into the Bible. What a strange book, at least compared to the biblical standard set so far! Nary a mention of God to be found anywhere? To me, it seems rather out of place with an almost “classical” sense of romance. The Song of Solomon (so named for a presumption that it was written by Solomon, legendary for the number of wives and mistresses he was supposed to have had) seems to deal exclusively with a couple in love, (a bride and bridesgroom, according to this translation) who sing a duet about their desire and passion for each other. The words get pretty heated, and in the throws of passion our lovers are want to pay their beloved some rather odd compliments, as in “Your teeth are like a flock of newly shorn ewes which have come up from their washing, all of which bear twins” (4:2), and “his locks are like clusters of dates” (5:11). Perhaps, in biblical times, there was nothing more beautiful than your crops and livestock. Comparing someone to an antelope or pomegranates would probably come off as a bit odd today, though carved ivory or honey would still probably be acceptable.

The Song of Solomon, in general, is a very sensual piece of writing containing such lines as “On my bed night after night I sought him Whom my soul loves” (3:1). It is full of desire, physical and emotional, but for both the bride and groom, the attraction seems to be mainly about appearance and longing. After I did a little research, I found that a common Christian and Jewish interpretation of the entire book is that it is not about the love of a man and woman at all, but really about the love of God for Israel or of Jesus and his followers. The pure sexual desire and passion spoken of by the two in the Songs of Solomon makes this seem, to me, a little odd, even a bit disturbing. I can’t help thinking about how the book fits in to an entirely “literal” interpretation of the Bible, and it is easy to see why Jewish and Christian scholars through the ages have had trouble including the Song of Songs in the Bible at all.

I also wondered, as I read, what the “songs” part of the title meant. Where these lines literally to be sung, as in a duet? A little online research did not provide much insight into its musical background, but there does seem to be little difference between chanting, singing, or praying, in ancient cultures. There definitely seems to be a musical element. It is probably impossible to actually recreate the music, if any, that at what time may have actually accompanied the sultry poems of the Song of Songs.

Anyway, all of this talk of music and song has reminded me of a topic that I had been meaning to discuss for awhile; religious music and the Sacred Book Project. One of the main things that has stuck with my from my time going to church throughout my childhood and adolescence has been the music. I can still recall favorite pieces of music I have heard at various Lutheran religious services over the years. I was even a part of the childrens’ choir for awhile (though I can’t really remember any of the songs we sung there). The hymns and choirs seemed somehow grand to me, especially at holidays, such as Christmas of course, but also even at more somber events such as for the current season of Lent. I was particularly enthralled by the more majestic traditional Lutheran classics such as Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” I have to admit feeling a bit funny writing this, as for years, in spite of having such an enjoyment of music, and listening to MPR’s classical station as a kid for years, I never really picked up much understanding or knowledge of any forms of music. It’s a bit of a stretch for me to pretend any sort of understanding of Johann Sebastian Bach’s work; I’m pretty clueless when it comes to anything musically related and in the past have generally referred to musical pieces by saying something like, “You know, its the one that goes like, bum bum ba ba bum.” Over the past few months, though, I have been attempting to improve my musical exposure (following similar impulses to the Sacred Books Project; a self centered desire to know more), putting actual titles to various pieces of music that I had heard before but knew little about. Specifically, I am studying “1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die,” (yeah, I do love lists, I won’t deny it) which seems to be a good and comprehensive, if not entirely helpful, list for a beginner such as myself. As I go through the entries on the many classical pieces the authors believe are worth listening to (some of which I had heard before and enjoyed on the radio, or in church, and can now put a name to), it is not surprising to see how influential the various Christian churches have been in inspiring music.

This is another reminder to me of why I am attempting this project; so much of human creativity over the centuries and to today are influenced or informed by religious beliefs. Even I do not happen to share those beliefs, I feel that I can only grow by learning more about where they are coming from, and why they are inspired. Without this, much of art, literature, and human life in general, would remain opaque to me. It also makes really nice background music as I read the Bible, and I’ll have to look up music from other cultures as I progress with the Sacred Books Project. Getting back to the Song of Solomon, it seems to have inspired quite a few songs over the years, including a motet (a multi-voice setting of religious text, usually in Latin, used in church services) by the French choirmaster Antoine Busnoys in the late fifteenth century, “Anima mea liquefacta est,” or “My soul failed.” While Busnoys’ late Medieval/early Renaissance chanting (or moaning) is not really to my tastes, it really adds another layer of sensation, audio, to my readings and I am glad I happened to have found it while reading the Song of Solomon. I love to make connections and expand my awareness of how things relate to other things, this has been one of my favorite aspects of the project so far.

Anyway, a recent album by one of my favorite bands, The Mountain Goats, “Life of the World to Come,” is entirely based around biblical verses, including one for the next book I will be starting into, Isiah, specifically, Isiah 45:23. I don’t know if this will heighten my understanding of Isiah (I really have no idea what to expect here), but it will certainly heighten my enjoyment.


February 20, 2012
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For such a short work, the Book of Ecclesiastes certainly provided some food for thought. It really had to mull it over and dwell on this one for awhile after digesting it to come to what I wanted to say. In a mere eleven pages, Ecclesiastes packed more flavor than I have seen in much of the Old Testament so far. The eponymous “Preacher,” explained as a son of David, wrestles with ideas regarding many of the same questions, the “meaning of life” and all that, that still plagues people of all cultures to this day. It is a chapter like this one that illustrates to me why the Bible continues to be a source of philosophy in modern Western culture, both religious and secular, and why such ancient books are, er, still to be taken seriously, I guess, not only as works of literature but as sources of wisdom.

This was a bit more of what I expected proverbs to be like. Pithy statements that, if you can believe it, can still really relate to today. Ecclesiastes had many of the biblical passages that I could remember having heard before in the Old Testament so far. Things like “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” (1:2) and “So there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9), in addition to the “appointed time for every thing” series of statements from 3:1 to 8. While I may have issues with some of the philosophies related in the book, this is very evocative writing. In chapter 2, the preacher discusses the story of a very prosperous citizen with everything he wants (fruit trees, vineyards… male and female slaves) and yet still feels unfulfilled, “thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun (2:11).”

Success does not always make people happy; questions of the meaning of life and death remain for everyone. No one is perfect and “there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins (7:20).” Religion is one of the major ways people respond to this and Ecclesiastes reminded me of that without making me cringe at various atrocities that most people distance themselves from; the hitting of children with beating sticks, the genocides, the slavery, the exhortations against the eating of owls or of getting tattoos, those sorts of things that all too often pop up in the Old Testament’s ancient writings. Well, slavery is still acceptable in Ecclesiastes, but, hey, this was written several thousand years ago. It is interesting that in Chapter 9, the Preacher stresses equality, adding “It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked.” Does this mean that slaves and slave owners alike are “judged” equally, with none having an advantage in religion. But, wait, one fate for the righteous and the wicked? Does that imply that human life of any kind truly does not matter? This seems a bit, er, difficult to come to terms with! 4:2, “So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living.” Okay, that’s a bit stark.

The Preacher discusses those fears and of not being sure what the point of all of the work that they do, they things they love and achieve, will be in the grand scheme of things, but he seems to be rather contradictory on the answers to these yearning feelings. Again, in Chapter 9, for instance, the Preacher states “eat your bread in happiness, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works (9:7).” I’ve just noticed that I’ve neglected mentioning God in my discussion yet. The Preachers preaching certainly discusses God and His role quite prominently in his preaching, but to me, the role of the deity still remains opaque. While God might “approve your works,” He also is to be feared. But while “God is in Heaven and you are on the earth” (5:2), it may be that you will never find yourself there.“Whatever your had finds to do, verily, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or wisdom in Sheol where you are going” (9:10). Again with this Sheol place. So is the lesson to make the best of life now, because there is nothing after? Or just nothing that one could comprehend? There still seems to be little like the modern conception of heaven being evoked by the Preacher, and seems to imply that, if there is an afterlife at all, it is equally miserable for everyone. The Preacher seems to be working though some interesting paradoxes, particularly the “why bad things happen to good people” paradox. Interesting ideas, but not really answered here. What are some answers that can be drawn from Ecclesiastes deeply introspective take on life’s futility and the inevitability of death, and the place of God in these questions? Food for thought, certainly.

I cannot admit to being entirely comforted by the Preachers points. Regardless, Ecclesiastes was a very thought-provoking and evocative book that really gives a good backdrop for all manner of philosophical and religious discussions and is a perfect example of why I am attempting this project.

Next up, as I continue with my vanities, the Song of Solomon, which appears to be a similarly concentrated text, and I am curious to see what topics it will bring up. For now, I think I’ll take a break from reading and writing for a couple hours as, and go take a bike ride or something as “the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearing to the body.” (12:12). And I have been feeling a bit cooped up lately and should take advantage of the weather (I just can’t seem to get used to the idea that it’s actually 40 plus outside in February).

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