Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Wisdom, Justice And Mercy

Ben responds to my previous sulphurous spew with a little acid of his own. Fair enough. I was asking for it.

Me:

If all of the People of the Book idealise three attributes in their deity, wisdom, justice and mercy, why the fuck is it that they all consistently and repeatedly pervert these into an irrational vengeful ruthlessness?

Ben:

That's us, man. Consistently. I for one like to kick kittens before breakfast each day. On account of my arrested moral development, mindless adherence to dogma, and inability to distinguish my emotions from reality. Which is, you know, identical with the whole Judaism thing.

I didn't use to think so, but then, you know, there was the whole Baruch Goldstein incident, and so I was like "well HECK -- I guess I must be an immoral loonie too! 'Cause look, we both wear *the same little hats*!!"

Thank heaven you Tammuz-worshippin' fellas aren't given to allowing your emotions to dilute your powers of careful and responsible reasoning. Nice to know we can count on someone.

For the record, I don't worship Tammuz; I just lament his death. But to answer the point (with a little less vitriol this time)...

He's right to pick that piece of rhetoric, actually; it should've been worded differently in retrospect. The "they all" in the "why" reads as "all of those specific believers individually" where I meant it to refer to the Big Three as the sets of believers -- i.e. the question should really be: Why is it that within these three religions the concepts of wisdom, justice and mercy are consistently and repeatedly perverted into an irrational vengeful ruthlessness? I didn't mean to imply that every single believer, as an individual, "consistently and repeatedly" takes a set of spurious moral absolutes and decides that it's their God-given right -- nay, duty -- to smite the evil deus-defying heathens who, by not adhering to those dictates, can be justifiably demonised as "abominations in the eyes of God". What I am saying is that it's a pattern, a recurring feature in monotheism, that this sort of moralistic fervour erupts time and time again, and that rather than writing the pogroms and inquisitions and jihads and crusades off as aberrations I think it's high time we started calling the monotheist religions out on this tendency to go all Smite The Unbeliever on us.

Examples?

The destruction of Sodom is pretty fucking ruthless; there's not much mercy shown there. It's vengeful too, justified as punishment for sexual crimes. And it's irrational, I'd say, the criminality of those sexual acts being based on a "this is disgusting therefore it is evil" argument which boils down to plain old prejudice. What feels shameful must be sinful.

We can shrug and say, yeah, but hey, that's just a legend from the second millenium BCE... but that's missing the point. All of the Big Three include that story in their holy scriptures. Whether taken as truth or legend that story is a picture of irrational vengeful ruthlessness in action as a good thing. It has a moral message which comes through loud and clear, and to this day that story is taken as the all-clear for homophobia by many believers.

And rightly so, I think. That moral message is fairly unequivocal. I am an abomination in the eyes of God and deserve to be wiped off the face of the planet.

Cheers, God. That's nice to know.

I'd argue that this is only one example amongst many in the scriptures. YHVH gets pissed off at humanity and wipes out all but one man and his family in the Flood -- and that act of genocide is portrayed as fine and dandy; YHVH makes the rules so he's quite entitled to perpetrate genocide if he thinks we deserve it for miscegenation (albeit miscegenation with angels). The firstborn of the Egyptians get wiped out in punishment for the crime of an autocratic Pharoah they can hardly vote out of office; man, in terms of wisdom, justice and mercy that makes Kaiser Soze look like Ghandi. David is a hero for the steaming mound of Philistine foreskins he brings back; fair enough, it's a war, but it's a bit sodding Colonel Kurtz as far as pacification of the enemy goes. And the Nabiim rail against the coastal city-states of Byblos, Sidon and Tyre for their "decadence", for the fact that they were mercantile melting-pots where different cultures tolerated each other's weird beliefs and ways of living, where diversity was not a threat but an opportunity, and where sex was seen as sacred rather than sinful; that the Nabiim reacted to this culture with such vitriol as they did may well be partly down to political, nationalistic enmity but it's articulated by them in terms of prejudice, vengeance and extermination.

Some might argue that these myths and messages have to be understood in the context of the time. I agree. But I don't think we can just cherry-pick our myths and messages from the scriptures, ignoring this part, reinterpreting that part, editing and exegesising it to suit our own individual ethics. Or rather, I think that we can (and do) take this approach but that in doing so religiously rather than philosophically we tacitly accept that others who do the same, who hone in on the very areas we've discarded, are quite entitled to cite those scriptures as holy revelations rather than human inventions. If we accept the validatory authority of those texts as divinely-inspired scripture, if we validate those texts as divinely authoritative, the Word of God, treat them as articles of faith rather than grist for the philosophical mill, then we're complicit, I think, in their use as justification for what I call irrational, vengeful ruthlessness.

Further, if those scriptures can be used as justification for irrational, vengeful ruthlessness, and are used in that way over and over and over again, I think you have to question whether that's to do with some feature of the texts. It's too glib and easy to just say that people can read into them what they will, that the zealots, jihadists and crusaders will just magically find what they're looking for because they're nasty fucked-up people who can twist the Word of God any which way they want. That's just too bloody complacent and too bloody convenient. I think monotheism has some simple questions to answer:

1. In what sort of ideological system can the destruction of Sodom be evaluated as an act of wisdom, justice and mercy? 2. Does that sort of ideological system validate other analogous acts of destruction by applying the same principles? 3. What are those principles exactly?

I think there are some simple answers to those questions:

1. A religious value system which resolves apparent contradictions with appeals to the ineffable nature of God (which trumps wisdom), the absolute authority of his decrees (which trumps justice) and the concept of sin (which trumps mercy). 2. Yes, as long as those acts of destruction can be represented as desired by God, executed according to his decree, as punishment or prevention of sin. 3. The fundamental principles are Faith, Scripture and Sin.

So, I'm not arguing that this unholy trinity of features necessarily ethically cripples all believers without exception, turning them all into dogmatic, kitten-kicking zealots, jihadists and crusaders. What I am arguing is that this sort of ideological system is an institutionalised version of Kohlberg's "law and order orientation". I don't doubt that it can and does serve as a stepping-stone for many believers, and that the particular beliefs and values they learn within this framework subsequently inform the individual ethics they work out in what Kohlberg calls the post-conventional stage. But I do think it can and does also serve as a barrier. It's a self-sustaining system, after all. Faith, Scripture and Sin all feed off each other as concepts, validate each other; if we question one of those principles the others are there to push us back into line. If you really think wisdom, justice and mercy are admirable characteristics that one shoud aspire to then I think you have to put away those childish things.

There's no wisdom that doesn't challenge faith. There's no justice that doesn't challenge scripture. And there's no mercy that doesn't challenge the very idea of sin. I honestly think, all bile and bluster aside, that it's in our nature to try, and that maybe, just maybe, there's some small part of those institutions -- an open doorway in the words "wisdom, justice and mercy" -- which is there simply as a way out. But I think the larger part of those institutions consists of walls and bars and trustee inmates working as guards, meting out rewards and punishments in a brutal regime. Faith is our meds. Scripture is our straitjacket. And Sin is the madness that keeps us sitting in the corner with our arms around our knees, rocking back and forth, too busy torturing ourselves with our own imaginations to see the exit sign staring us in the face.

24 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's often spouted that Sodom (and Gomorrah) were destroyed because they had wild wacky weasel sex. I have no idea where this line of thinking came from, when it's clearly stated in Ezekiel (which covers this part of their history) that the two were destroyed because they "were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things..." It was the combination of wealth, and lack of care for those who don't have it, that is the primary cause, not whether anyone was getting horizontal.

And it's crazy that I know this, considering I'm an atheist.

6:48 am  
Blogger Lawrence said...

The association of Sodom with anal intercourse (and, by implication, gay sex) didn’t emerge until the thirteenth century CE. As anon points out, earlier commentators followed Ezekiel in identifying the reason for their destruction as their selfish decadence and idolatry. As for the Genesis story itself, what I see when I read it is a story about the violation of hospitality.

Was the destruction of Sodom a proportionate response? Interestingly even the compilers of Genesis found themselves wrestling with that one. Note that the story is immediately preceded by Abraham extracting from God a promise that if ten righteous men could be found in the city, it would be spared.

8:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rather than picking nits (I leave that for our scripture scholars and, of course "Reallydrunk Hal"), I'll just say, from the bottom of my heart, I _love_ you, man. (Don't take that the wrong way.)

--Jim

7:47 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Jim: Thanks. But "taking it the wrong way" is what this is all about (sorry, couldn't resist).

Anon, Lawrence: The association of Sodom and anal intercourse is there in the text...

"They called to Lot, Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out so we can have sex with them."

I think its disingenuous to ignore this fairly central aspect of the story, to find it strange and baffling that anyone could possibly read an anti-gay message into the story. The villains are a mob of ass-hungry homos. Their villainy is demonstrated by their ass-hungry homo attempt to rape God's angels. And you don't see where that whole "it's about how bad homos are" thang comes from? Granted, you are quite correct; God does not actually specify in the text the exact nature of the outcry against the cities, or what sin precisely is so grevious that it validates ethnic cleansing.

BUT...

I think your theological approach in looking for the indictment in other scripture is dead wrong. The cardinal error (I think) with such theological arguments is that they treat the text as holy scripture. As such any apparent inconsistency or absence is to be ironed out or illuminated by reference to other holy scripture, since the assumption is that an authoritative reading can be found. There is a definitive truth to be found, the intended meaning of the author, God. Somewhere in the whole confused mess of myths and messages God has, of course, provided the *real meaning*, if we can only search it out by a process of exegesis. So you use the appeal to authority -- what Ezekial and other commentators claim is the *real meaning*. Ezekial being digniified as holy scripture by his inclusion in the Christian canon means you take his reading as authoritative rather than just another critical commentary with its own political and moral agenda.

As I say, I think that's a mistake in the theological approach. I don't think there is an authoritative reading and I think the priestly process of cross-referencing and juxtaposing different parts of the scripture is ultimately, as often as not, simply an attempt to validate one's own personal ethical position by reconstructing the texts to suit. The application of the Nabiim as exegesis of the Torah is like the application of Paul as exegesis of the Gospels; these later discourses build a complex labyrinth of assumptions and interpretations, shaped as much by the personal, political agenda of the exegesist as anything, a labyrinth which nevertheless has the core story at its heart, there to be read as a story, a discourse which we need to deconstruct, I think, rather than reconstruct, retro-fitting it with all these anotations and amendments.

So if we want to draw out the moral message of the Sodom story, I think we're better to stick to the actual text or, if we're looking at its context, to the text's immediate cultural / critical surroundings. The rest of the Torah is relevant, I think, to a study of the subtext of the Sodom story, the laws and legends, myths and histories of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. These are discourses of relevance in the actual composition of the Sodom story rather than in the subsequent interpretation.

So I think we do better to look for the moral message in the Sodom story as we would with any other fictive text, in the substance of it, in the narrative, in the tropes and the techniques it uses and how it uses them.

The Sodom story doesn't explicate God's rationale for the destruction. What it does is what all good stories do: show don't tell. You know how it works, Lawrence. If the reader is really going to believe that Sodom and Gomorrah got what was coming to them then they have to be shown the people being wicked. So they are. The Sodomites are characterised as a mob of predatory faggots, bent on the rape of the visiting angels. Yes, you can argue that the story is *really* about a violation of hospitality but only if you ignore the homosexuality, and only because if you do so, there is no other form of wickedness presented within the text. The question is: are we really meant, as readers, to be outraged solely or even mainly by the violation of hospitality, or is the trope of homosexuality of equal or even more importance in how the story imparts its message and what message precisely it imparts?

Given that Leviticus describes gay sex as tow'ebah -- "detestable" or "an abomination" -- as far as God is concerned, I think the real emotional button-pushing of the Sodom story is clear as day. To the reader of the time, and to many readers now, the dramatic force of that story comes from the gut reaction of detestation, of moral disgust. It's this that serves as signifier of the Sodomites' wickedness, I would argue, the disgust at the act, the fear of male rape, the sheer horror and shame of this "abomination" rather than any violation of the social imperative of hospitality. The dishonour of being inhospitable is of far less import than the dishonour of being "detestable" in the eyes of God. Even more specifically, I would argue, if the pattern of homophobia in this culture is consistent with the general picture throughout various cultures of history then the even deeper shamefulness of being the passive participant can be seen as a large part of that emotive power. The angels articulate, with swords of fire, the "homosexual panic", the irrational fear that a straight man might be emasculated, feminised by the act of penetration. The story patently exploits this homophobia for dramatic purposes, capitalising on the taboo status of homosexuality to validate, for the reader, the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah.

So the Nabiim later used Sodom as a shorthand symbol for "decadence" in their rants against the wicked practices of Sidon, Byblos, Tyre, Babylon, or (in Ezekial's case) Jerusalem (because he's not simply recounting the history of Sodom, but rather using this example as a threat against Jerusalem; Ezekial's "commentary on Sodom" is not a historian's objective analysis but a polemical appropriation of the story to serve his personal, political agenda). So were they more concerned about the social inequities or the sexual iniquities? Four fifths of that chapter of Ezekial, after all, is an allegorical portrait of Jerusalem as a harlot, dressed up in pretty garments and jewels, prostituting herself to the Egyptians and so on, right down to:

"You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made male idols and engaged in prostitution with them."

Whores and homosexuals. These are the tireless tropes used time and again in holy scriptures and the rhetoric of the true believer to exemplify the "decadence" of liberal, mercantile cultures who don't buy into the whole notion of sin, predicated as it is on a neurotic repression of desire and the exploitation of the subsequent sense of shame as a mechanism for social control in the form of mores -- absolute laws, proscriptions and prescriptions by which an individual can measure their status against that of others, evaluating everyone in terms of conformance to an abstract "social order". Whores and homosexuals are the bogeymen who define the boundaries of that social order, marginalised, scapegoated in order to establish the limits of acceptable behaviour, to ground the concept of sin in symbols of sexual and sensual liberty.

Anyway, as a last comment, just to illustrate my point about the theological application of later discourses and how, I think, this disguises and disfigures the core meanings we might otherwise glean from a study of the actual text, let's compare and contrast the explicit message of Paul-as-commentator with the implicit message of Christ-as-narrative. We have Romans 1:26-27:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

And we have John 8:7-11, where Jesus is asked to judge a woman caught in adultery:

When they continued asking him, he straightened up, and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

Q1. a) Discuss the narrative importance of Jesus's stooping down to write in the ground. What does that action tell us about his attitude? What message is the story trying to convey in that action?

b) Compare this with Paul's attitude, with specific reference to the affective import of his vocabulary. How is this vocabulary employed to construct the Paul character as an "unreliable narrator"?

8:23 pm  
Anonymous AliceB said...

Hal,

I think you'd find Sam Harris' THE END OF FAITH: RELIGION, TERROR, AND THE FUTURE OF REASON really interesting. Much of what you argue appears there--although his analysis concentrates mostly on Islam.

Best,
Alice

2:45 am  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Whether or not it's in the text (and it's there as well as those other things mentioned above in Ezekiel) that the story of Sodom gives the okay for homophobia and prejudice against homosexuals, it's how it's often read and referred to these days. I have found that, when speaking about the Bible with people, what the Bible actually says has very little value because what you're really speaking about is that person's values and beliefs, which aren't really what the Bible always advocates, even though they say (and I think are self-convinced) that it does.

7:04 am  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Yeesh. A lot to respond to here, and I love a debate that matters with an opponent truly worth debating (and where, I suspect, it won't just turn out to be a question of semantics). I'm in a flurry of packing, today, though, leaving for Texas for a week on a farm -- so we'll see how far I can get, and if I'm pulled away keep the fire warm til' I get back, eh?

So I'll start with the bottom line.

As I'm sure you can imagine, I'm not interested in being excused with an "oh, Ben, I didn't mean *you* -- you're not like the rest of them."

What I'm specifically responding to is your erasure of the religious left and middle; your characterization of religious believers who aren't politicized fundamentalists -- like, you know, me, and pretty much everyone in South America and Indonesia, and so on -- as complicit fellow travelers of the fundies, clinging to the monotheisms out of some combination of nostalgia, moral timidity, and confusion.

Whereas actually it looks to me like you're the one abetting the enemy. Because, you know, they *love* this shit. They're eating it up with a spoon.

You've completely bought into their interpretation of scripture; that God is a big guy up there who likes our praise; that the only valid reading of the Bible is to approve and applaud every massacre and brutal nonsensical law and tribal custom they can frame in terms of their very modern prejudices and political agendas, and ignore everything that doesn't fit with them.

Your interpretation of the Sodom story seems every bit as disingenious as the one you criticize. You're saying that in a story where a town is destroyed after its inhabitants try to gang-rape some innocent travelers, the presumed moral to be drawn is that the problem is gay sex.

What the fuck?

Don't you think it's more likely a Middle Eastern tall tale about hospitality -- contrasting, with a great deal of black humor, the worst way to welcome a guest (gang-rape him) with the most absurdly exaggerated display of hospitality (sacrifice the virginity of your daughters)?

Sure, it's a story from a homophobic culture -- one in which gay rape is more demeaning than straight rape. Sure, the story uses that as a shocker, for extra punch, to drive home the point. If you're arguing that the culture of the ancient Israelites was homophobic and sexist and xenophobic, well, duh.

Is Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" a manual for wife-beating?

Can you find me a single instance in the text where God punishes anybody for a purely sexual sin? (Not Onan, mind you, whose sin is that he reneges on a contract -- he does a great moral wrong in refusing to give his brother's wife an heir, depriving her of status and legitimacy -- masturbation is just the mechanism).

Of course, the laws proscribe male (not female) homosexuality -- in the same breath as proscribing wearing linen and cotton together, and a host of dietary injunctions, and a bunch of other stuff that makes it clear that we're talking about the laws specific to the Israelites of that time and place. There they are, buried in the midst of a host of other obsolete laws which it would be absurd to apply to the modern world. Do you think your attention would be so drawn to them, if it wasn't for the (hybrid-fabric wearing, pork-eating) fundies willfully distorting the text to further their agenda of hate?

Now, I'm not saying the God of the Hebrew Bible is a nice fellow. If you insist on construing him as a fellow, you'd have to say he's not just a brutal fuck -- he's *crazily* brutal. He doesn't punish Pharaoh for not freeing the slaves -- he *hardens Pharaoh's heart* so that he can punish him for freeing the slaves. He comes to kill Moses, absolutely unprovoked, after just assigning him the mission central to the book's plot.

Rather than assuming, though, that the composers of this text and its audience throughout the ages are universally idiots, or too cowed by institutional violence to question the obvious, isn't it possible that you -- and the fundies -- are *reading the book wrong*?

Isn't it possible that you aren't supposed to be reading God as "the Boss", but rather as "the World"? That God is -- a little more than a metaphor, maybe -- but not some Joe up on cloud 9m either? Isn't it possible -- I mean, if you really read the Bible, isn't it *obvious* -- that the *intent* is to portray God as capricious and arbitrarily brutal -- because the *world* is capricious and arbitrarily brutal? And yet to claim, at the same time, in tension with that, that God (the Universe, mind -- not some guy) loves us, that we are to love God with all our minds, all our hearts, all our souls? God who loves AIDS and tigers and nebulae just exactly as much as He loves us, who lets babies die and sends the tsunami. That God. Who is not a guy. He is, perhaps, a way of talking about what it is that you love, when you love life despite the tsunami.

But even that is turning the Bible into a moral lesson, an instruction -- which is still, really, playing into the fundies' hands. Instead of reading it as a story, endlessly fascinating and infuriating and horrifying and rich; a stage for ethical exploration rather than a replacement for it.

Isn't it possible that even while you're asking us to read the book with fresh eyes and look at its plain sense, your reading of it is posioned by the political uses to which it's been put?

See, here, look:

Why is it that within these three religions the concepts of wisdom, justice and mercy are consistently and repeatedly perverted into an irrational vengeful ruthlessness?

Right. Exactly. Fucking exactly.

That's the prophetic question.

It's Isaiah's question. It's Micah's question. It's Jesus's question. It's John Brown's question. It's Muhammad Abduh's question. It's Martin Luther King's question.

But you know what the difference between a prophet and a demagogue is?

And I'm saying this because, you know, your last rant post? I didn't hate it all. You were getting a lot of nodding and "Amen, brother"s out of me. Because of course: of course monotheism is deeply fucked up. Of course, as a set of institutions, it is, in part -- maybe mostly -- an endless vicious cycle of corruption, abuse, fucked-up denial, hatred of the body and women, holy war, xenophobia, justification of evil. Man, I'm with you on that.

You're welcome to want no part of it. Hell, I don't really know why you would. I'm a member of a tribal religion, not a world religion -- note that our traditional response to prospective converts is one of incredulity: why would you want this hassle?

But here's the thing -- why you were weaving between the prophetic voice, and amen, and the voice of the demagogue.

The prophet says: we have sinned and must change
The demagogue says: those guys over there have sinned, and must be changed (or eliminated)

Note, again, that I'm using the traditional Jewish definition of sin, not whatever fucked up incompatible-with-mercy version of it the fundies have foisted upon you. Sin means to miss the mark. We've missed the mark, prophets say.

Hmm... running out of time here, I'll have to clarify the prophets and demagogues thing later. I'm not saying atheists shouldn't criticize monotheists. I'm not saying you're not welcome to argue that monotheism is inherently misguided and corrupting.

Anyway.

More to the point:

You seem to accept that my usage of religion might be Kohlbergian post-conventional; that it might include a faith involving endless questioning, scripture as a starting point for moral wrestling, sin that invites mercy; that I might stand with you in my horror at Joshua's massacre of the Canaanites and God's "punishing" minor deviations from arcane ritual with immolation; that I too might love the crazy, cosmopolitan, sensual, questioning life of the city to the austere life of a goatherding desert patriarchy.

But you also seem to insist that this is an idiosyncratic, individual development of my own, something I arrived at after leaving religion behind as a stepping stone.

Bullshit. It's what I learned at my parents' knee. I didn't arrive at it past Judaism, but through Judaism.

The hugely successful recent tactic of fundamentalism is to frame the debate in terms of ritual law, including ritual law falsely construed as moral law. Feeding the hungry, freeing the bonds of the oppressed, clothing the naked, speaking the truth to power, those aren't religious values, they're just stuff everybody knows, so they don't matter. The real issues are, are you having sex the right way? Are you eating the right foods? Have you recaptured the Temple from the infidel?

Isaiah doesn't count, only Leviticus.

And you agree with them. You conspire in sidelining and making invisible religious liberals -- the folks who brought you the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement, all those pastors of those goofy, inoffensive, whitebread denominations -- the Congregationalists, the reform Jews, the Muhammadiyah -- who married a lot of those couples in San Francisco and Massachusetts who recently stood up for their civil rights. You think Jerry Falwell has the true religion, and Martin Luther King is misled.

I am the heir of an *ancient tradition* of construing wisdom, justice, and mercy as paramount, of questioning scripture, puzzling and grieving over the brutal and bizarre aspects of the traditions we've inherited, and of mending the world, man.

I don't claim we know what we're doing. I don't think you should join up. I don't think we've done any better job at things than secular liberals. I think we have a lot of shit of our own even apart from the fundies, and I'm not asking you to excuse it. I'm not asking you to agree with monotheism. I'm not asking you to stop arguing that it's intrinsically corrupting (indeed, I'm asking you to pick up that argument with me when I next manage to get online)

I'm just asking you to notice that we exist. Not as a milder version of the religion you hate, but as a force which has been fighting it for twenty-five hundred years.

Point the gun over there, mate -- over there.

7:11 pm  
Blogger Trent said...

The sexuality of the Sodom story, like that of Onan, has been confused. (Look up both in the dictionary, then compare to the originals.)

First off, there's nothing consensual about the behavior of the Sodomites. These guys are gang rapists. Surely, you don't advocate that.

Second, they're awfully bold about it as well. Isaiah comments on this repentant nature toward their criminality.

Third, and possibly worst of all, note in chapter 18 that there is a cry from Sodom & Gom. Who of S&G is crying to God? Surely not the guilty. In Luke 18:7, the elect cry out to God to be avenged. And most familiarly (not many pages previous to the story in question), Abel's blood had cried out to God. In other words, the men of S&G were gang rapists and murderers.

You can say that some of the religious have misinterpreted this scripture to be about those who prefer anal probing, but can you truly sympathize for the loss of unrepentant people who glory in raping and killing?

(I can't find it now (maybe because it doesn't exist except in my mind), but something I read once lead me to believe that the behavior of these people led God to be disagreeable toward homosexuality. I have sympathy for those whose peaceful lifestyles appear to come into conflict with the scripture, but my sympathy wanes for folks like those of S & G.)

7:12 pm  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

(One last thing that I should add is I don't actually mean even to implicate all "fundamentalists "with an "agenda of hate". A lot of them, yeah -- my revulsion for the "god hates fags" crowd is immense. But I think a lot of people who construe the Bible a lot more literally than I, and whom I disagree with sharply in terms of religious ideology, are ashamed and horrified at the political hatred exercised in their name. Just to be really clear about whom I want the gun pointed at. :-> )

7:17 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Ben: Cool. I'm more than glad to get into a proper debate about this. There's a lot of meat to what you say, though, so it'll take a couple of posts at least to respond. I'm going to come back to the big questions of monotheism and moralism in general with a later post and respond to a few specific points first.

Your interpretation of the Sodom story seems every bit as disingenious as the one you criticize. You're saying that in a story where a town is destroyed after its inhabitants try to gang-rape some innocent travelers, the presumed moral to be drawn is that the problem is gay sex.

What the fuck?

Don't you think it's more likely a Middle Eastern tall tale about hospitality -- contrasting, with a great deal of black humor, the worst way to welcome a guest (gang-rape him) with the most absurdly exaggerated display of hospitality (sacrifice the virginity of your daughters)?

Sure, it's a story from a homophobic culture -- one in which gay rape is more demeaning than straight rape. Sure, the story uses that as a shocker, for extra punch, to drive home the point. If you're arguing that the culture of the ancient Israelites was homophobic and sexist and xenophobic, well, duh.

Is Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" a manual for wife-beating?


Is the scene in "Birth of A Nation" where the blacks go on the rampage, looking for all them white women-folk to gang-rape, with the KKK riding in to save the day, simply a story about rampaging gang-rapists, or is it a story about rampaging black gang-rapists?

The question that has to be asked, I think, is why -- in terms of narrative function -- the Sodomites react to the arrival of strangers as an ass-hungry mob of would-be gang-rapists. The contrast of good versus bad hospitality... sure, that's the moral crux of the story, but is the gay rape just added spice, simply an extra emotional punch, or is it significant in the same way the blackness of the rampaging would-be rapists is in "Birth of a Nation"?

I think it is, though not in exactly the same way, not in a simple "gays are bad, m'kay" way.

I don't read the Sodom story as black humour, a tall tale; I think it fits far more in the mould of the urban legend -- like The Hippy Babysitter -- or the unbowdlerised versions of Little Red Riding Hood, etcetera. It utilises horror rather than humour, to transmit its moral message. So, what is that message?

Actually, I think it's more complex than either "gays are ass-hungry predators with no control of their sexual impulses" or "bad hospitality is a sin and God will smite you for it". Both of those are superficial readings and both attempt to ascribe an authoritative interpretation. I may not have made this at all clear, but I'm not saying the homophobic disgust/fear is what the Sodom story is *truly*, *singularly*, *about*. What I'm saying is that the homophobic disgust/fear of the story is more than cultural baggage; it's a signifier important to the moral we construct as reader.

Now, to be fair, I don't think the gayness of the would-be rapists is an intentional signifier like the blackness of the would-be rapists is in that scene in "Birth of a Nation"; that would be, to say the least, unlikely given that "gayness" in that sense is an entirely modern construct, entirely out of place in that context. However I do think the concept of (homo)sexual desire unrestrained is being used to signify the depravity of the Sodomites just as (inter-racial) sexual desire unrestrained is being used to signify the depravity of the blacks in "Birth of a Nation".

What we're being shown, I think, is what it is about the Sodomites that makes them worthy of extermination, just as "Birth of a Nation" is showing us why the negro must be kept under control. And as with all good propaganda I think it functions on two levels -- offering a textual rationale in the shape of an ethically monstrous result (men bent on rape rampaging round a town, beseiging the innocent), but underpinning this with a subtextual rationale which is founded in the logic of prejudice, which is to say the logic of affect (inter-racial or homosexual desire is an abomination (disgust); that which is abomination must be repressed or exterminated (hate); repressed desire unleashed is all-consuming (fear); therefore extermination is the justified course (cue the angels with swords of fire and the KKK on their white chargers, and cue the celebratory rapture of righteous schadenfreude)).

Why is it this particular signifier -- (homo)sexual desire unleashed -- that's used? Why are the men of Sodom out for ass rather than money or blood, rather than more gold for the coffers or sacrifices to their pagan idols, both of which would be more consistent with Ezekial's indictment and the general indictment of the Canaanite and later Phoenician cultures for decadence and idolatry? My argument is that the story is made more effective by its exploitation of that irrational rationale, that deep-seated reaction of disgust, hate, fear and, ultimately, the satisfaction of seeing the brutes exterminated.

Irrational, vengeful ruthlessness.

The Sodom story is, I'd argue, a prime example of the self-sustaining circularity of the "law and order orientation" in Kohlbergian terms. The exploitation of prejudice in order to instill in the recipient a moral understanding of "this is right, that is wrong" simultaneously reinforces the prejudice it utilises. The more profound that prejudice then the more effectively it can be used in subsequent moral instruction. What I'm arguing is that this sort of moralism works on a feedback loop, the moral revulsion driving the stories which define the transgressions which we react to with moral revulsion.

There's an "othering" process at play in that story, I think, one that's integral to the maintainance of the "law and order orientation" as an institutional system in terms of mores. The "law and order orientation" is one in which the individual doesn't just submit to, but is deeply loyal to an abstracted "social order". That "social order" is characterised consistently by individuals working at that stage of moral development as natural. Ordained by God or Humanity -- either way it's "the way it is". Trangressive acts are seen as unnatural. Indeed,they're seen as transgressions, as steps outside of that social order, as the crossing of imaginary boundaries. And individuals or groups can be made to serve as symbols of those transgressions.

The "others" who, by nature or by personal choice, exist outside that social order can be -- and are, I think, demonstrably -- made to function as bogeymen. They are what you must not be like, little one, is how the message goes. By defining the detestable other we construct the limits of the acceptable self. I think this is the key difference, actually, between conventional and post-conventional approaches; the latter I'd argue is an attempt to reconstruct the self by finding the acceptable other. Conventional morality fears the other as a shadow to be avoided, repressed, exterminated. Post-conventional ethics desires the other as a reflection, an image of oneself to be aspired to, to be emulated.

(If you're reading this, Lawrence, btw, this probably nails my attitude to the idea of the imago dei; my position would be that man made God in his image, only better, in this sense -- God as Jung's Persona, Freud's Superego; but anyway...)

It's certainly true that the Sodomites were not "othered" in the original context of the story as "gay men". To read modern homophobia into the story as if it were about lifestyle choices and sexuality in terms of contemporary Western culture would be specious and short-sighted. But if we look at it in terms of the culture it was composed in I think an ancient homophobia is readily apparent. The prejudice the Sodom story capitalised on at the time, I'd say, was not one based on secular sexuality but one based on religious sexuality. The widespread pagan religious integration of sexuality in the form of homosexual priesthoods and ritual prostitution is the real focus of hostility here, the prejudice that was being played upon and reinforced by the story-tellers of the day. Treating this story as a simple universal moral prescription against either homosexuality or bad hospitality is, in both cases, superimposing a crude intent which masks the deeper social function of the tale as a way of othering the Canaanite cultures in order to reinforce the social cohesion of the Israelite tribes. What makes the Sodomites wicked, deserving of extermination, is not that they show bad hospitality, not they want to fuck some angel ass, but that they are Sodomites. Their transgressive actions are, as in any propagandist's story, there to validate the already-existant animosity, to illustrate the tow'ebah nature of the enemy culture.

They are what you must not be like, little one.

To that extent, I think we can actually delve even deeper into the Sodom story and analyse it in terms of boundaries, trangressions, since the story is full of thresholds. Abram stands on the (moral?) high ground, looking down towards Sodom, an outside observer of Sodomite society. So the relationship between individual and social order is inverted here. Sodom is the bad social order, the social order gone wrong, the city become a sink of iniquity. Note that directly before God's condemnation of this social order he promises Abraham the establishment of his own "great and powerful nation". This ideal social order, God's promise, is then directly juxtaposed with a social order of sin so grievous that the outcry against the cities moves God to, at first, decide on absolute extermination. Abraham barters with God, establishing the limits of mercy as a straight quantification. Sin is measurable and mercy is bounded; ten good men is the threshold, the lower limit for action. If Abraham had bartered God down to one good man the story would have been quite different. If women and children had been included in the equation, again, the story would have been quite different. But this is a story about the social order so we need to be able to damn Sodomite society by those missing nine. The social order has the certainty of mathematics.

So the angels enter the city and the reader enters with them, walking into that bad social order as an outsider, seeing it through their eyes, with disgust, fear and hate. These Sodomites are vile... would-be violators of the tradition of hospitality and (the emotional button is pushed) would-be violators of our very bodies. Violators of our personal boundaries, the religious and sexual boundaries which constitute our self, our identity. They would make us as them -- feminised, submissive man-whores (because we all know what their priests get up to, don't we, the men as painted as the whores and icons in their temples). The door of Lot's house serves as another boundary, another threshold, one which inverts the structure of us-as-outsider lost in a bad social order, and welcomes us into the world we recognise as right, natural, the way things should be. Within is the good social order, a righteous man who rules his household as a patriarch should, his daughters subservient, their sexuality his to offer. Lot's rule is bounded only by that door, outside of which the mob of others stands, baying for angel ass; within his house, the social order is a matter of his decision, his moral will, his natural right as patriarch to rule. The mob outside are beyond this rule, beyond the door and beyond the pale, so unbridled in their surrender to unnatural desire that even the offer of natural sex is something they dismiss out of hand. Of course there is nothing to do but to exterminate these brutes, these others.

Finally, Lot and his household flee, escaping from this evil perversion of a social order as it is razed to the ground. Is there any question that it deserved it utterly? Can there be any questioning of that judgement? Can we stop for a second and reconsider the story, question whether that destruction was wise or irrational, justice or vengeance, merciful or ruthless? Can we stop just for a second of consideration and wonder if the look on the faces of those angels as they slaughter every woman and child in Sodom, every wife and daughter who is not bound into Lot's social order, if the look is that of calm executioner or psychotic maniac? Can we stop just for a second and think of the fear and horror, the screams of the women and children who were not in that mob, who were guilty of no crime, who can hardly deserve such brutal justice? Can we stop just for a second and think of the good things about the city, the smell of spice in the market, the colour of the painted teraphim, the sound of laughter at the feasts, and wonder if it was really all bad, if that life had nothing to redeem it, to make it worthy of at least a shred of mercy? Can we stop for a second, and question, and regret and, with even the most tentative doubt, look back at the destruction?

Lot's wife does. And the punishment of that last act of transgression in the tale is her death along with all the others, turned into a pillar of salt, a final marking post of the final boundary, warning us never to look back, never to return to Sodom, never to even think of returning to Sodom, never to even question the irrational, vengeful ruthlessness of that destruction.

Seen in this sense I think it's an ugly, brutal story that demonstrates the ugliness and brutality of that type of story, that type of moralism, and how they sustain each other. It demonstrates the underlying vicious-cycle mechanisms of Kohlberg's "law and order orientation". But it's the sort of folk tale that I can easily see, understood in its context of early Judaism, as no more and no less than a story of one step in the construction of that tribal identity. Is the Sodom story, even, a necessary step in constructing an aniconic, ascetic, abstracted concept of the divine needed to get from an animistic understanding of nature to a mechanistic -- i.e. scientific -- understanding? I certainly don't deny the tradition of fierce interrogation, of continual reconstruction of meaning, you point to within Judaism, Ben. In fact, I'd like to get my teeth into that idea, in terms of the whole "intrinsically corrupting" versus "intrinsically self-critiquing" argument, but I don't want to drift off the point vis-a-vis the Sodom tale. So I'll return to the question of whether and how the ideas of doubt, critique and empathy might be coded into the very concept of faith, scripture and sin, and just say that I think a reasonable critique of the Sodom story reveals it as both product and building-block of a moral system whose purpose was, in its day, to institutionalise Kohlberg's "law and order orientation" -- an immature stage of ethics, one we may well all pass through but which we should not get stuck in.

Unfortunately, I do think we should also recontextualise the story and interrogate it with a wider, modern worldview too -- because it is still out there, it is still held as holy scripture, and it has long since ceased to be the sole property of a tribal religion defining itself in opposition to its neighbours. What does it say now, in a world where that Canaanite enemy no longer exists? What does it say to those reading it as a holy scripture appropriated to the service of a universal religion?

I think the sad truth is that the prejudice may have shifted but that the story still capitalises on it. Its surface content can be intellectualised as a story of bad hosts justly punished. But under the surface the story's subtextual dynamics, its prejudicial othering, its functional capacity as propaganda, renders it a timeless tool of any other moral system looking to police our behaviour with scapegoat models of what one might become if one steps outside the social order, and with threats of irrational vengeful ruthlessness as punishment for doing so. The story has undergone a process of exaptation, no longer used to other a tribal / religious enemy and define one's own tribal / religious identity in opposition but, now, to other a cultural / sexual enemy and define one's own cultural / sexual identity in opposition. If that only began in the 13th Century C.E., if it's not really "good theology", so to speak, it is nevertheless, I think, a simple reality that this is how the story works, that it has not been seized upon by certain types of fundamentalist -- or for that matter simply conservative -- believers out of some arbitrary whim. That it has been universalised, co-opted, as a validation of homophobia because in a modern context it is a validation of homophobia.

The signifier has shifted to a different signified. Sodom is no longer the Canaanite neighbour with ritualised sexuality, with faggot priests and priestess whores. Sodom is the gay village in every city. Sodom is the red light district in every city. Sodom is the gay bars and the singles bars. Sodom is the decadent culture which allows homosexuals and women to do what they want with their own bodies. Sodom is the city of liberals, libertarians and libertines, the city of artists (fags!) and poets (fags!) and intellectuals (fags!), the city of all those who celebrate free thought. Sodom is this city of sin not just to the fundamentalists but to many of those who can be called moderate, many of those whose conservative views are indeed tempered by the all-important wisdom, justice and mercy, but who still, at heart, are working on a "law and order orientation", basing their actions on a received moral system rather than critically-constructed ethics -- demonstrably so if one simply listens to their vocabulary of right and wrong, sin and virtue, natural and unnatural, the social order and the civil liberties that threaten it.

Sodom is a symbol to more than just the fundamentalists; it's a symbol to the vast swathe of moderate but conservative believers who practice tolerance because this is a received moral imperative rather than simple empathy, who do so only as long as that moral imperative is not countermanded by a more authoritative judgement. Sodom is every bit as meaningful a symbol, and as powerful a tool for reinforcing their moderated loyalty to the social order and their moderated discomfort with civil liberties taken "too far" (there's that boundary again, the threshold of the outside, the door of Lot's house, where the others wait to pounce) as it is to the fundamentalists.

Sodom is the city that, I suspect, we most of us inhabit -- me, you and every other individual who exercises their ethical autonomy, who applies doubt and analysis and empathy to (or in place of) faith, scripture and sin, who looks back at the myth and history, the histories of myth, and the myths of history, who looks back regardless of the moral imperatives of a "law and order orientation", and cries a fucking pillar of salt for all that irrational vengeful ruthlessness.

Sodom is the culture of tolerance that you're a part of and that I'm a symbol of, a faggot other who, in this day and age, can and does serve as a signifier of the threat to that all-important social order. The Sodom story is still as much of a propaganda tool as ever, I'd say, used overtly by the fundamentalists and covertly by the conservatives to maintain their belief systems. You don't have to be a fundamentalist to be against gay marriage because "it's just wrong". But if you are against gay marriage because "it's just wrong", well, no matter how moderate and tolerant you are otherwise that attitude sends alarm bells ringing in my head, a warning sign of a "law and order orientation", of a moral system where my sexuality has been story-fied, scapegoated, as a symbol of the enemy.

This is why I return to Sodom, why I will always return to Sodom. This is why I accept that scapegoat role, say, sure, OK, I'll be the shaitan. Because to the fundamentalists and the conservatives that's what I am, I think, what homosexuality is now -- a symbol of the godless amorality of a social order gone wrong, that amorality manifest in my sexual freedom. I don't think the countless moderates within these religions think of me that way, and I don't think they want to. But I think they have to. The very nature of those theological arguments against Sodom as validation of homophobia are evidence of exactly the sort of liberal ethics that brought us, as you put it, Ben, "the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement, all those pastors of those goofy, inoffensive, whitebread denominations -- the Congregationalists, the reform Jews, the Muhammadiyah -- who married a lot of those couples in San Francisco and Massachusetts who recently stood up for their civil rights." But I think those theological arguments, as well-intentioned as they are, are wrong, dead wrong.

To deny the functional power of the Sodom story, to ignore the why and the how of its present use as validation of homophobia is, I think, an understandable but all too convenient abrogation of responsibility. It speaks to me of a wilful ignorance of the subtextual import of the story, of what it says, how it says it, why it says it. I can accept this denial, at one level, as a religious individual's unwillingness to accept that their scriptures sustain a reading that they would find ethically dubious, preferring to focus on an interpretation less unsavoury. But at another level I'm also profoundly uncomfortable with it, as this denial absolves the story of all blame, re-affirms it as holy scripture, holds no truck whatsoever with the moralists who "know" exactly what the story says... and is therefore, in fact, more in opposition with those like myself who would treat the scripture as example and warning.

So I return to Sodom. I stand in its ruins and I say, I'm the shaitan they hate, those fundamentalists and conservatives. I'm the fucking symbol they use of the other they don't want you to be like...one of the symbols at least. And if you don't think I'm completely wrong, completely crazed, then you're probably part of what's being symbolised, one of the innocents of Sodom, the women or the children, who get wasted just for being a citizen. I may have a tendency to go off half-cocked when I've got a good rant on, but I reckon if it seems like I'm aiming in your direction it's because I am. But I'm aiming past you. Hell, I'm not even aiming at the fundamentalists or the conservatives but at the ground they're standing on, the faith, scripture and sin their whole morality is built upon. I do think that the Sodom story is disgust, fear, hate and self-righteous satisfaction all packed together into one of the building blocks of a boot-strapping boot camp morality designed to keep the believer from the pernicious influence of all us others, to turn them into God's good soldiers. I think to deny the very real power of those words is complacent; it turns the moderate believer, the liberal believer, into a civilian shield, friends we unbelievers don't want to offend, don't want to insult, and whose faith we're therefore loathe to criticise, whose scriptures we can't critique with the brutal honesty they deserve.

So maybe the perimeter of the encampment, where the liberal believers chat happily with the liberal non-believers and with the loose cannon atheist mystic nutjobs like me who wander all over the fucking place, maybe that's a garden. Maybe the whole ground where they've built their machine morality used to be a garden, and could be once again, a place of contemplation and cultivation; but at the moment it looks very much like a boot camp. They've trampled the flowerbeds, scorched the earth and built a bloody big barracks for training people to not think. If that's not what your religion is to you, I'd dearly love to see you reclaim it. Take it back and turf those fuckers off your land. In the meantime, I'll keep lobbing grenades at their power generator, that core of disgust and fear and hate they use to keep the system running. If the sprinkler system for your gardens is on a separate power supply then the flowers will be fine, they'll survive. And if you want to try and talk the less conservative of them out of the mad martial approach, well, you'll probably do a better job than me from the inside. But the liberal believers seem to be having less success in winning over the conservatives than the fundamentalists are, and all too often -- as with the Anglican church stramash over gay clergy -- there's nowhere near enough of the liberals and they're showing nowhere near enough backbone to my mind. All too often it looks like they're more concerned with keeping the system ticking away nice and fine, because the roses are really rather lovely this time of year, don't you think? So I may well be stepping on a few flowers trying to get at that fucking generator. Just... all I'm asking is... before you raise the alarm and shout, Oi! Intruder!... stop a second. And take another look at Sodom.

4:49 am  
Blogger anna tambour said...

Hal, first I want to say, yeeeesssss. The nub of it to me rests in what you've said here: "There's no wisdom that doesn't challenge faith. There's no justice that doesn't challenge scripture. And there's no mercy that doesn't challenge the very idea of sin."

Ben, I have to disagree with your statement: "Isn't it possible that you aren't supposed to be reading God as 'the Boss', but rather as 'the World'? That God is -- a little more than a metaphor, maybe -- but not some Joe up on cloud 9m either? Isn't it possible -- I mean, if you really read the Bible, isn't it *obvious* -- that the *intent* is to portray God as capricious and arbitrarily brutal -- because the *world* is capricious and arbitrarily brutal? . . . He is, perhaps, a way of talking about what it is that you love, when you love life despite the tsunami."

No, Ben. From Columbia University, the Bible is not. Metaphor? People throughout most of history have been literalists. Certainly they were then. Power is more like it. The Bible and religion is about power, and the Bible, like previous human-created systems, had its own way of creating loyalty. In the Bible, it is through fear. A God who acts pathologically is someone who needs to be appeased, for you never know when it'll be you. Love? Come off it. God's actions are irrational, his love is undependable, and really, compared to the sun or any mother, how could he ever compare? He is a guy, by the way, earlier female gods being dumped.

The fact that it narrowed down to He says much about the natural world and the attitude of this religion and its offshoots to it. They distance people from the natural world, and set people apart from each other. Even a sacrifice doesn't mean you'd do a Yakuza and cut off something of yourself. Sacrifice means some other creature gets killed, whether it's found God and love, or is too low to. A snake isn't a snake, a living creature who has its own dignity of existence, but a thing to despise and distrust.

I think it's wrong to claim that God is love. Death comes so wrongly to so many. By saying it's God's will, then that really excuses the powerful of any sick and evil thing they do, giving them the power to do more, as we gaze on them thinking they know more than we. That's how nations become what they are too often. Baaah.

9:41 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Ben asks:

The hugely successful recent tactic of fundamentalism is to frame the debate in terms of ritual law, including ritual law falsely construed as moral law. Feeding the hungry, freeing the bonds of the oppressed, clothing the naked, speaking the truth to power, those aren't religious values, they're just stuff everybody knows, so they don't matter. The real issues are, are you having sex the right way? Are you eating the right foods? Have you recaptured the Temple from the infidel?
...
Rather than assuming, though, that the composers of this text and its audience throughout the ages are universally idiots, or too cowed by institutional violence to question the obvious, isn't it possible that you -- and the fundies -- are *reading the book wrong*?
...
Of course, the laws proscribe male (not female) homosexuality -- in the same breath as proscribing wearing linen and cotton together, and a host of dietary injunctions, and a bunch of other stuff that makes it clear that we're talking about the laws specific to the Israelites of that time and place...


Or to put the challenge more succinctly, more bluntly:

Can you find me a single instance in the text where God punishes anybody for a purely sexual sin?

This, I think, is not actually the point at stake. Hopefully that was sorted out a little by my last post, but to clarify... I'm arguing that there *is* no "right" or "wrong" reading of the text, no authoritative interpretation, so it's not whether God "really" punishes X or Y for A or B that interests me.

There are multiple readings and multiple modes of reading. I'm focusing on a particular mode of reading, but the intention is not exclude others, simply to put them aside to better deal with the one I consider more intriguing, possibly even more important.

There are (priestly, rabbinical, theological) legalistic readings which I think focus too much on circular arguments, appeals to authority, the *true meaning* of this or that holy scripture as revealed in some other exegetic part of that self-same holy scripture. That's a debate to be waged within the religion. I don't believe in God. I don't believe that these are holy scriptures written down at his dictation. Why on earth would I care what a God I consider entirely imaginary "really" meant? Why on earth would I be at all interested in imposing some artificial hierarchy of authority on an assemblage of laws and legends that were never meant for a gentile like me? I'm really not out to scour the texts for "and God smote Jeramael, for Jeramael did take unto himself his camel as wife, which is an abomination" or suchlike. What I find much more interesting is the sort of text that runs "and Jeramael did take unto himself his camel as wife, and went out into the desert and strayed from the ways of the Lord; and seeing that he bowed down before false idols, God smote Jeramael". There's something far more interesting going on there in the juxtaposition.

So then there are the historical-cultural readings ("we're talking about the laws specific to the Israelites of that time and place") which are entirely valid but which tend to limit the idea of obsolesence and cultural specificity to laws, I find. I would go further, I think, than most believers; most would stop short, I think, of saying that the myths and metaphors have to be understood in the same way -- as revisions of elder myths and metaphors. I detect, for instance, more than a few hints of Enki scattered throughout the Torah, even in YHVH's declaration to Moses: Eyah asher eyah. I am that which is called I am. Or is it "I am"? Is he being literal here? Should we just read it, would we once have read it simply as Eyah? Or should it read, would it once have read Ea, the Babylonian name for the god of wisdom who created humanity from clay, saved them from the Flood, and so on? Such readings are important, I think, but academic. I find them quite fascinating actually, and I'm very curious to know to what extent a believer might read the histories of myth into these myths of history. At what point, if you're treating these as historically-constructed texts, do you have problems reconciling the historicity with the holiness? But, anyway, these aren't my focus of concern right here and now.

No, what I'm most interested in is the moral reading, the socio-political reading, and in particular the construction of this from personal, emotional readings (critical and uncritical). What is the affect logic of the story? What is the subtextual dynamic? What symbols does it construct and how does it capitalise on our reactions to those symbols? How do we read the recurrent motif of dust in the Bible, for example, starting with God's curse on Adam and Eve and the earth they must now sweat and toil on? Do we read it as an abstract metaphor that tells us life is suffering, that pride and vanity are folly, one that points us gently, intellectually, towards humility? Or do we read it as a literal truth that tells us the world is damned, dirty, squalid, hateful, one that drags us down into despair at our being trapped in the dust of the world, the dust of the flesh? More crucially, what do we learn from these readings? Does the text sustain both equally or preference one over the other? Are we taught one rather than the other? Who wants us to learn one rather than the other? Which would we choose, and why? Would others disagree, and why? What have they got to gain and what have the rest of us got to lose, and vice versa? In real practical terms?

There's no simple straightforward answers to those questions, no authoritative readings and no easy analyses, but I do think we have critical tools like Kohlberg's stages of moral development which allow us to articulate the questions better, which might well allow us to lay out a groundwork for the more complex answers, answers which look at the stories in terms of tribalism, religion, politics, psychology.

Anna puts her finger on the word that most interests me vis-à-vis my readings of scripture:

Power.

To look at it another way, to draw this back to Ben's challenge:

Can you find me a single instance in the text where God punishes anybody for a purely sexual sin?

I wouldn't classify any of the punishments in the scriptures as being meted out for purely sexual sin. As with the Sodom story, I think, almost all of the punishments are far better viewed in tribal / religious terms. But I also think, as with the Sodom story, there's not a few which exploit the concept of the tow'ebah, the detestable, the abomination, piggy-backing the surface moral on a subtextual affect logic of prejudice or neurosis, which are, in terms of the way they push our emotional buttons, pretty fucking twisted. I think there's a consistent dynamic to these scriptures which points us to political and psychological readings, readings of the potential of these scriptures, their power.

You've completely bought into their interpretation of scripture; that God is a big guy up there who likes our praise; that the only valid reading of the Bible is to approve and applaud every massacre and brutal nonsensical law and tribal custom they can frame in terms of their very modern prejudices and political agendas, and ignore everything that doesn't fit with them.
...
Isn't it possible that even while you're asking us to read the book with fresh eyes and look at its plain sense, your reading of it is posioned by the political uses to which it's been put?


I'll grant that, yes, my reading is poisoned (or "coloured"? or "informed"?) by the political uses to which these texts have been put. Having seen these political approaches, I'm deliberately interrogating the text with that in mind. I'm out to challenge the text, to identify the specific symbols of power, the specific powers of symbols, the what and the how and the why of the systems these construct in the text, in the reading, in the individual, in society. I have my opinions on what readings make sense to me, and those are indeed shaped partly by observations of how these scriptures get used in social terms; but I don't think I've allowed those observations to occlude my reading, to cloud my judgement. I hope with the previous response on Sodom it's at least clear that I'm trying to critique the text rather than an idea of it -- whether that idea is mine, yours, his, hers, Ezekial's or Zeke the Loopy Leviticans.

It's just that, yes, I'm focusing heavily on power. Why?

Why is it that within these three religions the concepts of wisdom, justice and mercy are consistently and repeatedly perverted into an irrational vengeful ruthlessness?

That's not just the prophetic question. That's the critical, philosophical, social, moral, tribal, religious, political, psychological, practical question.

One answer might be, I think: faith, scripture and sin. A more complex answer might be: the failure to examine faith, scripture and sin with doubt, analysis and empathy. A simpler answer might be: power.

I'm interested in starting at the ground level (below the ground level, actually, deep down in the dark and dirty recesses of the basement where the generator and the boiler are, where the wiring and the pipes are out in the open, where the controls for all these skeletal substructured and substructuring mechanisms are hidden (safe from our prying) behind steel doors, under lock and key... in seeing just who or what might be down there, turning the keys and pushing the buttons), in working my way up from there. It's the power that interests me as a starting point because I do think, like Anna, the God we're dealing with in the Big Three, in Torah, Gospel and Koran, is one of power above all else.

Or rather -- to step away from the theological readings that statement might suggest in the implication that we're talking about a singular and certain "God" with a coherent identity as YHVH, Jehovah or Allah within the contexts of Judaism, Christianity or Islam -- because the symbol that we're dealing with at the heart of these texts, the symbol we represent in these scriptures as casting Adam and Eve out of the garden in case they ascend to immortality, as driving a wedge of jealousy between Cain and Abel and then punishing the resultant murderer, as wiping out humanity in the flood for their miscegenation with the angels, and so on, because that symbol is transparently a signifier of authority, of sovereignty, of absolute power.

And we all know the old maxim about absolute power.

So...

Why is it that within these three religions the concepts of wisdom, justice and mercy are consistently and repeatedly perverted into an irrational vengeful ruthlessness?

This is the crux of the debate for me, the terms it must be framed in, regardless of who or what lays claim to legitimacy as the representative of the believers -- fundamentalist, conservative or liberal. To me the answer starts with "power" and builds from that. So my approach to faith, scripture and sin is equally framed in those terms, and equally articulated in terms of power.

That's the prophetic question.

I like that idea. It definitely appeals to the preacher man in me. But I think that the oppositional voice which asks it, which accuses with the implicit answer of "power", which challenges the whole system with the ramifications of that answer, makes it the demagogue's question too. This is the question, basically, of the ultimate devil's advocate. A prophet's question? A demogogue's question? Hell, it's the question put to every true believer by the father of all prophets and demagogues --the thief of fire, the man with the ban, the snake on the make, that stubborn, subtle, serpentine shaitan who exists to tempt and test the believer, the one who was close enough to the Godfather to look at what that psycho bastard had become... and turn around and walk away.

I'll come back to the whole prophets and demagogues thing, but for now that's maybe why I'm speaking with a forked tongue, part prophet, part demagogue, because I don't hink you can have a true dialogue without that other side of the case, the antithesis, the anti-theist.

Next up: That Dark and Hidden God

1:02 am  
Blogger Trent said...

Although I've agreed with most of your judgements on literature and writing, I'm boggled by how you can admit not understanding a book yet continue to interpret. What if all literature were interpreted this way? What if your work was interpreted this way? (This will be too much fun!)

THE DARK AND HIDDEN HAL: HOW TO INTERPRET LITERATURE VIA THE DUNCAN-BIBLICAL METHODOLOGY OF INTERPRETATION

[deep bass drum beats: da-da-dum!]



Hal is a fascist as statements like "defend our way of life in craven terror, bigotry and paranoia," "order him to read from Homer," and "dearly like to bash your fucking head in" clearly demonstrate....

4:25 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Trent:

...I'm boggled by how you can...

So you enter a state of utter incomprehension in the face of my interpretation? This is neither here nor there. So you have a deep conviction that I'm wrong, so deep you're flummoxed that I'd even think of arguing this case? So what? Your feeling of certainty is not equivalent with actual certainty.

Conviction =/= truth

...admit not understanding a book...

Where do I "admit" any such thing? On the contrary, I'm claiming I do understand it. What you mean to say, I assume, is that I "demonstrate incomprehension". How is my disagreeing with your superficial interpretation, my *refusing to admit* that the *true meaning* of the story is either as simple or as transparent as you paint it, equivalent to an "admission" of not understanding? The fact that you *believe* your interpretation to be the only possible rational interpretation is not equivalent with your interpretation *being* the only possible rational interpretation.

Conviction =/= truth.

...yet continue to interpret.

Yes. Having made an initial claim that the Sodom story exemplifies irrational, vengeful ruthlessness, I respond to the challenges offered with a refinement of my case. I reject appeals to the authority of later commentators (X says A was their crime; you are convinced by X, but I am not; conviction =/= truth), and contextualise the text within the cultural climate of its composition. I make specific reference to differences in tribal culture, applying the Israelite idea of tow'ebah crimes to the practices of ritualised homosexuality and prostitution within the Canaanite tribes they considered enemies. The idea that the Israelites detested their neighbours, that their deep-seated xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia made a culture of ritualised homosexuality and prostitution anaethema to them is hardly radical. To try and explicate the impact this animosity had on their stories is hardly unreasonable.

If you don't *agree* with my interpretation, if you claim to understand *the* plain and simple absolute *truth* of what it's *really* about, please do more than simply assert that it couldn't possibly be about anything other than the evil rapists, that "it's about X, it is, it is, about the stuff what happens on the surface and nothing else at all, at all". Your own interpretation, as it stands betrays, I think, the incomprehension you accuse me of. You misconstrue me utterly:

First off, there's nothing consensual about the behavior of the Sodomites. These guys are gang rapists. Surely, you don't advocate that

To argue that there is a racist agenda underlying the portrayal of blacks in "Birth of a Nation" as gang-rapists is not to advocate gang rape. There's nothing consensual about their behaviour; presumably then, by your logic this scene has nothing to do with a prejudice rooted in neurotic fear and hatred of blacks, particularly focused on black male sexuality? Would you be "boggled" if I suggest that the characterisation of blacks here as a mob of rampaging gang-rapists is a product of prejudice and, in its emotional manipulation, serves to reinforce prejudice?

Second, they're awfully bold about it as well. Isaiah comments on this [un?]repentant nature toward their criminality.

In what way is this relevant to my argument that their criminality is a prejudicial slur, a culturally expedient characterisation of an enemy culture as deviants deserving of extermination, a subtextual exploitation of prejudice to impart a moral lesson? Do you take the scripture at face value, accepting that their "nature" renders them worthy of extermination? Would you defend the morality of "Birth of a Nation", also on the basis that the rampaging blacks in that story are "awfully bold" (or would you apply the word "uppity" in that context) and that their "nature" renders them worthy of extermination?

Third, and possibly worst of all, note in chapter 18 that there is a cry from Sodom & Gom. Who of S&G is crying to God? Surely not the guilty. In Luke 18:7, the elect cry out to God to be avenged.

So my characterisation of this act as vengeful is accurate.

You can say that some of the religious have misinterpreted this scripture to be about those who prefer anal probing, but can you truly sympathize for the loss of unrepentant people who glory in raping and killing?

My main sympathy is for the woman and children of Sodom. What crime did they commit, or is being a citizen of Sodom justification enough for their extermination? Are you advocating ethnic cleansing? Do you not consider genocide ruthless?

Actually, why should we not sympathize for the loss of even the unrepentant? They may theoretically become repentant if punished by some other means which is mitigated by mercy, or if taught to see the error of their ways. This should surely be the attitude of every follower of Yeshuah, no?

Why is it not?

What if all literature were interpreted this way? What if your work was interpreted this way? (This will be too much fun!)

Much literature is these days, and I welcome any such analysis of my own work. Your interpretation takes the text at face value, as scripture, while mine treats it as a text, a construct of discourses, examining it for subtextual import as well as superficial meaning. I believe the latter method bears more fruit.

Hal is a fascist as statements like "defend our way of life in craven terror, bigotry and paranoia," "order him to read from Homer," and "dearly like to bash your fucking head in" clearly demonstrate....

Please expand this into a coherent argument. Random phrases with no discernable anti-semitic, nationalistic, totalitarian purpose do not indicate fascism.

7:57 pm  
Blogger Trent said...

"Please expand this into a coherent argument. Random phrases with no discernable anti-semitic, nationalistic, totalitarian purpose do not indicate fascism."

You do realize this was a joke. Albeit a joke with a point. The randomness was my point. If you don't get the meta-narrative, you cannot appreciate the minor arcs. Hence, yes, you can interpret the Bible just about anyway you want to. I believe that you can and cannot interpret the Bible anyway you want, but the way you interpret determines what the Bible is for you, not what the Bible is and certainly not what God is... unless you have a rudimentary grasp of meta-narrative.


"To argue that there is a racist agenda underlying the portrayal of blacks in "Birth of a Nation" as gang-rapists is not to advocate gang rape. "

Bzzt. Different argument. I wrote this before you brought up BIRTH OF NATION. BON is a good point, but you and I know the larger arc of BON, which is racist. You've analyzed a molecule off a Big Mac and concluded the whole is sodium chloride.

(So Bzzt to your following paragraph. I do not buy the comparison. You keep judging the whole from the part. Hence, my demonstration that the parts of your own narratives do not equal the whole.)



"Your feeling of certainty is not equivalent with actual certainty."

?

Certainty of what?



"How is my disagreeing with your superficial interpretation"

I promise you, my interpretation is far deeper than your own--simply because I've read the whole book sympathetically, a number of times. You didn't even see the cry that I mentioned, which you still ignore in order to arrive at your conclusion.


"my characterisation of this act as vengeful is accurate."

Yes, but minor point. You have to understand the totality. You think the act was motivated by sexual preference. I know it was motivated by murder. Who is crying? Who else could possibly be crying? When you figure that out, you'll be to contradict your statement that "your interpretation to be the only possible rational interpretation is not equivalent with your interpretation *being* the only possible rational interpretation"


"plain and simple absolute *truth*"

?

My "truth" is far less plain and simple than you paint it to be. I happen to think your interpretation equivalent to the Sunday School version. Tell me:

What is the larger narrative?

What does God want from humans, these creatures he supposedly created?

Why create them? Why destroy them? What are the metanarrative and its constiuent minor arcs that connect the little narratives (S&G, being one)?

What is the law?

Is the law always the law?

What strange acts do Jesus, Moses, and Abraham share (you talked about some of it above)?

What do Moses and David and Solomon share that only Moses and David got away with? Why should they get away with it and not Solomon? So is the law always the law?

What does Paul say about the law? Is what he says about the law so plain and simple as you've painted him?

Cheese and rice, man, the book is hugely complex. Your interpretation looks cool superficially, but falls far far short the mark. You're taking aim at the toenail of a behemoth. *I* don't even claim to have an iota of its grasp, but I do know I know more about than you do simply because I've been trying to get the overall theme. Again, that was the point of my last post. I selected a few phrases to concoct this idea of Hal Duncan's supposed facism--statements that supposedly appear fascist--without the overall arcs that the statements came from. This is what you've done. Even if you answer the above questions, you've only BEGUN to understand the text.

12:33 am  
Blogger Trent said...

This was your admission (albeit indirect) that you did not understand the overall text (I do agree that most of the motivation is in the story itself (if one keeps his eyes open to all that it says rather use it to inject one's personal politics into the text), but the overall arc is crucial to the little ones, which you attempted to evaluate independently, just as I evaluated your phrases independently to arrive at your "fascist" nature, i.e. both erroneous conclusions):

"I think your theological approach in looking for the indictment in other scripture is dead wrong.... Somewhere in the whole confused mess of myths and messages God has, of course, provided the *real meaning*, if we can only search it out by a process of exegesis.... Ezekial's "commentary on Sodom" is not a historian's objective analysis but a polemical appropriation of the story to serve his personal, political agenda."

12:52 am  
Blogger MJ said...

Down boys!

8:40 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Claims And Demonstrations

Trent says:

The randomness was my point... I selected a few phrases to concoct this idea of Hal Duncan's supposed facism--statements that supposedly appear fascist--without the overall arcs that the statements came from. This is what you've done...You keep judging the whole from the part. Hence, my demonstration that the parts of your own narratives do not equal the whole.

But your demonstration is specious because:

a) The "parts" are not of analogous scale and structure. I'm isolating a coherent narrative with a beginning (God's promise to Abraham), a middle (the angels in Sodom) and an end (Lot's wife turned to a pillar of salt). You're isolating phrases that are not even a complete sentence never mind a narrative. Statements that appear fascist? None of these are actually statements; they have no subject.

b) You are not actually analysing these parts, never mind the whole. I've proposed an analysis of the Sodom tale in terms of a specific anti-Canaanite prejudice. You haven't even made an attempt to identify anti-semitic, nationalistic or totalitarian subtext, to demonstrate that there is anything that can be justifiably called fascist in those few garbled phrases. You've simply quoted and claimed. A claim is not a demonstration. I understand that you're being deliberately absurd here to make a point but I'm showing my workings; you're not.

c) You apply the term "fascism" as an empty signifier, unmoored from the commonly accepted signified. If a dislocated phrase like "order him to read from Homer" articulates fascism to you in the way that a statement such as "we must liberate the world from the Zionist conspiracy" does (being coherent and complete, with a subject, a predicate and an object which all add up to an ideological statement), then you're using "fascism" so vaguely ("like, ordering someone to read the classics, that's just fascist, man") it doesn't actually mean anything.

To make your "demonstration" analogous you'd have to isolate an episode from my work -- a scene, say, with a beginning, a middle and an end -- and analyse it for implicit prejudice, generalising from that example to an indictment of the work as a whole. The point is: if you could argue your claim well enough with one particular example, I would be interested in reading this. Were the analysis vague and the generalisation glib, I would argue it, (though I would not do so with appeals to authority or assertions of self-evidence). If the analysis were detailed and logical, however, even glib generalisation would require further study. Similar scrutiny of other isolated episodes would either back up or undermine the generalisation. The more comprehensive the study of these components individually, and of how they combine to construct the meta-narrative, the nearer we'd get to a full analysis rather than a generalisation. A demonstration rather than a claim.

The application of this approach to my writing would be a Good Thing. It would identify unconscious prejudices, spurious assumptions, latent hostilities -- the subtext(s) of my work. Critically speaking, this would result in a deeper understanding of my work; how could I not want that as a writer? And as a human being... personally speaking... awareness of prejudice is the first step in combatting it, so if my work evidenced some unconscious misogyny or racism or any other such prejudice I'd very much like it to be brought to my attention. So I'm suggesting that such an approach should also be taken to scripture. As a human being, as a writer, and as someone with an interest in religion, myth and social systems, I feel a strong ethical imperative to challenge the privileged status gifted to monotheism's holy scripture.

Here's some of my reasoning:

Of Big Macs And Myths

"To argue that there is a racist agenda underlying the portrayal of blacks in "Birth of a Nation" as gang-rapists is not to advocate gang rape. "

Different argument... You've analyzed a molecule off a Big Mac and concluded the whole is sodium chloride.


No, I've taken a core sample, measured the amount of sodium chloride, and concluded, this is pretty fucking salty. That's not a different argument. That is my argument and always has been. That a) the Big Mac contains high levels of salt and fat; b) we get an addictive buzz from these ingredients; c) this is what makes the Big Mac so profoundly popular; d) these ingredients in high levels are unhealthy; e) pointing out that a population is unhealthy due to their addiction to Big Macs may cause offence; f) I don't really give a fuck.

The Sodom story is a sample, but the reason I've chosen it is that the symbol of the "culture of sin" extends throughout scripture and appears time and again in the rhetoric spouted by believers in that scripture. It is a transhistoric symbol which reccurs in venomous rants against Sidon, Byblos, Tyre, Babylon and so on right down to the present day characterisation of the US by Zacarias Moussaoui as the "United Sodom of America". I'm pointing to a symbol, an extended metaphor -- this trope of a "city of sin" -- and I'm saying it's a key ingredient, detectable in high levels, addictive in its affective appeal, and deeply negative in its exploitation of fear, disgust and hate.

I'm saying that there's way too much salt in that Big Mac for it to be good for us. What are you saying? You seem to be saying that it's a Big Mac, that you can only understand it holistically as a Big Mac, that I'm claiming it's all salt when it's actually beef (I'm not; I'm just saying that the salt is an important ingredient). You seem to be saying, in fact, that I'm falsely perceiving salt when there is no salt at all.

You don't agree with my comparison with "Birth of a Nation". But you would accept that the Israelite culture of the time was homophobic, xenophobic, etcetera, yes? As Ben says... well, duh! You don't think that folk tales of that time can be (and should be, I'd say) studied with that in mind? The way you might look at a tabloid newspaper, a novel, or a movie of this day and age, this culture, something like "Birth of a Nation", or the 50's communist paranoia Sci-Fi flicks, and question whether it's exploiting prejudice rather than just reflecting it?

I think you have to do that, and I think you have to focus in on the details, take a core sample and analyse its content. You have to look at the way blacks are portrayed in "Birth of a Nation" in terms of what's going on "under" the narrative. You have to look at the way "hunchbacks" are used as symbols of twistedness, *crookedness*, in Victorian novels in the same terms. You have to look at the way a villain in a Hollywood movie can be made more evil, more threatening, by portraying him as (homo)sexual predator who, if he had his way, would do truly unspeakable things to the hero. A good example might be Wint and Kid in "Diamonds Are Forever", whose creepiness is very much to do with their perversity. And I think you have to do that with Middle Eastern literature of the Bronze Age.

So is the Sodom story simply adding an "extra punch" in the way it uses the fear and disgust -- is it just a little added salt -- or is the story loaded with that fear and disgust -- loaded with salt the way a Big Mac is -- in order to make it not just more palatable but more... moreish? More addictive? Measuring the salt content in a sample of a Big Mac won't tell you what the Big Mac tastes like. It won't tell you what all the other ingredients and all the things that are done to them will all add up to as a taste when you take a whopping great bite of it. But you don't have to eat a Big Mac to measure how much salt is in it and to wonder if the manufacturers really have our best interests at heart.

The same goes for myths.

If you don't get the meta-narrative, you cannot appreciate the minor arcs.

The principle of compositionality rather suggests the opposite. We don't start with the whole, bounded by the first and last clauses -- In the beginnning... [shit happens]... Amen -- and then work our way down into the specifics of the parts. We start with the component parts and construct the meta-narrative, building clauses into verses, verses into chapters, chapters into books, books into the Big Picture. If you don't understand the constituent parts, you cannot appreciate the meta-narrative.

Analysing samples, understanding how ingredients work, understanding what impact these ingredients have on us as human beings, why the quantities of this or that might be upped to unhealthy levels by the manufacturers, is a Good Thing, I think, whether you're dealing with Big Macs or myths.

Content And Function

I believe that you can and cannot interpret the Bible anyway you want, but the way you interpret determines what the Bible is for you, not what the Bible is and certainly not what God is.

My interpretation is focused on what the Bible is for individuals and institutions functioning on, adhering to, and attempting to impose on others what Kohlberg calls a "law and order orientation" morality. I've *repeatedly* said that I'm not interested in authoritative proclamations of "what the Bible is" or "what God is", interpretations based on content. I am interested in interpreting holy scriptures as texts and the monotheistic deity as symbol, exploring how groups who claim to revere wisdom, justice and mercy can and do -- consistently and repeatedly -- use, misuse and abuse the texts and the symbol to validate irrational, vengeful ruthlessness.

I don't give a fuck what it all means -- I mean, *really*, *truly*, if you read the scriptures again and again and again, until you *really*, *truly* understand it all with the great and giant wisdom of your great and giant mind.

I. Don't. Give. A. Fuck.

What I do give a fuck about is how and why these scriptures are consistently and repeatedly interpreted by others -- who could be wrong, could be right, could be bugfuck fucking crazy, but who interpret these scriptures nonetheless -- as validations of irrational, vengeful ruthlessness.

Consistently and repeatedly.

Systematically.

My "truth" is far less plain and simple than you paint it to be. I happen to think your interpretation equivalent to the Sunday School version.

See the brick wall? See my head? See my head slamming into the brick wall? It's the Sunday School version I'm talking about. The priestly, rabbinical, theological interpretations aren't worth a fuck if all their abstruse arguments and knots and webs and tangles of references are *not* what's taught in Sunday School. They aren't worth shit if what's taught in the actual boot camps of the soul is something else entirely. They aren't worth diddly squat if what's drilled into the heads of all the good little kiddies sitting meek and mild, in submission, in good faith, (as the First Rule of Scripture Club tells them) is crude, moralistic, absolutist bollocks.

If my interpretation is equivalent to the Sunday School interpretation then vice versa, right? That is to say, your sweeping theological meta-narrative can be and is reducable, if one so desires, to little myths and messages -- simplistic, moralistic Bible Tales used to inculcate children with a belief system. Faith is good. Scripture gives us simple answers. Sin deserves ruthless punishment.

Your interpretation, focused on content, constructs one meta-narrative. My interpretation, focused as much on the function of that content, constructs another meta-narrative.

Let me put it this way:

What is the larger narrative?

Which larger narrative? The meta-narrative of the original Torah? The meta-narrative of the Tanak, (i.e. incorporating Nabiim and Kethubim)? The meta-narrative of the Christian Bible, retro-fitted with the New Testament? Is the Koran a part of this meta-narrative, or the Book of Mormon? If the spurious additions of one revisionist cult are to be included in the meta-narrative why not those of another? How about apocryphal texts such as The Book of Enoch, a clear influence in the composition of Revelations? How about antecedent texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its Flood narrative? How about the countless other scraps and fragments of Middle-Eastern mythology that together form one huge history of myth? How about looking at that meta-narrative? How about looking at the meta-narrative which includes the Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic scriptures, Zoroastrian and Neo-Platonist writings.

The history of these myths and messages is the meta-narrative I'm examining. You talk about interpreting the Bible as if there's no other way to read the Sodom story than as a micro-narrative of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. What if you read it as a micro-narrative of Bereshit, the first book of the Torah? Or as a micro-narrative of monotheism, of early Levantine religion, of Bronze Age culture in general?

Or of society as a whole?

Conviction Without Evidence

You seem to deny that this approach is valid, but you do so on the basis that my reading of the content -- and therefore of the function of that content -- is just plain wrong. You seem to claim that your interpretation is self-evident despite the evidence of all the zealots, crusaders and jihadists in the history of these religions and in the present day, for whom the simplistic "Sunday School" interpretation clearly rules the day, demonstrating that it's not that self-evident.

I say you're mistaking certainty for truth.

"Certainty of what?", you ask. Certainty of everything, of you being right and me being wrong. Certainty that your own conviction is all you have to voice to dismiss my case. "You think the act was motivated by sexual preference.", you say. "I know it was motivated by murder.". But the first statement is a complete misreading of my argument that the act has been sexualised in order to exploit base prejudice; you think I'm talking about character motivation when I'm talking about subtextual validation of a reader's prejudice. The second is exactly the sort of magical boot-strapping logic I'm talking about. You equate your sensation of conviction with the actuality of fact. You "know".

So that's that, then.

Indeed, you do it again:

When you figure that out, you'll be [forced?] to contradict your statement that "[...] your interpretation to be the only possible rational interpretation is not equivalent with your interpretation *being* the only possible rational interpretation".

WTF? Look at what I'm saying there again. If you put back the phrase you've missed out in your quote -- the subject of the sentence being a pretty important part of it, you know -- if you actually read what I'm saying, your response is a non sequitur So what was that phrase?

The fact that you believe

The fact (which fact?) that you believe (what do you believe?) your interpretation to be the only possible rational interpretation (ah! that fact!)... is not equivalent with (with what?) your interpretation *being* the only possible rational explanation.

That is to say:

The fact that you believe "X" =/= the fact that "X" is true.

Conviction =/= truth.

No matter what I figure out, no matter what interpretation I come to as I continue my interrogation of the text, no matter if I actually come to agree with your interpretation, no matter if you cease to believe in that interpretation, no matter if the whole world as one jumps up and down shouting "I believe! I believe!", no matter whether the actual, bona fide, God's own honest truth is really, truly that "X is true", this will not render the two sides of that inequation equivalent.

Your desire for X =/= X will put out
Your fear of X =/= X will eat your babies
Your love of X =/= X will love you back
Your conviction that "X" =/= "X" is actually true

What you are saying is that when I see the light this realisation will reverse the situation, that it will be proven to me that:

Your conviction that X = X is actually true

Do you need any more rope to hang yourself with there? Or are your own boot-straps doing the job nicely?

The Outcry Against The Cities

I promise you, my interpretation is far deeper than your own--simply because I've read the whole book sympathetically, a number of times. You didn't even see the cry that I mentioned...

But did you read it as with the same level of attention you apply to my comment on the juxtaposition of God's promise to Abraham and "the outcry against the cities"? Or, indeed, my initial post about the *uproar* against the Danish cartoons, where I characterise the Israelites' anti-Canaanite prejudice in explicitly linguistic terms, as blasphemy, insult, word-play, slander, railing "hate-mongering" venom:

The Bible blasphemes against Tammuz. It blasphemes against Baal ze Baal, twisting His name to make Him Lord of the Flies instead of Lord of Lords. It blasphemes against Astarte, twisting Her name to Ashtaroth as a pun on the Hebrew word for "whore". It blasphemes against every pagan deity it slanders as a "false god". It has no respect -- zero, zilch, nada, not a fucking iota of respect -- for the practices of the natives of Canaan. It rails against their household gods, their teraphim. It insults their ancestry, portraying Canaan as the son of the wicked, cursed Ham. It is racist, xenophobic, hate-mongering venom, insulting every culture around, from Sodom in Genesis through to Sidon in Isaiah.

Outcry? I thought it was fairly obvious that I view the "outcry against the cities" as an outwards projection of anti-Canaanite prejudice. But let's address your challenge.

Who is crying? Who else could possibly be crying?

If one is going to be literalist, I could propose the simple answer -- Lot and his household. As a good man in a city of the wicked -- or more to the point, as an Israelite in a Canaanite city -- we might imagine Lot crying out against the iniquity of his surroundings. A modern example of an outcry which led to genocide immediately springs to mind:

On April 24, 1987, Slobodan Milosevic was summoned to help calm a riotous crowd of Serbs outside the town hall in Kosovo Polje. The Serbs were claiming mistreatment by the Albanian majority and were barred from entering the town hall by baton-wielding police. Milosevic quelled the Serbian crowd, with assurances that "no one will ever beat you again."

In a city full of "wicked" men who else could be crying out for vengeance, for punishment, for genocide, than the single "righteous" man suffering the torments of an enemy tribe?

But the text is clearly not being that literal. Is it being literal but metaphysical? You haven't explicitly stated this but that seems to be the drift of your argument. You seem to be suggesting the murdered victims of the men of Sodom were ghosts moaning to God for vengeance, yes? You say you "know it was motivated by murder" because "In Luke 18:7, the elect cry out to God to be avenged. And most familiarly (not many pages previous to the story in question), Abel's blood had cried out to God. In other words, the men of S&G were gang rapists and murderers."

And you "know" this.

You "know" nothing of the sort. You've made an induction. You've extrapolated from other instances of "cries" for vengeance, made a logical leap that that these instances add up to an absolute for-all-time certainty of "that's what outcry must mean".

This is a theory, not knowledge. Other readings are possible.

I see this as metaphoric as well as metaphysical. Abel's blood cries out to be avenged, not Abel, not his ghost, so unless we consider the blood to be the soul we have to read this as a metaphor. It is the crime itself which stains, which pollutes, which rises up to God the same way prayers rise like incense (c.f the Greek concept of miasma). It's characterising the iniquity of the city as so great that it's *audible* to God, using this auditory metaphor the way I end my rant (deliberately) with an olfactory one -- talking of the "stench of their corruption"

It's poetry, man. Look at the play on words between the Hebrew word for “outcry” -- se’aqa -- and the Hebrew word for “righteousness” -- sedaqa. The "outcry" is a corruption of righteousness, a twisting of righteousness. In deviating from righteousness into sin the "outcry" is an automatic result. The natural social order has broken down, gone wrong. It's the situation itself which is "noisy", which demands God's attention. Compare Enlil's justification for the Flood in the Sumerian myth, his annoyance at the "noise" of the mob of humanity.

But my point is -- literal, metaphysical, metaphorical -- these explanations are not mutually exclusive if you understand that the Bible uses poetic techniques as much as those of plain reportage.

None of these change the fact that the destruction of Sodom is an act of genocide, killing the women and children along with the men and thereby validating the extermination of a tribally-defined "other" for the simple fact that they are a tribally-defined "other".

Questions For The Theologian

What does God want from humans, these creatures he supposedly created?

Which God? The YHVH of the Jews, the Jehovah of the Christians, the Allah of the Muslims or the Yaldaboath of the Gnostics?

Why create them? Why destroy them? What are the metanarrative and its constiuent minor arcs that connect the little narratives (S&G, being one)?

It depends which God you're talking about, where you draw the frame around your meta-narrative.

What is the law?

The institutionalisation of morality as formal social decree with set punishments, as first exemplified by the Law Code of Hammurabi.

Is the law always the law?

Is which specific law always the law? Define "always".

What does Paul say about the law? Is what he says about the law so plain and simple as you've painted him?

Again... which law? Jewish law? Roman law? Hammurabi's law?

What strange acts do Jesus, Moses, and Abraham share (you talked about some of it above)?

Schizophrenic episodes where they hear voices, see visions, talk to God.

What do Moses and David and Solomon share that only Moses and David got away with? Why should they get away with it and not Solomon? So is the law always the law?

1. Wearing brown sandals with black robes? 2. Because fashion is fickle? 3. Well, if the law you're talking about is "chiffon doesn't look good on a man", I'd have to say "yes".

*sigh*

Yes, I know the Bible is a complex book. Anything cobbled together from variant traditions like the J-text and the E-text, retro-fitted with historical legends and prophetic agit-prop, and with a spurious sequel redacted from umpteen different gospels tacked on at the end, anything so constructed is going to be a bit complicated to say the least. But it's even more complex because it's not just a book... Torah, Nabiim, Kethubim, Gospels, Apocrypha, Book of Enoch, Dead Sea Scrolls, Gnostic Gospels, Koran, Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh, Irra and Eshum, Enki and Ninti, the Book of Mormon... if the meta-narrative is important then these questions are just as crucial: Why did Enlil command the creation of humanity? Why did he seek to destroy them? Why did Enki save Atrahassis? What are the me? Does who controls the me change? What does Marx say about the me? Who was really being lamented by the voices heard by a sailor passing Paxos on the day of Yeshuah's birth? Where did Yeshuah get his face? Who was his twin? Would you buy Malak Tawus a pint or spit in his face? Where are the Shaitans of yesteryear?

Questions about what this bit of scripture tells us about that bit of scripture, and how those two bits of scripture add up to a statement about this third bit of scripture, and so on and so forth... if the aim is just to cut and fold all the loose scraps together into one motherfucking big tome that makes us go Aha!... then these are simply questions for the theologian. I'm far more interested in where those scraps of scripture came from, what they're used for, why they can be used in that way, whether they were designed to be used that way, and whether that use is ethically sound. We can argue about how those scraps fit together into the Big Picture, the overall theme, which scraps we include and which we exclude. It doesn't change the way those scraps are used as tools out in the world, and that they're perfectly fitted to that purpose... almost, you know... strangely... weirdly... like they were designed that way.

5:12 am  
Anonymous Number_6 said...

This is a very very deep and intellectual conversion that has plagued scholars throughout the centuries, and I understand that this subject can be quiet inflammatory, so I think this important point must be made using my very limited vocabulary and that is........


"I like Cats, they are fluffy. Do you like cheese?"


And I think that about puts this question to bed then?

7:23 pm  
Blogger Trent said...

You write long posts!

I'll get back to you--maybe next week. But this comment made no sense to me:

"If one is going to be literalist, I could propose the simple answer -- Lot and his household."

I seem to recall great reluctance on behalf of the entire family. They loved their town.

The only "people" who consistently cry out (that God responds to) are the dead.

There's simply no one "of" S&G left living to protest.

4:14 am  
Anonymous Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Oy va voy.

Note to self: never get into a debate with a writer who just quit his day job. :-) Particularly when he's read a hell of a lot more Akkadian texts than you have.

Back from the farm, read up on your excellent and provocative posts, and have many thoughts, and many mixed feelings -- among them that if I give you all the answers you deserve, I will surely lose my job, because I will be writing here instead of coding.

Also, however, the feeling of great appreciation, to you, for your loose cannon atheist mystical nutjob daring, for pushing us much deeper into these issues.

So.

I think this is the key difference, actually, between conventional and post-conventional approaches; the latter I'd argue is an attempt to reconstruct the self by finding the acceptable other. Conventional morality fears the other as a shadow to be avoided, repressed, exterminated. Post-conventional ethics desires the other as a reflection, an image of oneself to be aspired to, to be emulated.

I'm deeply skeptical of Kohlberg's heirarchy for reasons I hope to get to shortly; for now, let me ask you, which ethics is at work in your post "Duncan Does Deus"?

So the deus-diddlers -- you know... people who diddle their deus, who stroke His Almighty Ego with their hymns and prayers, who verbally fondle His Glorious Godhead, making Him proud and happy with just a few flicks of fingers or tongue... what's the word again? Flatterers? Sycophants? Toadies? Ah, that's right: worshippers.... if you "moderates" will not deal with those people in your ranks who think I should be dead then get out of my fucking way.


I'm looking for "the attempt to reconstruct the self by finding the acceptable other" in that post, and I'm not finding it. Help me out here.

What I am seeing is that the cogent argumentation on the risks of abdicating personal skepticism and empathy to a received morality is mixed with revulsion and disgust, so that the cultural practices of monotheism -- praying, for instance -- take on their worst possible interpretation; the argument against prayer, here, is not founded in analysis but in revulsion. At first the revulsion which drips from the passage is a little odd, given that the metaphorical imagery is one of fellatio, which is a little odd coming from you; but dig a little deeper ("making Him proud and happy") and we see that it's the power assymetry of the fellatio that bothers you; that we're not talking about consenting fags having a nice fuck, but about abuse -- about a choirboy gagging on the uninvited member of a Catholic priest.

Their transgressive actions are, as in any propagandist's story, there to validate the already-existant animosity, to illustrate the tow'ebah nature of the enemy culture.

Uh-huh.

So how does this notion of "reaching out to the other you desire" apply to the culture war you find yourself in the middle of?

Kohlberg's work, as a text, elicits very naturally the elitist "most people are sheep; luckily I and my colleagues at Harvard have attainted Level 5 Morality and can thus rise above the herd" reading (note that since people cannot *understand ethical arguments* above their level, according to his system, his interview-based empirical testing scheme depends on a ready supply of Level 5 Morality graders to function, a sort of priestly class, if you will; how convenient that his particular graduate program seems to have them in abundance). It sits in a very old tradition -- back to Brahmins and Plato's philosopher-kings. Like the story of Sodom, it lends itself to convenient "othering". We the few have liberated ourselves from the chains of false ideologies; the masses in their blind and fearful subservience to custom must, accordingly, be ruled.

Note, I am not denying the existence or gravity of the culture war. I am not saying that, as a loud rude radical political atheist gay man, you don't have cause to fear for your life from fagbashers, to fear for your freedom from fundamentalists, to fear for your full range of civil rights from conservatives, nor to count on much but lukewarm, embarassed, half-assed, faux solidarity from liberals, nor that, as the Shaitan of the haters, you are not protecting the rest of us. I'm not saying that the homophobic legacy of the Tanakh isn't a primary cause of that, nor that, more broadly, the control-obsessed, violent, law-and-order orientation of its ideology isn't a more fundamental cause.

I do accept responsibility for all that; I do accept responsibility for turfing the fuckers out of the engine room, and for the fact that most days, I'm more likely to be found pruning the petunias. I thank you for the swift kick in the ass, as far as that goes.

I'm not saying that, in fighting for your life and mine, you don't have the right to trample the flowers.

What I am saying, though, is this: when people offer me a system -- like the Tanak's, like Kohlberg's -- to teach ethics, a system to inspire empathy, a system which offers a moral description of the world, I perk up; I like systems, stories, traditions that do that, since we all have a lot of work to do here, what with the weevils getting on the tomatoes and the early frost killing off the begonias.

When they tell me the system *completely specifies* the good, that it will *ensure and validate ethics*, guarantee empathy, and describe the world *accurately*, I get nervous. And when it sorts people into those who are worthy to be listened to and those who aren't, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the philosopher-kings, I reach for my... well, I don't have a gun right here, but I reach for my pruning shears...

Consider: there are people out there who really hate Jews. Irrational, violent, crazy hate. There are also people who have mild sneering contempt for us. There are also people who hate Israel as a political entity, some for enormous (and legitimate) personal reasons, some for abstract ones. There are also people who have a serious, non-hate-filled, critique of Zionism, or Rabbinic Judaism, or monotheism, or whatever.

Demagogues in my community call all these people "anti-semites". They point to the scariest ones and say "those are my target; the rest of you are just in the way". And they can invalidate the arguments of the ones who would otherwise be in danger of making sense, by calling them whitewashed, sweetened-up, don't-have-the-courage-of-their-convictions versions of the senseless arguments at the bottom of the pit.

It's a neat trick. It's also understandable for someone who feels embattled.

Actually "reaching out to the other", though, would require a bit more discrimination.

It's all in how you draw the boundaries, isn't it? To you, those folks are in the vast category "monotheists", a circle you can draw around most people on the planet, leaving you in the embattled and enlightened minority. To them, though, they draw the circle called "goyim", and there you go -- the goyim hate us.

What I'm suspicious of is your confidence in the alternative you offer. I'm saying, "ok, look, I have these tools; they've got problems, I've had to patch them here and there, you wouldn't believe the things I've done with baling wire and duct tape; they're really old and cantankerous, and unfortunately I've noticed a lot of people who don't understand them end up just mauling up themselves and others when they use them. But I've got them more or less working; they mostly do the job I need them for. What have you got? What advantages and disadvantages does it have? What are the costs? What can we mix and match, trade and learn?" And you're saying "fuck those old tools, man, just burn 'em -- I've got the shit right here."

Right, 'cause it's obvious, right, that if we were to ditch this embarassing old tribal crap from three thousand years ago, we'd have, you know, just normal stuff, compassion and science and democracy and stuff. Everyone would just be normal, and we could all breathe a sigh of relief and agree to all the things that every right-thinking person agrees on. Because ethics is really easy, after all. You just take this test. It's from Harvard.

3:23 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Note to self: never get into a debate with a writer who just quit his day job. :-)

Actually, I'm still working my notice, believe it or not (and dreaming wistfully of the end of March). I'm just a total debate junky, is the problem. :)

Anyway, hope you don't mind my splicing and grafting but I've cut-up and folded-in some bits of your previous post along with snips of this latest and responded to it all in a proper post, rather than here -- for reasons of length more than anything.

7:47 pm  
Blogger Trent said...

"The fact (which fact?) that you believe (what do you believe?) your interpretation to be the only possible rational interpretation (ah! that fact!)... is not equivalent with (with what?) your interpretation *being* the only possible rational explanation. "

Ah, but I did not say it was. Only that I did not buy your interpretation because it lacked the larger scope.

See, you keep talking about conviction, and I'd like to know whose conviction and conviction about what. It seems you may be reading more into what I've written than what I wrote.

8:21 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hmmm. If that's not what you were saying, then fair enough. But you did make a pretty strong contrast between my interpretation as supposition -- "you think" -- and your own as certainty -- "I know" (my italics) -- which is a pretty unequivocal expression of your conviction -- your explicitly stated belief that the "outcry" is (and only is?) the voiced outrage of murder victims. Hence my contention that this is a confusion of factuality and belief. I read you as expressing that belief not as your interpretation ("this is how it looks") but as plain fact ("this is how it is").

Now, whether or not one of us is right and the other wrong wasn't my big issue with them there fighting words, "you think" and "I know"; my issue was with that expression of unquestionable certainty, with what reads as an absolutist stance and, more importantly, an invalid argument. The fact that you or I are convinced of X does not make X necessarily true; the statement of that conviction as "I know X" is really no more than a blunt assertion of the factuality of X. It's not an evidential or logical argument -- i.e one which actually relates to the relevance or validity of a theory.

I read what you were saying as being voiced in that sort of a blunt assertion -- "I know it's about murder" -- to which my automatic response is "No, you're interpreting the text just as much as I am", but... anyway... if that wasn't your intent, fair enough. Let's not get bogged down in meta-argument about who said what.

So...

The core of the actual evidential argument, once you strip away the assertion of factuality, is that the term "outcry" is consistently used to relate to murder victims, and that we should therefore consider it to mean murder victims on the context of Sodom. The core of your logical argument is that I'm working with too limited a scope; the meaning of the part is only graspable if we understand the meaning of the whole.

To summarise my response in later posts: The word "outcry" is used, in the cases of Hagar and Esau in reference to crimes other than murder, contradicting your argument. The lack of any mention of murder in relation to Sodom makes your reading highly suppositional. And given the crimes actually described in the story, we might equally well suppose that the (literal) outcry would be that of still-living accusers of the Sodomites (those molested by them or simply offended by their abhorrent practices). I'd argue that there's also a non-literal, metaphysical / metaphorical reading to be made.

In terms of scope, you're going to have to specify yours, the boundaries of your meta-narrative. Are you talking about the Torah, the Tanakh, or the Christian Bible, including the New Testament? Each has its own meta-marrative. Hell, I'd argue that I'm looking at a meta-narrative which is of a *still larger* scope anyway, including non-canonical monotheist texts such as apocrypha or the writings of Christian apologists, and even external material like Sumerian myth; these provide historical, philosophical, sociological and mythological context(s) which can (and should) have a major impact on our reading of the text.

6:16 pm  

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