The First Rape

According to one early Christian legend written no later than the 300s ce, the first rape in the history of the world was of Eve. She goes on to bear her attackers’ children, who inherit the corrupt nature of their fathers but also carry inside themselves the redemptive light of the world. This is a story with a happy ending. Eventually, Eve comes to love and be loved by an equal, and evil is thrown back into the abyss, freeing the children of the light to ascend to heaven.

Ever since I first encountered this story, On the Origin of the World, I’ve wanted to share it with as many people as possible, but it’s a tough one to introduce without help. Think of approaching it like you would John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel. Gardner pulls off a clever reversal by telling the story from the bad guy’s point-of-view, but it’s hard to appreciate if you haven’t first read the Anglo-Saxon original, Beowulf. In the same way, modern readers of On the Origin of the World are likely to miss just how clever this story is if they don’t know something about Jewish folklore.

You can find a translation of On the Origin of the World online from the Gnostic Society Library. For more context and a summary of the best bits, read on.

dark-mirrors-orlovDemons and Fallen Angels

Dark Mirrors (2012) and Divine Scapegoats (2015), both by Andrei A. Orlov, offer a joint introduction to fallen angels, demonology, and evil in Jewish folklore. Why does evil exist? Why do we suffer and die? These are common questions in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Orlov’s exploration of these themes in non-traditional texts offers an opportunity for us to see the diversity of ancient ideas about it. Although beginners are likely to find the books overwhelming in detail, I recommend Orlov to intermediate and advanced students of Jewish and Christian history for his empathetic approach to stories that may seem strange and even nonsensical at first glance.

Especially intriguing is the notion that in the Hebraic universe (and related cosmologies), evil gains power through imitating the good. Rebel beings can wreak havoc on the universe by stealing from the divine. So, for example, the demons structure their realm on the angelic realm in order to steal power from it—and it works. According to Orlov,

In this inverse correspondence, one character literally takes the place of his opponent by acquiring the peculiar attributes and conditions of his counterpart. Some of these correlations stem from early biblical priestly patterns in which positive and negative actors of the cultic drama were portrayed symmetrically. (Divine Scapegoats, 2).

Think of how propaganda works. It’s fair to say propaganda influences public opinion by framing things in a way that seems good and right, regardless of what’s actually happening on the ground. Not too long ago, I shared some lessons from the work of 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Svetlana Alexievich. In her book Voices from Chernobyl, again and again Alexievich’s interviewees point to the gap between their experience and the rhetoric floating around them. Cameraman Sergei Gurin admits with embarrassment that his entire time in Chernobyl was spent filming the wrong things because he had an instinct to shoot images of what was “appropriate”:

Everywhere you went, people would say, “Ah, movie people. Hold on, we’ll find you some heroes.” And they’d produce an old man and his grandson who spent two days chasing cows off from right near Chernobyl. After the shoot the livestock specialist calls me over to a giant pit, where they’re burying the cows with a bulldozer. But it didn’t even occur to me to shoot that. I turned my back on the pit and shot the scene in the great tradition of our patriotic documentaries: the bulldozer drivers are reading Pravda, the headline in huge block letters: “The nation will not abandon those in trouble!” I even got lucky: a stork landed in a field across from me one day. A symbol! No matter what catastrophes befall us, we will triumph! Life goes on! (106)

This same mentality rules the demonic beings of Hebraic legend. They recreate what they instinctively know is the “right” order of things, and they believe in it even as evidence shows that it’s not working for them. But perhaps this is not so strange. There’s a certain power in asserting the narrative that says, “We are in control. We will overcome this disaster.” As the old truism has it, we have to believe something in order achieve it. It’s just not the power of truth, more like the power of influence. Evil beings in the Hebraic universe are doomed to the abyss in the end—and often seem know it!—but in the meantime they go on skewing the cosmos through imitation.

… in the Hebraic universe, evil gains power through imitating the good.

In the Apocalypse of Abraham, the fallen angel Azazel takes on the deposit of human sins like a garment. Meanwhile, Abraham takes his angelic robes. This is a concrete way of saying Abraham replaces Azazel. A similar story appears in Zechariah 3:1–5:

Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with apparel; and the angel of the Lord was standing by. (NRSV)

As Orlov observes, “Although in Zechariah’s account, unlike in the Slavonic apocalypse, the human’s filthy clothes are not transferred to the demonic creature, the ritual of Satan’s cursing might suggest that the antagonist becomes the recipient of Joshua’s vestments of impurity” (22).

In other words, the mirroring happens both ways. Evil beings can steal power from the divine through imitation, but the divine can also condemn and render powerless evil beings by ritually burdening them with curses. Eventually the tide will turn against evil and the demons, including fallen angels, eventually will be thrown into “the abyss.”

Themes present in On the Origin of the World:

  1. Evil gets its power from imitating the good/divine.
  2. The good/divine can steal power back through imitation, often involving clever swaps and trickery.
  3. Human beings sometimes serve as the vehicle for stealing back power from evil beings.

Lilith, Mother of Demons

I haven’t personally read any book-length studies of Lilith, so I won’t recommend one here, but Janet Howe Gaines published a detailed article about her in Bible Review back in October 2001 which you can read here. Lilith has a long history in Mesopotamian religions, as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh, where she appears as a demoness whom Gilgamesh chases into the desert. Since then, she has appeared in numerous stories and legends associated with wilderness. She even gets a mention in the Bible, Isaiah 34:14: “Wildcats shall meet hyenas, / Goat-demons shall greet each other; / There too the lilith shall repose.” As Gaines observes, “The Lilith demon was apparently so well known to Isaiah’s audience that no explanation of her identity was necessary.”

Lilith came to be associated both with fertility (she was said to have 100 children every day!) and with infant mortality (she devours children). Families would buy and make amulets to ward her away from their babies. Hence, much like other ancient feminine divine figures, such as Tiamat, she is associated with creativity but also chaos and death.

Much later in Judeo-Christian tradition (long after On the Origin of the World was written), medieval tales coupled Samael and Lilith as the divine rulers of the demonic world (Orlov, 300n8). Another late tale portrays Lilith as Adam’s first wife, before Eve. Lilith becomes angry because Adam wants her to lie on her back and “submissively perform her wifely duties” and in her escalating outrage speaks the name of God out loud. This gives her the power of flight, but it also reveals her “unworthiness to reside in paradise,” as Gaines puts it. Now a demon, Lilith takes up residence in the Red Sea and devours children for revenge.

The much earlier text of On the Origin of the World betrays hints of these later developments, especially the idea that Adam had two wives. For all we know, On the Origin of the World may even have inspired some of the medieval stories.

Themes present in On the Origin of the World:

  1. Childbirth, both its good and dangerous aspects, is associated with demonic forces.
  2. Lilith is associated with the wilderness, which is also where paradise was believe to be located.
  3. Lilith interacts with both divine and demonic powers, as does Eve in On the Origin of the World.
  4. Medieval stories of Lilith inventively reassigned her roles in the Hebrew mythology, including specifically with Eve, with both positive and negative associations.

According to Gaines, “Bind Lilith in chains!” reads a warning in Hebrew on this 18th- or 19th-century C.E. amulet from the Israel Museum intended to protect an infant from the demoness.

Adam and Eve

Many of us grew up hearing the story of Adam and Eve, so I’ll limit this to a refresher on a few aspects of the story that are easy to miss.

There are two versions of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. The version of the story in Genesis 1:26–31 is a simple formula: God creates humankind, male and female, and blesses them. The version in Genesis 2:4b–25 is the more elaborate version involving Adam’s rib. The two versions create a gap that seems to imply Eve was created twice, opening up the possibility for later readers to invent an explanation. Was Eve created immediately after Adam, or was she created sometime later from Adam’s rib while he slept? This ambiguity plays a crucial role in On the Origin of the World.

In the biblical version of events, when Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge, they do so against God’s command. The serpent who convinces them to do it is punished. Although the serpent is often associated with Satan in later Judeo-Christian mythology, this is not suggested in the original story. The humans are punished, cast out of the garden, and forced to work to survive from that time onward. The curse on Eve involves difficulty in childbirth.

The Story of Eve in On the Origin of the World

The Eve found in On the Origin of the World exists in a shadowy place built in imitation of the divine world of light and goodness. This shadow world is ruled by a demonic, lion-like being named Yaldabaoth. Yaldabaoth believes he is the highest power, not realizing there is a greater world beyond his own. His ignorance betrays a glimmering of awareness, however: he craves a world that replicates the world he can’t see. Offered occasional glimpses of it in the waters of chaos, he begins to recreate what he sees.

Yaldabaoth begins by birthing seven sons—princes of darkness, each of whom creates his own pantheon of demonic children and servants. But when Yaldabaoth proclaims to his new assembly, “I am God; there is no other like me,” the unseen immortal voice of wisdom cries out from above, “You are wrong, blind god! An immortal human will come and throw you into the abyss!”

Most of the princes disregard this warning, but one, Sabaoth, repents of his father’s claim and is granted wisdom from the higher powers. He comes to hate his father, darkness, and his mother, the abyss. He turns against them only to be surrounded on all sides by his fellow princes and powers of darkness. Confined to the seventh heaven, he builds an elaborate mansion and throne decorated with lions, bulls, humans, and eagles. Interestingly enough, he even has a chorus of serpents. With the guidance of a being called Sophia Zoe, whose name suggests she is a divine form of Eve (“Zoe” and “Eve” both mean “life”), Sabaoth creates models (proxies) of beings from the world of light, including Jesus and Mary, that will be used later to trick and overthrow the demonic powers.

Meanwhile Yaldabaoth, angered by the rebellion of his son Sabaoth, births a new son—Death. This son takes Sabaoth’s old spot in the demonic pantheon. Death births male and female demons of envy, lust, sighs, curses, bitterness, and strife. Not to be outdone, Sophia Zoe counters him with angelic powers of joy, blessedness, truth, love, and peace to bring forth new and good spirits.

A beam of light shoots down from the kingdoms above, straight through all the levels of the demonic world, and strikes the earth. A vision appears within—a man, likely Jesus although he isn’t named. By now all the other demonic powers have realized that Yaldabaoth is not the highest being in the cosmos, and they laugh at him. The vision in the beam of light arouses Yaldabaoth’s feminine consort Pronoia, who births the earth, plants, animals, and a whole wealth of life including paradise.

Eve makes her entrance around this time, albeit with less grandeur. She comes to earth as a drop of light falling into pure water. She has the power to create without the help of another being, and she bears a child called Beast, who goes unnoticed by the powers of darkness.

Eve … comes to earth as a drop of light falling into pure water.

Yaldabaoth and his lackeys, worried about the human vision from the beam of light, decide to mold a figure in his image. They intend to trap him by making him fall in love with it, in hopes that they can lure him into the model. What they don’t realize is that this all plays into a plan already set into motion by the higher powers. The birth of the human one will eventually send the powers of darkness into the abyss for good.

This proto-Adam is a sorry sight. Like a golem, he exist only as bare life with no independent thoughts or desires. Worse, he can’t even get up or move. He is, in the words of the original, nothing more than an “aborted fetus” of demons. When the demons aren’t looking, wisdom breathes a soul into Adam, giving him the power to say defiantly to his makers, “I have come to destroy your work.” Yet because he still can barely move, Yaldabaoth and the rest mock him and ignore him.

Up in seventh heaven, Sabaoth and his hosts, relieved, take a day of rest, confident now that their plan will succeed.

When Eve discovers the man Adam lying on the ground, she takes pity on him. “Get up!” she says—and he does! He says of her, “You shall be called ‘Mother of the Living.’ For it is you who have given me life.” Although he calls her mother, he doesn’t love her, at least not yet.

When the evil powers realize a being of light is with Adam and is helping him, they plot to rob her of the purity that would allow her to return to her higher world above. Suspicious that Adam will not be loyal to them, they put him into a deep sleep to prevent his interference. Eve laughs at them, knowing herself to be more powerful than they are. She leaves her “likeness” (her body? a proxy?) beside Adam and flees to safety in the Tree of Knowledge.

The evil powers seize Eve’s likeness and rape her “in foul ways.” Through this terrible act, children are born as part of a divine plan to house the “light” or goodness from heaven in these corrupt bodies of Yaldabaoth’s shadow world, eventually to overcome it. Like an army infiltrating the enemy camp, human beings begin here in a dark and uncertain place. The powers offer Adam and Eve false freedom: eat of any tree in the garden save one. “If you eat of the Tree of Knowledge, you will surely die.”

Beast, Eve’s forgotten child, comes into the garden in the form of a serpent and offers Eve’s likeness counsel. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “They threatened you out of jealousy, not concern. Eat of this tree and you’ll gain wisdom, become like the gods.”

Here the story follows the Genesis tale. The humans become ashamed of their nakedness and, when confronted by the evil powers, are punished with curses for their transgression, but it’s too late for the powers to do anything about it except place guards around the trees. The humans have now wised up to their corrupt world.

But there’s one new, all-important detail: The moment Adam and Eve obtained wisdom is the moment they fell in love.

The Children of Rape

As an adoptive parent, I was particularly struck in this story by the role of the children born from the rape of Eve. On the one hand, we’re told their bodies are part of a corrupt shadow-world. They are, to put it unkindly, children of demons. On the other hand, they are vital participants in a divine plan to overthrow evil and ignorance. Within them is one small piece of the world of light. We never hear how Eve feels about these children, or how they feel about themselves, but it’s possible that the answer is simply “the human condition.”

Rape in modern culture carries with it an urgent, silencing force. To speak risks stigma, pity and uncertainty, not to mention disbelief. So I find it stunning and yet strangely appropriate that On the Origin of the World roots every human being’s personal moral struggle in this original act of rape. One could call it the feminine counterpart of Cain and Abel.

We never hear how Eve feels about these children, or how they feel about themselves, but it’s possible that the answer is simply “the human condition.”

I don’t “believe in” this story any more than I “believe in” Beowulf or The Odyssey or Gilgamesh. But the story says something real about what it means to be human. None of us likes to admit our dark moments as victims or perpetrators of violence. I don’t know about you, but the reality that we are vulnerable to both roles scares me to death. Here’s a story that is honest about that, while remaining optimistic that good will prevail—not by ignoring the shadow world but by lighting it up from within.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

This Passing World

Journey of the Universe

Mary Evelyn Tucker will be a featured speaker at the Westar Institute’s Spring 2016 national meeting.

But suddenly mind overwhelmed by sense
You hear eternity in present tense—
The tree toads singing in the shallow pond,
Singing and dreaming of tall trees beyond.
—Robert Hillyer, “Hylidae”

Ecology is becoming increasingly dear to me as a subject. Nature formed a crucial lens in my complete re-reading of Paul’s letters last July, and led me to express dissatisfaction with Paul’s assumption that the natural decay of the world was directly related to moral decay, so much so that to Paul it invited cosmic war. This world is corrupt, so the standard Christian story goes, and even a radical reading of Paul retained that perspective. I just don’t buy into that.

In what sense is human morality to be associated with the natural processes of decay and destruction? New life comes from old life, as Paul also says, but we don’t have to agree with him that the old life was evil.

I found out not too long ago that Mary Evelyn Tucker of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology will be headlining Westar Institute’s Spring 2015 national meeting in Santa Rosa, California. Tucker was kind enough to send me a copy of her little book of meditations called Journey of the Universe, coauthored with Brian Thomas Swimme. Most of the meditations are only a page or two long, on topics that straddle the scientific and spiritual, such as the birth of stars, nuclei and bonding, timing and creativity. Tucker and Swimme observe that from the very beginning, destruction goes hand in hand with creativity in the universe, and that of course this finds expression in human lives as well:

There is a deep ambiguity threaded throughout [human bonds] that may result not simply in communion but also in collapse. But isn’t this also the nature of the universe—both dangerous and inviting? How do we discover ourselves in forces that are simultaneously fearful and attractive? How do we live amidst shimmering disequilibrium? One thing seems certain: the universe, navigating between extremes, presses ever further into creative intensities. (31–32)

The language of intent and desire threads through these meditations, and it left me worrying and wondering. Can the universe be said to intend or desire anything? I suppose we can say “yes,” on the grounds that we human beings, who are tiny bits of universe, certainly feel both intent and desire, as do many other living things around us. Would I be arrogant if I suggest we are just anthropomorphizing the universe when we use the language of intent? After all, we inherited all we are from the universe, and not the other way around, so it may be equally fair to argue that we inherited desire from our mother element. At the very least, I’d rather say that there is no grand Intender (“God”), only that intent is more like a wave of water, local and dispersible. Tucker and Swimme seem to agree, in that they describe this desire as “preconscious,” implying that it does not belong to a single, knowing entity.

This is important to me because morality turns on intention and desire, which together invite or demand obligation. “Did you mean to hurt me, or was it just an accident? What sort of society do you want or hope for? What should we do about it?” We can’t exit the universe’s cycle of decay, destruction, and creation—we know that now. Tucker and Swimme are simply observing that desire is a “mover” of that cycle, and as such it drives us to assign value to only the very smallest slivers of the universe, on a scale we can comprehend. For instance, after describing the courtship behaviors of a male bowerbird, spider, and peacock, they write:

What is true of each of these males? Why does he throw himself into such activity, all of it costly and some of it life-threatening?

He is seeking to convey his deepest truth—that he finds her valuable. Life has shaped his mind in a particular fashion. He cannot see all the value in the universe, but he can see hers, and it might as well be infinite, for nothing matters in comparison. His great passion is to organize his life around the work of wooing her, of impressing her, of changing himself in whatever way he can so that she will look at him in admiration and will utter in her own wordless way the longed for magic contained in that one word, “Yes.” (74)

How lovely especially here is the observation that we cannot observe all value in the universe, but that we reach instead for our own muse to that fuller context in our smaller, passing world. The whole may only be touched through a precious single instance of value. To live means in some way to give oneself (up) to a value.

Here the moral dimension becomes more apparent to me. If desire and bringing forth of value themselves constitute life, then morality is defined as the pattern by which it is achieved. Morality isn’t about cleansing or purging the corrupt world but rather about drawing value from the rich matter of the world. And it’s not a single ultimate value, such as God, but some value that drives morality. It’s also not any arbitrary value but a particular value that belongs to a greater constellation of values, what philosophers for many generations have called the Good. I find it incredibly moving that Tucker and Swinne suggest that a particular value is not something abstract, like honesty, but rather an individual life, a beloved. We don’t invent value, we discover it naturally from what exists, even if only in hints, hopes and yes, instincts.

Moon, Yew Trees at  Stow-on-the-Wold

These two Yew Trees, which flank the door to the Church of St. Edward in Stow-on-the-Wold, England, planted sometime in the 18th century, were probably survivors of an avenue of trees that led to the door of the church. They now appear to grow from the building itself. Photo by Beth Moon.

This makes morality sound like an elaborate expression of survival of the fittest (I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest as much). But I think it goes deeper than that. Consider: All living things are capable of perceiving value in the universe, unique to its own context but at the same time not arbitrary because it emerges from a greater whole. Sure, living things often seem to operate out of instinct more than anything else, usually to produce offspring, but obligation at some point can become love. At Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire there’s a famous church door held up not by stone pillars but by a pair of living Yew trees. Love is like that, a sort of happenstance that becomes structurally necessary. It was fated to take that form only in the sense that its form was possible in the material of the place.

What I’m trying to say is that “should,” the voice of morality, retains a degree of freedom when it both emerges from and upholds a value that matters deeply to you and to me. We all have varying degrees of that freedom in the sense of which values we may perceive, from the simplistic reproductive urge of a single-celled organism to the longings that produced Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Nevertheless, morality becomes a means of expressing what is personal about the deep and abiding patterns of the natural universe.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

How to Read the Bible: A Review

Sullied by unjust and even hateful usage over the years, the Bible is a book under fire. “Look at all the ignorance and cruelty in these pages,” cry its critics, with plenty of evidence at hand to prove their point. “The Bible kills our babies (real and figurative) and never apologizes for it!”

To read the Bible, to like it, to care for it have become reasons to blush. Too many awkward conversations result from cracking it open in public. One feels the urge to fold brown paper over the cover before carrying it onto trains, planes, and buses. At the very least, it seems prudent to carry it with another book, preferably something like David Sedaris’ Let’s Talk about Diabetes with Owls—anything that suggests you are not a closed-minded bigot.

I promise this is not the opening gambit in a missionary’s spiel. I’m not here to tell you to get right with God, but I am rethinking my relationship with the collected legends, poetry, proverbs, letters, and stories that were so dear to me before my college religious studies courses left me feeling betrayed by them. It turns out Moses never parted the Red Sea, we know next to nothing about the historical Jesus, and Paul probably didn’t write Ephesians, one of my favorite books of the Bible.

I’m grateful to my teachers for trusting in my intelligence, but oh man, what a letdown.

I ended up swapping my love of the Bible for a love of the history of the Bible. I did feel it was necessary to choose. And from day one of Elementary Hebrew, did I ever fall madly in love with the history of the Bible! It was love of the sort that put me in the company of Marianne Dashwood from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I was pretty sure it would kill me. Melodramatic? Yes. But you have to understand that I read the Bible all the time. Even the smallest helping of the history behind it was like leaning too far over deep water.

How to Read the BibleHarvard professor Harvey Cox knows the feeling. In his new book How to Read the Bible, he uses the word “vivisection” to describe that dreadful but wonderful awakening. For better or for worse, I happen to own a book on the history of medical experimentation. The authors couldn’t help themselves; they filled their rather slim volume with enough vintage sketches of vivisection to shock unsuspecting readers by the page. Crowds of onlookers stare with expressions somewhere between lust and horror as, on a stage fitted with an operating table and a rack of what look like the instruments of torture rather than healing, doctors cut open live dogs, pigs, and even human criminals, all in the pursuit of scientific truth. If I was Marianne Dashwood, it seems Harvey Cox was the pale attendant looking over the doctor’s shoulder.

Thankfully, the story does not end here. The Bible need not remain the condemned criminal and untrue lover in our newly dystopian state. There is hope. Cox draws upon a lifetime of study to assure us that it’s okay to still be moved by the Bible. The Bible can survive our scrutiny. We can read it with care and common sense at the same time.

To accomplish this, Cox modifies the guidance he received long ago from his friend and colleague, the late Krister Stendahl. Stendahl taught Cox to take a two-pronged approach to the Bible.

The two great questions about any Bible passage are, “What did it mean then?” and “What does it mean now?” … The “What did it mean then?” obviously fell in the realm of biblical studies. The “What does it mean now?” question belongs to Bible study, preaching, and spiritual formation.

As Cox tried to put this into practice, he found it was never so tidy. The two questions tangled and tussled and never quite stayed apart. “More and more today,” he tells us, “thoughtful historians, including those in biblical studies, know that complete ‘objectivity’ was never obtainable and was always probably undesirable.” In place of that, he encourages us to read with “a candid awareness of one’s personal objective.” We read for a reason, not the reason.

How do we do this? Cox advises us to read in three stages:

  1. Read the text as a story, fully absorbed in the drama and emotions as with any literary work.
  2. Become an amateur detective of history and uncover the “who, when, where and why” of a text.
  3. Engage the text in a spiritual “no holds barred wrestling match.” Be ready to change but willing to argue with what you find.

Throughout the book Cox shows readers, over and over again, how this approach can enrich our reading of the Bible. I found the chapter on Job especially moving, not to mention startlingly relevant to my life.

Has Cox convinced me to read my Bible in public again? Yes, I believe he has. I have been reminded of what it was like to relate with the people of Bible—in the stories, behind them, around them. I feel I have been given tacit permission to talk about both what I cherish and what goads me.

One thing I will not do: oversimplify.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Sex, Shame, and the Bible

It might seem like a funny way to start out: I’m sharing my least favorite Robert Frost poem with you. Stick with me.

Frost himself described “The Subverted Flower” in a 1960 Paris Review interview as one he would not like read widely. When pressed, he said it was about “the frigidity of women.” The poem, a romantic encounter between a man and woman in a field of “goldenrod and brake,” begins as flirtation and desire but devolves into shame—not for the woman but for the man, who is literally reduced to a beast when she hesitates on his gesture:

She drew back; he was calm:
‘It is this that had the power.’
And he lashed his open palm
With the tender-hearted flower.
He smiled for her to smile,
But she was either blind
Or willfully unkind.


… her mother’s call
Made her steal a look of fear
To see if he could hear
And would pounce to end it all
Before her mother came.
She looked and saw the shame:
A hand hung like a paw,
An arm worked like a saw
As if to be persuasive,
An ingratiating laugh
That cut the snout in half,
An eye become evasive.
A girl could only see
That a flower had marred a man,
But what she could not see
Was that the flower might be
Other than base and fetid:
That the flower had done but part,
And what the flower began,
Her own too meager heart
Had terribly completed.

“The Subverted Flower,” A Witness Tree, 1942

Sometimes we read a poem not because we like it but because it captures an emotion. Even as I resent the man’s inability to empathize with the “girl,” I appreciate the precariousness of his attempt to cross into intimacy. The failure, at once subtle and devastating, actually undermines both partners’ understanding of the man as human, as though he “should” have known how to woo her in a way that wouldn’t expose her power to fell him with a look. Shame and vulnerability expert Brené Brown recently recounted a similar story of a man who approached her at a book signing and urged her to broaden her research on shame to include men, saying, “Men experience shame, too, deep shame. And before you start bringing up too-tough fathers and so on … my wife and daughters would rather see me die on my white horse than fall off of it.”

Many years of research later, Brown locates this shame in the tendency for people, both men and women, to derive power from the specific roles they hold for one another. When one person exposes his vulnerability to the other, it can fundamentally alter the dynamic between them. How can we deal with this in a healthy, affirming way? One answer suggested by Brown is to become more willing to live with discomfort, without assuming we will ever “get good at it” to such a degree that we actually “like” the discomfort. As we become sensitive to our own continuous attempts to draw our power from others, we become better able to sit longer with the discomfort that results. We begin to recognize that roles can change and our relationships with friends, coworkers, parents, lovers, etc., can survive and even improve.

Unprotected Texts Knust

This article is part of a series on Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust.

In a way, this is a softening of my comments about Buddhist meditation from a couple weeks ago. Handling discomfort is one skill meditation teaches. Speaking from more than ten years’ experience with cross-cultural and interfaith work, I can vouch for the fact that this skill doesn’t get easier, only more necessary. So this week when I picked up Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire by biblical studies scholar and American Baptist minister Jennifer Wright Knust, I was elated to discover a kindred spirit who is unwilling to let the Bible’s enormous variety of attitudes toward sexuality—with all the related facets of shame, vulnerability, and self control—go unnoticed.

Knust in no way attacks the Bible or Christians. Rather, she asks readers to begin with the text itself, to learn what it actually says, and to consider in what sense we want to be guided by what we find. She opens with a personal story about the bullying she experienced as a sexually inexperienced twelve-year-old who nevertheless was pegged the school “slut.”

As studies of the slut phenomenon in American high schools have shown, when it comes to being called a slut, the story is pretty much the same: A girl who is a misfit for one reason or another is selected (she’s the new girl, she develops breasts earlier than the other girls, her hair is different—whatever). Then the stories start, irrespective of what the girl has or has not done. … My experience at twelve taught me that, when it comes to sex, people never simply report what others are doing or even what they themselves are doing. … Sex, I have since discovered, can be used as a public weapon. (2)

People who don’t read the Bible stories closely, or who learned to hurry past uncomfortable passages, may not realize just how diverse the Bible’s approaches to sex and sexuality really are. Maybe I’m being too euphemistic when I say that. Let’s face it. Some people undeniably know about that diversity but pretend it doesn’t exist. Knust confronts that issue, too. Countering the existence of such a thing as “biblical standards” of sex, she presents this helpful overview:

The Bible does not speak with one voice when it comes to marriage, women’s roles, sexy clothes, and the importance of remaining a pure virgin for one’s (future) spouse. According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine. Visits to prostitutes are also not a problem, so long as the prostitute in question is not a proper Israelite woman. According to the Song of Songs, a beautiful girl who enjoys making love can fulfill her desires outside of marriage and still be honored both by God and by her larger community. Sex is a good thing, and sexual desire is a blessing, not an embarrassment. Yet according to Exodus and Deuteronomy, sex is a matter of male property. Men can have sex with as many women as they like, so long as these women are their wives, slaves, or prostitutes, but a woman must guard her virginity for the sake of her father and then remain sexually faithful to one man after marriage. First Timothy offers yet another perspective: a woman must marry not so that she can express her desires appropriately but so that she can become pregnant and suffer the pangs of childbirth. God requires women to suffer in this way, and has demanded labor pains from them since Eve first sinned in Eden. Nevertheless, other New Testament books argue that the faithful followers of Jesus should avoid marriage if possible, in anticipation of a time when sexual intercourse will be eliminated altogether. Could one imagine a more contradictory set of teachings collected within one set of sacred texts? (8)

Sitting with these texts is a risky pursuit. It puts us in a position of discomfort, especially those of us who were raised with a “biblical standard of sex” mentality (whether or not we still adhere to it). I hope that you will join me, first of all, in reading this book over the next few weeks, and second, in testing some new, perhaps more vulnerable responses to today’s debates on this subject.

By the way, Brené Brown made one other point about vulnerability: it most often appears in situations that require a virtue we can all admire—courage.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

The Qur’an in Historical Context

When I was a teenager my grandfather showed me a copy of a Qur’an his father had brought back from military service in the Middle East. It was lovely, with delicate pages just like a Bible and a clothbound cover. Of course it was in Arabic, so I couldn’t read it. But it inspired me to try reading an English version of the Qur’an.

I found the experience highly perplexing. The Qur’an contains stories with familiar names from the Hebrew Bible—Moses, Joseph, Ishmael, and so on—but the details are different. For instance, in Genesis 39, Joseph is accused of accosting his Egyptian master Potiphar’s wife. Joseph is thrown into prison on that basis and no one ever exonerates him. God turns this situation into a blessing, but the blemish is never removed from Joseph’s record, so to speak. In the version of the story found in the Qur’an (Sura 12), from the beginning Potiphar treats Joseph/Yusuf more as an equal than a slave (“perhaps … we will adopt him as a son”), and Joseph is exonerated on the basis of a rather humorous test:

[Joseph] said, “It was she who sought to seduce me.” And a witness from her family testified. “If his shirt is torn from the front, then she has told the truth, and he is of the liars. But if his shirt is torn from the back, then she has lied, and he is of the truthful.” So when her husband saw his shirt torn from the back, he said, “Indeed, it is of the women’s plan. Indeed, your plan is great. Joseph, ignore this. And, [my wife], ask forgiveness for your sin. Indeed, you were of the sinful.”

Happily, Joseph is found innocent, his reputation left untarnished. (In fact, Potiphar’s wife is also exonerated. When the women of the city laugh at her for seeking to seduce a “slave boy,” she invites them to dinner and has Joseph serve the meal. His good looks enchant the women so much, they forget what they are doing and cut their hands with their dinner knives!)

Had I encountered the Joseph/Yusuf story, I might have kept reading, but I remember distinctly wondering by Sura 2 why the story was in such a big hurry, and why on earth it mattered what color the cow was that the Israelites sacrificed (2:68), and soon abandoned the project. The Bible is no easier to understand, of course, but I didn’t have even the equivalent of the minimal context church had given me for that. Perhaps you’ve shared a similar experience. It took 9/11 and some thoughtful professors to open the Qur’an again.

What happens when we place the Qur’an in historical context instead of plucking bits and pieces from it at random to defend particular views?

Honor Diaries

Raheel Raza is one of several women featured in the award-winning documentary Honor Diaries

Award-winning Muslim activist Raheel Raza addressed the confusion and problems that result from a lack of proper historical understanding of the Qur’an at her presentation Politics, Patriarchy, and Power: When the Word of God Goes Wrong on November 23rd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center as part of the Westar Institute Fall 2014 national meeting. Raza has graciously shared an outline of her speech with us, so in this blog post I’m sticking to a few interesting points of connection.

“Islam is in the spotlight, like a deer frozen in the headlights of a car. Since 9/11 especially, there has been no stone left unturned in scrutinizing each aspect of the faith by both experts and pseudo-experts,” Raza began. “This work is being done at two levels—one of course is the very important scholarly, academic level … but what you don’t normally see is the work being done at the grassroots level, by the activists … to light a fire under the feet of religious leadership to bring about change.” She goes on to make a critical observation—one that will no doubt sound familiar to Westar members and friends—that activists need the support of critical scholars.

Critical scholarship can challenge assumptions about the past by offering a more nuanced history of religion. Where activists are able to access this information and engage with it, they can in turn have an enormous impact on debates around such issues as environmental ethics, end-of-life care, gender and marriage roles, interfaith relations, institutional violence and poverty. We can acknowledge this without feeling overly critical of Islam. After all, it was (literally) only yesterday that Libby Lane was appointed the first female Bishop in the UK.

The historical study of Islam has not been discussed much at Westar in recent years, so this subject may be as new to you as it is to me. A bit ironically, Westar Fellow Joseph Bessler opens his book A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better with an anecdote about an exchange between Muslim author Salman Rushdie and Bill Moyers on the PBS program Faith & Reason regarding this exact issue:

“Yes,” I thought, still somewhat amazed, “he’s calling for a study of the historical Muhammad.” Lamenting the silencing of public discourse, Rushdie highlights the importance of historical studies as a way of moving Islam toward a more tolerant and open civil society. Such scholarship, implicitly challenging the notion that the Qur’an is a divinely revealed text, would undercut the theological argument by which Islamic states and radical clerics censor and silence public dissent. … Moyers’ interview with Rushdie gives an American audience the opportunity to see the importance of the West’s own history of conlflict between traditional assumptions of religious authority and the creation of an open civil society. My own reading of the interview is that Rushdie sees the question of the historical Muhammad not simply as a point of inquiry but as a needed point of leverage for opening up the sphere of public discourse in Muslim societies. (10–11)

So what are some of the issues that contribute to confusion around the Qur’an? Like the Bible, its contents do not appear in chronological order. The books are organized from longest to shortest. The books were composed in two very different locations (Mecca and Medina), and span many years in the life of Muhammad. Another natural problem the Qur’an shares with the Bible is its antiquity; it simply does not address modern issues, at least not directly. These barriers confuse attempts to figure out what the Qur’an can tell us especially about the actual teachings of the historical Muhammad. (Note: I am not addressing here the role of hadith, the collection of sayings and traditions about the prophet, in this quest, but obviously hadith studies are vitally important to the question of the historical Muhammad as well.)

South African Islamicist Farid Esack was once asked about how to handle modern social issues, such as AIDS, that are not mentioned in the Qur’an. Esack encouraged his listeners to engage with these contemporary issues rather than avoid them. “When I read the Qur’an and re-read it … I have to look at it in the context of today. So I look at the issue of AIDS in the light of compassion and mercy, which is what we are told God is all about.” In a fascinating lecture on the subject of Islam and ethics—helpfully, from an Africa-based rather than Western-based perspective—Esack observes that 9/11 has significantly narrowed discussions of Islam in the United States to arguments over whether or not it can be compatible with peace, with the US Constitution, and so on. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on other critical issues such as enslavement and impoverization, and what Islam can offer with regard to that. He found himself having to re-frame his priorities depending on which continent he was doing his scholarly research.

Individuals like Rushdie, Esack, Raza are seeking a more nuanced understanding of Islam in public discourse where it intersects with their respective areas of work. Raza cited multiple examples of places in the Qur’an that complicate claims made about it in the post-9/11 West: “The Qur’an clearly elucidates that is is a message that is to be practiced in conjunction with the messages that came before it,” she said. Traditionally, the daily prayers recited by Muslims include a blessing on Abraham and his progeny. For that matter, “Jesus is mentioned more times by name in the Qur’an than Muhammad.” We don’t hear much about this because from early in the history of Islam, leaders began quoting the Qur’an as an authoritative text for their own purposes (sound familiar?):

Extremists don’t relate the history [behind the Qur’an]; they just take one line out of context. … One of the reasons that the misinterpretation of the Qur’an became so popular after the death of the Prophet is that the early rulers right after the Prophet had so politicized the faith that they used carefully chosen verses to promote their own political agendas. This was the rise of Islamicism as we know it today. … This was a tragedy that overtook the spiritual message of Islam.

Among the scholars of Islam Raza has found most helpful as an activist include Amina Wadud, author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, and Laleh Bakhtiar, the first woman to translate the Qur’an. Raza has listed these and other role models and mentors on her recommended reading page on her personal website. The information is out there, and the quest for a (post)modern understanding of the Qur’an is truly still in its infancy. We can’t let pride get in the way of learning, whether we are engaging with that quest from within or outside that tradition, so it is with that spirit that I will conclude with a piece of light-hearted—not necessarily easy—advice from Raza: “We have to learn to self-critique and laugh at ourselves.”

Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below

[divider style=”hr-dotted”] Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.