Dante for Dayzzzz: My Time with “The Divine Comedy”

Dante

A few weeks ago, I had one of those “Welp, time to read Dante’s Divine Comedy” moments. Perhaps it was the fact I’ve only ever traveled along the West Coast of the United States and I just wanted to indulge in some light travel reading (through Hell). Or maybe it was my own recent floundering but continued interest in the Christian faith which drove me to Dante’s theological musings. Most likely, I was bored. The reason is usually “I was bored” but who wants to admit that? It’s boring.

Luckily, The Divine Comedy wasn’t boring until Dante gets to Heaven. The darker the locale he’s traveling through, the better the story. By the time I got to the highest level of Heaven, I was snoozing, wishing I was back in Hell.I don’t know if that makes me perverse or human. Dante’s Hell is rife with the stuff of drama: pain, struggle, punishment, guilt, etc. Even Purgatory possesses plenty of clever ideas about the ways one would go about expunging the consequences of the Seven Deadly Sins (the gluttons look like famine victims, the prideful walk with stones on their backs so they assume a stance of humility, etc.) His Heaven put me to sleep because it came across as 360 pages which could have been summed up in 3. It’s like stretching a novel out of Frodo enjoying his time in The Gray Havens. We want to know how he got there, not what it’s like. Even the Bible is more sparing in its treatment of Heaven than Dante. Hell and Purgatory still feel like the worst parts of Earth. Heaven is too unrelatable and inhuman. Revelation’s picture of a new Heaven and Earth, populated by embodied human beings is much more palatable (thank you, N.T. Wright).

Inferno

When I told my friends about my recent quest alongside the medieval Italian poet and his Latin predecessor, Virgil, through darkened metaphysical territories, the response was perplexed. “Why would you read that?” (Because it’s Dante?) “Is this a girl thing? Like, is a girl you’re into into Dante?” (No, but I did go on a date where we talked about our mutual appreciation for Dante after I’d finished Inferno. It could’ve been serendipity except she didn’t text me back.) “Getting ready for where you going after you die, huh, you hellbound, post-Christian, agnostic heathen?” (Okay, no one actually said that but I wish they did). All to say, maybe I am weird for wanting to read a medieval epic poem about a voyage through the afterlife but, overall, I don’t regret the vacation.

Dante’s an interesting companion for the journey. For every profound theological observation, there are one or two encounters with someone Dante personally knew back in his time in Florence. In hindsight, it’s kind of an egotistical move. The most ironic aspect of the Comedy is how much it allows Dante to play God. He gets to assign who goes where in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven from personal acquaintances to famous historical figures. In this sense, the pen is mightier than the sword. You could exile Dante from his hometown but he could immortalize you as burning in hell for centuries to follow.

Paradiso

It’s also interesting to see Dante oscillate between moments of profound and progressive humanism and startling barbarity. The concept of Limbo (where the nonbelieving virtuous are punished with boredom) and the stratification of Hell and Purgatory based on the “badness” of a given person’s sin is at least more just than saying everyone from Hitler to the nice, nonbelieving lady across the street is going to burn the same amount for all time. Still, it’s hard to understand how the medieval mind was capable of thinking things like homosexuals and suicides should be worse off than murderers for their “crimes against nature.” If that doesn’t seem off to you, I’d say there’s something off about you. It’s decisions like that which remind you why it’s better, in at least some ways, to be alive in 2014 than it was back then.

Even if he’s a bit off-putting for his self-importance and self-righteousness, he makes up for it with his sense of humor. Of course, the word “comedy” meant something very different to Dante than it means to us. It didn’t mean a nonstop jokefest but a story in which things turned out alright in the end. Still, Dante’s jokes are pretty funny here. The flatterers (read: asskissers) are punished by having to swim around in excrement for eternity. Demons blow bugles out of their butts, one asks “Want I should touch him on the rump a bit?” and the others respond “Go on and give it to him!” Say what you will about the 1300s but I can’t imagine Dante writing things like that without thinking he brought some laughter and light to the Dark Ages.

If you’re thinking of reading Dante, you won’t regret the first two chapters of his journey. It serves as well as an aesthetic experience as it does an ethical guide. He follows through the consequences of our actions and negative, self-centered attitudes to their logical end. That’s useful information even if you think this planet is it. So check it, homeyz.

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He’s Not a Republican: John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”

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The diverse and manifold strains of contemporary Christian theology seem to all be bent on convincing you of one thing in particular: Jesus is not who you think he is. Saints and denominations of many places and times all have their takes on who Jesus is or was, and that’s not counting the rival viewpoints offered up by Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, atheism, etc. So whenever a scholar tries their best to get to what Jesus must’ve meant to his immediate contemporaries, first-century Jews and Gentiles, it comes as a welcome repose from the endless barrage of revisionism. John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is an eye-opening look at what Jesus and the other New Testament writers meant socially and politically to their initial audience.

Jesus, even more so than Moses, Muhammad or Gautama Buddha, is an historical figure regularly invested with timelessness, sometimes at the expense of losing his identity as a first-century Jewish historical figure. No one’s at fault for perpetuating this way of thinking about Jesus; the Christian doctrine of Christ’s preexisting eternality can find its root in the early letters of Paul and his compatriots. It remains ironic though that we lose the historical Jesus so easy when the Four Gospels, particularly Matthew, Mark and Luke, are so hung up on certain space-time details of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. Their theological points are made through their historical storytelling and analysis.

Jesus

What Yoder brings to the table seems obvious once stated but stays hidden in plain sight for so many. The theologically charged, historically rooted stories and letters of the New Testament were meant to bring about change in this world, which is to say at least a significant part of Jesus’ message could be considered social and political. His life and teachings were revolutionary for their era and remain revolutionary now. And surprise: Jesus isn’t a Republican! Or a Democrat. Or (sigh) a Libertarian. His sociopolitical message is, instead, something far more radical and inspiring than anything you’re likely to see on Capitol Hill.

While Yoder is most known for his appeals for Christian pacifism, I found them a bit underwhelming here. It wasn’t to say he did a poor job defending a “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus-was-anti-war position. You’ll find ample support for them in the book but his thoughts on the issue are drowned out by some more poignant statements on the nature of both power and servitude, as redefined by Jesus’ life, death and teachings.

Chapter Eight, “Christ and Power,” is one of the most succinctly and simply put explanations of the Christian idea of “principalities and powers” I’ve ever read. Yoder suggests that the “principalities and powers” Christ is now ruling over, as we are told by Paul the Apostle, shouldn’t defined so medievally as angels and demons. Instead, the text and context are speaking about the powers which drive reality, the wholes that are more than the sum of their parts.

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In other words, the “powers” referred to by Paul are the social constructs which surround us that end up taking on a life of their own. Are humans responsible for the creation of politics, economics, religious life, sexual norms, etc.? Contemporary sociology would say so and Yoder agrees, in part. We created money, for instance, but in some unknowable way, money has taken on a life of its own. Even the atheist Karl Marx conceded to this sort of ideology. There were intangible forces behind the tangible ones. It’s refreshing to hear such a clear thinker make a case for a world beyond materialism that can still be rooted in a pragmatic and empirical view of reality.

His chapter on “revolutionary subordination” is even more intriguing. Long have there been arguments about Christianity’s supposed pro-slavery, anti-women stance. Yoder highlights Paul the Apostle’s stance on women and slaves in the light of his cultural context. The Roman stoics weren’t even paying attention to women and slaves. Paul makes claims which, out of context, seem to be subjugating to women unless you realize Jesus’ main political message was “strength to servitude.”

Christian Fish

Were slaves and women encouraged to be “subordinate” then? Yes, but so were men and masters. The only reason Paul encourages slaves and women to remain in their position was because he was also encouraging an ethic by which everyone would serve each other. Women and slaves had a head start. The playing field would become level and, if Jesus is right in saying “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” then Paul’s admonitions to women and slaves are actually very respectful and even empowering. Unlike the pervasive Greco-Roman culture, Paul and Jesus respected women and slaves as actual people worthy of admonition, encouragement and dignity.

The Politics of Jesus is a breath of fresh air, even forty years after its publication. Why most of Yoder’s ideas haven’t gained traction in the Christian church are beyond me. He makes a pretty compelling case for his views being the very same as those which belonged to the early church, the apostles and Christ himself. One would think Christians would like to align themselves with such a worldview.

Hitchslapped: A Review of “God is Not Great”

God Is Not Great

A couple weeks ago, I finished a book which is a few years old but makes a point which is far older. The book is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens and its point is that God’s almost certainly not there and is a real jerk if he somehow is. According to the famed atheist, the idea of a real God or gods is capable of stifling human development, oppressing human desire and robbing human joy. Though Hitchens would’ve vehemently disagreed with the historical veracity of the account, this assertion is as old at least as the serpent’s words in Eden.

I’ve always loved Hitch. In my most devout days, he was and still is my favorite of the recent atheist Rottweilers.  Admittedly, the man was caustic in his approach, but his words bit so hard because he’d sharpened them on a constant feast of illustrious experience and widespread, passionate reading. With his death, we lost one of our  wittiest, clearest and sincerest writers. Insulting or not, Hitchens believed his every word about disbelief right to the end.

Christopher Hitchens

God is Not Great shows he understood an argument can never be won by pure logical deconstruction. We are narrative creatures and need a story to ground our facts in. I’ve yet to read Dennett’s Breaking the Spell or Dawkins’ notorious The God Delusion but, from what I know about both those men, their antitheistic literature would tend to the more scientific and philosophical side of things. Hitchens was a journalist first so most of his arguments are by anecdote, either personal or historical.

Far from the caricatured atheist stereotype a number of theistic apologists perpetuate, Hitchens is a humanist through and through. His arguments against religion are deft because of their earnest desire for human flourishing and dignity. Maligning him as someone who wants to see the decay of human morality and social mores is to utterly misunderstand his message. He may, at times, be too vitriolic for his own good but he should be commended for his dedication to human rights even if he’s a bit rough around the edges for the more puritanical.

Christopher Hitchens 3

When it comes to the injustices perpetuated by religious influence, Hitchens is as strong as they come. For someone who holds to an occasionally fragile form of religious belief myself, I was often left shaking my head or even sickened at the evils which have transpired in the name of God and proselytization. But perhaps most interesting of all were his stories about religion forming so quickly around shams and charlatans.

There is a set of indigenous people who, when visited by some cargo ships, built a religion around the coming and eventual return of the gods who visited them on these cargo ships. They’ve built docks and they’re still waiting for the cargo ships but they ships are not coming back. Also, there’s a story of a medieval Jewish candidate for the long-awaited Messiah position, with dedicated followers aplenty, who converts to Islam once certain death is hung above his head by the powers that be.

But when it comes to biblical analysis, I was surprised by the blunted blade of his exegesis. He interprets scripture like a fundamentalist which isn’t surprising given his book seems to largely be a polemic against fundamentalism. But, prior to reading Hitchens’ book, I’d inhaled quite a few sophisticated theological and exegetical tomes, both liberal and conservative. It disappointed me to see Hitchens had apparently done no such thing.

Christopher Hitchens 2

This lowest common denominator interpretation of the Old and New Testaments left me wanting more as I could see plenty of the biblical “evils” he discusses explained away by a simple look at larger ancient societal, linguistic and literary contexts. I’m not of the “nothing barbaric happens in the Bible” camp; there are definitely quite a few incidents in the Old and New Testaments which raise my eyebrows and turn my stomach. But if your argument hinges on the misinformation and vaguely illiterate judgmentalism propagated by belief, it would help to not be so misinformed and vaguely illiterate when it comes to the topics you’re attacking.

Luckily, the terms “misinformed” and “vaguely illiterate” aren’t even close to applicable to Hitchens as a whole. I enjoyed his research and beautifully brutal prose. Upon finishing the book, I felt I’d finished the work of a learned and enigmatic person but certainly not a prophet. His arguments went in hills and valleys and I think Hitch would be glad I didn’t take his word wholesale. After all, doing so would be to feed into the same devoted impulse which, according to the author, poisons everything.

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