Archive for November, 2005

God is not a Gnostic

November 28, 2005

Seeing that my attention span was unusually short, even for me, during Thanksgiving week, I sorted through the piles of books I keep littered around the back seat of my car in search of something that could hold my attention for several days of vacation. I settled upon a book of erotic poetry.

I bet you didn’t see that one coming. Of course, if you knew me well you wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that I spent my Thanksgiving week meditating on such a thing. You may be disappointed to hear that it was a commentary on the Song of Solomon written by Tremper Longman, one of my favorite Old Testament scholars. I suppose it goes without saying that I enjoyed making my way through this book, and I had no trouble finishing it. In the process I was struck by a couple of realizations that I’d like to share:

First, I was floored by the intensity of sexuality in this book of the Bible. Once you get what these folks in the Song are saying, it’ll really get your blood going. Longman approaches the book with a presupposition that I find I can accept wholeheartedly: While both Jewish and Christian expositors have interpreted this book strictly allegorically from the time of the earliest surviving commentaries, it was originally written as an intimate love song—an ode to marital consummation. Because we Christians so enjoy the symbolism of Christ and His Bride woven into the fabric of marriage itself, we are quickly persuaded to jump to an entirely symbolic interpretation of this book of the Bible. But as Longman skillfully argues, there is nothing in the text of the Song itself which would suggest that it was written as anything other than a song about sexual enjoyment. Longman takes the view (and I find that I agree here as well) that this is a collection of love songs, not a linear story of one couple’s relationship. Once you get over the notion that this book can only be of value as an allegory about more “spiritual” things, the need to discover some narrative unity in this book recedes into the background.

As I began making my way through this book with that in mind, the eroticism of the text leapt off the page and grabbed my attention with force. Listen to some of these statements:

Until the day breaks and the shadows flee—turn, my lover, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of Bether.” (2:17)

Sounds like a pretty scene, right? Only there is no such place as “Bether.” Never was. So you have to look into the etymology of the word for insight. It turns out that the word “bether” means “to bisect,” so that she seems to be referring to a bisected mountain…you get where I’m going with this…but keep reading. In chapter four, after the man has finished praising her breasts as “twins of a gazelle,” he announces that he will go “to the mountain of myrrh and to the hills of frankincense” (4:6). To what exactly did I previously think he was referring here? I can’t remember anymore. I must have skimmed over it as so much flowery fluff and poetic puffery. Well, I doubt I’ll read it that way ever again.

It only gets more explicit from there. At the end of chapter four, our “young stag” unfolds a potpourri of garden images which teem over with alluring sights and smells as he describes the woman’s physical beauty. He tells her, “You are a garden fountain, a well of a living water, streaming down from Lebanon.” In case you haven’t caught up, he’s not limiting his admiring gaze to the woman’s upper half here. I’m willing to bet you’ve never had a Bible teacher of any stripe inform you that Ancient Near Eastern poets often employed such imagery when admiring a woman’s pelvic region. She responds to his advances thusly: “Let my lover come into his garden and eat its choice fruit” (4:16). The chorus of listeners exults in this passionate interchange and proclaims their approval with one voice: “Eat friends, drink! Be intoxicated, lovers!”(5:1). The next chapter only takes this bold revelry further on.

But I’ll stop now for you to regain your original color, and I’ll leave it to you to dig beyond the symbols and euphemisms into the intended meaning of the last two chapters of the Song of Songs. They’re pretty steamy, and Longman (who is an excellent Hebrew scholar) unpacks those references which the casual reader will miss until it becomes obvious that God wanted a book in the Holy Scriptures which openly celebrates sex! Which brings me to point number two:

We have a Bible that institutionalizes the enjoyment of sex! Do you realize how important that is? It’s no small thing at all. For a faith tradition so rooted in the transcendence of God, the otherness of God, a tribute to sex comes as a shock to the system for those with the nerve to look straight on without averting their eyes. It’s downright embarrassing! If God has a sense of humor (and I’m certain He does) then one of His greatest laughs must have come from including erotic poetry in the scriptural canon of the same religion that brought you monks, nuns, and a celibate priesthood!

Now, lest you think I am picking on only Catholics here, let this also be a check for us Protestants against our own inherent asceticism and Gnostic separation of that which is “spiritual” from that which is not. This danger becomes particularly acute if, like me, you run in circles that stress a difference between “soul” and “spirit.” Sometimes in our zeal we talk as if a human being can be neatly split up into separate and mutually exclusive substances; but that kind of compartmental thinking would sound strange in the ears of the authors of the Bible.

Let us recall how in the Garden of Eden the man and the woman were naked and felt no shame. Their enjoyment of one another was the product of God’s decree that they “be fruitful and multiply.” It was only after they “had their eyes opened” that they saw themselves differently. To this day, only human beings (particularly civilized human beings) show shame when it comes to sex. Consequently, the forbiddenness of this act fuels a trillion-dollar entertainment industry. But look underneath this fixation on sexuality and see that something good is drawing them towards perhaps the most beautiful picture of something eternal that this world has ever seen.

Yes, marriage (and certainly the marriage bed) pictures the relationship between Christ and the Church. But in our effort to see the thing signified we should not miss the enjoyment of the sign itself. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do some gardening…


Education and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

November 1, 2005

There is an entropy to the world, where things more easily go from a state of order to a state of disorder. And nowhere is this more obvious than in a public school.

Public education was a great idea, when it started. It’s still a great idea, I suppose. But what it has become in places like where I work is a big mess. Kids with peculiar needs are mainstreamed into settings where they cannot get the individual attention that they need. Teens who are entering some of their most formative years are being thrown together with kids of such varying backgrounds and upbringings only to find a gravitation towards the lowest common denominator. The standard of the education suffers because we want “no child left behind,” but we end up cheating thousands out of a good education in our efforts to save a dozen who put forth little to no effort in their schoolwork. The curriculum gets dumber and dumber and the behavioral climate gets more and more like a zoo every day. Granted, I work in a school labelled “at risk” by the Federal Government, and I don’t get to work with the Advanced Placement students at our school, so my perspective may be more negative than some. But I’m pretty sure most teachers I work with would agree that the tools they and the administrators need to climb out of this hole will never be afforded them. Let me give a couple of illustrations:

I’ve got a student who comes into my class and cusses me out before I even can say “good morning.” He provokes all the students around him until I have to finally write him up for defiance, insubordination, and disrupting class. That piece of paper will eventually be put on a pile along with the others on the adminstrator’s desk, and sometime within the next week it will be dealt with (we are not allowed to simply send students to their respective administrators–we are supposed to handle all discipline within the classroom. Using what, I have no idea). The student may receive In-School-Suspension for a couple of days, where he would be thrown in with 30 other students who were each thrown out of their classrooms for similar reasons. But there is such a backlog of students needing this placement that there is a long waiting list to get in.

Let me repeat that. He will not go to ISS for several more days because there is a waiting list to get in. So he will return to my class for the next week, having no immediate consequences for his actions in my classroom. Incidentally, he shows no concern for his grade average remaining in the single digits. How do you think that affects his behavior in my classroom? Eventually he will serve his ISS, but little will come of it. I am obligated by law to make sure he is provided with all the materials and assignments he needs to not fall behind in his classwork. Eventually, if he acts up enough, he will be given a real suspension (OSS-Out of School Suspension). He will stay home for three days and watch TV or whatever. Even then, if his parents request that I give him his work I must provide all of his assignments for the next three days in advance. He will probably never touch the work, but I will have to prepare it all for him anyway.

There’s a bigger problem, though. You see, this student has already received suspensions totalling 23 days (we’re only 3 months into the school year), and we are restricted by law from suspending him beyond 10 days without holding special “manifestation” meetings for each suspension in order to prove that we have in fact done all that we can to prevent each of the suspensions in question. In other words, after he has received a total of 10 days of OSS, we cannot suspend him anymore until we can arrange manifestation meetings with a committee of important people who will demand that each of us meticulously document everything we have done to prevent this punishment from escalating to its current status. Separate meetings have to be arranged and executed for each suspension period beyond that legal limit of 10 days. What is the student doing during this time? Coming to class as usual, of course. Probably he will be receiving ISS at some point each week due to his continuing behavior, but in each case he will not be able to enter the ISS classroom for a few days because they have no room for more. He will remain in his regular classroom until all this eventually works out, or until he graduates or finally drops out of school, which ever comes first.

I’ve got another student who literally never comes to class–he skips almost every class every day. He rides the bus every day; he eats in the cafeteria (a free lunch, by the way); he borrows money from friends to raid the snack machines later; then he finds places to go all over campus where somehow he will never be asked what he is doing wandering around. Eventually he will be suspended for skipping class, but you understand now how that will go. He will really just continue coming to school everyday, alternately wandering the halls and walking off campus to buy a snack at the nearby convenience store.

Since he’s failing every class and earning no credits whatsoever, one might ask: “Why does he come?” The answer is simple. 1. His mother doesn’t want the 17 year old hanging around the house, 2. He doesn’t want to get a job, 3. He gets free lunch at school, and 4. Going to school is the only way for him to hook up with his cohorts for whatever it is that they do. More than likely, this young fellow is buying and selling weed to his friends. But somehow no one has caught him doing it. So he will continue coming to school each day, making his “connections” and dodging class most of the time, all on Uncle Sam’s dime.

Just so I don’t sound inordinantly negative, I stumbled into an AP class the other day and I was amazed to see all of the students dutifully doing their work–without the teacher even being in the room! I thought I had stepped back in time to the day when I went to school and the kids had reason to be motivated to keep on top of their studies. I wanted to just sit and soak up the peacefulness for a few minutes before heading back to my trailer and my students. It was relieving to discover that those students still exist even in a “low-performing” school like this one.

Still though, a former colleague of mine argued that all kids should be home schooled during at least their middle school years. I’m beginning to think he’s right.