How Wide a Space to Cross: Good Friday, 2010

Last night one of our regular contributors sent me a link to a new book about Saint Paul, that proselytizer so many Christians love to hate (your blogger included). Written by Quaker theologian and poet, Sarah Ruden, this promises to be a revolutionary look at him in his time and place. More on that later.

In addition to her theology, Ruden has written other things, including translations of classical works (Virgil, Aristophanes) and books of her own poetry.

Here is an example from the latter. It is most appropriate for Good Friday.

Villanelle of the Hidden Life

For years, I sought to walk a godly pace,
Not sensing all things rushing into God.
But now I run, I run as in a race.

There was a stream, but one I could not trace
While I was wading dust as thick as blood
And shouting that I walked a godly pace.

There was a sun, but one I did not face,
Nor see the hills pursue it in a crowd.
I did not hear it panting in its race.

But everyone who turns to seek His grace
Becomes a restless horse the faint breeze prods
And instigates beyond a godly pace.

I could not be left lonely by the chase
Toward Him. The ground was moving in a flood,
And all things sang and hurtled in the race.

And through that storm I saw how wide a space
I had to cross. I heard each slow step’s thud.
For years, I sought to walk a godly pace,
But now I run, I run as in a race.

A villanelle, as a poetic form, is famously difficult to write. At least it is to me though members of my family don’t seem to have had much trouble. Villanelles began life as Italian or Spanish dance songs, but once transmogrified into English in the 1850s, they assumed a more restrained form, as you can see here.

The most famous villanelle, at least in our time, is Dylan Thomas’ poem to his father: “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”. You can see the poem and hear it read by Thomas here.

In Ruden’s poem, notice the very Pauline theme of running a race. Methinks that is intentional, though the book on Saint Paul and the poem about her own spiritual journey(s) were written at quite different times.

As for Professor Ruden’s book about Paul, here is a starred review from Amazon concerning her approach to the horrendously degraded culture of Paul’s time:

Her project enables her to call the standard repertoire of Pauline characterizations seriously into question.

Paul’s cross-references show us a Greek and Roman world of great brutality, given to pleasures carried to damaging and even fatal extremes. Nor was there any notion of inhumane punishment; hence, crucifixion, to which only commoners and slaves were subjected.

Homosexuality was basically anal rape of adolescent boys, the more painful the better for the socially superior rapists. Women of high status were veiled, while unveiled women were treated as prostitutes and criminals. Slaves were so unequal to masters that they might have been a different, inferior species.

– – – – – – – –

The nonviolent love and community that Christianity preached radically differed from such exploitative, status-based norms, and Paul’s preaching, perceived as being against homosexuality and higher status for non-ruling-class women and slaves, looks very different when contrasted with those Greco-Roman norms as reported by writers from Aristophanes to Apuleius.

Judiciously citing her own behavior to bring certain points home to contemporary readers, Ruden is winningly intimate as well as impressively scholarly in this superb book.

It is intriguing to consider a theologian (she is at Yale Divinity School at the moment) using her own life to make her case for a revision of Paul’s mission. Given the spare simplicity of her poetry (deceptively simple here, since she uses a precise, intricate form), one is intrigued to see how she might entwine her own biography with Pauline theology. Perhaps she uses her time spent in Africa to compare with Paul’s world?

The book, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, sounds beautifully subversive if you read the reviews (there are three) of regular folks’ reactions to the book. One of them even compares the situation back in Paul’s time to what prevails today, and talks about Phyllis Chesler’s position as a writer in the current feminist/literary culture:

[The bracketed comments are mine throughout, but not the parentheses]

Too few among us read of the horrors of prisons under despots and of the sexual mores of “shame” cultures (in which it matters more what you are accused of than what you have done–contrast “guilt” culture, in which the individual is expected to answer to a trained conscience). These were common in the Greco-Roman world, according to Ruden…

Some of these things just cannot be aired on the news during family hours. Others run so counter to the popular newsroom narratives that they never see the light of day. Illustration: A few years ago Phyllis Chesler, a liberal, even radical, feminist (Women and Madness: Revised and Updated) lost her column on a left-wing blog for supporting military and political action against barbarians who do such things. [Note: “barbarians” = Islam. Don’t know why this person won’t name the evil. Ms. Chesler certainly doesn’t hesitate to do so.]

She now appears on a right-wing blog, because that is the only place that will publish her [the writer is referring to Pajamas Media . I always wondered how Phyllis ended up there. Now we know]. If [IF?? IF??] the horrors she [who “she” – Chesler? Ruden?] reports happen today, they could have happened back then, and given what we can see of the mores of a society that required “imperfect” infants to be left for wild animals and required that a son’s public virtue be protected in public by a slave, they almost certainly did.

The reviewer has some valid points to make, but the refusal to name Islam for the present day “barbarian” culture he or she describes is disheartening, to put it mildly. Mark Steyn’s dystopian view of our p.c. silence is most certainly exemplified by what this person refuses to say.

I recommend your perusal of that Amazon page.

I also recommend looking at Sarah Ruden’s page(s).

For me, I am going to have to rethink my position on Paul (obviously I’ll have to get the book through interlibrary loan. That is, if the library remains open long enough to do so). I realize it was not my own thinking at all, but the “received wisdom” of leftist theology professors so many years ago.

It is what we don’t know that we don’t know which can be our desolation. Ignorance is not bliss. Each day we find out a little more; each day we recognize the extent of our not knowing and the harm that has befallen us as a result. Ignorance is evil, but where to begin to remedy our state?

With that question ends Good Friday, 2010.

9 thoughts on “How Wide a Space to Cross: Good Friday, 2010

  1. There was a good book on Paul titled Paul Among Jews and Gentiles by Krister Stendahal that appeared back in the 1980s. Stendahl was a Lutheran theologian, taught at Yale as I recall and then became Bishop of Stockholm (memory is a bit fuzzy).

  2. I often wonder about the content of the letters to which Paul was replying – would some of his words seem more ‘acceptable’? (especially when you remember that the preserved writings, written in street Greek – I once used the word ‘cr*p’ in the church office, but protested that Paul used a word of similar earthiness, rendered ‘dross’ or ‘garbage’ in translations, so why shouldn’t I? Not one of my finer moments, I must admit.

    Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Paul’s writings. We will never know what the letters were that he replied to, what questions he was answering, but we can study the culture extant at the time and evaluate his advice and warnings within the context of the time. We also need to look at them within the context of other writings and not in isolation.

    I can’t say that I will ever enjoy Paul’s writings as much as some others, and he still gives me the biggest apologetics debates with non-Christians, but there is so much valuable stuff hidden in there (especially Romans) that I would hate to see his writings neglected.

    I may well see if I can get my local library to get the book.

  3. Luddite says, “We will never know what the letters were that he replied to, what questions he was answering…” By looking at the answers that he gives, you can get a pretty good idea what the nature of the question or problem was. That is really fairly obvious, even if you don’t like the response.

  4. @ Dr.D: I would agree with you 99% – but it is the ambiguous ones that seem to cause the most difficulty. Let’s take the passage that many Muslims throw at me, trying to show that the Bible says that women should be covered: (1 Corinthians 11:5-7)
    “And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.”

    Paul definitely seems to be saying that women should ‘cover up’, but then he goes on to say (vv 13-15): “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.”

    Has the church at Corinth asked him to tell their women to cover up? Is he repeating their stance in verses 5-7? And is his answer in verses 13-15 that such coverings are not necessary “In the Lord” (v 11)?

    These verses have never caused me much problem in the past, but recently, as I’ve been speaking to Muslims who bring up this verse again and again, I’ve had to think about it. I still don’t know the answer, but I can’t help thinking it would be clearer if the letter from Corinth had survived!

  5. Homophobic Horse–

    You may be right. OTOH, he might have been trying to allieviate to some extent the status of women. For example, in the book by Rudden mentioned above, they were to be veiled, hidden –the whole Greek thing — or they were whores. Paul’s direction of having a head covering during the early Church services may have actually been an attempt at moderating the view of women.

    I’m hoping I can get Rudden’s book on library loan. She sure has the classical background for writing it.

    What’s so amazing is how much like Islam the ‘pagan’ culture seems to have been.

  6. Luddite, let me begin with a quote from a 19th century commentary that I find very useful:

    Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible
    1Co 11:5
    But every woman that prayeth, etc. – Whatever may be the meaning of praying and prophesying, in respect to the man, they have precisely the same meaning in respect to the woman. So that some women at least, as well as some men, might speak to others to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. And this kind of prophesying or teaching was predicted by Joel, Joe 2:28, and referred to by Peter, Ac 2:17. And had there not been such gifts bestowed on women, the prophecy could not have had its fulfillment. The only difference marked by the apostle was, the man had his head uncovered, because he was the representative of Christ; the woman had hers covered, because she was placed by the order of God in a state of subjection to the man, and because it was a custom, both among the Greeks and Romans, and among the Jews an express law, that no woman should be seen abroad without a veil. This was, and is, a common custom through all the east, and none but public prostitutes go without veils. And if a woman should appear in public without a veil, she would dishonor her head – her husband. And she must appear like to those women who had their hair shorn off as the punishment of whoredom, or adultery.

    As the commentary observes, Paul is pointing to a cultural matter among the Greeks and Romans and something that was a part of Jewish law. This is not Western culture, but rather Mediterranean culture, and as such really does not apply to us today. The important point, that the woman should not dishonor her husband, still does apply, but he is not dishonored by her appearing in Western society with her head uncovered.

    I would also advise any muzlim that he is ill equipped to understand the Bible until he comes with an open heart and a willing mind to learn. To scan the Scriptures looking for things to use against Christians is a futile exercise because it will invariably lead to misunderstanding and ignorance.

  7. Thank you, Dr.D.

    So, is he saying in the second part that a woman’s hair is her covering and that a veil is not necessary (unless the law requires it, presumably)? That God does not require women to be covered?

    I will take your advice re my Muslim acquaintances. TBH, they drive me crazy as they don’t even seem to listen.

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