A kind of glossy film lines the bar-top at the Velo. It’s so thick with a history that if you get too excited talking while you’re there you inevitably take some of it home with you under your fingernails. Antique lampshades, busted up old couches, badly upholstered reading chairs, makeshift barn-wood tables, and a well-worn but well-loved chess table; (several of the pieces swapped out with mismatched but understood knights and bishops) The Velo feels like a home away from home.
It’s her move. She’s playing white and I black, so she has the advantage. In chess white always makes the first move, so black always reacts unless you can pull off a shift. This particular game is on two levels. The first is the game itself, and the second is the occasion for the game- which is vastly more complex.
My friend, who is an artist, has a couple of her paintings adorning the walls for sale. We are discussing a particular one hanging right next to the bar itself of a stormtrooper set against the backdrop of a kaleidoscope of color. The monochrome uniform juxtaposed to the spectrum is striking and fits well with the ambiance. Our conversation meanders into musings of Machiavellian power plays in the financial, political, and intellectual arenas. A conversation that naturally evolves into questions of faith and personal stories of deconstruction. She was playing white, and I black.
“So I’m just going, to be honest with you;” she says with a sigh… “You don’t believe in a talking snake do you?”
I immediately recognized the reference. I also am a fan of the precise candor that is comedian Bill Maher. Despite being quite rude, Maher believes (I think) that his ultimate allegiance is in reason. He’s a modern-day sort of a Dr. Frankenstein, horrified by his creation. A man who spends much of his time painting strawman of beliefs and convictions surprised and befuddled himself to discover the tide appears to be turning on his own in recent years. Even so, I still appreciate the quips (even when they are aimed at people such as myself) as I do my friend who is struggling to keep her pawns intact.
I understand the sentiment all too well. Recently I was reading through the book of Judges and came across a passage that has been particularly triggering for me. It’s where Sampson gets so angry at some Philistines that he goes on a rampage and captures 300 foxes. Proceeds to tether torches to their tails light them on fire and then sets them loose to the fields of the Philistines to burn down their whole livelihood. The amount of organization alone that this would require to pull off such a feat in a single night would exceed that of an Oceans 11 movie. And this is one of the more palatable aspects of his story…
The book of Judges is wrought with so much blood and scandal that it makes me wonder if it could make Quinton Tarintino blush. Indeed the narration at times feels like one of his stories, and it ends on such an unrelentingly grim and unyielding note it has the feel of a Flannery O’Connor novel. I look at my friend, and I turn my head slightly to notice her painting by the bar once again. The monogram image set in the world of color begins to take on a new prophetic meaning.
“When you read Shakespeare for the first time in middle school, did you think it was dumb?” I asked her.
“What do you mean?”
“Did you think that Shakespeare was a bad writer because you weren’t overly familiar with the language of his day?”
“I see what you’re saying, but the Bible doesn’t claim to be just literature. It claims to be the actual words of God. Don’t you see how problematic that is?” She looks at me intently to study my expression, to detect any hint of deflection or dismissiveness.
“Sure, but the first time I read Shakespeare I had to ask myself why we were even reading it. This is because the genius of Shakespeare was lost on me when I was in middle school. I didn’t even understand my own time and place, my presuppositions, or lack thereof. And I didn’t know a thing about Shakespeare, his time in place, his culture’s presuppositions. I couldn’t read Shakespeare yet, because I was asking him to do things he wasn’t trying to I realize now how we read the Bible says more about us than it does the Bible itself. We live in a deeply entrenched western framework. The western mind is all about specifics, empiricism, the denotative, the intersectional, deconstructed, postmodern, and the subjective. All these ideas, born out of the enlightenment, are the final form of expressive individualism as described by Charles Taylor. But most of the world is not western, or white. And this modality is not a given.
The book of Judges, written by ancient non-white Hebrews, employs several different literary techniques. And it wasn’t written by a singular author. Biblical scholars demonstrate how the Hebrew Bible was compiled from many different prophets, scholars, along with a community of editors and redactors. The idea of a single author, or even just co-authors, though relevant to our modern context does not apply here. The Hebrew Bible was collectively written, collectively edited, across several hundred years at many different locations and through many differing governments. Extra-biblical authors are even cited in the Bible itself. On top of all that, one has to consider how the Hebrew mind is heavily connotative, focuses on a motif, rhythmic prophetic repetition, and at times satire. The book of Jonah does this drawing deliberate juxtapositions between the unrighteous wandering prophet and the righteous intentional pagan sailors. The grumbling man of God, and the sincerely penitent livestock of Nineveh. The fact that the Bible can pull off any sort of coherent primary narrative, which I believe it does, is in and of itself miraculous. It should cause us to wonder about what could have inspired such an undertaking. It should cause our innate Western intellectual overconfidence and imperialism to squirm at least a little bit. We need to understand ourselves to understand our reactionary condescension to other cultures.
Did you know the Greek language was so specific they had 16 different ways to conjugate a verb? That is borderline obsessive. When a Western mind looks at a table all it sees is specifics: What is it made of? What are its dimensions? How much does it cost? What are its color and style? The Hebrew mind and language couldn’t be any more different. It’s all about functionality: What is the relation of this object to me and others? What is its purpose? What does it symbolize? The Hebrew language doesn’t even have vowels, it’s just consonants. So context is key; you have to understand what they are talking about to even understand what they are talking about. Subtle delineations can be very easily mistranslated without proper contextualization. The struggle between the east and the west is not too different from the struggle between the denotative and the connotative. The physical and the metaphysical.
My friend is very sharp but grew up religious. She was even confirmed in the Lutheran Church but when she grew up she deconstructed her faith. She is very interested in religion because there is a piece of her that she feels she is missing something that can’t be explained away by cold hard facts. This is because she is a scientist but also an artist. It’s though she can sense intuitively that the world has to be more complicated than the one that fits inside her head. It’s as if she knows that a God who is no larger than her imagination would be no real God at all. Rather just an amalgamation of subconscious subterfuge and wish-fulfillment. A real God would have to be transcendental and who’s reality would then throw a monkey wrench in everything she has come to terms with. So a part of her is curious and wants to dig, but another part is afraid of what she might find. Perhaps the reality of talking to this God for the first time would feel a bit like reading Shakespeare for the first time… Awkward and maybe a bit too much to handle.
“I’ll tell you what, I will answer question about the talking snake if you can first answer my question.” I say.
“OK,” she shoots back. “Your move then.”
“What about the first single cell? “
Her head tilts with an inquisitive look. “What about it?”
“I mean, evolution makes perfect sense when you look at how life has progressed over time, but evolution doesn’t seem to address the dilemma of the first single-cell at all. Evolution is all about survival of the fittest, passing on genes, etc. But none of these things don’t apply at all to the first single cell. When you think about it, the first cell didn’t have any DNA passed onto it. It didn’t inherit any instincts because there was nothing before it. So it had no reason to find food or know it was going to die and therefore would have avoided danger or know need to reproduce. How did it know it was going to need to do any of these things since they had never been done before? If we assume that there was no intelligence involved, how did this single-cell avoid the dangers of toxic gas, lava, and lightning storms that it was constantly surrounded by? Shouldn’t it have been wiped out virtually the moment it came together? And even then in just one single cell, there is a tantamount dictionary of information. Where did that come from? How did it give way to not just order, but to a system of order? How did it not only survive but thrive and create all of life, in all its delicately balanced biodiversity, as we know it today? When I consider how deeply problematic this presumption to the origin of life is, I’ll be honest with you, talking snake starts to sound a lot more reasonable.”
I could tell that these were presumptions that she was only now just considering seriously. I also had deconstructed the faith of my youth, but after over a decade, I started to deconstruct my deconstruction. I started to doubt my doubts. I didn’t lose faith in my skepticism, I just realized I wasn’t being skeptical enough. My friend and I are not unique either. Stormtroopers live in a monochrome world. They are very uniform, they are clones, they are part of the system. It doesn’t benefit them to stray out of the lines. They feel safe being a part of the empire, even if they suspect that it is run by tyrants. Sometimes I feel like we in the modern West, so convinced of our unchecked presuppositions, are trying to conquer a world of color that is alien to our experience.
Faith to me now is like color in a world painted gray. It depends and enriches my experience, gets me out of myself and my certainties into another far more complex and vibrant world. I have been on both sides of this board, and I am learning that you don’t really know how to play this game well until you have played it from every angle.