Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Advent Hope & Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go"

Today I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The book is a story of recollections from a girl who was raised for the sole purpose of donating her organs as an adult, donations resulting in her death. She and a number of other clones were raised at a unique boarding school that treated the clones similarly to normal children with a liberal arts education.

Their school, Hailsham, was unique because most other clones were treated as commodities, not people. Near the end, the characters weigh whether or not it was good for them to be taught to believe in their humanity or if they should be treated like the commodity they end up being.

One character asks, "Why Hailsham?" Why be taught to create art, to appreciate art, to be more than simply healthy, but also to enjoy life when, in the end, you are not seen or treated as fully human. Why Hailsham if you're going to be ignored and die in the end?

"Why Hailsham?" is a question from everyman and -woman when "Hailsham" is understood to be the home (-ham) from which one hails. Now the question is not only by and for the characters in the book, but also for us. Why life? Why are we raised to seek pleasure and think our lives are significant when we die at the end and donate our organs--and the rest of our bodies--to the cycle of existence?

Side by side with this question about the meaning and enjoyment of life, we are presented with the questions about another's quality life, about the Other's quality of life. What a natural progression: when pondering the meaning of one's own life, you are pondering life in general. If your life has meaning and deserves enjoyment, then the lives of others have meaning and deserve enjoyment.

"Never Let Me Go" left me with conviction. I act as if my life is meaningful, yet my life stands on the shoulders of suffering based on systemic issues about which I cannot change by myself or in a timely fashion.

Yet, today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time for hope, specifically hope for the coming of Christ. The church I attended this morning lit a candle for awareness instead of for hope. How appropriate for Never Let Me Go. In the novel, the main characters become more aware of their status in regards to the rest of the society and the more aware they become of themselves and the world. This awareness raises more questions than anything. The elevation of awareness gives rise to the need for hope--hope for meaning and hope for a better tomorrow.

By "a better tomorrow," I mean a tomorrow in which all life that is meaningful has the opportunity to enjoy life. Hope for fair trade practices, philanthropy, love of neighbor and equality regardless of your race, religion, gender expression, sexuality, nationality, or ethnicity. Hope that those who are hungry will receive bread and that those who have bread will be hungry for justice. Hope that the luxuries of life will not mean the suffering of those less fortunate. Hope that the poor will teach the rich lessons and, in turn, the rich will give the poor opportunities to turn their lives around.

And my hope is built on nothing less than Christ effecting that change. By "Christ" I mean God's transformative power--love. In this season of Advent, it is appropriate that my hope is for Christ's advent. However, my hope isn't a traditional Advent hope. I am not hoping for the second coming of Jesus. Rather, I am hoping for that same Christ we saw in Jesus to be in us. If humanity is to be the body of Christ, then the only hope for advent is that we embody Christ, that we embody the advent of Christ. Our hope is in a holy trinity: God, neighbor, and self.

I hope we will embody that Christ enough to turn the world upside down, like Jesus did before us.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Context: A False God

"Context" is one of the false gods of biblical studies, biblical studies referring not exclusively to what happens in the academy, but also in the church.

Context is especially praised at the level of translation. Just like in English, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic have words with many meanings. How do we determine which meaning to use in a given situation? Omniscient Context tells us.

The Ever-Blessed Context also receives much praise in hermeneutics (of which "translation" could be a subcategory, depending on how you look at it). Preachers and academics alike will tell you certain words, passages, and pericopes are misinterpreted, because they are taken out of Context's loving hands.

Take the Hebrew word dowd. It is translated "beloved" many times in the Song of Songs. Dowd is the same word used in describing how Esther and Mordecai know each other: she is the daughter of Mordecai's dowd, generally understood to be his uncle. How do we know that "dowd" refers to a lover in the Song of Songs and to an uncle in Esther and other places?

Thanks be to Context.

But Context isn't exactly clear here. Love in ancient Israel included a lot of relationships understood as taboo in current, US-American culture. Would it really have been that unheard of for Mordecai to have catamite or some other sort of male lover? Pederasty and homosexuality was not unheard of in ancient times and although Mordecai seems very traditionally Hebrew in this story, we cannot be sure how much he may have acclimated to Persian culture at this point in the exile.

But now I've gone outside of Context's realm. Context in translation is immediate context, not levitical laws, cultural mores, and, of course, the heterosexual bias of the majority of biblical translators and readers. By immediate context alone, we cannot translate the dowd of Esther or the Song of Songs definitively as uncle or lover.

However, Context is wider than just a single book. Although the Christian or Hebrew Bible is not immediate context for Esther--the book was written independently of any canon--it is an Israelite book and therefore has Israelite stories in its background, including levitical laws.

But levitical laws do not change the scandals that go on many places in the Bible. Sometimes God's decrees are neither obeyed nor condemned in the Bible. Famously, Hewbrew midwives in Egypt refused to obey Pharaoh when told to kill all baby boys born to Hebrew women. The midwives simply don't do it, but they concoct a story for Pharaoh. That is, they lie, breaking one of the Ten Commandments God later gives the Hebrew people. What is God's response to these lies? "So God was kind to the midwives" (Exodus 1:20). Mordecai could be a Sodomite and God might not care. Apparently God doesn't always care when you're a liar.

Where will Context lead us next? Or more precisely, where does Context end?
"Il n'y a pas de hors-texte."
--Jacques Derrida
There is nothing outside the text (or: there is no outside to the text). To state it positively: everything is context.

No matter how much we use the name of Context, it is in vain. If I argued well, you now see how Context (at least immediate context) cannot show us if Mordecai's relationship to Ahihail was lover or nephew. Neither do we know if the relationship in the Song of Songs is purely sexual or if it is sexual and familial. But we can still have more to consider in the name of Context, because we, too, are part of the Context.

The Hebrew scriptures did not "close" with the writing of the last book. Neither did it "close" with canonization. Interpretations came afterwards and people still cite how early Rabbis (famously, the Mishnah) and commentators understood those texts. They became part of the text the moment they read it, the moment they entered into it, learning it intimately, becoming dowd, both family and lover--becoming one.

Or, if you don't appreciate my blend of text- and reader-oriented theory, imagine, then, how some get from Context being the Hebrew scriptures to Context including the New Testament. Then how Context begins to include language: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and English. For that matter, translation context includes many different versions of the texts we know as the individual books of the Bible. Finally, translation necessarily includes the translator as part of the context, because translation is interpretation. Then the subsequent interpreters have their own contexts that begin to swirl around in the amorphous context that influences the interpretations of other interpreters.

You may trust that God has aided translation to be accurate. Even so, you have again entered the context, because your interpretation includes your beliefs, what many hermeneuticians would prefer to call your "pretext." But, "il n'y a pas de hors-texte." It is all context.

You are context. I am context. Our histories, backgrounds, and cultures are context. Context is not omniscient in the sense that it knows all. However, perhaps Context is omniscient in the sense that it knows everything known, since everything is Context. We--everything--are the body of Context. When we die, we enter more completely (in the sense of being finished) into the relationship of the trinity of Context (author, text, and reader).

Perhaps Context isn't that false of a god after all, just not in the traditional understanding of a god.