religion


I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

About a week after the recent U.S. election, I wrote a post regarding the ways I had not followed the path of the pilgrim during the preceding months. The pilgrim’s path is characterized by kindness, clearsightedness, humility, faith in God’s care, and a “hermeneutic of generosity” (Paul Farmer’s phrase for interpretations that give others the benefit of the doubt). Writing about my shortcomings in this regard has helped me subsequently be less preoccupied with current political machinations and more focused on God’s love for all that he has made. It’s helped moderate my fear and anger. What’s left, though, is still sorrow–sorrow mainly for the “losers”–those who will experience negative consequences as a result of the election–but also sorrow for many of the “winners,” particularly those whose votes were based on a narrow self-interest that had in it no room for concern for the well-being of the immigrant, the refugee, or the foreigner. Some of these winners may be disappointed if the new political order doesn’t deliver on some of its promises to them, but I’m mostly concerned that some might get precisely what they want to their detriment. Benefiting at the expense of people less fortunate than you may please you, but it’s not good for your soul.

a-testament-of-devotionI’ve been particularly struck by something I read recently in A Testament of Devotion by Quaker writer and scholar Thomas R. Kelly. The book was copyrighted in 1941, but the chapter from which the quote came was apparently a lecture delivered to the yearly meeting of Quakers held in March, 1939. Kelly’s topic was “Holy Obedience,” which he introduced with a quote by Meister Eckhart:

“There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.”

Kelly encourages his listeners to follow Jesus all the way. He tells them some benefits will result, among them holiness, humility, simplicity, and suffering. Yes, he considers suffering a benefit. Some will suffer because of oppression, some because of hardship, and, Kelly seems to think, some will suffer because of the suffering of others. Of course there is always someone somewhere who is suffering. I’ve never become calloused to that suffering, though. If anything, it bothers me now more than ever.

Kelly alludes to a conversation he had with a Hindu monk, who told him, “Nothing matters; everything matters.” I think I’ve been able to attend less to politics the last few months because of one side of this paradox–nothing matters. Yet I feel sorrow because of the other side–everything matters. For Kelly, this included “the blighted souls of Europe and China and the Near East and India.” When he wrote early in 1939 Japan had already invaded China and Europe was arming itself in preparation for the war that started later that year. Kelly spelled out the implications for those who sought to follow Jesus the other half of the way:

“In my deepest heart I know that some of us need to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or may not mean a change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will need to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the ‘Eternal Internal’ which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk in the Middle Ages.”

Our time is perhaps less tragic than his. Or perhaps not–“the blighted souls” of Syria are being devastated by war; suffering humanity is turned away at many borders; nations exchange threats; nuclear weapons stand at the ready; seas rise from ice-melt as the world warms. I’m less inclined than I used to be to compare the miseries one time to those of another. All times are too tragic; God’s sorrow is always too great; man’s night is always too dark. And there will always be those who are untroubled by such realities and those who respond with the renunciation and dedication that Kelly called for.  The more thought I give to the pilgrim path, the less I’m able to ignore what transpires in the world.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

It’s never easy when someone you love stops communicating with you. A day of such silence can be hard to endure; weeks or months seem unbearable. What if the loved one who is silent despite your entreaties is God?

silence_2016_filmThat’s the situation in Martin Scorsese’s recent movie adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1968 novel Silence. Two 17th century Portuguese priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) have volunteered to go to Japan to learn the fate of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has not been heard of for years but is rumored to have apostatized under persecution. Upon their arrival, they quickly learn the dire condition of the country’s Catholics. All priests have been killed and the Christian faith is outlawed. Believers who refuse to renounce their faith are killed, often in the most gruesome manner possible. The suffering of believers tests the faith of Father Rodrigues, the film’s main protagonist. God’s silence in response to his prayers is perhaps a greater test.

We eavesdrop on Father Rodrigues’ thoughts via voiceovers, most purportedly from his written progress reports to his superior. Early on, he is confident that he is doing what God wants. “We asked for this mission, and he heard us,” he writes. The two priests hear confession, baptize, and offer the Eucharist to small groups of Christians they encounter. “I felt God himself was so near,” Rondrigues writes after a visit to one such congregation. Yet he wonders: “Why do they have to suffer so much? Why did God chose them to bear the burden?”

Rodrigues is consoled initially that his priestly ministrations were improving the lives of his charges. However, the forces of the inquisition soon become aware that there are priests in hiding, and consequently intensify efforts to get the villagers to apostatize. Rodrigues starts to doubt that his presence is beneficial. “I’m just a foreigner who brought persecution,” he writes at one point.

Rodrigues is eventually betrayed to the authorities. When initially imprisoned with a group of peasants who are Christians, he is distraught. “We’re all going to die,” he bellows. One of the other captives is puzzled. Their former priest taught them that upon death they would go to paradise, a better place. Is that not true? “Yes, it is true,” Rodrigues replies, but it’s evident who has the stronger faith. I’m reminded not to judge another’s faith by outward signs, especially by such insignificant indicators as nationality, race, or class.

The chief inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), explains to Rodrigues that the inquisition is not a matter of dislike or hate for Christians. Instead, Christianity must be eliminated because it is a danger to society. Besides, the Christian message doesn’t fit the realities of Japan and won’t grow on Japanese soil. Rodrigues mounts a defense. Christianity is the truth, he states, applicable everywhere. It grew well on Japanese soil until that soil was poisoned by persecution. A good theological argument does wonders at momentarily dispelling Rodrigues’ doubts. Those doubts still lurk beneath the surface, though. We Christians today may similarly be tempted to focus on intellectual arguments for faith as a way of evading our own spiritual struggles.

A competent inquisitor utilizes methods besides persuasive argument, and Inoue is certainly competent. Rodrigues is informed that the Christians being held captive will be tortured and killed unless he renounces his faith. What to do?. Rodrigues wants to be an example to the faithful, but at what cost to them? He is prepared to be a martyr, but not to have others martyred in his behalf. He prays fervently, but still hears nothing from God. He starts to wonder, “Am I just praying to nothing because you’re not there?” Rodrigues has gone from disappointment that God hasn’t spoke to doubt that God is there at all. He’s faced with a difficult dilemma, but I wonder whether part of Rodrigues’ problem is that he’s hemmed himself in by appointing himself as God’s defender. God is perfectly capable of defending himself. Sometimes my efforts seem like those of Rodrigues–I’m working much harder than God seems to be in order to bring about what I think he wants. When that happens, I’m probably not perceiving very accurately what he wants.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” prays Rodrigues at one point, in imitation of Christ’s prayer on the cross. How much like Christ is he, though? Another character points out that, whereas Rodrigues compares his suffering to Christ’s, the Japanese Christians, who are undergoing the bulk of the suffering, don’t compare themselves to Christ. Rodrigues’ sense of his own importance–the last priest representing God’s cause in Japan–is getting in his way. Perhaps, as a general rule, those who think they are Christ-like probably aren’t, and those undergoing hardship to whom that thought never occurs actually resemble him.

It may seem I’m rather hard on Rodrigues; I actually do admire his courage and passion. Some critics dislike the manner in which Rodrigues’ crisis of faith is resolved, but it did seem realistic to me. Scorsese reportedly had wanted to make this film ever since he read Endo’s book 30 years ago, and it’s easy to say why. Few films explore struggles of faith with such depth and nuance. I expect I will be thinking about this film for years to come, especially when my spiritual journey is at its darkest.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem

The last several posts on this blog have been reflections on my recent trip to Israel. Among other things, I’ve talked about my efforts to approach the trip as a pilgrim, the context that I gained from visiting Biblical sites, and the insights the trip gave me into the Israelites and their God as well as the son of God, Jesus. Where does all that leave me, though? It was a great trip, but, what difference did it make in my life?

I went on the trip hoping that it would benefit me spiritually. I wanted more than just feeling God’s presence now and then while traveling; I hoped to change something in my thinking or behavior so that I would consistently be close to God. In my first post, I talked about going on the trip as a pilgrim, that is, as one who travels to a sacred place as a devotee, someone seeking spiritual benefit from the voyage. Ideally, I would not only go as a pilgrim but return as one. Pilgrimage, after all, doesn’t have to end just because travel has ended. What’s most important is not the physical journey but the journey of the soul, as portrayed in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Traveling back home can be an extension of the pilgrim journey, as T.S. Eliot alluded to in Four Quartets:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.

When I returned home, I think that I stayed in the pilgrim mindset for a month and a half, possibly two months. During that period of time, many people asked me about the trip and I was writing regularly about it. Talking and writing about Israel kept me focused on the lessons I learned and helped me partly transcend time–my mind was to some extent in first-century Palestine even while my body was in 21st-century America. That level of heightened awareness couldn’t last. After a while, I had written pretty much all I planned to and didn’t have as many opportunities to talk about the trip. I started to lose the sense of being a pilgrim.

I did continue to ask the key question that I began asking during the trip, though: What was I doing that kept me from becoming more like Jesus? I realized that I was spending too much time on the internet, so I tried to cut back some on that. I thought I might need to plan another pilgrimage and started to look at places to which I could travel. After a few days, though, I decided that was a false step. Making travel plans kept me from being fully present at home. Such focus on one’s immediate surroundings seems a precondition for remaining on pilgrimage–pilgrims fully inhabit each step they take rather than mentally jumping ahead to somewhere the road may eventually lead.

While I was trying to figure out ways to stay on pilgrimage I received an issue of Christian Reflection on the topic of “Traveling Well” (all issues are available here). I found several helpful references (including the above quote from Eliot). John Gatta quoted NT Wright’s  The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today: “it is not we, ultimately, who are on a journey for God in the face of Jesus. It is God who is on a journey looking for us.” God on pilgrimage! Doesn’t that describe what Christ did when he lived among us? How much God must love us to set out in search of us! Knowing of his ongoing pilgrimage helps me continue my pilgrimage.

Also in that issue, Christian T. George cited Lauren Artress’s Walking a Sacred Path, a book on labyrinth walking. Artress describes three stages in walking a labyrinth: purgation, illumination, and communion. George suggests that pilgrims pass through the same three stages. During the trip I tried to shift from being a tourist to being a pilgrim, using fasts to do so. That was the stage of purgation. I did get some illumination, I think, during those days of fasting and during my months of reflection following the trip. As I prayed over these bits of illumination, I sometimes experienced communion.

I have begun examining my daily experiences according to Artress’s scheme: am I in purgation, illumination, communion, or none of the above? I am starting to see the labyrinth/pilgrim walk as taking me in a circle: purgation, illumination, communion, then going out to the world to share God’s love, only to stray from the path and have to start again with purgation. Having this scheme in mind helps me know what to do next. Most commonly, I realize that I had gone out in the world with good intentions but got distracted. I need to get back on the pilgrim path, starting with purgation.

I’m pretty new to using this scheme of self-examination to guide my pilgrim journey. I’m sure I have lots to learn! I’ll use this blog to discuss any additional insights I discover along the way.

labyrinth

wrote recently about the old stone ruins our group saw during our recent tour of Israel. As I said in that post, seeing ruins built by different people groups separated from each other by thousands of years showed me that my historical sense is simplistic and our culture’s claims to uniqueness are totally inaccurate. I also described another lesson the ruins taught: we are very much like fortress-building ancients in our desire for security. I have a few more reflections about the ruins we saw, and they will be the subject of this post.

Our first encounter with the ruins of an ancient city occurred at Tel Gezer. While there, Tim, our tour guide, made the point that, just as the city of Gezer was situated strategically, on a trade route between Jerusalem and the coastal plain along the Aijalon Valley, we are placed strategically as well, located in a particular location in order to achieve a particular purpose. It’s not only Gezer as a whole that was located with a purpose in mind, but each stone within it was intentionally placed in such a way to form its walls, houses, and other buildings. The same can be said of us.

Peter describes Christ as a cornerstone, the stone put down first around which the rest of the wall or structure is built. Peter tells his readers, “ you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (I Peter 2:5). As a living stone, I’m meant to be part of a structure built around Christ, the cornerstone. If I was a stone standing by myself somewhere, I would accomplish nothing. Just as the stones of Gezer provided protection, shelter, and privacy only when arranged to form walls and buildings, we accomplish something meaningful only when we join together to make a larger whole.

Massebot at Tel Gezer

Massebot at Tel Gezer

At Tel Gezer there were a number of massebot (the singular form is massebah), or memorial stones. My son Elliot wrote a nice reflection on massebot  here. As with the massebot, memorials have been built by many different cultures to commemorate something thought to be worth remembering. Our age doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the memorials raised by previous generations. I recently read The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth. Bendroth suggests that one of the key features of modernity is that we disregard the past and consequently are stranded in the present. Modernity is characterized by a belief in progress, and thus is future-oriented. We think that previous generations have nothing to offer us. In consequence, we ignore the stone memorials they built and the living memorials that their lives provided.

In contrast with the modernist dismissal of everything before the present, Bendroth advises us to instead cultivate an appreciation of the past, recognizing the “infinite array of personal experiences and convictions, talents and achievements, sins and failures that make up the human race across time and space.” She calls such an appreciation “righteous remembering.” The trip to Israel was a step towards practicing righteous remembering. Believers from long ago can be massebot for me, memorial stones teaching me about the life of faith. I can also be a massebah for someone yet unborn. It’s useful to think of my life in that way.

The ruins found at archaeological sites we visited provide a nice metaphor for this process of learning from the past. Those who built on a previously used site didn’t just level the ruins and build something new atop them. They often searched the rubble for useful building materials. Thus, stones were sometimes taken from old walls or buildings and incorporated in the new structure. In some cases, this resulted in rather odd-looking walls patched together from salvaged materials.

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She'an

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She’an

Whether or not we realize we are doing so, all of us scavenge the past for materials we then re-purpose. I’m struck with how often ideas people express as if they are original hark back to a whole range of thinkers from the past, from the Greeks and Romans through Augustine, the reformers, and the Enlightenment all the way to Freud, Nietzsche, and existentialists. I gained an appreciation for how much we all draw on such previous structures of thought from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Becoming aware of where our ideas came from is an important step toward freeing ourselves from the prison of unexamined assumptions.

We build from the past, and are ourselves building materials that, like the stones in ancient tels, can be re-purposed. As a psychologist, I am always hoping that my clients will take something I’ve said and incorporate it in their lives. I’m essentially hoping to provide rubble that others find useful. Often they do so in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The church, the followers of Christ who are the living stones to which Peter alluded, is such a rebuilding project. We don’t look so much like an assembly of fresh-hewn, straight-edged blocks as we look like a collection of salvaged souls that are jagged and uneven but, remarkably, stand together to form a structure that God himself inhabits. It’s remarkable what he has done with a bunch of old stones!

Site of the Temples to Roman Gods, Caesarea Philippi.

Site of the Temples of Roman Gods, Caesarea Philippi.

One of the places I visited on my recent trip to Israel was Banias, site of the ancient town Caesarea Philippi, formerly called Paneus and dedicated to the worship of Pan. Philip the Tetrarch built Caesarea Philippi as an administrative center early in the first century and named it after Augustus Caesar, his patron.  In Jesus’ time there were large temples to Pan, Zeus, and Augustus. According to Tim, our guide, the Romans called it the “rock of the gods” but the Jews called it “the gates of hell.” It was here that Jesus asked his disciples who others said that he was, and who they said he was. The city was not near where most of Jesus’ ministry took place, and he probably went out of his way just so that he could ask these questions in a site associated with the gods of the empire. Peter of course replied “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God”. (Matt. 16:16). The ‘living’ part contrasted to the Romans’ gods of stone.

Jesus went on to say that he would build his church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18). Presumably he was referring to the “gates of hell” designation that the Jews gave this place. Thus, he was saying that his followers would eventually prevail over the religious system of the empire, to which everyone in that world except a few holdouts in the backwaters of the Levant had given their allegiance. Who would make such an audacious claim?

And yet. Within 300 years Christianity was the religion of Rome. Tradition has it that Christians had come to Caesarea Philippi much earlier that this; there certainly was a flourishing Christian community there by the fourth century A.D.

This wasn’t the only place we visited that was formerly a pagan stronghold but eventually became Christian. There were Christians in Sythopolis, a city of the Decapolis, even before the persecution of believers by the Roman Empire stopped. One early martyr from there was Procopius, later venerated as a saint. The Sythopolian church was important until the conquest of the city by Muslims in 634 A.D. There was also an early church in Caesarea Maritima, a seaport built by Herod the Great that was later the regional Roman capital. According to Acts, Phillip brought Christianity there in the years after Christ’s death, and the Apostle Peter went there to baptize a Roman military officer, Cornelius the Centurion. A few centuries later, Origen, one of the church fathers, founded a school there.

Sythopolis

Sythopolis

I have probably had too much of a top-down view of early church history, giving too much credit to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine for the success of Christianity. Visiting these sites and others made me realize that the cause of Christ wouldn’t have spread without the countless believers who lived out their faith in relative obscurity, in some particular place, like as not some backwater. When, during our final night in Israel, we were all invited to talk about what had most impressed us during the trip, my son Elliot said that he was particularly struck the activity of countless Christians whose names are hidden in history but who made an impact during the first century and beyond. I had been impressed by this as well.

Paul wrote to the church at Colossae “your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” In his book Joyful Exiles, James Houston elaborates on this passage as follows:

“…the apostle urged believers to remember that they had died with Christ, that they must now seek a selfless way of living. This is what ‘hiding’ is all about–denying the world’s ways, making choices that are incomprehensible to anyone seeking self-fulfillment. Indeed, it is refusing to accept Satan’s cosmic suggestion that ‘you will be like God'” (p. 35)

That’s the temptation–to want to be something more than what we are. In our current media-obsessed culture, where branding and self-promotion is ubiquitous, I need to be reminded from time to time that being hidden with Christ is immeasurably more important than satisfying what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Drum Major Instinct. The Christians of Caesarea Philippi, Scythopolis, Caesarea Maritima, and hundreds of other places may be forgotten, but their lives are a reminder to remain content with a life that is anonymous except to a very few, a life whose significance doesn’t lie in who praises me now or who remembers me when I’m gone.

Mikvah in Chorazin

Mikvah in Chorazin

During the recent tour I took to Israel, Tim, our tour leader, pointed out several mikvot, or ritual baths. They were mostly alongside the ruins of ancient synagogues. Tim mentioned that  synagogues always had a mikvah (sometimes written ‘mikveh’) nearby so that worshipers could wash themselves before services. One such mikvah was in Jerusalem, just outside the wall of the Temple Mount, and was used by worshipers going to the temple.

I had never heard of mikvot before, and their existence intrigued me. I had always been taught that baptism with water was a Christian invention, initiated by John the Baptist then continued by Jesus’ followers. I knew there were some precursors, such as Levitical purity practices and the monarchy-era story of Elisha sending Naaman to wash in the Jordan (2 Kings 5), but I didn’t realize that Jews actually had sites designated for immersion (which is what the term ‘baptism’ literally meant). A couple of the mikvot we saw had been built in the first century. Did they predate or postdate John’s baptism? What were the similarities and differences between washing in a mikvah and being baptized as a Christian?

Having looked into the matter a little, I’ve learned that the use of mikvot seems to have predated John’s baptism, though only by a couple decades. According to the Wikipedia article on the topic, mikvot appeared at the beginning of the first century and soon became commonplace. Today, they are regularly used in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Here are some things I learned about mikvot:

  • a natural body of water such as an ocean, river, or spring-fed lake is a mikvah
  • when a mikvah is constructed, it must be filled with water from a natural source, typically rainwater
  • when a Jewish community starts from scratch, the first priority–before building a synagogue–is to build a mikvah
  • Jewish proselytes are purified by immersion in a mikvah
  • married Jewish women are immersed in a mikvah after menses and before resuming sexual relations with their husbands
  • the most common uses of a mikvah by Jewish men are by a bridegroom on his wedding day, by any man on Yom Kipper, and by Hassidic Jews before Sabbat
  • new kitchen utensils made by a non-Jew are commonly washed in a mikvah before they are used
  • immersion in the mikvah is not for physical cleaning; the person was to be clean before immersion

Here’s a quote from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia about the immersion of proselytes:

“The Baptism of the proselyte has for its purpose his cleansing from the impurity of idolatry, and the restoration to the purity of a new-born man. This may be learned from the Talmud (Soṭah 12b) in regard to Pharaoh’s daughter, whose bathing in the Nile is explained by Simon b. Yoḥai to have been for that purpose. The bathing in the water is to constitute a rebirth, wherefore ‘the ger is like a child just born'” (Yeb. 48b).

So the primary purpose of immersion in a mikvah seems to be ritual purification. There’s a similar theme in Christian baptism, in that baptism represents the washing away of sins. The main difference here is that Christian baptism is a one-time event, whereas Jewish immersion may be repeated again and again in situations requiring purification. Both immersion in the mikvah and Christian baptism also represent new birth. In discussing Christian baptism, Paul describes this aspect as follows:

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).

Learning about mikvot was just one of many ways in which the trip to Israel reinforced the idea that Christianity has deep Jewish roots. The story of Jesus was embedded in the Jewish story, his teachings were an extension of Jewish teachings, and, as with the mikvah, the practices he taught his followers were drawn from Jewish practices. The division of the Christian Bible into older and newer testaments shouldn’t obscure the fundamental continuity between the two.

Mikvah Near the Temple Mount

Mikvah Near the Temple Mount

I’m struck by how serious first century Jews were about practicing their faith.  In an arid land where water was at a premium, Jews of that period began the practice of building pools large enough for an adult to be immersed, and eventually all synagogues had such a pool. This wasn’t commanded in the Torah, but it was a way to facilitate obedience to the Torah’s requirements for ceremonial washing. To make such an effort shows fervent devotion to the law. Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders, of course, was that they were more devoted to legalism than to the concerns that prompted the law in the first place–“To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We who follow Christ always need to be aware of the temptation to be passionate about one or another rule but forget what the rules were for in the first place.

It’s only after I learned about what constitutes a mikvah that I realized I had been in three of them during the trip to Israel. I had waded in the Jordan River, a natural mikvah, and three members of our tour group were baptized there. I swam in the Sea of Galilee, also a mikvah. And I along with the rest of the tour group walked single-file through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which diverts water from the Gihon Spring–historically Jerusalem’s water supply–under Mount Zion to the Pool of Siloam. We sloshed through the darkness for about a half-hour, flashlights our only light source, the water fresh and cool, sometimes just splashing around our ankles but other times swelling to our knees. I think it was the most unique hike of the entire trip!

Baptism in the Jordan

Baptism in the Jordan

Emerging from Hezekiah's Tunnel

Emerging from Hezekiah’s Tunnel

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