I’m nearing the end of my series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I read the book I was most interested in what DFW had to say about the struggles we in present-day America have with living meaningful and genuine lives. The first four posts provide some thoughts about what I take to be Wallace’s portrayal of those struggles. This post and the next one will focus on what he offers that might provide help.

As I noted earlier, one place that Wallace thinks provides assistance is in recovery programs such as AA and NA. Wallace was himself an alcoholic and was quite familiar with the 12-Step model of treatment. As he describes the recovery program at Ennet House, a treatment facility, he both repeats some of AA’s standard dogma and offers his own observations about the nature of this approach to recovery and how it works to bring about change.

As discussed back in the first of my posts, IJ describes a world in which most people have strong desires that can gain control over their lives. Pursuit of these desires seems to promise a better life–not only a life of pleasure, but also escape from pain. Unfortunately, with time the pleasure fades and pain returns. One of the first things that must be done in treatment is to face the inevitability of pain:

“[T]hey tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain…. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.” (p. 446)

There will be pain associated with growth, but focusing on the pain to come is counterproductive. Instead, the emphasis is on living with the present moment’s pain. It’s the AA slogan “Take one day at a time” broken into even finer portions, as in Ennet House staff member Gately dealing with the pain of withdrawal from opioids:

“He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down to like one second–less: the space between two heartbeats.” (p. 860)

Accepting the pain and the need to participate in meetings and daily routines that are associated with recovery (though these are always offered as suggestions, not as requirements), the addict is encouraged not to look for the causes of his or her addiction, but simply to remember that they are indeed under the influence of that addiction:

“The Boston AA ‘In Here’ that protects against a return to ‘Out There’ is not about explaining what caused your disease. It’s about a goofily simple practical recipe for how to remember you’ve got the Disease day by day and how to treat the Disease day by day, how to keep the seductive ghost of a bliss long absconded from baiting you and hooking you and pulling you back Out and eating your heart raw and (if you’re lucky) eliminating your map for good. So no whys and wherefores allowed.” (p. 374)

Recovery–Keep Going to Meetings. Image from brickjest.com

The new residents often think the program is simplistic; they have trouble believing that it will work. The staff encourage them to put aside their doubts and simply do the things that the program recommends. One aspect of the program that many residents resist is turning  to God. The agnostics and atheists especially have trouble doing this. However, Wallace offers the following wry observation in the list of things that new Ennet House residents are likely to learn:

“That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.” p. 205

Several months into his recovery, Gately has been praying every morning and evening–and has found it helps him maintain sobriety through the day. Nonetheless, speaking at an AA meeting, he admits he still has no sense of God:

“He says but when he tries to go beyond the very basic rote automatic get-me-through-this-day-please stuff, when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture spiritual understanding of a God as he can understand Him, he feels Nothing–not nothing but Nothing, an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with.” p. 443

After the meeting, one of the attendees, a biker named Bob Death, tells him “the one about the fish.” Wallace told this story in his well-known 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. An old fish meets two young fish and greets them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” As the two fish swim on, one turns to the other and asks, “What the f*** is water?” Gately listens,

“And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is.” p. 449

For Wallace, God is like the sea, surrounding and supporting all of us, his/her very pervasiveness preventing us from recognizing his/her presence. Our growth towards wholeness doesn’t depend on believing in God so much as on acting as if we did. Practice matters, ideas mostly tend to trip us up rather than help.

So, then, some strategies that characters in IJ find helpful in living meaningful lives relatively free from addiction include accepting the pain, acquiring (but not analyzing) regular habits that interfere with unhealthy attachments, and putting trust in God, whether or not you believe his existence. I’ll reflect a bit more on the reasoning behind this approach to life in my final post on the book.

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I don’t watch many movies, so over the past fifty years there have been quite a few highly influential films that I’ve never seen. Until recently, Pulp Fiction was on that list. The film’s elaborate, mobius-striplike narrative structure has been widely imitated, as has its hipness and the sort of characters that inhabit it–apparent stock figures who in fact have complex psyches. The dialogue is rich, and some scenes have achieved pop-culture fame. Recently, I broke down and saw the film for the first time. There are lots of fun scenes, such as hit man Vincent taking the boss’ wife out for a night on the town; his attempts to make it a low-key evening bereft of drama are thwarted at every turn. What struck me the most, though, was that characters who seem amoral at worst and morally compromised at best spend much of the film trying to deal with moral dilemmas.

Take Vincent, for example, happily employed as a thug. He has recently returned from Amsterdam, where he indulged in libidinous pleasures of various sorts. We see him visit his dealer to pick up some heroin prior to the dinner engagement with Mia Wallace, the boss’ wife; he apparently uses drugs frequently. He doesn’t plan on trying to bed Mia, but, as he originally explains it, that’s not because of any compunctions about shacking up with a woman he barely knows. Instead, he simply wants to not give offense to Marsellus Wallace, the sort of boss who has hit men on his payroll. In Kierkegaard’s characterization of three modes of life–the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (see a brief summary of these here)–Vincent lives in the aesthetic mode, characterized by pursuit of pleasure, subjectivism, and lack of a framework of meaning. It’s not that he can’t engage in moral reasoning–he does so rather adeptly in arguing with fellow hit man Jules that giving a woman a foot massage is morally equivalent to having sex with her. He just doesn’t use such reasoning to fence in his own behavior in any way.

Mia and Vincent at Dinner

Or so it seems. We learn differently when he finds himself attracted to Mia. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom in order to fortify his initial plan to resist temptation. Here’s the pep talk he gives himself:

“It’s a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can maintain loyalty. Because when people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful–So you’re gonna go out there, drink your drink, say ‘Good night, I’ve had a very lovely evening,’ go home and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.”

So he’s not simply an aesthetic whose behavior is constrained only by self-interest. He’s ethical; he believes that he should live according to a standard, that of loyalty to Marsellus, who trusted him to behave honorably. Betrayal would not only be unwise, it would be wrong. His moral standards may be unconventional, but they are firmly held.

The second of the movie’s three subplots features another morally compromised character who seems to be living in the aesthetic mode. Butch is a boxer who is first seen accepting a bribe from Marsellus to take a dive in his next fight. Unlike Vincent, he doesn’t hesitate to betray; he not only fails to lose the fight, he boxes with such ferocity that he accidentally kills his opponent. An accomplice bet heavily on him, and Butch stands to profit handsomely from the double-cross. He anticipates that Marsellus will seek vengence and prepares to flee, but Butch and Marsellus unexpectedly encounter each other before he can get away. There’s an accident, Butch limps away, Marsellus pursues. Both end up in a pawn shop where they are captured by the proprietor, who, along with a buddy, plans to sodomize and possibly kill them. Marsellus is their first victim. Butch manages to free himself while their captors are distracted and is about to make his escape–but he stops at the door. It would be in his self-interest to leave.. But how could he leave Marsellus to the fate that he narrowly escaped? He turns back and, after considering and rejecting several possible weapons from the pawn shop’s inventory, he settles on a samurai sword. The choice is significant; the samurai were not only fierce warriors, but lived by a stringent code of honor. By rescuing Marsellus, Butch is not only making restitution for his previous betrayal; he’s also restoring his own honor.

Butch as Samurai

Vincent and Butch are seemingly immoral people who, when confronted with ethical dilemmas, prove that they do try to live according to a moral code. Jules, another hit man in Marsellus’ employ, seems equally lacking a moral compass. It’s true that he quotes from the Bible early on, but does so right before he and Vincent murder someone. We later learn that the passage he quotes–supposedly Ezekiel 25:17, though he doesn’t quote it accurately–is something he memorized because he thought it was a sufficiently coldblooded thing to say before offing somebody. Here’s a transcript:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of cherish and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Almost immediately after the murder, an accomplice of the victim bursts out of the bathroom with a gun and shoots at Jules and Vincent from close range. Amazingly, they aren’t hit, and soon dispatch the gunman. Jules immediately decides that a miracle occurred and they survived only because of divine protection. Vincent argues with him, saying it was just something that happens in life. The disagreement crops up later, and Jules eventually appeals not to the improbability of the event but to how it affected him:

“Whether or not what we experienced was an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

Jules has made the transition to the third mode described by Kierkegaard: the religious. This involves a reorientation of one’s life in light of the divine, and Jules almost immediately begins such a transformation. He makes plans to leave his employment with Marsellus. Later that day, in the movie’s last scene, he and Vincent are in a diner that is robbed. Jules gets the better of one of the robbers and, while holding the man at gunpoint, says that normally he would kill him but that he’s going through a transitional period and wants to help him instead. He quotes the Biblical passage and says he has been thinking about what it means. Here’s what has come to him:

See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This is what Scripture does: it opens our eyes to who we are. And it teaches us how we should change–who we should strive to become. Jules isn’t the shepherd yet, but he’s trying. That’s all any of us can do.

Jules Explaining Scripture.

I wrote recently about my recent hospitalization for complications following prostate surgery. I mentioned the other patient in my room, but I didn’t say anything about our interactions. I think that’s a story worth telling.

I’ll call my roommate Dwayne. He is a 55-year-old who was transferred in for treatment of pneumonia in the wee hours of Sunday morning, a few hours after I was admitted. His wife stayed with him for several hours, but then left, and no one came to visit him during the next couple days that we shared the room. The room was “semi-private,” meaning  that there was very little privacy in evidence, so I learned a fair amount about him. At every shift change, the departing nurse came in with the arriving nurse to give the next shift an update on each patient–their diagnoses, reason for admission, and treatment plan. Usually the report is given in the patient’s room, so he overheard my report again and again, and I overheard his.

Dwayne’s pneumonia may have been his immediate problem, but it was by no means his only medical condition. He had diabetes, liver disease, and kidney disease. Wow! My problems were minor in comparison. I heard the diagnosis “end stage renal disease” repeated over and over. I had had a scare when first admitted regarding my kidneys, but by Monday morning I had been assured they were fine. He would never receive that assurance.

I felt sorry for Dwayne, but was also rather annoyed by him. He watched TV constantly, and I had little appreciation for his tastes–Wrestlemania, shoot-em-up action shows, lots of drooling over customized cars and trucks. The first night he talked on the phone at midnight, while I was trying to sleep, then watched TV for another couple hours, not bothering to keep the sound down. His phone then started ringing at 6 the next morning. There was a curtain separating us, but he certainly knew I was there and presumably could infer I would appreciate some quiet.

I probably should have asked him to turn down the sound, but I was in quite a bit of pain initially and thought that it, not he, was the main factor keeping me awake. Lying in bed that night, I started wondering about him, and my thoughts weren’t very charitable. What had been his role in causing all his medical problems? Lifestyle choices do affect our health, after all. He didn’t seem to be trying to get up and walk around despite the nurse’s statement that it would help with his pneumonia. Was that behavior typical for him; had he been neglecting his health for years?

I was prepared to ask him to turn his TV down the next night, but didn’t need to. I had a medical procedure late that night, and wasn’t ready to go to bed myself until near 2 the next morning. He had spent the previous afternoon at kidney dialysis. I started thinking about what his life must be like. How did it affect someone to have their blood cleaned by a machine every few days? I had overheard that he wasn’t able to work. Did he miss that? Where was he spiritually? Did he turn to God when things got difficult?

Tuesday morning, my doctor’s PA mentioned that she would come by that afternoon to discuss discharging me. I had only spoken briefly to Dwayne in the previous couple days. I had been too preoccupied with my own troubles to want to converse with him. Still, while waiting that afternoon for the PA’s visit, I started wondering whether I had been too uncommunicative. Jesus told his followers to let their light shine. Here was someone whose life seemed full of darkness, and I couldn’t think of anything I had said or did that he could have interpreted as light.

Finally, late in the afternoon, I realized that I would regret it if I didn’t at least try to have more of a conversation with him. His TV show was just ending, so I made a comment about it, then asked him about the dialysis. He was like a damned up river suddenly released, gushing forth the story of his last few years. A doctor had prescribed too much medication for his diabetes, and he had felt worse and worse. After about a year like this, he was admitted to the hospital; doctors were shocked with the meds he was on. His diabetes could have been managed with minimal medication, but the extra medication had irreparably damaged his kidneys. He had talked to a lawyer, but a malpractice case probably wouldn’t prevail in court. He wasn’t able to work because of dialysis three days a week. He tried to find part time work the other two days, but no one would hire him when they learned of his condition. His wife had to work so they could keep medical insurance. He had “lots of toys” at home, but didn’t get much satisfaction anymore from going out riding his motorcycle, ATV, and the like. His doctors said he was a poor candidate for a kidney transplant because of his other medical problems. He got down at times and thought of giving up. He wouldn’t do anything to himself but knew that he could stop dialysis and soon be dead. He had a granddaughter, and thinking of her helped him keep going

I asked whether he had a church family; he didn’t, but sometimes went to his daughter’s church. I asked if I could pray with him, and he readily agreed. After we prayed, I gave him my phone number and encouraged him to call me if he needed to talk.

About then, the PA came in, saying she would have been in earlier to discharge me but she had a rough afternoon. I didn’t give her my explanation for why she was delayed. God had been prompting me to lift the bushel of self-preoccupation off my head and shine into the darkness of that hospital room. Knowing how slow I am to realize that the Spirit is urging me to do something, He made sure He gave me plenty time to hear and respond. I don’t know if Dwayne will ever call, or if he has thought since then about our talk. At the time, though, we seemed to connect well. Hopefully, I won’t be so slow to reach out to the next Dwayne that crosses my path.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

I’ve been reflecting recently about my recent trip to Israel. As I’ve written, I gained  greater appreciation for the contexts which frame the Biblical story. Tim Keiper, who guided our tour,  talked extensively about the geographical, historical, and cultural contexts of various Biblical customs and stories. As insightful as his comments were, they wouldn’t have had the weight they did had he not carefully chosen the settings where he said what he did. In this post, I’m going to describe a few points he made, the settings where he made them, and the conclusions I drew.

We started the tour in the Shephela, the area of low hills between the coastal plain to the west and the mountainous region to the east. The Israelites occupied the mountains and the Philistines occupied the coastal plain. Battles between the two occurred mostly in the valleys that punctuated the hills and thus were the easiest routes for incursions by the Philistines or other peoples who lived in the plains from time to time, including the Egyptians and Phoenicians.

At the City Gate, Tel Gezer

At the City Gate, Tel Gezer

On our first day, we went to the Aijalon Valley and climbed Tel Gezer, site of several ancient cities that were occupied by various civilizations over thousands of years. One city constructed on the site was built by Solomon. From the top of the tel we could see both the Mediterranean to the west and the hill country to the east.

Early the next day, we climbed another tel (a tel is a hill made by layer upon layer of ruins, one atop the other), this time Azekah, guarding the next valley, the Valley of Elah. This was where the Philistines sent out Goliath, their champion, to challenge any Israelite who was willing to fight him. There were no takers until a shepherd boy named David decided that Yahweh would protect him against this mountain of a man. It took faith to accept the challenge of someone who seemingly  outmatched him so completely! “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine, (I Sam. 17:37)” David told King Saul, and so it was.

Archeological Dig, Bet Shemesh

Archeological Dig, Bet Shemesh

What stuck with me most that day, though, was the next site we visited, Tel Bet Shemesh, which has both Jewish and Canaanite ruins. Samson’s hometown of Zorah was located across the Valley of Sorek; Delilah was “a woman in the Valley of Sorek (Judges 16:4).” Samson’s exploits occurred up and down this valley. Tim described both Samson’s mighty acts and his egregious failures to follow Jewish law. He didn’t excuse  Samson’s shortcomings, but he did note that it was more difficult to live in the Shephela, surrounded by temptations to immorality, than to live in the protection of the mountains. He said “the Shephela is the area of conflict and danger, and it’s easy to get tired when we are there.” He invited us to think of how that might apply to us.

I have always thought–simplistically as it turns out–that the Israelites and their neighbors were segregated by something like modern national boundaries and that conflicts between them occurred only during periodic military engagements. If there was instead an area of overlap where there was constant tension between different Weltanschauungs, or world-and-life-views, that provides a useful metaphor for our modern situation. We live in what Charles Taylor has dubbed “a secular age,” meaning not that everyone is irreligious but that religion is under constant pressure from the secular (and vice versa). In other words, our Shephela is not a geographical but a psychological region and, as Taylor explains, there is no moving away from it, though some try to do so by creating Christian enclaves. More than just a troubled figure driven by his passions, Samson may have been a victim of the struggles that accompany life in the Shephela.

Another example of how physical setting enhanced Tim’s teaching pertains to Herod the Great, ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. On our fourth day we visited Masada, a huge mountaintop fortress by the Dead Sea that Herod surrounded with a wall and equipped with mammoth cisterns to supply water (capacity 10 1/2 million gallons, per the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible). He built an opulent three-tiered palace there, complete with a swimming pool. I couldn’t help but wonder what it cost in terms of human life (slaves were pretty expendable at the time) to provide such luxury in an arid wilderness. Several days later we visited  Caesarea Maritima, another of Herod’s huge construction projects, complete with artificial harbor, hippodrome, theatre, and mammoth palace. Finally, two days before our trip ended, we visited Herodium, Herod’s fortress and palace atop the highest mountain in the Judean wilderness.  The palace consisted of four towers of seven stories each along with a bathhouse, a theater, gardens, courtyards, and extravagant living quarters.

 

Herodium

Herodium

So, by this point, I was impressed by Herod’s building projects. Which of us will produce anything that will be so imposing after two millennia? If being remembered by history was his goal, he certainly achieved it. Yet, what did Herod really accomplish? The stones of his fortresses and palaces remain, but two of the three Herod-built sites we visited were abandoned within a century of his death (Caesarea remained a prominent city until the 7th Century, and later was a Crusader port).

At Herodium, Tim talked about Herod’s end. He died in 4 B.C. after an excruciating illness featuring intolerable itching, abdominal pain, and gangrene of his privates. He died within a year or two of Jesus’ birth. The book of Matthew reports that Herod was disturbed when the magi appeared looking for the newborn king (Matt. 2:3). Why would Herod have been troubled, since he was unlikely to live long enough to be challenged by a newborn? Possibly because he had built a kingdom that he thought would last long beyond his death. The prospect of another king threatened his dynasty.

Now, here is where physical setting comes into play. Herodium is just seven miles from Bethlehem. Much of the modern city is visible from the fortress. Tim imagines Herod looking down from his palace during the slaughter of the innocents, watching as his soldiers tried to eradicate the threat this tiny village posed to his kingdom. Whether or not Herod was there at the time (it was a favorite site of his and he was probably buried there), he was deeply affected by what he had heard. Approaching death, he was a troubled man.

So, the question that comes to mind is what kind of kingdom is worth building? A political and military kingdom like Herod’s, the ruins of which still inspire wonder today? Or the kingdom that had its start just a short distance from the fortress Herod named after himself, the kingdom of a carpenter whose woodwork has long turned to dust but who continues to build something more impressive than any of Herod’s projects? Christ builds his temple in human hearts. May his construction project never end.