Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Re-Scripting Our Origins

Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil...And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die...But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes...
Genesis 2:9,16-17; 3:4-6

In any case, it is clear that interpretation is not finished, but is an endless, open-ended project for those who take the text seriously and authoritatively.
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction To The Old Testament: The Canon & Christian Imagination (2003)

...the Genesis narrative, which preserved and adapted ancient traditions of memory, represents the world's first literature of resistance to the social and ecological disaster we now call civilization.
Ched Myers, "From Garden To Tower" in Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry (2013)

The ominous spectacle of climate catastrophe brings with it a predictable variety of responses, from overwhelmed hysteria to intensified activism to apathetic shruggery. Now that former Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has weighed in, comparing it to the now-obvious signs of the global financial crisis back in 2008, we absolutely know that the industrialized dreams of humanity long ago overreached and our children we are going to suffer the consequences for it. One study after another after another comes out every month telling us it is actually worse that we ever imagined.

A few months back, I read an interesting interview with George Monbiot in Orion Magazine. Monbiot, the English author & political activist, focuses on environmental and indigenous issues and is releasing a new work in the States later this year with the sexy title Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. Here's just one of his responses that shimmered for me:

That, in a way, is the hardest thing of all—to stop believing that, without our help, everything’s going to go horribly wrong. I think in many ways we still suffer from the biblical myth of dominion where we see ourselves as the guardians or the stewards of the planet, whereas I think it does best when we have as little influence as we can get away with.

For people of faith & conscience, those of us who are absolutely convinced that real spirituality yearns for personal inventory, social analysis & prophetic action, Monbiot's diagnosis is vital, taking us back to the first few pages of the Bible, our sacred origin Story. For too long, we "civilized" humans have convinced ourselves that we are "called" to be in charge of the rest of Creation. We have taken that agenda and read it into our sacred texts. Perhaps we need to get the hell out of the way so that "other" species can, once again, survive and thrive.

The cultural critic and author Daniel Quinn storied the world two decades ago with his classic Ishmael (1992), an analysis of the original Leaver societies (indigenous, hunting-gathering tribes that have been around for 3,000,000 years) and the Taker (sedentary agriculture societies since about 8,000BCE) civilizations that have steamrolled them since. Quinn turns our conventional wisdom (what he calls "Mother Culture") on her head:

The story the Takers have been enacting here for the past ten thousand years is not only disastrous for mankind and for the world, it's fundamentally unhealthy and unsatisfying. It's a megalomaniac's fantasy, and enacting it has given the Takers a culture riddled with greed, cruelty, mental illness, crime and drug addiction.

Yet, the Story of civilization has always been supported by Christians through a rigorous quoting of the Bible. We have all been led down the road of Taker ideology by being convinced that the earth was made for humanity, and not the other way around. This is directly opposed to the mentality the prophetic "Leaver" Chief Seattle modeled for us more than a century ago, "Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” We humans, as it turns out, are just one tiny cog in the wheel of Life.

The difference between Seattle and So Many Civilized Christian Leaders is that mainstream (or "imperial") Christianity, the brand of faith with the loudest coughers & largest coffers, has consistently and adamantly advocated flawed convictions about both humanity and the Bible. All people, they claim, are inherently wicked, stained with an "original sin." Our only hope, they claim, is in a other-worldly heaven. Until then, the "saved" and "enlightened" (blessed by God!) must take the bull by the horns and be in control of the destiny of the world. The history of civilization has thrown many diverse forms of this ideology at us, along the way.

The Bible, they claim, is divinely written, a sacred, magical text designed to be an "inerrant" life-manual of timeless truths, self-evidently read. This has left interpretation to the experts, mostly white heterosexual males with connections to power and privilege, mostly delivering their "biblical" messages from suburban ghettos. Meanwhile, secular and "liberal" religious leaders scoff at the whole affair, mostly throwing out the proverbial Bible with the bath water.

What if, perhaps, the problem hasn't actually been with individual sinners or sacred scripts, but instead with the way that sinners read sacred scripts? Perhaps the book of Genesis was written, instead, to be what biblical scholar Ched Myers calls "an ancient warning tale" about what happens when humanity does whatever it takes to possess god-like powers and wisdom, the sanctified ends always justifying the sinful means. This, in fact, is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that the "civilized" have been eating from since "Day One." But day one was really a good 3 million years into the experiment of Earth as a home for homo sapiens.

But this all starts with not-so-subtle Sunday morning sermonizing, according to Myers:

This drama has long been read in our churches as a theological morality play about obedience, freedom, power and/or sex. But it can also be understood as an archetypal explanation of the 'break' in human consciousness that inaugurated our long history of alienation from the creation. In this reading, the 'forbidden fruit' symbolizes the ancient human conceit that we, by employing our ingenuity, our technology, and our social organization, can improve on a world pronounced 'good' by Creator, but apparently not good enough for us.

Adam & Eve get booted from the Garden when they diverge from indigenous ways of caring, sharing and bearing witness to a Mother Earth that grows enough for everyone, all on Her own. Then the controlling Cain (the agriculturalist) kills the care-free Abel (the nomadic herder). Quinn even has the audacity to speculate that Cain may represent the "civilized" Caucasians to the north driving out the wilderness wandering "tribes" of Israel. After all, white people have been crusading, conquering and clearing out indigenous "savages" for millennia.

If the Bible is instead a collection of diverse texts--some awkwardly securing the power arrangements of the status quo and some prophetically calling godly people to protect and provide for the poorest and most precious among us (including the Land)--then our interpretations have implications. These two voices emerge from our Bible readings to form what Wes Howard-Brook, in Come Out My People (2010), calls the religion of empire ("a human invention used to justify and legitimate attitudes and behaviors that provide blessing and abundance for some at the expense of others.") and the religion of creation ("the experience of and ongoing relationship with the Creator God, leading to a covenantal bond between that God and God's people, for the blessing and abundance of all people and all creation.").

Our choice between these two fundamental options has severe consequences.

As Howard-Brook writes, the Bible "gathers together witnesses to a passionate, historical argument over what it means to be 'God's People.'"For prophetic Christians (radical disciples) like me, the dark-skinned, simple-living Jesus of the Gospels is the litmus test of texts (in both the Hebrew Bible & the New Testament) that inspirationally serve either as warnings of power-grabbing & privilege-clinging (to be repented & resisted) or as wonders of an ancient & future hope of egalitarian life-giving (to be embodied & enacted).

The battle over the Bible must continue today with a clear focus on the implications of interpretations. We all bring an agenda to the Script, no matter how loud we scream "objective" or "neutral" or "historical context." We must read carefully and critically, constantly taking inventory on the road that various readings lead us. And establishment readings of Scripture have taken us down roads of silence, justification and overt campaigning for what bell hooks summarizes as imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Our present predicament, arrogantly or ignorantly denied by oil tycoons and church leaders alike, has been scripted by interpreters of the Bible who have placed a priority on controlling and cashing in on the Land around them. What's commoditized desperately needs to be scrutinized. It's time we made a shift towards Bible studies that value the wild, indigenous ways that had effectively sustained all species of life for millions of years. Anything less would be uncivilized.

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