We are delighted to announce the imminent publication of two volumes that have been co-edited by Auckland TheoRel staff.
First up, Sexuality, Ideology, and the Bible: Antipodean Engagements, co-edited by Robert Myles and Caroline Blyth, which will be published shortly by Sheffield Phoenix Press as part of their Bible in the Modern World series. More details can be found here. To get a taster, see below for a brief description of the volume and its contributors:
What happens when explorations of sexuality, gender and the Bible go down under? This fascinating collection of essays, written by scholars located in the Antipodes, traverses the highly contested landscapes of sexuality, gender and biblical studies, revealing a myriad of sexual discourses voiced within both the biblical texts and their interpretative traditions. Recognizing that textual meaning is always shaped by the cultural and contextual baggage the reader brings to the interpretative task, contributors raise provocative questions about the meanings, identities and ideologies that surround biblical discourses of sexuality and gender, exploring how these have been and can be reshaped and reconceived.
Contents Robert J. Myles
The Antipodean Underside of Sexuality, Ideology and the Bible Deane Galbraith
The Perfect Penis of Eden and Queer Time in Augustine’s Reading of Paul Emily Colgan
‘Come Upon Her’: Land as Raped in Jeremiah 6.1-8 Christina Petterson
Imaging the Body of Christ Roland Boer
The Matriarch’s Muff Alan H. Cadwallader
Paul Speaks like a Girl: When Phoebe Reads Romans Gillian Townsley
‘We’re here, we’re queer – get used to it!’: Exclamations in the Margins (Euodia and Syntyche in Phillipians 4.2) Elaine M. Wainwright
Queer[y]ing the Sermon on the Mount Yael Klangwisan
Promethea’s Song of Songs Caroline Blyth and Teguh Wijaya Mulya
The Delilah Monologues Hugh S. Pyper
Response: Queering the Antipodes
And secondly, Caroline Blyth and Tim Meadowcroft (who is Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology, Laidlaw College) have co-edited a book called Spirituality and Cancer: Christian Encounters, which will be published in November by Accent Publications. The book is a collection of papers delivered at a ‘Spirituality, Theology and Cancer’ symposium held at the University of Auckland in February 2014. Details below:
Cancer disturbs most lives at some point. The contributors to this book all seek to find meaning within that experience, as carers, sufferers, medical professionals, pastors, theologians, and scientists. They offer no easy answers, but speak with an honesty that reveals the anguish and hope that arises from the presence of cancer in our world. The result is a rich reflection on the spiritual and theological meaning of cancer.
Part I: Personal Responses
Public Faith and Private Pain: A Quest for Authenticity Alistair McBride
Dancing with Cancer: A Different Metaphor Brian Brandon
A Healer in Need of Healing
Part II: Practical and Public Responses
The Practice of Presence in a Hospice Context Hannah Walker
Soul Nursing in Palliative Care: Spiritual Care of the Dying Caroline Blyth
A Pilgrim’s Progress: Learning to Journey with the Dying Patient Briar Peat
The Physician, Cancer, and Spirituality Stephen Garner
Jesus Heals? Faith Claims in the Public Square
Part III:Theological and Theoretical Responses
Physics, Free Will, and Cancer Tim Meadowcroft
Eternity and Dust? Considering Humanity, Cancer, and God T. Mark McConnell
The Disruptive Power of Christian Hope: Suffering, Cancer, and Theological Meaning Sue Patterson
Fruitful Dominion or Hubris? Creation, Vocation, and Cancer Nicola Hoggard Creegan
A Whole New Life: Hope in the Face of Evil Bob Robinson
“Cancer is Not a Disease. It is a Phenomenon”: Finding God in a Cancer-Strewn World
Spirituality and Cancer: “Not a Saccharine Additive” Tim Meadowcroft
Finding Hope and Yearning for Love
For those in the Auckland area, this Spirituality and Cancer volume will have it’s official launch on 13 November. The invitation is below and consider yourselves all warmly welcomed. RSVP to Accent Publications (e-mail included below)
As well as being seriously excited about our upcoming Radicalism, Violence, and Religious Texts colloquium (10-11 September), Theology and Religion and Auckland are delighted to announce another public lecture as part of this project. Professor Erin Runions (Ponoma College, California) will be delivering a public lecture titled ‘The Temptation of Noah: The Debate about Patriarchy in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah‘ on 14 September at 5.30pm. Erin’s work draws together contemporary issues of biopolitics, culture, race, gender, and considers these in light of the Bible’s reception. Her previous books include How Hysterical: Identification and Resistance in the Bible and Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty (Fordham University Press, 2014). She has also been an activist for many years, working on issues of police brutality and prison injustice, globalization, antiwar activism, feminist and queer organizing. We are absolutely thrilled to be welcoming Erin to Auckland and feel very honoured she has agreed to do this lecture for us. Full details are below, as well as a link to the poster. Everyone is welcome so we hope to see you there!
Erin Runions, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Affiliate Faculty of Gender and Women’s Studies, Pomona College, California The Temptation of Noah: The Debate about Patriarchy in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah
Monday 14 September, 5.30pm Room 315, Arts 1 (Building 206) The University of Auckland
Noah, the biblically inspired film co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky uses violence toward women to fuel its plotline, even as it heroizes a patriarchal figure.
Yet just how the film judges its protagonist is unclear. Attention to its Jewish pre-texts and to the composition of the film raises questions about its seemingly positive evaluation of Noah and his mission. The film’s mostly visual subtext about temptation, when read alongside a rabbinic critique of Noah suggests that Noah’s violent response to his visions, the flood, and his family perhaps cannot be called righteous after all.
Today’s student contribution takes us back to look at that most colourful character from the gospel traditions – Herodias’s daughter Salome. The author of this piece is Sarah Pearce, who is in her final semester of studying for a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Theology conjoint degree, majoring in English and Biblical Studies. Sarah is a very talented writer, as you will see, and we are delighted that she is hoping to continue her studies with us next semester in the postgraduate Honours programme.
Salome in Art
Salome in art through the ages
In the Middle Ages, images of Salome tended to focus on the dynamism of her dance, which had so impressed the king. She came to be known as ‘la sauterelle,’ from the way she contorted and twisted her body in medieval images, a young, fully dressed girl bent backwards or upside-down (Apostolos-Cappadona 2009). During this time, dance was an accepted part of church liturgy. In these depictions she is an acrobat – she is not sexualised nor is there an explicit effort on the part of the artist to depict her in an overtly negative or bloodthirsty light.
The Renaissance saw the acrobatic nature of Salome’s dance often remain in images of the young woman, her adolescence also enduring in her physical representations. However, a greater focus on her beauty and a gentle, seductive demeanour also developed. This change was representative of a growing ‘awareness’ of the ever-present threat of female sexuality to men, still latent in this young woman (ibid).
By the end of the high Renaissance, moving into the Mannerism, Baroque and Romantic periods, the nature of women began to be dichotomised into the virgin/whore binary due to misogynistic attitudes that seeped through the acutely patriarchal Western societies of the time. Salome represented both sides of the coin: a young royal maiden, yet one so sexually charged in her movement she could bring about the death of a prophet. Combined with the fact that dance was no longer a part of liturgy, the innocence of Salome’s dance began to fade away (ibid).
And, by the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century, Salome had become the archetype femme fatale, whose sexuality, portrayed through her seductive dance, directly resulted in the death of an innocent man. Salome and her mother, collapsed at this time into one character, used her beauty to order the death of a man when offered anything her heart desired: this being the very essence of the femme fatale. As a result, Salome became a favourite topic among Symbolist artists who sought out subjects which represented this theme.
Salome came to be depicted alone, sometimes dancing, and often with a sword or with the head of John the Baptist on a platter (as though she had done the beheading herself). She is depicted naked, exotically adorned, or bare breasted, with a triumphant, smiling or unfeeling expression. She is therefore shown to be pleased with the fruits of her sexual wiles, which artists depicted as the work of Salome alone, leaving her prompting mother, or grudge-ridden step-father out of the scene.
Salome in Bernardo Luini’s Salome with the head of St John the Baptist (early 16th Century)
The young dancer of the gospel traditions (Matt. 14.3-11; Mk 6.17-29) has become integral to the story in artistic reproductions, as though she were the central character within the narrative and often seeming to shoulder the blame alone for John’s execution, as she does in this painting. Yet, Salome comes into the narrative late and her role is described fleetingly in comparison to the amount of space given to Herodias’ grudge in Mark’s account and Herod’s reluctance to execute St John in both accounts. The depiction of this scene is common: the moment when Salome is presented with John the Baptist’s head. In both traditions, the head is bought to the girl on the platter already. Here, the head is placed onto the platter the girl holds as if she might have witnessed the execution and been given the head fresh from its body. Perhaps she waited with her platter ready for the presentation of the decapitated head. Either way, the disembodied arm of the executioner is an eerie touch and breaks with the biblical tradition.
The scene is dark, we cannot see the court or the birthday party described in the text. Nor is Salome dancing or her mother present, prompting her daughter or receiving her request. Salome here averts her face: her expression, mildly troubled with a slightly furrowed brow. Yet I would say that she is surprisingly unmoved and slightly detached for someone receiving the head of an innocent man she just demanded to be killed. There is no horror in her face; her mouth is set and her skin glows, flushed, in stark comparison to St John’s head, pale and yellowing.
This detachment from the horror of the situation reflects the state of her family: one that places very little value on human life. Her grandfather, Herod the great, ordered that all boys under two be murdered in order to try and get one little boy, the baby Jesus (Matt. 2.16). Her stepfather Herod, who was also her uncle, married his brother’s wife (Matt. 14.3). Herod imprisoned an innocent man and without hesitation put him to death (Matt. 14.3, 9-10). The lack of pain in her facial expression and her peaceful gaze depicts her as equally as callous as the rest of her family. This is also present in the text. Offered half the kingdom, Salome instead opts to please her mother at the expense of the life of an innocent man, which comes cheaply with little consideration (Mark 6.22-23). This is particularly evident in Mark’s account where it states that following the request, ‘immediately she rushed back to the king’ asking for his head on a platter ‘at once’ (v.25). The sense of urgency and impulsiveness betrays her lack of concern for the life of another. This is in turn depicted by the way the artist has portrayed her here.
Salome in Gustave Mossa’s Salome, 1901
Mossa’s depiction of Salome shows the way in which the art of the late 19th to early 20th Century became so fixated on the concept of the femme fatale. The residues of this within the Biblical story of Salome are seized by early 20th Century artists. As a result, depictions of the young dancer came to be a fantasy or myth, so far removed from the Salome of the biblical texts. Here Salome kneels in a child’s cot or nursery, a doll and other remnants of childhood are strewn around her knees. A diaphanous robe drapes around her adolescent body, tucked tight between her legs, exposing her budding breast and left thigh in an alluring fashion. She holds in one hand an ornate sword covered in the blood of her victim and licks it, a consummate femme fatale. The bleeding heads of the Baptiser bloom in a flourish of barbed roses around her, looking down on her, symbolising the nature of the femme fatale, and the thorny danger intrinsic to the enchanting aphrodite. Saint John’s head in the centre of the rose reminds the viewer of the mortal consequences of her beauty.
There is no court, mother or step-father, no dance, nor is there an audience. Nothing from this picture seems to be drawn from the Biblical traditions except the much manipulated character of Herodias’ daughter, a child wildly sexualised. Were the heads of John the Baptist not present, peering lifeless out of the blooms behind her, we would perhaps not be able to recognise the young deviant depicted here as Salome at all. Instead of being a narrative representation of the painting, the painting uses symbols to reveal allegorically what the artist might have believed to be more subliminal elements of the story.
Salome’s character here is both beautiful and bloodthirsty, young and perverse. This depiction of Salome is abject on many levels: the idea of running your tongue down a double edged sword in itself is enough to make us cringe. Yet, Salome licks a man’s blood off the reflective blade. The blood is undried, still fresh and warm enough to run down the sword and drip from the edges. Symbols of innocence lie discarded around the sexually-charged youth. The disjunction of the symbols of childhood next to the exposed and sexually enticing young women adds to the abjection. Altogether, this paints her in a very negative light: an aberrant, wicked young woman, virginal and yet defiled, delicate and yet dangerous.
As aforementioned, it seems that very little of this is drawn from the Biblical accounts. Yet with some imagination, could we say that the urgency in which the young girl rushes back to the king with her request, demanding a head of an innocent man on a platter (Mark 6.25) at once betrays her blood thirst? The demand that the head be presented on a platter could divulge an appetite for blood indeed. The head itself was not enough, nor was a simple execution. Instead in her own words in both the Matthew and Mark narrative, she asks that the head of Saint John be bought to her in a similar way one might request food. So perhaps Mossa touches on this murderous appetite here, symbolically depicting the role of the platter, Salome’s very own addition to her mother’s request, by having Salome literally eat blood, with the freshness of it linking to the sense of urgency in her request for the head in Mark’s rendition of the story.
Comparing the images by Mossa and Luini
Firstly, the Salome in Luini’s portrayal of the scene averts her face from the horror of the decaptiated head. While she doesn’t react as one might expect, she shows some decency and humanity in looking away with perhaps even a sense of guilt in her eyes. Mossa’s Salome on the other hand victoriously licks the blood of her victim with a sense of delight in her face and posture.
Secondly, the differences between these two images are stark, with Luini’s painting following the biblical narrative more closely, depicting the moment in which the young dancer is presented with the head on the platter as requested. The actions of Mossa’s Salome, in a cot with large roses about her will not be found anywhere in the Biblical text. Mossa makes no attempt to follow the Biblical traditions.
Luini’s period is a few centuries from grasping the fetish of the fatal sexaulity of women as it was in Mossa’s. Luini’s depiction comes from a time entrenched in artistic tradition of realism in art to serve didactic and narrational purposes to a largely illiterate audience. This would dictate what art was, limiting artistic licence, ensuring the veracity of the work. It also comes from an overtly religious society, around the time of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, inhibiting the ways an artist could portray a bloodthirsty beauty, demanding a certain level of decency in art.
Mossa’s version comes out of a time of great social upheaval and chaos, following the wars, revolutions and uprisings of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in an increasingly secular society with the first great world war on the horizon. The artist’s dark disillusionment with society is reflected in the way subjects are depicted as being more sinister and ominous than ever before, evident in this very undisguised depiction of blood thirst and loss of innocence.
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. “Imagining Salome, or How La Sauterelle Became La Femme Fatale.” In From the Margins 2: Women of the New Testament and their Afterlives, edited by Christine E. Joynes and Christopher C. Rowland, 190-209. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009.
Following on from our last blog post, here is another student essay on the book of Ruth in art. Nevin Govindasamy is another of our fabulous students in Theology – as well as studying for his Bachelor of Theology, he has also completed a Bachelor of Arts degree, where he majored in Media, Film, and Television Studies. Nevin plans to graduate later this year and hopes to continue his studies at postgraduate level. Below is one of his essays for the Danger and Desire course, where he considers Émile Lévy’s painting, Ruth and Naomi, from an LGBTI perspective.
Émile Lévy’s Ruth and Naomi (1859)
Recent biblical interpretations have stated that the Book of Ruth provides a positive theology for the LGBTI community. Émile Lévy’’s Ruth and Naomi (1859) gives subtle encouragement for a supportive LGBTI message. At first Levy’s painting appears simple to be a simple depiction of Ruth 4:13-17 with a young family playing with their child. Yet, there are subtle features in Levy’s interpretation that suggest that Ruth and Naomi shared an intimate relationship. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Boaz in the background of the painting is also an extremely important element in redefining his role in the narrative. These visual characteristics affect the way in which the relationships in the Book of Ruth are to be understood. Though Ruth and Naomi is a positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship, Lévy’s interpretation, much like the text itself, works in a subtle way to illustrate its message. With society’s changing attitude towards the LGBTI community, it is important to establish an inclusive LGBTI theology. The Book of Ruth provides a suitable platform for reinterpreting stereotypical and congealed biblical attitudes towards its LGBTI members.
One of the keys to understanding the Book of Ruth lies with the interpretation of the final scene (Ruth 4:13-17) – as depicted in Ruth and Naomi. There are several subtle elements in Ruth 4:14-17 which suggest that the women were in a committed same-sex relationship. The language used by the women of Bethlehem to describe the strength of the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is deliberately overemphasised and emotional. Their speech is important as it is the only place in the text where the word ‘love’ is used, but also, more significantly to show “that others in the story world recognize Ruth’s love, and gives us perspective on Naomi’s point of view” (Exum 1996, 140). While Lévy downplays the original intensity of the text, the feminine atmosphere, the main subjects of the painting, as well as the title itself, are used to illustrate this love. Although there is an unnamed third woman in Lévy’s painting, depicting Ruth, Naomi and Obed together during the final scene connotes that they are a non-traditional family. By focusing on the familial nature of the final scene both Lévy and the women of Bethlehem recognise that “Ruth’s relationship to Naomi has been life-giving – procreative” (West 2006, 194).
Casting Ruth and Naomi’s relationship as procreative guides the way in which the audience interprets the preceding narrative. In particular, the associations with procreation draw attention to the narrative links with Genesis 2:24 through the use of the ‘cling’ (dabaq) in Ruth 1:24. Genesis 2:24 uses ‘cling’ to describe the marriage husband and wife and ultimately the procreative nature of the two ‘becoming one flesh.’ A further parallel to Genesis 2:24 occurs in Ruth 2:11, where Boaz notes that Ruth has ‘left her mother and father’ to be with Naomi. Scott Callaham notes that “though ‘father and mother’ is a stock phrase, only Ruth 2:11 and Genesis 2:24 employ it as the object of the verb” (2012, 193). These features infer that Ruth and Naomi’s ‘clinging’ should be understood as a de-facto marriage. The subtlety of the Book of Ruth’s intertextual references is paralleled by Lévy through a series of subtle visual allegories. First, the use of red identifies and links Ruth and Naomi who occupy the foreground of the picture.However, more significantly, the older woman – taken to be Naomi is also wearing a gold ring on her finger – a synchronic insertion with direct references to marriage between the two women.
Understanding that Ruth and Naomi’s relationship is a de-facto marriage means reassessing Boaz’s function in the narrative. Although it appears that Ruth 2 establishes Boaz as a paragon of patriarchal authority, Boaz’s actions demonstrate, rather, that he is also the first defender, or protector of the LGBTI community. Boaz is the first outsider to acknowledge ‘all that Ruth had done for Naomi,’ and also his hopes that God would ‘reward her for her deeds’ (Ruth 2:11-12). Boaz uses his influence to ensure that Ruth is protected from harassment, (Ruth 2:9) and instructs that extra grain be provided for her (2:16). Mona West states that Boaz’s behaviour “goes above and beyond the law to ensure that those less fortunate in [his] community are provided for” (2006, 192). His actions ensure that Ruth and Naomi would survive without ‘gleaning in another field’ (Ruth 2:8) and risking their relationship. Lévy’s depiction of Boaz in Ruth and Naomi reinforces the notion that his character performs the role of a guardian to the women. Boaz stands as a sentinel in the background of the painting keeping a watchful eye over the family in the foreground. Furthermore, Boaz is holding a curved shepherd’s staff – one of the most recognizable symbols of religious care in the Christian community. This role of protector elides with the theme of the survival of marginalized, vulnerable women in adversarial environments (Ruth 1:1, 5).
The implications of Boaz’s characterization redefine the purposes of his marriage to Ruth. Ruth 2 foregrounds the sentiment that Ruth’s marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3-4.1) is a colluded survival strategy that does not compromise her relationship with Naomi, but that it provides “protection from both violence and poverty” (Koosed 2012, 55). While this marriage between Ruth and Boaz is the only one directly described in the text, its initiation is orchestrated by the women (Ruth 3:1-5) “to create a situation in which [Naomi], Boaz and Ruth can form their own family to provide security and well-being” (West 2006, 193). Furthermore, terms of the marriage are discussed within a legal framework, rather than out of romance or love. The ‘engagement scene’ on the threshing room floor (Ruth 3:9-13) Ruth proposes that Boaz act as a ‘redeemer’ (go’el) according to the laws of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10). Boaz agrees to the legal details of Ruth’s marriage proposal, as “he vows to look into the permissibility of the situation and to act as her next of kin only if he can” (Wojcik 1985, 150).
Although Boaz agrees to marry Ruth, Jennifer Koosed notes that he is not the one in charge in the relationship and marriage out of erotic love is not the goal (2012, 53). The scene at the city gate (Ruth 4) reinforces Boaz’s attitude as a legalistic protector, outside the bounds of a sexual relationship rather than romantic suitor to Ruth. First, Boaz negotiates the terms of marriage over the tenures of landownership (Ruth 4:3). Subsequently, once the terms are settled he states that his motivations were driven by ‘maintaining Elimelech’s name,’ and not love (Ruth 4:10). Boaz’s actions give legal legitimacy to his relationship and role as a protector of the women. The morning after their engagement, Boaz notes that it may be controversial for an unmarried man and woman to be seen together (Ruth 3:14) – even if it is a relationship providing social welfare (Ruth 3:15). Therefore, Boaz’s formal marriage to Ruth allows him to continue to protect the informal marriage between Ruth and Naomi free from any potential controversies or misunderstandings. Furthermore, Boaz pulls Ruth and Naomi from the margins of society back into the community when he provides them with a legitimate child.
Biblical commenters agree that Ruth’s declaration (Ruth 1:16-17) is one of the most profound declarations of love – unparalleled in the Bible. Despite the fact that Ruth’s declaration is directed towards someone of the same sex, the Bible is often used as the platform for conservative Christians to justify a stance against the LBGTI community. Furthermore, Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s largest denomination, publicly stated in 2013 that he was “shocked” at a proposed Maltese law that would allow LBGTI couples to adopt children (Rayman 2013). These positions often rely on the most explicit verses in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to validate their position. However, Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg notes “that there is no good reason to conceive of the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality as a series of dictates that exist in isolation from other statues or stories” (2008, 471). The Book of Ruth not only celebrates and protects the love between two women, but also it “offers a model for defiance of biblical law and for sanctioning forbidden marriages” – all with the approval and blessing of the Lord (Ruth 4:13) (474).
The Book of Ruth is an excellent source to build a positive theology for the LGBTI community. Much like Ruth and Naomi members of the LGBTI community are often at the margins of society. Furthermore, the LGBTI community continues to be actively discriminated by the Christian community due to superficial or stereotypical understanding of the Bible. Yet, the Book of Ruth provides direct biblical evidence that undermines such a position. Not only do Ruth and Naomi survive in a patriarchal society, their relationship is protected, praised and legitimized by their community. Emile Levy’s Ruth and Naomi illustrates the loving and committed nature of their relationship – culminating in the creation of a LBGTI family. Levy enriches the characterization of Boaz as a protector by showing his character as a dutiful sentinel who continues to watch over the women. Positive LGBTI Interpretations in popular culture, such as Ruth and Naomi, are essential in affecting a substantial change in attitude within the Christian community. As with many issues in society, more social gains and losses are made through the ideas circulated online and in the popular media than from scholarly publications or dictates from the pulpit.
Callaham, Scott. “But Ruth Clung to Her: Textual Constraints on Ambiguity in Ruth 1:14.” Tyndale Bulletin 60, no.2 (2012): 179-97.
Cushing-Stahlberg, Lesleigh. “Modern Day Moabites: The Bible and the Debate About Same-Sex Marriage.” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008): 442-75.
Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot and Painted : Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 1996.
Koosed, Jennifer L.. Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament : Gleaning Ruth : A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives. Columbia, SC, USA: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.
Auckland Theology favourite, occasional contributor to this blog, and soon-to-be teaching staffer Dr Robert Myles recently organised a conference at Sheffield University, where he’s been visiting scholar for the past six months. Participants at the Radical Interpretations of the Bible conference considered a range of revolutionary methods in biblical interpretations, including critical theory, Marxist exegesis, anarchist exegesis, radical reception theory and other ideological and political readings. The conference sounds as though it was a cracking success and, as Robert’s post below indicates, we hope to follow on from it by hosting a similar conference later this year in Auckland. Can’t wait…
Given the rather feisty weather Auckland has been experiencing today, I thought I’d bring an element of that into today’s advent offering. William Blake’s depiction of God appearing to Job in the whirlwind is a marvellous portrayal of the extraordinary – the meeting of divine and human upon a sweeping vista of cosmic creativity. Within the poetry of Job 38-41, this is a terrifying event, with the deity overwhelming a cowering Job, seeming to bully him into submission with a visual overload of divine power. And yet, Blake manages to bring this remarkable literary event to us using images that are both lyrical and familiar, inviting us to regard Job’s theophanic encounter as an orchestrated performance intended to inspire his awe and wonder, rather than his terror. The deity swoops gracefully towards us, his arms outstretched like a dancer or gymnast, his lush hair and flowing beard sweeping around a gentle, handsome face. Even the whirlwind itself holds no threat, composed as it is of angelic bodies, whose aim seems less to inspire fear than to play their choreographed part in this divine performance. This vision of Blake’s God – and his whirlwind – may not have taken away from Job the bitter pall of his intense and unjustified suffering at the hands of the deity, but, had he seen it, it may at least have provided him with a moment of respite, a flicker of warmth within an otherwise dark and hope-less time.
The start of semester 1 is fast approaching here at Auckland University and teaching staff everywhere are getting busy preparing their lectures. The past few days, I’ve been getting organized for one of my undergraduate courses, which focuses on the book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible. Genesis is a fantastic biblical book to look at in depth with students and one of my favourite to teach – using the tools of literary criticism, I read the text together with the class, pausing at particular narrative scenes to allow us to focus on them in more detail, discussing what we think of the plot, the characters, and the possible origins and purpose of these stories. The students are never bored, in my experience, and thoroughly enjoy probing and pondering what’s going on in this rollercoaster of a narrative. There’s more sex, action and drama than even the raciest soap opera; we read about the miraculous, the unbelievable, the cataclysmic, and the plain old bizarre. We encounter loads of marvellous characters, who come across as so very human – who express emotions that we can recognize, who react in ways that we can at least understand, if not explicitly condone. There are no absolute saints in Genesis – rather, the characters are shown to us flaws and all. Even that most venerated figure Noah gets into a bit of bother after, quite understandably, drinking rather a lot of wine following all the stress of that flood. Meanwhile, Abraham and Jacob – the founding fathers of the Israelite people – are depicted as far from perfect, acting rashly, treating others harshly, being deceitful and underhand, and manipulating kith and kin to further their own ends.
Genesis is a book that I think explores the human condition in all its fullness and frailty; in particular, its ancient authors seem at pains to articulate the complex and at times incomprehensible relationship that exists between humanity and the divine. In my opinion, they do this incredibly well.