“Suffering was the gateway to compassion”

couple things.

– There’s a little gem nested at the end of this long and somewhat troubling article (interesting, to be sure!  most troubling things are) that was the one point that I could wholeheartedly empathize with the author:

For these reasons, I am becoming convinced that the only real way to “personal growth” outside of direct action is through careful study of fiction.  Of course stories may have an intended meaning, but a well written story allows you to ask not just “what does the story mean?” but “why do I think that this is what the story means?”

– Just read this other article that is also troubling, but in a far more direct way in terms of the issues it addresses rather than the squidgy unreliable narrator aspect – The Bible Is Not a Diet Plan.

As someone who used to identify as a Christian, specifically as a Protestant, the rise of “self-help” bibles catered and tailored and filleted to the reader’s specification and comfort level is both worrisome and profoundly aggravating.  I don’t think that the Bible should be taken as a literal text by any means (I think that it is the work of humanity, not divinity), but even in that perspective, this is just fucking sick:

Daniel, one of the four kidnapped Jewish youths, “resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine,” and chose to subsist on vegetables instead, ending up as healthy as anyone in his captors’ court. So, as Time magazine recently reported, Warren has “launched the Daniel Plan, a comprehensive health-and-fitness program.”

We’ve seen this rise in the last century, the idea that God is a benevolent spirit who just wants you to be wealthy and prosperous and comfortable, and now also thin and healthy.  Which flies so deeply in the face of the events and perspectives recorded in the text that it does the most sickening disservice to its authors and their experiences.  Using the word “sacrilegious” has a connotation that is not what I want – again, I don’t think that the Bible is holy as such – but people lived and died for this stuff.  They lived and recorded and made up or whatever things deeply important to them, vital, and it lasted through thousands of years of history and mistranslation and restoration to promote a low-carb diet plan?

A story, sacred or secular, is a test of our empathy: an invitation to enter into the trials and hopes of a stranger. And it takes a remarkable self-centeredness to deliberately reject that invitation, to mine that story for anything that helps us grow our portfolios or shrink our waistlines, and throw away the husk of the human at its heart once we’ve sucked out all we can use. We can read selfishly just as we can act selfishly.

The author of the article points out that this appropriation is not new, citing medieval artistic depictions of biblical events in which all of the characters are wearing contemporary garments.  And he also points out that this is a useful tool in developing empathy – illustrating that the lives and actions and doubts and mistakes recorded in the text are ones that are not alien to us, because in one form or another we as human beings are wrestling with the same angels.

And I guess monetary gain from shaping an interpretation of scripture a particular way isn’t new either.  But the entire point of the Protestant Reformation (other than Henry VIII’s libido) was moving away from grace that could be purchased from the the village priest in the forms of indulgences.  (An interesting foreshadowing to Citizens United, actually – the more money you had, the more grace you could buy from God.)

But it means something when whatever marketing scheme you have must be divorced completely from context:

Do you remember The Prayer of Jabez, the Christian motivational book that sold nine million copies a decade ago? Its author, Bruce Wilkinson, urged readers to “enlarge their territory” by repeating word-for-word the prayer for success attributed to Jabez in the Book of Chronicles. Here’s how Wilkinson dispenses with all of the context around those magic words of prosperity:

“You’ll find [Jabez] hiding in the least read section of one of the least-read books of the Bible. The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are taken up with the official family tree of the Hebrew tribes… Talk about boring! The long lists of unfamiliar and difficult names—more than five hundred of them—are likely to make even the bravest Bible student turn back.”

Genealogies are “boring” and “difficult”—because we can’t use them. But they were recorded and preserved with such care because the strangers who wrote that book could use them. For the huge majority of human history, they were the measure of a man’s life. They bound you to your history and your land; they gave you a place among cousins, grandparents, sprawling generations of ancestors, in a rooted institution radically different from what passes for a family today. From Israel to China, generations of our ancestors memorized the names of their fathers’ fathers, chanted them, worked them into poems. Genealogies are a window into the alien minds of our forebears. But we cannot use them to get rich or thin. Wilkinson’s verdict: “boring!”

How can we love our neighbor if we cannot bother to understand – or at least acknowledge – what is/ was important to them?  How can we do this in the present, which is too close to not be uncomfortable and messy and incomplete, if we cannot do it with the past?

We must start somewhere.  I cannot live anyone’s life but my own.  My brain and experience is stuck behind my specific eyes, and I cannot change that.  But I can read and I can try to understand.  And this goes as clearly for the bible as it does for Moby Dick and The Satanic Verses and Mrs Dalloway.

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