Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
© 2011 Brad Pitre
240 pages

Communion, the eating of bread and wine regarded as the body and blood of Jesus, is the heart of liturgical worship. Its place in Christian history holds such awe that even the most anarchic Protestant sect pays homage to it, if only once a year.  Where did it come from? What could have possessed a group of first century Jews into organizing an elaborate ritual around small fragments of bread, and regarding its consumption as the key to eternal life, as Paul wrote?  Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Christian Eucharist examine ‘the great Thanksgiving’ in the light of Passover. The work of a Notre Dame religious scholar, it draws not only from the Bible but from the broader Jewish religious tradition to place the Eucharist firmly within it.

Although Christianity and Judaism have grown far apart over the millennia, in the beginning this was not so.  The breaches between the two religions, so exaggerated now, are bridged when first-century Judaism is delved into fully. While modern Jews hold that the Messiah is an earthly king, come to establish a temporal kingdom, rabbinic commentators within the Mishna and Midrash were looking for a successor to Moses; a prophet who would lead another exodus, this one spiritual, and establish a new covenant. It is the legacy of Moses that much of the book is built on;  the exodus he led and the tradition he founded.

The first Exodus was lead by Moses, after a series of plagues delivered against the land of Egypt convinced its Pharaoh that releasing the Hebrews from slavery might be the wisest course of action. Though bothered before by p boils, locusts,  bloody rivers, and dead cows, the coup de grâce came in the form of an angel of death that slew every first-born son in the land, including the Pharaoh's own boy. The night the angel was at work, the Hebrews engaged in a ritual dinner that was instituted as their salvation.  Shortly after the Hebrews had left Egypt and received the Law of Moses, they were ordered to reenact that ritual dinner every year thereafter.  Passover, that reenactment, the yearly remembering of their rescue from slavery, is the origin of the Eucharist, its antecedent. The Eucharist is in fact the new passover; just as the first provided rescue from physical bondage, the second offered redemption from spiritual bondage and death.

Belief in the power of the Eucharist is not required to appreciate Pitre's argument, which demonstrates how the central Christian practice has well-established Jewish antecedents. Among them:  widespread belief in the eventual establishing of a new covenant, installed in blood, one in which the chosen people would feast on the presence of God, not ordinary food; a corresponding belief that the manna which fell from heaven during the Exodus was a sample of that extraordinary food;  the veneration of that manna, accomplished by its presence in the Ark, and the regular use of unleavened bread in Jewish sacrifices. Kept in the tabernacle, and referred to as the Bread of the Presence, it symbolized God's abiding with the people of Israel.  and finally, the Christian retelling of the Last Supper -- the first communion -- in which the fourth ritual cup of wine,  'the cup of salvation', is not consumed within the Upper Room -- but is referred to during the Passion when Jesus pleads to let 'this cup' pass from him, and later consumes wine on the Cross.   This last one is is somewhat stretched, but altogether it's a compelling case that the Gospel authors believed this, that they structured their telling of the Last Supper to connect it with the Passover, to link Jesus' life with Moses. Even if one regards Jesus as nothing but a apocalyptic prophet, the argument is no less compelling because it demonstrates what  the early church made of Jesus' life as they struggled to find meaning in it, increasingly removed from that promise that the end of days was imminent.  At the very least, the ritual consumption of bread and wine in celebration of the presence of God is made a common bond between Temple Judaism and Christianity, the unbroken thread.

There are still some minor quibbles; varying gospels place the execution of Jesus at different spots during Passover, some after the sacrifice of the lamb and some during it; obviously, the connective imagery is most strong if one regards Jesus as being crucified at the same hour that lambs were being  roasted crossways on spits.  The objection Jews would have against drinking blood and eating 'human flesh' is noted, and Pitre points out that many of Jesus' followers simply couldn't take it. The rest were swayed by the notion that they weren't eating fleshy flesh, they were partaking in a resurrected body, a 'glorified' one, and it wasn't the same. It's a hard sell ("a hard saying", to quote their biblical reaction).  The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist is altogether a most effective revealing of how Christian traditions simply grew intact from older Jewish ones.  It's not a novel idea; Christians from churches high and low consider Passover and Eucharist linked, but Pitre demonstrates the depth of their connection and makes plain that Christianity's Jewishness runs deep.

The Crucified Rabbi, Taylor Marshall. This also examines Judaism's role in shaping Christian (specifically Catholic) spirituality, though it's more of a general survey and not nearly as powerfully argued.
Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart Ehrman. Though I haven't reviewed it here, dualism is an important piece of the puzzle that is Christianity's origin.

They Thought They Were Free

They Thought they Were Free: the Germans, 1933-1945
346 pages
© 1955 Milton Mayer

How could ordinary, decent people abide the Nazis for the span of twelve years -- to allow a baby born at the NSDAP's seizure of power to practically come of age under their banner? Shortly after World War II, Milton Meyer traveled to Germany and attempted to answer that question for himself. Omitting his Jewish heritage, he cultivated friendships with ten German citizens and approached them with questions about their life during the war.  His mission was to understand their experience.Though primarily writing for the western world of the 1950s, urging the powers not to turn the Germans into the anti-Soviet front line, virtually none of the import achieved here has faded with the decades. He searched for insight about the German soul under the Nazi state, but discovered man.

Today Hitler and the Nazis are a byword for evil, but for Meyer's Germans, this was not so. The totality of the Nazi evil was not revealed until after the Allies had swept across Germany and discovered the camps, those ghastly factories of obscenity where families were slaughtered with hellish efficiency. For the Germans interviewed, Hitler was a bolt from the blue, a strike of leadership in a time of self-indulgent parliamentary quibbling. He was a leader who believed in Germany, who could inspire the kind of discipline needed to rebuild and recover from the Great War and depression. He  advanced a siege mentality, but stirred up the fortitude requited to endure a struggle.  Judging from his friends, Meyer believes that most Germans knew little about the atrocities that would be committed under that threatened mindset; for them,  Hitler was the man who had cured unemployment,  who had restored national pride; such was his stature in their imaginations that even when it became obvious that the NSDAP was leading Germany into ruin,  he was beyond reproach. Disconnected from the party, he was the Kaiser, the head of state, the man above politics; when things went awry, it was his advisers who were held liable, his administrators deemed malevolent. “If only Hitler know what was happening,” some thought.   The belief that the king can do no wrong seems to have deep roots in the human psyche,  appearing seemingly everywhere.

Even if Hitler was not known then as the source of evil,  no one could deny that something was amiss in Germany. Here Meyer examines how the Jews could be subjected to such desolation. . The Nazi cultivation of antisemitism worked not only to marginalize Jews, to keep the mind from lingering too long on where they kept disappearing to, but simultaneously gave baser instincts a target to fixate and build on. Urges for casual petty violence, normally inhibited by the law, were given legal sanction against Germany’s Jewish population; but violence, once unleashed,  is rather difficult to rein back in. That violence was not only physical, but psychological, eroding the civil soul;  Meyer's interviewees report how they were steadily compromised.  Merely conflicted when the Nazi campaigns were set in motion, torn by a sense that something was not right but unsure as to whether attacking the triumphant Party was worth it. That inaction only reinforced itself as Germans were slowly prised apart from conscience, either out of fear or moral sloth. Some values, like free speech directed against the government, were so new and existing only on the  periphery that when they disappeared their absence was as dimly noticed as that of the marginalized Jews. 

Though elements of the book are specific to Germany, the study of man compromised by rule is more generally applicable. Meyer believes the veneration of Hitler was tied to the German veneration of the Kaiser, but what society has been spared a leader who acts as if he is above  the law?  Even England, which prizes the Magna Carta and its supposition that the king is subject to laws greater than he, has had its Henry VIII;  in the modern age the power and influence of rulers is even more strongly expressed. Of general interest, too, is the conflict of moralities at play when the state is doing things that are obviously wrong. People want to do the 'right' thing,but so utterly basic is tribal preservation instinct that we hesitate; how can we attack 'ourselves'? We must separate the players in our minds, must create a new 'us' and relegate the government to the status of 'them', but that doesn't alter the fact that those enabling the evil are still our countrymen. The tide of fear and uncertainty has an awful strength, sweeping away all but the most strident stands.  It is a struggle not finished, and one which will never be finished;  we are never relieved from the possibility our instincts may lead us in the wrong direction. 
They Thought They Were Free strikes me a must-read for beginning to grasp the German mind and the human soul in its darkest hour. Historically it alters a bounty of insight into what Germans were enduring now, but can be applied to human travails through the centuries. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Reading on the Eve of Destruction

We know no spectacle in human history more instinct with pathos than that of these twelve million men, busy with the cares, hopes and joys of daily life, working in their fields or mills, or seated these summer evenings by their cottage doors with their wives and children about them, making their simple plans for thrift or festival, unconscious of the fate which now drew near, and which would exact from them there all. Only a signal is needed to transform these multitudes of peaceful peasants and workmen into the mighty hosts which will tear each other to pieces year after year with all the machinery of science, with all the passions of races, and all the loyalties of man.

Yet it should not be supposed by future generations that much direct compulsion was required. Of all the millions who marched to war in August 1914, only a small proportion went unwillingly away. The thrill of excitement ran through the world, and the hearts of even the simplest masses lifted to the trumpet-call. A prodigious event had happened. The monotony of toil and of the daily around was suddenly broken. Everything was strange and new. War aroused the primordial instincts of races born of strife. Adventure beckoned to her children. A larger, nobler life seemed to be about to open upon the world. But it was, in fact, only Death.

p. 93, The Unknown War. Sir Winston Churchill

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Belt of Gold

The Belt of Gold
© 1984 Cecelia Holland
305 pages

     Two Frankish brothers returning home from a pilgrim to Jerusalem become unwittingly involved in a palace coup when they rescue a damsel in distress on the road to Constantinople.  When one is murdered in an inn, the other -- Hagen the White. whose lord is Charlemagne -- vows vengeance.  Alone in a Roman empire that never fell, derided as a barbarian, Hagen's efforts to find his brother's assailants take him into the Imperial Palace itself, into the service of the Empress Irene.  There, navigating the machinations of political conspiracy as well as the vast city of Constantinople,  he struggles to sort out the truth while becoming increasingly undone by love for one of the Empress's servants.

The Belt of Gold is a tale of Byzantine power-plays, interwoven with romance and lots of chariot-racing.  The sporting scenes are used to good effect, not just included to show off research but providing a source of intrigue and later, the scene of the novel's climax.  Hagen is a suitable hero, primally powerful, ruggedly simple, and operating from a straightforward moral code. Keep faith with your lord and friends, do good by them, and kill those who try to kill you.  He's the relief in a cast of schemers, who make plans even in bed with one another (and there are a few pillow scenes), though not dumb. He has wiles of his own, but they don't involve manipulating others.  The Belt of Gold is instantly interesting for its setting of the Byzantine empire, whose subjects are a wonder to Hagen and ourselves. They live in Hagen's world, but they also seem otherworldly; their heads are filled with stories long forgotten by the west, and carry on a tradition since faded away.  Hagen's quest to avenge his brother and the intrigue stirred up by a man planning to seize the throne provide an easy opportunity to escape into this exotic place for a few days.  Holland's research seems to have emphasized the geography of Constantinople and the horseraces, but the main characters in the palace plot did exist,  and did attempt a coup. The Empress Irene was a fascinating political character,  more vicious in real life than depicted here (for the most part).   For the reader looking for a change of scenery -- or one deliberately seeking the Byzantines, as was I -- this may be just the touch.


  • Twelve Byzantine Rulers, a history podcast by Lars Brownworth. I just completed listening to the series, and Irene has her own episode. This is what whetted my appetite, of course, and if I'm still hungry for it after I complete my TBR books, Brownsworth's Lost to the West, a history of the Byzantines, may make an appearance..
  • Constantinople: the Forgotten Empire, Isaac Asimov. Before Brownsworth, the sum of my Byzantine knowledge. 
  • Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series. Obviously, set in western Rome, but you can't get away from palace intrigues in a series that climaxes with Caesar. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Civilisation: A Personal View

Civilisation: A Personal View
© 1959 Sir Kenneth Clark
359 pages

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion -- poetry, beauty,  romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. (John Keating, Dead Poet's Society

In the mid-20th century, in the wake of a war that destroyed much of Europe and created a new tension between the capitalist West and the collectivist East that threatened to put paid to the rest of the world, Sir Kenneth Clark wondered: we are facing a new dark age?  Having posed the question, he returned to study the aftermath of the last dark age, Europe after the collapse of western Rome in hopes that it might offer an answer. Civilisations, he writes, compose political histories of themselves -- but it is the unofficial histories, the evidence they leave behind them, that really speaks. So to study the revival of Europe, to ascertain whether the 20th century west has again lost its vigor, Clark studies the book of art. Civilisation: A Personal View is a sweeping history of western art, primarily visual with a musical interlude.  A political history reveals the ambitions of its author, or patron; but the arts sweep across the human spectrum.  Lavishly illustrated with scores of full-page color photographs, most of the subjects Clark addresses are glorious sights that strike Awe into the heart of the viewer. They are churches, town palaces, sweeping vistas -- but there are the humbly but artfully-built homes, and the scenes of humbler life, too.  Although Clark comments on the evolving technical aspects of art -- the growing skillfulness at depicting man through the middle ages, for instance, from rudimentary figures with helpful "Image of a Man" labels, to the stunning life-like portraiture of the Renaissance -- he is more concerned with the spiritual import of the art. This means more than scenes of religious devotion; Clark believes that civilizations perish because they are exhausted, as though they were tired of being living things. Great art -- art that looks toward the future, that is intended as a lasting monument -- is one sign of life. For Clark, truth, beauty, and goodness are intermingled, though great monuments are not in themselves evidence of moral greatness.  After a lingering look at Byzantine glory, Clark addresses mostly north-western Europe: Britain, France, and Germany.  There is no discounting the book's richly satisfying content, however, for want of geographic range.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Seeing like a State

Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed
© 1999 James Scott
464 pages

            Seeing like a State scrutinizes the organizational approach of state governments and other large institutions from the Renaissance era onward. In essence ,James C. Scott demonstrates how reductionist top down attempts at understanding and planning tend to be.  In attempting to render comprehensible complex systems – whether those systems are forests, cities, or national economies – vital information is lost.  Scott argues that the greatest value of aggressive organization is to increase the power and control of the organizer; this is in fact the point of organization in most cases, as with mandating last names. In  other cases, like the creation of forest management, power is achieved more indirectly through the state consolidating and advancing its economic agenda.  In reducing forest farming to one species, however, and planning it rigidly, the rich variety that makes a successful forest thrive is lost. The farm becomes susceptible to vigorous disease; monoculture produces the same results everywhere. The order imposed is accomplished at the cost of life; cities disintegrate when their rich diversity is broken up, rigidly segregated with zoning laws, and lumped together in sprawling clumps. Reviewing dying forests, moribund cities, and nations with collapsed collectivist economies,  Scott argues for decentralized approaches that allow practical, experiential knowledge -- metis -- to predominant, instead of abstract, general knowledge, or techne.  The difference between them can be found in ecologically savvy farming of the kind practiced by Joel Salatin, who instead of imposing a system of agriculture on farms he is invited to steward, fleshes one out on an individual site basis, figuring out which natural cycles can be recreated. This decentralized approach works well with cities and farms, which are complex enough to defy successful planning from on high;  it is hard to imagine a revival of manufacturing lead by artisans instead of industrialists, however.  Scott's case leaves no doubt that organization leads to greater power for the organizers,  but is it avoidable?

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer
© 2010 Joel Salatin
300 pages

Joel Salatin is crazy and glad to be so;  in print and in media like Food, Inc and Fresh, he gleefully rejects what the late 20th century produced as conventional farming.  The Sheer Ectasy of being a Lunatic Farmer is a defense of farming, and in particular a defense of his  kind of farming. While grounded in traditional knowledge, Salatin’s delivery incorporates a lot of modern ecological connections.  His style is folksy in the extreme, the narrative a conversation. Salatin is no rube, though,   His and his father's approach redeemed a swath of dead land, turning it into a thriving business -- and Salatin himself has become a leader in the local foods movement.

Sheer Ectcstasy opens with a history of how Salatin's father gave new life to their purchased farm. They made the foundation of their farm not a good range of machinery, but the health of the soil. Take care of the soil, and everything else will follow. Salatin's work emphasizes closing the nutrient cycle as much as possible; while some nutrients invariably escape (their selling as food being the point of a farm), modern farming is dominated by inputs and outputs. After importing seed, farmers rely on mountains of fertilizer, pesticides, and antibiotics to bring the crop (be it corn or cows) to its marketable size. Every stage relies on finance and import, and nothing from the farm's crop is used to sustain it other than its sale. Salatin's Polyface Farm is different.

Instead of taking his cue from a machine, Salatin looks to nature. Deeply religious, he sees a providential plan in the design of nature, and holds that any human plan that goes against it will ruin itself eventually; it is patently unsustainable. While the libertarian Salatin disdains the label 'organic', being now a certified label issued by a government he regards with contempt, the approach is nevertheless one inspired by life.  Salatin relies an ecological understanding of plants and livestock to power his farm.  While he never lays out his entire plan of operation in the book, each chapter reveals another element, and taken together Salatin appears a genuine maestro conducting a symphony of  eating and excreting.  Cows graze a field, and chickens follow, removing parasites that spread disease. The cows' winter bedding packs are mixed with corn and given over to pigs to root in, creating compost. Instead of being penned in one place, animals are moved on a daily basis in a simulation of their species' natural grazing patterns.   His animals aren't merely the ends of the farm; they are its means.  Salatin sees them as cocreators, with man and beast working together for their mutual advantage.  Salatin's life-inspired approach applies toward disease prevention;  while the natural parasite removal and mock-migrations do their part, he also employs the time-honored method of selective breeding to produce stock that is robust and naturally disease-resistant.

Salatin has been fighting convention for so long he  embraces it on purpose. This sometimes brings him to the border of quackery, as when he investigates the possibility of a tool that collects 'cosmic energy'  and prevents drought. It doesn't work, of course, and he cheerfully admits it, but he's impressed by the salesman' dousing taking him straight to the spot that Salatin would have picked to stick it. This is an example of being in tune with the land. More skeptical minds (mine) would say it's an example of being cold-read. I would not be surprised if the douser picked up on Salatin's body language that inclined him toward a spot, visual tics that told a sly mind when he was getting warmer to Salatin's ideal spot.  Salatin only prescribes advice that is based on evidence, however, on his careful study of the landscape.

On the whole, Sheer Ecstasyis a fun first look at how agriculture can adapt to sustain itself.