April 15, 2006


(Barry Moser, CrossCurrents)

Only Bible readers who wear the thickest rose-colored glasses can fail to notice all the blood and violence that fill its pages. But if we are observant and curious readers who do notice, how can we help but ask why? Why this abundance of violence and blood in the Holy Writ of two religions whose espoused, primary tenets are peace and good will toward others? Religions that tell us that redemption will come only "when we master the violence that fills our world?"

Ironically, violence plays a mighty role in the birth of both Judaism and Christianity.

Judaism was born out of the violence that is slavery, and subsequently out of the violent deaths of thousands of helpless, order-following foot soldiers in Pharaoh's army, trapped (like the crew of the submarine Kursk) when Yahweh brought the walls of the sea down upon them. Sea water, turbulent, heavy with salt, crushing, rolling with violent undercurrents, ravaging foot soldiers, charioteers, and horses alike, as Moses and his people -- the ones fortunate enough to have made it this far -- escape unharmed into the promised land.

Likewise Christianity was born out of the violence that is the crucifixion, bought and paid for by the tortured body and the disembogued blood of Christ. Flesh and blood that will constitute sacramental sustenance for generations of believers to come.

But all sustenance, even the most common, necessarily begins with violence. We slaughter the steer. We quarter the hog. We pull living roots and vegetables out of the earth. Our common sustenance -- that which feeds our body and sates our pangs of physical hunger -- is born of death and violence. Our spiritual sustenance -- that which sustains the soul and essence -- is also born of violence, but becomes, through transubstantive succor, a way to sate the violent, hungry magma of the self. The ironies of body and soul, of life and death.

Thus since blood & violence and blood & flesh are the paving stones of the Judeo-Christian paths, it should come as no surprise that the writings that underpin these two great religions are rife with ferocity and fury. I can only wonder if they were written that way to remind ancient congregations of the scope and reach of their violent history. Or to remind them of the grand and terrifying violence of which their God was capable. Or perhaps to help them celebrate their own might and power, which subjoined the force of their Yahweh.

Perhaps the answer is simpler than we expect. Perhaps in order to understand and accept the universal presence of the savage and the violent, the ancient writers posited a world of ruin and rebirth: A sense that out of eternal darkness "form emerges. . . light dawns, and life is born. . . [That]. . . Order reigns where chaos once held sway." Perhaps, too, the human mind and heart, somehow able to perceive the very uproar and din of the universe's fierce creation, remembers. And in remembering, they write.

Throughout the Tanakh they write of abuse -- familial and fraternal -- and of violence. In the early pages of Genesis we read the story of Cain and his jealous rage against Abel, his brother. Just how Cain kills Abel isn't known. Perhaps he cuts his throat, which would be a prefigurement of all the blood sacrifices to come. Perhaps he lifted a heavy stone and crushed Abel's skull. This is the scenario I imply in my engraving of "The Death of Abel," where Abel lies dead among stones (Gen 4:8). Murdered, left naked on a shroud, a striped shroud made of fabric recalling the uniforms worn by prisoners in Birkenau, Treblinka, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald.

And I could argue here with Mark Twain that the creation of Adam and the events that led to his fall from grace and our inherited despondency of death, was an act of violence toward Adam by God himself. After all, Adam did not know death -- so how could he have fathomed its consequences? Twain takes his contention and contumely one step further, noting that a modern parent who treated a son with such duplicity and contempt would be guilty of child abuse.

Three chapters later God turns truly violent. With righteous wrath and indignation God lashes out against man and all creation. We read that "all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: all in whose nostrils was the breath of life. . . Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark" (Gen. 7:21).

I think it's curious that we tell old Noah's story to children in Sunday school classes. And that commercial publishers keep printing versions of the ark story, plentifully illustrated with cute pairs of animals, tended by a portly and kind Noah. But -- when the story is truly and honestly visualized, how far into the representation would we get? How real would we make it for the little ones? What would we want them to see? What would we let them see? Thousands of wicked people -- mothers and fathers, children and teenagers, brothers and sisters -- and millions of animals, all being dashed against stones and boulders, being lifted out of their homes and flushed through frenzied, murky, and blood-colored waters, their lungs filling, their eyes bulging, their drowning deaths imminent? Is this what we want to be taken from the story? Or must we sanitize the particulars in order to teach the larger, broader lesson? And if in so doing, do we ultimately enfeeble the true lesson by scrubbing the horrific details from the story?

And consider too how God, further on in Genesis, flagrantly destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with "brimstone and fire." Another Sunday school lesson that is taught with cartoon pictures, a violent story sans the violence. No close-ups, no burned and scorched flesh, no agonized mourners. Just swift, clean, unfathomable justice (Gen. 19:24).

Not long after that old Abraham is prepared to cut the throat of his beloved son, on God's inscrutable orders, intended to make Abraham prove himself. Yet another pervasive and powerful Sunday school lesson devoid of all the implications of what would have happened if God's angels had not stayed Abraham's hand (Gen. 22:9-13).

Sacrifice, a central tenet of Judaism and Christianity, is implicitly violent. A young bullock is killed, its throat slit, its blood drained. The animal struggles until its death-throes cease. Its blood, a source of purification, is sprinkled on the altar. The violence continues as the animal is flayed, quartered, and burnt. Barbecues for a demanding God who seems (according to the Tanakh) to relish blood sacrifices and burnt offerings.

In the Christian Bible we confront the cruel and sanguinary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God's own son -- the ultimate act of violence. But once again, do we see that blood, that cruelty, and that violence in the images of the crucifixion? Not often. It has been leached off. Pared away. Hidden behind platitudes or the commonplace appearance of a sweet, languid Jesus attached without stress to his cross. Only a handful of paintings have dared show the agony that accompanies death by crucifixion. Death brought on, slowly, by exposure to the scorching sun. Sun that sears and blisters the flesh. Brought on by exposure to scavenger birds, who -- perching with sharp talons on naked and bloodstained shoulders -- peck out eyes, going for brains. Brought on by exposure to scavenger dogs that bite and rip the flesh of the lower legs and feet, mercifully expediting death. And finally brought on by asphyxiation -- breathe in, but can't breathe out. Perhaps, toward the end, it was so horrific that even a battle-forged soldier could stand it no longer and thrust a spear into Jesus' heart bringing His suffering to an end.

So why all the violence? All the blood and burning in the sacred texts?

I think they are warnings to all listeners, readers, and believers of the dire and mortal consequences of sin and disobedience. And I also think they are simple, vivid images that inflate and decorate good yarns, making them more instructive and memorable. Violence adds impulse and vigor to the tales we tell ourselves and to the narratives of admonition and exhortation. Like salt, it adds flavor to bland food, or when rubbed into a wound, burns while it heals.

UNCOMFORTABLE, UNCERTAIN, AND UNARMED (Barry Moser, first delivered as a lecture sponsored by Auburn Theological Seminary, "An Evening with Barry Moser: A Bible for a New Millennium," The Grolier Club, New York, February 27, 2001)
We never go so far as when we don't know where we are going -- or so says an old French proverb. An abiding truth about being a writer or an artist is that if you're really doing your work -- trying to do it as well as it can be done -- you can never be certain about it. You can never be certain because you are always aware of your shortcomings. Aware of your failures. Aware of what the work could be, if only you were better at it. Aware that your ideas are only your puny ideas -- and this immediately casts a long and dark shadow against the possibility of there being eternal verity or deep truth in the work.

Yet it is veracity that we are after in our work -- as elusive, transmogrifying, and undefinable a quarry as that is.

My friend Ethel Pochocki wrote me a while back and suggested that the question, What is truth? was "probably the first question scratched into the sand. . . after What's for supper?" She said that God, our "God of jest and irony," knows that our innate spirituality needs satisfying. Wants answers. Craves answers. Wants to know what the real story is. What was Christ really like? What is God? "Who is he, or is it a she or not nobody but a force. . .?" We humans want neatness and order, she said. Want exactly right and satisfying answers. Want perfect solutions so we can say, "Ah, that's it!" And no matter how hard we try, we fall on our faces. Fall on our faces because we are human -- and humans fall on their faces. Humans are flawed and imperfect beings. We scramble around trying to find meaning, listening to other flawed and imperfect humans telling us this is the way, the only way. It all boils down to mystery. And, she concluded, "truth is a mystery, [that we'll not] know on earth."

I don't think any of us has a choice but to follow the truth as we see it and as our conscience dictates, hoping that we're not too far off base. And therefore I had no choice but to go with the truth as my eyes see it. As they have seen it as a witness, both through my own lenses and the borrowed lenses of the photographers and limners of other times and places have seen it -- Soldago and Evans, Goya and Bosch, Breughel and Witkin. And the truth I see is that the Bible is populated with people like you and me. People who are flawed and imperfect. People who have crooked teeth and bad skin. Who have stinky breath and dirty feet. Who don't always know the difference between right and wrong. Who are self-serving and capricious. People caught in the conflict and dichotomy between good and evil, between the sacred and the profane, between beauty and ugliness, and between the bright and the moronic. People who hope -- and many believe -- that they are made in the very image of God.

My biblical journey was long and circuitous and it embraced, at one time or another, all these conflicts.

Mr. Moser's Pennyroyal Caxton edition of the King James Bible is magnificent.

[Originally posted: 4/20/05]

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2006 11:38 PM
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