A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

American culture

Lock 'em up or Give Them a Book?

I’ve been learning more about the Changing Lives through Literature program, in which “criminal offenders with charges ranging from drug violations to assault with a deadly weapon read and discuss literature as a condition of their probation.”  In the program, offenders join judges and others in a democratic discussion of literature.


The group’s website is filled with testimonies of how discussing literature in a group can lead to transformation:

Continue reading

Follow-up to Religion at the Grocery Store Post

I ended my last post with a research question:  how much religion would I see reflected in the book/magazine section of my suburban supermarket?

I was surprised not to find very much.  There was, of course, a Golden Books display, complete with The Pokey Little Puppy.


There were a few Chicken Soup for the .... books, and at least one by Joyce Meyer.  But no Bibles that I could find, and no Christian romance novels.   That was interesting, since there’s a rack of Amish-themed romances right near the cash register at my local CVS drug store.  (I’ll have to post of picture of  that.)  I did find one book with “Bible” in the title, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for.


There was no shortage of American flags, especially since tomorrow is the Fourth of July.

I didn’t include in this research the tabloids at the checkout or the greeting cards.  Those will come another day.  As will a look at Walmart and KMart for popular religiosity.

By the way, I found that the Goya island had been substantially expanded:  it still wasn’t marked in any way, but it also remained in separate from other aisles.






Religion at the Grocery Store

I just read an article about the huge success of the children’s book series The Little Golden Books. According to an article by Claudia Anderson, Simon and Schuster first published the books in 1942, but their real success came when they hit the grocery stores.

In 1947, the Little Goldens appeared in supermarkets. Available and affordable in towns too small to have a bookstore, they democratized quality picture books for children. By 1959, more than 150 titles had sold over a million copies each. . .The Poky Little Puppy, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, was on its way to becoming the best-selling English-language children’s picture book of all time.


Thinking about the role of the grocery store in disseminating one kind of literature got me thinking about its role in the religious lives of the people whom it serves.

Continue reading

Changing (?) Definitions of Rape

I just published a new session in my Reading the Bible as an Adult project:  Bathsheba, Tamar, Absalom, Solomon:  David’s Family Curse? The entry deals primarily with the trans-generational dynamics of 2 Samuel 11-18, how the themes of David’s later life spill over into those of his family.  I talk about David’s fukú , the language that Junot Díaz  uses in his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to describe a family curse. But there’s a lot more to discuss  in these stories of David and his children, including the way that different people and different cultures think about rape.

Continue reading

When Sarah Palin isn't Conservative Enough: Visionary Daughters Headed for a Breakdown?

When you encounter a website that slaps the face of all you believe in, makes your blood pressure rise, and basically ticks you off, should you speak against it or ignore it in hopes that it withers from lack of attention?  That’s the dilemma I face when I view the Visionary Daughters website. Continue reading

Sermon on youtube: Being a Man in the Restroom and Everywhere Else

My web-support friend alerted me to this sermon on youtube.  It’s based on a phrase that appears in the King James Version, though not in other translations (including the New King James):  “the one who pisseth against the wall.”  Watch it for yourself before reading further, so that I don’t spoil the surprise (or not) ending.{readmore}For this preacher, the divine purpose of this phrase is to reinforce gender roles:  men need to be manly, standing up to their responsibilities (so to speak).  Although he doesn’t say it directly, he also suggests that for a man to act like a woman demeans him.

The KJV translation is actually a pretty good one.  In Hebrew, the phrase means “the one who urinates against the wall.”  In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, it’s always used in the context of a curse/threat. For example, in 1 Kings 14:7, God announces that because the king Jeroboam has forsaken God’s ways, God will strike down everyone in the king’s family and/or court who “pisseth against the wall.”  The remnant of the house of Jeroboam, the threat continues, will be thrown out like “dung.”  The preacher is right, I think, that modern English translations of “males” or “men” lack the punch of the original.  In all six contexts (see also 1 Sam 25:22; 25:34; I Kings 16:11; 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8), the language is harsh and exaggerated.

But, strictly on the level of word usage, the pastor is on thin ice when he argues that the phrase dictates the way men should be.  The word for “male/man” (‘sh) shows up far more often than this phrase.  “The one who pisseth against the wall” is used for men only in cases in which men are threatened with extinction.  In fact, in all six instances,  men who urinated sitting down would have lived to see another day.

What fascinates and repels me about this sermon, though, is not its exegesis.  It’s the way that minor phrases, taken out of context, become an opportunity to wield the implied authority of the Bible to reinforce gender stereotypes.  You have to act a certain way because the Bible (= God) said so.  Even more, I hear in this sermon and in other rants about men being men a devaluing of women.  Of course folks could claim that they want men to be like men and women to be like women and that they equally value both, but in my experience there’s always an unequal value placed on offenders: a man acting like a woman demeans him in a way far different than a woman acting like a man.

This is one reason that I find gender scripts so confining.  They come with implied value.  But, even more, they just don’t work.  It’s easy to see how scripts for how to be a man or a woman don’t fit LGBT folks, but I don’t think they serve anyone well.  Human life is too wonderfully messy and complex to have to fit in a gender box, or even to have to use the toilet in a particular way.

It's Not Just P.C. Theory: Critique Matters to People's Real Lives

In the May 29, 2009 issue of The Chronicle Review, two articles underscored the power of literature to transform students’ lives.  In “Life Stories Unlocked by Literature,” Margot Mifflin invited us to witness a female haunted by rape find strength in reading Alice Sebold’s Lucky and a male abused by a babysitter affirm his sexuality in response to Shelley Jackson’s “My Body: A Wunderkammer.”  In “Great Books 2.0,” David Clemens introduced us to Joshua, jazzed up on the Great Books, convinced they are the “real deal.”  In the classics, Clemens proclaims, students hungry for meaning feast on perennial questions of human existence-a repast far more wholesome and satisfying than the empty calories of an educational diet of multiculturalism and pop culture.

Continue reading

Why Read the OT (1): As Background

A lot of folks treat the Old Testament as “background” reading for something else.  For Christians, it’s treated as the prequel to the New Testament, the part you have to read in order to understand the stuff you want to read. Who is Melchizedek and why does the book of Hebrews link him to Jesus?  Why was circumcision important to Jews of the first century?  What does atonement mean?  What’s a covenant? The Old Testament offers the answers for the New Testament reader who wants to know.


In non-religious circles, students of art, music, and literature are encouraged to learn the Old Testament in order to understand the references in their own subject matters.  After all, it’s the well from which Handel (actually his librettist) drew most of Messiah, including the Hallelujah chorus. Of course you can appreciate the stylistic dimensions of Rembrandt’s “Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s wife” at the Met and Rubens’ “The Meeting of David and Abigail” at the National Gallery without understanding the stories behind them.

But Goltzius’ “Lot and His Daughters” in the Rijksmuseum is more deliciously creepy when you know what’s going to happen after the guy drinks that bowl of wine.

Old Testament literacy also helps folks “get” the references in pop culture.  It explains what half of U2’s lyrics are about.  It shows up over and over in South Park episodes, as when Kyle’s parents read him the Book of Job.  And it’s been great fodder for Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments, allowing him to poke fun at people who don’t know biblical stories–Noah, Cain and Abel, the 10 Commandments. (see blog post on biblical literacy in popular culture)

Especially in the U.S., the political arena is filled with allusions to and arguments about the Old Testament.  Obama’s inauguration speech alluded back not only to the founding fathers but also the Old Testament prophets, and a few hot passages from Leviticus are common weapons for those who stand against same-sex marriage.

But reading the Old Testament as only as background overlooks the true riches of this collection.  In the next few blogs, I’ll share some other reasons to read the Old Testament.