Impressions of “Manual for Spiritual Warfare,” by Paul Thigpin (Abridged)

I normally don’t listen to abridged books. While I have good memories of Great Illustrated Classics and Readers Digest editions as a kid, I cannot remember the last abridged edition I actually read. And in fairness, this one was an accident. During a conversation where I mentioned Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites a friend recommended I listen to Manual for Spiritual Warfare during my bicycle rides. The only version on Audible was abridged, so here I am.

Manual contains neither a narrative nor a clear theology. The thrust of the work is folk Catholicism, a collection of prayers, saints, sacraments, and devotions to help one during spiritual crises. I am Catholic so this is fine, but it does not present a clear picture (to either Catholics or non-Catholics) of what or how any of this may work, beyond the obvious. But then, for many going through spiritual difficulties, a speculative survey of the supernatural realm may well not be useful.

During the most dire period of my life I took refuge in such thinking about what the universe actually might be. My posts The Fire of the Angels and The Good Bull date from this time, as does my reading of speculative and systematizing books such as The Assembly of the Gods and The Unseen Realm. Other people may just need tips on who to pray for. It is that audience Manual for Spiritual Warfare is aimed at.

Worth noting is a point where Thigpin’s practical discussions of demonology overlaps with paranormal experiences in our modern days: the “increasingly bizarre” supernatural attacks on St. John Vianney. Anyone who reads much of UFOs, Bigfoot, or the like will eventually come across the phrase “high strangeness” and the implication that whatever is behind paranormal events appears to intentionally make its interactions with the world so improbable as to be unspeakable.

I read Manual for Spiritual Warfare in the Audible edition. According to reviews the only abridged material is the full text of some prayrs which are otherwise referenced by name within the text.

Impressions of “Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution,” by Fred Vogelstein

Recently I read Dogfight, a history of the shone war between Apple and Google. It is the latest history in the corporate history of the phone market that I have read. Though it benefits from certain perspectives of insiders, its largely duplicative of other books of this era. Yet a short section is vital to understanding the entire era.

From The Victorian Internet to Crystal Fire, the rise of telephony revolutionized society and created the modern tech center of Silicon Valley. Generation after generation of companies, from Bell Labs-Lucent to Alcatel-Lucent and even Blackberry, fell in this arena. As did other firms and platforms that are now almost forgotten, such as Nokia/Windows Phone and Motorola.

Dogfight follows the iOS and Android fight between Apple and Google. The best history of Apple in this period is Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s famed biography, while Inside the Plex is an overview of Google – both written during the hottest part of the Apple-Google phone war. Each of those histories is more complete and provides more context for the actions during the era of the early iPhones and Androids than Dogfight. Unfortunately, much of Dogfight reads like a sportswriter’s play-by-play of a series, rather than the story of either the years dedicated to these projects or the corporate goals they represented.

Yet Dogfight does get one thing right: the importance of corporate politics in both goals. Despite different market positions (Apple was an incumbent) and different organizational structures (Google is organizational while Apple is functional) each company was hampered by internal politics. Apple’s hardware and software divisions fought for resources (such as who should manage the software engineers writing tests for hardware components) which ultimately culminated in the marketing disaster of “antenna-gate.” Google, for its part, was initially focused on porting its apps to a large number of smartphone platforms, and in the early years of Android the Google Apps team treated Google Android as a second-class platform.

I read Dogfight by Fred Vogelstein in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age,” by Robert Barron with John L. Allen, Jr.

The book cover to To Light a Fire claims it is written by Robert Barron “with” John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for CNN. The text itself states it is written by John Allen based on “interviews” with Robert Barron. The truth, I think, is more interesting.

Robert Barron is a Catholic auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. He’s best known for a YouTube Channel, “Word on Fire which include short commentaries on current trends and movies such as Silence and The Shape of Water.* He’s no Jordan Peterson — in light of Peterson’s amazing success the books claims of Barron being a new media magician ring hollow — but he’s probably the highest profile Catholic writer and media celebrity operating in the English language. (Aside from Pope Francis, of course.)

To Light a Fire is written like a campaign book. It positions Barron both as competent and as political acceptable for — something. It tries to do for Barron what The Devil’s Bargain did for Steve Bannon or Hacks did for Donna Brazilla, except in the context of Catholic Church politics. Bishop Barron understands new media, is center-right (“post-liberal”), has objective metrics for success (# of people attending weekly mass), etc. etc.

Once I realized the genre I tried to ask myself, what is Robert Barron campaigning for? His own bishopric (not merely as an auxiliary)? A higher position in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Pope? These may be, but in the last chapters Green (or Green on behalf of Barron, or Barron himself) talks in very concrete terms of Barron’s organization, “Word on Fire“, being elevated to the status of Movement within the Catholic Church. The existing Catholic Movement “Communion and Liberation” is repeatedly used as a model to follow, as well as the personal prelature of Opus Dei. Thus, I assume this book is part of an internal Catholic argument that Word on Fire should, indeed, be a “Movement.”

The subtitle of To Light a Fire is “Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age,” and this is accurate. It is about a proclamation of the gospel, but a description of one man and one method of proclaiming it. This book is not an effective resource for someone curious about Catholicism or even about religion in general. It is Catholic “inside baseball,” and in that genre it is enjoyable and educational. If you want to know how bishops campaign with each other, I recommend this book.

I read To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “The Seven-Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith,” by Thomas Merton

I have not read a book this hard to describe since *The Gospel According to John. I think it’s fair to call both of these books “mystical,” but not in the sense that you think when you hear “mystical.” They are both accessible, easy to read stories, one event after another, of a tale you heard before. It’s just there’s these.. oddities… these signs you are missing something

Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”
John 1:50

and

If what most people take for granted were really true — if all you needed to b ehappy was ot grab everything and see everything an dinvestigate every eperience and then talk about it, I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle even until now.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, pg 3

That which is mystical is not mystical.

John is an account of the life of Jesus from his youngest disciple. There is an unstated but real sense of distance between John and the others. Both of these are visualized in John’s smooth facial features. John stands apart, and remember’s Christ’s questions of why others have faith.

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
John 20:29-31

I turned around. At the end of the long nave, with its empty choir stalls, high up in the empty Tribune, John Paul was kneeling all alone, in uniform. he seemed to be an immense distance away, and between the secular church where he was, and the choir where I was, was a locked door, and I couldn’t call out to him to tell him how to come down the long way ’round through the Guest House. And he didn’t understand my sign.

At that moment there flashed into my mind all the scores of times in our forgotten childhood when I had chased John Paul away with stones from the place where my friends and I were building a hut, And now, all of a sudden, here it was all over again: a situation that was externally the same pattern: John Paul, standing, confused and unhappy, at a distance which he was not able to bridge.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, pp. 437-438

That which is shown as proof is not needed as proof.

Which brings us to The Seven-Story Mountain. I’m not sure how to handle this book. On its face its straightforward: a modern-ish version of Confessions, written by someone with the same birth year as my grandfather. A rich kid with a lot of discretionary money burns out on material things, seeks happiness in the trends of the day (Manichaeanism for Augustine, Communism for Merton), and then converts to the Catholic faith. Augustine became a bishop, Merton a monk. Augustine attempted to situation hsi conversion within the broader secular currents of the age. Merton rejoices in seeking another age. If anything, Seven-Storey Mountain is an improvement.

Yet as John subverts the common Christian story to share a deeper Christian message: all of those miracles and signs and symbols everyone is paying attention to is besides the point — Merton subverts what you expect in a Confessions clone. Unlike Augustine, who begins Confessions with a formal prayer and clearly writes from the perspective of a bishop, Merton begins Seven-Story Mountain secularly…

Merton, rather than being a unified voice in Seven-Story Mountain, is the editor of earlier voices. There’s an interesting progress of how venial sin is treated in the work, but this is made explicit in a quote by the author in the forward:

Therefore, most honorable reader, it is not as an author that I would speak to you, not as a storyteller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only. I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know, but if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, “Introduction”

The narrator is not the narrator.

But this is not enough for Merton. The next target of deconstruction is the sort of book that Seven-Story Mountain supposedly is: an autiography of a man who ascends from sin to live his vocation. The book starts typically enough, and teases an escape from the “image of Hell.”

Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, p. 3

But an escape into what?

By the time I made my vows, I decided I was no longer sure what a contemplative was, or what the contemplative vocation was, or what my vocation was, and what our Cistercian vocation was. In fact I could not b sure I knew or understood much of anything except that I believed that You wanted me to take those particular vows in this particular house on that particular day for reasons best known to Yourself, and that what I was expected to do after that was follow along with the rest and do what I was told and things would begin to become clear.

There’s no doubt that St. Augustine, whose Confessions, knew exactly what a Bishop was and the power one had as he became one. But Merton’s embrace of his own life as a monk is more qualified. Likewise, Merton intentionally creates distance between his own conversion and Augustine.

Like Augustine, Merton begins as a rich playboy. Like Augustine, Merton becomes curious about the faith and converts over an extended period of time. Augustine finished his work.

And I resolved in Thy sight, not tumultuously to tear, but gently to withdraw, the service of my tongue from the marts of lip-labour: that the young, no students in Thy law, nor in Thy peace, but in lying dotages and law-skirmishes, should no longer buy at my mouth arms for their madness. And very seasonably, it now wanted but very few days unto the Vacation of the Vintage, and I resolved to endure them, then in a regular way to take my leave, and having been purchased by Thee, no more to return for sale. Our purpose then was known to Thee; but to men, other than our own friends, was it not known. For we had agreed among ourselves not to let it out abroad to any: although to us, now ascending from the valley of tears, and singing that song of degrees, Thou hadst given sharp arrows, and destroying coals against the subtle tongue, which as though advising for us, would thwart, and would out of love devour us, as it doth its meat.
Confessions, Book IX

While Merton broke with his.

After that, things began to move fast.

On the day before Thanksgiving I abandoned my Freshman class in English Composition to their own devices and started to hitch-hike south to New York.
The Seven-Storey Mountain, pp. 393-394

What we are to make of this is never said.

The genre is not the genre.

,

For what it’s worth, the title Seven-Storey Mountain comes from a description of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. An unstated implication of the title is that Purgatory extends into this world — at least into Merton’s own life. This is similar to both the description of the afterlife in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, and my own thoughts in “Fire of the Angels“.

We may, in our own lives, see the Everlasting Fire.

“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'”
Matthew 25:40-41

May we not stay in it long!

Impressions of “We Were Yahoo!: From Internet Pioneer to the Trillion Dollar Loss of Google and Facebook,” by Jeremy Ring

Recently I read We Were Yahoo, a chatty history of the former internet giant by an early employee. We Were Yahoo is similar to an abridged version of the cycle of Bell Labs’ history during the transistor era — Crystal Fire (growth), Life in the Crown Jewel (corporate politics), Optical Illusions (implosion), and Kitten Clone (living death). We Were Yahoo is all of these at once, but fittingly for such a short lived company told through the career of one employee over a 23 year period, 1994- 2017.

It also includes a bizarre kidnapping plot.

I initially was disappointed because the author, Jeremy Ring, is from sales and not engineering. You will learn nothing about the platforms or tools used by Yahoo, only the products and how they were sold. The narrator appears to neither have the critical overview of the entire industry like Sixty to Zero, or the critical perspective of CEO-level overviews like IBM under Lou Gersntner or Ford under Alan Mullaley. Ring’s early career in New York ad sales and his one-day stint working for Paul Allen is fascinating, but I would have preferred to know the engineering challenges  Yahoo faced.

Instead Ring focuses on the company’s large-scale revenue sources. Yahoo! went from no monetization, to display ads during the heydays, to keyword ads in the final painful days under Marissa Myer. I suspect some tension is lost in the telling and that a stronger editor could have been useful. Ring emphasizes the difference between display and text, but the enormity of the transition must be comprehended. Display ads work like billboards, generally attempting to create some form of positive brand impression. But keyword ads, displayed in line with search results, target people who are already actively researching a specific service or good (such as hotels in Hawaii or local personal injury lawyer). The latter are immensely valuable — almost all of Google’s market valuation is based on them — and Yahoo was late to develop a technology, was plagued by internal feuds over how it would be developed and monetized, made a poorly thought out alliance with Microsoft in the field, and then failed to internally develop a coherent competitor.

Ring provides color for the otherwise incoherent list of Yahoo CEOs recruited by the company over the years. The list begins with the founders and Timothy Koogle, who oversaw the dotcom boom and bust, and ends with Marissa Mayer. But Jeremy Ring saves most of his fire for Terry Semel, a former Hollywood executive who (in this telling) is the most disastrous CEO in corporate history. He may be. Under his watch Yahoo! declined to purchase Google twice, sabotaged his own deal to purchase Facebook, destroyed the Flickr social network, and intentionally abandoned Yahoo’s position as a technology leader. Mayer, once a beacon of hope and now a lightning rod for criticism, is succinctly described by Ring as having taken the reigns too late to do anything other than (unsuccessfully) gamble on high-risk high-upside investments.

We Were Yahoo could have been better organized. I think a great idea for a book would be to chronologically tell the story of these missteps along with the history of the competitors who did survive — in other words to do for the 2000s web what Console War did for 1990s game machines, or The Four did for 2010s software giants. Additionally, some interesting context is lost. For instance, the Disney Interactive enters the narrative twice — once in its predecessor Starwave, a company that Ring worked for, and again as Go.com, a company that Ring greatly admires. But no connection is made between these firms.

Then there’s the bizarre kidnapping plot against the author. It’s as random and irrational as real life can be. It’s not well integrated with the story of Yahoo at all — but maybe it can’t be. It definitely spices things up!

I read We Were Yahoo in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” by Jordan B. Peterson

Jordan Peterson is a professor and clinical psychologist in Canada. He’s best known for a series of Youtube videos, some of them punchy and designed to be snappy and useful:

and others ponderous and monumental:

This places him between two separate genres I have reviewed before. His new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is clearly a self-help book. It is also a biblical commentary especially the Genesis, the wisdom books, and the New Testament. The themes of grace and wisdom are central to understanding the book. Jordan Peterson belongs in the same class of thinkers as St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom.

The Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible comes from the cultural world of the old Canaanite religion — a world of sea monsters, stars joining in battles, gods building homes and old Judge River. That world seems not only improbable to a Western mind — it seems fundamentally antithetical to philosophy. Of all the western religions, only Mormonism approaches the focus on Organization and Order that pervades ancient Near Eastern thought.

Works such as The Lost World of Genesis One or The Unseen Realm are excellent Biblical commentaries because of their deep understanding of Canaanite cosmology. Yet, the price of these is accepting a non-western world view of Temples and Super-natural entities.

How to reconcile the western philosophical tradition with the near eastern Order tradition? Peterson’s solution is to read the Old Testament as a list of signs and symbols — which he calls archetypes and are related to Saint Paul’s theories of *types of Christ.

Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.
Romans 5:14-15

These signs, archetypes, and types refer to the use of a figure in a story to stand for a larger figure or a larger truth. Peterson’s own approach derives from Carl Jung, whose analytical psychology found archetypes in ancient stories throughout the world.

In The Weekly Standard, my friend Tanner Greer denies Peterson’s belief in “the living word of a Living God,” but also emphasizes the role of archetypes in understanding Peterson’s Christology. (I suspect he’s wrong on the one claim, and right on the second).

Thus Peterson’s lectures on Biblical stories and the large passages of Biblical exegesis in Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson does not read the Bible as the living word of a Living God, but as a series of archetypes that provide a pattern of order and structure for human life. The appeal this has to millennials who have lost faith in God but still yearn for order and belonging probably shouldn’t be surprising. Peterson’s aim is to take such myths and stories and reformat them as rituals that can be re-enacted in the modern day: the building blocks of a new moral order.
Tanner Greer, “Jordan Peterson Saves the World”

Greer, though, considers Peterson’s use of Jung’s archetypical system as “painfully limited”. Can this really be true, as the system is at least as rich as St. Paul’s?

Yes, it’s true that some elements of Peterson’s quest to totalitarian-proof the Western world are shallow. His analysis of world mythology and religious imagery is built almost entirely on the writings of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade. This a painfully limited foundation for the task at hand. And yes, there are a hundred ways one might pick at Peterson’s civilization-revitalization project.
Tanner Greer, “Jordan Peterson Saves the World”

Peterson’s approach to the Bible is ultimately traditional, and follows other thinkers in trying to read the Hebrew Bible as revealing Truth and exhorting good works, not as a literal chronology of events. Like Peterson, the Church Father John Chrysostom read the Hebrew Bible psychologically. For instance, preaching on this passage of Cain’s murder of Abel:

Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”

He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.”

And Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.”

And the LORD said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.
Genesis 4:8-15

Chrystom emphasizes that:

God neither said nor did anything like that. Instead, God came again to him, corrected him, and said: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ When Cain said he did not know, God still did not desert him but he brought him, in spite of himself, to admit what he had done

‘I have committed a sin too great for pardon, defense, or forgiveness; if it is your will to punish my crime, I shall lie exposed to every harm because your helping hand has abandoned me.’ And what did God do then? He said ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain shall be punished sevenfold!… For the number seven in the Scriptures means an indefinitely large number..
St. John Chrysostom, Against the Jews

Augustine, Chrysostom’s contemporary in the late Roman Empire, likewise used a symbolic reading of the Old Testament. To John Chrysostom’s psychological turn, Augustine added an explicitly allegorical layer. Taking this passage in Genesis:

Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Genesis 2:15-17

Augustine read these gifts as symbolizing God’s works of mercy generally.

I would also say, O Lord my God, what the following Scripture minds me of; yea, I will say, and not fear. For I will say the truth, Thyself inspiring me with what Thou willedst me to deliver out of those words. But by no other inspiration than Thine, do I believe myself to speak truth, seeing Thou art the Truth, and every man a liar. He therefore that speaketh a lie, speaketh of his own; that therefore I may speak truth, I will speak of Thine. Behold, Thou hast given unto us for food every herb bearing seed which is upon all the earth; and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed. And not to us alone, but also to all the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the earth, and to all creeping things; but unto the fishes and to the great whales, hast Thou not given them. Now we said that by these fruits of the earth were signified, and figured in an allegory, the works of mercy which are provided for the necessities of this life out of the fruitful earth.
St. Augustine, Confessions

Both men surely miss something by not being aware of the Canaanite origins of the Hebrew Bible. But to accuse Peterson of failing to do still leaves him in rarefied company. Like Augustine, Peterson reads the Old Testament philosophically; and like Chrysostom, he reads it psychologically.

The New Testament

The bigger concern for many Christians is Peterson’s view of Christ.

Robert Barron, a Catholic Bishop enerally critical of anthropocentric Christology, worries of a “gnosticizing tendency” in Peterson’s work…

I have shared just a handful of wise insights from a book that is positively chockablock with them. So do I thoroughly support Jordan Peterson’s approach? Well, no, though a full explication of my objection would take us far beyond the confines of this brief article. In a word, I have the same concern about Peterson that I have about both Campbell and Jung, namely, the Gnosticizing tendency to read Biblical religion purely psychologically and philosophically and not at all historically. No Christian should be surprised that the Scriptures can be profitably read through psychological and philosophical lenses, but at the same time, every Christian has to accept the fact that the God of the Bible is not simply a principle or an abstraction, but rather a living God who acts in history. As I say, to lay this out thoroughly would require at least another article or two or twelve.
Bishop Robert Barron, “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

Yet it is not that simple, for Saint Augustine emphasizes the philosophical dimension of the New Testament — at the expense of its historical nature. For instance, given this account of The Transfiguration:

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
Matthew 17:1-8

Augustine writes:

But how didst Thou speak? In the way that the voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son? For that voice passed by and passed away, began and ended; the syllables sounded and passed away, the second after the first, the third after the second, and so forth in order, until the last after the rest, and silence after the last. Whence it is abundantly clear and plain that the motion of a creature expressed it, itself temporal, serving Thy eternal will. And these Thy words, created for a time, the outward ear reported to the intelligent soul, whose inward ear lay listening to Thy Eternal Word. But she compared these words sounding in time, with that Thy Eternal Word in silence, and said “It is different, far different. These words are far beneath me, nor are they, because they flee and pass away; but the Word of my Lord abideth above me for ever.” If then in sounding and passing words Thou saidst that heaven and earth should be made, and so madest heaven and earth, there was a corporeal creature before heaven and earth, by whose motions in time that voice might take his course in time. But there was nought corporeal before heaven and earth; or if there were, surely Thou hadst, without such a passing voice, created that, whereof to make this passing voice, by which to say, Let the heaven and the earth be made. For whatsoever that were, whereof such a voice were made, unless by Thee it were made, it could not be at all. By what Word then didst Thou speak, that a body might be made, whereby these words again might be made?
St. Augustine, Confessions

The Transfiguration is the central moment of the Hebrew experience of God, the central moment in God’s love affair with Israel. Maybe a philosophical reading strips it of wondering and meaning — frankly, I think so. But Augustine is a central figure in the Christian faith, and that is how he reads it. Even when wrong, there is worse company than Augustine.

Grace

In Christianity, “grace” can refer to either God temporarily helping man perform better works or supernaturally helping man achieve eternal salvation. Both are important, but any Christian discourse focused primarily on our old Earth, or the coming New Earth, is likely to focus on one at the expense of the other.

Even great writers, if they are not aware of the kinds of grace, can be led astray:

Peterson has critics from the Christian right, too, who seem to be disappointed that the answer to how to build a new moral order is “not them.” Charlie Clark’s [review for Mere Orthodoxy is the best of the genre. [sic] Peterson “is not the next C.S. Lewis” (which is true) and noting that, his book concludes that people can save themselves “without God’s grace.” (Also true.)
Tanner Greer, “Jordan Peterson Saves the World”

I think part of this attack is Peterson’s lack of explicit use of the word grace. But the word “grace” just signifies the meaning of God’s temporal assistance in the work of salvation. The presence of grace throughout Peterson’s works hits the reader over the head, given Peterson’s human-centered Christology:

Christ is He who

transcends death by voluntarily accepting death. Christ is He who

rejects the kingdoms of this world for the Kingdom of God. Christ is He who

speaks the truth that creates the habitable order that is good from the chaos of potential that exists prior to the materialization of reality. Christ is He who

wields potential as the sword that cleaves death. Christ is He whose

radical acceptance of the conditions of life defeats the hatred, bitterness and vengefulness that the tragedy and malevolence that taints Being otherwise produces.

Without the acceptance of death, bitterness rules, and Hell triumphs.
Jordan Peterson, “On the ark of the covenant, the cathedral, and the cross: Easter Message I

There is no denying this is the mediation of grace through human hands. Reformed theologians like Van’t Veer or William Dumbrell may deny the importance of good works, but few other Christians or Jews do. This is the meaning, of Peterson’s calls to charity, as well as the humility of accepting charity

What shall I do when I’m tired and impatient. Gratefully accept an outstretched helping hand…
What shall I do with my infant’s death? Hold my other loved ones and heal their pain.
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

This total acknowledgement of human participation both in working Salvation and building Hell is entirely in accord with the Catholic tradition. Christians participate in the crucifixion of Christ and the construction of Hell through their sins, as they participate in the works of salvation by their co-working with Christ. As the Catholic theologian Thomas Merton writes:

For in my greatest misery He would shed, into my soul, enough light to see how miserable I was, and to admit that it was my own fault and my own work. And always I was to be punished for my sins by my sins themselves, and to realize, at least obscurely, that I was being so punished and burn in the flames of my own hell, and rot in the hell of my own corrupt will until I was forced at least, by my own intense misery, to give up my own will.
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

And immediately continues:

But now, at least, I realized where I was, and I was beginning to try to get out.

Some people may think that Providence was very funny and very cruel to allow me to choose the means I now chose to save my soul. But Providence, that is the love of God, is very wise in turning away from the self-will of men, and in having nothing to do with them, and leaving them to their own devices, as long as they are intent on governing themselves, to show them to what depths of futility and sorrow their own helplessness incapable of dragging them.
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Wisdom

Grace, the temporary assistance of God, is a gift to allow us to see the pattern ordering the Scriptures. But to see this requires wisdom.

Wisdom comes from God, it is the gift of understanding what to do and when. Wisdom when applied to salvation is actual grace. It’s temporary because we are not always wise, but by acting wisely — by performing wise works — we can fall into a habit of wisdom, and open ourselves to a habit of grace.

Peterson frames his advice as twelve morally neutral concrete steps. Tim Lott’s article in The Guardian lists them as:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Dave Ramsey’s “baby steps“, as superficially amoral as Peterson’s advice, are:

  1. $1,000 to start an Emergency Fund
  2. Pay off all debt using the Debt Snowball
  3. 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings
  4. Invest 15% of household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement
  5. College funding for children
  6. Pay off home early
  7. Build wealth and give!

And in the Scriptures, we read political advice. And for the same reason! Wisdom is the proper ordering of knowledge. It is the antidote to mental chaos. Peterson’s career and personal advice, Ramsey’s financial advice, and Ecclesiastes’ political advice are all a part of living a well-ordered life.

Because of laziness the building decays,
And through idleness of hands the house leaks.
A feast is made for laughter,
And wine makes merry;
But money answers everything.

Do not curse the king, even in your thought;
Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
For a bird of the air may carry your voice,
And a bird in flight may tell the matter.
Ecclesiastes 10:18-20

Those who ignore the Bible’s wisdom literature — not only Proverbs and Ecclesiasties, but also Wisdom, Sirach, and Job are doubtless confused by Peterson. But those who adore Holy Wisdom are refreshed. Order is morally virtuous. Order is from the Father. Order was with God from the beginning.

“I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,
And find out knowledge and discretion…
“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
I have been established from everlasting,
From the beginning, before there was ever an earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills, I was brought forth;
While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields,
Or the primal dust of the world.
When He prepared the heavens, I was there,
When He drew a circle on the face of the deep,
When He established the clouds above,
When He strengthened the fountains of the deep,
When He assigned to the sea its limit,
So that the waters would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth,
Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman;
And I was daily His delight,
Rejoicing always before Him,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
And my delight was with the sons of men.
Psalms 8:12,22-31

The Bible is the story of God ordering the universe out of chaos – from the waters in Genesis, to the land of Canaan, to the great purifying terrors of Ezekiel and Revelations. Part of having faith in God — that is imitating God through obedience — is doing the same in our own lives. Wisdom literature in the Bible provided an way for an individual to begin battling chaos. Jordan B. Peterson’s new book, subtitled An Antidote to Chaos, offers the same.

I read 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, written and narrated by Jordan Peterson, in the Audible edition.

The Books of Leviticus and Numbers

There seems to have been an ancient work, long since lost, documenting conquest of Canaan. It is in a way parallel to the story of the patriarchs (partially recorded in Genesis) and the establishment of the Kingdom (in Samuel). In the scriptures we now have, it seems primarily scattered in Exodus (covering the baptism of blood and the construction of the Tabernacle), Numbers (called The Wilderness in Hebrew), and Joshua (the action-climax and post-action denouement of the story).

It’s also the story of Moses’s moral decay: that "most humble man" is the Walter White of the Bible. But just as Breaking Bad is the story not just of Walter’s decay but of the grief of those around him, these scriptures are the story not just of Moses’s decline but the story of the deaths of those he loved.

To see this, look at the book immediately before Numbers: Leviticus. It is primary a book of laws, a journal of the well ordered place of fetishism in human society. But there’s one chapter of narrative in Leviticus that’s required to understand Numbers — the death of Aaron’s sons:

Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.

So fire went out from the LORD
and devoured them,
and they died before the LORD.

And Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke, saying:

‘By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.’"

So Aaron held his peace.
Leviticus 10:1-3

The baptism of blood in Exodus may symbolize the loss of the part to save the whole. But Leviticus-Numbers feels like just loss. Aaron loses his sons. Moses loses his brother Aaron.

Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son;
and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain.

Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. Now when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, all the house of Israel mourned for Aaron thirty days.
Numbers 20:28-29

Moses loses his divine authority.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron,

"Because you did not believe Me,
to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel,
therefore you shall not bring this assembly
into the land which I have given them."
Numbers 20:12

And then even his humanity.

And Moses said to them: "Have you kept all the women alive? Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately.
Numbers 31:15-17

The same theme of loss is reflected in the adversaries of the Israelites, the Canaanite kings who fear the loss of their lands, and the wizard Balaam who prophesied the victory of Almighty God:

They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of those who were killed—Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian.

Balaam the son of Beor they also killed with the sword.
Numbers 31:8

And even the people themselves:

For the LORD had said of them,

"They shall surely die in the wilderness."

So there was not left a man of them, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.
Numbers 26:65

Through Leviticus-Numbers Aaron the High Priest lost his family, his life, and even (though the horrific actions of Moses) his legacy through his brother. Battles will be won in the future, after the end of his natural life, but for the wilderness generation there is pain, and murmuring, and death, and loss.

What should be made of this?

The High Priest loses everything, including his life, including the lives of his people. He is betrayed by those entrusted to help him. He loses those closest to him.

These themes are documented elsewhere in the Bible. That sense of successful futility in Ecclesiastes and Job, the slow political destruction of Kings, the horror of Lamentations or the post-Resurrection despair felt by John. Are these all types of Lent, best understood as reflections of the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?

If we are to imitate Christ who harrowed hell on that day, what does that mean for us?

I don’t know. But whenever I feel pain I have experienced intellectualized like this, I feel like Aaron: hurt, sarcastic, questioning:

And Aaron said to Moses, "Look, this day they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD, and such things have befallen me!

If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD?"
Leviticus 10:19

What else are you expecting me to do?

What else, when even holding our peace is too much to bare?

I read the books of Leviticus and Numbers in Robert Alter’s translation.

Impressions of “The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices,” by Peter Bouteneff

I recently read Dr. Peter Bouteneff’s overview of Orthodox Christianity, The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices. I had previously read Medieval Christianity: A New History about Catholicism, as well as Wrestling the Angel about Mormonism. Bouteneff does a brilliant job comparing the theology of Orthodoxy to both Catholicism and Protestantism. The continuity of the Orthodox with the Catholic tradition, combined with the affection of many early protestants for thinkers still revered by the Orthodox like John Chrysostom — and of course the skill of the author — make this straightforward. Many of the differences strike one as a change in emphasis (whether the Trinity is emphasized as being One-God-in-Three-Persons or Three-Persons-in-One-God, for example), pastoral practices (emphasizes a holistic imitation of Christ or an enumerated list of deeds to perform or not), and yet-to-be-unpacked legacies of linguistic fossils (such the specific formulation of Mary’s conception without sin, taught by both Catholics and Orthodox).

More interesting to me were the ways in which the Orthodox Church seems to be a version of the Catholic Church that never experienced the Middle Ages. (This can be rephrased as saying the Catholic Church is an Orthodox Church that experienced the Middle Ages). Three medieval waves that affected Medieval western Christianity — the Friars, the Councils, and the Counter-Reformation — simply did not occur. A fourth difference — the humiliating surrender of the Orthodox Church to the Turks – is totally elided by Bouteneff. Another phenomenon — the difference in what constitutes the "Scriptures" between the Orthodox and other Christians — is likewise left out.

The Reforms

The Friars were a reform movement based on evangelization that arose in the 13th century. Separated into different orders with different focuses — the Franciscans, Scholastics, and Dominicans — the friars emphasized evangelization and living the Gospel. Instead of stationary monks praying on a cycle, the friars would engage with heretics, care for the poor, and let their service to Christ through good works be viewed by all. This obeyed Christ’s great commission, where he asked his followers to make "disciples of all the nations":

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.
Matthew 28:16-20

Christ’s specific commands require being a better individual, spreading, the Gospel, and serving others. The friars’ focus on the Great Commission was an intentional attempt to rebalance these three, after the long middle ages where self-improvement through the glorification of God in prayer had become almost the exclusive focus on Christianity. Orthodoxy was not affected by the friars reform movement at the time, and throughout Bouteneff’s book service and teaching are barely mentioned.

Likewise, the Orthodox Church was unaffected by the Counter-Reformation, a Catholic movement aimed at correcting the abuses of an increasingly centralized church — a situation that did not exist on the ground for the Orthodox. The Counter-Reformation’s focus on the Bible as a foundation to the faith was a useful tool for clearing away corrupt practices, such as the selling of indulgences or the Vatican charging for the use of specific paper in letters written to it. But it also lead to a loss of very old traditions that the Orthodox retain. The cycle of Saint Anne from the Protoevangeliun, for instance, is almost completely missing from Catholic churches but a focus of the Liturgy in Orthodox parishes.

Bouteneff does not describe why this difference exist. The history of western Christianity barely exists in this text (even as a mechanism for giving reader context). But if I had to chose a cultural source of the difference, I would put it at Pope Innocent III. Orthodox readers may know Innocent as the Pope who organized the Fourth Crusade. But Innocent also brought the Holy Roman Empire to heel, as well as used the power of the papacy to address local corruption in this west. Innocent’s organizational and political brilliance, whatever else one thinks about him, changed the nature of the Papacy forever. It created a central mechanism (or opponent) for all future reform movements — the Bishop of Rome — and by investing the Papacy with its own political power, allowed it also to become a meaningful source of corruption.

Orthodoxy had neither this opportunity nor this risk. During the Byzantine era, the Orthodox Church was a tool of the state. Afterwards, during the Ottoman era, the Orthodox Church was a tool of a Muslim state. The Orthodox Church has spent less than a century spread throughout nations in a manner similar to what the Catholic Church has spent 2,000 years. This is not trivial.

The Councils

The Orthodox and Catholic Churches make near-identical claims about themselves (both represent the One Catholic and Apostolic Church Christians across the world pray for), and generally recognizes the legality (if not the legitimacy) of ecclesiastical claims made by the other. The split is driven largely by politics, and how the method of meeting to resolve disputes — Councils — should be understood. The first Council, in Jerusalem, occurred shortly after the death of Christ when the relationship of Christianity to gentiles was discussed. After "the apostles and the elders came together to discuss [a particular] matter," the Acts of the Apostles records this resolution:

Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.

They wrote this letter by them:

The apostles, the elders, and the brethren,

To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:

Greetings.

Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, "You must be circumcised and keep the law" — to whom we gave no such commandment — it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

Farewell.
Acts 15:22-29

The text states the "whole church" chose to send missionaries and also wrote a letter. But what does it mean for the "whole church" to make such a plan?

  • The Catholic view is that a Council has the ability to speak for the whole Church.
  • The Orthodox view (since the Catholic-Orthodox split int the 15th century) is that a Council’s actions are only valid if it speaks for the whole church.

So which is it? This theoretical difference came to ahead after the Orthodox Church in 1439, when a legally convened Council united the Orthodox and Catholic Churches after a series of confusions and misunderstandings.

Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice. For, the wall that divided the western and the eastern church has been removed, peace and harmony have returned, since the corner-stone, Christ, who made both one, has joined both sides with a very strong bond of love and peace, uniting and holding them together in a covenant of everlasting unity. After a long haze of grief and a dark and unlovely gloom of long-enduring strife, the radiance of hoped-for union has illuminated all.

Let Mother Church also rejoice. For she now beholds her sons hitherto in disagreement returned to unity and peace, and she who hitherto wept at their separation now gives thanks to God with inexpressible joy at their truly marvelous harmony. Let all the faithful throughout the world, and those who go by the name of Christian, be glad with mother catholic church. For behold, western and eastern fathers after a very long period of disagreement and discord, submitting themselves to the perils of sea and land and having endured labors of all kinds, came together in this holy ecumenical council, joyful and eager in their desire for this most holy union and to restore intact the ancient love. In no way have they been frustrated in their intent. After a long and very toilsome investigation, at last by the clemency of the holy Spirit they have achieved this greatly desired and most holy union. Who, then, can adequately thank God for his gracious gifts?’ Who would not stand amazed at the riches of such great divine mercy? Would not even an iron breast be softened by this immensity of heavenly condescension?
Pope Eugene IV, Laetentur Caeli

Later, the Orthodox side — without a further Council — withdrew from the agreement. Indeed, to do so the Orthodox discovered a new doctrine that they had previously rejected, that a Council is not an agent or meeting place of agents of the church — a Council cannot make "the Whole Church" agree, but the actions only become binding if sometime afterwards "the whole Church" agrees. But elsewhere he insists on the validity of the Council of Chalcedon, even though numerous Orthodox national churches do not agree to that council to this day. I do not understand the logic behind this.

The Scriptures

I was disappointed more was not said about what makes the Orthodox definition of Scriptures unique. I have read and enjoyed books which the Orthodox consider to be part of the Bible, such as the Prayer of Manasseh and the Second Book of Esdras. Likewise there are some books accepted by some Oriental Orthodox that are rejected by the mainline Orthodox Church, such as the Book of Enoch. I’m familiar with the Protestant reason for rejection of some Catholic scriptures like The Books of the Maccabees and Book of Tobit, but not why the Orthodox have kept some additional books and rejected others. The difference in the definition of "Scriptures" is briefly mentioned, but no reasons for it are given.

This is especially disappointing as I enjoyed Bouteneff’s description of Tradition as understood by Catholics and Orthodox. Unlike Protestant denominations, the Orthodox churches in their current form were recognizably part of the Catholic Church during the time the Canon was decreed. As such, Orthodoxy-Catholocism was one religion that formed the Bible, not (like the Protestant churches) religions formed from the Bible. Indeed, the first bishops and even the first Pope are active in their offices during the events of the Bible! Thus, the Bible is a subset of the Tradition — those things passed down from ancient times. Bouteneff also describes Tradition in another way, as a method for making sense of the Bible by placing it in its proper context. This made a great amount of sense to me. But the Tradition is ultimately described in more detail and with no attention than the Bible itself — perhaps there is a message in this.

The Turks

The role of reform movements, and the role of Councils, lead to a topic so momentous in its importance that Bouteneff’s complete avoidance of it is shocking: the Turks. The context of literally every Orthodox decision, from and including the repudiation of the Council of Reunion, was under Turkish influence. The "saint" who encouraged apostasy from the rest of Christendom and the end of the common communion of Christians, Mark of Ephesus, was a bishop in an Ottoman town soon eradicated by the Turks. The actions of the Orthodox leadership during the fall of the Byzantine Empire is comparable to the Judenrat under the Nazis.

The waves of reform and counter-reform — of Martin Luther, John Calvin and the Council of Trent — all occurred in societies at least nominally Christian. The rejection of both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation by the Orthodox, by contrast, was pre-decided by the Turks. Even now the first-among-equals of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew, serves only under Turkish law and at Turkish pleasure. The primary seminary in Orthodoxy, Halki, was extinguished by the Republic of Turkey Perhaps Bouteneff is silent to prevent an even greater eradication.

This is not to deny the faith or suffering of the Orthodox during the Turkish centuries — which for the Patriarchate of Constantinople, continue to this day. Rather, it is to recognize that the Orthodox are churches on the cross, like the crucified Nestorian Church of the East, imprisoned by an anti-Christian powers that are hostile to the Gospel. There is literally nothing, at all, from Bouteneff about this. No recognition of any sort of the Turkish influence on the Orthodox community, or of the ongoing consequence of the Turkish captivity. This fault is so grave and monumental that it forces one to question the selection of any topic or fact in this work.

Conclusion

The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices is a fine introduction to the Orthodox churches, Christian communities that split from Rome around five hundred years ago under grave Turkish pressure, but whose history involved only minimal exposure to the Friars, the Pontifical movement, and other aspects that defined the High Middle Ages and the Modern World. Much of the emphasis of the Orthodox Church preserves an older tradition of Christianity and has much to recommend it. But for reasons never discussed or acknowledged, Bouteneff ignores the fundamental fact of Orthodox history — the Turkish captivity — and leaves the consequences of that collective martyrdom to the imagination of the reader.

I read The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices in the Audible Edition.

The Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

Note: As with my take on the Book of Samuel and the Book of Job, this post was originally posted on Facebook. At the time I had just begun to read the Bible — I read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in Alter’s translation. I have edited the original piece slightly.

I finished the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiastes, which along with the Book of Job make up the “Wisdom Books” of the Old Testament. The books have very distinct narrative styles. For most of his book, Job is Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective” – downbeat, cosmic, anti-natalist. The Book of Proverbs reminds me of Dave Ramsey — upbeat, optimistic, and practical in a theological context.

Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter,
And like a bird from the hand of the fowler.

Go to the ant, you sluggard!
Consider her ways and be wise,

Which, having no captain,
Overseer or ruler,

Provides her supplies in the summer,
And gathers her food in the harvest.

How long will you slumber, O sluggard?
When will you rise from your sleep?
Proverbs 6:5-9

And Ecclesiastes… I hear Ecclesiastes the voice of John Derbyshire. The writer shares with Derbyshire a general pessimism and skepticism, a fear of chaos greater than a fear of arbitrary rule, and a rational take to maximizing enjoyment of life. “Eat, drink, and be merry” is one memorable line — “of making books there is no end” is another.

The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails,
given by one Shepherd.

And further, my son,
be admonished by these.

Of making many books there is no end,
and much study is wearisome to the flesh.
Ecclesiastes 12:11-12

You can see the difference in emphasis in how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes judge kings. They are the arbiters of justice:

The king’s favor is toward a wise servant,
But his wrath is against him who causes shame.
Proverbs 14:35

And the cause of censorship:

Do not curse the king, even in your thought;
Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
For a bird of the air may carry your voice,
And a bird in flight may tell the matter.
Ecclesiastes 10:20

Proverbs reminds me of the praise hymns and the sermons that we all kind of remember from childhood. Job is what happens when that world view encounters death. Ecclesiastes is after an even more challenging confrontation: the ups and down of a mostly successful life.

The Five Books of Moses (the lost world of Genesis, the Breaking Bad arc of Exodus-Numbers, the sacrifices of Leviticus, the true intentions of Deuteronomy) are more mysterious.

The Former Prophets (the war story of Joshua, the westerns of Judges, the Shakespeare + Game of Thrones * + House of Cards* intrigue of Samuel, the Battlestar Galactica destruction of Kings) are better stories.

But the Wisdom Books (the philosophical horror of Job, the cheery ministry of Proverbs, the skeptical and human theology of Ecclesiastes) are more thought provoking. They are the closest the Hebrews came to philosophy and, by emphasizing the human measure of all things, are in many ways superior.

The Book of Exodus

I recently re-read Exodus. I used Robert Alter’s excellent translation, but this time read it at quicker pace. Instead of a one chapter a day, ready out loud to myself, I read multiple chapters a time. This had costs. The characters were flatter, and much of the subtly was lost. But the faster pace made some patterns clearer, especially after having read the full Bible. And one of these is the relationship between circumcision and sacrifice.

The Bridegroom of Blood

The Book of Exodus hangs on an episode that, read in isolation, is inexplicable: God tires to kill Moses, but instead his wife circumcises their son. But by tying together death, sacrifice, motherhood, and life, it is nearly a key to the whole Bible:

And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him.

Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said,

“Surely you are a husband of blood to me!”

So He let him go. Then she said,

“You are a husband of blood!”

— because of the circumcision.
Exodus 4:24-26

Shockingly, Moses does not perform the circumcision. Nor does his brother Aaron, the priest. Nor even his sister Miriam, the prophetess. His wife must do it, and only after the LORD sought to kill him. And this is the second time he was saved by a woman. His wife offered his son to the blade, as his mother offered him to the waters:

And a man of the house of Levi went and took as wife a daughter of Levi. So the woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months. But when she could no longer hide him, she took an ark of bulrushes for him, daubed it with asphalt and pitch, put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank. And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him.
Exodus 2:1-4

Circumcision and the Heart

When Circumcision is first introduced in the Bible, it is likewise paired with sacrifice. Circumcision typically is performed on the 8th day. It took seven days to Create the world, seven days to inaugurate the Temple in Jerusalem, and seven days to prepare the Temple of the Holy Spirit — the body — after birth:

And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.

He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.

He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
Genesis 17:9-14

Yet this birth would be a demanded sacrifice: God later tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him.

These themes build momentum through the Bible. The story of the men Abraham and Moses becomes the story of an entire nation, whose circumcision of the heart is now demanded: Instead of the blood of the male member thrown on Moses’ feet, the blood of the pure heart needs to be poured out:

Break up your fallow ground,
And do not sow among thorns.

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD,
And take away the foreskins of your hearts,
You men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Lest My fury come forth like fire,
And burn so that no one can quench it,
Because of the evil of your doings.
Jeremiah 4:4

And finally, this applies to the whole human race.

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;
but he is a Jew who is one inwardly;
and circumcision is that of the heart,
in the Spirit, not in the letter;
whose praise is not from men but from God.
Romans 2:28-29

The pinnacle of this story — of Zipporah at the Inn — is the Immaculate heart of Mary. Luke the Evangelist emphasizes, twice in quick succession, how she pondered in her heart:

And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:18-19

even without understanding:

So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.”

And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.

Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart.
Luke 2:48-51

The parallel to Exodus is clear. As with Mary, in quick succession: Pharaoh’s heart is referenced, but the outcome is tragically different.

For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. And Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said.
Exodus 7:12-13

and again:

The fish that were in the river died, the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink the water of the river. So there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.

Then the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments; and Pharaoh’s heart grew hard, and he did not heed them, as the LORD had said.
Exodus 7:22

And now we come to the most important moment in the life of Pharaoh and Mary, and one Zipporah only bridges. For her son lived. Pharaoh’s son died:

And it came to pass at midnight that the LORD struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock. 30 So Pharaoh rose in the night, he, all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead.
Exodus 12:29-30

As did Mary’s:

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!”
John 19:25-26

The Bridegroom and the Blood

Moses, whose own son was saved by a circumcision presented by his wife, would see a Christophany within a Mariophany:

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush.

So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.

Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.”
Exodus 3:1-3

And now we see how this ties together. The LORD sought to make a sacrifice of Isaac. And Moses. But he put of this demand until His own Son would be on the cross. Because His Son, being truly God, would not be stopped by death. Being truly Man, His own mother would be a witness:

Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
Mark 16:1-7

The Lord places himself as the sacrifice. Instead of Isaac, instead of Moses, instead of us all, his blood spilled. When we suffer we join our suffering to Him, and when we bleed we join our blood to him. For Moses was always a forerunner — it is Christ who is our bridegroom of blood:

Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.” And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.

Then he said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!'” And he said to me, “These are the true sayings of God.”
Revelations 19:7-9

The tDAxp eXPerience