Sunday, August 29, 2010

Biblemania: Madness, Dysfunction, and Reconciliation

Let us start on a low note:

"All things are wearisome," writes the speaker. "What has happened will happen again, and what is done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun."

Speaker, of course, is Jewish for Koheleth, which is Greek for Ecclesiastes. I am not sure what the proper Biblical word is for clinically depressed: "To what purpose have I been wise," our serotonin-deprived author laments. "Alas, wise man and fool die the same death."

Ecclesiastes is the nearest thing in the Jewish Bible to Buddhist literature, but without the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. Readers are simply advised to place a vague sort of trust in God and to enjoy life to the best of their abilities. The Book was written sometime after the sack of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and there is a lot to be depressed and disillusioned about:

"How solitary lies the city" we hear in another Book of the Bible, "once so full of people!...Bitterly she weeps in the night..." (Lam 1).

Then there is Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," later echoed by Jesus on Golgotha.

In the meantime, there is the matter of life's cruel injustices: "Perish the day I was born and the night which said, 'A man is conceived.'" (Job 3.3).

Indeed, looking upon slab after textual slab of unremitting despair and depression, one wonders how any sane person can regard the Bible as inspirational reading. Yet we have all come across soaring lifting quotes (the 800 "glad" passages, according to Pollyanna), plucked out of context, and served up for our easy enjoyment. To me, all this "lift up our voices" talk has all the resonance of the top string of a chord. The challenge as I see it is to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable, and to come out a better person in the process.

Which leads me to my next topic:


Try this on for size:

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon eating grass among the oxen (Dan 4.33), a frazzled King Saul needing to be soothed by a youthful David's lyre, hurling his spear at David, presumably right in the middle of a psalm (Sam 1.11). And of course Jesus driving the evil spirits out of the two madmen of the Gadarenes (Mat 8.28), as well as from Mary Magdalene (Lk 8.2).

But the Bible adds an extra dimension to the meaning of mad. If anything, mad is a positive character attribute. The great prophets transposed to our era would be prime candidates for five-point restraints, electro-convulsive therapy, and industrial strength Thorazine. But in ancient Israel, someone actually wrote down what they said and preserved it for the next generation to read.

Consider: A hypermanic Elijah outrunning King Ahab's chariot (1 Kings 18.45-46), Isaiah and Jeremiah railing against the corrupt authority of the day, Isaiah naked and barefoot, Jeremiah with a yoke around his neck, a starry-eyed Ezekiel and his wild visions, and Daniel, the inventor of apocalypse fever.

All but Elijah have Books of the Bible named after them.

Then there is John the Baptist virtually guaranteeing his head would be served up on a platter.

We can almost coin the term, "holy madness", and Christ was a proud descendant of this tradition, or, if you like, we can say he brought it to its completion. Contemplate this bizarre incident:

"Next morning on his way to the city he felt hungry; and seeing a fig tree at the road he went up to it, and but found nothing on it but leaves. He said to the tree, 'You shall never bear fruit any more!'; and the tree withered away at once." (Mat 21.18)

Hey, whatever happened to turn the other cheek?

Make no mistake about it, an enraged Christ bullying a defenseless fig tree represents the most perplexing passage in all the Gospels, but it's probably the sort of thing we are not meant to understand. Jesus is about to drive the money changers from the Temple. He will condemn the corrupt practices of the religious establishment with allusions to Isaiah and Jeremiah. He is predicting the fall of Jerusalem with references to Daniel. He knows human nature all too well. He sees the future with a clarity of one with the courage to look. He knows what is coming, including his own execution, and he is distressed and disillusioned.

He is a prophet, on one hand the sanest man in the world. On the other, he is far too sane for his own good, sane to the point of mad. Even his own family fails to understand him. Mad, here, is not a clinical condition. It is society's obdurate refusal to recognize a special son in their midst.


We can start right from the very beginning, at the very first sibling rivalry in history, between Cain and Abel. Soon after, we have Noah waking from a drunken stupor and cursing the descendants of his son Ham. Then we have Abraham, the father of his people. Yes, we all know about the would-be sacrifice of his son, Isaac, but ponder this disturbing passage in relation to his other son Ishmael, whose mother was Hagar the slave girl:

"Abraham rose early in the morning, took some food and a waterskin full of water and gave it to Hagar; he set the child on her shoulder and sent her away, and she went and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba." (Gen 21.14)

Just to set the record straight, we're taking 110 in the shade here in a part of the world where they kill for water. We do not hear Ishmael's or Hagar's side of the story - or Isaac's for that matter - but I'm sure, had they been given a chance, they would have leaped at the opportunity to air a few "issues."

Abraham's nephew, Lot, apparently was a good fit for this family. When the evil rabble of Sodom banged on his door, demanding their civic right to bugger his guests, Lot cried out: "No my friends, do not be so wicked. Look, I have two daughters, both virgins; let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them ..." (Gen 19.6).

Later, Lot entered a cave with his virgin daughters and emerged with his, um, daughters.

Then we have the matter of Jephthah and his only child, a virgin daughter who doesn't even rate a name. On his way to face the Ammonites in battle, Jephthah promised that, if victorious, he would make God a sacrifice of the first creature he met coming out of his house. Well, you guessed it, it wasn't the mother-in-law. And unlike Abraham and Isaac, there was no angel to put a stay to the proceedings. As the Bible records it, "she died a virgin." (Judges 11.39).

Of course, the ultimate dysfunctional family has to be King David's: "I will bring trouble upon you from within your own family," said the Lord through the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12.13). Considering the source, you just know that David's domestic relations are going to take a severe turn for the worse.

To bring the reader up to date, there's all his wives and concubines, and not content to leave well enough alone he gets someone else's wife pregnant, Bathsheba, and sends the husband off on a suicide mission. A Babylonian or Egyptian king might have got away with something like that, but the God of Abraham and Isaac and Moses was more of a hands-on kind of God.

So it happened that one of David's sons, Amnon, forced himself on his half-sister Tamar. When David would not discipline the son, another son, Absalom, took matters into his own hands, lured Amnon into a trap, and killed him. This episode set the stage for a direct challenge to David's throne, with the unfortunate result of his father's retainers having to kill Absalom.

"O my son!" David wept. "Absalom my son, my son Absalom!" (2 Sam 18.33)

The saga finally concludes with David's son by Bathsheba, Solomon, killing his half-brother Adonijah in order to secure his claim to the throne.


To bring all this to a close, perhaps all Bibles should come with this warning: "Keep out of reach of children." Maybe in those motels where kids stay free, you should slip the Gideon Bible up above the ceiling tiles.

Then again, perhaps the Bible is like a puzzle or a Rubik's cube. We have to make all the pieces fit, not just the ones we want. Human nature is simply too complicated and God more complicated still to expect easy answers. Often it is only the seventh or eighth time after we have read a particular passage that a light goes off in our heads.

It's as if the authors of the Bible deliberately set out to confound and confuse our overworked minds into enlightenment. In trying to reconcile the depressed, the mad, and the dysfunctional, we perhaps become a little more understanding of our own shortcomings, not to mention our possibilities, and in the process come just that much closer to God.

This piece was written about 10 years ago, from mcmanweb.


Willa Goodfellow said...

Okay, the priest will weigh in --

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the Bible is that it is a book of rules or answers, the way things are supposed to be. Which -- on the face of it -- is ludicrous and scary.

But what if we read the Bible as a book of what is real, and what happens when a real people engage the divine? On Joan of Arcadia, Grace said it best at her Bab Mitzvah -- it's not a book of answers, but a book of questions. The faithful person doesn't cop out by trying to make sense of it, but rather faithfully engages the questions.

When I was chaplain at a "behavioral treatment center for disturbed adolescents" (one step short of junior jail), I took great delight to teach about David and his family. I and II Samuel always makes me feel like, my family is in the book, too.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Willa. Great response. I love it. That's exactly what the Bible does for me - it forces me to ask questions. And by asking questions, I am rewarded with the occasional realization. My problem with organized religion has been exactly what you brought up - the Bible is presented as a book of rules or answers (with passages cited out of context). I'd love to have you lead me in a Bible course. :)