Saturday, April 28, 2007

Economy of Heaven I -- It's A Gift!

"The River" Cornelis Monsma

A long passage from Lewis Hyde's book illustrates the contradiction of cultures in the first encounter between the first nations and the English in North America.

"When the Puritans first landed in Massachusetts, they discovered a thing so curious about the Indians’ feelings for property that they felt called upon to give it a name. In 1764, when Thomas Hutchinson wrote his history of the colony, the term was already an old saying: “An Indian gift,” he told his readers, “is a proverbial expression signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” We still use this, of course, and in an even broader sense, calling that friend an Indian giver who is so uncivilized as to ask us to return a gift he has given.

Imagine a scent. An Englishman comes into an Indian lodge, and his hosts, wishing to make their guest feel welcome, as him to share a pipe of Tobacco. Craved from a soft red stone, the pipe itself is a peace offering that has traditionally circulated among the local tribes, staying in each lodge for a time but always given away again sooner or later. And so the Indians, as only polite among their people, give the pipe to theirs guest when he leaves. The English man is ticked tickled. What a nice thing to send back to the British Museum! He takes it home and sets it on the mantelpiece. A time passes and the leaders of a neighboring tribe come to visit the colonists’ home. To his surprise he finds his guests have some expectation in regard to his pipe, and his translator finally explains to him that if he wishes to show his goodwill he should offer them a smoke and give them the pipe. In consternation the Englishman invents a phrase to describe these people with such a limited sense of private property. The opposite of “Indian giver” would be something like “white man keeper” (or maybe “capitalist”), that is, a person whose instinct to remove property from circulation, to put it in a warehouse or museum (or, more to the point for capitalism, to lay it aside to be used for production).

The Indian giver (or the original one, at any rate) understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move on in its stead, the way a billiard ball may stop when it sends another scurrying across the felt, its momentum transferred. You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away. As it is passed long, the gift may be given back to the original donor, but this is not essential. In fact, it is better if the gift is not returned but is given instead to some new, third party. The only essential is this: the gift must always move. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps moving.”


The loving kindness (Hesed) of God is based on gift not commodity. This is a the core of the Book of Jonah. It appears that the flight of Jonah is based on Jonah's fear that the "Hesed/mercy" of God would be such that indeed God would forgive Nineveh.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It's the Mother of Your Fear!

David Whyte in his book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America sees Beowulf as a story of the descent beneath the waters of the unconscious. “The early English teller of Beowulf asked his listeners to drop beneath the surface of their daily existence, where the rational mind continually prays for dry feet. Since that time the physical details of life may have changed. The elemental motifs have not. He was a prince and warrior who did not make his home in any one kingdom, but went offering his services to foreign kings for that same mixture of personal honor, self-education, prestige, and personal gain that motivates his modern consultative counterpart.” (pg. 36) When the monster comes again – he kills him. “The problem, it seems, has been solved in one swift movement. But that night, as Beowulf sleeps with his men in a different hall, something else comes from the swamp to Herot, fights off the best warriors, and retreats with its human victim. Grendel’s mother. The message in this portion of the poem is unsparing. It is not the thing you fear that you must deal with, it is the mother of the thing you fear. The very thing that has given birth to the nightmare.” (pg. 38)

Why? You might ask are you talking about Beowulf in a blog devoted to Jonah the truant prophet? A good question. In both stories there is a going below the waters to face an ordeal. I return again and again to the passage I quote above. It is not just the thing we fear but the mother of the thing we fear -- to fear that we will not be enough in this life and then not to be at all afterwards is the mother of the fear of inadequacy.

"The only real question is not one of winning or losing, but of experiencing life with an ever increasing depth. Go down into the lake consciously, like Beowulf."(pg.71) Poor Jonah he couldn't even jump into the sea himself he had to wait until the frightened sailors would do it for him. Even then he was passive. Not to choose is a kind of inane choice. JWS

You Are Here!

"Jonah" Digital Illustration

“Jonah’s prayer in the fish tells us something of the way in which he views his own situation. The central topic is the sticky situation in which he finds himself. In the narrator’s text it had already become clear that he is in the less than fresh-smelling innards of a fish, and now Jonah himself indicates his physical situation at that moment. He is struggling for breath and so calls to YHWH (2.3b) and shouts for help (2.3d). Jonah is afraid of death, as attested by the weakness of his breathing (2.8a), his presence in Sheol (2.3d) the depths (2.6b) or the pit (2.7c). In particular the many lexemes that point to sensory perceptions make his situation graphically imaginable to the reader.” [Inner World: A Cognitive Linguistic Approach to the Book of Jonah -- Albert Kamp pg . 133 ]

Metaphorically this area is also the seat of the emotions. Jonah who has fled from the presence of the LORD and may have also have fled from the presence of himself is caught. He is in the place of digestion -- and now he finds his voice. When we find our voice it is intriguing to hear what we have to tell ourselves and God. JWS

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Jonah as Parable

Salvador Dali "Jonah" 1964-1967

“The different ways of story – This basic typology can be summarized like this: Myth establishes world. Apologue defends world. Action investigates world. Satire attacks world. Parable subverts world.” [The Dark Interval: Toward A Theology of Story, John Dominic Crossan pg. 42]

The world of the Old Testament is formed in the mythic stories of the Tanakh. Genesis describes creation as a good thing – the origins of sin – the calling of Abraham and his descendants as a chosen people. Exodus continues the saga of the children of Israel as they leave Egypt bound for the Promised Land. These are the myths of the Bible. They tell those who claim them who they are.

One of the dangers of myths for those who live them is the distortion of the wear and tear of life. In the case of the chosen they moved from chosenness (to be the instruments of blessing for all people) to specialness and privilege.

Jonah serves as a parable, a tale of subversion, critiquing the sense of privilege that had accrued like barnacles on the myth of Israel. God is concerned for all people even; it turns out, the folks of Nineveh. In addition God cares about the welfare of the cattle, which seems a bit odd to our ear, but much in line with the Creator of the Cosmos who found creation good very very good.

It also speaks to the growing greening of theology in the twenty-first century.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Wherever You Go There You Are

When the word of the LORD came to Jonah telling him to go and preach at Nineveh he went rather down to Joppa and took passage on a ship bound for Tarshish. The map above of the Mediterranean Sea shows the cities in question. Jonah is told to go East and he went West in the opposite direction to flee the presence of the LORD. The direction is literally from East to West on the map but it is also psychologically true as well. The sun rises in the East and thus the East is the direction of enlightenment. The sun sets in the West and the West is the direction of unconsciousness. Not only does Jonah wish to get away physically but psychically as well. Of course this is not possible.
Back in the 1980's a little known science fiction movie was released entitled:
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. It has since achieved a cult following. The title character a physicist/rock and roll musician had a favorite expression that also achieved a cult following, "Wherever you go there you are." Having a firm grip on the obvious may be the safest way deal with life. We can run, but we can't hide -- not from God -- not even from ourselves. We may have a terminal case of denial but eventually some symptom, ours or some one nearby will serve to remind us that denial is not just a river in Egypt. We like Jonah may sleep the sleep of the profoundly depressed but there is always a captain eventually to wake us to the storm about to swamp the ship. JWS

A Zone of Mercy

Jona at Nineveh -- Ulrich Leive

“A monastic community becomes a heaven not because its theory and structures are correct and its personnel are perfect, but because it is a zone of mercy. In Bernard’s [of Clairvaux) view, spiritual life begins with self-knowledge, progresses via compassion or empathy, and finds its completion in the self-forgetfulness of contemplation.” Reflections On The Beliefs and Values Of The Rule Of Saint Benedict Michael Casey, Monk of Tarrawarra

I think it was Flannery O'Connor that once said, "if the Church is not a divine institution it will turn into an Elk's Club." The Church always has social club tendencies. At our worst we have social club tendencies with a curious and truly destructive penchant for accounting and keeping score. All too often the righteousness in the Church is self-righteousness and such is not righteous at all. What all sinners need is mercy and it behoves those in household of faith not to forget how it was before we entered the door of baptism. Repentance is always in order. If nothing else we should repent of our righteousness.

Repentance and forgiveness are the great themes of the Book of Jonah. Jonah runs from the presence of the LORD, he claims, because he had a sinking feeling that the LORD just might forgive the folks of Nineveh and Jonah was not in a forgiving mood. Whether Jonah ever "gets it" when God asks the final question is not recorded. JWS
["On the Jewish Day of Atonement, Jonah is read in its entirety at the afternoon service after the Torah, since "The story of Jonah epitomizes the power of repentance, and serves to reassure the worshipers that God's arm is extended to receive them." Jonah's Journeys -- Barbara Green -- Editor pg. 131]

Saturday, April 21, 2007

O Taste And See

Icon of Origen

Origen is one of the most original thinkers the church has ever produced. The Church at Alexandria approached the study and interpretation of scripture in a sophisticated nuanced way which may be helpful in looking at Jonah. Origen and the Alexandrian School saw the Bible in an metaphorical way. There were layers upon layers to be teased out by careful and close reading. It may have been in Egypt that the whole formal discipline of Biblical interpretation began. The Interfaces volume on Jonah lays out this way of thinking. There are three levels of meaning in scripture. [Jonah's Journeys: Interfaces -- Barbara Green, Editor]
  1. The first level of meaning he (Origen) called the literal or historical, comprising, beside events, data like geography and botany.
  2. Another level was called the moral, and comes closer to what we would likely call psychological or ethical.
  3. A third crucial level was for Origen the allegorical or spiritual. It is from this level, accessed ordinarily via the first two, that the divine mysteries about God and human beings becomes available to those able to attend to them.

As people of faith we do not read scripture just academically. We read it to encounter the risen Christ. "When Scripture is read allegorically, the Scripture reader's soul 'makes room' for the reception of the powerful knowledge of spiritual realities needed for the transformative fashioning of his or her soul. Christian Figural Reading And The Fashioning of Identity -- John David Dawson pg. 61]

Psalm 34 comes to mind particularly the eighth verse, "O taste and see that the Lord is good..." From very early the Church said and sang this verse on the way to communion. To hear the word but also to consume it is to integrate the resurrection perhaps into the very cellular structure of one's body. Conversion is at a very deep level and it requires that we, like Jonah, go (often thrown overboard) into the waters that we may plumb the depths of our souls thereby meeting the Holy One who created us. O taste and see that the Lord is good! JWS

Showing Up For Roll Call

"Samuel Awaking Eli" Georges de La Tour

Someone (perhaps Woody Allen) has said that a high percentage of life (90% or so) is "showing up." While life is indeed more complicated than that it is worthy of all to be received that without showing up not much gets done. There is an interesting pattern in the Old Testament where God calls and the person addressed says, "here am I." It seems more or less at first examination a simple matter of good manners. But then good manners and good theology often come from the same place. We find no such manners in the Book of the Prophet Jonah.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai… but Jonah does not answer. Rather he runs away from the presence of the Lord. Where else do we find this but in Genesis when The Lord came down to walk in Eden at the cool time in the late afternoon and as he walked he called to Adam and Eve but they hid and said nothing ashamed of their nakedness.

Contrast this with Abraham who when God spoke always replied, “Here am I.” The word is hineni. [“In the Hebrew Bible the call of God and the answer hineni constitute moments of particular dramatic significance. Hineni is a performative utterance, as much as 'I promise' and 'I bless'. By saying hineni the speaker accepts responsibility for himself and for whatever task God may impose upon him. Adam and Jonah, quite simply, refuse to say hineni.” Pg. 172 The Book of God: A Response To The Bible, by Gabriel Josipoci]

Josipoci continues, "...after three days and three nights in the fish's belly, Jonah discovers that this is not where he wants to be...he suddenly finds it in himself to give voice; he calls out to God and God responds.
That there is not escape from dialogue is recognized by all those who are called by God: Noah, Abrahan, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah. When God first calls them their response is usually: 'Please, leave me alone. I don't want to speak to you. I'm not worth. I can't do it. Try someone else.' Nevertheless, they answer, and God strengthens them, telling them he will always be with them. [pg. 171]

God, who the psalmist says is closer than hands and feet, is always more ready to respond than we to call. We not only are willful in our mute response but we also must learn to know the word of the Lord when we hear it. The story of the boy Samuel comes to mind -- (I Samuel 3)

3Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’

Learning to listen and then to answer is a move in the right direction. It requires that we learn to quiet our minds so as to get the background static down to the point that we can hear the still small voice of the Holy One. Then we face the consequences of what to do with the call. And we are all called!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Jonah Marbles

Cleveland Museum of Art

Amazing art from the ancient world. Four of the pieces are from the Jonah story and one is the Good Shepherd.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


"Jonah" Philip Ratner

by Keith Schlegel

"Your Code Name is Jonah"
(after the “choose your own adventure” book by Edward Packard)

Jonah (he said): Your nose knows just the touch of stench;
Your hands see not;
your eyes draw the darkness;
Your mouth can neither feed nor smoke.

So. Listen. I,

Come, come—
Nineveh waits, in a whale of a mess.
Spain’s wattles are not for you, no how,
Believe me.

What does your Seiko say?
Can your digits tell
Big hands from little hands?
It’s time… it’s time…

In my ocean, my whales swim minnow-small;
Yet all—all
Is prepared. I know I’ll change my mind.
Change yours.

Think. One hundred twenty thousand and

Jonah (I say): Arise and go now.
Look through the mouth of day.
Meet, greet the dawn down.
Wake in his wake.
Rise-up sweet slug-a-bed
Plant your pity; give your forty days.

You’re my type, and
I’m behind you all the way,

(From Nightsun #2, 1982)

"Jonah in the Soup"

I’m in for it now.
This stilling of the water is for the sailors’ sake,
Not mine.
And they are, within my hearing, whimpering still
Their fear, their thanks, their promises.
And here I wait, upon the Lord’s petulant sea.
I told them to throw me over.
Tell me, how might I have known before
What even now, after this sign, is uncertain?
If every man followed every sign every time
And if all voice-like sounds we hear
Or think we hear
We obeyed, then
How should we be men at all?

I was asleep earlier. . .
I mean no disrespect.
It’s just that I have vagrant thoughts,
And anyway, am I a bird, a beast, a fish
To jerk to impulse not my own?

And say I knew, I really knew, what then?
I have no skill in speaking,
And Nineveh from what I’ve heard, is no Gomorrah,
And He’s relented before, with Isaac,
And there are

Hst! What’s that? a certain whoosh,
A wave slapping my ear?

A sudden shadow in the form of a shape advances.
I’m in for it now.

(From Nightsun #3, 1983)

"Jonah in Nineveh"

For long days, hot among the ashes
In which they sat, I walked.
They burned, of course, and so did I.
Fair, if effects be chained.
Worth it, if justice is final,
Confirming consequence from cause.
Fair if the predictable,
Just is the certain,
When we know.

“The End is Near,” I cried,
Until the syllables grew hoarse,
My soles blistered,
And the straps of the sandwich boards
Cut my shoulders.
So what if they fasted, and wept, and prayed?
Too little, too late.
Should a three-day fast abolish
Decades of excess?

This is why I fled before:
That fate not be fickle and that I
Not burn like this.
I sought a bower
Bereft of promised ill,
Your promise.

So let me die, ashamed,
Made a liar by your lies.
You repent your revelation; let me
Repent my repentance, and theirs.
You changed your changeless mind!
(No, but as nature and this city grow, pity grew.
Limitless pity makes all large and new.)

Three Days And Three Nights -- From Abstract to Concrete

"In The Beginning" 1993 Kim Jae Im -- Korea

I find the following discussion of the three days and nights fascinating. In all the reading I have done on Jonah and the sign of Jonah this breaks new ground. I quote this to add to the conversation of any who reads this blog. More after you read. JWS

"In the creation narrative things take three days to emerge from ideal existence to activity, from natural habitat to habitation by its inhabitant, so to speak. Thus, light is spoken forth on the first day (Gen 1:3-5) but does not become active until the fourth, through the creation of the luminaries (vv.14-19). The precondition of the winged creatures' appearance on the fifth day (vv. 20-21) is the stretching out of the firmament on day two (vv. 6-8). And, to complete the double and parallel triad, the dry land (day three, vv. 9-10) awaits its quadripeds and bipeds on the sixthe (vv.24-25). In short, for all creatures to emerge in days four through six, there is a requisite three-day hatching or incubation period.
One can detect a distant but eery parallel in Jonah's own "incubation," if that is the right term. One might say that Jonah's three days in the belly of the fish is nothing short of an emergence from darkness (the ship's hold) and watery chaos (shades of Genesis 1:2) and return to dry land." The Honeymoon Is Over: Jonah's Argument with God -- T. A. Perry pg. 216

The "Sign of Jonah" that Jesus promises in Matthew takes on a crisp crackle in my ear when I pass it by the notion of Dr. Perry. The movement from Ideal existence to activity, from theory if you will to practice. Jesus couldn't have known for sure, in his humanity, what would happen on the other side of his cry, "it is finished!" What was finished could have been a wonderful but naive notion of a better world or his last breath or just one more entry into Sheol the place of the silent dead. However, three days is the time to get it right from the drawing boards to the showroom and into the
street. "Why are you seeking the living among the dead?" A good question that we
should perhaps answer. The sign of Jonah indeed! JWS

Monday, April 16, 2007

...and Belched Back Like A Word To Grace Us All

In my beginning was the memory, somehow
contradicting Jonah, that essential babe
of unbaptised digestion, being a nugget
to call pity on Jerusalem and on Nature, too

We have his travels in the snare so widely
ruminated,---of how he stuck there, was reformed,
forgiven, also--
and belched back like a word to grace us all.

There is no settling tank in God. It must be borne
that even His bowels are too delicate to board
a sniping thief that has a pious beard.
We must hail back the lamb that went unsheared.

O sweet deep whale as ever reamed the sky
with high white gulfs of vapor, castigate
our sins, but be hospitable as Hell.
And keep me to the death like ambergris,
sealed up, and unforgiven in my cell.

Hart Crane

Crane catches the image -- the "going down" like unto baptism. The image of death by drowning is clear in the baptismal liturgy. The collect at the end of the prayer for the candidates,
"Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and for ever." Amen. -- Book of Common Prayer pg. 306 JWS

Sunday, April 15, 2007

"Let Us Mark Well This Story: It Is A True Pattern Of Our Estate

Albert Pinkham Ryder ca. 1885

"Who hath not heard the story of Jonas? Jonas was in the whale's belly: the place was very dark: the waves beat on every side: he was drowned, yet touched no water; he was swallowed up, yet not consumed; he lived without any sense of life; the fish was death, the sea was death, and the tempest was death; yet he died not; but lived in the midst of death, he could not see, he could not hear, he knew not to whom he might call for help; he was taken and carried away, he knew not whither. Let us mark well this story: it is a true pattern of our estate, and sheweth what our Life is in this world. (John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury -- from his A Treatise of the Holy Scriptures 1570)

What A Noble Thing Is That Canticle In The Fish's Belly

"Jonah" -- Sistine Chapel -- by Michelangelo

"Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters -- four yarns -- is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul Jonah's deep sealine sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish's belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the bloods surging over us, we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters, sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book ob Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God." (Father Mapple, in Hermann Melville's Moby Dick)

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Design And Disorder: The Dance of Freedom

Humans are created free. Freedom is not an illusion. Choices freely made have real and lasting consequences!

God has made humanity free -- really free -- free to chose relationship with God and also free to reject intimacy with the creator. Jonah is free. He takes steps to leave the presence of the Lord. Of course he encounters God's design. In four chapters we see played out the basic theme of the Bible. JWS

“The depth with which human nature is imagined in the Bible is a function of its being conceived as caught in the powerful interplay of this double dialectic between design and disorder, providence and freedom. The various biblical narratives in fact may be usefully seen as forming a spectrum between the opposing extremes of disorder and design.” pg. 33 -- The Art of Biblical Narrative -- Robert Alter

“The Bible tells a story of an event between persons, divine and human. The mark of a person, divine or human, is to be free. This is the moral or dramatic fabric of the biblical drama.” -- pg. 31 The Comedy of Revelation: Paradise Lost and Regained in Biblical Narrative – Francesca Aran Murphy

On The Names Of God

"Jonah in the Fish" -- David Coker

I was weaned on the King James Version of the Bible (and the language thereof still doth fill my heart and lips upon occasion) and was taught to call God Jehovah which is a good Old Testament sounding name. During my early days at Seminary imagine my naive surprise when I attended chapel and someone read a lesson from scripture that called God -- Yahweh. "What," I thought. But I learned. Actually I learned a lot that my Sunday school over looked namely that God had a few names in Genesis and the other Books of Moses. One writer used Yahweh (or in King James Jehovah). Another writer used Elohim which is actually plural. In addition they are sometimes used together. We find this in Jonah. JWS

The name Lord (YaHWeH) is used 22 times. God (Elohim or El once) 13 times, and the combination Lord God 4 times for a total of 39 references in 48 What do we make of the patterns of these names? What do they say about God? Scholars have as many opinions as
there are scholars.

"However one, Jonathan Magonet has suggested an explanation that is simple and compelling. When the narrator is speaking of divine punishing action, the narrator uses the more general, Elohim or God. ... however, where the emphasis in on divine grace, mercy, and care, the more personal designation Yahweh again appears. The compound form Yahweh Eolhim (Lord God) in 4:6 makes the transition." [JONAH A Commentary pg. 45 -- Limberg]

Again we find and layer upon layer. Jonah is brief in length but not in depth. Like Jonah we go down to the deep and find ourselves, if we dare, and having met ourselves we are found by God in all the complexity, fierce beauty, judgment and grace of the divine presence. JWS