About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2015/07/23

Biblical Beer Making

There is an archaic English idiom, To cast your bread upon the water. It is said to mean “to act generously or charitably with no thought of personal gain.” Only a few people know that it is actually a quotation from the Bible. Some eager people of faith are particularly keen on this enigmatic pearl of wisdom although many of them would have real trouble finding it in the Bible. It is in the book of Ecclesiastes and it goes like this: 

    Cast your bread upon the water,
        in a number of days you will get it back.
    Offer a share to seven or to eight (people),

        you never know what risks lie ahead.

The opening advice sounds rather strange. Bread placed on the surface of water would hardly return in days, it will probably float for a moment, soon it would soak up water, sink and start to disintegrate. This does not resemble a gesture of selfless generosity; it is rather a blatant example of an insane wastefulness. This strangely disjointed advice certainly looks a little crazy, until we hear that this was exactly how ancient people made and enjoyed their beer! 
     They would malt(sprout or germinate) barley, grind it into meal, bake it into loaves (thus caramelizing the sugars), float bread in a water-filled jar (holding several gallons). The bread would  dissolve in the water, catch yeast from the air, start fermenting and in a few days they would have the brew. They would season it with spices, honey or date sugar and there would be enough for seven or eight people to enjoy this ancient variety of beer (it was about 2-3% alcohol). Most commonly they would drink it through long straws made of reeds with strainer tips at the bottom to keep the dregs out.

Bronze age strainer tips from Syria

This beer making is documented by artefacts, reliefs, inscriptions and archeological finds from all over the Ancient Middle East. It has also been re-created by modern experimental archeology. In the summer you can try it yourself at home. Just cast your bread upon the water; in a few days you would be able to invite friends for a really strange (some would say disgusting yet certainly unique) drink. Poor fundamentalists, if only they knew! Largely ignorant of ancient history and archeology, they endlessly sermonize about the blind trust and their conservative do-gooding.
    Come this Sunday, we will celebrate another, similarly surprising aspect and use of the barley crop. We will rejoice in an ancient model of unlocking of the harvest, redistribution of wealth and feeding of the multitudes.


2015/07/15

Apostolic Bedbugs

When you read the Little Red Riding Hood story, you know that speculation about talking wolves or the size of their stomachs is missing the point. You know it, because you are familiar with other similar stories such as Snow White, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.
    When you watch Tom and Jerry, you are not upset by the horrendous level of violence and abuse, because you also know The Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, South Park, Sponge Bob SquarePants and many other cartoons. 

    In both these cases we have a basic frame of reference; we understand the game. But when people hear about the grotesque, self-serving, even malevolent miracles in the Acts of Apostles - for instance St. Peter killing people by a curse - many modern people are left disoriented, perplexed, and vulnerable to unscrupulous and abusive manipulations by fundamentalists. It is so because the Acts of the Apostles is the only book of its kind in the Bible and thus people don’t know the coordinates, don't know its literary genre. Yet there is a whole bookshelf of similar ancient literature - books of the acts ascribed to different apostles: Thomas, John, Paul and Thecla to name just a few of the oldest and best known. These books are not in the Bible, but they can help us understand and appreciate this early church’s most popular and entertaining genre of literature.     
    This Sunday we will continue our intermittent series about biblical (or in this case almost biblical) insects; allowing apostolic bedbugs to introduce us to this peculiar genre of the early Christian Acts of Apostles. An ancient burlesque miracle story about these most unpleasant insects will teach us how to resist similarly unpleasant, abusive and manipulative christian fundamentalism. And don't worry, as much icky/itchy as it sounds it is actually eye-opening fun. Grotesque, scary or funny miracles are a natural part of the genre of Acts, just like talking animals are part of fairytales, or the exorbitant violence of a cheeky mouse is a part of cartoons.


-----------------------------------------------
And here is the text from the Acts of John §§60+61:

Obedient Bedbugs
On the first day we came to some godforsaken inn, and when we were trying to find just any bed for John, we experienced this amusing event. In one corner there was a bed without any mattress, so we covered it with our cloaks and asked John to take a rest on it while we prepared to sleep on the floor. As soon as John lain down, bedbugs came out and started to bother him. They pestered him more and more. It was almost midnight, we all heard him say to them, ‘I ask you all, you bedbugs, be considerate; leave us your home for this night and go to rest in a place which is far away from the servants of God!’ And while we chuckled and talked for a while, John fell asleep. We chatted a little longer, and thanks to him we were undisturbed all night.
    In the morning, the next day, I got up first, and with me Verus and Andronicus. And right behind the door of that room in which we slept we saw this entire regiment of bedbugs lined up on the doorstep. We went all the way out to see this spectacle, we even woke up other brethren- John was still asleep. When he woke up we showed him what we had seen. And sitting up in bed and seeing all those bedbugs, he said to them, ‘Since you have been so reasonable, and heard my rebuke, you can now return to your place!’ And as soon as he said this and got up from the bed, the bedbugs ran straightaway from the door to the bed and up the legs and disappeared into the joints. And then John proclaimed, ‘This creature listened to the human voice and kept quiet and was obedient. We hear divine voice, and yet don’t take God’s command seriously. For how long would this go on?

2015/07/09

Jesus' Radical Prayer

Teaching Jesus - mosaic from Hagia Sophia.
Our Father who are in Heaven... We know this prayer. We recite it every Sunday. Many of us say it every day. This prayer is written in our memory and rooted in our hearts. It is an essential part of who we are as Christians, who we are as followers of Christ. Into the words of this prayer Jesus encoded deep yearning for divine rule, for justice, fairness and basic human dignity.
Your Kingdom come...
    The first set of petitions ask for the holiness of the divine name, the coming of divine rule (God’s kingdom) and the divine will on earth as it is in heaven. The next set of petitions explains what this divine rule on earth would change in our everyday lives. First we are taught to ask for food, next for relief of debt and finally to be protected from the inhumane and corrupt systems of the world. Those were relevant requests in the time of Jesus and they remain very relevant in our world. 
Give us today our daily bread...
   Many people in Jesus’ native Galilee suffered hunger, just like many people do in our world, even in our American society. I meet with the American hungry every Thursday when my church offers free meals for our neighbors.
Forgive us our debts...
    Many people in Jesus’ Palestine were crushed by debt, their ancestral farms repossessed, their livelihoods taken away; sometimes they were even sold into slavery. Unfortunately that is also the lived reality of our world. People are enslaved by crushing debt, thrown out from their repossessed homes and farms. People might not be sold into slavery in our society, yet we all know that such things happen in our world. I meet with Americans who were thrown from their homes when my church offers a shelter for our homeless neighbors.
Save us from the time of trial...
    The last set of petitions of the Lord’s Prayer is probably the least understood; in many translations it speaks about temptation and protection from the Evil. With proper exegesis (into which I cannot go here in detail) this set of petitions in its broader context asks for protection from an unjust Roman system which was rigged and stacked up against the poor. No matter what they did and how hard they worked, the system almost always worked against them.
    And again, don’t we know it?! Unfortunately this is also a lived reality in our world; the economic numbers speak clearly. The supra rich and well politically connected are getting ever richer, while the rest of society is struggling and the poor are hardly preserving their human dignity. I observe it in my Manhattan parish with growing alarm. Something needs to be done about how our social and economic system is laid out; it needs to be made more just. In the least radical understanding this last petition of the Lord’s Prayer asks for substantial tax reform and in more radical version - oh, don’t get me started! I pray the Lord’s Prayer with growing urgency.

2015/07/01

Remembering Jan Hus


What I am writing to you today might seem to many Americans as distant as the stone age and similarly irrelevant. It is anything but! Read carefully and you will find these themes (when translated into our modern idioms): corruption, abuse of power, buying influence and offices, miscarriage of justice, cruel and unusual punishment, eliminating critics instead of dealing with criticism, twisting Christianity into a power hungry, abusive and profit-making idolatry... Sound familiar? That is why knowledge of history is essential for moral integrity. 

By the morning of July 6, 1415 a large stake (pyre) was built on the bank of the rive Rhine just outside of the city walls of Constance, Germany. All was ready for an execution of yet another heretic, one of hundreds, yes, thousands who shared the same gruesome fate under the brutal reign of the medieval church. 
     Yet this time it was different; it was different in context and also in the outcome. Jan Hus was a professor of philosophy at Charles University in Prague, where he also served for a term as the university rector. At the same time he was a priest and popular preacher in Prague. 
     Hus came to Constance to participate in the universal church council which was called to deal with the deep and chronic problems of the medieval church. The most prominent symptom of that crisis were three rival popes (Gregory XII, Benedict XIII and John XXIII) fighting for power. Other symptoms were, for instance, simony (selling and buying church offices for money or favors - church corruption) or selling indulgences (selling divine forgiveness) to finance military campaigns or church offices owning villages and serfs. 
     Eventually, after substantial politicking and maneuvering before and during the council, the papal schism was solved. With the power struggle resolved, anyone who was pointing to deeper, underlying problems in the church was declared a heretic. Jan Hus and shortly after him his academic colleague Jerome of Prague were burned alive. These executions of course did not solve, but only highlighted, those deep problems in the church - its corruption, its proclivity to violence and its public defiance of the way of Jesus. 
     Sparks from the stakes in Constance ignited the Czech Reformation preceding by a full century the Reformation of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. This weekend we celebrate the 600th anniversary of the judicial murder of Jan Hus and the beginning of the Reformation, that striving for a more faithful, serving rather than ruling church, for a more Jesus-like church.

This is of course a great simplification of the whole matter. The events were peppered with bitter scholastic syllogisms and examples of human perverse willfulness. For instance, the medieval Roman Church never really burned heretics. The church office only declared people heretics and handed them over to the secular authority of princes. The result was the same - the heretics were burned. Even John Calvin tried to hide behind this syllogism when he had Miguel Servetus executed by fire for non-Trinitarian teaching.

2015/06/29

Jonathan and David

For many a year there has been quiet talk among biblical scholars about the nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan. In the 1960s, the now legendary and pseudonymous Allen Edwardes, wrote about it in his(her?) “Erotica Judaica.” This book was based on surprisingly, for 1967, advanced and open minded biblical scholarship. Since then Biblical and Near Eastern scholarship has continued to advance.
    Now it is becoming ever clearer that most of the Hebrew Bible was recorded and written in the late Persian and Hellenistic periods (as was also mentioned in the previous article on this blog about Greek speaking David). That brings to our attention close parallels between the stories of Jonathan and David and another classic heroic couple, Achilles and Patroclos, whose relationship is a pivotal plot in Iliad. The erotic nature of these couples is never really mentioned in the oldest renditions (Iliad and Bible) but can be easily inferred from the cultural context.
    While the exact nature and ordering of Achilles and Patroclos’ relationship has always puzzled both ancient and modern authors, there cannot be any hesitation about the ordering of Jonathan and David’s relationship. Jonathan clearly assumes the role of  ERASTES - a mature (bearded) man in full strength who acts as lover, mentor and protector. David, on the other hand fulfills the role of EROMENOS - a young (unshaven or clean shaven) man or a teen, a love-boy, a mentee and protégé.
    In classical Greece this relationship was called pederasty and over the centuries it rightly became denounced as a highly problematic and abusive love arrangement. Jonathan would today be in great trouble, considered immoral, and most likely also criminal. From our modern perspective the relationship of Jonathan and David is not problematic because of its homosexual nature, but because of the power difference and also the age difference.
    So here you have it. The Bible cannot serve us as a simplistic and literalistic moral compass, not because it is outdated and prudish, but because it is outdated and too wildly immoral (as is often the case - if only people payed attention!).
    True wisdom, joy and morality in life and faith are not born from the fundamentalistic, slavish, mechanical following of any rules, even those religious or divine, but from the existential grappling with difficult conundrums of everyday living and in the search for the deeply rational as well as emotional understanding. In this very quest the ancient biblical texts can serve us sometimes as sparing partners and sometimes as guides.

2015/06/24

Greek David for Pride Week

What do you think, did King David speak Greek?

But wasn’t he the famous Jewish king? Shouldn’t he speak Hebrew?

Well, there is a developing consensus among progressive theologians, archeologists and Middle Eastern scholars that the legendary unified monarchy of David and Solomon really never existed. The lively stories about David are exactly just that: lively, formative stories which were composed many centuries later under the influence of Hellenistic culture.

Those are quite bold, if not presumptuous claims! Is there any evidence to support them? 

There are hardly any archeological traces of the unified kingdom of David and Solomon. Jerusalem at that time was a small settlement of about few thousand. And in the Bible, those lively and thrilling biblical stories abound with interesting anachronisms. For instance, units of Greek mercenaries among David’s troops were impossible before the late Persian period. Above it all, the literary style of grand narrative prose would have been itself anachronistic, something like that came only with Greek historiography. Before that, such expansive heroic storytelling was all in poetry. The literary character of king David was inspired by Greek culture, and as such he could easily understand or perhaps even speak Greek! 
 
It is all Greek to me! After all, who cares? What real difference does it make?

Oh it does, for instance on this Pride Sunday, it can liberate us from the shackles of religious fundamentalism. It can help us to confirm and celebrate a unique biblical loving relationship between two men, Jonathan and David. It can also help us to better understand and celebrate surprising cross-culturality rooted deep in our Judeo-Christian faith.

Then, let us celebrate!



2015/06/18

Spiritual Camping

Camping is more than just staying in a tent. It has a deep cultural dimension. Human culture, especially western industrial society, is driven by the profound fear of insecurity, temporality and transience. We do our best to insulate ourselves from the elements, from the surprises and hazards of nature and thus we build our homes, our cities and our infrastructures to cocoon ourselves.
Our little HubbaHubba tent at 12'000 ft above sea level.
     Camping takes almost all our cultural pride (and if you want, arrogance) away. In a tent we are only a thin fabric away from the elements. In a tent we cannot ignore the fact that we are just a part of the universe. This spring I was reminded of it in a very profound way. We were hiking in Hawaii. The night caught us high on the slopes of Mauna Loa, snow patches were all around us. We pitched our little hiking tent right behind a rock shelter. Even in mountaineering sleeping bags we were just about cozy. The tent groaned and rattled all night under the strong wind, providing us with a tenuous protection and only a short and shallow sleep. And yet it was a most memorable vacation night and also a very powerful spiritual experience. We were just a thin fabric away from pinching cold, buffeting wind, bright night, crisp Milky Way and the world biggest active volcano! 
     Of course you do not need to climb high mountains to experience this spiritual dimension of camping. In any tent, when you lie down to sleep, you can hear every rustle of a leaf on a nearby tree, you can hear a chipmunk scrambling about, and to an untrained ear it often sounds like an elephant. In a tent one can hear even a beetle climbing a stalk of nearby grass, not to mention buzzing, and whistling of those thirsty mosquitoes - thankfully that they are held at bay by the tent! The weather can turn nasty, and we can see from beneath a drumbeat of rain and perhaps hail and feel every gust of the wind. How thankful we are for that hair-thin insulation from the raging elements! 
     Camping is a marvelous experience; it is a perfect reminder that we are part of nature. It is also a gentle reminder and illustration of the insecurities and transiency of our lives. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience and exercise. No wonder it has been a part of our Judeo-Christian religion. Every autumn our Jewish neighbors celebrate the holidays of Sukkoth. During that holiday they are to stay for a week in tents or temporary booths - something quite difficult to accomplish in an urban place like New York City. Yet even in Manhattan it can be done. Around that time, you can notice some strange structures on balconies, rooftops, courtyards and around some synagogues. The holiday of Sukkoth is a vivid reminder of the original simplicity of life and the humble nomadic origins of our faith. Yes, of our faith! Because as Christians we share those same origins. What is alive in Judaism was unfortunately all but neglected and forgotten by the Church. 
     I do not think we should slavishly adopt the celebration of Sukkoth, but consider this summer or any next appropriate time to spend at least one night in tent. Especially for us city-dwellers, it can be a transformative and deeply spiritual experience.

Hiking and camping in Hawaiian snow.