The Play of Daniel

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James Ruff as Daniel in the Trinity Production (NYT)

Earlier this month, I had a chance to see the Gotham Early Music Scene’s production of The Play of Daniel, a medieval Christmas pageant, performed as part of the annual Twelfth Night Festival at New York’s Trinity Church. The festival, which the church started several years ago, revives the idea of Christmas as a twelve-day holiday beginning on December 25 and running until Epiphany, January 6. It includes concerts and plays at Trinity and nearby St. Paul’s. I hope the organizers include this production of Daniel every year.

Students at Beauvais Cathedral in the north of France wrote Daniel, a drama based on episodes in the Old Testament book, around the year 1200. The text is a mix of Latin and Old French. The music, without rhythmical notation, survives in a manuscript at the British Library; the Trinity production rendered many of the numbers as dances. Interpolated within the biblical story are non-biblical texts, including songs that foretell the coming of Christ and even a Christmas carol of sorts, Congaudemus celebremus natalis sollempnia—“Let us together joyfully celebrate the Feast of the Nativity.” The presence of these songs, as well as some other internal evidence, suggests Daniel is meant to be performed at Christmastime.

The Trinity production was a lot of fun—the music; the costumes, inspired by pictures at the Cloisters in upper Manhattan; the acting, everything. Trinity’s Gothic Revival setting worked perfectly. Early music isn’t everyone’s thing, I know, but I think everyone would enjoy this production, including kids. There are even some laughs.

For people interested in church and state, the play has additional meaning. In the Old Testament book, King Darius’s courtiers urge him to issue an order providing that “whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.” Darius issues the order, but Daniel refuses to comply. “He continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” The courtiers find out and haul Daniel before Darius, who cannot take back his order, as the laws of the Medes and Persians, once proclaimed, are irrevocable. Daniel goes off to the lions, but God sends an angel to protect him. Moved, Darius frees Daniel and orders the courtiers thrown to the lions instead. They don’t fare as well.

The story of Daniel in the lion’s den is pretty well known, even in our age of biblical illiteracy. But there is another church and state allusion in Daniel, more obscure today, but which contemporary audiences would surely have recognized. Daniel was written at the height of the investiture crisis, a centuries-long struggle for control of the Catholic Church that pitted the Holy Roman Emperor and other sovereigns against the papacy. Harold Berman famously dated the origins of the Western legal system, particularly legal pluralism, to the investiture crisis and what he called “the papal revolution” of the late Middle Ages. When Daniel was written, Becket’s murder was still in living memory, and the outcome of the investiture crisis was far from certain. Surely those students of Beauvais had current events in mind when they staged a drama showing what happens to courtiers who try to impose the power of the state against believers.

If you can, go and see Daniel next Christmas. Meanwhile, to tide you over, here is a video of this year’s performance from Trinity’s website.

Hazony, “God and Politics in Esther”

In December, Cambridge University Press will release “God and Politics in Esther” (2nd edition) by Yoram Hazony (Herzl Institute, Jerusalem). The publisher’s description follows:

A political crisis erupts when the Persian government falls to fanatics, and a Jewish insider goes rogue, determined to save her people at all costs. God and Politics in Esther explores politics and faith. It is about an era in which the prophets have been silenced and miracles have ceased, and Jewish politics has come to depend not on commands from on high, but on the boldness and belief of each woman and man. Esther takes radical action to win friends and allies, reverse terrifying decrees, and bring God’s justice into the world with her own hands. Hazony’s The Dawn has long been a cult classic, read at Purim each year the world over. Twenty years on, this revised edition brings the book to much wider attention. Three controversial new chapters address the astonishingly radical theology that emerges from amid the political intrigues of the book. Readers will experience the Book of Esther as a dazzling treatise on politics and faith.

Now Comes the “Museum of the Bible”

This story reports on the arrival in Washington, D.C. of a new museum, the “Museum of the Bible,” whose collection will include “pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a Gilgamesh tablet, Elvis Presley’s Bible and about 850 manuscripts, 12 of which are in Hebrew and come from China’s Jewish population. A third of the material may be considered Judaica, related to Judaism and the Old Testament, including torahs that survived the Spanish inquisition and the Nazis.”

Notwithstanding this scattershot miscellany, the story seems determined to find a controversial church-state angle. It reports that the museum is the creature of Hobby Lobby President Steve Green and that its proposed location near the Mall might well overshadow a downtown skyline that is “dominated by monuments to men.” Objections to the museum appear to combine the aesthetic, the religious, and the ideological: e.g., “To many in the scholarly community, the museum seems like an oversize piece of evangelical claptrap”; “The museum will be a living, breathing testament to how American evangelicalism can at once claim it is under siege from secularists, the LGBT rights movement, or feminism — yet also boast of acquiring a prime private perch, strategically located at the nation’s epicenter of law and politics.”

But perhaps all of this is too much fuss over a development that secular critics of

"Creation" Museum

“Creation” Museum

the museum might welcome. Artifacts that get their own museums are probably on their way out culturally. Museums generally involve subjects and events that are in some way closed affairs–affairs to be studied and reflected on retrospectively. Proust recognized as much when he spoke of the movement to turn French cathedrals into museums in the early 20th century, which he pronounced “the death of the Cathedral.”

As for the American religion that needs defending against the assault of the museum, that’s nearly perfectly summarized in the first paragraph of the story (though the final word “instead” seems entirely out of place):

In Washington, separation of church and state isn’t just a principle of governance, it’s an architectural and geographic rule as well. Pierre L’Enfant envisioned a national church on Eighth Street. A patent office was built on the site instead.

Attias, “The Jews and the Bible”

In November, Stanford University Press will release “The Jews and the Bible” by Jean-Christophe Attias (École pratique des hautes études, Sorbonne, Paris). The publisher’s description follows:

Despite its deceptively simple title, this book ponders the thorny issue of the place of the Bible in Jewish religion and culture. By thoroughly examining the complex link that the Jews have formed with the Bible, Jewish scholar Jean-Christophe Attias raises the uncomfortable question of whether it is still relevant for them.

Jews and the Bible reveals how the Jews define themselves in various times and places with the Bible, without the Bible, and against the Bible. Is it divine revelation or national myth? Literature or legislative code? One book or a disparate library? Text or object? For the Jews, over the past two thousand years or more, the Bible has been all that and much more. In fact, Attias argues that the Bible is nothing in and of itself. Like the Koran, the Bible has never been anything other than what its readers make of it. But what they’ve made of it tells a fascinating story and raises provocative philosophical and ethical questions.

The Bible is indeed an elusive book, and so Attias explores the fundamental discrepancy between what we think the Bible tells us about Judaism and what Judaism actually tells us about the Bible. With passion and intellect, Attias informs and enlightens the reader, never shying away from the difficult questions, ultimately asking: In our post-genocide and post-Zionist culture, can the Bible be saved?

Mandelbrote & Ledger-Lomas (eds.), “Dissent and the Bible in Britain, c.1650-1950”

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish Dissent and the Bible in Britain, c.1650-1950 by Scott Mandelbrote (University of Cambridge) and Michael Ledger-Lomas (King’s College). The publisher’s description follows.

The claim that the Bible was “the Christian’s only rule of faith and practice” has been fundamental to Protestant dissent. Dissenters first braved persecution and then justified their adversarial status in British society with the claim that they alone remained true to the biblical model of Christ’s Church. They produced much of the literature that guided millions of people in their everyday reading of Scripture, while the voluntary societies that distributed millions of Bibles to the British and across the world were heavily indebted to Dissent. Yet no single book has explored either what the Bible did for dissenters or what dissenters did to establish the hegemony of the Bible in British culture. The protracted conflicts over biblical interpretation that resulted from the bewildering proliferation of dissenting denominations have made it difficult to grasp their contribution as a whole. This volume evokes the great variety in the dissenting study and use of the Bible while insisting on the factors that gave it importance and underlying unity. Its ten essays range across the period from the later seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century and make reference to all the major dissenting denominations of the United Kingdom. The essays are woven together by a thematic introduction which places the Bible at the center of dissenting ecclesiology, eschatology, public worship, and “family religion,” while charting the political and theological divisions that made the cry of “the Bible only” so divisive for dissenters in practice.

“The Son You Love”

Yesterday, during Shabbat services, Jews read Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24), the portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) whose narrative includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishamel, and then as its climax, the Akedah — the binding of Isaac.

During yesterday’s service at the Havurah in my synagogue, I gave a d’var Torah (homily) on Vayera.  Here’s a lightly edited version:

*   *   *

The typical question we’re moved to ask about the Akedah is whether, in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command, he passed God’s test of faith, or spectacularly failed it. That is a big question, but it is too big for me this morning. It might also not be the right question. Because, actually, Abraham failed his test long before the Akedah, long before God called him to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. Continue reading

Byrd, “Sacred Scripture, Sacred War”

The American Revolution had roots in both the Enlightenment and Evangelical Christianity. Intellectual histories often stress the former, but scholarship increasingly focuses on the Revolution’s Evangelical ideology as well. In June, Oxford University Press will publish Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution by Vanderbilt’s James P. Byrd. The publisher’s description follows:

The American colonists who took up arms against the British fought in defense of the ”sacred cause of liberty.” But it was not merely their cause but warfare itself that they believed was sacred. In Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, James P. Byrd shows that the Bible was a key text of the American Revolution. Many colonists saw the Bible as primarily a book about war, and God as not merely sanctioning violence but actively participating in combat. When war came, preachers and patriots turned to scripture, not only for solace, but for exhortations to violence. Byrd has combed through more than 500 wartime sources, which include more than 17,000 biblical citations, to see how the Bible shaped American war, and how war shaped Americans’ view of the Bible.

Brownson, “Bible, Gender, Sexuality”

Bible, Gender, SexualityThis month, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company published Bible, Gender, Sexuality by James V. Bownson (Western Theological Seminary). The publisher’s description follows.

In Bible, Gender, Sexuality James Brownson argues that Christians should reconsider whether or not the biblical strictures against same-sex relations as defined in the ancient world should apply to contemporary, committed same-sex relationships. Presenting two sides in the debate — “traditionalist” and “revisionist” — Brownson carefully analyzes each of the seven main texts that appear to address intimate same-sex relations. In the process, he explores key concepts that inform our understanding of the biblical texts, including patriarchy, complementarity, purity and impurity, honor and shame. Central to his argument is the need to uncover the moral logic behind the biblical text. Written in order to serve and inform the ongoing debate in many denominations over the questions of homosexuality, Brownson’s in-depth study will prove a useful resource for Christians who want to form a considered opinion on this important issue.

Sherwood, “Biblical Blaspheming”

Last month, Cambridge University Press published Biblical Blaspheming: Trials of the Sacred for the Secular Age by Yvonne Sherwood (University of Glasgow).  The publisher’s description follows.

This book explores the strange persistence of ‘blasphemy’ in modern secular democracies by examining how accepted and prohibited ways of talking and thinking about the Bible and religion have changed over time. In a series of wide-ranging studies engaging disciplines such as politics, literature and visual theory, Yvonne Sherwood brings the Bible into dialogue with a host of interlocutors including John Locke, John Donne and the 9/11 hijackers, as well as artists such as Sarah Lucas and René Magritte. Questions addressed include:  What is the origin of the common belief that the Bible, as opposed to the Qur’an, underpins liberal democratic values?  What kind of artworks does the biblical God specialise in?  If pre-modern Jewish, Christian and Islamic responses to scripture can be more ‘critical’ than contemporary speech about religion, how does this affect our understanding of secularity, modernity and critique?

“Common Sense, Not Discrimination”

That’s the verdict of the Student Judiciary at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which has reinstated the local chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship as a campus student organization. Earlier this year, the Student Senate had revoked recognition because of Intervarsity’s requirement that leaders in the organization affirm traditional Christian beliefs, including beliefs about homosexuality. Last December, the chapter’s  treasurer, who is gay, told the university’s student newspaper that he had been pressured to resign because he would not sign a statement affirming the truth of Biblical passages, including passages condemning homosexual conduct. The Senate believed this episode showed that Intervarsity violated the university’s non-discrimination policy, but the Judiciary disagreed, arguing that one must distinguish between membership and leadership in a student organization. Intervarsity was open to all SUNY-Buffalo students, including gay students, the Judiciary explained; but  “it is common sense, not discrimination, for a religious group to want its leaders to agree with its core beliefs.” Similar disputes about the religious freedom of student groups have occurred recently at other American universities, including Vanderbilt, and of course, UC-Hastings Law School, the subject of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in CLS v. MartinezMartinez held that an “all-comers” policy requiring student religious organizations to open their leadership to all students regardless of belief is constitutionally permissible. That’s not to say an all-comers policy is constitutionally required, however.

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