Halbertal & Holmes, “The Beginning of Politics”

“‘And after that he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet. And afterward they desired a king: and God gave unto them Saul the son of Cis.'” In the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul thus abbreviates the transition, in ancient Israel, from rule by judges to rule by kings–a transition which, Bible readers will remember, did not work out entirely well, at least in the short term. A new book from Princeton University Press, The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, by NYU Law professors Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmesdescribes the political themes in the Biblical story. The publisher’s description is below:

j10964New insights into how the Book of Samuel offers a timeless meditation on the dilemmas of statecraft

The Book of Samuel is universally acknowledged as one of the supreme achievements of biblical literature. Yet the book’s anonymous author was more than an inspired storyteller. The author was also an uncannily astute observer of political life and the moral compromises and contradictions that the struggle for power inevitably entails. The Beginning of Politics mines the story of Israel’s first two kings to unearth a natural history of power, providing a forceful new reading of what is arguably the first and greatest work of Western political thought.

Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes show how the beautifully crafted narratives of Saul and David cut to the core of politics, exploring themes that resonate wherever political power is at stake. Through stories such as Saul’s madness, David’s murder of Uriah, the rape of Tamar, and the rebellion of Absalom, the book’s author deepens our understanding not only of the necessity of sovereign rule but also of its costs—to the people it is intended to protect and to those who wield it. What emerges from the meticulous analysis of these narratives includes such themes as the corrosive grip of power on those who hold and compete for power; the ways in which political violence unleashed by the sovereign on his own subjects is rooted in the paranoia of the isolated ruler and the deniability fostered by hierarchical action through proxies; and the intensity with which the tragic conflict between political loyalty and family loyalty explodes when the ruler’s bloodline is made into the guarantor of the all-important continuity of sovereign power.

The Beginning of Politics is a timely meditation on the dark side of sovereign power and the enduring dilemmas of statecraft.

 

Danish Blasphemy Prosecution for Koran Burning

Here’s a fascinating story in the New York Times about a prosecution in Denmark for blasphemy, against a man who burned a Koran and posted his burning to Facebook. It seems that blasphemy laws remain on the Danish books, notwithstanding that the country is, by all accounts, very secular. Though the decision to charge was made at the local level, it has been ratified by Denmark’s attorney general.

No one has been convicted under the Danish blasphemy laws since 1946, when the law was used to prosecute a man who dressed up as a priest and mock “baptized” a doll.

A few thoughts:

1. Apparently the defendant had been charged initially with a “hate speech” crime, but the charge was subsequently changed to blasphemy. Perhaps hate speech is a lesser included offense? The linear continuity of hate speech with blasphemy is itself worthy of a separate article. Indeed, as I have argued at length, but as Tocqueville said more pithily, freedom never governs without faith. The only real question for a society that enjoys some speech protections is for what ends speech will be restricted, not whether it will restrict it at all. Of course, it will. And it seems altogether natural that the proscription on hate speech would in the end find its fullest and most complete expression in the zealotry (I use the term neutrally) of an anti-blasphemy law. (Parenthetically, the man also stated that he hated children. That seems rather sweeping, and perhaps worthy of its own hate speech prosecution. Perhaps if he had said, “I hate some children,” one might be more sympathetic.)

2. Denmark of course has a recent history of conflict with Islam, as in the infamous Mohammed cartoon incident about 10 years ago that resulted in no charges, and, as the story says, “deadly riots, attacks on Danish embassies in the Middle East and a trade boycott against Denmark.” Perhaps, for these and other reasons, Denmark has come to a different conclusion today. Still, it’s clear from the story that the burning of a Bible is legal, since in 1997 a Danish artist burned a copy of the Bible on television and nobody batted an eye. Perhaps what Denmark really needs is to refine its blasphemy laws–to give more detailed guidance about which religious texts may be defiled with impunity and which must be let alone. One thing that Denmark should not do: abandon blasphemy laws. It will only send such laws underground, and similar policies will be enforced through other means without the honesty of calling them what they are (vide, e.g., hate speech).

3.  The defendant’s lawyer seems to be making the utterly bizarre claim that the man acted in “self-defense” in burning the Koran, because the Koran contains language about how Mohammed’s followers “must kill the infidel.” I don’t know the Danish law of self-defense, but this strikes me as a highly unusual principle of proportionality. But I suppose we need to know about the physical assaults committed by the Koran on this poor man in order properly to judge the self-defense claim.

4. Don’t miss the wonderful comments of Professor Per Mouritsen, who with one side of his mouth tells us that “blasphemy law is a thing of the past” and with the other tells the Times that in Denmark, “the very idea that religion is taken seriously is the antithesis of being a good citizen.” Perhaps Denmark should adopt laws authorizing the state-enforced (but nondiscriminatory, of course) burning of all holy books. It could be done on a state holiday. Call it “Conflagration Sunday.”

Killeen, “The Political Bible in Early Modern England”

In December, Cambridge University Press will release The Political Bible in Early Modern England by Kevin Killeen (University of York). The publisher’s description follows:

political-bibleThis illuminating new study considers the Bible as a political document in seventeenth-century England, revealing how the religious text provided a key language of political debate and played a critical role in shaping early modern political thinking. Kevin Killeen demonstrates how biblical kings were as important in the era’s political thought as any classical model. The book mines the rich and neglected resources of early modern quasi-scriptural writings – treatise, sermon, commentary, annotation, poetry and political tract – to show how deeply embedded this political vocabulary remained, across the century, from top to bottom and across all religious positions. It shows how constitutional thought, in this most tumultuous era of civil war, regicide and republic, was forged on the Bible, and how writers ranging from King James, Joseph Hall or John Milton to Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes can be better understood in the context of such vigorous biblical discourse.

Dreisbach, “Reading the Bible With the Founding Fathers”

I’m very pleased to give this notice of Professor Daniel L. Dreisbach’s new book, Reading the Bible With the Founding Fathers, which will be published by Oxford University Press in dreisbach-bookDecember. Professor Dreisbach is one of the most important scholars of religion in the founding generation. His earlier book, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, as well as his edited volumes, Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate, and The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, offer vital and erudite insight about the relationship of church and state in the early republic. This volume looks to be essential reading for anyone interested in this area. The publisher’s description follows.

No book was more accessible or familiar to the American founders than the Bible, and no book was more frequently alluded to or quoted from in the political discourse of the age. How and for what purposes did the founding generation use the Bible? How did the Bible influence their political culture?

Shedding new light on some of the most familiar rhetoric of the founding era, Daniel Dreisbach analyzes the founders’ diverse use of scripture, ranging from the literary to the theological. He shows that they looked to the Bible for insights on human nature, civic virtue, political authority, and the rights and duties of citizens, as well as for political and legal models to emulate. They quoted scripture to authorize civil resistance, to invoke divine blessings for righteous nations, and to provide the language of liberty that would be appropriated by patriotic Americans.

Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers broaches the perennial question of whether the American founding was, to some extent, informed by religious-specifically Christian-ideas. In the sense that the founding generation were members of a biblically literate society that placed the Bible at the center of culture and discourse, the answer to that question is clearly “yes.” Ignoring the Bible’s influence on the founders, Dreisbach warns, produces a distorted image of the American political experiment, and of the concept of self-government on which America is built.

Brueggemann, “God, Neighbor, Empire”

This month, the Baylor University Press releases “God, Neighbor, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good,” by Walter Brueggemann (Columbia Theological Seminary).  The publisher’s description follows:

Justice, mercy, and the public good all find meaning in relationship—a relationship 51jdybfimyldependent upon fidelity, but endlessly open to the betrayals of infidelity. This paradox defines the story of God and Israel in the Old Testament. Yet the arc of this story reaches ever forward, and its trajectory confers meaning upon human relationships and communities in the present. The Old Testament still speaks.

Israel, in the Old Testament, bears witness to a God who initiates and then sustains covenantal relationships. God, in mercy, does so by making promises for a just well-being and prescribing stipulations for the covenant partner’s obedience. The nature of the relationship itself decisively depends upon the conduct, practice, and policy of the covenant partner, yet is radically rooted in the character and agency of God—the One who makes promises, initiates covenant, and sustains relationship.

This reflexive, asymmetrical relationship, kept alive in the texts and tradition, now fires contemporary imagination. Justice becomes shaped by the practice of neighborliness, mercy reaches beyond a pervasive quid pro quo calculus, and law becomes a dynamic norming of the community. The well-being of the neighborhood, inspired by the biblical texts, makes possible—and even insists upon—an alternative to the ideology of individualism that governs our society’s practice and policy. This kind of community life returns us to the arc of God’s gifts—mercy, justice, and law. The covenant of God in the witness of biblical faith speaks now and demands that its interpreting community resist individualism, overcome commoditization, and thwart the rule of empire through a life of radical neighbor love.

The Play of Daniel

31DANIEL-master675

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.

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