Monday, September 29, 2014

Feria de los Moles

Yesterday, I took the train to Downtown Los Angeles and attended the "Feria de los Moles" or Fetival of moles.  Mole is that rich Mexican sauce, the most famous of which comes from the region of Oaxaca.

The festivities took place around Olvera St, which is the oldest part of Los Angeles, stretching back to the city's Mexican roots.  Los Angeles was, in fact, founded by Mexican settlers in 1781, long before it was the United States of America.  I had a traditional dish called a clayuda, which is a massive hand-made tortilla smothered with mole, cheese, and a couple different meats.  It was amazing.


In addition to the food, there were cultural celebrations, like these traditional dances from Oaxaca...

There was also a play going on inside an old Catholic church, put on by an LA-based theater company called Teatro del Barrio.  I took a picture with my favorite of the actors.

I had a great time, wandering around with my friends Steve and Felice, taking in the sights, the sounds, the tastes of this festival.  We also popped into La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a fantastic museum of Mexican-American history in Los Angeles.  It was a nice day of food and local culture.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jonah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The short book of Jonah (only four chapters) is one of the most memorable and action-packed in the Bible.  It is unique among the prophets in that it focuses on the prophet’s actions more than his message.  The book reads like a short story instead of a poem.  Here’s my summary:

Once there lived a Hebrew prophet named Jonah.  God told him to go to Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria (Israel’s enemy) and tell the people to repent, so they would be saved from a genocide God had planned for them.  Without a word, Jonah fled from his mission.  He didn’t want to go to Nineveh.  They were his enemies.  So he boarded a ship heading away from Assyria in a futile attempt to flee from God.  

While at sea, a great storm threatened to destroy the ship.  The sailors threw their cargo overboard, hoping the keep the boat afloat.  They prayed to their different gods, but the storm didn’t relent.  The panic-stricken sailors found Jonah sound asleep in his cabin.

The Tempest

“Dude, how are you sleeping right now?!” they asked, “Wake up and pray to your god so we won’t die!”

The sailors drew straws to see whose fault the storm was.  They were superstitious.  Jonah drew the short straw.

“Who are you?” the sailors asked.

“I am a Hebrew,” Jonah said, “I worship the God who created the land and the sea.”

The sailors became afraid.  Though they likely believed in different gods, they’d heard of this Yahweh God, and knew that Jonah must have pissed him off something fierce.  Meanwhile, the storm raged on.

“What should we do?” the sailors asked Jonah.

“Throw me into the sea!” Jonah said.

“Dude, we’re not murderers!” the sailors said, and continued trying to guide the ship toward safe harbor.  When they realized it was hopeless, they prayed to Jonah’s god, “Forgive us for killing this guy,” and they threw Jonah into the sea!

Jonah inside the whale, praying.

Instead of drowning, however, Jonah was swallowed up by a whale.  While inside the belly of the whale, he sang a song of thanks to God.  After three days, the whale barfed up Jonah onto dry land.  It was a miracle.

The whale barfs up Jonah.

For a second time, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh.  This time, the reluctant prophet obeyed.  He went to the capitol of Assyria and said eight words, “Forty more days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Miraculously, that did the trick.  The people of Nineveh, who had a well-established religion of their own, believed this foreign enemy, prayed to his god, and even fasted.  So God changed his mind about genociding Nineveh.

Instead of being happy, however, Jonah was angry.  He didn’t want the Assyrians spared.  They were his enemy.  He hated them.  This was the real reason he fled in the first place.  He wanted God to destroy them, not show them mercy.

So God used an allegory to teach Jonah the fault in this way of thinking.  When he left the city, Jonah sat down to take a rest.  God caused bush to bloom and give him shade from the heat.  Then God caused the bush to wither, and Jonah became uncomfortably hot.  He got sunstroke, and wanted to die.

God said to Jonah, “Are you right to be angry about the bush?”

“Yes, angry enough to die,” Jonah said boldly.

“You are more concerned about a bush than about the 120,000 human beings (and countless animals) you just helped save from destruction?  That’s not cool,” God said.

The End

The “moral” of the story seems to be that God cares about all people, not just Israel.  This is a welcome message for readers like me, who are disturbed by the previous book of Obadiah, which preaches judgment against Israel’s neighbor Edom.  The book of Jonah seems to completely reverse this way of thinking.  The Bible is full of paradoxical gems like this.

That being said, I have a couple problems with the book of Jonah, in terms of ideology:

1.) Religious intolerance.  While the Assyrians are indeed saved, they are only saved by praying to Yahweh.  Their religion is seen as useless.  This seems a rather ethnocentric point of view.  I’m sure the Assyrians had stories which told of the power of their gods, and weakness of foreign gods.

2.) God was going to kill the Assyrians!  Let’s not forget that the genocide which the Assyrians are spared from is a genocide planned by God.  This is an ongoing issue I have with the Bible, which is the brutal vengeance of God.

The ancient city of Nineveh is now called Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq, which has seen much fighting in recent months between ISIL, Kurds, and other groups.  One result of this fighting has been the destruction of priceless ancient cultural sites, which is something that should be a topic of greater conversation regarding war in the Middle East, aka the Cradle of Civilization.  By bombing ancient sites, it's like we're saying "Fuck you" to history and culture.

Mosul (aka Nineveh) today.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

On Reading the Bible

Old book, old stories,
memories of my earliest childhood,
Jonah and the whale, 
Noah and the Ark,
David and Goliath,
Daniel in the lions den,
Jesus walking on the water,
old stories that shaped 
my first ideas about
what the world was like.

What do I do with them now,
as an adult?
I thought I’d put all this behind me,
like a good agnostic,
but these old stories still
enchant me, inspire me,
disturb me, 
even cause me pain,
in my head and in my gut.

What do I do with these old stories,
as I try to get on with my life?
How do they still shape me?
And how do I move on?
What do they mean?
Why can’t I just call them
silly old fables and be done with them?

Because these silly old fables
still speak to me,
though I can’t believe them
in the way I used to.
How can I believe them,
after learning things like
how vengeful God can be?
Or how the Exodus probably
never happened,
or how most of the stories
were written centuries after
the events they describe,
and sometimes for 
overtly political purposes?

I thought it would be fun to
re-read the Bible as a 35-year-old agnostic,
but the more I read, the more serious
it’s becoming, an intense journey
leading me back to times of trauma
and pain, when I first lost my faith.

Part of me wants to just stop,
stop reading, so I won’t have to
have all these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings,
so I won’t disturb family and friends 
who still believe, as I used to.
But I can’t stop.  That’s cowardly.
I will keep reading, and
 writing about what I read and learn.
If God exists, he/she/it cannot 
be afraid of learning and honesty.
So I’ll keep reading, 
even if it pains me sometimes.
The more I read, the more
I’m convinced that the Bible,
like all great literature,
is not supposed to make me feel only good.
It’s supposed to make me feel 
all the strange and terrible and tragic
and beautiful things 
that human beings feel.

So I’ll keep reading,
and see how this story ends,
and hopefully on the other side,

I’ll emerge a wiser man.

Felt board Bible stories

Obadiah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament.  It is only one chapter long, 21 verses.  It was written during/after the Babylonian siege of the Kingdom of Judah in 587 B.C.E.  The prophet Obadiah speaks harsh words of judgment against Judah's neighbor Edom, because they conspired with Babylon, and looted Judah.  Obadiah sees this as a family betrayal, because the nation of Edom was thought to be descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob (or Israel).  Thus, Esau/Edom has betrayed his brother Jacob/Israel.  The prophet uses poetic repetition to list the offenses of Edom against Israel, which include helping the enemy, looting, and even tracking down Judeah fugitives/refugees:

But you should have not gloated over your brother
on the day of his misfortune,
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
on the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted 
on the day of distress
You should not have entered the gate of my people
on the day of their calamity;
you should not have joined in the gloating over Judah's disaster
on the day of his calamity;
you should not have looted his goods
on the day of his calamity.
You should not have stood at the crossings
to cut off his fugitives;
you should not have handed over his survivors
on the day of distress."

Obadiah's vision of the relationship between neighboring nations is that of a family.  Mistreating a neighboring nation is like mistreating a brother.  This is, I think, a pretty timeless message, especially considering the ongoing unrest between nations in the middle east.  Obadiah ends his prophecy with a hopeful vision of a restored Jerusalem/Zion; however this restoration comes at the expense of Edom:

"But on Mount Zion there shall be those that escape,
and it shall be holy;
and the house of Jacob shall take possession of
those who dispossessed them.
The house of Jacob shall be a fire,
the house of Joseph a flame,
and the house of Esau stubble;
they shall burn them and consume them,
and there shall be no survivor of the house of Esau;
for the Lord has spoken."

One would hope that Obadiah's vision would be one of forgiveness of Edom; however, it is one of vengeance.  This is disturbing but understandable, given the fact that Edom had wronged their neighbor Israel.  This was one in a long series of conflicts between Israel and her neighbors, a conflict that continues today, sadly.  Reading a book like Obadiah, I'm left with a couple lingering questions regarding the relationship between the Bible and conflict between Israel and her neighbors today: to what extent does the Bible legitimize and exacerbate today's conflicts?  On a more hopeful note: Does the Bible see a way beyond these seemingly endless conflicts?

"The Prophets Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea" by John Singer Sargent

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Amos: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” 
—Desmond Tutu

There is a common misconception that the only role of the prophets in the Bible is to predict the future.  Growing up, I viewed the Old Testament prophets’ role as mainly predicting the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  While the prophets do often predict the future, they have another, more practical, role—they are social critics, pointing out the problems and injustices of their day, and telling people to act with more justice and mercy.

"The Book of Amos" by Nahum HaLevi

This is particularly true with the book of Amos, a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah who trekked north to Israel in the 8th century B.C.E. to lay a verbal smackdown on the rich and powerful, for their oppression of the poor.  Amos calls out the upper classes on their greed and hypocrisy, and promises a coming judgment by God.  Amos writes:

“Thus says the Lord:
for three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.”

In other words, there is serious labor exploitation going on.  Amos condemns Israel’s upper classes, saying their luxury will be short-lived:

“I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house;
and the houses of ivory shall perish,
and the great houses shall come to an end,
says the Lord.”

The prophet compares the wealthy to fat cows, saying they shall be carried away with nose hooks, like real cows:

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria (the capitol of Isreal)…
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks.”

Fat cat (or cow).

Amos has no patience for rich people who observe religious ritual while ignoring the practical needs of the poor:

“I hate, I despise your [religious] festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt 
offerings and grain offerings
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, 
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

"Poverty" by Pablo Picasso

Of what use, Amos wonders, is religious ritual when there is real unmet human need and oppression going on?  To paraphrase a famous journalist, Amos’s task is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable…

“Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.”

Amos’ prescription is quite simple:

“Seek good and not evil,
that you may live…
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate.”

Like social critics in all ages, Amos is persecuted and criticized by the wealthy and powerful.  The high priest Amaziah conspires against Amos to the king, Jeroboam.  But Amos is undeterred in his message.  He speaks truth to power.

While the book of Amos ends on a hopeful note of future restoration after judgment, most scholars believe these hopeful passages to be later additions, sort of like tacking a Hollywood “happy ending” onto a Greek tragedy.  If you remove 9: 11-15, the supposed later additions, the book is much more powerful, I think.

I ended my last book report, on Joel, with the question: Of what relevance is this text to modern readers?  I think the book of Amos does indeed speak to us, and to every generation, prompting us to ask ourselves: In what ways am I participating in oppression?  For Americans, this question has extreme relevance and urgency.  I’m currently teaching an English class with the theme of “Globalization.”  Last week, we watched a powerful film called “The Yes Men” which points out disturbing ways in which we, as Americans, benefit from a global economy which tends to exploit developing countries for labor and resources.

Sweat shop.

Or, to bring things closer to home, in another of my classes, we are reading Gustavo Arellano’s book Orange County: a Personal History, which deals with discrimination that Mexican-Americans continue to face right here in Orange County.  A particularly vulnerable part of our population in the United States are undocumented immigrants.  People fleeing poverty and violence to take refuge in “the land of the free” often experience exploitation, discrimination, harassment, and constant fear of deportation.  It’s astonishing how many Americans, even today, demonize these fellow human beings.  For Christians, a good question to ask is: In what ways am I on the side of the oppressor, and how can I make a change, so that I am on the side of the oppressed?

Fellow human beings.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Joel: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of Joel is one of the shortest in the Bible.  At only three chapters, it still manages to pack an apocalyptic wallop.  Scholars disagree about when exactly the book was written, but clues in the text (like references to Greeks and Sabeans) point to the fifth century B.C.E., when Israel and Judah were again unified and had re-built Jerusalem, its walls, and temple.

The main event of the book of Joel is a locust infestation that devastates the crops of Israel.  Locusts are scary big grasshoppers that can be absolutely devastating for farmers.  In the book of Exodus, you’ll remember, locusts were one of the great plagues inflicted on Egypt.


For an agricultural society like 5th century Israel, a locust infestation disrupted their food supply, economy, and even religious practices (since agricultural products like wine and grain were used in religious services).

Joel describes this locust infestation with terrifying imagery:

“What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.”

Locust swarm.

The prophet compares the swarm of locusts to an invading army bent on destruction:

“Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes…”

Like the prophets before him (and, in fact, like many ancient agricultural societies), Joel interprets the locusts as divine judgment, and encourages the people to repent and turn to God:

“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God, 
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”

Following the familiar prophetic sequence of sin—punishment—restoration, God promises to heal Israel’s land after the devastating locust infestation:

“Then the Lord became jealous for his land, 
and had pity on his people.
In response to his people the Lord said:
I am sending you grain, wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied…”

God speaks even to the soil and the animals, showing that he is not only concerned with humans, but with the whole of nature:

“Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field.
for the pastures of the wilderness are green…”

In spite of his seemingly ordinary agricultural premise, Joel (like Daniel) ends with some pretty crazy apocalyptic visions.  He says that God’s spirit will be poured out on all peoples, not just Israel:

“Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions…”

In the New Testament book of Acts, the apostle Peter quotes Joel in reference to Pentecost, the famous outpouring of the Holy Spirit with tongues of fire.  I find it kind of funny that, in its original context, the “Pentecost prophecy” had to do with a locust infestation/crop failure.


Joel’s apocalyptic visions then take a dark turn…

“I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Like the prophets before him, Joel pronounces judgment on foreign nations, and restoration for Israel, in a kind of utopian/xenophobic dream of the future:

“In that day
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
the hills shall flow with milk,
and the stream beds of Judah
shall flow with water…
Egypt shall become a desolation
and Edom a desolate wilderness…”

Sweet berry wine.

The little book of Joel reminds us that, for all the apocalyptic/spiritual imagery of the prophets, their writings are always rooted and grounded in the real goings-on of a specific people group, the Israelites, living in specific historical circumstances.  Something as seemingly mundane as a crop failure provides the occasion for an inspired meditation on calamity and restoration.

In this way, the ancient Israelites were not so different from many ancient cultures, who saw history and natural phenomenon as connected to the gods, or God.  As a 21st century reader, I can’t help but think about how differently I see history and natural phenomena.  For me, an earthquake or a hurricane or a crop failure has very explainable reasons.  But for pre-scientific ancient peoples like the Israelites, such events needed explanation, and God was usually the “go-to” explanation for the unexplainable.  This raises the question: what relevance does a book like Joel have for 21st century readers?  Is it simply a quaint example of how one ancient people group (incorrectly) interpreted a bug infestation?  Or is it something more?  I suppose it has meaning because its included in the Bible, which is still a holy book for millions of people.  But why?  And of what relevance is Joel?  I don’t know.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hosea: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

“If any female feels she need anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency.”  
—Bell Hooks, Feminism is for Everybody

The book of Hosea tells the story of a prophet (named Hosea) who lived and prophesied from the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam (786-746 B.C.E.)  The main theme of Hosea’s prophecy is to criticize and condemn Israel for their idolatry, which mainly has to do with their political alliances with Egypt and Assyria.  From a political perspective, these alliances were understandable foreign policy, meant to ensure the nation’s survival.  But from Hosea’s religious perspective, these alliances meant a lack of trust in God, and a breaking of Israel’s covenant with God.  Thus, destruction and desolation are foreseen.

Hosea does not let the “idolatrous” leaders of Israel give their side of the story, which would probably have gone something like, “Dude, Hosea, we are making these alliances for purely political reasons, so we won’t be destroyed.”  Hosea isn’t really interested in the real complexities of ancient middle eastern geo-politics.  He is interested in fidelity to divine law.  This is probably why Hosea is an eccentric prophet, and not an actual leader.

As with Ezekiel and other prophets, Hosea is told to do some allegorical performance art, which is meant to reinforce his message.  Unfortunately, Hosea’s performance art doesn’t just affect him.  He is told by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer, whom he actually buys, like a slave, which should give you a sense of the cultural misogyny which dominated Hosea’s world.  Men could buy women.

Hosea and Gomer by Barry Moser

This marriage is meant to illustrate God’s (i.e. Hosea’s) relationship with faithless Israel (i.e. Gomer).  Unfortunately, again, Hosea never gives Gomer’s side of the story.  Was she really a prostitute?  What circumstances drove her into this profession?  What were her real economic options in a world where men could buy women?  Instead, Hosea repeatedly employs disturbingly misogynist language to refer to both his wife and his country.  He uses the words whore, whoring, and whoredom (creative!) to refer to Gomer and Israel.

Not only is poor Gomer forced into this “allegorical” street theater, her children are as well.  Hosea and Gomer’s children are also meant to symbolically represent God’s broken relationship with Isreal.  They name their daughter Lo Ruhamah (which means “No Mercy”) and their son Lo Ammi (which means “Not my people”).  Nice.  I’m sure these kids suffered mercilessly at the hand of bullies.

While, from a 21st century perspective, we may be rightly disturbed by the scary, misogynist God we find in Hosea, and the seemingly cruel street theater He makes His prophet undertake, it must also be understood that Hosea saw his purpose as a redemptive one.  Amidst all the judgment and misogynistic epithets, Hosea ultimately presents a message of restoration for Israel and Gomer.  “Come, let us return to the Lord,” he says, “for it is He who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and He will bind us up.”

Ultimately, Hosea’s vision of God is similar to one we find throughout the prophets.  Yahweh is a God of both judgment and mercy.  A God who wounds and heals.  A God of justice and compassion.   I would be very interested to hear a modern feminist’s take on the book of Hosea.  A prostitute woman with no voice or agency is “saved” by a religious man.  I can only imagine the field day that feminists like Bell Hooks, Betty Friedan, or Adrienne Rich would have deconstructing this book.  As a feminist myself (i.e. one who believes in equality between men and women), I am disturbed by the language Hosea uses, and the conspicuous lack of a female voice in the text.

"Hosea and Gomer" by Cody F. Miller

Interestingly, one of my favorite bands, Pedro the Lion, did a song about the book of Hosea called "Of Minor Prophets and Their Prostitute Wives."  Check it out...