An old friend died. It wasn’t a surprise. He had fallen into drugs, a decade ago, and never came back. Lost everything—career, home, wife, kids. Overdosed repeatedly, and intentionally, and was revived. But it was only a matter of time until—this time.

And yet, I was surprised. Not because I had been thinking he was getting better. No: because I hadn’t been thinking about him at all. When he first flamed out, I tried to help. Met him for coffees, had long frank talks. But then he just crashed even farther. It was terrifying and appalling. I was afraid he might try to get to his estranged family through me. So I pulled back. Stopped reaching out to him. I put him out of my mind.

Was that terrible? 

I think about a moment in the Book of Job—the Old Testament’s great parable of morality and suffering. By God’s whim, the title character loses everything: wealth, wife, children, health. He is left sitting in filth, covered in boils, and scraping himself with a piece of a broken pot. Job has always been a good, pious man. He doesn’t deserve this.

Which is the point. In the preceding books of the Old Testament, you see—the History books of the Jewish people, from Genesis to Esther—there is no such thing as not deserving it. Suffering comes from displeasing God. Displeasing God causes, and justifies, suffering. That is the crock that the Book of Job throws, very purposefully, against the wall. 

In his agony, Job is visited by three neighbours, ironically known as the Comforters. They speak loudly and at length for the old morality. Job must have merited the awful fortune he has received! Otherwise, God would appear to be unjust—and that is just unthinkable. For the most part, the Comforters don’t come off very well. (At the end of the book, God appears in a whirlwind, and reprimands them.) They are refusing to hear the unbearable sermon that the text is trying to be. 

But one of them—his name is Eliphaz the Temanite—at one point comes up with an amazingly powerful accusation. “Is not thy wickedness great?” he demands of Job. “And thine iniquities infinite?” 

“For thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for nought, and stripped the naked of their clothing. / Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry. … / Thou hast sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless have been broken.” (Job 22: 5-9)

Job might well answer (and more or less does, in the following chapter): I have not done any of those things! I have not been that kind of person!

But he has. We all have. If we think about it. 

We have taken, without properly recompensing, the love of a sibling or friend. We have failed to seek out the homeless and starving—though we know exactly where they are—to offer them food and shelter. We have not bothered to make sure that lonely old ladies, all of them, have days and hearts full of joy. We have left the orphan children of the world’s teeming slums exposed to horrible violence. 

And so on.

Not sins of commission. Sins of omission. But what difference does it make? Infinite suffering starts at our door, and spreads to the horizon. What are we doing about it? Basically, and almost all of the time, nothing. We put it out of our minds.

Isn’t that terrible?

A conundrum emerges here, at the very centre of ethics. We can’t save the world, so we mostly ignore it. We just focus on our own little corners: our families, callings, and lives. There, to be sure, we may act morally. But every time we do—and precisely because we do—we shine a light on the dark universe of mess that we are not even trying to clean up. Our own claim of goodness convicts us. So says Eliphaz.

It therefore becomes possible to ask: what’s the point? 

“If I be wicked,” Job cries out, “why then labour I in vain? / If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean; / Yet shalt thou plunge me in the ditch” (9: 29-31). His “thou” is God, but it could just as well be Morality Itself. It makes demands on us that we cannot possibly fulfill.

And yet here—just here—the hole we are digging starts to turn into a tunnel.

We’ve reached a point, with Job, where it seems like morality is impossible for us. But that doesn’t make any sense. After all, morality is for us. The finite, imperfect, organic beings that we are. A being who could instantly avoid all sins of omission—end all wars, cure all cancers, prevent all devastating drug addictions—wouldn’t even need or recognize our morality. Which is why He, it, or whatever pronoun you put, doesn’t do that.

Eliphaz tells us that our own, limited moral actions convict us of failing to undertake all, unlimited moral actions. Our goodness illuminates the infinite necessity of the good.

But we can say: exactly! Our goodness does that—nothing else! Our working, our cleaning, our caring, our loving. Yes, in our own tiny corners of the world. Without us—without the good that we actually do, in the lives that we actually have—there wouldn’t be any morality at all. And if we didn’t focus on our own lives—our selves, our families, our communities—no good at all would ever get done. There wouldn’t even be any good that could be done.

In our lives, and only there, morality is. In our corners, and only there, the good lives.

And yes: the reality of our being necessitates drawing a line between the good we can do, and the good that we can’t. Indeed, we must refuse—and this itself is difficult moral action—to let the one be abused by the other.

My old friend who died was one of the sweetest, gentlest people I have ever known. He couldn’t bear any kind of harshness or cruelty. He had had a very difficult early life, and that weighed heavily on him. 

Somebody, in their little corner of the world, didn’t do the good, for him, that morality demanded.

That was terrible.

From the day job with apologies

[A rare academic post. A chapter opening from the book I am currently writing, using an obscure seventeenth-century text that has been driving me cray zee for the last several years. Hopeful I may finally be done with it!]

Historians of early modern English medicine are familiar with the anonymous pamphlet Philiatros (1615). Its author presents himself as an elderly physician, surveying the field he will soon leave. He enthusiastically recommends the alchemical approach of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim—the notorious Swiss maverick and medical revolutionary known as Paracelsus (1493-1541). At the same time, the Philiatros author speaks respectfully of Galen (d. 200), the Roman imperial physician and anatomist who was the standard medical authority of the early modern period. 

Our avuncular doctor attempts to reconcile the two through a folksy metaphor of carpentry. “Galen in the beginning of the day,” he writes, “hewes off the rough, and Paracelsus in the after-noone, endeuoureth to plaine it. And is Wit and Art in us dead,” he goes on, “that wee can adde nothing”?

I beleeue otherwise. Not onely because in our owne Practise wee often finde a neerer way to the wood; but also, for that Daniel foretelleth how many in the last times running too and fro, should thereby multiply Science. And haue we not dayly a taste of that trueth in all kinde of knowledge, by how much the more Nauigation increaseth.


Alarm bells go off in this passage (for the student of the seventeenth century). The Philiatros author is offering an interpretation of the Old Testament prophecy of Daniel: “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” (12:4). This, he claims, meant that a great expansion of knowledge, including medicine, was destined to happen in early modern Europe. Further, our author correlates the fulfillment of the prophecy with the period’s great ocean-going voyages of exploration and discovery. Later in the seventeenth century, that reading of Daniel, with that codicil, would become ubiquitous. But based on a source that, in 1615, was not yet well known: The Two Books of the Advancement of Learning (1605) by the fallen politician and megalomaniac philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). 

In what would become the most famous passage of the Advancement, Bacon interpreted Daniel 12:4, in connection with “navigation, and discoveries,” very much along the lines repeated (a decade later) in the Philiatros. He claimed this as scriptural warrant for his vision of a great “instauration” of knowledge in the seventeenth century. Bacon’s passionate exegesis, seemingly his own innovation, is traditionally understood as a significant prompt for the founding of the Royal Society and the emergence of modern scientific discourse in England. However, that would not be until decades after Bacon’s death. In its original edition, the Advancement—in which the 40-year-old natural philosopher magnificently announced his life’s mission and gift for the world—flopped. (“His latest book,” said King James, “is like the peace of God: It passeth understanding.”) The Philiatros author, nonetheless, has evidently bought it, read it, and grasped it.

Later in his pamphlet, he does cite Bacon. But not in or re: the passage we have just quoted. Instead he immediately adds:

And howsoever (respecting bare necessitie) it may be very right, which Doctor Timothie Bright hath learnedly concluded in a little Tract, namely, that God in his providence hath given to every nation, domestic simples sufficient for their own griefes.


The “little tract” is Bright’s Treatise on English Medicine (1580).Possibly, the Philiatros author is working from its second edition, also published in 1615. However, he also cites Bright’s learned, Latin, and by this time almost totally obscure Animadversiones (1583) on the German physician Scribonius. So this is somebody who knows Bright’s work well, and has known it for many years. He effectively summarizes the main point of Bright’s 1580 treatise: People need just those medicines that derive from the soil where they themselves thrive. But the Philiatros author is also remembering that Bright drives this point home, in TEM, through a long rant (which we will examine below) against the very historical and technological development and activity that so excited Bacon: “Navigation.”

In Characterie, Bright will describe his notation as “mere,” that is (in the Latinate sense), pure, English. And yet he also will claim that it can work across languages, as a universal communications platform. That is to say, Bright reaches the global via the local. His primary methodology for doing so, moreover, is reductive: cooking the English vocabulary down to the 536 characterie terms. These are not only supposed to constitute the essential set of the English language, but the essential set of something beyond and below the level of all languages—something that we perhaps can call information. 

In TEM, Bright argues quite passionately that a universal pharmacology can be reached, and can only be reached, by alchemical reduction of local simples to their healing “vertues.” Accordingly, he is very aggravated by the pointless and counterproductive business (as he sees it) of rounding the globe for exotic medicines. Yes, all pharmacy must be local, but precisely because it is only through the gatherings of the local field that the set of essential medicines can be reached. And those operate universally, at a level below and beyond all fields. 

So, in this chapter, I want to ask where Bright even got the idea of reducing his own language to an essential set of universal, informational terms. And the answer I want to give is: from iatrochemistry.

Scientiae 2019

From just before the madness: Final program of the conference I organized at Queen’s University, Belfast, three years ago. Still very proud of it–from the plenary speakers to the intellectual design and level of the sessions to the relaxed and convivial atmosphere. Huge H.T. to the great James A. T. Lancaster of the University of Queensland, who, in addition to being a brilliant intellectual historian, is also (somehow) a design and layout genius, responsible for the sumptuousness of this document. (And the poster–you should see the poster.)

A student for Easter Sunday

A couple of years ago, in the “Bible Literacy” course I used to teach, I received the following wonderful statement from a student. One of the nicest things that has ever happened to me as a teacher, I think. I did ask the student if I could share it, so here it is. JDF

<<This is probably more of a rant though it rambles on – and I suppose being a rant it delves to something more emotional than strictly academic, but I can’t seem to help having an emotional response to the text. Having now reached the end of the semester, the end of the text, and apparently the end of the world, my perspective is an entire glance backward from beginning to end and my response to it. My rant is mostly about perspective, though it does ramble to adjacent subjects.

<<I personally find the Bible difficult to engage with. When I signed up for “Studies in Non-Dramatic Seventeenth Century Literature”, I did so at a glance, and didn’t even realize it was a Bible-centric course. I thought it would be the usual Miltons and Donnes (which we did touch upon) and not simply the King James Bible as is. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first but opted to give it a go, albeit hesitantly. Christian and Biblical imagery is scattered all over western literature, but studying the Bible and analyzing it as a text on its own is a different story.

<<To be blunt, I’m a gay woman who grew up in a very Christian environment and these two realities did not mesh together kindly at all. For a very long time, the Bible was nothing more than a traumatizing text that, in my eyes, was a barely coherent strung-together mess of ancient prejudices. It was a simple and stagnant text that had no place in the modern world, a text that only encouraged a single perspective and the cruelties that came with it. I did not always like returning to this text and these stories and words, and even considered dropping the class a couple times, but our approach to studying it kept me engaged in a way I did not expect. I did not anticipate finding anything new in a text I had already had hammered into me, sometimes in not so-great ways, for the first two decades of my life.

<<Reading the Bible as a piece of literature, as a narrative, as something with a beginning (or many beginnings) and something with an end – as a text that had been stitched together to form something of a literary tapestry to relate the mythos of a subjugated people – as a reflexive piece of literature that grows and builds upon its own narrative rather than stagnates – was a revolutionary perspective. Part of my mind is still in week one, learning about how the text has always existed as a translation, and what that means when it comes to interpretation – namely that our readings are always interpretive and not definitive.  Not only that, but it is a text that needs to be re-interpreted.  

<<I never noticed before how some stories repeat, how we have multiple beginnings and how they differ slightly – for example Adam and Eve being presented equally the first time but with Eve assuming a secondary role the second time. Learning these variations existed because they were particular selections taken from a larger collection of stories made me view them differently. The text was less stagnant. The different authors and different voices came through clearer. Still confusing at times, but not necessarily incoherent so much as just very busy, very active.

<<For further example, I’ve heard the gospels all my life. There is hardly a parable I don’t know. However, I always heard them out of order. I never even took careful note of who wrote each one. It seemed like the same stories repeating in a bland drone, but reading it in order revealed stark differences. Different perspectives, different voices, such as the (sometimes more colourful) stories in the Book of John compared to the first three gospels. I never noticed the little details in the stories. I was so taken with Mary and Jesus having their little back-and-forth in the story of the wedding at Cana that I actually went home and showed it to my sister. It was something neither of us had ever really noticed.

<<I liked some of the literary visuals and thought there were beautiful images. The Book of Exodus was exciting, and the story of Rahab had that lovely visual throwback with the red string in the window resembling the red blood of Passover. Her role in that story remained with me, the image of the red string a striking one. The story of Jael in the book of Judges, who kills a man by driving a tent stake through his head, and who is a heroine to the Jewish people, was a story I had never even heard before, and I thought that was too bad.

<<I said this rant was on perspective and it somewhat is, but I suppose if I really wanted to rant and be mad about something, it would be about how this text is often delivered. Because I am mad and upset. Upset that I was made to hate what is a colourful and diverse narrative. Upset that until recently I could not enjoy these details and these stories or appreciate any beautiful images thanks to the distorted simplification that was a single perspective, one that was used only to cause pain. I hope to go forward and rectify this, and expand my own perspective, one which until recently has been woefully narrow.>>

Fully vaccinated against Covid-19, but worried about the future, I reflect on something else

I am thinking about the flu shot.

I have never gotten it. Shocking, I know. But as far as I can understand, the evidence for the flu shot’s effectiveness is a whole lot shakier than the claims made for it.

The US CDC, for example, roundly states on its website that “the flu shot works.” But then (if you actually read the page), it turns out that “works” means: “reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to those used to make flu vaccines.”

You see, influenza viruses change every year. There’s always a bunch of them in circulation. Pharma companies make educated guesses, each year, about what the coming season’s flu mix will look like. When they guess wrong, notes the CDC, “vaccination may provide little or no protection.”

And how frequently is that the case—all those nurses, just firing blanks? We simply are not told.

And that’s before we ask what the phrase “reduces the risk,” in that guessed-right, 40-60% scenario, actually means. And that’s before we get to the nature of the studies that are used to support that claim. And that’s before we get to the many non-flu viruses, circulating each season, and causing flu-like symptoms; against which the seasonal flu shot (as CDC frankly notes) has zero effect.

So, basically, I pass no judgment on people who get the flu shot. But, on my own judgment, I pass.

Now, I understand that bugs some people. “OMG,” they’ll say. “Obviously no vaccine is a hundred percent effective”—but I have to stop them there. Admitting that the flu shot doesn’t confer perfect immunity is like admitting that a crystal amulet doesn’t prevent all cancers.

The question is not whether we should get a vaccine that clearly confers at least some significant benefit. The question is whether we should get a vaccine that may well confer little benefit, or none.

“Ok—fine” (says my imaginary flu-shot friend). “Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that the flu shot may be only marginally effective. That’s still an argument for getting the shot! If you catch the flu, you’ll probably experience temporary loss of productivity. You may need attention from the health-care system. And you’ll participate in a cycle of viral mutation and transmission that puts some people, such as the elderly, at serious risk.

“Maybe the flu shot only moves that dial a little. How little is too little (you selfish contrarian jerk)?! The flu shot is an approved medical intervention that has the potential to reduce human suffering, at least a bit. That’s a clear win. So go get the shot! What’s the down side?”


It’s a pain, first of all. That may sound outrageously trivial, compared to the alleged potential benefit of the flu shot. But of course, the question before us is precisely whether there really is any such potential benefit.

Suppose you are told to travel to an unfamiliar location, present identification, fill out a bunch of forms, and wait for a while—so that somebody can stick a pin in you. At least in those mysterious and uncounted “guessed wrong” years, that pretty much describes getting the flu shot. I think in such a case we struggle to see the upside, not the down.

Then, there is real and measurable risk in getting any shot. There can be side-effects. Puncturing the skin and inserting something into the bloodstream, in general, seems like an activity you want to avoid. So does crowding into a waiting room with a bunch of strangers who may be carrying various contagions. To be sure, these are almost certainly small risks. But how small is small enough? This is the risk-benefit argument in reverse. For a vaccine, like those against Covid-19, that moves an important dial quite a lot, benefit clearly outweights risk. It is far from clear, I would say, that the same goes for the flu shot.

Finally: it seems to me that we should really only render ourselves patients of the medical system when necessary. This isn’t only a moral point, but also a hygienic one.

When we are healthy, we do not need doctors. When we do not need doctors, we are healthier than when we do. A high positive value, both moral and hygienic, attaches to non-contact with the medical system.

Sometimes, to be sure, we have no choice but to give this up. Illness makes us submit, for prevention, or cure. But this, with regard to our management of our own lives and health, is always negative, and never trivial. The down side.

In the case of something like Covid? Yes, we have to take that hit. Once, twice, maybe even three times.

But in the case of something like seasonal flu—year after year after year after year? I really don’t think so.

It seems to me that the decision to get or not get the flu shot stands well within the range of choices that individal adults need to make, for themselves, about the management of their own health.

And I certainly hope it remains there.

(Coda: The “stopping the spread” argument is perhaps the most persuasive one for getting the flu shot. Protecting the elderly, the immunocompromised, “those who can’t get the shot,” etc. This seems to me a weird one, on two grounds.

First: if, as may well be the case [see above] the shot is actually ineffective against flu, then it is hard to see how it can be effective against transmission of flu.

Second: One thing that has been drummed into us with regard to Covid-19 is that vaccinated people–and here we are talking about vaccines of high, demonstrated efficacy–can still spread the virus. It has even been loudly insisted that the vaxxed, precisely because they can contract the virus without  getting sick, may blissfully be carrying higher viral loads than the unvaxxed, and are therefore *more* dangerous transmitters of the virus. [Cue scenes of fully-vaxxed people wearing masks and having to undergo PCR tests.] Can it really be the case that a flu vaccine of dubious effectiveness is nonetheless more effective than the Covid vaccines at halting the transmission cycle? Curiouser and curiouser. Perhaps the pharmaceutical companies whose bread and butter the yearly flu shot is can explain it to us.)

Connecting (to 1. Cor. 13)

[I’ve had in mind for a long time to write a general-access, I mean non-academic, introduction to the Bible. I worked for a long time on this rather long piece, which I meant as the first chapter. However, even if I do the book, I don’t think I’ll use this part anymore; so here it is. Yes, another post on the scripture with which I am obviously obsessed.]

Let’s talk about the 1970s for a moment. Let’s talk about All in the Family. 

As everybody who grew up then knows, this was one of the most successful TV sitcoms of all time. Its central character, Archie Bunker, was a fiftysomething longshoreman from Queens, NY. Macho, racist, and sexist, Archie clashed constantly with his liberal son-in-law, Mike—or “Meathead,” as Archie called him. Rounding out the famlily were Archie’s nubile daughter Gloria (“Little Girl”), and confused wife Edith (“Dingbat”). It doesn’t sound like much. But All in the Family ran for 9 seasons, guest-starred everybody from Dan Rather to Sammy Davis Jr., and made its regular cast members household names.

One episode of the show has always stuck in my mind. (It’s season 7, episode 21, if you’re wondering.) It features Archie, Gloria and Mike—Carrol O’Connor, Sally Struthers, and the incomparable Rob Reiner—catching the subway from the Bronx back to Queens. The train breaks down (a glimpse of 70s New York) and they are stuck for a while, underground, in the stationary car. 

Hilarity ensues. 

Actually, what ensues is a brilliant little morality play, punctuated by Archie’s one-liners, but focussed on a random middle-aged couple who are embroiled in a domestic dispute. The wife is tired, bitter, bitchy; the husband drunk, exasperated, and violent. Their argument escalates, the whole car watching. Archie cracking jokes.

Eventually the husband says to the wife: “Remember all the days I used to say that someday, someday I’m gonna kill ya? Well, today is the day!” And he starts enthusiastically strangling her. Everybody steps in—including Gloria. The drunken husband shoves her away. Mike reacts—decking the man. The rest of the episode is an extended denouement.

Mike is devastated by what he has done. In the past he has marched against the Vietnam War, idolized King and Gandhi, abhorred violence. Yet in a moment of crisis—like the drunk husband himself—he resorted to it. 

And that’s not the worst part. 

“When my fist hit the man’s face,” he exclaims to Gloria: “I didn’t hate it.” Reiner brings his character to a moment of tragic recognition. He’s supposed to be the new American man, the anti-Archie. But deep inside, maybe he’s no different than his father-in-law. Archie’s odd nickname for him starts to make sense: maybe he really is just a big Meat Head, with swinging fists to match, if he lets them go. Woodstock, looking in the mirror, sees On the Waterfront.

Archie retorts: “Of course you didn’t hate it! It’s supposed to feel good!” The older man, veteran of all that black-and-white machismo, is elated. (“All ya done was belt him.”) Finally, this pudgy, wimpy, oversized boy, who has somehow managed to get himself married to the golden-haired Gloria, has acted like a man. 

Archie is so eager to make the moment good that he takes up the role, improbable for him, of counsellor. “Listen,” he says to Mike. “I can take you all the way back to the Bible. Back to the book of—Ecclesiastissus. Mark, uh, four two dot seven or somethin.” The studio audience (there was always a studio audience, for the taping of 70s sitcoms) chuckles at Archie’s ridiculous attempt to find his way back to a Biblical citation. The comedy is heightened by O’Connor’s deft rendition of a New York Irish lilt—a speech pattern straight out of the 1930s. “Fait, hope, and charidy,” he intones to Mike: “and of these, the greatest, is violence?”

The audience erupts in laughter. And that’s what I find fascinating.

Archie has misquoted scripture: specifically, the famous conclusion of First Corinthians, chapter 13, in the King James (or Authorized) Version. The scripture is the first epistle (or letter), written by St. Paul to the disputatious Christians of the ancient Greek city of Corinth. Trying to help them resolve their conflicts, Paul reaches for a contrast between this world and the next. “Then shall I know,” he explains, “even as also I am known.” But for now, in this world, knowing is just not what we do. 

Instead, we have to find our way “through a glass, darkly.” We have to fall back on basic moral intuitions like faith, hope—and above all, charity. That word, in this scripture, doesn’t mean giving stuff away. Instead, “charity” translates the Latin word caritas; which translates, in turn, Paul’s Greek: agape. Those words mean “love.” And that is the English word you will find in some other versions of this passage.

If we make that substitution (what scholars call an emendation) we hear the scripture Archie is citing in its most beautiful, moving form:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. …

And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Or, in the famous King James version that Archie Bunker is trying, and failing, so spectacularly, to remember: “The greatest of these is charity.”

Archie misquotes scripture. The audience laughs—uproariously. You see? That means they get it. They hear the mistake. And that means, in turn, that they know how that scripture is supposed to go

The writers of this extremely successful show, surely some of the best-paid in that industry at that time, are betting on the line “and the greatest of these is violence.” And they’re not writing for seminarians, or even church-goers. They’re writing for a random cross-section of Los Angelenos and tourists at a taping of a popular sitcom in 1977. 

Today, nobody would expect this kind of random North American audience to recognize a misquotation of First Corinthians. Or any other scripture, for that matter.

But All in the Family reminds us that mainstream English-language culture of the post-war generation still lived in a deep and working familiarity with the Bible. This was the era of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. Today those shows still get revived; but they couldn’t possibly get written. My own family didn’t go to church, yet I picked up Bible stories from school, from Christmas carols—from TV. The stuff was everywhere. But now, I think, almost nowhere.

So what? Maybe nothing. But if anything, maybe something like this: When I was in college, I met another character who misquotes 1.Cor.13. She was created by John Milton (later to become the author of Paradise Lost), in his dramatic work Comus (1634). Lost and alone in a dark wood, Milton’s “Lady” is threatened by forces spiritual, physical, and sexual. To comfort herself, she calls on 

“Pure-eyed Faith, white-handed Hope

(Thou hov’ring Angel girt with golden wings),

And thou unblemished form of Chastity—”

What? Faith, hope, and chastity? A rank garbling of the scripture. And there’s no question that Milton’s audience is supposed to hear it.

When I first read those lines, 25 years ago, I immediately thought of All in the Family—that episode, Archie’s misquote, that I had watched from the living room couch, all those years before. I knew where I was with this line from Milton—and it was many places at once. 

Seventeenth-century England, but also twentieth-century Hollywood. First-century Corinth, but also 1970s Vancouver. A thread of meaning connected them all, familiarizing the strange text before me—and making the familiar strange. Nothing could have been more ordinary, to my memory, than sitting in the living room watching All in the Family. But it turned out that what I was doing, when I was doing that, was something really strange: preparing myself to read John Milton. Even, eventually, becoming an English professor. Who tries to write a book about the Bible.

This kind of thing, this complex and time-delayed thread of engagement, is what we call belonging to a tradition. That word raises some people’s hackles, but it just means the stories and practices that get handed down, from person to person, generation to generation. There are multiple, even innumerable, traditions; just as there are multiple, even innumerable, cultures and languages of humanity. 

I’m old enough to belong, at least somewhat, to the tradition of the Bible in the English-speaking world. As a result, I’m able to make connections between its far-flung manifestations—and you can’t get much farther apart than Archie Bunker and Milton’s Lady. This kind of thing, basically, makes life more interesting.

Suppose you drag a teenager through one of the great art museums of the world. She or he looks at those endless paintings of saints and Madonnas and fat ugly babies and thinks: W-T-F. To be able to say more, to bridge the gap with the art, it’s necessary to learn the stories and concepts that the paintings are about. If we can do that, we may find that they open up and start to talk to us. It’s more fun that way. 

But if those were the only stakes—cultural literacy—they wouldn’t be very high. Learning about the Bible just to understand art based on the Bible? That’s going round in circles. 

If there is to be a non-religious argument for familiarity with this text, then it has to be grounded on the actual content of the work. And I’d like to suggest three arguments of that kind. 

First: The Bible is pretty crazy. Its stories are wild, painful, powerful. Its poetry is searing, gorgeous, and somtimes hallucinogenic; its philosophy frank, ruthless, and frequently profound. The Bible is long, and sometimes repetitive, and sometimes boring. But overall, it is without doubt one of the two or three greatest books in the history of the world.

A second argument is that you’re already quite familiar with it. If you have ever turned the other cheek; or asked about the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of a law; or told anybody that the writing is on the wall, you have talked Bible. 

This isn’t just “cultural literacy” again. It’s more like an argument for personal literacy. Morally, legally, narratively, symbolically, we’re still using Biblical equipment, all the time. The original instruction manual, so to speak, should help us understand it better.

The third argument is the hardest to put. And yet it’s the simplest. The Bible has a lot to teach us. And this whether or not we give the slightest credence to its core message of theism and salvation. 

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a perfect example. For twelve chapters he goes back and forth, tearing his hair out, struggling to give clear directives for moral complexity. 

But then, in chapter 13, he pretty much throws those efforts away—in an all-too-familiar exclamation of frustration and desire. “Fuck it,” he says: “Love.” His way of putting it is just a lot more eloquent. 

We will find a lot of moments like that in the Bible: moments of moral recognition that elevate base things we already know.

Why had I always remembered that episode of All in the Family—where Mike slugs the wife-beater, and Archie misquotes St. Paul? 

Not because I was especially interested in or moved by the scripture. No: I remembered that episode because domestic violence marred my own family. Aged 8 or 9, I was fascinated by the awful secret, the behind-closed-doors trauma, being put on show in the stalled subway car. And so, I would bet, were millions of children, watching this wholesome show, in prime time.

That sounds like a compliment to the writers and producers of the show. And so it is. But let’s notice how they use the scripture. Mike’s reaction to the drunk husband feels good, but solves nothing. Archie, in a brilliant role-reversal, is the one who shows us—as St. Paul also puts it—a more excellent way. 

Now, Archie screws it up. He misquotes Paul, even travesties him. But the mistake still works! The laughter that the audience shares, based on their shared understanding of Biblical tradition, defuses the tension. 

Our moral lives, as St. Paul himself recognizes in agony, are a pageant of warring imperatives. We don’t need to be Christian, or Jewish, or anything else to get that. The Bible puts our conflicts on display. But it also reminds us of the resources we will always need, if we are to resolve them.

And the greatest of these is love.

Memoir: Intro.

In the summers of the 1970s, my parents rented a cabin on Gabriola Island. Woody and dark, the cabin perched at the water’s edge. A small bright lawn, then a rocky shelf of beach. My older brother and I loved the gleaming cove, where we splashed and swam when the tide was high; searched for starfish and bullheads and urchins when it went way, way out. As a family, we made daily trips to the island’s twin beaches, and regularly poked through its Malaspina Galleries: A sandstone headland, carved into a long half-pipe by the waves, and crowned with a grove of twisting Arbutus trees. 

I have always loved these trees. They are hardwood, but evergreen. Intricate, arching boughs. Their russet bark is paper-thin, smooth, warm. It curls off, revealing chartreuse wood, peach, pistachio. Arbutus leaves are waxy, almond-shaped, and sea-green. But underfoot, they’re always crackling—brown as roasted chestnuts, as dry as palm fronds. Deep in the island forests, Arbutus grow tall: massive trunks, 50 feet high, reaching for the sun between hemlock and maple and cedar. But right on the beach, they lean into the wind: copper origami, among shore pine, and garry oak. When you drive north from Vancouver, heading for the ferry, you start to see the trees I love along the side of the highway. But if you drive a little farther, you don’t see them anymore. My favourite trees grow only in dry, rocky soil, within a few miles of the ocean. They are called Madrones south of the U.S. border, Arbutus only north of it. The Gulf Islands and facing coasts are their entire Canadian range.

Gabriola was one of the few places where my family could have been called happy. At home, on the west side of Vancouver, we lived in a cycle of tension and violence. My mother, unstable, would bitch and bait and rage. My father, solipsistic, would retreat and resist and ignore – until indulging himself in a magnificent apocalypse. Some of my earliest memories are of crying with my brother at the top of the stairs, while crashes and screams came up from the kitchen. I used to think about the long knives, rattling in their wooden drawer. I was terrified he was going to yank one out and stab her. But he never did; and after each of these storms, we usually entered a period of relative calm. Until the pressure rose again.

 In later years, it used to puzzle me how little actual physical damage I could remember seeing on my mother. For that matter, I could hardly remember ever seeing my father strike her – just hearing those crashes and screams. On the other hand, there was that time I saw Dad sweep the dishes from the dinner table, and put Mom in a headlock. And that other time, when he dragged her out of our apartment—during one of our sabbatical years in Europe—roughly enough that my brother went upstairs to stammer in German to the unknown neighbors. And that other time, when she had a fat lip (which she said had been caused by a wasp). And a broken nose, that other time  (somehowrother). And that other time, a broken wrist (car accident). 

So, in later years still, I realized that I had seen more than I saw.

Anyway, on Gabriola, it was as though those demons were stilled. I don’t remember my parents’ ever fighting there. I do remember them, occasionally, giggling, touching, or even flirting—very unusual, and somehow unfitting, like a toothbrush stuck in an ear. The good feeling was all the stranger, since my mother was an obsessive cleaner, and the cabin was basically a shack: outhouse, grimy kitchen, water drawn from a well. Yet she took it in stride. Maybe these vacations coincided with my parents’ seasons of truce. Or maybe they just made the best of it. Or maybe that’s just what my mind has chosen to remember.

Thirty years later, I visited Gabriola again. I assumed the old rental would be long gone—but I came upon it, while out for a run, on the very first morning. Nothing much had changed – apart from a few progressive details, like the disappearance of the outhouse. 

Here was the concrete ramp, where we launched the cabin’s rowboat. My father hated killing the fish we caught; so it died very slowly. 

There was the erratic boulder, balanced solemnly on its end. Only the very highest tides came even close to covering it. “Spring tides”: a magical phrase.

Here was the bench, along the mossy side of the house, where my parents told my brother and me that we would be getting another sibling. Aged 10, I was shocked, primarily by their advanced age – my Dad being then 40, my Mom a few years younger. 

The place was, if anything, more beautiful than I had remembered it. A shore breeze shook the lush trees along the water’s edge.

I thought: it was a blessing on us. And I experienced that thought, itself, as a blessing.

Then I ran back to start my vacation with my own wife and children.

The Man in Black

(Alternative title: Third and Final Very Long Musing on the Bible, Shakespeare, St. Paul, and Love.) 

In my last two posts, I’ve been chasing the irony of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” etc. In particular, I’ve been trying to make sense of the paradoxical statement that comes and goes, bewilderingly, at the end of that poem’s second line: “love is not love.” 

This has led me, first, to Plato’s Symposium, in the fourth century BC; and then to St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 (1. Cor. 13), in the first century AD. Thereafter, I’ve discussed the paradox that Paul himself embodies. The leader of the new faith, Christianity, was in the first place the defender of the old: Judaism. At the same time, Saul is supposed to have been “really” Paul all along, his true or inner being merely getting revealed in the famous moment of his conversion. Ultimately, Saul is Paul; and yet Paul is not Saul. This doubled person, this redoubled paradox, gives us 1. Cor. 13: one of the greatest love-poems in all literature. 

And that, too, is paradoxical. For Paul, generally speaking, is no love-poet. 

He famously advises that “it is better to marry than to burn” (1. Cor. 7: 9)—by which he seems to mean “in desire,” but seemingly also “in Hell,” for the sin of fornication. Paul himself is proudly celibate, and lays much of the theological foundation for the later Catholic demonization of sexuality. In the book of Acts, while he zips around the eastern Mediterranean organizing the early church, Paul has many followers and co-workers; but none we would really call a friend. He has no children of his own (obviously), but we never meet any Pauline parents or siblings, either. (We will come back to this.) The representation of this powerful man in art, which reaches back to very early times, makes him consistently vinegary: tall and gaunt, trim dark beard, widow’s peak. St. Peter, with whom our man is frequently depicted, is hale and hearty. He looks like he could give you a nice bear hug. But St. Paul? A curt handshake, and an icy stare. His apostolic symbol is a drawn sword. 

In the stories of Acts, Paul is dedicated, indefatigable—and ruthless. At Acts 21, for example, he causes an uproar in Jerusalem by preaching Christianity in the Jewish Temple. Seized by an enraged crowd, Paul is saved from lynching by the city’s Roman garrison—only to rile the mob up even more, with a gleefully incendiary oration (in 22). Brought before the Temple authorities, the apostle perceives that they are divided between Sadduccees and Pharisees—competing sects of Jewish fundamentalists at this time. Having himself been raised a Pharisee, he cries out shrewdly: “Of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question!” (Acts 23: 6) As the scripture patiently explains (23: 8), this was one of the main doctrinal points dividing the two sects. And so there arises “a great cry,” and “a great dissension” (23: 9-10), as the opponents of the new faith fall upon each other. Paul is litigator, tactician, logistician, gaslighter. But lover? 

To be sure, when he calls upon “faith, hope and love”—and says that “of these, the greatest is love” (1. Cor. 13: 13)—Paul is talking about heavenly or spiritual or “higher” love: agapē in Greek, caritas in Latin (as indicated by the translation “charity” in the King James Version). But presumably, higher love is still love. Not not-love. 

All of which is to say that when Paul tells the Corinthians that all they need is love, somebody might well object: What the heck do you know about it?

Now, as I was saying last time, Paul is the only person by that name in the entirety of the Bible (if we discount the “Sergius Paulus” who appears in Acts 13, seemingly just to introduce the name itself). This matters, because the scriptures re-use names very carefully. It is not by accident, to cite the most obvious example, that Jesus (or Yeshua), who is supposed to lead humanity into the Promised Land of eternal life, bears the same name as the Old Testament figure who led the Israelites into their promised land of Canaan: Joshua. Neither is it by accident that Jesus’s earthly Dad, Joseph, is advised in a dream to find refuge for his family in Egypt; just as his Old Testament namesake, he of the technicolour dreamcoat, found refuge there for his. Name-games of this kind are one aspect of an extremely rich system of analogies, binding together the two great parts of the Bible, that scholars call typology. Old Testament originals find New Testament reiterations that are supposed to constitute their explanation and fulfillment. The almost comical reycycling of names in Acts, which I discussed last time, is like a New Testament mini-golf version of this procedure.

Against all of that typological background, “Paul” stands alone. But not “Saul.” There is another very important person by that name, in the Old Testament; and he, like the one in the New, is a champion of the Jewish (or Hebrew) people. Old Testament Saul, like his New Testament avatar, undergoes an ecstatic conversion—into himself. The two Sauls, we are carefully told, are even from the same part of the overall Hebrew family: both are members of the tribe of Benjamin, descendants of the youngest son of Jacob/Israel (see Phillipians 3.5). The mirroring of Saul and Saul is no mystical effect, but a brilliantly and carefully literary—typological—one. In other words, the author of Acts (by tradition St. Luke) knows exactly what he is doing. I want to suggest now that if we turn the New Testament image of Paul back toward its Old Testament countenance, we gain an interpretative advantage on 1. Cor. 13.

We meet the Old Testament Saul in the First Book of Samuel. This describes the end of an historical period during which the Hebrew people were led by a series of warrior-prophets, called Judges. The eponymous Samuel, in a sense, is the last of these—but purely as a spiritual, rather than military, leader. Which leads into our story: because the Hebrew tribes are clamoring for a King. A proper, powerful, right royal commander-in-chief, to lead them into battle against the non-Hebrew peoples that surround and beset them. God, for a long time, declines their request. (He seems to think that He is the only King they need.) Until sending them Saul.

He looks the part. As we are repeatedly told, Saul is physically imposing, standing head and shoulders above everybody else. In other ways, though, Saul is an unikely candidate for the purple. His tribe, the Benjaminites, is the smallest of the 12 tribes that make up the Hebrews. Among the Benjaminites, Saul’s is no great family. And Saul himself is just a young nobody. We first see him on a long and frustrating search for his father’s “asses” (donkeys), which have gone on a self-guided tour of the Holy Land. “And he passed through mount Ephraim, and passed through the land of Shalisha, but they found them not: then they passed through the land of Shalim, and there they were not: and he passed through the land of the Benjamites, but they found them not.” Eventually, in a kind of folkloric desperation, Saul and his companions decide to ask the prophet, or “seer”—Samuel, the great Judge of Israel himself—about the wayfaring quadrupeds. 

Coming to the town where Samuel is lodging, Saul asks directions to his house. The very person he asks turns out to be the seer himself. Who tells him that the donkeys have been found. And takes Saul and his fellow-seekers home. And gives them a big dinner. And beds for the night. And sees them on their way in the morning. “And as they were going down to the end of the city, Samuel said to Saul … stand thou still a while, that I may shew thee the word of God” (1.Sam. 9:27):

Then Samuel took a vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not because the LORD hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance?

When thou art departed from me to day, then thou shalt find two men by Rachel’s sepulchre in the border of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say unto thee, The asses which thou wentest to seek are found: and, lo, thy father hath left the care of the asses, and sorroweth for you, saying, What shall I do for my son?

Then shalt thou go on forward from thence, and thou shalt come to the plain of Tabor, and there shall meet thee three men going up to God to Bethel, one carrying three kids, and another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a bottle of wine:

And they will salute thee, and give thee two loaves of bread; which thou shalt receive of their hands.

After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines: and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they shall prophesy:

And the Spirit of the LORD will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man.

… And it was so, that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart: and all those signs came to pass that day. (1 Sam 10: 1-9.)

It is spine-tingling. Flat on his back, out of his mind on YHWH, the kid becomes the king. Saul, Saul. Just as his later namesake, Paul.

Turns out Saul’s pretty good at being his new Him. Especially the fighting-our-enemies part. In between sessions of smiting, Saul acquires a wife, “Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz” (1. Sam. 14:50). They have three sons: “Jonathan, and Ishui, and Melchishua.” And two daughters, “the name of the firstborn Merab, and the name of the younger Michal” (1. Sam. 14:49). 

Unfortunately, Saul displeases God. (He fails, after a specific conquest, to annihilate every single living thing down to the children and livestock. It is one of those indigestible moments of the Old Testament.) And so God directs Samuel to find a new, replacement King, among the sons of a man called Jesse:

And it came to pass, when they were come, that [Samuel] looked on Eliab, and said, Surely the LORD’S anointed is before him.

But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth …

Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.

Then Jesse made Shammah to pass by. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.

Again, Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said unto Jesse, The LORD hath not chosen these.

And Samuel said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Send and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither.

And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to. And the LORD said, Arise, anoint him: for this is he. (1 Sam. 16: 6-12)


Little by little, Saul loses his kingdom to the upstart. And not his kingdom only. Jonathan, Saul’s eldest son, loves David “as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18: 4). So does Michal, Saul’s younger daughter. David himself, at first, is like an adoptive son to the King: living in the royal household, accompanying Saul into battle, playing music (in a famous and beautiful story) that brings the old man peace. When David first challenges the Philistine giant Goliath, Saul dresses the boy in his own armour: “an helmet of brass upon his head,” and “a coat of mail” on his back. But young David “cannot go [walk]” with them; so he goes without them (1 Sam. 17: 38-39). It is a perfect little episode of quasi-paternal doting. 

But then—through anger, envy, paranoia, drink—Saul alienates his symbolic heir. David wages a guerilla campaign against his erstwhile King, his second father. He marries Michal, even though Saul tries to take her away from him. Eventually, both Saul and Jonathan die at the hands of the Philistines. David goes on to become the great King of Israel that Saul—it seems—was never truly meant to be.

And David has many wives and children. And they fight amongst themselves. And the King favours some of them, rejects others. Fasts for a week, praying on the ground, while one of his babies lies ill. Gets up and washes and eats when the kid dies; because, as he brusquely tells his servants, he can’t do anything more for him now. With the gorgeous Bath-sheba—whom David stole from his loyal and virtuous general Uriah, causing him to be killed, for exactly this purpose—David has another son right away: Solomon. And he becomes King. And has many wives and children. And they fight amongst themselves. And it goes on like that.

What runs through this long story, from its origins to its aftermath? From Saul’s Dad pining for his son, in the First Book of Samuel; to Solomon worrying over his, in the First Book of the Kings?

It seems to me the answer is obvious. These are stories of love. Not so much eros, although there is certainly some of that. Nor, exactly, agapē—although God himself certainly showers his love down very capriciously, redirecting it from Saul (who scarcely deserves this treatment) to David (who scarcely deserves this treatment). And that’s a clue, I think. God behaves in this part of the Bible like a father who plays favourites. Saul is like the older son who can’t do anything right; David, the younger one who can’t do anything wrong. Learning from Him, the fathers in this part of the Bible play favourites, too. With everything that results from that sad yet organic tendency. The love that dominates the Saul-David-Solomon stories, shapes them and makes them, isn’t primarily erotic, or heavenly, but something else. Unlike eros and agapē, Greek doesn’t give us a tidy term for this other kind of love (there are philia and storge, but neither of them really captures it). But we know what we are talking about: it’s love filial, and parental. The love of family.

For most of us, obviously, this is the first love we ever know; recalled in adulthood, if we can do that, like drops from a precious vial. As for those tragic people who never get to drink—well, they will struggle to love, anybody or in any way, throughout their lives. If erotic love makes us, as infants, family love re-makes us, as children. And if we don’t get re-made in that way, we can never be made right. 

Saul, in the Old Testament, mirrors Paul in the New. Saul’s story is full of love, and lovers; Paul’s, not so much. And yet he is the Saul who sings a hymn to love. Paul may be unfamiliar with the erotic kind; he may not be able to explain the heavenly. But Paul knows family love, if he knows any love at all. This is what the story of Saul, Paul’s Old Testament Other, reminds us.

And yet: where is Paul’s family?

Look how carefully, in the books of Samuel and Kings, the members of Saul’s and David’s and Solomon’s families are introduced and named: Ahinoam, Jonathan, Ishui, Melchishua, Merab, Michal, Eliab, Abinadab, Jesse, Bath-Sheba—and many, many more. The contrast with Acts—with Saul-Paul’s family background—is stark. We are told that he’s from Tarsus. That he’s a Roman citizen by birth. A tent-maker by trade. But that’s about all we are told. No siblings, parents, or even surrogates are so much as mentioned in his story.

With one exception. 

In Acts 22, as I have mentioned, Paul makes a speech to his own would-be lynch mob. He is being led into detention by the Roman soldiers who have just saved him from being torn apart. Requesting and receiving permission to address his tormentors, Paul pauses “on the stairs” of the citadel and beckons to them (Acts 21: 40). It is a moment of astonishing drama. “And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying,”

Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you. …

I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.

And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.

As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.

And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.

And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.

And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.

And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there,

Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight.

And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. …

And [the listening crowd] gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live. (Acts 22: 1-22).

Paul’s “defense” is the best offense. Not an apology for, but a reiteration of, the very faith he has been preaching; and centred on the story of his own conversion. This we have read before, in Acts 9. Here, let us note, Paul tropes his Damascus experience very much as a choice of loved ones. He turns his face toward the Christian Ananias, who speaks for “our fathers,” and welcomes Saul-Paul as “brother.” He turns his back on the Jewish “elders” and “brethren,” on whose behalf he has formerly breathed such fire. And among them—the only figure of Saul’s entire family of origin, broadly construed, to be named in Acts—is the man who brought him up: Gamaliel.

The name, as Johnny Cash notes in his rollicking gospel rendition of this story (“The Man in White”), means “the beauty of the Lord.” And that certainly is very beautiful. But more important, I think, is the kind of person who bears this name—or rather, whose name Paul bears, so casually and yet so purposefully, into his speech on the steps of the castle. Gamaliel was Saul’s master and teacher, his father in the faith. We are reminded here that Saul was not just any Jew, but a Pharisee: a passionate fundamentalist, “taught according to the perfect manner of the law.” In contemporary Jewish terms, we can perhaps think of him as ultra-orthodox. Indeed, Saul of Tarsus, as we have seen, was a virtuoso, a superstar student of Pharisiacal fundamentalism, leading the charge to stamp out the Nazarene heresy. In that sense, he had already made the free choice to re-affirm the family into which he had been born. How he must have made old Gamaliel’s heart swell with pride and joy! Until he made it burst, with pain and despair. When he came out, so to speak, as himself.

Paul is a rebel. A runaway. A traitor. He makes a mockery of the family, and the love, that made him what he is; erasing them almost totally, retaining and displaying only the token of his old teacher’s name, like a sign of his destruction. Paul claims to be doing this, of course, on behalf of a higher and newer love; which, moreover, he claims to be the true expression of the lower, older kind. Saul becomes Paul, Judaism Christianity. Love, love. But the meaning at the end differs radically from the beginning. 

How, then are we to understand 1. Cor. 13?

It seems to me the text still stands out. Sticks out, even, and more than it did before, as a result of the analysis we have attempted. Paul’s transition from Judaism to Christianity, from his old self to his new, is experienced and understood by him as a movement out of love: the only love he will ever know, the love of his family, whom he has erased, save for that single name of Gamaliel, carried in his pocket like a tired souvenir. A remembrancer. And indeed, in 1. Cor. 13, Paul remembers. As all runaways do, from time to time. If only to reconfirm, over and over again, the glory of their flight. From the other side, having reached Damascus, Saul-Paul looks back. And asks: 

Can’t I be both there and here?

Aren’t you patient enough?

Kind enough? Forbearing enough? 

Long-suffering enough?

Isn’t love just love?

The answer, I guess, is “no.” And this I think is what Shakespeare is teaching us, in sonnet 116. Love is not-love. Because love is always of the not. Whether it alters “when it alteration finds.” “Bends with the remover”—that flash bastard—“to remove.” Comes in reach of Time’s bending sickle. And that doesn’t only cut down rosy lips and cheeks. At the very core of our experience of love–and I think we learn this from Paul, and from Shakespeare, and from Plato– is an absence, a lack, that cannot not be there. As we reach to give the hug. Bend to kiss on the head. Ponder the words that will make our beloved, we hope, love us back. Paul, precisely because he is outside love, knows love, now. It is what he has lost, in between Gamaliel and Ananias.

But the gap is what he gains: Freedom.

Simon and Saul

Some years ago I started teaching a course on the King James Bible. Not as a serious exercise in Biblical scholarship, which I don’t do, but simply as an opportunity for students to gain greater familiarity with the major narratives and characters and theological patterns of the Christian story. Obviously, if you’re going to study literature written in English (or any other European language) prior to, say, the late twentieth century, you’re going to be confronted with Biblical allusions, references, tropes, etc. If you don’t know them, you can’t understand them—simple as that. I chose the King James Version (KJV), published in 1611, mostly because I am that kind of person, and to fit the course rubric (excitingly, “seventeenth-century non-dramatic literature”). However, this ended up making more intellectual sense than I had expected, because KJV effectively is the Bible, as far as most English literature is concerned. Also because (as I have learned) the Bible is only ever available in its various “versions”—products of translation, transmision, and interpretation. A maximally fascinating aspect of this maximally fascinating text.

I’m not sure if I’ll teach my Bible course again (after, I think, eight iterations). I worked hard at it, was proud of it, and believe I did some good with it. However, the problem I came up against, sometimes mildly, sometimes severely, was the very one the course was designed to resolve—but couldn’t. There is simply no longer any basic or coherent relationship between the cultures of 21st-century Canada and the traditions of Christianity. The majority of my students, having no Bible or Church (or temple) background at all, simply found the course too challenging. And challenging it was, even with ruthless and painful selection, to get from Genesis to Revelation in 13 weeks! Meanwhile, a significant minority of my students took my course because they were indeed devoutly Christian (which I am not), and therefore expected my teaching would be, um, easier than they found it. My impression is that the first group typically spent the term listening to me while thinking: “I have no idea what you are talking about.” The second: “You have no idea what you are talking about.” In the end, I couldn’t square this circle.

Nonetheless, I am going to keep thinking and talking about the Bible. And one figure in it I want to talk about right now (following on from my previous post on Shakespeare and Platonism) is St. Paul.

He is the protagonist of the brilliant Book of Acts, which follows the four Gospels in the New Testament. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) describe Jesus’s life and death in first-century Judea under Roman rule. Acts describes what happened next: the founding of the Church. This begins, of course, not with Paul but with Peter—which is actually a nickname, “rock,” from Greek petrus. (We’ll come back to this.) In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, Peter and the rest of the disciples are basically waiting for the world to end. That doesn’t happen; since it doesn’t, they set about organizing themselves into a community based on their heretical belief (and from an orthodox  Jewish point of view, it is really about as bad as it could be) that the charismatic preacher from Nazareth, whom some of them knew and followed, others have only heard and learned about, was no mere prophet, but actually and literally the son of God. 

Paul first appears in the story at Acts chapter 7. Or rather, Saul does—that is his original, given name. Somewhat like Peter, whose real name is the solidly Hebrew “Simon,” the equally (even exceedingly) Hebrew “Saul” is to receive a Greco-Roman renaming that expresses a religious transformation. But when we first meet him, Saul is a Pharisee: a member of a conservative sect of Jewish traditionalists—fundamentalists, we might say—dedicated to preserving the pure worship of the Temple. For that matter, Saul is a Pharisee’s Pharisee: he is leading the counter-attack against the nascent Christian heresy, “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Then, in a moment so stunning it has become proverbial, Saul receives a vision of Christ while on the road to Damascus. After overcoming some initial and, perhaps, understandable hesitation from his new brethren, Saul becomes the indefatigable leader of the faith. (Peter accepts second fiddle, which always strikes me as pretty gracious.) And, eventually, Saul starts to be called Paul.

Now, Simon’s renaming as Peter is dramatic and explicit. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, Jesus is asking the disciples who they think He is. Most of them dodge the question, referring to what other people think: some people say you’re John the Baptist; others that you’re a re-appearance of this or that Old Testament prophet. But Simon answers directly: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

And Jesus answers:

Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. (Matt. 16:16-18).

Or, in the Latin version of that last line, which shaped Europe for a thousand years, and is inscribed to this day in golden lettering around the ceremonial canopy, or baldacchino, that stands before the altar of St. Peter’s own cathedral, in the Vatican: “Tu es petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam.” The Latin lets us hear the pun (petrus, petram) that is involved in the renaming. (It would be nice if we could get a Bible translation that spoke of “St. Rocky.”) And the episode carefully includes the Hebrew name that is getting rewritten, in its full, patronymic form: “Simon Bar-Jona.” Simon son of Jonah. Simon son of the name of the late Old Testament prophet who spent three days in the belly of a whale.

Saul’s renaming is different. Probably, historically, it also has a different basis. By the first century AD, the ancient Jewish world had become very complex—politically, demographically, and geographically. Although still very much centred on the Holy Land, and on Jerusalem, there were Jewish communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and Saul is from one of these: in Tarsus, a Greek-speaking city in what is now southern Turkey. To make matters even more complicated, Tarsus was one of the places in their empire to which the Romans, for one reason or another, had granted the privilege of citizenship. (Paul gets a lot of traction from this at various moments in the book of Acts.) So Saul, in the first place, is not just a Jewish fundamentalist Pharisee; he’s a Hellenized Roman Jewish fundamentalist Pharisee. Anyway, the point is that he probably would have had two names all along: a “Jewish” name for his family and community, and a “Roman” name for the larger society. Simon gets called Peter, and is therefore Simon Peter. But Saul, from the beginning, was probably Saul Paul.

None of which is explained in Acts at all. There isn’t even a “renaming” episode, like Peter’s, for Paul. In Acts 9, on that road to Damascus, Saul gets smacked off his horse by God. Blind for three days, he is led into the city, and into its small Christian community. But still he is called, throughout these episodes, “Saul.” Not until Acts 13, after many dense narrative episodes involving himself and Peter and others, does the name “Paul” appear. And then with only the parenthetical, one-line explanation that Saul “also is called Paul” (Acts 13:9). And that’s it. He’s called “Paul” from then on. And not Saul Paul. Just Paul.

Actually, just before this point in Acts 13, there is an amazing, tiny detail; which I almost dare to suggest may not have attracted much attention. Saul (as he still is being called) and his associate Barnabas have travelled from Salamis to Paphos. There they meet a Jewish sorcerer and “false prophet,” who is under the protection of the local Roman deputy (although the latter is “a prudent man”). The false prophet is called—and this is crazy enough—“Barjesus”: “son of Jesus.” And the deputy? “Sergius Paulus” (Acts 13:7). 

You see? Paul’s new name first first appears in this story as somebody else’s; a somebody of almost no significance, from whom and of whom we never hear again; and who seems to enter the narrative precisely and only to give the name. And “oh yeah,” says the scripture a few verses later. “That’s Saul’s name, too. Yeah. Paul.”

What are we to make of this? I guess it can go two ways—and they are in opposition, or at least tension. 

On the one hand, we could infer that the book of Acts is telling us: “Look, the names don’t matter very much. What matters is who these people are, really or essentially.” And of course, to some extent, that must be correct. 

But precisely for it to be so—for us to look past the names—we need to know that we are doing that. And that brings us to the second way of reading this aspect of Acts; this nudge or hint that we get, when Barjesus, for example, shows up with Sergius Paulus. It is that the book is telling us: “Look: it may not be obvious why, but—trust me on this—when you’re reading this text, you gotta pay attention to the names.”

If we do that, we will notice some fascinating, tantalizing touches in the book of Acts. Names are carefully chosen, and meaningfully re-used. There are two characters called Ananias: one wicked, one devout. There is a disciple with the distinctly unJewish handle of Alexander: the name of the king who founded the empire that the Romans overtook. (He shows up in Ephesus, where the disciples are in danger of being murdered by a crowd of enraged pagans.) Peter, at one point, heals a man called Aeneas: The name of the legendary founder of Rome, hero of Virgil’s Aeneid (itself contemporary with the Gospels). Peter’s Hebrew name, meanwhile, is all over the place. In a Greek form, Simeon, it is the name of a prophet in the church at Antioch, and a priest at Jerusalem. It is the name of another sorcerer and false prophet, Simon Magus, who tries to buy the gift of faith-healing from the apostles (thereby inventing the sin of “simony”). In Acts 10, a devout Roman centurion named Cornelius receives an angelic visitation:

And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.

And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter:

He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do. (Acts 10:4-6).

“Ok,” one can almost imagine Cornelius responding—“But you couldn’t have had Simon Peter stay with somebody called, like, Teddy, or Bob? Do you even know how often the mail gets lost around here?” Lest we think it an accident, the command to the centurion gets repeated twice more in the chapter, each time with the almost comical confusion of Simons.

But—if we discount that trivial, passing “Sergius Paulus”—there is only one Paul in Acts. Only one, for that matter, in the entire New Testament. And only one Saul. And they are one.

The entire, twisting, almost farcical business of nomenclature in Acts, I am arguing, is there to highlight, or backlight, this uniqueness. 

To some extent, it is easy to understand why. After Jesus himself, nobody is more important to Christianity than Paul. Not just because of his organizational role in the first century (described in Acts) or because of his theological writings (which come next in the New Testament). No, the unique importance of Paul comes back to this business of the name. Simon’s renaming, as we have seen, is a big moment. Saul’s is more like an afterthought—because his big moment has already happened. That is in Acts 9, when the blinding light of God descends. There, and then, Saul is changed. Or rather: he is converted. The leading soldier of the old faith becomes the leading soldier of the new. The chief opponent of the church becomes its chief proponent. The Jew—to put it as simply as possible—becomes Christian. And this is crucial: For theologically, the very paradoxical and yet surprisingly intelligible idea here is supposed to be that when that stunning thing happens to Saul, nothing much happens to Paul. He becomes himself, when he hits the dust of the Damascus road. And that is why his name is precisely not changed—not there, not then. That is why Saul was (probably) always also called Paul.

Christianity, you see, is not supposed to be an addition to or alteration of Judaism. It is supposed to be Judaism, in the latter’s true and revealed form. (I ain’t selling it, just describing it.) Jewishness, becoming Christianness, undergoes a conversion; but it is a conversion understood precisely as transformation into the same. What is left is what was really there, or meant to be there, all along. This is what Saul undergoes—what he performs—in Acts. If Peter embodies the church, Paul embodies the faith.

And that, as I said, is kind of the easy part.

The hard part is this: Although there is only one Saul in the New Testament, there is another, a prior, in the Old. And that Saul, too, is a very important figure; and that Saul, too, undergoes a conversion. I think it is beyond question that the Bible wants us (so to speak) to superimpose these two figures, creating a larger symbolic structure. And this is very tricky. For Saul is Paul; and yet Saul is not Saul—the New Testament not the Old. Ultimately, I think, this superparadoxical structure bears on what St. Paul has to say about love (1. Cor. 13). In a later post, I’ll try to explain how.

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