[I have an abiding interest in kitsch and this post provides some theoretical background into kitsch. Originally posted 20th October 2005]
I’ve been asked by some readers “What is ‘Kitsch’?” In this post I will attempt to define it, or more accurately, I will show some ways that it has been used in the discussion of religion & popular culture. I should say at the onset that much of my thoughts on kitsch have been formed in part by the following books:
McDannell’s work is perhaps the classic work on the material culture of different religions from an outsider religious studies perspective, while Brown’s monograph focuses more on the aesthetics of taste. I have not had a chance to examine Spackerman’s work yet, though it looks intriguing. Miller’s absolutely excellent work is an analysis of the effect of advanced capitalism on religion, especially on the effects of the commodification of religion in our culture.
While I am primarily interested in “Christian” kitsch, all religions have their own material culture, and consequently their own kitsch. There are many examples of “Judaikitsch,” Islamic kitsch, and kitsch from eastern religions. Thus you can buy Mitsvah Bears, Krishnah action figures (as well as Shiva and Buddah), or “I Love Allah” rulers.
What is “Kitsch”?
The term “kitsch” gained popularly by the 1930s when it was used to describe poor art. While the etymology of the word is unclear, many suggest the term was coined by German painters during the mid-1800s to deride the cheap “tourist art” bought in Munich (Kitschen with the sense “to make cheap”). Thus, the term “kitsch” is used by many to denote trivial literature, low quality materials, sentimental arts, or vulgar merchandise. Beyond this, McDannell finds that there are three distinct ways or approaches that scholars, artists, and cultural critics use the term “kitsch”: cultural, aesthetic, and ethical.
A Cultural Approach
Sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural studies specialists note that for many the term “kitsch” is pejorative and reflects a cultural bias. In contrast to this understanding of the term, proponents of this perspective understand kitsch as a reflection of educational and economic levels, among other things. Thus Bourdieu notes, “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.” One person’s art will be another person’s kitsch.
Every social group has its own artistic expression that include a system of aesthetics with its own internal logic and we should not judge one group’s material culture by the standard’s of another.
An Aesthetic Response
Artists and cultural critics are not as forgiving as social scientists, and some tend to see kitsch as mass produced and inferior art, a cheap imitation of good art.
This approach places kitsch as a subset of art — it tries to be art, but it ultimately fails. Some proponents of ths approach understand this low quality art as an attempt to identify with the “real art” of the upper classes. Thus, kitsch required the existence of a mature cultural tradition from which inferior copies could be made (Greenberg). Of course, this approach begs the question of who gets to decide what is real art and what is not!
An Ethical Response: Kitsch as Anti-art A final approach to kitsch understands it as containing a negative moral dimension. It holds that art should reflect the true, the good, and the beautiful — and kitsch does not. “Art, then, is, in its own way — no less than theology — a revelation of the Divine” (Lindsay). If this is the case, then kitsch is “the element of evil in the value system of art” (Broch). For example, the ability of kitsch to “sentimentalize the infinite” has ethical connotations as it reduces something meaningful to a bauble and divorces it from its original meaning-providing context. I can’t help but think of all of the “Precious Moments” figurines that elicit an “aww… isn’t that cute” response.
Kitsch and Commodification
The rise of Christian retailing in the 19th and 20th centuries added a new dimension to the whole kitsch debate. While “Jesus junk” has its origins in the 1800s, it exploded with the development of advanced capitalism in the late 1900s. In the 1990s the sales of Christian products exceeded 3 billion annually — and that’s just in the United States! Advanced capitalism, with its outsourcing, niche marketing, and new marketing and advertising techniques has clearly demonstrated that anything — absolutely anything — can become a commodity. This results in the reduction of beliefs, symbols, and religious practices into “free-floating signifiers” to be consumed like anything else. The result is the proliferation of what some would consider “kitsch.”
I have sympathies for all of the approaches to kitsch noted above. The more neutral social-scientific study of kitsch is crucial for understanding the material culture of different groups within Christianity. This I believe has to be the first step in any analysis of kitsch. In regards to the aesthetic approach, I think it is very difficult to maintain a rigid dualism between good art and kitsch — especially in the light of blurred distinctions between camp, pop art, hyper-realism, and even kitsch art.
But when I put on the hat of a theologian and take an “insider” perspective, I find it difficult to maintain neutrality. But rather than take an ethical stance based on some idea of aesthetics, I would base my ethical repsonse based on the affect of advanced capitalism on Christianity. In this sense, I am more concerned with the commodification that much of Christian kitsch represents, than with any evaluation of its artistic merit. I can’t help but think that much of what I would consider “kitsch” devalues and cheapens Christianity (or Judaism, Islam, Hinudism, or any religion) by taking it out of its faith context and reducing it to a product to be consumed like anything else. But then again, I could be wrong!
[I post a lot about Old Testament/Hebrew Bible on this blog. This post explores one of the perennial problem passages in the early chapters of Genesis. Originally posted 03/2009]
One of the many crux interpretums in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis surrounds Yahweh’s negative response to Cain’s offering. Why did Yahweh accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s? Some traditional — yet ultimately unsatisfying — answers include that God prefers animal sacrifices over grain offerings or that God prefers shepherds to farmers. Others have chalked it up to the mystery of Divine election. The New Testament author of Hebrews interprets Yahweh’s disapproval as a matter of faith: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s” (Heb 11:4).
While the biblical text does not indicate explicitly why Yahweh approved of Abel’s offering and disapproved of Cain’s, I wonder if it gives us a hint based upon an under appreciated nuance of Hebrew grammar: the anterior construction. I made reference to Ziony Zevit’s volume, The Anterior Construction in Classical Hebrew (Scholar’s Press, 1998; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com), in a comment on a previous post. Zevit argues that when biblical authors wanted to indicate unambiguously that a given action in the past had commenced and concluded before another action in the past (a pluperfect) or had started but not necessarily finished in the past prior to the beginning of another action (preperfect), they would use the following construction: vav + subject followed by a qatal verb (all preceded a past tense verb). Taking this construction into consideration, here is my translation of the Cain and Abel passage:
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep,
but Cain had been a worker of the ground.
And after many days, Cain brought to Yahweh a gift from the fruit of the ground,
But Abel, he had already brought from the first born of his flock, their fat portions.
Now Yahweh looked with favour to Abel and to his gift,
but to Cain, and to his gift, he did not look with favour.
The use of the anterior construction (indicated by italics) emphasizes that while Cain had started being a worker of the ground before Abel took up his farming (which would have been expected as the older brother), Abel was the first to bring a gift to Yahweh from the fruit of his labours. Moreover, the parallel construction of these verses (as a chiasm, in fact) sets up a clear contrast between the gifts: Cain only brought from the fruit of the ground, while Abel brought the fat portions from the first born of his flock. While we shouldn’t read later sacrificial law back into this account, the fact that Abel’s gift receives additional descriptors suggests that he offered the first and the best.
So while the biblical text doesn’t spell out exactly why Yahweh favoured Abel’s gift, it seems clear from the grammar and syntax of the passage that not only did Abel beat his brother by bringing a gift to Yahweh before him (even though Cain started his career first), he also offered the first and the best of his flock to Yahweh. Perhaps that is why Yahweh looked with favour on Abel’s offering. This understanding comports well with interpretations that suggest the individual’s attitude (or faith) was the reason for Yahweh’s response. In fact, it provides some evidence within the text itself for the difference in attitudes between the brothers.
At any rate, I don’t have time to explore the pros and cons of the anterior construction (it makes some assumptions of the nature of the Hebrew verbal system), but thought I would highlight this one potential way it can shed some light on a difficult passage.
[One of my main areas of research is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. This post talks about how the Greek text can be used to help us understand the Hebrew original. It was originally published 08/2009]
In this post I am laying a foundation for my next installment in my series on Psalm 151 in the Biblical Tradition, by discussing how to retrovert a text from one language into another. This is most commonly done when using the Septuagint in the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Thus, in order to employ the LXX in textual criticism one must retrovert the Greek text back into Hebrew (for more information on the Septuagint and textual criticism in general see my series of posts on Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible). In many cases retroverting a text is easier said than done.
Here are some tips for retroverting a text:
Focus on the translation technique of the individual book in question. The LXX is not a uniform translation. Various translators at different times, with varying philosophies of translation and different language capability, translated different portions of the Hebrew Bible to make up the LXX. For example, the translation of the Torah is a good formal translation, the translation of the Psalter is very formal, while the translations of Proverbs and Isaiah are less so. Thus one cannot assume that the way one translator rendered a particular Hebrew word or construction will be the same fora translator of a different book. Each individual book of the LXX has its own idiosyncrasies to its translation; thus a careful examination of its translation technique is necessary before one can retrovert the text with any confidence.
Examine the different ways a translator renders a particular word. In order to figure out what Hebrew word may be behind a particular Greek word in a passage, you need to look up every instance of the Greek word in question within the biblical book and note what Hebrew word was being rendered. There are a number of useful resources that will help you with this task. If you have a Bible software package with the original language modules, then you can do a Greek lemma search and see what Hebrew was being translated. Even more ideal is if you have Emauel Tov’s The Parallel Aligned Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Texts of Jewish Scripture module where you can see the equivalent elements of the MT and the LXX (as reconstructed by the editor). For more on the different software programs available for Biblical Studies, see my Bible Software pages. If you do not have a Bible software package, then you can manually look up how a word is with Takamitsu Muraoka’s Hebrew/Aramaic Index to the Septuagint: Keyed to the Hatch-Redpath Concordance (Baker Academic, 1998; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com) which also comes included in Edwin Hatch, Henry A. Redpath, A Concordance to the Septuagint: And the other Greek Versions of the Old Testament – Including the Apocryphal Books (Second edition, two volumes in one; Includes Muraoka, “Hebrew/Aramaic Index”; Baker Academic, 1998; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com).
Identify a pattern. If a clear pattern emerges, propose a retroversion. When you examine the different ways an individual book tends to translate a word into Greek, and if there is a clear default rendering, then you can be fairly confident in proposing the retroversion. While you can never be 100% certain with any retroversion, some will be more certain than others. If a clear pattern doesn’t emerge, or if the words in question do not occur frequently enough in the book under study, then you will need to broaden your investigation to see how the word is rendered elsewhere in the LXX. While this will not produce as clear of results as the previous situation, you can still produce a workable retroversion.
With these principles in mind, the Septuagint may be employed quite fruitfully in the textual criticism of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Of course, retroversion may also be used with texts of other languages, and even in ascertaining the relationship between Hebrew Dead Sea Scroll texts and the Septuagint (as I will seek to do in my next post on Psalm 151).
[With the Oscars quickly approaching, I figured I could highlight some of my previous reflections on film. This was originally Posted 15th February 2006. As far as this year is concerned, I would give top honours to The King's Speech, though True Grit and Inception were also great films]
Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology had asked me to contribute an entry on film to his “Essential… for Theologians” series. I was honoured to be asked and have spent some time formulating my list. My original list may be viewed on Ben’s blog here.
In the grand film tradition of producing a “Director’s cut”, I decided to expand my original list by both adding four additional films and including a number of “runners up.” I also explained a bit of my rationale for selecting the films I did.
I published my list with some trepidation knowing that I omitted a number of significant religious films — particularly a number of older classics that many such top ten lists include (see, for instance, Ken Ristau’s recent list of “Essential Movies for Theologians.” For an extensive list, see the Arts & Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Filmshere.
In my list, I tried to be representative of different film genres and included some “art house” and foreign films, as well as more popular films. I wasn’t too concerned with a film’s box office success, though there are some successful films in my list. And, of course, I readily admit to including some of my personal favourites.
Update: You may also want to check out my “Essential Films of 2005 for Theologians – Extended Edition” here.
Top Ten Fourteen Essential Films for Theologians
(Listed in alphabetical order)
The Apostle (Robert Duvall, 1997; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Robert Duvall’s sympathetic portrayal of Euliss “Sonny” Dewey, a southern Pentecostal preacher, is masterful. While this movie may hit too close to home for some Christians, it reveals the conflict within the life of faith as Sonny, a deeply religious person, struggles with his rage and sensuality.
Balthazar (Au hasard Balthazar; Robert Bresson, 1966; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). The film follows the life of a humble donkey named Balthazar through a series of masters, paralleled by the life of a young woman, Marie. The cinematography and score are both magnificent. The film has a sparse and evocative feel to it. It’s the type of film that you could view repeatedly and ponder endlessly (as the critics appear to do). I’m not sure if Bresson meant it to be understood typologically or allegorically, but such a reading would certainly fit with Balthazar portrayed as an unassuming Christ figure. At the very least it narrates the life of a simple beast of burden who humbly accepts the cruelty of his masters. The simple grace in this movie reminds me of another classic, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (Babettes gÃ¦stebud; 1987).
The Big Kahuna (John Swanbeck, 1999; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This unassuming film about three lubricant salesmen, one of whom is an evangelical Christian, contains some of the most compelling dialogue around matters of faith, integrity, and manipulation I have seen.
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This classic science fiction film explores what it means to be human as Deckard, a “blade runner” played by Harrison Ford, has to track down and terminate four replicants that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Based on the short book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip Dick, the dark look and feel of this film inspired innumerable science fiction films. While the DVD transfer of the Director’s cut is not that great (it was one of the first DVDs made), rumour has it that a multi-disc special edition is set to be released in time for its 25th anniversary in 2007. Other science fiction films that are worthy of mention include Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Matrix (1999) by the Wachowski brothers (the first is by far the best), and Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998).
(Of course, I also have to give honourable mention to the original Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and the original trilogy (I have not been impressed with any of the prequels). I have to confess that I saw the original Star Wars around 17 times in the theatre when it first was released. I also had made myself a light sabre (a painted dowel; not like one of the fancy ones available now), dressed up as a Jedi knight, and had virtually every Star Wars model available. Truth be told, not much has changed. I have been able to watch Star Wars with my kids and my four-year-old son and I frequently have light sabre battles in the living room (a painted dowel no longer have I). In sum: I still like it after all of these years even if some parts are a bit cheesy (And I still think Princess Leah looks hot in her “Jabba the Hutt” golden bikini). I have included this film on my extended list not only because it has profoundly shaped popular culture, but because its a parable of the epic struggle between good and evil.)
The Decalogue (Dekalog; Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This ten-part series of films was originally aired on Polish TV in the 1980s. Each episode narrates a story, set in the same apartment block, that is loosely tied to one of the Ten Commandments (as enumerated in the Catholic tradition; see my blog entry here for other enumerations).
For 6,000 years, these rules have been unquestionably right. And yet we break them every day. People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people now turn to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories. – Krzysztof Kieslowski on The Decalogue.
Each episode is well done and thought-provoking, though I found 2, 5, 6, and 7 particularly meaningful. Kieslowski’s more popular and widely distributed Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, and Red (Trois couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge; 1993-4) are also worthy of mention.
Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is perhaps my favourite film. It is a thought-provoking exploration of “the sins of the fathers,” forgiveness, and redemption as the lives of nine individuals interconnect one day in San Fernando Valley, California (its title is from one of the San Fernando Valley’s principal thoroughfares, Magnolia Boulevard). The ensemble cast is marvellous, the direction and cinematography superb, and the soundtrack by Aimee Mann moving. And what can I say about the frogs?! If I was going to number this list, I would have to put this as film number 8.2!
The Mission (Roland Joffre, 1986; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This film is an absolutely beautiful yet troubling exploration of the question of grace and redemption, love and hate, and what it means to lay down your life for your faith and friends. Its cinematography and musical score are moving and deservedly won awards. Set in 18th century South America, this film raises questions — and provides no easy answers — about the Christian mission, war, and slavery. Simply superb. Other films that have similar themes and garner special mention include Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991), Romero (John Duigan, 1989), and At Play in the Fields of the Lord (Hector Babenco, 1991).
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). If we can’t laugh at ourselves, then something is wrong. Eric Idle himself is reported as saying, “If anything can survive the probe of humour it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted” (hmmmâ€¦ do you think this quote is relevant to a current international news story?). But this film is not all laughs — it actually presents aspects of the time of Jesus somewhat accurately, such as the ubiquitous messiahs and prophets during that period as well as the sheer diversity with Judaism at that time. In the humour/satire category I would also include Dogma (Kevin Smith, 1999), Saved! (Brian Dannelly, 2004), and Keeping the Faith (Edward Norton, 2000).
Wings of Desire (Der Himmel uber Berlin; Wim Wenders, 1987; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I was first introduced to the German director Wim Wenders through the music video for U2′s song “Stay (Far Away, So Close).” This films explores what it means to be human from the perspective of angels as it follows the lives of two angels as they comfort and help lost souls in Berlin, one of whom decides he wants to become human. While Hollywood has remade the story as City of Angels (Brad Silberling, 1998), the original is superior on all accounts. I should also mention Wim Wender’s collaboration with U2′s frontman Bono on The Million Dollar Hotel (Wim Wenders, 2000). While this film has its flaws, Jeremy Davies’s portrayal of Tom Tom is one of the best Christ figures in recent film.
I figured my original list was lacking in four genres: war films, westerns, gangster films, and fantasy. Most films in these genres explore the myth of redemptive violence, and as such are worthy of theological reflection. Other excellent films that explore this theme include Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) and In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001).
The Godfather Saga (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 1974, and 1990; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Don Corleone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I had to add this trilogy to my list. The first two in the series are superior, and I think the first is the best. One of my favourite scenes is at the end of the first film when you have the juxtaposition of Michael Corleone renouncing “Satan and all his works” at the baptism of his nephew and the executions of the heads of the other mob families. On the soundtrack, Bach’s organ music is punctuated by gunfire. Other mobster films that deserve mention include Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) and The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987).
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2000, 2001, and 2002; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I am a huge Tolkien fan and I loved Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings. That isn’t to say that I agreed with all of Jackson’s modifications; in fact, I think Jackson and the screenwriter Fran Walsh are both Hollywood sell outs! Since when do Ents make rash decisions?! If there were any more unnecessary dramatic turns added, I would have sued for whip-lash! At any rate, these are ground breaking films that are surely worthy of mention!
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I have watched this film about the conflict at Guadalcanal during World War II many times and find its juxtaposition of war and (seeming) paradise haunting. It is visually beautiful and the writing is superb. The ensemble cast is excellent — especially the roles played by James Caviezel, Nick Nolte, and most notably Elias Koteas. Other great war films include Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), The Deerhunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), as well as the less know, though theologically relevant, films A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992) and To End All Wars (David L. Cunningham, 2001).
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). What’s a list without a western? While there are many “shoot ‘em up” westerns that are perhaps entertaining, Unforgiven is unique in that it deconstructs the typical western. The (anti)hero is unlovable, the gun fights are devoid of romanticism, and nothing is really settled at the end when the cowboy rides off into the sunset. “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he has, and all he’s ever gonna have,” says Will. The Kid stammers, “I guess he had it comin’.” Will almost whispers: “We’ve all got it comin’, Kid.”
OK, I need to wrap this up. There are many more films which are worthy to be mentioned, such as Breaking the Waves, Chinatown, Contact, Dead Man Walking, Lawrence of Arabia, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pulp Fiction, Shadowlands, Slingblade, The Shawshank Redemption, etc., etc., ad nauseum, but this list has to end!
What films do you feel are essential for theologians?
[Originally posted 8th March 2006; While this post is not necessarily the "best" of Codex, it certainly is one of the most popular -- at least if Google searches count for anything. This post (and others on Hebrew tattoos) generates numerous requests from people about Hebrew spellings for this or that word or phrase, many of which I try to respond to when I have time.]
Believe it or not, one of the more frequent Google searches by which individuals happen upon my blog is a search for “Hebrew Tattoos.” This search, which appears to happen once every few hundred visits to my site, leads readers to my tongue-in-cheek post “Posh Hebrew Tattoos, David! (Beckhams Inscribe their Love).” I have also had individuals email me asking advice on Hebrew tattoos, primarily wanting verification about the spelling of this or that word. My own students also ask similar questions (the latest being just last week).
This interest in Hebrew tattoos intrigues me. It obviously piggy-backs on the popularity of tattoos in general, though I suspect that the fact you have high profile celebrities like David and Victoria Beckham, Madonna, and Britney Spears with Hebrew tattoos boosts their popularity. And, of course, you have the religious crowd that likes tattoos of a biblical character, whether Hebrew, Greek, or even Aramaic.
At any rate, after reproducing the Google search for “Hebrew Tattoos” you will come across a number of web sites that specialize in tattoos, even ones devoted to Hebrew Tattoos that want to cash in on the craze. Most of these sites have sample pictures of actual Hebrew tattoos. What I found troubling is the number of mistakes in these tattoos. As a public service to any individuals thinking of getting a Hebrew tattoo, I thought I would highlight some of the mistakes so that others may avoid them in the future.
Hebrew Tattoos You Don’t Want
This first example of the Hebrew term for “God” makes a simple mistake of confusing Hebrew characters that look similar (of which there are a few!). The bottom letter on the tattoo is a samech (a Hebrew “s”) while it is supposed to be a mem (a Hebrew “m”). Another possibility that Yitzhak Sapir noted in the comments, is that the final letter is the Rashi script for final mem. He suggests that “some Jewish figure who was uncomfortable writing out the name of God changed scripts as a result.” While this is certainly possible, it seems odd that the rest of the tattoo is standard Aramaic square script. I am also not sure how many Jewish tattoo artists are out there who know Rashi’s script! I think my explanation makes a bit more sense. This tattoo is an example of a simple mistake made by someone who was trying to match the letters from a picture or something (I get quite a few papers from students who know a little Hebrew and try to include Hebrew words but they confuse stuff like final mem and samech, resh and dalet, etc.). Either way, if you are going to get a tattoo, it’s probably better to use the same script for the entire thing!
This tattoo, which has a Hebrew word purported by the website I found it on to mean “freedom” (perhaps based on Lev 19:20?) has the vowel points shifted incorrectly to the left. As such it is nonsensical. Moreover, as the comments to this post indicate, in modern Hebrew this word (if correctly pointed) means “vacation” — which I am pretty sure the individual who got the tattoo did not want (especially considering the symbol of the Holy Spirit above it!).
This tattoo, which means “holy to the LORD/Yahweh,” has letters which are either not drawn very carefully or confused (note the difference in width in the second last character in the bottom word; the tattoo has what looks like a dalet or resh, which it should be a vav) as well as incorrect vowel pointing.
This tattoo is supposed to say “in blood” according to the website where I found it. The expression is not biblical Hebrew, but a modern Hebrew phrase for “blood relative” or the like (see the comments by Yitzhak Sapir). Of course, the tattoo is still incorrect since it is missing the silent sheva after the resh (and the resh looks a bit like a yod). (If I was going to write “in blood” in Biblical Hebrew, I would simply do it as I have it on the bottom.)
This tattoo of the name of the God of Israel, “Yahweh,” is fine, though the web page identified it as Aramaic. In fact, this is a paleo-Hebrew script of the divine name.
There is nothing wrong with this Hebrew tattoo. I just thought it’s funny because the word inscribed can possibly mean both “love” as well as “leather” (some scholars suggest that there is a homograph which means “leather” [see KB3]). It arguably occurs in Hosea 11:4 [perhaps] and Song 3:10 [more likely]). Perhaps this can be taken as a warning not to spend too much time in the tanning salons?! (Of course, in modern Hebrew it clearly means love, and as I already noted, there is nothing wrong with this tattoo.)
The lesson here is that you cannot trust pictures of Hebrew tattoos on the internet! Make sure to double check the spelling of the Hebrew word you want tattooed!
Tips for Getting Hebrew Tattoos
If you are thinking of getting a Hebrew tattoo, consider the following:
First, think long and hard about getting a tattoo because they are permanent (notwithstanding modifying tattoos or erasing them). If you are set on the idea of getting a tattoo, think about getting a temporary one first. Also think about where you put your tattoo. Based on the experience of friends, I wouldn’t suggest getting a tattoo on any place where your body may change drastically as you age (and women, beware of tattoos on your stomach as if you ever get pregnant, your tattoo may be stretched beyond recognition (and it may not go back to its original shape — ask my friend!).
Second, if you are getting a Hebrew tattoo, make sure to double check with someone who knows Hebrew (or Greek if you are getting a Greek one) whether or not you have the proper spelling of the word. It would be a bummer to get a tattoo like those above — the only consolation would be that most people wouldn’t know you have a spelling mistake permanently inscribed on your body!
Third, one thing to decide before getting a Hebrew tattoo is whether or not to just use consonants (as Hebrew was originally written) or use consonants with the Masoretic vowel pointing (the little dots and dashes above and below the consonants). The vowel points were added to the text of the Hebrew Bible in the early centuries of this era by Jewish scribes called the Masoretes. While the vowel points represent an ancient reading tradition, they are not original to the Hebrew text, so you may not want to include them. (I personally wouldn’t include them if only for aesthetic reasons)
Finally, make sure to go to a reputable tattoo shop!
As a side note, I don’t have any tattoos nor any intention of getting one — and I hope that this trend will die down by the time my kids are older! My primary problem with tattoos is that they are too permanent; what you may think is cool when you are younger, you may later regret.
Just when I decided to get back to blogging regularly Reading Week comes and as it turns out I will be offline, unplugged, and out of country. You will have to wait until I am back in country to find out about Satan in the Book of Chronicles as well as sundry topics in Job and Qohelet.
In the meantime I will be publishing some posts from previous years (since I tend to do more content blogging, there are a tonne of interesting posts in the archives).
One of the reasons I am reluctant to translate or even understand (as a later theological move) “the Adversary” (השׂטן) in the prologue to the Book of Job as “Satan,” rather than as a prosecuting attorney figure (if you do not know what I am talking about, read my previous post “Satan in the book of Job? Nope!“), is that it would give the prologue a degree of reality that it should not have.
Think about it. If the prologue describes something that “actually happened”, i.e., that there actually was a deal struck between God and Satan to test Job’s faith and that resulted in the death of his children, servants, and livestock, what would that say about God? While God may care enough about Job to “put a hedge” around his life, that same God shows callous disregard for the other lives affected by his wager with Satan. It doesn’t matter that Job had more kids after his trials or that he eventually regained his wealth and good name — God still allowed a significant amount of collateral damage in order to win a bet. In regards to Job’s so-called restoration at the end of the book, Allan Cooper notes,
it takes a callous commentator indeed to speak of Job’s latter-day prosperity as “reward” or “recovery”. Many victims of disaster have built new lives and prospered, but neither they nor Job can be said to have been “rewarded”, or to have “recovered” what they lost. As Elie Wiesel observes, “tragedies do not cancel each other out as they succeed one another”. What Job should have said at the end of the book, according to Wiesel, was ‘What about my dead children?” (“Reading and Misreading the Prologue to Job” JSOT 46  71).
Norman Habel has also noted problems with the portrayal of God in the prologue to the book of Job:
The way in which God agrees to test Job’s integrity, however, raises serious doubts about God’s own integrity. He is apparently vulnerable to incitement by the Satan in his heavenly council. He succumbs to a wager — twice (1:6-12; 2:1-6). He afflicts Job without cause or provocation by Job, and his capacity to rule justly is thrown into question. (Habel, Job, 61)
And Habel doesn’t even note God’s callous disregard for Job’s children and servants in this context. Is this the God that you love and worship?
Now, if the book of Job is a fictional dialogue in the form of a frame narrative (and not a historical narrative), then while the Adversary in the prologue is part of the narrative world created by the author, he is not real, so to speak. I would argue that the book of Job is more akin to one of Jesus’ parables than a historical account of God’s dealings with an individual named Job. And if the book of Job is like a literary parable, we shouldn’t push all of its details of how it portrays God and the heavenly realms too far. Nor should we push its description of Job too far (see my post “Job as the “Poster Boy” for Retribution Theology“).
The book of Job is a wisdom text, a literary construct, written around a legendary character named Job in order to dismantle various ideas of retribution theology and how God interacts with this world. And in this literary construct the figure of the Adversary functions as a prosecuting attorney, and that’s all. We shouldn’t build our theology of the Devil from this text. And translations that render the Hebrew as “Satan” are interpreting the text in a direction that is perhaps fraught with theological problems.
Or perhaps I am wrong. Either way, these are some of my thoughts on a Friday afternoon.
One of my pet peeves is when Bible translations seem to base their translations on tradition or theology rather than the biblical text. One glaring example of this is found in the prologue to the book of Job where virtually all English translations render “the satan” (השׂטן) as capital-s “Satan” (Job 1:6, 7 [2x], 8, 9, 12; 2:1, 2 [2x], 3, 4, 6, 7). Despite some major problems with this translation, you will find it in the KJV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, NJB, among others.
In the Hebrew text the term “satan” (שׂטן) has a definite article attached to it (i.e., it is “the satan”), and thus is not a personal name. The actual word means “adversary” and is used to refer to human adversaries as well as celestial ones. For example, in 1Kings 11:14 it is used to refer to a human opponent: “Then Yahweh raised up a satan against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite” (see also 1Sam 29:4, 2Sam 19:22; 1Kgs 5:4, 11:23, 25; Ps 109:6). Now, in the book of Job, “the satan” is clearly a celestial adversary. He is, after all, portrayed as one of the “sons of elohim” (בני האלהים) in Yahweh’s heavenly court (Job 1:6; the notion of a divine assembly is found throughout the HB: 1Kgs 22:19-22; Psa 82; Isa 6:1-8; 14:13; Gen 1:26). This does not, however, mean that this figure is the chief demon, aka the Devil, found in later Jewish and Christian theological traditions. You would search in vain in the Hebrew Bible to find a fully developed angelology or demonology.
In the book of Job, this figure fills the role of a prosecuting attorney. As such, a fitting translation would be “the Adversary” or the like. This, by the way, is what the NJPS translation has, and as such wins my coveted “Translation with Integrity Award”! (As an aside, the NJPS is a truly beautiful Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible that has the novelist Chaim Potok as its literary editor.)
The problem with rendering the Hebrew text with “Satan” is that the typical reader will read into the text all the theological and cultural meaning that it has come to signify in later times. But that is not what it means in the book of Job. Even more problematic is that such a translation will likely obfuscate the legal metaphor that holds the book together (in this regard see Habel’s superb commentary; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com).
So that is my pet peeve for today (or at least one of my many!).
Ah, Valentine’s Day has arrived and love is in the air. And when I think of love I think of the sexiest book in the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs (perhaps better referred to as the Most Excellent of Songs, understanding שׁיר השׁירים as a superlative construction).
Despite the long and proud history of allegorical interpretations of the Song as depicting the love between Yahweh and Israel or Christ and the church, virtually all modern commentators maintain that the Song of Songs is a book of poetry celebrating human erotic love (a variety of sub-genres have also been suggested, such as a marriage song, drama, or even a sacred marriage text). This interpretation is supported by discoveries of similar love poetry in the ancient Near East, particularly Egypt.
There are many challenges in translating the Song of Songs. There is an extraordinarily large number of hapax legomena (words that only occur once) in the Song as well as many other rare words and forms. But perhaps the most difficult challenge when translating the book is how to render the innumerable metaphors and smilies found within its verses (for a visual example of how not to understand the metaphorical language, see my post “Love Poetry for Biblical Literalists.”)
As I discussed in a previous post (“Dogs, Urine, and Bible Translations: On the Importance of Translating Connotative Meaning“), modern translations tend to be either “formal” (word for word) or “dynamic” (sense for sense). It is actually more accurate to say that modern translations will all fall somewhere on the continuum between the two translation options. The tension between the two translation methods can be especially noticed in the way translations render metaphors and smilies, since more dynamic translations will unpack the metaphors far more than formal translations.
Compare, for instance, the following two translations of Song of Songs 4:1-14, one from the New Revised Standard Translation (a formal translation) and the other from the New Living Translation (a more dynamic translation).
1How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead. 2Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved. 3Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like
halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil. 4Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers,
all of them shields of warriors. 5Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies. 6Until the day breathes and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense. 7You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you.
1How beautiful you are, my beloved,
Your eyes behind your veil are like doves.
Your hair falls in waves, like a flock of goats
frisking down the slopes of Gilead. 2Your teeth are as white as sheep,
newly shorn and washed.
They are perfectly matched;
not one is missing. 3Your lips are like a ribbon of scarlet.
Oh, how beautiful your mouth!
Your cheeks behind your veil are like
– lovely and delicious. 4Your neck is as stately as the tower of David,
jeweled with the shields
of a thousand heroes. 5Your breasts are like twin fawns of a gazelle,
feeding among the lilies. 6Before the dawn comes and the shadows flee away,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of frankincense. 7You are so beautiful, my beloved,
so perfect in every part.
Notice how the NLT tries to make the meaning of the metaphors more understandable. Thus, instead of her hair being simply compared to a flock of goats, the point of the comparison is elaborated: her hair “falls in waves, like a flock of goats frisking down the slopes of Gilead” (4:1). Similarly, the point of the comparison between her teeth and the flock of newly washed ewes is made explicit: her teeth “are as white as sheep, newly shorn and washed” (4:2). The same stands true for the comparison between her neck and the tower of David: “Your neck is as stately as the tower of David” (4:4).
The problem with a more dynamic translation is that many more interpretive questions have to be answered before translating. Consequently, dynamic translations are by their very nature much more interpretive than formal ones. Some of the comparisons are straightforward enough, such as her lips being like a “scarlet thread” or the ordered whiteness of her teeth being compared to the rows of newly washed and shorn sheep. It is more of a problem, however, when the nature of the comparison — whether metaphor or simile — is not entirely clear. Take, for example, the comparison between the lover’s hair and the flock of goats. The NLT understands the comparison as primarily concerned with its flowing movement. But what if the metaphor is complex? Perhaps the comparison has in view both her hair’s flowing movement as well as its black colour? The NLT recognizes this at times and renders a two dimensional comparison accurately, such as the comparison between the woman’s cheeks (or temples?) and pomegranate slices: “Your cheeks behind your veil are like pomegranate halves — lovely and delicious” (4:3).
The NLT, however, is not consistent in following through on its translation method. Sometimes metaphors are left “untranslated.” While this may be due to the fact the point of the comparison is unclear and they feel more comfortable leaving it vague, or perhaps it could be because the translators want to leave some more explicit comparisons vague. For example, the comparison between the woman’s breasts and the fawns is left vague. Commentators disagree on what the precise nature of the comparison is. Some argue the comparison is between the softness, beauty, and grace of the dorcus gazelle which invites petting and affectionate touching. Others point out that gazelles were a delicacy served at Solomon’s table (1 Kings 4:23) and were delicious to eat. Othmar Keel, on the other hand, understands the comparison as a complex metaphor that relates to the beauty and grace of the gazelle as well as evoking iconographic images of gazelles and lotus plants, suggesting renewal and vitality — and especially emphasizing her breasts as “dispensers of life and joy” (The Song of Songs [CC; Fortress, 1994] 150-151).
Finally, translators also have to deal with euphemistic language in the Song. Most translations — whether formal or more dynamic — tend to leave the euphemistic language of the Song intact. For example, the references to her “garden” and “channels” in 4:12 and 13 are taken by many as referring to her vulva and vagina, as is her “navel” in 7:2. You don’t find that in many translations!
The question I have is whether it is better to offer a more interpretive dynamic translation when the meaning may be clear, or is it better to produce a more formal rendering and leave the questionable passage more vague? It would seem that more dynamic translations are not quite as consistent with their translation method as formal translations — and that is a good thing.
At any rate, have a great Valentine’s Day! Read through the Song of Songs with someone you love today — unless of course you are under 30 years of age!
(As an aside, I have often been puzzled by more conservative scholars who argue for Solomonic authorship of the Song and maintain that it is a celebration of human erotic love within the context of a monogamous marriage relationship. Was not Solomon known for his many wives and concubines (1Kings 11)? I don’t see how he could be held up as a modern paragon of monogamous love and faithfulness)
Claude Mariottini, over at his eponymous blog, drew our attention to a couple recent books on the Bible and Sex, Michael Coogan’s God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says (New York: The Hachette Book Group, 2010; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com) and Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). I have not had a chance to examine either book, so I’m not going to say anything about them. I did, however, want to comment on Mariottini’s quick dismissal of Knust’s notion that the first human was androgynous and only later sexually differentiated. He notes:
Her premise is that the story of creation of the first human person in Genesis 1 was a case of androgyny, that is, that the first person was both male and female and had the genitals of both sexes. Then, in the creation story of Genesis 2, the sexes were separated and this separation created sexual desire in human beings. This desire drives man and woman to have sex so that they can become one again.
This view that God’s original plan for his creation was that a human person would have two sexes in one body is the creation of a fertile mind that finds no support in the Bible. Knust bases her view on ancient Jewish interpreters who were trying to explain why there are two creation stories in Genesis.
Knust’s interpretation is so radical that she reinterprets what the Bible says in order to present a modern view of sex and sexuality that is a complete departure from what the Bible has to say and teach.
The notion that the original human was androgynous (or something similar) isn’t a new idea, nor perhaps is it so radical. Rashi, a 10th century Jewish interpreter, suggested the first human was male on one side and female on the other and that God had simply divided the creature in half (compare the similar idea of Aristophanes, brought to Mariottini’s attention by David Reimer). Perhaps the most well know biblical scholar to champion a similar notion recently is Phyllis Trible, who presented this idea in her masterful, God and Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1986; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). Using rhetorical analysis and a close reading of the text, Trible argues that God created the first human without gender, “the adam” [human] was formed from “the adamah” [humus]. Rather than a man, “the adam” was an “earth creature” (as an aside, there is a great play on words in the biblical text: “Yahweh Elohim formed the earthling from the earth” or “the human from the humus”). Not until the woman is built from the side of the earth creature does the original human being acquire gender. Now Trible’s interpretation has some basis in the biblical text. Despite most modern translations, the use of “adam” in Genesis 2 is not a personal name. The biblical text does not have “Adam”, but rather “the adam” (האדם), i.e., the human, or the like. And it is only in Gen 2:23 (after the building of the woman) that text text refers to humanity as “male” and “female” (אישׁ and אשׁה).
Now, that being said, I don’t agree with Trible’s interpretation. It’s just that I don’t feel like I can dismiss it out of hand. The biggest problem with her interpretation is that throughout the entire narrative, “the human” is referred to as “the-adam” (האדם), Even after the creation of the woman in 2:23, the creature is still referred to as “the-adam.” It is only later that the human male is unambiguously referred to as “Adam” (i.e., as a proper name; without the definite article). So I guess I don’t really disagree with Mariottini’s ultimate conclusion, though I’m not sure I would be too dogmatic. When it comes right down to it, I’m not sure we should press the biblical text too much in this regard. The point of the narrative is not to comment on the original sexuality of the human, but rather to celebrate the creation of the woman as a suitable counterpart for the man.
While we are talking about the Bible and sex, I should note another fairly recent publication on sex and the Bible: Richard M. Davidson‘s Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Hendrickson, 2007; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). This almost 850 page volume is the most extensive discussions of sexuality in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible available. Compared to Coogan and Knust, this work is quite conservative, though it will probably remain unchallenged for a while in terms of comprehensiveness. (In case you are wondering, the title of the volume is derived from Davidson’s somewhat unique understanding of Song of Songs 8:6).