Bible in Pop Culture Week 3: Jacob’s Ladder in South Park, Se. 6 ep. 12

Genesis 28:10-19 describes a dream experienced by one of the Jewish Patriarchs, Jacob. In the chapter 28 version of events, Jacob is hoping to obtain a wife from his mother’s family in Haran. After a day of traveling, he stops for the night in an undisclosed location and dreams that he sees a ladder reaching from Earth to Heaven, on which angels are both ascending and descending. Jacob believes that the place where he slept is “the house of God” and “the gate of heaven” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV with Apocrypha, 4th ed., p. 50).

The idea of the ladder being a way to actually access Heaven utilized in episode 12 of season 6 of South Park (Nov., 2002), “A Ladder to Heaven.” In the cartoon, Stan, Kyle and Cartman win an all-you-can-grab candy prize. They give the ticket stub to Kenny for safekeeping but, as usual, Kenny is killed. In an effort to recover the ticket stub, Kenny’s friends decide to build a ladder to Heaven. Initially, the larger community sees the ladder as a tribute to Kenny’s memory, but the ladder quickly becomes an international competition when Japan decides to build their own ladder into Heaven first. The US Army becomes involved and the ladder passes above the clouds. Stan and his friends are disappointed that they couldn’t find Heaven (and the ticket stub) at the top of the ladder, but the military does discover suspicious-looking clouds that they believe might be a heavenly WMD factory being run by Saddam Hussein, who is deceased in the show. The U.S. government decides that the only option available to them is to preemptively bomb Heaven. The show later reveals that Saddam’s chocolate factory was indeed a WMD factory and he has been lying to God about what he manufactures there.

Batman Tower of Babel Cover 2001

Bible in Pop Culture Week 2: Batman and the Tower of Babel

Because September 17, 2016, is Batman Day (seriously), I decided to look for Biblical references relevant to this week’s reading in the Batman series of comics. There is a collected edition of Justice League of America, volumes 43 – 46, called “Tower of Babel” (2001). The title and some story elements are references to the Biblical story found in Genesis 11:1-9, in which man migrates to the land of Shinar and constructs a city called Babel. According to The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), in the center of the city, the people work together to build a tower “with its top in the heavens” (25). For reasons that are not completely clear, God does not want man to be able to create great accomplishments, so he purposefully confuses the language of the people in Babel, causing them to abandon the construction project and migrate to other areas.

In the Justice League of America story arc, R’as al-Ghul, the leader of the League of Assassins and the Justice Leagues enemy, devises a plan to cripple the members of the justice league long enough to enact a plan that would decimate the population of the planet through nuclear war. The story focuses heavily on Batman’s paranoia, which is the key to the League’s near defeat. R’as al-Ghul’s daughter sneaks into the Bat Cave and steals data records that Batman was keeping on other members of the League. Those records reveal the League members’ key weaknesses. Once the League is incapacitated, R’as activates a device on a tower that he built. The device emits ultrasonic waves that disrupt the language centers of the brains of everyone on earth, causing them to be unable to decipher written language. The ultrasonic waves eventually affect spoken language as well, preventing people from being able to understand each other. The Justice League is ultimately successful in recovering from their injuries and they defeat the League of Assassins. Superman destroys the device that R’as built to confuse human language, which is interesting because, in the Biblical account, it seems as if God confused man’s language into multiple languages in order to prevent man from becoming powerful super men.

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible

Bible in Pop Culture Week 1: Creationism in Schools

Image Attribution:By NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) – originally posted to Flickr as Gutenberg Bible, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9914015

 

Creationism and Schools: Youngstown, Ohio Opts for Science Only

News articles published between September 8th and 10th, 2016 noted that Crish Mohip, the Youngstown Schools Chief Executive Officer has stated that schools are obligated to follow the 344-page science standards developed by the Ohio Department of Education, which present the evolutionary view of biological development. Beginning with the 2016-2017 school year, “any reference to intelligent design, creationism, or any like concepts are eliminated from the science curriculum,” Mohip stated.[1] The memo that Mohip sent out was prompted by the use of a video in a science class that claims to present evidence for creationism based on the proliferation of species starting 500 million years ago. Complicating the issue is the fact that the video was produced by a Turkish Islamic televangelist named Adnan Oktar who is reportedly a Holocaust denier and the leader of a sex cult.[2]

The teacher who showed the video in class stated that he was presenting different views and that students should be able to clearly identify and weigh the merits of various arguments.[3] This, however, contradicts Ohio state policy. Creationism is the theory that the universe was intelligently, or purposefully, designed by God as described in the Abrahamic tradition of religions. Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Bible as well as the Quran describe existence as having been formed by God. Modern science presents the theory that the universe was compressed into a small bit of matter surrounded by nothingness and, for reasons unknown, that pinpoint of matter suddenly exploded and began to expand into all of existence as we know it today.

The fight over the teaching of creationism in schools has been taking place for decades, with the common consensus shifting from creationism to evolutionary and scientific theories. In the American context that fight has revolved primarily around the Christian, literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story. In 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law making it illegal to teach evolution in a state-funded school. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana law making it illegal to teach evolution in public schools without also teaching creationism.[4] In more recent years, the tide has turned in favor of the teaching of evolution over creationism. The recent decision of the Youngstown Schools Chief Executive Officer is just the most recent event in this ongoing trend and serves to show that a text compiled approximately 2200 to 2900 years ago still has meaning and significance in to modern societies.

References

Brown, S. (2016, September 8). Creationism Booted From Ohio Public Schools. Retrieved September 11, 2016, from Americans United For Separation of Church and State: https://www.au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/creationism-booted-from-ohio-public-schools

Gauntner, M. (2016, September 10). CEO cuts ‘Creationism’ from Youngstown school classrooms. Retrieved September 11, 2016, from wfmj.com: http://www.wfmj.com/story/33007921/ceo-cuts-creationism-from-youngstown-school-classrooms

 

[1] Mike Gauntner, “CEO cuts ‘Creationism’ from Youngstown school classrooms,” wfmj.com: Locally Owned, published September 2, 2016, modified September 10, 2016 and accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.wfmj.com/story/33007921/ceo-cuts-creationism-from-youngstown-school-classrooms.

[2] Simon Brown, “Creationism Booted From Ohio Public Schools,” Americans United For Separation of Church and State, published September 8, 2016 and accessed September 11, 2016, https://www.au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/creationism-booted-from-ohio-public-schools.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mike Gauntner, “CEO cuts ‘Creationism’ from Youngstown school classrooms,” wfmj.com: Locally Owned, published September 2, 2016, modified September 10, 2016 and accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.wfmj.com/story/33007921/ceo-cuts-creationism-from-youngstown-school-classrooms.

The 51st Celebrate Israel Day Parade

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When I mentioned that we went to see the Philippines Day Parade, I noted that the Israel Day Parade was on a different day this year. We did go see that too, but I didn’t say much about it because we didn’t stay that long. I like the idea of the Celebrate Israel parade because I like the idea of Israel as a country and what it’s trying to stand for. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the policies the country has, but then again I don’t agree with a lot of what the US does either. But I like the fundamental ideas of equality, freedom, and democracy that Israel is working towards. I won’t go into the rightness or wrongness of the establishment of the state within its current borders and boundaries, but denying that an Israeli nationality exists is just silly, and because my wife and I like and support Israel as a state, and for what it’s trying to do, we went to see the Celebrate Israel Parade last May 31st.

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What I don’t like about the parade is how generally unexciting it is. On the one hand, it’s cool to see all of the Jewish community and religious groups, but generally the parade is just people walking down the street in matching T-shirts, usually holding a sign saying what group they’re representing. Maybe I’m numbed to the simple pleasure of that sort of thing, but in New York City, when there are LGBT parades, the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Macy’s Day Parade, floats and brass bands and actors and singers in attendance with accompanying conerts in the street, well, this one just sort of pales in comparison. There are plenty of valid reasons and justifications. It’s hard to live up to corporate-funded hype, but one can only stand in the sun watching people walk down the street for so long before it gets boring.

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I’d say the most interesting part of the parade this year was the protest and the counter protest between 58th and 59th streets, on 5th avenue, flanking the parade route. The protesters sectioned off into a coral, created with crowd control barriers. One group was composed of the chassidic Jewish guys that think Israel and its creation is an affront to God. Basically, they think Israel should not have been re-established as a state until the moshiach (messiah) returns. They had signs with wording that pretended they spoke for authentic or true Judaism, as if they hold a monopoly on Jewish religion and everyone else is just a pretender. The lie was put to their claims as thousands of Jews marched by celebrating the existence of Israel. The other group was, I assume, a traditional orthodox (as opposed to modern orthodox) group that had signs condemning homosexuality and women wearing skirts that are shorter than 6 inches below the knee. The irony is that one of the women holding the sign with that wording had a skirt on that was too short according to her own standard.

As the marchers walked by, many would veer off towards that side of the road and read what was on the signs. Watching their reactions was incredibly interesting. Some cheered louder, some laughed and ignored the signs, some made angry comments or gestures towards the protesters. The chassidic guys mostly stood there praying or making a pointing down “shame shame” gesture. The other group of protesters mostly just stood there, holding their signs and smiling stupidly. When women in shorts came by, or the LGBT Jewish group came by, they cheered louder. Some of the LGBT group members, if I recall right, stopped and waved their own signs in front of the protesters. Some of the signs were really too much. The ones the protesters had. A lot of the marchers were children and I wondered what sort of effect those slogans and messages might have on them. I get that protest and free speech should be protected, but the combativeness and ugliness of it has to effect those kids in a negative way.

One of the chassidic protesters crossed the street to where regular viewers of the parade were standing. A group of angry Jewish women chased him away.

At one point, someone came and handed me some newspaper that at first looked innocuous, but on closer inspection was Christian propaganda that spoke about blood, fire, and death. It was wholly inappropriate. What sort of jerk shows up at someone’s celebration of their cultural, national and religious heritage and tries to denigrate it through proselytizing?

We stayed about an hour and then met up with two friends and walked over to Bloomingdale’s to have frozen yogurt in their cafe, 40 Carrots. I hadn’t been there in a few years, since I did seasonal employment at Bloomingdale’s in 2010. If you’ve never been, their frozen yogurt is amazing! If you’re in that part of town, it’s worth stopping there to get some.

A slideshow of more photos from the parade:

Jesus’ World

A short essay I wrote for an undergraduate class called “Jesus the Jew” about a year ago.


 

Understanding who Jesus was is dependent on understanding the social context he was born into. What were the problems the Jewish people faced? What was the religious composition of the country? Was Jesus unique? Or were there others like him? After decades of Roman occupation, would Jesus’ message have been viewed favorably by his contemporaries?

When Jesus was born, Judea was occupied by the Romans. The invasion of the Romans was the last of many such occupations of Jewish lands by foreign powers that gradually diminished Jewish territorial control and sovereignty. Rome’s involvement with Judea began as an opportunistic intervention into a struggle over succession between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. Pompey the Great, a Roman proconsul, backed Hyrcanus and restored him to the throne because he believed that Hyrcanus would be more likely to comply with Roman desires. The illusion of self-rule came to an end in 6 CE, when Judea was incorporated into the Roman empire as the province of Iudea and placed under direct Roman rule. By the time Jesus was born, there was widespread belief that the appearance of a messiah who would destroy the Romans and restore Jewish sovereignty was imminent. There were, in fact, many people wandering the desert claiming to be just such a person, and most of them were crucified by the Roman government.

Contemporary Jewish religion was very diverse, from established denominations to temporary movements built around charismatic individuals. The vast majority of the Jewish people were what today might be called mainstream practitioners. They were not heavily invested in the finer points of theology, but rather followed tradition and relied on instruction from those in their community with religious authority. This figure was usually a Pharisee. In contrast to the Sadducees, a group of priests who performed the required sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Pharisees were accessible to the people. Sadducees were educated, but status as a Sadducee was inherited and could only be inherited. Pharisees were also educated, but could be anyone: your neighbor, your son, or your uncle, and they lived nearby and could answer your questions. Another popular denomination was the Essene community, which lived a celibate and missionary lifestyle. There were also Zealots, or Fourth Philosophy groups, and groups like the one at Qumran, which may have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were also charismatic individuals, typically wandering the country or living in the desert. They usually inspired followers or students, like Bannus, a hermit that Josephus sought wisdom from, and John the Baptist. There was no sense of normative Judaism. Jewish religion covered a broad spectrum of beliefs centered on the acceptance of the Hebrew Bible as scripture.

Jesus, as a man that preached a messianic message about the imminent establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, would not likely have been a surprise to his contemporaries, since he was but one of many such men traveling the country preaching a similar message. He also would not have been seen as a heretic, necessarily. Years later, Josephus defended the Christians because they were viewed as another group of Jews. There is no contemporary record of Jesus’ life, so it is impossible to know for sure how he was received, but he would have been seen as acting within the limits of Jewishness and, chafing under Roman rule, a message that advocated the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty probably would have been welcomed by the average person, or at least not a surprise.