The Political Theology of Ecclesiastes

Why is the Teacher so depressed? When I was a teenager, the existential angst felt natural and obvious. Returning to the text as an adult who will be teaching it in class, I felt less secure. It seemed almost like an American arthouse film from the 70s, with everyone railing against an unspecified “phoniness” to which there nonetheless seemed to be no alternative. Compared to what is everything “vanity”? This is the only world, the only point of reference we have — what would it even mean for it to be meaningless?

And then it hit me: this isn’t the only point of reference, because this very “secular” text makes strategic reference (unlike Esther, for example) to God. Ecclesiastes is the lament of a man who can never be God, who lives in a world that God set up to remind you that you can never be God. The more he seeks for power, wisdom, and permanence, the more obvious it becomes that he can never be as all-powerful, as all-knowing, as eternal as God is. Indeed, the more he pushes the boundaries of what is possible for human beings — it is no accident that this text is traditionally attributed to Solomon, the pinnacle of human achievement in the Hebrew biblical tradition — the more reminders he gets.

Hence the continual advice that we should eat and drink and enjoy our toil. It’s not that those things are great or enjoyable. We are not dealing with an edifying message that we should “live for today.” The reason we should embrace fleeting pleasures and make the most of our subordination is that then we will not have to live with any painful reminders that we are not God.

In The Prince of This World, I claim that the political theology of the Hebrew Bible sets up a rivalry between God and the earthly ruler, and Ecclesiastes is arguably the only place that we see that rivalry from the first-person perspective of the ruler himself. Hence if Pharaoh is the primal root of the figure of the devil as God’s permanently humiliated rival, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is the root of the philosophical despair of Milton’s devil, who knows for a fact that he can never defeat or replace God, but nonetheless feels compelled to keep trying — because for all his diagnoses of vanity, we never hear that the Teacher follows his own advice and abdicates the throne to become a simple laborer.

No one who has seized upon that hopeless hope can ever give up the quest to be God. Once that insane, impossible thought has entered one’s mind, there is no choice but to embrace the futility and humiliation and pain as a protest that becomes its own pleasure and satisfaction. Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven — and better a world in which I can cast God as an illegitimate, arbitrary despot (in the very canon of Scripture!) than a world in which I cannot be God.

Pedagogies in the Flesh

pedagogies in the flesh

Palgrave Macmillan just released Pedagogies in the Flesh: Case Studies on the Embodiment of Sociocultural Differences in Education. The volume contains over 30 short, true stories, anecdotes, vignettes, illustrations, what have you, as well as a preface by Freirean scholar Antonia Darder. I contributed a chapter titled “Black Counter-Gazes in a White Room,” which explores three classroom experiences in which students of color challenged white normativity. Overall, Pedagogies in the Flesh “presents a collection of vivid, theoretically informed descriptions of flashpoints–educational moments when the implicit sociocultural knowledge carried in the body becomes a salient feature of experience. The flashpoints will ignite critical reflection and dialogue about the formation of the self, identity, and social inequality on the level of the preconscious body.” The volume received excellent reviews by Emily Lee, Charles Mills, Mariana Ortega, George Yancy, and others.

A guide to close reading

I’m planning to give my first year undergraduates a worksheet designed to help them engage with the theological and philosophical texts we study during our course. I’ve noticed that a lot of my students struggle to find critical ways into the texts, and I’m hoping that giving them some fairly generic questions to work through will help them find ways in. I’m planning to talk through the list of questions when I hand them out then use them as a basis for some of our seminar discussions over the rest of the semester so that the students can get a handle on how to use them.

Here’s the list of questions I’ve drafted so far; I’d really appreciate any comments/suggestions/wisdom gleaned from other people’s teaching experience, and of course you’re welcome to appropriate these for yourself if they look like they’d help you in your own teaching:

Continue reading “A guide to close reading”

Gender, Sexuality and the Bible syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for the course I’m teaching this semester on Gender, Sexuality and the Bible. I’ve now finished the module handbook and am pretty excited about teaching it. At my institution we run a bunch of courses for both second and third year undergraduate, which means that everyone sits in on our weekly classes, and then the third year students get additional advanced seminars every other week. I’ve designed the main body of the course to run thematically, ranging across both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament; the advanced seminar will focus in depth on the Song of Songs (special shout out to Jared Beverley whose advice on this was totally invaluable).

The course overview is as follows:

WEEK 1: Introducing the Bible, Gender and Sexuality
WEEK 2: Creating Gender: Eve and Her Daughters
WEEK 2 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Introducing the Song of Songs
WEEK 3: Reproducing Gender: Abraham and His Sons
WEEK 4: Troubling Gender: Bodily Fluids
WEEK 4 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Feminist Readings of the Song of Songs
WEEK 5: Questioning Binary Gender
WEEK 6: Homosexuality? Sodom and Leviticus
WEEK 6 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Constructing Gender in the Song of Songs
WEEK 7: Homosexuality? Sinners and Lovers
WEEK 7 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Queering the Song of Songs
WEEK 8: ALTERNATIVE ENRICHMENT WEEK
WEEK 9: Marriage
WEEK 10: The Bible and Sexual Violence
WEEK 10 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Troubling Desire in the Song of Songs
WEEK 11: Sex Work and the Bible
WEEK 12: Oral exams

You can take a look at the complete module handbook here.

Worst practices in curriculum design

The current “best practice” for course/curriculum design is to start from the learning objectives and then fill in gradually more detail, only supplying the actual course content at a relatively late stage. When Shimer was going through some curriculum debates a few years ago, I opportunistically seized upon this principle as a way to open up a little more space for thinking about new and different readings, but it was a way of thinking that just didn’t work, ultimately. We had one meeting when everyone seemed to be on board, and then we got back to the traditional debates over particular readings and how we can’t remove this one thing that really “works,” etc. And I don’t think this was because my Shimer colleagues are especially hidebound — the way they do curriculum design is just the way everyone does it.

The so-called “best practices,” as usual, have virtually never been done, and that’s because they presuppose a very simplistic, unidirectional version of curriculum development. Continue reading “Worst practices in curriculum design”

Back to normal

This summer, a lot has changed in my life. We moved from the apartment and neighborhood where we had lived for seven years, which felt more like home to me even than my hometown did when I was a child. I am in the midst of a job transition as a result of North Central College’s acquisition of Shimer College, and I am also completing a manuscript that marks something of an endpoint of the “devil project” that has been guiding my research since my dissertation. I have taken the opportunity to change a lot of other, more trivial things — switching banks, opting for a Mac for my work computer after years as a hardened PC user, even changing my hairstyle — and deided to spend the last few weeks of summer vacation learning biblical Hebrew, a long-delayed goal that felt right precisely because it is something of a non-sequitur.

Yet in my unguarded moments, I realize that I still expect things to go “back to normal.” When I shared this with The Girlfriend and tried to articulate what that “normal” was, it turned out to be a relatively short window — perhaps my second or third year at Shimer, when the dog was still with us and in good health, before The Girlfriend went to grad school and changed careers. Things felt more open-ended then, like it could stay that way forever. I knew Shimer was fragile, but had no way of anticipating the obstacles we would face, nor of course any glimmer of the possibility that we would join a larger institution. I was not involved in any major projects other than translation and the occasional invited article or talk.

The fact that this situation was actually very unusual and short-lived is not lost on me. Continue reading “Back to normal”