I was at work again today. I found it difficult to concentrate and made some mistakes. I don’t think I made any really bad mistakes, but I think J noticed some of the mistakes and I certainly felt sheepish.
I had some stomach pains at work. I’ve had them intermittently for the last week or so. When my depression was very bad, I developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and I’m worried it’s returning, although why it would suddenly return now when things are much better for me than they were the first time I had IBS is a mystery. I wonder if the approach of Purim and my anxieties about it has played a part?
I try not to get upset (or “triggered” as everyone says nowadays, which strikes me as an inappropriate use of a psychiatric term) by things that are not worth getting upset about, but stuff sticks in my mind and annoys me. Last night I wanted to read for a few minutes before going to bed and wasn’t sure whether to read the novel I’m reading (Contact by Carl Sagan) or the graphic novel I’m reading (Final Crisis, a Detective Comics “event” story). I flicked through the next few pages of Contact to see how long the chapter was and saw something that annoyed me a bit, to the extent that I decided not to read it last night, but was still thinking about it when I went to bed and again intermittently today.
The passage was about the heroine’s childhood, how she discovered the wonders of science and technology as opposed to other ways of seeing the world. There’s a scene when she’s at Sunday school and finds the Bible contradictory and immoral. The contradictory thing just seemed wrong because if she was at a non-evangelical church in the sixties, as the text states, I’m sure someone would have pointed her in the direction of source criticism as a solution (I don’t personally accept source criticism, but I think it was accepted in the non-evangelical Protestant world by the sixties). It seemed like another example of where non-believers (Sagan) assume all believers believe the most extreme fundamentalist beliefs on offer in their faith.
It was the immoral stuff that really bugged me, mainly because it wasn’t focused on stuff that really conflicts with contemporary morals, like the Bible’s acceptance of genocide, slavery and polygamy. It was pointing out stories, like Jacob and Esau (using the English names rather than the Hebrew as I would normally do because it feels distanced from me) and various other stories and assuming because the Bible doesn’t say “THIS IS BAD” in big letters, it must think it’s good. The truth is, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) almost never steps back to pass judgement on its characters. It leaves it up to the reader to decide what was right and wrong and sometimes things are complicated and hard to resolve. It assumes a level of maturity and intellectual involvement. The assumption that, “Oh Jacob is a hero of the Bible, he’s the ancestor of the Jews, therefore it’s on his side and assumes he’s right” simply doesn’t fit with millennia of rabbinic interpretation (Midrash and commentaries) that have felt free to criticise the heroes of Tanakh. In Judaism, no human being is perfect, not Jacob or Abraham or Moses. The Talmud (or possibly Midrash, but the same era) says that the persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile from the land of Israel was because Jacob wronged his brother and my him weep just three tears (Esau is seen as the ancestor of Rome). That’s not really accepting of Jacob’s actions.
To be honest, the literature on the story of Jacob and Esau alone is vast and there are serious questions to ask before the morality of the story can be thought of, like how do you steal blessings? Doesn’t God know who to bless? How do you sell your first-born status? Was the blessing Jacob “stole” the one he and Rebecca thought he was stealing? (Short answer, probably not.) There is a lot to engage with here. I’m not asking anyone to believe it, but to see that it’s a rich literature that withstands prolonged study.
I know, the history of the Bible and of organised religion, how these texts have been used to oppress, puts people off. I get that. It still annoys me, I guess because I take Tanakh seriously and find it meaningful and insightful; it’s hard to hear someone suggest I’ve wasted so much time on a stupid or immoral text. It reminds me of when a blogger I used to follow, a classicist who spent her days studying and teaching difficult ancient Greek and Latin texts made fun of of the Bible on her blog with a really superficial post. I just felt, you should know better. You should know that you can’t read ancient texts – in translation – like a contemporary novel and expect them to give up their secrets like that. You should read in the original language, if possible, in context, with secondary literature to explain the difficulties of the text, the language, the customs, the history.
So this was annoying me today. To be honest, the protagonist of the novel would probably annoy me anyway. A super-clever geek, she would have been an identification figure if I had read the book in my teens or twenties, but now I feel like an incompetent impostor, she just seems to taunt me, the type of person I feel I might have been without autism and depression. But I want to read the book for its plot and ideas, so I’m sticking with it for now.
Then, with bad timing, I watched Babylon 5 this evening, and the next episode up was Believers. Which is a very good episode, about Doctor Franklin being faced with an alien child who will die without surgery, but whose parents believe that if he has surgery, his soul will escape through the opening. It’s a strong episode. It has a powerful, but downbeat ending (I won’t spoil it). I probably should have skipped the episode, as it’s a relatively rare stand-alone episode that adds nothing to Babylon 5‘s five year story arc, but I’m a completist, and I didn’t want to “penalise” an objectively well-written episode, and possibly I have autistic rigid thinking, so I watched it, and it left me a bit down.
And then a thought struck me about Jewish-sounding dialogue given to the aliens and I consulted Wikipedia, and, yes, writer David Gerrold is a secular Jew, like Carl Sagan. Given that quite a number of science fiction authors were or are secular Jews, I wonder what percentage of alien races in science fiction are just how secular Jews see Orthodox Jews: weird in appearance and attitude, serious, humourless, rule-obsessed, inflexible… (The Ferengi in Star Trek are worryingly like antisemitic parodies of Jews, and are mostly played by Jewish actors.) Actually, on the whole Babylon 5 is pretty good at depicting alien religions, it’s one of the reasons I like it so much, but still…
Also done this evening: Torah study, which has reached Eichah (Lamentations), so not so cheery, and a call with PIMOJ who had had a stressful day, so the evening felt a bit relentless. I titled this post “Trying Not to Get Annoyed” when I thought it was going to be just about Contact, but actually the post progressed to where “Trying Not to Get Overwhelmed” might be more appropriate. I do feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment, on multiple levels, but I’m too tired to go in to all of that now. I’m going to watch another (less depressing) episode of Babylon 5, eat my first Cadbury’s creme egg of the year and go to bed.
Oh, and apparently I have really bad Impostor Syndrome. To be honest, I knew that, but I just went through a psychiatric test and now I have a number to put on it.
Believers does at least have my favourite line in the whole of Babylon 5: Ambassador Kosh’s “The avalanche has started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” (Kosh was given cryptic utterances; that was one of his more understandable ones. It’s actually more cryptic in context.)