Thoughts on Abortion: Satire and Seriousness

I wrote a piece of satire that was published today, and I felt it was worth writing some serious thoughts on it as well. Abortion is an issue of critical importance to a lot of people I know and care about, and it’s not a topic I take lightly. My beliefs and positions have changed substantially over years of thought, reading, and discussion, and I’m going to start sharing that process and where I’ve ended up.

Though the McSweeney’s piece is satire, I stand behind the serious point that it makes. Essentially, I find that Christian pro-life arguments often assume three things that cannot all be true at the same time.

1. God is a good communicator

2. God inspired the Bible to communicate (among other things) deep and enduring ethical concerns

3. God cares deeply about abortion and opposes it entirely

In other words, if God is a good communicator who wanted to convey the sanctity of fetal life and the absolute impermissibility of abortion, then God would have had to create a text quite different from the Bible.

On the flip side, if God wrote (or inspired) the Bible as we have it to express (again, among other things) prohibition of abortion, then God is not a very good communicator. So the silly thought that inspired this piece was “how would a God who wrote this Bible to express opposition to abortion justify those writing decisions?”

This disconnection between anti-abortion ethics and the text of the Bible may come as a surprise; it was certainly a surprise to my students this year. Anti-abortion organizations claim that the Bible is crystal clear on the topic of abortion so often and so forcefully that it is generally believed to be true. That is certainly the understanding I grew up with and operated under before I became a Bible scholar and looked into it systematically.

After the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe vs. Wade leaked this Spring, the students in my  “Bible, Politics, and the Internet” course insisted that I expand our one class session on abortion into a week. I’m glad I did, because we all got a lot out of the experience.

For the first session, I gathered every biblical text that I could find quoted or cited on either side of the abortion debate. There were quite a few but not an absurd number, so I asked them to read through them all before class. I had also assigned articles on contraception and abortion in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, so they knew that both were known and commonly practiced throughout the societies from which the Bible emerged.

In class, the students broke up into small groups and answered two questions: which of these texts pertain to abortion directly? Which of them pertain to other ethical issues that influence the debate over abortion?

In the general discussion that followed, most students agreed that none of the verses or passages we read had anything at all to do with abortion. Some were indirectly relevant (the accidental miscarriage laws in Exodus 21:22–25, for example), but most were either shoehorned into the debate in a wholly inappropriate way (creation verses in Genesis 1:26–28 and 2:7) or were only relevant if you had already made your mind up that abortion was murder in advance (Exodus 20:13, Proverbs 24:11 and 31:8).

Their reaction echoes the position of many biblical scholars, such as John J. Collins. I take a slightly different stance, since I understand the ritual in Numbers 5:11–31 to describe the induction of an abortion for failing a divinely abetted paternity test. However, even if this one text literally prescribes an abortion, it does so in a way that helps neither side of the contemporary debate (as Rhiannon Graybill has helpfully explained. 

My students, to a person, were shocked. All of them had assumed it was in there somewhere—a clear and unambiguous prohibition of abortion. How could it not be, when abortion took up so much space in political discourse, especially among Bible-believing communities?

The fact is, the clarity of the Bible on abortion is largely an invention. More sophisticated anti-abortion advocates know this and so focus on natural law and Christian tradition over biblical precedent, but the broad assumption that the Bible prohibits abortion continues to be widespread and common.

So, what does it mean that the Bible does not present a clear position on abortion? What does it mean that the Bible does not seem to care about abortion enough to mention it almost at all, especially considering the prevalence of contraceptive and abortifacient practices throughout the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean? It’s a complicated question, since no religion has ever derived all of its doctrine and ritual from the Bible, and all types of Christianity have added, adapted, and sidelined biblical texts liberally for all manner of culturally and historically contingent reasons. It’s complicated further still by the Bible’s nature as a composite anthology with numerous different (and often disagreeing voices) represented within its pages. It is not a single text, with a single meaning and a single way of reading it. Rather, I see biblical texts as a generative base from which all manner of interpretations grow. It is certainly possible (as simple observation makes abundantly clear) to hold the Bible sacred and arrive at a pro-life, anti-abortion ethic, It is also possible to hold the Bible sacred and hold fast also to choice and reproductive justice. Neither derives necessarily from any Bible and no Bible alone can definitively adjudicate between the two for us.

As a historical Bible scholar, though, I also try to work out how these texts emerged and fit into the world in which they were written and spread. So in posts that follow this one, I’m going to discuss the place of abortion in antiquity, how the Bible’s various texts fit into it, the relevance of Bibles and biblical texts to the current debate over abortion policy, as well as my own thoughts and positions as they have developed over the past few decades. Maybe take it with a grain of salt since I’m not capable of getting pregnant, but I hope you’ll stick around and join in the conversation!

Best Books of 2021: The Mess We’re In

It’s no secret that we’re in a mess right now, politically, economically, and societally. In this third batch of favorite reads from 2021 (see 1, 2, and my full reading list), I’m sharing a few books that have helped me think through the present moment and how we get somewhere better together.

Front cover to Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the land, by Tony Judt

In this book, Judt tells the story of how the United States developed a faith in social democracy in the mid-20th century, then lost it in favor of a fetish for privatization and a devotion to free market solutions. The result is what he calls the ”eviscerated society,” characterized by private wealth and public squalor. Inequality has reached unsustainable and destructive levels through the consistent workings of unregulated capital markets (or more accurately, capital markets whose regulations are set by the most powerful interested players). His analysis is based on a life’s work as a historian of the post-war period, and his argumentation is lucid and eminently quotable. That said, it is not a perfect book—Judt is more statist than I am always comfortable with, and he falters on topics of race and identity as determinants of American economics and politics (see the forward to the 2020 edition by Ta-Nehisi Coates). On these, the next two books (and especially Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us) do much better.

Front cover of the 9.9 Percent

The 9.9%: The New Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart

This is another entry on the theme of inequality. However, Stewart takes a broader approach, examining a wide array of socio-cultural phenomena in addition to economics and politics. He argues that it is not only the 1% or the .1% of America’s wealthiest who are hoarding undue wealth and unraveling the fabric of society, but the 9.9%—the top decile in terms of net worth excluding the ultra-rich of the .1%. 

As inequality has grown, the upper decile has observed the shrinking chances of upward mobility and the increasing precarity of remaining in their place in the hierarchy. Stewart makes the case that this has led to a pervasive and corrosive anxiety that is spreading throughout every part of our lives and our institutions. To ensure their continued position near the top, 9.9 percenters (and those who wish to become 9.9 percenters) have imported ultra-competitive and anti-social logics into their child-rearing, education, marriages, living situations, health and fitness practices, etc., etc.

The tone can be a bit glib and some evidence and analysis could be disputed (his interpretation of ancient texts and archaeology made this scholar of the ancient Near East’s eyes twitch a little, for example), but Stewart’s overall case is strong. I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me a lot more to think about. Definitely worth a read.

For further reading in this vein, see Richard V. Reeves’ excellent Dream Hoarders (which was one of my top picks in 2017) and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.

Front cover to The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

In this book, Heather McGhee gives not only a clear and convincing analysis of how racism has and continues to increase and entrench inequality in the United States, but also a compelling path forward.

She shows that the only way to an economy that does not tilt entirely in the ultra-wealthy’s favor is by building multiracial coalitions that work on behalf of everyone. She also provides communication strategies for getting past places where conversations on race in the US tend to stall or backfire.

The key is dismantling the myth of zero-sum racial progress. There is a common perception (particularly among white Americans) that any improvement in the economic wellbeing of black and brown people must be accompanied by a corresponding decrease for whites. This, as McGhee shows with much data and many examples, is entirely false. It is in those very places where legal and cultural oppression of black and brown Americans was most severe that we find also the poorest conditions for working class white people. In effect, capitalists and business owners exacerbated and exploited the social divisions and resentments between racial groups to preempt solidarity and thus, to keep wages low and benefits minimal. In places where racial division has been intentionally overcome in the creation of multi-racial labor and political organization, Mcghee identifies what she calls a “solidarity dividend”—economic benefit to the communities of color involved, certainly, but also to the white population and to the region as a whole. As one organizer she quotes put it:  “as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered. The only way we succeed is together.”

This book would pair well with Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Front cover of Becoming Abolitionists

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell

Uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer brought police abolition and PIC abolition (i.e., abolition of the prison-industrial complex) into the public conversation in a way it had never been before. I have spent a lot of time reading and learning about what abolition means in theory and practice over the past year, and I have come to resonate with it as an ideal and a horizon toward which our society and our politics should always be oriented. I also understand that it can seem opaque, unclear, foolhardy, or destructive. Questions about public safety and protection are valid and deserve answers. In many cases, though, conversations and publications on abolition were being conducted by small groups of like-minded scholars and activists who shared common presumptions and language, and they were hard for curious newcomers to break into.

 Luckily, this year has seen the publication of several books that aim to make abolition more accessible and understandable to people who are curious but perhaps skeptical or uncertain about whether it can work in reality. I particularly like this book by Derecka Purnell, which conveys abolition theory through her own personal journey. Purnell is honest about the reservations she had toward abolition as her experience and consciousness have shifted over time and makes a compelling case for the insufficiency of reform and the need for an entirely new paradigm. I also enjoyed Mariame Kaba’s essay collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us and highly recommend Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?

Front cover of You are Here

You Are here: A Field guide for navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner.

When we talk about this mess we’re in, the role of the internet in getting us here inevitably makes its way into the conversation. Many problems with the internet and social media cannot be solved by individuals making individual choices, but each of us who lives some part of our life online needs to know how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can lead us astray. Phillips and Milner have written a short, clear, and very illuminating guide for internet users who want to consume, share, and publish information responsibly and productively. This is going to be required reading in my spring course on “The Bible, Politics, and the Internet,” so it’s fair to say I think it has something worthwhile to say!

 

And now some runners up in the education department:

Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch

Public schools are wonderful. Charter schools are vicious parasites that suck public dollars into wasteful, undemocratic, and often corrupt private ventures, impoverishing us all in the process. Read this book, support your local teachers’ union, and vote to fund public education.

Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney Martin 

A mom’s journey to make good educational choices for her daughter in Oakland, CA, where good means good for society too, not just for her own family. Good for anyone feeling squeamish about sending their kids to “bad” or “low performing” public schools.

Best Books of 2021: Disability and Embodiment

In today’s installment of Eric’s Favorite Books of 2021, we move into nonfiction. Stop 1: readings on disability and the body. Check out yesterday’s fiction picks and the full list if you haven’t already!

Front cover of Extraordinary Bodies by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

 

Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

It is no understatement to say that this book transformed my thinking on disability and embodiment. Garland-Thomson brilliantly disentangles, names, and examines physical, biopolitical, and socio-cultural aspects of living with a body in societies that do not view all bodies as equal.

For Garland-Thomson, the discourse of disability has little to do with the physical parameters of our bodies per se, and everything to do with “cultural rules about what bodies should be and do” (p. 6). Human bodies come in a dizzying diversity of forms, differing in myriad ways across a  variety of spectra. This alone cannot explain the concept of disability or its function in the differential allocation of status, power, and material resources in society. The discourse of disability, rather, does the work of collapsing that manifold diversity into manageable binaries—bodies that are essentially “normal” in contrast to those that are not. In short, it is “the attribution of corporeal deviance” (p. 6).

By beginning her analysis with the deviant, Garland-Thomson silhouettes the phantom majority against which this deviance is defined. She coins the concept of the “normate” body, one that bears no marked or stigmatizing characteristics within a given cultural frame. The normate presents itself as the universal subject, the unqualified and definitive human being. In reality, the normate creates the normalcy it claims to reflect, as only a small minority of people in any given society actually inhabit such bodies.

The first third of the book lays out her theory: disability and the normate identity, its connection with stigma and social limitation, and its interactions with gender and race. The remainder then explores the theory in relation to American culture (e.g., the phenomenon of freak shows) and literature (the writings of Harriet beecher Stowe and Audrey Lord). This should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to write about or just understand disability better.

Front Covers of the two Disability Visibility anthologies—one for adults and a second adapted for younger readers

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories for the 21st Century, edited by Alice Wong

This remarkable collection is composed entirely of first-person narratives describing the experience of living as a disabled person in the early 21st century. Alice Wong, a powerful advocate and activist for disability justice and the volume’s editor, has done an extraordinary job ensuring representation of contributors with many diverse identities, living  in a broad variety of situations with many different disabilities. The essays cover many topics, including personal experiences of joy and struggle, discrimination and institutionalization, and disability activism and mutual aid. Struggle runs throughout, but it is often combine with strength, defiance, connection, and collective action—Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “wild dreams of disability justice at the end of the world.” Read it yourself and buy it for all of your friends!

Front Cover of Their Plant Eyes

 

Their Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, by M. Leona Godin

This fits broadly within the genre of “blind memoir,” as Godin tells the story of her progressive vision loss and life with blindness, but she interweaves it with stories and biographies of blind people at different points in history to very enjoyable effect. Come for the salacious story of how Athenian Tyreseus was blinded and given prophecy by the gods; stay for Helen Keller’s often-glossed-over Vaudeville years, and meet a host of fascinating blind people in between. My one small critique? Like everyone, she starts her history of blindness with the Greeks, those late-comers to history who somehow get first credit for everything. Guess I’d better get working on that book on blindness in the ancient Middle East!

Front cover of Down, Girl!

Down, Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate manne

I wasn’t quite sure which category to put this book into, but since it deals broadly with the ways we police people based on the bodies they inhabit, I thought it might as well go here. I first heard of this book in connection with its coinage “himpathy,” which denotes the excessive sympathy given to men who are accused or convicted of gendered or sexual violence against women. The term struck me as a little too cute and didn’t motivate me to read the book right away, but I’m glad I did.

Now I use Manne’s model of misogyny all the time. It is so clear and powerfully explanatory that once you have read it you see the pattern at work everywhere. Misogyny and its manifestations in gendered violence are not illogical, incomprehensible, or inexplicable, as news outlets tend to conclude when gendered atrocities take place. Rather, misogyny in its various forms serves, in Manne’s words, as “the enforcement wing of patriarchy.” Misogyny is not the same thing as patriarchy, then, and it must also be differentiated from sexism. Patriarchy specifically describes any system in which roles and possibilities are determined by gender, with greater authority and autonomy going to men and submission and subservience allotted to women. Patriarchal systems are justified by sexism—that is, beliefs regarding the different natures of men and women and their relative social positions and value. Within a patriarchal system, gender roles are policed on both sides for deviance. Improper manhood and womanhood can both be stigmatized and sanctioned. Here, Manne focuses primarily on misogyny—acts of aggression and violence intended to control women who venture outside the prescribed boundaries of their gender’s assigned role(s). As such, it appears most predictably when women seek to resist or escape the control of men. With detailed argumentation and plentiful examples, Manne develops the intricacies of this broad thesis and its manifestations in different areas of life. As a work of academic philosophy it can get pretty dense, but the payoff is 100% worth it.

Best Books of 2021: Fiction

Yesterday I shared the full list of books I read in 2021. Today I’m going to start sharing some favorites, beginning with the best from the fiction category.

Front Cover of the novel Piranesi

Piranesi, by Susanna Clark

Reading this book is an otherworldly experience—not only for the prosaic reason that it takes place in another world, but also because the writing creates a dreamlike atmosphere that is at once tantalizing and elusive. It takes the form of a detailed field journal kept by a man called Piranesi. He is mostly alone, navigating and charting a massive complex he calls the House. The House contains many halls, filled with thousands upon thousands of stone statues—some human, some animal, some creatures of story and myth. Through cracked roofs he sees an unending sky, and the floor below is flooded by an ocean of violent and interacting tides. Piranesi keeps meticulous notes, mapping the complex but always returning to the beginning lest he lose himself in the unending series of halls. Occasionally he is joined by a man he calls the Other, who is eager to hear the results of Piranesi’s exploration though he himself never ventures far into the House. This is a book I recommend highly, but mainly for the experience of reading it. The plot itself I found mildly disappointing, and the ending perhaps more so. I say perhaps because I haven’t been able to decide whether it ruined the book for me, and so perhaps this is also a testament to the novel’s magnificent indeterminacy.

Front Cover of the Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

A book that hits the sweet spot for all you lovers of both historical fiction and lexicography. Williams tells the story of Esme, the daughter of a lexicographer working under Dr. Charles Murray to create the Oxford English Dictionary at the turn of the twentieth century. Esme’s father is a young widower, and She spends her early days playing at his feet under the large table in the Scriptorium while he works. Occasionally, she finds slips of paper with words and definitions written on them, sent in by the dictionary’s many volunteer contributors. As she grows and learns more, she begins working on the dictionary herself and notices that some words—particularly to do with the lives and experiences of women—are conspicuously left out or defined in ways that do not satisfy her. She begins a secret project of her own, collecting and defining women’s words that do not rise to the standards of masculine “importance” demanded by the intellectual giants of the dictionary. The novel is beautifully and gently written, yet uncompromising in its lament for the lost stories and language of women.

Front Cover to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the first book of the Wayfarers Series

 The Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers

 This is a delightful science fiction series set in a vibrantly imagined and beautifully constructed universe. Each book is tenuously related to the last, usually picking up on and developing the story of a minor character from a previous book. Though events of extraordinary interplanetary significance are going on around her characters (and indeed they sometimes find themselves in the middle of such events), Chambers keeps the focus tightly on the characters themselves, navigating adventures they often did not choose and do not want within a complicated web of alien cultures and political agendas. It is exactly this quotidian bent and narrow focus that make the Wayfarers books so enjoyable to read—indeed, the final book covers a lot of ground even though it takes place during what amounts to a prolonged travel delay. If you want high-quality, character-centered sci-fi that explores issues of gender, intersectionality, colonialism and its aftermath, and a whole host of other big topics in little ways, give these a read!

Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

Honestly, I’d never had any desire to read this book. Never, that is, until I learned it was banned by the Nazis because they (rightly( identified it as n allegory for the persecution of European Jews in an era of accelerating anti-Semitism and fascism. Bambi was first published in 1923 to immediate success, but it was banned in 1935 lest it create sympathy for Germany’s Jews. The novel is a different animal entirely from the 1942 Walt Disney adaptation (pun intended)—an unflinching account of lives of forest animals born into a hostile, dangerous world and the price they pay to survive within it. Even its moments of joy and exuberance are muted by the tense undercurrents of threat that run through every page. The creatures of the forest fear death in every shadow and across every sunlit meadow, and even the leaves on the trees debate the mystery of death. Above all other predators is “He,” the human who brings death with his gun, who seeks only to kill and makes fools or traitors of all animals who serve him. In the end, Bambi learns not of love and the bliss of family life (as Disney would have us believe), but of life conditioned by constant wariness and the solitary sorrow of survival. It’s a masterful book, but I’ll probably wait a few years before I read it to my kids.

2021: My Year in Books

The covers of every book I read this yearm, arranged in a grid pattern

 

 Hi! What is your pandemic coping strategy? Apparently, mine involves piping a constant stream of audiobooks into my ears at every moment I’m not working or actively conversing with my family. 

Cooking? Audiobooks.

Dishes? Audiobooks.

Laundry? Audiobooks.

You get the picture. 

I guess that’s how I made it through 78 books this year (on top of the reading I do for research, etc.). Looking back over the list, I see too many amazing reads to make just one book post (as I’ve done in previous years), so this time I’m going to break up my top picks into a few posts that I’ll publish over the next couple of days.

But before that, here’s the whole list. See if you can guess which ones were my favorites.

And please let me know what you read and loved this year. I’m always looking for the next thing!

The List

(In the order I read them)

  1. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by C. L. R. James
  2. The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, by Marc Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine
  3. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, by bell hooks
  4. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
  5. The metanarrative of Blindness: A re-reading of 20th Century Anglophone Writing, by David Bolt
  6. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
  7. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott
  8. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, by bell hooks
  9. Religion is Raced: Understanding American Religion in the 21st Century, edited by Grace Yukich
  10. What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World, by Sarah Hendren
  11. Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, by Sasha Costanza-Chock
  12. Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories for the 21st Century, edited by Alice Wong
  13. Dawn (Xenogenesis #1), by Octavia E. Butler
  14. Adulthood Rites (Xenogenesis #2), by Octavia E. Butler
  15. Imago (Xenogenesis #3), by Octavia E. Butler
  16. How the University Works: Higher Education in the Low-Wage Nation, by Marc Bousquet
  17. The Instruction Myth: Why Higher Education is Hard to Change and How to Change It, by John Tagg
  18. Understanding and Preventing Faculty-on-Faculty Bullying: A Psycho-Social Organizational Approach, by Darla J. Twale
  19. The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the 21st Century, by George E. Walker
  20. The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Perception in the Hebrew Bible, by Yael Avrahami
  21. Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi
  22. Blood in my Eye, by George L. Jackson
  23. The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
  24. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by Adrienne Maree Brown
  25. Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism, by Annette Yoshiko Reed
  26. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and how WE Can Prosper Together, by Heather McGhee
  27. Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse
  28. Feminist, Queer, Crip, by Alison Kafer
  29. Piranesi, by Susanna Clark
  30. Decolonial Pedagogy: Examining Sites of Resistance, Resurgence, and Renewal, by Njoki N. Wane
  31. Music in Ancient Greece and Rome, by John G. Landels
  32. The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism’s Politics of the Family, by Sophie Bjork-James
  33. Down, Girl! The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne
  34. The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, by Alicia Garza
  35. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity in this Crisis, by Dean Spade
  36. Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins, by David M. Carr
  37. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler-Colonial Conquest and Resistance, 1917–2017, by Rashid Khalidi
  38. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
  39. America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s, by Elizabeth Hinton
  40. The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope, by Daniel Greene
  41. Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document that Changes Everything, by William Germano
  42. The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams
  43. All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1), by Martha Wells
  44. Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2), by Martha Wells
  45. Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries #3), by Martha Wells
  46. Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries #4), by Martha Wells
  47. Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries #5), by Martha Wells
  48. Their Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, by M. Leona Godin
  49. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin M. Kruse
  50. You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Bryan M. Milner and Whitney Phillips
  51. No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education, by Leigh Patel
  52. The Traitor Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade #1) by Seth Dickinson
  53. Where do we go from here” Chaos or Community, by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  54. Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch
  55. Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney E. Martin
  56. Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World, by Michael Edwards
  57. The New Ph.D.: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch
  58. Tell the Machine Goodnight, by Katie Williams
  59. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1), by Becky Chambers
  60. A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers
  61. Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3), by Becky Chambers
  62. The Galaxy and the Ground Within (Wayfarers #4), by Becky Chambers
  63. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison
  64. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, by Charlene Carruthers
  65. We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, by Mariame Kaba
  66. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, by Robin D G. Kelly
  67. Bullshit Jobs: A theory, by David Graeber
  68. Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America, by John McWhorter
  69. Liquid Scripture: The Bible in a Digital World, by Jeffrey Siker
  70. Christitainment: Selling Jesus Through Popular Culture, by Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe
  71. Evangelicals, Incorporated: Books and the business of Religion in America, by Daniel Vaca
  72. A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops obsolete, by Gio Maher
  73. Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell
  74. Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt
  75. The Bright Ages, by Matt Gabriele and David M. Perry
  76. The 9.9%: The new Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart
  77. Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, by Harsha Walia
  78. Bambi: A Life in the woods, by Felix Salten

Audiobooks are Books, Too

Every so often, some iteration of the same debate pops up somewhere on the internet: does listening to audiobooks really count as reading?

Predictably, this takes the form of one person calling out another because they didn’t really read a book, they just listened to it. Audiobooks, in other words, Don’t “count” in the same way print books do.

Now, I’ve interacted with the written word in a lot of ways—eyes on print, fingers on Braille, and audio red by humans and synthesized by text-to-speech. So I have some thoughts about this. I wrote them out in a massive twitter thread, and a few people asked me to publish it here as well. Here it is (slightly cleaned up and with links to relevant resources).

***

 

First Things: Words and their Jobs

First, let’s take a brief foray into linguistics and acknowledge that words do not have inherent meanings. People use and combine words to create and communicate meaning with others.

As semanticists say, “Words don’t mean. People mean.”

And in different contexts, people use words to mean different things. For the verb “to read,” there are three relevant usages to consider:

  1. reading as an ability
  2. reading as an activity
  3. reading as an accomplishment

To understand the differences and why they matter, we have to think historically. As time passes culture, technology, and lifestyles change in ways that create new communicative needs. Most of the time, these needs are met not by inventing wholly new words, but by adapting pre-existing words by analogy. The process by which this happens is seldom reasoned or systematic, tending rather to be intuitive and incidental.

Tactile writing is only two hundred years old and audiobooks are less than ninety, so it shouldn’t be surprising that our language has not fully adapted to their use. We are recycling the language of older technologies—spoken language and visual writing—to describe these new things and the ways we use them.

In the case of Braille and other tactile writing systems, the analogy with visual writing was clear and straightforward. Both used characters in a sequence to represent language across a page or other flat surface, and both were stable over time. Thus, the adoption of “reading” and “writing” language presented few problems outside of very technical contexts.

(Note—I don’t know if there were debates in the 1800s over whether the verb “to read” could be legitimately applied to Braille. If there were, that would be super interesting and I’d love to see them. In either case, reading quickly became the dominant way of talking about consuming Braille)

Controversy over audiobooks, I think, stems from uncertainty over which pre-existing technology they should be analogized to: printed texts or spoken language. The format is auditory, and thus resembles speech, but books, magazines, newspapers, signs, menus, etc. . are understood as essentially textual entities, which are read.

So in our language, do we privilege the format and delivery method, or the original/essential nature of the content?

The problem is different in each of the three usages of the verb “to read,” because each at its heart is trying to convey different information. Lets consider each in turn:

1) Reading as an ability

Basically, this answers the question “can you read?” In other words, if presented with a given physical object containing text, will you be able to decode its meaning?

There’s a lot to unpack about reading as an ability, but I’m not going to do it here. In this context, I think it’s safe to say that if you cannot read at least one print or tactile script in at least one language, you should not say you can read.

However, that doesn’t get to the heart of the debate or the ways people use the reading/listening distinction to flex on each other.

2) Reading as an activity

This answers the question “what are you doing?” Consider four answers:

  1. “I’m reading a book.”
  2. “I’m listening to a book.”
  3. “I’m listening to an audiobook.”
  4. “I’m reading an audiobook.”

If we imagine ourselves as sticklers who insist that print and audiobooks are so different that they require different verbs, then only the first and third answers make any sense at all. I mean, I suppose I could press my ear to my paperback copy of War and Peace, but I won’t get much out of it).

Now consider another scenario. I am pointing my phone at a large sign. I have the Seeing AI app up and it’s reading any text that comes into my camera’s view. You ask “what are you doing?” Two possible answers:

  1. “I am trying to see what that sign says.”
  2. “I am trying to read that sign.”

Now, you and I the imaginary sticklers know that both of these are absurd. I am not reading, in a literal sense, nor will I ever truly *see* what it says. What I should say is “I am pointing my phone at that sign so it can feed the image into an optical character recognition engine then translate the results into sound using text to speech software so that I can apprehend the information encoded on its surface.”

But the point of the first two answers is not to communicate the sum of their words. They are trying to communicate a more general point: I am trying to get the information from that sign into my head using a newfangled kind of technological mediation.

There are times when we can all turn off our inner literalists and realize that “reading” can be shorthand for getting textual information from a physical object into our heads.

So let’s not be sticklers, ok?

Of course, there may be times when it is important to specify the exact mode and method we used to apprehend some bit of text. This should be done to prevent or correct misunderstandings, but it applies equally to Braille and print.

For example, if a sighted someone asks to borrow your copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you might disappoint them by saying you have it on audio, but they would probably not be thrilled if you dropped off ten massive Braille volumes, either.

And that leads to usage number 3.

3) Reading as an accomplishment

This is where it gets real, because this is where people start adding value judgments and putting each other down.

The pertinent question here is “did you read X?”

I often hear people say things like “you didn’t actually read X, you just listened to it.” What’s the point of saying this? It does more than maintain a procedural distinction, it establishes a hierarchy where reading is superior and listening is inferior. It implies that listening to a book is not an accomplishment in the same way that reading it visually or tactilely is. In some sense, it doesn’t “count.”

The foundations of this hierarchy lie in cultural notions regarding the types of material that are usually conveyed in written and oral form and the relative merits of each. Books, especially, are prestige objects because of their historical associations with education and class privilege. Historical roots notwithstanding, though,, is this hierarchy justified? Is there any inherent superiority to reading words from a page by eye or finger as opposed to hearing them read or synthesized into speech?

It depends on our goals. In my research, I use Braille for close reading (especially in non-English languages) and audio to work quickly through long articles and books. Keeping two lists in my head—one of things I have read in Braille and one of books I have listened to—would be untenable and pointless.

This is because the point of saying I have read something is to indicate that I have interacted with the information it contains and internalized it to some degree. If it could be demonstrated that comprehension and retention rates differed significantly between auditory and visual/tactile book input, then I could be convinced that we should insist on the terminological distinction. But they do not.

Neurological imaging studies reveal that listening to audiobooks activates the same cognitive and emotional regions of the brain as reading print, and tests of comprehension and retention do not show significant differences between audio and print consumption of text.

Additionally, a moment’s reflection reveals that not all visual or tactile reading leads to the same learning. Sometimes print and Braille reading are done with care and attention, and sometimes they are done while unwilling or distracted. I have learned a lot from reading print books and articles, and I have finished others and realized immediately that I could not tell you anything about what I had just read. The same can be said for audio reading. Most often, the returns we get from the time and energy we invest in reading have more to do with our focus and attention than with inherent qualities of the medium or modality.

To my mind, then, insisting on a value distinction between print/Braille and audio is baseless and counterproductive. The value of tine spent reading is in the changes it makes to your base of knowledge and depth of thought. Neither of these result directly or necessarily from the part(s) of your body you use in the process. So as a flex?? To boost your own intellectual achievements and cast doubt on those of others? It doesn’t work and it doesn’t make sense.

To sum up, here are a few takeaways:

Should we learn Braille? YES. I hope nothing I’ve said here implies that I don’t think Braille is important. Learn Braille to the extent that you are physically and neurologically able, because it gives you the opportunity to interact with information in a greater variety of ways in a greater variety of circumstances. Even if all you can do is read bathroom signs and label your medications, that’s better than nothing. And if you gain the fluency to read whole books? Go to town!

But should we enforce the distinction between Braille and audio, relegating audio always to second place? NO. Indulge your curiosity. Read widely in whatever medium is most accessible to you. Expand your perspective with print, Braille, audio, whatever. Don’t be discouraged and don’t be held back. Read read read read read!

And come on, people, if someone says they read a book and you KNOW they listened to the audio, don’t call them out or “correct” them on it. There’s no point to it and it’s not a good look.

Basically, be as precise as you want but don’t try to prove Braille is important by denigrating audio.

Braille is important.

Audio is important.

Nitpicking each other’s language to enforce a baseless distinction between the two is not.

2020: My Year in Books

A grid view of the covers of the 60 books I read this year

It’s time for year-end “best of” lists, and so here again is my annual rundown of books (see also the  2017, 2018, and 2019 versions).

2020 was strange and hard, but that did not keep it from bringing me some very good books. As I look back, i am struck by the excellent quality of this year’s reads. I would recommend nearly all of the 60 books I read and it’s not easy to choose my favorites, but I’ve pulled out some top picks below.

Let me know what you thought of these books in the comments, or which books were your favorites this year!. I’m always looking for new recommendations!

 

Top Picks

Fiction

The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty

The world of this phenomenal fantasy trilogy builds upon medieval Islamic mythology from the Indian Ocean Rim. The story centers around Nahiri, a young orphan turned con artist in French-occupied Cairo. In the course of a hustle she accidentally summons the ancient jinn Darayavahoush (Dara for short), who recognizes her as part jinn herself. Together they journey to Daevabad, the jinn capital city, where she becomes embroiled in palace intrigue and the city’s volatile politics. The magical world is lush and nuanced, the characters are deep and engaging, and the writing is simply wonderful. These books will not disappoint.

 

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

This lovely YA read deals frankly and sensitively with topics of mixed heritage, teenage identity formation, and mental illness. Sixteen-year-old Darius Kellner lives with chronic depression, which complicates his efforts to negotiate his identity as a “fractional Persian.” He constantly feels too Persian for his white family, too white for his Persian family, and too awkward and nerdy for both. When his family travels to visit his grandparents in Iran, he struggles to find where and how he fits in the family, The saving grace of the trip is Sohrab, a neighbor with whom he develops a strong and meaningful friendship. Khorram does not trivialize or catastrophize depression, but writes a complicated main character who must live with it as one enduring feature of his life. 

 

A special shout-out goes to author Tamora Pierce. for getting me through election season. Even though she started writing her Alanna books in the early 1980s, I hadn’t heard of them until this October (thanks to M Tong and Matthew Chalmers). They were fun, quick reads that provided distraction in the days surrounding Nov. 4, and on top of it all they have aged really well over the past three decades—strong heroines, engaging characters, and imaginative world-building, combine with grand adventure to create delightful escapist rides.

 

Nonfiction 

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein

I read this book as March gave way to April. The Coronavirus pandemic was gaining steam and government and society were weighing options for potential responses. The process was a real-time illustration of Disaster Capitalism, Klein’s term for an economic strategy pioneered and propagated by economists at the University of Chicago in the latter half of the 20th century—most notably Milton Friedman and his students. These were the vanguard of the economic philosophy that has come to be known as neoliberalism—hardline support for privatization and market deregulation, general distrust of public goods and government interventions, and the elevation of competition over collaboration as an ordering economic and social principle. 

Friedman understood the value of disaster. In 1982 he wrote “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” (cited on p. 140). He made it a point, therefore, to spread his students and his ideas to as many places as possible, where they would implement the same crisis playbook again and again until his brand of ultra-capitalism moved from fringe to mainstream and then to orthodoxy. This much happened, certainly, but neoliberalism did not bring with it the widespread prosperity and happiness that the Chicago Boys predicted. Klein uses in-depth case studies from Chile, South Africa, post-Soviet Russia, Argentina. and mid-2000s Iraq to show the pattern that unfolded in place after place: “an urban bubble of frenetic speculation and dubious accounting fueling superprofits and frantic consumerism, ringed by the ghostly factories and rotting infrastructure of a development past; roughly half the population excluded from the economy altogether; out-of-control corruption and cronyism; decimation of nationally owned small and medium-sized businesses; a huge transfer of wealth from public to private hands, followed by a huge transfer of private debts into public hands” (p. 86). In short, a pattern in which the wealthy leverage disasters to further enrich themselves at the expense of those most vulnerable to the crisis itself.

Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism has held up depressingly well since the publication of this book in 2009. The recent Rand Report on income inequality shows that fifty years of trickle-down economic policies have siphoned $50 trillion upward from the bottom 90% of the U.S. wealth distribution to the top 1%. The financial crisis of 2008–2009 created another massive wealth redistribution upward, and in 2020 America’s 644 billionaires have used the Coronavirus pandemic to increase their collective net worth by $1 trillion while pushing 8 million people from the middle class into poverty.

 Economic orthodoxy needs revision—or revolution. Privatization and competition will not save us. The problems we face now require collaboration and collective action for the public good.

 

The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall

Economic markets do not just happen. There is no such thing as a “free market,” proceeding in its natural state without government intervention or regulation. Governments do not only intervene in natural market processes; they set the parameters for market operation and participation from the ground up. All markets operate under sets of rules, and those rules can vary on every factor. What can be owned, and by whom? What can be bought and sold, and on what terms? Who can participate in the market and who is excluded? What obligations do the various parties in economic transactions have to each other and to society? None of these answers is fixed in stone or mandated by natural law. They are changing and changeable, as Alex Marshall demonstrates with this torrent of studies and examples from U.S. history. Investigating common law, intellectual property, the nature of the corporation, private/public partnership, and the enforcement of property rights and norms, he demonstrates the contingent nature of market behavior and the dramatic differences that changes in market governance can make. 

The analysis in some examples could be questioned, but Marshall makes his overarching point with strength and clarity. There is no neutral, unregulated form of a capitalist market economy, only different types of regulation that favor different parties in the system to greater or lesser extents. “In reality, deregulation means abdicating public governance in favor of corporate self-regulation, which tends to devalue workers and shirk responsibility for externalities. Luckily, we can choose different rules for our markets—rules that empower workers, ensure responsible production and consumption, and promote the public good.

 

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson

Caricatures of American history often focus too heavily on either its high ideals of freedom and equality or its cruel patterns of exploitation and extraction. These two tendencies—one toward the concentration of wealth and power and the other toward equal participation and empowerment of all people—have coexisted in tension from the United States’s founding, and in this book Heather Cox Richardson uses the battle line itself as a through line in American history. Beginning with the Constitution, which propounds inalienable human rights and equal treatment at a time when both were denied to the majority of the population, she traces the tension forward to its crescendo in the Civil War and beyond to western expansion, Jim Crow, and our current battles over race, gender, religion, and economics. 

In their mythical self-representation, Southern slaveowners portrayed themselves as rugged individualists—strong and self-sufficient men who asked nothing from the government except to be left alone. In reality, their wealth and position (not to mention the entire slaveholding system) were propped up by government support and intervention at every level. The three-fifths compromise in the U.S. Constitution gave white men in slaveholding states outsized influence in national policy, and local law enforcement kept enslaved Southerners in check while protecting their enslavers from harm and insurrection.

Emancipation and abolition were important steps toward freedom, but they did not usher in full inclusion or equal rights. , Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Southern ideology did not die out but spread westward into new territories and states. Western pioneers, like the Southern slaveowners before them, cultivated an image of rugged self-sufficiency that was actually propped up by a substantial government apparatus. Laws limited  the immigration and citizenship of Native American, Mexican, and Chinese populations. Courts prioritized the property rights of white settlers, and military and law enforcement tolerated and perpetrated acts of terrorist violence against all of these groups to the advantage of the white pioneers. In the 20th century the expansion of voting rights to women and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s both represented significant gains toward democratic and egalitarian ideals, but we are still far from embodying the highest values of a free, just, and equal society. Those striving to reduce entrenched disparities in power and status face ongoing opposition from those who would see them limited to a chosen few. Though Richardson’s framework may seem simplistic,  it helps to clarify the goals and stakes in the brutal tug-of-war of American politics. 

Heather Cox Richardson also writes an amazing daily newsletter that digests the day’s news and places it in historical context. It is an excellent way to get the news without all the frenzy, and you can find it on her Substack or her facebook page. I read it every day and you might like it too!

 

Jesus an John Wayne: How White Evangelicals corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Riffing on the title of a 2008 song by the Gaither Vocal Band, Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces the nature of masculinity and male role models in white American Evangelicalism across the past 75 years. She argues that Christian leaders and cultural icons have championed a rough and rugged male ideal defined by competition and domination. This masculinity affects all areas of life, from rigid gender roles and unquestioned male authority in the family to religious supremacy in society and militant imperialism abroad. Evangelicals have remade Jesus in the image of John Wayne, and the results have been disastrous.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the current state of evangelicalism in the United States. It does for gender what Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise has done for race—shows how unhealthy hierarchies and the pursuit of dominance are not alien intrusions upon American Christianity, but are central to its identity and functioning. 

 

The Full List

In chronological order from January to December

  • How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth
  • There will be no Miracles Here: A Memoir by Casey Gerald
  • Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
  • Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong and the Research that’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
  • The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
  • From Dissertation to Book by William P. Germano
  • Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics by R. Marie griffith
  • The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole your Vote and how to get it Back by Tom Hartmann
  • The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
  • From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century by William A. Darity Jr. and Kirsten Mullen
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Dwayne
  • TheWind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred E. Taylor
  • The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall
  • The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Rise of the People’s Economy by Stephanie Kelton
  • The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls by John J. Collins
  • Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics by Katrine Marcal
  • TheFearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by Marcus Rediker
  • The Formation of the Book of Psalms: Reconsidering the Transmission and Canonization of Psalmody in Light of Material Culture and the Poetics of Anthologies by David Willgren
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Whiteness in Higher Education: The Invisible Missing Link in Diversity and Racial Analyses by Nolan L. Cabrera
  • Critical Race Theory in Higher Education: Twenty Years of Theoretical and Research Innovations by Dorian L. McCoy, et al.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
  • An Afican-American and LatinX History of the United states by Paul Ortiz
  • The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
  • Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
  • The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty (The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold)
  • Evil: the Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw
  • The Passover Haggadah: A Biography by Vanessa L. Ochs
  • Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education, Vol. 1: Seeing Through the Cracks by Dorothy Bottrell and Catherine Manathunga (eds.)
  • Industrial Strength Denial: Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change by Barbara Freese
  • How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcom X and Alex Haley
  • Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives by Elizabeth S. Anderson
  • Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
  • Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Manne
  • Song of the Lioness Series by Tamora Pierce (Alanna: The First Adventure, n the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant)
  • White Rage: The unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
  • Immortals Series by Tamora Pierce (Wild Magic, Wolf-Speaker, Emperor Mage, and The Realms of the Gods)
  • Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
  • Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed
  • Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel
  • Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr.
  • Ableism in Academia: Theorizing Experiences of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Higher Education by Nicole Brown and Jennifer Leigh (eds.)
  • Teaching to Transgress: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks

Scholar Strike 3: Race in Biblical Interpretation

As I wrote in my post yesterday, race was not a concept that influenced the composition of biblical texts.

It has, however, deeply influenced their reception and use. Over the past 500 years it has been inextricably bound up in the practice of biblical translation, interpretation, and application. Biblical scholarship—both historical and theological—has been conducted in a world where racial concepts, hierarchies, and structures permeate life at every level, and biblical studies have not been immune to their influence.

The vast majority of biblical scholarship in these centuries was conducted by white, Christian men who sat at or near the top of racial, gender, religious, and class hierarchies, and their interpretations inevitably bear the marks of those social positions. Many read race into these texts where it was not originally present, and the character of these readings have skewed white supremacist (in the broader sense)—not universally and not always explicitly, but often enough and strongly enough to be undeniable.

A number of scholars—particularly scholars of color—are working to untangle the white supremacy that has become so deeply enmeshed with biblical interpretation, and I admit freely that this is not my area of expertise. So I’ll offer one illustration and then point to some work by other scholars that will provide a more comprehensive and detailed representation of the issues.

Early in my graduate studies, I sat in on a seminar session on Old Testament ethics. The professor was white, and if I remember correctly, all of the students were too. The topic of this particular session was slavery in the Old Testament.

In a pre-circulated paper, the professor had outlined his thoughts on the nature and ethics of the topic. To be fair, the limited Hebrew vocabulary for slaves and slavery (עבד [masculine], אמה and שפחה [feminine]) do refer to many different social arrangements and situations with what seem to be quite variable parameters. They apply to Israelites sold into debt bondage (e.g., Leviticus 25:44) and enslaved prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 10:16, 20:10–15), as well as high-ranking officials in the royal court (Exodus 10:7, 1 Samuel 22:14), and there is legitimate work to be done exploring the details and particulars of individual instances and the essential commonalities that bind them together.

The seminar paper, however, admitted to little of the diversity or ambiguity, and generally presented Israelite practices in the most sympathetic light possible. In fact, the professor suggested that the relevant Hebrew words should be translated “servant” in every case, and followed that practice throughout the paper. This was done in part to distance the practices of biblical servitude from modern race-based chattel slavery. While perhaps imperfect, biblical slavery was cast as a basically ethical arrangement, nothing like the fundamentally corrupt trans-Atlantic system.

One section of the paper was titled “The Advantages of Servanthood,” and it defended the pleasant ness and even desirability of Israelite servitude with a quote from a Chinese domestic servant in early 20th-century San Francisco:

I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love…. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence…. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less.

As the professor admitted, though, this quote came from a work of fiction. It was spoken by the character Lee in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. In effect, one white man was defending ancient servitude with words that another white man had placed in the mouth of a fictional non-white servant to defend modern servitude.

I should not have to point out that this is not legitimate evidence. There is no necessary connection between a real experience of subordination and the idea of it that exists in the master’s imagination.

Consider a rosy depiction from another era, in which servants are described as

hapy, contented…Lightly tasked, well clothed, well fed—far better than the free laborers of any country in the world,… their lives and persons protected by the law, all their sufferings alleviated by the kindest and most interested care..

Here we know that reality bore no resemblance to the pretty picture. The servants, in this case, were enslaved Black Americans, and the speaker was James Henry Hammond, who said this on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1836, as part of a two-hour speech defending race-based chattel slavery as a positive social good.

First-person narratives of race-based chattel slavery in the United States, of course, attest overwhelmingly to its brutality and inhumanity. The disconnect between reality and representations by Hammond and other  apologists could not be starker. Perhaps this should not be surprising, since most of them had a vested financial interest in its continuation, and thus in its moral justifiability.

Likewise, John Steinbeck grew up in a household with maids and servants, and so had experienced servitude largely from the master’s point of view. I do not know the professor’s history or situation, but in his treatment of the topic of Israelite slavery, he showed a naive and uncritical willingness to accept the master’s point of view that was undoubtedly conditioned by his position at the top of a racial hierarchy in a society where that position aligned him more often with masters than with servants.

Just as he accepted Steinbeck’s portrayal of servanthood as ethical a desirable, so he accepted and propagated an ethical and desirable framing of biblical servitude.

In this way, I don’t think he is unique. Sympathetic presentations of biblical slavery are common, even from those who would flatly condemn its counterpart in the last century. I don’t mean to condemn this particular professor as an especially bad actor, but rather to present this paper as a glaring example of a common interpretive orientation. All of us were born into this racial caste system, and our thinking and engagement with ideas and institutions have been shaped by aspects of our identity that we did not choose. As we grow and learn, however, we can gain a critical understanding of these received structures and work to change them.

It’s difficult to admit, but at the time of this seminar I wanted to believe this framing. I wanted to believe that biblical slavery was different in kind from all other kinds of slavery, because the Bible was different in kind from all other books. Unlearning this unconscious desire to gloss over the oppressive and unjust parts of the text required reading the work of scholars whose experience was informed by the other side of the arrangement—scholars whose family stories were of discrimination and oppression, whose ethics were formed in subjugated communities burning to live free. It took scholars who would not gloss over inconvenient facts in a rush to apologize for a broken and unjust system, even if it came from their sacred Scriptures.

Some slaves in biblical texts may have been treated well and prospered, but the laws regulating the practice also left ample room for abuse and degradation. Too often, the whiteness of academic biblical studies has obscured biblical slavery’s harsher realities and mischaracterized it as a gentle and humane social arrangement. This does a disservice to African American readers of the text, for whom the fundamental illegitimacy of forced labor is immediately apparent. This is one reason why it is necessary to broaden the engagement of historically underrepresented groups in academic biblical studies and to read and teach their insights alongside the work of white scholars.

Further Resources

This post covered just one small way in which white supremacy has influenced biblical interpretation. Its reach is not limited to issues of slavery, though. If you are interested in learning more, I would point you toward the following scholars, among other.

Dr. Wilda C. Gafney has made this short Scholar Strike video surveying the many faces of white supremacy in biblical interpretation. Go ahead and watch it right now:

She has also written two books, both of which are filled with interrogations of white supremacist readings and proposed alternatives. Go buy, Daughters of Miriam and Womanist Midrash.

In regard to specifically Christian uses of the Bible in support of racist policies and practices, I recommend Jemar Tisby’s must-read The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism and the accompanying video series on Amazon Prime (linked on the book page).

See also Dr. Nyasha Junior’s Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and BibleIntroduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, and (with Jeremy Schipper) Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon.

Please feel free to drop more resources in the comments!

Scholar Strike 2: Race in Biblical Texts

This afternoon, I’ll turn to my academic specialization: the Hebrew Bible.

What is there to say about race in the Bible? I’ll make two points:

1. There is no race in the Bible.

2. Thus, there is no racism in the Bible.

Class dismissed. Thank you for your time.

Ok, of course I can’t let you go without saying more. So let’s dig in a little deeper. What does it mean that there is no race—and thus no racism—in the Bible?

Obviously, people in antiquity had different skin colors, and the writers of biblical texts knew this. So we get verses like jeremiah 13:23: “Can Ethiopians change their skin, or leopards their spots?” This rests upon the assumption that Ethiopian skin tone differed from Israelite skin tone and was marked as different, but note the woman speaking in Song of Songs 1:5, who says

שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה

“Black am I, and beautiful.”

Thus, dark skin was known and admired, even if it was not the norm. Several other Israelite characters are described as אדמיני, “ruddy” or “earthy” (e.g., Esau in Gen. 25:25 and David in 1 Sam. 16:12 and 17:42). Though it is quite a bit later,the Mishnah provides support for the idea that the skin tone considered normal in Israel was a reddish mid-brown. In the 2nd century CE, Rabbi Ishmael said “The children of Israel (may I be atonement for them!) are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.” (Mishnah Negaim 2:1). 1Thus, statements that crop up from time to time saying Jesus was white are not true either in a literal or a racial sense. Credit to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for the reference.

Mid-brown seems to be the default for the residnts of ancient Israel, then, and darker skin tones were known, but no mention is made of white or light skin in any biblical text.

But, as I wrote in my previous post, race is not color and color is not race. The existence and acknowledgment of different shades of skin does not necessarily imply any concept of race.

To clarify this point, it will help to expand on what “race” is as a concept and what it isn’t, and how concepts of race developed. I say concepts of race in the plural, because the definitions and theoretical underpinnings of race have changed over the years, even as its function in creating a stratified social order has remained relatively stable.

What ties concepts of race together is the idea that the global human population can be divided into a small number (usually 3–5) of subpopulations according to meaningful (i.e., biological) criteria. Different theories of race have rested on varied historical models—most involve early branching of the human family tree into distinct populations, but some have held that different races were the result of separate acts of divine creation (polygenesis).

These theories began to emerge in the context of European expansion and conquest in the 15th century, most directly as justifications for slave trafficking. In Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi locates the first attestation of a racial theory in Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s biography of Prince Henry of Portugal, published in 1453. The prince had sought to enter Portugal into the European slave trade in earnest at a time when the traditional source of slaves—Eastern Europe—was building up defenses against Westerners. Prince Henry had shifted his efforts to the west coast of Africa, sailing south to avoid paying the premium charged by North African Middlemen who trafficked slaves across the Sahara.

In his presentation, de Zurara referred to all Africans as belonging to a single people, from the light-skinned Tuareg to the dark-skinned Ethiopians and sub-Saharan populations. They were all members of an inferior race, whom Prince Henry, according to de Zurara, had undertaken to enslave in an altruistic act of evangelism.

The reality, of course, was not so benevolent. Prince Henry had grown fabulously wealthy trading slaves, and de Zurara had laundered his reputation with assertions of his Christian charity and the Africans’ natural savagery.

Thus, the racialization of Africans arose as justification for a strategy of domination and exploitation. This is perhaps the most important thing to realize about race—it has never been disinterested, but serves always to organize groups of people into hierarchies of domination and subordination. Race did not emerge from the studies and laboratories of careful, objective scholars, but was created to defend oppression and justified with science only afterward. Even as the biological arguments for its validity have changed and finally evaporated, therefore, it has continued to serve its function stratifying society.

Thus, the statements above that race and racism do not appear in biblical texts is interesting, but it does not quite reach the heart of the issue. Biblical texts provide evidence for many kinds of oppression and exploitation.In some cases they are condemned and resisted (e.g., slavery in Egypt in Ex. 1–3, economic predation throughout the Law and Prophets, and the unaccountable power of kings in Deuteronomy, Judges, and 1 Samuel); in others they are accepted or even celebrated (e.g., rape marriages to war widows in Deuteronomy, slavery in the laws of the Torah). In each case, acts of oppression were justified by existing or invented social, legal, or political structures supported by appeal to tradition or divine mandate.

Biblical texts contain many faces and types of oppression, racism just isn’t one of them. There are several lessons to learn from this. For one, race is not eternal. It was invented and it can be dismantled. But dismantling racism will not necessarily bring about the end of systemic oppression. Racism is just one manifestation of a pernicious and persistent human drive to dominate others, to gain from others even at their great expense.

In our contemporary context, combatting racism is an urgent and necessary part of building a world that allows for the freedom and flourishing of all. Yet we ought never forget that other vectors of oppression persist alongside systemic racism—discrimination according to class, disability, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. A fully-realized anti-oppressive ethic must approach all of these in their distinct forms and logics, never imagining that there is only one vector of oppression or that more cannot be contrived.

And regardless of how oppression is enacted and justified, it is also important to remember the biblical texts that confront and resist it in any form—the calls to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18), to break the bonds of oppression (Isaiah 58), to avoid theft, exploitation, and excess wealth (Amos 8:6, Proverbs 30:7–9)), to care for the needs of orphans, widows, and immigrants (Deuteronomy. 27:19, Jeremiah 22:3, Zechariah 7:10), and to speak up for the rights of the poor and destitute (Proverbs 31:1–9). These ideals contain the seeds of resistance against unjust systems in any form, in any time, place, or society.