Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Ravishing Theology

"Tamar & Amnon" by Jan Steen (+1679)

The triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church, my dwindling sub-tribe, has just wrapped up its meeting in Austin, Texas.  At some point, no doubt, we lumpen-laity will be briefed on the fruits of its deliberations.  As yet, I have seen only a few news releases, sent by relatives, friends, and acquaintances to needle me, in my email box.  I take it that one big issue is linguistic gender equity in reference to the Persons and attributes of the Divine Being—a big problem at least since the days of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and one worthy of current attention.

Another problem, likewise linguistic in nature, has me puzzled.  A cleric styled the Rev. Canon Michael Buerkel Hunn, who seems also to be the Bishop-elect of the Diocese of Rio Grande, was the chairman of the 79th General Convention's Worship Committee, charged with organizing the daily liturgies for the convention delegates, issued a fulsome apology for including a certain hymn in one of the services.  Though his contrition is profound, its actual cause—at least to someone like me not present at the event—remains highly obscure.  But I deduce—and it is only a deduction—that the part of this hymn that has sent Canon (or Bishop-Elect) Hunn into paroxysms of penitence is a phrase (my italics) in one of its verses. 
Forests and rivers are ravaged and die,
raped is the land till it bleeds in its clay
silenced the bird-song and plundered the sea…

The hymn, a modern one, was written by a woman named Shirley Erena Murray.  The words cited, though themselves penitential—they deplore human ecological depravity in the spirit of Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring--have (according to Canon Hunn) caused “real pain”, or could cause real pain, to certain people, namely “victims of sexual violence”.  I deduce that the particularly offensive word in this hymn, which should banish it from all future worship at General Conventions, is the word rape.

 However, though rape is never a joke, it is very often a metaphor.  The “rape of the land” has been suggested as a trenchant eco-feminist trope for patriarchal domination. Thirty years ago, one literary scholar found in the rural geographical expression “the lay of the land” the materials for a whole book.*

            Yet the principal meaning of rape (from Latin raptus), of which both forcible sexual violation and ecstatic rapture are particular applications, is “an act or instance of robbing or despoiling or carrying away a person by force.”  I do not know Shirley Erena Murray from Adam, or in this case Eve; but superficial research suggests that she is an eighty-seven year old New Zealander, a devout old lady, and a prolific, award-winning writer of hymns in the classical Protestant tradition.  I begin with an a priori assumption that sexual violence was not foremost in her mind in using an entirely conventional verbal image of human ecological depravity.  I should further suggest that such intimations of sexual violence can be found in the hymn only in the manner that odd meanings can be imposed upon the random inkblots of a Rorschach test.  Thus found, they may be a legitimate cause for pastoral concern, but hardly a sensible occasion for apology.

It is perhaps well and good that most Anglicans long since gave up on the theological correctness that caused such mayhem in the sixteenth century, but it is alarming to find it replaced by a dispiriting political correctness in the twenty-first.  We may soon require trigger warnings for such gospel readings as last week’s—the severed head of John the Baptist on a serving plate, a byproduct of the hot pants of Herod Antipas.  I know of no biblical examples of “the rape of the land,” though we perhaps come close in Genesis 38:9, where we learn that Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground.”  This is the text that inspired the feminist wit Dorothy Parker to name her pet canary “Onan”, because the bird did the same thing.  In the Bible there are numerous allusions to sexual violence, and a couple of extended narrative doozies (Judges 19 and 2 Samuel 13).   The latter text, an account of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar, shows great narrative skill and complex psychological motivation.  It is widely reflected in early Christian literature and visual art—including in a brilliant imitation by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde.  Far from being unmentionable, early moralists found in it a memorable exemplification of the way an individual instance of sexual violence could lead to broad social disaster, a theme at least as ancient as Homer, Paris, and Helen of Troy.

For better or for worse Christianity is irredeemably politically incorrect.  A religion that has at its core a deity incarnate, scourged, tortured, spat upon, and crucified can never purge itself of  “disturbing” words, images, and above all ideas that may cause distress to those who encounter them.   Obviously, one wants to be sensitive to people’s feelings.  But before we hurl Shirley Erena Murray into outer darkness, we would need first to banish Dante’s Commedia, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” and approximately two thirds of the premodern paintings in our art galleries.  Even good intentions can generally be improved with the application of good sense.

*Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor As Experience and History in American Life and Letters (1984)