Rebekah Devine

Rebekah Devine is a professional student at Wheaton College pursuing an MA in Biblical Exegesis. Her educational background in biblical studies, theology, and the arts gives impetus to her writings and doings, which focus mainly on the embodiment of God in the world. When Rebekah isnot translating Hebrew, she enjoys walking, writing poetry, and reading about divine representation in the ancient Near East.

I Emailed God

I email God.

The response is prompt and clean. Thank you for your email. I am out of the office until Kingdom come. I apologize for any inconvenience. For immediate assistance, please contact St. Peter or St. Paul (x4501).

I dial the extension and a tired, tight-knit woman answers. “Department of Theological Inquiry, Heaven,” croaks the voice, disembodied. “How can I help you?”

“Yes, hello,” I say. “I’m looking for St. Peter or St. Paul.”

“Sorry, they’re in a meeting, hon.’”

“I can call back. Any idea when they’ll be done?”

I hear a cough-like laugh on the line. “God only knows. They’ve got reports to give and memos to write. And there’s cheesecake. They always take longer when there’s cheesecake. But hold on – let me transfer you to voicemail.”

After three rings, the crackle of absence meets my ear. Then: the crinkle of a click, but maybe it is nothing after all.

And then: “You have reached the office of St. Paul. I am currently away from the body and present with the Lord. Please leave a message and I will return your call at the Resurrection. For information about the Lord’s Supper, press 1. For a theology of women in the church, press 2. Press inquiries about my response to the New Perspective and current Jewish-Gentile relations can be directed to Sheri Gibbon at 245-876-3412. Thank you and have a blessed day.”

I hang up, open my computer. I go to my blog. To God: An Open Letter, I type.

Dear God,

I guess you’ve gone on vacation. Maybe you’re having a nap in a hammock on the Isle of the Blessed or maybe you’re just taking your jolly time in the office john. Let me know how that cheesecake turned out. Nothing beats a good New York Style with a mass of strawberries on top.

I read that memo you sent around (most of it, anyway). You almost had me. It was sort of making sense. Not all of it (what the hell is a “bridegroom of blood?”) but the big stuff. The Jesus movement stuff was making sense. Even the martyrdom – sad, but all heroes die, right?

But, yeah, then you lost me. I called your office and they said you’re out. Did Peter and Paul pay off their secretary like the disciples bribed the soldiers at the tomb? I thought so. Good choice – he’s smart as a whip, that Paul. I nearly believed his rhetoric. All that talk about Jesus dying and rising and living in my bread.

My advice? Next time you want to start a movement, try answering your email.

Regards,

Sarah

Save. Publish. Share.

Barely six minutes pass before the comments roll in like boulders. Fourteen ‘likes’ tells me I am not alone. The comments are a different story.

“Okay, first off, there’s loads of evidence for the historicity of the resurrection,” writes ReformedAndIKnowIt. “Would the first Christians have undergone martyrdom for something they didn’t believe in? And there were lots of eyewitnesses (Paul talks about this 1 Corinthians 15). Second, Jesus is not living in your bread. That’s kind of sacrilegious. He’s seated at the right hand of the Father, but is made spiritually present in the sacraments of bread and wine.”

“I’m praying for you, sister,” types Stand4Him92. “Sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate.”

“Yeah, I emailed him, too – got no response,” writes Filibuster85. “I knew it was all in vain, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Personally, I think it’s all a MacGuffin cooked up by that secretary. I mean, has anyone gotten a call from Peter or Paul or the old man, himself?”

BiblicistMama always puts things in perspective. “You’ve got nothing on Job. He complained for twenty-eight chapters.”

My fingers itch with words, with possible responses. They rise to fly across the keys – when below me comes the sound of my husband’s voice, calm and emoticonless.

“Dearest, come down, please. Let’s eat.”

 

 

Instant Memory-Makers

These days, you don’t need to worry about remembrance of events. Whether celebrating a birth, a wedding, a first communion, or simply taking a trip to the beach, you can trust that everyone is deftly snapping away and uploading tokens of the latest happenings.  And, unlike the analog photography of previous generations, these films and photos will be available to all on Facebook or Instagram almost instantaneously.

Yet, maybe we should worry about remembrance of an event.  What if taking pictures for future reference steals something from the present moment?  Or what if it’s stealing something from the past? What if the attempt to secure pictures to aid our memory of an event actually ends the event prematurely? As we hasten to capture a token for the future, the present event is instantly memorialized and disappears before its time.

Why is this? How are digital photographs and home movies any different from other memory-aiding technologies? Isn’t writing, likewise, a quest to memorialize and remember?  The technology of writing, of course, is not without problems.  In fact, one of Plato’s characters in the Phaedrus tells a cautionary tale against writing, arguing that it actually causes people to become more forgetful. Writing places a thought or memory outside a person (on paper) instead of compelling him to keep the memory written on his mind.

Digital technology and writing pose similar philosophical problems, but the distinctions between these mediums produce different consequences. Photographs are taken by a machine with minimal human effort. (Granted, humans can put effort and thought into how they photograph or film, but the machine does not require them to do so.) In order to memorialize something in writing, a human being cannot avoid the work of mental recollection. This takes time and reflection. A certain measure of distance between the event and the act of memorializing is necessary.  By contrast, digital photos are produced with almost no distance from the event. Because the act of memorializing happens concurrently with the event itself, the present is uncannily pulled backward into the past. Such immediate memorializing inadvertently celebrates death by encouraging the moment’s passing in order to keep it artificially alive.

If this preservation of the moment is artificial, why do we keep at it? Perhaps one of the primary reasons is the profound sense of loss that characterizes human life. We live in a perpetual state of loss. Time cannot be stopped; life is constantly in flux. As soon as we step into the present moment, it disappears. If we pause to reflect on this transience, we begin to ache for our loss.  The memory of what we once had (and will never have again) cuts us deeply.

We avoid memory because the painful cognizance of death comes with it. Instead of living, losing, and pausing to remember with sadness, we work hard to forget. We try to distract ourselves from the passage of time by perpetually moving, thinking that if we can avoid stillness, we can evade death. If we become still, we remember that we and everything around us is dying. Conversely, only death can free us from the fluidity of Time. Because human life is characterized by loss, the only way to stop the perpetual sense of loss is to die. In death, in being lost, we are no longer subject to the loss that accompanies life in Time.

This suicidal sense is not, of course, usually lived out in visible extremes. Most do not perpetually think about death or actually commit suicide. Instead, we constantly try to “capture” events, bringing about their untimely death. Subconsciously, we come to think that if we can film it, we can keep it. We believe that we are preserving life, preventing loss. Put differently: we have the suicidal sense because we desire life. We want to live forever, but the flow of Time constantly reminds us that we can’t, and so we do things that invite Death into our lives before Death gets the chance to invade and plunder.

In some ways, the attempt to capture a moment through digital technology is not very different from writing. Writing is, in many ways, a quest for immortality. Before the invention of writing, the only way to be remembered was to have children who would carry on your name, stories, and traditions by passing them orally to the next generation. That generation would, in turn, pass everything down to successive generations. Writing made it possible for a person’s (or community’s) words to be remembered even after death. But unlike writing, which acknowledges the inevitability of future death and yet express a wish to be remembered after death, digital images fight against death and inaugurate it at the same time. Through writing, the memory replaces the event after the event has already died. Through filming, the memory eclipses the event in its moment of life and kills it.

From a theological perspective, this is the exact opposite of the kind of remembrance enacted through the Christian ritual of Communion. In the memorial of Communion, the memory and the event occupy the same space, yet neither is eclipsed by the other. This act of remembrance pulls the past into the present and the past is made alive through participation in the present-ness of resurrection. According to Christian tradition, Christ was born, lived, died, and rose again. Yet because he rose again, he is not dead, but living. When we remember his death, we remember his life, too; but not a life that has passed and is now no longer. Because he lives presently, the memorial of his death simultaneously celebrates a past and present event.

In film, the memory replaces a present event and transforms it into a past event. In Communion, the past is caught up in the present and transformed by it; the past becomes present in the ever-present Christ. In Christ, the passage of Time no longer means death. Life is still in flux, but it is no longer characterized by loss. Why is it no longer characterized by loss? Because the moment that was is no longer a signal of death. The past is not lost or replaced by memory.  Rather, that past is revivified by the present and exists forever in the present, eternal Christ who defeated death through his own death and resurrection.

Digital photography does not have to be used as an instant memory-maker, but its convenience, and the reflexive mode of discourse established by internet culture, make it hard to use intentionally.  The immediacy of the medium makes it easy to short-circuit the emotional and mental processes involved in remembrance and leave us a little more forgetful than we were before.

 

 

 

 

photo by: lisamurray

This is Not a Sandwich

As a frequenter of Panera, I have ample opportunity to ponder the food propaganda plastered everywhere in the form of photographs, pseudo-paintings of bread, and depictions of intently focused artisan bread-makers. One day, while glancing at the tagline above the photo of a steak-and-egg breakfast sandwich, which read “Grilled like no other,” I couldn’t help but think of the insistent refrain from the book of Isaiah: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” Of course, Panera doesn’t really believe that there is no steak-and-egg-sandwich like their steak-and-egg-sandwich. They just want me to buy their product.

Does advertising have the capacity to be meaningful art? I don’t doubt the skill of the photographers or cleverness of the food artists. The propaganda is well-wrought: it works. Its end, though, is manipulation. The goal is to persuade consumers of the desirability of a particular product so that the consumer will give something in exchange for what is advertised. Advertising, then, goes a step further than simple persuasion: its purpose is to make a sale. Its end is monetary gain.

Does this telos of manipulation exceed the photograph’s aesthetic qualities and render it merely a sophistic ornament devoid of real content? The image is conceived of and forged as a tool of power. Does the telos of power turn the picture into nothing more than an outward adornment of a false, content-less image? Though this image may give to the viewer as well as take, the giving is understood as an exchange of goods. The image put forth by the advertiser promises the consumer that the company will provide good food and a pleasant atmosphere in exchange for money. The relationship of advertiser and consumer is founded on utility and control (granted that control goes both ways, because the consumer is able to choose what to buy.) If the aim of the image is control, is it rendered incapable of the meaningful relation of art?

Perhaps more problematic than the image’s power to persuade, however, is the fact that the object advertised by the image does not have the power to deliver the happiness or contentment promised. Propaganda is not always fallacious, as propaganda can be used to persuade us of something true. Yet when persuasion turns into false representation, we find ourselves moved by falsehood, shaped by unreality. How is such persuasion even possible? How is it that what is can be shaped by what is not? How can false advertising succeed when it contradicts its own existence? If we are real, how can we be shaped by what is false? Does belief in false advertising contradict our own existence?

Maybe it does contradict our own existence. Maybe it is impossible for falsehood to shape reality.  Maybe our belief in false advertising means we aren’t real at all.

The question of what constitutes “false” and “true” representation, of course, goes part and parcel with the idea of representation itself, because the image and the subject it represents are distinct entities. No amount of factual accuracy achieved by the image can make it synonymous with its subject. The image of the steak-and-egg sandwich does not equal the sandwich, any more than Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” painting equaled a pipe. The question of what is “false” and “true” representation raises many questions. Is the image/subject distinction a necessary tension within the nature of representation? Is the belief that the image must equal its subject in order for it to be a “true” representation wrong? Can the image actually equal its subject?

If the image/subject distinction is a necessary tension, then the image of the sandwich and the sandwich itself live in tension because they are separate things. The sandwich promised by its image cannot exceed its own existence. It cannot be more or less than it is. In this context, the image does not influence the sandwich itself, only our perception of it. When confronted by the reality of the sandwich as it is, we find it different from the image presented to us; even if we think it a damn fine steak-and-egg sandwich, it is less than what we were promised. The sandwich has not been altered by the image, but we have been changed. We tremble at this wrinkle in the fabric of existence, for how is it that we have been altered by non-reality? Further, how do we straighten the wrinkle? If we take and eat the food, believing it is other than what it is, we eat unreality and it poisons us. How do we accept the sandwich for what it is?

There is a way: we can eat with thanksgiving. The sandwich is not the maker or bearer of joy. Thanksgiving to the Giver of good gifts consummates the eating and transforms it into doxology. Doxology enables us to encounter reality. We do not see it for what it is, as if we could (of our own accord) manipulate the perception of our eyes. We do not see it, we eat it. We take it into ourselves and give thanks.

Without thanksgiving, my desire for the sandwich is a dislocation of reality, because I am looking to a god that cannot deliver. I expect nothing from no one. I eat and am not satisfied, for I am only “being within myself,” not “being beside myself.” Without thanksgiving, I am possessed of atheistic madness.

With thanksgiving, the power of the image is vanquished, for although we do not see the sandwich for what it is, we eat it for what it is. But when we do not see it for what it is, we do not know if what we eat is death or life. To eat with thanksgiving, however, is to eat with the expectation that whatever we eat—whatever passes through us in this transitory life—will be transformed.  To give thanks is to confess that nonexistence cannot stand alongside existence –one must swallow the other. If we are real, we cannot eat falsehood. If we are false, we cannot eat reality. And yet, paradoxically, we eat both. We expect that any image formed as falsehood will be turned into reality, that this species that appears to be bread and wine—that is bread and wine—will somehow also be body and blood.