I am Nobody: Survival, Self-Denial, and the Odyssey

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As Odysseus stood before the cyclops, in order to survive, he introduced himself as “Nobody.”  An odd name, but it would ultimately come in handy.  Later on, when Odysseus blinded the beast, the stumbling cyclops could only identify his attacker as “Nobody,” the alias Odysseus forged for himself.  Fellow beasts could offer little help to the Cyclops in finding “Nobody.”  Odysseus outsmarted the beast and was altogether unscathed.  Or was he?  As the story goes, twenty years later, upon returning home from his odyssey, Odysseus went largely unrecognizable. He passed by his family and friends like ships in the night.  No second glances.  No familiarity.  No greeting.  Nothing.  Nobody.  Though preserving himself from the Cyclops, Odysseus had almost completely lost his identity in the process by reducing himself to “nobody.”
Philosophers and social theorists have long viewed these scenes as Homer’s brilliant commentary on the dynamics that social oppression has on an individual.  Like Odysseus in the shadow of the Cyclops, when one stands before a powerful entity or controlling system, towering above the rest and legitimizes a single unifying vision and a “God’s-eye-view” of reality, one will do anything to survive.  In order for Odysseus to survive, he reduced his identity to “Nobody,” quickly abandoning his sense of Self.  But self-preservation via self-denial leads to the destruction of the very thing it is meant to preserve, namely, the Self.  Rationalizing away one’s own identity in the face of any Cyclops (be it sexism, racism, homophobia, religious fundamentalism, etc.) may preserve the longevity of a life, but will ultimately destroy the quality and authenticity of that life. Odysseus could not receive the warmth and love from his family upon his return home because he forfeited sense of Self in order to get home.  

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Meditation on Love: Venus and Cupid

16473050_10154127137766536_5242702269553045711_nIn Tatian’s painting “Venus Blindfolding Cupid,” we see the origin of love’s (or Cupid’s) absurdity and randomness, it is from Venus herself. Pictured below, Venus gazes off in the distance as she covers her son’s eyes, forcing him to create haphazard erotic connections. Perhaps the daydreaming suggests Venus actions have a desired end. Maybe Venus, the goddess of love, has also been the victim of unfulfilled desire. In Shakespeare’s narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, she falls in love with the beautiful but indifferent Adonis, who prefers hunting to sex. Shakespeare teases out the painful paradox of Venus: “She’s love, She loves, but yet, She is not loved.” To Shakespeare, Venus is not only the object of desire, she is also it’s subject, capable of feeling it’s deepest longings. In the end, the brokenhearted goddess of love curses love wherever it is found. Since she is love, she has the power to bring about such curse. From that point on, all human love has been interwoven with the anguish of Venus and, though lovers may meet and enjoy each other, they are ultimately cursed to a lifetime of unfulfilled desire.

The Past is not Dead

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“The past is not dead,” William Faulkner once wrote, “It’s not even past.” As a historian, there is a temptation to see past events as static, unmoving, and fixed. It will never change because it cannot change. But that is not to say that we will not change, and, with us, our view of the past. Just as the past colors the present and shapes the imagined future, so too does the imagined future and occurring present shape the past. What we call “history” or “the past” is really a present-tense reconstruction of what, how, and why a situation, an event, or an idea *may* have developed or come into being. The ever-changing historian never deals with the actual past. They only work with a contemporary construction that is always being reimagined and reconfigured.
And in this way, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

Yesterday’s Victims, Today’s Perpetrators

17855050_10154295998031536_3568061809480232863_oNorth Korea hates the US. The propaganda machine of Kim Jong-Un pumps anti-American rhetoric to an insulated populace, much of it is mischaracterizations and a fanatical fantasy. But-and this must be stressed- not all of it is fiction.

In 1950, after North Korea invaded South Korea, the US dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on North Korea (including 32,557 tons of Napalm). Comparatively, that is more than 130,000 tons more than was dropped in the Pacific Theater during WW2. After emerging from WW2 as the new global superpower, America had no one to police its own actions. Entire cities in Korea were reduced to rubble, including the capital city, Pyongyang, which was an ash heap. Dean Rusk, a supporter of the bombing and the eventual secretary of state said, “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another” was bombed.

After two years of non-stop bombing, the US air force lamented that it had no other standing targets to bomb. So, they began bombing irrigation dams (a war crime), which in turn flooded villages, crops, and fields. A widespread famine in North Korea was stopped only because of international aid from China and the USSR. In the end, it was reported that 8,700 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals and 600,000 homes had been destroyed in the war’s aftermath. In all, nearly a million noncombatant civilians died (on top of 400,000 soldiers).

Violence begets violence and hate begets hate. Kim Jong-Un is a fanatical dictator bent on destruction. But he exists in dialectical fashion to the American Imperialism that slaughtered his countrymen and reduced his country to ashes years and years ago. Though the Korean War has long since been over, America is still reaping the consequences of its actions.

The Galatian Suicide

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This is one of my favorite sculptures from the Hellenistic period, called “The Galatian Suicide.” It depicts a Galatian warrior hopelessly gazing back at the advancing army, only moments after taking the life of his wife and seconds before he takes his own. Apparently death was welcomed over what was to come. Though it was originally commissioned by the King of Pergamum in the second century BCE after his defeat of the Galatian army, Rome adopted it, along with many other statues depicting the humiliation of the Galatians/Gauls/Celts, and dispersed them throughout the empire. This highlights an imperial maxim: every empire needs a radical Other to dominate, subjugate, and humiliate. Just as the Greeks had the Persians, so the Romans had the Galatians. This binary ‘good vs evil’ schema integrated perfectly into the ancient philosophical school that claimed ” the majority of things in the world are in pairs” (per Aristotle).

Superior / Inferior
Man / Woman
Great / Small
Natural / Unnatural
Civilized / Barbarian
Lawful / Lawless
Light / Darkness
Straight / Crooked
Powerful / Weak

The Romans found themselves securely fastened on the left column (Superior, manly, lawful, civilized, etc.) and located their enemies, the Galatians, on the right (inferior, womanly, lawless, unnatural, barbarian, etc.). The perverted system of binary relationships allowed the Romans to morally map the world into an Us vs Them schema, where Rome’s peace and wellbeing (pax romana) was contingent upon the vanquishing of the Other.

Who are the vanquished ones in the American Empire? America’s political, military, and economic stability depend on the subjugation of which nation, people group, or class?
Who are the Galatian suicides of the 21st Century?

The Myth of Religious Violence

16602201_10154132069066536_3695703769791007909_o“In what is called ‘Western Society,’ the attempt to create a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is essentially prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of the liberal nation-state. The myth of religious violence helps to construct and marginalize a religious Other, prone to fanaticism, to contrast with a rational, peace-making, secular subject. This myth can be and is used in domestic politics to legitimate the marginalization of certain types of practices and groups labeled religious, while underwriting the nation-state’s monopoly on its citizens’ willingness to sacrifice and kill. In foreign policy, the myth of religious violence serves to cast non-secular social orders, especially Muslim societies, in the role of villain. They have not yet learned to remove the dangerous role of religion from political life. Their violence, being ‘religious,’ is therefore irrational and fanatical. Our violence, being secular, is rational, peace-making, and sometimes regrettably necessary to contain their violence. We find ourselves obliged to bomb them into liberal democracy.”

– William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

The Death of the Author(ity)

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In 1967, Roland Barthes proclaimed that the death of “the Author” had finally come. In fact, “the Reader” of a text, Barthes claimed, could only truly exist, liberated and free, once the Author was dead. Why? “True Meaning” or purpose was bound up in one’s own reconstruction of the Author. Just as one can imagine a Deity standing over her creation, giving function and purpose (see Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics), so too can one mold an Author, standing over her textual landscape, marking the boundaries of interpretation, causing all readers to tremble at the proliferation of meaning, and proclaiming to all the proud expositors “Thus far, and no farther!” An intimate relationship to the illusory Author (read Authority), means one can claim to know the secret intents of the Author, and, thus, the true meaning of the text. In this way, knowledge/power is produced to serve the interests of those appealing to the imagined Author, as they illuminate the text with a light that doesn’t exist.

The Problem of History: Rembrandt, Aristotle, and Homer

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This picture perfectly describes the dilemma of history:
Rembrandt’s Aristotle gazing at a bust of Homer… But Aristotle is adorned with the garb of Rembrandt. Who has objective knowledge of Homer? Rembrandt, Aristotle, or the artist who sculpted the bust? How is knowledge attained in the matrix of meaning-making beings when every interpretation of Aristotle is, at the same time, a semi self-portrait of the interpreter?

My (Successful) Grad School Personal Statement to UCDS

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This past year, I spent much of my time applying to graduate schools around the country.  Since I specifically wished to study Second Temple Judaism, the letters of Paul, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, I applied to various graduate and divinity schools.  Though I accepted an offer of admission elsewhere, the following was my (successful) personal statement for the University of Chicago Divinity School.  I used the same template for each school, but I thought this one was my most polished.

Clifford Geertz once said, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.”  The webs of signification that weaved throughout my adolescence were highly religious, sectarian, and apocalyptic. In fact, after my cloistered high school days, I moved to Kansas City to attend a large vocational ministry school, which was charismatic and apocalyptic in nature. Insulated from the outside world, our class sessions and bible studies revolved around futuristic interpretations of John’s Apocalypse, the imminent return of Jesus, and the “prophetic revelations” of our pastor.  Just as John the Baptist fasted and prayed, preparing the way for the first coming of the Messiah, the school authorized a lifestyle of constant prayer and fasting, as a prelude to his second coming, and anathematized all other lifestyles.  As with most teleological meta-narratives, powerful identities of good and evil were fashioned, internalized, and assigned to the Self and the Other (or those inside and outside of the ministry).  The school created an apocalyptic discourse and, once embedded in the student’s psyche, used that knowledge/power to legitimize its own vocation in the world, as one who conditions and scripts students into a drama of its own making.

It was during that time that, unbeknownst to the ministry school’s leaders, I began studying the bible with a more academic orientation, reading history and theology books by NT Wright, Richard Hays, E. P. Sanders, Albert Schweitzer, Dale Allison, and Douglas Campbell.  While studying Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew with a private tutor, I took interest in Pauline theology, Christology, intertextuality, hermeneutics, and the sociology of Second Temple Judaism.  For three years, I desperately tried to reconcile my newfound academic study to the sectarian ministry school I attended.  I met with leaders, attended extra services, and continually asked for prayer for my “intellectualism.”  However, after taking a unique interest in Jewish apocalyptic literature, I soon recognized that any historically sensitive interpretation of John’s Revelation was irreconcilable to the school’s dangerous rereading.  In the spring of 2011, I left the ministry school and, by association, lost many of my closest friends.

In my attempts to become a historically minded reader of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the non-canonical texts of that era, I undertook a Bachelor’s degree in ancient history at the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC). Rather than merely providing students with the content and context of various historical eras, my history professors at UMKC offered instruction in the various methods of reading history (Marxism, Annales School, postcolonial and identity theories [gender, class, and race]). Within such discourse, I was challenged to read a litany of primary sources in fresh ways and, oftentimes, against the grain.  Stemming from my interests in apocalyptic literature in imperial contexts, under the direction of Dr. Jeff Rydberg-Cox, I wrote my senior thesis on native temple plunder in the Seleucid Near East. Drawing largely from 2 Maccabees, Josephus, and Polybius, while also employing John Ma’s theory of Seleucid euergetism, I sought to demonstrate how Seleucid benefaction of near eastern temples not only primed local economies for long-term taxation, but also increasingly fostered opportunities for state sanctioned temple plunder. I went on to present this paper to faculty members and fellow students at UMKC’s annual Senior Capstone Student Conference and have recently submitted it for publication.

The University of Chicago Divinity School has distinguished itself as an intellectually curious ecosystem, committed to both the rigorous study of religion and the nurturing of a radically diverse environment.  This commitment to hard-nose research and inclusive conversations in a pluralistic society uniquely fits my desire for advanced theological studies. Though my primary interest is in the academic study of the New Testament and the social matrix in which it was produced, I do not wish to partake of such rigors only to be cut off from engagement with our wider world.  I desire a theological education that is incarnational, which precludes both the seduction of the ivory tower and the muting of marginal voices.  As stated above, much of my passion for biblical scholarship and my ethics of inclusion grew in opposition to the painful experiences of my former sectarian ministry, which inclined itself towards elitism, exclusivity, and dubious interpretations of Scripture.  While I strive for costly solidarity with any oppressed person or group (race, religion, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation), I recognize a unique compassion in me for young women and men who, like myself, have been caught up in monolithic traditions, where humanity’s irreducible differences are denied and fresh readings of Scripture are suppressed.

I am broadly interested in the critical study of Pauline literature.  From socio-rhetorical analysis to intertextuality and epistolary theory, it has been my joy for the past seven years to read countless books regarding the apostle, his mission, and his world.  Having read NT Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God and Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God, I am fascinated at both the covenantal and apocalyptic vision of the apostle.  Influenced by John M. G. Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, I have recently researched Paul’s Jerusalem collection as it relates to the autobiographical accounts of his suffering, specifically in 2 Corinthians and Philippians.  When viewed through the lens of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital, Paul seemingly rhetorically employed his sufferings as a sort of cultural capital that both corroborated his apostleship and underpinned his authority for taking up a collection.

My desire for studying Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament at the University of Chicago Divinity School originates from my belief that the Divinity School provides a faculty, a facility, and an intellectually curious environment worthy of rigorous theological education in the 21st century.  From world-renowned scholars to one of America’s top academic libraries (Joseph Regenstein Library), the University of Chicago exhibits all of the necessary qualities to prepare serious master-level students for doctoral studies.   Since my goal is to one day serve students by teaching and conducting research in a university setting, I wish to attend the Divinity School largely on account of its commendable faculty.  I would love to work with Margaret M. Mitchell, who exhibits methodological sophistication in her scholarship on the rhetoric and composition of 1 Corinthians.  In the same vein, it would be an honor to glean from the lectures and life of Hans-Josef Klauck.  As a student of Paul, I have found his book on comparative epistolary composition and theory (Ancient Letters and the New Testament) to be both enlightening and provoking.  If accepted in a program, I would love to follow suit and continue researching Paul’s epistolary rhetoric and composition as it relates to his communities.  Seeing that the University of Chicago Divinity School is committed to interdisciplinary research, I would also enjoy taking classes outside my discipline to work with scholars I admire (e.g. Clifford Ando) and to pursue fields in which I am interested in developing (e.g. literary theory).  More broadly, I wish to continue cultivating languages, both ancient (Greek, Hebrew, and Latin) and modern (German and French), gain exegetical tools for research (e.g. structural and grammatical analyses), and learn to process and organize information with conceptual sophistication.  All in all, this application represents my desire to be shaped by the lectures and lives of those that make up the University of Chicago’s faculty and the wider student body, whom they faithfully serve.