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A Demi-God(?) Born of Consent

I’d rather be watching Christmas movies obsessively this time of year, but my kiddo, Auggie, knows his mind. And his mind loves Moana. So we watch about 15 minutes of it a day, since he is two, and his attention span doesn’t usually want his medically condoned two hours or less of screen time a day.

Regardless, there’s a song in Moana, sung by Tamatoa the crab, called Shiny. And in this song, there’s a line where he addresses Maui as a “semi-, demi-, mini-God!”. Which connected with my background knowledge of demi-gods in general, like Hercules, or even Percy Jackson of Rick Riordan fame. Which made me think of Jesus.

Jesus could be categorized into a demigod group without much complaint from many, after all. Human mama, Divine papa. And actually, when he was born, Roman leaders often gave themselves this distinction. Caesers were “sons of God.” And as a new favorite author, despite our differing motivations for studying what we do, has put it, deifying leaders was common practice, the “governing paradigm” in the “contexts whence earliest Christianity arose” in Rome.

So, if demigods were common knowledge in the time when Jesus was born, that raises some questions for me.

Why didn’t the writers of the Bible make this connection more clear?

If you’ve read Rob Bell’s book, What is the Bible?, this question is kind of easy to answer. The writers didn’t make it more clear because they didn’t have to for their contemporary audience. Just like I didn’t give you a long explanation of Moana, because you are alive right now, and presumably aware of at least some things Disney.

Also, did God choose a human birth to bring this legend to life in a new way?

I’d like to answer with a healthy measure of faith after my research with a simple “YEP!”, but again, reading Bell’s book would make that short answer easier for you to accept.

The more I researched, though, the more nuanced the answer to that question became. I think it is both as simple as and more than just turning a cultural norm on its head or rewriting a narrative. Jesus’ conception and birth came when they did and how they did in a way that honored women as it brought out this radical idea of consent as well as showing how a divine god-person wasn’t going to live life as portrayed in myth or in title.

A History of Divine Assault

(Trigger warning: nothing graphic here, but references will be made, so click links with caution.)

English Majors get the long straw when it comes to having wide and general smatterings of knowledge, plus the skills to dig in to gain more expertise. I used this BA B.A. superpower to follow my hunches to actual stories of how demigods came in to being. Here are some of the origin stories of some of the more well-known demigods of the ancient world:

  • Hercules: His mother was Alcmene. He was born after Zeus took on the form of Alcmene’s husband to trick and impregnate her. That’s not consent, in case you weren’t sure.
  • Perseus: His mother was Danae. Danae’s father was a king who had heard his grandson would overthrow him, so his solution was to lock his daughter in a tower to prevent this kid from even being conceived. Zeus, however, had his eye on Danae, and became golden rain and impregnated her during her captivity. There is a lot to unpack there, but consent isn’t part of it.
  • Helen of Troy: Her mother was Leda, whose encounter with Zeus in the form of a swan sometimes is referred to as a seduction, which has the whisper of consent, but often goes into a relentless pursuit culminating in a violent rape. There’s a poem about this one, which is probably where my seedling of knowledge was started, unfortunately.

I have a few takeaways:

  1. Greeks seem to have more accounts available online, so even though the Roman connection to Christ is more clear, I felt it worth including both Greek and Roman mythology here.
  2. There were stories I recalled of gods forcing themselves on mortal women, but some websites said “seduction” instead. Then I found this article, which framed it in a way that I find tragic yet useful to know if you find similar terminology in your own mythological studies: “a few classicists have argued that misogyny and rape are modern constructs and such ideas can’t be used effectively when evaluating the past. For example, Mary Lefkowitz argues for terms like “seduction” and “kidnapping” over ‘rape.’” The article (and myself) disagree with Ms. Lefkowitz.
  3. Overall, it was too easy to call up the name of a demigod, and even too easy to recall how deviously they were conceived. Doing the research would have been too dark for me to handle, had I not also done research on Mary’s story.

“Let it be”

All of that research was born of a hunch followed, this idea that Mary gave consent. As these ideas have floated around in my mind these past few weeks, that one idea of the element of consent kept pressing forward. And so I looked to the Bible, to see the account we are given to see if there is a distinction from the then-familiar stories of god and woman encounters.

Luke 1:26-38 tells this story. It’s not long, it’s worth your reading, and please note those three words “let it be.” They are pivotal! Also of note is the verb tense used. The angel tells Mary God’s plan, not what God has already done. That’s a huge distinction. In Danae’s story, that golden rain probably didn’t make her think she would be pregnant. And some say that Mary similarly got knocked up by the Lord and then told about it afterward. But guys, I’m an English teacher. Those are future tense verbs the angel is using. This thing hasn’t happened yet.

Karen Swallow Prior, a lady after my own heart (or is my heart after her’s?) drew the same conclusion in her piece for The Atlantic, “The literal words in the Bible (across various translations) make clear that the angel Gabriel’s words at the Annunciation convey to Mary what will happen, not what has happened, a future conception not a past one.” I’m not even mad that she wrote her article 6 years ago, effectively stealing my thunder. I’m thrilled to see confirmation of the significance of Mary’s consent giving. In fact, Prior takes it further to frame that speech of future tense verbs as a means of Mary not only giving consent but informed consent.

Another line worth pondering from Luke is the fact that Mary questioned this angel. Many times when angels appear in the Bible, they say “Do not fear” and the people they are talking to ignore that and fear greatly. And while Mary was “greatly troubled,” she was not afraid enough to hold back her questioning. As a woman who has been questioning authority my entire life, and during a time when it is socially acceptable for my gender to do so, I still have experienced being shut down and/or shamed many times. Yet Mary boldly questioned this being. That fact gives me confidence that she wasn’t saying “let it be” out of fear or even pressure. She considered this, however briefly, and made a choice. That’s incredibly empowering.

But wait, Mary didn’t write this down, Luke did. Is that an issue?

Again, there are about as many ways to trust or doubt and read the Bible as there are and have been individuals. But this last bit from Prior’s piece answers this question enough for me, “One of my colleagues, a professor of philosophy and religion, tells me that it is likely that Mary was one of Luke’s firsthand sources for his gospel, given both textual and historical evidence. In the absence of a record of Mary’s own account, there could not be a more trustworthy record than this, one hardly less reliable than, say, Plato’s recordings of the dialogues of Socrates.”

Both/And

Jesus’ birth disrupted the old demigod conception stories before he was even conceived. But it didn’t end there. Demigod, as easily translated, means half god. But Jesus disrupted that half/half, either/or, cycle, too. He was both/and. Both fully God and fully human. That’s kind of his deal. It’s that “option C” answer to black and white thinking that Jesus, Father, Spirit, and scripture are constantly offering! (If you aren’t sure about that, please both read Bell’s book and check out Two Rivers).

When doing my research, I found a lot of resources about Jesus’ claims of being full and full rather than half and half, but the one I’m linking is from a Catholic site because Catholic theology and philosophy will always have a place in my heart. Basically, this site and others take instances in the Bible of Jesus saying both things like “I am the Son of God” and “I am the Son of Man.” That both/and just won’t quit!

On top of that, as referenced before, demigods and Caesers were heroes. And to be a hero in ancient Greece or Rome meant a leadership style that was violent and conquering and materialistic. I think this list hits it pretty neatly:

    • He is of royal birth or even, like the Titan Prometheus, half mortal, half god.
    • He must perform extraordinary feats.
    • His is a noble character which is close to perfectly ideal but for a fatal flaw.
    • The suffering of the character is physical.
    • Death must occur in an unusual way.
    • The hero fights for his own honor; his deeds belong to the community only after his death. Source

Interesting, right? (If you’ve read this far, I assume you’re into this stuff. Thanks, btw.)

Church lifers like me know that Jesus was expected to be a conquering king, but I was always taught it was because the Jews wished for this. Looks like Jews and Romans had some common heroic ideals.

That list isn’t completely off, though. It’s just…disrupted. Let’s modify it for Jesus:

  • He was born to some poor people and is fully human, fully God.
  • He did perform extraordinary feats, namely healing and multiplying food, etc.
  • He didn’t have a fatal flaw. Or any flaws.
  • He suffered physically, but also clearly experienced emotional anguish.
  • He did not fight. He did not act out of his own honor. He was here to build community and a wider one than was precedented.

Cycles, expectations, etc. = disrupted. A God-Man born of informed consent whose deeds were meant to break societal and spiritual barriers rather than gain fame or notoriety.

Final Thoughts

Friends, I hope you have enjoyed reading this. I hope it inspires you to ask questions and see connections where things get just a little disrupted. It has brought me a deep joy to see the spiral of wholeness and healing that the story of Jesus’ birth brings to society both then and now. It has brought healing like the gold of kintsugi as a survivor, too. 

Author’s Note: Credit where credit is due. I don’t think my mind would ever have put these thoughts together nor followed this trail of research if it weren’t for Rob Bell’s book, What is the Bible? His zoom in/zoom out approach of recurring truths (cycles being broken) embedded in the context of culture at the time is the philosophy behind this post. Also (and always) worth thanking is my family, also known as Two Rivers Church, for teaching and living in ways that empower and foster a hunger for truth and community unlike anything I’ve seen. Also, Disney, for creating Moana, and my son, Augustine, for watching parts of it every day for the past few months.

 

Always Learning

Every time I saw a piano, I hesitated. Could I honestly say that I played it when the verb was just that – played – as in, past tense? I took lessons for at least 12 years, after all, from age 5 through undergrad, with a few breaks in between. I would tinker on keyboards when I saw them. I never lost the ability to read music. Yet I hadn’t actually sat and TRIED in years.

There was something very deep, almost sacred, and a little scary about sitting down in front of my current piano when I received it two months ago. Half of me feared I would have forgotten everything. The other half expected my mind and hands to immediately remember the most difficult pieces I’d previously mastered. Two months ago, when I first re-started, my initial ability was somewhere in between (of course!).

It has taken my fingers time to relearn the spacing between notes without looking, it has taken my mind time to trust my fingers to play the right notes, and it has taken practice to play pieces beyond the earliest years of my lesson books (which I am thankful to have!). And this is all GOOD. It is good to use a gift I have had for most of my life, and it is good to take the time to learn new pieces. It is good to practice something over and over until it is as easy as I wanted it to be right away. I believe this is good because I believe that the commitment to practice and improve is beautiful, sometimes more so than a seamlessly played sonata. It is hitting the wrong notes, making stink faces, and trying again where passion for the instrument is developed. And honestly, once I master a song, I move on, and play it as a warm-up for the REAL thing – the practice of the piece I next want to conquer.

So why am I waxing poetic about piano practice?

Well, I’m about to be “new yet not” to something even bigger in my life – my job. After four years at one district, six if you count the years spent subbing while in grad school, I’m going to a new district, taking on two new grade levels of English content, and going down to half-time. I feel like I’m sitting in front of a new piano again, wondering if I will fail or soar.

Hitting the wrong notes today reminded me that I won’t have a perfect day every day, but that will only push me to keep going. Hitting the right notes without much regard to the sheet music or my hands on the keys reminded me that some days things will go smoothly. Most days will be a mix, which, in this profession, is to be expected in the beautiful way in which we get to model being the kind of persistent learners we hope that our students will be, too.

Switching from English I to 8th grade English mid-day might be like a song that insists on multiple key-changes; jumpy at first, but to a beautiful overall effect when mastered. Adjusting to halftime hours and all the what-ifs that it brings will hopefully bring a strong rhythm to my life. Finding where I fit in two new departments, in a new building, in a new district? Well, just like I do with my piano, I will show up every day. I will give my everything. I will love every second, even when things go a little more sharp or flat than they should.

Limitations

I want to write this angry, and I want to write this sad. I suppose I should want to write this out of peace and acceptance and knowing trust, but, I’m not in any one place yet. After church this morning, I’m in a rehashing the history place, a wanting to turn guilt to grief place, a needing to know if this is a limitation to honor or fight against place.

This is about motherhood. Not abstract. The physical limitations of motherhood. See, I have three conditions which are embroidered into my life’s tapestry with one common thread: infertility. I think I was 14 the first time a doctor told me that I would have fertility issues, when a tentative diagnosis of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis was handed to me. When I experienced amennorrhea from age 18 until 23 (roughly) as part of anorexia, it was a medical matter of course that I would struggle to get pregnant from that alone. When I was in my late 20s and recovered from anorexia and in remission from hashi’s and married and finally entertaining the thought of what children would look like, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease, and told by a doctor again to wait on trying due to the risks involved with treatment, and the likelihood of miscarriage.

You all know how this story continues; I’ve written before about my beautiful Augustine, this miracle child conceived after a short month of “trying,” who was carried so snugly, so perfectly within me, the only blip on our prenatal radar the fact that my body refused to contract even after the water broke naturally. He is a miracle.

But last summer, my thyroid bugged out again, and the rounds to physicians and endocrinologists and naturopaths began again. Each time a medical professional heard I was a nursing mom, they asked about his birth story, expecting IVF and long months of pain and miscarriage to have been a part of it. I don’t blame them, after all, I’d been told my whole fertile (?) life to expect that story. To the point where I felt legitimate guilt that it wasn’t a struggle after all. (OOPH, that’s another layer, though).

And now we’re at that typical mark of “will we have another?” and my heart wants to throw caution to the wind – look at this perfect boy, given to us so readily! But my doctors are saying “no” again. They’re saying it won’t or shouldn’t happen again. And so I find my mind going back to the patterns of protection it’s worn since  14 of “I don’t need/want/care” about this, but I am trying to be brave enough to say now that I do care. I do care about this. I am terrified of another baby and the chance for miscarriage. I am terrified at the thought of another year of sleepless nights. Of another round with postpartum depression. Mike and I are talking about the adoption possibility, too, and I’m terrified at the chances for reactive attachment disorder, of not honoring another culture correctly, of the litany of unknowns.

But I also want Augustine to know the joys and character-building challenges of having a sibling. I look at his crib and feel this tug in my gut because I never imagined it would be just “his.”

I’m terrified of doing the wrong thing.

I chide myself for being selfish. I have one darling, easygoing, bright ray of sunshine of a son that has already defied medicine simply by coming into existence. Isn’t it selfish to want more?

I don’t have to be “right” in this. But I don’t want to be wrong even in trying one thing or another.This feels like a crossroads, and today instead of fighting to know which fork is the right one to choose, I’m fighting to believe there is no hurry. That whatever kind of limitation this place and this body have us in right now, this limitation does not need to steal all joy even while it warrants some amount of grief. I know this on a level, I’m working to make it my truth.

Rhythms of Growth

Thursday morning, as I merged onto 235, the sky overwhelmed me. It was early, just light enough to see yet dark enough to see no sun. A giant, dark mass of clouds filled two-thirds of the sky, hovering menacingly over downtown, and the most striking thing about it was its resemblance to an open-mouthed beast. I did the dangerous thing that all enneagram fours would do and tried to capture a picture of it (not on the interstate, at stoplights…mostly). I could not get over the *presence* of this sky-scene. It was heavy with metaphor, and my face was wet with tears.

This monster wanted to engulf my city, myself, all of us. I am old enough to admit that dragons exist in all of our tales. I felt God calling at my heart to let myself cry as I drove, to be sad that darkness hovers over and throughout our stories. I was early to school, so I parked my car facing east; facing the beast. None of the photos I’d taken while driving (or stoplighting) were in focus, and the closer I got to school, the higher the sun rose and the more the cloud-monster disintegrated. But I was compelled to take a clearer picture and share something of my experience, which I did, unsure if anyone would “get” it.

Later that day, I felt myself wrestling in tension, making some mistakes, trying to make amends. I cried for different reasons, I practiced letting go. I was grateful for and reluctant towards my church’s practice of the Prayer of Examen as I realized both where I had not invited God into my day into the easier part of repentance into the hardest part of release. (I am so very, very unused to release).

Then this morning, church was again the place where truth and conviction hit me with equal force. Mercy was a theme, in the communion message, and again in the sermon when discussing the risks of relying on performance. I have God-given mercy for my students and my son, but for some adults there are times when I lash out. When my expectations are too high and too rigid. When conviction hits, my mind rushes to my own defense; these people have hurt me for years, have fallen short for years, enough is enough. When truth hits, I see how the whole point of mercy is the absence of the requirement for deserving it.

And then it goes even deeper to recognizing my own struggle to accept it. Oh how hard it is to believe that I am good or worthy. How hard it is for me to stand under the flowing oil of God’s mercy and accept the feel of it. Is it any wonder, then, that I stumble and fail so profoundly when trying to offer it to others?

I see the hope in this vulnerable admission, though. I see that in learning to accept mercy, I will learn to give it just as in learning to give it, I will learn to accept it. I see the rhythm and its gentle magic.

Two strong women have spoken in church these past few weeks about the metaphor of Hansel and Gretel in our spiritual walks, and I find myself sliding into their imagery as I process this new phase of learning. I have been working with my counselor on my anxiety, on my control issues born of my anxiety, and I have finally found practices that have become second nature and truly bring healing. I have felt like that was my dark forest and also just this week I have recognized an unfamiliar feeling as freedom from that crippling companion. I remember the moment where my heart became aware of this new thing; I was sitting in our old golden rocking chair next to Augustine in his high chair while he ate dinner. The lighting was low and he was beautifully happy and chatty. My heart felt a very real (and increasingly familiar) fullness, and my mind felt at peace. In that warm glow of our dining/living room, I felt immersed in a taste of wholeness, and I did not feel panicked that I was not worrying about something nor did I feel guilty. And in this awareness, I realized that this full feeling is replacing the worry compulsion. I realized that my intentional practices of gratitude in times of worry had indeed become the norm, not the need. I found this verse the next day that confirmed for me what this healing is and can continue to look like:

So while I so recently thought I was out of the dark forest, I am realizing there are more bends in my journey, right here, right now. As I learn to let go of anxiety, I must learn to go beyond gratitude to true and full acceptance of mercy so that I may offer the same in abundance. I don’t relish this thought, truthfully, although there is the measure of excitement that all learning opportunities hold for me. The image of the cloud at its darkest still shimmers in my mind, but I think it was no coincidence that the only in-focus image I captured was of the beast’s disappearance. This visual reminds me that while the rhythms of growth involve the pain of refinement, they are all in place to let light truly shine through.