Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Misadventures in Brewing

Many of you who know me personally are aware that I dabble in homebrewing beer. It's a catchy hobby, and I enjoy the quality and flavor of a beer brewed at home more than the foul-smelling and bland stuff you can get at a gas station.

My most recent endeavor is a Belgian dubbel, a fairly strong ale that originated among European Trappist monasteries. I brewed the dubbel last Wednesday (5/22/13) afternoon, and ran it into a primary fermentation tank before pitching the yeast.

I noticed at the time that the yeast starter packet had not expanded as it was supposed to have done, but pitched it into the fermenter anyway. I later discovered that the yeast I was using (1214 Belgian Abbey Wyeast) is notoriously slow to start, and that I probably should have gotten the starter packet working the night before I brewed. Because the yeast was not fully activated when I pitched it, it took a lot more time for the yeast to actually take off, giving more time for infection to set in.

I sealed the fermenter and plugged it with an airlock, but after 24 hours there was still little to no outward sign of fermentation—no bubbles in the airlock, no foam on top of the wort, etc. That evening, Alyssa and I went out of town to visit her parents for the weekend. Four days later, we returned to find a little bit of a collapsed foam cap on top of the wort, accompanied by a bad smell (like sewage), in addition to this oniony looking stuff floating on top of the beer:

Fearing that I had my first infected brew on my hands, I went to Bacchus & Barleycorn, a local brewing supply store in Kansas City, and showed them the above photo. They said that it wasn't actually mold (although the were uncertain what it actually could be), and that the best option was just to ride it out and see what happens. They explained that the smell could just be due to the slower fermentation speed.

We'll see. 

Infected beer isn't bad for you (the ph level prevents pathogens from growing in the wort), so I may just go ahead and bottle it and hope that it doesn't affect the flavor too much.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 5—Conclusion)

This is the fifth and final post of my series on the authority of Jesus in the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20. See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

          In my previous posts I have illustrated how the form and content of the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20 reveal what is in essence a story about power. Mark portrays Jesus as an authority more powerful than the natural and the supernatural, than Roman imperial might, and the Jewish religious system of the clean and unclean. For Myers, Jesus’ power over these latter two elements reveals the true nature of his ministry: “The narrative space has been cleared for the kingdom ministry to commence in full, both to Jew and to gentile.”[1] The begging (parakalevw) of the demons, the frightened townspeople, and the healed demoniac establish Jesus not only as an authority, but quite literally as the authority above all other perceived authorities—after all, rarely (if ever) do we find a character in scripture who pleads with a person of lesser status.
            And by what power does Jesus himself cast out demons? A clue is to be found in Jesus’ sending forth of the healed demoniac. When Jesus refuses to allow the man to become a disciple, he instead tells him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you” (v.19). Instead, however, the man begins to proclaim all around the region of the Decapolis “how much Jesus had done for him” (v.20). With this subtle change, the author of Mark thus conflates a term previously reserved as a euphemism for the holy name of God (YHWH) in the Hebrew Bible with the very name of Jesus. The power by which Jesus casts out demons is none other than the power of the God of Israel. Without raising a hand in retaliation, without resorting to the same tactics of the demons, the Roman legion, or the religious establishment, Jesus—son of the Most High God—is capable of binding up the unbindable, liberating the captive from his captors by merely inquiring their name.
            It is not surprising then that upon witnessing such a display of authority at the hands of a foreigner the local inhabitants become frightened and beg Jesus to leave their country. Perhaps they—like the grumbling synagogue authorities in chapter 3—are seized with the superstitious fear that “by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (3:22). And yet a more probable explanation is that the power witnessed by the townsfolk was their first experience of the truly ineffable. They had seen demons inhabit human bodies, and undoubtedly been privy to the wiles of traveling charlatans claiming to be exorcists. The story, however, does not end in fear (v.15), but in hopeful amazement (v.20). In this strange Judean rabbi who appears on their shore to banish their oppressors and cure their incurable, the people of Gerasa catch a glimpse of the character of the Most High God, and as he leaves them (almost as suddenly as he appears), they are left in awe.

[1] Myers, 194.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 4)

This is the fourth installment of my five-part series on the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20. See also: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Power Over the Religious Establishment
            In our final examination of authority in Mark 5, it can be reasonably ascertained that Jesus’ conflict with the Gerasene demoniac serves as a critique of the religious establishment of first-century Second Temple Judaism. In his book Nonviolent Story, Robert Beck observes that the ritual world of Jesus’ social context involved a sort of “sacred topography”: a series of geographical arenas originating with the Holy of Holies in the temple and radiating outward in descending levels of cleanliness/holiness.[1] These artificial barriers served not only to separate the Jews from the “unclean” gentiles, but also to establish distinctions between various classes of Judeans. According to Beck, the presence of an unclean spirit in Mark 5 “belongs to the wider symbolic realm of Judaic ritual where the unclean is posed as an opposite to holiness, and not simply to cleanliness.”[2] By entering into Gerasa and healing a man with unclean spirits, Jesus transgresses against the clean/unclean socio-religious system in three primary ways:
1) By setting foot in a gentile territory and furthermore fraternizing with said gentiles, Jesus becomes by extension unclean. Curiously, this appears to be the sole
motivation—narratively speaking—for Jesus’ venturing into the region in the first place. It is the only action occurring in Gerasa mentioned in the Gospel. Following the sending forth of the healed demoniac, Jesus immediately returns to the other side of the lake. This suggests that the action was intentional, perhaps symbolic.
2) The proximity of Jesus to the tombs in which the tormented man lived is ritually problematic, and the act of exorcism is itself carried out in a graveyard. Cemeteries in general were considered unclean locales due to their population of corpses; for this reason, according to custom all Jews were buried outside the gates of the city to prevent any regular contact with dead bodies. Not only is Jesus associating with gentiles, he is associating with gentiles in a cemetery.
3) The presence of swine—the most vile creatures imaginable to a Jew concerned with ritual cleanliness—is the third strike against Jesus. As mentioned earlier, the pigs are likely to be metaphorical, perhaps even comical. But their presence in the narrative (along with the two other unclean elements listed above) should be enough to alert the reader that Jesus has managed to walk into a setting that is ritually unclean in almost every capacity and yet still emerge by the end of the narrative as the one powerful enough to “bind the strong man.”
            Beck notes, “Mark presents the Judean establishment’s system of barriers and preventions as ineffectual. The only effective opposition to the unclean power is the holy power invested in the protagonist Jesus…Holiness understood in a system of opposition to the unclean is rejected for its inhumane qualities and therefore rejected as an inadequate attribute or image of the compassionate God.”[3] In other words, Jesus asserts himself as one with greater authority than those who carry on with the outdated holiness system of the temple, and in doing so he exudes a new image of the divine among the impure. In casting Legion from this tortured gentile, Jesus has done what no synagogue or temple authority can do: make clean that which is by nature unclean.

[1] Beck, 66.
[2] Ibid, 71.
[3] Ibid, 68.

Monday, May 20, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 3)

This is the third installment of my five-part series on the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20. See also: Part 1 and Part 2.

Power Over Politics
            In the first-century Judean context, not a single person who read or heard Mark’s naming of “Legion” would have misunderstood its explosively political connotation. The legion was a Roman military unit consisting of as many as 6,000 men, though frequently averaged around half that number.[1] Just as the unfortunate Gerasene man was occupied by thousands of destructively violent demons, so did Roman legions occupy much of ancient Palestine.[2] Unfortunately, this is a connotation which is lost in translation with paraphrases such as the CEV, and the GNT, which translate Legiw;n as “Lots” and “Mob,” respectively. In fact, the entire passage is rife with military imagery: the “herd” of swine is cleverly suggestive of a group of military recruits, Jesus’ dismissal of the demons in v.13 is reminiscent of the command of a superior officer, and as the pigs rush into the sea the reader is reminded of a battalion of troops charging into the frontline of a battle.[3] Furthermore, Marcus goes so far as to suggest that Legion’s request to “enter” the pigs in v.12 carries an obscene sexual innuendo, as “ancient armies, like modern ones, were famous for rape.”[4]
            It is not difficult to see how ancient Judean Christians might have been entertained by this image—the omnipotent, oppressive force of Rome is here depicted as subserviently cowering to Jesus, son of the Most High God—even bargaining with him!—[5]and ultimately fleeing from his presence to their own destruction, in addition to possible speculation by the author of Mark as to what Romans like to do with pigs in their free time. And perhaps most peculiar of all is the fact that Jesus manages to liberate the region from this veritable army of demons without any sort of violent struggle with the legion itself: “The options of violence have not worked. No one is stronger than the demoniac, just as no army is mightier than the Roman Empire’s.”[6] Only the presence of Jesus—the one with power over the sea and over demons—can exile the oppressors, a notion ironically illustrated in the fact that the word from which Gerasa is derived meant “to banish.”[7] Jesus thus has power greater than that of Rome.

[1] Marcus, 345.
[2] Ibid, 351. Marcus also notes that one such legion stationed in Palestine carried as its standard emblem the image of a wild boar.
[3] Myers, 191.
[4] Marcus, 352.
[5] Culpepper, 168.
[6] Beck, 77.
[7] Marcus, 342.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 2)

My last post dealt presented an introduction to and formal analysis of the Gerasene Demoniac passage in Mark 5:1–20. In this brief post, I will examine how Mark depicts Jesus as one with authority over the natural and the supernatural.

Power Over the Natural/Supernatural
            With the rise in popularity of psychoanalytical readings of scripture over the last century it is unsurprising that quite a bit of academic attention has been given to this particular passage as an example of popular perceptions of mental illness in the ancient Near East. This reading is aided by the demoniac’s erratic and harmful actions that consist of social exclusion—either self-imposed or imposed upon him by the community—and the inability to be bound (v.3), and loud shrieking and self-mutilation (v.5), in addition to the schizophrenic manner in which the demon-possessed character is described, vacillating between the first- and third-person singular (I/me/he) and the plural (we/us/they/them). The inconsistent language gives testament to the character’s fragmented self.[1] Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Mark curiously describes the Gerasene in v.2 as “a man in an unclean spirit” (ajvnqrwpoV ejn pneuvmati ajkaqavrtw≥), suggesting that the man is completely consumed by his demonic identity.[2] Building upon the work of social psychologist Frantz Fanon, both Hollenbach and Myers have previously argued for what might be dubbed a psycho-political or “socio-psychological” reading of the passage, in which demonic possession occurs as the result of “class antagonisms rooted in economic exploitation”[3] and furthermore as being representative of public anxiety over imperial occupation.[4] The contributions of Myers and others have been particularly helpful in drawing insight for modern readership; however, we should nonetheless be mindful of the fact that the world of first-century Judea was perceived by its inhabitants to be a world quite literally occupied by unclean spirits (more on that later) and supernatural bogeymen, and no amount of Bultmannian demythologizing can lay that reality aside.
            It is within this context of the natural and supernatural that Mark places Jesus as one with authority to heal and cast out demons. As briefly discussed above, this passage is immediately preceded by Jesus’ calming of a storm on the Sea of Galilee, an episode which follows the format as Jesus’ first major exorcism in 1:23–27.[5] This power over nature and the supernatural alike is further highlighted in the Gerasene demoniac’s initial address to Jesus: “What have you to with me, son of the Most High God?” (v.7). This naming of Jesus (a gentile title rare to the New Testament) by the demons is an attempt to exert magical power over him; however, it is clearly an impotent and ineffective attempt.[6] The authority of Jesus over an entire legion of demons is ultimately too great—in the end, even these supernatural beings entreat Jesus by begging him (parekavlei) to allow them to stay in the region by entering a nearby herd of pigs. Foregoing a physical struggle, and with little more than a granting of permission, Jesus liberates the Gerasene from his tormenters.[7] As the demons enter the herd of swine and send them careening over a cliff into the sea, the violent potential and destructive nature of the supernatural is witnessed, and Jesus’ nonviolent authority even over such powerful forces as the demonic legion is realized.

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, Mark (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2007), 167.
[2] Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 342.
[3] Paul W. Hollenbach, “Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study,” JAAR 49/4 (1981), 573.
[4] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 192-3.
[5] Marcus, 189. In Jesus’ dealing with both the raging sea and the demon-possessed man in 1:23–27, he uses the same command, fimwvqhti (lit. “Be muzzled!”), establishing a link between Jesus’ power over natural and the supernatural.
[6] Myers, 191.
[7] Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story: Narrative Conflict Resolution in the Gospel of Mark (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 76.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

"What Power Expels Us": The Authority of Jesus in Mark 5:1-20 (Part 1)

Below is Part 1 of a 5-part blog series on Jesus and the interplay of power in the Gerasene Demoniac passage in the Gospel of Mark (5:1-20). See also Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

                        Behold, a legion hurls headlong the swine
            Of Gerasenes, and once enchained in tombs,
            It loudly grunts with pain. From lips possessed
            It had cried out: ‘O Jesus, Son of God,
            Offspring of David’s royal line, we know
            Who Thou art and why Thou hast come, what power
            Expels us, at Thy coming filled with dread.’
                        Prudentius, from “A Hymn on the Trinity”

There is something about demonic possession that has captured the human imagination for millennia. Among the ancient collections of sayings from the Desert Mothers and Fathers we find tales of monastic struggles against demons both within and without, spiritual entities capable of tempting the mind and mutilating the flesh. Abba Poemen, a fifth-century Egyptian monk, traced all forms of human sinfulness and indulgence to demonic forces, proclaiming, “Everything that goes to excess comes from the demons.”[1] Within a postmodern context these anecdotes may seem superstitious at best and laughably naïve at worst, but considering the fact that films like The Exorcist (1973), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005),  The Last Exorcism (2010), and other thematically similar movies continue to be produced every few years, it is apparent that popular fascination with the demonic possession trope is far from waning. Whether encountered in ancient monastic literature or on the big screen of a suspenseful summer horror flick, the notion that a person could somehow be physically inhabited a sinister power greater than the human spirit is curiously frightening, and stimulates the imagination to consider both the nature of autonomy and the darker side of human behavior.
In literary depictions of exorcisms, demons are expelled from the body by means of a priest or shaman who makes use of special incantations (“The power of Christ compels you!”) or ritualistic items like holy water. In the Gospel of Mark, the character of Jesus is made known early in his ministry primarily as an exorcist and miracle worker who travels the Galilean countryside casting out demons and restoring the unclean and disabled. Perhaps no other story in the Gospel of Mark is as bizarre and peculiarly detailed as Jesus’ encounter with the man possessed by a “legion” of demons in Mark 5:1-20. In this blog series I will argue that the Gerasene Demoniac episode is an attempt by the author of Mark to illustrate in a single narrative Jesus’ three-fold authority over nature (demonic possession), political/military power (“Legion”), and the traditions of the religious establishment (uncleanliness). I will begin with a brief examination of how the form of the Gerasene Demoniac pericope demonstrates that Jesus is depicted as the sole arbitrator and greatest power among several other powers in the narrative, and will follow with a focused discussion on each of the three powers mentioned above.
Form of the Pericope
            Every good narrative contains a plot, and well-executed plots consist of a rising action or conflict, a climax, and then a resolution followed by a falling action. Mark 5:1–20 involves two primary cycles of action (A and B below), with two climaxes that each culminate in a crucial moment of decision for Jesus. These moments of decision conspicuously underscore Jesus as one with the authority to grant permissions to demons and give orders to gentiles, and are predicated by one or more characters “begging” Jesus (i.e. some cognate of parakalevw). Curiously, of the ten occurrences of parakalevw in Mark, five of them are found in Mark 5, and four of those five occurrences are integral to the plot of Mark 5:1-20. When each climactic moment of decision arises, the narrative is halted until a verdict is reached, and the falling action entails a “sending forth” as a consequence of Jesus’ decision. This threefold mini-plot thus makes use of the following formula: Character “begs”—>Jesus decides—>Character acts.
                        I. Arrival in the land of the Gerasenes (5:1)
                                    A. Confrontation with the demoniac (5:2–13)
                                                1. Description of the demoniac (5:3–5)
                                                2. Jesus rebukes the unclean spirits (5:8)
                                                3. “Legion” is named (5:9)
                                                4. Exorcism (5:13)
                                                            a. Demons “beg” (parakalevw) Jesus:
                                                                        1. Not to send them out of the country
                                                                        2. For permission to be sent into swine
                                                            b. Climax: Jesus “gives permission” (ejpevtreyen aujtoiæV)
                                                            c. Legion is sent forth from the man and enters the swine
                                                5. Swine and demons are drowned in the lake
                                    B. Confrontation with the townspeople (5:14–20)
                                               1. Swineherds recount previous events “in the city and in the country” (5:14)
                                                2. Townspeople encounter healed demoniac, become frightened
                                                            a. Locals “beg” (parakalevw) Jesus to leave the country
                                                            b. Jesus returns to the boat
                                                3. Former demoniac “begs” Jesus to let him join the disciples
                                                            a. Climax: Jesus “refuses” (oujk ajfhæken)
                                                            b. Former demoniac is instead sent forth to tell “what the     
                                                            Lord has done” for him
                        II. Jesus and disciples return to the “other side,” presumably Capernaum       
            In turn, this episode is situated within a much wider series of narratives that reiterate Jesus’ authority as the “son of the Most High God.” In the preceding pericope (Mark 4:35–41) Jesus calms a storm upon the Sea of Galilee, prompting the disciples to ponder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Immediately after leaving the land of the Gerasenes, Mark includes another healing narrative (the woman with a hemorrhage in 5:25–34), embedded within a resuscitation narrative (the raising of Jairus’ daughter in 5:22–24, 35–43). Observing the two cycles of conflict mentioned above within their context, Jesus is readily identifiable as the most powerful authority figure in the Gerasene narrative, to whom tempest-tossed lakes, legions of unclean spirits, healed women and gentiles, temple authorities, and even death itself all defer. In my next post, we will turn to a closer examination of each of the three categories of power over which Jesus exerts his authority.

[1] Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Trappist, Kentucky: Buena Prensa, 2006), 185.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dirk Willems (d. May 16, 1569)

Christian History Moment:

After being imprisoned by the Roman Catholic Church for his religious beliefs, Dirk Willems, a 16th-century Anabaptist, escaped the jail where he was being held and fled across a nearby icy pond. But when a prison guard gave chase and fell through the ice, Willems, moved with compassion, returned to rescue his struggling pursuer. Willems was recaptured, tortured, and ultimately burned at the stake on this day—May 16—in 1569. He remains a hero in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition to this day, and his witness lives on as a testament to Christian compassion. May we all (Christian and non-Christian alike) have the courage to practice the same enemy-love embodied by this remarkable person.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Suggestions on the Historicity of the Ascension?

Over the last year I've spent a lot of time and energy reading books and articles on the "historicity" of the resurrection of Jesus, and it's been a largely positive experience—I am slightly less certain than I was before that the resurrection never actually occurred as a historical event.

However, something that has continued to be problematic for me, particularly when it comes to historical studies, is how the resurrection and ascension are often sort of lumped together both historically and literarily. The ascension of Jesus is only mentioned explicitly in Luke/Acts, and implicitly in John (20:17), so it appears that the ascension is part of a much later Jesus tradition. It also relies upon an ancient understanding of the cosmos (i.e. Where did Jesus physically go, anyway? Mars?). My personal belief is that while I can accept the historicity of the resurrection, the ascension is most likely a theological embellishment intended to paint Jesus as greater than Elijah, or—even more probably—to figure out what to do with the character of the resurrected Jesus after he was raised from the dead.

So I'm curious as to whether anyone knows of any good books that argue both sides of the debate on the historicity of the ascension? Do you have any particular thoughts on the ability to accept either the resurrection or the ascension, or both, as historical events? Furthermore, if one argues for the historicity of the ascension of Jesus, are they not then obligated to consider the historicity of the ascension of Elijah in his fiery chariot, or even the historicity of the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad?