A martyr’s metaphors

“Here’s the thing,” Rabbi Avi Shafran chummily confides to the Jewish magazine Tablet. Then, summoning his reserves of charm, he proceeds to confess:

“Here’s the thing: I’m a Jewish heretic. I don’t mean forsaking (as some famously have done) traditional Orthodox Jewish belief and practice for a libertine life [. . .] Instead, I refer to a real heresy: my reluctance to accept an orthodoxy so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that its rejection summons a hearty hail of derision and ridicule, and results in effective excommunication from polite society. What I can’t bring myself to maintain belief in is . . . evolution.

“There, I’ve written it.”

If, like me, you grew up in a small town in the days of prayer in the schools, you’ll recognize Rabbi Shafran’s tone from sixty years ago. It’s, “Hey, kids! You know who’s really cool? Jesus!” But this recent history also has a prehistory, and embedded in that are some actually interesting bits. Those are the vestiges within the fossil: traces of classical rhetoric retroactively assimilated into the stone-age dialect of theology. Consider, from the same essay:

“[. . .] the high priests of scientism (and the masses that venerate them) [. . .]”

“Yet it is unassailable dogma among the enlightened these days that non-living matter generated living matter [. . .]”

“I don’t reject science, only speculations and assumptions made in its name. And I’ve read and pondered all the ‘answers’ to my questions.* My skepticism remains unbudged.** [. . .]

High priests, venerate, dogma, the enlightened: here Rabbi Shafran employs irony, or rather irony’s shabby cousin, sarcasm, in the service of his heretical persona. But with these days the mask comes off (in Latin, persona means “mask”) and the rabbinical beard springs back into view. It is a seriously long beard, too. No more “Hey, kids” noises surface from its depths. Instead there comes a piercing and utterly sincere cry de profundis:

“In the meantime, lead me to the stocks, if you must. And as I’m pilloried, I will proclaim [. . .]”

Well, we’re all familiar with this vocabulary of martyrdom. It’s ecumenical. In the United States as of 2015, it’s the property not just of Rabbi Shafran but of the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Fox News. It’s also long established. As far back as 1704 Jonathan Swift was taking an interested view of it in A Tale of a Tub.

Meanwhile, in 2015, in Syria and Pakistan and West Africa, Christians actually are being martyred. The tools of their martyrdom aren’t figurative stocks or pillories, either, or even copies of The Origin of Species. No; they’re non-literary, actually literal agents like slavery and murder.

On the scale of the suffering inflicted by those physical things, Rabbi Shafran’s own effective excommunication from polite society may seem to score low. But effective excommunication from polite society does command a reserve of pain that mere slavery and murder don’t have. Unlike slavery or murder, after all, the agents that torture Rabbi Shafran have an aesthetic power. They give pain a form shaped by the concept called metaphor, which works by evoking an analogy between something that doesn’t exist and something that does. Twinned by metaphor with an image of the real, the name of something imaginary (pillory, proclaim) begins to seem real itself. It communicates not pain but an idea of pain from the body (somebody else’s nameless, featureless, who-cares body, where pain is a mere experience) to the mind (Rabbi Shafran’s mind, ark of the undying, unsuffering ideal).

In the mind, of course, it still isn’t real. But now (or rather these days) any language that might have been able to say so lies buried under institutional rock. Look, there, at the strata of language that have been laid down to hold reality’s mute remains still! They shape a tomb whose Hic jacet translates as “Here’s the thing.”

Of course the thing isn’t there. Technically, it never was there. It was a vehicle whose tenor never did exist. The metaphors that built its tomb covered its non-existence with words, spoke more words to make it seem to have disappeared, and then set men happily howling, “I am a martyr” at what they would no longer have to know. No more science commanding, “Know the world”; no more Delphic Oracle commanding, “Know yourself.” Only the howl, the happy wordy howl howling effective excommunication from polite society.

Among its echoes, nothing need remain standing except the tomb. Word-bearing but silent, it is stone all the way to its center; but stone artistically made to appear formerly alive and capable of meaning.

Duomo, Milan


* Yes, the modest polymath did write “all.”

** But isn’t a dogmatic skeptic a contradiction in terms?


Source: Avi Shafran, “Skeptical About Evolution — And Not Because of Religion.” Tablet 20 July 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/192334/skeptical-about-evolution-and-not-because-of-religion. Accessed 23 July 2015.



On the radio in my car, the theologian Lauren Winner was being interviewed by National Public Radio’s Guy Raz about her new book Still, a memoir of a crisis in her faith. The car and I were in Honolulu, heading south on Atkinson Drive. As we approached the T intersection and turned west along the ocean, Winner began telling a story.

Sunk deep in depression (Lauren told Guy), she hadn’t wanted to be in church that Sunday morning. Nevertheless, she was there. She was doing her unwilling best to concentrate on the service, she said, when a woman who looked the worse for wear (those were Winner’s words: “looked the worse for wear”) sidled into the pew next to her (“sidled” was Winner’s word) and then began tapping on the pew in front. Instinctively, Winner said, she reached out and put her hand on the woman’s, as if the woman were a child in need of calming.

The woman didn’t recoil or pull her hand away. Instead, she turned her palm over and took Winner’s hand. The two women sat that way for the rest of the service, holding hands.

And, said Winner, Jesus was there.

As the anecdote unscrolled and reached its heartwarming conclusion, I had been driving down Ala Moana Boulevard. On my right, one shopping center had succeeded another: first the enormous Ala Moana Center, an important resource for Hawaii’s tourist economy; then the smaller Ward Centre and Ward Warehouse. On my left, rolling past, block after block, was one of the reasons people visit Hawaii: big, beautiful, free Ala Moana Beach Park.

But one thing the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau doesn’t tell visitors is that Honolulu’s parks and streets are populated by thousands of homeless people. In the fall of 2011, in advance of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu, city and state agencies chivvied the homeless away from the beaches and the main thoroughfares, denying all the while that they were doing so. But Lauren Winner was telling her story about Jesus on February 25, 2012, and by then the homeless were back along the beach at Ala Moana. On February 26, somebody in real estate would tell the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the impending closure of the Sears store in Ala Moana Center will be an opportunity to upgrade the shopping experience, because (he would say, in these words) Sears is blue-collar. But as I stopped at a red light on February 25, I had time to look at one of the men who live across the street from the stores. Along the park’s wall he had assembled what amounted to a little home, with a tent and a chair and a neatly arranged and quite sizable mound of possessions, perhaps five feet high. He was sitting in the chair, looking at the Pacific Ocean and smoking.

By the time I crossed Ward Avenue, pulled into the parking lot at OfficeMax, and killed the ignition, Lauren had moved on to other topics. I bought my office supplies, then headed home by the South King route in order to have lunch at Zippy’s McCully. In that neighborhood the homeless no longer occupy the sidewalk in front of Old Stadium Park, but there still are a lot of them all along the street. When I left the restaurant, one was just outside the door with his shopping cart. On the step above him stood the restaurant manager.

“You cannot stay here,” he was saying to the man with the cart. (In Hawaii Creolized English, the normal contraction is “cannot,” not “can’t.”)

The man had his mouth open and his lips were moving, but no sound came out.

I stepped down, walked around him, got back in my car, and turned the key. I hadn’t looked back or said a word. By now National Public Radio was broadcasting the Saturday Metropolitan Opera quiz. The quizmaster, who spoke with a brogue, said, “I’d like to say hello to listeners in my home city of Glasgow — both of them.”

Very late that night, I was startled awake by a loud thump on my front door. When I opened the door to look out, one of Hawaii’s big lace-necked doves flew right in, flapped silently across the living room, and landed on the piano. When I tried to catch her, she took off again and flapped to the other side of the room. That kept happening for about five minutes, but eventually she settled on something I could pick up. Unresisting by then, apparently disoriented and exhausted, the dove let me pick up her perch and dump her back out the door. In the morning there was no sign that she had ever visited my home.

If my name were Lauren Winner, I might take that as an omen. I might tell a story about it, and stake a claim to significance.

But there was probably no significance.