Saturday, March 28, 2009

Eat my flesh and drink my blood

One of my first posts on here, about a year ago, was about writing and eating God. I was reminded of that post a few days ago in a Gospel of John study group that we are a part of this spring. We talked about a few verses in John (6:48-60):
[Jesus said,] “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.  
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
What was interesting about the discussion in our group was how strongly most of us reacted to this passage. Even though most people present were church members, and were used to taking part in the Eucharist, the bodily imagery that is used by the author of the Gospel of John still retains some shock value: eat flesh, drink blood. I must admit, though, that I think the shock is well-placed by the author, and that I'm happy he (?) does not fall back onto any facile resolution of it at the end of the passage; rather, he simply leaves the impenetrability.

This is the only text in the Gospel of John that could be said to pertain directly to the ritual of the Eucharist. In other words, the author of John may have given these words to Jesus in the text while thinking about how the Eucharist was already being practiced in the early Christian community of which the author was a part. And it intrigues me that his understanding of the Eucharist is so fleshly and material. He seems to have had a very robust idea of the importance of the bodily aspect of communal rituals - and the bodily aspect of people's ideas of God.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Women's space and housekeping (Marilynne Robinson)

A friend told me that Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson was "strange but beautiful", and she was right. I also found it much more disturbing than I had anticipated!

Housekeeping is about two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who grow up with their grandmother and then with their aunt, Sylvie. A lot of the book is about the house that they grow up in, how it is kept, and how it changes. While their grandmother is caring for them, the house is almost like a little fortress, well kept, clearly demarcated as a separate space from the outside world. There is a clear line between the house's private space and the outside, public space.

Then when their aunt Sylvie arrives, everything starts to change. Sylvie treats the outside world as if she has a right to make use of it. She naps on park benches, she jumps on trains to go for rides. She does not believe in maintaining a separation between inside and outside spaces. When it is dark outside in the evening, she lets it be dark inside, and the girls eat their dinner in darkness. When leaves fall outside, Sylvie lets leaves blow in and gather in the corners of the house, too. Furniture is moved outside and left in the orchard. The house is no longer a separate, private, domesticated, cozy space.

Since Sylvie does not keep her house "properly" - i.e. as a separate, domesticated space, the kind of space that a woman who knows her place ought to keep - she is regarded as crazy by the townspeople. And her two nieces, Ruth and Lucille, are forced to choose between the "proper" type of housekeeping, in which women know their place and create a domesticated environment for themselves (and are regarded as sane), and Sylvie's type of housekeeping, in which women are free to blend private and public spaces and make use of both as they please (and are regarded as crazy).

As the girls make their choice, the reader is forced to either support or reject it - and this is what disturbed me about the book. Because both options available seemed to be so sad. At first glance, conventional housekeeping seems the safer, happier option for the girls - but then the book touches on so many of the inhibiting aspects of conventional housekeeping. On the other hand, the act of breaking with conventional housekeeping seems to bring a lot of sadness too, as social norms and bonds are broken.