Stagger onward rejoicing

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Encyclopedia Babylonica 5: a brief hiatus

I just realized that I need to pause this series for a while. Why? Because I’m reading Ellul’s The Meaning of the City and am finding it so provocative, so maddening, so profound, so bizarre, that it will clearly take me some time to process it. I mean, the guys writes things like this: 

And the Christian, like everyone else, is looking for a solution in laws. What should the Christian position be regarding these problems (which we call “the problems of modern life, instead of giving them their permanent name? Arrange things somehow, make city life possible; moralize the city, its leisure time, its work, its dreams. This is how Christians plan. What to do? God has revealed to us very clearly that there is absolutely nothing to be done. God has given us no commands with regard to the city. He affords us no law. For the city is not an inner problem for man. God can say to us, “You shall not commit adultery,” but he has never said, “You shall not live in the city.” For on the one hand we have a personal attitude with a man, which he can modify according to his readiness to obey God’s commandments. And on the other, the city is a phenomenon absolutely removed from man’s power, a phenomenon which he is fundamentally incapable of affecting. For man is not responsible for making the city something other than it is, as we have already seen. There is nothing to be done. And the problem does not change. It is still what it was when, forty or fifty centuries ago, they built up those thick walls of clay whose foundations still subsist. For God has cursed, has condemned, the city instead of giving us a law for it. 

What am I supposed to do with that? Such a bold (and apparently crazy?) argument requires further reflection, and the same is true of the rest of the book. Some books need to be read slowly, with much annotation, or not read at all.

Posting will continue, but for a little while it won’t be about Babylon. (And you know what? As the world’s leading advocate of reading at whim, if I happen to read something else before I get to Ellul then it might be a larger while.) 

Encyclopedia Babylonica 4: System

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The Bob Marley and the Wailers album Survival (1979) is one of Marley’s most politically militant recordings. The imagery of the album cover, which with one exception features the flags of African nations, suggests its theme — the need for Pan-African political unity — and the songs on the album say that that unity is to be rooted in emancipation from the dominance of a global political and economic system, a system which is largely controlled by white people. (The Wikipedia page linked to above explains the flags and the image hiding behind the album’s title.) 

One of the most constant and powerful images of Rastafarianism is that of the Babylonian captivity. You may get a brief summary of this theme by reading this essay by David W. Stowe, and then, perhaps, go deeper by reading Stowe’s remarkable book Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137. Stowe has a lot to say about the version of Psalm 137 with which I prefaced my previous post, “Rivers of Babylon” by The Melodians. I don’t suppose there’s any song that more fully captures the tone and mood of Rastafari — and the best song on Survival is a kind of extension of it, as though “Rivers of Babylon” were rewritten by a critical race theorist. That song is called “Babylon System,” and I’m invoking it here because I think it suggests a different approach to living in Babylon than the two we have already considered: infiltrating the halls of power and praying for deliverance.  

But before I go any further, I need to clarify some things. It’s pretty obvious what I’m suggesting in these posts: that living in Technopoly is best figured as a kind of Babylonian captivity. But do I really mean to compare my situation — as a comfortable, economically secure white person in one of the world’s richest countries — to those who have been uprooted from their homes and sold into slavery, subjected to endless bigotry and oppression both overt and covert? And my answer is: Yes, I mean to compare — but not to equate.

Consider for instance the moment in “The Scouring of the Shire” when the returning hobbits see what has been done to Hobbiton:

‘This is worse than Mordor!’ said Sam. ‘Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.’

‘Yes, this is Mordor,’ said Frodo. ‘Just one of its works.’ 

By any rational reckoning, of course, Hobbiton is not “worse than Mordor” — as Sam of all people ought to know, having spent too much time in that blasted land. But you know what he means, you know where the feeling of revulsion comes from: his love of the Shire and his long-cherished hope to return to it, his unreflective expectation that upon his return it would be what he always knew it to be. But would he exchange his condition for that of a prisoner in one of Sauron’s towers, or an Orc soldier? Of course he wouldn’t. The Mordor System is darker and fouler at the center than at the periphery; but its logic is the same everywhere. And what has been learned about it near the center can be used near the periphery as well. That’s the theme of my essay on Albert Murray: white American Christians who think they’re suffering should take some lessons from their Black brothers and sisters, who know what real persecution is. If you feel threatened by the Beast, then maybe you should consult people who have spent generations in that Beast’s belly. 

If I had to choose between (a) raising my child in an environment of material and social comfort but also with the constant preaching of the dark gospel of metaphysical capitalism, and (b) raising my child in an environment of economic hopelessness and racial bigotry, in which he or she must spend a lifetime constantly at tiptoe stance — well, I would certainly choose the former. The first situation has dystopian elements, but also hopeful possibilities and some degree of freedom; the second is dystopian to its core. Those in the first situation can at least learn from the miseries of those in the second. 

Okay, back to Bob Marley. What does Babylon System do? It’s a vampire, sucking the blood of the sufferers; and it builds churches and universities for the express purpose of deceiving the people and keeping them enslaved. That is, to borrow the Marxist terms, it consists of an economic/political base and a cultural superstructure: As Louis Althusser said, it’s a model of political economy that sustains itself not simply by force, or the threat of force, but also through the work of ideological state apparatuses. Foucault borrowed this distinction when he coined the phrase “power-knowledge regime” — the hard power of the state-as-such and the soft power of its knowledge-disseminating apparatuses. 

Not a bad description of life under surveillance capitalism. — at least, once you start thinking about it. If you manage not to think about the costs, life in Babylon can be kinda pleasant at times, and questioning the System can feel risky. But once you start thinking … well, for one thing, to do do all this unpaid labor for social media and AI companies is to tread the winepress, but thirst.

So what do we do? Do we strive to sneak our young men and women into the ruling cadre? Do we pray for deliverance? Or do we do what Bob Marley says we should do: rebel? If we’re drawn to the last, then we have to ask another question: What might successful rebellion look like? 

Encyclopedia Babylonica 3: Daniel

As we have seen, D. W. Griffith gives us an image of an effete and dissolute Babylonian kingdom, destroyed by a combination of its own lassitude and the fierce warlike ambitions of the Persian King Cyrus. But this is not the picture of things that one would get from reading the Hebrew Bible. There we see the Babylonians as not just the conquerors of Israel, but also as the captors and enslavers of the Israelites. 

And then — some time after they had been brought to the rivers of Babylon, where they sat and wept when they remembered Zion — a handful of Jews, the book of Daniel tells us, became key advisors to King Nebuchadnezzar. Now this is an interesting phenomenon in several respects. Let’s look at it more closely. 

Here’s the beginning of the book of Daniel:

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god. Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. 

This account raises many questions. For instance, it would be very interesting to know how many Israelite youths were recruited into this program; we only hear about four, but it seems likely that there were more. Did the rest wash out? Or are they not relevant to this story because — as Nebuchadnezzar surely hoped — they became assimilated into the Chaldean culture of Babylon, forgetting the ways of their ancestors and adopting those of their captors? As I wrote some years ago, it happens all the time

In any event: through the rest of the book of Daniel we see Daniel serving as a counselor to the Babylonian kings, first Nebuchadnezzar and then Belshazzar. He performs his duties with grace and wisdom, and in so doing earns promotion for himself and king-mandated respect for the God of Israel. What makes his success surprising is simply that he always brings bad news: he repeatedly reads the kings’ dreams as foretellings of disaster, which they always prove to be. Is this the only time in recorded history when bearers of bad news got themselves promoted? 

Things get strange right at the end of Daniel 5, when Belshazzar is killed and replaced by someone totally unknown to any other historian: Darius the Mede, who is the guy who drops Daniel into the lion’s den. By contrast, Herotodus — who is the primary source for Griffith’s Babylonian story in Intolerance, and even gets cited in a footnote on a title card, an honor granted to few other historians — tells us that the conqueror of Belshazzar’s Babylon is King Cyrus the Great of Persia, who finds a way to break into the great walled city and does so virtually unnoticed:

Now, if the Babylonians had only been given forewarning of what Cyrus was up to, or fathomed it for themselves, then they could have turned the entrance of the Persians into their city so completely to their own advantage as to have annihilated the invaders utterly. All they would have had to do was to secure the postern gates that open out onto the river and mount the low walls that run along its banks, and they would have had the Persians caught as if in a trap. As it was, however, the enemy was upon them before they knew what had hit them. Indeed, according to local tradition, such was the size of the city that those who lived in the centre of Babylon had no idea that the suburbs had fallen, for it was a time of festival, and all were dancing, and indulging themselves in pleasures; so that when they did finally get the news, it was very much the hard way. And that is the story of how, for the first time, Babylon fell. 

But back to Daniel. After Daniel escapes unscathed from the lions, we’re told, “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian” (6:28). But the rest of the book is devoted to describing a series of visions granted to Daniel: they are identified as happening in some particular year of some king’s reign, but they otherwise say nothing about what Daniel was doing. 

Again, it would be nice to know more, especially given the portrayal of Daniel as an advocate for his people; because Cyrus is perhaps the first royal defender of religious freedom. 

Cyrus Cylinder

That’s the Cyrus Cylinder, now in the British Museum, which contains a lengthy proclamation by Cyrus detailing his power, his glory, and his various achievements. Among these last are his repatriation of conquered peoples and his restoration of their temples and cultic sites. Some overly enthusiastic folks in recent years have called the Cylinder an ancient declaration of human rights, but it’s nothing of the kind: to Cyrus his subjects have no rights; he’s celebrating his own beneficence towards people to whom he owes nothing.

The Cylinder doesn’t mention the Jews, but surely Cyrus’s claims for himself strongly support the picture given in the book of Isaiah and elsewhere of Cyrus as the liberator — indeed the messiah, the anointed one — of Israel, though the Cylinder certainly does not say that Cyrus liberated anyone in response to a commandment from the Lord. We need one more chapter of the book of Daniel telling us that it was Daniel who convinced Cyrus to act so generously. Alas, we have no way to connect those dots. 

(FYI: I am reading and so far very much enjoying Matt Waters’s King of the World: The Life of Cyrus the Great. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t look much like a tolerant modern liberal.) 

So, two pictures of the fall of Babylon: in the version given by Herodotus and endorsed by D. W. Griffith, the Babylonians (largely as a result of their inattentive decadence) fall to a mighty conqueror, a great man of war; in the version given in the Hebrew Bible, they fall because of their cruel domination of the children of Israel, and are replaced by a more generous sovereign who has been anointed by God to be the instrument of Israel’s liberation. But even in the book of Daniel the Babylonians are associated with gross luxury: their doom is announced, via the aboriginal “writing on the wall,” when “King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand” (5:1) — and then chose to drink wine from the sacral vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps a step too far from YHWH to tolerate. 

You and I, my friends — this is the theme and topic of these posts — live in Babylon. How do we thrive? By working our way into the halls of power, or by praying for deliverance? Or, perhaps, by some other means? 

Encyclopedia Babylonica 2: Belshazzar


Let’s talk about about the OG Babylon — not as it was, perhaps, but as we have envisioned it. For instance, let’s consider D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, his insanely ambitious film of 1916, made in part to counter the idea, shared by many viewers of Birth of a Nation (1915), that he himself advocated intolerance towards Black people. Griffith decided to interlace four stories from four different periods of history, each of which in his mind illustrates the sin of intolerance. In fact, only one of them, the story of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France (1572) seems to me to concern intolerance as such. The others are about power and moralism and various other matters, and are tied together (though not really) by a weird image of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle, with three women — the Fates, I guess — in the background. I often think of Pauline Kael’s view of this film as “the greatest extravaganza and the greatest folly in movie history, an epic celebration of the potentialities of the new medium”; “a great, desperate, innovative, ruinous film”; an abject failure and also the greatest film ever made. (She wrote that in 1968.)  

But let’s talk about Babylon. Griffith depicts Babylon at the end of the reign of Belshazzar, who is threatened by a possible Persian invasion but seems unaware of the danger. It’s a picture of Babylon that gets more complicated the more you think about it.


Belshazzar moves through his world in a kind of daze, as though intoxicated or drugged, but what intoxicates him is beauty: he is besotted with the Princess Beloved (pictured above), and the environment which he has built around him is one of constant singing and dancing, almost all of the dancing being done by women in diaphanous gowns (with nothing under them – this was pre-code Hollywood). Belshazzar is a devoté of Ishtar, goddess of love, which has aroused the jealousy of the priest of Bel-Marduk, the former chief God of the city. (I call this jealousy, and power-hunger, as opposed to “intolerance.”) He is kindly and generous, but also — well, decadent. And of course this is the defining image, in later culture, of Babylon. 

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Belshazzar, then, enjoys the pleasurable privileges of rule but seems to be unaware of his kingly responsibilities. Now, to Griffith this is clearly preferable to the sheer bloodlust of the Persian king Cyrus, who, as he prepares his invasion and conquest, out-Herods Herod. Against this determined tyranny, the gentle eroticism of Belshazzar is helpless.

But here’s a key point: it’s possible to think very differently about the character of both Belshazzar and Cyrus than Griffith does, but in order to do that, we would need to consider some people who are completely absent from Griffith’s depiction. I refer, of course, to the Jews. They’ll be the subject of my next entry. 

Encyclopedia Babylonica 1: welcome

Welcome to Babylon! I know you’re not all happy about it, but here’s something I’ve learned from experience: You’ll get used to it. Indeed, some of you will come to prefer life here to life in your native city — or what you think of, perhaps aspirationally, as your native city. And even if you don’t come to prefer it … well, you could do worse. Indeed you have done worse. 

But we’re talking about Babylon, aren’t we? And it’s my job to try to help you understand where you are and how you can flourish in what might seem to be unpropitious circumstances.

Let’s begin in what might seem an odd place: with a man named Aurelius Augustinus. He lived a long time ago, and you might think that his world had nothing to do with Babylon. He was born in North Africa — Roman North Africa. He was a Roman, not a Babylonian. Yet he didn’t see it that way. Not quite.

He wrote a book, a very big book called The City of God, that explored the long and messy relationship between what he called the City of God — that’s a long story — and the City of Man. And that’s where we come in. Because one avatar of the City of Man is Rome — and, Augustine says, another is Babylon. Again and again he describes Rome as “the second Babylon,” and Babylon as “the first Rome.” Babylon wasn’t the native city of the children of Israel, and Rome isn’t the native city of the people of God’s church — even When the Emperor is a Christian.

And yet — here’s the main thing I want you to understand — many Israelites flourished in Babylon, so much so that when they had the chance to return to the Holy Land they declined and stayed right where they were. And many Christians flourished in the “second Babylon,” Rome. How did this happen? That’s a big part of what we’re here to explore. So stay tuned!