Memories in Egypt

People my age are acutely aware of their memories and the work of memory. It starts with our own effort to figure out what all these pictures are that were never put in an album, the backs of which are blank. Maybe we kept a fitful diary to help us. We are trying to sort the dates and faces out and make of our life a coherent, meaningful story, one that can inform our children and future generations. This leads us to our parents and grandparents, back to the stories that generated stories, the pictures of likenesses handed down by genetic code and geographical wanderings. This then becomes the search for the memory of a people, often worn away under neglectful feet, defaced by traumatic warfare and willful manipulation.
And so we are led to Egypt, whose long history evolved like silt along the single river that fed it —the Nile. Such a slender thread of water has knit together a series of kingdoms whose memory survived in stone monuments covered in symbols that shaped dozens of rituals by which the people remembered and hoped over the centuries. In Egypt memory is all about the monuments and their writings. But we are cut off from the lived reality of that ancient culture, first by the Christians, who defaced what statues they could, proclaiming the God revealed in Scripture and in Jesus. And then the Muslims came, disdaining even the Trinitarian monotheism of the Christians, smashing more idols, building their grand and austere mosques of word and obedient prayer.
We were in Egypt in February with Archaeological Paths, whose team of Polish and Egyptian leaders guided us through the melee of Cairo, the windswept desert, the placid Nile. Their principal lecturer is Dr. Zahi Hawass, whom many of you have seen as the face of Egyptian archaeology—the older man with the Stetson in the National Geographic films. That’s him. He began our stay by passionately telling us that he and many other Egyptians feared, and feared intensely, that the Muslim Brotherhood would bring in the kind of radicals who are now smashing antiquities in Iraq and Syria, just as they did in Afghanistan. They were going to destroy Egypt’s memory and with it the tourist influx that feeds its economy. Now, with a new stability and order, with many in prison or eliminated, they have a chance not only to preserve their priceless heritage but to build a democratic order. It is not merely a matter of whether they have the hope, but of whether they have the memory. What memory will inform this struggle for democracy?
The pyramids and temples we were about to see, said Hawass, constituted a vast “National Project” that united Upper and Lower Egypt, binding together the families, clans, villages

Temple of Luxor at Night

Temple of Luxor at Night

and kingdoms that lay along the Nile. That, he said, is what Egypt needs today. For him, it is the national project of discovering, preserving and sharing their unique cultural heritage with and for the world. Hawass has been central to the discovery of some of the villages where the workers, architects, artists, and managers lived as they spent their lives on these vast public works. They have never discovered any evidence that slaves built the pyramids. In their recovery of memory, the memory of Jews, Christians, and Muslims fed by the Bible is called into question. The clash of memory becomes a conflict in faith, a resettling of the religion that is the template of our collective memory.
Indeed, we can look at the murderous mayhem and butchery that burns in the region as a frantic struggle over memory—the memory of origins, of imperial oppression, colonial subordination and liberation, of future allegiances and hopes. In memory lie our burnished fears and our bonds of primordial trust.

Sylvia and Queen Hatshepsut at her Temple

Sylvia and Queen Hatshepsut at her Temple

But looking into memories does not merely open up the raw sores of conflict, it also exposes continuities that both disturb and clarify. In temple after temple we would come across some portrayal of a “Triad” of Gods, whether of Ptah the creator, Sekmet the warrior, and Nefertum the Healer, or Sobek the crocodile god, Hathor, the goddess of love, joy, and fertility, and Khonsu the god of the moon and fertility. Each place, it seems, had its own Triad. At Abu Simbel, on Lake Nasser (another National Project!), Ramses II modestly included himself to form a foursome. And so I thought about the Trinity, which brings the transcendent God into contact with frail and fleeting humanity. Is this where our concept of the Trinity was born?

And how many times did we see Horus seated, often suckling, on the lap of Isis? Horus was the son of the union between Isis and her brother Osiris. He was dismembered by his fratricidal brother Seth, and resurrected to sit upon the throne that she herself represents. And all of this, I presume, flowed through the theologians of Alexandria into our own Christian creeds, icons, and rituals in the form of the Madonna, suckling the King of the Universe.
And in other places we saw wall carvings of the

Recent Mosaic of Baptism of Jesus at Hanging Church

Recent Mosaic of Baptism of Jesus at Hanging Church

anointing of the king with water from the Nile, pouring over him in the same way that Baptism is depicted in the “Hanging Church” of the Coptics in Cairo.
At the core of their ritual was the journey across the river of the deceased king, in whose future immortal life the continuity, stability, and order of their world would be preserved. For them it was the Nile, but for my Christian tradition, especially for our Gospel songs, it is the Jordan. How deep the river runs.
And then, what about the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus into Egypt? We rehearsed this memory by visiting the church that legend says is built where they were lodged. A

Akhenaten's Sun in the Citadel Mosque

Akhenaten’s Sun in the Citadel Mosque

Bethlehem of refuge from the evil powers. In encountering Egypt’s memory I began to think that maybe the flight went the other way. The image of the Holy family fled out of Egypt to impregnate the fledging Christ movement with its comforting memory of mother love and father care.
The strands of incarnate fleshly care in Egyptian symbolism were momentarily shattered by Akhenaten’s attempt to introduce a monotheism of the sun, whose delicate hands extend to every arena of life from the one unifying ball of heat and light. And in that brief flicker, some say, the one who came to be called Moses caught the monotheistic vision and burned it into the heart of a people who carried it off to a rocky land called Israel.
And then came Muhammad of Mecca and Medina, who lit up the warring tribes of Arabia to unify around this transcendent unseeable, untouchable God and so bring peace. Yet still the tribes war on, murdering mothers, fathers, and babes, murdering our rich, conflicting, and disturbing memories.
Yes, Egypt was the awesome monuments, the overwhelming artistic achievements in tomb and temple, the muezzin’s call from minarets along the Nile, the chaos that is Cairo traffic, but it was also the tanks and guns that say “We are watching. There will be order.” There will be continuity and memory. But will it be a memory of democratic governance or of monarchical military rule? That is the question.
The Nile still rolls on, now tamed by the enormous Aswan dam. As I stood on top of it, looking at the hydroelectric plant below, I realized that if this dam broke, the entire country of Egypt would be scoured into oblivion. The dam still holds, for now. But some say that cracks are developing in it. Some deep hidden fault. Visit Egypt now. And remember.

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Travel Update

Dear Readers,

The reason that you are not receiving any extensive blog entries is that we are traveling in Egypt and Cyprus in the month of February. Yes, Egypt is safe for tourists and the ancient monuments, as well as new discoveries, are as fascinating as ever. Upon our return, when my brain has also arrived back, Bill w Sphinx edI will try to put some reflections up for your own response. Our own tour was under the auspices of Archaeological Paths, which did a fine job of guidance and logistics. I recommend them highly. Getting to meet Dr. Zahi Hawass was an added unusual experience. Just to prove we have been there, here’s a picture of me (on the right).

We are now in Cyprus for our second visit, in which I am concentrating on conversations with people who are very knowledgeable about the mine where my grandfather worked, about geology, archaeology, and the cultural history of Cyprus. Yes, Cyprus has been divided by a buffer zone for 40 years now but people of good will on both sides are still working toward a solution that would honor the cultural integrity of both Turkish and Greek speaking people as well as the necessary unity and integrity of the island. Many people are pitching in to assist us in finding the best way to put together our own family materials in a way that would be of interest to others here. The story continues to fascinate many as well as myself.

You’ll hear more from me in March!

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Violence, Speech, and Religion

Like you, I have been trying to comprehend the murders of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, of innocent shoppers in Paris, and of two thousand people in Nigeria—all at the hands of killers claiming to be driven by Islam and Allah. As we recoil in horror we also must seek to frame these horrific events in a way that enables us to move beyond shock and grief to action that might prevent future carnage and destruction.

Two threads of reflection have sewn together my own effort to frame our response. The first revolves around our understanding of free speech. The second around the way “religion” affects common life.

Freedom of speech, of the press, and of the people peaceably to assemble is enshrined in our First Amendment to the US Constitution as well as in the customs, laws, and constitutions of many other countries. Along with that inalienable right, as so many are pointing out, goes the responsibility to use it in ways that do not inflame people to violence and unjust acts. But this formulation, it seems to me, is incomplete, for it always implies that the rules of the public square are set by those who claim to be offended by the speech of others. What is missing in our reflection is that these rights, like those of religion preceding them in the Amendment, are intrinsic to the creation and sustenance of a republic, of a public sphere which should be at the core of our common life and governance. We need to look at how these specific rights are part of a robust support for public life—not only its legal structure, not only government, but the myriad of associations, cultural customs, and means of communication that constitute the public realm. What threatens this public realm—this republic—is the erosion of these constituent elements or their very destruction.

In light of this public context, speech must be understood as a means for persuasion. And persuasion must rest on enough commonality of values, agreements, and testable claims that we can begin to resolve our disagreements without resort to violence. Yes, that means scientific consensus and the reasonable agreement of an educated populace. Each one of these claims is a commonplace in the democratic tradition, but they are under continual siege from those who would substitute the rule of fathers, kings, dictators, and religious absolutists. It is also under siege from those who would rely on religious pronouncement rather than scientific argument to deal with our continuing climate crisis. Beneath this republican setting for human community must exist an economy—an oikos, as I have said—that enables people to participate in the goods of public life. And here we find much of the source for the estranged and hopeless young men who are led and driven to such acts of carnage.

In short, as to thread number one, think not merely of the oral, written, or visual “speech,” but of the full public of which it is a part.

Second, concerning religion. We see a lot of discussion about whether a religion, such as Islam, and in particular the Qu’ran, incites people to violence or to peace building. We act as if it is the text and the beliefs it inspires that are the key to whether people are, rightfully or not, committing these atrocities. While texts are always important, and I am an exponent of our need to appreciate the beauty and compelling messages of peace in the Qu’ran, I think we need to look at how the religious community and organization shapes the lives and society of people who are fed by these scriptures. That is, I think it’s more a matter of ecclesiology than of dogma, more a matter of how we are organized religiously than of what we read. It is as much a matter of organization as of textual credence.

Christians have called this matter of religious organization “ecclesiology”—the theory of church organization and purpose. But every religious tradition has its ecclesiologies. From this perspective, it matters whether we are organized in a steep hierarchy or in a loose confederation of congregations. It matters whether religious authority is attributed only to males or whether it is open to women as well. It matters whether the men and women in its leadership are heterosexual, homosexual, married or celibate, for it is this that shapes the relationship of religion to family and of family public space. In the case of Islam, gender conflict is a massive source of strain in contemporary life. Of equal importance, as it has been for Christianity and Judaism, it matters how the religious institutions define their relationships to political power and the state. And at the heart of the struggle between Sunni and Shia, we find not merely economics and politics, but also differing theories of authority and succession of leadership. These are only three examples of “ecclesiological” differences that create enormous strains in whether or not a public life can emerge to process our disputes and dilemmas.

The horrendous and continuing acts of violence that claim our headlines and bylines have turned our attention on Islam. But we need to think of these factors of “public life” and “ecclesiology” as we ask how Muslims can counter them through religious authorities, how the local “ummah”—the community—can become a little public of true discourse before the One God, and how the transcendent One can be reflected in the equality of all believers at prayer and discourse. Indeed, these questions are at the heart of how we can reduce the violence that besets us and claim the vibrant and flourishing peace these great traditions call Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

For those of you who have followed my earlier writings, this is nothing new. It forms some of the most enduring threads in my own tapestry of thought and I invite you to take a look at it as well. Let me know how it looks from your angle.


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Sawdust and Soul

Over the past fifteen years I have carried on a lively conversation about woodworking with my good friend John de Gruchy—he in South Africa’s Western Cape, I in the mountains of western North Carolina. On our many trips back and forth we have had a chance to build some things together and to talk about how our Everett_DeGruchy.Sawdust.44633woodworking reflects and shapes our approach to life in both its practical and transcendent dimensions. And, as academic theologians, we have talked about how we have expressed our theological inquiries in wood and how woodworking has shaped our theology. In short, we have talked about the spirituality of woodworking.

With the gracious help of Wipf and Stock Publishers and our supportive editor Robin Parry, we have put together a glimpse into this conversation, with its stories and projects. It’s just appeared as Sawdust and Soul: A Conversation on Woodworking and Spirituality. While we can’t enable you to feel and smell the wood, we have put in a number of photographs to give you a sense of what we have been making as well as how we work. In addition, John’s wife Isobel has added some terrific line drawings to enhance the presentation.

Sawdust and Soul also introduces you to the wider conversation we have had with other woodworkers and with the wider woodworking community in our countries. Our topics range from the shaping of a sense of balance in our lives to dealing with loss, memory, and our sense of wonder as creatures in the midst of an amazing abundance of life and artful design. Whether you’re a tree-hugger, an all-thumbs reader, or an honest-to-goodness woodworker, we invite you into the conversation.

Bill and John enjoy their new Adirondack Chair

Bill and John enjoy their new Adirondack Chair

Sawdust and Soul is available now through your local bookstore or online at Wipf and Stock Publishers. Readers of this site get a 40% discount by entering “SAWDUST” in the coupon code box on checkout.

In a couple of weeks it will be online at Barnes and Noble and Amazon. It will be available on Kindle by mid-January.

While it’s too late for Christmas (but maybe not an Orthodox Christmas!), you might think about it as a gift for the woodworker in your life. If you don’t have one, by all means reach out and find one! They’re handy for home repairs as well.


Posted in Arts, Ecology, Ethics, Poetry and Songs, Woodworking, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged | 1 Comment