Harold Bloom: Jesus and Yahweh

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[Sue Mingus]

Help us out, seriously. In the light of President Bush’s conversations with God about the Middle East, these may be urgent questions:

What is your name for God? Do you have a notion of His personality? Can you say where you learned it? Is your God a comforter, or a warrior? A healer? A business counselor? Does He wear the sandals of Jesus of Nazareth, or the halo of Jesus the Christ? These are the everyday lay versions of an inquiry that we’ll pursue on Tuesday with, intellectually speaking, a higher authority.

Harold Bloom’s new book Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine is way out there, “beyond category,” a sort of holy romp across the peaks of theology and literature. Do we know anybody else who would undertake confidently to explain that the God of the Hebrew Bible is to Jesus of Mark’s Gospel what King Lear is to Hamlet? Who else would opine that St. Mark, like Edgar Alan Poe, is “both a bad writer and a great one”?

The Yale legend dubs himself Professor Bloomstaff–after his favorite playwright’s grandest clown. I think of him as The Man Who Reads Too Much and, dammit, remembers every word. This is a man who can recite all of Paradise Lost from memory, and vast swaths of Emerson, Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Hart Crane and many others close to his heart as well as his mind.

Bloom is writing now, in his mid-seventies, in a hurry to distill some essential questions of a lifetime and a few answers. He writes about the names of God not as a mere textual detective, and not just as a drama critic observing the Hebrews’ God-like-a-man and the Christian man-like-a-God as characters on a stage–characters that he might say don’t belong in the same theater. Bloom is absorbed (furiously, it seems) in the reduction of the “impish mischief and moral terror” of Yahweh to the almost supernumerary God the Father of the Christian Trinity… alongside the transformation of the enigmatic, ambiguous Jesus of Nazareth into the exalted Jesus the Christ.

Bloom is trying, with a minimum of irony, to help us understand the American religion:

Jesus, to most Americans, of whatever origin or denomination, is both unique and universal. Has he taken the place once held by God the Father? If so, then the American Religion would evade Freud’s reduction of all religion to the longing for the father. For a while now I have rejected Marx’s notion that religion was the opiate of the people. In the United States it is rather the people’s poetry, both bad and good…”

But he is also working out some of his own puzzles, toward the conclusion that “The human being Jesus and the all-too-human God Yahweh are more compatible (to me) than either is with Jesus the Christ and God the Father.” He has composed, he says, an “elegy for Yahweh.”

I wake up these days, sometime between midnight and two a.m., because of nightmares in which Yahweh sardonically appears as various beings, ranging from a Havana-smoking, Edwardian-attired Dr. Sigmund Freud to the Book of Daniel’s silently reproachful Ancient of Days. I trudge downstairs glooomily and silently, lest I wake my wife, and breakfast on tea and dark bread while rereading yet once more in the Tanakh, wide swatches of Mishnah and Talmud, and those disquieting texts the New Testament and Augustine’s City of God. At times, in writing this book, I defend myself only by murmuring Oscar Wilde’s apothegm that life is too important to be taken seriously.

Bloom is our teacher of teachers — scornful lately of our “mediaversity” educations and information technology, perhaps because he’s always carried his own Google search engine and an infinite system of references in his own fertile head. But for me he is one of rare mystical humanists — still moved by William Blake’s line “For everything that lives is holy” — with trustworthy answers to the question in the title of his last book: Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?

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  • Where is everybody? What a fun topic. Some random thoughts:

    Are we really limited to just two possibilities for God? As Mr. Bloom has nightmares where God appears in different forms, his psyche may be reaching into an older model of ‘god’. Hindus and many older spiritual practices have long had many gods. We see this as antithetical to our mono-theistic model, but it may not be. Perhaps the Muslims have built the bridge with the “99 Names of God”. The 100th name is unknowable. The 99 names are all aspects or qualities of god. God is a rich character. What these religions acknowledge is that what is divine or full of grace is different in different contexts. You cannot trap god into a simplistic image of a father or a son. If everything that lives is holy then we must see that sometimes the divine presence must present itself as a mother, a teacher, a warrior, a healer, a beggar, a joker, even a thief…..

    Perhaps, if Americans are shifting from the image of God the Father to the image of Jesus the man we are growing up. We are a young nation, after all. Young children need their parents to be all-knowing and omnipotent. Teenagers grapple tumultuously with the reality that their parents are not what they had imagined and the fact that they don’t need them to be. Perhaps as our nation is growing up, it is no coincidence that we are experiencing a much longer adolescence in our young people. And perhaps it is why we are seeing such a fierce battle for the claim to religious righteousness in the political spheres…

  • plaintext

    1) Does an encyclopedic knowledge base help in the quest to discern widsom?

    Genesis and the Creation Myths, The Baghavad Gita are visceral – wisdom is

    self-evident, on the surface, in your face so to speak. Later, elobrate theologies

    are constructed, wisdom becomes more elusive, the province of Yeshiva.

    2) Perhaps God, Yahweh, is outdated. The cataclysms of a vengeful God are

    discovered to be elaborate hoaxes. A Man-like God is required to account for the

    idiosyncracies of a God which cannot accomodate paradoxes: pain & suffering and


    3) What happened to the “Good guy” Gods like Bacchus? Have we lost a sense

    of humor about Deity?

  • Yes, paradox is hard to hold. You have to embrace it to get beyond the short-sighted vision of god that we see here in the US of A.

    When I was child, perhaps 2nd grade, I asked a Sunday School teacher how God could be worried about Satan if God was omnipotent. I suppose that was the beginning of my own spiritual exploration. Of course, in some forms of Judeo/Chiristianity Satan is an instrument of God. If so, that gets us back to the line “For everything that lives is holy.” Which immediately drives the inquiry to, “Does that mean that Hitler was holy?” A question we aren’t allowed to ask because the experience of Hitler is still to raw and personal.

    We aren’t ready to open the possibility that all that unthinkable suffering could have been part of the holy experience. Not because anybody deserved it or because we are supposed to condone it or be callous about it, but simply because everything is god. (In the begining there was nothing but god….) Perhaps it is holy because suffering and the work to end or transcend suffering is what this human experience is really about. The paradox being that we aren’t supposed to seek the suffering, or inflict suffering because we think that’s what its all about. When you experience the paradox, unable to understand it, or come to tems with it, all you can do is embrace it as what is. Embracing the paradox may be the biggest leap of faith. Its certainly more complex than defining God as The Father.

    And, it seems, we’re not ready for metaphysical humor, either. I have suffered a lot in my life. More than most, as those who know me can tell. The scars are internal – both physically and emotionally, so strangers would never know. Still, my survival as a somewhat functional adult is nearly a miracle. In my early 30’s I had a breakdown, breakthrough, transformation, whatever you want to call it. During that time, I had an experience. It was a spontaneous meditation, of sorts. Someone else was present and I could hear him talking to me, but I was ‘elsewhere’. I felt bodiless and then I felt energy. He was asking me to describe what I was feeling, seeing, etc. I couldn’t really. There was nothing to describe. But suddenly, I was laughing. A full-bodied, hearty laugh. When I was asked why I was laughing, I replied, “Because what we don’t realize is that its all a big joke!”

    I don’t know if I can articulate what I meant. Certainly, I don’t find it funny when someone is in pain. I And, yet, I know that we need to ‘lighten’ up. As the Buddhists teach, all this suffering is a matter of perception. After all, if you believe in an afterlife – meeting your maker or whatever – isn’t this all just temporary? So, if you think of this as a temp job, what’s the point? The temp job is a bridge. It could have several purposes – 1)pass the time until you get the job you’re really looking for; 2) gain some skills to prep you for bigger things; 3)avoid the more permanent commitment for a while.. you get the idea.

    I’m starting to ramble now. Would love to write tomes on this subject. Can’t believe more people haven’t chimed in. I hope its a fun one tonight. I’ll be running my Knitting Salon, but I’ll see if I can tune in….

  • Griflet

    I discovered at a very young age that “Man created god in his image” and not the otherway around as I learned in Sunday school. Greek and Roman

    Gods looked Greek or Roman, Indian gods looked Indian etc. Later I came to understand that people porject thier culture or world view onto thier gods, making them metaphores for what they held important or sacred, and as explanation for how to relate to other people, living things and the earth itself. Today we other ways to reach these understandings.

    I don’t see evidence for a Magical Being that runs the universe, or even just the earth. I see these magical bliefs as an obstacle to understanding and solving the increasingly complex problems we face as humans living on earth. We need to use the limited time we have not just to find meaning and livelyhood for ourselves but to find ways of making this possable for those around us and beyond – outside state boundries and into the future. The concept of right livelyhood makes sense to me, hard to do in the context of our current culture.

  • Wow. I’m breathless listening to this program. I did read Bloom’s “Book of J” years ago, and it changed my perspective. I was about to submit the Mel Brooks line about the derivation of the word Yahweh.

  • jet76

    here’s a story that speaks to me enormously… it’s from “The Song of the Bird” by the late Anthony DeMello, SJ, an Indian Jesuit priest and author. In one of his stories from the Hindu tradition, he related very simply the idea that… “God is the dancer, all creation is the dance.”

    how can one say more.

  • A little yellow bird

    Just random thoughts… Seen on a bumper sticker: “God is too big to fit into any one religion.” Also, from a newish compilation of short essays entitled, “The Impossible Will Take a Little While”, is one titled, “Jesus and Alinsky”, about what “turn the other cheek” really meant in a historical context. And, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (2 Corinthians 10:4)…” is a reference to the sword that Jesus said he’d brought mankind: a war for men’s souls and hearts and minds; not one to kill them with. (From an article entitled “Christian Killers?” @ http://www.lewrockwell.com/vance/vance25.html.) From an agnostic, culturally Jewish, antiwar (and therefore, anti-state, or anarchic) citizen of the block, and of the world. Peace.

  • Potter

    What a great conversation!

  • bloggeddown

    Great show .. wish it were longer !

  • wrenhunter

    Good comment on Borges at the end — one author of all books! Reminds me of his portrayal of Jesus as messiah of all worlds — fated to suffer and die in all of them.

    I want to add Gershom Scholem’s quotation, too:

    “God’s language has no grammar; it consists only of names.”

  • bft

    Humans have created God, many times over, indeed; but I have seen the monument that marks where they did it first, on a bluff high above the Mississippi River: a round building with a spire at the center, and letters three feet high on the outer wall facing the highway: FIRST ASSEMBLY OF GOD

  • bitz

    That God created all things does not make all things holy. The idea that all things are holy devalues the idea of holiness. I would say that all things bear the fingerprints of their creator.

    I think the ‘religious right’ is an oxymoron. The religion they wish to be associated with is christianity, which has a very socialist flavour to it (with all the giving to the poor, first becoming last etc.) In my view, the political party is just doing whatever it can to get elected, saying whatever it needs to to deceive the people into voting for them.

    In general, I think the american view of God is growing ever closer to ‘buddy Jesus’ of Kevin Smith’s movie Dogma.

  • boyfrmnyc

    That show was the reason I listen to Chris whenever I can. I wish to add one more to that long list of who is god, (includes Eric Clapton) Christopher Lydon is god.

  • LeeJudt

    Harold Bloom has a lot to teach us about literature.

    It is too bad that the host took up so much time discussing political issues instead of literary ones. Just because Bloom is a genius on literary subjects doesn’t mean that his knowledge of politics is equally insightful. Any two bit lefty hack could have done a better job roasting Bush than he did.

    I am looking forward to reading Bloom’s book, though.

  • What he said about GWB was crude but when he said “….Auschwitz which as I say deserves to go down as the German people’s version of the Temple” he went a lot farther into ethnic hatred – I’m surprised Lydon didn’t stop Rabbi Bloom right there and take him to task over it.

    And I don’t think Bloom has the Bible down completely – He thinks there should be an Aramaic Gospel because Jesus spoke Aramaic, but if there was a historic Jesus, he very likely also spoke Greek – it was widely spoken in the Middle East – even by Cleopatra (Glory of her Father) – note the three languages on the cross, and in the New Testament, Jesus does lapse into Aramaic when he is dying, a perfectly natural thing to do if he first learned Aramaic but spoke Greek to Hellenicized Jews and Romans, who likely also used it as a second language.

  • Christopher

    A very illuminating conversation. I have had similar ideas and it was wonderful to hear them echoed in such a fine fashion. Keep up the good work.

  • BeansN

    I enjoyed listening to Bloom & Leyden, though I would have liked more Bloom and less Leyden. As a view of God that I have found helpful, I would suggest the conversation with the Warsaw Ghetto survivor Marek Edelman, which was published in 1986 under the title of “Shielding the Flame.”

  • bumble

    Oh what a tangled web we weave with inventions of gods. The god created must have a creation and the creation in turn must have an end and the good must have an evil. Once dualism enters the mind it is very difficult to overcome. It becomes a never ending pendulum that swings back and forth in our thoughts never coming to conclusion and the subsequent chaos is how we find ourselves today. Is “holy” not a relative term and if so what does it mean to say “all things are holy”–I say all things are concepts–niether holy nor unholy. Its the old devil moon, dualism, causing chaos.

  • Dr Ben Hole

    How do I download this in iTunes as a podcast?


  • Obadiah

    My favorite Open Source show!

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