Acting as if God partakes in partisan or national politics is a display of blasphemy, not faith
By Louis Black, Fri., Dec. 24, 2004
The first two stanzas of the song are narrated by Isaac as a 9-year-old (though many biblical commentaries view Isaac as much older). The story is well-known, but Cohen sucks you in by coming at the tale in a calm, pedestrian tone: mundane details that make it touchingly real, told in a child's voice, with hardly a hint of foreshadowing. Isaac loves and trusts his father.
We are drawn in as the boy observes that the door opens slowly and his father enters, towering above him. "He said, 'I've had a vision/and you know I'm strong and holy/I must do what I've been told.'"
The verse pops into my head at the oddest times. "I've had a vision/and you know I'm strong and holy/I must do what I've been told." Never pretending to any divine or even noble inspiration, I have found myself many times too deep into a project, with no clear way out and only confusion in the present, repeating those lines. As though they meant there was a path, no matter how obscure and dimly lit, that I was actually following.
They climb higher and higher up the mountain. They stop to rest and drink wine. Isaac reflects on an eagle that might have been a vulture. Then, right into the climax: "Then my father built an altar/he looked once behind his shoulder/he knew I would not hide."
"He knew I would not hide." This is a crucial moment for Abraham. God has told him to sacrifice the son he had wanted and prayed for during much of a century. God, who finally gave Abraham this son, now wants him to kill the child solely because God has asked. Some versions of the story argue that God wanted to be sure that Abraham loved God more than his son, loved God more than anything, believed more in God, in the power of the spirit and the sanctity of the word, than in earthly things such as his son. I don't buy it. That's too petty. Instead, I think Abraham is being shown the depth of devotion the awesome sanctity and responsibility of unquestioning belief, as well as the absolutely redeeming value and morally explicit obligations of faith.
Over the years, I listened to this album obsessively, but because it didn't make the transition from vinyl to CD, I haven't done so for the past few years. I recently bought the CD because I've been interviewing Bob Johnston, its producer, so I'm listening to a lot of his work. More than a legend, Johnston produced, among many other albums and artists, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline for Bob Dylan; Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and Bookends for Simon and Garfunkel; Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison; and Geronimo's Cadillac, Michael Martin Murphey's first album. Johnston also produced a couple of Cohen's albums, as well as traveling with him on two world tours.
For two stanzas half the song Cohen tells the story from the young Isaac's point of view. Then, as Abraham builds the altar upon which to sacrifice his son, who unquestioningly waits, Isaac abandons the child's observational tone. Instead he assumes the full power and the fury of an untarnished moralist.
"You who build these altars now/to sacrifice these children/you must not do it anymore!
"A scheme is not a vision/and you never have been tempted/by a demon or a god."
"A scheme is not a vision." I can feel those of you who supported the invasion of Iraq doing spit takes right now. Finally, this liberal socialist has gone rabidly mad. Citing as a charge against the invasion lines from a song a Sixties song by a poet and, if all of that were not enough the poet's Canadian!
Certainly, these lines won't have an impact on anyone's take or offer validation. Instead, the haunting powers of this song its fury, despair, and frustrated righteousness, its faith and confusion offer an all-too-evocative sense of the emotional climate.
Sure, I know that some of our readers are tough conservatives two-fisted believers who know you have to be tough in a way a liberal never could be to survive in this world of ours. I know there are liberals, moderates, and conservatives as well who passionately love this country and regret the war but still defend it.
My bottom line: I don't get it. Invading Iraq, toppling a sitting government, seems insane as a function of national policy. Iraq was not involved with 9/11. Saddam Hussein had limited relations with al Qaeda. Though he was clearly interested in developing WMD, even if the Iraqis had done so (and, say, hidden or destroyed them), it isn't much of an issue. The important issue is: If Hussein had them, would he have supplied terrorists? Given that most terrorist organizations would have considered it a good day if they staged a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and toppled Hussein's secular government (which is, in fact, exactly what the 9/11 terrorists accomplished), why would he have trusted them with weapons? Some of the issue here boils down to what you believe. But, excepting the most extreme scenario, are suppositions enough of an excuse to invade a sovereign country?
Some of us against the invasion are not bleeding-heart one-worlders who want to embrace our most murderous brethren, hugging them as they repeatedly stab us. Some of us are worried that Iraq is a quagmire that we got into too quickly, still barely understand, and from which we will find no graceful exit (if, in the most optimistic scenario, a cohesive, democratic nation emerges, don't expect it to do so immediately after the first election). We're worried that to the rest of the world the United States seems like a temperamental bully, too dense to get what is really going on. We fear that, instead of the war stopping terrorism or at least putting a deep fear into terrorists it will deepen the split between the Muslim and Western worlds, encouraging terrorism for the next couple of generations.
There are larger questions, however, and it is not only legitimate, but also necessary, to ask them:
What is a just war? When is a pre-emptive invasion okay not just morally, but with long-range diplomatic and security goals in mind? When is it okay to kill because even though it is war, it is still killing? When does it make sense for a Western nation (predominantly Christian) to invade a Middle Eastern nation (predominantly Muslim)? If this seems capricious or, in the charming new right-wing version of civil rights, discriminatory I wonder how most of America's most passionate invasion advocates would react to a Muslim nation invading Canada, regardless of the circumstances.
It is fascinating to observe how in the new, more moral, more religious, more faithful atmosphere, these questions not only fail to be addressed, but raising them invites disdainful ridicule. The attitude seems to be that this country is blessed by God, and, "What we do is right, and therefore it is what we should do." Sorry, I'd rather sign on with "A scheme is not a vision/and you never have been tempted by a demon or a God."
God does not tell President Bush what to do. God does not partake in partisan or national politics. Accepting such a proposition is an act of blasphemy, not faith.
"The Story of Isaac" ends badly; the last stanza is weak, pseudo-poetic, neither mundane nor prophetic. But the song, even incomplete, is still striking in its power. Not because it pretends to the biblical voice, but because it's a relevant, simple reframing of a core biblical concern: man's relationship to God, man's relationship to man under God, and man's place and function in God's moral universe.
God can ask Abraham to kill his son without giving reason. But for man to undertake killing other men, shouldn't there be an obsession with causes? In Iraq, there hasn't been.
What about this issue of killing, in general? Many true believers have made their peace with the Sixth Commandment: "Thou shall not kill." This means, the argument goes, that individuals should not kill other individuals, but it prohibits the state neither from capital punishment nor from waging just wars. Still, it's surprising that people who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God find this interpretation acceptable but make one of their strongest stands at the story of creation. Many, many Web sites debunk evolution, promote creationism, and insist on the true word of God; not coincidentally, many of them have something to sell, as well, either to help promote the teaching of creationism or to attack the theory of evolution. It is much harder to find any extensive discussion on the Sixth Commandment. Without dancing on the head of a pin, we can note that you can believe in the Ten Commandments while still supporting capital punishment and just wars (as well as many other combinations of beliefs).
But if millions of words are to be devoted to defending creationism and attacking evolution, one would expect billions devoted to a discussion of a statement as blunt as "Thou shall not kill." I don't see any "but" or "exemptions" there. Yet there is very little discussion to be found.
Instead, the battle over creationism takes major prominence, which seems absurd, as it has more to do with how you read certain words than with any belief in or worship of God. It is about championing a position as a way of rallying the troops. An evangelical television preacher talked about how in creation the Bible says "a day," which has to mean "a 24-hour day." God, the creator of the universe and of life, it turns out, is bound by the 24-hour cycle by which this planet circles its sun, one of many planets. Instead, what about the view that, rather than contradicting faith, science is simply another way of studying God's wonders?
If one disagrees with this, if one's belief in the Bible is so complete and passionate that every word needs championing, is creation really so much more important then the Ten Commandments? Their meaning and intention being the focus, not the posting of them wherever.
If, for moral reasons, one is against abortion and against stem cell research, then any decision for war should be almost impossible to achieve, the bar of human life raised so high that the reasons to fight better be unimpeachable. Not, as in the case of Iraq, simply a series of possibilities and paranoid speculations.
Faith has become a very strange and unreal factor in American life. When I was growing up, even the strongest believers thought their religion was their own business. The separation of church and state was crafted by Christians who had been persecuted.
In Paul Stekler's documentary Last Man Standing, about the 2002 Texas House race that pitted Mark Rose against Rick Green, one woman says that if you're a Christian, you can't vote for Democrats. At another point, Green's followers talk about how God wants him to win. At yet another, Green casts aspersions at the notion that the founding fathers were more humanist than devout.
A talk-show caller identifies himself as a minister and says there is more in the Bible to support Republican beliefs then Democratic ones.
A neighboring community's City Council recites prayers before each meeting, talking about how in these troubled times it brings everyone together to talk of Jesus.
And there are people who give less thought to their government's killing convicted murderers and waging war than they do to establishing the exact time period in which God created the Earth. And as believers wage a full-out assault on the government and "nonbelievers," even raising such hesitations becomes more evidence of the left's anti-religious stance. There is blasphemy and dishonoring of God going on, but it isn't necessarily by those who are quieter about their beliefs.
"A scheme is not a vision/and you never have been tempted/by a demon or a god."