Friday, August 6, 2010

"Glimpses of a Different Order of Time"

A review of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, by Judith Shulevitz

My wonderful colleague Jane Hoyt-Oliver lent me her copy of this new book by freelance writer Judith Shulevitz. It's a deeply thoughtful compilation of semi-autobiographical reflections on her practice of the Jewish sabbath, mixed with some thoughtful research on the history of sabbath-keeping and brilliant speculation on its wider significance. I'd like to share some of my favorite quotes as a way of glimpsing what Shulevitz does so well, with beautiful prose (I wish I had read this book before completing my own!).

The difference between modern standardized time and holy time: 
Holiness scandalizes, as well it should. It's the very incarnation of unreason. Once Isaac Newton convinced us that time was a mathematical quantity, wholly measurable, infinitely divisible, and expressible in numbers, and economists showed us that time could be a commodity, exchangeable for money, we were bound to find implausible the notion that certain times were holy while others weren't. How could some points on a graph be charged with supernatural power while others rest inert? Where, precisely, would the holiness lurk? If it can't be measured, how do we know it exists (p. 61)?
The importance of apocalyptic time in creating narrative
Shulevitz describes the importance of sabbath keeping to the Maccabean rebels against Rome (c. 167 B.C.), and points out that some of them may have felt that if they were martyred for keeping the Sabbath, "the end of time would come and they would rise again . . . . [T]hey felt that to keep the Sabbath, was to assert that time had a beginning, a middle, and an end." This kind of apocalyptic imagination echoes New Testament scholar/theologian N.T. Wright's view of Judaism at the time, which he argues was crucial for understanding the New Testament imagination. The gospels and epistles were written with this kind of urgency, with the authors inspired to believe that the events of Jesus' life were indeed the inauguration of God's rule in history, the fulfillment of Israel's longings.

The contrast between modern time and the Fullness of Time
Marx was the first to point out that divorcing time from context and commodifying it as money leads directly to temporal compression. When time is money, speed equals more of it (p. 97). [I say something very similar in the book in chapter 1.]  . . . [But] the fullness of time is the moment when God (through Christ and the Holy Spirit) invades the present and fills it with his presence (p. 98, after describing kairos time and citing both Paul and Kierkegaard).
I would argue that Christians need to rediscover this notion of the Fullness of Time from both Paul (Gal 4:4) and Kierkegaard (The Concept of Anxiety [Princeton, 1980], p. 90). I really wish I had come across her Kierkegaard reference earlier! I knew he had used the phrase but couldn't find it in his writings.

The shift from modern, railroad time to postmodern, cellphone time
One of her most striking observations, based on a book by Richard Ling entitled The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society (2004), is that our practice of time is becoming more fluid, so a static concept of a one-day Sabbath may be harder to embody and live (pp. 194-96).  "In the embryonic progressive [flexible cellphone or Facebook time], nothing ends. The Sabbath, by contrast, demands of us a hard and tragic sense of beginnings and endings" (p. 197). She's onto something here. It will be harder to maintain practices like Sabbath-keeping with their temporal rigidity. Yet we need this kind of rest so badly (see chapter 6 of my book on Lent).

Her final words on why we need the Sabbath
We could let the world wind us up and set us to working, like dolls that go until they fall over because they have no way of stopping. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember (p. 217).
Take a 24-hour break this weekend. It's a way of living in the story that we are called to enter.

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