June 4th – Steve Jungkeit
Texts: Genesis 25: 19-34; 2 Samuel 12: 1-7a
You’ll think I’m seeing things. You’ll think my vision is off. But I swear it’s not. I swear that I’m seeing duplicates and doubles everywhere in the pages of the Bible. I’ll double up on that statement: there’s a strange pattern of duplication that we find throughout Scripture. To live in the world of the Bible is sometimes to live within a world of duplicates, copies, twins, and mirror images. Sometimes those images are distortions of one another, as if gazing into a shattered mirror. Sometimes those duplicates are opposites, negations one of the other. Sometimes they’re a reflection of the same, but with a slight difference. I’ve been seeing double lately, but I swear my vision is clear.
Let me list a few notable examples, lest you think I’m making it up. Think first of the story of Adam and Eve, of how a duplicate with a difference is formed within the garden. Or think of the symbolic differentiation that occurs in the prophets between the cities of Babylon and Jerusalem, inverse images of the other. Think of the ark built by Noah, and how duplicates of each animal are collected. Think of Jesus sending his disciples out two by two. Even the language of the Bible unfolds in duplicate sometimes. In the Psalms, for example, one line is frequently an echo of the previous line: “have mercy upon me O God, according to your steadfast love/according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions,” as Psalm 51 puts it. Or think of the doubling that occurs throughout the entire book of Genesis, as Cain and Abel square off against one another, as Ishmael and Isaac take divergent paths, and as the twins Jacob and Esau prepare to go to war with each other. Think again of Jesus and the story he told about the prodigal and his brother, an explicit reference to this tradition of doubling, and the antipathy that can so often be stirred by one’s mirror image. I’m telling you, to read the Bible is often to begin seeing in duplicate.
For me, the most poignant example of doubling that occurs in the Hebrew Bible is found in II Samuel, when the prophet Nathan pays King David a visit. We heard the story earlier. David has stirred up a good deal of trouble, though he’s not fully conscious of the gravity of his situation. He’s a king, but he’s also a voyeur, and the story goes that he once spied a beautiful woman bathing on her roof. It filled him with an insatiable desire. Here’s what he does. First, he maneuvers to bring the woman, named Bathsheba, to visit him in his palace. The two of them, as we say, “relate” to one another. The king then maneuvers to have her husband killed in combat. After that, the king proceeds to acquire Bathsheba as one of his own wives. It’s a rather sordid affair, proof positive that sometimes it really does suck when ignorant men stumble into power. The king is willfully oblivious to the consequences of his actions, as powerful men often are, prompting a visit to the palace by the prophet Nathan. Nathan tells the king a story about a rich man who steals a sheep from a poor man, because the rich man was loathe to offer one of his own sheep in the preparation of a meal. It’s a rather egregious tale that the prophet tells, and David’s anger is kindled by the story. And just like that, in that moment, he’s doubled, he’s twinned, separated within himself. The king can’t perceive who or what he actually is. A significant portion of his own character and story remain hidden from his perception. “This man deserves to die,” David exclaims.
A pause. A beat. And then comes the prophet Nathan’s visceral punch, when the double, the other, is recognized. “You are the man,” Nathan says, and the world comes undone for the poor wretched king. Those words return the king to himself, forcing him to confront the double, the shadow, that lived within him. The remainder of the book represents the poor lost king trying to work out the consequences of that recognition for himself. If there’s any redemption for King David, it can be found in that long, burdensome process of coming to terms with his shadow, his double, the one who unleashed such havoc on poor Bathsheba and her husband.
It’s worth pausing briefly to say that this isn’t a theme confined to the pages of the Bible. The double is a deep human theme that transcends traditions and cultures. It can be found in Plato’s Symposium, for example, the greatest of Plato’s dialogues, but it can also be found much later in history, as in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, or Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or in films like Vertigo, or Adaptation, or, from a few years back, the Natalie Portman film Black Swan. If you think I’m seeing double, I’m telling you that I am, because the double is everywhere. These are all stories and symbols that work through the splits that sometimes fracture individual lives and psyches, and human communities as well. And they’re all stories that allow us to work through the doubling that sometimes takes place within our own lives. Because you have a double, every bit as much as I do.
I had an experience of doubling recently, but before telling you about it, I need to offer a brief caveat: not every double, not every duplicate, is negative, or evil, or bad, as in some of the examples I’ve offered you. Sometimes the double is just “the other,” poorly understood, dimly perceived, but actually quite helpful, in its way, if only the double could be well understood.
That’s how it worked for me recently, when I read J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a book now familiar to many of you. It’s gotten a good deal of press since its publication last year, and the presidential election has led to an even greater spike in readers as the coasts have struggled to understand the middle of the country. It’s a powerful read, and I recommend it for your summer reading list. Here’s the basic premise: Vance describes his childhood in a Midwestern Rust Belt city, a place called Middletown, Ohio. It’s located just north of Cincinnati, and in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, the town attracted domestic migrants from the impoverished hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, all of whom were looking for work in the massive steel plant located in Middletown. It was once called Armco Steel, but it was sold to a Japanese conglomerate in the late 80’s, thereafter becoming AK Steel. That process led Middletown, and places like it, into a precipitous decline, and Vance narrates what was like to live in such a place, still attached to the hills of Kentucky through lineage, but living within an eviscerated and bleak industrial landscape. As the economy atrophied, Middletown and its residents had slowly been stripped of many of the things that traditionally lend life worth and meaning – a sense of history, functional kinship structures, creative production, and a horizon of possibility offered through the promise of education and jobs. In J.D. Vance’s Middletown, human beings suffocate from despair, idleness, addiction, and the conviction, reinforced everywhere, that lives are cheap and disposable. He chronicles the rage that emerges from such a place. He chronicles the suspicion toward outsiders that crops up among his neighbors and friends. He chronicles the turn toward forms of conservative evangelicalism that he himself took as an adolescent, in an effort to counteract the social misery around him. And he chronicles the turn toward a reactionary politics made by many, born from desperation and the very real conviction that conventional politicians were ignoring the plight of communities like Middletown. In time, J.D. gets out. He joins the army, then goes to college, and then winds up at Yale Law School. He was one of the lucky ones.
Here’s what shook me about reading J.D. Vance’s book: from 1987 until 1992, from 8th grade until I graduated from high school, I too lived in Middletown, Ohio. J.D. Vance’s story is, in some ways, my story, though it’s a story I haven’t wished to claim. We went to the same high school, though I’m ten years older than he is. We shared the same math teacher. We ranged across the same neighborhoods. Reading J.D. Vance’s narrative was, for me, something like encountering a half remembered double. We’re opposites in many ways, Hillbilly Elegy helped me remember what it was to live in a place like Middletown. It helped me to understand that there’s a little bit of J.D. Vance’s conservative Midwestern hillbilly residing within me, even if it’s not who I’ve become, or, ultimately, who I wish to be. But I understand that part of my story as belonging somehow to my own being, a double that I need to claim.
When I narrate my origins, I talk about being born in California, and calling central Pennsylvania home. But I usually skip over Middletown, Ohio. It’s hard to claim Middletown. But it’s there. My family moved to Middletown just as the steel plant was sold and management jobs were slowly being siphoned away. We arrived in the midst of a near total collapse. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that when I arrived in 8th grade, I was unprepared for what I experienced at school. It was a hard, mean place. Fights broke out in the hallways and in the cafeteria with shocking regularity. Whenever that happened at lunchtime, it was entirely normal for kids to stand on tables and chairs to cheer on the brawlers. An anger and disaffection pervaded the place, and it often emerged in the form of meanness and bullying. I felt dread when the school bus would pull up to the hulking junior high building every morning, located in a nearly abandoned downtown, with boarded up shops and businesses. I felt relief when the same bus deposited me back home in the afternoon. In time, I saw those kids less and less, as many of them were funneled into vo-tech classes, while others of us learned trigonometry and chemistry, read Walden and The Scarlet Letter, and later still, applied to colleges. I sometimes wondered where all those angry and mean spirited kids went. The truth is, I didn’t really see them again – until the election of 2016.
What J.D. Vance helped me to see with greater clarity was the macroeconomic class issues that structured my adolescence all the way down. All those hard and angry kids were the children of the working industrialized poor, carrying the anger and disaffection of their parents, if they had parents. They were, by and large, children of domestic economic refugees, who had fled rural communities in search of work, and had wound up in Middletown, where life delivered yet another beating as factory work became unreliable, and then, little by little, unavailable. Of course they were mad. And of course, much of that anger was directed at those like me.
You see, my world was constituted by contact with the managerial class of the town, dwindling, but still present. For a long time, my social world revolved around the Presbyterian church my dad was serving, which catered mostly to the management class of the factory, as well as other white collar professionals. We lived in a modest but attractive suburban enclave on the side of town farthest from the enormous steel plant. And even though we were directly connected to the fortunes of the steel plant, on my side of town we didn’t think about who worked there, or why, or what it did to them. As the economy of my town bottomed out, I was busy falling in love and chasing summer memories. As a world was steadily collapsing around me, I immersed myself in conservative evangelicalism and listened to Christian music. As huge tectonic macroeconomic shifts were playing out before my very eyes, I joined the track and cross country teams, acted in school plays and musicals, gathered with friends every Saturday night and drove into Cincinnati every now and again for ball games and dates. The other side of town, where J.D. Vance grew up, barely registered in my consciousness, except as something I wished to avoid. When it came time to leave for college, I left Middletown and never went back, save for short visits on holidays. Middletown, and those like J.D. Vance who were in danger of getting stuck there, became the shadows, or doubles, that I wished to flee. But reading Hillbilly Elegy felt akin to hearing a story about someone else, only to discover that it was my story too. It felt akin to being told by the prophet Nathan, “You are the man.”
Why am I going on at such length about this? Why am I telling you all these things? Because I believe there are several lessons that all of us can learn from encountering our doubles, and from this encounter in particular. The first lesson is that we all tend to create bubbles around us that make us feel comfortable and safe, that prevent us from encountering pain or scorn. We do it here just as surely as I did it in Middletown. I won’t say that those bubbles are bad all the way down – they may even offer us a kind of protective shelter when we need it. But we need to get out of our bubbles. And that might be especially true right now, as those of us who lean left struggle to figure out what might make our President attractive to so many people, and as those of us who lean right struggle to figure out what sorts of values and principles are actually held by those who think differently. We live in bubbles, but we’re going to have to emerge from those bubbles if we’re going to figure out a future together. It could be painful, but it might wind up helping us.
Second, that realization, offered by the prophet Nathan – “You are the man” – is one we’ll have to embrace for ourselves, as we realize that there are pieces of ourselves that actually resemble those we think we oppose. It means that we’re doubles of one another. There exists within me a half remembered conservative evangelical Christian, just as there exists within many conservative evangelicals a half remembered idealistic liberal activist left over from their college years. I hope that’s true. It’s what offers us the capacity for empathy, for understanding, for fellowship, for communion itself. For the sake of preserving our common humanity, we need experiences such as those provoked by a reading of J.D. Vance was for me, where we realize – I am the man. We need moments that remind us that, for all our very real differences, we share parts of our lives in common.
But here’s what it doesn’t mean. Encountering our doubles, either within ourselves or within the world at large, does not mean that we cease to hold onto the convictions that make us who we are. It does not mean that we repudiate the developments and stories that have made us who we are today. And it does not mean, it must not mean, that we quit arguing about what we take to be important. The stakes are too high. There’s room to be who we are amidst our differences, without surrendering our convictions. But I also think there’s room to find commonalities with one another, precisely because something of the other, the double, resides within each of us, if only we could acknowledge it.
I’ll end with a poem. It’s by Stanley Kunitz, and it’s called “The Layers.” It describes something of what it is to encounter one’s double, which is often simply a past version of oneself, now forgotten or disavowed. I offer it in a spirit of generosity toward all within myself and within the world that I have too easily discarded. I offer it in a spirit of hope, trusting that there’s wisdom within Kunitz’s lines that we all need to hear right now. I offer it in a spirit of gentleness, wondering what it would mean for each of us to recognize and engage our doubles, dwelling within some layer of our past. What healing might be available to us if we did so? I offer “The Layers.”
“I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray.
When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me.
In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written.
I am not done with my changes.”