Thursday, July 28, 2005

"You have heads, use them"--Jesus of Nazareth, per Dom Crossan

The Kingdom of God is like this

A woman took some leaven
hid it in her dough
and baked a batch of bread

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)
Bread-baking is magic.

Professional bakers, who are trained in the science the rest of us call "baking," will scoff at that, and rightly so. But right now I'm preparing what will be four loaves of French bread, and it will take over 24 hours. When I started baking bread sporadically a long time ago, it was the most precarious of processes, and only occassionally would the gods of bread, or the biochemistry of yeast, smile on my efforts. More often than not my mixture of flour and water and sugar and yeast would just remain wet glop, fit only for throwing out. And for the longest time I was convinced that the timing of the yeast was critical, the temperature of the water crucial, the ratio of yeast to flour the essence of the thing.

The bread I'm baking now will end up using 8 or more cups of flour, but only 2 and a half teaspoons of yeast. The water for the yeast I heat in an old Amana Radarange, to about 130 F, if the temperature probe still works. But that's not the miraculous part. I mix flour and yeast and warm water, in small measure, together and leave it alone for 12 hours. Then I add more water, this time only at room temperature, and more flour, but no more yeast, and leave that for several hours. Finally, I'll combine more water and more flour, mix that together, add the levain that has been sitting for several hours bubbling to itself, let that rise; shape it into loaves, let those raise; then finally bake them in the oven.

And it will turn out as risen loaves, not glop. I've done this before, and it's never failed.

Bread is magic. Something about watching it rise and heave and grow. Well, it's alive, isn't it?

Except it isn't, really. The bread "grows" by the yeast dying, choking on its own excrement, as it were: carbon dioxide. Waste gases. The same stuff that causes cows and horses and other dead bodies to bloat in the heat. The kind of growth Jesus' original audience associated with bread. One more reason unleavened bread was preferable to risen bread: it was "clean." Bread made with yeast rose by decay, so far as they could tell (and they were right); it might produce a toothier loaf, but it was by an unclean process.

And besides, women baked bread, and women were unclean. So they couldn't be the bearers, much less the symbol, of the kingdom of God. Could they? How is the kingdom of God like that?

Some translations of the original Gospel story (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20-21) translate the "measure of flour" into "fifty pounds of flour," as if the point of the parable is to emphasize the absurdity of the small amount of leaven that affects so much material. And, for Jesus' audience, leaven is a metaphor for corruption. (The connection is made in the institution of the Passover in Exodus 12:15). Is it, however, really so absurd? 2.5 teaspoons will prove sufficient to leaven 8 cups of flour. A "measure" of leaven might not raise 50 pounds; but, as we say, one bad apple will spoil the whole bunch.

So how is the kingdom of God like that?

In the time it has taken me to write this, the levain has almost doubled in size. Bread is magic. Is that it? Is the kingdom of God something that grows and swells, and only a tiny amount is necessary to do the job? Is it unstoppable, and corrupting? But corrupting of what? Of what God declares "good"? Or of what we declare "good"? "Come, buy food without money, wine without price." What would happen if that kind of thinking start spreading around? "A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you are to love one another." Or that kind of thing? Where would it all end? With all the flour corrupted? Or with all the loaves risen?

Or maybe just with fresh bread for everybody. Which might suffice.

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