Noble, David F. BEYOND THE PROMISED LAND: The Movement and the Myth Between the Lines. 2005. Toronto, ON. Canada.

“What better place than here
What better place than now”

Beyond The Promised Land: A Book Review by Theresa Wolfwood.

Photo of graffiti on Bank of Canada in front of this book.

This quote really sums up the main thrust of this highly original critique of the Judeo–Christian mythology of future and distant rewards. He makes a strong case for ignoring determinist historic theory and urges us to seize the moment and make our own destiny, where we are, now, using many examples of social action that were unpredicted and successful from the decline of the WTO starting in Seattle to the rise of autonomous power in Chiapas, Mexico. Recently I have hears speakers from Oaxaca, Mexico who also reject state governments and are creating their own systems of governance. So Noble’s book is very much an expression of hope as well as a critique.

Noble is an iconoclastic academic at York University who frequently sees what others deny and speaks out on these unpopular issues. He wrote an excellent essay in September, 2005 Canadian Dimension on the privatization of universities and learning; he does not think that religious holidays should be observed by universities – unless they all are – and has refused to teach on Muslim holy days, because York has recognized Judaic holidays.

He believes that these myths dominate science, technology and politics and postulate a sense of inevitability that oppresses our thinking and our creative choices of action. He says that,“…while the myth of the promised land could mean different things to different people, in all its forms it had one basic structure – a structure that located the fulfilment of the promise in a place and time far removed from which it was offered…and onto some abstract predetermined destiny.”

Thus the promises of a better place and a better time can be a useful tool for the oppressor and a hope for the oppressed. As Noble points out both radical religious activists like Martin Luther King and today’s suicide bombers take comfort in this abstraction.

Noble recounts the recorded history of the Babylonian Gilgamish whose central thesis to wanderers is to go home and make peace, advice given by a wise goddess, Shiduri, who directed, “that the only true comfort for mortals lies in their awareness and celebration of the joys of being alive.”

Centuries later another leader rose, according to some records, Abraham, whose received message, given by a disembodied voice, was to go forth to find a promised land, not only both an earthly and an unearthly territory, but also power among and over other people. Then along came Jesus, who is described as a descendant of Abraham who represents, “the culmination of the Hebrew story…the realization of the promise.”

The author says, “the Christians, then took the eschatological essence of the Hebrew mythology and triple–distilled it into the purest of fantasies: an otherworldly promise of triumph over nature and the limits of human existence that for two millennia has fuelled the West’s fevered flight from place and the wisdom of the elders.” Muslims also believe in predetermined destiny and the possibility of eternal bliss.

My understanding of Noble’s explanations is that the drive to conquer minds, continents, peoples and nations in our contemporary society is fuelled by our acceptance of these myths, which paradoxically also preach pre-destiny and power in the might of an external force usually called God. How handy when we can believe that this god is on our side and we have the right to kill, plunder and pillage! Surely the roots of capitalism and expanding consumerism lie in our divine right to have it all, as they say in the USA – even if it includes Iraq and outer space. How clever is this! In fact, our right to have power over everything allows us freedom to oppress and offer the oppressed the hope of the promised land, also, but later!

Noble also sees this mythology as the force that binds the USA to Israel. Early leaders of the USA compared their country to a new Israel, a holy, Promised Land. Modern USA leaders use this mythology to bind fundamental Christianity to modern Israel, but don’t just trust in God, but make sure there are enough weapons to secure the Promised Land for the deserving mighty.

It takes powerful and creative thinking to shake off divine determinism and to face the world, here and now, wherever we are. There have been thinkers and philosophers who have helped shape the new paradigm of engaged activism. Noble writes about many of them including the famous philosopher, Sartre, who believed we must free ourselves from the old myths and grasp our own destiny saying, “life is nothing until it is lived, but it is yours to make sense of.”

Noble embraces this reality of optimism and finds it all around us in the activism of today; feminists who question patriarchy (surely another biblical myth), ecologists who develop a new way of living as part of the earth, not dominion over it, and the poor and oppressed who are determined to make a better world.

I recommend this book to all those who are committed to and interested in social change. Even in the darkest times, we have choices, possibilities and power. Noble has provided a documented and original sophisticated thesis to support hope for change if we are willing to try – here and now.

Filed under Book Reviews, David F. Noble