Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Ship of Fools

Gore Vidal was interviewed on Democracy Now! and made a quite convincing argument that America has an absolutely terrible educational system. I can only speak from my experience, and I have no basis for comparison. Vidal grounds it in American ignorance of the world and of history, something he has more knowledge about than I. It is, of course, easy to make a persuasive case for it today, if a cynical one. But his comments prompted me to think about the subject.

A few years ago, the big concern among Americans was, supposedly, "smart Asians." Asian culture, we were told, valued education. It is, they said, a heritage of Confucionism. And undoubtedly that is true: culture plays a powerful role in human society; it is practically the "genetics" of a society, and changing it or shifting it is a generations long process, not a matter of mere "enlightenment" or "revelation" to a lucky few.

But that's still too broad a canvas. Vidal was speaking of a few things, a few topics, those things he knows something about. It made me think of the subjects I know something about. Recently, I've been engaged in discussions, briefly, with references to various books that presume the "scandal" that would erupt if the "historical truth" of Jesus of Nazareth could be proven. If, for example, someone were to prove the corpse of Jesus never left the tomb; or that Mary had other children, and was not perpetually a virgin; or that Jesus was the product of a human father and mother, not a virgin birth. Or if people knew that stories of virgin births and resurrections were common coin in 1st century Palestine, and are not unique in human cultures or human history.

All of this, of course, if it ever became "known," would mean the downfall of Western civilization, the collapse of the church, the death of faith and God, once and for all. And a great shock to the priest and pastors, to boot. Except I learned every one of those theories in seminary.

John Dominic Crossan, author of an exhaustive "biography" of Jesus of Nazareth, a former Jesuit and himself still a Christian, states quite bluntly that the body of Jesus of Nazareth was tossed into a pauper's grave and probably devoured by dogs. I know this because I studied his book in seminary, and met Professor Crossan when he spoke there. This isn't scandal. It's scholarship.

Vidal says "we are shameful when we go abroad, because we know nothing." We don't know, he says, that Babylon is a center of western civilization, yet American troops went in there and "smashed everything to bits." Because they are mean? No, says Vidal, because they are ignorant. It is certainly the root of the stereotyped "Ugly American."

I can read columns in the Guardian savagely critiquing Christianity, things much more harsh than anything I've read in any comment on the Web. And I can read columns by churchmen, priests in the Anglican church, which are quite reasonable in their beliefs, men and women of faith in the world. Such columns in any major American paper would bring howls of outrage for blasphemy, on one hand, or insufficient piety, on the other. Why? In large part, because of our willful ignorance.

I come across someone occassionally, for example, who argues that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. Except the scholarly consensus, among Jewish, Christian, and even agnostic/atheistic Biblical scholars and historians, is that he did. The argument I hear is based on a tiny exposure to the questions of the 19th century, of Albert Schweitzer and others. These same people have no knowledge of the work of Gerhard von Rad, Rudolf Bultmann, or many of the German and other scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, and their applications of various schools of criticism to scriptures and scholarship. Having learned a little bit, these people I encounter think they know more than anyone else. And they do; but they are still woefully ignorant. As Vidal says, we don't know history and don't want to know history. I'm not sure we know much of anything; nor do we seem to want to know much of anything. So do we blame the teachers, or the priests and pastors; or is it the fault of the people, the ultimate arbiters of the culture?

I don't presume, of course, that many Europeans have read through Bultmann's commentary on the Gospel of John, or bothered to study the scholarship that concluded the Torah was composed of J, E, D, and P, or that the authors of Matthew and Luke relied on a "Q" document for much of their information. But this information, all of which is now more than a century old, some of it almost 150 years old, is only now being spoken of, largely in whispers, among "liberal" Christian congregations. Why?

And the "conspiracy" theories, the idea that, if it were proven Mary was not an eternal virgin, that Jesus didn't have a bodily resurrection, that such "proof" would undo Western civilization. Where does one start in assessing such ignorance? As if these things could be "proven," as if Western civilization rested on such thin reeds, as if the massive edifice of the church was one vast expert conspiracy of silence! As if the Christian church in the world was a massive edifice in the first place! Why?

Doesn't it start with education? Doesn't it start with the willingness to learn? The pressures on schools to repress knowledge, is massive. From textbooks approved in Texas that affect the rest of the nation, to controversy over "school prayer" and "sex education," to the school district superintendent who was afraid to let my former church advertise a "Hallowe'en party" for the poor children of the nearby school because some parents might think my church was promoting Satanic worship (a true story!): I understand the depth, scope, reach, of the problem.

But we convince ourselves that all is well, that we are good, that the problems are not fundamental, merely cosmetic, merely a matter of political party or dominance or control or motivating enough of a majority. And I wonder: is that all there is? Is it that simple, that direct a task? Do we only need to redirect a few voters, change a few public officials, gain a slim majority of control in a few places, to redirect this ship of the nation?

Or is it quite willfully and quite desperately, a ship of fools?

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