Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"People are scared of the poor." --Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré

Bobby, we hardly knew ye....

This happened 3 days ago:

Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

And today Die Welt reports:

"New Poverty of White People Alarms US Politicians"

But does it?  I googled that HuffPo story with the search term "american poverty 80 percent" and I didn't get anything that said any politician, from Obama to dogcatchers, from socialist to libertarian, had a word to say about this.  It could be buried in one of the articles on that page, but it isn't in the headline.

Does anybody think it will be?  Or it will cross a politician's lips except as an excuse to bash the other party?  "Alarm"?  Why do I think "alarm" on this subject is literally politically impossible?  Why am I thinking, not for the first time, that the first time in American history the government really cared about the poor (except to respond to riots) was FDR's New Deal, and that was a response to the Great Depression; and that interest in the poor petered out about the time RFK died?

And that Studs Terkel was right, and the young people of the '60's were the "Greatest Generation," but even they couldn't make the change in American culture sustain.  No one, after all, remembers that Dr. King died trying to fight for economic justice.

The Dichotomy of....

Git some!

But it was in that charge that this administration -- this Democratic administration, headed by a former professor of constitutional law -- demonstrated its willingness, if not its eagerness -- to elevate information into a tin god to whom we are all suppliants, and against whom we have no civil rights worthy of the name.
The Pentagon Papers were so small in content they fit into a book.  I used to have a copy on my bookshelf; but it was so boring, I never got around to reading it.  I finally gave up my copy because I knew, despite whatever historical significance it had, I wasn't going to open it again.  And did it end the war, or change the national conversation?

Not really.

What Bradley Manning revealed seems to have been mostly gossip; which, unsurprisingly, is the conversation of diplomacy.  I tried reading a book recently on the British involvement in the American Civil War, and I drowned in the minutiae.  It was meticulously researched, right down to the tittle-tattle by diplomats (both British and American) about the personalities of everyone they encountered in either country.  ‘Twas ever thus, and after 150 years, apparently we’re safe in knowing all about it.

But who really wants to?

There is something almost new under the sun here, though it’s a difference of degree, not of kind.  Bradley Manning released, what, 700,000 documents? Someone on the radio said yesterday they were on the Internet now forever, that journalists would be writing about them for decades.

Somehow I think all the interest in what Manning released stopped with the videotape from the American attack helicopter in Iraq.  And all that told us was how much real life is just like “Full Metal Jacket.”  What, we didn’t know men with big guns would use them to annihilate people on the ground?  That’s shocking, that war is hell and atrocities occur, or at least what seems to us to be senseless violence?  Where are my smelling salts?

But what Bradley Manning did is release 700,000 documents.  On a thumb drive; or a CD; or something small and portable.  He took out a small library worth of information in the palm of his hand.  He also had 100,000 State Department cables on a workplace computer; almost 500,000 documents related to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan on an SD drive; and 10,000 cables on his MacBook.  (Per Wiki, but I checked the footnotes and I'm fairly satisfied those numbers are accurate).  To respond to that kind of loss of material, to react to that amount of information transferred to an insecure location, is not necessarily to make information a “tin god.”  Funny turn of phrase, too, since information is the product all governments trade in.  But set that aside:  has this Administration truly gone over the edge in trying to prosecute information thieves?  Or are they faced with a crime previously impossible in human history, and now so easy even a Bradley Manning or an Edward Snowden can do it?  Is there not some kind of problem here?

Both Snowden and Manning seem to have been driven by the same motivation:  to start a “national conversation.”  Well, that’s also what motivates Ted Cruz or Michelle Bachmann or Steve King.  They want a “national conversation” conducted on their terms.  Jerry Falwell wanted the same thing when he alleged that Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster killed.  There are conversations, and there are conversations.  Dr. King sparked a national conversation, too; but he went to jail for it, more than once; and people got beaten for it, more than once.  And it took three Administrations before a President finally responded to it.

Where am I going with this?  I’m not sure myself, except that I don’t think the Obama Administration is signaling the return of Torquemada because they are trying not to be the Administration that let the information dam burst, that let all the data horses escape and the teraflop barn burn down.  And I’m bemused by people who pay no attention to the daily functioning of the criminal justice system suddenly declaiming “prosecutorial overreach.”  We have the highest percentage of our citizens behind bars of any industrialized country in the world.  Prosecutorial overreach is a feature, not a bug, of the system.

As for Bradley and Snowden: color me unimpressed.  Their motivations mean less than nothing to me, since they had no treasonous intent.  They weren’t paid spies of a foreign power; they were young men who thought they understood the world and who, in middle age, may well wonder what they were so excited about when they were young.  The consequences of their actions, however, reach far beyond what they did.  They are the vanguard of this brave new world; the first fruits of the Information Age.  Government runs on data the way a car runs on gasoline, and the new technology makes it easier to get that data out of those banks than to siphon the gasoline from a car’s tank.  So easy anybody with access to a USB port can do it, and walk away with more material than can be digested in a decade.

Aye, there’s the rub.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Last man standing

" 'scuse me, Mr. Crazed Gunman, just need to pull up my socks before you pull that trigger...."

Since I'm on the subject of guns:

Ken Hanson, legal chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association, an Ohio-based pro-gun lobby, told CNN’s Piers Morgan that the $12,000 his company raised for George Zimmerman was to also “ … buy a gun, gear, ammunition, training, security systems, personal protection, whatever he felt was appropriate to defend himself, defend his family, defend his parents.”


When Morgan asked if Buckeye would make the same offer to the Trayvon Martin family—the family of the dead boy, not the family just frazzled—Hanson said he wasn’t aware there was a threat to their family.

Shorter Hanson: “Mr. and Mrs. Martin, we know your son was murdered—bummer—but everything’s been pretty copacetic since, right? You’re not taking this personally, are you?”

 So what is Buckeye Firearms Association?

Let’s put it this way. It sponsors something called a Bulletproof Mind Event, which promises to show you how to “survive a lethal force encounter”—or, short of that, I imagine, a black kid with snacks. 
I was waiting for something the other day, so I picked up the first magazine at hand:  a gun magazine.  Not my usual reading, so I was curious.  It reminded me of the car magazines of my misspent youth, full of trade blather and manufacturer hype disguised as magazine articles, all about the wonders of the latest products issuing forth from the, I mean, gun, industry.

And then there was the article about the ankle holster.

This little device was touted as a necessity for concealed handgun carriers, because you can't be too safe, and you need the protect of a gun under your jeans and just above your sneakers (the picture illustrated this) in case the perp (they're always "perps," right, and they always 'get away with it' unless somebody has a gun and can stop 'em) can be fooled into thinking you aren't armed (although I thought the purpose of concealed carry was to make the perp think you were armed, or at least not know, so they won't bother you.  It's so confusing.).

And that's when I realized, not for the first time, that these people think they are living in an action movie, and they are the hero of the movie.  If somebody is banging your head on the sidewalk, you have a right to kill 'em, right?  Mr. Hanson thinks so.  But in a civilized society, we'd call that action "assault" and charge the assailant with a crime.  What we wouldn't do is assess the death penalty, even if the victim of the crime suffered serious injury (Mr. Zimmerman did not).  Of course, since government "doesn't work" and "they always get away with it" and people get shot in movies all the time (by the hundreds sometimes) and nobody ever investigates those crimes (one of the funniest bits in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" are the police officers examining the scenes of the most recent sword mayhem in the film; it's funny because that happens in real life, not in the movies) or even hauls the bodies away (they just disappear, like the wrecked cars and building debris), there is absolutely no consequence to killing people in cold blood.

And, I mean, it's not like anybody threatened Trayvon Martin, or his family.  Because if Martin had been armed, and had shot Zimmerman first, well, that would have been self-defense, too.  Right?  Because Zimmerman coming after him, with Zimmerman carrying a concealed weapon, would have been a "lethal force encounter," right?  And we all know the bad guys always lose the lethal force encounters when they come up against the good guys.

Which means the last man standing is clearly the good guy.  Amirite?

A diller, a dollar....

Any similarity to any known scholar, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

As an addendum to the previous post, let me take this long excerpt from the introduction to Zealot and explain my disagreements with the book's approach:

This book is an attempt to reclaim, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity: the politically conscious Jewish revolutionary who, two thousand years ago, walked across the Galilean countryside, gathering followers for a messianic movement with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God but whose mission failed when, after a provocative entry into Jerusalem and a brazen attack on the Temple, he was arrested and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition. It is also about how, in the aftermath of Jesus’ failure to establish God’s reign on earth, his followers reinterpreted not only Jesus’ mission and identity, but also the very nature and definition of the Jewish messiah.

There are those who consider such an endeavor to be a waste of time, believing the Jesus of history to be irrevocably lost and incapable of recovery. Long gone are the heady days of “the quest for the historical Jesus,” when scholars confidently proclaimed that modern scientific tools and historical research would allow us to uncover Jesus’ true identity. The real Jesus no longer matters, these scholars argue. We should focus instead on the only Jesus that is accessible to us: Jesus the Christ.

Granted, writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. The task is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like. The great Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann liked to say that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest. Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed.

And yet that best, most educated guess may be enough to, at the very least, question our most basic assumptions about Jesus of Nazareth. If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history. Indeed, if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived—an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome that would forever transform the faith and practice of Judaism—then, in some ways, his biography writes itself.

The Jesus that is uncovered in the process may not be the Jesus we expect; he certainly will not be the Jesus that most modern Christians would recognize. But in the end, he is the only Jesus that we can access by historical means.

Everything else is a matter of faith.

First, lets put Aslan's own statements in the historical context he begins with:

The first century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called “false messiahs” we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. The prophet Theudas, according to the book of Acts, had four hundred disciples before Rome captured him and cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure known only as “The Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. In 4 B.C.E., the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowned himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers. Another messianic aspirant, called simply “The Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome—an indication that the authorities, sensing the apocalyptic fever in the air, had become extremely sensitive to any hint of sedition. There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, his grandson Menahem, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba—all of whom declared messianic ambitions and all of whom were executed by Rome for doing so. Add to this list the Essene sect, some of whose members lived in seclusion atop the dry plateau of Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea; the first-century Jewish revolutionary party known as the Zealots, who helped launched a bloody war against Rome; and the fearsome bandit-assassins whom the Romans dubbed the Sicarii (the Daggermen), and the picture that emerges of first-century Palestine is of an era awash in messianic energy.
Just taking that as true (and I think it's largely accurate), we already have an issue:  was Jesus of Nazareth influenced by this "messianic energy"?  Were his followers?  Was he capable of saying anything in that context which would not be misinterpreted, misunderstood, re-cast in the context of such messianic expectations?  If Jesus of Nazareth could read the Gospel accounts, would he himself say "No, that is not what I meant.  That is not it, at all"?  Would he say the same of interpretations of his words (if they are his words) down through the centuries?

Did Jesus, in other words, preach peace, and his followers thought it was revolution?  Or did he preach revolution, and they thought it was peace?  The difference is a matter of faith, but faith is just a matter of trust; and trust in historical method is little different than trust in religious teachings.  It's only a matter of which you choose.

And writing a history about 1st century Palestine is very much a matter of making choices.  The reference to the streets of Jerusalem running red with blood, for example:  that's from a single source,  Josephus.  He was a Jew sympathetic to the Romans (they paid for his histories, after all).  He was what we might today call a 1st century Roman embed:  he witnessed the sack of Jerusalem, something that had occurred by the time the Gospel according to Mark was written (the "abomination in the place of desolation" refers to the destruction of the Temple).  He was Jewish, so he was sympathetic to the victims (more so than a Roman might have been); but he was a Roman, so his biases favored empire.  His comment on the rivers of blood is not generally taken literally by scholars, though it is accepted as an indication of the wanton slaughter by the soldiers when they finally entered the city.  But, again, Josephus is the sole source for this information.  Is it accurate?  Is it reliable? Was there literally a river of blood in the streets of Jerusalem?  Most Biblical scholarship doesn't depend on historical documents for answers, but turns also to archaeology and, more recently, anthropology and even sociology, for answers.

Dom Crossan is one of the better scholars on this subject.  His most scholarly work, The Historical Jesus, is described on the cover as "The first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said."  Pretty much what Aslan claims to be getting at in his book; but Crossan goes in a radically different direction.  But I don't even need to go into Crossan's work, I can give you an idea of the issues involved in such research with a sentence from his prologue.  He is discussing the problems of what he calls "historical Jesus research," and uses the example of an address from 1986 to illustrate what he calls the problem of such research.  There are, according to the address he mentions, "seven different images of Jesus that have been proposed by scholars in recent years, the differences relating to the different Jewish backgrounds against which they have been chosen to locate their image of the historical Jesus."

There is Jesus as a political revolutionary...., as a magician...., as a Galilean charismatic...., as a Galilean rabbi..., as a Hillelite or proto-Pharisee...., as an Essene..., and as an eschatological prophet....
 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus:  The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), pp. xxvii-xxviii.

I excluded the references to the works of specific scholars there, just for clarity.  Crossan  discusses them, and devotes most of his book not to what Jesus said or did, or what others say he said or did, but to establishing the historical context in which Jesus of Nazareth lived.  It is a world almost as alien to us as that of the Aztecs; and just because the former is more familiar, we mistake it more for recognizable, when it isn't.  Most of the social structure of Palestine in the 1st century is as obscure to us as the social organization of tribes in New Guinea.  Crossan examines those differences in detail, determined to develop as accurate a picture of the the world of a Mediterranean peasant in the first century as possible.   If I don't go more deeply into Crossan's book here, it is because it is too difficult to summarize the scholarly presentation he makes.  The seven images of Jesus he presents, however, are reflected in the structure of the book, as he tries to peel away the layers while leaving them in place, so that we see our image of Jesus is built from many turnings of the historical kaleidoscope, and see that Jesus was perhaps some of these, perhaps none of these.

Much of his work rests on anthropology, on trying to understand a culture as it was, not as a reflection of our own.  His slightly more popular (in approach) book, Excavating Jesus, takes into account archaeology far more than anthropology. The change illustrates the complexity of Biblical scholarship.  His shorter version of The Historical Jesus, Jesus:  A Revolutionary Biography, best illustrates his binding thread (Jesus as a revolutionary, but not in the mold cast by Aslan) while removing much of the (frankly tedious) scholarship of the longer work.

I will be honest about my prejudices here:  I studied The Historical Jesus was a text in seminary, and met Crossan there (he was giving a guest lecture).  It was only after seminary that I came to accept most of Crossan's thinking, or to recognize the value of it; and I would recommend his shorter biography of Jesus to anyone (the longer work is almost like reading a phone book).  I thought at the time that Crossan had stretched too far into fields he wasn't familiar with (anthropology), and his Excavating Jesus finds him adding an archaeologist to bring information he might otherwise get wrong.  I'm still not sure how sound his anthropology is, but it is a useful tool in this kind of scholarship, if only because documents are not wholly reliable, and "history," even in the hands of a Josephus, is not history as we understand it today.

All of which is simply to say:  these are deep waters, and anyone presuming to know what they are doing, from the extreme denial of the existence of a man named Jesus, to the extreme denial of the veracity of any scholarship about "Biblical times," makes that claim against a large and well-studied field which is largely invisible to the public.  It doesn't have to be invisible, of course.  Two of the three books by Crossan that I've mentioned are quite sound works, but written for a general, not a specialist, audience.  Then again, Dom Crossan never got on FoxNews to promote his books, or put up a website with his face dominating the screen.

Things change; but scholarship remains scholarship.

To pick up with Crossan's 7 images of Christ, it's clear from his prologue that Aslan just grabs the one that interests him most, and declares his work on that image to be "historical," which is to say:  "most objectively true."  And that's where I call "balderdash."  Not because he's a Muslim writing about matters Christian (some of the best Biblical scholars in the world are, or have been, atheists.).   No, it's because Aslan is picking the Jesus whom, as he told Terry Gross, he would like to follow (he said it so fervently I assumed he was still a Christian).  But he needs to take his own words more seriously:
The great Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann liked to say that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest. Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed.
That's what Crossan was getting at:  the image of Jesus we see in history, is the image of Jesus we are looking for.  Even Crossan, carefully taking into account the 7 images he mentions, creates yet another image of Jesus that is his own creation (which is why I reacted so negatively to it at first:  it threatened to uproot my preferred image of Jesus).  

Aslan claims that "purging" the scriptures of "their literary and theological flourishes" can yield a more accurate Jesus of history.  But can it?  That Jesus is still a product of our assumptions about that history.  Perhaps next we would need to purge our notions of history of their cultural flourishes; see the cultures of 1st century Palestine from a more anthropological position, in order to better understand that world in its terms, rather than in the anachronistic terms of the present.  And what does archaeology tell us that documents don't? Stone lasts longer than papyrus, and is just as much an historical record as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and often more reflective of the culture at large than a cache of writings held by a small group of fanatics.  Metal lasts long, too; what do the coins in the hands of the people tell us about what they considered, or at least were told, is important?  The very position of the Governor's Palace, hard against the outer walls of the Temple, speak volumes about Roman power and Roman concerns.  The way families were structured, the housing of people (as different from our way of living today as the house in Louisville a friend of mine once lived in.  It was a tiny "shotgun camelback," meaning it went straight back from the front, with a half-story above, big enough for a bedroom.  Today we would consider it cramped for a family of four.  For much of its history, it was occupied by an extended family of three families.  Anthropology ain't just for the wilds of Borneo.), can affect how people think of themselves as individuals, as persons, as a society.  Krister Stendahl has done groundbreaking work on the notion of the individual conscience, of the concept of an individual at all.  He traces it to Augustine in the 4th century.  To even think of Paul's writings as reflecting the ideas of Augustine is to retroject ideas that would be unknown for another 400 years, and yet we do it casually.

We do it casually because we are not scholars; because we do not consider the complexity of human existence, of human culture, of human history.  We imagine all times and places and peoples are like those we have known, and merrily we roll along.  It is comforting and it is convenient, but it is not scholarship.  Even anthropology makes assumptions about human society which must be constantly re-examined and critiqued.  Crossan's Historical Jesus is so long and dense because, like Bultmann's magisterial study of the Gospel of John, both men are scholars carefully detailing every assertion they make and putting it, as clearly and precisely as humanly possible, into an unbelievably dense and complex context.

To already assume that the historical Jesus was a "politically conscious Jewish revolutionary" is to throw all that complexity to the winds, not least of which because "Jewish" as an identity refers more to rabbinic Judaism than the Judaism of the days of Jesus.  So before Aslan begins he is introducing anachronism into his argument (that's one reason Crossan subtitled his book "The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant."), which makes his conclusions dubious, at best.  Frankly, even to speak of "politically conscious" is to commit an anachronism.  Scholarship demands accuracy.

I will say, lest I sound too petulant, that scholarship is a matter of judgment; of very critical, and very careful, judgment.  But the important questions of life, the important issues of life, the "how should I then live" questions, are finally matters of faith.  They are matters of what you put your trust in.  Scholarship can help you examine where your trust should go; but it cannot finally give you those answers.


Because I just found it, I'll add this as a footnote of sorts:  over at The Daily Beast, Lizzie Crocker identifies what she calls Aslan's six most controversial claims about Jesus.  She calls them "wild assertions,"  among which are:  "He claims Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, was executed as a common criminal, and was more of a rabble-rouser than a man of peace."

Most scholars have agreed for over 100 years the Bethlehem story is meant to connect Jesus to David, not to identify his actual birthplace.  I won't take time to find it now, but as I recall, Crossan's account of the life of Jesus concludes that he was buried in a pauper's grave, something little more than scraped ground where the corpse would be covered with a thin layer of soil.  Most likely. Crossan concluded, the dogs got to it.  Such was the common fate of the ptochoi like Jesus.  He was certainly executed as a common criminal and all but forgotten, which makes the remembrance of him all the more remarkable.  Whether Jesus was a rabble-rouser or a man of peace is, as I said above, still a matter of scholarly debate.

But controversial?  Only if you haven't been paying attention to the last 100 years of Biblical scholarship; or the last 20 years of publications on the topic of the life of Jesus.  Funny how long it takes this stuff to penetrate....

Garbage in, garbage out

Image shamelessly stolen from Wonkette

Is the problem here with the grading system?  Or with the concept of gradings schools at all?

Did Tony Bennett react to bad news that might embarrass a major GOP donor?  Or did he react to bad news that might embarrass him?  Was the "C" grade first calculated for Christel De Haan's school an error, a failure of the grading system, or a true reflection of the status of the school?

These are not simple questions, but they are in danger of getting simple answers.  Everybody knows you earn the grade you earn, right?  Except in English; or art; or maybe history, if you wrote an essay.  In science and math it's all about hard data, right?  So what's there to quibble over?  Grading schools is all about assessing hard data, the same way we grade students as if they were machines capable of only one output.  Amirite?  And if we can grade students fairly and accurately (yeah, right!), we can grade schools fairly and accurately.  Right?  I mean, it's objective and truthy, isn't it?

Sarcasm aside, these are deep questions.  Did Tony Bennett stupidly leave an e-mail trail indicating he was as crooked as a dog's hind leg, and concerned only with what would happen to a major GOP donor?  Or had he staked his reputation and his work on a system he thought would produce a guaranteed outcome, and when it didn't produce the outcome he had guaranteed, he figured the system just needed to be slapped on the top a few times, like the old tube-run TeeVees?

I really think the problem here is not the personal corruption of Tony Bennett (if any).  I think the problem here is the corruption of understanding; it's the expectation that a system can be set up which will do the work for us; that we can reliably "grade" schools and know which are good and which are bad, and so be sure our children is learning.

The school district I live in used to put the rankings of its schools by the Texas Education Agency on the buildings of the schools with the best rankings.  There were four categories: exemplary, recognized, academically acceptable, and academically unacceptable.  The school board decided to stop putting "Exemplary" and "Recognized" on schools that got those ratings because they lost some faith in the ratings themselves.  Is an "exemplary school" really doing better than a school that is "academically acceptable"?  Did it really tell the public anything about those schools?  The school board decided that it wasn't; that the system of assessment itself (which the State still carries on, regardless) was suspect, and its outcomes not to be relied on.

Some schools suck.  An entire school district in the Houston area was recently shut down by the State, it was doing such a terrible job.  But can we rely on grading systems to tell us what to do?  Tony Bennett thought so, until he didn't think so.  I still wonder:  did he react because he was about to be embarrassed?  Or because the system he had championed wasn't working?  Was he the designer of a new car, about to be proven wrong about his design?  Or was he the victim of mechanics who didn't know how to properly prepare his new car for the track?

Or was he just a corrupt weasel?  So many questions, so few people asking them.....

A Gentleman and a scholar....

Not shown to scale; or even the right Aslan.

Raza Aslan's interview on Fox News has caused quite a kerfuffle:  first about the interviewer's technique, or lack thereof; and second, about Aslan's credentials, or lack thereof.

What's left out is that Aslan really isn't that much of a religious scholar.   I don't mean to demean him; but there's been some loose talk in response to this interview about how qualified Mr. Aslan is to write this book.  It's not that he isn't qualified; it's just that he's not the most qualified person on the planet, either.

Let's get the degree stuff outta the way first, and to save time I'll just quote Wiki:

Aslan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in religions from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School, a Doctor of Philosophy in the sociology of religion from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, where he was named the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction. It was during the summer before he went to Harvard that he converted back to Islam.
So, basically an M.Div. without the "Div." (MTS students study a very slightly different curriculum from M.Div. students), and two degrees in religion.  Fine.  This qualifies him to know something about religion, even to be a religious scholar.  But is his latest book a work of scholarship?  Well, I don't think so; not from what he told Terry Gross about it.:

"Almost every word ever written about Jesus was written by people who didn't actually know Jesus when he was alive. These were not people who walked with Jesus or talked with Jesus. These were not people who ate with him or prayed with him.

"[The Apostles] were farmers and fisherman. These were illiterates; they could neither read nor write, so they couldn't really espouse Christology, high-minded theology about who Jesus was. They certainly couldn't write anything down. Instead the task of spreading the Gospel message outside of Jerusalem, of really creating what we now know as Christianity, fell to a group of urbanized, Hellenized, educated Jews in the Diaspora; [and] for [the Romans], having grown up immersed in this Hellenized, Romanized world, the concept of a God-man was something quite familiar. Caesar Augustus was a God-man. What we really see in these 20 years after Jesus' death is this process whereby this Jewish religion based on a Jewish revolutionary becomes transformed into a Roman religion, where Jesus is transformed from a Jewish conception of a Messiah to a kind of Roman demigod."
There's nothing there you wouldn't already know from Marcus Borg or James Spong, two other writers of popular books on Christianity.  Give Mr. Aslan the benefit of the doubt and assume his book notes that process of transformation began with Saul of Tarsus, not with "Mark" of "The Gospel according to Mark."  (The earliest of the four gospels.  We don't know who "Mark" was or even if the author of that first gospel was one person; or where his material came from.  We are quite sure he supplied material for "Matthew" and "Luke," and there's no doubt the Johannine community had access to the gospels of Mark and Luke, but I digress.).

None of this, by the way, is controversial in New Testament studies, as I've mentioned before.   This time, though, I'm sort of intrigued with the idea that, if we could just remove the "Romanization" from Jesus of Nazareth, we'd all be better off.  Maybe we would, but can we?  I'm dubious.  And Jesus as Roman demigod?  Uh, no.

Caesar was a god who ruled by divine right, and with divine beneficence.  There's nothing in early church history, in the letters of Paul or in the later gospels, to indicate any of the followers of Jesus saw their Messiah as a ruler equivalent to Caesar:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in his hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....Rome, and Rome alone, had built a kingdom and only it could approve how to build an underkingdom, a minrealm, a subordinate rule.

John Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 178-79.

Remember the story of the coin brought to Jesus in the Temple?  It was a trap:  if he said the coin could be used to pay the Temple tax, he was allowing both a coin with a graven image of man (the image of God) to be used for the Temple; and he was allowing Rome to be superior to God.  If he denounced the coin, he would be a political insurrectionist, threatening directly the authority of Rome (as I've mentioned before, Pilate's palace had walls tall enough to look down into the Temple courtyard, a hotbed of political activity every year at Passover when the Jews proclaim the supremacy of God over all claims of deity, even Caesar's.  That was no accident on the part of Rome.

You can see from the quote above that even a coin had significance to Caesar's claim of deity (it's no accident we put "In God We Trust" on our coins today).  Jesus, of course, avoided the trap.  As Dom Crossan renders it: "Return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.  Return to God what belongs to God."  (John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, p. 61).  That's not the claim of a Roman demigod asserting equivalence to Caesar.  That's not the claim of a "supreme bridge builder between heaven and earth, high priest of an imperial people."  That's not anyone claiming equivalence to a Roman demigod.  And yet the communities that tried to follow Jesus produced stories that included Jesus asking his disciples:  "Who do you say that I am?"  The story of the coin and Caesar's face is generally accepted as historical by Biblical scholars like Crossan; the question is not.  But Aslan's case rests on the claim made by Jesus' followers, not the historical figure; and the claim they made was much more complex than "Roman demigod."

And it was a claim that wouldn't be worked out for over 4 centuries.  The New Advent entry on Nestorianism is instructive.  Nestorius lived in the mid 5th century.  Even as his claim is labelled a "heresy," the article works to explain, in excruciating detail, what he said and how it should be understood, all without accepting it as correct Church teaching.  The very idea that within 20 years of his death a church existed which had worked out that Jesus was a Roman demigod, is laughable.  A century after Constantine, the Church was still struggling with ideas about Christology.  Did they just want to complicate what the disciples had figured out in the 1st century?  Or was something else going on?

How the first Christians saw Jesus is complex, since we don't see him that way now.  That complexity extended from the attempts by Paul (who seems to have linked it to the crucifixion and resurrection, something now considered a heresy) through attempts by the four gospel writers (Mark doesn't attach Jesus' divinity to his birth, as Mark doesn't mention the birth; Matthew and Luke have differing theological takes, and John's Jesus is almost non-human, which veers off into another heresy.  No wonder it took the church centuries to iron this stuff out.)  Try, for example, following the line of argument at New Advent over the development of Nestorianism.  That's Aslan's "high-minded theology" in pill form.  Even if you can't follow it (and it is as dense as a fruitcake), you can get see that such discussions took place over centuries, and involved hundreds of voices.  Just consider this much:
The lot of Nestorius was a hard one. He had been handed over by the pope to the tender mercies of his rival, Cyril; he had been summoned to accept within ten days under pain of deposition, not a papal definition, but a series of anathemas drawn up at Alexandria under the influence of Apollinarian forgeries. The whole council had not condemned him, but only a portion, which had not awaited the arrival of the bishops from Antioch. He had refused to recognize the jurisdiction of this incomplete number, and had consequently refused to appear or put in any defence. He was not thrust out of his see by a change of mind on the part of the feeble emperor. But Nestorius was proud: he showed no sign of yielding or of coming to terms; he put in no plea of appeal to Rome. He retired to his monastery at Antioch with dignity and apparent relief. His friends, John of Antioch, and his party, deserted him, and at the wish of the Emperor, at the beginning of 433, joined hands with Cyril, and Theodoret later did the same. The bishops who were suspected of being favourable to Nestorius were deposed. An edict of Theodosius II, 30 July, 435, condemned his writings to be burnt. A few years later Nestorius was dragged from his retirement and banished to the Oasis. He was at one time carried off by the Nubians (not the Blemmyes) in a raid, and was restored to the Thebaid with his hand and one rib broken. He gave himself up to the governor in order not to be accused of having fled.
There is far less "high-minded theology" there, than there is good ol' power politics.  And if you think that's a consequence of the post-Constantinian nature of the church, don't overlook the fight between Peter and Paul, documented in Paul's letters and Luke's later (and pro-Pauline) account, over whether the message of Jesus should go to the Jews alone, or to the Gentiles as well (a split still illustrated in the Gospels, 3 out of 4 of which were clearly written by and for Jewish communities).  Paul finally won that, but not because Peter gave up fighting.

And on that point:  some 70 years after the crucifixion, the battle was still raging within Jewish communities to determine who would follow Jesus of Nazareth, and who would not.  My major complaint with the Gospel of John is how much credence it lends to exclusionary readings of the teachings of Jesus, and especially to anti-Semitism throughout Western history.  It is a gospel written by Jews for Jews, condemning those Jews who have condemned them.  The virulence of the family struggle is almost palpable, and sometimes it spills over into misunderstanding and dangerous anachronism.  For Aslan to aver that Jesus was accepted by Christians as a Roman demigod only 20 years after his death, is laughable.

And very poor scholarship.

We come, you see, after this long line of discussion and argument and contention.  It is as much a part of our understanding of how things are and ought to be and are to be understood as our native language is.  We can no more change it than we can change our skin, and we cannot go backwards in order to find a new way forward.  Nor can we find a reconciled past that will smooth out our future.  Contention stands at the heart of Christianity.  Even the four gospels were written for four different communities.  Was one of those Peter's, another Paul's?  Luke-Acts is clearly Paul; the other three may well be from Peter's side of the church (they are more clearly rooted in the Jewish communities of the 1st century).  They disagree with each other on points as small as why Jesus was born where he was, and as grave as what he did on the last evening before his crucifixion, or what he said on the cross, or even what he did at his resurrection and after.  Part of the work of scholarship is to acknowledge this complexity, and to make sense of it for a contemporary audience.  That audience may be other scholars, or it may be the general public.  The very substance of the argument changes with the audience addressed.  My complaint with Aslan is that he seems to want to iron out too many of those contentions in favor of one side.

Let me be clear:  if Mr. Aslan's only purpose in writing this book was to lay before the general public the generally accepted understand of the historical Jesus by modern scholars, I would have no complaint with it at all.*  Oh, I might quibble over details, but I'm basing my knowledge of the book's content largely on the Fresh Air interview; so I'm not even complaining about what he wrote.  I assume, in general, it's a perfectly harmless text.  But it wasn't written to bring scholarship to the masses:  it was written to further the career of Reza Aslan.

I mean, what else is that website about, if not promoting the wondrousness of Reza Aslan.   I don't really have a problem with that, either, except that it has precious little to do with scholarship.    The  three books, he lists on his website, while interesting, are not works of scholarship in any field.  They are, however, all I can find about Mr. Aslan's publishing history.  The Atlantic notes, "[h]e has,,,published extensively on religion;" if you call two popular books on Islam and one on Jesus "extensive."  But they are popular books, not works of original scholarship.  That doesn't mean he's incompetent to opine on any subject, or to have written a book about Jesus of Nazareth.  I doubt, however, that this latest book "sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived."  I would imagine it's actually more of a re-hashing and popularization of work done by Dominic Crossan and other scholars of the New Testament.  The "new light" is new only to those unfamiliar with the work that precedes Aslan.  So I guess it's new if it's new to you.  But it ain't necessarily so.....

Was Aslan wrong to go on Fox News?  He's probably gotten more attention for that than for his Terry Gross interview.  So he did himself proud.  He says he knew what to expect, but he probably didn't quite expect this much attention; nor is he sorry to be getting it.

Am I going to read his book?  Nah; there's nothing in there, at least from that NPR interview, that I didn't learn in seminary.

Can I be a religious scholar now?

*TPM tells me that Aslan's first book came out while he was pursuing a Ph.D.  in History of Religions, and the book aroused his professors:

"Professors who had been working with me suddenly turned their backs to me. Unnecessary obstacles were put in my way. There was an attitude—not just amongst the professors, but amongst my fellow students as well—of Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you take this discussion that we’re having in a room with four people and make it palatable to a large and popular audience?"
I don't doubt this story, but let me offer an alternative view:  popularizing scholarship always involves misrepresenting the results of scholarship.  The simple view of Nestorianism, for example (per that long quote above) is that the heresy was about the dual natures of Christ.  Read the New Advent entry, however, and you won't get that simple an answer (go to Wiki for simple and misleading answers, please).  Scholars have reason to be resentful of people who think they are wise enough to boil down what is "really meant" to a version that will be "palatable to a large and popular audience."  Sometimes its jealousy; but sometimes, it's because you are distorting their scholarship.

And, one has to ask, how carefully did he document his sources?  I'd have to look at a copy of his book before I decided it was as full of footnotes and references as, say, Bultmann's The Gospel of John.   That was a work of scholarship written for scholars.  Bultmann wrote for popular consumption, too, but he still carefully noted where his material was coming from.  He just more often relied on his own thinking, developed after years of scholarship.  His scholarly works were a lively engagement with a long and well-documented discussion, which is not a discussion you have with a general audience.

Aslan was still a Ph.D. candidate, not a scholar at the end of an illustrious career, when this story took place.  Perhaps his professors thought him a bit presumptuous, and a bit careless.  Like I say, I have nothing against Aslan; but his "insights" in his book don't seem to be "new light" at all; or really nothing more than what others have already said.  I don't wish to denigrate him; but I've no use for hype, either.

Monday, July 29, 2013

2nd Amendment Remedies

"Do you feel accident prone, punk? Well, do ya?"

I could start a blog dedicated solely to "accidental shootings", and even limit it to guns that just "go off," and if I could monetize it I could retire, and never run out of articles to link to:

Authorities say when Charles Pike picked-up a gun off the table, the weapon fired, hitting him in the hand. The bullet then ricocheted off the floor and grazed another man.

Organizers say gun shows follow strict safety measures for both visitors and vendors, and they're unsure how exactly the shooting happened.

"And for some reason, we don't know, this particular weapon had a round in it and had an accidental discharge," explained Larry Loudon, the gun show chairman.
It is a well-known fact that cars don't speed, veer into oncoming traffic, start by themselves, or otherwise cause traffic accidents all on their own.  You want to use that as a defense the next time you are the driver in an accident, especially one that causes serious injury:  be my guest.

Guns, however, mysteriously "go off."  They fire when they are empty.  They shoot people when there is no round in the chamber.  They load themselves, and then they discharge.  Science can't explain it.  The trigger engages the hammer engages the firing pin, when no one intended for it to fire, and it should be the equivalent of a car starting itself on the street and veering into traffic.

But it isn't.

Because when a gun fires, it's always an accident equivalent to a tree branch falling on your head; or the ground opening up at your feet; or a pipe bursting in the house while you're away, ruining everything from the upstairs down.

It's just an accident.  Guns just go off.  Nobody knows how, or why.  But it's just something we have to live with.

Because we have a second amendment, ya see......

The Whites of Their Eyes....

There was a shooting in the Houston area several years ago now.  The police were looking for a black man in a stolen car, and they found a black man in a car.  He pulled into his own driveway, got out of the car, and faced a number of police officers with drawn weapons.

They forced him to the ground, and his mother came out of the house to see what the commotion was.  As they forced her back (apparently thinking she might be a threat), the "suspect" tried to come up off the ground to protect her.

At this point yet another policeman drove up.  As he got out of his vehicle, he drew his weapon and emptied at the man on the ground.  9 shots, and one hit the "suspect."  Who was not guilty of anything except Driving While Black.

Add to that, now, Getting Cigarettes While Black:

A neighbor saw someone reaching into the car and called 911. While he was looking into the vehicle, deputies arrived in response to the burglary call.

 Middleton said he was bent over in the car searching the interior for a loose cigarette when he heard a voice order him to, “Get your hands where I can see them.”

He said he initially thought it was a neighbor joking with him, but when he turned his head he saw deputies standing halfway down his driveway.

He said he backed out of the vehicle with his hands raised, but when he turned to face the deputies, they immediately opened fire.

“It was like a firing squad,” he said. “Bullets were flying everywhere.”
But the suspicion of a black man is not why I bring this to your attention.  It's the well-trained police officers and their guns:

In Baptist Hospital and groggy on Saturday, Middleton said he would be in recovery for several weeks. His wounds are not life-threatening.

“I’m just glad they didn’t hit me here or here,” he said, pointing toward his head and chest. “My mother’s car is full of bullet holes though. My wife had to go and get a rental.”

That, it turns out, was the first story.  FoxNews reported the deputies fired 7 shots.  It was closer to 17. And this case has already earned its "No sh*t, Sherlock" award:

 "As much as we are trained and as much as officers -- which have Type A personalities -- like to say we are in control, we are not," [Escambia County Sheriff David] Morgan said at the conference.

That sense of humility by armed men is as comforting as the fact that I cannot take tampons into the State Capitol if the Capitol police suspect me of potentially disrupting the Lege, but I can always take a concealed weapon in (and bypass the metal detector by doing so) after only 10 hours of training.  It takes three times longer to get trained to drive a car.  But after 10 hours I am competent as any police officer to handle a hand gun makes me feel so much better about the 2nd Amendment and my freedumb.

Where sheep may not safely graze....

George Will's Dream of Hell

I'll take George Will's word for this:

“You have a city, 139 square miles, you can graze cattle in vast portions of it, dangerous herds of feral dogs roam in there. You have three percent of fourth graders reading at the national math standards, 47 percent of Detroit residents are functionally illiterate, 79 percent of Detroit children are born to unmarried mothers.”

No, I don't care about the number of Detroit residents he claims are "functionally illiterate," except insofar as that is a societal failure, not a personal one.  It's the size of Detroit that catches my eye.  139 square miles sounds huge, doesn't it?

Houston is the fourth most populous city in the nation (trailing only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago), and is the largest in the southern U.S. and Texas.

The Houston-Galveston-Brazoria Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (Houston CMSA) consists of eight counties: Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller,

The Houston CMSA covers 8,778 square miles, an area slightly smaller than Massachusetts but larger than New Jersey.

Founded in 1836, the City of Houston has a 2010 population of 2.1 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- Houston's population in 1850 was listed as 2,396.

The metro area's population of 5.95 million in 2010 is 6th largest among U.S. metropolitan statistical areas, according to, and a 26% increase since 2000. Harris County's population is 4,092,459.
I mention all of that to keep things in perspective:  Houston's population has ballooned from just under 2400 to almost 6 million (in the CMSA) in 150 years.  That is still based, as much as anything, on the petroleum industry (much as Houston might try to deny it).  The other part, the big "anchor" in the local economy, would be the Houston port, but that, too, is based on petroleum more than anything else.

Which means, if  James Howard Kunstler (and most geologists) is right, that Houston could be Detroit before this century is over.  And Houston is not only larger than Detroit ever was (at its highest, the population of Detroit was just under 2 million), it covers about 63 times as much square miles; or, the state of New Jersey.  And I am within driving distance (walking distance, practically) of pastureland where horses (no cattle, that I know of) graze.*  Or did, as of a few years ago; I haven't been to that part of town recently, though it isn't far from me.  We do have feral cats in the neighborhood (I feed two of them on a regular basis), but no dogs of that description.  And while the Houston Independent School District is one of the largest in the country, I wouldn't say we have the best education system money can buy; mainly, because we're determined to spend so little money to buy one.

Is Houston, then, Detroit?  Nah.  But it could be; and if it were, if the economic collapse of the '80's became permanent, rather than a bump in Houston's road (we all still remember it, though we remember it like a bad dream that maybe we didn't really have), Houston could be Detroit in very short order.  Except the Houston CMSA is 3 times more populous now (and climbing) than Detroit ever was, and covers as much ground as New Jersey.  If we all follow the lead of Galveston and allow chickens to be raised in back yards, will it be a sure sign of a collapsing culture?

I dunno, but if things collapsed here again, and this time didn't turn around, would the George Wills of the world blame it on "culture"?  Well, maybe; if Houston ever sheds its image as white enclave, and is seen for what it really is:  the most ethnically diverse CMSA in America.

But until then, we'll just keep praisin' Jebus for the free market what loves us so.  You know, the one that took such good care of Detroit until it all went wrong culturally.....

* The idea of cattle grazing inside city limits is a sign of social decay is amusing.  Sheep grazed in Central Park until 1934, although I've seen movies from the '40's indicating they were still there (the scenes may have actually been Brooklyn, however).  Where I live was once very productive farmland (the old silos still stand nearby, hard against what was once train tracks).  Honestly, Will is really a big goof.

"God is awful, y'all"

Continuing the conversation:

I posted that comment on types of atheists. I don't know why OpenID didn't work properly with my AIM account. Just call me enonzey if it continues to misbehave.

 ….. @ Rmj 'And many people who are not religious today (and who may have been in the past just as a matter of social comfort) are not really antithetical to the notion of God's existence: they just aren't concerned with it. We don't have a convenient term for such people . . .'

I've seen secularist used for such people. They are indifferent to the sacred.

 'Atheists, of course, still want to argue the question of God's existence. If they don't, how can they be atheists?'

Simply by being non-theists but calling themselves atheists.

How far do we go in accepting the labels people apply to themselves? There are certainly atheists who are indifferent to arguments about the existence of gods. If I understand your argument correctly, you contend that they have made a category error and should call themselves non-theists. But they don't.

You've made an historical argument that atheists must be anti-theists, but that doesn't necessarily apply today. Things evolve away from their historical roots. See this for a taxonomy of movement atheists:

Are Mormons Christians? Are Christian Scientists Christians? From a traditionalist Christian viewpoint, they can't be; they've diverged too much from conventional Christianity. But they certainly resist being labeled non-Christian or neo-Christian.

 And then there is the whole matter of ignosticism.

 Let’s start at the bottom (so to speak) and work our way up:

Are Mormons Christians? Are Christian Scientists Christians? From a traditionalist Christian viewpoint, they can't be; they've diverged too much from conventional Christianity. But they certainly resist being labeled non-Christian or neo-Christian.

There is a definition of “Christian,” and its actually pretty minimal:  adherence to the doctrine of the Trinity; belief in Jesus of Nazareth as God and Son of God (it’s a mystery) and as savior and lord (sometimes there is an emphasis on “personal savior and Lord”, but I don’t know that that’s an essential requirement), and acceptance at least of Baptism and the eucharist (a/k/a “Communion”) as sacraments. Oh, and the sacraments (esp. baptism) are conducted in the name of the Trinity (“Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Inclusive language such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” won’t do.)

Now, are Mormons and Christian Scientists Christians? Well, if they conform to these minimal requirements (Protestants generally only recognized 2 sacraments; I don’t know how many Orthodox traditions recognize), then they are. If they don’t, then by definition they aren’t.

Do Mormons consider themselves Christians? I think so. Would I deny them that ability? Nah. Not worth arguing over, IMHO.* Some Christians, of course, think otherwise. But then, some of those Christians don’t think Roman Catholics are Christians. And I don’t mean just Bible-thumpin’ fundamentalists handling snakes in darkest Appalachia. I mean Lutherans, of the MO Synod and WI Synod variety, who think they are the “true Church” because….well, because. They don’t get to set the definitions, either; although they insist they do. I’m sure Mormons and Christian Scientists resist being labeled as “Neo-Christians” or even non-Christian. Scientologists also resist being labeled members of a cult.

Argument abound.

Who gets to decide the issue? Society at large, for the most part. What those who are not theists and have no interest in arguments about the existence of God call themselves is of slight interest to me. To the extent I classify them at all, I have to do it from a schema that makes sense to me, and I will try to conform that schema (unless I’m a conspiracy theorist or some other kind of ideological nutter) to generally accepted boundaries. The definition of Christianity is an extremely loose one, and really only applies to organizations. It has little real value to me as an individual. It doesn’t tell me how to live my life, how to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, how to pray or how to treat others. Those are the issues that consume the time of Jesus on earth, according to the gospels. But even how I discern and decipher those teachings, is conducted in the context of a larger society.

And for the most part, society at large doesn’t care if the WI Synod of the Lutheran Church doesn’t think any other church is Christian (they are quite extreme about it, I can assure you). Society at large is not likely to call the Roman Catholic church the “Whore of Babylon” for the same reasons some Protestants still do (family feuds last for generations), and is not likely to be too concerned with the distinctions between Mormons and other Christians. But do Mormons get to define themselves as Christians? Not without the concurrence of a majority of those who are not Mormon but consider themselves Christian. Which is no slight on Mormons: that’s just how definitions work.

Take “awful” for example. Its root is in Old English, and it originally meant “inspiring awe” or “worthy of reverence.” And it meant that for far longer than the meaning it has now, which is a disparaging one. I like the old meaning. I’d like to resurrect it. But if I say, with Aelfric in the 10th century, that “God is awful,” I can insist until I’m blue in the face that I mean God is worthy of reverence and inspires awe; but who is going to listen to me? I cannot change the meaning of the word unless I can get a majority of the English-speaking world to agree with me on the meaning of the word.

So “atheism,” for better or worse, is associated today with Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens; and it is associated with “anti-theism,” because Dawkins and Hitchens are/were virulently anti-theist. Is that fair to people who are non-theists, but are not anti-theists? As I say, we have other words for them. “Secularist” might be a good choice. “Agnostic” another; ignosticism perhaps another. But in the latter case, we’d have to first accept that the argument for the existence of God is foundational, and pace Ayers, I don’t think it is even meaningful.

And yes, words do “evolve” away from their roots; as in the case of “awful.” But atheism continues to be associated, not with non-theism or even “secularism” (a loosely defined term for purposes of this discussion, so I set it off for the moment), but with anti-theism. Those who proclaim themselves “atheists” most publicly, clearly mean they are anti-theists (or at least anti-Christians and anti-Muslims. Funny how neither Dawkins nor Hitchens, or Harris for that matter, ever level critiques at Judaism, although all three religions profess worship of the same God). And just as there are other terms I can use to capture the original concept of “awful” (“awesome” springs to mind, despite its slacker connotations), there are other terms to better capture shades of non-belief, or even non-interest in the entire subject.

Can a non-theist simply call themselves atheist, and be done with it? Not, I contend, without a great deal of attendant confusion. The former incorporates the class of the latter, but the latter is still widely regarded (and publicly proclaimed) to be a subset of the former, mostly against a smaller subset of theists (Christians and Muslims).

And this doesn’t yet touch on the problem of the base-line: at one point in European society (at least) it was necessary to identify as an atheist simply to not identify as a theist. And that raises the most interesting question: when theist is no longer the default position, will there really be any atheists who aren’t simply anti-theists?

*Which is to say, I'm not going to be upset that they call themselves Christians, although I might not think they are if they don't conform to the minimalist definition of the institutional term.  If they care to argue the point with me, I'll argue it; otherwise, I don't care.  Same is basically true for non-theists:  they can call themselves as they please, but when atheists criticize my beliefs (generally or individually), I'll classify them as atheists, or secularists, or even non-theists, as seems appropriate to me.  But I'll do this for the sake of argument, not for the sake of control.  People who want to insist Mormons (for example) CANNOT be Xians, are all about control.

Those same people would probably think I'm not a Xian, either.  Waddareyagonnado?  

The institutional definition of Xianity, by the way, is one agreed upon by the major Christian denominations, largely to identify what they all have in common.  It's a kind of minimum baseline, meant to be as inclusive as possible, without having Xianity be "whatever-the-heck-somebody-says-it-is."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Livin' in a post-racial world

Remember this?

The first photo, taken by Dave Martin, an Associated Press photographer in New Orleans, shows a young black man wading through water that has risen to his chest. He is clutching a case of soda and pulling a floating bag. The caption provided by The A.P. says he has just been "looting a grocery store."

The second photo, also from New Orleans, was taken by Chris Graythen for Getty Images and distributed by Agence France-Presse. It shows a white couple up to their chests in the same murky water. The woman is holding some bags of food. This caption says they are shown "after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store."

But that was 8 years ago, and we've elected an African American male as President twice now, right?

The white boy, Preston, is interviewed with his family on the set of the "Today" show. Knowing his kid is safe, his Dad describes the event as “funny” and tells the audience that if this could happen to a “cotton candy all-American kid like Preston,” then “it could happen to anybody.”

What happened to Preston is that, at the age of 7, he decided to take the family car on a joy ride.  But what he did could happen to anybody; including a black 7 year old:

The interviewer, off-camera, asks Latarian why he took the car. He replied: “I wanted to do it ’cause it’s fun, it’s fun to do bad things.” The interviewer asks further, “Did you know that you could perhaps kill somebody?” And he replies: “Yes, but I wanted to do hoodrat stuff with my friends.”
Preston didn't get asked about whether he thought he could kill someone.  He gets sympathy:

When the host, Meredith Vieira, asks Preston why hid from the police, he says, “cause I wanted to,” and she says, “I don’t blame you actually.” With Preston not too forthcoming, his Mom steps in to say that he told her that “he just wanted to know what it felt like to drive a car.” When Vieira asks him why he fled from the police, he replies with a shrug. Vieira fills in the answer, “You wanted to get home?”

Vieira then comments on how they all then went to church. The punishment? Grounded for four days without TV or video games. Vieira asks the child, “Do you think that’s fair?” He says yes. And she continues, “Do you now understand what you did?” He nods and agrees. “And that maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing?” He nods and agrees. “You gonna get behind the wheel of a car again?” He says no. Then she teases him about trying out model toy cars.

They conclude that this incident just goes to show that “Any little kid, you never know what can happen…” and close: “I’ll be seeing you at church buddy boy!”
Latarian, on the other hand:

The interviewer asks him what punishment he should receive and Latarian offers a punishment very similar to Preston’s: “Just a little bit… no video games for a whole weekend.” In a longer version of this news story, now taken down, the camera focuses on a reporter who explains that the police plan to go forward with charges of grand theft against him. While he’s “too young to go into any type of juvenile facility,” he says, “police say they do want to get him into the system, so that they can get him some type of help.”
 Preston should go to church; Latarian should go to jail; both, of course, for their own good.

No, we don't treat black males differently than white males.  Whatever gives you that idea?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Marie, Marie, hold on tight!"

Let’s start by acknowledging that Cruz isn’t a yahoo. He takes the wildest yahoo positions arguably of any prominent politician in America, although of course the competition for that distinction is increasingly fierce. I mean, he is way out there. The right 30-second attack ads could just shred him to bits. Plus, smooth-tongued though he is, he’s bound to say crazy things on the campaign trail, about women, gays, undocumented immigrants, what have you. He practically makes Paul Ryan look like Paul Wellstone.

But in spite of that, he is at the same time something of an intellectual. He’s Harvard Law. He has argued before the Supreme Court. He is widely read. He can quote Rawls, they tell me (John, not Lou). He’s no Dubya and is not to be misunderestimated.
Ted Cruz prompts what I call the Grand Unified Field Theory of Intelligence:  i.e., he can't really believe those insane right wing Tea Party ideas because, good god man, he went to Harvard!  So all that nonsense that spews from his mouth is just for the rubes.  Right?

Keep telling yourself that, if it makes you feel better.
Cruz: Yes, but you know something, it is not something that started a couple of years ago. Let me just go back to when he was maybe four. When he was four I used to read Bible stories to him all the time. And I would declare and proclaim the word of God over him. And I would just say, ‘You know Ted, you have been gifted above any man that I know and God has destined you for greatness’. And I started making declarations about the Word of God to him every day. When he was eight years old I was very active in an organization called the Religious Roundtable.
 This was a coalition of Christians and Jews who was very instrumental in helping Reagan get elected. I was on the state board of the Religious Roundtable, so when my son Ted was eight years old, all we talked about around the dinner table was politics because I was so involved with the Reagan campaign. So during that time is when I asked him so many times, ‘You know Ted, when I lost my freedom in Cuba I had a place to come to. If we lose our freedoms here where are we going to go? There is no place to go.’

Ted enters high school, the Free Enterprise Institute organizes a group of five kids, called them the Constitutional Corroborators, now Ted is reading the The Federalist Papers, The Anti-Federalist Papers, and each of the five kids memorized the entire US Constitution. ... So before my son left high school he was passionate about the constitution. He was passionate about freedom and free markets and limited governments. Before he left high school he knew without a shadow of a doubt what his purpose in life was and it was to defend and protect freedom and the Constitution, to fight for free markets and limited government, and it became a passion in his life. So this is not a trajectory of three years, this is a trajectory of 30 years. 

That's not the Senator speaking of himself in the third person; that's his father.  It may be Sen. Cruz doesn't really believe the nonsense he spouts because he's Harvard educated and eloquent and has argued before the Supreme Court.  Then again, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

So is Ted Cruz, as Michael Tomasky and so many other observers hope, just fakin' it to make it?  Or is he seriously the McCarthyite he seems to be?

And he obviously has more than book smarts. He has cunning. This Joe McCarthy act he has down pat—on Chuck Hagel, on Benghazi—may be disgusting and, well, McCarthyite, but don’t think it isn’t by design. Cruz knows that being compared to McCarthy by people like me is manna from heaven: it makes rank-and-file wingnuts stand up for him, and it makes rich ones open their checkbooks.

If it is by design, can it also be by default?  Is this the real Ted Cruz, not some grubbing opportunist out to fleece the rubes because after all, he's educated!

I'm not really interested in the career of Ted Cruz so much as I'm interested in the idea that well educated people can't have crazy ideas.  It's a bit of Enlightenment faith we still haven't let go of, although some of our best writers figured out nearly a century ago (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, to name three) that the lessons of the Enlightenment didn't spare Europe from two devastating wars and complete economic collapse.  But despite all evidence to the contrary since, American punditry still thinks tout le monde reads much of the night and goes south in the winter.  And that includes crazy Tea Party politicians who have the right education credentials; because, after all, it is education that makes us civilized, and raises us above the riff-raff like tail gunner Joe McCarthy.  The Sen. from Wisconsin may have believed that stuff, but then he never argued before the Supreme Court.

One other thing:  the yahoos of Swift's fourth journey of Gulliver, looked just like Gulliver.  All they lacked was his education and cultural training.  Gulliver was quite sure he was distinct from the yahoos thanks to these attainments, and his ability to learn the language of the Houyhnhnms.  He was quite sure, in other words, that he was no yahoo.

The Houynhnhnms thought otherwise.  One could safely say, they knew better.

Monday, July 22, 2013

"They will say 'How his hair is growing thin!' "

We begin here:

As to atheists, there are multiple types just as there are multiple types of Christians. One dichotomy is between those who lack a belief in god or gods, having lost faith or never having it, and the anti-theists, who actively deny that gods exists. Applying the term 'religious' to the former is akin to calling bald a hair color. The latter do seem religious in your sense.
Which got me thinking about the word "atheist."  What follows may be rank conjecture, as I haven't even consulted my OED (although I may before I'm through)  but when have I ever let that stop me?

At one point in Western culture (Europe and the North America) "theism" was the presumed default for everyone.  It didn't take commitment, affirmation, even confession:  you were presumed a theist.  Most accepted that state of affairs even if they were, as some pastors now call their congregations, "baptized heathens."  Kierkegaard railed against the lack of discipleship (to use Bonhoeffer's term, and tie this conversation completely up in anachronisms as soon as possible) in "Christendom," but he wasn't assuming an antipathy toward the basic assumptions of theists. Atheists were soon prominent enough in 19th century Europe to challenge the entire premise.

They were not disinterested, shrugging off theism and all it entailed like an outworn coat:  they were anti-theistic, ripping and tearing at the very fabric of theism as part of the established social order.  Even the atheists of the 19th century who decided religion was all a bit of social immaturity and a lingering sign of the coming of age of humanity which must inevitably occur, feared the widespread loss of theism would lead to social disorder.  They reasoned that it was fear of God, rather than fear of the state, which kept most people in order (especially the Babbitry of the middle class; yes, another anachronism, but bear with me, it's a blog post, not a scholarly treatise), and a lack of a deity meant a lack of respect for...well, the intellectuals comfortably pronouncing all things religious to be all things foolish.

This state of affairs continued for a long time.  It's no accident Bertrand Russell fell compelled to explain why he was not a Christian, and also no accident almost no public intellectual since has felt it necessary to make the same claim.  I have heard a pastor who was now a businessman explain that he "hid" his ordination from his European business contacts because religion in Europe, at least among the people he worked with, was considered such a negative, to explain his religious convictions would actually cost him money.  (You may admire that, or not, as you choose).  He felt he was in a better position appearing to conform to the European norm, and for him that norm was either non-theist or even atheist.

That doesn't yet get us to the distinction I want to make, but it illustrates how much the social default has been reset.  The expectation, at least among the people he knew, was for non-theism at least.

So when atheism was first identified, it was an opposition to the status quo.  Let me stop and point out this is where the philosophical question about the existence of God first gained prominence.  Yes, there are ancient examples, such as Anselm's argument, the one Kant dubbed the "ontological argument," but one has to note there are about 800 years between Kant and Anselm, and that most of the arguments about God's existence come from the 18th (among philosophers) and then 19th century (among intellectual generally).  It was in this period that atheism was identified as a legitimate intellectual stance (and not just a word for condemning the unbeliever, levied by a predominantly theist social order).  Here I will stop and invoke the OED:  "Atheism" is defined by the OED as a doctrine denying the existence of God.  The first use of it is in the mid 16th century, where it would have been used against a non-believer as a condemnation, not merely a description.  The "atheist" is defined as one who denies the existence of God, or who denies God's existence and so is not bound by morality.  Again, the reference is to the mid-16th century, and the presumption is that morality comes, not from human society or individuals, but from a deity.  (We cannot escape a certain amount of anachronism in this discussion; but we can try to identify it.)

So atheism begins with those who deny God's existence, but that argument doesn't get its own status against the status quo until after the Enlightenment, and by the 19th century it is fairly clear that the question of God's existence is the central question of atheism, and atheism itself becomes a legitimate, if still controversial, public stance.  Russell, as I said, felt the need to clarify his atheism in 1927.  He was arguing against the social norm.  Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and the last Christopher Hitchens have similarly argued against what they perceive to be the social norm, but their arguments are altogether more limited, blasting, as they do, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism as they define it.

But that's a topic for another day:  the salient point is that atheism is not indifferent to theism, it is opposed to it.  You cannot deny the existence of God without being interested in the question in the first place.  It was, as I say, a burning question in 19th century Europe, and still a question in 20th century Europe, especially after the horrors of Nazism and World War II.  That war marked "paid" to the comforts of religion for most people:  Sartre may have been scandalous in an America that added "In God We Trust" to the coinage and "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, but by and large his atheism carried the day, and speaking in the simplest terms (i.e., using Sartre to stand in for many others), he turned us from theism not to atheism, but to what I would call non-theism (which, once you live in Sartre's world, and by and large we do, is now the default position.  You no longer have to posit a world without God; now the burden has shifted to the theists, and why God is necessary at all.  Sartre's position, that God is not necessary, has become the default.).

It's not such an difficult move to make.  Hemingway's justly famous story "A Clean, Well-lighted Place," is the best possible example of the death of theism but the absence of atheism.  The story carefully presents a world in which there is no third-party looking on; the story itself brilliantly avoids the use of the third-person narrative voice, though it seems to narrated by an omniscient observer.  This is quite purposeful on Hemingway's part:  he is parting ways with the old assumption that God is in the quad watching the tree when no one else is there to know it is present.  And the story line is a meditation on a universe that now has no deity in it (there is no straight line to Sartre here, but he symoblizes for many this line of argument).  The arguments for and against are set aside in the story; non-theism is now the given.  A great deal of the impetus of the work of the "Lost Generation," in fact, is the loss of God.  But that loss doesn't turn into atheism, into denial of the existence of God:  it becomes non-theism.  It becomes wrestling with the absence of God, wrestling with a universe in which only human beings and their ideas, can be said to exist (and do ideas really "exist"?).  I would not call the Lost Generation and those who came after "atheists," because for the most part they simply assume a new default:  that there is no God, and that issue is beyond argument.  It's how we continue on, which is the point.

Atheists, of course, still want to argue the question of God's existence.  If they don't, how can they be atheists?

Consider the example of the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whose claim to fame was being a party to a number of suits to remove compulsory prayer from public schools.  Hers isn't even the case studied by first year law students, because the important decision on the issue was handed down in a related case considered by the Court at the same time (sic transit gloria).  I lived in Austin while Ms. O'Hair was still alive, and she could be found on the public access cable channel (those were the days!) ranting and spewing (there really is no other word for it; the woman was positively hateful) about anything and anyone she didn't like, and constantly pressing her opinions against whatever status quo she perceived to be relevant.  This was kind of odd because Austin was one of the least religious towns in Texas, even then.  I think more people went to Sunday brunch than any other town in Texas.  Had Ms. O'Hair really wanted to oppose Christianity, Dallas, then home to many TV evangelists (all gone, now) would have been a better place to be.  Still, opposition was her meat and drink, and she used her atheism to promote her protests to every subject that came to hand.

For the most part, of course, no one cared; and Austin being a largely more tolerant place for such ideas than Dallas, she was free to rant and rave as much as she wanted, because most people just weren't interested enough to be offended.  I find, more and more, that the questions of theism are no longer live questions for most people.  I teach a variety of college and high school students (and many Freshman who are just out of high school), and the prevailing religious sentiment is that of their surrounding culture. Most are still theists by default, although I've met more than a few for whom the Biblical stories (David and Goliath; Abraham and Isaac; Noah's Ark; Jonah and the Whale) mean nothing at all.  This may be because the popular churches, the ones with TV cameras and rock bands and exciting!, relevant! preaching about how to live! your! life!, don't dwell much on what was once standard kid's fare in church (I've never heard Joel Osteen mention one of those stories, but I don't pay attention to him, so that's no proof of anything).  It may be they simply don't go to church.  I have had students in that category, ones for whom the question of theism or atheism is as relevant as the question of racism or non-racism.   I think, and have long thought, President Obama was right in his recent remarks about an American generation that doesn't understand the race distinctions I grew up with (and tried to abandon).  I think the same thing is happening with issues of theism.  The difference is, we don't have to be racists; and we shouldn't be; but we can be theists, without being destructive to others or society.

Theism, though, is gradually falling away as the default position of all people. In my childhood every store in town either closed on Sunday, or didn't open until noon.  Non-church goers didn't put their heads out until that time, for fear of the social shaming.  That may still be true in a few small towns, especially in the South, but that stricture is crumbling everywhere in America, at least where it hasn't vanished altogether.  And the ire of the public atheists, the Dawkins and Hitchens and Harrises, is aimed at fundamentalist Christians or Muslims and mostly concerned, not with the fact of their belief, but with the political actions arising from their beliefs:  from terrorism at one extreme to forcing the denial of evolution in public school curricula at the other.  Is that a different flavor of atheism from that of David Hume or Madalyn Murray O'Hair?  I don't think so.  I think it's just a recognition that the major battles (such as government demands for public prayer) have been won, and that Christianity in the public square (it was never really a question of Judaism or Islam or Hinduism, to name three) is pretty much in retreat.

So is atheism an umbrella term that includes those without a theistic belief of any kind?  I don't think so, especially since theism is fading as the assumed position of everyone in American (and European) society.  Buddhism does not confess the existence of a deity, but I don't think one of the tenets of Buddhism is to deny the existence of God. It is not necessary to deny the existence of the god of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, or the gods of Hinduism, in order to be a Buddhist.  You can practice Buddhism quite well by simply ignoring the issue.  So it would be more accurate to call Buddhists non-theists than to call them atheists.  And many people who are not religious today (and who may have been in the past just as a matter of social comfort) are not really antithetical to the notion of God's existence:  they just aren't concerned with it.  We don't have a convenient term for such people, but they are, I suspect, becoming the default position of Western culture.  Perhaps, being the majority (if they are, or soon will be) they don't need a term.  Perhaps it is the theists and atheists who must identify themselves, but that doesn't get us away from the undeniable: the stance of atheism is to be against the confession and profession of theism.  Atheists deny the reality, presence, "existence" if you will (although the term is highly problematic, especially in this context) of God.  And you can't stand in opposition to something, make that a central tenet of your identity, and then say you don't really oppose anything, that the very questions of theism are of no interest to you.

In the 19th century, when atheism became a more or less respectable intellectual position, agnosticism was proposed as the reasonable alternative to the extreme affirmation of God, and the extreme denial of God.  That term illustrates perfectly the nature of the entire discussion.  The default position, as I say, was theism; any strong disagreement with that position had to take it into account, and so be antithetical to it.  Agnosticism comes along as the reasonable compromise between the extremes; but it is still interested in the question.  It is interested because it has to be:  the default is theism, you must define yourself against that if you are not for it.  What prevails now, I would argue, and will come to prevail, at least in Western culture, is non-theism:  people who, like the agnostics, don't know, but who, unlike the theists, atheists, or even the agnostics, just don't care.  In Western philosophical circles, the default position is either atheism (opposition to belief in a deity) or non-theism (the question is of no importance).  There are slippery distinctions, especially among the Continental philosophers:  Jacques Derrida, an Algerian Jew by birth, a non-believer by profession, was a philosopher of religion and credited with trying to develop what some called a "negative atheology."  He wasn't, however, an atheist:  he wasn't interested in philosophical discussions about the existence of God, and wrote lucidly about Kierkegaard and Abraham and Isaac, as well as about Christianity and Islam.

These are deep waters, and easy categories lead to easy errors.  My primary complaint against the latest crop of public atheists is that, like the late Ms. O'Hair, they are remarkably ignorant of subjects they profess to have so much contempt for; and they're contempt for it seems to be their raison d'etre; or at least, they're raison d'publish.  Their identity as atheists is to be in opposition to theists; but this isn't 19th century Europe (or, for that matter, America) anymore.  Most public figures do not have to assert their religious beliefs (if they have any) by now.  The default position is that we don't know if you attend church (Christianity is still the default; synagogue is invisible (the assumption is most Jews are cultural, but not observant) and mosques are scary), and we really don't care (except perhaps during political campaigns, and even then, absent the President, I don't see man politicians making much use of their regular church attendance, or lack thereof).  Are there people who don't share the interests of either theists or their opponents, the atheists?  I'm quite sure of it.  And I think it rather unfair to lump them in with the atheists whose entire point in identifying as atheists, is to deny the claims (real or imagined) of theists.