Friday, November 15, 2002

It's nice to have a theologian friend...

...both for when he tells you what you don't know and when he tells you your Bible study notes are just as lame as you thought. I actually hadn't been paying that much attention to the marginalia, but at that point I was puzzled as to why those particular proscriptions were chosen for Gentiles, so I looked at the notes and got even more more mystified.

I went to a different library today and found the NRSV study bible Telford mentioned. Just out of curiousity I looked up what it said about the same passage. It said something similar to Telford's second option: "In Lev 17:8-18:30 these regulations govern both Israel and outsiders who live within Israel; thus, James proposes a law for gentile Christians in keeping with Mosaic law but without imposing circumcision."

And it ain't condescending, either.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

The fly

I have been debating with myself whether to post this, but it seems hardly anyone's been here lately, so what the heck. I had a dream last weekend that's been on my mind ever since. I was in a natural-history museum that I had been to before but that had recently been redone, and filled with large models of animals. There was a large room towards the front, right past the entrance way; and as I peered around the edge of the door, I saw the tip of a raised red-and-black leg.

I knew what it was. It was a huge model of a spider -- and I mean huge, the size of a truck -- attacking some sort of prey. Now understand that, in waking life, I am terrified of spiders. The movie scene that probably freaked me out more than any other was at the end of The Fly, when a fly with a man's head is caught in a spider web and about to be devoured, as he screams, "Help me!". It's cheesy, but man, I wasn't right for days after that.

So as you can imagine, I wasn't about to be able to look at this thing. I walked around and looked at other exhibits, even in the same room as the spider, but kept my eyes averted. When I tried to go deeper into the museum, though, I found it was closed, dark.

I can think of more than one reason why I had this dream at this particular time, but one of them, strangely enough, is Telford Work. I was deeply unhappy with his assertion that the origin of evil cannot be explained because it's senseless by nature: "I find the definition of evil as senselessness to be a profound Christian answer to the problem of evil's nature and origin. Sin contradicts the grammar of all good sense. It goes against every grain. It has no grammar of its own; it is grammatical error in creation. Any other answer is liable to turn evil into a form of good – dismissing or trivializing the radical seriousness of sin."

But my dream reminded me of the elephant, or the elephant-sized spider, in the room: evil makes all too much sense. When humans came to be, we were both predator and prey, born into violence, terror, pain, competition, and death. It is hard to see how we could have existed in that without "falling." And in fact, a traditional concept of the Garden of Eden, based perhaps on the "peaceable kingdom" idea, was that there was no predation in it. One interesting little fact I learned about early paleontology was that some theologians objected to classifiying extinct animals as carnivores or herbivores based on their physical traits. No ceature was created a meat eater, the theory went; all were vegetarians until original sin corrupted everything.

I am also reminded of a Stephen Jay Gould essay about a 19th-century field of thought, I think it was called "natural theology," that sought to learn about God through hs creation. As the essay described, it ran into trouble with the ichneumon fly, an insect that lays its eggs in the body of a caterpillar, and then paralyzes it so the larvae can eat it alive as they grow. In other words, this is an animal that survives by torture. Natural theologians had trouble figuring out what God had in mind with this.

This field is gone now, because, Gould concludes, nature and morality are two separate spheres. And this would all be very well, ifyou were a Buddhist or a Gnostic or a Manichaean and regarded the physical world as an evil that needed to be transcended. But the Christian idea -- inherited from Judaism -- is that God created the world, and therefore it's good.

Now, many people draw a distinction between animal cruelty and human cruelty by saying animals are merely following their instincts, whereas humans have a choice. But the mere presence of those instincts rather defies the idea that sin "goes against every grain." Acts between members of the same species like murder, rape, torture, war and even adultery (yes, those faithful pair-bonding birds sometimes cheat) are fairly common in animals and probably predate humanity by hundreds of millions of years. And we ourselves are animals; so connect the dots. Is saying that trivializing sin? I don't know, but I wonder how trivial it would seem if you were being impaled by a saber-toothed cat.

I do not mean to say that evil or selfishness is the only "natural" condition. As I said in yesterday's post, our sympathy with animals is as innate as our desire to eat them. But despite that post's cheerful conclusion, my dream reminds me that balancing one's predatory nature and one's empathic nature is never easy. And the slide between preying on animals and preying on each other is all too easy.

This goes to a basic problem I have with Christianity. There may well be a powerful force for good in the world. It might even have raised Jesus from the dead. But is it the omnipotent creator of this world? Eh. This world is not only full of nasty stuff, it would cease to exist without the nasty stuff. Many Christians seem to deal with this problem with almost a de facto dualism. C.S. Lewis envisions an extroadinarily powerful Satan; we live in "enemy occupied territory," in his words. When Telford speaks of sin, it seems more like an entity with its own consciousness than a mere set of human acts. It takes us over, enslaves us, cuts us off from all good. This seems to be drifting a loooong way from the idea of sin as a human rebellion against God. Are humans responsible for this whole world of violence, retroactively back to the Pre-Cambrian? Somehow, I doubt it.

The Fly

Little fly
Thy summer's play
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

--William Blake

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Nature's way

Speaking of people I totally agree with, I loved this article on animal rights from the New York Times this weekend. The author, Michael Pollan, expresses an idea I've had for a long time, but seem to share with few: we should not look at animal rights in terms of whether we kill them. The issue is how we make them live. So it is not necessary to become a vegetarian or refuse to wear leather, but the hellhouses we raise meat animals in are a blot on civilization.

It seems to me that, in regard not just to animals but to nature in general, we in the industrial world have developed something of a whore/Madonna complex about it. Either it's something to be casually used for our own pleasure, or it's so sacrosanct we should feel guilty about even wanting to touch it. But either way we are imposing a deeply unnatural view on it:
...human morality based on individual rights makes for an awkward fit when applied to the natural world. This should come as no surprise: morality is an artifact of human culture, devised to help us negotiate social relations. It's very good for that. But just as we recognize that nature doesn't provide an adequate guide for human social conduct, isn't it anthropocentric to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for nature? We may require a different set of ethics to guide our dealings with the natural world, one as well suited to the particular needs of plants and animals and habitats (where sentience counts for little) as rights suit us humans today.

To contemplate such questions from the vantage of a farm is to appreciate just how parochial and urban an ideology animals rights really is. It could thrive only in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world, where animals no longer pose a threat to us and human mastery of nature seems absolute. ''In our normal life,'' Singer writes, ''there is no serious clash of interests between human and nonhuman animals.'' Such a statement assumes a decidedly urbanized ''normal life,'' one that certainly no farmer would recognize...

Surely this is one of the odder paradoxes of animal rights doctrine. It asks us to recognize all that we share with animals and then demands that we act toward them in a most unanimalistic way. Whether or not this is a good idea, we should at least acknowledge that our desire to eat meat is not a trivial matter, no mere ''gastronomic preference.'' We might as well call sex -- also now technically unnecessary -- a mere ''recreational preference.'' Whatever else it is, our meat eating is something very deep indeed.

Right. Our relationship with nature is a long-term one -- a marriage, really. To go vegetarian isn't so much to harmonize yourself with nature as to abstain from it. Yet raising animals under torturous conditions is also against our nature. As Pollan points out, if we actually saw where most of our meat came from, most of us wouldn't eat it. We have a natural sympathy with beasts. To deny it is to deny our own humanity.

I've felt this way for a long time but didn't know what to do about it. Fortunately, there are some others out there who feel the way I do. Pollan refers to Free Farmed, a project the American Humane Association started two years ago to indicate which foods passed their standards for humane farming. In fact I was so inspired by this I went to Whole Foods today to try and find some of it.

I did find some Free Farmed food there, as well as some brands that claimed to be humane but were not actually labeled FF (though given how young the project is, they just may not have gotten around to everybody yet). Being in an organic food store, though, reminded me of how scrambled people's fears of modernity are. Very few labels mentioned treatment of animals; instead there was a lot of technophobia. "Our beef is raised without hormones, antibiotics or pesticides! Safe and healthy!" All these newfangled things you don't understand must be bad for you. But antibiotics are one of the great blessings of our age, in my opinion. Likewise, pesticides came about to get rid of real blights. They both can be abused, but so can anything. And there's no evidence organic food is better for you. All this fear of threats to physical health brought by technology, when we are healthier than anyone in history. It's our spiritual health we have to worry about.

The quiet storm

In contrast to the rather polemical article on the subject I linked to yesterday, a column in the Palm Beach Post comes closer to my own feelings on the subject of women at Augusta. Also, apparently I need to correct something I said earlier: apparently the club didn't start admitting blacks 30 years ago, they did it in 1990. Holy smokes.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

The ladies in the house

What They're Writing, which you might call the A&L Daily of golf, today is all over the controversy about whether to admit women to Augusta National Golf Club. Currently women can play rounds there, but they can't play in foursomes with men, and they cannot become members. A little while ago the head of the National Council of Women's Organizations complained about this, and a major flap ensued. Lately Augusta's chairman, Hootie Johnson, has come out to say he isn't budging. It would ruin the culture and the comraderie, he says. Fraternities can be all male, the Boy Scouts can be all male, why not Augusta?

I do not know, and cannot know, what it is that men get from being in environments without women. I went to an all-female college and i would not do it again, but some women liked it, and I don't see liking a single-sex milieu as inherently bad. But columnist Mark Bradley, while a bit hyperbolic, hits the problem on the head:
"We're a private club," he says. "And private organizations are good." But a private organization that plays host to an annual public spectacle is private no longer. Either the Masters stops charging admission and ejects the media and tosses out the TV cameras and becomes a tournament played for the personal enjoyment of its members, or Augusta National must admit a woman. If you want to be private, lock the door to all those who don't know the secret knock. Otherwise you're a private organization only on those days you choose to be, which is to say you're a band of hypocrites.

Augusta is legally private, of course, and should not be otherwise. But it's very much part of the public face of golf. And I don't think this is a message golf should be sending.

I'm biased, of course, being a woman who loves golf. But that's just the point: there are a lot of us. Most sports favor men by nature, because of the physical differences between the sexes. This is true of golf too, but less so. The female baseball leagues disappeared and the female basketball leagues are just starting, but female pro golf has been around for decades. Men and women play together in professional events and around the local links (except at Augusta, apparently). With all the female support out there for the game, why is Augusta shafting women? I'm sure when they started admitting blacks 30 years ago that disrupted the culture too. But they got over it.
Eating blood, and other amusements

When I started having theological discussions with Telford Work I realized I suffered a certain handicap in my ignorance of the New Testament. All I'd read up to that point was the synoptic Gospels. So I said I'd read the rest of it, which I have been doing, sloowwly. This weekend Telford dropped a not-so-subtle hint in an email: "If you run into something you want to blog about, I'm sure it'll ignite a nice juicy discussion...."

Well, I don't want to start a big theo-debate right now -- they are always interesting but a bit emotinally draining -- but there was one thing I was curious about. I should say, before I go on, that the translation I'm currently reading is the New Living Translation. I was actually hoping to find an NIV but the library didn't have it, so I made do. Anyway, the NLT is almost like one of those Bibles for Kids, written in very simple modern English with extensive and somewhat condescending annotations. The passage I was wondering about is from Acts 15, where the apostles are trying to figure out how much the converted Gentiles have to follow Jewish law. James finally declares: "And so my judgment is that we should stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, except that we should write to them and tell them to abstain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, from sexual immorality, and from consuming blood or eating the meat of strangled animals. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations."

The annotation for this passage says about the dietary restrictions: "These practices were offensive to Jews and made it particularly hard for them to have table fellowship with Gentiles. We, too, should be sensitive the feelings of others. All Christians must abstain from sexual immorality, emphasized because it was a prominent sin in the Gentile world."

So it sounds like the dietary rules were simply matters of courtesy that don't apply to all Christians at all times, while the sexual immorality rule does. I was wondering a) what the basis for this interpretation was, b) why those practices were especially offensive to Jews as opposed to all the other laws of kosherness and cleanliness, and c) whether there were disputes about sexual morality at the time that James was trying to settle. Any thoughts?
This one's for my mom...

...and everyone else who's recently been to grad school and suffered through bad postmodern writing. You've gotta love the opening quote: 'The essays that the graduating BAs would submit with their applications were often brilliant. After five or six years of PhD work, the same people would write incomprehensible crap. Where did they learn it? They learned it from us.'
Mixed metaphors: the grand finalists

Eugene Volokh posted his favorite mixed metaphor this morning: "This field of research is so virginal that no human eye has ever set foot in it."

I emailed him my own personal favorite, which turned up in an AP wire story about Fiji a couple years ago: "The council made its decision under the gun of a wave of protest that seemed to be spinning out of control."

Another triple-header!

Monday, November 11, 2002

Into the Mistic

Ron Rosenbaum takes down the increasingly unhinged Gore Vidal. At his best, Rosenbaum is an engaging mix of the ace reporter and the lit-crit nerd -- both of which I aspire to -- and here he goes into nerd overdrive about a certain TV show:
"Misting" is a term I favor because it has less of a built-in ideological agenda, and because it derives from that genius product of self-subverting American pop culture, Mystery Science Theater 3000, whose fans are known as "Misties." MST3K, as it’s known, made brilliant literate comedy out of the informal American practice of talking back to bad movies, to bad pop culture in general, showing and simultaneously ridiculing some of the schlockiest examples of world cinema. And insinuating into the Tapestry of Badness its own subtextual weave of pop referentiality—hypertexting hilariously on the run.

MST3K was quite the concept, and it certainly had its brilliant episodes; the treatment of Fire Maidens from Outer Space was one of the funniest things I've ever seen on TV. A lot of the time, though, I kept having this nagging feeling it could be better, that it wasn't quite hitting the mark. But MST3K is more an attitude than anything else. It was the show that took the audience's side, and made a fraternity of all the cranky lone wiseasses out there. A lot like blogging, really. And so the attitude lives on, even after the show is gone.
I must be a real Angeleno now

Today for lunch I decided it was time to try out a Southern California institution: In N Out Burger. I don't generally like fast food, especially not burger joints, but I've heard so much rhapsodizing about this place that I had to check it out.

The verdict: it's pretty good. The fries were indifferent but the burger was a good burger. And for $3.50 or so, it's quite a rib-sticking meal; about six hours later, I'm barely starting to get hungry again. But I'm still not that much of a burger-and-fries person, so despite what my co-worker warned me, I don't think I'll get addicted to it.

Some L.A. blogger, I think it was Matt Welch, remarked a while ago that you don't see that many branches of national fast-food chains in L.A. because there are superior local ones. In N Out Burger is one, as is the Mexican chain El Pollo Loco. (I think Fatburger is local too, though I wouldn't swear to it.) I don't know why L.A. would be the breeding ground for such places. I'd guess it's a combination of critical population mass, car culture, and popular tastes that take lowbrow food seriously. I couldn't imagine this happening in Manhattan, for instance, though they certainly have enough people. But that's just a guess.
Office heat report

Well, it was nice in the morning. I could smell the heating when I came in -- that heavenly aroma of hot metal and burning dust with a faint overtone of gas. (I'm serious -- it smells good when you've had no heat!) Then it warmed up though -- I think the high was 73 today -- and the air conditioning kicked in. I neglected to mention on Saturday that the other reason the office is freezing is the highly aggressive air conditioning. It's an all-season refrigerator. But at least the weather's getting colder, meaning I might actually get warmer...