Saturday, June 21, 2003

And as it turns out, Telford ain't the only one moving

I'm leaving blogspot! I've joined the notfrisco cabal! Please update your links to:

The adventure continues!!

Thursday, June 19, 2003


I apologize to those of you who've gotten interested in the historical-Jesus discussion, that it's going so slow. I've come down with a cold and have had a hard time concentrating lately, while the Westmont server seems to have gone down and taken Telford's blog with it. Before it disappeared, though, the blog announced the happy news that Telford found a house. Which will also slow down the discussion since he'll be so busy, but it's a relief for Telford.

He's been looking for a few months, ever since he found out Westmont was going to rehire him (this time on a tenure track). It's tough enough to find a house in Santa Barbara, which is one of the most expensive places in the country, but Telford's task was made harder by the size of his family. It occurred to me when I heard him talking about this, that one thing that's hard about having a lot of kids in modern American society is that our shrinking fertility rates have upped the expectations for how children should live, especially in terms of how much space they have. I remember in the movie My Left Foot, the first half of which was set in an enormous working-class Irish family, the brothers and sisters squeezed together in communal beds by sleeping head-to-foot, and kept those arrangements until they were old enough to leave home. Nowadays we tend to think there's something vaguely incestuous about a brother and sister even sharing a room. Yet throughout human history, the movie's image of family life was probably more normal than what I grew up in. (And as I pointed out in an earlier post, having relatives in your face all the time may be precisely what de-eroticizes them.)

When my family moved to California, when I was three, we bought our four-bedroom house from a very large family. The oldest daughter lived in the little bedroom that was to become mine; two brothers lived in the larger bedroom next to it, that would be my sister's; and two more kids lived in the downstairs bedroom (I forget the gender). When we showed up, they'd just had another baby, and decided they needed a new house.

With just two kids in the house, we had a lot of room. This was even more so because there was a field out back that actually belonged to a neighbor, but he wasn't doing anything with it, so he let us run around there. Since we lived in a pretty well built-up suburb, half a mile from the freeway, it was nice having that patch of nature. There was a stretch of meadow grass where we'd play; farther from the house, where there must have been an underground water source, there was a bramble of blackberries and a quince tree that must have been planted for some long-abandoned garden, but that still fruited. There was also patch of wild fennel, which the local kids called "Indian chewing gum" because when the stalks dried out you could peel off the hard skin and get a soft chewable core. It didn't taste very good, but when you're a kid there's an odd thrill to finding a source of something that isn't through your parents.

When we got older, new residents in the house tried different things with the field. First there was a terraced garden; then when I was in my teens, they fenced it off and raised sheep there. Now, as I said this was a built-up 'burb, with no agriculture for miles around, so it was always entertaining when visitors to the house would suddenly hear a "Baa-a-a-a." They would stop with the expression of someone who thinks they must be hallucinating, and say something like, "Did I just hear ... something like a ... sheep?"

There was quite a bit of animal life in the area. There were deer that aggravated my mother and me by munching on the garden. There were stray tomcats who managed to impregnate both our female cats before we could spay them. I watched the birth of one set of kittens; as you can imagine, it was quite fascinating to a six-year-old girl. I still flash back to those images, when I think of what birth is like. It wasn't much like a human birth, but it's still the only one I've seen in the flesh.

That house carved so much of my mental landscape, it's hard for me to imagine growing up moving around the way the Work children have. This is something like their fourth house in the last six years. But I guess that, whether in Pasadena or Santa Barbara, four to a bed or one to a room, children always adapt somehow.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

For goodness' sake

T.S. O'Rama wrote me an email in response to my remark here that when I read about God in the Bible, he doesn't always seem especially good. He writes:
Here's my 2 cents: Part of the difficulty is that the bible wasn't written for us. It was written for all times, for all peoples - including the people *at that time*. So the Old Testament necessarily had to be written in a way that would instruct and help people who had not a clue scientifically or morally, while preserving a kernel of truth (the important part) for all generations. God colors with crayon until he can paint with oils.

For example, if I am a caveman who rapes every woman I see and don't know any better, then if you are God you'd probably get across the idea of respect for God first (so I'll listen) then respect for women second (so I'll understand why raping is bad) and finally I go down the "monogamy only" path (i.e. faithfulness and exclusivity). But the latter comes later. First you'd get the respect idea down. People who are cruel only understand cruelty.

The bible may, in some places, induce head-scratching. But fortunately there are parts (especially at the end) that display total love for us, like the idea that God would come down as a man and die for us. Here's a quote I came across that unfortunately I cut & pasted but don't know who said it:

"I do not understand suffering - but I know it is real. But a God who is in any way responsible for this terror of our lives, such a God must be terrible, a Molech consuming the children we love in contempt for any individual's striving and selfhood. But that is not the God revealed in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a man whose life is written to echo the history of his people. Our God shows that he is with us - Emmanuel - in the slime of life, in the pain of life, in the joys of life, and in our death. I still do not know why people should die meaningless deaths, but because God is with us, he can look me in the face and I will not turn away in disgust. This story is so powerful that its symbols grip me absolutely. If all the details are wrong or ahistorical, the story itself remains true. Perhaps it is a dream, although I think not, but the story of Christmas is that life has meaning, humanity is worthwhile, and ultimately "all will be well, and all will be well, and all things will be well".

I've been around this a zillion times with Telford (to the point where he's heartily sick of it), but I'll say again what I've said to him: this would all be a lot easier to believe if I didn't have to believe Yahweh is the omnipotent creator. It would be easier if I didn't have to believe in an omnipotent creator at all. If somebody said there's a powerful but limited force for good in the universe that's doing what it can, that might excuse certain klutzy moves it makes along the way. But that's not the argument Christianity makes.

This reminds me of Joel Gazis-Sax's interesting post on Zoroastrianism. I don't know a whole lot about the faith, but what I know agrees with what he says. In that scheme, there is a good, but non-omnipotent god who is constantly at war with an evil one. It has heaven and hell, and an apocalyptic end-times scenario similar to Revelation (some think Zoroastrianism influenced Revelation, but that's another story), but with a rather different spin on them:
Zoroastrians believe that we have two linked souls, one which animates our earthly body and another which remains in Heaven with God (Ahura Mazda) at all times. This heavenly soul never becomes corrupted. But Ahriman, who can be called Satan if you please, can and does work to pollute the earthly soul. When he succeeds, he gets to drag you down to Hell. But not for eternity.

Hell resembles Christian Purgatory, but with a lot more pain and suffering. Good deeds performed during your lifetime help to ameliorate your pain. Once you have been cleansed, Ahriman has no more hold over you. Your earthly soul reunites with your heavenly one and you are with God...

I'm not about to convert to any religion, but if you've got to have one that demands an unequivocal belief in good and evil, Zoroastrianism's formula solves a lot of questions. God doesn't cause suffering: Satan does. In the struggle between Good and Evil, though Satan makes advances, he can never completely win. God will reclaim all that is good and beautiful after a period of purification. No one is damned for all time because God loves us. We suffer in hell so that all that is Satanic in us can be removed. In the end, we all join God in Paradise. Zoroastrians don't fret about the behavior of others: they labor to perfect themselves.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims, it seems have corrupted these ideas, largely I think for political reasons. When Satan's role changed to resemble that of Ahriman more, these other religions failed to incorporate compassion for the suffering soul here on earth completely. Therein, I think, is the root of the contradictions which drive so many of us mad. The critic of the Levantine religions asks "If God is Good, why does He allow evil to flourish in this world?" And it's a good question, one for which the answers I have heard are halting, selfish, and unconvincing. The Zoroastrian replies "God does not cause the evil in the world. Satan does. God can win, but He needs your help. Work hard on your own soul."

I find that empowering.

I tend to agree. I'm comfortable enough speaking the language of good and evil, but the Zoroastrian version makes more sense to me than the Christian version. It would be interesting to talk to a Zoroastrian one of these days, but sadly, there aren't a lot of them left.
Yearning to breathe free

Recently I got around to reading Freedom House's latest report on the state of freedom in the world. In the essay prefacing the data, the house points out that the news is mostly good. The authors say a "third wave" of democratization began in the 1970s, and continues today. (So, you poli-sci wonks out there: what were the first two?)

The report gives some attention to the regional trends, especially the fact that the "wave" so far hasn't hit the Middle East. There's been no general improvement in the freedom ratings there in 30 years. A lot of ink has been spilled about why that's so, and I'm not going to try to add to it.

Also interesting when you look at the data is the fate of the post-Communist world. As FH noted in its Nations in Transit report, a split seems to be developing between the western and eastern parts of the former Soviet bloc. The nations of eastern Europe, as well as the Baltic states, have mostly succeeded in democratizing. (The exception has been the Balkans, but even there it seems to be happening now that the war's subsided.) The rest of the former Soviet Union, however, has had a much tougher time of it. Some, like Turkmenistan and Belorus, have fallen under the sway of outright dictators. At best, as in Russia, the scene is mixed.

This trend continues if you look at China and Indochina, which have de-Communized themselves but remain repressive. The former non-Communist, authoritarian states of east Asia, like South Korea and Taiwan, have mostly democratized successfully.

So where did the wave hit? Africa, to a certain extent. In the early 1990s there was a wave of popular protest there, no doubt inspired by eastern Europe and the end of Cold War shennanigans in the continent, and a lot of dictators lost their jobs or were forced to compromise. In only a few places did this end up with complete democracy, but the improvement is significant. (And today, via Eve Tushnet, comes news that another thug is gonna hit the road.)

Perhaps more significant to the U.S. is Latin America. Despite various setbacks, democratization there seems to be for real. This is, I think, part of a larger point: Latin Americans are in some ways becoming more like us northerners. Much has been made of the Latino cultural influence in the U.S., but politically, economically and even religiously (given the inroads Protestant groups have made there), the movement is going both ways.

This is an important point for people who fear Latino immigrants, I think. Last year when Pat Buchanan's book The Death of the West came out, several commentators criticized how he defined "the West" -- especially his including eastern Europe and Russia but excluding Latin America. As Jonah Goldberg pointed out, he was really defining a racial group rather than a cultural one. (And a rather dubious racial group at that, since the boundaries of "white" are pretty blurry.)

This point is even more striking when you add economic data to the mix. One obvious difference between "the West" and "the Third World" is the former is rich and the latter is poor. Yet according to the World Bank, Latin America is richer than the former Soviet bloc. (Look at the column where it says GNI per capita.) In fact, one real shock to me when I first saw the Bank's table last year is how poor some of the old Soviet states are. If you scroll down to the third page -- to the poorest countries in the world -- you'll see Ukraine, Moldova and a couple Central Asian republics lurking there.

If there's one thing that's clear from all this, it's that the old Cold War division of the planet that we imply when we say "Third World" is way out of date. What the next arrangement will be -- well, we'll see.
The meet market

On Saturday I wrote about this costume I wore to this party I went to, but I didn't write that much about the party itself. Like I said, it was put on by a singles group associated with church, but I really didn't know anything about it. After I got there I found a couple of surprises: it's for singles 35 and up (making me three years too young for it), and a lot of people there were actually from other churches. I guess the market for middle-aged Christian single people isn't that big even in L.A., so these groups are networked together.

Whenever I go to one of these singles scenes, I end up with ambivalent feelings. I chatted with some people and attracted a few interested men, and like any woman I like getting that kind of attention. But as always seems to happen I gave my phone number to a guy I really shouldn't have. He danced with me toward the end of the night -- he danced rather uncomfortably close to me, I thought -- and after that he immediately asked for my phone number, without even asking my name. That seemed a bit ... aggressive to me. I said I needed to rest and went to a sofa and sat down, and he followed me, and finally I gave him my business card. He called me at work today, where I put him off with the convenient excuse that I was busy. I've gotten much worse pickup attempts before, but this kind of thing just makes me feel ... ugh. Scuzzy.

It wasn't all that bad, though. There was another guy who hung around me the first hour or so of the party; I gave him my card too, but I think he got the feeling that it wasn't really happening for me and by the end of the night he'd moved on to another woman. I also met a couple of friends who were a bit younger and hipper than the rest of the crowd, who invited me to a party on a yacht this weekend. It costs $52 apiece, so I don't think I'll go. But they seemed to be part of some vaguely Christian party scene, so I gave one of them my card too, and told him to put me on his email list if anything was happening.

Another guy, though not an "interested" guy, that I met at the party turned up again in a weird way. After church yesterday I went outside with Telford, and he prayed for me. Telford does most of the talking on these occasions, but sometimes I make an attempt at it also. I don't really do anything in a formal "prayer" style; I just start talking about whatever's on my heart. This time I spoke about how I'd seen other people experience God, like someone they know whose presence they carry around with them always, and suddenly a voice said, "Yeah, I see him like that!"

I opened my eyes and he was already walking away, waving back at me and smiling impishly. Telford was totally confused, of course, but when I told him I'd met the guy at the party, he said, "Oh. Cool."

I was pretty disconcerted -- not just because I'd been interrupted in prayer, but because he'd been eavesdropping on me. I guess CA people don't think of prayer as a private act, especially when it's done in a public place, but I do pray with the expectation that only Telford and maybe God are going to hear me. I am not sure how freely I would speak if I didn't.

At any rate, I think a singles group is not the thing for me right now. I'm single and I don't want to remain single forever, but really, I'm not in a good place for dating at the moment. It did occur to me, though, that instead of my phone number I should have just given them the url to this blog. If they read it and still want to go out with me, then it might be worth doing.

Monday, June 16, 2003

In the name of love

Somehow -- call it feminine intuition or something -- I get the feeling Telford is still not happy with Borg.

Actually, he makes criticisms similar to the ones I made, about how Borg tries to categorize Jesus. I would defend Borg on one charge Telford lobs at him, though:
His religious experience would have been "shaped by" his Jewish heritage (64). (Not defined, but merely shaped. Borg has already ruled out the applicability of Israel's tradition of a God set apart from the world and occasionally intervening and dwelling there, on 62 and 258 nn. 25-27. This "Western supernatural theism" has "seriously negative consequences.")

I read Borg's position as a little more nuanced than that. He agrees that "...imaging God as a personlike being is very common in the Bible. It is also the natural language of worhips and prayer, and there is nothing wrong with it in such contexts." But he regards the concept of God as a separate person standing outside the universe "is theologically deficient: it affirms only the transcendence of God and neglects the immanence of God, despite the fact that the Jewish and Christian traditions have consistently affirmed that God is both."

This actually kind of agrees with what I was told in the Holy Spirit part of the Alpha course, and by Telford himself, that the Holy Spirit has been a rather neglected part of the Trinity in the last few centuries. Indeed, I gather that the Pentecostal movement arose largely in response to this. What I took from Borg's comment about "supernatural theism" is that we should not look at Yahweh as if he were one of the Olympian gods of Greece, sitting up in a remote heaven and only noticing us if we do something to grab his attention. The God of the Bible is personlike but in a different way from that. I don't know, maybe he's going too far in the opposite direction with his "panentheism" concept, but I don't think he's rejecting outright the Jewish way of looking at God.

Anyway, that's kind of a side issue. Telford, like me, wondered why it was so important to Borg whether Jesus knew he was the messiah; unlike me, who disposed of it in one paragraph, he goes through a long series of guesses. I think I should elaborate a bit more on the reason I perceived this to matter to Borg, although maybe all I'm doing is projecting my own concerns onto it.

Borg wrote that he thought this went to the question of whether Jesus wanted people to believe in him, specifically, or placed more importance on what he taught. I wrote that I sympathized with this question because sometimes the focus on the name and the person of Jesus seems like you're "siding with the winning team" -- that is, if you say the right name, fly the right flag, wear the right colors and so on then you're saved. But the question that raises for me is, what is the difference between the one side and the other side? It seems to me that if this side-picking isn't based upon moral superiority, this is no more than tribalism. Our side is better because it's us. Or -- even worse -- our side is better because it's going to win.

I think that danger has always existed in religion. In fact, in a lot of ancient paganism that seemed to be more or less explicit: gods were partisans for one nation or another, and if another nation conquered you, your god "lost" so you might as well start worshipping the conquerers' gods. Back when I was blogging Exodus I griped that I saw a strain of it there, and it's pretty clear that in Christian history a lot of people have used the name of Jesus that way.

In my experience it's pretty common in liberal circles, whether Christian or not, to want to exalt the principles of Jesus over the person of Jesus for exactly that reason. I suspect that Borg's attraction to the idea of Jesus not knowing he was messiah comes from this. If he did not know, if he thought he was just a guy who had an unusually close relationship with God, then his message would have been more about goodness than power. In other words, "This is how to be the best person," rather than, "This is who you follow if you want to come out on top in the end."

I can already hear Telford protesting that this dichotomy is way too crude, and he's right. In fact, I should say that only since I've known Telford have I realized the problem with that way of thinking. But since I first read Telford's post a few days back, I've been concluding that this shows a kind of running tension between the way Telford and I look at things.

Some years ago Carol Gilligan famously, and controversially, claimed that men and women use different forms of moral reasoning: men think in terms of abstract principles, while women seek harmony in relationships. I don't know if that's true in general, but with Telf and me it's the exact opposite, because I'm always pushing principles while he's always pushing relationships. For him, religious faith is all about relationships: with God, with Jesus and with the fellow faithful. We've argued about this enough that he seems to believe I don't like the idea of faith being relational. Actually I do like it, but I put principles ahead of relationships. A lot of the disagreements we've had over Bible reading come from me looking at God's behavior and saying I do not want to have a relationship with him because he does not seem especially good. Telford seems to look at it the other way: you have a relationship with God and so you trust that even when it looks bad, it's all for the good.

But getting back to the subject, I think that this heavy emphasis on relationship is the more benign reason why a Christian would want to see God as a specific person with a specific identity. You can't have a relationship with abstract moral principles. And I can see why it would be hard to have a relationship with something as vague and floaty as Borg's "panentheist" vision. Jesus gave a name, a body, a personality to God, making God someone you could relate to like a human being. No other religion that I know of did it in quite that way.

The fact that I understand both these points of view doesn't mean I completely like either of them though. Borg, from my point of view, has a way of raising issues I understand but offering solutions that I don't really like. The pre-Easter/post-Easter Jesus idea was one of those, and the he-didn't-know-he-was-messiah thing is another. On Telford's side, I like his idea of a relational God but it's ethically troublesome to me, especially the idea that one's salvation depends on it. Telford complains at the end of his post:
Borg shows us a way to admire Jesus for "knowing God" as intimately as he did, without feeling bothered by the calls to follow him alone or the warnings of rejection's dire consequences that litter the canon of his followers, even when they appear to come from his own mouth. We can have our other ways to God without having to turn away from him.

The funny thing is, though, that Wright himself seems to have an answer to that one. As I mentioned in my Chapter 3 post, Wright believes Jesus' "judgment talk" was attached to the specific place and time: if the Jews didn't heed his words, the Romans would destroy them. It makes you wonder then, if those commands to follow him or else would really apply to all people in all of history in quite the same way. But I suppose that may come in a later chapter.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Get this party started

Last night a singles group associated with Christian Assembly threw a '60s costume ball. Seeing as I've had no life for a while now, I thought it would be fun to go. But I had no idea what to wear. The '60s were not a very good fashion decade for someone who looks like me, so I don't own anything that looks '60s even in a vague sort of way. And since this was, after all, a singles event, I also kind of wanted to look good.

So I emailed my sister, who seems to know everything there is to know about clothes, especially historical clothes. I had hoped that she could just give me some general tips about what sort of thing to look for, but she took it on as a project. She went to a vintage clothing store in her town and found a genuine '60s candy-pink polyester minidress. Now, I should point out for those of you who don't know, a candy-pink polyester minidress is definitely not me. But it was the right size, it cost $10, and I was running out of time, so I said sure, get it. And then, unasked, she also somehow found a white pillbox hat with a pink bow on the back and netting over the top, faux pearl earrings, and a white purse that was actually a modern item from K-mart but looked properly retro.

She mailed all this to me. I put it on and thought, this is definitely not me, but it's actually kind of cute. The only trouble was that the hat seemed to be too small, which is not surprising given that women's hats almost always are on me. (I like to think it's my outsized brain, but maybe it's just my swelled head.) Also, the only shoes I had to go with it were pumps with two-inch heels. I try to avoid wearing heels to dance parties because they're uncomfortable and because they make me taller than most of the men, which makes them less inclined to dance with me. But I figured, it'll do, so I put everything on and headed off.

I went as "establishment" '60s, but most other people there went hippie. There's got to be a cultural comment somewhere in the fact that an evangelical Christian church would throw a party imitating the Summer of Love, but I don't know what it is. There was a live band that played the Beatles, Hendrix, and other counterculture music. Toward the end the female singer even did a Janis Joplin impersonation, complete with whiskey bottle, but it didn't actually have any whiskey in it because there was no alcohol at this gig. The band also did a strangely clean version of "Shaft," if you can imagine that.

Anyway, despite the heels I did find guys to dance with. I realized then that an era's dance styles probably have as much to do with clothes as with music, because when you're in a short skirt and high heels, all you can really do is stand there and shimmy. The outfit won third place in the costume contest (the prize was a Betty Boop mug, for some inexplicable reason), and was variously described as "Jackie Kennedy," "airline stewardess" and "Junior Miss." When I received the prize some photographers there jumped in front of me and took a bunch of pictures. If they turn up at church tomorrow, I think Telford's going to be in for a big laugh.

Friday, June 13, 2003

Blogroll updates

Will at Mysterium Crucis seems to have lost interest in blogging once he became a Real Catholic, so he's losing his spot on the Catholic blogroll to T.S. O'Rama. I've also added 111:2 and Reaching for Zion to the Miscellaneous Monotheists.
If you can't get enough of this stuff...

Lynn Gazis-Sax has read another book by Marcus Borg (this one entirely by Borg) called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and she posts some thoughts on it. Plus more meta-commentary on Telford and me.
Chapter 4: Spirit of the age

Marcus Borg starts off his chapter on Jesus' doings and teachings by defending his uncertainty about whether Jesus knew he was the messiah. He bases his argument partly on the fact that in Mark, which he believes is the oldest Gospel, Jesus doesn't say that directly, while in parts of Matthew that draw from Mark, Jesus' assertions of messiahdom seem to have been added in.

Again I'm chafing against the lack of methodology: as with Wright, I don't really know how Borg knows these things, such as why Mark is the oldest or how he knows Matthew appropriated things from him. His point also reminds me of something Telford wrote a few days ago, that the oldest source isn't necessarily the truest. Sometimes your understanding of something improves with time. My feeling about is that it depends on the type of knowledge you're talking about. In terms of details of events, like what exactly did Jesus say to Peter on X occasion, I would think having the memory fresh would be better. Time tends to give you perspective: the details fit together in a more coherent picture.

Then again, sometimes the picture you form takes you farther from truth rather than closer, especially if you don't remember the details right. Really, how can we know which happened in this instance?

Also as I was reading this, I wondered why it mattered whether Jesus knew he was the messiah. Personally I'm more interested in the question of whether he actually was the messiah, and whether he lives today, and has any interest in me. (Hey, there he is! Sorry..:-)) But Borg says this relates to whether Jesus specifically wanted people to believe in him, or believe in what he was doing.

I think I see what he's getting at. That relates to my complaint about Wright in the last chapter, when he denied that Jesus' message was really about ethics and religion and instead made it about rallying Israel to its historic moment. It makes it sound like it's mostly about siding with the winning team, whereas I assumed that the whole reason for rallying Israel at that point was religious and ethical. As I asked before: what does it really mean to be "light of the world"?

Borg begins to tackle this question by identifying Jesus' identity and message. First of all, he says, Jesus was a Jewish mystic or "Spirit person." What's a Spirit person? Borg draws upon William James (which I haven't read) and spiritual traditions of other cultures (which I have read, a bit) to draw a broad, and rather appealing, picture of mysticism:
Mystics, as I use the term, are people who have decisive and typically frequent firsthand experiences of the sacred.

The most dramatic of these experiences of the sacred involve a variety of nonordinary states of consciousness. In visions, there is a vivid sense of momentarily seeing into another layer or level of reality. In shamanic experience, one not only sees another level of reality but also enters it and perhaps even journeys within it...

The world looks exquisite, and it may even appear as if there is light shining through everything or bathing everything in its glow. Moreover, the boundary between self and world, which defines our ordinary subject-object state of consciousnes, becomes soft, indeed, less pronounced than a deep sense of connectedness and reunion.

Borg goes on to argue that Jesus was clearly one of these -- his "vision quest" in the desert, his frequent conversations with God, his mystical healings and exorcisms -- and this was foundational to his being and to understanding him.

What bothers me about all this is its attempt to cast Jesus as a typical example of something. In fact, though I didn't mention it last night, Wright did the same thing in his chapter. He argued that Jesus did know that he was messiah on the ground that it was more or less standard operating procedure at the time:
This, I must stress, is not a particularly odd thing for a first-century Jew with a strong sense of God's presence and purpose, and a clear gift for charismatic leadership, to think. Others thought much the same, with local and personal variations...

If Jesus was all the things Marcus says he was, then, in a century that saw many would-be messiahs and royal personages come and go, leading movements, announcing the kingdom, going to Jerusalem, saying and doing things about the temple, it is highly likely that Marcus's "Jewish mystic", if he was indeed a Spirit person, a social prophet, and a movement initator, would have faced the question both from onlookers and from within his own heart and mind: was he, then, the messiah? ... Even Josephus could tell people to believe in him; I can imagine Judas the Galilean and bar-Kochba telling people to believe in them. If Jesus really was, as Marcus allows, a "movement initiator", why should he not have done the same?

The two scholars use essentially the same argument: Jesus resembled people who were X, therefore he was X. Wright draws comparisions to other Jewish messianic types, while Borg draws cross-cultural categories, but they both run into the same question. Was Jesus a typical anything? If he was the Son of God, in one way he was the most untypical being ever to walk the planet. Even if he wasn't, he was a unique individual. People have their commonalities, and people are influenced by their cultures, but they also can be radically different. How much can we really infer by resemblance?

Borg does more of this when he describes Jesus as a "wisdom teacher." He compares Jesus to other teachers of "alternative wisdom," such as Buddha and Lao-tzu, and draws inferences on that basis. He also describes Jesus as a social prophet, speaking against oppression and the institutional reigious powers -- on which points he basically agrees with Wright.

I don't really know what to make of all this. I don't feel like I'm getting much closer to the historical Jesus. I did notice as an interesting little aside, though, that Borg thinks Jesus' healings were not supernatural, but not psychosomatic either:
Inexplicable and remarkable things do happen, involving processes that we do not understand. i do not need to know the explanatory mechanism in order to affirm that paranormal healings happen. And Jesus seems to have been uncommonly good at them.

I don't feel so convinced that paranormal healings happen, but Borg does seem to be agreeing with what I said at the end of this post. You don't have to defy the laws of nature to do amazing things.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Chapter 3: King is coming

OK, I know Telford already blogged through 4, but my time and energy are running low, so I'll blog 4 tomorrow.

This pair of chapters deals with what Jesus did and taught, and this time Wright has the honor off the tee, so to speak. In my earlier post I said I wanted to see how Wright applied his historical method, and I'm still waiting, because I'm not seeing it in this chapter. When Telford first started urging me to read the historical evidence for Jesus I complained that it would take a year, and he claimed it would take only a few weeks. I am thinking now that I was right, because Wright doesn't build his case here so much as make a series of assertions, with footnotes referring mostly to his other works. How he reached his conclusions is not clear.

Still, what he says is interesting. He sets up the mood in Israel at the time: the belief they were being ruled by pagans as a punishment for their infidelity to God, and that a messiah would soon come to restore them to their rightful place by overthrowing Roman rule. There were a number of apocalyptic Jewish sects and claimants to messiahdom at the time; most Jews were looking forward to seeing their enemies humbled through violent conflict.

Jesus, says Wright, came to correct all that. Wright denies that Jesus was there to bring a new religion or ethical code; instead he was there to declare a new eschatology:
Jesus was challenging his contemporaries to live as the new covenant people, the returned-from-exile people, the people whose hearts were renewed by the word and work of the living God... all could practice his way of life, a way of forgiveness and prayer, a way of jubilee, a way which renounced xenophobia toward those outside Israel and oppression of those inside. This is the context, I suggest, within which we should understand the material we call the Sermon on the Mount. It is not simply a grand new moral code. It is, primarily, the challenge of the kingdom: the summons to Israel to be Israel indeed at the critical junction of her history, the moment when, in the kindom announcemnt of Jesus, the living God is at work to reconstitute his people and so fulfill his long-cherished intentions for them and for the whole world.

Wright also has an intriguing interpretation of Jesus' judgment talk:
Many have traditionally read Jesus' saying about judgment either in terms of the postmortem condemnation of unbelievers or of the eventual destruction of the space-time world. The first-century context of the language in qustion, however, indicates otherwise. Jesus was warning his contemporaries that if they did not follow his way, the way of peace and forgiveness, the way of the cross, the way of being the light of the world, and if they persisted in their determination to fight a desperate holy war against Rome, then Rome would destroy them, city, temple, and all, and that this would be, not an unhappy accident showing that YHWH had simply forgotten to defend them, but the sign and the means of YHWH's judgment against his rebellious people.

From my admittedly limited knowledge of these things, that does seem like a more Jewish way of looking at it than the usual otherworldly interpretations. I am having trouble seeing, though, how being "the light of the world" can be something other than an ethical and religious thing. Wright never explains what that phrase means (assuming we already know, I guess), but my impression from the OT is that it's Israel's worship of Yahweh (religion) and following the law (ethics) that makes it the light of the world. It also seems to me that opposing xenophobia and oppression is an ethical position. It may have been extra important at that particular moment, but has there been any time when those things are OK?

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Heavy meta

Telford's already moved onto chapters 3 and 4, which I'll get to tomorrow. In the meantime, I like his post responding to the comments from the Catholic peanut gallery about our discussion. This has got to be one of those cases of infinite blog-regress: Telford and I write a commentary on a book, which brings a commentary over the commentary, with further comments on the commentary on the commentary ...
The space between

Telford remarked in his comment on my chapter 1 post that he was "interested in how you view N.T. Wright's appeal to his historical method as 'scientific'. Does Wright share your respect for leaving room for strangeness?"

I didn't discuss Wright's historical method in my own post on chapter 2, but Telford outlined it in his:
Wright's project is first to see whether the data of history support a picture of Jesus with coherence, explanatory power, and predictive power. These are the confirming tests of scientific adequacy. Here science is operating in its proper sense (not in the materialistic or naturalistic senses that have gained ascendency in our materialistic, naturalistic scientific culture). For Wright, every event of Jesus' life, including his resurrection, is open to scientific inquiry precisely because truly scientific historiography refuses to draw boundaries in advance for what counts as evidence (22).

I agree it sounds good, though I'm holding off until I see how it's applied. I have little experience with the scientific method applied to history, so it's largely theoretical to me at this point.

Telford also makes an interesting point:
Wright is forthright that he is intuiting and proposing pictures informed by his faith – and for that matter his Englishness, his schooling, his gender, and all the rest. The test is how well the picture serves, not where the picture came from. After all, no scientist I know is troubled by the fact that the discovery of benzene's chemical structure originated in someone's dream of a snake biting its own tail, or that the Big Bang theory came from a Catholic priest who didn't buy Aristotle's conviction of the constancy of the physical universe. Why should we be dismayed, or even surprised, if belief turns out to be a helpful source of intuition?

This is somewhat tangential, but it reminds me of the story behind the naming of dinosaurs. Richard Owen came up with the name in 1842, after a few species had been found and their similarities noted. (Later when more fossils turned up, scientists divided them into two separate orders -- saurischia and ornithischia -- so "dinosaur" is no longer a scientific name.)

Although it was a couple decades before Darwin's Origin of Species came out, there were already arguments about evolution. Contrary to popular belief, Darwin didn't invent the idea of evolution; the idea that species change into other species had been around for a while, but how it worked and why remained puzzling until Darwin came up with natural selection. Especially popular before Darwin was the idea that all species could be lined up from "lowest" to "highest," with every animal of the past and present on the chain somewhere. The idea of the branching tree of life hadn't taken hold. (Actually, the "great chain" concept goes on after Darwin -- unfortunately, it's often turned up in Star Trek.) So the popular idea was that all reptiles were below all mammals on the chain. Which makes a certain amount of sense, given the reptiles that live today.

The story goes that Richard Owen, who was an anti-evolutionist, wasn't buying for a minute that the gigantic, complex dinosaurs could have somehow evolved into the primitive mammals of the Eocene. The name "dinosaur" is translated "terrible lizard," but the word "terrible" had a different implication 150 years ago than it does today. Now we tend to use it to mean "lousy," but back then it meant something more like "inspiring terror, awesome." (Think, "I am Oz, the great and terrible...") By naming dinosaurs that, Owen was apparently emphasizing their impressiveness, and digging his elbow into the idea that these were lowly beasts.

What this story tells me, all this time later, is the danger of polarized thinking. Owen was wrong, overall, about evolution, but he was right about this point. No animal alive today evolved from the giant dinosaurs he was looking at. The evolutionists of the time were right about the concept but wrong about the details. If you're trying to assess which side was right, the answer is complicated.

It's something to keep in mind as I'm reading a book representing the "liberal" and "conservative" views of Jesus. The subtitle of the book is "Two Views," and it is indeed that -- two views. I doubt they're the only two views, and I doubt either one of them has a lock on the truth.
Marry me, marry me, marry me

Eve Tushnet, Ginger Stampley and Fr. Jim Tucker have lately been decrying the concept of a big, extravagant wedding. I tend to agree with all their points, though one thing that biases me is that my family seems to have a tradition of cheap weddings.

My mother's parents eloped, actually (her family disapproved, I think) so there wasn't much of a wedding at all. My parents married in the back yard of my grandparents' house, my mother wearing a short white slipdress that she'd made herself. They were both still in school, so there wasn't much time or energy or money to spare. My father married his second wife on the deck of his cottage. I remember my stepmother's story about the day: she got up and went off to get her hair done, and came back to find my father in his jeans, unshaven, laying carpet. When she told me this years later, she was still a little annoyed.

"Well, it was better than sitting around being nervous," my father objected. "I was ready at the appointed hour. And the carpet was down."

The fanciest wedding in my immediate family was when my sister got married, nine years ago. She continued the family tradition of marrying al fresco, in a live-oak grove in West Marin (hey, we're unchurched, so it makes sense). But she made herself a fancier dress and they rented out a women's club to throw a reception. Still, it was kind of a shoestring affair. I remember going to the grove for the rehearsal, thinking I was just tagging along, when my sister pointed out a spot next to where she and the groom were standing.

"You stand there."


"You're the maid of honor."

"Oh. I am?"

Well it was a good thing I found out before the wedding!

What was really cool about it, though, was that many of the gifts that friends provided were contributions to the wedding itself. One friend got herself a license to actually perform the ceremony; another pair with good voices sang them up the aisle (seeing as you can't haul an organ into a grove); another did the cooking, and so on. This was apparently done by the woman in the article that started this discussion, and it was great not just because it saved money but because it added to the communal feel of the event. A lot of weddings seem like a show that the bride and groom put on that everybody shows up to watch, like a movie; but this felt more like a gathering of a community to launch a marriage. It also felt a lot more intimate that nobody there was a stranger. I haven't given much thought to what I'd want my own wedding to be like, but I think I'd like it to be like that.
Been down so long

Wow, yesterday was a great advertisement for Movable Type, wasn't it? Blogger went down for maintenance, Haloscan went down for maintenance, and my enetation comments flickered in and out. It looks like I will be able to move to MT, but there are some arrangements that need to be worked out. More on that later.

Also later, more on chapter 2 of the Jesus book, now that I've read Telford's piece on it. But my day job calls ...

Sunday, June 08, 2003

Chapter 2: To know you is to love you

N.T. Wright starts the second chapter of The Meaning of Jesus by criticizing the attitude that he was brought up with, that faith and history are separate and often hostile camps. He approves of historians' quest for evidence on Jesus and his world, but complains there is too often a "hermeneutic of suspicion":
If two ancient writers agree about something, that proves one got it from the other. If they seem to disagree, that proves that one or both are wrong. If they say an event fulfilled biblical prophecy, they made it up to look like that. If an event or saying fits a writer's theological scheme, that writer invented it. If there are two accounts of similar events, they are a "doublet" (there was only one event); but if a single account has anything odd about it, there must have been two events, which are now conflated. And so on. Anything to show how clever we are, how subtle, to have smoked out the reality behind the text.

This seems to be a phenomenon that afflicts most quarters of academia. You can see how constantly digging out new "hidden meanings" of things can keep the publication opportunities flowing. (I am reminded of some postmodernist scholar, I forget her name now, who claimed to have discovered the fact that a Jane Austen character was masturbating.)

This reminds me of my previous brush with Bible scholarship, Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? It would be more accurately called Who Wrote the Torah?, because it actually dealt with just the Pentateuch and a couple other OT books. The book laid out the "documentary hypothesis" that the Torah was actually the work of four different authors whose narratives were stitched together later. That seemed quite plausible, and in fact I find the Bible a lot easier to read with that in mind, what with the strange repetitions and shifts in tone. But in order to figure out who those authors were, why they wrote why they did and why they were strung together the way they were, Friedman essentially saw a kind of current-events commentary buried in the texts. If one text seemed to favor Moses and another Aaron, this was really reflecting conflicts between the two tribes that claimed descent from them many centuries later. Any text that prophesized something that actually happened was assumed to have been written after the fact.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, because people certainly do propagandize their histories. But to my mind, it creates a hypothesis that's unproven and unprovable. It really based on a psychological assumption: the only thing that really motivates people is politics.

Wright complains of similar assumptions in historical-Jesus scholarship: they assume that most of the NT material was essentially propaganda of the early church. This may be true, but scholars often seem to take it as a starting point rather than a possible conclusion:
This ... is often done, particularly by those still wedded to an older liberal picture of "Jesus the teacher" who ... would be shocked to think of himself as, for instance, messiah. I do not know in advance, more specifically, that a considerable gulf exists between Jesus as he was (the "pre-Easter Jesus"...) and Jesus as the church came to know him and speak of him (the "post-Easter Jesus"). We might eventually wish to reach some such conclusion; we cannot build it into our historical method.

Wright then moves on to the role of faith in all this. Along the way, he makes a point very similar to the one I made here about the nature of knowledge:
(Faith in God) is not just "belief." It is natural to say "I believe it's raining" when indoors with the curtains shut, but it would be odd to say it, except in irony, standing on a hillside in a downpour. For many Christians much of the time, knowing Jesus is more like the latter: being drenched in his love and the challenge of his call, not merely imagining we hear him like raindrops on a distant windowpane. (For many, of course, the latter is the norm; hinting, promising, inviting.)

But what does it mean to "know" someone? Humans being what they are, this is a great mystery. It is clearly different from knowing about them. When we "know" a person (as opposed to, say, knowing the height of the Eiffel Tower), we imply some kind of relationship, some mutual understanding. We are used to each other; we can anticipate how the other will react; we accurately assess their wishes, hopes, and fears. We could perhaps have arrived at the basic facts by careful detached study, but when we say we "know" someone, we assume that this knowledge is the result of a face-to-face encounter.

Exactly. These are the two different kinds of knowledge I was talking about. And even though Wright would prefer that history-knowledge and faith-knowledge be intermingled, he recognizes the difference between them. If Christian faith is a relationship, you cannot have a relationship with someone you only know secondhand.
I'm getting there ... eventually ...

I decided not to write a response to Telford's reaction to chapter 1 of the Jesus book, since I didn't feel I had anything helpful to say about these academic disputes. But Lynn Gazis-Sax has jumped in with a good series of posts, first a general statement on the historical accuracy of the Bible, and then part one and part two of a more specific response to Telford's and my posts. Quite impressive for someone who hasn't even read the book!

I'm going to post on chapter 2 later today. Telford has already done so but, in keeping with the original deal, I haven't read it yet.

Saturday, June 07, 2003

Blogspotters unite!

Around the end of last year, I was getting so fed up with Blogger that I half-seriously made a New Year's resolution to move to Movable Type. Obviously, I didn't follow through on that, because I gathered that Movable Type a) costs money and b) requires technical expertise that I don't have, at least to start it up.

Well, a recent development may address both of these concerns. Dean Esmay has gotten so fed up with the defective links and comments on his favorite Blogspot sites that he's offered to move people to MT for free. He's moved nine people in the last three days. The movers still have to pay $15 for the domain and $5 a month for the hosting fee, but Dean's services are free.

In the comments, Tony of Trojan Horseshoes has a suggestion for making it even cheaper:
I know that one MT installation can support multiple Blogs. Some people may even want to go in together, which would lower the costs even more, and make you need to do fewer installs.

They would have to share a domain name though, but could have a unique first part of the domain name.

This is how Dodd has Blogfodder setup. Multiple blogs all on one MT install, and each of us has a different url, in the format of

Since I'm painfully in debt right now (just had to get a new cooling system on my car -- yeesh), I find this idea very appealing. I know I've seen other Blogspotters I read grumbling a lot lately, especially those with comments. I'm thinking of something like this: if I get, say, two other people to share the domain, I could pay under my name and they could each send me $15 to cover their share of the start-up plus the first six months of hosting. If they want to stay on after that they can send $10 for another six months. Something like that, but it's negotiable.

Is anybody interested? Just think -- working archives, functioning permalinks, comments that don't disappear! Woohoo!

Friday, June 06, 2003

Hating for fun and profit

Charles Murtaugh says some uninvited guests showed up at Harvard's graduation:
On one side of the street was a group of about ten people (including three or four little kids) carrying anti-gay signs, and on the other a larger group of counterprotesters with signs reading "No Hate in Cambridge" and the like. At first I thought it was business as usual, but a closer look at the first group revealed that these weren't your ordinary rightwing protesters.

First, their signs had bright day-glo color schemes, and the language was almost self-parodic, e.g. "God Hates Fags," "No Dyke Weddings," and, over a photo of Alan Dershowitz, "Fag Alan." Second, they were apparently not a one-issue interest group: one sign, in bright rainbow letters, read "Thank God for Sept. 11," and another said something like, "God Destroyed the WTC." Two of the picketers were dragging American flags behind them, so that their compatriots could tread on them.

Apparently this production comes courtesy of legendary hatemonger Fred Phelps (much as I dislike Michael Moore, the episode of his short-lived "Awful Truth" show when he counter-picketed Phelps with a busload of drag queens and leatherboys was absolutely wonderful), who has recently targeted graduation ceremonies to host his little publicity stunts. I knew he didn't like gays, but the anti-Americanism was new to me. Who does he expect to win over, anyway? Honestly, between the bizarrely cheerful signs and the over-the-top rhetoric, I thought I might be witnessing a staged event for a "Trigger Happy TV"-type show. I waited for a bunch of giant rabbits to come out and pummel the picketers, but they were sadly not forthcoming. The other possibility that ran through my head is that Phelps himself is some sort of sleeper agent for People for the American Way.

Actually, the reportage on Phelps reveals that he hates just about everything. The anti-gay thing is just the most publicized of his hates, and one of the newer ones. By the time he started doing that in the 1980s, he'd already pissed off enough people that the Southern Baptists tried to throw him out of his church, the ABA disbarred him, and three of his children left him, telling frightening stories of abuse. In his hometown of Topeka he's known for sending abusive letters to local officials, accusing them of weird sex acts. In other words, he's a complete fruitcake.

He also doesn't particularly care about winning people over. His congregation basically consists of his own large family intermarried with a few other clans. He's one of those tiny-remnant guys -- the more he's hated, the more righteous he thinks he is. And on his own website, which I will not link to, he responds to the point Charles makes by saying, "Who cares?" Really, Phelps would be an irrelevant figure if he did not live in the media age. He knows how to be in the right places and say such offensive things that he's made himself a public figure despite his lack of a following.

I've said here before that I doubt that anyone is all evil, but in Phelps the good qualities are hard to spot. But in a way I hope he gets to heaven. I think he'll be in for a shock when he sees who else is there.
Happy birthday ...

... to my favorite brother-in-law! OK, so I only have one, but even if I had more he'd probably still be my favorite. The only trouble is, I can never remember exactly what day the birthday is -- the sixth? the eighth? So pardon me if I'm off. But anyway, I know you read the blog, so I hope you have a good time whatever day it is. Your present will probably be late, but it'll get there soon ...

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Hit the pause button

You know how I said back here that I hadn't had a good cry yet? Well, I went on not having one, until last night. Whatever the reason, it came out. I'm still a little wobbly today, so I'm not up for a real post.

The historical-Jesus discussion is generating some interest, so I hope to continue that in a day or two. Tom over at Disputations has a comment on the subject, which was picked up by Mark Shea and his bevy of commenters. (Scroll down to the post titled "Proposition" -- republish your archives, Mark!)

T.S. O'Rama also emailed me a quote from Flannery O'Connor:
It's in the nature of the Church to survive all crises - in however battered a fashion...Everything has to operate first on the literal level...I suppose what bothers us so much about writing about the return of modern people to a sense of the Holy Spirit is that the religious sense seems to be bred out of them in the kind of society we've lived in since the eighteenth century. And it's bred out of them double quick now by the religious substitutes for religion. There's nowhere to latch on to, in the characters or the audience. If there were in the public just a slight sense of ordinary theology (much less crisis theology), if they only believed at least that God has the power to do certain things. THere is no sense of the power of God that could produce the Incarnation and the Resurrection. They are all so busy explaining away the virgin birth and such things, reducing everything to human proportions that in time they lose even the sense of the human itself, what they were aiming to reduce everything to.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Chapter 1: In search of the protoplasmic Jesus

I mentioned a couple days ago that Telford and I are blogging through a book about the historical Jesus, and today is the maiden launch, so to speak. This will be a more structured than previous discussions, which had a way of getting out of control (mostly because of me, alas). The deal is: we each read a chapter, post about it without looking at each other's blogs, and then make a single response to each post. Telford's responses, I assume, will be in my comments, but since Clutter has no comments I'll have to respond to him here.

Anyway, the book consists of alternating chapters by two scholars: Marcus Borg, a member of the controversially liberal Jesus Seminar, and N.T. Wright, a traditionalist. The first chapter is Borg's.

Borg lays out the backdrop of his viewpoint. He is a believer, but he takes some of the Gospels' events to be historical and some to be metaphorical. His view of the evidence is that the earliest NT author was Paul; the earliest of the Gospels was Mark, which dated to about 70 C.E.; Matthew and Luke, from slightly later, both drew on a source document, a list of sayings, called Q; and the Gospel of John was later still, and largely metaphorical.

All this I've heard before, it being a pretty common view among Bible scholars. He does make an interesting claim that I hadn't seen before, which is that we should make a distinction between the incarnated Jesus who walked, talked and died 2000 years ago (or the "protoplasmic Jesus") and the "living Jesus," the divine being who rose up and lives today. He says that growing up he blurred them together, but he now sees this as a mistake:
But note what happened: I lost the historical Jesus as a credible huan being. A person who knows himself to be the divinely begotten Son of God (and even the second person of the Trinity) and who has divine knowledge and power is not a real human being. Because he is more than human, he is not fully human ... When we emphasize his divinity at the expense of his humanity, we lose track of the utterly remarkable human being he was.

Less obvious but equally important, I also lost the living risen Christ as a figure of the present. Because I had uncritically identified the divine Jesus with the human Jesus, Jesus as a divine figure became a figure of the past. He was here for a while, but not anymore. For thirty years, more or less, Jesus a divine being walked the earth. The, after he had been raised from the dead, he ascended into heaven, where he is now at the right hand of God. He will come again someday -- but in the meantime, he is not here. Jesus had become for me a divine figure of the past, not a figure of the present.

I know what he means. I've had problems with both of those things myself. This is the ancient argument about how much Jesus was human and how much divine, and how to reconcile the two. In another book Telford loaned me a few months ago, the author went through various theories on this and finally settled on, "Jesus was fully divine and fully human." Which seemed to work for him, but to me it's about as helpful as pointing out that the mome raths outgrabe. It's a grammatical sentence, but that doesn't mean it makes sense.

Later, Borg also writes about the worldview he comes from:
Modernity is dominated by a secular worldview. This image of reality began to emerge in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the birth of modern science. Sometimes called the Newtonian worldview or simply the modern worldview, it sees what is real as the world of matter and energy, space and time; and it sees the universe as a closed system of cause and effect, operating in accord with natural laws ...

Like all worldviews, it functions in our minds almost unconsciously, affecting what we think possible and what we pay attention to. It is especially corrosive of religion. It reduces reality to the spactime world of matter and energy, thereby making the notion of God problematic and doubtful. It reduces truth to factuality, either scientifically verifiable or historically reliable facts.

This worldview is also the one from which I come, though I don't know that I see it quite the way that he does. In my earlier series of posts about the historicity of Jesus I remarked that when I speak of a "scientific" way of looking at things it's not primarily based on the idea that the universe is governed by natural laws. That's part of it, but it's not the most important part to me, and it's not reason, to my mind, to categorically rule out God. This is partly because I don't, in fact, necessarily, see spiritual truth as coming down to historically reliable facts; in fact, I went in to this sort of assuming that Christianity was not in that realm, but Telford keeps insisting that it is.

But probably the larger reason is that, while it's true that the general scientific mindset is rooted in the Enlightenment, the universe that science shows me today looks very different from the cozy clocklike world of the eighteenth century. As you go out into the farthest reaches of space or the minuscule realm of molecular physics, things get very strange indeed, and often mysterious. The shift from Newtonian physics to relativity theory is probably the most famous example: the model went from something sensible and mechanical to something counterintuitive and bizarre.

That example points up the basic reason behind this: the laws of nature were not handed down to people like the Ten Commandments to Moses. They're things we have to deduce for ourselves, by observation. And as our observations expand and change, so does our understanding of the rules.

I can't help thinking of the Infinite Improbability Drive in Douglas Adams sci-fi satire The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Whenever it was turned on, bizarre things would happen -- whales and bowls of petunias appearing in deep space, for instance. When one character protests that's impossible, he gets the answer, "No, it's just highly improbable."

So anyway, I think one of the features of a scientific mindset is to give the cosmos room to be strange, and to surprise me.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Entertainment value

So Tom started the game of captioning these pictures, the other Tom picked it up, and now I must make my contribution:

1. "While you're down there, could you look around for my contact lens?"

2. "So... tell me again why you're drawing a picture of Saddam Hussein?"

3. "You know, I understand every tongue of every nation, but I still don't get postmodern writing."

4. "Actually, that inflatable organ sounds pretty good."

UPDATE: The KairosGuy has more.
Let love rule

I thought I had a sweet church story yesterday, but this takes the cake.

(Via Making Light.)

Monday, June 02, 2003


Christian Assembly has grown a lot in the last few years, and one effect of this is parking chaos. The lot is too small and involves some hairpin turns, and on Sunday morning it threatens to turn into a free-for-all. So there's an attendant, a man I know only by his name-tag -- Chris -- who directs everybody to the right spot when they drive in.

A couple months ago Chris started pestering me about my brakelight. One of them had apparently burnt out. So almost every time he saw me, he would tell me to get it fixed -- or if he didn't see the car, ask me if I'd fixed it.

I got pretty annoyed about this. Like most women, I don't really understand cars, and the prospect of getting anything fixed means taking it to the shop and putting myself in the care of mechanics who have an interest in parting me from my money, which I don't have much of these days. Worse, earlier this year I got sideswiped, and I figured if I took the car in they'd try to get me to repair the body damage and part me from even more money. It was one of those things I knew I had to deal with sometime, but it was low on the priority list. So I wished Chris would just leave me alone.

Yesterday morning I showed up for the 9 a.m. service, parked, and walked past Chris. He greated me, but mercifully didn't ask about my brake light.

After the service I hung around late to talk to Telford, and so when I went back to my car I was almost the only person in the lot. I climbed inside and put my key in the ignition, when suddenly I saw Chris outside my window, looking at me.

Reluctantly, I rolled down the window.

"Look," he said, "if you'll buy a bulb for your tail-light, I'll put it in for you."

I said nothing. I wasn't expecting this.

"Because it really worries me to see somebody with a tail-light broken," he went on. "If you put on your turn signal, no one can see it. So if you go to the Auto Zone down there and get a bulb, will you let me put it in?"

"You'll do that?" I said finally.

"Yeah," he said. "I just have to take the bulb out so we can see what kind it is."

I opened the trunk and he pulled off the panel to uncover the bulbs. Looking at it, I could see how simple the setup was. Hell, I could have done it, if I'd known.

I went off to the store to buy a matching set of bulbs. On the way over, I thought about what he said about the turn signal. Suddenly it hit me: That's why I got sideswiped. It had happened when I'd been trying to turn right. I was signaling, but the other car had scraped past me. Maybe the right signal light was already out.

I took the new bulbs back and sat in the car, stepping on the brake, while he worked in the back. After he'd fixed the right side, he reappeared at the door with another bulb in his hand.

"Can I have the other one?" he asked.

"You're replacing both of them?"

"Yeah. I just saw that your other brake light is burned out too."

He finished up, and I shook his hand and thanked him emphatically, and drove off.

It's a fine line between being helpful and being intrusive. The people who wax nostalgic about the close community ties of a small town, and those who remember the gossiping, nosy neighbors, are seeing two sides of the same phenomenon. And the church, like a village within a big city, has the same dynamics. I've always been very protective of the boundaries around myself, and I don't expect people to understand me, so I don't like strangers telling me what to do. But I suppose that sometimes when somebody says they just want to help, they really do just want to help. I have Chris' little selfless act to remind me of that.

Saturday, May 31, 2003

From the big house to the bigger house

Thanks to Teresa Nielsen Hayden for her comments to the previous post -- especially since I agree with her last one 100%! When I wrote about how I thought that leftists and evangelical Christians can talk to each other if they tone down the rhetoric, it reminded me of a good example of this I read about recently, concerning efforts to stop prison rape. I meant to blog this at the time, but for some reason I didn't, but hey, here's my segue.

I was very gratified to read the story, because prison rape is something that's really disturbed me for a long time. The jokes nauseate me. But it was one of those things that got lost in the polarization of the culture wars. Thanks to the threefold increase in crime in the '60s and '70s, plus a backlash against extensions of the rights of the accused, I've spent just about all of my politically conscious life with nearly all politicians wanting to be tough on crime. Worrying about prison conditions was something only far leftists did.

But Christianity is the wild card here. Prison ministry, of course, is a Christian tradition all the way back to St. Paul, and many Christians like our own Peter Nixon still do it and get to know prisoners as human beings. But perhaps an even more relevant phenomenon is how many Christians actually used to be in prison. There are quite a few ex-convicts at Christian Assembly, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its general moral strictness. Even though they now regard criminal behavior as sinful, you can't have gone through the criminal-justice system from the defendant's point of view and maintain a cavalier attitude about those still inside. And what with the sheer number of people who've been locked up over the last 30 years, ex-cons are likely to go on being a significant part of church communities.

The fact that prisoner rights is no longer strictly a left-right issue gives me hope not only for domestic prisoners but for the sort of war-prisoner shennanigans I wrote about in the last post. It's harder for American Christians to identify with the terrorist suspects, because they're foreign, accused of very serious crimes, and, of course, are Muslim. But the prison-rape article suggests that conservative Christians understand that you can lobby for prisoners without being in favor of crime, which is a good start.

Speaking of constructive engagement with Christians, I recently checked out the book The Meaning of Jesus, which Telford has been on my case for a long time to read, and we're going to blog our way through it. I'm not sure how exactly this is going to work, but watch this space.
In defense of Godwin's Law

I don't like to get into political debates on this blog -- the religious debates are taxing enough. But I can't get this post from Teresa Nielsen Hayden out of my mind. She links to an article from an Australian paper saying that the U.S. military is planning to try the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay through some sort of military tribunals and, if need be, execute them in situ. The paper headlines this story, "U.S. Plans Death Camp."

Teresa says, "If this story is accurate, we're going to have to repeal Godwin's Law." Meaning the informal Internet rule that you lose an argument once you compare your opponents to Nazis. Not surprisingly, this set off a long argument in her comments section about whether "death camp" is really an appropriate term, whether Nazi analogies are apt, and whether this story is accurate at all, since the paper it comes from is apparently not that reliable.

Looking back over history, I don't know if there's ever been a war where there haven't been some dubious things done to "suspicious persons." During the Civil War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and locked a lot of them up without trial for the duration. During WWI, sedition laws convicted some people just for handing out protest flyers. During WWII, of course, there were the internment camps. During the Cold War... well, you know. It points up the depressing fact that the liberal theory of criminal justice, which assumes that it's better to let some guilty people go than to punish the innocent, is irrevocably opposed to the mindset of war, which takes the exact opposite viewpoint.

The encouraging part of this, though, is that the historical examples show that the slope isn't nearly as slippery as a lot of people are afraid it is. All these things that I described were later reversed and repudiated, and they did not signal the beginning of a policy of general oppression of citizens. In fact, all of them happened in a period of expansion in people's understanding of constitutional rights. Sedition laws, for instance, had long been accepted as congruent with the First Amendment, but by now we just assume that ain't so.

I don't say this to argue for complacency -- in fact, quite the opposite. What bothers me about running straight to the Nazi analogy, without considering the more applicable analogies, is that it not only paints the government with ultimate evil but with ultimate power. You can see that happening among some of the commenters on Teresa's post, spinning theories about how Bush is going to throw the election in 2004 and turn America into a police state. One even seems to think the only way out of it is a violent coup. No wonder some of them are talking about fleeing to other countries.

I sympathize more now with Marc Cooper's complaint after hearing too much of this from his fellow lefties. It not only makes them depressing conversationalists, it also makes them pretty useless as opposition. The people who have done the most to stop government abuses of power have worked within the system, at the quotidian business of politics, law and media. They did not do it by giving up on American society and thinking they were ruled by Satan. Moreover, painting Bush as a Nazi isn't going to get you anywhere with people whose subjective impression of him might be more positive, or people who are justifiably afraid of terrorists. Really, we can't know what's going on in Bush's heart, or what secrets he might be keeping. What we do know is when there are policies that we oppose.

As alarming as it is to think of the government abusing its power, it's even more alarming to think of the opposition whose job it is to stop these things immolating itself in paranoia and defeatism. The left's spiritual forebears faced down power without skipping the country or plotting coups, so there's really no excuse for doing otherwise now.

Friday, May 30, 2003

Around the 'sphere

Somehow my energy is not very blog-directed today, so I'll avoid having to come up with original material by pointing to some good stuff elsewhere:

Lynn Gazis-Sax on teen sex, here and here.

An essay on the origin of Gidget (via L.A. Observed).

A study on jealousy and gender.

Peter Nixon on a cardinal's harsh words.

The Washington Monthly on the purgatory that is modern dating. I especially identified with this part:
Take, for example, this star-crossed couple who poured out their story of dueling social semiotics to a women's magazine a few years ago. Both sides agree that he invited her out on a dinner date, and that they had a wonderful time until the bill was presented. "When the dinner check came, I took it," explained 32-year-old Charlie. "But Susie reached for her wallet. 'Can I help pay?' she asked. My heart sank. I was sure she didn't like me. I figure if a woman wants to split the check, she's telling you that she wants to be friends. After that, the evening ended kind of awkwardly. I didn't know if I should kiss her or anything, so I kind of hastily said good-night."

Susie, 28, told the reporter that she saw the encounter very differently. "I offered to split the check because I didn't want him to feel obliged to pay for me. I figure if he had really liked me, in a girlfriend/boyfriend way, he wouldn't have taken my money--not on the first date, anyway. And I guess I was right: he didn't try to kiss me or say anything about another date."

Yeah, this is why the check is the part of a date that I most dread. There is no good way to deal with it any more.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

News from Academe

My mother, a university professor, sent me a call-for-papers that she found relevant:

Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs

Ed. by the University of Minnesota Blog Collective
Smiljana Antonijevic, Laura Gurak, Laurie Johnson, Jim Oliver, Clancy
Ratliff, Jessica Reyman, Sathya Yesuraja

The editors invite submissions for a new online edited collection
exploring discursive, visual, and other communicative features of weblogs. We are interested in submissions that analyze and critique situated cases and examples drawn from weblogs and the weblog community. Although we are open to a wide range of scholarly approaches, our primary interest is in essays that comment upon specific features of the weblog and that treat the weblog as always a part of a larger community network.
Categories around which essays may cohere include:
--Social and Psychological Perspectives
--Visual Features, including Interface Design and Navigation
--Rhetorical and Linguistic Features of Weblog Discourse
--Pedagogical Implications
--Intellectual Property
--Race, Class, and Gender
--Intercultural Communication
Because blogs, like the Internet, have a global reach, we encourage an international scope as well.

Along with this being the first scholarly collection of its type focused on weblog as rhetorical artifact, we are also taking an innovative
approach to publishing and intellectual property. Weblogs represent the power of regular people to use the Internet for publishing. The ethos of blogging is collaborative and values the sharing of ideas; bloggers are not dependent on publishers to get their words out. In the same manner, the editors of this collection will publish the collection online. We will use a peer-review process to ensure scholarly quality. But like a weblog, the collection will be available to all, although authors will retain their own copyrights. We intend to obtain a version of a Creative Commons license.

The members of the collective welcome the opportunity to discuss the scope of the collection or directions for essays with prospective authors. We may be contacted at

I'm not turning up a page at that address, but it could be interesting. I just hope they don't blog in the same academic-speak that the email is in. (I suppose they might have tailored the message's language to academics.)

On another note, she also sent me this:
CFP: The Slayage Conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
Nashville, Tennessee, May 28-30, 2004

David Lavery and Rhonda Wilcox, coeditors of Fighting the
Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Slayage:
The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, solicit your
proposal for the Slayage Conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
sponsored by Middle Tennessee State University. Visit the in-
development conference website at We welcome a 250-word
proposal or a completed paper on any aspect of BtVS or Angel from
the perspective of any discipline--literature, history,
communications, film and television studies, women's studies,
religion, philosophy, linguistics, music, cultural studies, and others.
We invite discussion of the text, the social context, the audience,
the producers, the production, and more. For a lengthy but not
exhaustive list of possible topics, go here: and/or
examine the in-development Encyclopedia of Buffy Studies at All proposals/essays must exhibit
strong familiarity with already published scholarship--in Fighting the
Forces, in Reading the Vampire Slayer, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
and Philosophy, in Slayage, etc.

Now, in this case I am finding a website. I have a feeling that actually reading the articles would cause some sort of brain damage but the titles are certainly entertaining:

Dissing the Age of Moo: Initiatives, Alternatives, and Rationality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Teen Witches, Wiccans, and “Wanna-Blessed-Be’s”: Pop-Culture Magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Surpassing the Love of Vampires: Or Why (and How) We are Denied a Queer Reading of Buffy/Willow

"I'm Buffy and You're . . . History”: The Postmodern Politics of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Oh, I should make some witty remark. But I'm sure you'll think of your own.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The whole truth

Today I somewhat rashly jumped into a discussion provoked by this Josh Claybourn post:
What religion does not believe that all other religions are wrong? Even Unitarianism, which essentially combines many faiths, believes all other religions are wrong. After all, since other religions believe theirs is the only way, than each religion, as well as atheism, must believe that something is wrong in all religions. They're mutually exclusive. So why single evangelicals out? If it's because of the "vituperation," that too is unfair since Islam carries much more of it than most evangelicals do.

He has a point -- certainly everybody has fundamental beliefs that they believe everybody who disagrees is wrong about. But as I (and others) tried to explain in the comments, there's some variation depending on what you mean by "religion" and what you mean by "wrong."

On the latter point, I referred to a conversation I had with Telford after I blogged Acts 17 and wondered, "To what extent did/does God communicate with people outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition?" According to Telford, the idea that God really didn't do anything in the world outside of what's recorded in the Bible doesn't square with what early Christians and Jews believed. The popular concept of a "high god" even in polytheist traditions may be the Holy Spirit at work. In this line of thinking, pagan knowledge is on the right track but is incomplete.

Many liberal Christians take the idea farther, seeing God as working different ways in the world but tailoring his message to different people in different circumstances. Mahatma Gandhi also essentially believed this, as does the Baha'i faith, a remarkable 19th-century offshoot of Islam:
Bahá'u'lláh taught that there is one God Who progressively reveals His will to humanity. Each of the great religions brought by the Messengers of God - Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad - represents a successive stage in the spiritual development of civilization. Bahá'u'lláh, the most recent Messenger in this line, has brought teachings that address the moral and spiritual challenges of the modern world.

Of course, in accommodating all these faiths Bahaists and others do think other religionists are wrong if they believe that God was talking only to them. And it also means tossing out certain idiosyncracies of the various faiths. Christians who object that God could not have been saying contradictory things in different places and times might consider their own faith. Christianity is seen as an "evolution" of Judaism -- Jews were right once, but now they're out of date, so we can toss over certain Old Testament rules. By the same token, Muslims see themselves as a further evolution of that line, and Baha'ists yet another step.

So while it's true that different religions disagree, I think there are degrees and types of disagreement. And getting back to Josh's complaint, I think what bothers people about certain Christian assertions of wrongness is how strident and extreme they are. The article he cited quotes Christians teaching how Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion," and calling Muhammad "demon-possessed," which is far different from Paul's diplomatic pitch to the Athenians. It's true that many Muslims are just as bad, but Jesus explicity rejected "he did it first" as an excuse...

One disadvantage to not getting cable channels any more is that I missed Annika Sorenstam's remarkable run last week. Nonetheless, I have opinions about it, and I think Andrew Sullivan makes a good point:
She is also not attempting to deny the obvious: that there are significant differences between men and women. .... But what we have in common as human beings vastly overwhelms what differentiates us as members of one gender or another. Sorenstam is a pioneer in accepting this, and reveling in it. She's not indistinguishable from the men; but she is competitive with them.

This often gets lost in arguments about gender: yes, their averages are different in various ways, but you can't treat everybody like they're the average. Just as women are generally shorter than men but I'm taller than half the men I meet, the physical disadvantage a strong woman has isn't that much greater than a smaller man has compared to a bigger man.

Take a look at the golf statistic where men have the greatest advantage: driving distance. On the men's tour, the average ranges from Hank Kuehne's 315.3 yards to Loren Roberts' 262.1. If you look at the LPGA's list, which Annika unsurprisingly leads, you see 31 players who drive within the same range as the men.

I don't have any big problem with there being separate tours for men and women, but I do think this shows that players who fussed about Annika playing in a men's event were being silly. It does not violate any concept of gender, or of gender difference, to say that the best female golfer in the world can compete against the best male golfers. As one TV commentator remarked, the LPGA is almost too easy for Annika. She dominates that tour even more than Tiger Woods dominates his: she won 13 times last year, vs. Tiger's five wins. There was no reason to think she wasn't good enough for the field, and she certainly showed that she was.
Elephant's memory

For some reason I had an urge this weekend to go to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. I've been there before and it's very cool, but I also seem to be fighting some virus again, and the trip just seemed too strenuous. So I decided to check out the local L.A. zoo, which I've never been to before.

I've always had mixed feelings about zoos. My mother tells me when she was growing up she lived near the D.C. zoo, and it really depressed her. She particularly remember the big cats kept in small cages, pacing and pacing with nowhere to go. I'm pretty much a bleeding heart when it comes to animals -- I don't even like to kill bugs -- so I know what she means.

Fortunately, zoos in general seem to have improved a lot since my mother was a kid. I don't know much about zoo history, but I get the impression the industry's moved from exhibiting animals as a sort of freak-show attraction toward education and preserving endangered species. So while animals in a city zoo like L.A.'s still don't have a lot of space, they seem to be kept with their needs more in mind. Social animals are kept together in groups structured after wild ones, solitary animals are kept apart, and the pen is designed to suit their comfort. The ocelot's domain, which basically consisted of a cliff with a series of ledges and clumps of greenery, looked like a place my own cat would have really enjoyed: lounging on one of the ledges in the sun, pouncing on anything that moved. Looking at the tiger sleeping in a lush clump of grass in the fan-palm grove they'd planted for it next to an artificial waterfall, I thought I wouldn't mind spending the afternoon there myself.

Nonetheless, there were protestors hanging around the front gate, with handmade signs about an elephant. "They ejected Ruby!" said one; "Separating the herd is unethical, unhealthy," said another.

I went back and Googled to see what I could find about this. Apparently Ruby is an African elephant who was sent to a breeding program in Knoxville, and activists are upset because that will separate her from Gita, her companion in L.A. for 17 years. A letter reprinted on Indymedia says:
We all know that elephants have a rich social life. In the wild, elephants work as a community. For example, when the herd is disturbed, it clusters around the matriarch and hides the calves in the middle. The matriarch decides whether to flee or charge. If the matriarch is wounded, the other elephants mill about in a panic. They usually refuse to abandon their leader no matter what.

Elephants in the herd may attempt to raise and support another elephant that has fallen. These remarkable creatures have even been observed carrying dead comrades and burying them under branches.

This is true -- elephants do form very strong social bonds. Then again, so do humans, and we often find ourselves separated from each other. Another article points out that Gita is actually an Asian elephant, and so is from a different species. Interspecies friendships certainly happen -- hey, I still miss my cat -- but you do have to think Gita will probably be better off with another Asian.

A disruption in a relationship is not to be taken lightly; I've certainly had to deal with a lot of it myself lately. But generally, it says something good about the conditions of zoos if this is the sort of thing protestors are getting worked up about these days.