Saturday, March 22, 2003

Acts 3

Peter encounters a beggar outside the temple who's been lame since birth, and heals him This is, I believe, the first time a healing has been done by an apostle rather than Jesus himself.

It's hard for me to read stuff like this without thinking of my brother-in-law. I met him when my sister first started seeing him in 1989, and he became like an adopted big brother to me, very loving and supportive. But he was always in pain. In the mid-70s he was in a building that collapsed from structural defects, and though surgery pulled him out of the initial paralysis, he remained fragile and plagued by problems. A few years after I got to know him he fell -- the sort of ordinary fall that most people would recover from -- went through another round of surgeries, and wound up in a wheelchair. And the pain gotten worse. I can see it in his eyes, in the way his smile is always a little cramped.

In the last year or so he's worked hard to strengthen himself, and he's noticeably improved. Last summer when I visited them, he proudly showed me that he could stand (a bit shakily) for ten seconds or so, which he had not been able to do in years.

Watching this long struggle is why, to be perfectly honest, stories like Acts 3 seem almost pornographic to me. Peter says, "Stand up and walk," and the man's "feet and ankles were made strong," and he literally jumps to his feet. I know many people draw from this the hopeful message that God can perform such miracles, and part of me wants to draw that also. Yet it's manifestly true that except maybe for a few instances like that, when he has a specific Gospel-spreading purpose, God does not do such things.

Coincidentally, yesterday my sister emailed me a link to this page. She's normally not interested in religion, so I was a little surprised. I don't agree with everything the author says, but I resonated with this:
The value of meditation and prayer are well established. The Church provides a place to focus one's attention upon both public and private concerns. Corporate and private prayer each have genuine value. Yet to corrupt this vital function with an appeal for a supernatural Lone Ranger to ride to our rescue is to weaken our spiritual strength and the capacity of the Church to contribute to our individual and corporate need in times of stress. We cannot be con men exploiting the legitimate needs of our parishioners with "worn out magic." We must heal the sick, not add to their sickness. When my wife was dying from a malignant brain tumor where the mortality rate was 100% regardless of treatment, it was almost more than I could bear to tolerate the comfort of the well meaning pious who urged me to "pray for a miracle." What kind of god would participate in such cruelty? Let the child in the next room die, but save my wife? We have to do better than that.

It is better, in a way, to think that God isn't in the miracle-cure business at all than to think he does it with such caprice. Telford has told me before that the miracles in the New Testament aren't supposed to be magic tricks to impress the gullible -- there signs of what will be, in the kingdom of God. Maybe he's right, but still it's hard to read of a crippled man jumping around, while the rest of us have to wait until the end of the world.

Friday, March 21, 2003


All this time in front of the computer is finally catching up with me, and my eyes literally ache. I have to run outside and play now. I'll be back with more Acts and whatnot when I feel better.
What falls away

Matt Welch says that if we're going to democratize Iraq, Saudi Arabia should be next. Matt has been on the House of Saud's ass for 15 months now, and he knows whereof he speaks.

I've been wondering about something, though. We've all been wondering if Iraq can last as a coherent state, given the Sunni/Shiite and Arab/Kurd divisions. Saudi Arabia is basically all Arab and Sunni, but it comprises three distinct regions (west, east and middle) that weren't historically part of one political unit until Ibn Saud conquered them in the 1930s. As the name suggests, the whole national identity comes from the House of Saud. If it loses the Sauds, what will it be?

Since Bill Allison has been reading a history of the country, he might have a better idea of this. I don't know what, on the ground, separates a Hijazi from a Nejdi. But one thing that's interesting about the Arab world is that while theoretically they all speak Arabic, and use a common written form, the spoken forms have diverged to the point where some consider them separate languages. The Ethnologue, the fabulous online language database, counts 35 spoken varieties of Arabic. Within Saudi Arabia, the linguistic divisions conform to the three political divisions I described.

I don't know how much these linguistic divisions matter, but it does insinuate who's talking to whom. If Saudi Arabia is no longer Saudi, will its regions be talking to each other?

Noah Millman makes the case for Conservative Judaism ordaining gay rabbis. He calls it a "narrow, sectaran post," but the issues are pretty much the same for gays in any religious community, I think.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

A wrinkle in time

Somewhere in the miasma of my brain, David Frum's much-blogged piece denouncing paleoconservatives connected with Harry Steele's theory that the left was splitting in two camps based on the changes stemming from the Cold War's end:
Opposing the actions of the US in the cold war meant allying yourself with its opponents, or at the very least lending them your sympathy and that was really not a problem for the left, including people who would call themselves liberals rather than socialists or communists. They could see a fair case for democracy in Chile, land reform in Latin America etc and I am still not convinced there was a lot wrong with such view.

But I don’t want to go over the historic rights and wrongs of the cold-war debates at this stage. What I think is critical now is that the same outlook has been maintained for a world where the opposition to the US and liberal democracies in general, comes not from leftist or national-liberation movements but from essentially fascistic forces. This is the point where the line has been crossed, where what may have been a progressive outlook in a previous era becomes a fundamentally reactionary position.

I found this via Junius last month, and thought it was a great point. Chris Betram wrote at the time that what clinched this for him was the war in Bosnia. Where some on the left were sympathetic to the Serbs because they were theoretically socialist, he realized they were ethnic reactionaries in another guise. And al-Qaeda, of course, is as politically incorrect as they come.

What the Frum article suggests is that this split is happening on the right as well. Thirty years ago anti-Americanism was the domain of the left, and while of course a lot of it still exists in the left, a lot of the most radical and scary rhetoric and actions are coming from the far right. Frum shows how paleocons have actually been sympathizing with America's enemies, because fanatical ethnic and religious purity resonates with them. And beyond the paleocons are the white-supremecist and other fascistic movements that are probably more dangerous than any domestic left-wing group right now. The Oklahoma City bombing, after all, was done in the name of similar views.

What makes this so dizzying for those who grew up in the Cold War is that it's not just a political shift, it's a kind of temporal shift. As Frum writes:
When NATIONAL REVIEW declared in its founding editorial that it would stand "athwart history, yelling Stop" the history it had in mind was Marx's "History" — the "History" with a capital H that was supposed to run inevitably toward Communism. By November 1989, that History had indeed stopped — was rapidly running backward — and the great question for conservatives was, "What now?"

Back in the Cold War, the West's enemy was a type of futurism. Marxists were so destructive because they sought to tear down societies and remake them from scratch. But now we are future, and attacks are coming from the past. As Eastern Europe, East Asia and Africa move fitfully in a liberal-democratic direction, malcontents want to turn back the clock -- to the days of the Caliphate, to the antebellum South, to the medieval days when Kosovo wasn't Albanian. And even the left-fringe activists these days are backward-looking, like the folks who sabotage genetically engineered crops to halt biotechnology.This is hard for both left and right to adjust to, I think. The left got so used to pointing to America's regressive aspects that it's tough to admit it's actually more progressive than most of the world; the right has to admit that, while change may alarm them, there are lots of things in the past that they really don't want to go back to.

Of course, as the Cold War showed us, what the future seems to be isn't always what it turns out to be. But the perception now that things are heading our way puts us in a very different spot than we were before. What we have to resist now is the futurist urge to coerce people into "progress." Josh Marshall warned recently that some in the administration would like to use this war as an entree to remaking the whole MIddle East. I agree with Josh: Be afraid. The future can change before you know it.
Acts 2

This is the chapter whence Pentecostals get their name. Gathered with a crowd of Jews from many countries to observe Pentecost (50 days after Passover), the disciples receive gifts of the Holy Spirit, and start speaking in tongues. Unlike Pentecostals today, their tongues are actually the languages of the various foreigners who assembled.

What most strikes me about this story is how it's the Tower of Babel on rewind. In that story, you'll recall, humanity speaks one language and unites to build a city with a huge tower in the middle. God finds this threatening -- "nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" -- and scatters them around the world speaking different languages, so they can never reunite.

Like a lot of early Genesis, this story feels like a pagan folktale that was shoehorned in -- what's up with this insecure God, and these overpowerful humans? But Acts 2 sends the message that if God was ever threatened by human unity, he isn't now. Although the conversion of the gentiles is still in the future, we have our first hint of the new religion's global reach.

By the way, I have to say that this cracked me up:
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. (2:12-15)

Uh-huh. Nobody gets drunk before nine in the morning. Unless they're just continuing from the night before, I suppose...
Uh oh

Louder Fenn and John J. Miller are both impressed by the, er, moral clarity of three-year-olds.

Guys. Do you remember what life was actually like on the playground? When I was growing up some lefties had an affair with the whole children-as-teachers-of-peace thing, and this is equally goofy. I could say it no better than Eve Tushnet:
Also, why is it somehow considered profound when a child rephrases his or her parents' political bromides in an even more simplistic and unenlightening fashion? I mean, that's nice dear, now run along.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Acts 1

The physician Luke picks up where he left off. The risen Jesus tells his disciples to tell the world about him, and that they will be getting help from the Holy Spirit (more on that in the next chapter). Then he disappears.

The followers go back to Jerusalem and choose a replacement for Judas named Matthias. While discussing the matter, Peter mentions in passing how Judas supposedly died:
Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood. (1:18-19)

This is quite a different story than the Gospel of Matthew tells, which says Judas repented his act, returned the money, and killed himself. The authorities used the money to buy the field, thence known as the Field of Blood.

The disciples probably knew about Judas' death only through the rumor mill; one imagines that, after the betrayal, Judas put as much real estate between himself and them as possible. It's probably impossible to know what really became of him. But the fact that these two different stories were already circulating among the early church suggests to me a split, which exists to this day, in attitude towards the enemies of the church. Richard John Neuhaus, writing about the possibility of universal salvation, pointed out that we don't know for sure that Judas is in hell. The idea that Judas repented certainly makes him seem salvageable. The story of him callously buying a field and dying in a freak accident, on the other hand, sounds a lot more vindictive. The apostles would have been understandably wounded at their former friend's betrayal, and one can imagine them enjoying the gross-out details.

Certainly Judas would have presented one of the world's toughest jobs of forgiveness. But then again, that's what Jesus told his followers to do. I suppose I could do no better than Stanley Hauerwas, whom the Gutless Pacifist quotes today:
I do not want my enemies forgiven. I want you to kill them (as sometimes prays the psalmist!). Actually, I would prefer to pray that you punish them rather than kill them, since I would like to watch them suffer. Also, I fear losing my enemies, since my hates are more precious to me than my loves. If I lost my hates, my enemies, how would I know who I am? Yet you have bent us toward reconciliation, that we may be able to pass one another Christ's peace. It is a terrible thing to ask of us. I am sure I cannot do it, but you are a wily God able to accomplish miracles. May we be struck alive with the miracle of your grace, even to being reconciled with ourselves. AMEN.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Exodus 35-40

Exodus wraps up with the building of the tabernacle, described in the same numbing detail as the instructions for building the tabernacle. The Hebrews are following previous directions, of course, but you also get the feeling that such a communal project is important after the trauma of the golden calf episode. Everyone contributes whatever possessions and talents they have to the endeavor; we are told some people were even turned away, so great was the giving.

Infighting is a great danger for any newly liberated group of people. The way the Israelites' solidarity quickly fractures after they leave Egypt is all too familiar to observers of postcolonial societies in Africa or Asia. One can't help but think Pharaoh would have been mighty amused to see what happened. The impressive Jewish knack for survival is showing itself already.

The converse danger for newly free peoples, however, is to take the unity brought by collective struggle into peacetime, leading to a militaristic authoritarianism. Robert Kaplan writes and interesting account in the new Atlantic Monthly of Yemen and Eritrea, two neighboring states representing the extremes of these problems. Yemen's local clans have never really come under central control, and have never stopped fighting each other. Eritrea, meanwhile, gained an extraordinary sense of unity and pride from its long struggle against Ethiopia, and is a rare model of civic order in the region. But the state is turning oppressively defensive and conformist, squashing the press and ignoring all external input.

Israel-to-be has to deal with both of these temptations. Telford points out that for a while authority became too centered on Moses, until his father-in-law intervened. Yet Moses is clearly and essential unifier; it was because he was gone so long that people turned to the golden calf to begin with.

It's hard to think about all this now without thinking about the people of Iraq. They've been under one tyrrany or another for a long, long time. Chaos threatens the moment Saddam is gone. Will they be able to find the balance?
Exodus 32-34

This section starts with the famous story of the golden calf. When God sees the Israelities worshipping an idol he flies into a rage, which Moses talks him down from. But once Moses comes down and sees what's happening, he loses his own temper and sets off a fratricide that kills 3,000 people.

Cheery story to read on the eve of a war, no? One thing that struck me, though, was that even though Moses tells his followers to "kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor" (32:27), he spares his own brother Aaron, who actually made the calf. Aaron's account of himself is rather peculiar:
And Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, “Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Whoever has gold, take it off”; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’ (32:22-24)

This sounds like what the Washington press corps calls the "passive exonerative" construction -- as in, "mistakes were made." In fact, earlier in the chapter it says specifically that Aaron formed a mold and cast the calf with it, so the it-just-popped-out story sounds extra unconvincing.

After this miserable tale is over, though, the mood seems to get almost wistful. The chastened Israelites strip off their garments and wait while Moses keeps conversing with God every day in a pillar of cloud, "as one speaks to a friend" (33:11). Although Moses gets closer to God than anyone else, he pleads with God to let him closer still. Show me your ways, show me your glory, show me your face, he asks. God says Moses couldn't survive such an encounter, but says:
‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’ (33:21-23)

There's an odd tenderness to this, after all the violence that's gone before. I feel for Moses' yearning to commune with his maker, especially after the earthly relationships turned into such a disaster. In the next chapter Moses goes back up on the mountain to receive the stone tablets of the Law, and returns with his face shining so brightly that he has to veil it when he's with other people. Apparently a mistranslation of this in the past led English speakers to think he came back with horns, leading to all the paintings depicting a weirdly Pan-like Moses, but the shining makes a lot more sense. Like the "glow" after seeing your beloved, brought to life, an almost unbearable joy.

Monday, March 17, 2003

The beginning of the end

So, Bush has told Saddam to hit the road.

I haven't been blogging about the war for pretty much the same reason as Charles Murtaugh -- I'm in the agonized middle about it, and it's too depressing. So much is based on what is hard to really know. Is Saddam Hussein just a dangerous nutball, or is he a dangerous nutball of world-threatening proportions? And what's going to happen in Iraq once he's gone?

Meanwhile, there's our own leader at home to figure out. Posting on Josh Claybourn's blog, Brian Logue complained about the press' alleged fear of Bush's religion:
Here is a survey of this charge against our President. I wonder if this would be tolerated if our president was New Age or some other chic religion that is non-western in origin? How can a Christian Society be so biased? How is it that some would deny what we are at the core?

In the comments, Jon Darby said roughly what I was thinking:
The press seemed to have a field day with the Reagans when it was learned they used astrologers.

Whether the media would be gentler and kinder if he were New Age is moot since I think we'll see a midget in the White House before we see somebody who belongs to a non-mainstream Christian religion. JFK's Catholicism was a major issue, you'll recall.

Actually, given that Gore-Liebermann won a slim majority of votes, I can imagine a Jew getting there in my lifetime. (For that matter, a midget doesn't sound that unthinkable either!) But it's true, if some New Ager won the presidency our culture would be so different that any comparison is useless. If the press now tends to go mushy on people like the Dalai Lama, it's because he has no real power in our society. If the Dalai Lama were president and had control over the purse strings and the nukes, you betcha there'd be scruitiny.

It seems to me that the real question regarding Bush's faith is whether it's a source of humility or self-aggrandizement. Critics fear that he has a messianic sense of mission, and imagines himself specially chosen by God to fight evil. Dave Neiwert expressed this fear a while ago, though his chosen example, lifted from a Progressive article, doesn't seem very impressive to me:
That Bush believes he was assigned the Presidency from on high comes through in another passage of Frum's book. After Bush's September 20, 2001, speech to Congress, Gerson called up the President to compliment him: "Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I thought--God wanted you there," Gerson said, according to Frum.

"He wants us all here, Gerson," the President responded, according to Frum.

If anything, that sounds like he's disclaiming special status -- sure, God wants me here, but he wants everybody here! The other direct quotes from Bush that the article cites seem similarly ambiguous. When Bush says, "I could not be governor if I did not believe in a divine plan that supersedes all human plans," is he saying he's specially appointed for leadership? Or just that without his faith he'd be a drunken shlub who never got anywhere?

I think part of the problem here is that evangelicals tend to see the hand of God in everything. I've certainly noticed this since I've been hanging around them. They tend to see God at work in what secular types would call chance or fortune or personal strength or other people's decisions. A lot of it seems pretty silly to me, frankly, but the point is that they don't imagine they're special. They think God works in everybody's life.

All of which isn't to say definitely that Bush doesn't have a messiah complex. I certainly hope not. But psychoanalyzing somebody from a distance was always a tricky business anyway.
Exodus 24-31

This section I admit to skimming some, because it's a very long and tedious set of directives on how to build the Tabernacle, what the priests should wear, how they should sacrifice, etc. Through most of it God sounds like the world's most exacting interior decorator:
You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. It shall be one cubit long, and one cubit wide; it shall be square, and shall be two cubits high; its horns shall be of one piece with it. You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top, and its sides all around and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around. And you shall make two golden rings for it; under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall hold the poles with which to carry it. You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. (30:1-5)

And so on for seven chapters. I wondered at first why God would care about such things as the length of the priests' undergarments. Then again, I thought, this is the sort of thing the priests would want to know. If God just said, "Build me a good temple, dress nicely, and make some sacrifices," they'd be left wondering, "What on earth could we build that we know would please God?" And, no doubt, start arguing about it.

In fact, it would be nice if God were this detailed about everything. A lot of the most important commands -- "love your neighbor," "honor your parents" -- are rather widely open to interpretation. Much ink and blood has been spilled over the centuries trying to figure out exactly what it is that God wants.

On another subject, I'm wondering about this passage:
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (24:9-11)

Back in the dying-for-sins debate, Tom wrote that no one before Jesus could survive looking at God, and quotes a later chapter of Exodus in support. So what were these men seeing up there? Did they see him but not see his face?
The trouble with taxonomy

I had an email exchange with Patrick Nielsen Hayden today about my blogroll categorization scheme. Among other things, he wondered why it seems like most of the bloggers people identify primarily as Catholic are conservatives. I seem to recall this question came up in the Catholic blogosphere itself not long ago, but I'm not going to try to dig up the debate.

Anyway, I pointed to Noli Irritare Leones and Not For Sheep as non-conservatives on my Catholic list. Thinking about it later, though, I wondered if NIL even belongs there. She seems to be involved in both Catholic and Quaker activities. So I decided to go back to her first post and see how she describes herself:
I'm a religiously eclectic Christian (raised Episcopalian, Quaker as an adult, married into Catholicism), politically mostly liberal, and professionally an engineer. My current reading material is Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and Edward Schillebeeckx's Jesus. My volunteer activities include various things associated with my Quaker Meeting (Recording Clerk, Library Committee, currently on a First Day School teaching team, though I drop off the teaching team at the end of the month), moderating (I did say I'm eclectic in my religious interests, didn't I?), and occasionally (like, every couple of months or so) helping prepare food at a local Catholic Worker house.

Darn bloggers. You try to pidgeonhole them, they go flapping out before you know it!

Sunday, March 16, 2003

The telltale keyboard

Clive James' review of a new biography of Aldous Huxley is an interesting read. But I can't help noticing how well it fits David Sexton's description of a piece by a reviewer who hasn't actually read the book:
They take issue only with specific sections of the work. They never make sweeping negative assertions ("there is no mention anywhere in this book of ..."). They deliver wellturned essays about subjects they already know about (Napoleon, say, or the national health) and then add just a few kind words about the publication in hand ("as X says, in this lively account").

James writes a long and scholarly essay about Huxley and his books, with exactly two brief but complimentary mentions of the biography at hand. Wouldn't want to leap to conclusons ... but ...
Down among the reeds and rushes

Yesterday I took a break from Exodus and started rereading a short book I have about the first civilizations of the world. Among the people I read about was Sargon the Great, who sounds like a Star Trek character but was actually the first person to rule all of Mesopotamia, in about 2300 B.C. Civilization grew up in Sumer, in the southern part of the region, but Sargon was an Akkadian, from the north.

One legend has it that Sargon was an illlegitimate baby whose mother put him in a basket and set him afloat in the Euphrates, where he drifted downriver to Sumer and was brought up a Sumerian. The resemblance to the Moses story is obvious, and in fact, this isn't the only tale of this type. The ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata also has an illegitimate baby who was floated in a river and wound up in a royal court, though I forget now exactly who the character was.

I don't know if floating babies in rivers was common back then, or if this was just a story that bopped around the Middle East at the time. As the urban-legend trackers Snopes often find, a tale about one famous person will often get transferred to another one who seems plausible, especially if the original subject drifts into obscurity. The common thread between these characters is that they had unlikely origins for ending up among royalty, and yet they did. Possibly this story was simpler and more dramatic than however Moses did wind up in Pharaoh's household.

I have heard it suggested that Moses actually was an Egyptian, who married into the Hebrews and came to identify with their cause. Stranger things have happened. But personally, I don't see how it makes a difference either way. What he did as a grownup was a lot more important.