Saturday, March 29, 2003

Acts 9

Here we have probably the most famous story in Acts: the conversion of Saul, later known as Paul. After appearing earlier as a persecutor of Christians, Saul heads toward Damascus but is knocked to the ground by a vision of Jesus. Left blind and helpless, he has to be led by the hand into the city. A disciple called Ananias gets a vision himself to go and heal Saul, which he does. After that Saul preaches for Jesus, and has to escape a couple different plots to kill him.

When I was at the going-away party last night that I mentioned earlier, I "came out" about the fact that I'm going to church. Despite my aforementioned boldness (and thanks to Telford for the nice comment on that post, by the way), I had only told one person at the office about the Christian Assembly, and never wanted to bring it up. I didn't want to bring it up last night either, but I remarked that I wasn't planning on leaving L.A. any more, because there are "things keeping me here." For some reason my boss got really curious about this, and kept prodding me until I told him about church.

Soon other people were talking about church experience. The funny thing was that most other people there had been raised in some sort of Christianity, and went to church at least in a spotty way, but none of them was currently attending one. I, on the other hand, come from multiple generations of atheists, and yet I'm the one going. I guess that would go with the perverse sense of humor God develops in the NT. The messiah battles with rabbis and hangs with tax collectors and prostitutes; one of his closest buddies turns him in; then the biggest persecutor of Christians becomes its biggest booster. At some point God decided to turn things upside down, andhe never seems to have stopped.
Acts 8

There are two distinct stories in this chapter. The first deals with a magician named Simon, known in later lore as Simon Magus. Simon has been performing wonders of an unspecified nature, but they're enough to make him famous. When Peter and John come through, though, he's sufficiently impressed to have himself baptized. But he is, as they say, unclear on the concept. When he sees the apostles performing a miracle he offers them money for their power, and is roundly rebuked.

This story deals with an uncomfortable fact: Jesus and his followers weren't the only ones performing healings and amazing feats back then. Just as today, there were all sorts of people claiming mystical powers, and convincing a lot of folks they were for real. But this story places an important moral difference between Christian wonderworking and other magic, by removing the financial motive. Whether the apostles were performing real miracles or not I don't know, but I think they believed they were.

I like the fact that this story goes beyond the my-god-is-bigger-than-your-god stuff that seems to turn up a lot in the Bible. It shows that it is not enough to believe Yahweh is powerful; Simon believes he's powerful, but sees him as only power. That was how most pagan gods of the era were viewed. He does not understand the ethical dimension of the new group he has joined.

The second story concerns another disciple named Philip. Philips meets a high-ranking eunuch from the court of a Nubian queen, who is reading the Book of Isaiah. Philip interprets the messianic passages of the book for him, explaining how they foretold Jesus. The eunuch asks Philip to baptize him, but after doing so Philip vanishes, and finds himself back in Judea.

It's a strange tale. Although Cornelius will appear later as the first "official" gentile convert, the unnamed eunuch seems to precede him. He isn't alarmed by Philip's disappearance, but "went on his way rejoicing." Although how Luke (the writer) would know that is beyond me. Really, the whole thing reads like a dream or a hallucination.

Another strange fact was that a Nubian courtier would be reading the Book of Isaiah to begin with. Apparently he was on his way back from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship, so he was interested in Judaism. He wasn't alone; my study notes say that "gentiles could worship in the temple enclosure, although they were restricted to the outer court." I wonder how many gentiles were worshipping the Jewish God back then? Certainly it would help explain why converts to Christianity started popping up even before the disciples were specifically seeking them. That gentiles would worship even though they were treated as second-class citizens certainly makes it seem like Yahweh was already a powerful draw.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Acts 6-7

I've fallen behind so I'm going back (temporarily) to blogging more than one chapter at a time. I fear I'm going to keep falling, because I doubt I'll blog tomorrow. Work will be very busy, and then we're heading to a goodbye party for my boss, who's transferring to another bureau. I've learned the hard way not to blog after imbibing!

Anyway, in this case the two chapters tell basically one story. A disciple named Stephen is arrested on charges that he was blaspheming Moses and God. At the trial, rather than answer the charges directly, he gives a sort of SSDB account of Hebrew history, galloping all the way from Abraham through Moses and on to Solomon in about six paragraphs. It's a selective history, emphasizing the extent to which the Hebrews resisted what was good for them. He wraps up:
’You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’ (7:51-53)

The listeners respond by taking him out and stoning him to death. As he's dying, Stephen asks God to forgive them.

Although other apostles have gotten into some legal scrapes before now, I think Stephen is the first person to end up dead from it. Exactly why his punishers don't feel politically inhibited the way they did with Peter isn't clear, but the description makes it sound like a kind of mass rage descended on them for being criticized so sharply, and they killed him without much forethought.

In a way, Stephen was not telling them anything that they didn't know; probably the greatest charm of the Old Testament is its honesty about how its heroes screw up. And in my experience, Jews know this, and are among the most self-critical of peoples. I am reminded of a remark I overheard by a Jewish office-mate, about Catholicism: "You know, you'd think that two religions based so heavily on guilt would get along more." But evidently, the Jewish establishment of the time had become so complacent they'd forgotten how to cope with criticism. And, sadly, soon the tables would be turned, and it would be Christians doing the persecuting.
Pharaoh's children

Jeanne d'Arc has a powerful post considering why even Iraqis who fled Saddam's Iraq would fight against the American invaders. She compares the phenomenon to herself and her abusive father:
When I was thirteen, he left. I have a very vivid memory of that night. My mother was at work. I watched him pack. He was drunk, crying, and I felt sorry for him. He kept telling me how everyone loved his father, and he wished he was like him, but he couldn't be. And then he started screaming that he could have been a better father if he just had a daughter who was worth something. He grabbed my face in one big hand and said that if anybody asked me how come I didn't have a father, I better tell them it was because I didn't deserve one. I couldn't figure out if he was angry or sad, and not knowing scared me more than anything. I locked myself in the bathroom for awhile, and when I came out, the apartment was silent. I remember going from room to room, doing something very weird -- looking in the closet and under the bed and in hidden corners, even in the narrow space beside the refrigerator where my mother kept the broom, not trusting that he was gone, terrified that he would leap out at me. And then, when I believed he was gone, and I was safe, I started to cry, because I had made his life so miserable, and now that he was gone -- and somehow I knew that time it was for good -- I had no way to make it better.

I haven't seen him since. A few years ago, out of curiosity, I checked his name on a social security website and discovered that he died about ten years ago. Over the course of several days, I went back and looked at that information quite a few times, half expecting it to change. But finally it sank in, and I sat at the computer with a great wave of relief washing over me, a sense of safety I don't think I've ever experienced in my life. And then I started to cry in big gulping gasps. And for the life of me, I can't explain why...

From the first time I heard the neoconservative dream that Iraqis would refuse to fight for Saddam and welcome American "liberators" with open arms, it seemed to me not only highly unlikely, but dehumanizing as well. As if oppressed people don't have the same mixed-up emotions that the rest of us have. As if complex inner lives were unique to technologically advanced societies. We want to believe that there's a small number of bad Iraqis who fight for Saddam, and an enormous number of good ones who are on our side, or will be as soon as they can break free enough to express their true emotions. After all, we're good, right? How could they fail to see that?

I am more sympathetic to the war than she is, but I know exactly what she means. Saddam has been in power for the whole lifetime of many Iraqis; he's formed a personality cult around himself, his picture is everywhere, and the sort of mockery we direct toward our presidents is forbidden and rarely heard. Iraqis may fear and sometimes despise him, but he's in their psychic landscape, and all those years of propaganda can't go without effect. In those ways, a dictator is like an abusive parent. When they're really good at it, they can seem to distort reality itself.

I don't want to flog this to death, but I think this articulates something that was floating nebulously in my mind when I was criticizing Exodus. Maybe the common Egyptians failed to resist Pharaoh; maybe they even collaborated in oppressing Hebrews. But Pharaoh wasn't some elected leader who they could have gotten rid of if they didn't like his policies. They were brought up to believe he was literally a god, the offspring of those who control the sun and the rains who make the crops grow. It was wrong, but the actual God did not seem to be talking to anyone except the Israelites at this point, aside from bashing the s@$t out of them. I tend to think of Egyptians as victims of Pharaoh as much as anyone, especially since so many were themselves slaves, who never saw the promised land.

It had to happen

The war has a drinking game.
I'd like to thank...

Bill Allison answers my earlier question about whether Saudi Arabia can survive as a nation without the House of Saud:
There are counter-narratives coming from the various regions other than Najd asserting their old identities, but between the centralization that took place in the 1930s and the enforcement of Wahhabi orthodoxy, these haven't taken hold. Al-Rasheed sees the Islamists as being far more likely to cause trouble for the ruling family than, say, Hijazi nationalists. It's also hard to say whether regional identity would reassert itself if the House of Saud fell. Oil wealth has changed the society dramatically, as have the methods by which the regime has centralized power. The old tribal alliances and identities might exist beneath the surface, but they certainly don't operate as they once did. I would suspect that the Shi'ite-traditional Sunni-Wahhabi fault lines might be far more powerful than the old regional identities.

Good points. Certainly a lot more has changed since the Ottoman Empire days than just the Sauds taking over.

Also, Katheryn from Brasilianista Aspirante responded to my earlier post, explaining what a Brazilianist is:
A Brazilianist is a non-Brazilian scholar (in the humanities and social sciences) whose research focus on Brazil. Usually Brazilians use the word "brasilianista" to refer to North American scholars who study Brazil, but there are some Brits who are considered to be Brazilianists. Strangely, Brazilians do not call non-Anglophone, non-Brazilian scholars who focus on Brazil (such as the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss) "brasilianistas", but instead refer to them by their academic field (anthropologist, historian, political scientist, literary critic, musicologist, art historian, sociologist etc.).

There is something about being "Anglo-Saxon" that makes Brazilians want to slap the title of Brazilianist on any Anglophone who knows something about Brazil and can get by in Portuguese. In a magazine article written in 1998, a Brazilian-born anthropologist studying the Brazilian community in Los Angeles called *me* a Brazilianist -- and I was still an undergrad, albeit one who knew some Brazucas (Brazilian-Americans) and had joined some Brazilian organizations in LA.

Cool. While we're at it, be sure to pray for her...

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Acts 5

This chapter consists of two substories. In the first, a married couple hides some of their proceeds from the sale of some real estate from the church. Once the deception is discovered, they fall dead on the spot.

This is a dark turn from what went before. While Jesus was alive, he used his powers for help and not for harm, and forgave those who persecuted him. At this point, God returns to the ass-kicking standard of the OT (and it won't be the last time, either). I'm still recovering from all the violence in Exodus, so frankly, I don't feel like engaging this.

In the second half, Peter does more healings, and is again arrested. This time he and some other apostles get thrown in the clink, but at night an angel frees them. While the priestly council is trying to figure out what to do, Gamaliel, apparently a teacher of Paul's, argues for their release on peculiar grounds. Other religious groups had come before and been smashed; if God is not with the Christians, they'll be smashed too. If God is with them, no one can stop them. Why not let them go, and see what happens?

This is strange logic coming from a Jew. The Hebrews got whupped a number of times in the OT, and took it as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God; yet they never doubted that they were ultimately the Chosen. I guess the point he's making is that once the leaders of these other groups got killed, the followers dispersed; they didn't push on the way Christians have done. Still, the passive way Gamaliel frames the groups' demise ("he was killed") seems to be avoiding the fact that they fell because somebody out there was actively persecuting them. If everybody followed Gamaliel's logic, they would keep on going even if they weren't with God! Well, I guess that's what the Romans are for...
Acts 4

Peter and John are arrested, and the authorities find themselves with a political problem. The apostles' healing of the crippled guy has put the crowd behind them, and no one disputes their miracle. So the authorities let them go, but tell them to put a sock in it about Jesus. The apostles refuse, and pray for boldness in preaching the word.

Some time ago, Telford wrote me an email that ended:
Thanks for never being bashful. I serve a God who advises his followers to be just as brash. Knock on that goddamn door till in opens (Luke 11:5-13).

First of all, I think it's hilarious that Telf put a Biblical cite on such a, um, loose paraphrase of the actual line (but I suppose that's how you know you're corresponding with a theologian). But I was gratified to read it, because I know that once I get on something I have a relentlessness that can freak people out. I suppose since Telford thinks I'm being relentless about the right things that isn't surprising. But even so, it's not like it's always been easy for him, as readers of this blog will know. I can be just as unsubtle in disagreeing as in seeking.

Actually, one thing generally that's really pleased me about the Christians that I've met in the blogosphere and at church is how little I feel the need to censor myself. I remember after I raised my question that kicked off the dying-for-sins debate, my mother asked me (with great concern) if any responses had been shocked, appalled, etc. They weren't, of course, but my mother always had the idea (which I think I absorbed, as children do) that you have to walk on eggshells around Christians because they're really easy to offend. I am sure such Christians are around (probably especially in the Tennesse of her childhood). But I've found quite the opposite to be true: the more honest I am, so long as I'm not rude or mean, the happier everybody seems to be. I guess that, from their side of the fence, Christians don't meet a lot of people who honestly engage them, as opposed to insulting them or just evading the whole thing. So even if my gift of boldness isn't going to quite the same purpose as the apostles', I hope it's serving some use for the people in my life, Christian and otherwise.

Sorry about the lack of posting -- my home Internet connection conked out last night, so I was just left with the one fluffy post about dairy products. (I'm glad Kathy enjoyed it, anyway.) This evening is going to be crunched because of Alpha, but work today looks like a lot of sitting around waiting for callbacks, so I'm hoping to squeeze in another Acts post or two.

I wrote to Rob Carr of UnSpace about a week ago to inquire about the future of his blog, and didn't get an answer. I hope he's OK, wherever he is. But since he lasted posted on Feb. 5, I removed him from the blogroll on the assumption UnSpace is defunct. Rats. Where else am I gonna find a bird-watching, Harry-Potter-spoofing liberal Presbyterian elder?

Meanwhile, his place under Miscellaneous Monotheists has been taken up by Noli Irritare Leones, for reasons described here. I also added Cinderella Bloggerfeller and Daniel Drezner to Righties and Academia, respectively.

About a week ago Patrick wrote me to ask, "How come the right-wingers are called 'righteous' while the lefties are merely 'loud'?" It was (I assume) tongue-in-cheek, but hey, he had a point. So I now I have a list of Lucid Lefties. Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

Monday, March 24, 2003

The milky way

I was pleased to see Cecil Adams take on some of the sillier claims of anti-dairy activists. Maybe it's just living in California, but I seem to have heard an awful lot of that stuff. The weird thing is, I don't just hear it from animal-rights people. I've known meat-eaters who claim dairy is somehow bad for your digestion, it has "bad fat" in it, or -- my favorite -- "you shouldn't drink it because you're not a cow."

A couple years ago I bought a series of personal-training sessions at my gym, which included constructing a diet for me. My original trainer formed a pretty sensible one, which (with a few tweaks) I went on to lose 35 pounds with. But in the last session my usual guy was gone and subsituted with a man who had some pretty weird health ideas, based on what's "clean." This wasn't so much in the kosher sense of clean so much as how you digest things, but I'm really not sure. I don't think he understood it himself, actually, he just picked it up somewhere and was convinced it worked. And dairy products (natch) weren't "clean," even though he was fine with eating meat. Since this was my one and only encounter with the guy, I just smiled and nodded and went home and completely ignored his instructions. (I love being a grownup.)

What is it about dairy products that seems to make people wacky? I can only think it's a kind of backlash -- people's mothers tell them to drink their milk, and all these ads from the milk lobby tell us it's the virtuous thing to do. I guess there's a thrill in revealing that all that healthy stuff that was foisted on you all your life is really ... POISON!! Or something like that. All I know is there's hardly a dairy product I don't like, so keep your issues away from me.