Friday, April 11, 2003

Acts 21

Paul returns to Jerusalem and is greeted warmly, but told that some unnamed members of the church had accused him of teaching "all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise thier children or observe the customs" (21). They recommend he go through the Nazarite vow (an ancient Jewish purification ritual, evidently), and tell him of the contents of the letter mentioned in Acts 15 regarding the rules for Gentiles.

Why are people accusing Paul of this? Telford mentioned this back in the same post I linked to at Acts 15:
Paul seems to take this conclusion as still too conservative, for he moves beyond Jerusalem's sphere of influence, concentrates his mission farther westward, and never mentions James' letter. Even when he mentions the council of Jerusalem's conclusion that circumcision of Gentiles is unwarranted (Gal. 2:1-10), he fails to mention these guidelines (unless Gal. 2:10's "remembber the poor" is some kind of extreme gloss). The Didache might reflect the council's guidelines, but only very vaguely: "As regards diet, keep the rules so far as you are able; only be careful to refuse anything that has been offered to an idol, for that is the worship of dead gods" (chapter 6). There is definitely variety in early Christian attitudes on these matters, and maybe even persistent tension. Weirdly, Acts 21:17-26 shows James receiving Paul and informing him of the letter as if Paul has not seen it before! (This might have something to do with Luke's use of a different source for that section of Acts, but I wonder whether in the final narrative it shows us relations that are still a little strained.)

Possibly it does, making it even stranger that Jesus just trusted that everybody would figure out what Jewish rules applied to Gentile converts. Makes my skeptical mind wonder if Jesus even knew that there would be Gentile converts, but that would be extra problematic...
On the suckage of eyewitness testimony

I'm finally getting around to responding to Telford's comment to my post last week on the trustworthiness of Christian witness. I wrote:
Personally, I can't imagine placing that much faith in anyone else's credibility. People are fallible. Their credibility may be fine for ordinary matters, but this is no ordinary matter and no ordinary degree of belief. How can I believe a second-hand account, no matter how sincere it is, to the point of placing my life in it? It doesn't help matters that a number of psychological experiments indicate that eyewitness testimony basically sucks.

Telford responded:
As to the credibility of the witnesses to Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, it is not a matter of "blind trust" to count them credible. I think one can approach them with a reasonable level of criticism and come away satisfied. Of course there are some who approach them with too much credulity, and others with too much incredulity. But to the responsible middle, both Jesus and his disciples offered signs to confirm his identity.

I haven't gone over precisely the evidence that Telford is probably thinking of, but I feel I should establish where I'm coming from here. The witnesses to Christ's life, death and re-life may be as credible as anybody can be from an account that old, but the point is, that's not saying much. When I said eyewitness testimony sucks, I wasn't kidding. There's been a lot of attention and research given to this subject over the years, though mostly in regard to criminal justice rather than religion. For instance, a January 2001 article in the New Yorker began as follows:
In 1901, a professor of criminal law at the University of Berlin was lecturing to his class when a student suddenly shouted an objection to his line of argument. Another student countered angrily, and the two exchanged insults. First were clenched, threats made: "If you say another word ..." The the first student drew a gun, the second rushed at him, and the professor recklessly interposed himself between them. A struggle, a blast -- then pandemonium.

Whereupon the two putative antagonists disengaged and returned to their seats. The professor swiftly restored order, explaining to his students that the incident had been staged, and for a purpose. He asked the students, as eyewitnesses, to describe exactly what they had seen. Some were to write down their account on the spot, some a day or a week later; a few even had to depose their observations under cross-examination. The results were dismal. The most accurate witness got twenty-six per cent of the significant details wrong; others up to eighty per cent. Words were put in people's mouths. Actions were described that had never taken place. Events that had taken place disappeared from memory.

In the century since, professors around the world have reenacted the experiment, in one form or another, thousands of times; the findings have been recounted in legal texts, courtrooms, and popular crime books. The trick has even been played on audiences of judges.

This isn't the only type of experiment to cast doubt on eyewitness testimony. One researcher interviewed witnesses to the London blitz shortly after the event, and then again decades later, and found they told completely different stories. Elizabeth Loftus, one of the foremost researchers on memory, has demonstrated more than once that you can "plant" a childhood memory in someone that never even happened. The new DNA findings of how many innocent people are in jail has renewed interest in this, and a good roundup of the research is here.

Witnessing the Resurrection isn't exactly the same as these experiments, but some basic principles emerge. People can be well-meaning, sober, and extremely sure of their memories and still be wrong. Moreover, having multiple witnesses doesn't necessarily prove anything -- if they're friends and they have a common interest in seeing it a certain way, as the disciples did, they can easily influence each other's memories.

So, getting back to Telford's point: what's "too much" credulity, and "too much" incredulity? What are our standards here? What's "reasonable"? As I said before, it seems reasonable to think that something extraordinary happened back then, but I don't see how we can believe any of it to the point of faith. Anything that gets processed through human beings stands a very strong chance of getting messed up; with all due respect to my Catholic readers, taking anybody to be infallible seems dangerously close to idolatry to me. At best, we can play a version of Pascal's wager with it: if the probability is great enough that it happened, maybe it's worth betting on it. But I don't see how it is, and anyway, that's not faith.
Nature and nurture

Kevin Drum posted recently on the nature/nurture debate -- a subject of great interest to me -- and concluded:
And what's even worse is that, as with most of the ideology tied up in nature/nurture arguments, this whole question is wildly misplaced. Whether homosexuality is innate or not, the only real question is whether it's behavior that we approve of. If it's not, then who cares if it's innate? If there were genes for murder, we still wouldn't approve of murder. Likewise, if we do approve of it, then who cares if it's mostly a matter of upbringing?
I can't agree with that, because he acts like "what we approve of" simply falls out of the sky with no connection to our conception of the human being. But it seems to me that these things are deeply connected.

For one thing, there's the question of what we can change. If you believe that, say, intelligence and scholastic achievement are largely genetically determined, then forming educational policies aimed at leveling the differences is going to be an exercise in futility. My mother, a former English teacher who's now a professor of education, has run up against this problem: she's been hearing calls all her life to turn us into "a nation of readers," but from her actual experience with kids has gotten the feeling that a lot of people were not born to enjoy reading and probably never will. I think this affects people's moral values to the extent that a morality based on the impossible is simply unworkable.

Connected with this is the question of what will ultimately lead to the greatest happiness for most people. If you believe that, say, women are naturally less ambitious and intellectual than men and more inherently able and child-rearing, organizing society around a traditional gender division of labor makes sense. But if you believe them to be of roughly the same capabilities as men, keeping them in the home starts to look oppressive. If your morality has anything to do with human happiness, this will affect your views also.

Finally, there's the question of how much a given behavior might be "catching." This is especially the case with homosexuality -- the example Kevin was particularly talking about here. Probably most Americans are fine with letting gay people do what they want in their private lives, but a lot of argument comes out of the issue of whether going public about it "promotes" it. If you think homosexuality is entirely genetic, it doesn't matter how much people talk about it or fail to disapprove of it -- no one is going to become gay who wouldn't have been otherwise. If you see it as environmental, however, then publicity is going to make a world of difference.

I should point out that, while a lot of secular types see Christianity as a classic example of moral values "falling from the sky," it's become apparent to me as I've studied it that it, too, bases its values on a theory of human nature. At one recent Alpha lecture, the speaker quoted somebody -- I'm too flaky to look it up now -- as saying that he "became Christian in order to become fully human." I have heard this concept expressed many times in many ways -- that following the law is becoming what God meant you to be, while sin, however appealing it may be in the short term, is a corruption of your true self. I'm not totally convinced of this (in regard to sexuality in particular, I wrote about this at length here). But all this is to say, your conception of innate human nature does indeed affect what you think is right for people.
Acts 20

The Paul posse spends a week in Troas. On the last night Paul gives a long speech, during which a young man named Eutychus falls asleep and topples out the window, apparently to his death. Paul goes down and takes him in his arms, saying, "Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him." He goes back upstairs, and the young man lives.

It's not clear if this is a miracle or not. There was actually one ressurection in Acts that I didn't mention, back in 9 when Peter raises a disciple called Tabitha. But though Luke writes that Eutychus "was picked up dead," it's certainly possible he was merely thought to be dead. Paul's words sound more like superior perception than some act of miracle-working.

What's the point of the story? My study notes point to Paul's line later in the chapter: "Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease day or night to warn everyone with tears." This comes in the middle of Paul's goodbye speech to the Ephesians, in which he warns that he will be persecuted and "savage wolves will come among you." So everybody be on guard. Don't fall asleep at the switch.

Or maybe it's just a warning against falling asleep in church. Fortunately, in the Christian Assembly I think that's impossible.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

But I know it's about ... forgiveness

Eve Tushnet recently posted a meditation on justice and mercy, and the balance between them. She concludes:
One of the things I found most attractive in Christianity (admittedly this is a long list) was its constant references to metaphors of marriage, union, communion. And one of the most powerful examples of that is the Christian belief (spelled out in St. Anselm's terrific treatise Cur Deus Homo) that the Incarnation and Crucifixion were God's way of marrying justice and mercy, being both fully just and fully merciful. In the words of the Psalmist, "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Psalm 85:10).

I like all the intimate metaphors too, but for me the whole justice/mercy thing in Christianity has yet to gel into a coherent picture. Instead, it seems contradictory and confusing.

Which is too bad, because actually one of the big things that attracted me to it is forgiveness. Not just forgiveness of my own failings, which I guess everybody wants, but to learn to forgive the things that have been done to me. It's painful and corrosive to me to carry around the anger and fear left by these wounds, and it inhibits my giving to others.

Some people have advised me to get over anger simply by telling myself that the person isn't worth the energy. You're letting them "rent space in your head," so just dismiss them. I don't like that because it dehumanizes people. And especially if you're angry at someone you cared about, it means cutting out and invalidating that part of yourself that cares. I don't know about everybody else, but for me that's excruciating.

Christianity places forgiveness at the heart of its beliefs, but sometimes it's hard for me to tell what that really means. When I blogged Acts 5 I remarked that I didn't want to take on the story of the couple who get killed for withholding funds from the church. Later at Alpha, though, I explained why this story bothered me. Really, it's another question about that old hobbyhorse of mine, the Atonement. If God forgave our sins by dying on the cross, what does it mean that the first Christians in Acts to notably screw up get killed on the spot?

One answer I got was that they didn't repent. And indeed, I've heard Christians before claim that forgiveness should only be given under certain conditions: if the person is sorry, if he promises not to do it again, if he's sincere. This bothers me because, really, forgiving people under those conditions is usually easy. I mean, obviously it depends on the severity of the crime, but in most situations it makes God's forgiveness seem less than amazing. If you come grovelling to God, saying what a horrible sinner you are and that you'll do your best to sin no more, and God in his clairvoyance can see that you're sincere, would you really expect him to go, "Bwahahaha!" and smack you into hell? Only if you expect God to be a real bastard, I think.

No, forgiveness is hard precisely because in human life, you usually don't have all the power and people aren't crawling at your feet. Sometimes the person you need to forgive isn't even there, separated from you by death or other circumstances. Sometimes they apologize but you're not sure if you can believe them or trust them again. It's those situations that I struggle with. And whether Christ can provide the answers for me remains to be seen.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Acts 19

Paul and the gang go to Ephesus, home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis. According to my notes, this Artemis wasn't exactly the celibate huntress of Greek myth, but an ancient mother goddess who was identified with her. Provoked by some artisans who make their living working for the temple, a riot breaks out against the Christians in defense of the goddess. A city official, however, points out that there is no sign the Christians are threatening the temple, and that any complaints should go through proper legal channels. The mob disperses.

At Alpha last night Telford remarked that Paul's rhetorical move in Acts 17 wan't the first time a Jew had equated another culture's high god with Yahweh. In the Old Testament the Canaanite god El and some similar deities are likewise identified. A mother goddess is a tougher nut to crack, though. The Christian focus on the Father and the Son doesn't leave much room for a female entity.

The semi-cult of Mary that arose later is seen by some as filling that void. But what's also interesting, though I didn't realize it till recently, is that there is an important female entity in early Christianity: the church itself. In the Bible it's usually called by a female pronoun, identified as the "bride of Christ" in some detail.

This puts believers, male and female alike, in a curiously feminine position. Back in the fall I blogged a book review about Puritan sexuality that included this comment:
Ministers exhorted Puritans, male and female, to submit to "an eternal love affair with Jesus Christ." One young man asked in his diary, "Will the Lord now again return and embrace me in the arms of his dearest love? Will he fall upon my neck and kiss me?" Since souls were equal and either without gender or vaguely female, Puritan men comfortably spoke of submitting as brides to ravishment by Christ as their spiritual bridegroom.

All this is metaphorical, of course (lest anyone get the wrong idea). But it does suggest a wild idea: if there's a goddess in Christianity, it's us.

Telford left comments on some posts from last week that I want to address separately. The first he wrote to this post, although it also applied to this post, about the pastor with "food issues" who thought God was telling her to fast:
You're right: thinness is not virtue, and fasting is not in the service of losing weight. I don't think Cathy means it that way, though. My hunch is that she means one who has "food issues" – our theological ancestors called it "gluttony" – are in special need of the discipline of fasting. I have given up sweets for Lent, and can't resist the temptation to substitute other stuff (fruit, chips, etc.). That's not a weight issue, but it is a food issue. Really, way down deep, I have a feeling it's an idolatry issue.

I know Cathy didn't think the fast was meant to lose weight. What I meant was that "food issues" can cut both ways -- they can lead to pathological overeating and to pathological undereating. That's why I can't agree that it's just a newfangled version of gluttony. Anorexics are obsessed with food in the negative -- they eat very little, but they typically spend a lot of their time thinking about and dealing with food, even having elaborate rituals for preparing and portioning the food that they do eat. So the "discipline of fasting" can be perverted just as much as the indiscipline of overeating. I think your idolatry reference is on the mark here, but you can worship an idol in more than one way.

I don't know Cathy and her food issues well enough to know what's really going on, but the way she fixated on the word "fasting" set off my alarm bells for that reason. Since you're a guy, and a thin guy, I imagine you haven't spent much time inside the warped female food/body image culture, but I have enough to not ever want to go there again. I've mentioned on this blog before that I've historically had a weight problem, and I'm still pretty zaftig by L.A. standards. Modern society, which offers more food and demands less physical work than any before in history, is bound to make a lot of people fat, and so not being fat requires discipline. In that sense, I do have to deal with gluttony. But that's different from the big emotional issues with food that people like Cathy and Mark have -- food as pacifier, nurterer, temptor, etc. That's more complicated, and, spiritually speaking, more dangerous. The challenge to it is not to avoid eating but to avoid making food the center of your life. And whether fasting does that, well, I have my doubts.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Acts 18

Paul and his crew keep traveling around, winning converts and getting into trouble. In Achaia Paul is brought before the Roman proconsul, Gallio, who declares this to be an intra-Jewish squabble and washes his hands of the whole thing.

We seem to have here an early example of the separation of church and state. And indeed, you can imagine Gallio listening to all this bizarre argument about a "messiah" and thinking, "Who am I to figure this out? It's a Jewish thing." But he takes his hands off even farther than American law: when the crowd beats up a synagogue official named Sosthenes, Gallio does nothing.

Who Sosthenes is and why the mob attacks him isn't clear. (Acts, unfortunately, is full of inadequately identified characters.) But there's an echo here of Pontius Pilate's reaction to Jesus, in which he tries to be a neutral arbiter but ends up as a vehicle of lynch-mob passions. Both incidents show the limits of neutrality: in ruling another people, the Romans are bound to take sides, even in the negative. The Europeans in their empires, many centuries later, were to find themselves with the same problem. And now that we Americans have committed ourselves to rebuilding two countries, we're in the same boat.
Up with the sun

Matthew Yglesias (and many of his commenters) is among those bashing Daylight Savings. I'm actually in the minority that likes it, for pretty much the same reason that Jeff Cooper does in Matthew's link -- as the sun rises earlier, I tend to wake up earlier anyway. This is something that's only happened as I've gotten older though; I realize grad students like Matt are experts at sleeping in broad daylight (and the 1:10 a.m. timestamp of his post proves it!). Also, although Matt points out that "we have electric lights," I tend to look upon burning fossil fuels as something we should avoid doing unnecessarily.

The one thing I don't like about it, though, is how late it runs. Since it's tied to day length, logically it should begin and end at the same point in relation to the equinoxes; that is, since it starts about two weeks after the spring equinox, it should end about two weeks before the fall equinox. But for some inexplicable reason it drags on more than a month after autumn starts. And that same attunement of my body to the sun that makes me wake up earlier now makes me really not want to get out of bed when the alarm goes off in October, because it's so frickin' dark. Why does it have to go on so long, anyway?
Acts 17

Paul goes to Athens and is appalled to find it full of idols. Rather than criticize the pagans directly for this, however, he commends their piety and notes that one altar is inscribed "To an unknown god." That god has now revealed himself, Paul explains, and called upon all people to repent.

I am not aware of the Greeks worshipping an "unknown god," though there was a lot of variation in practices in different places and times in Greece. I gather that it is pretty common, though, for pagans to envision a high god who floats above all the lesser gods who actually get things done for people. The Hindus, for instance, have generally regarded their innumerable local deities as ultimately incarnations of Brahman (as is, for that matter, the rest of the universe). In Haitian voodoo, which is basically transplanted West African paganism, a high god called Olorun reigns above a legion of spirits both good and bad called lois. (It's because of this accommodational monotheism that Haitians can call themselves Catholic while still turning to the lois for practical help.)

Such high gods are generally seen as remote and unfathomable, however. This is perhaps what is meant by the "unknown god" of the Athenian altar. The idea that this high god had come to earth and offered salvation to all people would have been a powerful message, because this was quite different from the dealings with the petty, limited, humanlike gods of the Greek pantheon. I can also imagine why this message would have been more appealing to the pagans than to Jews. The pagans had a real void here, while a lot of Jews figured they already had a relationship with the high God, thank you very much.

This also brings up a broader issue that I've discussed (inconclusively) with people at Alpha: to what extent did/does God communicate with people outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition? Did he really leave 99.9% of the world in the dark while he was futzing around with the Israelites, or were there other activities that didn't make it into the Bible? Paul is beginning to deal with that question, but I don't know if Christianity as a whole has ever dealt with it very well. The exclusivity of the faith, at least as it's usually portrayed, has always bothered me, and bothers me still.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Another reason to love the Internet

You know, the overlap between fans of Jane Austen novels and fans of sci-fi action movies can't be that big. But evidently I'm not alone in it, because somebody is trying crossover fiction.

(Via Brad DeLong.)
She be wanting it more

To the online Bible-study club we can now welcome Sappho, who's reading Kings. (Kind of a pity we're all in different books, but such is the blogosphere.) The section she covers includes one of my favorite Bible characters, the queen of Sheba. This queen likes to ask hard questions, and wants the answers so bad she travels all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem just on the rumor she can get them. My kinda woman.

One thing I've been wondering though: what's the origin of the story that she had an affair with Solomon? That isn't in the Bible, where they just have a long talk and exchange presents. I know the Ethiopian emperors used to claim descent from them, but I can't imagine an Ethiopian story would have spread much in the West.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Acts 16

Paul and his party go to Macedonia, where there's a strange incident that puzzles me now as much as it did the first time I read Acts:
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour. (16-18)
Maybe it's my lack of knowledge of divination spirits, but why would it be making her do this? And why was Paul annoyed, since she seemd to be promoting them? Was it that she was calling them slaves? Making a racket?

Anyway, the slave girl's owners get mad and have Paul and his friend Silas thrown in prison. There follows and earthquake, and all the doors open and the chains fall off. The head jailor, thinking they've escaped, tries to kill himself. But Paul stops him, and converts him and the rest of his family.

This is an interesting contrast to Peter's two jailbreaks, in Acts 5 and 12. Those simply slip Peter out unnoticed, and don't worry about the captors. In fact, in 14 we're told Peter's jailors were executed for "letting" him escape, and no one seems terribly bothered about this.

The fact that Paul saves his jailor, even when he has a chance to escape from prison, seems to me to show an expansion of the church's mission. Up to now the Christians seem to look upon the people within Rome's power structure as the enemy, or at best as indifferent (render unto Caesar, and all that). Cornelius was a Roman soldier, but he already believed in Yahweh and came to Peter himself. This is a very different gentile.

It also, in a faint way, contradicts the plagues of Exodus that I wailed on so much. In that case God punished everyone in Egypt, on the theory they all collaborated in enslaving the Hebrews. (Though how slaves and farm animals could have really collaborated, I still don't see.) Here is a known collaborator, but Paul seems to take the attitude toward him that Jesus took toward the grunts who crucified him: he doesn't really know what he's doing. Give him a chance at enlightenment.
Acts 15

I'm having a flashback here, because I blogged about this chapter last November. The main action is that the church lays out which of the Old Testament rules the new gentile converts have to follow. (Short answer: no meat from animals that were unkosherly slaughtered or sacrificed to idols, and no sexual misbehavior.) I asked why those rules, in particular, and Telford answered here.

There is, apparently, no general agreement on why the church chose those rules. But the original question -- how much Jewish law are Christians bound by? -- has driven people crazy ever since. For instance, it came up in the debate about pacifism on Josh Claybourn's blog a while back, in regard to how much the violence in the OT might relate to how Christians should live.

Homosexuality also tends to get subjected to this argument. I'm reminded of the exchange between Louder Fenn and Rob Carr that, I think, went to the ultimate heart of the issue: did Jesus intend that compassion should trump the law? And if he didn't, what exactly was he up to?

Well, that question might be better dealt with when I'm actually reading a Gospel (I think the next one is Mark, in about a month). But somehow it isn't real encouraging that even those disciples who knew Jesus firsthand didn't seem to be all that sure.