Monday, July 30, 2012

Literature's Influence or Lack Thereof

Secular examination of the Bible and of the origins of Judaism and Christianity -- a field of inquiry sometimes known by the particularly pompous name of "higher criticism" -- has been dominated over the past two centuries by German scholars. In asking myself, Why Germany? Why not somewhere else? it occurred to me that France and England up to the 18th century were much more strictly unified as monarchy than were the hundreds of more or less independent territories in German-speaking lands. In France and England it was much easier and more natural to identify one's nationality, culture and language with one monarch, who in turn was definitely closely associated with Christianity. And therefore, perhaps, it was much less natural for an Englishman or Frenchman to shrug off traditional Christian attitudes than it was for a German.

Or maybe that wasn't it at all. Maybe it was Goethe, the decidedly un-religious king of the German literary hill. In English literature, there is one indisputably most influential writer, Shakespeare. In Spain it's Cervantes. In the history of American literature, ask ten different experts and you might just get ten different answers. In Germany the most highly-esteemed writer is Goethe -- or Luther. Hard to find an enthusiast of the German language who doesn't strongly prefer one over the other, much the same way that you'd be hard-pressed to find an American bookworm without a strong preference for either Mark Twain or Henry James. Luther, for whom Catholicism was not Christian enough, or Goethe, who complained that he was so sick of hearing about Jesus that he didn't want to hear any more unless it was told to him by Jesus Himself. Luther, who visited Rome while still a monk and hated what he perceived as its wickedness, or Goethe who loved Italy. Luther the staunchly nationalist German or Goethe the emphatic cosmopolitan, hungry for knowledge and art from every corner of the Earth.

So maybe "higher criticism," which has lead fairly directly to what we now call "mythicism," the inquiry into whether or not Jesus really lived or began as a mythical being, is one of the many results of Goethe's pre-eminence in German letters. Yes, activist American atheists love to quote pithy atheistic lines from Twain, but to the general public Twain is many things before he is an atheist. (And do those atheists ever actually read whole books by Twain? I hope so.) Goethe, on the other hand, put an unambiguously negative verbal slap in the face of theology near enough to the beginning of the single most-revered work of German literature that to know him at all is to know that he wasn't pious the way Luther or any other good Christian was or is. (Imagine if Twain had put "Faith is believing what you know ain't so" into Huckleberry Finn's mouth on the first page of the novel bearing Huck's name, and you'll have some idea of the impact of Faust's first monologue.)

Or maybe it's absurd to assign such influence to Goethe, or to any poet anywhere. I really don't know: 1) Do individuals such as Goethe or Shakespeare really shape whole cultures, the mental habits of entire nations? Or 2) is it the other way around: are individuals, even the mightiest and most original of them, shaped by the cultures they live in, which are much too huge to be moved around by any one individual, any more than a single swimmer could change the course of the Mississippi or the Rhine? Or 3) does the entire relationship between literature and culture tend to be vastly exaggerated by bookish types such as myself, and is literature, even that which we like to insist is the "greatest literature," and even if we generously pad it out with things like philosophy and Biblical studies, thoroughly unimportant to the great majority of people, apart from some school courses they are forced to take and are right to despise, and are all those "great writers" really not much more than particularly grandiose fools?

I honestly don't know how to measure such things. All I know for sure is that I like stuff on the highbrow reading lists, very much. Even if that does mean that I'm a fool and wasting my life. At least I'm having a good time wasting it.

I Mean This in the Friendliest Possible Way

It's odd for an author to inform the reader that he means something in a friendly way. If someone is behaving in a friendly way, generally speaking, it's apparent, and he doesn't need to point it out. If he mentions it several times within a few pages, suspicion is definitely called for, and if he says it twice in the same sentence you're a damned fool if you believe anything he says without reliable independent confirmation.

In the collection of scholarly papers Jesus in History and Myth, edited by R Joseph Hoffmann & Gerald A Larue, published in 1986, John Hick craps all over the inquiry into whether or not there really was a Jesus of Nazareth, as opposed to the standard position of assuming that Jesus existed, however much or little he may have resembled the descriptions of him in the New Testament. He writes: "The idea that there never was such a person [as Jesus] goes back, I suppose, some one hundred and fifty years and has not been persuasive to more than a very small minority of those who have studied the matter carefully. Its status among historians is no higher than, and I would think in fact lower than, the theory among Elizabethan historians that Francis Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare. And if I might offer a piece of friendly advice -- and it is meant as genuinely friendly advice -- to the secular humanist movement, it would be; Don't identify too closely with this kind of eccentric view. For the theory that Jesus never existed is not really a very probable one, and further, the issue is, to say the least, not at the cutting edge of research regarding Christian origins." (p 212). (Emphases mine).

The other scholarly papers in this collection come with many footnotes. Hick's condescending little lecture has none. He doesn't seem to think he needs any. Apparently he believes that you simply will trust in the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his wisdom, and believe that his avuncular advice really is friendly. And probably some of you will; after all, Hick held more than just a handful of the very most prestigious positions in academic Christian theology.

But if you're more like me, you may have noticed that besides insisting that he is friendly and that his opponents in this little matter are very few and probably -- although of course he just hates to say such a thing, being the big friendly teddy bear that he is -- eccentric, he hasn't really said much about the actual question of the existence of Jesus. (You will find that he has this much in common with Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Morton Smith and many others who dismiss doubts about Jesus' historicity. Because if you look at it more closely, what is often presented as a scholarly debate between those who think Jesus was a myth and those who think he was an actual person looks more like a professional conflict between those who want to examine the question and those who don't want anyone to entertain any doubts about the matter. Historians versus obscurantists might be a more apt term than mythicists versus historicists.) Hick has accurately described the cutting edge of practice in theological seminaries and departments of New Testament studies when it come to the question of Jesus' existence, namely, that it is treated as if there were no question. And it is the cutting edge in those places just as much today in 2012 as it was when Hick said so in 1986. The question is how much this cutting edge resembles anything which could be legitimately be considered an academic cutting edge. How much does it even resemble the way in which the very same theologians and Biblical scholars treat every single other historical question?

Not at all, is the answer. And by the way, Professor Hick, on page 42 of the very same volume, Jesus in History and Myth, G A Wells addresses your comparison of doubts of Jesus' existence with the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, by mentioning that J M Robertson, who early in the 20th century gave "the complete and knockdown answer to" Oxfordianism, "was at the same time the most powerful contender of his day against Jesus' historicity."

Ouch, John! I mean, just, ouch! But of course Robertson may have been firing on all mental cylinders when writing about Shakespeare and Bacon, and quite eccentric when writing about Jesus. And I mean that in a genuinely friendly way, of course.

And what on Earth do you mean by "identifying too closely with a view"? We just want to investigate the matter of Jesus, with open minds, open as well to that one possibility to which your mind is so tightly shut. You want us to identify ourselves with your view that Jesus certainly existed, and take it from there. I suppose that that might be genuinely friendly advice to anyone with the ambition to follow in your career footsteps, into academic theology. But the rest of us have steadily less respect for you and those who would be like you. We want to look into Galileo's telescope, read that awful book by Darwin, listen to Einstein and Heidegger and Feynman and Greene stray ever farther from Newton and into reality -- you do too, I know. Of course you do. Because you're a thoroughly modern enlightened person. Except when it comes to that one question most closely associated with your career. And I mean that in the friendliest possible way, you smug bloated obstacle to learning.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Today's Shocking Republican Congressional News

This is shocking! Today both houses of Congress passed legislation changing the distribution of the 538 electoral votes used to elect the President. From now on the electoral votes will be divided among the states according to their geographical size instead of their population.

Furthermore, in an unusual move, Congressional Republicans have prevented the bill from going to the White House to await President Obama's signature or veto. Instead they are claiming that the bill is already law, and that it wouldn't be fair to involve the President in this, as it affects him and his political future so directly. Instead they are ordering Federal, state and local election official to enact the changes. As of now, according to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), Alaska, and no longer California, is the state whose voters will control the largest number of electoral votes.

"I've received countless e-mails and letters from my constituents complaining about the unfairness of the old system," read an official press release from the Speaker's office. "They looked at maps projecting the November election, they saw much more red than blue, and they couldn't understand how so many liberal media outlets still could continue to maintain that Obama was leading in the polls. As of today, those good people can sleep soundly again, knowing that fairness has been restored to the American political process."

So far this reporter has been unable to receive any comments on the matter from Congressional Democrats or White house officials, nor has he received indications that other reporters have received such communications. Several times he has seen Democrats approaching live microphones or computer keyboards, only to be wrestled to the ground by SWAT personnel dressed all in black with their faces covered, with no badges or labels on their uniforms or anything else indicating what Federal or other organization they might be affiliated with.

They Come in Huge Throngs to Tell Us That They Don't Care

Another day, another flat assertion in Huffington Post that Jesus existed, that the question is settled except among kooks. Still, Kudos to Craig S Keener for giving a more straightforward title to his article than Bart Ehrman gave to his latest book.

Another huge load of readers' comments saying flatly that Jesus' existence or non-existence is completely unimportant, what matters are all the silly theological questions.

The supposed unimportance of whether or not Jesus existed is important enough to an amazing number of people for them to take the time to speak up about it.

Did they happen to notice that the article by Dr Keener also did not address anything supernatural? Although he sometimes writes on theological subjects, this particular article has a strictly historical orientation.

I started to participate in debates over whether or not Jesus existed only a couple of years ago. I had been raised in a Protestantism I found rather oppressive, became an atheist in the 1970's, before I was full grown, and although since then I have studied history with great interest, I tended to avoid Jesus as an historical subject.

That changed a couple of years ago, in part because so many people discuss whether or not Jesus existed. Discussions on this topic can be struck up all over the place. All in all I'd rather talk about Livy or Charlemagne, but it's much harder for an autodidact to find a group of people interested in one of them.

On the other hand, when there is a discussion going on started by an article written by an academic who studies Livy or Charlemagne or theoretical math or metallurgy or the history of soccer or horology, it's relatively rare for someone to pop in just to say, "I find the subject of your work to be unimportant." Can you see how that would be kind of jarring to people who just wanted to talk about Livy, because they're fascinated by Livy? (He was an ancient Roman historian, in case anyone's wondering who I'm talking about.)

For me, aside from a purely historical perspective -- as an atheist I do not actually participate in theological discussions so much as sneer at them and study them from an anthropological perspective and wonder how much longer people will continue to go for such deadly-dull hooey -- the question of the historicity of Jesus is very interesting to me because of what it reveals about Christianity's continuing influence over academic fields which supposedly these days are secularized and objective and dedicated to free and open inquiry. Because it seems to me that the view which continues to dominate -- well represented by Keener above -- is, "It's settled, even if you're completely secular it's settled, Jesus existed, period, move along folks, nothing to see here..." The dominant position is still an unwillingness to actually debate the question. If there were such willingness, then such an article as Keener's would address the positions of people like Robert Price and Thomas Thompson and the other actual bona fide, non-kooky academics [PS, 18. July 2016: Since writing this I've come to regard Price as kooky, and I still don't actually know Thompson well enough to have a legitimate opinion about whether or not he's kooky. Be that as it may, I'm still not at all convinced that Jesus existed.] who are not at all convinced that Jesus existed -- because while dominant, the view that it's settled is not nearly so unanimous among experts as Keener or Ehrman would have you believe. Typically, Keener doesn't even mention any of their names, but merely claims that are very few such people, and suggests, as have Ehrman and Crossan, to name but the most prominent two, that people who are not sure that Jesus existed are either nuts or have been led astray by nuts. They're avoiding a debate.

But hey, look at all the people who don't care one way or the other, so they say.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Criticism of Religion (and Spirituality, po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to) is Good. But Not Every Negative Remark Rises to the Level of Criticism, or Even Common Sense

People I'm often on the same side with on religious issues sometimes turn me right back off when they start to grind some personal, irrational, bigoted ax. They might, for example, speak as if all Muslims were pro-terrorism.

Often they start going on in an unproductive manner about the Catholic Church. As an extreme, some people flatly say that the Church is responsible for all of the evil in the world. I don't know how scapegoating prejudice can get a lot more extreme than that. Moving from the cosmically, insanely paranoid down to the petty, boring and silly, there are those who go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about the "dresses" and "jewelry" and "purses" and so forth worn by male Catholic clergy, and how "fabulous" it all is, and well you get the idea. As an atheist trying to lessen the influence of religion, I am so tired of these people, and so aggravated at the impression they give that atheists are -- well, idiots.

First of all, they're not dresses, they're robes. If these sneering, sniggering fools look at Raphael's School of Athens, do they get similarly giggly, and point and say Oh look, Plato and Aristotle are wearing dresses, nya, nya-nya nyaaaaa-nya?

And if they were right about the robes of Catholic clergy and ancient Greek being dresses -- they're not -- but if they were, do these same people giggle and point and mock whenever they see trannies?

Can someone say "issues"? Thank you, I knew that you could.

I saw one particularly obnoxious anti-Catholic for the first time I could remember about a month ago. Using CAPS in a VERY ANNOYING manner, mentioning things like RATZI's NAZI past -- Hey it rhymes! that must make it even more appealing to idiots -- and so forth. I don't like Ratzinger. Apart from the enthusiasm we share for the Latin language, I honestly can't think of one thing I like about him. I was very disappointed when he was elected Pope. But he was a teenager in 1945, which means that all this talk about his "Nazi past" is plain stupid. The Hitler Youth was not an organization which a German boy either joined or spurned with no pressure.

(Some time ago I asked another person who was calling Ratzinger a Nazi just how young he would have to have been in 1945 in order to be off the hook. They didn't get back to me.)

There's a critique of religion, and then there's bigotry -- and unfortunately the former often acts as camouflage for the latter. It turns out that that IDIOT I MENTIONED ABOVE who OVER-USES CAPS and called RATZI a NAZI left the Church about a year ago. (There are many churches, but only one referred to simply as the Church by friend and foe alike.) Who knows what horrors he or some child he knows may have suffered at the hands of priests or nuns, or what repressive political policies he sees tied to the Church. I don't know, because so far he's just been spewing silly stuff. Maybe eventually he'll calm down, become more coherent and actually contribute in a positive way to public discourse. Who knows. I hope so.

And as for all the men who sniggeringly refer to the dresses of Catholic clergy, I'll just continue to assume that they're all self-loathing closet wannabe transvestites, until I see some reason to assume otherwise. People need to come out, come clean, get down to the real stuff.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Atheists, Do You HAVE to be Spiritual?

So why do I have a problem with atheists saying they're spiritual?

Even if there were not this huge and growing movement of people who insist that they are "spiritual but not religious," "spiritual" would be a nebulous term, and, it seems to me, clarity of thought and expression is one of the primary goals of the atheist. Or at least it seems to me it should be. To say the same thing another way: clarity and religion are mutually-opposed principles. One lessens the other. What does a person mean when he describes himself as spiritual? Who knows? Perhaps an atheist describes himself as spiritual, and by that he means that he feels a great sense of awe when contemplating the universe. (And by the way, who doesn't?) If that's what he means, then that's what he should say. Eleven words: "I feel a great sense of awe when contemplating the universe." Instead of five: "I am a spiritual person." Six extra words are a small price to pay to eliminate so much confusion.

And of course the above-mentioned "spiritual but not religious" people, who of course are nothing more or less than religious people whose relationship with some religious organization has undergone a change, and who are not aware, or behave as if they were unaware, that what they are now is already covered by some existing category of person traditionally considered just as religious as anyone else, if not actually more so: Protestant, or mystical, or Pietistic, or charismatic, or some combination of the above -- these people provide one more big reason for atheists not to describe themselves as spiritual.

Of course it makes no sense for these people to say that they are not religious -- that is to say: not religious anymore. Have you ever met any "spiritual but not religious" people who were not previously religious, according even to themselves? Yeah, neither have I -- but, of course, language does not change according to what makes sense, but according to how people use it, and I am already resigning myself to these turnips re-defining a few terms for all of us. I'm fighting them on linguistic and logical grounds, but I'm not kidding myself that I'm going to win.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Jack Reacher Fans Are Outraged That Tom Cruise Is Playing Reacher, And No-One Cares. At All.

Jack Reacher fans are pushing back hard against my mockery of their outrage at Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher. (Their main objection: he's too short. Some also feel that he sucks as an actor and/or as a human being.) The outraged Jack Reacher fans seem not to realize, one, that there are many more of us who have never heard of Jack Reacher before this than there are of them, and that we come to the new Tom Cruise movie with none of their neuroses about it, and two, that even if we did, if a movie is being made with a hero thought of up until then as huge and hulking, and Tom Cruise expresses an interest in playing that hero, then all of a sudden, and quite rightly, the moviemakers will get much more flexible about the hero's height. Lestat de Lioncourt describes himself in Anne Rice's novel's as six feet tall, and Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was probably well over six feet tall, and Cruise played both of them and both of those movies were hits. Once again -- remember all the silly outrage back in the early 90's among Anne Rice fans when the word got out that Cruise was going to play Lestat? -- I'm betting on the huge (although short) movie star, and against the whiny readers of mass-market paperbacks.

Also, a whole bunch of dopey Buddhists are patiently lecturing me about how modern science does not stand in conflict with the doctrine of the re-incarnation of the Dalai Lama. The occasion for these lectures is the news that His Holiness is pushing science education among his exiled Tibetan followers in northern India, causing Buddhists the world over to ooh and ah as they do at His every move. (I think He's silly at best, but there's no denying that his PR machine is extraordinary.)

Now if I could just get the angry Jack Reacher fans and the earnestly lecturing Buddhists to argue with each other and leave me alone...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Lou Reed and Me, Suburban Boys, Urban Men

I've never gotten Neil Diamond. The only passion he's ever stirred in me was a negative one, when I heard "Cool Jerk" and became convinced that Diamond had stolen that record's main riff for "Cherry, Cherry." But today, researching this post, I see that both "Cool Jerk" and "Cherry, Cherry" were released in 1966, and I can't see that anyone but me ever thought one of the records ripped off the other. But while we're at that, can I really be the only person who ever thought that the piano riff in "Werewolves of London" is downright criminally similar to the one in "Sweet Home Alabama?"

Sigh, nevermind. My point is, Neil Diamond's music has never moved me, but people whose taste in music I respect like him a lot, so I just assume I'm missing something. He's in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. The Band invited him to The Last Waltz and Robbie Robertson produced Beautiful Noise. So what TF do I know.

I also respect the musical taste of a friend of mine who many years ago hired me for a day to do some yard work at the place where he lived. I don't think he owned the place. I think the deal was that part of how he paid the rent was that he did the yard work himself. And the yard was vast and the trees were large and Lo, this autumn day there were many leaves to be raked.

We took a lunch break in the house and, to my surprise, since, as I say, generally speaking we were into the same sorts of music, he put on a Neil Diamond LP. After lunch I asked him why, and he said he did it for me. Apparently that morning I had been chattering away about my suburban childhood, and he associated suburban with Diamond. I didn't mean to let slip that I didn't like Diamond at all, but apparently I did and I may have hurt his feelings. In any case it was awkward. On the off chance that you ever read this, Dude, I'm sorry. I'm sorry about all the other stuff too. This may sound somewhere between very lame and downright dishonest, but I was honestly doing the best I could.

I think of Diamond as an urban guy, an NYC-and-Vegas guy, as a lounge singer who made it big, as fitting in chronologically and musically between Sinatra and Billy Joel. (Also not my cup of tea, neither one, but many other people I respect love one or the other or both of them.) Not too many lounges with live music in the 'burbs.

The musician I can most relate to in terms of his suburban background is Lou Reed. I hear you clutching your pearls and fainting, ladies, stay with me here. You're saying that Reed is the epitome of a big-city rocker. NYC or else Berlin. Yes, but that's where he moved to. It's his chosen home, not his roots. And he never tried to hide that. The first words of "Sweet Jane" are "Standing on the corner/Suitcase in my hand," as in: I'm moving from somewhere else to this city I'm talking about. Like more than a few other musicians and poets, he is able to describe the big city so vividly in part precisely because he isn't from there. He didn't grow up with any of it so all of it is that much more vivid to him. Something I know all about.

(Back in the burbs other ladies are clutching their pearls: "Where's little Lou Reed?" "Didn't you hear, he moved to NYC, he's living in a factory with Andy Warhol and singing songs about junkies and transvestite hookers." "Oh my." "Oh my goodness." "Oh my.")

[PS, 13. July, 2016: Yes, in the meantime I have discovered that I had been misinformed about Reed's childhood when I wrote this, and that he wasn't a suburban boy.]

What is more drably suburban than the world described in "Sunday Morning?" Has there ever been a deeper and more real artistic depiction than "Satellite of Love" of a suburban boy who will escape to a huge city if he doesn't kill himself with 'ludes and beer first? I think not. I am that suburban boy.