Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dave Chappelle: Does He Owe His Audience More? Do They Owe Him More?

Dave Chappelle has been accused by some of "melting down" at the Oddball Festival on August 29, where he was headliner and gave a very short performance. By other accounts, Chappelle didn't melt down at all, and it was the crowd that was out of control, and Chappelle gave them about a half-hour to calm down, and then left rather than try to continue to perform in conditions of complete pandemonium. I wasn't there. The reports of a calm, collected Chappelle and a crowd in meltdown seem more convincing to me, but I wasn't there. But the various reactions to the evening's activities got me thinking about the relationships between entertainers and their fans.

I think it goes without saying that SOME members of the audience, maybe the great majority of them for all I know, were very well-behaved, and had the right to expect a full-length portion of comedy from the evening's headliner, and got screwed over. The question is, was that Chappelle's fault, or the fault of their fellow audience members who wouldn't shut up?

In cases like this I tend to sympathize more, much more, with the entertainers.

I stopped watching Conan O'Brian altogether sometime before NBC fired him and he moved to TBS. I stopped tuning in with great reluctance because I like Conan's comedy very much. We're about the same age, I get most of his cultural references, and his overall absurdist approach is very sympathetic to me. I stopped watching, however, because his studio audiences had gotten too effin loud and rowdy for me. And this was me watching TV at home. I can't really imagine how disappointing some of the shows may have been for some people who had come to watch the show in the studio, who were there to watch Conan and his sketch players and his guests, and found themselves sitting in the midst of people who just would not stop screeching and whooping, and screaming hysterically at every single word anyone uttered which could possibly have been construed or misconstrued in a sexual context.

I've watched Conan's TBS show a few times, and the vibe seems totally different. The audience doesn't distract nearly as much from the actual show I tuned in to see. Did Conan do something about the rowdy crowds? Does he also think that the crowds were just plain unpleasant before? Would he sympathize with Dave about this recent incident? I don't know, maybe none of the above.

I saw Richard Pryor's stand-up movie Here and Now when it first came out, the follow-up to his huge hit Live on the Sunset Strip, and I liked it a lot. I saw it again recently, stone-cold sober, and I noticed -- there was no way I couldn't notice -- that the crowd who were live with Richard at the filming were yelling and screaming all the way through. And because of the audience, which I hadn't recalled from my first viewing, I didn't like the movie very much at all the second time. The early 80's, when Here and Now was released, are kind of a blur for me, but I was probably pretty high the first time I watched. It's not the only movie I saw back then which looks completely different to me now.

On PBS last night there was an hour-long broadcast of clips of jazz performances from the 50's through the 70's, entitled "Jazz Icons." Just about every time there was a shot of the audience, I found it embarrassing and unpleasant, and after a little while I just looked away until the camera was back on the musicians. It's not about the audience, is the point of this whole blog post. We didn't come to see the audience and we sure as Hell didn't come to listen to them. And if that means I'm in diametrical opposition to Dave Marsh, then I figure I'm on the right track.

In the midst of this recent controversial appearance of Chappelle's, a woman allegedly yelled at him, "I'm in college and I paid for this!" and Dave answered something like, "So what? I never went to college and one time I paid for sex." In my humble opinion, of the two remarks, Dave's was much funnier. That doesn't sound to me like a comedian having a meltdown. It sounds like a talented guy who just wanted to entertain and wasn't being given a chance.

Shush thy neighbor. And so the lesson endeth.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Human Exceptionalism Is An Outmoded Religious Concept

It's not unusual these days to hear someone say in the same breath both that humans are distinct from the rest of the "animal kingdom," and that we must keep in mind that we are part of the continuum of life on Earth, two statements which directly contradict each other. The fact that it's not unusual, that even respected academics can still say such things without immediately being shouted down or risking their tenure, demonstrates that we are in a period of transition from religion to science. As recently as Charles Darwin's lifetime, the assertion that humans are no more or less than animals, although it was no longer particularly eyebrow-raising within biology departments, could still encounter great resistance in general in even the most progressive universities, because even then most of them were still dominated by religion. Very few universities founded more than two centuries ago were founded as other than religious institutions, and very many since have been founded as religious institutions, whose very purposes for being are based on holy texts which are thousands of years old, not on insights gained more recently which conflict with what those texts say. And, of course, universities which have been explicitly, declaredly secular cannot be expected to have been entirely immune from religious mindsets and agendas which permeate our very existence. And the notion that humans are distinct from the rest of nature is a religious notion, not shared by all religions by any means, but a central tenet of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which teach that God put man in charge of everything and that man has a soul which is lacking in other species.

This human exceptionalism is deeply ingrained in people's minds. But biology says something completely different. It has shown us that we are not different from other animals. We're all carbon-based and we all grow and function on the basis of DNA, and humans share the majority of their DNA coding with, for example, cats. We're the same.

It's also only religiously-based thinking which causes anyone to find such plain facts insulting and/or to reject them. The religious concept of humanity being "higher" than all other life forms causes a remarkably one-sided assessment of human accomplishments when making comparisons between species. Yes, there are a long list of wonderful things which are unique on Earth to our species, the information technology by means of which you and I are now communicating being just one example. But there are also a long list of horrible things which only we humans have accomplished. No other species has produced smog or acid rain. (Not yet, anyway. We mustn't forget that all species are continually evolving, not just us.) And besides thoroughly tangible things like computers and pollution, there are assumptions made about things we don't know, such as what other species are thinking. (It's iffy enough when we claim to know something about the internal lives of other members of our own species.) Even among biologists who are atheists the assumption than no non-human species think at all, based on nothing at all but the vestiges of religious human exceptionalism, is still amazingly widespread. How do we know that dogs don't think in ways very similar to us? How do we know, for example, that they have no religious beliefs? The only rational answer is that we don't know, that such assumptions rest on primitive human mental habits and upon no firm evidence. And that we should stop making such assumptions and approach such subjects with more open minds.

Habits of thinking develop not just in individuals but also in groups, and this habit of regarding humans to be exceptional and apart from the rest of life -- again, I must emphasize, NOT shared by all humans, although it has been dominant in Western and Islamic civilizations -- this mental habit has been engrained and reinforced for thousands of years, and so perhaps it's not at all to be expected that it will vanish quickly. But we can start by recognizing where it came from, and that it has not come from science.

I don't think that there should be anything at all insulting or otherwise disappointing in seeing ourselves as animals like other animals. If adapting this attitude is a negative thing for you, perhaps you don't know non-human species as well as you could and don't love them nearly as much as you could.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Progressive Theology's Attempt To Distance Itself From Creationism

The Christian creationists come from the same tradition and hold the same texts holy as do progressive Christians. They're more consistent in that their mentality is closer to that of the people who wrote those texts thousands of years ago. The progressives have to distort and deny huge portions of the history of their religion in their attempt to make it compatible with modern enlightened thought, in a way not entirely unlike the way creationists distort and deny huge portions of mankind's scientific knowledge. The position progressive believers represents amounts to being a little bit pregnant. In the long run either religion or science will prevail. They're not compatible. A good deal of contemporary progressive Christian theology seems to consist of putting off the choice between science and religion, distracting people from that choice.

Say something like that to a liberal theologian, and you may well receive an answer containing several hair-raising bits of nonsense, as nonsensical as anything any creationist could ever say: you may be challenged to provide an example from the Bible which supports your assertion that there's anything creationist in it. The theologian may tell you straight-up that the doctrine of creationism is not found in the Bible and was not actively taught until the 1960s.

An example of creationism in the Bible? What, chapters 1 & 2 of Genesis don't suffice? "Actively" taught? Tell that to John Scopes, defendant in the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, charged with violating Tennessee' Butler Act, passed that same year, by teaching evolution in a public school. the Butler Act provided that "That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." Teachers who violated the act were to be fined between $100 and $500 for each offense. Are we to assume that back then creationism was "passively" taught in Tennessee?

The Butler Act was overturned in 1967, so presumably, in reality, it was in the 1960's when not creationism but evolutionary theory began to be taught in Tennessee's public schools without the teachers risking being fined for it. I don't know how many teachers risked those fines between 1925 and 1967. I can only hope that a great many of them did.

Why this absurd claim that creationism was only "actively" taught beginning in the 1960's? As far as the date goes, the meme that creationism was only created in the 19th century was not sufficiently ridiculed and laughed out of existence when it recently appeared, and when stupid memes aren't sufficiently challenged they tend to grow more stupid. Stéphane Courtois' math was not sufficiently assailed when when he published The Black Book of Communism in the 1990's with its assertion, with that famous round number, easy for simple minds to latch onto, that 100,000,000 people had been killed by Communists, and now assertions that it was actually 150,000,000, or 200,000,000 or more, are making the rounds.

What actually happened in the 19th century was that Biblical scholarship became a bit more sophisticated, a great number of very old fragments of manuscripts of Biblical texts began to be discovered in the Middle Eastern desert, the results of the latest scholarship, not only in the field of Biblical text-criticism, but also in evolutionary biology, became known to wider circles of the public -- and for the first time, a significant number of people dared openly to speculate that creation might NOT have happened as described in Genesis. Before the 19th century, creationism, which these absurd theologians are telling us only began in the 19th century, was the default position of Christianity, accepted by the vast majority of its members.

Now, these theologians, these turnips, and those who assume the turnips know what they're talking about, will, around this point if not sooner, triumphantly announce that St Augustine of Hippo asserted the Genesis creation story was an allegory. What they will not tell you, assuming they know it -- a far too rash assumption -- is that Augustine believed that God created the entire universe all at once, in an instant. No, it's not like the theory of the big bang, because Augustine was saying that the entire universe was created as it is now all at once. All the planets and stars created just as they are now. With the Earth at the center of the universe, the sun, moon and stars all revolving around it. Around 6000 years ago. Or that Augustine did believe that the Biblical accounts of the creation of Adam and Eve and of the virgin birth of Jesus were literally true. And he converted because he heard a book talking to him. And he wrote with great relish of the destruction of all of the non-Christian temples all over the Roman Empire which was going on around him, and at the thought of non-Christians being tormented for all eternity in Hell. Not a creationist? Close enough for me. Aquinas, whom theologians and other apologists love to cite for his idea of natural reason, as if it were anything but a partial refutation of the Christian doctrine of human depravity, won't generally tell you -- if they know. And there's no reason to assume that they do -- that Aquinas also said that the Holy Scripture was perfect, and that all "seeming" contradictions and absurdity and atrocities and so forth, contained within it, were the result of man's imperfect ability to understand Scripture, and that there were some very important, some vital matters which could be found only in Scripture. Aquinas, this supposed pinnacle of reason and harbinger of modernity, looks more and more like just another Bible-thumping hick, the better you actually know what he wrote.

So we return to my central point here: that the difference between the crudest creationists, and any other Christians, is not nearly as great as progressive Christians believe, not as great as they want you to believe. They're all Bible-thumpers, it's just that each one picks out his favorite verses and explains away the rest. All just differences in interpretation, that is to say: differences of opinion about the ways that All Of The Most Important Stuff In The Universe is in the Bible.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Tom Petty "It's Ab-So-Lute-Ly Backwards" Theory Of Economics

Not long after they had suddenly become rich and famous, around 1980 or so, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were contacted by Nike. Someone at Nike had noticed that several members of the band seemed to like to wear Nikes. The band were invited up to Nike headquarters in Seattle to take their pick of the latest Nike stuff. Not just shoes but also jackets and shirts and hats and boots and whatever. All free, of course. Nike's point of view was that these guys wearing that stuff was cheap advertising for them. Whether Nike's reasoning was economically sound or not here, Tom and his band soon had picked out so much really nice free stuff that they were starting to wonder just how best to haul it all back home. A Nike employee said not to worry, ran off and soon re-appeared with all sorts of really nice leather bags. Also free, just in case you wouldn't have assumed that.

It was about this time, as Tom was admiring how beautiful these bags were, with really soft and supple leather and linings inside which were luxurious to the touch and so forth, that he realized that, in his own words, "It's ab-so-lute-ly backwards." It had not been very long ago that the economic circumstances of the band were such that a new pair of sneakers were a purchase which had to be thought about carefully, and their shoes often got holes in them before it seemed practical to replace them. Now that they could afford to buy any new shoes they wanted, more shoes than anyone really needed, and really nice luggage to haul all those shoes around in, they didn't have to anymore. (Whether Tom and his band had been flown up to Seattle and back home again in one of Nike's corporate jets or whether they just dropped in when they were in Seattle on other business, I don't know.)

A few years after that, Stephen King, who had already earned many millions of dollars from his fiction and from movie and television screenplays and screen adaptations of his work, was making his debut as a feature-film director on Maximum Overdrive. In addition to his salaries as director and screenplay author (based on his short story "Trucks"), King got a $1000 per diem during shooting, which he never touched. King was not necessarily what you'd call obese in those days, but he wasn't missing a lot of meals either. Apparently he got all he wanted to eat from the caterers on set, then every evening he would come back to the hotel suite he wasn't paying for and toss the envelope with the tax-free $1000 per diem onto the bed he wasn't using, making a substantial pile of envelopes by the time shooting was done.

That was in the mid-80's. Surely the biggest Hollywood per diems today, for, say, George Clooney or Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg, make that $1000 seem pretty pathetic. (You know that villa on Lake Como in Ocean's Twelve where Toulour lived, where Ocean confronted Toulour? In real life that was Clooney's house -- no, excuse me: it was one of his houses. It might still be, I don't know. Maybe in the meantime he's traded up to a fancier Lake Como villa, if there is one.)

It may sound as if I'm enviously sniping at some of the rich and famous, but I'm really not. For one thing, all the people I've mentioned here are rich Democrats. Better them than the Koch brothers. Much better. All I'm saying is that I've discovered a very basic principle of economics, or, to be more precise, that principle was pointed out to me by Tom Petty: if you want to have all sorts of wealth flowing into your possession without your even having to ask for it, the surest way to achieve that is to get into a position where you don't have the slightest need for it.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Legalize Pot, And All Other Drugs Too

Whom would it hurt? Drug dealers, who make thousands of percent profit on their merchandise; their lawyers; the prison industry; and the DEA. They'd all be forced to find careers not based on sheer insanity. One very dangerous recreational drug, alcohol, is legal for adults to consume in the US except for a few counties here and there who are as backwards in their laws about alcohol as the US is in its laws about drugs generally. For the most part the rest of the country realizes that Prohibition was a disaster except for crooks and cops. Many still don't grasp that prohibition of other drugs is no different. Many seemingly don't want to even hear about things such as that the rate of marijuana use in the Netherlands, where it's legal and about as easily obtainable as alcohol in the US, is much lower than in the US, or to think about things such as the claim by a Dutch politician: "We have succeeded in making pot boring." (Those stoned people you see stumbling around downtown Amsterdam? Most of them are American tourists.)

None of what I'm saying is rocket science and none of it is new. If sensible thinking were more common I'd say it's merely common sense. As are further things to consider such as this: I don't deny that some drugs are dangerous and addictive. The main economic commodity in "Breaking Bad," methamphetamine, comes to mind. But people with a meth problem who want help will be more likely to seek it out if they know they're not going to risk imprisonment by doing so.

So many good reasons to just legalize it all. So many bad reasons for keeping it illegal.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In The Feud Between Historicists And Mythicists, There's Almost No One To Root For

And it is a feud. One of the disappointing things about this is the high proportion of personal attacks against other scholars to actual scholarly discussion of Jesus' historicity. As I've mentioned before on this blog, Bart Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist? disappoints not only for the weakness of the case it makes for historicity -- others of Ehrman's fans on both side of the historicist/mythicist divide agree that the case he made was very disappointingly weak -- but also for the egregiously insulting personal attacks on mythicists, comparing them to conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers. As if that weren't bad enough, the mythicists whom Ehrman attacked -- Richard Carrier, D.M. Murdock, Earl Doherty, René Salm, David Fitzgerald, Frank R. Zindler, and Robert M. Price -- have responded, not with something finer, but in kind, with an anthology of attacks on Ehrman, entitled Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth, in which they allow themselves in no way to be outdone by Ehrman when it comes to petty gotchas. Ad hominem all over the place, no ad rem to be seen anywhere.

Unless, of course, I'm entirely mistaken in thinking that the actual res here is the question: did Jesus exist? Price, who edited this volume along with Zindler, actually writes of Ehrman and Did Jesus Exist? : "He started it!" I suppose it's possible to find Price refreshingly informal and witty in a childlike way. I suppose. Some people must find him to be that way. Because he does have readers and fans.

On the one hand, mainstream academic scholars have thorough training, great familiarity with relevant languages ancient and modern (a great deal of the standard work in the Biblical scholarship of the past several centuries has been in German) and peer review, but they also almost all seem to have the a priori assumption that Jesus existed, a compulsion to ridicule anyone who doesn't share that assumption, and a much too cozy relationship with theologians. And who can say to what extent the assumption, or the appearance of the assumption if that's really all it is in some cases, is merely a subset of the cozy relationship? On the other hand there are mythicists who have none of the above. And in the middle, with all of those good scholarly attributes but without that a priori assumption, are Price, and G A Wells, who's over 90 years old. And perhaps Carrier. Some say that Carrier exaggerates his credentials and some other details of his bio. Are they right? How the Hell should I know? If this blog post makes only one thing clear to you, it should be that I don't know whom to trust in Jeebus Studies, inside or outside of academia. And there's R Joseph Hoffmann, whose academic credentials are not in doubt, but who seems to have come to assume that Jesus existed. He comes short of calling it a certainty, as most of his colleagues in academia do, but not by much at all anymore. He says that the path which led him so very close to the orthodox certainty is clear and brightly-lit and plain for all to see. But I still can't see it. I must be thick. Yeah, that must be it.

To whom does one turn, between this rock and that hard place? Not to me: my Quixotic quest has to do with the lost books of Livy -- which definitely did exist at one point. In this matter of Jesus I am merely an appalled onlooker.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Nonsense Doesn't Matter Except That It's Everywhere

I wouldn't care much about Reza Aslan or his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazarethexcept that, imitating Salman Rushdie and the Ayatollah Khomeini, Aslan's book was propelled to nationwide-#1-bestseller status in the wake of a stupid Fox News interviewer asking him how dare he, a Muslim, write about Jeebus. History has repeated itself as farce: Rushdie, a brilliant writer,was lifted to superstardom because religious fanatics were under orders to assassinate him; Aslan, a mediocre writer, has become a superstar because a Fox talking head said something hilariously stupid even by the standards of Fox. Aslan isn't stupid, but he's very, very far from writing as well as Rushdie, and his book is the 7-bazillionth example of the Jesus-as-Rorschach-test genre: we're all pretty much familiar with the New Testament Jesus; New Testament scholars, from Albert Schweitzer through John Dominic Crossan to Aslan, expand upon and/or depart from the basic familiar narrative and incorrectly label their work nonfiction. Not only did Nikos Kazantzakis write a much better Jesus story than those other three, he also called his version what it is, a novel.

I wouldn't care much about the assertions that the entire story of Jesus is copied from other myths, except that it's everywhere and it's proponents are every bit as resistant to discussion as any religious fanatic. List a dozen or so substantial variations from the myth of Oedipus, or Dionysis, or Hercules, or Perseus, or Osiris, or Theseus, or Prometheus, or Romulus, or Lucifer -- if you know any of those myths it's not hard to come up with a dozen ways in which the story of Jesus varies from each one of them -- and ask the turnip smugly smiling as he says that the Jesus story is 100% copied to respond to your objections to his thesis, and he'll respond as if he didn't hear your challenge at all, and chide you for not having read his favorite mouth-breathing author's book-length rant about how they did too steal it, and conclude that obviously your faith (doesn't matter a lick to him if you're an atheist) is obviously threatened by having come into the truth he's layin' down, and -- well, I'm sure you've met idiots yourself and know what they're like. The ones claiming that Jesus' story is 100% STOLEN -- they like to use the word "stolen" -- and that the Bible is a game of Telephone, these morons wouldn't matter much except that there are so many of them. (The story of the fictitious manuscript in the the preface to Umberto Eco's Il Nome Della Rosa --now THAT is a tale of a game of Telephone, which, although fictitious, will surely delight anyone who actually knows anything about the transmission of texts originating in the Middle Ages or earlier.)

Dan Brown wouldn't matter to me a bit if he hadn't sold hundreds of millions of copies of his silly books crammed with factual errors often taken for facts, in part because Brown insists they are facts when he isn't covering his ass by pleading that his books are just fiction.

Idiots who don't get that humans are warming the climate or who don't care wouldn't bother me if they weren't numerous enough to elect public servants.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

My Search For The Lost Books Of Livy

[Edited 25. February 2015]

Some scholars of the Classics reading the title of this post, assuming that any such scholar ever will, might well laugh and wonder whether I'm joking or simpleminded. I hope I'm neither, but I myself smiled as I chose that title, and I know that the Classical scholars who would hear of such a search with anything other than derision might be few or non-existent. That's okay. I'm quite used to being sneered at and made fun of by Biblical scholars because they haven't convinced me yet that Jesus existed, and so being made fun of because I'm not convinced that those 107 lost books of Livy don't still exist somewhere wouldn't be an entirely new experience for me. In fact, in a way I can understand such derision, because how are academics supposed to be able to tell me apart at first glance from a fan of popular contemporary mythicists (as those who are unconvinced that Jesus existed are called) like Carrier, Price, Doherty and/or of the "History Channel"? I feel that I'm pretty unique among the non-mainstream, that I resemble an academic in many ways and that my lack of an academic career is due to my autism and not because I can't keep up with what the pros are talking about. It seems that way to me, but have I done anything so far to prove to the pros that I'm someone to be taken seriously in the field of ancient history? I have not. On the contrary, the autism, the lack of credentials, the complete lack of peer-reviewed papers, the eccentric views on Jesus and Livy's lost books are all red flags. I know this, and it's okay.

I think I respect the academic mainstream more than do most of the most popular contemporary mythicists. I don't know if there's a term corresponding to "mythicist" to describe someone looking for Livy's lost books. In fact, I don't know of anyone else at all besides me who's currently looking. And the less-than-admiring opinion of such an undertaking on the part of the academic mainstream does give me pause. I would just say to the deriders and head-shakers: a searcher doesn't have to find what he's looking for in order for his search to have been worthwhile. Successful or not, if he searches well, he will find all sorts of things he wasn't looking for.

But I must make clear, and this isn't false modesty, it's accurate, that my search for the lost books so far has been feeble and entirely amateurish. I hope that may change eventually.

The trail of the lost books goes cold in the late 6th century. There is fragmentary evidence of them up until that time:

A condensed version of the entire work, all 142 books, known as the periochae. A volume edited by Otto Jahn in the 19th century contains the periochae, 106 pages in this edition, probably about 1% as many words as the original, and then, 29 pages long, the so-called prodigies of Julius Obsequens: mentions of comets, earthquakes, famines, swarms of bees and other unusual things occuring in Livy's work.Obsequens' work itself does not survive whole: we have only his descriptions of the prodigies in Livy's books 56 through 132. Both the author of the periochae and Obsequens are thought to have worked in the 4th century.

Then there is Florus,whose history of Rome, about as long as the periochae, focusing mainly on military matters, is drawn mostly from Livy, and rarely studied today for any other reason than to learn about Livy.

11 pages of fragments from the lost books were collected and included in an out-of-print edition of books 41-45, edited by William Weissenborn and Moritz Mueller, published by Teubner.

Those 5 books, 41-45, are now known to us from a single manuscript, which was written in the 5th century, circulated for a while and then was discovered collecting dust on a shelf in a monastery in Switzerland in the 16th century. It seems that this manuscript was originally only half of a manuscript containing books 41-50. 46-50 are currently at large.

In a very famous letter from the year 401, on p 239 of the MGH edition of his works, ISBN 3-921575-19-2, the Roman patrician Quintus Aurelius Symmachus informs his friend Valerian that his entire household is engaged in an edition of Livy's works.

These are some of the clues we have to the possible whereabouts of those missing 107 books. Symmachus owned quite a number of villas in Italy. Recently an ancient villa thought possibly to be the one where that edition of Livy was made has been excavated along with its surroundings, leading to some speculation about the possibility of coming across interesting texts.

An enormous amount of writing on ancient papyrus, as well as some on parchment, has been found in Egypt since the 19th century, and some continues to be found, mostly in Egypt but some to the east. Finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic Gospels make a lot of headlines, but they're a tiny fraction of all of the ancient texts found. Most of the texts are in Greek, the dominant language of the eastern Roman Empire, but some are Latin. A couple of the finds were a few dozen words each of Livy, 1 from book 1 (known) and 1 from book 11 (lost!) and a third was a condensed version of books 37-40 (known) and 48-55 (lost!).

So you see, we actually are finding parts of the lost books. There's that codex containing books 41-45 recovered in the 16th century. The most spectacular find since then is a palimpsest of about 1000 words from book 91, contained among those fragments in Weissenborn and Mueller's volume mentioned above. The most spectacular find since then was that parchment containing several dozen words of book 11. That was found in the 1980's. The deriders would say that I, along with anyone else like me, in case there is anyone else like me on this subject, am ignoring a pattern of drastically diminishing returns. I would respond that they're displaying a can't-do attitude.

What can we do? We can take all of the things I have listed above and use them as clues as to where to look for more. We can think about the time when the trail went cold, the late 6th century. The darkest part of the Dark Ages in Western Europe. The reign of Pope Gregory the Great -- not so great from the point of view of Classical scholars. Did he order the destruction of the works of Livy? If so, what we possess is what survived a deliberate destruction, and we need to think about where the books currently lost may have been hidden to escape Gregory's troops. If Gregory had nothing to do with the loss, if the books disappeared from view in the general random chaos of the wars of the time, where would they have been most well-protected from all that chaos? (Just as in the hypothetical case of an anti-Livy campaign by Gregory, so too in the general-chaos hypothesis, the lost books could have been hidden by design, or merely happened to be in the right place, away from danger.) The authors who included fragments of Livy in their works, the last people we know to have possessed the lost books -- what can we learn about their lives, about their surroundings, about what could have happened to their possessions including the books they owned? What can that palimpsest of those 1000 words from book 91 tell us about where to look for similar palimpsests? Weissenborn and Mueller included another palimpsest text, which they say comes from book 136. Most scholars today say it's not from Livy at all but a passage written by Sallust. Who's right? How many libraries and monasteries and attics and studies remain in a state sufficiently disorganized to warrant their being combed through for what we're looking for?

So. If you see me with a look on my face like I'm a million miles away, chances are good that this is the sort of thing I'm turning over in my mind. This is actually much more interesting to me than whether or not Jesus existed.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Fresh Look At Science And Religion (Actually There's Nothing Fresh About It)

Huffington Post has reprinted something written by 14-year-old Nimai Agarwal for the "God" issue of the magazine KidSpirit:

Thinking about these topics has not only strengthened my faith in God, but has also helped me find connections between science and religion, whose seeming opposition [...]

I'm trying to visualize the editors of Huffington Post's Religion section at work. It can't be easy to be them:

"Yes, that "seeming" opposition is so Gosh-darn persistent and omnipresent. What or whom can we blame it on this time? Uhh... Umm... Okay, I got nothin. Oh, wait! I know! We'll publish an essay by a 14-year-old Hindu kid who's into science, and when the usual pains in our euphemisms come around with their usual snark we can accuse them of both picking on kids and being prejudiced against Hindus! 2 for 1! It's brilliant!"

It's really not. This horse has been dead for a long, long time. It's not going to get any fresher by posting something written by a 14-year-old who had been homeschooled until a year previously, for whom things like grade-school Astrophysics 101 and the scientific view of gravity are still new: " Gravity fascinates me very much -- the fact that planets are revolving around each other and that all objects in this world attract each other? Pretty mind-blowing stuff" and who hasn't yet lost his faith.

Ya gotta feel sorry for those editors sometimes. And for that kid too, caught between the rock of his religious home-school background and the hard place of editors for religious publications, obviously anxious to make him a poster boy, on the other. "Being born into a religious family has many advantages, but I've never been challenged to think about the existence of God. I have always taken it for granted." Oh, kid. Those weren't advantages.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Someone Said Dan Brown Was Right About Jesus and Mary Magdalene Having Been Married

I disagree. I'm not certain that either Jesus or Mary Magdalene existed, let alone that they were married, let alone that they had children and that their descendants survive today. And even if they did I don't assign any special qualities to anyone just because of their ancestors. And the Grail was invented in the 12th century by Chretien de Troyes. And a grail is a cup or chalice. And the business about "san graal" ("holy grail") being a misreading of "sang raal [sang royal]'" ("royal blood") which Brown borrowed from Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, although it's miles more clever than anything Brown will ever think up on his own, is still just clever silliness. And the Priory of Sion was invented in the 1950's by a Frenchman trying to pass himself off as a descendant of the Merovingians and a figure prophesied by Nostradamus. And besides the factual errors Brown insists are facts and which are crucial to the plots of his stories, his books are riddled with errors which are unimportant for his plots. For example, there actually is no academic discipline called symbology, which is practiced by Brown's protagonist Professor Robert Langdon. There is, however, an academic discipline which studies symbols. It's called semiotics, and, ironically, there is an actual Italian professor of semiotics named Umberto Eco who writes fanciful novels, often having to do with wild speculations about the history of the Roman Catholic Church, which are much, much, much better than Brown's,and although Eco's fiction is infinitely more realistic and informative about the reality of both the present and of bygone ages than Brown's, he doesn't have the bad taste to try to pass any of it off as factual, as Brown does with his unfortunate piles of awkward sentences.

Just in case this wasn't already clear: I think Dan Brown's books are badly-written and that people could get a lot more entertainment as well as lot less misinformation from books written by -- well, from books written by just about anyone else.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

University Of Rochester Paper: Atheists Iz Smarterz! Yes We Kan Haz Schadenfreude! (Or Kan We Haz?)

This paper, based on dozens of studies conducted over almost a century, flatters me and people like me; therefore, I think its research and methodology are sound and its results reliable. And also because religion is stupid.

Actually I don't know what to think of this. I don't know what to think of sociological surveys like this. I meant it when I said I found the results flattering, and I meant it when I said religion is stupid. But I neglected to mention that I think studies like this are stupid, too. How do you measure such things? How do you even begin to remove observer bias and other forms of bias? In short, I wouldn't be surprised if very soon a similarly wide-ranging analysis appears which asserts the very opposite, that intelligence and the level of one's piety rise hand in hand. And then a battle between the supporters of the conflicting studies will emerge, a debate almost as pointless and embarrassing to watch as theology itself. I agree with this study's major conclusion; I don't trust the methods by which it was achieved. The headline I'm still waiting for is: Sociological Study Proves Conclusively That Sociological Studies Are Stupid And That Sociologists Are Well-Meaning But Very Dull-Witted. Academic Discipline To Be Discontinued

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Moderate THIS, Huffington Post!

Still in the wake of the latest Richard Dawkins-induced brouhaha, a friend of mine responded to someone's assertion that there probably wasn't a Muslim university in the world's top 200 universities. The person asserting this was perpetuating Dawkins' stubborn refusal to face the issue of who does things like hand out Nobel prizes and make lists of the world's best universities, and hey, let's not forget the problematic nature of the phrase "Muslim university." As I say, my friend responded to this assertion, and his comment was judged, by whoever the Hell moderates the comments at Huffington Post these days, to be beyond the pale. Too horrifying to appear on the website. My friend's comment was removed. Here it is, in its entirety. Brace yourselves:

"At least one Muslim country made the top 200."

Wow! I know, right? What a horrible, disgusting thing to say! Who can blame HP for deleting it?

The thing is, this wasn't a one-time glitch. Similar comments posted by this guy are removed so frequently that it doesn't even surprise me any more, just makes me angrier. So why don't I go complain to HP, you ask? I did, and my report that something was wrong got an error message several times in a row. And at least one comment of mine was deleted. (I don't know how many of my comments had been published in the meantime.)

Something is wrong. Another one of my friend's deleted comments reads as follows:

"There is no archaeological evidence of Jesus' existence. There is some historical evidence but it is biased evidence. Other than that there is the Josephus' mention of James. And there is the Pilate Stone with Pontius Pilate's name on it."

That's much, much milder, not to mention more accurate, than many atheist comments which are published every day on HP and which stay up. I copied-and-pasted that last comment into a comment of my own. Later, in a comment which included my entire comment which had included his earlier comment in its entirely, my friend informed me that my comment had also been deleted. They haven't gotten around to deleting that one yet. And the deletions of my friend's comments happen much, much too often to be a coincidence. It's so obviously not a coincidence that I have to wonder whether my comment or comments being deleted is a coincidence. Some childish person (or persons) has been given an HP moderator's buttons and is abusing them maliciously. And/or, those moderating functions have been hacked by trolls. My inability to report this to HP through normal channels would seem to suggest the latter. Whatever. I'm not going to be quiet about this. The thought of being banned from a forum as effed up as this doesn't bother me much. On the other hand the thought that some grown-up at HP might eventually hear me and look into this, the possibility that this might eventually be straightened out, the very thought is sweet.

Monday, August 12, 2013

An Open Letter To Richard Dawkins

Hey, Dick!

I regret having stood up for you for some time in your capacity as a leader of New Atheism before having properly informed myself about your statements on various religions. Doubly so since I'm always chiding others for weighing in on topics about which they haven't first informed themselves. Which is pretty much what this post is about.

Let's concede for the sake of argument that you're correct in stating that science in the "Muslim world" is in a sorry state -- you've got a huge microphone and a towering podium, you've got some power: what are you going to DO about it? Beside repeating your mantra, "Religion is bad!"? Yes, Richard, religion is bad, but "Religion is bad!" is extremely oversimplistic, and extreme oversimplification is bad, if you will pardon my oversimplifying the case.

I'll tell you some things you can do:

Read the Koran,and until you're finished with that, enjoy a nice steaming hot mug of STFU about Islam.

But I see I'm far from the first to propose this to you. Oh well. Onward:

Visit some majority-Muslim countries, if you haven't already. If you have, pardon me, but it's hard to imagine that you have. In the course of researching whether or not you've ever been to a majority-Muslim country I came across someone posting on the Internet behind the anonymous safety of a handle, claiming to have been in the Middle East and to know that it amounted to suicide to be there and admit to being an atheist. I was immediately reminded of some other Internet pussies who claimed to live secretly as atheists in the US South, because coming out of the atheist closet there, they were certain, would be career suicide.

I lived in the middle of the Bible Belt for 10 years, during which time it never occurred to me to try to hide the fact that I was an atheist, and I knew people who were bolder than I, and we all were employed.

Admittedly, simply being an atheist, and being Richard Dawkins His Dangself, are two different propositions. But assuming that your personal security could somehow be arranged, would you consider going to Damascus University, say, or the University of Jordan, and meeting face to face with scientists working there, so you'd have a better idea of whom you're dissing? Visiting their labs, discussing their research?

If for no other reason, then to give yourself a shred of credibility on certain topics, as reading the Koran would?

I think your problem here is prejudice, Richard, and prejudice consists of assuming things about people rather than getting to know them as individuals. If "Muslim science" were represented in your mind by some people you'd met, whose labs you'd seen, maybe you'd be less inclined to say such stupid hurtful things about them. If those scientists in Jordan or Syria were not faceless to you, perhaps you'd be inclined to actually say, or even to do, things which could help them perform scientific work better. Of course, if you saw them for yourself, there's also the possibility that you'd see that you had been wrong about "Muslim science" being in such a sorry state, and instead begin wondering -- aloud, and in front of hot mikes, could one hope? -- about things such as why those scientists haven't received more attention from Western institutions such as those folks from Nobel.

Realistically, I don't see any reason to think that you'll do any of these this: read the Koran, go to the Middle East, meet "Muslim scientists" or tour "Muslim universities," or anything else which might open your mind a crack on the subject. (I'd be so glad if you'd prove me wrong.) And so instead, we atheists who are not as completely stupid about religion and culture and history as you -- have you met Salman Rushdie? If so it doesn't seem to have done you any good -- are just going to have to do a much better job of distancing ourselves from you. For so many reasons, including this one: it's true that not every atheist who is critical of Islam needs to have read the Koran, but the leader of a movement of millions of them should know it forward and backward, in Arabic. (Or at least for crying out loud be able to refer us to someone who does.) That's not very much to ask at all. There are plenty of atheists who fulfill that job requirement, including some you've probably never heard of because, you know, they live in the "Muslim world."

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dawkins' Tweet About Islam, Cambridge And Nobel Prizes

Richard Dawkins is a bit of a roller-coaster. I never know whether the next piece of his writing I'm going to read is going to be brilliant, stupid or somewhere in between. This recent tweet of his:

"All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."

is one of the stupid ones. The reasons why it's so stupid are so perfectly summed up in a headline in the form of a rhetorical question over a column by Nelson Jones in the New Statesman that I could simply link Nelson's column, quote the headline, "Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?" and quit, and have a half-decent blog post.

But I have a little bit more to say. First of all, "the world's Muslims" are over a billion people, living in hundreds of countries, including people attending many thousands if not millions of schools, and, as Nelson adroitly points out, those schools now include Trinity college, Cambridge. As I have often pointed out when discussing Catholicism with simpleminded anti-Catholic bigots, any group of over a billion people will of necessity contain an extremely wide diversity of religious viewpoints, political orientations, levels of formal education, degrees of sophistication in approaches to science, etc, etc. I'm still not nearly as impressed by Francis I as many of my fellow atheists seem to be, but there's no denying that he provides a strong contrast to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and that makes it much harder for those anti-Catholic bigots to get away with referring to all one billion of the world's Catholics as if they all agreed with John Paul II and Benedict XVI about everything.

It's similarly ridiculous to refer to all one billion of the world's Muslims as if they were one homogenous group. I myself know that I cannot in any meaningful way keep up with the intellectual achievements of any group of one billion people, and much the less so when the majority of them have as their first language a language which is not in the same Indo-European language family as my first several languages. Furthermore, I dare to doubt that Richard Dawkins can encompass such vast activity within his mind. Using the famous Socratic principle properly, the first step for someone like Dawkins or myself toward understanding what intellectual activity is current among the world's Muslims is to acknowledge a great dark zone within our knowledge. And is it even necessary to point out how many Muslim intellectuals are Muslims pretty much in name only, because they were born into Muslim families? Or how many Muslim intellectuals, whether in countries which are majority Muslim, or majority Christian, or majority Hindu or Buddhist or majority something else, live and work daily alongside non-Muslims? Unfortunately, tweets such as this one by Dawkins make me think that it is urgently necessary.

I don't just dare to suspect that the people who award the Nobel Prizes, over the course of the more than 110 years in which it has been awarded, have been drastically ignorant of what's gone on in the world outside of Europe and North America, I assert outright that it's obviously the case, although they've gotten a bit more multicultural in the past few decades, like the rest of the world. Scandinavians have won a number of prizes wildly out of proportion to their numbers compared to the entire world's population. Does this mean that Scandinavians are generally more brilliant than others? No, it means that the prizes have been awarded by Scandinavians, and that Scandinavians will obviously and naturally be more familiar with the work of other Scandinavians than with the work of, for example, Kazakhs. They're also naturally going to be more familiar with the work being done in relatively nearby Trinity College, where the native language tends to be the world's, and especially Europe's, most widely-used second language, than with the work being done in, for example, Kazakhstan.

The obviousness of all of this is what makes Dawkins' tweet so stupid. Dawkins defended it by pointing out that the part about the numbers of Nobels won by Muslims and by Trinity college was factually accurate. But you can be factually accurate and stupid at the same time, by assigning an inaccurate significance to facts. I'll give you an example: "Year in and year out, a team from the United States of America wins the World Series."

One other thing which urgently needs to be pointed out is the hypocrisy of Westerners who, quite rightly, criticize human rights abuses and backwardness of education in other countries, some of which happen to be majority Muslim and whose rulers are Muslim, without criticizing at the same time, in the same breath, the governments of their own countries who maintain friendly relations with those other countries for the benefit of multinational corporations, whether we're talking about oil, or sweatshops, or clear-cutting old forests.

Friday, August 9, 2013

What Happened And What Didn't Is Important. It's Astonishing That Such A Thing Even Needs To Be Said.

Frank Schaeffer writes, The result of the gospel is the point, not what happened or didn't. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise is a byproduct of the profound action of the gospel. The modern Western world has forgotten the revelation of the gospel in favor of its mere byproducts, reason and science..

Not everyone agrees about what the result of the triumph of Christianity was. Results I see are 1) Intolerance: every other religion was wiped out except Judaism. The Jews were allowed to continue to exist as second-class citizens, subjected to occasional massacres. But sometime they too were given the choice between conversion or exile or death. 2) Intellectual rigidity: all through the Middle Ages, Christian authorities maintained a monopoly on educational institutions. All scientific and philosophical writings had to conform with theological authority. Not only is it obvious to me that this wasn't good for science, and that science was more advanced not only after but also before the Medieval period of incredibly stifling conformity (Read some Medieval texts sometime), it's amazing to me that there are people to whom such things are not obvious. They're known as Christian apologists, and they're forever trying to tell you how great the Middle Ages were. They're wrong that science was invented by Christians during the Middle Ages, so spectacularly wrong that there's no point debating it with them. The best you can do is to warn others to have their brains engaged when they encounter apologists saying such absurd things. Make no mistake, Christian apologists are the Middle Ages still surviving among us. (More than a few of them would take that as a compliment.)

The scientific spirit wasn't created by Christianity, it survived Christianity. In the Vorrede, the preface, to Jenseits Von Gut Und Boese,along with some very stupid things -- the Vorrede begins by comparing truth to a woman, and Nietzsche couldn't mention women in his philosophical works in any but a very stupid way. Ah, if only he'd lived a little longer, and had Freud help him with that issue! Nietzsche, and the entire world, might've been much better off. And he also mistakenly credits the Germans with the invention of gunpowder, as he enthuses for war as only someone who's never been in a war can do, and makes a couple of offhand stupid anti-democratic remarks; in short, he manages to display almost all of his intellectual weak spots within the few pages of this Vorrede -- he also says something very interesting, which might just also be true: that in the Western world, in order to survive Christianity, an especially sharp and powerful spirit was formed. A couple of years later Nietzsche wrote his very famous "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger" ("Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich staerker"), to which I have always replied, "What doesn't kill me can still maim me for life, and in Nietzsche's case it did, just a few months after he wrote that."

But this related idea, about an especially powerful spirit being created in an entire society, out of necessity, in order for any kind of rationality to have been able to survive the disaster of Christianity -- that's an example of something Nietzsche said which doesn't strike me as silly. To me, that seems worth pondering. It might actually be true. That might actually be what happened in Christendom.

Of course, if what happened and what didn't happen isn't important to you, you might be much happier reading Frank Schaeffer than reading Nietzsche, or me.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The 8th Of August, 2013: The Day I Formally Declared War On Stupid Atheists

Why the war? Why today? Well, because today was when I finally had heard someone say "Prove that Jesus existed. And don't use the Bible" one too many times.

I'm waging this war on behalf of intelligent atheists, of course. To try to prevent our being identified with those morons saying things like "Prove that Jesus existed. And don't use the Bible." Also to try to help reasonably-intelligent people not be sucked in by such incredibly stupid memes. I realize that some stupid people, both atheists and believers, will think that I'm not an atheist, because I'm harshly criticizing people who happen to be atheists. At least with this standard disclaimer in place I can say to them, "Hey, Chuckles. Go back and read the 2nd paragraph again, assuming you read that far yr 1st time through. Read it 3 times through if you have to. Move yr lips while you read if you have to."

To say that a lot of half-educated people are weighing in on the subject of the historicity of Jesus would be an insult to the half-educated. Given the lack of evidence other than the New Testament, and unless and until we can find other evidence, the debate over Jesus' historicity is very little other than a debate over how much history we can extract from the New Testament. I disagree with the scholars who say it's certain that Jesus existed, but they're much more serious than those who reject the New Testament as relevant to the question in that they are examining the existing evidence.

Imagine if paeleontologists unearthed a fossilized bone which appeared to have belonged to a previously-unknown species of dinosaur. And imagine if they said, "Well, since this bone appears to be from a species for which we have no other evidence, we're going to have to completely disregard it. Instead of studying it, let's grind it up into dust instead, and see if we can manage to get an ingredient for half-decent fertilizer or concrete out of it." Hopefully you are appalled by the very thought of paeleontologists behaving in such a manner. Hopefully no one will have to explain to you why that's no damn way to run a railroad. And hopefully you can see the similarity between palaeontologists acting like that, and people saying "Prove that Jesus existed. And don't use the Bible."

In this Wrong Monkey blog post I addressed the currently-popular mistaken notion that we possess the works of many historians who were in -- or anywhere near -- Jerusalem during the supposed time of Jesus. The morons who may challenge you: "Prove that Jesus existed. And don't use the Bible" may go on from there to challenge you to go through the works of the fifty or so non-Biblical historians in which all mention of Jesus is suspiciously absent. Which you can't do because the number of such historians who said anything at all about Jerusalem at that time is not fifty but zero, which in turn of course tells you that the person challenging you to do your homework doesn't know his own ass from a Boing 757. It tells you how far they are from being able to find, and/or from taking the trouble to find, anyone else who has a clue about the history of that time or place before proceeding to tell you what's what about that time and place. There's no substitute for reading the ancient texts themselves, but someone who tells you, "Prove that Jesus existed. And don't use the Bible," immediately before or after saying, "We possess the works of over fifty historians who were in or around Jerusalem during Jesus' lifetime" is not only obviously unfamiliar with those ancient texts, but also might have serious difficulty recognizing anyone else who is familiar with someone who is familiar with those texts. "Fifty historians," my Aunt Fanny! Just for fun, see if you can get them to name 10 historians who lived in the 1st century. Lived anywhere, be it Spain or China or the city of Rome. Very likely most of the writers they manage to name won't have lived in the 1st century AD, and will have written poetry or drama or philosophy or treatises on mathematics or rhetoric or medicine or architecture or military strategy, and not one word which they may or may not have written on any historical subject will have survived.

Know your sources. Including the people saying "Prove that Jesus existed. And don't use the Bible." Know them, and know the distance between them and, oh, for instance, me. And get it through your heads, whether you're trying to prove Jesus' existence or disprove it, or if, like me, you're simply curious about the question whatever the answer might turn out to be, that, barring some new discovery, almost all of the evidence for or against is in the New Testament.

And also, if you want people to think you've read the Bible -- read it. Endlessly referring to the same half-dozen verses having to do with shellfish and genocide and Lot's daughters is no longer maintaining the illusion. And while you're at it, you chuckleheads, read an entire book or two by Mark Twain. Your name is legion, and your endless repetition of a half-dozen lines from Twain has become every bit as tedious as the endless repetition of a half-dozen lines from the Bible.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dream Log: Crazy Traffic And An Extremely Large Schnozz On That Very, Very Beautiful Woman

I dreamed I was driving on a 4-lane divided highway in a rural setting, but in fairly heavy traffic, and up ahead a steady stream of cars was crossing the highway: they'd come to a stop at the edge of the 2 lanes going my way, wait for an opening and then cross slowly, coming close enough to the speeding highway traffic to alarm me. The closer I got the more alarmed I became. Now that I'm awake I wonder why I didn't just pull over onto the shoulder and approach the intersection slowly, but in the dream that never occurred to me. I just kept speeding closer and closer to danger. I don't remember crossing the intersection.

Then I was in a very swanky party or reception full of people in tuxedos and ball gowns. I was nervous about the possibility that I was underdressed. For some reason I was unable to perceive what I was wearing. I thought I might be in a perfectly presentable tuxedo, or in carpenter's work clothes, or something somewhere in between.. A leggy-supermodel-looking woman was standing a few steps away with her back to me, wearing a very short dress which showed a lot of her beautiful back. Her hair was up in ancient-Greek-style braids. She turned around, and for a moment as a light shown very brightly into her face, not allowing me to see much more than her eyes and her lips, I thought she was Christy Turlington or a young Chisty Turlington lookalike. Then she turned her face and I saw it from the side and I saw that she had a truly enormous nose. Aquliline and about as big as any human nose I have ever seen. We got to talking. It turned out that she was an in-demand fashion model. This didn't surprise me. She was very beautiful. The unusual nose didn't prevent her from being very beautiful. She was very insecure about her looks. This also didn't surprise me: it seems that many fashion models, paradoxically, are very insecure about their looks. She was convinced that her nose made her ugly and talked about people hiring her for her "freak" value. I tried to convince her that I found her very beautiful. She mentioned that she'd been giving serious thought to having a nose job. I pleaded with her not to. I thought of mentioning that I had gone through periods of insecurity in my life because of my complexion, but decided not to say anything about that for fear that it might just make her insecurity worse -- if, for example, she didn't happen to find me physically beautiful. Her complexion was just gorgeous, peaches and cream.

She seemed to like me more and more, whatever she happened to think of my looks. Considering we'd just met, I was being unusually frank and effusive about how beautiful I found her, and as I woke up she seemed to be starting to really believe it, and to believe that it wasn't a case of my being into freaks, that she really was beautiful.

Something Else I Thought Of To Say Too Late

Having a blog to say these things in takes away some of the bitter regret. Better too late than never.

So this guy was talking about sports and the arts. Talking about them in the same breath, as if they were synonymous, which annoyed me already. It's good if artists are physically active and robust, but, obviously, it's not always the case. Then he started talking about how athletes and artists are pro-diversity, respectful and honest and how sports and arts are always so good for people. Which immediately made me think about how pro athletes tend to dress themselves when not in uniform (often in a painfully un-artistic manner), and about football hooligans, and huge riots perpetrated by sports fans after their team has won a championship, and about boxers and football players who get Parkinson's while young or die in the ring and on the field, and about steroids -- in short, I was thinking about reality, and about all the different ways this guy had managed to be wrong in the space of very few words. But I held my tongue about it and let him jabber on, because that's the kind of peace-loving gentle-natured guy I am. (Yes, that was sarcasm, not a lack of self-awareness. Bazinga.)

But then he said that certain people making some critical comments about religion were more than likely not athletes or artists. In retrospect, I could have praised him at that point for tacitly allowing, by saying "or" instead of "and," that someone could possibly be one and not the other. Instead, though, and quite understandably, my annoyance spilled over, and I said, “Nothing like jumping to conclusions about people's bios based on comments they make that you don't like.” In retrospect, however, I wish I had said, “Nothing like jumping to conclusions about people's bios based on comments they make that you don't like. From your remarks it's obvious that you are sexually impotent, and Belgian.”

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Just What Could You Build With All The Fragments Of The True Cross?

Archaeologists excavating a 7th-century church in Turkey have found a reliquary with a piece of the True Cross in it.

John Calvin, the loveable, cuddly 16th-century founder of Calvinism, is quoted as saying that the pieces of the True Cross added up to a large ship-load of wood, while Charles Rohault de Fleury, a 19th century archaeologist, said that they added up to about 1/3 of a cross the size of one Jesus might have been crucified on. Was Calvin really in a position to judge how much wood was in all the fragments of the True Cross? I really doubt it. Was he fervently opposed to Catholic practices such as the veneration of relics? Oh yes. (To this day Calvinist churches are notable for Minimalist decor.) Was Charles Rohault de Fleury an expert archaeologist who wouldn't make a statement like that about True Cross fragments without basing it on reliable data? I don't know. Was he a fervent defender of the Catholic Church? I don't know that either.

Was Fleury counting differently than Calvin, excluding many pieces of True Cross which Calvin included? Again, I don't know. Do many people today repeat Calvin's line, or something similar ("If you put all the pieces of the True Cross together you could build an Ark," for example), not based on any clear idea at all about the number and size of Cross relics, but because they are grinding an anti-Catholic ax? (Or an anti-Orthodox ax. Let's not forget that although in the 7th century the split between Catholic and Orthodox still far from complete, "Orthodox" is a far more accurate term to describe a 7th-century church in Turkey than "Catholic.") I have absolutely no doubt about that, nor do I doubt that many Catholic apologists would gladly quote Fleury's remark without having any more idea about Fleury's competence and possible bias than I do -- that is to say, no idea whatsoever.

Once again, I feel I am on the sidelines, on neither of the two sides bickering over the theological significance of some archaeological find. The theological debate doesn't particularly interest me, and the historical significance of the find, which interests me, doesn't seem to interest very many others.

Do I think that any of the relics venerated as pieces of the True Cross really once were pieces of the cross on which Jesus was crucified? Well, I'm not convinced that Jesus existed. If He did, and if He was crucified, wearing a crown of thorns, and stabbed in the side with a lance by a Roman soldier while He was on the Cross, then it seems to me that it is possible that the wood and thorns and iron venerated by some Christians as pieces of the True Cross and of the Crown of Thorn and of the Holy Lance are actually objects which touched Jesus -- possible, but extremely unlikely, because I know of no reports of anyone preserving relics thought to have been associated with Jesus earlier than Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. And also because it would have been unusual for the Romans to have allowed Jesus' followers to have preserved the Cross or a part of it. (But it would have been unusual for them to have allowed Jesus' followers to remove his body from the Cross. Leaving the body there to rot away was a significant part of the horror and insult of that form of punishment. "Golgotha" means "place of skulls" because the remains of the victims of crucifixion were left there. And that is one of the many reasons why I have trouble believing the New Testament stories of Jesus.)

Nevertheless, a 7th-century artifact is interesting to me purely by virtue of its being as old as the 7th century. In this case, I would most likely find the reliquary much more interesting than the piece of wood within. Unless, that is, they date the piece of wood and it actually turns out to have come from a tree felled in the 1st century or earlier. (Did the Romans reuse one cross over and over?)

If they do actually date the wood, then as far as I know, that in itself would be newsworthy. As far as I know, Orthodox and Catholic authorities have allowed very few relics to be scientifically tested. The most famous exception has been the Shroud of Turin. That was subjected to carbon-14 dating and found to have been made in the 13th or 14th century. And ever since, the Catholic Church along with various crackpots and huckster authors and makers of silly documentaries and the so-called "History Channel" have being doing all they can to distract people from those carbon-14 test results and to discredit the scientists who performed those tests.

If traces of human blood are found on this wood, this 7th-century-or-older artifact found in Turkey, that in itself would not be significant in the search for the historical Jesus, because, sadly, crucifixions were still quite common in the 7th century.