Thursday, December 29, 2005

Secondhand Lions

I just watched a movie called "Secondhand Lions". (2003, info, Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Haley Joel Osment) I highly recommend it; the movie is very warm, funny and well executed. Not perfect, but still a good movie. There are some great lines that made me immediately think of the primary religious questions I personally wrestle with: 'What are my religious beliefs?' and 'Why do I have them?'

"Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love... true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in."

These are so very similar to the ideas I consider to be the heart and soul of Christianity. Honor, courage and virtue are all-important, (self-sacrifice needs all three, in my opinion.) Money and power are not. Good triumphs over evil. And love is the center — the reason — for everything.

But, what about the other things, such as 'The virgin birth?'... Well, it's interesting, but not really too important. It is not relevant to the concerns of my everyday life, anyway.
'Is there a hell, or is everyone going to heaven?' ... Pah! I know a few people I like to imagine burning in eternal damnation. (Politicians, mostly.) But in the grand scheme of things, I (try to) concern myself mainly with my own personal business and how I live each moment of my day.
How about other things, such as 'Original Sin?', or the 'Transcendance of God?' etc? We could go on and on...
Well, yes, these are all fascinating questions. And they are important no doubt, each in their own way. I do think about them and wonder about them and I read and study specifically to learn more about what others have said about these things.
But aren't they tangential to the heart and soul of what makes Christianity so meaningful, and so powerful and so valuable?

Shouldn't we always go back to the more basic, core 'things a man needs to believe in the most' — those far more simple and eternal truths — because they are: the things worth believing in?

Anyway, some wonderful moments and lines are in "Secondhand Lions".
It's worth renting and watching.

Interesting paper on Universalism

Thanks to Rob Bradshaw, who links to a very informative paper by Richard Bauckham on the history of Universalism, which is located online here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Gettin' Funky with those Statistics?

Interesting use of statistics and spin (I found mention of this article at Michael Pahl's blog; my thoughts are what follows) here: in an article on the "" website entitled "Ivy League Schools See Rise in Evangelical Students".

From the article:
"More Evangelicals are attending Ivy League universities where spiritual interest is growing more than ever..."

That sounds interesting.

"....there are more Evangelicals going to places like Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, than there were in the past."

Okay. But (Devil's advocate, me...!) if there is only one more "Evangelical" at Harvard today than there was in 1990, we indeed have a true statement. When reading between the lines like this, I don't find much that is awe-inspiring. We haven't much impressive data to chew on so far.

"The number of students involved with Campus Crusade for Christ rose 163 percent over the past 20 years at Brown University."

Wow. 163 percent! Very impressive. But, hey... Wait a second. So, we are talking about an increase, which occurred 'over the past 20 years'? A twenty-year time-span is an awfully long time. If we had an increase like this over let's say, the last 5 years, we would be talking about something different. But over 20 years?

"At Harvard, participation has grown more than 500 percent and 700 percent at Yale."

Again, things sound impressive, at first glance. And yet, it appears we are talking about another 20-year-span again. Even if Yale had 1
"Evangelical" in 1990, and now they have 5 (or 6?), we could say there was a "500 percent" increase. Ho-hum. Not much to see here. Moving along.

Finally, there is a paragraph that includes comparisons between
member campuses of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), and all public four-year campuses, all independent four-year campuses, and all independent religious four-year campuses.
But here again, we have a fourteen-year-time span. In 14 years many other cultural, socialogical, economic, or what have you, issues can come into play and explain these changes. I can't help but feel some suspicion.

Where's more of the raw data? (Where are some actual numbers?) Where is a graph that displays for us what happened throughout this impressive and sunny twenty-year-period? (Or the rosey fourteen-year-period?) The complete lack of such data indicates to me the distinct possibility that during more recent years there might have been a decrease, because if the numbers had been increasing, this information would have been — almost undoubtedly — shown to us; probably trumpeted, even!

The fact that the author(/s) need to reach back twenty or fourteen years, and then all data for the intervening years is omitted too, raises other questions.
I begin to wonder: Why? Why is there a need to write about this in this way? Could it be that the recent trend is actually negative? ...perhaps so negative that someone feels the need to take advantage of the last opportunity to put a positive spin on the data before the most up-to-date numbers fall below where the numbers from twenty years ago?

Honestly, I don't want to be so cynical. But after these last 5 years I can't help it.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas!

With all my heart, I would like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, and for those who do not celebrate Christmas, then I wish you a Happy Holiday Season!

Perhaps my posts and the somewhat(!) 'minimal' position of my views might mislead the reader to assume that I am not Christian, or perhaps have a 'chip on my shoulder' in regards to Judaism or Christianity or even religion itself. I, in fact, have a deep respect for religion and its place in human life.

To me, both Judaism and Christianity are worthy traditions that give great value to humanity each and every day. Religions of such age and resiliency exist because people benefit from them. They can give meaning and a strength exactly at those times in life when it is the hardest to find; they are able to provide that 'something' (and I don't really know exactly what it is...) that so many human beings greatly need. Of course, these religions and the 'wealth' they provide can also be turned in negative directions, and be used for nefarious purposes, too. But that is another story, for another post...

I believe that human beings are capable of wondrous and truly good and beautiful things, but they are not so by default. And I also think the religions and ideas therein that our ancestors have passed down to us were passed down for good reason: they found a special value in them. The ideas and traditions and stories that they passed down to us helped them to be better — helped them to rise above 'the default'. I also can feel very cynical at times, and regard religions as places of stagnating power structures that serve to sustain negative and ultimately selfish thought paradigms. But I strongly feel that 'the baby should not be thrown-out with the bathwater.'

In Christianity, I think the special values/beliefs (the 'baby') our ancestors found consisted of: forgiveness; love; a caring for the poor; self-sacrifice; a universal inclusiveness; an optimism that good triumphs over evil; a conviction that mankind is special in the eyes of the universe — each and every human individual; and that the universe is ultimately kind and loving and forgiving.
These values are not always followed, of course: at times even Christians are too ready to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater. But the lasting, precious values that our ancestors cherished so much are still there to be found. We should educate ourselves in order to be able to find and keep the baby, and get rid of the bathwater. That is what I hope to do in my studying, and why I seek to understand as clearly as I can the Bible and discover its true history.

Btw, Joe Cathey, and Jim West, I wish the best to both of you and the same to everyone all across the dreaded Minimalist-Maximalist spectrum. I hope we all can be willing to find the 'baby' (whether it be cooing sweetly or in a raving temper-tantrum, it's still a baby that might grow up and save your b*tt, right?) in each other, and also be willing to recognize the 'bathwater' in ourselves. (I know, that is hopelessly corny, but hopefully you know what I am trying to say...)

Happy Holidays to all,


Thursday, December 22, 2005

'criterion of dissimilarity'

On his blog, Jim West (here) pointed to a email roundtable discussion found on the Slate website - here.

The first email in this discussion was by Alan Segal and he raised a point that I have an issue with: this 'criterion of dissimilarity' and its usage here.

"One criterion is that the story has to have a context in Judaism, as Jesus was born and died a Jew. Another criterion is that multiple sources in the early New Testament must attest to the story. But the most important arrow in the scholarly quiver has been and remains "the criterion of dissimilarity." The criterion sets a high standard: For scholars to arrive at an undoubted fact about the life of Jesus, they must eliminate as possibly biased everything that is in the interest of the early church to tell us. Conversely, for a fact about Jesus to be deemed historical, it must not be in the interest of the church to report it. It must be, in effect, an embarrassment for the early church. Thus, the criterion of dissimilarity is sometimes called the criterion of embarrassment."
.... and ....
"For all the rigor of the standard it sets, the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed."

Well. Hmmm... I can't help but disagree with this conclusion.
The "criterion of dissimilarity", it seems to me, can only demonstrate that the story of Jesus, as passed down to us, includes details that were probably embarrassing to the early Church. It really does nothing more than this, because it is not able to do anything more. Is it not limited to stating that we indeed, have a story with some embarrassing details?

(If I am missing something crucial here, please let me know, because of course, it is very possible...) But it seems to me that making assumptions about the gospel story in general, based on the 'criterion of dissimilarity', such as making the statement that "the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed" seems quite a stretch.
First of all, we have to take into account: just because a detail must have been embarrassing, does not make the detail true. When faced with the existence of such a detail, all we can safely say is that the Church was unable to successfully combat it, eradicate it, or expunge it — but whether it is 'true' or an accurate 'fact', we still cannot say for certain.
Any one of these 'embarrassing' details has survived to this day almost certainly because of other, quite straightforward reasons. One possibility is that the traditions surrounding each of these enduring embarrassments were too strong; the Church had met too much resistence whenever it tried to eradicate them. Another possibility, (perhaps more likely than the first), is that the structure of extant religious tradition was too dependent upon these particular details. The removal of even one of these offending story-features would too drastically effect the overall structure and require far too much re-working and re-interpretation, so the embarrassing details have been reluctantly tolerated.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Obedience and a historical reason for why.

One of the major themes of the Old Testament is the demand for the followers of Yahweh to be obedient to him, above all else. They were told, in no uncertain terms, to be obedient to Yahweh and all his demands, no matter how horrifyingly destructive or cruel, no matter how non-sensical or counterintuitive they might be. Throughout the texts, unquestioning obedience is demanded.

One then must ask: how would one know if one is being obedient to Yahweh? In the stories of David vs Saul, we find Saul doing what he thinks is right, as far as he can discern. He is listening to his heart and doing the things that it tells him are right. And yet, it is this very point that displeases Yahweh. What is 'right' is not what matters. Yahweh demands obedience to him, Yahweh, and 'right' or 'good' does not enter the picture. Saul is not to trust his own mind, nor his own heart. His personal understanding or concepts of 'right' have no importance. So, from where is Saul supposed to hear the voice of Yahweh so that he can be obedient to it? ...Samuel.

But Samuel no longer is alive. How are we, the readers, and how was the originally intended audience for these texts to find their Samuel — the voice of Yahweh? For, like Saul, we are not to listen to our own mind or heart. Yahweh would be displeased with that. We must find our Samuel. But, who exactly is our Samuel? How do we know which Samuel to follow, for there will be many opportunistic con-artists jumping out of the woodwork eager to lead those of us seeking Yahweh's voice — seeking our Samuel. These false-prophets will not refuse to make all our decisions for us and manage our lives and our pocketbooks for their own benefit. How are we to discern such 'false-Samuels' from the one true voice of Yahweh?

The original audience of these texts had an answer. The text would not have been written as it was unless there was a clear answer. Obviously, whoever was writing the text claimed to be that voice of Yahweh. The texts, with this theme of total obedience to Yahweh, was a political power-grab by those who could make a claim to be 'Samuel' for their generation. What are the Old Testament texts as we know them but a clear body of evidence that an emerging political force was staking their claim to power, and laying the foundations for a nation under their control.

From The Mythic Past, p.294:
"The Hebrew Bible that we know underwent a considerable revision some time after the rededication of the Jerusalem temple in 164 BCE. .... This theology has its first secure context in the intellectually charged movement of nationalism that followed the Maccabean revolt, and that centred itself on the traditions around the temple at some time after this rededication."

It is interesting that Thompson also says (same page, but in an earlier paragraph):
"It implies that the author of II Maccabees knows of no stable collection of written tradition that survived the Maccabean wars intact. In this chapter of II Maccabees, [II Maccabees 4] dedicated to a recounting of the survival of tradition past, neither the traditions of Ezra's law-giving nor that of Nehemiah's library are any longer accessible. Only Judas Maccabee's efforts preserved what is now seen as a fragmented past. In itself, this text offers us a serious argument against understanding the final formation of the Bible much earlier than the end of the second century BCE. This is the appropriate date for the original text that II Maccabees claims to epitomize. Perhaps, our Bible should not be dated before some time in the first century BCE, when II Maccabees itself seems to have been written. Its writer, at least knows no such Bible."

The OT text was compiled for a specific group of people, and it very much appears that this act occurred far more recently than we have been led to believe. It was done with a specific political intent; making the demand for unquestioning obedience is an explicity political act, whether couched in 'religious' terminology or not. What we hear in these texts is the voice of those who were claiming absolute power over a targeted group of people. Someone or some group was making their claim to being the voice of God, to being Samuel, in order to seize power or consolidate their claim to it.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A needed 'spectrum analysis'? Or maybe not.

Tyler Williams has a very well-done post regarding the Maximalist-Minimalist "issue"; it can be found here ...

"The first step would be to be up front about our lower-level commitments. We need to be clear about our method and our metaphysics."

Yes. I agree whole-heartedly. A thought occurs to me, (which is perhaps completely at odds with Tyler's intent as I understand it), that clarity might be served by the adoption of an even more descriptive labeling than the rather 'polarized' M/M being used right now? (egads... this might be a can of worms.)

Perhaps the current distortions (and the wasted time and unnecessary slights and hard-feelings) caused by the simplistic "Maximalist/Minimalist" paradigm could be minimized (Ha! Should I use that term here?) by replacing it with something more complex. Like this.
But then again, such a move might spawn a cumbersome and confusing jungle of labels or 'schools' of thought, etc. (such as found in philosophy), that could actually cause more obscurity than clarity.

In spite of the possible can-o-worms that this might open up, I can't help but feel that personally, I would rather spend my time discussing the topics and questions that I find fascinating, and do this with people who are somewhat sympathetic to my viewpoints and persepctive.
Not that I do not respect the opinions of others who do not see things my way, nor do I seek to avoid discussing things with them.
But often one ends up slogging through a discussion that devolves into an argument over fundamental assumptions and obscure points only tangential to one's primary interests. Some way to avoid this could be valuable.

If two people can determine quickly that they do not see eye-to-eye on some fundamental levels, then much time can be saved: they will know what topics to avoid, or they can quickly zero-in on the real 'meat' of their differences.
Also, two people with similar fundamental assumptions can recognize each other as such, and discuss the points they find interesting.

The whole spectrum of differing views can and should be able to coexist and interact in a large, inclusive environment (the 'Big Bibliobloggosphere') that includes and respects all the different viewpoints. Each person could define themselves on a general scale, or even multiple sub-scales... ?

Again, perhaps a can of worms...
Just my musings.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Questioning the Documentary Hypothesis, and my thoughts...

A fairly active (100+ posts) discussion is going on here, over the merits of the Documentary Hypothesis. It led me to do some more searching among the blogs, and I found another interesting read here, about the same subject.

I strongly feel that the Documentary Hypothesis seems to mesh extremely well with much of the research that Thompson describes in The Mythic Past. But to me, the full implications of all this are not explored in conventional scholarship to the extent I think they should be.

Perhaps this is because, by combining what the DH indicates (multiple 'authors' or editors of the text; several strands/branches of older tradition) with the dearth of archaelogical evidence for David, Solomon, a pre-Hasmonaen Kingdom, etc., (that is overviewed by The Mythic Past) we get... An abyss?

A huge emptiness of unanswered questions opens up before us:
From where did this monotheistic "Jewish", Judah/Israel pop-out? Where did these traditions come from? It could not have been from nowhere. And who could or would have done this; who needed such a nation-building theological construction, and why? What targeted group of people would have accepted the amalgamated texts as a 'holy' scripture? Was there a general group who might have readily recognized parts as their own, and therefore identified with it? Was there anyone at that time (circa 200BCE) who might have had a great psychological, or political need for something like this?

Maybe these are the questions that should be asked.

The DH perhaps still gets attacked because it directly leads to this abyss, the questions that no one has yet answered. And no one is comfortable with such a huge emptiness (nor with so many unanswered, seemingly unanswerable questions.)
Of course, we must contend with another, even larger elephant standing in the room: the state of Israel and the basic historical premise upon which it makes its claim to existence. It's a taboo subject.

Well, I've been pondering over these questions for some time, and while I still work on the details, I feel that I am on the trail of something. I had to widen the lens and search further afield, and fit together pieces that seemed at first glance totally unrelated...

The Phoenicians. Carthage.

Anyone intrigued by this?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Why Blog? (Would Goebbels have blogged?)

Jim West, a well-known Biblical Studies blogger, asks "Why blog?", wondering specifically as to why blogging is so prevelant among biblical scholars and theologians.
Jim sees it as possibly a seizing of an opportunity to share thoughts with a wide audience by scholars who might otherwise be doomed to obscurity. And importantly, blogging provides an audience not only now but also offers to record their thoughts for a future one. So blogging might be a sort of striving for immortality.
It all seems eminently true.

The question, though, led me to ask another, age old question: Why do we communicate in the first place?
Coincidentally, later in the day I found something on the web that reminded me of this second question. A portion of a speech by none other than (ahem...) Joseph Goebbels. (Yeah, that Joseph Goebbels.)

"An idea always lives in individuals. It seeks an individual to transmit its great intellectual force. It becomes alive in a brain, and seeks escape through the mouth. The idea is preached by individuals, individuals who will never be satisfied to have the knowledge remain theirs alone. You know that from experience. When one knows something one does not keep it hidden like a buried treasure, rather one seeks to tell others. One looks for people who should know it. One feels that everyone else should know to, for one feels alone when no one else knows. For example, if I see a beautiful painting in an art gallery, I have the need to tell others. I meet a good friend and say to him: "I have found a wonderful picture. I have to show it to you." The same is true of ideas. If an idea lives in an individual, he has the urge to tell others. There is some mysterious force in us that drives us to tell others. The greater and simpler the idea is, the more it relates to daily life, the more one has the desire to tell everyone about it."

The actual webpage that mentioned this is here. (The entire text of this speech can be found here. And I was originally pointed there from boingboing.) This quote was a bit tangential to the main story about the recordings by Charlie and His Orchestra, a Nazi big band assembled by Hitler's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

This urge to tell others, as if an idea itself has a desire to spread is interesting.

Friday, December 09, 2005

University Professor Beaten For His Religious Opinions

Controversial Kansas University Professor Beaten
"Religious studies professor Paul Mirecki said he was beaten early Monday morning on the side of the road in rural Douglas County by two unidentified men who’d been tailgating him in a large pickup truck. Mirecki said his attackers made references to the controversy that has propelled him into the headlines in recent weeks."

This is "old" news, (it happened earlier this week) but it disturbs me greatly, and I wanted to make mention of it. Many others are blogging this too.

"Can the Bible Be Trusted?"

Interesting commentary that includes direct mentions of Thompson's The Mythic Past. Article by Hillel Halkin, found here, (at the World Ages Archive website).

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The meaning of "mythic past"

Mythic, mythical, make-believe. The "Mythic past" would refer to not the real past based on gathered evidence, but the past as we have been told it was. What if the version of the past that we Christians and Jews have based our worldview and identity upon is a false, make-believe world? What if the real origins of Christianity and Judaism are completely different? Much of the western mindset, it's understanding of its religious/historical past, is based upon the Old Testament and the "history" that is seemingly recounted therein. If the Old Testament is wrong then our western sense of identity would then be based upon fable, almost on thin air. That would be an unpleasant discovery, to say the least.

The term "mythic" certainly implies make-believe and falseness.
1. Of or existing in myth: the mythical unicorn.
2. Imaginary; fictitious.

In his book The Mythic Past, Thompson basically says the Bible is not a historical document, and the Old Testament offers no historical evidence for the early history of Israel. Which strongly suggest that the past we accept as being largely true, the one told to us from kindergarten/Sunday school, is but a fiction, a story only, a myth. Thompson does make quite an effort, while proving what the Bible is not, to maintain our respect for the Bible by re-establishing what it really is: a wonderful and valuable literature.

One can't help but interject here: Is this a fair trade? ....Of course not!

But what is the alternative: should we choose willful ignorance and error about a subject we claim to care so much about? It seems to me that if we do care and if we truly believe that an accurate understanding of our own history is important, we ought to be ruthlessly demanding and consistent in having a desire to know the truth.

That's my opinion, anyway.

Personally, I consider truth and reality to be rather important. For example, I would rather be aware of information that my father was, let's say, the humble son of a long line of bricklayers, than maintain a stubborn, childish belief that he was a famous and wealthy grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte. Yes, one "past" is certainly more glamorous and interesting than the other. But the one is fantasy, and the other is reality. Reality can be hard, brutal, boring and even humbling, but facing up to it and dealing with it—being honest about who we really are—seems the sturdiest foundation for a decent and honest life. But believing in a life-story built upon fantasy, lies, and protecting it with more lies and continual denial, seems more like the behavior of an insecure, insufferable fool.

Not only is it foolish, it seems a good indication of a mental or emotional disturbance. [Well, this is probably far rudely said, and apologize if I insult anyone. But it does seem to me that a person can believe something in the face of much contradictive evidence only by being dishonest in a fundamental way with one's own self. And it is from such little seeds of this type of dishonesty which grows (or can grow) more damaging thought patterns and behavior.]

Monday, December 05, 2005

Labeling... "Maximalists" and "Minimalists"

If you spend some time on the internet researching the history of early Palestine/Israel, often termed biblical archeaology, you will probably encounter heated arguments between the holders of two general categories of opinions. We can describe these two groups fairly easily: those who believe the Bible can be used as a historical source of information and those who are not afraid to question its dependability. Thomas Thompson would fall into the latter category of people.

Those of the former category do not like Thomas Thompson, to say the least. The majority of these individuals are Christians, and reflecting the simplistic logic of their perspective they will often refer to their viewpoint as "Maximalist" (as in having a maximal belief in the Bible), and by extension they label those who think like Thompson as "Minimalists".

The self-styled "Maximalists" basically strive to reassert the dominance of traditional unquestioning religious piety in scholarship, while those they call "Minimalists" strive to reinforce and build further upon the tentative gains made by two centuries of patient skepticism and rational application of scientific analysis to real evidence in order to improve upon our understanding of humanity's past.

It is somewhat disappointing that so many people are quite willing to be "Maximalists" in this day and age. The widespread ignorance and fearful superstition of the European dark ages seems understandable and excusable when compared to what is happening today. So few people in those oppressed times were educated at all, and education itself and all historical information and speculation was strictly controlled by a dominant religious and political hierarchy. How could anyone's mind break free of that vice grip in such a world. But today, these "Maximalists" have no such excuses for their delusions. They stubbornly choose to believe in religious fantasies even after the quiet exposing light of plain facts and rational explanations reveals the utter daftness and flakiness of their beloved assertion that the biblical stories are historical facts.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Mythic Past

The title of this blog comes from a book written by Thomas L. Thompson, a Professor of Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen. He has written many other books, among them are The Early History of the Israelite People, and more recently The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David.