Monday, December 29, 2014

BREAKING: The Bible is not on display at the Louvre

I just started Kurt Eichenwald's endless Newsweek cover piece on "The Bible." (witty subtitle: "So Misunderstood It's a Sin.") In the very first sentence Eichenwald rather amusingly lumps together screaming street-corner preachers with the Religious Right more generally. That sort of category confusion* or overgeneralization is not a promising start, nor does his calling them all "God's frauds" particularly help.

But I don't necessarily have a problem with that kind of polemical style--David Bentley Hart employs it regularly, though with opposite ends in mind. Nor am I writing, this time, to tackle his use of statistics in the fourth paragraph, though incidentally I do have strong doubts that the polls to which he refers really say what he thinks they say.**

No, I'm writing because I find his seventh paragraph flat-out amazing. Don't get lost here, because this point will blow your mind:
No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.
Woah, I imagine Eichenwald thinking his reader is thinking, you mean The Original Bible is not, like, chilling out at the National Archives next to the Constitution or something?

Follow me here: Eichenwald's first big reveal--the place where he starts setting all those fundie ignoramuses straight--is that there's no original copy of THE BIBLE tucked away in some archive.

This "revelation" will no doubt surprise anyone who believes that, at some point in time, there was a single authoritative copy of (capital-t) The (capital-b) Bible. This theoretical fundie would have to be so ignorant as to think the whole Bible was written down at one time in one language--or, perhaps, that the originally composed versions of the books was preserved over the many centuries of their composition and then all gathered into one place. And that this single manuscript would be the one true "The Bible," and that only word-for-word untranslated copies could be called "The Bible."

There's a religion that believes this of their holy book, but it ain't Christianity.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am quite certain there are Christians who believe such things. There was probably a point where my childhood self had those kinds of assumptions in my head. But aside from young children and the deeply uneducated, does anyone else? Who could he possibly be educating here? Are there any major churches or denominations that believe this? Even the strictest interpretation of Biblical inerrancy would not say anything close to that.

So at the very outset of this voluminous essay, the author reveals that he has no clue what just about every branch of Christianity that has ever existed thinks that the Bible actually is. And that he starts his highly pedantic ambitious project from this fundamental misunderstanding does not lead me to expect much by way of enlightenment from the thousands of words that follow.


*[Story I'm reminded of: my wife used to work in a place that was fairly hostile to religion. Once when a colleague was going to visit a Christian school, another coworker joked that he should try to avoid getting splashed with holy water. It was a Baptist school.]

**[As in my afore-linked post, I'm not suggesting that Eichenwald is lying about data, but I am skeptical that the polls say what he thinks they say. Quick example: the pollsters determined that evangelicals "accepted he attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees... more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus." How did they determine this? Did they offer straight-up quotations of particular Pharisees and compare them with ones from Jesus? If so, did they include sufficient context to avoid misunderstandings? That's doubtful, since such context would almost certainly include identification of those Pharisee speakers and probably Jesus too. So, chances are, they summarized. Were those summaries valid and accurate? Have the pollsters kept up with recent scholarship on Second Temple Judaism? Or would their rendering of the Pharisees look more like the still-widespread Reformation-era reading? In other words: can we really use a poll to measure one's familiarity with the teachings of Christ? Doesn't that seem likely to be--at best--reductive? Perhaps even to the point of unrecognizability?... But I digress...]

Saturday, December 20, 2014

On Difference and Equality

The Imaginative Conservative has published my essay "On Difference and Equality" today. Here's an excerpt:
To twenty-first-century ears, aspects of President Jefferson’s letter sound shockingly condescending—in keeping with convention and Captain Hendrick’s manner of address, President Jefferson refers to Captain Hendrick as “my son” and his tribe as “my children,” for instance. Still, compared to many earlier and later European and American responses to the Native Americans, Thomas Jefferson’s letter is remarkable in its open-handedness and its recognition of the Native Americans’ shared humanity. His words are suffused with liberality and even hospitality. That generosity and promise, though, entirely depended on Captain Hendrick’s tribe giving up and rejecting their distinct way of life and living instead under the foreign laws and customs of the young American republic. 
President Jefferson’s letter, in other words, implicitly assumes an antagonistic relationship between difference and equality. In so doing he reveals a generally unspoken premise that has often plagued many of the various movements that have, over the past two centuries, sought equality for the unequal and voices for the voiceless. This mindset suggests that in order to have equality you cannot have difference. Indeed, sameness and equality become indistinguishable. As a result, the work of ensuring equality transforms into the task of erasing difference. 
This assumption dominates the thinking and actions of other European colonists and American settlers who sought a place for Native Americans, both before and after President Jefferson. The attitude can be found, too, among those fighting for the equality of Jews in nineteenth-century Germany. And, despite an abundance of multicultural language embracing diversity, it constitutes the unspoken premise of advocates for equal rights in debates that rage today.
I go on to argue that, although the modern ideal of equality has roots in Christianity, the language of "equality" insufficiently expresses the Christian doctrine of infinite human worth. Christianity provides an alternate way of embracing difference through a universal recognition of human dignity--rooted in the Imago Dei and realized by incorporation into the body of Christ. Properly understood in all its implications, this doctrine challenges both liberals and conservatives to reconsider the way they think through difference in human society. Although Christians have often failed to live out this ideal fully, at times in Christian history that promise has been a reality.

You can read the whole thing at The Imaginative Conservative.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Malick and Life's Meaning

On Sunday, Father Glenn preached about how the narrative of Jesus the Messiah enfolds and gives meaning to each and every human life that has ever and will ever be. In the midst of it, he shifted unexpectedly to a beautiful digression on Terrance Malick and The Tree of Life--how Malick presents the enormity of a planet's annihilation "next to a family like our own," evoking "not just wonder, but as the old philosophers of a previous generation would say, it evokes fear and nausea."

Here's the whole section on Malick:
With his brilliant film The Tree of Life, Terrance Malick explores the manner in which the stories of ordinary people have become part of the story of the cosmos. How could personality possibly emerge from impersonal material? What has this value ladened, self-conscious creature Man to do with the quite unconscious material universe? May it be that somehow God uses human beings to infuse meaning into the universe? Malick is lovingly attentive to the members of an unremarkable family of four, two brothers, a mother, and a father; the O’Briens, who live on everyman’s street, in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. Like all our families the O’Briens grow and sometimes fail to grow into a larger life. The whole story is about the death of one of the sons when he was about 18 year-old and how the grief and sorrow of each member of the family is their attempt to love and honor the dead child and also to understand the meaning of his life and death. 
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The (fiction) writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem,” O’Connor wrote, “is to find that location.” Malick searches the whole universe for that spot and finally locates the intersection of time, place, and eternity by shifting time and place in what we might call the life story of the cosmos. It is a life story that he places before us in the terrible beauty of the birth and evolution of the cosmos as elemental substance is violently sculpted into stars, stellar residue, dark matter, and planets swimming together in a myriad of galaxies in interstellar space. And in particular Malick draws down on this planet’s birth and formation sometimes evoking a sense of awe and sacredness while other scenes of fang and claw are disgusting and without any apparent pity or purpose. Not only does life evolve here but at least one planet, one that looks much like our own, is swept clean of any life by something that looks like a solar tsunami. What could be more devoid of meaning than that? What could be more nihilistic? And that enormity placed next to a family like our own evokes not just wonder, but as the old philosophers of a previous generation would say, it evokes fear and nausea. And because man’s life is but a span, beauty consumes away like a moth, and all of it withers, decays, dies and rots, and all because of that people live in the fear of death their whole life. And yet as we witness this beautiful, but death-dealing cosmological wonder it is the voice of sorrow, the sorrow of one mother whose plea for mercy and absolution begins with her lost son but now is seen to enfold the whole universe.
The whole sermon is very much worth your time.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Memento mori in the van in the parking lot of a Target in Richmond


Niece and nephew each had one dollar to spend.
Or rather, as it turned out, one dollar and four cents.

Afterwards, Ailey sat in the far back seat of the van, beaming and holding a small round tub of Keebler cookies.

Sam, a seat ahead, contemplated his Hot Wheels bounce-back paddle.


Sam: "You know, Ailey, food doesn't last forever."

Ailey: "I know. People don't last forever either. Because they all die."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Half-Hearted Disclaimers

Is there a name for the half-hearted disclaimer attached to victim-blaming essays—the disavowal at the end of an argument implying that a dead or raped person had it coming? There should be.

Rod Dreher—whose writing I generally find compelling, interesting, and often beautiful—recently offered a standard example of such a disclaimer in his post titled “Tips for Not Getting Shot by Cops.” Responding to Michael Brown's shooting death in Ferguson, Dreher argues that if Brown hadn't been a rude, bullying thief, he would still be alive today. Note that Dreher does not focus on the shooting itself—the circumstances that would justify or condemn the shooting in court. His tips have nothing to do with whether or how Brown attacked Darren Wilson. Instead, he focuses on Brown’s history as a trouble-maker, his theft and aggression earlier in the day, and his allegedly defiant attitude towards Officer Wilson. In keeping with the dictates of the genre, Dreher finishes his post with a disclaimer: "None of this means that Wilson was justified in using deadly force against Brown." We need a good name for that kind of disclaimer—the one where an author unconvincingly denies the very thing he spent a great deal of time implicitly arguing.