Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!!!

After all this posting about the Bible and Socialism and the election, etc., I almost forgot to wish everyone a Happy Halloween!

This is, of course, the most important religious holiday of the year. ;)

Quote of the Day: Luke 17:20-21

Again, I'm all about the Gospel of Luke lately. And not for the reason I am using it on the blog to discuss Jesus' or Luke's economic radicalism. My reasons lie elsewhere. But, it should be little surprise that my quote of the day also derives from Luke:

Being asked asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is within you."

That last bit can also be understood "in the midst of you," but I tend toward "within you." It fits, I think, the undermining of expectations. First Jesus undermines the expectation of when. It is not a when. It is not imminent. It is not in the future (or the past). Although we might say it is in the present. But neither is it a where. It is not here nor is it there. That is why I don't like "midst." I like it inside. You carry it with you all the time. Is it possibly a who? Or a collection of who's? If the kingdom of God is IN you, is it a part of you? Is it something that only you can activate, create, call into being? If it is in your midst, it is because it is inside you and you have allowed it to break forth. Or it gains strength with a collection of who's who have gathered together, each with the kingdom inside.

Is the Bible Socialist? Luke-Acts (Part 4)

This is still the same chapter as "part 3," but that post was getting long, so I thought I would be nice and break things up a bit. The second half of Luke 16, in fact, deals with economic issues. One might begin to think that Jesus (or Luke) is obsessed with relations between rich and poor, wealth, and, well, giving it all away.

So, here is a famous story by Jesus about the rich man and Lazarus in Abraham's bosom:

"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. At at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may corss from there to us.' And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'"

Ok...I know that was long. And this is a famous story. By the way, this is not the same Lazarus that Jesus rose from the dead...although the coincidence of resurrection language and the name Lazarus is suspect! But here the point is that Lazarus will NOT be raised from the dead, because it would be pointless.

But let's see what is going on in the dynamics of this story. The first thing I noted was that the rich man wore purple. Purple was a luxury item, and in this period is highly associated with the imperial regime--the emperor wore the most purple. Senators next, and so on. This detail, at least, narratively evokes that imperial apparatus. This man lived well and ate sumptuously in stark contrast to Lazarus, the beggar outside, who wishes for just a scrap, but, it seems, does not receive it. Both die, and we have the literary technique of reversal: the first becomes last and the last first. The rich man is taken to Hades in torment, Lazarus receives comfort. In a nice inverse parallel, just like Lazarus wanting a scrap from the rich man's table and evidently not receiving it, the rich man wishes for just a bit of water from Lazarus, but cannot receive it. Just as he refused to give in this life, he will not receive in the next. In the end, the rich man wishes to send warning to his five brothers through Lazarus. But Abraham notes that they already have warning by Moses and the prophets. If they cannot learn by Moses and the prophets, what good would a guy rising from the dead do? Let me pass over briefly the obvious theological irony here with regard to Jesus' own resurrection. The rich man wants to send Lazarus so that his brothers will repent. Repent of what? Why, exactly, is the rich man in Hades? My first inclination is to say that he is there because he failed to let Lazarus eat from his table. He should have given his scraps to the poor, right? But, if the afterlife is an inversion of this life, and getting what you gave, the inversion would be that he would be in Hades and get some relief from time to time. How does Abraham explain why they are in their respective positions? He says: "Son, remember that you in your lifetime received good thigns, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish." You get the opposite in the afterlife that you get in this life. So, what should his brothers repent of? If they want to ascend to Abraham's bosom and not be in Hades, they need to repent of their wealth. This, in fact, is very consistent with Jesus' earlier pronouncements of one not being able to serve God and mammon. It also is consistent with his command to sell everything you own and to give the proceeds to the poor. It is, I think, the understanding that keeps true to the story itself: comfort in the next life is the luxury for those who have none in this life. Luke's Jesus, indeed, is a radical one. Whether Jesus' economic vision is one you think is viable is a different matter.

Now, apart from these economic issues, what about the theological, or christological point: "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neitehr will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead." Does this completely undermine Jesus' own resurrection as in any way meaningful? Lazarus does not come back to life because the Law and the Prophets should be enough. Does this, therefore, pass the criterion of dissimilarity--meaning, we can be confident Jesus said it because it is not in the interest of the early Christian movement? It might explain why, in fact, some early Christians were having trouble getting people to believe their message. On the other hand, it suggests that there is no need of a new message--it is all there in the Law and the Prophets. All you need is Moses...or, the Lukan Jesus' interpretation of Moses.

Is the Bible Socialist? Luke-Acts (Part 3)

Today's readings of Luke are a bit less clear. It may contravene the earlier statements by Jesus to sell everything and give to the poor, or, perhaps, the ambiguity in the passage itself may be illuminated or clarified by these earlier principles.

First we begin with the story of the bad steward in Luke 16:1-13.

"There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that htis man was wasting his goods. And he called him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.' And the steward said to himself, 'What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, 'How mcuh do you owe my master?' He said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' And he said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' He said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, "Take yoiur bill, and write eighty.' The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; fo rhte sons of theis world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations." (Luke 16:1-9)

First, I fully admit bafflement with this story. The steward goes from bad to dishonest. In short, he is doing the opposite of interest by forgiving part of the loan in order to have a place to go, to have some popularity among these debtors, after he is fired. The master, evidently realizing what the dishonest steward has done, commends him for it. That is odd. He recognized the shrewdness of his actions and commends him for the shrewdness (even though the master is getting the short end of the stick). But, all of this involves the actions of "the sons of this world" as opposed to the non-shrewdness of the "sons of light." So, sons of this world=shrewd; sons of light=not shrewd. In some ways, perhaps all this makes sense, showing people of this world to be slick money-dealing folk only out for their own self-interest. BUT the last sentence interrupts such an interpretation: "make friends by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations." What does that mean?

The labeling of "mammon" consistently as "unrighteous" may be a clue. Money is unrighteous. It is inextricably related to unrighteous. Unrighteous is one of its qualities. But Jesus is telling this story to his disciples, but, at the same time, is being overheard by the Pharisees. How might this dual-audience affect our interpretation? I think a key is the assumption that the money, the mammon, will fail. It is evanescent. It will not sustain itself. So, if mammon is unrighteous and it fails, why would Jesus tell his disciples to make friends by it? Perhaps they are in parallel to the bad, but shrewd, steward, oddly enough. He made money through mammon by forgiving part of debt. Instead of repaying everything or even adding interest, now they only have to pay a portion back. This costs the rich man, who nonetheless recognizes its shrewdness, while it helps the poor. Is this socialist? Not really. Not even close. But its complete distaste of money and riches is still evident.

I have a feeling I am missing something--perhaps an element of lost sarcasm? It just is so odd, and the next section is also unclear:

"He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and desipise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." (Luke 16:10-13)

After telling the disciples to make friends by unrighteous mammon, which, based upon the story, seems to mean to make friends by mammon by relinquishing mammon owed to you or your master, to then have this section seems contradictory. The steward was, in fact, dishonest in the way he acted shrewdly. But commended as well. Was he faithful? Or unfaithful? I would think his dishonesty would demonstrate him being unfaithful with the little, unfaithful with the unrighteous mammon. So, what does this have to do with that? Moreover, the last portion seems to undermine the entire conversation: "No servant can serve two masters." But perhaps this undermining IS the point of the story and the subsequent explanation. When stuck in the story and in the interrelationships developed by money, of owing, debt, and lending, you will be judged by how well you maintain that money. You should be honest, yes, but shrewdness is definitely what is valued. But even though you are being honest with unrighteous mammon, or perhaps dishonest and shrewd (which are evidently prized as well), you are serving unrighteous mammon. You cannot serve two masters. As a steward you cannot serve both your master and his debtors. You will always be stuck in between them and will never win. But you also cannot serve mammon and God. Indeed, as a child of light, you may not be shrewd with money, but that is because you are not a servant of mammon at all. You extricate yourself from the system of lending and borrowing, of debt and credit.

Why do I think this is the case? The result:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him. (Luke 16:14).

Pharisees, of course, are just straw men to provide the antithesis of Luke's point. But, if you are someone who serves money, you should, evidently, be appalled by what Jesus is saying. In fact, the story and all else are meant to make this final point: it is not just a matter of being a good or bad steward with your money (or someone else's money), it is a matter of being a part of the monetary system at all. The system will fail, and if you have given your portion away, you will have friends in the eternal habitations.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Phoenician Genetics!

From the NYTimes:

October 31, 2008

Phoenicians Left Deep Genetic Mark, Study Shows

The Phoenicians, enigmatic people from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, stamped their mark on maritime history, and now research has revealed that they also left a lasting genetic imprint.

Scientists reported Thursday that as many as 1 in 17 men living today on the coasts of North Africa and southern Europe may have a Phoenician direct male-line ancestor.

These men were found to retain identifiable genetic signatures from the nearly 1,000 years the Phoenicians were a dominant seafaring commercial power in the Mediterranean basin, until their conquest by Rome in the 2nd century B.C.

The Phoenicians who founded Carthage, a great city that rivaled Rome. They introduced the alphabet to writing systems, exported cedars of Lebanon for shipbuilding and marketed the regal purple dye made from the murex shell. The name Phoenica, for their base in what is present-day Lebanon and southern Syria, means “land of purple.”

Then the Phoenicians, their fortunes in sharp decline after defeat in the Punic Wars, disappeared as a distinct culture. The monumental ruins of Carthage, at modern Tunis, are about the only visible reminders of their former greatness.

The scientists who conducted the new research said this was the first application of a new analytic method for detecting especially subtle genetic influences of historical population migrations. Such investigations, supplementing the traditional stones-and-bones work of archaeology, are contributing to a deeper understanding of human mobility over time.

The study was directed by the Genographic Project, a partnership of the National Geographic Society and IBM Corporation, with additional support from the Waitt Family Foundation. The international team described the findings in the current American Journal of Human Genetics.

“When we started, we knew nothing about the genetics of the Phoenicians,” Chris Tyler-Smith, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, said in an announcement. “All we had to guide us was history: we knew where they had and hadn’t settled.”

It proved to be enough, Dr. Tyler-Smith and Spencer Wells, a geneticist who directs the Genographic Project, said in telephone interviews.

Samples of the male Y-chromosome were collected from 1,330 men now living at six sites known to have been settled in antiquity as colonies and trading outposts of the Phoenicians. The sites were in Cyprus, Malta, Morocco, the West Bank, , Syria and Tunisia.

Each participant, whose inner cheek was swabbed for the samples, had at least three generations of indigenous ancestry at the site. To this was added data already available from Lebanon and previously published chromosome findings from nearly 6,000 men at 56 sites throughout the Mediterranean region. The data were then compared with similar research from neighboring communities having no link to Phoenician settlers.

From the research emerged a distinctive Phoenician genetic signature, in contrast to genetic traces spread by other migrations, like those of late Stone-Age farmers, Greek colonists and the Jewish Diaspora. The scientists thus concluded that, for example, one boy in each school class from Cyprus to Tunis may be a descendant of Phoenician traders.

“We were lucky in one respect,” Pierre A. Zalloua, a geneticist at Lebanese American University in Beirut who was a principal author of the journal report, said in an interview. “So many Phoenician settlement sites were geographically close to non-Phoenician sites, making it easier to distinguish differences in genetic patterns.”

In the journal article, the researchers wrote that the work “underscores the effectiveness of Y-chromosomal variability” in tracing human migrations. “Our methodology,” they concluded, “can be applied to any historically documented expansion in which contact and noncontact sites can be identified.”

Dr. Zalloua said that with further research it might be possible to refine genetic patterns to reveal phases of the Phoenician expansion over time — “first to Cyprus, then Malta and Africa, all the way to Spain.” Perhaps, he added, the genes may hold clues to which Phoenician cities — Byblos, Tyre or Sidon — settled certain colonies.

Dr. Wells, a specialist in applying genetics to migration studies who is also an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, suggested that similar projects in the future could investigate the genetic imprint from the Celtic expansion across the European continent, the Inca through South America, Alexander’s march through central and south Asia and multicultural traffic on the Silk Road.

Hubble Bubbles

As Exploring Our Matrix has recently noted, Hubble is back online! And has produced this image:

They also have some other very amazing images. See this for example:

I think the Carina Nebula is stunning. But so is this:

If that is not enough for you, check out the official Hubble site here.

Quote of the Day: You Guess!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I administered a midterm exam today. Part of that exam was to identify a passage, who wrote it, who's speaking, and why it is significant within the work as a whole. They had to do about six of these before writing their essays.

Here is one of those passages. Can you identify it?

Ever do we build our households,
ever do we make our nests,
ever do brothers divide their inheritance,
ever do feuds arise in the land.

Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
Then all of a sudden nothing is there!

Hmm...I guess I can't put any labels on this post until someone correctly identifies the passage!

Is the Bible Socialist? Luke-Acts (Part 2)

I should clarify that I think there is no single position in the Bible on economics...or anything else for that matter that I can think of off-hand. Unless ambivalence is a consistent position.

Nonetheless, I was giving a midterm today and continued reading Luke while my students wrote their essays. And, again working through Luke, we this gospel's portrayal of Jesus' economic positions. Anticipating the communal living situation in Acts that I noted in my earlier post, which was made possible by everyone selling their property and giving it to the group so that everyone's needs would be met, we find this statement from Jesus:

"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Luke 12:32-4)

Perhaps to update this passage a bit, we might say, "where no market nosedives, where no banking systems fail." This is a passage that defers enjoyment of riches until the kingdom, or reign, of God / Heaven. But until then (or, in a different reading, to create the kingdom or allow the kingdom to break through), one sells everything and gives the money to the poor. This, in fact, comes just after the famous passage that one should not worry about your life, what you eat, your clothing--you know, your most basic needs--because God knows you need these things. This statement against being anxious for your basic needs is then sandwiched between the above-quoted passage about selling all of your possessions and giving the money to the poor and a parable against hoarding wealth:

And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepeared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." (Luke 12:16-21)

Indeed, the rich are not coming off very well in any of Jesus' stories. So, we move from a parable against the long-term pointlessness of hoarding, of storing up treasures here, to a passage of not worrying about anything, to a passage of selling everything you own and giving it to the poor. We might ask what exactly it means to be "rich toward God" or to have "treasure in the heavens"? One answer here is just to "trust God" with everything. But this is not the prosperity gospel message of believe it, achieve it and God will give you that car. If it is to trust in God, it is to trust that God will provide your needs when you sell all of your possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.

Systematically, Jesus, in this portrayal, has broken down the economic policy that encourages "growing your portfolio." Not only should one not hoard or build bigger barns, but one should not have possessions at all! Again, WHOA! Socialist? Perhaps, indeed, that is an anachronism, since these are stories and exhortations and not a systematic philosophical proposition. Nonetheless, we see the abolishment of private property and a very radical "redistribution" from selling everything and giving it to the poor.

There may be some pockets of Christians throughout history who have lived this way--at least in hagiography...and perhaps some monastic organizations--but it is rare and has never been the dominant position in Christian movements, despite it being so prominent in the accounts of the purported founder's message. Perhaps different forms of Christianity have been so concerned about who Jesus is for so long that they have forgotten what he said (or reportedly said).

Ok...Why Obama is not a Socialist

There have been a lot of misuses of the term socialist by the McCain campaign with regard to Obama. I think true socialists are appalled that people are giving the ultimately capitalist underpinnings of Obama's economic package such a lofty and advanced title!

Let's take the bail-out of Wall-Street as an example.

True free-market capitalists are perhaps uneasy about the GOVERNMENT intervention into the capitalist system that Wall Street represents.

Socialists are uneasy about the government intervention into the CAPITALIST system that Wall Street represents. The Bail-out, in the socialist view, ultimately reaffirms the capitalist system rather than truly developing a socialist system.

It is one thing to distinctly disagree with your opponent's economic policies--that is part and parcel of Presidential debate and politics--but it does not excuse fear-mongering by mislabeling (this particular label, I don't particularly see as a negative one, but a great deal of Americans do).

By the way, Ken Schenck has a very nice, thorough post on the philosophical and historical developments of modern economic theory here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gridiron Politics

What does politics have to do with football? Rachel Maddow of MSNBC News explains:

College Tuition

College tuition, of course, is still on the rise even in the midst of economic crisis.

The Chronicle has a database by state or by institution type here. Note: it only gives tuition and fees and not room and board rates...which will push the price even higher.

My alma mater, Illinois Wesleyan University, is up to $32,434.

Columbia is $39,326.

April DeConick's Rice is at $30,486.

Ken Schenck's Indiana Wesleyan is $19,376.

Harvard is at $36,173.

U Penn stands at $37,526.

Not far from U Penn is a small liberal arts university, Ursinus College, which happens to have a position open in NT and Early Christianity this year, is very close to these top prices: $36,910.

Wash U in St. Louis is $37,248.

If you can't access the site and would like to know how much a certain institution costs, just ask and I'll look it up.

Painting: Frog on Leaf with Twirling Night Sky

As mentioned sometime before, I paint. And here is my most recent painting done for my niece, Rebekah, for the occasion of her birth a couple weeks ago--yes, I am a newly minted uncle.

Unfortunately, there is a glare on this photograph, losing some of the depth of color, particularly at the bottom of the painting at the bottom of the leaves and losing some of the contrast between the blues and purples in the swirls of the night sky. The contrast, to the naked eye, is as strong as it is at the top of the painting. Moreover, the contrast of the swirling stars is also stronger to the naked eye, again being obscured by a glare unavoidable due to the lighting in my apartment.

As is now appearing to become my style, the painting emphasizes secondary colors--oranges, greens, and purples--more than primary colors. In contrast to the paintings I posted earlier in the year with almost dizzyingly detailed leaves, I went with larger patterns and shapes on this one. I like how it looks on my wall next to other paintings with similar color schemes, star patterns, although with different representational schemes (like a human eye-ball or a hand reaching out), but very soon it will be traveling west, to the house of my sister, brother-in-law, and niece to live in my baby niece's room right above the rocking she can look at it whenever she is burped, fed, or rocked to sleep. ;)

Is the Bible Socialist? Luke-Acts as an Example

Here's a nice quote for today from a statement attributed to John the Baptist:

"He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise" (Luke 3:11; RSV).

John the Baptist must be a socialist, at least by John McCain's loose definition, since he wants to redistribute the wealth!

In fact, Luke-Acts (the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostle were written by the same author) shows a lot of instances of communal living. See, for example, Acts 4:32-5:5:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought hte proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. Thus JOseph who was surnamed by the apostles Barnabas (which means, Son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.

But a man named Ananias with his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it waws sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died.

Sapphira dies subsequently. I am sure that most Christians who promote free-market capitalism, as many evangelicals do, skim through these passages, overlook them, or ignore their message. With the passage from Luke, many people might see this as giving change to the guy on the street...which is a very little help, instead of seeing it as a lifestyle change and challenge that it is meant to be. The passage from Acts is more difficult to ignore. While some people will focus on the issue of obedience, which is clearly there, they ignore the social implications of the passage and merely spiritualize it. But that would be the miss the larger impact of a cohering community that holds all things in common. Here the communal lifestyle of redistributing wealth to those who need it is presented as the ideal and, uh, godly. Holding back property, maintaining one's private property and not giving it to the community, is portrayed as Satanic! Unfortunately, we tend to tame the radicalism of the Bible and the implications of many of its social positions...something important for those who claim to live a "biblical lifestyle." Ultimately, if redistribution of wealth is un-American, so is living a "biblical lifestyle," if a biblical lifestyle is remotely related to the social organizations illustrated by the earliest Christians, the redistribution of land in the year of Jubilee, etc.

Bush Tries to Pardon Himself

Buried deep within new legislation before Congress is a provision for Bush and his cronies to exculpate themselves of any possible wrongdoing regarding detainees. In short, Bush is trying to pardon himself for war crimes (i.e., violating the Geneva Convention's prohibition of torture, which has now juridically--and correctly I think--been interpreted to apply to alleged terrorist detainees). If charges of war crimes are brought to Bush and his administration, it carries a felony charge with punishments ranging from imprisonment to death.

India to the Moon, Modern Traditionalism, or Hindus and Science

I just read a nice, succinct op-ed article in the NYTimes discussing the recent India shuttle launch to the moon, noting that this is the first mission to the moon by people who have regarded the moon as a god! A great moment for science; a great moment for religion. The article notes, in fact, that modern Hindus do not see much contradiction between religion and science and, moreover, are often aghast at, say, Christians in the U.S. who do.

See full article as follows:

October 29, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor

Fly Me to the Deity


AN unmanned spacecraft from India — that most worldly and yet otherworldly of nations — is on its way to the moon. For the first time since man and his rockets began trespassing on outer space, a vessel has gone up from a country whose people actually regard the moon as a god.

The Chandrayaan (or “moon craft”) is the closest India has got to the moon since the epic Hindu sage, Narada, tried to reach it on a ladder of considerable (but insufficient) length — as my grandmother’s bedtime version of events would have it. So think of this as a modern Indian pilgrimage to the moon.

As it happens, a week before the launching, millions of Hindu women embarked on a customary daylong fast, broken at night on the first sighting of the moon’s reflection in a bowl of oil. (This fast is done to ensure a husband’s welfare.) But reverence for the moon is not confined to traditional Indian housewives: The Web site of the Indian Space Research Organization — the body that launched the Chandrayaan — includes a verse from the Rig Veda, a sacred Hindu text that dates back some 4,000 years: “O Moon! We should be able to know you through our intellect,/ You enlighten us through the right path.”

One is tempted, in all this, to dwell on the seeming contradiction between religion and science, between reason and superstition. And yet, anyone who has been to India will have noted also its “modernity of tradition.” The phrase, borrowed from the political scientists Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, might explain the ability of devout Hindus — many of them, no doubt, rocket scientists — to see no disharmony between ancient Vedic beliefs and contemporary scientific practice.

The Hindu astrological system is predicated on lunar movements: so the moon is a big deal in astrology-obsessed India. That said, the genius of modern Hinduism lies in its comfort with, and imperviousness to, science. A friend tells me of an episode from his childhood in Varanasi, the sacred Hindu city. Days after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a model of the lunar module was placed in a courtyard of the most venerable temple in the city. The Hindu faithful were hailing man-on-the-moon; there was no suggestion that the Americans had committed sacrilege. (Here, I might add — with a caveat against exaggeration — that science sometimes struggles to co-exist with faith in the United States in ways that would disconcert many Indians.)

Of course, the Chandrayaan is also a grand political gesture — space exploration in the service of national pride. This kind of excursion may provoke yawns at NASA, but judging from round-the-clock local coverage it has received, the mission has clearly inflamed the imagination and ambition of Indians. Yes, even moon-worshipping ones.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Best Electoral Map Ever

As I mentioned yesterday (or a few days ago...I'm losing track of time!!!), I really am fascinated by the shifting electoral maps that various news outlets have been releasing, but, by far, this Op-Art one contributed to the NYTimes has to be the best one I've seen so far!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Jon Stewart's "Gaffe-in"

This is so sad...yet so funny!

Looks like Biden has competition for being the worst gaffer!

Kierkegaard for President! I appropriated this from James McGrath's blog, Exploring Our Matrix, but I thought it was funny enough to duplicate.

Here's Friedrich Nietsche's attack ad on Kant:

Here's Kierkegaard's attack ad on Kant and Nietsche...if only we had a three-party system!

And if you are unsure about which to choose, just see how well they play soccer:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Colbert Report: McCain LOVES the Middle Class

This comes from last night's Colbert Report:

So, I guess the lesson is...the McCain campaign is not elitist; it is merely condescending.

Ph.D. Comics on the Election

Unfortunately, I know exactly what they're talking about!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Thucydides on Crisis

I am about to teach Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, and the following excerpt caught my eye concerning general approaches to new, complex crises:
And it is just as true in politics as it is in any art or craft: new methods must drivfe out old ones. When a city can live in peace and quiet, no doubt the old-established ways are best: but when one is constantly being faced by new problems, one has also to be capable of approaching them in an original way. (1.71; trans. Rex Warner)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Eric Hobsbawm on the Economic Crisis

Sometimes considered one of the greatest living historians, Eric Hobsbawm, whose perspective is decidedly Marxist, has weighed in on the current economic crisis with his perspicacious perspective in the following audioclip from the BBC.

I stumbled upon this clip from a posting by Adam Becker, scholar of early Christianity from NYU. His comment on the audioclip was "schadenfreude."

Quote of the Day: Luke 9:51-6

For today, one text I'm toying with for the New Testament Mysticism Seminar:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. (Luke 9:51-6; RSV)
I don't know how many times I must have just read over this passage without stopping to realize that James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Sons of "Thunder"), say that they can bring down fire from heaven..."just as Elijah did" (as the most common ancient variant on this passage says). In the synoptic tradition, this passage has NO parallel. Later variants and commentators, such as Tertullian, subtly shifted the passage to say that Jesus, rather than James and John, could bring down fire from heaven. Why, I might ask? Just an issue of memory? Or is there something troubling for a disciple to have such destructive power? But there is a proliferation of miracles performed by disciples/apostles after Jesus' resurrection and ascension to heaven--in the canonical and apocryphal acts of the apostles. So, is there a particular theological position at stake, perhaps, that when Jesus walked around, he would perform the miracles, and then, after the resurrection, that power passed on to the disciples--in Acts 2 for Luke-Acts perspective, or when Jesus breathed on his disciples at the end of John? If so, did this Lukan passage threaten this? Or does it reflect or nod toward a different position in which the disciples/apostles always had such power--or, the Sons of Zebedee, at least?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Solomon, Socrates, and Aristotle at Pompeii

I just saw this on Jim Davila's site, Paleojudaica, and had to see the fresco and the archaeological discussion for myself here.

Evidently there is a fresco found in the House of the Physician at Pompeii of the famous scene from the Bible in which two women come to Solomon, each claiming that a particular baby is hers. Solomon decides the case by ordering the baby to be cut in half and for each woman to take a half. The false mother is ok with this. But the true mother cries out that she would rather let the other woman take the baby than for it to die.

In the fresco in the lower left-hand corner are two figures. Theodore Feder, the author of the article, claims that these two figures are Socrates and Aristotle. Therefore, we would see a fusion of ancient wisdom, between Hebrew and Greek, the most famous Greek philosophers and the most famous wise king of Israel.

The fresco is now at the Museo Nazionale in Napoli (Naples).

Who commissioned this fresco? Probably not early Christians--the dating is too close. The fresco would have to date to before Pompei was destroyed in 79 CE. Perhaps Jews or some God-fearers or some educated Italian / Roman who was familiar with several traditions and found the story very insightful or wise in some way. Feder tends toward educated Roman familar with the tradition found in Greek and Latin sources that treat the Jews as a race of philosophers.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Is the Academic Conference an Outdated Institution?

As I am faced with writing my papers for this year's SBL meeting in Boston, I wonder to myself: "Is the academic conference a completely outdated institution?" Indeed, what are its benefits in this day and age and its pitfalls?

Academic conferences, at least the sessions, have to be one of the most boring things I sit through in the year. The parties in the evenings, however, seem to me to be where the true action is. That is where, one on one, you can meet people in your field, both senior and new scholars, explain your research to someone, get some immediate thoughts, and then grab a bite or a drink.

But, here are a series of issues:

1. Learning: Is the academic conference really a place where we learn new things? How many new things do you really learn (and remember!) from listening to talk after talk after talk? Not much, I would guess. How much feedback to the presenter really receive? In a panel of three or four speakers, perhaps you will receive one or two good questions from the audience. But there is the issue of scheduling. People interested in your talk (either because of you as a person or your title) might have to choose between you and another session. So, people are split, and the best feedback may be from the person who went to the other session for whatever reason.

On the other hand, in this wired internet age. Someone can present their ongoing, albeit somewhat rough, findings on a blog or on their website, receive immediate feedback from a community of online scholars in the comments, and can develop ideas in concerted network with others. This, in fact, is almost like an online seminar! In fact, that is really the only experience at a conference where I feel like something like this happens: in the seminars that meet on the Friday before the official start. In that setting a group of scholars focused on a specific topic present their ongoing, albeit rough, research and receive immediate feedback from everyone else in the seminar. The subsequent sessions do not seem to me to be very effective places of learning and exchange of ideas. So, perhaps the future of these conferences would be to expand these seminars with several more focused ongoing discussions and decrease the dull sessions in which learning is fragmented and partial at best.

The problem, of course, with the internet model is quality control. Papers presented at conferences usually go through a process of review (the abstracts at least). On the other hand, if a handful of scholars set up a discussion board online, then invited people to submit their ideas, and then have the internet community respond, we might have something interesting in which people do not have to worry about time conflicts (since it is on the web) and one can receive immediate and ongoing feedback. Having a discussion board for each focused topic, perhaps through the SBL site, may be a place to start.

2. Networking: Conferences are definitely most important f0r this. In fact, I doubt most people really think they are going to conferences to hear new ideas. Instead, they go to meet scholars in their field with similar interests OR to get jobs or fill an open position in their department. For this, I think conferences are irreplaceable. One can, indeed, network online through the blogosphere or whatever, but, as of yet, it does not seem quite as effective. Although I have met several scholars since I began this blog on the internet, whom I do not know in person.

3. Interface: What is the future of the conference? Why not have a conference be an interface between in-person and online activity? In person, one can network and attend/participate in a series of a few round-table seminars focused on particular themes instead of these rooms of speakers and listeners/questioners (and thus not get overwhelmed by paper after paper after paper after paper, each 20-25 min long, on various subjects). At the same time, one can anticipate this seminar forum and respond to it on the internet, creating ongoing discussions of the work being carried out by our colleagues. The invitation to participate in the seminar can serve as quality control, but then opening it up for general discussion on the internet could be helpful for the dissemination of ideas to a much broader crowd than those who can attend a session in Boston.

That's my two cents.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

SBL Forum: Tony Burke's Study on Modern Heresiology

If you have not read it, Tony Burke of York University has an excellent paper in the current SBL Forum comparing the techniques of ancient heresiologists and the modern ones. I highly recommend it for reading. The following about Ben Witherington III especially caught my attention:
Confusing scholarly interest in a body of literature with religious belief, he is perplexed at why the "new school" scholars wish to study Gnostic texts at all. "None of them are actually ascetics like the original Gnostics," he writes, "nor have they withdrawn from the world and anathematized the goodness of things material. Frankly, the Old Gnostics would have repudiated the new ones."[28] And finally, Witherington may rival Epiphanius—the heresy hunter who "has no equal in the history of heresiology for the art of insulting"[29]—in his demonization of the new school when he writes, "these scholars, though bright and sincere, are not merely wrong; they are misled. They are oblivious to the fact that they are being led down this path by the powers of darkness."[30]

I've never really understood why people confuse scholarly interest with the scholars' own religious beliefs. It is often the case that the two coincide, as it seems to with Witherington, but need not. Not everyone who studies the New Testament is a Christian. Not everyone who studies Judaism is Jewish, and so on and so forth. Are Classicists all ancient Greeks? In addition, I would probably say that modern Christians who study the New Testament are hardly like the people they study. How many modern Christians live in a communistic fashion with all property held in common as in Acts? Only first-century Christians acted and thought like first-century Christians if the term "Christian" is really fully applicable. And by the time we get to second-century Christianity, there is such a proliferation of groups, beliefs, and practices that no single one is dominant just yet, and they all think they are right--just as Herodotus said of all groups (everyone thinks their own customs are best). I guess the modern Heresy Hunters have not learned the lesson of Herodotus--that is, if everyone thinks they are right, everyone is actually on the same plane in their rightness, but, at the same time, different groups' beliefs, practices, and customs are actually interrelated to one another in highly complex ways. Before evaluation must come understanding. Finally, none of us are really the people we study even if we place ourselves in that overall traditional trajectory (as if it were a linear one, instead of the convoluted, labyrinthine path that it really is). "Powers of darkness" is pretty strong language for research interests.

Overall, the article by Tony Burke is quite good as he uncovers the rhetorical strategies of the modern day heresiologists (it reminds me, in some ways, of what Karen King did for late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship in her book, What is Gnosticism?).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Latin New York Times Article

It isn't often that you find a newspaper article written in Latin, but Maureen Dowd, with the help of Gary Farney, associate professor at Rutgers, has written about the issues of the current state of the U.S., particularly the campaigning, in LATIN!!!

I am going to quote in full for all to see, but here is the link anyway.

October 12, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist
Are We Rome? Tu Betchus!

With modernity crumbling, our thoughts turn to antiquity.

The decline and fall of the American Empire echoes the experience of the Romans, who also tumbled into the trap of becoming overleveraged empire hussies.

As our sand-castle economy washes away under the tide of bad gambles and debts, this most self-indulgent society lurches toward stoicism (even bankrupt Iceland gives us the cold shoulder and turns to a solvent superpower). It’s going to require more than giving up constant infusions of stocks, Starbucks and Botox.

As Seneca, the Roman Stoic who advised treating the body “somewhat strictly,” wrote in a letter: “Avoid whatever is approved of by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance. Whenever circumstance brings some welcome thing your way, stop in suspicion and alarm ...They are snares. ... we think these things are ours when in fact it is we who are caught. That track leads to precipices; life on that giddy level ends in a fall.”

The study of Latin and Greek, with illuminations on morality, philosophy, mob rule and chariot races, reached a nadir in the greedy ‘80s and ‘90s, when it seemed irrelevant for kids who yearned to be investment bankers and high-tech millionaires. But now we’ve learned the hard way that greed is bad — avaritia mala est — and the classics have staged a comeback. Amo Latinam, so I was happy to see last week’s Times story about the soaring enrollment for Latin classes in New York.

In high school, I translated swatches of Julius Caesar’s “The Battle for Gaul” from Latin to English while nibbling cheese crackers. To boost the felicitous new trend toward Latin, I enlisted Gary D. Farney, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, to translate (loosely and creatively) from English to Latin “The Battle of Gall,” my take below on why the hyperventilating Republicans are not veni, vidi, vici-ing.

Bellum Gallium

Manes Julii Caesaris paucis diebus aderant — “O, most bloody sight!” — cum Ioannes McCainus, mavericus et veteranus captivusque Belli Francoindosinini, et Sara Palina, barracuda borealis, qui sneerare amant Baracum Obamam causa oratorii, pillorant ut demagogi veri, Africanum-Americanum senatorem Terrae Lincolni, ad Republicanas rallias.

Rabidi subcanes candidati, pretendant “no orator as Brutis is,” ut “stir men’s blood” et disturbant mentes populi ad “a sudden flood of mutiny,” ut Wilhelmus Shakespearus scripsit.

Cum Quirites Americani ad rallias Republicanas audiunt nomen Baraci Husseini Obamae, clamant “Mortem!” “Amator terroris!” “Socialiste!” “Bomba Obamam!” “Obama est Arabus!” “Caput excidi!” tempus sit rabble-rouseribus desistere “Smear Talk Express,” ut Stephanus Colbertus dixit. Obama demonatus est tamquam Musulmanus-Manchurianus candidatus — civis “collo-cerviciliaris” ad ralliam Floridianam Palinae exhabet mascum Obamae ut Luciferis.

Obama non queretur high-tech lynching. Sed secreto-serventes agentes nervosissmi sunt.
Vix quisque audivit nomen “Palinae” ante lunibus paucis. Surgivit ex suo tanning bed ad silvas in Terram Eskimorum, rogans quis sit traitorosus, ominosus, scurrilosus, periculosus amator LXs terroris criminalisque Chicagoani? Tu betchus!

“Caeca ambitio Obamana,” novum rumorem Palina McCainusque dixit. “Cum utilis, Obama laborat cum amatore terroris Wilhelmo Ayro. Cum putatus, perjuravit.” McCainianus bossus maximus Francus Keatinx vocat Obamam, “plebeium,” et ut iuvenum snifferendum cocaini minimi (“a little blow.”)

Cum Primus Dudus, spousus Palinanus, culpari attemptaret “Centurionem-Gate,” judices Terrae Santae Elvorumque castigat gubernatricem Palinam de abusu auctoritatis per familiam revengendum.

Tamen Sara et Ioannes bury Obama, not praise him. Maverici, ut capiunt auxilium de friga-domina, hench-femina, Cynthia McCaina Birrabaronessa, (quae culpat Obamam periculandi suum filum in Babylonia), brazen-iter distractant mentes populares de minimissimis IV 0 I K.ibus, deminutione “Motorum Omnium,” et Depressione Magna II.0. Omnes de Georgio Busio Secundo colossale goofballo. “V” (because there’s no W. in Latin) etiam duxit per disastrum ad gymnasium.

Gubernatrix (prope Russia) Palina, spectans candidaciam MMXII, post multam educationem cum Kissingro et post multam parodiam de Sabbatis Nocte Vivo atque de Tina Feia, ferociter vituperat Obamam, ut supralupocidit (aerial shooting of wolves) in Hyperborea.

Vilmingtoni, in Ohionem, McCain’s Mean Girl (Ferox Puella) defendit se gladiatricem politicam esse: “Pauci dicant, O Jupiter, te negativam esse. Non, negativa non sum, sed verissima.” Talk about lipsticka in porcam! Quasi Leeus Atwater de oppugnatione Busii Primi ad Dukakem: “non negativus, sed comparativus.”

Friday, October 10, 2008

Quote of the Day: Sophocles' "Oedipus the King" and the Dangers of Self-Knowledge

If there is any ancient reflection on the dangers, or perhaps terrors, of knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, self-realization, it would have to be Sophocles' Oedipus the King. On my reading, the true tragedy of the play is not that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother (both unknowingly), but the tragedy is gaining knowledge of this, realizing he is who he is. Whereas, if he did not seek out this knowledge, presumably he could have lived out his life in ignorant bliss.

Thus, Teiresias, although verbally abused by Oedipus, at first protects Oedipus from this self-knowledge with a reflection on the brutality and horror that can come from wisdom:
Alas, how terrible is wisdom
when it brings no profit to the man that's wise!
This I knew well, but had forgotten it,
else I would not have come here. (Oedipus the King 316-9; trans. David

In fact, many people in Thebes already know who Oedipus is, know his true origins, but refuse to tell him. In addition to Teiresias, it appears to Jocasta (Oedipus' mother/wife) figures it out very quickly and tries to protect her husband/son from this terrible self-knowledge, and, finally, the shepherd who took Oedipus as a baby knew all along and thought it best not to tell.

After his self-realization, Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself with her brooch. But he says something else quite interesting. He says:
It was Apollo, friends, Apollo,
that brought this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion.
But the hand that struck me
was none but my own. (Oedipus the King 1329-33)

There is much going on here. Something to do with the original oracles that the child would kill his father resonates. But I think closer at hand was the oracle at the beginning of the play that set Oedipus to discover WHO in fact killed the previous king of Thebes, Laius, whom he fails to realize was his own father. It was this oracle that forced him on a pursuit of knowledge that would be his downfall. Indeed, as I paraphrase Ecclesiastes, whoever increases knowledge, increases sorrow. But there is something else here too. The gates to Delphi said, "Know Thyself." It is by setting events so that Oedipus would come to know himself that Apollo sent him bitter bitterness. In all of this, trapped by these events of which he is simultaneously guilty and innocent, his self-blinding becomes an event in which he has total control. It is a means to reassert his free will against fate.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Times, Die Zeit, Le Monde

In case people are interested, I have recently added different online newspapers on the right-hand link lists, including German and French language newspapers--partly for me to keep my languages up, but also because it is always good to get multiple perspectives on world events.

Quote of the Day: Aeschylus' "Libation Bearers" 780

Picking another passage from Aeschylus' triology, the Oresteia, today's quote comes from the second play, the Libation Bearers. For overall background, see my earlier post. This is just a line sung by the chorus that stopped me in my tracks:

The gods' concerns are what concern only the gods. (Libation Bearers 780; trans. Lattimore)

What? Does this mean that the gods are only concerned with themselves? They do not genuinely care about human concerns? They're just looking out for themselves, and humans should do likewise; humans should sort things out themselves and gods should leave them alone. Or do the gods' concerns involve human issues, but humans are not overly concerned about them (but perhaps should be)?

Before Venice, Altinum

This rather short article was forwarded to me by my mother. It discusses that, through satellite imaging, one can see the outlines of an ancient city about 7 miles north of Venice near Marco Polo Airport. Plans to excavate are underway by the Universities of Padua and Venice.

Here is an excerpt:

Using satellite imaging, the outlines of the ruins can be clearly seen about three feet below the earth in what is now open countryside.

The discovery of the extensive town was found at Altino, known in Roman times as Altinum, more than seven miles north of Venice, and close to Marco Polo airport.

The ruins include streets, palaces, temples, squares and theatres, as well as a large amphitheatre and canals, showing Altinum was once a wealthy and thriving city.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Quote of the Day: Aeschylus' "Agamemnon" 1560-66

I am about to teach Aeschylus' trilogy, the Oresteia, which is actually the only tragic trilogy proper that has survived from antiquity. The basic story is that Agamemnon, on his way to Troy, sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to assuage the anger of Artemis, who, along with her brother Apollo, favored the Trojans. In response, when he returned home ten years later, his wife Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, murdered him. Yet, in response to that, Orestes, the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon avenged his father's death by killing his mother. In turn, the Furies, who punished those who killed a blood relative, sought to punish Orestes. In the end, Orestes lands in Athens as he runs from the Furies. There, Athena, in a new form of justice, decides the case by a judicial court. So, we move from archaic "eye for an eye" justice to new judicial systems represented by the emergent democratic city-state.

The Chorus, in the "Agememnon," the first of the three plays, responds to Agamemnon's death and trying to grasp the limits of the older form of justice by revenge:

Here is anger for anger. Between them
who shall judge lightly?
The spoiler is robbed; he killed, he has paid.
The truth stands ever beside God's throne
eternal: he who has wrought shall pay; that is law.
Then who shall tear the curse from their blood?
The seed is stiffened to ruin. (Aeschylus, Agamemnon

The chorus recognizes the legitimacy of the older justice of blood for blood, anger for anger, sword for sword. But asks a question: "Then who shall tear the curse from their blood?" When, indeed, does the cycle of revenge and counter-vengence ever stop in an ever devolving spiral of violence?

Ph.D. Comic--Seminars

I have a feeling I will be posting on Ph.D. Comics more often...perhaps a comic of the day along with the more studious quote of the day. Anyway, here is a comic that caught my eye:

Umm...I know a few full professors like that...always into their new gadgets!


I sometimes wonder if candidates exaggerate, mischaracterize, etc., assuming that most people will not double-check their facts.

So, let's double-check! There are some general fact-checking organizations out there to check out, but here is also the NYTimes checker. You can read it along with the transcript of last night's debate and alongside streaming video of the debate itself. All right here. It also refers to some of the other non-partisan fact-checking groups.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Steady Hand at the Tiller"

Repeatedly tonight in the second Presidential debate, John McCain said we need a "steady hand at the tiller." So, I guess that means Obama is the better candidate based upon McCain's own statement, since, as far as I can tell, McCain has been much more unstable in recent weeks.

I got the distinct impression that this was a debate for the Presidency of fantasy land...since it didn't really match realities on the ground, but I did feel that Obama approached reality more often than McCain did. To be fair, though, all groups and especially national identities are somewhat the America they were talking about (the one that is the greatest nation in the world, and so on and so forth) exists in imagination.

Imagination is important! The "idea" of what America is is a two-edged sword, however. The image of America is something that has suffered in the world, it makes it dangerous for US travelers to other places, and it makes it difficult in diplomatic relations. Nonetheless, while fantasy America is important, we really need to handle everyday realities!

Ph.D. Comics

I have just added to my sidebar a link to Ph.D. Comics. It is an online comic strip based upon the wacky world of doctoral graduate students!

Here is a recent one on being a TA:

Quote of the Day: Herodotus' Histories 3.21

In my class we are reading the kaleidoscopic multicultural literary monument of Herodotus' Histories. I personally really like Herodotus. While he often exoticizes the people he discusses, he breaks down any Helleno-centrism, undercuts difference at the same time he constructs it. He gives a message that not only should one respect one's own customs, religious or otherwise, but one must always respect others' as well. If not, then bad things will happen to you! So, in Book 3, Cambyses, the Persian King, takes over Egypt and does things that are sacrilegious to the EGYPTIANS, but would be perfectly normal in Greece, namely, burning the dead (Histories 3.16). He forces Greeks to think about basing what is acceptable and unacceptable upon local norms rather than their own (a lesson Odysseus learns the hard way). In fact, he notes that while the Greeks may think their customs are the best, so does everyone else! So, in that respect, Herodotus undercuts any sense of cultural superiority, leveling the playing field. By bringing in similarities and differences, convergences and divergences, between peoples, primarily the Greeks, Persians, and Egyptians (but others too), Herodotus sets up a system not only of some sort of cultural relativism, but cultural interrelationalism. Each group is unique in that they uniquely configure a set of practices that are partially shared by others, and interact with others.

The text also shows another form of breach. Not only must one respect other peoples' customs, one must respect their boundaries. So, getting to the quote of the day, we have the Ethiopian king commenting on territorial expansion of the type that Cambyses, and later Xerxes, undertakes:

If he [Cambyses] were a good man, he would not want to possess any land other than his own, and he wouldn't have enslaved people who have done him no wrong. (Herodotus 3.21; trans. Waterfield)

What happened to Cambyses according to Herodotus? Because he failed to respect religious customs and traditions (see 3.38) and political boundaries, he went insane, was overthrown by rebellion at home, and was wounded in the same way that he had sacrilegiously wounded a sacred Apis bull in Egypt (3.64)!

Dead Sea Scrolls at Jewish Museum

The Times reports that some Dead Sea Scroll fragments are at the Jewish Museum until January 4. See article here. Moreover, Jim Davila has some notes of caution against some of the language used in the article against Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship here. Anyone who lives in NYC (like myself) or will be visiting between now and then should pop in a take a peek.

Go see these six encased bits of ancient text at the Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World,” before it closes on Jan. 4. Go, but not because these scraps are themselves new to our understanding. Though these six “scrolls” have never been seen in New York before, and though three have never before been exhibited anywhere, the literature about these findings has become as voluminous and familiar as the texts are gnomic and condensed.

NOTE: In an earlier version of this post, I mistakenly said the Jewish Museum was in Brooklyn. It is in Manhattan at Fifth Avenue and 92nd St. I apologize for the mistake! So, after you visit the Met, or MoMa, or whatever on Museum Mile, head on down to the Jewish Museum and see some Scrolls!

Under the Spell of Latin

According to the New York Times, interest in the study of Latin among Middle and High School students is on the rise all across the U.S. The reason? It seems that the use of Latin in the spells of Harry Potter books has planted a seed of interest!

See the entire article here.

Knowing Latin might also help you if you're ever caught in the following situation:

Monday, October 6, 2008

Ken Schenck is the New Cat in the Hat

Ken Schenck, professor of New Testament and Philosophy at Indiana Wesleyan University and a scholar also fascinated with the Epistle to the Hebrews, posted this video on YouTube and on his own blog, Quadrilateral Thoughts, and I thought I would help disseminate it.

Indiana Wesleyan is a much more conservative counterpart to my alma mater, Illinois Wesleyan, which definitely leans left (and that's an understatement). As he notes on his site, he liked McCain a lot in the past (and perhaps still), but he does not like McCain's more recent choices and actions and does not think he will make a good President, something the following video makes very clear. He also notes that his position is not necessarily representative of his institution.

Theater, in many ways, captures issues better than dry analysis. I'm not sure if this is comedy or tragedy, however. Perhaps ultimately comedy and tragedy collapse into one another. (I'm thinking about this because I am about to teach the ancient Greek tragic poets.) Ken, you have far more time on your hands than I do, it seems!

Politics in the Pulpit

Churches and religious organizations from all points of view often endorse one candidate or party over another. My earlier post on Catholics and Dems versus Reps makes illustrates this point within a particular tradition.

But what does this say about the variegated philosophies of what separation between church and state actually means? Are they completely separate spheres, one caring for the soul and the other for the body, as the Lockean perspective suggests? Or, are things more complicated than that? Indeed, the Lockean perspective applies only if one thinks of religion as a completely private thing, but anyone who studies religion realizes this ultimately derives from a particular perspective of Christian Protestant belief, whereas other Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, Taoists, etc., may disagree, saying that their "religion" encompasses an entire way of life, both private and public.

Whether we find evangelical groups supporting McCain (something that is highly ironic, as I have noted so many times--just follow the tags on "McCain" where they match up with "Evangelicals"), or, where I occasionally attend at the Riverside Church, where I have seen both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton as guest speakers, although technically after the service was completed in a "town hall meeting" that happened directly after the benediction.

The interrelationships between church and state have been, are, and probably always will be convoluted, complicated, and labyrithine. But whether or not religious groups violate the wall of separation between church and state when the politick in the pulpit, they do violate the tax code! That's right! Under President Johnson, the tax code was revised to state that for a not-for-profit organization to maintain tax-exempt status, the organization, at least, may not support or oppose a political party or politician. But now many evangelical preachers are blatantly disregarding this to a degree unheard of before--they are actually sending the IRS a copy of their sermons that support John McCain and a copy of the tax code with that line crossed out. They are making a clear call for revision.

See full discussion in NYTimes here.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Catholics: Democrat or Republican?

In the NY Times today there is an article of the internal divisions among Catholics regarding political parties. Which party, Democrat or Republican, best represents the full panoply of teachings of the Catholic Church?

The debate comes down to respect for human life. Conservative Catholics, most prominently Catholic bishops, have focused on the issue of abortion, equating abortion with homicide, saying that "liberals" who say they are for social justice are ironically endorsing homicide.
In Scranton, Pa., every Catholic attending Mass this weekend will hear a
special homily about next month’s election: Bishop Joseph Martino has ordered
every priest in the diocese to read a letter warning that voting for a supporter
of abortion rights amounts to endorsing “homicide.”

This, of course, leaves only Republican candidates eligible for voting according to these conservative bishops. I am largely annoyed by politicking from the pulpit. But all sides actually do it. The other side, however, says this is just one of many teachings in the Catholic Church, and, in fact, when considering the wider teachings overall, the Democratic Party fits the bill. On issues like poverty, social justice, education, health care, immigration, racism, and the war in Iraq, the Catholic Church tends toward the position articulated by the Democratic Party. Does one issue of being pro-choice outweigh all of these others?

Scranton is an interesting place for this to occur. Since it is the childhood home of Joe Biden, himself a Catholic.

Scranton, the focus of disproportionate amount of attention because it was the childhood home of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, has become a flashpoint in the battle playing out nationwide in weekly homilies, pastoral letters and diocesan newspapers. Scranton is also one of several heavily Catholic, working-class cities in swing states — like Pittsburgh, Erie, Pa.,
Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit and St. Louis — where a new network of liberal groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United are trying to promote the church’s social justice teachings.

Catholics make up about a quarter of the electorate nationwide, and about a third in many of the most heavily contested states in the Northeast and Midwest, an increasingly central focus of both presidential campaigns.

The entire article just demonstrates how Catholicism is not just one thing. That there are many different forms it can take based upon local circumstances and emphases taken by different clergy, laity, and organizations. All of these "Catholicisms" focus on life, but they all see it differently. For the entire article, go here.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Election Drinking Games

I have recently heard that there is actually an election / debate drinking game. I can't remember all of the rules, but I do remember one of the rules was that people had to take a drink every time the word "maverick" was said during a debate. I bet these people were sauced last night!

I just googled it, and evidently this was quite widespread, with many different groups developing drinking games for the Vice Presidential Debate in particular.

See this page from ABC News.

Sarah Palin and Religion

I just watched this clip posted by James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix, but I thought it raised some really important issues, and, therefore, should be reposted by any readers I may have that he does not (although he attracts far more readers than I do).

I might take issue with the unexamined overuse of the term "fundamentalist," although I was happy for the note that you can find Pentecostals throughout the spectrum of social and political issues--they are not just "fundamentalists" and the religious right. What clip failed to note, however, is that the Assemblies of God, which as a whole is quite conservative (although you will find more left-leaning folk at least among the laity here and there) is (or at least it used to be) the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world. It is a somewhat decentralized denomination (technically it is called a "cooperative fellowship"), but its decentralization creates a degree of flexibility that, in fact, works to its benefit, allowing for its continued expansion. A flexibility that allows it to use more modern methods and innovative ways to mobilize, such as the youth-oriented Masters Commission mentioned in the video. In sum, this is an effective system of dissemination of theology, ideology, interpretation, etc., including the issues of the "end times" that forms the focus of the clip.

But the "self-fulfilling prophecy" remark particularly caught my attention, looking at how particular, prominently 19th and 20th century, interpretations of Revelation could shape people's perspectives in terms of foreign policy, transforming very complex issues into apocalyptic binary terms of "good" and "evil" that create more misunderstandings of the dynamics of events, transforming the variegated groups in the Middle East into a monolithic "other." If such a perspective dominantly shapes U.S. foreign policy, then these "other" groups can never get a fair hearing...and if someone is not being heard, then they will find a way...feeding back into the self-fulfilling prophecy.

On a lighter note, for those of you who have seen Thomas Trask in the past, has he gained some weight in this clip? And, to be a televangelist these days, do you have to have a double-chin? Perhaps I need more Ben & Jerry's to get that job.

Strategic Misuse of Language?

One of the things I have been teaching my students this semester is to pay very close attention to the details of the text, how the details of a text can question, invert, and toy with broader themes. I especially force them to pay attention to repetitions and what is added and taken out, for example when Achilleus tells his mother Thetis about his interactions with Agamemnon? It appears highly repetitive, but when you look closely, he alters certain words to give different nuances, and he adds a little and omits a lot. We did the same with Persephone's personal account of her abduction by Hades and the narrative point of view of the same event. Both cases are children recounting events to their mothers, and manipulating their speech for different ends. In some ways, they may be playing a part, a role, in order to tell the other person what they want to hear or in order to get what one wants. Both Achilleus and Persephone did this.

What's this have to do with politics? (I have already pointed out to some students to pay close attention to representation, omissions, etc., in the debates, both by the candidates themselves and also by the commentators). How not only the candidates will engage in forms of rhetoric, but how the talking heads will omit, add, or shift to differently nuanced words when paraphrasing or even "quoting" the candidates.

Many people are speaking about Sarah Palin's use of "folksy" language. Let's just call it casual colloquial language for the moment. Some express bafflement. Others anger. Many talking heads think she is deliberately trying to connect with the "Joe Sixpack" voter (one of Palin's phrases last night) by being self-consciously improper in her speech patterns, the assumption being that speaking in a professional manner would be condescending, something that Democrats feared Biden would be, but, alas, was not.

What does this mean, though? What assumptions would be involved in such a strategic misuse of language? Is not such misuse of language itself condescending? Does it not send the message that the Republican Party ASSUMES that the average voter is uninformed or misinformed about the issues and therefore will connect with a candidate who is just as uninformed? Are we the only country in the world that wants non-professional leaders? Indeed, one of the biggest criticisms of Obama is that he is TOO professional, TOO much the professor. Oh, for shame! To have a professional sounding President who has facility with the English language...I mean, we haven't had one in a while.

This gets me to a previous post last night on "nuclear" versus "nucular." The mispronouncment of this word drives me crazy. We all know that George W. Bush mispronounces this word. And I commented last night that Palin consistently mispronounced it. BUT THEN I remembered something. Does everyone remember her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention? I was watching that with someone, and I can distinctly recall that I said out loud, "At least she doesn't say 'nucular.'" I recall it because it was the only positive thing I could think to say. WHAT HAPPENED between then and now? While her use of colloquialisms has been rather consistent, there is something strange about this. This is rhetoric. In the words of Ecclesiastes, this too is vanity. This, too, is a form of condescension.

But is it a condescending rhetoric that works? It does have a certain track record, does it not? Think of the famously misinformed Dan Quayle. Or perhaps think of our current President. This seems like a general Republican strategy in the past 20 years. As far as polls indicate, which I don't necessarily trust, many people find that they connect with her, that they like her, BUT that she does not seem ready. They may not connect as well with Biden, but they feel like he is more skilled at dealing with the current crises of the economy, foreign policy, and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that he understands the complexities of these issues more thoroughly.

We must be careful, therefore, with our language. We must realize how we create worlds with it. How we can build up and destroy with language. And how we can create a net with it and entrap people. We must be on guard against language, what language is revealing, and, much more importantly, what it is hiding. Once you get past the rhetorical positioning created by the strategic use of colloquialism and misuse of language, then we can assess what that language is designed to do (positively) and what it is meant to distract us from (negatively).

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Lesson in Pronunciation

I am watching the Vice Presidential Debate right now.

Just so Sarah Palin (and, by the way, George W. Bush) knows, you do not pronounce the word "nuclear" as "nucular."

First say "nu." Then "cle." And finally "ar." "Nuclear."

I just heard Joe Biden say it correctly. Do it the way he does.

Christ the Magician Coffee Mug I doubt it was used for coffee, but that is how I use cups that look like this. So, some people appear to be interested in this new find off the coast of Alexandria in an area that had fallen into the Mediterranean Sea. Underwater archaeological search has found many interesting finds in the area of Alexandria that has slid into the sea. This find is a fairly well-preserved cup that dates sometime between the second century BCE and the first century CE.
April Deconick has recently posted on it at Forbidden Gospels here. She has further links to others' posts there.
The cup says "diachrestou ogoistais." The "e" in the "diachrestou" is an "eta." One issue is how to divide the words. The first side is pretty easy: "dia chrestou." The second side is not so sure. But I tend to think it is "o goistais." Other word divisions are definitely possible, but I am not sure at the moment what they would be. The reason, now, this little cup is getting so much attention is that it has been interpreted as "by Christ the Magician." This reminds me of Morton Smith's theory argued in his book, Jesus the Magician (guess what his theory was). It would be the first mention of Jesus outside of the New Testament...and given the dating, to the first century!
But the dating is the first problem. The first century is the latest possible date. It could very easily be earlier, which would put quite a damper onthe whole "Christ" theory.
What does the inscription itself mean? Let's deal with the second side first. IF this word is divided as "o goistais," then "magician" is not far off, although it is probably not the best translation. The root word probably comes from goaw: "to enchant." The usual form of the noun form is "goes." Another form of this is "goates" and another is "goetes" (all the "e's" here are eta's). Since eta and iota, especially in diphthong form with the omicron would sound nearly indistinguishable, I have little problem with the spelling issues here. The combination of the sigma and the tau combines these many different forms together (particularly the first and the last).
It does not have to be "enchanter" however. The same verb goaw also means to wail, to weep, to lament. So, the person could be a mourner. The "enchanter" form actually seems to come from "to wail / howl out enchantments" (Liddell and Scott). So, it may mean "mourner" as much as "enchanter."
What about "dia chrestous"? As April has noted, this is probably overblown. While the eta / iota switch is possible, since this is so common in this period, Chrestos / Chrestus was a fairly common name in this period, especially among slaves since it means "useful one." So, perhaps this means, "through Chrestos the useful one, the enchanter / mourner."
Even so, do the two sides necessarily refer to the same entity? Probably, but nonetheless the useful one named Chrestos may not be the same person as the enchanter or mourner. So, perhaps you get to the enchanter through Chrestos, the useful one.
Of course, all of this is highly speculative and tentative. And, in fact, I doubt we can conclude much of anything from this little cup, which appears to have some connection to either "magical" or perhaps mourning rituals (or, perhaps mourning rites that include magical elements).
Although, who knows? Perhaps I would be amazed at what scholars two thousand years from now try to conclude from my fairly strange coffee mugs that I keep around should any of them miraculously survive. They may think my "Jesus Saves" coffee mug, which has a picture of Jesus cutting out coupons, was part of an important religious ritual. And they would be right...for what is more sacred than morning coffee? Other than brunch of course?
UPDATE: First of all, I have no idea why my paragraph breaks are not showing. Secondly, Jim Davila has a nice roundup of recent discussions of this "magic bowl" at paleojudaica, including a reference back to this very post. I must be moving up in the world... And despite my guesses above, I agree with Jim and others that no one really is sure about the meaning of "ogoistais." We are all guessing at this point.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Quote of the Day: Odyssey 15.69-71

Here is a little morsel that we discussed in my class, Literature Humanities:
I would disapprove of another
hospitable man who was excessive in friendship,
as of one excessive in hate. In all things balance is better.
(Odyssey 15.69-71; Trans. Lattimore)

This statement is made by Menelaos to Telemachos. My students know why I think this statement concerning hospitality or guest-friendship or xenia is significant. Xenia, or guest-friendship, was an extraordinarily important custom and ancient Greece and in the ancient Mediterranean and ancient Near East as a whole. It would have been especially important for itinerant bards who would rely very heavily on the institution. It follows certain procedures. Usually, when a stranger comes, the host will give them food and drink, perhaps a bath, perhaps a bed to sleep on, and then and only then will they ask who they are, where they come from, etc. In the end, if they are social equals, or both people of high rank, they will exchange gifts. This quote demonstrates the balance that the entire story of the Odyssey seeks to strike between the Phaeacians (Phaiakians) who are so excessive in friendship that they take it to absurdity. Firstly, at each point they are a bit excessive. But when it comes to the "gift," the king of Phaiakia offers his own daughter to a stranger he does not even know--at this point it is good to note that they are out of order: they have not learned who the stranger (happens to be Odysseus) is and are offering their daughter in marriage as a present. This pushes the limits of guest-friendship to absurdity.

On the other end is usually placed the Cyclops, Polyphemos. He is isolated and untrusting. While Odysseus breaches things a bit by going into the cave and beginning to eat Polyphemos' food uninvited, the Cyclops clearly has no respect for the institution of guest-friendship nor its patron, Zeus. He asks who they are before offering anything (although Odysseus and his men helped themselves). For the "meal" here, though, the Cyclops begins to eat Odysseus' men. His "gift" to Odysseus is that he will eat him last. This parody on guest-friendship demonstrates the opposite of the Phaeacians. But both positions are excessive. The Phaiakians are exceedingly trusting and hospitable, the Cyclops is exceedingly distrustful (he is afraid Odyssues is a pirate, and, well, he is not far off since Odysseus had just sacked a city) and inhospitable. Both groups, however, are somewhat naive, or, at least have a certain innocence about them. They both contrast Odysseus in their lack of cunning and guile. Whereas Odysseus is always cunning, resourceful, the "man of many ways (polutropos)."

The key to all of this, however, is that Odysseus is telling the Phaiakians the story about the Cyclops. He seems to relish in telling them, the most naive people imaginable, just how cunning and deceptive he is, and, yet, in the end, they refuse to believe that he is so deceptive (11.362-9). This puts things in a pickle, however. Since Odysseus is telling a story about how deceptive he is, if the king of the Phaiakians (Alcinous / Alkinoos) is right in saying that he cannot be so deceptive, Odysseus has been telling a deceptive story about being so devious. Or, if Odysseus' story is true, then his deceits throughout are true. Either way, he has been deceitful.

Do we believe anything that Odysseus says?