Friday, January 30, 2009

Augustine on His Own Wickedness

St. Augustine has an interesting reflection on his "wicked" acts in his youth:

I had no motive for my wickedness except for wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the objecto for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake. (Augustine, Confessions 2.4(9); trans. Henry Chadwick).

What was Augustine's great depravity in his soul? What great sin had he committed for the sake of wickedness and shame itself? A fall that he enjoyed not for the end, but for the fall itself? He stole a pear. Can you think of a more wicked and evil act?

(An extra note: sadly, the translator of these lines, Henry Chadwick, died last year. He will be sorely missed.)

Quote of the Day: Cervantes

"They can dress me up as they please," said Sancho. "Whatever clothes they put me in I'll still be Sancho Panza." (Cervantes, Don Quixote II, XLII; trans. John Rutherford)

I like Sancho. He says some ridiculous things, mixes his proverbs up, and, at times, comes out as extraordinarily profound without realizing it. He reminds me of another sidekick character of Samwise or Sam in the Lord of the Rings: loyal, naive, folksy, and occasionally profound.

Sancho, here, says that not matter how he is dressed up, as a peasant or as a governor, he will still be himself. The dress, in fact, reflects such stations or classes in life. One's station is like clothing: it can come and go and change, but the self endures and remains. It is almost Platonic, but clothed in everyday situations.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The House of Rumour

Picture a space at the heart of the world, between the earth,
the sea and teh sky, on the frontiers of all three parts of the universe.
Here there are eyes for whatever goes on, no matter how distant;
and here there are ears whose hollows no voice can fail to penetrate.
This is the kingdom of Rumour, who chose to live on a mountain,
with numberless entrances into her house and a thousand additional
holes, though none of her thresholds are barred with a gate or a door.
Open by night and by day, constructed entirely of sounding
brass, the whole place hums and echoes, repeating whatever
it hears. Not one of the rooms is silent or quiet, but none
is disturbed by shouting. The noise is merely a murmuring babble,
low like the waves of the sea which you hear from afar, or the last faint
rumble of thunder, when storm-black clouds have clashed in the sky.
The hall is filled by a crowd which is constantly coming and going,
a flimsy throng of a thousand rumours, true and fictitious,
wandering far and wide in a turbulent tangle of language.
They chatter in empty ears or pass on stories to others;
the fiction grows and detail is added by each new teller.
This is the haunt of credulity, irresponsible errorr,
groundless joy, unreasoning panic, impulsive sedition
and whispering gossip. Rumour herself spies every occurrence
on earth, at sea, in the sky; and her scrutiny ranges the universe.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 12.38-62)

Gay Penguins Marry in China

Huh? Penguins? In China?

From Weird News at

Who says China isn't a bastion for Civil Liberties? At least their gay penguins can marry.

Two besotted male birds at China's Polarland wildlife park have just waddled down the isle to icy nuptial bliss. And, of course, both partners wore tuxedoes.

But like any marriage, behind the live music, revelry and sumptuous servings of herring, there lurked adversity. I'm not just talking about cold feet. Both grooms are, after all, South Pole natives.

As Britain's Sun reported, zookeepers once tried to isolate the gay lovebirds because they were stealing heterosexual couples' eggs for their own nest.

Finally, officials let them to care for eggs rejected by other mothers. The gays are now considered the zoo's best penguin parents.

As a newlywed myself, I say to them, "L'Chaim!" I call on gay zoo animals of the world to take the plunge. You don't need an opposable thumb to tie this kind of knot!


C'mon gay zoo creatures! Let's plan your wedding.

Here's to the groom and groom! How sweet!

The Swine is Divine

If you are a vegetarian or kosher, this is not for you. This is about bacon, and more bacon, lots and lots of bacon...and some sausage.

I am speaking of a recipe posted on a blog that is getting so many hits on the web, that the NYTimes took notice.

It is the Bacon Explosion. Please take a look, write down the recipe, and then, if I am coming over, try the recipe out. ;)

All I can say is it looks absolutely beautiful, and it is making me hungry. Mmmmmmmm.....baaaaacooooon.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What does Legalizing Marijuana Have to do with Holocaust Survivors?

I have to say, I have never even thought of that question before Rebecca Lesses brought attention to this political ad by the Israeli Green Leaf Party whose primary platform is the legalization of marijuana. They are trying to garner support for this platform through Holocaust survivors:


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dante's World

I just stumbled onto a University of Texas site, Dante's World.

It is very cool. You can enter either the Inferno, Purgatorio, or Paradiso. Every few cantos have options to view famous artistic renderings of those scenes, such as those by Blake. It also gives key images, explains some lines, gives an audio line or two in Italian, and offers study questions.

All in all, a worthwhile site, even for the artistic renderings alone!

Rest in Peace, John Updike

One of America's most gifted writers, one who made the ordinary shine, died today. I just saw an interview he gave to Charlie Rose not too long ago.

Here is NYTime's Obituary.

January 28, 2009
John Updike, a Lyrical Writer of the Ordinary, Is Dead at 76

John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to place him in the first rank of among American men of letters, died on Tuesday. He was 76 and lived in Beverly Farms, Mass.


Of Mr. Updike’s 61 books, perhaps none captured the imagination of the book-reading public as those about ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings. His best-known protagonist, Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, first appears as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless marriage and a sales job he hates. Through the four novels whose titles bear his nickname — “Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux,” “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest” — the author traces the sad life of this undistinguished middle-American against the background of the last half-century’s major events.

“My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

From his earliest short stories, set in the fictional town of Olinger, Pa., which he once described as “a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid,” Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. The only wealth he bestowed on his subjects lay in the richness of his descriptive language, the detailed fineness of which won him comparisons with painters like Vermeer and Andrew Wyeth.

This detail was often so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction — those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that he wasted beautiful language on nothing. The latter position was perhaps most acutely defined by James Wood in an essay, “John Updike’s Complacent God,” in his collection “The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief” (Random House, 1999).

Mr. Wood attributed the author’s “lyric capacities” to his “particular loyalty to the Protestant theologian Karl Barth.” He argued that for Mr. Updike, because he accepts Barth’s belief that God confers grace through the gift of creation, description alone of that creation is sufficient to affirm his faith.

He is also quite famous for his "Witches of Eastwick" and his numerous collections of essays.

He also was a believer in 3 pages a day: 3 pages a day means a book a year means several books in a lifetime. I have tried that...and it is amazing how fast your writing builds. It is also good just to keep in the practice.

Obama and the "Muslim World"

Most people probably realize by now that President Obama gave his first televised interview as President to a major Arabic television network, Al Arabiya.

Here is an article from NYTimes:

January 28, 2009
Obama Signals New Tone in Relations With Islamic World

PARIS — In an interview with one of the Middle East’s major broadcasters, President Barack Obama struck a conciliatory tone toward the Islamic world, saying he wanted to persuade Muslims that “the Americans are not your enemy.” He also said “the moment is ripe” for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The interview with Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language news channel based in Dubai, signaled a shift — in style and manner at least — from the Bush administration, offering what he depicted as a new readiness to listen rather than dictate.

It was Mr. Obama’s first televised interview from the White House and the first with any foreign news outlet.

In a transcript published on Al Arabiya’s English language Web site, Mr. Obama said it is his job “to communicate to the Muslim world that the Americans are not your enemy.”

He added that “we sometimes make mistakes,” but said that America was not born as a colonial power and that he hoped for a restoration of “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.”

Mr. Obama spoke as his special Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, arrived in Egypt to begin an eight-day tour that will include stops in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain. In Egypt, Mr. Mitchell planned to meet President Hosni Mubarak.

In discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Obama told Al Arabiya that “the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away.” He said that he told Mr. Mitchell to “start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating.”

“Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. They’re going to have to make some decisions,” Mr. Obama said. “But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that, instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.”

Several hours after he spoke on Monday night, an explosion on the Israel-Gaza border killed an Israeli soldier and threatened new violence. The war in Gaza, which lasted three weeks, had stopped 10 days ago when both sides declared unilateral cease fires.

Mr. Obama said Israel “will not stop being a strong ally of the United States and I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.”

He also said that although he would not put a time frame on it, he believed it was “possible for us to see a Palestinian state.” He described the state as one “that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life.”

But he also said the Israel-Palestine conflict should not be seen in isolation. “I do think it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Mr. Obama said.

He spoke at length about America’s future relationship with the Muslim world, saying his “job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives.”

He drew a distinction between “extremist organizations” committed to violence and “people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop.”

“We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down,” he said. “But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.”

He also said it was “important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress.”

“As I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us,” he said.

He was not asked whether he would continue the policy of former President George Bush in refusing to exclude military action in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

It is a welcome shift in policy, but there is a nagging problem--his assumption that the "Muslim world" and the "American people" are different things. Where or what or who exactly is the "Muslim world"? Is it just the various groups of Muslims around the world? That would include a sizeable number of Americans, in fact. Or does he exclude Muslims living in Europe and America in this articulation? He is right that negotiations in Israel and Palestine is a pressing issue. But, then again, we should recall that a good portion and increasing percentage of its population is Muslim, and, soon, may be the majority. Moreover, there have traditionally been occasional pockets of large numbers of Christians throughout the Middle East, such as Syrian and Chaldean Christians. So, the facts on the ground complicate setting the American people and the Muslim world in opposition, even as a hand will be extended from one to the other. Perhaps "Muslim world" means the several countries in which Muslims constitute the majority, like Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc. This may be the assumption, but there is an ideological distancing between Americans and Muslim that remains problematic.

More Morton Smith and Secret Mark

I recently discussed or really just brought attention to the Smith-Scholem correspondence discussed in the Nation, in which Guy Stroumsa thinks there is proof that Morton Smith could not have forged Secret Mark.

Peter Jeffrey, I believe from the department of music at Princeton (correct me if I'm wrong), wrote a book on Secret Mark called The Secret Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery. He obviously thinks Smith did forge it. He has posted a whole slew of reactions to his book here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Vatican Issues Statement on Holocaust-Denying Bishop

I recently commented on the reinstatement of a Holocaust- (and 9/11-) denying bishop by the Vatican.

Now the Vatican has issued a statement that says that the reinstatement does not mean that it agrees with the bishop's views.

For text and commentary, see Rebecca Lesses at Mystical Politics.

University Economics

A depressing article from the NYTimes:

January 27, 2009

Data Show College Endowments Loss is Worst Drop Since ’70s

The value of university endowments fell about 23 percent on average in the five months ended Nov. 30, according to two newly released reports.

The steep declines are forcing colleges and universities across the country to contemplate wage freezes, layoffs and a halt to construction projects.

The drop found by the reports is the biggest in the value of college and university endowments since the mid-1970s, said John S. Griswold Jr., executive director of the Commonfund Institute, which manages money for educational institutions and other nonprofits.

“It’s been very sudden in some ways,” Mr. Griswold said. “There were people predicting the decline a year ago or more, but I don’t think anyone could claim to see the extent of this. These are unprecedented numbers.”

The reports, prepared by the Commonfund Institute and the National Association of College and University Business Officers, drew on data from 796 institutions for the 2008 fiscal year, which ended June 30, and on additional statistics gleaned from a follow-up survey with 435 for the period from July 1 to Nov. 30.

They found that while endowments gained in value by about 0.5 percent in the old fiscal year, they lost nearly a quarter of their worth in the subsequent five months, a period in which the financial markets sank.

“It’s a rolling contagion that hit us,” Mr. Griswold said.

The pain was spread among institutions large and small, private and public. When endowments were categorized by size, even the least affected — those worth more than $1 billion — were found to have lost an average of 20 percent. Those of $500 million to $1 billion saw the biggest decline, about 25 percent. Public institutions lost an average of 24 percent, private institutions 22 percent.

“Both public and private institutions are going to be very challenged, just in different directions,” said P. Brett Hammond, chief investment strategist of the financial services company TIAA-CREF, which helped the business officers association with its study. “States are in trouble themselves, and the downturn in state support comes along with declines in investments. In the private sector, at the same time endowments have declined students need more help than ever.”

Cornell is facing a 10 percent budget shortfall for the current fiscal year because of a 27 percent decline in its endowment over the last six months, a drop in state financing and alumni giving, and students’ need for more financial aid, according to a report issued this week by the university’s president, David J. Skorton. To close the gap, the university plans to freeze campus construction and draw on $150 million in reserve cash and $35 million more from the endowment than was planned.

Syracuse University has already announced layoffs, and Dartmouth, whose endowment lost 18 percent of its value from July 1 to Dec. 31, has said they are inevitable.

“We continue to fund approximately 35 percent of the college-only operating budget through endowment distributions, and we do not have additional revenue sources that can replace this level of support,” Barry P. Scherr, Dartmouth’s provost, and Adam Keller, executive vice president, said in statement issued last week.

“We anticipate that some of our endowment investments will continue to show losses,” they added, “and that many of our generous donors will be unable to give at the same levels for some time to come.”

Charles L. Schearer, president of the private Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., said its endowment, which finances about a quarter of the operating budget, had declined in value by 28 percent since June 2007. As a result, Transylvania has cut back on staff travel, declined to fill job vacancies, frozen overtime and halted all construction projects. The university is planning a major fund-raising push in the next year to help make up for the endowment losses.

“We’re going to have to capture some of that money back,” Dr. Schearer said in an interview. “We’re not looking at this as if there will be a rapid recovery. We’re anticipating a slow and gradual recovery.”

Sixty percent of the institutions responding to the follow-up survey said they did not expect to change the amount they draw from their endowments in the current fiscal year.

Mr. Griswold thinks that wise.

“People aren’t making snap decisions, decisions that seem based on a panic reaction,” he said. “That’s terrific. They should keep a steady hand on the helm.”

With hiring freezes and even layoffs, it is not the best time to be on the job market in academia. In my field, many job openings have disappeared in these freezes, even in the nation's top institutions with the highest endowments.

Happy Birthday Edgar Allen Poe!

Sententiae et Clamores draws attention that last week was Poe's 200th birthday. I am sorry I missed it. He posts a nice clip that I will repeat here of Christopher Walken reading the Raven:

Although I am a big fan of this version by the Simpsons, as read by James Earl Jones:

Unfortunately, the picture and sound aren't seeming to sync up on the Simpsons version.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Quote of the Day: Amy-Jill Levine on Public Prayer

I have been reading Amy-Jill Levine's, The Misunderstood Jew, and toward the end where she gives some ideas of Jewish-Christian dialogue, she talks about public prayer. I thought it would be appropriate given the recent discussions of prayer, especially Rick Warren's prayer, at Obama's inauguration:

A similar situation prevails with public prayer. Some Christian ministers resort to a watered-down, generic invocation that satisfies few. Some insist on praying in the "name of Jesus," which prevents Jews and other non-Christians from saying "Amen." Atheists are ignored in any case. More cynical biblical readers, finding dissatisfactory public prayer from high-school students gathered around flagpoles to senators representing the American people in Washington, might cite the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus states: "Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners [and around flagpoles, and at legislative assembles, and on television broadcasts...], so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they ahve received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt. 6:5-6). But since public religiosity is not going to go away, then the person offering the prayer needs to find a way of invoking the deity in a way that both affirms distinct confessions and recognizes the existence of alternative truth claims. Ending a prayer "in the name of Jesus" keeps the prayer parochial. Ending it "as I pray in the name of Jesus" is a bit of an improvement. "As I pray in the name of Jesus, and we all pray to the God who has many names and many children" is even better. The fundamentalist Christian should ahve little objection, since the God of the Bible does have many names: El Shaddai, El Elyon, YHWH, Elohim. In turn, Jews may choose to pray in Hebrew, but then they should provide a translation so the people in attendance know to what, exatly they are saying "Amen." Atheists, of course, are still left out, but at least the theists in the group are all included. (Amy-Jill Levin, Misunderstood Jew, 222-3)

Still...the "cynical" view has a point...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Judaism and the Vatican

It seems the Vatican is making a lot of news waves lately. The Pope's baffling and absurd statements about homosexuality about a month ago, and then the Pope establishing his own channel on YouTube to control his image yesterday.

Then there are two recent stories relating to Judaism and the Vatican. One relating to antiquity and medieval issues and the other much more modern; the first regarding the many Hebrew manuscripts the Vatican houses and preserves, and the other, the Holocaust or the Shoah.

Let's take the MSS first:

Vatican catalogs its Hebrew manuscripts
January 21, 2009

ROME (JTA) -- With the help of Israeli scholars, the Vatican has published a catalog of the Hebrew manuscripts kept in its library.

Publication of the work, a Vatican communique said, "represents a significant example of co-operation between the cultural institutions of the Holy See and of Israel."

The book, edited by the technical staff of the National Library of Israel, will be formally presented at an event Jan. 30 that will feature the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See as well as the Vatican librarian and former director of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts of the Jewish National and University Library.

The book includes all Vatican manuscripts in Hebrew script -- a total of approximately 800 items distributed over 11 collections.

Yet in the midst of this cooperation, there is more sinister activities going on relating to the reinstatement of a Holocaust-denying bishop:

January 25, 2009
Pope Reinstates Four Bishops, Including Holocaust Denier
VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI, acceding to the far-right of the Roman Catholic Church, revoked the excommunications of four schismatic bishops on Saturday, including one whose comments denying the Holocaust have provoked outrage.

The decision provided fresh fuel for critics who charge that Benedict’s four-year-old papacy has proven increasingly hostile to moderates and to the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that sought to create a more modern and open church.

Most contentious was the inclusion of Richard Williamson, a British-born cleric who in an interview last week said he did not believe that Jews died in the Nazi gas chambers. He has also given interviews saying that the United States government staged the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a pretext to invade Afghanistan.

The four reinstated men are members of the Society of St. Pius X, which was founded by a French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, in 1970 as a protest against the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Archbishop Lefebvre made the four bishops in unsanctioned consecrations in Switzerland in 1988, prompting the immediate excommunication of all five by Pope John Paul II.

There is something unsettling here. All of these bishops want to roll back Vatican II. One is a Holocaust and, now, a 9/11 denier. And their initial consecrations were unsanctioned anyway. So, to (re)instate bishops who had questionable consecrations who were for a Latin mass that calls for the conversion of the Jews with a Holocaust denier seems suggests some larger motive from Benedict XVI. He has been rolling back Vatican II since he got there, especially in the infamous statement the Vatican made a year or so ago on "Questions & Answers on Vatican II," in which it explained Vatican II rulings in the opposite manner that the plain reading of those rulings state. With these questionable bishops, he has found some like-minded individuals...and that is troubling that they are like-minded...especially joining a Holocaust denier with an ex-Hitler Jugend.

Here is the end of the article:

In welcoming the cleric back into the church, Benedict is “making a mockery of John Paul II, who called anti-Semitism ‘a sin against God and man,’ ” Rabbi Rosen added.In revoking the excommunications, the Vatican said it was responding to a letter sent in December by the director of the Society of Pius X, in which the bishops said they were “firmly determined to remain Catholic and to put all our efforts to the service of the church.”

The letter appeared to stop short of saying that the society would embrace, or even accept, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

“This is certainly a major concession to the traditionalists, part of a long effort by Rome to heal the only formal schism after Vatican II,” said John L. Allen Jr., a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.

“Politically, this certainly emboldens the conservative reading of the council and emphasizes what Benedict XVI has repeatedly called the ‘continuity’ of Vatican II with earlier periods of church history,” he added.

Pope John Paul II had some problems--we can recognize that. But he seemed to recognize the need to reach out to many different peoples, including non-Catholics and people of other religions. Benedict XVI, by seeking "reconciliation" with this schismatic group or by this "inclusionary" measure, will be alienating many Catholics, as he has already alienated many Christians in his statement on the relative positions of different Christian groups, and alienating Jews...while, at the same time, the Vatican controls 800 Hebrew manuscripts, and not just biblical, but Rabbinic as well: cooperation conjoined with alienation.

Friday, January 23, 2009


According to Newsweek, the Pope is following in Barack Obama's footsteps and is launching his own channel on YouTube.

B16 is entering the digital world...a world without boundaries. It has actually proven effective for a great deal of people: politicians and religious leaders. Evangelicals love YouTube--decentralized information networks as a means to disseminate their religious views, a tool of proselytization. But, ironically, it is also a tool of control:

The Vatican said it was launching the channel to broaden Benedict's audience while also giving the Holy See better control over the papal image online.

Why do they need to control his image? You might think they need to do spin control on the Papal or Vatican positions and how they are taken by the rest of the world: on birth control, homosexuality, etc. But they mean this quite literally: the actual visual image of the pope:

"It's undeniable that certain images are already circulating," Celli said. While there is little the Vatican can do legally to shut down blasphemous or pornographic sites that use the papal or other Church images, he said it can at least control the content of what it puts up on its own channel.

Pornographic sites with pictures of Benedict XVI? I'm sorry...I just don't see how an 81-year-old pope would be that...exciting.

The internet is, indeed, a mixed bag of treats, sort of like the everything jelly beans from Harry Potter. The Pope, in fact, recognizes this, and not just in terms of image control:

The site,, was launched the same day the pontiff praised as a "gift to humanity" the benefits of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace in forging friendships and understanding.

But Benedict also warned that virtual socializing had its risks, saying "obsessive" online networking could isolate people from real social interaction and broaden the digital divide by further marginalizing people.

You can see the Pope at

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Comic of the Day: Ph.D. Madlibs!

Yay! Madlibs for Ph.D.s!

Erasing Bush

From Newsweek:

Erasing Bush
With a call for 'relentless' diplomacy, Hillary further obliterates W's legacy.

Michael Hirsh
Newsweek Web Exclusive

After Inauguration Day, departed presidents usually become footnotes pretty quickly. What we are witnessing now is far more dramatic. It's closer to a liquidation, or a cauterization. George W. Bush is being turned into an unperson, like a character out of Orwell. It's been only two days, and there is scarcely a trace of not only his personal presence, but of his policies. Or at least that is the impression Barack Obama would like to convey.

The process of erasing the last eight years from American history began with President Obama's inaugural address on Tuesday. Between condemning torture and expressing a willingness to talk with enemies, the new president began eliminating Bush even as the former president sat listening behind him. Then, on his first work day, Obama signed executive orders reversing the Bush administration's emphasis on secrecy and reliance on revolving-door lobbyists, to be followed by three more orders: closing Guantanamo Bay (within a year), forbidding torture and suspending military tribunals for foreign terror suspects. Meanwhile Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner (whose nomination was finally approved by the Senate Finance Committee) said brand-new strictures would also be applied to financial bailouts.

Then, on Wednesday, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the appointment of two permanent envoys to major trouble spots—George Mitchell to the Mideast and Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was perhaps the surest sign of all that Obama intends a 180-degree reversal from the ultimatum-heavy approach of the Bush administration, which saw diplomacy mainly as an exercise in stating terms for surrender, whether to Iran, Hamas or North Korea (except over the last couple of years). "Anything short of relentless diplomatic efforts will fail," Clinton said, making it clear that Holbrooke and Mitchell would each be spending much of the next four years away from home. Both men, Holbrooke and Mitchell, gained fame by ending what seemed to be intractable conflicts, Bosnia (Holbrooke) and Northern Ireland (Mitchell). "There is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended," Mitchell said.

Obama himself, in his remarks, signaled strongly that his approach to the Mideast would immediately move from unswerving and unquestioning support of Israel, as seen in the last eight years, to more of a broker's role. While making the requisite commitment to Israel's security—and its right to respond to rocket fire from Gaza—he also said it was unacceptable to permit "a future without hope for the Palestinians." He called for an immediate opening of the Gaza border, which must have come to a surprise to those Israelis lulled to sleep by Bush's permanent endorsement of Israel's every action over the last eight years.

So grim is the reality, of course, especially in the Mideast and Afghanistan, that no amount of shuttling by envoys may make much of a difference in the end. Indeed, it may not be long before Obama finds himself compared to Bush, at least when it comes to results. Something similar happened to W, who upon taking office in 2001 tried to erase Bill Clinton's policies from the map only to gradually adopt his approach in his second term. But it's only been three days, and as far as the Obama administration is concerned, its predecessor no longer exists in policy or even memory.

Quotes of the Day: Bill & Ted (and Jim)

Jim Davila has posted on a new novel with an Aramaic inscription on a bracelet as its scarlet thread. The inscription, when finally translated, says, "Good works do. Kind and loving be. Joy in pleasure seek. ... These are the threads of life full filled." But Jim Davila directs our attention to two much better, conjoined mottos spoken by those great philosopher poets, Bill & Ted:

Be excellent to each other.


Party on, dudes!


Liam's Obama Action Figures

My friend Liam at Sententiae et Clamores has some good pictures of Obama action figures. One action figure is more of a karate-style figure with two swords. The other is a Luke Skywalker type, fighting it out with Vader. As he says, "Why not?"


At SBL, some noted that they would never recognize me by my picture on my blog--at the time I had a picture looking practically up my nose into the oculus in Rome's Pantheon.

In response, I put up a picture that had absolutely nothing to do with my visage.

But now, I have given in and put up a picture of me from November, partly because I have had a shave and a haircut since then and so no longer completely look the same.

So, look right on the sidebar and see me with a great look of confidence.

Efficacious Speech

One of the things I have emphasized as one of the major common threads in ancient literature is the power of speech. Words are strange things, and their power is highly ambivalent. They can build up or tear down. They can deceive or enlighten. They can find great resource in ambiguity and double-speak. People can manipulate speech and manipulate by speech for a multitude of ends, whether positive or negative (or even determine what is positive or negative).

One type of speech among these is the speech-act. The speech-act emphasizes that speech DOES something. In particular, speech can be tranformative. Often, or in fact usually, this speech-act is highly formulaic, the formulae based upon particular social developments or contexts. The transformative speech-act based upon formulae is recognized in so-called "magic." In this case, for the speech--the spell--to have effect, to have efficacy, it must be said just right. Again, its power is ambivalent--such a speech-act can bless or curse.

We see similar transformative speech-acts based upon traditional formulae all around us. The most familiar today would be the marriage vows. Saying "I do" or "I will" changes the status of those involve by the very words. Moreover, marriage is a ceremony, a ritual, that occurs in religious and civil realms simultaneously (or it can). Perhaps the most visible civil speech-act, however, happened the day before yesterday...and, uh, yesterday as well: the Presidential oath of office. By saying an oath in a particular way in a particular setting, a private citizen becomes the President. Thus, the importance of the now-famous mis-speak when Justice Roberts messed up the oath when administering it to Obama. He only messed up by misplacing a single word--one word was out of order, "faithfully." When repeated, the Chief Justice put "faithfully" in the right place, but left out "execute." And despite the fact that most Constitutional Lawyers say that Obama became President on Jan. 20, at noon no matter what, the power of the speech-act was so important that, just because Obama, by copying Roberts, said it slightly wrong, yesterday the oath was readministered, Obama took it again, to make sure they got the wording just right. Perhaps this was just an overabundance of caution, but it still demonstrates the power of transformative speech-acts, how the oath of office said in the right way in the right context magically transforms its speaker into the holder of that office.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Quote of the Day: Aeneid 8.22-32

And so it went through all of Latium;
and when the Trojan hero has seen this,
he wavers on a giant tide of troubles;
his racing mind is split; it shifts here, there,
and rushes on to many different plans,
turning to everything; even as when
the quivering light of water in bronze basins
reflected from the sun or from the moon's
glittering image glides across all things
and now darts skyward, strikes the roof's high ceiling.
(Virgil, Aeneid 8.22-32; trans. Mandelbaum)

This is one of my favorite similes in the Aeneid.

International Response to Inauguration

The NYTimes reports largely positive responses from around the world, as people throughout the globe hope that this change in power will mean a major shift in U.S.-Foreign Relations, particularly toward a more diplomatic (rather than shoot 'em down) approach.

Other responses have been a bit more subtle, such as China censoring the parts of Obama's speech in which he referred to Fascism and Communism as ideologies defeated not just by missiles and tanks, but by enduring convictions. They did not just object to being considered a defeated ideology, but lumping Communism with the much-reviled Fascism.

At the same time, there is skepticism about the Obama policy toward the middle east--basically with the historical situation that no matter who is in office the U.S. policy never really changes much--these were sentiments expressed in Lebanon and Egypt. Even in such skepticism, however, hope mixes with doubt. Europeans seem more optimistic, excepting Putin, who sees positive signs but warns against high expectations.

These responses from Germany and France respectively seemed interesting:

Matthias Weyland, 29, who works for an environmental organization said he felt a bit overwhelmed after watching President Obama’s address. “We Germans are not used to things being quite so emotional,” said Mr. Weyland. “Generally, I don’t have much hope for party politics, but this time I’ll wait and see,” said Mr. Weyland, citing Mr. Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo Bay as one of the most positive signs for the new president. “I found it very good in the speech that he included so many groups, not just different nations, poor nations, but within society, different religions, Muslims for instance.”

Hundreds of French and American guests crowded the main hall of the Hotel de Ville, as city hall is known, in the center of Paris, to watch the inauguration. The audience thundered or booed depending on who appeared on the giant screen at the end of the room. Al and Tipper Gore drew cheers, while Dan Quayle and Walter Mondale drew no sign of recognition. Jimmy Carter and later Bill Clinton were loudly cheered. Rick Warren was also booed.

Ambassador to France Craig Stapleton, speaking in French, said he saluted Mr. Obama’s victory because it represented that “a new generation is at the helm of the country and its new leader Barack Obama symbolizes that, well, that everything is possible in the United States.”

One of the things that struck the French was the overall religiosity of the inauguration. France is highly secular, and religion is seldom cited in the public sphere. Obama’s inclusion of “non-believers” in his address struck some as being notable, new, and important.

This last issue is something that was brought up in one of my postings yesterday--both the religious element of the inauguration ceremony (such as the invocation of God by nearly everyone, the two prayers, the use of a Bible to swear in, and, in fact, the invocation of God as part of the Oath of Office--the "so help me God"--and Obama's inclusion of a wider net of religious groups, including non-believers.

For these and more responses from around the world, including Kenya, see here.

Most of the international newspapers I read have already moved on, in a way. No longer responding to the inauguration itself, except with some pictures and transcripts, they have moved on to discussing Obama's first day--his phone calls to world leaders, particularly in the middle east, and his positions on Gaza and Guantanamo. That's at least what's going on in the London Times and Le Monde.

Obama's (First?) Inaugural Address

NYTimes has a transcription of Obama's inaugural address along with crowd responses (chants, applause). I did not envy Elizabeth Alexander who had to speak after Obama--he's a difficult act to follow. Here was my favorite part:

At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

This was the end of the speech, and a strong ending at that. I thought this was artfully done, how he took the images from Washington describing natural conditions that matched social ones, and then transformed these conditions of the Revolutionary War into a metaphor for our current circumstances, the "winter of our hardship" and "icy currents," alongside persistent values of "hope" and "virtue," hope, of course, being a big part of Obama's campaign: "Hope We Can Believe In." But don't let my commentary ruin the speech for you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rick Warren's Prayer of Invocation

Since I blogged about the controversy that had surrounded the choice of Rick Warren giving the inaugural invocation, I guess I should comment on the actual prayer. First, the controversy surrounded having someone who gave some rather ridiculous comparisons to gay marriage (like comparing it to pedophilia). Then the issue was whether or not he would mention Jesus or not. Would he represent his particular brand of religiosity, or in an event for all Americans represent all Americans. On that issue, I came down on the side that the most "American" thing to do is just be yourself and not try to water things down to vague generalities. If it were a Hindu giving the invocation, I would expect an invocation of Vishnu, Siva, or whatever god or goddess to which that particular person was devoted. If an imam, I would expect something on Allah. And so on... One objection was what would happen if Warren completed the prayer by "in Jesus' name we pray," in which the problem is not on Jesus--everyone should have a right to their own religion--but on the "we," which brought others who are not Christians under a Christian umbrella, in effect denying them of their own religions.

So what did he do? How does his prayer stack up? John Hobbins has posted the entire transcript, by the way, here.

He began the prayer with allusions to multiple religious traditions. He referred to "Almighty God," "God," and "Father." These are quite vague and include anyone who believes in some sort of supreme being--excluding atheists of course. He also referred to the opening lines of the Shema ("Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one"). You can also render that line, as "Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone" or as "Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one." I prefer the middle one. The Shema is the standard Jewish prayer, supposed to be said daily. Then he spoke of the "Compassionate and Merciful One." These words shout the Quran at you! God is always the Compassionate One or the Merciful One in the Quran. It runs all throughout. So, he's got Muslims covered. How Jews and Muslims feel about their "inclusion" or perhaps "appropriation" in this way might be something to discuss.

There were multiple other literary and cultural allusions as well. Mentioning MLK at the same time as the "great cloud of witnesses" brought together the Civil Rights Movement and the language of Hebrews 12:1. How could you not talk about Civil Rights and MLK today or at least allude to it?

He made an interesting note on diversity and religious diversity within the larger whole of our society: that we are not united by race, religion, or blood, but by a dedication to freedom and justice. In my commentary (although perhaps not what Warren meant), we all have our particularities which we do not want to nor should efface, but are united in a common goal of agreed upon ideals, such as freedom and justice. In this context, though, he also referred to the Great Judgment (see Revelation).

But the burning question is did he mention Jesus? OH YES HE DID. And in many ways:

I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Issa, Jésus, Jesus, who taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

So, he refers to Jesus in four languages: Hebrew/Aramaic, Arabic, Spanish, and English. The second, Issa, is how "Jesus" is written the Quran. He did not say, "In Jesus' name we pray," as some feared, but kept to his own particular tradition, his right to his own religion, and even made clear that it was his particular view, as the one who changed his life. It was something HE asked in the name of Jesus. He avoided effacing difference while staying true to himself in that way, but may have let it slip in with the Lord's Prayer, since it is how Jesus taught "us" how to pray. But the Lord's Prayer itself is not said in "Jesus' name" but to "our Father." It is a good Jewish prayer said by a Jewish guy. At the same time, a foundational prayer for Christianity.

Who was "included" in this invocation? Ultimately, the allusions stayed within Jewish, Christian, and Islamic references. No polytheists here (unless Christianity counts). And no atheists--but it is a prayer!

Polytheists and atheists were brought into the event by Obama's own speech, when he said, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers."

In the end, it seemed to be a highly forgettable prayer. It was not any more or less Christian or particularistic than the prayer of benediction, although that one might be memorable for its rhyming colors. It was not that exciting or interesting. And, I think, would have been entirely forgotten within a few hours by most of us if we hadn't made a big deal about it. Now it will be remembered for, eh, another few hours.

Quote of the Day: Hannah Arendt

I thought this might be appropriate for inauguration day:

Though this equality is only implicit in teh earthly city it permits us to understand interdependence, which essentially defines social life in the worldly community. This interdependence shows in the mutual give and take in which people live together. The attitude of individuals toward each other is characterized here by belief (credere), as distinguished from all real or potential knowledge. We comprehend all history, that is, all human and temporal acts, by believing--which means by trusting, but never by understanding (intelligere). This belief in the other is the belief that he will prove himself in our common future. Every earthly city depends upon this proof. Yet this belief that arises from our mutual interdependence precedes any possible proof. The continued existence of humankind does not rest on the proof. Rather, it rests on necessary belief, without which social life would become impossible. (Hannah Arendt, Love and St. Augustine, 101; ed. Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark)

Monday, January 19, 2009

The People's Mario

I grew up playing Super Mario Bros., and so found this particular rendition very intriguing. Mario with Communist edge:

Based upon the moustache, I'm guessing Mario is Stalin. Perhaps they could do a Lenin Luigi.


It has been snowing in Manhattan for the past couple of days. Today had the nicest looking fall with fat snowflakes.

Liam at Sententiae et Clamores has some nice pictures.

And, for fun, you can make your own snowflakes and then rotate them here.

Last Professors (Again)

Back in August, I discussed the book, The Last Professors, by Frank Donoghue. Now Stanley Fish discusses it in the NYTimes. He ultimately shares Donoghue's basic pessimistic outlook for the humanities and the future of the liberal arts and the university as a whole. Donoghue, by the way, is a former student of Fish's.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Rest in Peace, Andrew Wyeth

"Christina's World"


I was saddened to hear of the death of Andrew Wyeth today.
You can recognize his work most easily by his use of egg tempera in largely landscape paintings that show a great calmness in skill.

By Jon Hurdle

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Renowned American artist Andrew Wyeth, famous for landscapes of his native Pennsylvania and Maine, died on Friday, according to a spokeswoman for the Brandywine River Museum near his home.

Wyeth, who was 91, died in his sleep early in the morning, surrounded by his family and friends, after a brief illness, the museum said in a statement.

He is best known for "Christina's World" (1948), in which a disabled woman appears to be striving to cross a largely empty landscape. It was painted, like many of his other works, in egg tempera, a technique that he said forced him to slow down the execution of a painting.

Wyeth, one of the best-known American painters, drew international recognition during his long career. He was the first American artist since John Singer Sargent to be inducted into the French Academy of Fine Arts, and the first living American artist to have an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the statement said.

In the United States, he was the first artist to win the Presidential Freedom Award, presented by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. A 2006 exhibition of his works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art drew 177,000 visitors, the highest-ever attendance at the museum for a living artist.

"The world has lost one of the greatest artists of all time," said George Weymouth, chairman of the Brandywine museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, which houses many of the Wyeth family's paintings.

Wyeth was part of a large creative family that included his father, the painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth, and his son Jamie Wyeth. An exhibition containing the works of the three generations of painters went on tour internationally in 1987.

He began training in his father's studio at the age of 15, and drew inspiration from the landscape around Chadds Ford, a suburb of Philadelphia, where he was born in 1917.

David Brigham, museum director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, said Wyeth's work connected with people because it expressed post-Second World War optimism combined with anxiety and disconnection in the middle years of the 20th century.

In "Young America" (1950), Wyeth depicted a boy riding a bicycle with red, white and blue streamers on the handlebars across a barren landscape, evoking American dynamism amid an uncertain world, Brigham said.

"It's a great loss," Brigham said. "Wyeth was one of the greatest painters of the 20th century."

The highest price fetched for a Wyeth painting at auction was for the 1973 work "Ericksons," which sold for $10.03 million at Christie's in 2007, Brigham said.

The Academy, where Wyeth was a regular exhibitor from 1938 to 1965, gave Wyeth the rare honor of two Gold Medals, in 1966 and 1998.

Wyeth is survived by his wife Betsy James, his two sons Jamie and Nicholas, and a granddaughter.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

In addition to, or even as a part of, his landscapes, his paintings evince an underlying sensuality, such as in "Christina's World," that emerges more clearly in some places than others, as in "Daydream." He takes the simple and makes it beautiful, makes the ordinary shine in paradoxically subdued hues.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Gorgias" and "Crime and Punishment"

SOCRATES: On the other hand, Polus, my opinion is that the wicked man and the doer of wicked acts is miserable in any case, but more miserable if he does not pay the penalty and suffer punishment for his crimes, and less miserable if he does pay the penalty and suffer punishment in this world and the next. (Plato, Gorgias 472; trans. Walter Hamilton)

How did Plato know the premise to Dostoesvky's Crime and Punishment?

Quote of the Day: Socrates (or Plato)

During my insomnia last night, I picked up, as I usually do when I cannot sleep, some ancient philosophy--it works rather well as an antidote. Last night I picked up Plato's Gorgias, mainly because it is short. Socrates interrogates Gorgias and his colleague Polus about who they are and the nature of what they do--they are orators. In the process he begins to discuss the nature of justice (because he sees oratory as a "knack" or irrational component that opposes justice--justice being a great good because it heals the soul, since the soul is responsible for behavior.

Its literary or even philosophical quality is not on par with Plato's other works in my humble opinion. The dialogue is often awkward and the arguments occasionally seem forced.

But it has some redeeming qualities. One is an objection I have heard from my students concerning Socrates is that Socrates always gets to question in the elenchus process and never submits to similar questioning. But in Gorgias, he does, albeit briefly, but his interlocutors prove deficient in their questioning abilities. Moreover, in the process, Socrates articulates the following statement that I think is worthy of continued reflection (and which Gorgias does persist in working out its implications. Socrates says:

I would rather suffer wrong than do wrong. (Gorgias 469; trans. Walter Hamilton)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Bible in Legos

I just stumbled on a site that illustrates the Bible using "bricks" or really legos.
My favorite part, though, is the content warning!

The Bible contains material some may consider morally objectionable and/or inappropriate for children. These labels identify stories containing:

N = nudity S = sexual content V = violence C = cursing

There are many many illustrations for each story. It is quite detailed. I thought the Tower of Babel looked pretty cool.

I do wonder about "nudity" with legos, though! Perhaps check out Gen. 6:1-6 for that one.

Quote of the Day: A Useful Latin Phrase (or Two)

I got this from a fun site of useful Latin phrases:

Utinam logica falsa tuam philosophiam totam suffodiant!
May faulty logic undermine your entire philosophy!

And I couldn't resist this one:

Estne volumen in toga, an solum tibi libet me videre?
Is that a scroll in your toga, or are you just happy to see me?

Have a happy Latin day!

Online Bible Site

I just stumbled on this site for the Bible and leading translations.

The site appears quite useful. You can read a text in parallel translations, although I didn't see the rather standard RSV or NRSV.

You can read at least Hebrew Bible texts in parallel form in Hebrew, Paleo-Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The Hebrew includes the BHS, the Leningrad Codex, the Aleppo Codex, and then Paleo texts (although you need to have the font to access those).

You can also read in parallel Spanish, French, German, and Chinese translations--each, again, with multiple translations in each language. There are many many many more translations available. Just see this page for Gen. 1:1.

The site also includes Strong's Concordance, commentaries that evince more of a Protestant, perhaps Evangelical, perspective. It contains cross-references (like the ones you find in the margins of many bibles), but with full verse quotatoins rather than just citations.

There are also atlases, seemingly relevant pictures, and a rather lackluster apocrypha section--the unfortunate ravages of decanonization.

Although the site has some drawbacks, it seems eminently useful, particularly showing the parallels of the various Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the same verse.

Evangelical Adaptation: The "Cussing Pastor"

The NYTimes Magazine has an extensive article on a figure I had never heard of before, but who seems to be making quite a bit of shock waves throughout the evangelical world: Mark Driscoll, who has been dubbed the "cussing pastor." Mixing a certain aspects of contemporary culture, including much of its crudeness, Driscoll espouses a very conservative, stringent Calvinist theology:

January 11, 2009

Who Would Jesus Smack Down?


Mark Driscoll’s sermons are mostly too racy to post on GodTube, the evangelical Christian “family friendly” video-posting Web site. With titles like “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse,” his clips do not stand a chance against the site’s content filters. No matter: YouTube is where Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, would rather be. Unsuspecting sinners who type in popular keywords may suddenly find themselves face to face with a husky-voiced preacher in a black skateboarder’s jacket and skull T-shirt. An “Under 17 Requires Adult Permission” warning flashes before the video cuts to evening services at Mars Hill, where an anonymous audience member has just text-messaged a question to the screen onstage: “Pastor Mark, is masturbation a valid form of birth control?”

Driscoll doesn’t miss a beat: “I had one guy quote Ecclesiastes 9:10, which says, ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.’ ” The audience bursts out laughing. Next Pastor Mark is warning them about lust and exalting the confines of marriage, one hand jammed in his jeans pocket while the other waves his Bible. Even the skeptical viewer must admit that whatever Driscoll’s opinion of certain recreational activities, he has the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen.

Mark Driscoll is American evangelicalism’s bête noire. In little more than a decade, his ministry has grown from a living-room Bible study to a megachurch that draws about 7,600 visitors to seven campuses around Seattle each Sunday, and his books, blogs and podcasts have made him one of the most admired — and reviled — figures among evangelicals nationwide. Conservatives call Driscoll “the cussing pastor” and wish that he’d trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements. Liberals wince at his hellfire theology and insistence that women submit to their husbands. But what is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.

At a time when the once-vaunted unity of the religious right has eroded and the mainstream media is proclaiming an “evangelical crackup,” Driscoll represents a movement to revamp the style and substance of evangelicalism. With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture. Yet his message seems radically unfashionable, even un-American: you are not captain of your soul or master of your fate but a depraved worm whose hard work and good deeds will get you nowhere, because God marked you for heaven or condemned you to hell before the beginning of time. Yet a significant number of young people in Seattle — and nationwide — say this is exactly what they want to hear. Calvinism has somehow become cool, and just as startling, this generally bookish creed has fused with a macho ethos. At Mars Hill, members say their favorite movie isn’t “Amazing Grace” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” — it’s “Fight Club.”

It is a certain militant theology that the article rightly notes is a throwback to "sinners in the hands of an angry God" style of thought. Nonetheless, a hyper-macho, perhaps militant, theology also had already emerged in the 1980s among many evangelical groups, although, perhaps, with less Calvinism.

On that Sunday, Driscoll preached for an hour and 10 minutes — nearly three times longer than most pastors. As hip as he looks, his message brooks no compromise with Seattle’s permissive culture. New members can keep their taste in music, their retro T-shirts and their intimidating facial hair, but they had better abandon their feminism, premarital sex and any “modern” interpretations of the Bible. Driscoll is adamantly not the “weepy worship dude” he associates with liberal and mainstream evangelical churches, “singing prom songs to a Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.”

Part of the problem, it seems, is that Driscoll sees the church as emasculated, feminized, or neutered:

God called Driscoll to preach to men — particularly young men — to save them from an American Protestantism that has emasculated Christ and driven men from church pews with praise music that sounds more like boy-band ballads crooned to Jesus than “Onward Christian Soldiers.” What bothers Driscoll — and the growing number of evangelical pastors who agree with him — is not the trope of Jesus-as-lover. After all, St. Paul tells us that the Church is the bride of Christ. What really grates is the portrayal of Jesus as a wimp, or worse. Paintings depict a gentle man embracing children and cuddling lambs. Hymns celebrate his patience and tenderness. The mainstream church, Driscoll has written, has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”

Mars Hill Church, while a megachurch, is highly critical of the tactics of other megachurches that are overly sensitive, warm and fuzzy, and perhaps a bit watered down in order to draw new congregants--particularly Joel Osteen's self-help books-- but....

Mars Hill has not entirely dispensed with megachurch marketing tactics. Its success in one of the most liberal and least-churched cities in America depends on being sensitive to the body-pierced and latte-drinking seekers of Seattle. Ultimately, however, Driscoll’s theology means that his congregants’ salvation is not in his hands. It’s not in their own hands, either — this is the heart of Calvinism.

Human beings are totally corrupted by original sin and predestined for heaven or hell, no matter their earthly conduct. We all deserve eternal damnation, but God, in his inscrutable mercy, has granted the grace of salvation to an elect few. While John Calvin’s 16th-century doctrines have deep roots in Christian tradition, they strike many modern evangelicals as nonsensical and even un-Christian. If predestination is true, they argue, then there is no point in missions to the unsaved or in leading a godly life. And some babies who die in infancy — if God placed them among the reprobate — go straight to hell with the rest of the damned, to “glorify his name by their own destruction,” as Calvin wrote. Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer’s free decision to accept God’s grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.

Yet Driscoll is not an isolated eccentric. Over the past two decades, preachers in places as far-flung as Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., in denominations ranging from Baptist to Pentecostal, are pushing “this new, aggressive, mission-minded Calvinism that really believes Calvinism is a transcript of the Gospel,” according to Roger Olson, a professor of theology at Baylor University. They have harnessed the Internet to recruit new believers, especially young people. Any curious seeker can find his way into a world of sermon podcasts and treatises by the Protestant Reformers and English Puritans, whose abstruse writings, though far from best-selling, are enjoying something of a renaissance. New converts stay in touch via blogs and Facebook groups with names like “John Calvin Is My Homeboy” and “Calvinism: The Group That Chooses You.”

Most evangelical groups believe in some sort of free will and base their theology on a guy named Jacobus Arminius, who took John Calvin to task. Calvin, however, allows no room for free will with regard to one's salvation--you don't choose your ultimate destiny, but God chooses for you.

But here is something that is truly different about this evangelical, something that, in fact, brings us back to pre-American "evangelicals," if you can call them that, basically the earliest figures in Reformation history:

Driscoll found his way into this tradition largely on his own. He recently earned a master’s degree through an independent-study program he arranged at a seminary in Portland, Ore. Years ago, paperback reprints of old Puritan treatises in the corner of a local bookstore piqued his interest in Reformation theology. He came to admire Martin Luther, the vulgar, beer-swilling theological rebel who sparked the Reformation. “I found him to be something of a mentor,” Driscoll says. “I didn’t have all the baggage he did. But you can see him with a quill in one hand and a drink in the other. He married a brewer and renegade nun. His story is kind of indie rock.”

Driscoll disdains the prohibitions of traditional evangelical Christianity. Taboos on alcohol, smoking, swearing and violent movies have done much to shape American Protestant culture — a culture that he has called the domain of “chicks and some chickified dudes with limp wrists.” Moreover, the Bible tells him that to seek salvation by self-righteous clean living is to behave like a Pharisee. Unlike fundamentalists who isolate themselves, creating “a separate culture where you live in a Christian cul-de-sac,” as one spiky-haired member named Andrew Pack puts it, Mars Hillians pride themselves on friendships with non-Christians. They tend to be cultural activists who play in rock bands and care about the arts, living out a long Reformed tradition that asserts Christ’s mandate over every corner of creation.

Like many New Calvinists, Driscoll advocates traditional gender roles, called “complementarianism” in theological parlance. Men and women are “equal spiritually, and it’s a difference of functionality, not intrinsic worth,” says Danielle Blazer, a 34-year-old Mars Hill member. Women may work outside the home, but they must submit to their husbands, and they are forbidden from taking on preaching roles in the church.

So here is an evangelical who drinks, smokes, cusses, with some taste for violence and indie rock. At the same time, advocates a very very conservative message. At the same time, Driscoll allows absolutely NO DISSENT to his decisions within the church. He officially shuns anyone who disagrees with him. He is authoritarian to a totalitarian degree. In short, he has absolutely no theological or disciplinary accountability.

The article concludes:

Mars Hill — with its conservative social teachings embedded in guitar solos and drum riffs, its megachurch presence in the heart of bohemian skepticism — thrives on paradox. Critics on the left and right alike predict that this delicate balance of opposites cannot last. Some are skeptical of a church so bent on staying perpetually “hip”: members have only recently begun to marry and have children, but surely those children will grow up, grow too cool for their cool church and rebel. Others say that Driscoll’s ego and taste for controversy will be Mars Hill’s Achilles’ heel. Lately he has made a concerted effort to tone down his language, and he insists that he has delegated much authority, but the heart of his message has not changed. Driscoll is still the one who gazes down upon Mars Hill’s seven congregations most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens around the city. At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view. Driscoll’s New Calvinism underscores a curious fact: the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents.

Here is the real paradox. This is nothing new. This is just an extreme version of a particular evangelical tendency, or, I might say, a general Protestant tendency. Evangelicals historically have had an uncanny ability to adapt their methods, liturgies, and worship services to changing cultural norms, allowing them to attract larger numbers of people. You can find this as early as George Whitefield in the 17th century. Current evangelicals have particularly had an extraordinary ability to appropriate the latest technological advances, whether using computers and effects in their worship services (making them like rock concerts in some cases) or disseminating their message through the information networks like the internet, facebook, etc. While they continually adapt their methods, their message often becomes more and more conservative. I think this case illustrates this quite well. Driscoll has dispensed with most traditional methods, services, and done what few evangelicals do, dispensed with the behavioral codes that characterize much of the more conservative groups regarding drinking, smoking, swearing, etc., but theologically he is perhaps just as if not more conservative than most. Note the reverse is true. Liberal or progressive Protestant groups usually have a very traditional liturgy or service, while their theology is, well, liberal. I think Driscoll's Achilles' heel will be tied with the cult of the personality, particularly a rigid personality as this pastor's seems to be. A cult that has no accountability and does not allow dissent will inevitably lead to problems, particularly if he runs up against someone as stubborn as this article claims he is.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two Powers in Heaven

Today many people have posted on the new list of the top 100 Theology blogs for online Christian colleges and universities--which, alas, I did not make. I am very happy with being in the top 50 ancient history blogs, though. Listed as number one on this list is a blog by Michael Heiser, investigating the two powers in heaven controversy in ancient Judaism. Heiser's research is on the divine council in second temple Jewish literature (both canonical and non-canonical, he notes), and his dissertation is available on his website. As a student of Alan Segal, whose own dissertation over thirty years ago was on this very issue and remains an authoritative source for its investigation, I was attracted to the issues discussed on this blog.

Brooklyn Diocese Closing 14 Schools

The NYTimes reports that one of the largest Catholic diocese in the U.S., the one in Brooklyn, is slated to close 14 schools this coming term:

January 13, 2009
Brooklyn Diocese Moves to Shut 14 Schools
The Diocese of Brooklyn has proposed closing 14 elementary schools at the end of the current academic year, a plan that would mean that one of the nation’s largest Catholic dioceses would have shuttered nearly 40 percent of its grade schools in the past seven years.

The proposed closings and mergers, announced on Monday, are the latest retrenchment for a school system that was once a bedrock of neighborhood stability, and a magnet for families of many creeds and homelands seeking safe, reliable education at a relatively modest cost.

The news, passed along at midday to principals of schools from Flushing, Queens, to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, shook students, parents and teachers, many of whom had joined in desperate fund-raising efforts in recent months to avoid the ax. In a well-publicized process that began in September, diocesan officials had been scrutinizing the finances and neighborhood dynamics of its 109 elementary schools to determine which areas might no longer be able to support a school.

The Brooklyn diocese, with 1.5 million Catholics in Brooklyn and Queens, is still the fifth most populous in the United States. But while there are pockets across the country — some suburbs and parts of the Southwest — where Catholic education still prospers, schools in urban areas like Brooklyn have heard bad tidings for decades.

Where its parish schools once anchored the neighborhoods from which they drew students, changing demographics have made filling those schools more difficult. Though many new arrivals in the neighborhoods are Catholic, they tend to be poorer than those who have moved on, and less able to afford the average $3,500 tuition at the diocese’s elementary schools, officials say. The presence of public charter schools has also been cited as a factor in the decline of parochial schools.

As a result, enrollment in the grade schools has dropped to about 35,000 from 55,000 since 1998. While the average vacancy rate is 15 percent, some schools have student gaps of another order: Blessed Sacrament School in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of those slated to close, once had 2,500 pupils; its enrollment today is 180.

Meanwhile, the cost of running the system has ballooned. Priests and nuns, once the low-cost heart of the instructional corps, have largely been replaced with comparatively high-cost lay teachers.

For further discussion, see ConfusedNYCTeacher

Not When in Rome, but IF!!!

According to NYTimes, the current economic crisis is having its effect on tourism in Rome and in Italy more broadly. There is a traditional stereotype, which is not really entirely wrong, that Germans travel more than any other national group but are stingy, whereas Americans rarely travel internationally (per capita, that is), but when they do, they spend big. This, however, is no longer proving true. In the current economic environment, those Americans who do make it to Rome spent all the money on the plane and hotel, and, therefore, are not spending on frills. Romans are saying that the only big spenders left are the Russians, Arabs, and Japanese.

Overall, while numbers of tourists are down a bit, how much those tourists are spending is decreasing far more rapidly. They are coming, but they aren't spending! The article blames the strength of the Euro for non-Europeans traveling (or failure to do so):

The strong euro and worsening economic crisis have taken their toll on tourism — even in Rome, where tourists are as reliable as death and taxes, and probably more reliable than people who pay taxes.

The number of foreign tourists to Rome and the surrounding Lazio region was off 12 percent in November, compared with the previous November. In the first 11 months of the year, the total number of tourists, from Italy and elsewhere, dropped 5 percent.

Returns are not in yet for December, but they are not expected to be stellar, thanks to the poor economy, frequent cancellations and strikes by Alitalia, not to mention the rainy deluge before Christmas that almost put the Tiber out of its banks in the city’s historic center. Visits by Americans are expected to be off by 15 percent for December.

This is leading to layoffs in jobs related to tourism. But, because of this, retailers and very expensive hotels are slashing prices to survive. For those who can go to Rome, now is the time to go:

But amid crisis comes opportunity. The Excelsior and Danieli are offering rooms for as low as $335 a night.

Indeed, for those who have money, this is the time to come to Rome. Crowds are more manageable, airfare is cheaper, and shops are offering major sales.


Like retailers elsewhere, Italian shops slash prices every January, but this year they are doing so more aggressively than ever. On the upscale Via Condotti near the Spanish Steps, shops like Gucci and Prada are offering discounts as high as 50 percent.

At Gucci on a recent rainy weekday morning, the customers eyeing such items as a leather bomber jacket with a fur collar, reduced 50 percent from the initial price of $4,500, were almost entirely Russian and Japanese.

I was in Rome the summer of 2007. I really loved the city. And I hope to be back soon...but don't know how soon.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Encyclopedia Mythica

I just stumbled onto this site: Encyclopedia Mythica. It looks like a quick and easy reference to various gods or figures of various myths and legends throughout world literature, ranging from Celtic, Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, Persian, Indian, etc. Most of the "articles" are only a few lines long--enough to give you some bearings--while others are longer (the entry on Metatron is lengthier!). If anything, it might be useful if you are reading along in a text and do not know who or what a particular character is.

Here is the entry on Metatron for a test-case:


by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

The myths of Metatron are extremely complicated, and at least two separate versions exist. The first version states he came into being when God created the world, and immediately assumed his many responsibilities. The second claims that he was first a human named Enoch, a pious, good man who had ascended to Heaven a few times, and eventually was transformed into a fiery angel. Some later books adopt the first version, some the second, and in other literature both are combined. There are even two versions of the name Metatron, one spelled with seven letters, the other with six, lacking the Hebrew letter "yod." The Kabbalists explained that the six-letter name represents the Enoch-related Metatron, while the seven-letter name refers to the primordial Metatron. Despite the elaborate debate, the origin of Metatron's name is not clear. Many attempts have been made to explain it, but none of them is satisfactory, since the word has no real meaning or root in any language. Some authors think it may be derived from private meditations and visions, or even glossolalia. This article concentrates on the Metatron-Enoch version

Metatron is one of the most important angels in the heavenly hierarchy. He is a member of a special group that is permitted to look at God's countenance, an honor most angels do not share. In the literature, Metatron is often referred to as "the Prince of the Countenance."

In the Babylonian Talmud, Metatron is mentioned only three times, but the references are important. All three relate to the problem of Metatron's immense power, which may have caused some people to confuse him with God. In later literature he was even mentioned as the "lesser Yahweh" -- a serious blasphemy for the strictly Monotheistic Judaism. Later, some authors tried to resolve the issue by showing how the Hebrew letters of the name of a mythical predecessor, the angel Yahoel (later to be entirely identified with Metatron), were the same letters as those in the name of Yahweh. Another legend states that God himself named him so, out of affection. A fascinating legend tells of a particularly interesting and famous Jewish heretic, Elisha ben Avuyah, who saw Metatron sitting by God's side, occupying the same type of throne. This made Elisha suspect that two equal powers operated in the universe -- God and Metatron. The legend continues to explain that he made a false assumption, which indeed cost Elisha his position within the Jewish community. According to these scholars, God permitted Metatron to sit because, as God's scribe, he recorded the good deeds of the Nation of Israel. This story works very well with two of Metatron's many heavenly tasks: a scribe and an advocate, defending the Nation of Israel in the heavenly court.

Enoch, a pious teacher, scribe and leader of his people, is famed for the part he took in the tragedy of the fallen angels (see Watchers). Living during a time of great sins, around the flood, he had visited Heaven more than once. However, the time was ripe for a most significant trip. One night, two angels woke him up and commanded him to prepare for his journey. They took him on their wings, and showed him all the Heavens and their inhabitants, including a side trip to Paradise and to the place of punishment and torture of the sinners, which strangely enough was located not too far from paradise. He observed the activity of the sun and the moon, and made a visit of consolation to rebellious angels, the Grigori, succeeding in bringing them closer to God. After the tour, the great Angels Gabriel and Michael lead him straight to God's Throne.

Sitting next to God, Enoch was instructed in wisdom, and using his skills as a scribe, prepared three hundred and sixty-six books. When he learned everything, a most significant thing happened. God revealed to him great secrets -- some of which are even kept secret from the angels! These included the secrets of Creation, the duration of time the world will survive, and what will happen after its demise. At the end of these discussions, Enoch returned to earth for a limited time, to instruct everyone, including his sons, in all he learned. After thirty days, the angels returned him to Heaven.

And then the divine transformation took place. Additional wisdom and spiritual qualities caused Enoch's height and breadth to become equal to the height and breadth of the earth. God attached thirty-six wings to his body, and gave him three hundred and sixty-five eyes, each as bright as the sun. His body turned into celestial fire -- flesh, veins, bones, hair, all metamorphosed to glorious flame. Sparks emanated from him, and storms, whirlwind, and thunder encircled his form. The angels dressed him in magnificent garments, including a crown, and arranged his throne. A heavenly herald proclaimed that from then on his name would no longer be Enoch, but Metatron, and that all angels must obey him, as second only to God.

If I were to quibble with these entries on anything, I would suggest that they provide the "mythological" sources they used to compose their synthetic picture, places where an interested reader could go and encounter these figures first-hand in their literary contexts (or otherwise). While this entry does cite the Babylonian Talmud (although not exactly where--a problem since the BT is so enormous, the yam ha-talmud!), it does not note the location of the other sources--1 Enoch, 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch (also known as Sefer Hekhalot) and how they can be found in English translation. By the way, you can find these in volume 1 of James Charlesworth's edited volume of the "Old Testament Pseudepigrapha" published by Doubleday.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hebrew Language Academy Charter School

NYTimes reports the possible opening of a new language charter school that focuses on Hebrew language. This comes after the controversy surrounding the Arabic language charter school, Khalil Gilbran International Academy.

Nearly two years after a wave of protests over New York City’s first public school dedicated to the Arabic language and culture, state education officials are expected to consider greenlighting a Hebrew-language charter school in Brooklyn this week.

The school would open in the fall if it is approved, first by a committee of the State Board of Regents on Monday and then by the full board on Tuesday. It would begin with 150 kindergartners and first graders and be in District 22, which includes the Sheepshead Bay, Midwood and Mill Basin neighborhoods. The district is 45 percent black, 13 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian. It also has a substantial population of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Israel.

The State Department of Education staff has recommended that the Regents approve the school, and such recommendations are generally heeded. But at least one regent said he planned to raise questions about the proposal.

These types of schools are actually quite common, but the Arabic and Hebrew ones draw more attention than the others, due to potential religious associations:

Organizers are taking pains to assure state officials that the school, called the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, would not cross the church-state divide. They have hired Dan Gerstein, a communications consultant, to smooth the way politically and to handle public relations. They are also in negotiations with a candidate for principal who is not Jewish but who has experience in dual-language education.

The application states that students will receive daily, hourlong Hebrew lessons, and that Hebrew will be woven into some art, music and gym classes — with children learning the Israeli folk dance Mayim in gym, for example. In addition, the social studies curriculum will include lessons on “Hebrew culture and history in the context of both American and world history,” according to the application.

“The H.L.A. planning team understands fully that no instructor or staff member can in any way encourage or discourage religious devotion in any way on school premises,” the application states. “We also understand that the full study and exploration of any language necessarily includes references to the rich cultural heritage inextricably tied to that language, including elements touching on religion.”

Planners say they envision a student body that reflects the district’s diverse demographics. Though Ms. Berman declined to be interviewed for this article, she said last year, when the application was first submitted, “I hope that we’re very clear that this is not a Jewish school,” adding, “There will be in no way any religious devotion at this school.”


In Brooklyn, the Hellenic Classical Charter School is focused on the “classical study of the Greek and Latin languages, as well as history, art and other cultural studies,” according to its Web site. Throughout the city, there are 81 schools run by the Education Department that offer dual-language programs in Chinese, Russian, Korean and Haitian Creole, for example.

There are some critics who against all of these schools on principle. But others seem to object only to particular ones. They may claim that Hebrew is less practical than Chinese, for example. Others claim the Arabic school is somehow dangerous. Although, those going for the practicality argument should promote Arabic all the more. So many people speak Arabic throughout the world. It is truly a global, international language, and it would be truly advantageous to know. It is a language that cultivated philosophy, mathematics, religious devotion, etc. Yet, if you do not oppose the other language/culture schools (the classical Greek and Latin schools, teh Russian, the Chinese, etc.), then you are on slim ground to oppose these. If you oppose all on principle, I would be interested in hearing more on why. If the schools are open to anyone and everyone, do not violate church/state rules, offer something more interesting, actually integrate all the aspects of learning in a creative way, in ways that traditional schools fail to do, and actually allow students to learn something other than how to take a stupid test, then why not?