Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Everything Rests on Sinai: Final Thoughts on Kugel's How to Read the Bible

If you are a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim--or a theist in the Abrahamic vein--your foundational belief is the revelation at Sinai. This claim may surprise you, but bear with me for a moment.

Maybe you don't believe that 600,000 or 3,000,000 (depending on who you ask) Jews gathered at the base of a mountain. Maybe you don't believe the event took place at a mountain. Maybe you are not sure when it happened. But you believe something miraculous happened in the desert. You believe that divine and human communed there. What's more, you believe this event inaugurated the force behind the Torah, Israel, the First and Second Temples, Jesus, Paul, Peter, the New Testament, the Church, Mohammed, and the Qu'ran.

Sinai is unique in the Bible: it's the one thing that must have some kernal of real, historical truth.You don't need Adam and Eve to be a believer. You don't require Babel, or the deluge, or even Abraham's binding of Isaac. The Exodus is almost indispensable. Belief can survive without these. All these stories can be fictional or metaphorical, even wholly so.

The Sinai revelation is different. There is a limit on how metaphorical, poetic, or embellished this story can be. If it is total fiction, then all Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are fictions too. Jesus cannot be God-incarnate if God never gave Israel the two Torahs. Jesus cannot have died for anyone's sins, even his own, without the precedent of God's holy instruction to humanity. Mohammed cannot be a prophet if there was no prophet at Sinai. If nothing truly miraculous happened in the desert, then nothing miraculous happens in minyan, in church or mosque, and in history. The end of days will surely happen, but it too won't be miraculous.

Absolutely everything about Judeo-Christian-Muslim religious belief comes down to Sinai.

This is the lesson taught me by the series on Chapter 36 of James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible. It was not Kugel's lesson, as he did not dwell too much on being a believer except for that final section of the chapter. Nevertheless, as we leave Kugel's book and look at the world, the question that people have to answer and deal with is "What is it you think happened out there in the desert?"

I've given my answer. I don't know Kugel's, unless I have skipped over it. I imagine he thinks that something divine happened out there.

The more important question--that is, the one that has real consequences in the world--is why one would think something happened (or didn't) in that wilderness. The why is the more telling, for what happened merely separates us while why do you think that determines whether we are friends or enemies.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Music Pick-Me-Up

I'm totally drained today.

How about some fun songs? Here's one from my childhood:

And another:

One more, this time from my adolescence:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 6, Why and How Should I Read the Bible?

Holding tzitzit: Not all that different from praying with a Sani-Wipes container.
This is the sixth official installment in the Alpha course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Jewish-raised dude and now a Gnu Atheist who took the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Last week, after my small group passed around a Sani-Wipes container to be used as a prayer stick, I accepted that Alpha offered no place for my opinions and perspectives. Although the container was ridiculous as a worship aid, it was not by itself the reason I detached emotionally from Alpha. After all, in Judaism, tallis and tefillin have some prayer token capacities. We also lift the Torah scrolls high before the congregation and we kiss them.

But I was struck by the picture of people adopting the container for their incantations and with such reverance. In our group, intelligent adults grasped the the Sani-Wipes container with two hands. They bowed their heads before it, closed their eyes, and recited all their wishes to the Lord. The sight of a common household cleaner converted into a devotional instrument was too much. It represented how imaginary and emotional Alpha's appeals were. Alpha's leaders wanted to excite people's imagination and desires. The "big questions" they promised many weeks ago were not my questions or questions from participants, they were questions presented by Alpha and for Alpha to answer. The object and endgame of the course was one thing: assimilation. What's a successful Alpha course? One that gets as many people as possible to pray to Jesus and become active in the church.

My notes on the session:
  • This was a tough night because my family is displaced. A snowstorm knocked out power in our area and forced us to stay temporarily with my sister-in-law. The arrangements there were nice enough, but my wife and I would have preferred to be at home and on our routine.
  • Dinner was ham, veggies, and salad. I didn’t eat the ham. Conversation centered on the storm, and who did and did not have electricity back.
  • Live music again; contemporary worship stuff. Carmen, the singer, played two songs. As usual, one song had been performed the previous week and one song was new.
    • The songs seemed sterile. How many times can you sing “God, you are so awesome”?
    • Maybe it's that the songs come across as mawkish and theatrical.
    • Ten Bears, from The Outlaw Josey Wales.
    • For my money, a Jewish song of praise, such as "Aleinu" and "Adon Olam," has more emotional and intellectual content. More iron, as Ten Bears would say.
  • Gumbel’s DVD talk was particularly irritating tonight.
    • Subject was why and how to read the Bible.
      • Not clear what he meant by the Bible: Old Testament and New Testament together or just the New Testament?
      • People in group appear to refer only to the NT when they say "the Bible." At least, they seem concerned only with Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job from the OT.
    • Said the Bible was a love letter from God to people.
      • My eyes roll at a sentiment such as this. The "love letter" metaphor is clearly interpretive; it carries ideas of affection, intimacy, it majesty. It intends to draw out feelings of nobility, humility, and gratitude. It encourages the ego's indulgence: the creator of the universe wants us to know that he loves us and wants us to love him too!
      • I have nothing against love letters or interpretations. My point is that an interpretation has to be demonstrated, and demonstrated carefully. My problem is that Gumbel made no such demonstration. He didn't even try.
    • Gumbel acknowledged total human authorship of the Bible and some historical gaffs, but asserted definitively that the Bible was 100 percent inspired by God and 100 percent true.
      • Here he used an analogy with architect Christopher Wren, who never himself built his buildings.
      • Said the Bible is for teaching, rebuking, guiding, and so forth.
      • Advised people to read the Bible in a quiet place and meditate on God, Jesus, and yatta-yatta
    • He explained that a person did not need to abandon belief just because of questions or problems with the Bible's unsavory aspects. One can have reservations and yet continue on developing a relationship with Jesus.
      • Surprisingly, this point did not come up in small group.
      • I have myself made similar points before (see here and here).
    • Gumbel's final story was complete rubbish. He was afraid his father had died not being a Christian. Gumbel prayed and read the Bible and felt--strongly felt--that his Dad came to know Jesus and was saved. He gathered through coincidence that, yes, Dad really had become a Christian before it was too late. Phew!
      • Some in our group seemed impressed by this story.
      • I was underwhelmed because the story came across as a combination of wish fulfillment and pattern seeking. Even if it’s all true, we know nothing of the real thinking that Gumbel’s father’s had on accepting/not-accepting Jesus.
  • Small group started with a question on who had read the Bible and what their experiences of reading it have been.
    • Most folks said they found it hard reading and kind of dull.
    • Some people said they were in study groups. Many of the group leaders, I learned, were in such groups. My knowledge of such groups is that they focus on a certain book, such as Job or Mark, and then follow a guided path. Several companies sell study materials and commentaries. What they teach, of course, is the party line.
    • Seems like group leader wanted me to talk more. I really have not spoken up for some weeks now.
    • Odd talk about a young painter named Akiane, apparently born into a house of atheist parents. At only four years old she had visions from God and painted pictures of Jesus and pretty horses. Now she sells the paintings for beaucoup bucks, no surprise, but some of the money goes to charity.
    • We read the sower parable from Luke 8:4-15 together.
      • I quickly reviewed the analogues from Mark and Matthew. The story changes slightly in each case.
      • Discussion focused on "see without seeing and hear without understanding."
        • They, the believers, are the ones who really get it because they believe. So they are the ones who do see and do understand.
        • Those who don’t believe or are unimpressed are “blind and deaf.” They are deficient. They are wrong.
    • This was the first time I had ever felt it was not OK to be a non-believer. Earlier posts have sketched the mounting pressure both to believe and to be actively Christian while simultaneously framing non-belief in negative terms. This week, that pressure was increased.
      • Unfortunately, I did not voice my displeasure. I don’t think I will be so quiet the next time.
      • I expected there to be another prayer time, but there wasn't. At my turn, I was going to say that it is possible not to accept Christianity, despite having seen and understood as in the parable. My point would have been that there is legitimate reason to reject Christianity. Even now, I maintain that I see as clearly and understand as much as anyone else, but I have what I think are pretty good reasons to think that Christianity’s core doctrines are false.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Inspiration? No, Thanks.

A Facebook friend approvingly posted this picture.

With chubby cheeks, pigtails, and overalls, an innocent little girl prays for the repair of the US economy. Then she laments that a shadowy "some" have "taken" God/Jesus "out of our schools, government and even Christmas" [emphasis added]. Finally, the darling asks God/Jesus to return, arguing that more people want God/Jesus here than don't.

Many Christians think this nonsense is inspirational, yet it's obviously propagandist. Using the image of a sweet, praying child to comment on the price of gasoline is disgusting enough, but we all know what is meant by the "some" who want to take out God/Jesus--some liberals, some atheists. Vile secularists are the reason for the sluggish economy and for social unrest.

Once upon a time, say the inspired Christians, God/Jesus was in our schools. In those perfect days, God/Jesus was in our government and in Christmas. Those were the days when Jews didn't belong to our country clubs, blacks didn't go to our schools, gays didn't use our word "marriage," and women didn't work outside our homes.

Those were the days when we could dictate what happened in the oil markets, when the state could sponsor Christianity, and when we didn't have to acknowledge that some believed in a different god or had no god at all. --You can read my sarcasm here, right?

Then let me be serious and straightforward: go away with your fake prayers and your god-bothering. You want America's problems to disappear magically. You want it all fixed, but without any cost to you or your friends. Most of all, you want to appear pious and stoic.

Your inspiration, summarized: see a problem, cry about it, and start wearing a crucifix.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Kugel's HTRTB [Part 12]: Only One Bible

We continue to read Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. This twelfth installment covers the last section. 

In this final section, Kugel cautions against misrepresenting Chapter 36 or giving it greater importance than all of How to Read the Bible before it:
My subject has been not the ruin of the Bible but the Bible itself--its highways and byways, heroes, brigands, walk-ons, and also-rans, its mysteries and its ineffables, as well as its sometimes treacherous little details. Beyond these, this book is about two extraordinary sets of interpreters, and I have made no effort to disguise my admiration for both. Their approaches, however, are quite irreconcilable.
Reminding us of his main subject and aims, Kugel also describes a particular use for the book: "I hope that this book may at least offer some help in finding an escape from the box of original meaning." This specific help is very important; it's the key to everything Kugel has done:
  • Defined two different sets of biblical interpreters: the first interpreters (ancient period) and modern interpreters (post-DH scholars).
  • Showed that the approaches of the two sets are irreconcilable. One cannot read the bible as one set and accept the interpretations of the other set at all.
  • Argued, moreover, that modern biblical criticism is not criticism of the (real) Bible.
The third bullet point requires explanation. To do this, let me first refer back to the previous installment of our series, where I quoted Kugel on reading the Bible properly.
The texts that make up the Bible were originally composed under whatever circumstances they were composed. What made them the Bible, however, was their definitive reinterpretation along the lines of the Four Assumptions of the ancient interpreters--a way of reading that was established in Judaism in the form of the Oral Torah. Read the Bible in this way and you are reading it properly, that is, in keeping with the understanding of those who made and canonized the Bible. Read it any other way and you have drastically misconstrued the intentions of the Bible's framers.
My earlier analysis did not appreciate that Kugel’s point was eminently bold. In the quote, Kugel says that the Bible is only the Bible when approached as it was by the ancient interpreters. Implicitly, therefore, the approach of modern scholars makes the Bible not the Bible but rather a set of texts with disparate “original meanings.” These meanings thus have nothing to do with the Bible as Bible!

To illustrate further, you can read modern biblical scholarship. You can follow its arguments and even come to agree with its conclusions. The point is that these conclusions don’t affect you when you read the Bible properly. Reading properly takes you beyond the conclusions, and this is how you “escape the box of original meaning.”

With some personal pride, I say that this approach--separating the belief-based context from the historical--was one that I myself adopted when tried to retain a semblance of Jewishness. In those days, I reasoned that when I prayed at shul, it was as if Judaism was true. Judaism didn’t need to be true outside or in reality, but it could be and would be when I was playing the part of observant Jew. Shul was a theater and I a player.

In those days, I would have happily agreed with Kugel’s description:
Scripture in different religious traditions always seems to have the remarkable ability to become the locus of people’s deepest inner fumblings and mumblings: those words suddenly contain so much--their quality of Scripture gives them that right--and they fill up with all that is most important: they become the theater of the soul.
Similarly, I have argued that the Hebrew Scriptures are a different Bible to a Jew and a Christian:
The Old Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures are different texts because the Old Testament is already rendered throughout as a translation that prefigures Jesus. People don't simply open the Old Testament and on their own start seeing Jesus parallels. Rather, the Old Testament has been translated with Christology in mind and the resulting text is available expressly to support Christian theological interpretations.
Read the Hebrew Scriptures as pre-figuring Jesus and you are not reading them as a Jew. For Kugel, the Bible really is the Hebrew Bible; there really is no other Bible. Neither the box of original meaning nor the box of Christian meaning ultimately affects the Bible, for the Bible only happens through a single set of approaches now associated with rabbinic Judaism.

I see wisdom in most everything Kugel says, and although I rarely disagree with him, I depart from him significantly. I depart when he contains the Bible to the approach of its first interpreters. I depart again when he connects belief and behavior, as when he discusses what it means to be an observant person. Kugel means religiously observant, Jewish particularly, but I don’t. He describes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Jewish religious prohibition against approaching the area, "lest by accident [pious Jews'] foot defile the place where once the Holy of Holies stood, the place of God’s presence on earth (which could be entered only once a year, and only by one man, the high priest)." Kugel believes the Holy of Holies sat in an entirely different place from the current Temple Mount. Nevertheless, he follows other observant Jews and does not approach the Temple Mount.

Were the opportunity ever to come for me to ascend the Temple Mount, I probably would. How could I not? This, then, is where I depart from Kugel again.The tenets of my observance would encourage me to ascend, to see, to learn, to consider.

The departure continues. Kugel suggests that even if the rabbis are sometimes wrong, what matters is their project to record and represent God’s intent for His people. Their project to help His people live out God’s will. For Kugel, though, there is such a thing as God’s intent. There is a Holy of Holies somewhere in the textual archaeology of the Bible. There is a continuity between God's intent for His people and "the intentions of the Bible's framers."

Kugel says he "could not be involved in a religion that was entirely a human artifact." Neither could I. The difference is that I no longer see any reason to believe there is a Holy of Holies in the Bible. I cannot justify viewing the Bible as anything other than an entirely human artifact. And here's the most amazing thing of all: accepting that God and the Bible are man-made has brought me intellectually and personally closer to them than ever before.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Postmodern Writing

Mathematician Jeffrey Shallit links to a 2004 paper titled “Cultural Topology: An Introduction to Postmodern Mathematics.” Written by Brent Blackwell, a professor of literature at Ball State, the essay exemplifies postmodern academic prose as unclear writing.

The paragraph below seems to be the thesis:
This essay develops a new way of thinking about the cultural relationships among and within the sciences and the arts through a new understanding of the term postmodernism that at once derives from literary theory and the mathematical discipline of topology. While topology forms the main vertebra of this connective approach in its capacity as the mathematics of connectivity, quantum mechanics and non-Euclidean geometry -- the atlas and axis of this spinal column -- form the context through which this “postmodern” approach will develop. However, in order to position topology as a “postmodern” branch of mathematics, some brief explanations are in order: first, regarding postmodernism, and finally regarding topology.
Only three sentences make up the paragraph; the first two each contain over 40 words, which is a lot. Sentence one promises “a new way of thinking about” the sciences and the arts, something to do with illuminating cultural relationships between them. Sentence one also introduces the essay’s sales hook, “a new understanding of the term postmodernism.” The source of the newness, Blackwell says, will come from his combining usage of the term in literary studies with ideas taken from the mathematical subject of topology. To re-cap: one sentence, 40-plus words, and two undefined topics. Topic one is the relationship of the arts and sciences; topic two is postmodernism infused with topology.

Sentence two confuses matters further. Blackwell uses “vertebra” as the metaphor for his argument. Topology, he explains, will be the argument’s main component. But then he abruptly brings in quantum mechanics and non-Euclidian geometry, fitting the two subjects into the metaphor without explaining how the whole argument relates to the initial point about the arts and sciences. In two sentences, we have come a long way. Sentence one starts with a new way to think about the arts and sciences. It ends with a new way to think about postmodernism. Then sentence two tells us our time will be spent on topology--and also quantum mechanics and non-Euclidian geometry.

Blackwell’s paragraph is a fucking mess. It’s subject is poorly defined and sprawling. It’s vague, verbose, and technical. The entire essay is the same way. In some circles, however, such prose remains perfectly acceptable. While postmodernism has largely died and been replaced by the digital humanities, it has influenced academic writing. Today’s academic writing tends toward clarity and away from stylistic excesses, at least from what I have seen in two years “back” in the academic world. Yet, postmodernism was never only about style; it opened subjects. An English major could focus on favorite novels and the practice of quilting, on poetry and feminism, on the teaching profession and politics. Postmodernism made everything the subject, and everything was subject to study, discussion, and critique.

I am sentimentally attached to postmodernism, even to its academic writing style. From the mid-1990s to 2002, when I was a full-time graduate student in a literary studies program, my writing style resembled Blackwell’s. I don’t have an example on hand of my worst writing offenses, but I have posted here part of what would have been the second chapter in my old dissertation:
To understand how different edited texts of the same literary work construct that work differently, we need a tool for capturing the structure and functions of literary language--that is, of literary language as it becomes represented in and through text. In The Literary Work of Art, first published in German in 1931, Roman Ingarden provides such a tool by demonstrating that the literary work has a heteronomous existence, existing both on its own and dependent upon the conscious activity of a reader. Ingarden gives us a sophisticated picture of the internal ontological constitution and articulation of the literary work and its world. Because edited texts result in part from the conscious, critical acts of editors, Ingarden’s model can be used to compare different edited texts and gauge the effects of their differences on our apprehension of them and their presented worlds.
Although I would love to make a few changes to this paragraph, I don’t think it's bad writing. I also see in it hallmarks of postmodern writing. For example, “literary language as it becomes represented in and through text” (emphasis added) is a postmodern formulation. Compare it with Blackwell’s “among and within the sciences and the arts.”

Blackwell and I also share a trope, a writing template in which the scholar uses terminology from another field to generate insights about fashionable or too familiar subjects. For instance, Blackwell adopts the language of topology to make points about academic animosity between the arts and sciences. For another instance, my paragraph tells readers I’ll apply literary critic Roman Ingarden’s concepts to a study of scholarly editions in medieval literature. The dissertation project I am working on now uses this trope, although not in quite the same way.

The point is that the literary scholar does more than simply read literature or argue a position in the arts-versus-sciences debate. This factor accounts for the appeal of postmodernism and the pretenses of its prose: we're doing more than reading books and making appeals. After all, at some point, one doesn't feel there's much else to say about "Young Goodman Brown" or "Ode on a Grecian Urn." To say something new about these works or about the world, one needs to set them in a new context. Postmodernism allowed for this, first by emphasizing that words held underlying assumptions and connotations and then by arguing that literary and non-literary words could be analyzed in the same way. One could deconstruct a political speech as well as a sonnet. One could rhetorically analyze any cultural feature--temples, malls, quilts, treatises, dissident movements, academic disciplines.

While postmodernism appealed to me because it laid open the world to language-based study, its obfuscating prose was difficult to emulate. I tried to write the way the big names did: Derrida, Spivak, Jameson, Lacan, Butler, Kristeva, Foucault, de Man, Deleuze and Guattari, and Zizek. To me, their way was erudite, playful, and complex. For example, here's Brian Massumi, a pretty good practitioner of the postmodern style, in a 2005 article:
In March 2002, with much pomp, the Bush administration’s new Department of Homeland Security introduced its color-coded terror alert system: green, “low”; blue, “guarded”; yellow, “elevated”; orange, “high”; red, “severe.” The nation has danced ever since between yellow and orange. Life has restlessly settled, to all appearances permanently, on the redward end of the spectrum, the blue-greens of tranquility a thing of the past. “Safe” doesn’t even merit a hue. Safe, it would seem, has fallen off the spectrum of perception. Insecurity, the spectrum says, is the new normal.

The alert system was introduced to calibrate the public’s anxiety. In the aftermath of 9/11, the public’s fearfulness had tended to swing out of control in response to dramatic, but maddeningly vague, government warnings of an impending follow-up attack. The alert system was designed to modulate that fear. It could raise it a pitch, then lower it before it became too intense, or even worse, before habituation dampened response. Timing was everything. Less fear itself than fear fatigue became an issue of public concern. Affective modulation of the populace was now an official, central function of an increasingly time-sensitive government.

The self-defensive reflex-response to perceptual cues that the system was designed to train into the population wirelessly jacked central government functioning directly into each individual’s nervous system. The whole population became a networked jumpiness, a distributed neuronal network registering en masse quantum shifts in the nation’s global state of discomfiture in rhythm with leaps between color levels. Across the geographical and social differentials dividing them, the population fell into affective attunement. That the shifts registered en masse did not necessarily mean that people began to act similarly, as in social imitation of each other, or of a model proposed for each and all. “Imitation renders form; attunement renders feeling.” Jacked into the same modulation of feeling, bodies reacted in unison without necessarily acting alike. Their responses could, and did, take many forms. What they shared was the central nervousness. How it translated somatically varied body by body.
Here, the prose gets denser as we go along. The beginning of the third paragraph is classic postmodernist academic writing, with blocks of phrases stacked after one another. Figurative language gets ever more elaborate, and the references of words become hard to discern. I was one person who wanted to write this way. The style spoke to how the ideas and scope of our work went way beyond "This poem represents man's inhumanity to man." Other academic disciplines used jargon and had their own prose conventions, so why not literary studies? Why were we supposed to remain the disheveled daydreamers in rumpled tweed jackets?

Even as a graduate student, however, I sensed that postmodern academic prose was overwrought. This was a product of my vanity. I thought I had good ideas, so I felt it was important for readers to understand them as I did. Later, when I joined the business world and led proposal teams, I largely abandoned the postmodern style, although I still use too many paratactic, polysyndetic, and preposition-conjunction-preposition constructions. Clear and relatively simple statements are prized in my current gig, which suits me fine. I am an inveterate editor and reviser who loves clear, punchy prose. I still hold the lessons of my graduate studies, that apparently straightforward prose sometimes contains nasty presuppositions. Indeed, the postmodern style emerged partly as an attempt make them explicit. Ideally, the postmodern writer wanted both to say something and to analyze the saying--at the same time.

It was a doomed wish; that's why postmodernism declined and the style receded.

NFL Playoff Predictions, Championship Round (2011 Season)

In a world of moral uncertainty and depravity, I'm your best bet for NFL wagering.

Rabbi Itzalok has again huddled with the Divine One to predict the outcome of this coming weekend's National Football League playoff games.

Here are Rabbi I's picks for this all-important next round:
  • Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots. QB Joe Flacco will become Hashem incarnate, leading the Ravens to a 31-21 victory over the Pats. Get thee behind me, Belichick!
  • New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers. Even if Eli is slightly ill, the Giants will mercilessly stomp the hopes and dreams of the 'Niners, 37-29.

    Best part of the Denver Broncos' playoff loss to the Patriots: In response to a column in which he'd said the Patriots "exposed" the Broncos, sports journalist Bob Ryan received this email:
    Exposed? You are the one exposed. Wrath of God. May the Lord of all creation tear you apart.
    Dear readers, may the Lord of all creation tear you apart also--with jaw-dropping NFL playoff action! Thy will be done, holy shit, and yatta-yatta.

    Thursday, January 19, 2012

    An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 5, Why and How Do I Pray?

    This week, we used a container of Sani-Wipes as a prayer stick. Judaism prohibits prayer sticks, right? As a form of idolatrous practice?

    This is the fifth official installment in the Alpha course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Jewish-raised dude and now a Gnu Atheist who took the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

    Last week, I accepted that Alpha was not going to be anything like what I had hoped. Saddened in one sense, in another I was relieved. Now I was free to observe the proceedings without worrying about being a participant. It turns out that this week's proceedings were very enjoyable, in a "I can't believe what's happening" way.

    Alpha hosts and small group leaders  are now making a big push for people to participate in the retreat weekend. They say they have funds to help defray costs for people who might find it too expensive. It's about $100 or so per person. The weekend sounds fun, except for the group feely-feely stuff. It's going to be held at what sounds like a kind of campus in New Hampshire. There's supposed to be woods and walking paths around. My wife wants to go, and I'm on board if she is. So it looks like we are going.

    My notes on this evening's content:
    • Dinner was chili; pretty good!
    • Worship music featured two songs, as usual.
      • Tonight, we heard “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” and “How Great Is Our God.”
      • The music comes across as both detached and mawkish. The first song seems self-centered, as if the worshiper is watching himself/herself pray. The second song is a communal high-five, but I don't see what it has to do with worship.
    • Tonight's DVD talk focuses on prayer. 
      • Nicky Gumbel, the speaker in the DVD, breathlessly declares that prayer is real, it’s good for you, and it works. 
      • Nothing very impressive here for me, except that Gumbel is all about telling stories in which people are just AMAZED (all caps) at something that has happened. Someone gets a job and someone else had prayed that it would happen, and they were both AMAZED. Many stories involve Gumbel coming to tears and/or someone pouring out his heart to someone else.
      • We got our first mention--that I can recall--of “the evil one.” I await a future talk that brings Satan into focus. Because a universe isn't complete without powerful and invisible beings on both the "good" and "bad" sides.
      • One ugly part was the idea that because Christians are forgiven, they are better able to forgive than others (other religions, other people). I forget now what the exact statement was, so I want to be careful and not misrepresent what was said. Nevertheless, there was the idea that feeling forgiven by God entails a greater capacity for and likelihood of forgiving others. This seems like a vacuous assertion. It’s all feel-good if one is a Christian, but the rest of us would like to see that claim backed up with some facts, please.
    • Small group talked about people’s experience with prayer. 
      • We welcomed a woman into our group. She seems a sunny personality.
      • Some shared that they feel someone (i.e., a higher power or God) is listening when they pray. Several suggested that this feeling developed over time; when they were younger, or not part of their current church, prayer seemed less effectual or genuine. The “as if” and “as though” expressions amused me. One might feel as though she drives a million-dollar sports car, but feeling that way is different from it actually being the case.
      • Tonight, group leaders invited everyone to pray in public. They had a plastic container of Sani-Wipes. The person with the container was supposed to say a prayer out loud and then pass the container around to the next person, who would then offer a prayer. 
      • One person declined to pray and simply passed the container. 
      • When my turn came, I said I would not pray but that I appreciated being with everyone there and getting to know them. After the meeting, one of the group leaders said she was touched by what I said. She may have been telling the truth, but I also know that apparent kindness and unconditional positive regard are part of what the leaders are directed to offer. 
      • As I listened to the discussion and heard people praying, I became filled with empathy. These folks are generally anxious and put upon in their lives. In church and in belief, they temporarily feel empowered and validated.

    The One Book Everyone Should Read

    People who want to break away from religiously based literature ask what books they should read. Before pointing them to Darwin, Dawkins, Coyne, Russell, Hume, Bayle or most anyone else, recommend them to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

    Meditations is the preeminent work of reason. Fewer educated people have read it today; it's not universal in literature survey courses, and Classics courses continue to disappear. This is unfortunate. Our world would benefit greatly if politicians, teachers, lobbyists, and dissidents regularly adopted the Meditations in their discourse.

    Sample three passages from Book 1:
    From Diognetus, [I learned] not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy; and to have been a hearer, first of Bacchius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to have written dialogues in my youth; and to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline.

    From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display; and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing; and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind; and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection.

    From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed.
    Everyone should read the Meditations. More should discuss it. It will not make one an atheist, nor will it make one a skeptic. It does not even challenge or criticize religion. Yet Meditations surpasses all in framing thought and in setting reason above desire.

    We struggle to manage desire's rule, especially if we have been told that God or Jesus loves us. Especially if we enjoy being with friends and family at worship services. Especially if we like the architecture and atmosphere of a religious building. We want to feel personally empowered, loved, and connected.

    The power of Meditations is to moderate desire. In fact, it puts desire in the service of reason. Until this happens, one cannot be persuaded that Jesus really isn't Lord, that God really isn't great, that Mohammed isn't Allah's prophet, that we are not sinners, that we do not have souls, that our dead loved ones reside neither in heaven nor hell, and that devils and angels are not fighting over us.

    Tuesday, January 17, 2012

    Two Examples of Jewish Religious Idiocy

    Two recent instances where religious bullies look foolish and petty as they struggle to hold their privilege.

    Exhibit one is bigotry-soaked malcontent Jacob Stein, who calls himself the "Jewish Philosopher." The self-appointed philosopher doesn't think Jeffrey Falick, an ordained rabbi, ought to use the title of rabbi.
    I have never written a post about another blog before, however I am making an exception in this case. I believe that it is an incredible insult to the rabbinate for an individual like this to claim to be a rabbi. If he simply called himself "Mr" I wouldn't give him a second thought. The Internet is loaded with liars, lunatics, perverts, scumbags and so on of all stripes. That's nothing noteworthy. However I do feel the need to protest when one calls himself "rabbi". I really haven't seen something like that before, surely not such an extreme example. Even Reform Judaism officially accepts a belief in God. A militantly atheist "rabbi" is just absurd. How can a clergyman be openly antireligious? Can one imagine the harm done if some naive person were to approach this man for spiritual guidance? I feel it's as if someone like Ron Jeremy (also Jewish by the way) would start calling himself "rabbi". Imagine the storm of disgust and protest that would provoke. What's next - "The Neo-Nazi Rabbi"? "The Islamic Terrorist Rabbi"?
    Falick is more legitimately a rabbi than Stein is a philosopher. But Stein, a convert to Judaism, goes beyond mere intolerance to dangerousness. He surely intends to incite harassment by giving Falick's address, contact information, and employer. Meanwhile, Falick's response is elegant and dignified.

    Exhibit two is up-and-coming attention whore Moshe Averick, who talks schoolyard trash attempting to bait a credible intellectual like Jerry Coyne:
    Jerry, I apologize, because deep down I really like you, and the thought that I am causing you pain, even if it’s just your tuchus, disturbs me to no end. I did hold out the peace-pipe to you in one of my recent columns on Algemeiner.com where I suggested we meet and discuss our differences about Origin of Life in an adult forum at the lovely Hyde Park campus of the University of Chicago, but you have made it clear in several of your posts at Why Evolution is True that you prefer to have women do your fighting for you. That includes both Terri-Lynne McCormick (the wife of Origin of Life researcher Dr. Jack Szostak), and Faye Flam the Planet of the Apes columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Although Ms. McCormick was mistaken about her accusations against me, I certainly admire a woman who “stands by her man,” as she felt she was defending her husband against unfair representation; and while Faye Flam’s arguments against my position were rather weak, to say the least, I do give her credit for (a) being polite and civil in both her public and private communication with me and (b) at least having the courage to write out some form of measured, coherent argument explaining why the utter cluelessness of scientists regarding a naturalistic origin of life does not imply the existence of a Creator.  It is worth noting that both of these women spoke on behalf of Dr. Jack Szostak. It would be interesting to hear what Szostak himself has to say about the ignorance of science about origin of life and the challenges that ID theorists present to his position. [emphasis added]
    Averick has a history of saying stupid and incorrect things, as he himself indicates in his long-winded way of calling Coyne a "pussy." His full intellect and personality revealed, Averick can now slink back in shame to the land of negligibility.

    Sunday, January 15, 2012

    Birthday Lesson: All In

    For the past two years I have used my birthday to reflect on life lessons. I have no lessons this time. My 42nd year was trying in a number of ways. That's not to say it was a bad year or a troubling year, but I was very busy and often stressed. Although many great things happened this year, I can't say I fully enjoyed myself as much and as often as I should have.

    I know the reasons for this. I have taken on too many activities and responsibilities. I have divided my thoughts and emotions into excessively small portions. It may not be that I'm doing too much but rather that when I do anything I need to be more present and engaged.

    So, there is a lesson: full immersion; all in. Here's to being there in my 43rd year.

    Friday, January 13, 2012

    Pissing on the Dead: A Question for Opponents of Moral Relativism

    We use words like honor, code, piss. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline!
    In response to the recent news item of U.S. Marines videoed urinating on what appear to be the corpses of Taliban fighters, many commenters have echoed and agreed with this defense:
    To all of you that are ‘outraged’ or consider this barbaric I say this: Put your boots on and climb into the sand box. When you have been in combat for a few weeks, and you smell of urine, sweat, and the blood from you or a fellow soldier then talk about the humanity of war. When you see children and corpses used as road blocks for IEDs, then talk about the humanity of war. When the stench of death permeates the air around you day in and day out, then talk about the humanity of war. Urinating on a deceased enemy that a few minutes earlier was trying to kill you is somehow minute in the scheme of things. Lopping off heads and slitting throats is somehow not barbaric?
    In the past, I took some heat for sympathizing with moral relativism and nihilism. Interlocutors offered different moral scenarios and asked me if moral relativism would allow me to call certain scenario actions "wrong."

    Well, now I want to hear from you moral realists and those who talk about objective morality. If the individual Marines did what they are accused of doing, did they violate an objective moral law? Which law(s) specifically?

    And what flaws do you see in the defense of the Marines's alleged behavior? Why do the defenders get it wrong?

    NFL Playoff Predictions, Divisional Round (2011 Season)

    In a world of uncertainty and moral depravity, I'm your best bet for wagering on the NFL.
    Rabbi Itzalok has again huddled with the Divine One to predict the outcome of this coming weekend's National Football League divisional playoff games.

    He reminds you that he alone picked anointed Tebow's Broncos to crush the fedora-wearin', aggravated assaultin' Steelers. 

    Here are Rabbi I's picks for the next round:
    • Denver Broncos at New England Patriots. Hallelujah! Broncos shock the world and sacrifice a ram. They win 31-24.
    • New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers. Barry Bonds shows up at the game to clobber Drew Brees. 'Niners 34-31.
    • Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens. Who cares? Ravens by 10.
    • New York Giants at Green Bay Packers. Eli cries while Rodgers shows off his upgraded discount double-check dance. Pack, 41-24.

      Thursday, January 12, 2012

      An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 4, How Can We Have Faith?

      Alpha begins to resemble Bizarro World.
      This is the fourth official installment in the Alpha course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Jewish-raised dude and now a Gnu Atheist who took the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

      I was more alert entering into tonight's session because I was not sure how others in my group understood my perspective last week. Even today, I cannot tell whether at the time they thought I was a Christian with doubts, a Jew with questions, or an atheist bent on troublemaking.

      In this uncertain context, tonight's session would confirm some of my thoughts about Alpha and about the group. I would learn why our small group had four leaders, people who had taken the course before and had had some training in participating as leaders. I would realize that the leaders were using techniques they had been taught as they conducted the class and contributed to small group discussions. And I would see and know what Alpha was really all about. Until tonight, I thought it was about inquiry. After tonight, I knew it was about evangelism.

      My notes on the evening:
      • Chicken sausage and salad for dinner. Very good.
      • I thought someone would give me some questions at dinner, but I was wrong. No religious talk at the table.
      • A couple of songs played and sung by Carmen, with lights dimmed for mood.
      • Nicky Gumbel’s DVD talk was on how to have faith. 
        • His argument was that one could know and have faith in Jesus/God by:
          • Reading the Bible
          • Considering the death and resurrection of Jesus as historical events
          • Having the proper attitude and frame of mind
        • Gumbel also talked about being a Christian as being a follower of Jesus. 
          • Who determines who a follower is?
          • Can one be a follower and still think Jesus was OK in some respects but flawed in others?
        • Lots of emphasis on:
          • John's gospel, which of course is late and quite different from the synoptics. In fact, it is a wicked text.
          • Doctrinal teachings of Paul
        • So far, we are not answering “the big questions” but are rather being encouraged in the faith. This whole program is about helping folks become more sure of their faith and more religious.
      • Small group discussion started off with an ice-breaker. We went around with reactions to the talk and ideas about faith.
        • People talked about having conversations with Jesus/God, with coming to faith through prayer and so forth.
        • About 15-20 minutes in, the woo became too much for me and I asked why people felt that faith offered a “special sauce” to things they could do or get just as well without faith.
        • There was a comment on Christian values and such, as in why one would have any moral restraint at all if one wasn’t a Christian.
        • There was a comment on a morality derived from “survival of the fittest.”
        • It was recommended to me to read the Bible and how wonderful it would be. I mentioned that I have read the Bible many times.
        • I challenged the idea of Jesus having given a “free gift” because the consequences of not accepting the gift after the fact are H-E-L-L.
      • I am feeling irritated at being the “village atheist,” even if people don't yet get that I am an atheist. 
        • I have not said I am and no one has asked.
        • I'm also irritated that Alpha is about encouraging faith, not about exploring “big issues.” 
        • Everyone except me is looking for a reason and a way to accept the faith. 
      I was soured enough on the session to send the following note to my wife:

      Was thinking about something as I drove into work today.

      I go to Alpha because I love you and want to be with you, and because I was invited by Carmen. I enjoy the people and the interaction, but I wonder if my presence will sooner or later become a nuisance.

      Yesterday in small group, one woman encouraged me to read the Bible, and she made her statement in reference to what she imagined was my "struggle with faith." You of course know that I am not having any kind of struggle, but these folks don't. I would hate to have them think I attend Alpha either to achieve some sort of faith or to be a contrarian pest. I'm there for you and for the discussion (and for the food), and that's it. I'm not looking to buy Christianity or to sell not-Christianity.

      I know that there are many more sessions to come, but so far it seems the purpose of Alpha is to encourage people in the faith. We have only skirted on addressing the "big questions." If faith-building is the main objective, I wonder if the group leaders and others would prefer that I not attend.

      After all, I'm never going to be a Christian in their sense of the term, and I'm never going to conclude something radically different about gods and religions generally. I know what the texts are and how they were written. I know the historical questions and backdrops. I know the philosophies and the theologies. And I know the desires and fears that have always driven religious experience.

      My point is that I can never be anything but an opponent to someone seeking faith or to a group trying to promote it. Scott, Karen, and Josh lead our group trying to get people to open themselves to faith. I'm "closed," of course, and so maybe they'd feel like they could better accomplish what they wanted if I were not there.

      Now, I don't want to steer people away from faith. I don't even think I could do this if I wanted to. I don't care what people choose to believe. I care about facts, and I only feel like speaking when people play fast and loose with factual information.

      I should also say that I enjoy being in the group and speaking up. I like to argue and to dialogue. I want to stay, but I understand if the group leaders feel as though my participation is going to jam them up or cloud matters for others.

      So, could you please ask them--maybe through Karen--if they are comfortable with my continued participation? Are you comfortable?


      This note was never sent, fortunately. But I pretty much shut up after this class--pretty much, not totally. I decided that my role in the group was only to support my wife and to correct any misapprehensions about atheists.

      I figured out that group leaders had been instructed to let others in the group air out their thoughts, experiences, views, doubts, and so forth. They were not to engage in debate but rather to recount their personal experiences. When they spoke, they often related their first-hand experience. The tactic was clear: "You may doubt miracles, but I know what I saw with my own eyes." The tactic also helped people feel close to those who were opening themselves up publicly.

      I think two other people have emerged as having some reservations. What's remarkable is that the trouble for them does not seem to be Christianity but rather their self-consciousness at not being as open to it as they feel they should be. This assessment is speculative, but I understand it. I have posted here about how I once felt like my agnosticism was my fault and that I should be a better, more consistently-believing Jew.

      Ironically, after writing the note to my wife and concluding about my role in the group and course, I settled down and just started to observe. From turmoil came solace. That's about the time I began to think about possibly posting my experiences. The experiences would start to get ever more bizarre.

      Wednesday, January 11, 2012

      Romney's Victory Speech from New Hampshire

      "I am truly humbled by how awesome it would be for me to be president."
      Mitt Romney has spent decades running for the U.S. presidency. I remember when he campaigned for governor of Massachusetts. Everybody knew then he was angling for a bigger job; it was one of the knocks against him.

      Romney's recent victories in Iowa and New Hampshire owe themselves to his monumental efforts for years to fashion himself into candidacy. I'm interested to see how he fares in the south and midwest. Will he be confirmed as the GOP candidate or taken down as too middle-of-the-road?

      I won't vote for Romney. He was only a fair governor, and he seems to me to represent a more deleterious option than even the Obama administration. His espoused actions and values would benefit the well-off in the immediate future, leave workers and unemployed on their own, and devastate the poorest and neediest. I speculate, of course.

      In a political campaign, the speeches alone have any value. They are where one learns about who the candidates think they are and who they are fighting. Here are selections from Romney's speech last night, following his victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary. I number them for reference afterward.
      (1) Americans know that our future is brighter and better than these troubled times. We still believe in the hope, the promise, and the dream of America. We still believe in that shining city on a hill.

      (2) The president has run out of ideas. Now, he’s running out of excuses. And tonight, we are asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time.

      (3) President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation. This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success. In these difficult times, we cannot abandon the core values that define us as unique - We are One Nation, Under God.

      (4) Make no mistake, in this campaign, I will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense.

      Our campaign is about more than replacing a president; it is about saving the soul of America. This election is a choice between two very different destinies.

      President Obama wants to ‘fundamentally transform’ America. We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great.

      He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.

      This president takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America.

      This president puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.

      He is making the federal government bigger, burdensome, and bloated. I will make it simpler, smaller, and smarter.

      He raised the national debt. I will cut, cap, and balance the budget.

      He enacted job-killing regulations; I’ll eliminate them.

      He lost our AAA credit rating; I’ll restore it.

      He passed Obamacare; I’ll repeal it.

      When it comes to the economy, my highest priority as president will be worrying about your job, not saving my own.

      (5) Internationally, President Obama has adopted an appeasement strategy. He believes America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past. I believe a strong America must – and will – lead the future.

      He doesn’t see the need for overwhelming American military superiority. I will insist on a military so powerful no one would think of challenging it.

      He chastises friends like Israel; I’ll stand with our friends.

      He apologizes for America; I will never apologize for the greatest nation in the history of the Earth.

      Our plans protect freedom and opportunity, and our blueprint is the Constitution of the United States.
      I could have selected more passages, but this sample shows us plenty about Romney and the drama he wants people to imagine for the campaign:
      (1) America needs to return to a Christianized awesomeness.
      (2) Obama is weak and effete; the men are now coming to fix it all.
      (3) Don't hate the well-off; we love the little people. If you are struggling, God wants you to STFU.
      (4) America needs to just let business shit ride because as long as the people have jobs, it will all be okay.
      (5) America needs to act like a bad-ass.
      The main takeaway from Romney's speech is that he has illustrated what George Orwell complained about in "Politics and the English Language" (1946):
      As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.
      The selected examples from Romney's speech show a deliberate, cynical attempt to invoke authority by ideal. The "city on a hill" meme in (1) traces back to the biblical Isaiah and the Sermon on the Mount as well as to more recent political speeches by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Example (2) casts Obama as the weak mayor of an old west town--yer out of time, mister! Romney's being an irresponsible dick in (3): "bitter politics of envy" means nothing except to invoke divisiveness to criticize others for being divisive. What can be more vacuous than saying "We are One Nation, Under God"? Anyone left in the room after hearing (3) should have walked away from Romney the second his verbal dysentery resulted in the soul and destiny-inflected slogans of (4). That whole passage says only that Romney's do-nothing policies will be enacted with a more pleasant and palatable attitude. And (5), too, is all about America's posture.

      This rhetoric is intolerable. It's insulting. Do people really buy Romney's message? Why?

      Tuesday, January 10, 2012

      Religion and Smallness

      Checking in from dissertation land. As I get into the work, I tense up at how great the labor is, and how small I am before it. It's a multi-colored mountain of junk, trinkets, nuggets, knick-knacks, gems, and rotting fruit all piled higher than Babel. And I stand in front of it with slacked shoulders and bent knees, grabbing an item here to make a sort, walking around there to something else for a different sort. To say I'm daunted is way beneath understatement.

      But continue on, I do. So Yoda has instructed.

      My leisure thoughts turn to reflecting on 2011. My birthday approaches and I want to clarify one or two truths I've pulled from that other Babel pile, my life. More than anything else, the year was demanding. If last year I appealed to myself and to the blogosphere for peace, perhaps I sensed my desire to be--or at least feel--less put upon.

      Didn't happen.

      I was needed. My family needed my presence and engagement. My ambitions demanded my time and my mind. My work had its requirements, too.

      Life is a wave passing by the center of the ocean, as far away from land as one can be. It has a force that I can't resist. I don't think anyone can. Some lucky folks keep their balance as the force moves them in the wave's direction. Some struggle in the sea for equilibrium. Others rotate around and around, unable to stop what the rushing wave caused for them.

      In this image, I finally see what religion and religious experience really are. I don't mean the political religion of the popes and pastors and rabbis and mullahs and masters. I mean the private religion of people such as those I knew in my Chabad days and those I met at Alpha. I mean the faith of individual men and women trying to adjust to the wave.

      Yes, religion involves community and stability. Yes, it feeds on family togetherness. Yes, it declares the believer's trust in what admired elders and righteous ancestors have openly, publicly shared. And yes, it helps one feel more certain that she is doing right.

      These are all symptoms of a more basic awareness: that one is small and alone. When we get sick or scared, the awareness re-emerges. What drives religion more than anything else? What's the source of religion's symptoms and political fingerprints? It's not quite fear, as Bertrand Russell concluded, but both understanding the basic human situation and instinctively reacting to it.

      It's a process. One slowly comes to grips with his smallness and solitude. One performs being small and alone, and one conjures a figure for the bigness and everythingness of the passing wave. One deals with oblivion by doing something, anything. It's something meaningless and pointless, but it orients one and directs his desire.

      That's religion. Doing something for a release and for a wish. It might look like floating, or swimming, or surfing, or drowning. It might look like fun or fear or deference. But it's actually futility playing futility, an actor playing the part of herself. It's an undercover cop who actually is corrupt.

      This is not a criticism of religion. How could it be?

      Friday, January 06, 2012

      NFL Playoff Predictions, Wild Card Weekend (2011 Season)

      I predict which teams will win the spiritual playoffs. And when I pick, it's a lock.
      After many weeks, Rabbi Itzalok returns!

      He has huddled with the Divine One to predict the outcome of this coming weekend's National Football League wild card playoff games.

      Here are the picks from the ever-sharp Rabbi I:
      • Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans. Texans win the rematch, 27-21.
      • Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints. I freaking hate the Saints, which gua-ron-TEES they'll win. I put it at 38-31.
      • Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants. Who cares? Giants pull away in the second half for a 29-20 victory, which will make their loss next week less bitter.
      • Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos. Broncos win 17-14 as Jesus favors Tim Tebow and fucks Bill Maher.

      Thursday, January 05, 2012

      An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 3, Why Did Jesus Die?

      Cart before the horse: If Jesus is God, God is God.
      This is the third official installment in the Alpha course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Jewish-raised dude and now a Gnu Atheist who took the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

      One striking item from the first two meetings was the "go directly to Jesus, don't worry about God or the Old Testament" approach. Alpha founder and DVD star Nicky Gumbel had argued that instead of first determining that God exists and then establishing that Jesus was who Christians say he was, we should focus on Jesus and use Jesus to confirm the truth of everything in the Old Testament.

      Almost needless to say, I found this approach as much like putting the cart before the horse as actually putting the cart before the horse. Why? Because if you don't automatically grant the Bible as reliable, then Jesus has little to offer anyways and his story makes no impact whatsoever on the existence and nature of God. The figure, story, and cultural power of Jesus only make sense in the context of ancient Israel's providential God.

      This was the week I decided to speak up. I wasn't about to take another small group session of listening to the clock on the wall tick the seconds away. My notes on the evening:

      • Good meal. No religion talk at the table, just small talk.
      • Introductory announcements increasingly emphasize an overnight getaway scheduled in four or five weeks. They want everyone to go. I'm ambivalent about it, but if the wife wants to go I probably will too.
      • A new feature: live music!
        • My wife's friend Carmen plays guitar and sings. In front of a PowerPoint slide with the lyrics, she performed "Amazing Grace" and "How Great is Our God."
        • A more-than-casual justification was given by Rose for including music in the program. She said that many people found music one of the best parts of Alpha. I don't recall whether she called it "worship," specifically, but that's what was going on. The songs were, after all, worship songs.
        • Lights were turned down low and everyone stood as the music played.
        • The words of "Amazing Grace" were combined with the tune and chorus of "Peaceful, Easy Feeling" by the Eagles. I'm not a fan of this approach. I can only imagine what Glen Frey would think.
      • Gumbel's DVD talk on why Jesus died. 
        • Basically the case is that we all sin and Jesus came to bear our sins for us. Now we are free to have a relationship with God if we accept the “offer.”
        • Two analogies were used to explain the situation of our sin and what it was that Jesus did. Neither analogy was accurate to the doctrine, however. Both glossed over that (1) the “sacrifice” was made on our behalf without our prior knowledge or consent, and (2) a post-hoc demand to compensate the sacrifice was placed on us. For the analogies themselves, refer to Stephen Butterfield's account of Alpha. It's pretty much the same thing.
      • Small group discussion was lively, mainly because I grew intolerant of the silence and decided to speak.
        • I asked whether Jesus would have atoned on Yom Kippur, and how he would have done so. Not a great or a gotcha kind of question but just a reminder about how little we really know about an actual Jesus being a Jew in ancient Israel.There's also the strangeness of thinking about God incarnate in the crowd of Jews praying and atoning before God the Father.
        • I objected to the idea of sin as rather arbitrary and unbalanced. After all, I think we are probably more altruistic than sinful, if someone is keeping score. I questioned whether people are naturally sinful or whether they have impulses and tendencies.
        • I did not raise but might have why we were not created to be able to reach our full potential. Everything else in the universe gets to be what it’s supposed to be except us.
        • I raised the idea that incarnating oneself for the purpose of being humiliated and murdered hardly seems like an expression of love, and in any case it cannot be the best idea the Creator of the universe has to fix any problem.
      • Through my speaking, I became what earlier I did not want to be: the token Jew/Atheist/Non-believer. 
      I must point out that I did not monopolize discussion. Many people in the group spoke up and defended their ideas that we are sinners who need salvation and that Jesus did a great and noble thing by being crucified.

      No one seemed hostile to anything I'd said, but on the other hand no one felt that my objection about sin was anything to make them re-think their ideas. Same when I suggested that perhaps Jesus's "sacrifice" wasn't all that necessary, even if it were true we were sinners in need of forgiveness. People seemed to be of the mindset "Well of course we needed Jesus, you silly!"

      I get why they think this way. It's the sine qua non of Christianity. Still....

      People generally left the session remarking the discussion was good and lively. I left nervous, not knowing if the group leaders or others would try to engage me specifically in argument the next week.

        Wednesday, January 04, 2012

        How I'm Writing the Dissertation

        People may be interested to know how I intend to go about writing my dissertation this year. My topic is medieval English literature, and I will write a software program to do a special sort of parsing for several texts in the corpus. I have three different types of parsing I want to do, and most of the dissertation will concern recording and analyzing the results generated by the program.

        The project is pretty exciting, which is not an unimportant point because one reason I didn't finish my first dissertation back in 2001 was that I fell out of love with the topic. Back then, I had written two decent chapters but couldn't do the research or find a focus for the remaining chapters. My prospectus and plan were hardly helpful and I eventually had to resign myself to the idea that the project was untenable.

        As I see it, once the software program is sufficiently developed, the dissertation itself should be relatively easy to complete. Of course, herein lies the major technical challenge: my ability to write the program. Software developing has been much more difficult than I imagined, but I'm working it. My hope is to have the program ready for trial by the end of this month or middle of next month.

        Another challenge is my lifestyle. After all, I am a professional with a full-time salaried position. I'm not a graduate student with a few classes to teach and chunks of time that can be dedicated to library work and writing. I also have a household to care for, which means my family and my home. My kids want attention from me. My wife needs me to help out around the house. Bills need to be paid, errands need to be run, neighbors and friends need to be connected with. Finally, I need to manage my health and fitness.

        Given my technical and time constraints, here is how I have game-planned the dissertation:
        • At least 15 minutes per day learning and doing software development.
        • At least 15 minutes per day planning dissertation content.
        Fifteen minutes may not sound like a lot of time, but it can be. Besides, I often work for much longer than that. The main thing is to dedicate some time every day to being productive on the main elements of the project. In this way, I'm approaching the project similarly to how I conduct an exercise program or business project.

        Indeed, the formal 15 minutes are "executive sessions" and not necessarily the execution work of programming or writing. These execution activities can take place throughout the day, even while I'm at my day job. Although I am at work during the day and have a full schedule of meetings and tasks, I also have pockets of time where I can focus exclusively on some part of the dissertation. What's more, I often have opportunities to work the dissertation as part of a multi-task scenario. In fact, that's how I blog as much as I do. Beyond the execution work, the 15-minute executive sessions will allow me to develop and refine the big picture of the dissertation, its important arguments, lines of support and evidence, critical background and objections, and paths forward.

        The innovation (for me) of my approach lies in how I'll actually write the chapters. In short: I won't write. Instead, I am going to spend most of my time, at least in the early stage, using a storyboard process. Storyboarding is a technique I use in my job to help our technical teams develop proposal content. It's like a very robust outline that accounts for what information customers have asked for, what knowledge we bring to the subject, and what features and benefits distinguish our offering from other companies competing for the same business.

        The advantage of storyboarding for the dissertation is that it allows for capturing a lot of data in individual sections while also making it possible to find places in the large-scale outline for new information and arguments. My dissertation writing plan, to make it basic, is to storyboard the dissertation so completely that it's practically written when I put everything together.

        I have a high degree of confidence in this process because I've used it dozens of times at work. Nevertheless, it doesn't make completing the dissertation any easier or less labor intensive. But it will help me work on all of the dissertation instead of on individual chapters in sequence.

        I'm excited about the project and about how I intend to conduct it. All that's left is to do it!

        Tuesday, January 03, 2012

        Medieval Jewish Scrolls...in Afghanistan

        From The Jerusalem Post:
        The scholarly world is abuzz over the discovery of ancient Jewish scrolls in a cave in Afghanistan’s Samangan province.

        If the scrolls are authenticated, they may be the most significant historical finding in the Jewish world since that of the Cairo Geniza in the 19th century, Channel 2 Arab affairs correspondent Ehud Ya’ari reported Friday.

        “We know today about a couple of findings,” Haggai Ben- Shammai, professor emeritus of Arabic language and literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was quoted as saying.

        “In all, in my opinion, there are about 150 fragments. It may be the tip of the iceberg.”

        The scrolls, which were part of a geniza – a burial site for sacred Jewish texts – date from around 1,000 years ago and are in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and ancient Persian.

        One scroll, a replica of which was shown to the cameras, was apparently a dirge written for an important person whose identity has not been determined.

        “Where has he gone?” reads the text. “His family members are now alone.”

        Other texts said to have been found include an unknown history of the Kingdom of Judea, passages from the Book of Isaiah and some of the works of 10th-century sage Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon.

        In addition, rings with names such as Shmuel Bar-Yosef inscribed in Hebrew on them have surfaced.

        The area in which the scrolls were discovered is on the Silk Road, a trade route that connected eastern Asia with the Middle East and Europe, and that Jewish merchants often traveled.

        Ya’ari quoted sources as saying the scrolls had first been moved to Pakistan’s Peshawar province, and from there been sold to antiquities dealers in Geneva, London, Dubai and Jerusalem.

        He said the Prime Minister’s Office and several Jewish businessmen had expressed interest in buying the scrolls from dealers and collectors, but the process was in its early stages.

        The Cairo Geniza has produced 280,000 texts, providing a wealth of information on almost every aspect of Jewish history.
        These texts apparently date to the 11th century and possibly belong to someone in the Karaite community.