Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Where to Go from Here

I had mentioned in an earlier post that I had some book ideas I wanted to pursue. Actually, I have three:

(1) Writing and Living Well - a book that argues if you know how to write, then you know how to live a happier and more successful life.
(2) Ever Jewish - A collection of essays from ordinary people about topics in modern Jewish life and the Jewish experience.
(3) A novel (or novella) about an interfaith family with a son who must decide whether to be bar mitzvah-ed. The mother becomes very devout, the older daughter almost more evangelical, and the father becomes almost completely orthodox Jew.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Free at Last

I submitted a complete book manuscript to my author friend: over 89,000 words. I am very happy to have this part of the project more or less wrapped up, but I am also a bit disappointed. I wish that the relationship with my author friend had worked out better. I also wish I'd been able to clear up some of the gaps and discrepancies that I know remain in the text. I was hoping that this work would possibly lead to my doing more in writing and publishing. Now, I am highly doubtful that the book will ever be published. Already, I have emailed my friend and his secretary to get acknowledgment for having received the manuscript, but none has come.

This is the cover note I sent with the manuscript:
Hi Author Friend,

Attached is the single file with the complete draft of the manuscript, sections one through seven. Please let me know that the file has come through OK and that you can open it. If everything meets with your approval, then I hope we can consider my part of the agreement fulfilled regarding the completion of the manuscript draft. Section 6, Chapter 39 needs your wisdom.

As I indicated earlier, 2009 is 150 years on from Darwin's Origin of Species. That's why I like the title and why I think we want to push publication in 2009.

I have appreciated working with you and am very grateful for this opportunity. Although the current manuscript has much that can be improved, it also has much to recommend it. I firmly believe that if we continue to work together, you will be able to sell the manuscript and have the book make a nice impact in the market. I hope that you and I can continue working together on this manuscript to polish it, add more examples and concrete details, and connect all the key threads.

I have some expectations as to what happens from this point onward, and I would appreciate it if you would correct anything I say now that is in error:
(1) You will now go through the manuscript, section by section. You will re-write some parts to match your style. You will add material based on your unique store of knowledge and insight. You will revise and edit as you feel necessary.
(2) If you choose, you may send revised versions of sections or chapters to me, and I will happily review and provide feedback.
(3) You will work to sell the manuscript to publishers. Although you have no obligation to keep me informed of your activities, I hope you will let me know of significant meetings you have upcoming or recently passed. I want you to know that I would like to support your efforts to sell the manuscript. Although my schedule is incredibly hectic, I will strive to make time to help you, as needed.
(4) If you sell the manuscript, you will promptly inform me of the details and what it means for the completion of the payment part of our contractual agreement.
(5) If outside parties ask for substantial edits or re-writes, you may ask me to do them. I cannot promise availability, but I do want to help and I will certainly try to work with you on this.
(6) If you sell the manuscript, you will provide me with updates on an ongoing basis so that I will know about key milestones (esp. the official publication date). Post-publication, you will share any reviews or sales information you receive, if any.
(7) In advance of publication, you will, if you choose, allow me at least to be informed of any marketing or publicity related to the book. As I have said, if there is anything I can do to help, I want to try and be available for you.
I know how busy you are, but please let me know if anything above is incorrect or misguided. Otherwise, I’ll simply consider it agreed between us.

To conclude the draft part of this project, let me again thank you for the opportunity to work with you. Although in the book we state many things diplomatically, some of the ideas and phrasings should generate some attention and make for a fun reaction in the market. The book lays out solid arguments and approaches that you could bring to a new series of debates and lectures. Several topics we touch upon could themselves develop into whole book projects.

I would suggest that you and I find a way to work together on new projects. I have several ideas that could make viable projects for a popular book or book series. Perhaps these could be projects under the JVN imprint that include a preface or introduction from you. If you wish, we can discuss.

I wish you and yours the very best as you begin the next phase of this book project. As I have said, if I am able, I will provide any further help you want. Please let me know about the items above, and let’s continue to talk to each other.

Larry Tanner
Any lessons learned from all of this? I am happy that I took on this project, even though it was often ugly and stressful. I now have confidence that I could produce my own book - all I need is the same discipline and focus. I have several book ideas, and I think I should pursue them. I also see that I need to be careful about spreading myself too thin. During the 6-7 months of writing, my main work has suffered, as has my teaching. Even home life has been affected. I also see that I am not an easy person to work with. I am stubborn, inflexible, and rather selfish.

How bad was my author friend? I want to be fair in criticizing him. I found him difficult to work with because he did not focus on me and our work very well. He got very upset easily, and at times he got personal with his remarks. He was not very collaborative. I was disappointed that he didn't have more to say/contribute in individual chapters. Ultimately, neither of us communicated effectively with each other.

What happens now? On the one hand, I want him to go through the manuscript carefully and add relevant information on stuff he knows about. On the other hand, I don't want him revising out some of the key points. While I want the manuscript to be sold, I don't want it sold as-is. But I know the economy is in the tank, and publishers aren't scrambling for new manuscripts. What the manuscript really needs is a good editor, someone who can help us root out contradictions, make the prose more electric, and help us raise up the ideas that will generate publicity and notoriety for the book:
Section 1: As it has become popular at the mainstream level, the science and religion debate has become slogged down. It's become basically two defined camps lobbing grenades at each other and not seeking to work together or come to any new understanding.
Section 2: The early science and religion debates show that constructive dialogue is possible, but the debates always risk sinking down to theatrics.
Section 3: Science is itself a blind watchmaker. Science theorizes nature and physical reality as a blind watchmaker because this is what science is. Science basically projects itself onto the universe it seeks to describe.
Section 4: Reality is poetry that animates both science and religion. This means that science should seriously engage the idea of the divine and that religion should honestly and openly discuss the implications of materialism.
Section 5: Darwinian evolution contains elements that fascist ideology drew upon because without a theistic conception of morality, there are no ethical stop signs on behavior.
Section 6: Judaism is not an earlier or simpler version of Christianity. Jews do not "believe in" G-d in the way that atheists and mainstream culture usually consider.
Section 7: A rational religion can reach across the divide between belief and non-belief. A Theo Bright database can be a way forward against the "orientalizing" tendencies of atheist argumentation.
Though I'll find it difficult, I am going to try not to think about the book anymore. I'll send some tidy-up messages, but basically I hope that the next message I get from my author friend is congratulations on our having sold the manuscript, pending some changes. The ball is in his court. Good riddance.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Remember Poetry

I finally downloaded some of my old poems. Many of these are from college. Others are later add-ons. Most of them are really terrible. They all lack a point. None has any tension or real linguistic art. I suppose I can take some comfort in my ability at least to recognize this.

I kind of like one poem I wrote about
What music is –
this unordinary gift that emerges,
streams start and stops
piano figures here
double-bass comments there
the drummer with sticks and brushes
splashes not rhythm but idea.

It all mixes
but not, never, perfectly
it evokes, evolves, teases, grates,
always moving in motion –
now scales, [lift, lift; dip, dip]
then cymbal taps, [pit-tit-tit, pit-tit-tit, pit-tit-tit]
soon color. [ --- ]

The spontaneous dance continues,
improvisers translate and create the abstract terrain,
ungracefully around
more than beautiful
more than beauty
more than beats
less than tick tocks
less than universal
less than unique.

This music
as life:
its detail
simple moments unrepeatable
the players
changes –
I surround myself in it
and always am an honest person.
What I like is that it's a "smart" poem, but not too smart. Essentially, it tries both to describe the music and the experience of hearing it being played. I remember writing this poem while listening to the Keith Jarrett trio's free jazz album (one of them, anyway). In the poem, I wanted to capture the daring of the music, the blind steps the players take. Well, it's not so much blind; they see a few steps ahead, but they don't necessarily know to where they are being led. Yet they go there willingly and boldly. As a listener, I am thrilled by not knowing where they are going or how they will get there. I found that thrill and that ignorance as profoundly true, as a leveler of dishonesty.

Friday, November 21, 2008

And I Thought Things Were Going So Well....

So, I am working to try and finish the complete draft of the book manuscript. Meanwhile, I am pushing to get the contract finalized, since I don't want to release the complete manuscript until the contract has been signed by everyone and I have my copy. Mean-meanwhile, I am also looking to get some feedback on drafts.

So, I open my email today and here's the message from my author friend:
hi larry
here are some of my notes on the chapter.

i have to tell you that although we have a contract, i don't think your best interest are served. i agreed to it because i could not be bothered. but the book is not of publication caliber and i strongly doubt we will get a publisher.

we did not meet the way we said we would. we cancelled the meetings, which was in the contract larry, you cancelled them, and as a result the book lacks gravitas, is not forceful, is a little too academic, and will not, i predict, sustain the reader's interest. it's not that you didn't do a good job. rather, i have debated these issues so many times, i know what scores with readers, and most of that is not in the book. this last chapter goes through all the major atheist objections to religion in short soundbites. people are not going to find it convincing.

and is say that you lost out in the end because the only way you're going to make any serious money is if the book finds a publisher.

in any event, give me the complete manuscript now and i will show it to a couple of people in publishing. maybe they feel different.

thank you larry

author friend

To be honest, this email has hurt me a little bit. What does he mean that my interests are not served by a signed contract? Why add that he could not be bothered, as if to say that his time is more valuable than mine? What does the contract have to do with the quality of the chapters of the book? How can he say the book is not publication caliber when he has not seen the manuscript? All he's ever read are in-process drafts. He canceled and re-scheduled meetings, and he was difficult to get hold of by phone - and anyway, what I needed was written feedback more than anything else.

Here's what I emailed back:
Hi Author Friend,

Thanks for your comments, and your concern. I will review your comments and seek to improve the chapter accordingly. The first draft of the whole manuscript will be finished soon, and I will send that. I don't doubt that the book is not publication caliber yet. When we first began talking about the project, you said that you would have to re-write everything that I did in order to make the material conform to your viewpoint and style. My understanding is that the completed manuscript will be circulated for feedback so that it can be made less academic, more forceful and so on.

Frankly, I think the book will actually score with readers more than you think. I have seen many debates, yours and others. I have read the reactions of all sorts of people to the debaters and to the arguments. People don't want us to repeat the same old tired arguments and responses. I think you and I push the debate forward in an interesting, uncompromising and viable way. We look at atheism, science and religion in the face and help people see where they can go from here. Can we make improvements? Yes. Can we press harder? Yes. I really feel that once YOU start working this manuscript and adding your detailed knowledge and insight, the resulting product will be an engaging, thoughtful and original treatment of the subject.

The 150th anniversary of Origin of Species is next calendar year. Don't miss the opportunity to have this book brought to light now. But I can't stress enough - this has to be YOUR book. I did the research, pulled together solid science, drew in your articles, and worked with your comments. But you also need to work with the manuscript.

I am sorry that we did not meet face-to-face more often. We both canceled dates and though I asked several times for a workable half-way point, we never found one. We both have schedules that make face-to-face interaction challenging. I would have preferred regular weekly calls, and I suggested such on several occasions, but...it is what it is, as they say.

In any event, I will send the complete manuscript in a few weeks, as we have discussed in several emails. I hope when you see the manuscript, your thoughts on it will be more positive. To be honest, I have really enjoyed this project and working with you. What I have wanted most of all is feedback, and when it's been provided, I have been helped greatly. I am grateful for this particular opportunity and the chance to work with you. I would certainly do it again...under the right circumstances.

After you get the final manuscript and begin talking to publishers, why don't we keep in touch and talk? Maybe about the book, maybe not.


Have a good Shabbos,


I think I was a model of restraint, although I don't know that I really addressed his underlying issues. Perhaps he thinks I am simply going to skip town after submitting the manuscript. This guy always seems to mis-read my intentions, as when he bizarrely thought I wanted to include a dialogue between him and me in the chapter. My opinion is that the reason he doesn't like to write things down and give that kind of direction is that he sees on paper how his arguments break down. Very often his thinking is quite flimsy, and writing it out reveals this.

Here is an example: He insisted that I include his public, online spat with Richard Dawkins. When I look at the evolution of the argument, I think my author friend comes out looking very bad. He whines, he takes little side remarks out of context, he inflates and pads his credentials and stature...and he's wrong. I'm now glad he required me to include the whole messy affair, as well as the exchange with Christopher Hitchens. I think most people will see Dawkins and Hitchens each as being in the right against my author friend.

I'm really starting to see it: Religion is philosophy for the limited. Certainly, if a guy as deluded and murky as this can get published, I can too. I just need to find a subject I really, really want to talk about.

Uh-oh. Here's an update from the Author Friend:
Hi larry

You worked very hard on the book and I am grateful.

The contract explicitly says that you will come to see me once a month and we will pay your travel. It makes no mention of my having to travel half way to see you. To the extent that this has not been realized the book has suffered.

Having said that, please get me the manuscript as is right now even while you work on it. I'd like to see it all together and get people's responses.

Good shabbos and thank you
He doesn't realize how the contract is actually worded:
D. Once per month, Contractor may meet (“Meetings”) with Client for a face-to-face discussion of the manuscript to date and matters related to the present agreement.

D.1. Location of the Meetings will be at the Client’s base of operations or some other location as selected by Client, within 250 miles of the Contractor’s base of operations.

D.2. Proposed dates and time for the Meetings are as follows (subject to change by Client and Contractor): June 29, 2008 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm; July 20, 2008 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm; August 24, 2008 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm; September 21, 2008 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

D.3. The frequency and directive for the Meetings are at the Client’s sole and absolute discretion.

D.4. Additional meetings may be scheduled, as deemed necessary by Client.
That "may" in Part D is important. Here is what he said when I mentioned I would not be able to meet face-to-face (This was in response to my email of October 10, 2008):
Me: October, November and December are turning into very busy times for me at my day-job. I am uncertain and, well, doubtful of my ability to travel all the way to NY/NJ to meet with you anytime soon. Perhaps we can make alternate arrangements?

Here is something I emailed to him on October 29:
I just don't see a face-to-face meeting in the cards, but I do want to be flexible. I am sure you understand that my regular job and my family have to be first priorities for me, and their demands on my time and energy have been ramped up lately. While I am trying to meet our timetables - and I think we'll hit them - I am actually paid to focus on my regular work and my family needs me to be home with them. So, we can try a Sunday morning somewhere between Mass. and NY. I cannot make promises of availability because I am on call for my job and family, but I promise that I will try to accommodate you because I value our relationship and the work we are doing.

Possible Sundays that might work: 11/16, 11/23, 12/7, 12/14. If any of these are good for you, let's go early in the morning, please. We can also do an extended conference call. Just give me your undivided attention - I'll be in front of a computer and we'll get a lot accomplished.
I wonder if he's going to try and stiff me. I may have to take my $6,250 and run.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Priest: No Communion for Obama voters

This article demonstrates the frustrating lunacy of political ideology filtered through religion. I think this priest deserves the highest level of censure for seeking to use people's faith as a means of political retribution.

One of the galling elements of this story is the irrational focus on one issue. I grant that abortion is a serious matter, but it's not the top item on the president's agenda. At least I hope it isn't.

Christianity has always seemed to me a religion preoccupied with death and over death. Judaism has its quirks as well, see the Motl case, but Christianity cannot make a sentence without a subject, a verb and some death-related idea (pace, Joe Biden).

People in the U.S. need to re-claim privacy and decorum. Not everything on one's mind should be made public, especially in politics and religion.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Humanists Launch G-dless Holiday Campaign

I like this campaign and the debate it is likely to stir.

Be good for goodness's sake - it's so simple!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Veteran's Day Speech by GWB

I found this transcript of President Bush's speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. The story on September 11, 2001 is fascinating.

The lame-duckedness of the president is palpable.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

An Uneasy Dedication

This weekend, my son is to be brought up to the front of my wife’s church and “dedicated” specifically to Jsus. Now, this symbolic human sacrifice troubles my Jewish-derived sensibilities anyway, but it also bothers me to impose this ceremony on my son without his consent. True enough, when he was just days old I had him circumcised without his consent, but this also was no ceremonial event. The doctor just did it in a back room.

Such is the life of one married to an ever-more-devout religious person, especially when one comes to accept that agnosticism-atheism makes the most sense to him. As this agnostic atheist, I acknowledge and truly treasure my Jewish heritage and the faith of my ancestors. I seek to know these beliefs, and I look upon them with humility, sympathy and even empathy. I consider myself a Jew, and to some extent I always will.

Do I believe in G-d? The answer is no, but it’s not an unequivocal no. It is a no of belief: I do not feel sure enough to have the scales tipped toward faith. I have little confidence that I ever will...and I am OK with this.

I really don’t mind my son going to church with my wife, even though it is not the Catholic church that we agreed upon for our children before our marriage. I never – never – agreed to this new evangelical church. At best, I am lukewarm to its doctrines, preaching, or approach to life and the world. I can handle the children going to church, but I am uncomfortable seeing them made into ritual objects.

My infant son will be carried up to the altar by my wife, not with me, and the preacher man will utter some meaningless words at him, over him, but not to him. This ritual will have more to do with my wife than my son. Certainly, I will be proud of both my son and my wife, at this time and beyond.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Despite Agnosticism: Why I Am a Jew

I do not title this essay “Why I Am a Jew” in full reference, or as a Jewish response, to Bertrand Russell’s well-known lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian.” However, I will have comments on some of his points.

At the outset, I want to consider something that seems curious. Most Americans of every persuasion, and non-Americans as well, consider the United States to be a Christian nation. That is, while they know the country’s official doctrine of “separation of church and state,” they nevertheless regard Christian belief and values as underpinning our governance, legal process, culture and social organization. At the same time, many Americans lament with reasonable concern that we are as secular and humanist a society as we have ever been. I think we all can agree without need of elaborate detail that our society overvalues celebrity, too easily becomes swept up into tawdry scandal and public squabbles, and too much promotes self-gratification and self-indulgence over humility and modesty. Despite this, religion and religious affiliation figure prominently in the lives and identities of a great many Americans.

Although Jews have traditionally felt a deep cultural, historical and religious bond with the land of Israel, they are most at home in America. Perhaps this is because, seemingly alone among the nations of the Earth, America strives to recognize and respect most, if not all, religions. Subscribers to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism can practice their faiths knowing that they have full legal protection and may worship without mortal fear of their government or countrymen. American culture even accepts, if not embraces, those who categorically reject the idea that a deity exists, as we have witnessed through the ascendant visibility of atheists and the proliferation of secular humanist associations. One may be a Jew most fully in Israel, but one may be Jewish – in a special sense of being, as I shall explain – more freely in America than anywhere else. But this freedom is not without issues.

America’s pluralism must appeal to the Jew more powerfully than it does for other believers and non-believers because Jewishness is, ultimately, a choice. And it is a choice different than that available to our Christian brethren. One may be born to Jewish parents, but one pursues Jewishness on one’s own. Our tradition has deep and solemn love of self-determination, particularly in matters of identity and direction. For this reason, American Jews, and all Jews really, live in a unique two-ness. More than a century ago, scholar and journalist W.E.B. DuBois defined the special two-ness of the African-American experience. His words still educate and enlighten:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
In the Jewish experience, we are born having inherited a Jewish identity, yet each one of us must actively claim it. Of course, we can no more choose our Jewish identity than we can decide our biological parentage. Yet only by declaring ourselves Jewish and seeking to accept the obligations of Jewish practice do we fulfill that heritage. Our Jewish self-consciousness is a product of seeing ourselves through the eyes of our family history and our people’s history and well as through a glitzy American secular culture. Unlike the African-American experience, Jewish two-ness is not a war of unreconciled strivings, each pulling away from the other, but a struggle between two ideals trying to affect each other and integrate into a whole. Jewish two-ness is being Jewish. It's how we are, in constant dialogue with America and ourselves.

For Jews, one of the great beauties of America is that we can – though many do not – embrace the two-ness of our lives here. Our private faith and public lives can exist unreconciled yet in mutual respect, admiration and dialogue. But many do not embrace the doubleness of life as Jews in America. Here, we learn that Judaism is only a religion and one religion among many others. As the role of religion in American life has generally declined over the last century, many Jews have lost or shed the sense that being born Jewish carries significance. On the other hand, even in our enlightened age, many Americans nevertheless continue to see Jews as somehow other than themselves. A Jew growing up in this world has a pronounced sense of two-ness: feeling at home in America yet perceiving that some Americans consider Jews as, at best, quasi-Americans or not fully American.

Many Jews today address this doubleness by choosing not to accept the obligations of Jewishness. And the “many” appear to be increasing in number year after year. Nevertheless, in America and around the world, Judaism not only perseveres but actually thrives in our times. I have several hypotheses on why this is so, but the most relevant here is Judaism’s comfort with a version of a “separate but equal” doctrine. The phrase “separate but equal” rightly conjures impressions of the injustices of American segregation and Jim Crow laws. The principle apparently runs counter to America’s often simplistic ideas of equality. But in Judaism, difference is the lifeblood of community. Every group has an important role to play, and the groups mutually depend upon one another. The roles of man, woman, child, rabbi, priest, and so on – they are all interdependent, and each role needs to be fulfilled as well as possible. This is similar to the interdependence in a business of the roles of executive, salesperson, janitor, manager, accountant, and so on. The roles are clearly different from one another, but each role has a unique value and dignity that binds them and should create a peaceable environment in which none in a certain role covets a different role. From a Jewish perspective, it is both absurd and immoral that in one company the CEO could earn more than 10 times the annual salary of the average worker. It is a shame but no wonder that average workers practically kill themselves and sacrifice daily family time to run in the rat race. Judaism asks that each worker, including the CEO, should earn similar wages in recognition that each corporate position exists in a relationship that depends on individuals performing according to their own unique best. This is related to a saying of Rabban Yochanan be Zakkai: “If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, since it is for this that you were formed.” A great scholar or successful corporate executive should not be overly proud of her accomplishments because she has merely done what she was born to be able to do.

I believe that Americanized Jews possess a gut-level knowledge that in the end, however the end is defined, religious and secular self-identifications are but the surface coverings of a common desire to connect with the transcendent. I have found this belief dramatized in a great story by Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” describes an extended dialogue between the secularized narrator and is believing friend. The philosophical differences between the two are sharp and deep, but so too is their underlying affection and bond. The story ends on a somber but not altogether pessimistic note, as the narrator suspends the matter unresolved:

Reb Hersh, it’s late, let us take leave of each other. Our paths are different, spiritually and practically. We are the remnant of those who were driven out. The wind that uprooted us is dispersing us to all the corners of the earth. Who knows if we shall ever meet again? May we both have the merit of meeting again in the future and seeing how it is with us. And may I then be as Jewish as I am now. Reb Hersh, let us embrace each other.
I do not know when we will meet again, those of us who proclaim ourselves to be Jews and those of us who do not. But I genuinely believe that we all will meet again because it is a very good choice to be Jewish, and it is a choice that goes far beyond simply defining a religious affiliation. One can change affiliation, as one can switch political party affiliations. If one is born Jewish, however, one remains Jewish even if the choice is made not to exercise that inheritance. To me, choosing to be Jewish opens up many different ways of being personally fulfilled, beyond intellectual fulfillment and beyond social acceptance. To be Jewish is to be intensely curious about the universe, yet wanting more to learn from it than about it. To be Jewish is to experience real horror when people – any people, but especially Jewish people – behave barbarously, and to take some ownership and responsibility for not having fostered more peace in the world. If I am a Jew, it is not only because I say so, or because I pray and keep kosher. If I am a Jew, it is because every day, and throughout the day, I re-assert my belief that we will all make that connection with transcendence. When we do, and when we are all met together at that celestial place, these worldly identities won’t matter so much.

In light of these thoughts, I reject Bertrand Russell’s conclusion that “Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.” Two responses from a religious perspective seem appropriate. Firstly, fear is certainly a basis of religion, and an important one. The definition of fear, however, ought to be considered carefully. In my view, religion does not want or seek to make people afraid of the unknown or scared at the prospect of being alone. On the contrary, my personal experience and my conversations with hundreds, if not thousands of different people, suggest that religion emboldens people in uncertain times and solitary tribulations. In the aftermath of a natural disaster or a man-made tragedy, the appropriate religious response is not to withdraw and pray, or shrug our shoulders and remark that such things “are G-d’s will,” No, the proper religious response is to take action, to place ourselves where our brothers and sisters are suffering, to share their burden and try to help make it better.

The second response suggests is that fear is certainly not the primary or main basis of religion. Love is. Love of knowledge, love of being a creative force in the universe, love of competition, love of life, love of the visible ineffable within others. And when we articulate love through righteous action, then we interact with the divine and connect with G-d in the ways we were taught long ago. This love can, it must be said, blend into a different kind of fear, the fear of losing that connection with G-d and our people. We read in the Bible how Ruth became Jewish, announcing to Naomi that “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your G-d my G-d.” As with Ruth and Naomi, Judaism is highly personal and familial.

In our age, it may sound trite to make such a statement as love is the basis of religion. Perhaps we don’t trust the variety of emotions that can be called love anymore. Regardless, we must face the world squarely today as we have always needed to. Whether we stand before it in fear or love is something we alone can decide. As a Jew I stand with my people and my G-d, from the three million of us who were unified and gathered at Mount Sinai to the millions more of us fragmented and dispersed across the globe today. Whatever science’s high-tech hunches about humanity and the universe, and however much their claims disturb, we continue to choose serving G-d. Neither science nor tabloid culture can undermine religion, in the end. Only we can.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Slouching Toward Better

I have not made a solid post of my own thoughts (or is “thinking” the word that should be used?). Just to update on life as it’s been recently – not too bad! I’m still writing that book and getting close to a complete first draft of the manuscript. A lot has gone into this – thinking, time, research, energy, and so on. In no particular order, my big worries are:
  • My employer will add his thoughts and revisions to the thing and turn it into a work of utter insanity.
  • The book, assuming it remains pretty much as I have written it, will be seen in the market as not saying something fundamentally unique.
  • The book, assuming it remains pretty much as I have written it, will be shown to rely on lots of flawed thinking.
I have several ideas that I think will make the book palatable and interesting in a marketplace already saturated with science and religion beat downs – usually with religion getting beaten down. Regardless, I will endeavor to write the best manuscript I can and use this opportunity to generate other book projects.

The kids provide such joy to me, even as I get impatient with them and exasperated with the amount of attention they demand. And the wife … well, I would like to see her happier and more cheerful more often. I am resolving to work more around the house.
For Rosh Hashanah, I went to dinner with my parents, then a morning of services with them in Boston, a private tashlich at the lake, and then a morning/early afternoon shul experience with Chabad. It was all very nice. Last year things felt rather flat to me, but this year I have enjoyed the experience. Josh brought his son, a sweet 1.5 year old with a great smile, and my parents were in good moods. We had a nice dinner and pleasant conversation – mostly about the economy, which is on everybody’s minds.

We talked politics, too, but it wasn’t combative. The nice thing about Josh and my folks is that we pretty much respect whatever conclusions the others have reached. Josh is an Obama guy. Dad is a McCain guy. I don’t have a guy, and I refuse to give allegiance to any political figure or party. So we all argue our positions, or lack of them, but eventually these things get left alone. No one feels like the others are stupid for not being persuaded or something. And everyone is receptive to hearing others’ cases, anyway. I wish the world worked more like this.

The next day, the man who gave the Rosh Hashanah sermon gave a rather somber talk about the state of the world. This man is a scholar and someone I would admire greatly if I knew him better. I agree with him that these are times of great worry for what will happen. He discussed how the rabbis often talked about re-orienting ourselves by being better people to others around us. I like this thinking very much. I recall that I can treat the wife and kids better, be more cheerful and helpful, and be more responsible and strong. I can start with them and build up to my colleagues at work and my neighbors. And I can study Torah more, despite my quasi-atheism. I would enjoy this.

The world moves on, and I must move as well. But it is never just me, it’s me and those in my family and community. This can never be forgotten, this need to balance individuality and communal affiliation. Never forget.

Friday, September 19, 2008

I Want Vistors and/or Comments

OK, here goes ...

I have heard it said in the blogosphere that Sarah Palin is a....

Aargh, I can't do it. I was going to drop a C-bomb, but it's just not right. I know very little about Sarah Palin and I'm probably voting republican anyway.


I'd still like some comments.

Maybe I need to find something interesting to say.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why the Press Isn't Taken Seriously

This is an excellent assessment of the sort of media hypocrisy and shenanigans I've railed against for years.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Just Good Enough to Deconstruct

John McIntyre has one of my favorite blogs on writing. Today's post looks at public apathy toward quality - in consumer products and in writing. While I agree with most of his points, I want to take issue with what he does at the end, which is take a cheap shot at deconstruction. In my view he mis-characterizes deconstruction by making it a philosophy of meaninglessness. It's rather an unfortunate cheap shot that glosses over the real insights that a deconstructive approach can yield.

Let's go through the post in sequence. He begins:

Here’s a start for a profoundly depressing day.

The estimable David Sullivan, my colleague at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has a sobering post at That’s the Press, Baby on copy editing and quality. Reacting to a section of a long analysis of American newspapering by Vin Crosbie, he explores the idea that for most readers, good enough is the only standard that matters.

Much of the video quality on Youtube is poor, he points out, but it’s good enough to amuse people; cell phones are less reliable than land lines, but they are good enough to satisfy the customers; a great deal of the writing on the Internet is less than optimal, but it is good enough for all but the most demanding readers. And it’s all free. You could pay money for a newspaper that is better edited, but why would you, if you can get basically the same information, for free and good enough.

Then he says -
It’s not hard to see where this is going. Where this has already been going, as newspapers cut back on all that expensive and time-consuming editing and give the reader the “unmediated” work of reporters, God save the mark. For the past 28 years, I have closed the day in some confidence that the next morning’s paper was better in some respects for my having been on the desk. But the number of people willing to pay for a product with some assured level of quality* — and worse, the number of advertisers confident that such a quality product is the right vehicle for their sales pitches — dwindles.
He closes out with this -

Mr. Sullivan is probably right in speculating that the novelty will begin to fade from many of the currently popular Web sites. I suspect that the great and painful sorting-out under way among American newspapers will result in products — electronic certainly, and perhaps even in print — that have readers and the revenue to support the enterprise. And somewhere in these emerging enterprises there will be a desire for accuracy, precision and clarity. That will require editing. So maybe it’s not the best idea to cut loose all the copy editors just yet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go into the office and put out a newspaper. If I do my job properly, it will be some better than good enough.

In an interesting move, he gives not one but two footnotes, and the real action of the post - for me, anyway - happens here. The first note undercuts possible objectors:
* Before you write about all the ignorant errors you have spotted in The Baltimore Sun and whom do I think I am fooling, let me save time by giving you the answers in advance: (1) You have not seen the ignorant errors that the copy desk caught, and (2) you have not taken into account the quality of most other American newspapers.
The second note, however, goes after deconstruction. McIntyre says:
** If I can digress — and who will stop me? — I suspect that the slow seepage of deconstructionist ideas from the academy into mainstream culture over the past 30 years has contributed to the difficulties in mainstream journalism. If it is the case that any text is merely a reflection of certain interests and power relationships, and if there is no external reality to which a text corresponds, then all of us will think what we prefer to think (or what those power relationships have programmed us to think), and the mainstream media’s preoccupation with fictitious concepts such as “objectivity” is merely another sham. That this is the case may be seen plainly in political journalism, in which people read and tenaciously hold on to assertions that are demonstrably false.
Is it the case "that any text is merely a reflection of certain interests and power relationships"? Well, yes, any text reflects interests and relationships, but a text has more to it than this - so it is NOT merely a reflection. A text actively constructs such relationships. It defines them and gives them a concrete grounding visible to all in and as writing. The reflection is not derivative and it is not identical; rather it is innovative and differential, and this is the whole problem of language. Language is not backwards referential but forwards.

But then I should come back a bit because there's a fundamental quality of text that I think needs to be recognized. Text is not a thing. Just like knowledge is information put to use, text is inscription/writing put to interpretation. In other words, text consists of both the thing being read and the process of reading together. The idea that text makes the scene of (social/political/personal) interests and relationships is not deconstructionist per se. But deconstruction's proponents suggest that these interests and relationships can be inferred and that they matter - at the point(s) of writing and reading.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pointing the Way

A wonderful article by Roy Peter Clark that illustrates how to read with sensitivity and an eye towards rhetorical analysis.

And ... there's a great bit on the role of punctuation. Clark says -
When I took a close look at the punctuation, I marveled at its unobtrusive richness and variety. Without calling attention to itself, the punctuation helped organize and drive the meaning of the text. When you admire a cathedral, it's easy enough to see the rose windows, soaring steeples and flying buttresses. But it is often the little things -- a carving near a choir seat -- that reveal the true genius and attention to detail.
In my days as a literary scholar, I too marveled at the power of punctuation to influence the evolution of meaning in texts. Punctuation, done right, can have an awesome "ripple effect" in how meaning emerges.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Removing Any Doubts ...

... that the Boston Globe is part of the established order and no longer the people's check on it:

Taxachusetts no more

August 11, 2008

EFFORTS TO tamp down antitax sentiment in Massachusetts got an unexpected boost last week: the small-government advocates at the National Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C., issued a report showing that the state's tax burden has dropped a few notches this year. The epithet "Taxachusetts" has been difficult to shake, but the foundation report ranks the state 23d out of 50 for the bite state and local taxes take out of a resident's paycheck. That's just about the middle by anyone's calculation.

As incomes rise and taxes remain fairly stable, Massachusetts' standing improves. The report shows the tax burden here declining steadily since 2005, when Massachusetts ranked 18th among the states. Back in 1980, the year a property tax revolt fueled passage of Proposition 2 1/2, the state ranked second, just behind New York.

States with higher tax burdens include many considered competitors for jobs and skilled workers: California, North Carolina, and Virginia, for example. New Jersey has the highest tax burden of all.

To avoid statistical distortions, it is important to calculate taxes as a proportion of personal income, instead of just per person. States with lower incomes than Massachusetts may have somewhat lower tax rates, but the tax bill hurts more for poorer residents of Arkansas (which ranks 14th for tax burden) or Georgia (16th). It is somewhat akin to the wind-chill factor: the temperature (raw data) may say one thing, but what matters is how much the cold hurts.

In November, voters will be faced with a ballot question to eliminate the state income tax. The tax foundation's report shows Massachusetts moving in the right direction. It should help inform a debate based on facts, not slogans.
Of course, I fully support efforts to eliminate the state income tax. Clearly this piece wants me to reconsider, as if I should be wowed by our number 23 ranking. Or as if I should feel uneasy that "competitor" states such as California rank higher.

This is unabashed propaganda. Denounce it, all.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Outdated? Unreliable? I Don't See a Problem

My ghostwriting employer is angry with me. Beneath the surface, there's always been some tension. He believes, rightly, that at heart I am an agnostic and evolutionist. I am also a skeptic and iconoclast, so this project should work out.

My author friend wondered why I had not been using the quotes from his 1994 book (which uses material compiled in the late 1980s). So, I sent him a table listing all the quotes he wished to use. What the table showed was that all the quotes were either very old, unreliable, taken out of context or off-point. I figured he would see the table and say "You're right. If I use these quotes I may impress some people who don't have access to the Internet, but most people will either yawn from having seen these so often before or lambaste me for using stuff that is incorrect and/or deceptive." That's what I figured, anyway. Here is what I got (pretty much as it was written to me - I omitted the salutation at the very beginning):
this is absurd and shows a real divergence between us on this book.

in essence, you accept evolution. i question it. but it is my book.

you are overly deferential to science when you don't need to be. dawkins' weasel experiment? have you read any of dawkins many, many critics. why do you take what he says at face value?

as far as the quotes are concerned, what's wrong with the dates? darwin is from 1859. so should dawkins not quote him?

as far as adaptation being refuted, it was replaced by genetic mutation. you know that. so i don't understand your comment at all. it was neo-lamarckian.

as far as mutations being almost entirely lethal and harmful, read dawkins. he says the same thing.

if you don't want to use older quotes, and i see nothing wrong with it, then find newer ones on the same subject. but you have crossed a line and are now writing YOUR book instead of mine.

how can you say that mutation depends on environment? noone questions that 99% of mutations are harmful. you have become more a believer in it that dawkins or anyone else.

you are not doing the research we alwayd discussed. we talked about updating, not dissecting.

your comments here have really unnerved me. we need to meet asap. in the meantime, you must please follow the mandate of what we talked about.

wehther or not mayr knew of the most recent DNA data has nothing to do with how detrimental mutations are. i find your comments incredulous.
I will admit to being unpleasantly surprised at the passion of the response, but this guy is a real dick!

Let's respond to each point.

"this is absurd and shows a real divergence between us on this book." - We can't disagree on the fucking evidence we bring in to educate our readers? Puh-leeze. The abusurdity is the hissy-fit being thrown in my direction when what we should be having is a discussion between mature individuals.

"in essence, you accept evolution. i question it. but it is my book." - Yes, I accept evolution, but I also question it. That much should be very clear in Chapter 2. In my opinion, we make the best claim against evolution - that it's so full of itself and its message that it will not accept questioning from outside its fundamental assumptions. This is a powerful argument that essentially makes evolution one story among many, not a privileged path to truth.

"you are overly deferential to science when you don't need to be. dawkins' weasel experiment? have you read any of dawkins many, many critics. why do you take what he says at face value?" - We're not scientists! We have no knowledge or experience to use in refuting most any evidence/conclusion brought forth by the scientific community. I've certainly read the responses to Dawkins' weasel experiment. In my opinion, they are not compelling - they ascribe implications to the experiment that Dawkins never claims.

"as far as the quotes are concerned, what's wrong with the dates? darwin is from 1859. so should dawkins not quote him?" - Aargh. My point was that the science was outdated. Most quotes of Darwin are for explanation on historical grounds.

"as far as adaptation being refuted, it was replaced by genetic mutation. you know that. so i don't understand your comment at all. it was neo-lamarckian." - As I told him, so what? Darwin was shown to be wrong about something. That's science!

"as far as mutations being almost entirely lethal and harmful, read dawkins. he says the same thing." - Where, where, oh where does he say this? I've looked at the books!!

"if you don't want to use older quotes, and i see nothing wrong with it, then find newer ones on the same subject. but you have crossed a line and are now writing YOUR book instead of mine." - I've crossed a line? He should be thanking me for trying to watch his back. I was only trying to keep him from looking like an idiot.

"how can you say that mutation depends on environment? no one questions that 99% of mutations are harmful. you have become more a believer in it that dawkins or anyone else." - This is simply untrue and insulting. A beneficial mutation in one environment may not be so much in another. He says "no one questions" it, provides a phantom quote and some outdated ones and expects me to buy it. I'm a "believer," huh? Sorry but I read, I evaluated and I concluded. End of story. This was a real low-life comment.

"you are not doing the research we alwayd discussed. we talked about updating, not dissecting." - Sorry, I'll turn off my brain now. Yeees, masssterrrr!

"your comments here have really unnerved me. we need to meet asap. in the meantime, you must please follow the mandate of what we talked about." - You've debated Dawkins, Atkins and Hitchens. You've hung out with famous, successful people. I've unnerved you? Grow the fuck up, man! We're talking about making something with intellectual merit. Nothing personal.

"wehther or not mayr knew of the most recent DNA data has nothing to do with how detrimental mutations are. i find your comments incredulous." - It means Mayr did not have all the data at his disposal, that's all.

I sent a mea culpa. I want to go on with this. But I am losing love for this guy.

Friday, July 25, 2008

More Xian Love

I rarely post twice in a single day, but this web page was too good not to keep:


by Texe Marrs

…Readers pay exorbitant prices for the books of Christian superstars, never knowing that the volumes are actually written by no-name "ghosts." Among the big names pulling this stunt: Hal Lindsey, Chuck Colson, Jim Bakker, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Benny Hinn, John Ankerberg, Hank Hanegraaff, David Jeremiah and Jerry Falwell.”

Are some of the most cherished books in your personal Christian library written by ghostwriters, some of whom may be homosexuals, atheists, and New Agers? Before you answer "no", please read this article very carefully. A tragic and disreputable hoax is being perpetrated on unsuspecting Christians. And you might be one of the chief victims. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth. that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)

The Reverend Mel White is a homosexual activist who lives with his male lover, Gary Nixon, in Dallas, Texas. "I am gay, I am proud, and God loves me without reservation," White recently told David Calker, a Los Angeles Times reporter. White, who "pastors" a militantly gay church, is also a writer of many Christian books. But though he's the author, his name doesn't appear on the front covers. Instead, a Christian celebrity's name appears on each of Mel White's books. White is what the book industry fondly calls a "ghostwriter."

Ghostwriting Rampant in "Christian" Publishing
The scandalous practice of an unnamed and concealed person ghostwriting a book for a celebrity is rampant in Christian publishing. Virtually all the larger book publishing firms do it. The question is, is this practice immoral, dishonest, and deceitful?

After all, the buyer of these books thinks he or she is getting inspired information direct from the hearts and pens of men like Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, each of whom has used ghostwriters. The reader pays good money for a beautifully packaged book with the hero celebrity's picture and name on the jacket. Never would the buyer suspect that the book is actually written by a homosexual, an atheist, or a New Ager. Thinking that he or she is taking in digestible spiritual food, the book buyer has no idea the ghostwritten
book may contain poisonous and insidious views hostile to Christianity imbedded in its text.

Big Name Personalities Use Ghostwriters
Homosexual activist Mel White has been an influential, behind-the-scenes ghostwriter for many big name personalities. He's written speeches for Lt. Col. Oliver North. White has also authored at least two of evangelist Jerry Falwell's books, including, unbelievable as it may seem, Falwell's autobiography, Strength for the Journey. Falwell could well afford White's fee to ghostwrite his books. The Moral Majority preacher was given a one million dollar advance by the publisher! The Reverend Mr. White has also been the secret force behind some of Billy Graham's best known books, including Graham's prophetic bestseller, The Approaching Hoofbeats. Indeed, White once even closeted himself in a luxurious condo for weeks with the famed evangelist down in Acapulco, Mexico, writing a book.

However, you'll search in vain to find author Mel White's name on either the cover or the title page of the books he wrote for Billy Graham. Nor is Mel White's name openly connected with Jerry Falwell's books. "It was important," White now reveals, "that Jerry Falwell not be scandalized because his biographer was a queer."

Ghostwriter White also wrote Pat Robertson's book, America's Dates With Destiny but the gay reverend is not the only "ghost" whom the veteran host of TV's The 700 Club has used for his chart topping books. Reportedly, Robertson's recent #l Christian bestseller, The New World Order, was also ghostwritten by a CBN staffer.

In The New World Order, "Pat Robertson" correctly warns readers that Freemasonry is an evil, Luciferian conspiracy. Yet, incredibly, Robertson's Christian Coalition subsequently held a "Road to Victory '93" conference in Washington, D.C., at which high-level Freemasons gave the keynote addresses! Pat Robertson's guest speakers at the conference included Senator Bob Dole, 33rd Scottish Rite Mason, and Senator Jesse Helms, yet another 33rd Mason.

Pat Robertson's book, The New World Order, also fingered the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as a Satan led, conspiratorial project. But at his "Road to Victory '93" gala, Robertson's keynote speaker was none other than Congressman Newt Gingrich. One worlder Gingrich just happens to be a loyal member of the same group which Pat's book exposes as a devilish front the CFR! The title of Gingrich's speech for the Christian Coalition conference was "Renewing American Civilization."

We are thus faced with these two alternatives: (l) either Pat Robertson did not even bother to read the best-selling book, The New World Order, that sports his celebrity name as author on its glossy cover; or (2) he allowed his name to be placed on a book, the contents of which he does not even believe in.

Can We Trust Christian Publishers?
My investigation of the Christian book world has uncovered the disgusting fact that the majority of books supposedly authored by famous Christian personalities are, in fact, the product of ghostwriters. Both novels and non-fiction books are involved. Sometimes, the real writer is recognized in the acknowledgments section or elsewhere in the book; but most often, he or she is not. Some celebrities, such as Chuck Colson, write their books "with" an unknown collaborator. In such cases, the ghostwriter's name is occasionally shown on the front cover in small, unassuming type. But shouldn't the cover jacket of these books have a warning label or notice revealing what percentage of the book is written by Colson and what percentage is the product of his lesser-known co-writer? Who really writes Colson's books - him or his collaborator? Whose ideas do his books reflect? The book buyer also deserves to be told some facts about the ghostwriter or co-writer, so that Mel White-type incidents are minimized. For example, a woman named Ellen Santilli Vaughn is listed as the co-writer of many of Chuck Colson's best-selling books, including his ecumenical-oriented book, The Body. But just who is "Ellen Santilli Vaughn?" What is her background? Is she a Christian...a Catholic...a Protestant...a New Ager? How much of the contents and philosophy of Chuck Colson's books is Ms. Vaughn responsible for?

Another prime example is prophecy teacher Hal Lindsey. Very few people know that Lindsey's mammoth bestseller, “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” was actually written by a woman, Carla Carlson. To his credit, Lindsey has publicly admitted this. The question remains, however: Who is Carla Carlson? Why was she involved in writing Lindsey's book? Why is her name not highlighted on the cover, in bold letters equally as large as those of Hal Lindsey? And finally: Are all of Hal Lindsey's books similarly written by unknown ghostwriters?

It is shameful that such vital and basic information is withheld from the book buyer. Shouldn't truth-in-packaging rules apply to publishing the way they do to other consumer product industries? Anything less would be a scam on my readers.

How to Make a Bundle from Ghostwritten Books
Now please understand: I do realize that in a few cases, it is perfectly acceptable for a talented professional writer to work with an expert or authority on a technical subject. An engineer, a medical doctor, a dietitian or a scientist researcher may find it expedient to work with a writer. But in such cases, it is the expert who has the original concept for the book. He dictates most of the text, and the book is based solely on his knowledge, ideas, work, and research.

This is rarely the case with celebrity Christian authors. Publishers are continually searching for "hot," new topics for books that can make them a lot of money. Usually, they, not the celebrity, choose a title for the book and only then contact and recruit the chosen celebrity. Publishers have been known to hire entire teams of writers and researchers to produce books.

Often, the greedy celebrity author merely gives the finished product a cursory look-over and adds his verbal blessing to the project. The celebrity is pleased because he knows he will make a bundle, with only minimal effort on his part. His name goes on the cover, and millions of Christian buyers are deceived into believing the celebrity, inspired by God, personally wrote every word in the book.

The Profit Motive is Paramount
It thus becomes crystal clear why publishers and celebrity authors conspire to produce ghostwritten books. The reason is simple: money, money, money! A best-selling, hardcover book with the glittery name of a Graham, Robertson, Colson, or Lindsey on the cover can bring in five to ten million dollars or more in income.
The celebrity "author" also profits - he can rake in as much as two million dollars per book. No wonder the rush is on by publishers to constantly create new, mostly fluff titles and to line up their ghostwriters with name celebrities known to be guaranteed money-makers in the Christian marketplace.

Truth Telling is in Order
So what's to be done about the lucrative, yet unethical and dishonest, practice of the ghostwriting of Christian books? I believe it is time for some truth telling. Thomas Nelson, Word, and all the other wealthy conglomerates who disguise themselves as "Christian" publishers should step up to the plate and give us a list of which books have been written by "ghosts" and which were really penned by the authors listed on their covers. That's the least they should do to come clean. Better yet, these greedy publishing houses and their celebrity stable mates should quit trying to fatten their coffers and make bucks off gullible Christian readers. They should cease their publishing of ghostwritten books entirely.

PZ's Great Desecration

One of the great discoveries I've been fortunate to make as a result of the science and religion project is the science blog Pharyngula by a biologist in Minnesota named PZ Myers. I find Myers to be bright, funny and exceedingly fair-minded.

Well, he got himself into a mess of trouble. It started with his reaction to what I thought was an amusing news story.

The outcry stemming from Myers's comments was amazing. The Catholic League - a very disagreeable sort - called for Myers to be fired. Others emailed/posted with everything from death threats to unsolicited prayer requests, and from whiny pleas in the "can't we all just get along?" vein to anti-Semitic name-calling.

After some buildup, Myers concluded the matter in a most appropriate way. The Catholic League could only muster a sad, little press release:

July 24, 2008

University of Minnesota professor Paul Z. Myers made good on his pledge to desecrate the Eucharist today. According to his statement on the subject, “I pierced it [the Host] with a rusty nail (I hope Jesus’s tetanus shots are up to date). And then I simply threw it in the trash.”

Saying he did not want to “single out just the cracker,” Myers also tore pages from the Koran along with a few pages from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and nailed them to the Host. He then said, “They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. (His emphasis.) Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet.”

Catholic League president Bill Donohue responded as follows:

“A formal complaint against Myers has already been made. What he did—in both word and deed—constitutes a bias incident, as defined by the University of Minnesota. The policy says that ‘Expressions of disrespectful bias, hate, harassment or hostility against an individual, group or their property because of the individual or group’s actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion…can be forms of discrimination. Expressions vary, and can be in the form of language, words, signs, symbols, threats, or actions that could potentially cause alarm, anger, fear, or resentment in others…even when presented as a joke.’

“The University must now take action and apply the appropriate sanction. We are contacting the president, Board of Regents and the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office at the school, as well as Minnesota’s governor and both houses of the state legislature; the Catholic community in Minnesota is also being contacted. Moreover, we are also contacting Muslim groups nationwide.

“It is important for Catholics to know that the University of Minnesota will not tolerate the deliberate destruction of the Eucharist by one of its faculty. Just as African Americans would not tolerate the burning of a cross, and Jews would not tolerate the display of swastikas, Catholics will not tolerate the desecration of the Eucharist.”

Contact Myers at myersp@morris.umn.edu
Contact President Robert Bruininks at bruin001@umn.edu
I say, "Bravo, Myers."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It's All Supernatural

For the past several weeks, I have been working very hard at not only my primary job – which has been going well, by the way – but also my sideline gig as a ghostwriter. The ghostwriting is very challenging, but I do like it. The wife said recently she could see I was in my element, which I guess means I am a natural scholar. It certainly can’t mean I’m smart or anything, but it might imply that I gravitate to the work of reading, researching, adding my own stuff. I certainly would do it all day if I could.

What I am ghostwriting is a book on science and religion. The idea is to survey the current state of the religion and science debates, critique the science of religion and carve out a legitimate space for modern religious belief. I’m researching a whole bunch on the science and religion sides, and I’m charged with throwing in as much as I can of my employer’s existing writings on the subject.

I face a few critical challenges because (1) I don’t always find my employer to be rigorous in his argumentation and (2) I am, as I have only recently accepted, an incorrigible agnostic. My employer resembles most of the pro-religion crowd in using a fairly small battery of arguments and lines of evidence. Part of what I want to do is push the boundaries of these arguments and create something really fresh, interesting, provocative and maybe even true. The science-side arguments are really wonderful, and if I am successful, then it will actually be because of them.

Last night, I believe I came to a bit of a breakthrough, and I am very excited about it. Up until now, I have been exploring. I’ve been looking to make that argument which is truly unique and challenging, something that will make the science side pause and have to deal with it. Last night I think I finally touched on the claim and the argument that need to be made. Essentially, I am arguing that the scientific dichotomy between natural and supernatural is false. This in itself is not so radical. I have seen other articles in this vein, but they are short and not well supported. I think I can make a sustained case, and I think I can frame the supernatural as a testable hypothesis. This last bit may be too ambitious. Perhaps the best I can hope for is to propose a new dichotomy: natural and supernatural versus neither-natural-nor-supernatural.

I arrived at this line of thinking when I was trying to introduce the argument from design. I was critiquing the design argument as formulated by atheist mathematician John Allen Paulos, who is really sharp and a great writing mind. I didn’t like the way he presented the major premise of the argument from design: “Something – the diversity of life-forms, the beauty of the outdoors, the stars, the fine structure constants – is much too complex (or too perfect) to have come about randomly or by sheer accident.” My opinion was that complexity wasn’t the main criterion by which the possibility of supernatural guidance could be reasonably deduced. My logical problem then became explaining how to infer a qualitative difference between natural and supernatural. My conclusion was that either one could not make the distinction at all or that the difference was one of productivity: the supernatural creates something new while the natural does not. Basically, I’m trying to re-define something that’s been in front of us the whole time as something more than what we thought.

There’s more to say on this, and I don’t know that I will legitimately be able to make the argument stick. I would love to get some feedback from people outside my employer – people who will really challenge me to sharpen the reasoning or chuck it altogether. Yet I do know that if I can make this claim well and connect it throughout the chapters of the book, then the book itself stands a good chance of being very noteworthy, marketable and influential. Real scientists would be called upon to critique the argument. Religious people would be called in to voice their support.

So far, the book does a good job of undermining the rhetorical pretensions of the scientific and materialist models. At the beginning of the book, I thought I was trying to get science and religion to walk away from each other. Now I’m trying to put them on the same team.

Strange how life can work.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Portrait of the Writer as an Agnostic Prostitute

I'm excited to be a writer again. I say "again" because, even though I'm writing proposals all the time, it's rarely the kind of real insight-based writing that charges me up. So, that's what I'm doing, as a ghostwriter. And now that the first draft of the first half of the first chapter has been submitted for review, I'm feeling pretty good.

My task is actually quite daunting: I'm writing a book that gives the religious side of the science versus religion debate. This is, of course, a hot topic. The book's a critique of evolution and a defense of biblical claims for creation. Now, as I have shared, I am more fully engaged with Judaism than ever before in my life, on both and intellectual and personal devotional level. Yet I remain quite agnostic in many areas, the origin and development of life in the universe being two examples. This actually helps in the writing dynamic, in my opinion. I am not fully sympathetic to the author's positions, so I am working to make their best case. Part of the problem is the awful logic often employed by creationists and design proponents. It usually involves incredulity and reliance on very old objections against the materialist method.

I've always said it's possible to do anything as a writer, to make anything cohesive - here's my chance to put up or shut up. So far, I think I've made an excellent case. I attack science for behaving in violation to its stated principles. I point out some selective criticism their arguments employ, I emphasize the reasonableness and sophistication of religious rationalism, I stress the difference of course that the book will take (how it knows the usual rhetorical ploys anti-evolutionists us and tries either to improve them or avoid them), and I claim the weakness of evolutionary theory. This last point, if I can make it convincingly, will be a towering achievement, because quite honestly I have not really seen a credible case against evolution. But I am going to rip out its heart by slashing into its textual edifice. When I'm done, it's "our discourse is truth" myth will be, if not shattered, then on equal footing with that of religious discourse. My target is its determination of facts: take out that which makes facts factual and the whole wall comes down. As I said, though, it's going to be tough to make this case really work and be convincing.

The author I work for has so far been difficult. He's always busy and hard to reach, and I don't think he does a great job of either reading/acknowledging the things I say (such as, yes, I HAVE started writing) or striving to understand the more abstract arguments I tend to make. I certainly do know that my tendency is to abstract thought and I always seek to ground things well, but I need the guy to push himself a bit too.

In the writing, I am finding a lot of passion and struggle in myself. It's good, I'm learning a lot and swaying between almost complete atheism and firm religious belief. It's interesting. There are just so many great perspectives available online. I am glad that I am able to be swayed. I am not an easy sway, but my openness is partly what makes it all work. Now, it could be that my author is not happy with what I have drafted. If that's the case, then we surely will not be able to work together. In just the first 4000 words, I have laid out some provocative themes. This book will be a sensation if the author doesn't try and neuter it. If he does, then I can still take solace in having learned something valuable about book writing.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Parenting My Inner Child

I want to revisit some ideas I put forth in a previous post. I had borrowed some parenting advice from the famous Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and turned it around by applying it to myself. Today, I will talk about these ideas in more detail.

Yes, co-opting parenting advice as self-help shows me to be a bit egocentric, which is part of the problem. Yet, I feel there is real wisdom in Rabbi Boteach's principles that I can use to improve my attitudes and behavior.

Stop Asking What I Want to Do with My Life—Start Asking Who I Want to Be
It's no problem to ask who I want to be, but I don't think I know the answer. Perhaps there isn't supposed to be one answer or one answer that holds true now and forever. I know I want to be a "good dad" and a "good husband." I also know I want to be "successful" and "accomplished."

Honestly, though, who I want to be is me. And who am I? Just some guy who loves his kids and wife, loves his life, and loves to learn more about his G-d and his G-d's people. On the one hand, I want to embrace my anonymity and commonality, but on the other hand, I want to cultivate my uniqueness. Is who I am tied to what I do? No, it's tied to who I love and what I love.

Stop Speaking About My Career—Talk Instead About My Calling
What is a "calling"? It is the work for which I was made. What work or kinds of work was I made to do? Hmm. I feel like I was made to explain things and write, but mainly I feel I was made to play and work with other people. I was made to build a community. Not build it myself, but to be part of the building and to be a leading force in it. There are many communities already established that I could be part of - I do not need to build an entirely new one. Certainly, the community I want to build is a Jewish community.

Now, I work as a proposal writer - how does this help me fulfill my calling to build communities and help people? It doesn't, at least directly. It's not the work as proposal writer that's important. Meeting new people and establishing positive working relationships with them is the meaningful part. When I think about what's happened to me at my former job, what I made happen, I see that I violated one of the sayings of the Pirkei Avot, from Rabbi Joshua: "An evil eye, the evil inclination, and the hatred of one's fellows, drive a person from the world." I was - and have been - envious of others, lazy and inattentive, and two-faced. Now I am driven from this "world."

Stop Focusing on Achievements and Accomplishments and Start Focusing on Intellectual Curiosity
I know that I am very much focused on achievements and accomplishments - or rather, my lack of them. But the advice is to focus on intellectual curiosity.

This last term is quite interesting because curiosity is by definition already intellectual. It refers to the desire to learn and know things. Intellectual curiosity means just this kind of wanting to learn new concepts and arguments, and it also suggests a wanting to understand the makeup of one's own intellect.

In real world terms, the advice for me is not to pursue and MBA but rather to study the direction of my passions for business-related knowledge. What is it in business that I really want to investigate? The nice thing about curiosity is that it combines emotion and reason - passion drives thinking.

Stop Speaking About Happiness—Start Speaking Instead About Purpose
For some time now, I have been concerned with being happier, with the idea that I am not happy enough or as happy as I could be. I have bought several books on it, the best of them being Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. Yet, in this principle I am asked to jettison the enitire concept for the idea of purpose.

Or maybe I am not supposed to abandon the idea so much as realize that it is a product of a process and not necessarily an active state. I could be way off here - I certainly feel as though I am not correctly or fully expressing the principle - but purpose is about meaning, lasting value, and representation of interests that are not solely my own. I realize I do not do many things that have or that embody purpose. If I truly want happiness, and it is not entirely certain that I do, it must be as a by-product of living my purpose.

Stop Emphasizing Friends—Start Emphasizing Family
This one really should be easy, seeing as I have few friends. Yes, I am trying to build and expand my professional and social network, but these are not friends.

On the other hand, I wonder if I can truly say I emphasize family. In many ways, I emphasize work and my personal projects over my own family. I am often impatient with my wife and children. I am frequently reluctant to visit or entertain my parents, brothers, in-laws and neighbors. It's sometimes a struggle for me to act and feel genuine in front of even the people to whom I feel closest.

The reason for these feelings lies right out in the open: I am ashamed of myself because I have not accomplished anything of the greatness that I always thought was inside me. This is the source of all for me, and until I deal with this either by acceptance or by accomplishing something that seems worthy then I will always have this cancer in my mind.

Stop Speaking About Attention Span and Focus—Start Focusing on Love
I am very critical of myself, and I see I have passed this on to my children. I feel bad that I am spread out among too many tasks and aspirations and obligations, so much so that I sometimes have to sneak in other work while I am at my primary job. This kind of multi-tasking is clearly not good for me or my career.

The advice being given here is is one of adjusting priorities. Instead of telling myself that I need to be more focused and disciplined, I need to assert my need to love what I am doing, to do it passionately and with a spirit that only I can bring. In the end, we are talking about the same thing, about sustaining work in a concentrated area, but the difference is one of uniting my head, my heart and my activity into one energy. When I focus only on my lack of attention and focus, only part of the problem - and not the real problem - is being addressed.

This guidance, too, works in the realm of how I deal with my wife and children. Yes, I need to pay better attention and be a better listener. Changing the behavior, however, will be much better and more effective if I use my love as a husband and father to drive the activity. I'm not just trying to ge practiced at real listening, I'm trying toremember that if I love someone I want to show it through genuine engagement.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Status Report - Grateful

At the beginning of the year, I made a high-level plan on how I wanted to live. The basic idea was that I would use Maslow's hierarchy to target specific behaviors that would improve my sense of well-being and purpose. I liked the plan when I devised it for myself; I like it now.

So, how am I doing with the plan? In some - maybe many - respects, not great. I'm really not eating clean or exercising regularly. I did set up a savings account. I help with the house, but I need to do more. Same with quality time with the family. I do call my family often. I haven't done much with the house, but I did get the lawnmower repaired and got the birds out of the air conditioning. I have done jack squat with keeping my areas clean. I certainly don't read Torah often enough, and I am not exercising my creativity as I'd hoped. And, well, I do reflect on myself too often.

So, OK, maybe I'm operating at a C grade. I can improve, I'm sure. Of course, anyone can decide to change his habits or his life or his mind. The key part is doing the work once the decision has been made. This is where I have fallen down, and this is where I need to take a hard look in the mirror and ask whether I really want to change. Maybe I don't. That's OK too, isn't it?

In an unrelated development, I had a rather interesting situation. I was at Becky's church, and the pastor of the day was giving his sermon. He brought Martin Luther into the picture, and of course I nearly gagged because to me Luther is a no-good anti-semite and I don't really care to hear anything about him or by him. But of course, these folks can easily forgive Luther and separate his anti-semitism from the rest of his theology because they weren't tormented by Luther's minions.

I later sent Becky some lowlights from Luther's anti-semitic writings, and she forwared these to the pastor, also noting her displeasure. The pastor - and I'm sure he's a nice guy who means well - sent back the kind of vanilla response I suppose I'd expected: "I'm so sorry, I meant no harm, Luther was certainly in the wrong on many things, he was a man and therefore imperfect, and" - I knew it was coming - "only Yeshu was perfect."

These people and their Yeshu! On the one hand, I have to admire what seems like genuinely internalized belief - apparently true faith. On the other hand, these folks need to wake up and smell the coffee. It's extraordinary how they pray to a man, fixate on sin and death as a way to excuse bad behavior, and use pretty songs to generate heart-dominated worship (as opposed to head and heart worship). The people sway to the music and raise their hands, but it is all rally just vapid. And their "new testament" - don't get me started. What it says is hardly original or significant, yet what it does to Tanach is criminal.

I suspect these people all intuitively realize Yeshu is a mythical character, but they also actually believe the myth. In fact, this is what gives them their strength. In a scary world, they depend on the myth to personify their heart's desires and stabilize their ambiguous identites and need for a sense of purpose. Poor folks, they cannot bear to reflect on HaShem alone, so the Yeshu myth helps them feel oriented, grounded and - perhaps most important of all - involved. Though I am decidedly not apologizing for them or anyone, their idol-worship is a monumental achievement of rationalization against evidence.

I can only thank and praise HaShem that I was not made a gentile.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Coming Back, Bringing In, Letting Go

I have a post from February 8 that I never uploaded:
I haven’t written a post in some time. Although I am quite busy, and it is past 11:00 p.m. as I compose these words, I’m quite happy tonight to be writing. I have Friday off from work, but I will be busy enough tomorrow (which is almost today). For the past two hours I have been typing away on loose ends for Bob and then a work/thought structuring document for Dennis and Dori. I think these products turned out all right.

I am so monumentally busy these days. It’s nothing new. I’ve been complaining quite a bit about my boss. He treats me like I’m his secretary. I don’t doubt that this is actually what he believes I am. To him, I’m marketing support, not marketing. To me, support means hired help, and it means I’m apart from any bonus consideration or other financial incentives.

This is why I have been working to get out of my current position, if not my company. I have recently begun to think that what I really want is to work for the government, probably the federal government. I liked the possibility of working at that other place, King David’s Coffee. It’s just too good. Maybe when Becky has C.J. and then comes home. If I can get some free time, I’ll go and see what happens.

Now, C.J. is due to arrive soon, G-d willing. I’m very excited to see my boy and welcome him home. Hopefully, HaShem will make this so, and look kindly upon my son. Naming him after my grandfather makes me happy. For a long time, I knew that if G-d ever granted me a son, the child would be Charlie. It’s a beautiful thing to have one’s children named after the beloved dead. Yes, the dead remain missed and mourned, but with the children, it is like having a part of them here. Or maybe it’s better to say it’s a bit like having them here. Either way, it’s one of the joys that come into the household with the children.

My Emily continues to be an apple of my eye. Hannah, too, of course, but Emily’s at that age I so loved when Hannah was there. Emily’s still young enough to need me, you see. At almost five, Hannah knows everything and bosses me around. But Emily just wants to be happy and make her noises. I think she’s quite independent, and she has, perhaps, a cagey intelligence. Hannah’s intellect is more active. She’s always pushing it, testing it, using it. If she gets her mind set to some area of knowledge, I think she’ll become a master of it. May HaShem, blessed be He, make it favorably so!

Yes, I am busy and lucky. I’ve been given a lot and I have much to repay.

Quite a bit has happened since this post. I am moving on to a different and, I think, better job opportunity. Yes, it is a lateral move and not a big salary bump - only $500 annually - but the work seems interesting and exciting, and the company is located much closer to home. The benefits are better, too.

C.J. has arrived and he is - seriously - a good looking boy. I can already tell that he's funny. I've seen him laugh a few times, and it's the cutest thing. The girls are really great. Hannah just loves being the big sister, and Emily loves to touch C.J.'s head.

I have gained SO much weight! I tipped the scales today at 192. Yes, that is correct: one-hundred and ninety-two pounds. Not good. I've gone on runs every now and again, but my diet is out of control.

Passover is coming this weekend. I'm trying to think through the idea of "personal liberation." The idea fits with the season, as in "let my people go." The other part of the equation, however, is letting go so that I can serve HaShem. I am rather selfish, very selfish, and do have trouble with this last part. Every year, I want to be free. Every year, I feel as though I am not free. Not to complain, but frankly it's exhausting to feel so dissatisfied all the time. I really want to get away from this. A blog entry from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach sums up the values I wish to stress to and within myself (edited by me, with apologies to Rabbi Boteach):

  1. Stop asking what I want to do with my life—start asking who I want to be.
  2. Stop speaking about my career—talk instead about my calling.
  3. Stop focusing on achievements and accomplishments and start focusing on intellectual curiosity.
  4. Stop speaking about happiness—start speaking instead about purpose.
  5. Stop emphasizing friends—start emphasizing family.
  6. Stop speaking about attention span and focus—start focusing on love.

Bottom line? I'm not worrying.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Gift of 'Tude

So, here I am on the eve of my (gulp) thirty-eighth birthday. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s just another birthday and not a big deal. On the other hand, time continues to pass and I have so much I want to do. I’m afraid that when I finally decide those things I really want or want to do, I’ll be too old and/or inform to make them happen.

But I come back to the kids, and I can’t help but be pleased and grateful. Hannah and Emily are just so wonderful, and though I know I have many improvements to make as a parent, I feel confident that they will grow up just fine.

I’ve been thinking these last few days that morality, real day-to-day morality, comes down only to a few simple principles, chief of which are gratitude and truthfulness. Being thankful, I realized, is essential. Good people appreciate what they have and what is given to them. Gratitude also seems tied to happiness. Refraining from telling lies also seems important, not least because it never burdens one. People who tell even small untruths often seem heavy with the responsibility of carrying these statements around with them. Lies don’t go away.

In the Pirkei Avot, Yehoshuah ben Perachya is attributed to the following statement: “Make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend; and judge every person favorably.” At the risk of being off-base, being grateful makes everyone one’s teacher, and truthfulness acquires friends for one. The third point, which I had not really factored in my scheme, considers that one should be proactively charitable in one’s view of all others. It’s kind of two parts behavior and one part attitude.

Maybe my gift to myself this year is the gift of judging every person favorably. It should be.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

This Ship Remains Straight-ish

Re-capping the general directives I've issued for myself this year, I am attempting to cover the following:

1. Eat clean; Exercise regularly (Physiological)
2. Build a savings account through regular, automatic withdrawals (Safety)
3. Help clean and maintain the house; Schedule quality time; Call my family and brothers every week (Belonging-Love)
4. Improve the house; Keep “my” areas clean and organized (Self-esteem)
5. Read Torah every day; Be creative; Reflect on myself less (Self-actualization)

Thinking about the week that just passed, I have to say not bad: I've hit a little something in all categories. It seems to me that the Belonging-Love and Self-esteem needs are the ones that resonate most with me. This is somewhat surprising because self actualization needs are, right now, not that important to me. Perhaps if I can shore up the lower two levels, then these needs will gain in importance for me.

I have a busy week coming up, so I need to keep my head on straight and stay positive. I have not done a good job at all with physical exercise. This week, I want to drop to about 180 pounds. It's a stretch, but I think I can do it with proper diet and exercise. In addition, I am looking to plan my call for submittals soon. More on this later ….