24 September 2012

Review: The Devil You Know by Rickie Lee Jones

Posted by at 3:06 PM
I  have been in love with Rickie Lee Jones since I was twelve.
It was summer.  I was a "fresh-off-the-boat" jíbaro immigrant kid lost in New York City. For some reason that I can't recall (I reckon my mom must have had an interview or a meeting or something), I was under the care and charge of one of my uncles that day. Tio Maelo's idea of babysitting was to take me along with him to one of his favorite pool halls in Spanish Harlem. It was still early afternoon, so when we got there, the place was empty except for a handful of barflies, his friends.  Maelo handed me a roll of quarters and left me alone to play pool on one of the tables in the place while he drank and cavorted with his friends, talking about whatever it is that Puerto Rican drinking buddies talked about back then. Probably  women and boxing, is my guess. 
Near the pool table, facing it, there was an enormous jukebox, one of those old ones that played 45 RPM singles. This was the perfect way to drown out all the Boricua bravado and drinking coming from the direction of the bar.   I was a twelve year old kid with a pool table, a jukebox, and a roll of quarters at my disposal.  I was in heaven.  I got to it.  I'd always loved music and jukeboxes, something happened that day to my not-yet-adolescent brain. I don't recall how many songs I had listened to before I finally stumbled onto a Rickie Lee Jones record that day, but once I did, I just kept playing that one 45, over and over again, for the rest of the afternoon (the a-side was "Chuck E's in Love"/ the b-side was "Danny's All Star Joint"), while I played long solitaire games of billiards one after the other. For some reason, the sound and general texture of her voice drew me in, moved me enough to experience her music in a way that was deeper than had been my experience with the pop and Latin musics that I had grown up with and was used to hearing before then. I was entranced. There was something about her music that compelled me to alternate between those two songs again and again. I have no idea all these years later what other songs might have been in that jukebox that day, but I onlt remember two..  Tio Maelo had little to do with my epiphany, other than providing me with the quarters I needed. I never quite developed any kind of close relationship with that particular uncle, he was not really a central figure in my life before that or since.  Thinking back, I probably drove those guys in that bar crazy that day, playing those two songs repeatedly. Oh well. No one complained, so I guess they didn't find it too disagreeable.
So, it was completely serendipitous that I should connect with a work of art as intensely as I did at that age. If it weren't for this musical moment, I probably would have no memory at all of that particular afternoon.   Funny how one seemingly random moment in time can affect a whole lifetime's course, though. 
I see that day as one of the milestones which would eventually inspire me to become a musician. There was something bold and sublime and dangerous in her phrasing that I took notice of. It caught me off guard.  It had qualities that I now appreciate in the great performers. Fearlessness. Recklessness. 
The music of Rickie Lee Jones, like that of other vital artists of their time, is resistant to easy categorization. Equal parts traditionalist and iconoclast, her recordings over the years span a wide gamut of styles and genres ranging from soft ballads to strident walls of sound.
Those who have followed her career know that Rickie Lee makes a couple of different kinds of albums.
When her muses and juices are overflowing, she often produces hauntingly lyrical albums with smart arrangements and meticulously crafted mixes of graceful color and style.  This type of record is gorgeous ( "Traffic From Paradise." "Evening of my Best Day."  ). It is the type of Rickie Lee Jones album that makes for lifelong fans.  When she decides to make tone poems that take advantage of sublime orchestration, she is truly one of the greats.

But Rickie also makes another kind of album now and then. The kind that features her interpretations of songs that are standards spanning the pop era. These records are not as lushly produced as are her original compositions generally, but they still provide a great view of her as interpreter and song stylist.

"The Devil You Know" is one of those records. It is basically a collection of cover tunes.

My biggest regret about this record is that it opens so disorientedly, with a lackluster rendition of Jagger's "Sympathy for the Devil."  The tune choice is not objectionable in itself. It's a good tune.  But while her other selections are given treatments in which the songs remain recognizable even through all the stylistic liberties taken in interpreting them, "Sympathy" sounds like a free improvisation, completely divorced from the original tune. It feels forced to me and it did not really grab me until five and a half minutes in, when she goes into a beautifully visceral falsetto motif vaguely echoing the original version's feel for a few gorgeous moments. But then it all just ends before anything more happens.  To be fair, in a recent interview, Rickie said that she "acts out" that song live, so maybe I am missing some theatrical cues that are lost in translation.

Despite this awkward opening track, however, the rest of the album actually has some lovely, unique, sometimes quite beautiful renditions of cover tunes, all done in Rickie Lee Jones' idiosyncratic, inimitable style.   She lends a tragic urgency to "St. James Infirmary", a song that is usually performed by jazz artists in a more showy, vaudevillian way. Rickie's take on it is desolate. Powerful.
The other Stones tune that she sings on this set ("Play With Fire") is haunting. There's no harpsichordy psychedelia in sight here. In her hands, the song is a stern defiant warning to a would-be adversary, not a pop song at al.
Loosely conceived and loosely executed, I suspect that this is an album that only die-hard fans of Rickie will really get.   "The Devil You Know" is a great addition to the collection of all Rickie lovers, but it is not the cohesive masterpiece that her fans know she is capable of producing. Decidedly unpolished, it won't appeal much to today's average music consumer, who has to be told what is good by committee, I'm afraid (American Idol, anyone?).
 I truly hope, for all of our sakes, that Rickie still has at least one or two more masterpieces left in her, because her best work hits hard.  She's a badass.  She really is that amazing of an American artist.    One of the greatest.  Anyone who knows, knows. Anyone who doesn't know, will not be convinced by this record, however. 

          (3 of 5 stars)



11 September 2012

Wm. Craig's "Four Facts" are Desperate and Downright Silly … (revisiting a post)

Posted by at 8:21 PM
William Lane Craig is famous in Christian apologetic circles. Amazingly prolific, he is the darling of evangelical congregations that seek empirical validation for their doctrinal tenets, particularly in the United States. A fixture in all sorts of formal debates organized by such congregations, he is in high demand and is championed as a kind of "ringer" at such events and has thus gained a reputation as one of the great apologists of our time. See his website here for yourself.

In the last decade, in the course of my study of the historical Jesus and of the origins of the movement which claims to be a direct result of his life and influence, I have watched or listened to (or read the transcript of) about a dozen debates between Dr. Craig and various people. These debates usually revolve around three distinct but related topics: the historicity of the New Testament resurrection accounts, the plausibility of the existence of God, or the more simply phrased question, "is Christianity true?". The same basic arguments are consistently repeated in all of his debates. I am invariably struck and surprised by the weight given his arguments by these credulous evangelical groups because, in his rhetoric, I find all sorts of erroneous or spurious assertions which even I, a simple musician and auto-didact following along, am able to easily point out. In this essay, I'll directly challenge the validity of what he offers up as empirical "evidence".

¿Resurrection as history?

Dr. Craig usually begins his defense of the historicity of the Gospel accounts of the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus with an appeal to what he calls "the four irrefutable facts" that are supposedly accepted by a vast consensus of New Testament scholarship today (it used to be three facts, but he has since expanded his list). He claims that any explanation of the emergence of belief in Jesus' resurrection must account for these "facts".
These four "undisputable" facts, according to him, are:
fact 1 - After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in his own personal tomb.
fact 2 - On the Sunday following the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers.
fact 3 - On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
fact 4 - The original disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead despite their having every reason not to.
**(quoted from "Will the Real Jesus Please Stand" up by Craig, Crossan, Miller, Blomberg, Borg, and Witherington, pp. 26-28)

Before I address each of these individually, I'd like to make a couple of preliminary points regarding his claim to such a "vast" scholarly consensus for the historicity of these articles of faith:

first -

That it is somewhat misleading to refer to some consensus among New Testament scholars as conclusive regarding the historical authenticity of the events the texts describe if only because the vast majority of New Testament scholars are in fact practicing Christians to begin with and thus "have a horse in the race", so to speak, and,

second -

That his assertion that the unanimous consensus view in scholarship is that these are irrefutable "facts" is just so much hyperbole.

This became obviously clear to me when I came across a series of lists in Allan Powell's "Jesus as Figure in History", pp.117,153). These lists are of "bare minimum" facts that are sometimes compiled by contemporary scholars as a teaching aid and put forth as being the most certain things we "know" about Jesus' life and ministry. In this particular case the lists are those of N.T. Wright and E. P. Sanders, respectively.

If this overwhelming consensus was in fact the case, one would expect these four "facts" to be included in all (or at least the vast majority) of the lists of these "bare minimum" facts as compiled by the most eminent of scholars.
Yet . . .

  • Neither E. P. Sanders nor N. T. Wright include fact 1 in their lists.
  • Neither includes fact 2.
  • Sanders does not include fact 3, and Wright phrases the "fact" in a less certain light than does Craig:
    "[...]was reported (my emphasis) by his followers to have been raised from the dead".
  • And, finally, fact 4 is just a derivate of fact 3 which neither mentions on his list.

Now, I realize that such lists don't really determine much one way or another. N.T. Wright, for instance, believes that every single line in the New Testament occured exactly as written, so any such listing by him is but the roughest of thumbnail sketches, but these lists DO serve to illustrate the exaggerated nature of Craig's claims of near-universal consensus.

A crucial preliminary question raises itself: If two of the most renowned NT scholars (and of these, N.T. Wright could arguably be classified as one of the more conservative scholars in the field) don't include these four "facts" in their lists, by what justification does Dr. Craig assert that the universal academic view is that these are irrefutable? This deserves more than a glossing over, and I'm amazed that his opponents don't call him on it.

I have sometimes wondered, as I listen to these debates, why someone doesn't just refute these assertions of his outright. I suspect that the reasons vary from opponent to opponent; some may feel that to engage his assertions may be to give audience to an argument that is erroneous from the starting gate (I tend to agree with this notion, but then I have no station to defend), and instead choose to focus on what they think the importance of the resurrection holds for them; some may just be sticking to their own semi-scripted approach to the debate - this possibility reveals much of what is wrong with the "sport" of debate. People tend to develop habits of style and form. Having chosen a prescribed fighting strategy, experienced debaters tend to stick to it, despite what their opponent might bring. At best, this makes for a silly ballet of evasive obstinacy; at worst, the two contenders are not even listening to each other.

Now, I am not an academic in this discipline - I am just a layman fascinated by recent work in this field who has studied the matter at length, independent of any institution, but I feel that Dr. Craig's "four-irrefutable-fact" axiom is very easily refuted.

All that being said, I'll now examine the evidence that he presents in defense of these assertions of irrefutability (in italics), and then I'll present my own objections to this so-called evidence, step by step and as objectively as I can:

On fact #1: Joseph of Arimathea

  • - a - Jesus' burial is attested in the very old tradition quoted by Paul in 1Cor. 15:4.
While it is true that Paul explicitly mentions a burial, there's no mention at all of where or by whom he was buried. As far as we know, Paul has never heard of JoA. One can, of course, make the claim that Joseph's involvement in the passion story was well known to Paul's audience and that therefore it was unnecessary to mention him. If so, however, how does one explain the very detailed list of appearances to specific people that immediately follows? Would the people that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection not have been common knowledge as well to Paul's readers?
Sorry, but you cannot cite any Pauline letter to lend valifity to the JoA story. Toss exhibit A right out.

  • - b - The burial story is part of very old source material used by Mark in writing his gospel.
Whereas I concede that there's some indication that 1Cor. 15 reflects some kind of primitive creed that pre-dates Paul's writing it down, I find no reason to state with any kind of certainty that Mark's account of Joseph is particularly "very old". In fact, Mark's gospel contains the very earliest mention of Joseph of Arimathea that we have, and it can therefore be traced no earlier than that without reliance on conjecture.
I ask myself two questions then:
1- Did the author of Mark invent J of A in order to make sense of the proto-creed espoused by Paul in 1 Cor. 15 (if Mark wrote down his gospel in Rome - as is traditionally held - near the year 70 C.E., then surely he would have been familiar with that city's best-known martyr's ministry and plight)?
2 -Was Joseph part of older source material which he incorporated into his narrative?
Though I lean toward the former, I'm open to the possibility of either one, but there is no reason to take it as a given that such "very old source material" existed without textual evidence to back the claim up. Just saying it doesn't make it so, I'm afraid.

  • - c - As a member of the Jewish court that condemned Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention.
If the community held the belief that Jesus had been "raised", then it logically follows that he must have first been buried. The problem, though, is that it is really difficult to imagine how Jesus' body could have been buried, considering the manner in which he was executed. A Roman crucifixion served a couple of purposes. Its primary function was obviously to dispose of the convicted felon, but this sentence, by virtue of being especially sadistic and cruel, also served to discourage future would-be insurrectionists by adding insult to injury, so to speak. That was part of the raison d'etre of having seditionists crucified publicly - that is, to humiliate them, to deny them any semblance of dignity. The decaying body was usually left on the cross as a warning to others, a grotesque deterrent. It was as inconceivable to Mark as it is to us that Pilate would have granted any request to take Jesus' body down from his cross for honorable burial to either his disciples or to his family. The former he might have arrested as fellow conspirators, perhaps, and the latter he would have laughed out of his courtyard, if not flogged. Pilate, we know from other sources, was no philanthropist. The historical record paints him as a shrewd and decidedly cruel governor.
The Judean historian Josephus tells a story about his coming upon some crucified men on the road to Jerusalem one day. He was terrified to recognize three of them as acquaintances of his, so he requested that they be brought down from their crosses, and he says that he was granted the request (although only one of the convicts actually survived the trauma of crucifixion, according to him), but then Josephus was part of a wealthy and powerful aristocratic family, so he had some pull, so to speak. Just as it does in today's world, money talked back then. Nevertheless, the norm was to let the victim rot up there, or to throw his corpse in a common grave. In my view, it seems that in order to make sense of the resurrection story, Mark saw the need to invent a powerful wealthy character that would have had some influence on the authorities. A Roman aristocrat was certainly not a likely candidate. Therefore, although it seems rather bizarre and controversial that a member of the Sanhedrin who had been a secret admirer of Jesus could have performed this act of respect and kindness, Mark could see no other choice.

I mean . . . Who else was there to do it?

  • - d - The burial story itself lacks any traces of legendary development.
This to me supports the proposition that Mark did indeed invent Joseph of Arimathea out of whole cloth. The oral tradition (i.e. "legend") before Mark wrote his gospel was simply that Jesus had been buried and was subsequently raised. The evangelist saw the problem inherent in this simple dictum he had inherited (i.e. "he was buried" - by whom?), and skillfully constructed a brilliant solution, one which established in one stroke both that Jesus had really died and that the women knew where he was buried.

  • - e - No competing burial story exists.
Indeed, I don't think that any other burial story was even possible (or at least any tenable one). -- (see point c above)

On fact #2: The Empty Tomb

  • - a - The empty tomb story is part of the very old source material used by Mark.
This is not evidence. This is an assertion. Once again, I ask Dr. Craig to produce textual evidence that would indicate how old the material is (he says it's "very old" - how old? - more importantly, By what criteria is he basing this guess?). The empty tomb, it seems to me, is but the natural postulation that resulted from a misunderstanding of a difficult metaphor (i.e. the resurrection). That is, once the belief in a physical raising started to spread within the growing communities of gentile converts (who were not unfamiliar with rising gods, by the way), then, an empty tomb was necessary to fill in the gaps in the story.
How old is the tradition? It's hard to say, but I think it does not go back very far beyond Mark. Paul (who perhaps either had a hand in developing, or otherwise rightly understood, the metaphor of the resurrection) does not mention any empty tomb.

  • - b - The old tradition cited by Paul in 1 Cor. 15: 3-5 implies the empty tomb.
On the surface, this seems like a logical conclusion upon hearing that a historical figure was "raised up", but only if Paul was referring to an actual physical bodily resuscitation, which I'm not convinced (and neither are many eminent scholars) is what he meant by it. (*see 2a above)

  • - c - The story is simple and lacks any sign of legendary embellishment.
I think it's a little humorous to say that a story about a group of women coming to a tomb, finding the stone rolled away (supernaturally?), stepping inside, seeing an angelic figure in radiant white clothing (Was it a disciple? Why not name him? Why is he specifically seated on the "right"? Why does he specifically wear bright white? - Symbolic language is obviously being used here) who speaks to them and causes them to run away in terror lacks signs of legendary embellishment (and this is only to mention Mark's version). To not see the symbolic language used here is to be in denial of some sort.
Brevity is not synonymous with simplicity.

  • - d - The fact that women's testimony was considered worthless in first-century Palestine counts in favor of the historicity of the women's discovering the empty tomb.
Is this statement a "fact"? Was the testimony of women really worthless in Judea and the Galilee?

Certainly, life in Judea in the first century was patriarchal and androcentric (what contemporaneous culture wasn't?). However, while social roles and responsibilities did differ for women and men, there is no reason to believe that second-temple Judaism, in all its various forms, epitomized misogynism in such an extreme way. While Josephus (Antiquities iv. 8. 15) does expressly say that women should not be allowed to testify in court, the Pentateuch says not a word about the exclusion of women as witnesses. Moreover, a study of rabbinic law concerning divorce shows that there were certain conditions (see Miriam Peskowitz, Stories About Spinners and Weavers: Gendering the Everyday in Roman-period Judaism) under which a man was obligated by the court to grant a woman a divorce and to pay her a divorce settlement. My question here then is: How is this possible if she is not allowed to testify in court?

This is all really beside the point, however, since the women's claim to witnessing the empty tomb is not legal testimony. Was everything that women said not believed simply because they were women? Are we to believe that Jewish men in first-century Judea didn't believe a word that women said? What were the limits to this mass misogynous incredulity?

I think that any attempt at negatively highlighting some imagined radical misogyny as somehow being intrinsic to the Judaism of the time is simply unsupported by historical evidence.

It is simply bad history and bad theology. I would even say that it is a shameful practice, revealing an endemic anti-semitism (whether conscious or sub-conscious I cannot say).

  • - e - The early Jewish allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body presupposes that the body was in fact missing from the tomb.

What early Jewish allegation? Is he referring to Matt. 28?

In my view, citing Matt. 28 as evidence of early Jewish gossip is spurious from the git go because it is circular, self-referential.

Also, when Matthew wrote his gospel (the current scholarly consensus is circa 80-85 C.E.), Jews may very well have countered the resurrection claim by claiming that the body must have been stolen, but by that time Jews neither knew (nor probably cared) where Jesus had been buried. If they heard claims of Jesus' resurrection, it was only natural that they would counter with an accusation of exhumation by his followers.

Tertullian wrote a short passage (De Speculatis, 100.30) in which he describes Jewish mockery of the Christians and of Jesus. Much of what Tertullian accuses the Jews of saying and doing is taken straight out of the NT, though there is some additional material which reflects what would later be found in a sixth century polemical Jewish text called the Toledoh Yeshu (in this work, the body is even found!). Tertullian wrote the passage sometime in the late second century. Thus, this is not an "early" Jewish allegation at all.

(I'd like to add here that the modern term "Jewish" is an anachronism in this context, but I won't belabor the point further.)

On fact #3: Appearances

  • - b - The Gospel traditions provide multiple, independent attestations of these appearances.
(I have reversed the order of these first two pieces of evidence posited by Dr. Craig for the sake of exposition and clarity.)

Are there really multiple independent attestations of the different post-Easter appearances?

As I survey contemporary scholarship, to my eyes it seems pretty clear that the consensus view overwhelmingly favors not only Marcan priority, that is, the fact that Mark's gospel was the first to be composed, but it is also almost unanymously accepted that this gospel was subsequently used by the later evangelists ( i.e. the authors of Matthew and Luke) as a model both for the form and the content of the story they tell. If this is so, then what were once thought to be three independent attestations in the synoptics is now reduced to one evolving tradition. Furthermore, though admittedly not as overwhelmingly a consensus view (currently right about about 50%-50% ), it is probable that the fourth evangelist also knew of and used the synoptic tradition in composing his own gospel (I think he did). If this is so, then what we have are variants of one single evolving tradition.

This leaves us with only two "independent" attestations, then. Namely, that contained in the gospels and the one in 1 Cor. 15.
And these two traditions tell different stories. The synoptics say he appeared to Mary and some women first. Paul says he appeared to Cephas.
No multiple attestation here.

  • - a - The list of eyewitnesses to Jesus' post-resurrection appearances which is quoted by Paul (1Cor. 15: 5-7) and vouchsafed by his personal acquaintance with the people involved guarantees that these appearances occurred.
The proto-creed contained in 1Cor. 15 includes what presumes to be a list of the earliest of these appearances. He appeared to Simon Cephas and then to the twelve (the twelve what? - I am not being facetious here; my point is that I think "the twelve" is a post-Easter construct), and then to a bunch of people (presumably on Pentecost?), and then to Upright Jacob ("James the Lesser"), and then to "all" the apostles (Who were they?), and then, finally, last but not least, to Saul of Tarsus.

This list is problematic because, if the story of the physical bodily resurrection is historical, that is, if Mary of Magdalá came to the tomb and was the first to see the risen Jesus, then why has Paul, who knows of all the other earliest appearances, never heard of the appearance to her? Perhaps a better way to put it is: If it happened as literally described in the canonical gospels, why didn't that crucial piece of information make it to the creed which Paul is so intent of handing down to the Corinthians? Conversely, if Mary played no such crucial role in the passion story, then why did the evangelists, writing a generation after Paul, unanimously insist that she did, despite Paul's blaring omission (more than an omission, this is a downright contradiction). It makes more sense to me to posit that the author of Mark's gospel had to put Mary at the scene of the crucifixion and also at the tomb to solve the problem I mentioned in 1c above. I must say that despite his limitations in the written Greek language, Mark was a very astute and creative writer in this regard.

Moreover, it has always seemed strange to me that Paul would use the exact same language to describe the apparitions to Simon and to Jacob and to the others that he applies to his own vision of Jesus. If Paul's is a "vision" then I see no reason to conclude that the other appearances were of a different nature or category.

  • - c - Researches have noticed signs of historical credibility in specific appearances -- for example, the unexpected activity of the disciples' fishing prior to Jesus' appearance by the Lake of Tiberias, and the otherwise inexplicable conversion of James, Jesus' younger brother.
It is unclear to me what he means by the first example. What's so unexpected about their fishing? They were fishermen; that's what they did most of the time. No?
As far as James' conversion goes, though, it seems pretty clear to me, from my reading of the NT and Josephus, that Jacob was held in very high esteem by the Jerusalem community (not just the proto-Christians) as a leader and as a man of high moral convictions. He was, in other words, a good Jew. To posit a Jacobean conversion is to beg the question: Where is his conversion mentioned in any of the texts (unless, of course, you include late works such as the Gospel of Phillip as one of your sources)? 1Cor. 15 merely describes a vision to Jacob, who we know from Josephus died an esteemed and good Jew circa 62 C.E.
I don't think it is possible to argue for such a conversion from Paul's description of his first trip to Jerusalem (seeking to placate the "three pillars" who by now had heard of his bizarre teachings), and I don't think it is correct to transfer Paul's christological constructs to Jacob just because Paul says they shook hands at the end of their meeting. In fact, I think that Paul was being a bit disingenuous (I am not saying that Paul lied - just stacking the deck in his favor is more like it - e.g. "I sure told them!") in his recounting of what really happened in Jerusalem during that first visit to see Jacob.

In my reading of the material, the first proto-Christian community was simply a sub-sect of highly pious, Torah-observing, temple-worshiping Judeans who were strongly devoted to preserving the memory of (and to applying the teachings of) their departed beloved master and teacher, Jesus, and who were led by his younger brother after his crucifixion. Jacob became the leader of the nascent community not only by virtue of his familial relation to their master, but also by that of his own well-attested piety and righteousness.

On fact #4: ¿Raised?

  • - a - Their leader was dead. And Jews had no belief in a dying, much less a rising, Messiah.
That first-century Jews had no such belief may or may not be true. However, since we have no real substantial verifiable information regarding the practices and beliefs of pre-rabbinical Pharisaism, the assertion is just a speculation based on his theological convictions. It is historically unsupported and, as such, it is just another case of begging the question.

Also, physical bodily resurrections may or may not be attested to in what we know about Second-Temple Judaism, but this sort of thing DOES have parallels in various Pagan legends and religious practices, a fact that supports my opinion that the belief in physical bodily resurrection stems from a misunderstanding of Paul's metaphorical language that was later interpolated into the mix by the gentile converts of the Diaspora rather than in the Judean community.

  • b - According to Jewish law, Jesus' execution as a criminal showed him to be a heretic, a man literally under the curse of God.
A heretic? (oy vey!) I find myself wondering why Dr Craig would use the word "heretic" here. Makes one wonder if Dr. Craig knows what the word heretic means. Well, at least the "cursed" part is partly appropriate, but it has no bearing on the argument for the reason that if christology is a gentile-convert construct (as I believe it is - see 4a above), then such a curse would only apply to the Jerusalem community's continuing commemoration of Jesus' teaching and not to the fast-growing movement of hellenic Jesus worshippers.
Also, Jesus was not the only murdered would-be savior of his day; John the Baptizer had been executed as well, yet his memory inspired and nurtured many devoted disciples well into the fourth century (in fact, Josephus says a lot more about John than about Jesus). My point is that their respective memories did not become somehow "taboo" just because they had been executed. All that such an assertion (and the above one about women's testimony) shows is Dr. Craig's misreading of Jewish culture.

  • - c - Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone's rising from the dead before the general resurrection at the end of the world.
see 4a above.

Am I to believe that someone who clearly and repeatedly misinterprets first-century Jewish culture can say anything about what it does or does not preclude?

A bit tangentially, I'd like to add a brief note about citing the phenomenon of martyrs in one's apologetics. It's not part of the "four fact" axiom, but he does appeal to the blood of the martyrs inevitably in his debates regarding the ressurection. Simply put, I think that even today there would probably be many (if not millions) of people who would gladly be martyred given a choice between that option and recounting their faith in Jesus. Yet, these contemporary people obviously have not personally witnessed the bodily risen Jesus (whatever the nature of their experience might be - my guess being that it is essentially a psychological phenomenon).
After all, there have been plenty of Muslim, Buddhist and even Mormon martyrdoms recorded in our history. Hell, even heretics were martyred (in fact, it was a Montanist ideal!) Is Dr. Craig prepared to concede the historicity of their traditions as readily as he does the orthodox Christian one? If not, I wonder what distinguishes these Christians martyrs as more credible than the others?
Here, finally, I'd like to say something about what I think is the fatal flaw in Dr. Craig's rhetorical technique, namely, his predilection to rely on rhetorical fallacies to make his case.

Some of these include:
Band wagon appeals - e.g. - "all scholars agree"
Either/Or arguments which ignore other possibilities (where's the grey?) - e.g. - "Jesus was the Messiah like he claimed, or else he was either a liar or a madman" (C.S. Lewis' famous example)
Sentimental appeals - e.g. - Dr. Craig often closes a debate with one of these.
Appeals to authority - e.g. - Norman Perrin said "xyz", therefore it must be true.
Making hasty generalizations or misrepresentations of his opponent's position - e.g. - His insistence on substituting the word "hallucination" for his opponent's "vision", even after he has been corrected.
Begging the question - e.g. - see 1b above for an example.
His favorite one of these techniques seems to be to argue from some authority whom he believes has the last word somehow. He does it so often, in fact, that it was this frequent practice of his, specifically, which ultimately compelled me to write this critique. Every time I hear him do it, I shudder and cringe a little. It's bad enough that his arguments are historically unsupported, but for him to repeatedly engage in such rhetorical fallacies and sophistry to reinforce his case - well ... it simply begs correction.

I think that Dr. Craig's insistence on arguing for a literal reading of the bodily resurrection accounts is based on a theological need for biblical inerrancy and on a theological need to rule out the possibility that the story of the resurrection might be a parable about Jesus (to borrow a phrase from J.D. Crossan). Such a mythological interpretation seems to somehow threaten Dr. Craig's - and many other evangelists'- Christian faith (an irrational and unfounded fear, in my opinion). They won't have it. This insistence on literalism (and, I'm sad to say, a lot of NT scholarship that I've encountered) belongs to the category which I call "theology disguised as history".
Finally, it might be wise for Dr. Craig to keep in mind the point of the parable of the doubting Thomas, which can be interpreted as, essentially, a warning against the folly of looking for empirical evidence for the physical resurrection of the body of Jesus. Or, how about the warning that the angelic figure at the tomb asks the women:
Why do you seek him here?
Not only do I think that to insist on a literal reading is to miss the point of these stories, but I also think that the fact that these stories are empirically indefensible makes an apologist essentially into a fideist who insists he is not one. I find this to be a fascinating kind of state of denial.

Originally posted on
18 Jan 2007 C.E.
Tempe, AZ


26 August 2012

The Arts as Religion Fades …

Posted by at 8:29 PM
Chola bronze — Dance of Shiva
A  friend recently suggested in a conversation that if it weren't for religion we wouldn't have the arts. After giving it some thought, I don't believe that's true at all.  I think religion's appetite for the arts did have some role in facilitating their progress in those societies in which Christianity took hold, but ultimately I believe art would still be in our lives with or without religion. Let's not forget that the relationship between religion and the arts is rather symbiotic, a two-way street. That is to say, without art, Christianity (here I will pick on Xstianity b/c my friend is Xstian) would be a lot harder to sell to the masses. Mere mystery is not enough without the accompanying visual and aural aides and symbols with which to navigate it. For the bulk of the Church's history (universal literacy is a fairly recent development) the people were forced to meditate on a story sung to them in a language which they probably didn't understand, through picture-book stained glass, painted, and sculpted images, depictions of key gospel passages, that were all around them in church while the well-rehearsed choir filled every nook and cranny in the place with a grandiose import that the congregants could get nowhere else. It's easy to forget that the overwhelming majority of people (certainly the lay people) had no way to ponder the mystery except through the sights and sounds of the liturgy. It was the only game in town. 

Yes, I think we can say that art springs from that intangible domain that we call the spiritual, the numinous, and I think we can say that the first songs were probably prayers, and I think we can even say that religion in this perennial,  metaphysical sense has always been reflected in art and will continue to be. 
The mystical beasts on the walls of the caves of Altamira are informed less by zoological or morphological concerns of their hunters than they are by the perceived interrelation they fancied they had with these phantastic creatures. Gods have always been great springboards for riffing. 
The thousands of altars strewn across the Mediterranean basin, all devoted to the pantheon of Greek deities attest to this human proclivity. Poseidon standing nine meters tall in bronze, trident in hand, poised to strike. Athena in armor.
When Constantine decreed the primacy of Christianity for the empire, the Church ran with this, blossomed, and eventually became a regal entity which gloried in highly adorned and elaborate artistic professions of faith, and would pay handsomely at times for them. They filled the temples with rows and rows of rococo excess. So artists followed the money to the great cathedrals and they painted there. The great ones fluorished.  You want John the Baptizer in furs? Sure! Saint Joseph with his lillied staff? Certainly!   The church was a godsend to art. Bach set his experience with his scriptures to a music so sublime that it will likely survive the ages of man.   (I could be wrong. :)   The high standard that Christianity inspired in the arts is undeniable. El Greco's reverence to this tradition is expressed wonderfully in the radiant elasticity of his religious figures.   And it's as if Rembrandt mixed light itself with his colors to achieve the transcendence in his. The influence of  the artist's devotion to the subject matter is undeniable in the great art of recent centuries. 
But people have become progressively less religious. This is also undeniable, and since the days of the Enlightenment, instead of doctrinal exhortations to submission to authority, it has been scientific discovery and technological advancement which more and more have become the determinants of our sense of social history and of the idioms appropriate to expressing that history. In an increasingly secular society, where we no longer have need of the god hypothesis (as La Place once called it), a hypothesis on which we once relied so heavily, the art produced reflects this rate of change.   
Once we dispensed with the sacred, what was once profane seems to have thrived. It was a gradual process. Almost innocuous at first. Leonardo's most iconic piece is not religious at all (and yet it 'passed'). Vermeer's mastery was religion-less as well. By the time that the impressionists opened the turn of the 20th century up to the open light, religion had all but fallen completely out of view in the visual arts, a field which it had once all but monopolized. It would never regain this primacy again. Art has abandoned the Church, never to return. What's more, the reactionary irreverence and boldness that are part and parcel of the artistic personality deepened, sometimes into explorations of form and composition, sometimes into a deliberate scorn. This has happened at an exponential rate, and now we find ourselves in an age where "Piss Christ" can be defended as genuine artistic expression. I see no end in the recent future for shock as a valued aesthetic component in art.  The postmorderns asked: Beauty? What's that? 
After such a severance, a progressively secular society will inevitably come up with its own existential concerns to depict and exploit. Some memes will be more useful than others and will multiply. And rightly so. It doesn't mean that people should just abandon hope and optimism and the mythical-artistic imagination. Just because people decide there's no god doesn't mean that they won't keep asking all those unanswerable questions that people as an altruistic social simian species seem to be wired to ask. 'Atheism' (a term I don't like much) can itself engender moral discipline and altruism and surely art as well.  Human exultation, anguish and jubilation, love and hatred, these don't end with the death of god, they will forever continue to demand shaped expression wherever human beings live together. That's just the way it is. What is different now is that this position inevitably imposes on the artist or the thinker a solitude more austere than previously realized. An added sense of futility. The storm which we sail under turns out to be windier than we previously thought; life is nasty, brutish, short, and only once, so people paint according to this new-found sense of desolation.  A high and advanced art is not precluded by this lessening bond between Church and an ambivalent congregation's lack of devotion, though. But the very function and definition of art have been completely redefined in the paradigm shift that has ensued since the church lost sole control of the arts.  Surely, despite the death of God in our history, there will be artists who will be energized by their own personal existential concerns into creating works to rival the dimensions, the transcendental strengths of those inspired by the Christian kerygma in the age which preceded this one.  At any rate, it would be impertinent to rule out the possibility of art in the coming secular age (an ironically neo-pagan one, but that's for another rant). Or to deny a fascination. 


05 July 2012

Quixie Reviews a Homeopath

Posted by at 4:02 AM

The following is in response to a blog post on Chandran Nambiar’s blog devoted to homeopathy.
It was suggested that I read this blog post in order to have a better understanding of the theoretical aspects of homeopathy from a viewpoint other than “new age wackos.” Here goes …

A metaphor that came to my mind while reading Chandran Nambiar’s apology for homeopathy is that of a Trojan Horse. The article begins as a call to modern homeopaths to amend the outmoded paradigm which relegates the active component of homeopathic treatments to the realm of the intangible and unexplained/unexplainable, and to take a more rigorous scientific approach to the discipline, so that it may be taken seriously and finally incorporated into general medical practice without the sarcasm and mockery which it is frequently subjected to from this establishment, both currently and in the past. This seems like a noble goal. As such, I found myself cheering him on in the first few paragraphs of the piece, where he chastises his fellow practitioners for the gaping lapses in the theoretical scientific formulations of the practice. In one of the opening paragraphs, he states:
Studies of homeopathic practice have been largely negative or inconclusive. No scientific basis for homeopathic principles has been substantiated”. For the last 250 years since its inception, homeopathic theoreticians were trying to explain the ‘modus operandi’ of potentized homeopathic medicines using one or other hypotheses available or evolved by them. They go on spinning diverse types of fanciful ‘theories’ using ‘ultra-scientific’ jargons, that make homeopathy a piece of unending mockery before the scientific community. Actually, nobody could so far even propose a scientifically viable ‘working hypothesis’ about homeopathy, that could be presented as a reasonable candidate for verifications according to scientific methods.
Like the proverbial Trojan horse, Nambiar’s article is impressive in magnitude, massive even (33,000 + words, in fact). It is without a doubt the most erudite (copious typos notwithstanding) and exhaustive attempt at a defense of homeopathy that I have read to date. But while it certainly is ambitious in its stated goal, instead of logical cogency, his arguments depend more on verisimilitude, and thus fall flat of being at all persuasive. In the end, his is nothing but a specious “fanciful theory” that is unsupported by research, using much “ultra-scientific jargon” in order to seem more “sciency” than the homeopathic theory of old. By the time one reaches the midpoint of the extremely long blog post, in fact, it is quite clear that Mr. Nambiar is no different from those whom he condemns in his introductory caveat. Nambiar’s Trojan horse purports to be a corrective measure against homeopathy’s intangible, mystical past, but it only succeeds in slipping in a few more layers of nonsense to its already over-burdened and tenuous “theory.” To his credit, though, I will say that at least he is aware of traditional homeopathy’s failings, and he is at least trying to address them by formulating a working hypothesis, which is more than can be said of any other homeopathic apologist that I have come across.
But his fundamentally apologetic tendencies are hard to conceal despite his posturing as a defender of science. A sentence like:

"Such a fundamental re-building shall obviously help in enthroning homeopathy on its rightful status of the most advanced branch of modern medical science, unfairly denied for more than last two hundred years."
betrays the ultimately ideological modus of his thinking. Or, try this sentence:
"We repeatedly hear about ‘successful” attempts by its opponents, to ‘disprove’ it ‘scientifically’, and time and again declaring it a ‘fraud, placebo, or pseudoscience’. In spite of all these scorns, ridicules and ‘witch hunts’, homeopathy still exists and thrives all over the continents, alleviating pain and sufferings of millions. The rising acceptance of homeopathy not only by the millions of lay public, but by the heads of states, members of royal families and many other dignitaries all over the world, has produced a state of dilemma in the world of medicine. Either all of these millions had fallen victims to a successful global scale ‘medical hoax’, or the ‘learned scientists’ striving to disprove homeopathy, are being proved themselves wrong."
Or …

"They miserably failed to comprehend the revolutionary content and epoch-making relevance of Hahnemann’s findings. "

Or …

"The principle of ‘Similia Similibus Curenter’ has sufficiently proved its ‘right of existence’ through thousands and thousands of miraculous cures by homeopaths all over the world."

Or …

"The sarcastic comments of our opponents that ‘homeo medicines act only as placebos’ may be dismissed as expressions of their arrogance resulting from ‘scientific ignorance’ regarding matters happening outside the dominion of their comprehension."

Not only are these the words of a man with a horse in the race, of an impassioned apologist, these are the words of a man who is obviously presuming that which he is supposedly trying to prove, namely, that homeopathy is a demonstrably efficient technique. (As a trained scientist—before I became a lowly musician, my formal education was in chemical engineering — I take some slight offense at that last sentence of his, by the way.)
So much for his being a detached and objective observer and champion of science.
Anyway, after summarizing the fundamental axioms of homeopathic practice that we all have heard before he eventually gets to making his main point, which is the only one that is pertinent to my focus. His novel idea is not that hard to encapsulate, actually. Basically he has learned about and has become excited by recent discoveries in polymer chemistry, specifically something called ‘molecular imprinting in polymers’ (MIP). This is a process by which chains of polymers seem to exhibit a kind of ‘memory’ at a molecular level.
From the article:
This technology involves the imprinting of synthetic polymer substances using enzymes or such macromolecules as ‘guest’ molecules. As a result of imprinting, nanocavities with 3-d spacial [sic] configurations complementary to the ‘guest’ molecules will be created in the interaction surfaces of the polymers. These imprinted polymers, by virtue of the nanocavities they contain can be used to bind molecules with configurational similarity to ‘guest’ molecules. They are at present widely used in various laboratory assays as powerful adsorption surfaces and molecular sensors. MIPs are also found to be of much practical use in various areas of science and technology.
He then takes a bold step in suggesting that a similar phenomenon might be at work in the water/alcohol substrate which every homeopathic remedy is “prepared” in. He formulates the problem in the following way:
"What is the exact character and dynamics of this physical transformations occurring in the alcohol-water mixture during potentization? How is the information regarding the medicinal properties of drug molecules encoded into these physical formations, and preserved even without the presence of a single original drug molecule? What is the exact molecular dynamics of therapeutic action of these highly diluted preparations? How they interfere in the bio-chemic interactions of an organism, thereby removing the specific pathologic molecular inhibitions? The future of homeopathy and medical sciences at large, depends on the answers we provide for these fundamental questions. With apology, the author dares to delve into the depth of these vital issues, equipped with his very limited resources."
Since he already presupposes that homeopathy works, he thinks it completely plausible to posit this analogue between polymers and water. Now, if this were so, it could very well account for the alleviation of symptoms that one might experience from a homeopathic tincture which statistically has been diluted well beyond the likelihood of there being any molecules of the corresponding substance in the solution. He well knows of this conundrum. Imprinting in water would be a brilliant solution to the problem. That would rock. The trouble is that water and polymers are not much alike. We have no reason to make such a comparison between apples and pineapples. It is a completely unwarranted step.
Well, to illustrate this equivocation, we need to go a bit into the definition and attributes of polymers. Simply stated a polymer is the result of molecules uniting with other molecules to form a chain. In a sense, polymers are the organic analogue of mineral crystallization, where a matrix (lattice) is established according to the spatial and ionic configuration of the molecules involved. Nambiar’s own discussion of protein polymerization is not inaccurate, in fact:
Proteins are a class of highly complex nitrogen-containing bio-molecules, functioning as the primary carriers of all the bio-chemic processes underlying the phenomenon of life. There exist millions of protein molecules belonging to thousands of protein types in a living organism. Each protein molecule is formed by the polymerization of monomers called amino acids, in different proportions and sequences. Each protein type has its own specific role in the bio-chemic interactions in an organism. Most of the amino acids necessary for the synthesis of proteins are themselves synthesized from their molecular precursers [sic] inside the body. A few types of amino acids cannot be synthesized inside the body, and have to be made available through food. These are called essential amino acids. There are specific protein molecules assigned for each bio-chemic process that take place in the body. Various proteins play different types of roles, like biological catalysts or enzymes, molecular receptors, transport molecules, hormones and antibodies. Some proteins function as specialized molecular switches, systematically switching on and off of specific bio-chemic pathways. Proteins are synthesized from amino acids, in conformity with the neucleotide [sic] sequences of concerned genes, with the help of enzymes, which are themselves proteins. ‘Protein synthesis’ and ‘genetic expression’ are very important part of vital process. It may be said that genes are molecular moulds for synthesizing proteins. There are specific genes, bearing appropriate molecular codes of information necessary for synthesizing each type of protein molecule. Even the synthesis of these genes happens with the help of various enzymes, which are protein molecules. There is no any single bio-molecular process in the living organism, which does not require an active participation of a protein molecule of any kind. The most important factor we have to understand while discussing proteins is the role of their three-dimensional spacial [sic] organization evolving from peculiar di-sulphide bonds and hydrogen bonds. Water plays a vital role in maintaining the three dimensional organization of proteins intact, thereby keeping them efficient to participate in the diverse biochemical processes. Proteins exhibits different levels of molecular organization: primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary. It is this peculiar three dimensional structure that decides the specific bio-chemic role of a given protein molecule. More over, co-enzymes and co-factors such as metal ions and vitamins play an important role in keeping up this three-dimensional structure of protein molecules intact, thereby activating them for their specific functions.
This is all true. Unfortunately for his argument, water has none of the “chains of proteins in specific configurations” properties that would make it an analogue to polymers. Water is a dipolar molecular fluid, a solvent, where polymers are not. It has unique properties of cohesion and adhesion which affect things like its relatively high freezing and melting points and rate of evaporation, but it is otherwise a fairly simple fluid. In order for Nambiar’s hypothesis to bear out, he would have to posit (and he does) that water has the ability to retain a three-dimensional negative image of whatever “guest” particle is in suspension. In other words, he would have to posit that water has “memory.”
Is there research that Nambiar can appeal to in this regard?
Well, there was a paper in 1988 from a man named Jacques Benveniste (1935–2004), who essentially claimed that he has observed such a phenomenon (i.e. the memory of water), but subsequent rigorous experiments failed to repeat the results reported in his original paper, and the idea was pretty much discredited. Nambiar, of course, needs “memory of water” for his idea to work, and so, he laments the discrediting of the paper and thinks that it was the arrogance of the establishment that was to blame for suppressing a great discovery:
"He suspected that the molecular memory of the antibodies which was imprinted in water during dilution is responsible for this peculiar phenomenon. But the sad part of this story is that he failed to prove his arguments in the repeated experiments which were conducted in an atmosphere of absolute hostility, under the supervision of experts who were inimical to him, whose sole aim was to disprove him."
Why is it sad that the experiment wasn’t able to be replicated? Oh yeah, I remember, because Nambiar needs this to be really real. But if the phenomenon which he discovered were in fact real, experiment would have revealed them to be so, whether there was hostility or not, right. Yet, despite the general discrediting of Benevite’s assumptions, Nambiar proceeds to use them as though they were in fact verified to be true and useful. This is the point at which Nambiar’s train of thought completely derails and he is revealed to be a shark-jumper.
"Obviously [my emphasis], hydration shells assume an internal spacial arrangement exactly fitting to the 3-dimensional spacial configuration of the foreign molecule entrapped in them. If we could devise some technique to remove the entrapped ‘guest’ molecules from these hydration shells, without disturbing the hydrogen bonds between the constituent water molecules, these hydration shells can still retain the molecular memory of the molecular configurations of the removed ‘guest’ molecules. This rarely studied phenomenon is known as ‘molecular memory of water’."
Or try these little gems …
"It has been well proven that these hydration shells later show a peculiar capability to differentially recognize the original ‘guest’ molecules which were responsible for their formation." … "Even if the ‘host’ molecules are removed from clathrates, the network of water molecules have been found to remain intact. " [again, my emphases]
No footnotes or references to the research involved in either of these statements. Just bald assertions filled with certitude, which the reader should just take as a factually true. Right? Needless to say, this is embarrassing and shameful.
Probably realizing that he doesn’t have any support anywhere for his “memory of water” assertions, he reaches deep into the absurd:

"We all know that water exists as ice crystals in its solid form. But it has been recently observed that water can exist even in its liquid form in crystals. In reality, water formed by melting of ice is in a state of liquid crystals. "
Even if this were true; would it be relevant? Has anyone ever heard of homeopathic remedies being prepared in water which is in a state of either melting or freezing? That one is just desperate flailing, if you ask me. Yet, despite all of this nonsense, he insists in portraying himself as a maverick in the field:
"I am well aware that these revolutionary concepts may not be so easily welcomed by the mainstream homeopathic profession, conditioned by education and experience of long years into dogmatic concepts and fixed mindsets on these issues. I may be running into a major controversy due to my theoretical interventions and revisionist concepts. But somebody has to come forward and ‘bell the cat’, and open up a discussion on scientific re-building of homeopathy, at any point of time. Once my assumption that the secret of potentization lies in the phenomenon of ‘molecular imprinting’ is experimentally proved to be correct, my suggestions may become more relevant and acceptable."
If he were standing before me, I would like to ask him, “What, pray tell, sir, are you doing toward this end?  — Have you tried research?”
The Achilles’ heel in his house of cards can be pinpointed with one final quotation from this blog post:
"It is in the phenomenon of ‘molecular memory of water’ itself that we naturally land on when we attempt to scientifically explain the homeopathic potentisation of drugs. We have already seen that the alcohol–water molecules contained in the medium used for potentization, arrange themselves around the drug molecules, and form hydration shells. The drug molecules entrapped in the hydration shells are systematically removed as a result of serial dilutions and shaking, done as part of potentization. Empty hydration shells or ‘hydrosomes’ remain. These ‘hydrosomes’ are nano-cavities, imprinted with the three-dimensional ‘finger print’ of drug molecules used as ‘guest’ molecules. [my emphasis] This phenomenon may be called as ‘molecular imprinting in water’. These ‘hydrosomes’ are the real active principles of homeopathic medicines, potentized above 30C."
The idea that water molecules, connected by hydrogen bonds that last for only about a picosecond (that’s 10-12 ) before breaking and reforming, could somehow cluster into long-lived mimics of an antibody in suspension within their proximity is simply absurd on the face of it. Add to this nonsense the idea that the guest molecules somehow fall out of place and leave an imprint, as if that is how dilution of aqueous solutions works . . . . .
I think I'll stop right here, actually.
I’ve tried to retain some semblance of civility while reviewing this man’s writing. It hasn't been easy.



13 May 2012

Review of Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist"

Posted by at 7:56 PM
Bart Ehrman is a rock star. Well … as close to a rock star as a geeky Ivy League academic with tenure can get, anyway. After a long industrious, prolific, and distinguished career teaching the historical Jesus, he now finds himself in a most enviable position, one that other lesser-known New Testament scholars drooly aspire to. He is without question the best-selling author in the field of New Testament studies today, penning one successful (and usually provocative—at least to the evangelical mindset) book on Christian origins after another. His is an impressive (and lucrative) streak. Well-known among scholars, he's also become an ubiquitous presence in the talk-show circuit, in book-signing tours, on the radio, in documentaries that profile the latest reconstruction(s) of Jesus, and in all manner of media. He's big time, a go-to "professional expert", as ubiquitous now as Bishop Spong, Elaine Pagels, Dom Crossan, and N.T. Wright have been for a while.  
His latest work is titled Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Its purported subject is mythicism, that is, the notion that the legend of Jesus might be just that, legendary, not based on a real historical personality, but instead on an essentially fictional character.  Simply put (too simply, in my opinion): the notion that Jesus did not really exist. 
I'd read several of his previous books before — Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet …, Misquoting Jesus, and Forged. — so I am familiar with his general take on the historical Jesus. He subscribes to the failed apocalyptic millennial prophet model which Schweitzer had espoused at the turn of the twentieth century. I am also familiar with his narrative style, which I have always found, I must confess, to be excessively confident and a bit prosaic. This general rhetorical bent is continued in Did Jesus Exist.
Several highly critical reviews of this book have already appeared in the blogosphere, one of the most damning being that of Richard Carrier on his blog, which (rightly) focuses on the copious —the blatantly obvious, and even sophomoric— errors in the book, errors which only a very sloppy writer with little regard for accuracy would make. I won't rehash those here, but I recommend Carrier's review very much. Instead, I would like to highlight an aspect of Ehrman's book which I feel has been overlooked by many critics. 
From the very start, Ehrman readily admits that he is writing not for those who might find the Christ Myth theory tenable (he dismisses such people categorically as obstinate and beyond persuasion in the book's introduction). He writes instead for all those who are "seeking the truth" in these matters. Bracket for the moment the polemical presumptuousness and circularity of this preliminary statement of his intention (i.e. mythicists are not truth seekers or else they wouldn't be mythicists, right?). What I find troubling about this opening move is that it is an indirect admission on his part that he has no intention of being thorough in his critique of mythicism. This is also evident in the length of his book (369 pages), the briefness of which is certainly not enough by itself to warrant condemnation; after all, John Dominic Crossan managed to skillfully demolish the gist of Raymond Brown's 1600+ page (two hefty volumes) opus, The Death of the Messiah, in less than 300 pages (in his Who Killed Jesus). Brevity is thus not necessarily a liability, but I am afraid that in the case of Ehrman's book, the length reflects his biased selectivity and subsequent methodological cavalierness, his predilection to dismiss mythicism uncritically as so much "conspiracy" mongering, picking and choosing only some issues from the mythicist literature that he can deal with in a superficial and dismissive manner. After all, a conspiracist is a conspiracist, right? Granted, there have been many self-professed mythicists who don't know their ass from a hole in the ground, but then there are those who are quite versed in the materials pertaining to Christian origins and are very incisive and insightful. Ehrman does seem to make some kind of distinction between these, but only superficially, it turns out, for, as one reads his assessments of scholars such as Wells and Price, one finds him using the same derisive undertones that he also uses on less-credible work (e.g. Freke-Gandy, et al). He even treats Earl Doherty, the author of probably the most thorough and cogent argument for a Christ Myth theory in existence with disdain. Worse, he (intentionally?) misrepresents and mischaracterizes many of Doherty's positions in this book. Anyone who has read Doherty's own writing must conclude that Ehrman simply didn't, that he probably relied instead on time-saving synopses of it. Or, if he did read it, it must have been  whilst preparing his taxes, mowing the lawn, watching a movie or something as distracting. Again, I won't rehash his mischaracterizations of Doherty in this review (Neil Godfrey has already done a much better job of analyzing them in detail than I could on his blog — here, here, here, herehere, here, and here — that Godfrey sure is prolific ;).
Ehrman also explicitly states that he is not writing a "scholarly" work, that his aim is a book that will be accessible more to a general (pop) audience, dealing not with minutia but with general claims. This directly contradicts his publisher's misleading description of the book on Amazon's Kindle store, which reads: " […]Ehrman demolishes both the scholarly and popular mythicist arguments against the existence of Jesus […] ".
Wait a minute, Ehrman demolishes the scholarly arguments?
Hell, as anyone who has extensively read the literature of The Tübingen School and read the Dutch Radicals (who had a profound influence on what would eventually become mythicism — Ehrman doesn't mention them except for Bruno Bauer in passing) and read the turn-of-the-century and newer wave of skeptics will realize, Ehrman doesn't even address the scholarly arguments! Of course, his intended audience, unfamiliar as they are with the pertinent materials, will casually assume that Ehrman has done the leg work necessary to make his case thoroughly. 'He is Bart Ehrman, after all. He must know what he's talking about.' It's shameful.
But put even that failure aside for the moment. Did Jesus Exist's main fault is prior to all of this and more simply stated. The Achilles' heel, to my eyes, the thing that makes me raise my eyebrow regarding this little book, the most puzzling thing of all, is Ehrman's decision to do a pop book rather than a scholarly one. Logic dictates that the latter type is required first in order to lend credence to the former type.  He's got it bass-akwards. How can one distribute authorative information to the masses, when one has not bothered to do a thorough review of the material in question first?  He presents himself as authoritative but only reveals his laziness on this one. This could have been a great book.
As it is, it sucks. 
This really has me scratching my head. Why has Bart Ehrman done such an irresponsible hack job at this stage in his career? Maybe his new-found rock star status has gone to his head?
Needless to say, I think that this is arguably Ehrman's worst effort to date.
I'm sure that it will do very well, though. 
Given all that I have said above, I suggest that future editions of the book replace both the title and the cover with ones that are more appropriate to this book's actual content:


28 March 2012

Coriolanus (the motion picture) …

Posted by at 2:06 AM

Like practically everyone else in the English-speaking world, I had to read several Shakespeare plays when I was in high school: Julius Caesar, Henry IV (Pt1), Macbeth. Some time later I would eventually also read  A Midsummer Night's DreamRomeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Hamlet. Although I have found his archaic language to be somewhat of a challenge (given that I spoke Spanish exclusively until I was twelve years of age), the universality of Shakespeare's stories and characters always shines through, allowing me to find the beauty within the tales.   
Fast forward to last Thursday, when I was hanging out with my friend Frank, who suggested that we go see a movie at the Camelview Cinema. I said, "sure, what do you wanna see?" He said that he had listened to a review of a new film called Corolianus on NPR, and that he was eager to see it. "What is it about?" I asked. He said it was a modern rendition of a Shakespearean play. "Which one?" — "Coriolanus." — "That's a Shakespeare play?" — "Yes." — "I never heard of that one." — "Neither had I until today."
We were on our way to see a Shakespeare play that neither of us had ever heard about.

In a nutshell, Coriolanus is the story of a ruthless Roman general who returns home from a successful campaign against an insurrection (the Volscians) against Rome. The people heap much adulation upon him as a military hero at first, only to turn on him at the instigation of the senators who, because they fear that he may become powerful beyond their ability to control him, conspire to denounce him as a hyper-ambitious tyrant-in-waiting. The mob flip flops. The citizens go from bestowing a consulship on Coriolanus to taking it away and banishing him all within a couple of minutes in the film. The change of heart happens so fast it almost gave me whiplash. Exiled, his glory and honor stripped away, Coriolanus makes his way to the Volscians he once fought so fiercely, this time to join them in laying siege to Rome, thus exacting revenge on those who ruined his life. Fortunately (for Rome), Coriolanus' mother is a die-hard Roman patriot. She comes to see him (with his wife and child in tow) and shames him into signing a peace treaty. He goes to Rome, signs it, and upon his return he is murdered by the Volscians who feel betrayed by this turncoat mercenary. Fin.
Because I had never heard of this Shakespeare play before seeing this film, I looked it up in my The Complete Works of William Shakespeare when I got home. Sure enough, there is was. Why hadn't I known of this play before? It's funny how we miss so many details in the things around us. Reading the original, it was interesting to note the way that it had been edited for the screen. One aspect that made the film version particularly fascinating is the anachronistic use of Elizabethan English in an early twenti-first century setting. This superimposition lends the piece a surreal lyrical quality that would not ordinarily be there in a mainstream war movie. It is simultaneously essential to the story's flow and a bit distracting, which is to say that I still have difficulty with the archaic language and meter of Shakespearean dialogue, I guess.
All that aside, what is my take on the play?
I find that, unlike the other Shakespeare plays that I have read, this one has no clear hero or villain. Both sides of the conflict are equally despicable — Coriolanus in his aristocratic sense of entitlement and his obvious contempt for the common people, and the scheming tribunes who take advantage of their credulity and simple-mindedness and who manipulate them for their own greed and lust for power. A pox on both their houses! I could not help but be reminded of the cruel and dirty business of the politics of government, and of why I detest nationalism in any form. Extreme patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels (who was it that said that?).
The play is new to me, but once again I find that Shakespeare skillfully wove a timeless tale that faithfully reflects the nuanced frailty of the human condition in his inimitable fashion.

19 January 2012

an end of theism …

Posted by at 4:46 PM
I came across this video series yesterday and I found it such a fair and honest treatment of the subject it deals with that I thought I would share it here.
It's quite brilliant.
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