25 November 2014

Book Review: On the Historicity of Jesus

Posted by at 9:33 PM


Volume II
Mythicism, the notion that Jesus was more likely a fictional character rather than an actual human being who played some role in the founding of a world religion, is not a very popular idea in New Testament studies departments. Less than a minority view, it is a fringe position, one that only a handful of scholars have seriously considered, much less adopted. Richard Carrier opens his new book, On the Historicity of Jesus, (Vol. 2 to his previous 2012 work, Proving History) by admitting as much. Ordinarily, like most people, myself included, Carrier depends (and insists) on the epistemological authority that academic consensuses afford us. After all, were it not for a reliable standard of expertise on a given subject or field of study, how would we be able to discern or to weigh the truth of any claim?  It's common sense. If you need help with your car you take it to someone who knows about cars, i.e., a mechanic. If you want to get medical advice, you find a trained physician. You need meat? Go to the butcher. It’s an often-heard cliché formula, and it's true most times. In almost all cases, it is best to go with the professional/academic consensus. 

Indeed, Carrier cites “fringe-ness” as the reason that he was initially reluctant to read Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle (1999), even though trusted peers had recommended that book to him as a well-argued and well-written work. He finally relented and decided to read it, but his intention at the time was in fact to use it as an opportunity to debunk mythicism once and for all. Something happened on the way to the Coliseum, however. When he did read the book, thrashing it turned out to be not as easy a task as he had imagined it would be. Not only did he discover that Doherty had in fact laid out a fairly cogent and well-sourced case, but in the process of examining the methodology used in New Testament studies to analyze the pertinent evidence, Carrier was also surprised to learn that all of the scholars who had written specifically about currently used methods in New Testament studies (the criteria of embarrassment, of multiple attestation, of discernible aramaisms, etc.) had found them all to be flawed in significant and demonstrable ways. Curiously, although these criteria are consistently shown to be logically unsupported, many mainstream New Testament scholars persist in making a big deal of these tainted “criteria” and they continue to employ them nonetheless.  There's a certain obstinate dependence on them.  They stick to scholars' fingers. But why should this field in particular get a pass when it comes to methodology? Philip Davies poignantly asked in 2005:
"Can biblical scholars persuade others that they conduct a legitimate academic discipline? Until they do, can they convince anyone that they have something to offer to the intellectual life of the modern world? Indeed, I think many of us have to convince ourselves first."
Before he could tackle the historicity of Jesus specifically, Carrier felt the need to address this institutional issue. The first goal of Proving History was thus to mathematically demonstrate the inherent flaws in New Testament "criteriology" (exposed most recently by scholars like Davies and Hector Avalos),  by applying Bayesian statistical methods to them.   

Volume I
Once the spuriousness of the current methodological paradigm in New Testament studies has been brought to light in this way, any consensus that is dependent on those faulty methods is pretty much rendered moot.  And once shown to be specious, a consensus loses its epistemic authority and can thereafter be challenged. The inherent invalidity of the New Testament studies paradigm can be seen in how inconsistent all the professional proclamations coming from this field are. When you think about it, it's no wonder we don't know much about Christian origins. It's because when we bring our "car" to some New Testament "mechanics," it soon becomes obvious that they cannot agree on a single datum regarding the car—Is it an SUV? What color? What year and make is it?  Two-doors? Four? Automatic or standard? Diesel or hybrid? Indeed, every detail of the story we get as many discordant opinions are there are "mechanics" advising us. Doesn't that in itself suggest that something is probably woefully wrong with these "expert" opinions?  By contrast, if we were to ask a roomful of physicists about the characteristics of a light spectrum from a specific distant star, or about the distances between detectable celestial bodies, or even about how to make these kinds of determinations, we should not be surprised to find that their answers will be more or less consistent across the board (and fairly precise to boot).  That such agreed-upon precision is virtually unknown in New Testament studies is telling.  

So, if criteriology doesn't work, what does?

Carrier's second goal in Proving History was to propose an alternative methodological framework for historical inquiry, one that is more empirically based.  He makes a case that Bayesian reasoning can be foundational to this end.  So what does that mean, anyway? What's Bayesian reasoning? Well, essentially (at least in the simplified model of Bayes' Theorem that Carrier uses), it means that the resultant probability of any event can be expressed as a ratio between three variables:

  1. A 'prior' probability, given our basic knowledge about the world, 

  2. The probability of a claim given a (complete) body of evidence, and 

  3. The probabilities of all other rival claims given the same body of evidence

Already, before we even get to the meat of Carrier's thesis, I suspect that this Bayesian approach will be a stumbling block for many. For starters, Bayes Theorem is a mathematical formula, something too many people seem to have a phobia toward. There's an old adage in publishing that says that you lose half your readers with every math formula you include in a work. I think there's some truth beneath that bit of hyperbole. Math seems to scare the hell out of people for some reason, even people who are otherwise quite bright and daring. But math formulas aside, what will be even more problematic for some will be Carrier's unmitigated audacity in even attempting to quantify that which has heretofore only been considered qualitatively.  Carrier is treating history as something more than a "social science." Those who believe that history (in general) and New Testament studies (in particular) are not things that one can (or should) apply mathematical thinking to because of the nature of the questions history explores will balk right from the starting gate. Come to think of it, most of Carrier’s work revolves around this central idea – i.e., that the academic discipline of history and its correlates should be regarded as a proper science, which is to say … that it should be held to an empirical and naturalistic standard, with an emphasis on verisimilitude, parsimony and falsifiability. The knee-jerk reaction of some will be, "Falsifiability? In history? That's crazy talk!" But those who assume that the study of Christian origins cannot be made a quantifiable matter, Carrier looks right in the eye and tells, “It can too! And I'll show you how!”  His proposed methods could of course be wrong, it goes without saying, and they may indeed turn out to be wrong in the end, but that is to be determined by an engagement with his thesis, and not by simply prematurely dismissing it by appealing to some impenetrable ambiguity (the general “unscienciness” of history). This predictable kind of academic line in the sand, this potential barrier, is what makes the first volume of this work necessary (and why I begin by referencing Vol. I in this way).  Volume II will go right over the head of anyone who insists on staying safely behind the hard-science/social-science line in the sand, or who doesn't realize that there is a problem with the consensus in the first place, or who is otherwise content to continue to adhere to this broken consensus simply because it's mainstream ('a little epistemological vagueness never hurt no one ... Right?')

Down to the Minimals

That preliminary work completed, Carrier now aims to bring this versatile statistical methodology to bear on the specific question of the historicity of Jesus. This is the subject of On the Historicity of Jesus. One of the crucial points to remember about the methods laid out in Vol. I is that a theory cannot be analyzed in isolation.  To gauge the probabilities of a historical claim in terms of only its consistency with itself is to engage in question-begging circularity. Without comparatively referencing how the evidence (ALL the available evidence) might also fit a conflicting theory, such an analysis is necessarily incomplete, logically fallacious, and therefore invalid. 

So the first step is defining the terms. Lest a careless reader mischaracterize him as arguing for some of the more bizarre and convoluted forms of mythicism out there that have been formulated (to his credit, he mentions no names), Carrier frames what he calls "minimal" mythicism:

  • At the origin of Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity.
  • Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus 'communicated' with his subjects only through dreams, visions, and other forms of divine inspiration.
  • Like some other celestial deities, this Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection in a supernatural realm.
  • As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.
  • Subsequent communities of worshippers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only 'additionally' allegorical).

In addition, lest he similarly be misconstrued as straw-manning some of the more bizarre forms of historicism as normative in any way, he also defines a counterpart "minimal" historicism.

  • An actual man at some point named Jesus acquired followers who continued as an identifiable movement after his death.
  • That is the same Jesus who was claimed by some of his followers to have been executed by the Jewish or Roman authorities.
  • This is the same Jesus some of whose followers soon began worshipping as a living god (or demigod).

He narrows his focus to these "minimal" rival theories so to pare away any accretions, mythicist or historicist, that can easily be shown to be superfluous or to depend on some significant amount of ad hocness or gratuitous speculation or special pleading, thus forfeiting their validity. This ad hocness lowers such a claim's probability to something close to zero. On the historicist side, this eliminates from the field, right off the bat, all fundamentalist apologist formulations which posit a superhuman Jesus and also those that posit similarly fantastical magic-mushroom-eating, or vampire-magician,  or Holy Grail/Holy Blood "historical" Jesuses.  On the mythicist side, this eliminates from the field, right off the bat, similarly ad hoc formulations such as the astrotheologically-derived Jesus or the Flavian-conspiracy Jesus, hypotheses which depend on forced, Pesher-ish or inordinately parallelomaniacal readings of the evidence. From a Bayesian perspective, the prior probabilities that we can justifiably calculate for these kinds of ersatz hypotheses are simply too close to zero to be statistically nudged at all in the direction of veracity by the available evidence (if anything, such ad hocness brings our posterior calculations even closer to the zero asymptote).  

A Fortiori

The bulk of On the Historicity of Jesus' 710 pages is devoted to a careful and exhaustive consideration of the evidence forwarded in support of both minimal historicity and minimal mythicism. All the pertinent evidence. The epistles. The gospels. Acts. The patristics. Josephus. For the sake of accuracy, it is important that the likelihood that we would wind up with a given bit of evidence under either scenario (historicist or mythicist) be calculated as clearly and objectively and honestly as possible. This need for honest thoroughness under both paradigms is why this work is as hefty as it is. It has to be. Despite its density and its exhaustiveness, though, Carrier's method is fairly transparent and simple. You take each piece of evidence one at at time, evaluate it under contrasting scenarios, and then plug the result of this analysis into a Bayesian formula. It's simple math.

Interestingly, one of the book's recurring themes is his granting to minimal historicity the greatest latitude possible in his calculations. That is, at every step, he intentionally argues against mythicism as far as his method will allow, at times granting things that are not even realistically warranted by any stretch of imagination, so that it can be fairly said that the probability of historicism must be lower than the intentionally conservative range estimate given by this kind of 'devil's advocate' calculation.  He calls this arguing a fortiori.  With each respective piece of evidence, he first calculates this a fortiori probability, and then, after that is out of the way, he also calculates where he really thinks the probability lies. This more-realistic estimate is considerably closer to mythicism than the a fortiori one, of course. Doubling down on his calculations in this this way precludes any potential accusation that he might be weighing the evidence in his favor in any way, and it also shows a willingness on his part to be fair with historicists while also being honest to his own intellect. It also serves to provide a defensible upper and lower limit to the range of probability for any given datum.  It seems to me a very clever and useful technique.  When after reviewing all the evidence he finally estimates that it is between 70% and 100% probable that mythicism is the correct theory of the two, it's important to keep in mind that the lower limit was calculated a fortiori, which all but guarantees that it is higher still. In fact, Carrier's more realistic calculation is virtually 100% in favor of mythicism (something like 12,000 to 1 if I recall). 

Is he correct?

I think so. Probably. I more or less agree with his assessment, but then I started accepting mythicism as a viable theory years ago. It was in fact Doherty's work (and Robert Price's) that convinced me of mythicism's viability.  I am thus part of the "choir." But although On the Historicity of Jesus was not the book that converted me,  I nevertheless think this is a very important work, if not the most important book on the topic so far. Not only do I think he is right, but what I think is Carrier's main achievement with this book is the systematic organization of the desultory, interpretive ideas of previous minimal mythicists like Doherty and Price (and to some degree, of Wells and Brodie, et al) into a more cohesive and comprehensive theory, one that does not stop at merely engaging Jesus' historicity, but one that takes this historicity (or lack thereof) into accounting for the origin and the subsequent early development of the Christian religion that the myth inspired. This is something that has been sorely lacking in previous monographs. In fact, Carrier's Christ myth theory is cohesive enough that I would even recommend this book as a general introduction to the origins of Christianity to a neophyte.  That his is the first book defending the mythicist case that has undergone the formal rigor of academic peer-review is also noteworthy, especially since the very idea of mythicism is being unduly mocked and derided by a small number of reactionary scholars, defenders of historicism, who, like a united front of self-appointed guardians of an obsolete paradigm, have regularly resorted to mischaracterizing the previous, less-quantitative formulations of these ideas. 

The most important novelty, nay the most important function of On the Historicity of Jesus, in my opinion, comes after he has laid out his thesis. At the very end of the last chapter of the book, Carrier directs a sober, clear, and direct challenge at this peanut gallery of complacent "experts" who find the whole idea an unsophisticated laughing matter:

[...] if readers object even to employing Bayes's Theorem in this case (or in any), then I ask them to propose alternative models for structuring the debate. If, instead, readers accept my Bayesian approach, but object to my method of assigning prior probabilities, then I ask them to argue for an alternative method of assigning prior probabilities (e.g. if my choice of reference class is faulty, then I ask you to argue why it is, and to argue for an alternative). On the other hand, if readers accept my method of assigning prior probabilities, but object to my estimates of consequent probability, then l ask them to argue for alternative consequent probabilities-not just assert some, but actually argue for them. Because the mythicist case hinges on the claim that these things cannot reasonably be done. It is time that claim was properly put to the test. And finally, of course, if readers object to my categories and sub­ categories of evidence or believe there are others that should be included or distinguished, then I ask them to argue the case.

I know many devout Christian scholars will balk and claim to find all manner of bogus or irrelevant or insignificant holes or flaws in my arguments, but they would do that anyway. Witness what many Christian scholars come up with just to reject evolution, or to defend the literal miraculous resurrection of Jesus (which they claim they can do even with the terrible and paltry evidence we have). Consequently, I don't care anymore what Christian apologists think. They are not rational people. I only want to know what rational scholars think. I want to see a helpful critique of this book by objective, qualified experts who could live with the conclusion that Jesus didn't exist, but just don't think the case can be made, or made well enough to credit. And what I want from my critics is not useless hole punching but an alternative proposal: if my method is invalid, then what method is the correct one for resolving questions of historicity? And if you know of none, how can you justify any claim to historicity for any person, if you don't even know how such a claim can be justified or falsified at all? Also correct any facts I get wrong, point out what I missed, and if my method then produces a different conclusion when those emendations are included, we will have progress. Even if the conclusion is the same, it will nevertheless have been improved. But it is the method I want my fellow historians to correct, replace or perfect above all else. We can't simply rely on intuition or gut instinct when deciding what really did happen or who really did exist, since that simply leans on unexamined assumptions and relies on impressions and instincts that are often not reliable guides to the truth. We need to make explicit why we believe what we do rather than something else, and we need this as much in history as in any other field. And by the method I have deployed here, I have confirmed our intuitions in the study of Jesus are wrong. He did not exist. I have made my case. To all objective and qualified scholars, I appeal to you all as a community: the ball is now in your court.

I recommend this book highly to anyone who is interested in Christian origins.


13 September 2014

KISS and I (a retrospective) ...

Posted by at 10:09 PM

KISS celebrates forty years as a band this year.

I have a confession to make. During the hormonal netherworld that the onset of puberty was for many of the boys of our generation, my brother Fred and I were big KISS fans. Yes, I admit it. We were two of those dorky kids. We had the stickers, the magazines, the comic books (printed in their own blood, no less!), all kinds of posters, and, of course, the records: Love Gun, Destroyer, Alive!. KISS were pioneers of a certain kind of intensive marketing strategy which is now so ubiquitous in the show business world that it’s almost taken for granted. But at that time it was almost unprecedented. My brother and I were just the right age at the right place at the right time for KISS’s heyday, you could say.

This is not to say that KISS was my introduction to music, though. Far from it. I had by then been plucking out Puerto Rican folk songs on my old nylon string guitar for a few years before I ever heard any rock music, so I already had a taste for melody and for rhythm. My first big concert was a double header featuring Celia Cruz and El Gran Combo. I think I tuned in relatively early to a rustic, folksy kind of music, which was the only music that was available to me during my childhood on the island, anyway. Once I was stateside, though, music took on a whole new dimension. It was all of a sudden a lot bigger than it had seemed before. It was everywhere and it was now in technicolor. Rock music introduced me to new sounds, a completely new aesthetic, and I rather liked it. I liked the stimulus. The window into this sensory Oz during those days was a little transistor radio that I kept under my pillow that I would quietly listen to late at night. I don’t know if the term “classic rock” had been coined yet, but AOR/F.M. radio was in full swing in those days in New York (WPLJ and WNEW and WLIR were my stations). Before KISS, some of the first pop songs that had already made strong impressions on me during this early immigrant period were songs like “Carry On My Wayward Son” [Kansas], “Short People” [Randy Newman], “Got To Give It Up” [Marvin Gaye], and “Solisbury Hill” [Peter Gabriel]. Of course I had no idea who sang any of those songs back then; I just knew that I really liked how they sounded and how they felt. I still do.

Come to think of it, KISS wasn’t even the first record that I purchased, either. That particular honor goes to the Beatles, whose classic “red” and “blue” double anthologies, on vinyl, were the first albums that my brother and I ever bought, as I recall.

So, though KISS was not my first ‘anything’ musically speaking, there was a period of a couple of years, when KISS got way too big a portion of my lunch money. It was all empty calories and soda pop but there I was ingesting the stuff. My fascination with the band, though short-lived, now serves as a reminder of my teenage enculturation. The relentless demographic harvesting of (mostly) boys, who gleefully forked over their weekly allowance at Crazy Eddie’s for a copy of Love Gun, or Hotter Than Hell (or whatever we didn’t yet have in our collection), was pure marketing genius, and my brother and I both were definitely part of the tail end of this late-seventies North American phenomenon. By the time that we got into KISS, the band was already the most hyped and famous rock group on the planet, and were in fact in the early stages of the process of decline. In other words, unbeknown to us, they were already old hat. They had by then already released all of the early classic recordings of the original lineup, and were actually starting to descend in popularity. But we didn’t know this; we were busy playing catch-up at that point. Ours was in fact the batch of fankids who saw KISS go from being sorta-kinda cool … to ‘sucking’ … all in the course of just two years! Kids were getting wise to the swindle. How could they not after seeing KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, a movie so bad that it is a viable candidate for worst film ever made by a rock band. This, along with the four solo records of 1978 was bad enough (Ace’s is the only one that actually sounded kind-of like a KISS record -- the other three were just lame), but by the time they released the Dynasty album, I was fully aware of the fact that KISS … well … they just weren’t making very good music. What was once a crude and fun kind of rock & roll was turning into vacuous disco/pop crap right before our eyes. Not that it was very good before, but at least it had not been premeditated saccharine before then. By this point, their music had turned essentially into a fluffy kind of thing, not at all the cocky, greasy, simple thing it had started out as. Sure, it was shinier and more expensively produced, but ultimately it was less than crude, less than graceless. It had become almost entirely unimaginative and heartless. (And that’s just the music; the lyrics were even more shallow and vapid than the music was.)

But I really don’t want to spend too much time listing all the reasons why I thought KISS sucked after Alive! II. Suffice it to say that by the time high school had started for me, that particular sugar high had run its course. I was done with KISS forever. I’d moved on.

In the ensuing years, KISS completely fell off my radar screen. Every now and then, I would hear about Gene Simmons doing or saying something rude or stupid or inappropriate, such as his shameless, disrespectful, and indefensibly misogynistic interview with NPR’s Terri Gross in the nineties, or such as the time when, during another interview, he suggested that striving to improve musically as an instrumentalist is a waste of time. (Did you hear that, Mr. Metheny? You can stop practicing now.) Later on I heard that he had a cable reality show, which I have caught small glimpses of while YouTube surfing, but that’s pretty much it for me, as far as KISS goes, except that they just celebrated their fortieth anniversary and they’ve also finally been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which means that they've found their way back into headline news again, and thus into my news feed, inadvertently bringing my mind back to those clueless days of early puberty in the Bronx for a moment.

The Hall of Fame. There’s some logic to that. It makes sense. Congratulations to them. Though I haven’t cared about their stuff since way back when, they certainly paid their dues, they did their time in the trenches, and so I reckon that they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame as much as everyone else who’s been inducted into that prestigious [hiccup!] club. Turns out they were actually eligible for inclusion fifteen years ago, and it’s only now that it’s finally happening. “What took so long?” It's a valid question. The delay raises some further questions regarding the realpolitik underlying the Hall of Fame’s agenda and administrative method and style (and bias). Given KISS’s unprecedented popularity and sales during their seventies heyday, one would think they were a shoe-in for the Hall. On the contrary, they weren’t even considered, and as the years progressed the band saw this as a ‘dis from the “academy,” one more reflection of the lack of respect they have been enduring from the industry for ages. They were being treated like ciphers in a cultural landscape that they had some hand (however minor or superficial) in helping to forge. What does the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame represent? Rock & Roll? Like them or not, KISS helped build that house. And yet KISS has always been a proverbial red-headed stepchild when it comes to critical acclaim. The “cool kids” have just never been on board, and KISS have always responded with a reciprocal disdain. Fittingly, there was no love lost when Paul Stanley opened the KISS show the night after the big ceremony by glibly uttering a defiant: “About time; … and big fucking deal.” I can’t say I blame him much.

To add insult to insult, although, ordinarily, Hall of Fame inductees get to play a few tunes as part of the evening’s ritual ceremony, in KISS’s case a problem arose when they were told that only the original members would be allowed to perform. Although Ace and Peter were okay with this exclusivity, Paul and Gene wanted to include the current members on the same stage (along with former member Bruce Kulik, who had contributed much to their work in the 80s and 90s). This was only fair, Paul said, citing as a precedent last year’s induction performance by Heart, which included their own classic original lineup alongside its current one. No hard feelings, no egos, no grudges; it’s about celebration, right? But the Hall for some reason stood firm in its request in this case; only the founding members would perform. Period. Ace and Peter, who in my opinion should have been more magnanimous and gracious (read: grown-up) by just letting the current lineup also play on stage with them, were instead uncooperative and stubbornly selfish about it all, talking smack of their own in the press, so in the end it was decided (I suspect mostly by Paul) that, if that’s how it’s going to be, then fuck it, no one would play.

Perfectly timed to coincide with both the 40th anniversary and the Hall of Fame milestones, Paul Stanley released Face the Music, making him the last founding member of KISS to publish a book of memoirs. All of the hoopla surrounding their Hall of Fame induction and anniversary made me decide to read it. It’s a fairly honest and open recollection of the early days: from riding from town to town in a loaded station wagon, to becoming bona fide rock stars. Some things were not all that surprising to me: 1) Peter is a tone-deaf idiot. 2) Ace is not stupid, but he makes up for it in laziness and avarice. 3) Gene is a self-centered opportunist. 4) Were it not for the grace and prescience of Paul Stanley (our hero—surprise!), KISS would be financially and artistically bankrupt. Since I don’t intend to read any of the others’ respective books, and since this all seems plausible enough based on what little I know (and what little I care to know), I guess I’ll just take his word for it. But lest I seem too facetious here, let me say that although the last third (or so) of the book admittedly put me to sleep, I did genuinely enjoy reading the first part of the book, even past the point in their chronology where I was no longer personally paying attention to them. I commend Paul for his willingness to talk so candidly about those wild early days. He’s come a long way from being the insecure narcissist he admittedly once was, allowing himself to open up about his physical deformity (he was born without a right ear, a condition he had surgically remedied in ‘79, which until then he simply covered up with his long wavy hair), about the deep depression that set in when KISS was no longer on top of the world (the exodus of kids was so big and unexpected that it made him despondent for a while), about the tragic illness and death of drummer Eric Carr (the most poignant moment in the entire book is when he closes a chapter by lamenting the fact that he should have been more supportive of Eric’s feelings, that he should have been more accessible to him), and about his feelings regarding how the band was perceived by their critics.

This last thread of insight turned out to be one of the most revealing for me. He seems to be under the impression that the reason KISS developed the stigma they did was because they didn’t partake in the drug lifestyle that was such a prevalent aspect of the pop star culture of the time. This struck me as a strange thing to say, considering the well-known public excesses of Peter and of Ace (who was undeniably drunk as a skunk during Tom Snyder’s 1978 television interview of the band, and who was notorious for destroying hotel rooms wherever the band toured). If Paul is under the impression that KISS were ostracized by critics because of their drug-abstinence, not only does it belie the basic facts concerning half of the group, but he is also completely way off-mark as far as what was on the minds of those critics who reviled their work. No. The truth is that, if the creed of the day was “Sex, Drugs, & Rock n Roll,” KISS was sitting on a one-and-a-half-legged tripod. They (Gene and Paul, that is) were depending on sex alone as the driving force behind their work. Now, if not outright silly, this was at least overly ambitious on their part, given that they are not, let’s face it, good looking men.  It was all literally smoke and mirrors and makeup. After the show, Gene was just another marginally talented, unduly conceited, mouthy asshole in a landscape full of those ... and Paul, by his own admission, was so insecure and introverted that he once drove to some big event only to become so riddled with anxiety at the prospect of having to be around people in a social setting, that he sat in his parked car for an hour before finally resolving to just go home. This is no self-confident sexual icon. It’s no wonder then that things had to crash. The sex, the only rock-star vice he allowed himself to indulge in, was just an escapist distraction from his deep insecurities; the drugs were a cause for denial in relation to the reality of his surroundings (i.e. his band mates), and finally, the "rock ‘n roll" being churned out was just pure shit, though Paul, who seems to be aware of his limitations as an instrumentalist, seems to have no idea of his limitations regarding everything else about music-making. Reading, writing, rhythmetic.

One scene in the book brought this to light for me. In one of the few places where he elaborates on the process of songwriting, he says:
“To be able to write something like that without laboring over it is a place you just can’t get back to. It’s writing without rules, without any thoughts of justifying or answering to anybody. I think that over time you can become a more technically proficient songwriter, but that doesn’t mean you write better songs. This was our third album, yes, but all three within barely a year, so we still had the freedom of not really knowing the rules, of not analyzing the lyrics under a microscope. The lyrics […] created such a fluid rhythmic effect. Later in life, I couldn’t write lyrics like that even if you put a gun to my head.”

On its own, a remark like that seems like an innocuous enough bit of insight from someone in the arts. As such it is not unlike other expressions of the importance of allowing for some intuitiveness in one's writing process, the importance of “kissing the joy as it flies” (as Blake would say).  In fact, right before reading this paragraph, I had watched an interview that the 20/20 news program had done with Bob Dylan in which, when asked about the process involved in writing something like "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Like a Rolling Stone," his response was essentially the same as Paul's, saying that it was an almost automatic phenomenon, that such songs come from some indefinable place, and also adding that he could not write like that later on. The difference between these two variants, however, is that Dylan is referring to songs that in their novelty and ingenuity of style and content would eventually be seen as foundational works of an era, expressing the hope of the (then) up and coming generation of socially conscious individuals looking for a cultural voice of their own, while Stanley, on the other hand, was referring to the lyrics of "Come On and Love Me," a song from KISS‘s 1974 album Dressed to Kill:

“She’s a dancer
A romancer
I’m a capricorn and she’s a cancer
She saw my picture in a music magazine.”

Granted, it’s probably a bit unfair for me to compare Paul Stanley with Dylan like this. In fact, had it not been for the synchronicity that coincidentally brought a YouTube video of the Dylan interview into my view at the same time that I was reading Paul’s book, I might have not even noticed the extreme hubris in his statement, but I could not help but find some irony there once the comparison did present itself to me. Still, I don’t think Stanley would be delusional enough to think that the process that brought forth his ‘Fuck me; I’m a rock star’ songs is for all intents the same as Dylan’s. God, I hope not. Paul, the reason the critics hated you was because your music essentially had nothing to say about anything of relevance to anyone but your libido. That you were sober was the least of your problems.

At any rate, in addition to reading Paul’s book (because of reading it, really), it was in this same sense of thinking about their the 40th anniversary that I decided to finally listen to KISS’s Music from the Elder for the first time ever. In fact, this essay was initially intended to be nothing but a hyper-belated album review of The Elder, an album that the band made a couple of years after I had already given up on them. It was fascinating to read about the exodus of fans from Paul’s first-hand perspective. Spitting blood, fire-breathing and sexual bravado are all pretty cool, especially when you’re twelve, but as time progressed the band strayed further and further from the formula that had put them on the map in the first place, and it just wasn't interesting anymore. They had started out as purveyors of an anti-intellectual hedonistic barre-chord rock that touched a certain pre-adolescent nerve precisely because it was primitive and visceral and brainless. It was brash for brashness‘ sake. That was its appeal. Theirs were simple songs full of frantic power riffs that any kid could air-guitar along with in their bedrooms without having to think too hard. Start with one of those simple three-chord riffs … throw in lots of innuendo, and … violá … you have a KISS song. At heart KISS wasn’t really about music, though. Not really. The music in fact was almost incidental. It didn’t have to be great music. It was just another product to sell, like the tee shirts and the lunchboxes. KISS was a spectacle set up to sell product, not art. KISS was a circus. A show. This is not necessarily an indictment of circuses, mind you. I don’t want to sound here like I look down on entertainment value in and of itself. Far from it. Heaven knows that circuses serve a noble function. We need them. But this particular circus started to take itself way too seriously by the end of the seventies. It’s hard to continue to believe in the magic of the circus anymore when all one can see is the carnival barker counting receipts after the show.

By the decade’s end they had allowed themselves to be tempted away from the visceral primitiveness that had been the fountain of their success. They went from making strident rock records that flaunted their disinterest in critical acclaim … to making polished and uninspired pop records that practically begged for this acclaim. It was a cry to be loved by the very elite they reviled. Kids could tell the difference between real shit and bullshit, though, and we had started to leave the party in droves. We who had been sustaining their business model were soon to enter high school age, and we weren’t buying the crap that KISS were trying to push off on us, not when there were plenty of cool bands around (Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest … etc) to take up the hard rock slack. There was plenty of music out there to fill the need for shock and glam that so many kids seem to have needed at that pubescent age. Form and bluster can only dance you from here to there, though, and that’s not very far. At some point, a lack of substance will sure enough betray itself, and the KISS army of accountants during this time of diminishing returns must have sounded the alarm loud and clear, because KISS suddenly changed lanes without warning. They must have seen the writing on the wall that things were about to change drastically, but they made what was possibly the dumbest career decision they could make under the circumstances. Instead of going back to cranking out their basic visceral three-chord rock ’n roll music full of double entendres, which might have stemmed the exodus of kids a little, at least until they could figure out what to do next, KISS decided to go “legit,” to make “serious” music. Success with the kids is one thing, but it turns out that the band had been harboring secret ambitions. They started to imagine that they could finally win the respect of their peers by making a masterpiece album. It was the heyday of the concept album. Fresh on the heels of having helped to record Pink Floyd’s colossal The Wall album, producer Bob Ezrin somehow convinced Gene and Paul to try their hand at making a concept album of their own. Somehow overlooking the fact that such a thing would have been asking way too much of KISS even in the best of circumstances (by that time drugs and alcohol had rendered Peter and Ace barely functional), Paul and Gene persisted in this vision. They went ahead and did it. They made Music from the Elder. Like any concept album worth its salt, it had to be grandiose, cryptic, … maybe a tad apocalyptic … epic. It had to be deep.

Was it?

Well … sort of … if by “deep” you mean “ambiguous.”

My first reaction to this record, which was probably not unlike that of everyone who first listened to it in 1981, was simple confusion. I pricked up my ears and audibly said, “What the fuck ... ?” It is such a radical departure from what KISS had done up until then that some cognitive dissonance is inevitable before one can rightly process it upon first hearing it. It’s a bizarre experience. I sort of expected that I would be totally panning this album, that I would mock it from the git go, and the truth is that that’s almost exactly what I did. But I waited it out a bit. A second listening didn’t help much. But something happened on the third listening, when I played it as my midnight swim music last night. I was able this time to listen to it without the prejudice I had first come to it with,  to bracket the fact that the artist was KISS, to just listen to nothing but the songs themselves. Out of context like this, there are a couple of things I can critically say about Music from the Elder:

I won’t go as far as calling The Elder a great record, or even a particularly good record, but, all things considered, in almost every respect, be it melodic, harmonic, lyrical, rhythmic, textural, or in terms of arrangement and orchestration, this is the single best record that the band KISS has ever made, but this fact would only be obvious once one’s “KISS sucks” prejudice is suspended. It's not saying much, but the record, while retaining the basic hard rock forms of the day, simply has more breadth than anything they had ever done previously. That it was doomed to bomb commercially was never in doubt by anyone but Gene and Paul, of course—they should have known better than to bet all their chips on green—but for the first time, they allowed themselves to pretend to be actual artists rather than entrepreneurs. Regrettably, artistic success being synonymous with commercial success to Paul Stanley, when sales of the album proved to be dismal (what did they expect after Phantom of the Park and Dynasty and Unmasked?), instead of standing by their work, he distanced himself from it. KISS dropped it like a hot potato. In fact, it was to be the only studio album that they ever made that they did not tour to support. A few years later, Paul would say about The Elder, “It was pompous, contrived, self-important and fat.” In my opinion, though, I think he succumbed to his insecurities too easily, and that‘s a shame, because The Elder actually presented them as something more than comic book figures. I think that Ace Frehley was closer to the truth in his estimation of the record when he said, "Music From The Elder wasn’t a bad album .... it was just a bad KISS album." I suspect that if it had sold better, Paul would concur and would not be as ashamed of it as he seems to be.

It’s funny, but it’s as though KISS's discovery of metaphor, allegory, polyrhythm, alliteration, motivic development— the arsenal of tools that is available to poets and songwriters—was seen as a liability by their fans, who only wanted to rock out. That’s what happens when you build a fan base out of pre-pubescent boys, with no regard for artistic integrity. It’s a cautionary tale. If you sell your soul to the circus early on in your career, enjoy the ride and enjoy the benefits of having your brass ring, but don’t be surprised when no one takes you seriously later on when you try to do something of substance. People generally don’t look to people they’ve known for years as clowns for their high art.


11 September 2014

quote of the day ...

Posted by at 5:17 PM

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

John Horgan 

08 September 2014

On Islam (pt. 1 — Preface)

Posted by at 8:14 PM
(I am hereby embarking on a series of posts addressing the religion known as Islam. I’ve been giving the topic a lot of thought for some years now and I was inspired by a discussion on the word “Jihad” that I took part in with a beloved family member recently to finally jot down some of my feelings about it. I initially intended to focus just on the concept of Jihad, but after thinking it through, I determined that such an effort would be too limiting. It would be like talking about Juche —i.e. Kim Il Sung’s concept of self-reliance— without considering its background, or like talking about Reconstruction without considering the causes and effects of the American Civil War. Not only would it be unduly constraining, it would simply make no sense out of its proper context. This is why it needs to be a series, and why this first post is only a preface. As always, I am not above correction and I welcome criticism of any statement I should make in this my sincere analysis as long as it is pertinent and not combative or abusive. )

* * * * *

I don’t really like the word “atheism.” It is a label I’d rather not have placed on me. The only kind of “-ist” I readily concede to being is a “humanist” (“scientist” might also conceivably be an adequate descriptive term, since that was my formal academic training, but I do not currently labor as one, so it is only in a tangential, semantic sense that it could apply to me). That said, I am definitely not a “theist.” Neither am I a golfer, nor a “poetry-slam” aficionado (though I love actual poetry), nor a Somali. Much in the same way that I see no need to coin words to describe my relation to golf or to “slamming” or to the nation of Somalia, I fail to see any need to refer to my relation to any specific “god” concept using the word “atheist.” If anything, the closest I feel that I come to fitting any of the words currently used to describe a person’s relation to theism would be “ignostic,” which is the position that, until an adequate and unambiguous definition of what an actual god might be, the very question of its existence is a meaningless one.

This is not to say that I am unfamiliar with many of the concepts of god(s) that have been formulated through the ages, however. On the contrary, as a lifelong student of culture and of history I have a deep fascination with these god concepts in the Jamesian sense that they are indispensable parts of ongoing mythological complexes consisting of devotional writings, symbols, metaphors, and archetypes that can be individually distinguished and described within the sociological and historical contexts of the cultures in which these concepts germinated and developed. In this mythological sense, Zeus exists and the Great Spirit exists and Oduduá exists and Yahveh exists—hell, even Superman exists in this cultural phenomenon sense. But I realize that this is not the ontological sense that most people mean when they use the word “God.” What they usually mean by that word is an actual personal being/entity, one which created and which transcends the cosmos, and, perhaps more importantly for their worldview, one which continually interacts with it in some way. I also realize that this god concept is so pervasive and so ingrained into their respective religio-cultural contexts that the convention of referring to those outside of this theistic paradigm as “atheists” is here to stay, for better or for worse (I vote “worse”) and that there’s nothing I can do to change that custom, no matter how logically nonsensical it may be, and so, in the course of dialogue with any such theist, for the sake of an argument, I will occasionally reluctantly don the term for a moment when confronted by people seeking to challenge me about my indifference to their religious zeal. Their first question is almost invariably, “Why don’t you believe in God?” My answer is terse: “Because I have no reason to.” It’s really that simple to me. If you want to believe in some supernatural super-being, I say, “Go for it.” If you have decided to subscribe to or adopt the strict mandate of a given religious tradition, even though I may think it is pure folly, you are surely free to do so. I won’t stop you. “God” is a useful metaphor when discussing the numinous aspects of the world. I don’t object to its use per se, and in fact even I use it myself in this sense from time to time. The problem only arises if someone starts to imagine that his chosen religious mandate somehow extends to the point that it encompasses not just him, but me (and everyone else around him) as well. I find that notion to be problematic and highly offensive.

This does not mean that I think religion is offensive in and of itself. Not at all. I am aware that religions vary in terms of their beliefs and their practices and their functions and that it would be facile and unfair to use such a large brush to paint them all as equally nasty (or as equally benevolent, for that matter). They are decidedly not all the same. Satanists in their hedonistic self-worship are clearly infinitely more repulsive than Jainists in their radical pacifism. Moreover, sometimes even different factions within a single religion can vary in their levels of offensiveness. Compare and contrast, for example, the altruistic Christian faith of someone like Albert Schweitzer with that of the repugnant, hate-filled Westboro Baptists. The crux of the matter for me boils down to what the prescribed conduct of such a group is, particularly if it focuses on missionary activity and/or exclusivist rhetoric. The way I see it, the opinion that everyone should (nay, that everyone must) adopt one’s own religious mandates, or else be considered somehow spiritually “deficient” (or worse) is a special kind of misguided and myopic selfishness.

I state this caveat up front because, before I begin to address Islam specifically, I feel a necessity to establish some standard of measurement, a lens through which a discussion can proceed without veering off into accusations of either ‘theophobism’ or ‘islamophobicism.’ The fact is that, although I have no reason to believe in any personal gods, I really don’t care what anyone “believes.” I have no stake in it. It’s none of my business. I am not anti-anything; I simply reject most theist claims.

Nevertheless, this lack of belief in gods is relevant and prior to such a discussion in that, since I have no use for any god, this necessarily means by extension that I also have no reason to take seriously either the ‘divine revelation,’ or the ‘prophesy’ that this god is supposed to be the source of. Once this superstitious veneer is put aside, all that is left is a historically/literarily/culturally documented tradition. Nothing more.

This post is just an introductory one, serving the function of disclosure viz a viz my own stance in relation to general theism. In the next post I will proceed to explore the topic of Islam and the Koran proper.


19 July 2014

Some Thoughts on "God's Not Dead" (the motion picture) ...

Posted by at 10:47 PM

The storyline:
When a freshman (Josh Wheaton) enrolls in an introductory philosophy course to fulfill an elective requirement toward a "pre-law" curriculum, the professor (Jeffrey Radisson) of the class turns out to be a tyranical militant asshole atheist. Professor Radisson commands his students, just barely a minute after entering and introducing himself to them on the very first day of class, to sign their name on a sheet of paper with the simple statement, three little words: "God is dead." He tells them that signing it means they can skip right over the part of the course where students typically get their worst grades. The rest of the students sign their sheets without hesitation, but Josh, the only holdout of the entire class, can't bring himself to deny his god. He refuses.  The professor then puts Josh on the spot. If Josh will not sign the paper, he will then have to debate the existence of god against the professor before the whole class. If he fails to get his fellow students to change their vote, he forfeits 30% of his final grade right off the top.
[Spoiler alert! —Josh does in the end succeed in changing the hearts and minds of his fellow students and they live happily ever after—big surprise, I know.]

I write what follows by request. A dear friend, a Baptist minister that I used to work with, recently sent me a link to a preview of the film. Saying that he'd seen it, he warned me that it was not very good, but he said that he'd be interested in reading my opinion of it.
So here goes:


(It's impossible to separate the forest from the trees, but I'd like it to be the film that I review here—not the viewpoint it promotes—so I'll do my best to just focus on formal flaws that the film suffers from, rather than on any theist/atheist arguments made within.)

— — —

The most glaringly obvious problem in this film is its inability to present even a single character that is not two-dimensional or ill-developed:

• Josh: The most fleshed-out role is Josh Wheaton (there's the Prof. too; I'll get to him shortly), but even this central character is not much more than a thumbnail sketch. He's believable enough as an awkward teenager, but there's not much there in his performance to shape a character.
(He winds up being the guest of honor at a "Christian" rock concert at the end of the movie, though. How cool is that?)

• blonde girl: Josh's girlfriend (I forgot her name), a control freak determined to not let anything get in the way of her and Josh's future picture-perfect life together. She forbids Josh from taking Prof. Radisson on. Josh disobeys her, so she breaks up with him, saying, "My mother was right about you." She thus disappears from the film, never having congealed into a real person with any discernable depth. (What her mother was right about, we'll never know.1) She functions as the example of a "fake" Christian in the film.
(She had tickets to the concert, it was his anniversary gift, but I didn't notice if she was there or not.)

• Amy: Amy is an up and coming journalist/blogger. She is depicted as radical far left. The entirety of her character development consists of the camera panning across her car's abundant bumper stickers. She's a atheist vegan activist. Yup. She's one of them liberals. It's a disingenuous leftism, however. We later learn that she's in it just for the money. Nevertheless, she is intent on exposing and discrediting all that the good people of the American hinterland (represented by one of the Duck Dynasty guys) consider right and good and proper (hunting, Christianity, apple pie, etc.) on her blog. Scatterbrained and disorganized, nothing ever goes right for poor Amy. Upon discovering that she has cancer, she goes to interview the band (to trash them, apparently) but her inevitable conversion ensues after being stumped by a single question from the singer.
(Definitely at the concert that night, getting saved by the band backstage.)

• Muslim girl: Aysha wears a hijab to school to appease her fanatical father (who, incidentally, looks just like a stereotypical crazed terrorist), but she discards it as soon as he is safely out of view when he drops her off in the morning. We soon learn that Aysha is actually a Christian in secret. Where and/or how she became infected with this little religious habit we are not made aware of. Did she just pick it up it from sermons and podcasts? 2 Her malevolently psychic (¿ —it is a confused and confusing scene — What the hell was that about?) little brother betrays her, snitching to their father about her infidelities. Her dad then throws her out of the house onto the street. 
(She is seen dancing and swaying ecstatically during the rock concert.)

• cleric #1: We meet Reverend Dave3, who finds young Josh in his chapel praying for guidance just as he is about to close shop for the night, which must have been fate (of course—What else?), so, in what seems like an abridged Brady Bunch kind of moment, the good Reverend naively advises Josh (a freshman on his first day of college) to go ahead and debate the mad professor (a PhD in philosophy) on the existence of God. To assist him in in his noble quest task, Reverend Dave offers Josh a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (he backs it with an alternate one from Luke).
"Don't try to be clever," he says, "just tell the truth."
Yeah, okay. Thanks Reverend. 

• cleric #2: We meet Reverend Jude, a jolly platitudinarian [I hereby coin the word], a sojourning African missionary whose function seems to be to prop up Reverend Dave's ego with affirmations meant to dispel his feelings of inadequacy and ineffectuality ("Don't worry, Dave, I know it feels like you ain't doing nothing but weddings and funerals around here, but you just have to trust that the Lord knows what He's doing in giving you this vocation. Don't you worry now." [to paraphrase]). I suspect  that Reverend Jude may have been an afterthought meant to bring some folksy comic relief to this otherwise soulless and tepid film. 

• Mina: Mina is the subservient girlfriend of the asshole professor. She is a Christian but she never brings up the topic with Jeffrey for fear of antagonizing him. For his part, Jeffrey treats her like shit in front of all his friends, making fun of her religious tendencies, asserting his intellectual superiority at every turn. Theirs would be a believable passive/aggressive/enabler kind of relationship if we weren't also led to believe that they have simply avoided talking about religion all this time, that their broaching the topic of religion is really an anomaly. His hatred of God [oops—spoiler alert!] is so all-consuming that it is simply impossible for me to believe that premise. He is such a pompous ass, and she is so milquetoast, that I just can't envisage their having fallen in love with each other. They're not believable characters, not in context.
(She is at the concert too.)

• Mark: We meet Mark, Mina's brother (and Amy's boyfriend). Their mother is suffering from dementia in a home for the elderly. If such a thing were possible, Mark is an even bigger asshole than the professor is. He is only interested in money and in keeping up appearances. 4
(He's too busy accumulating wealth to care about some silly concert.)

• Martin: We meet Martin, an exchange student from Communist China. Josh's "debate" with Professor Radisson is enough to convert him to Christianity.
(Definitely at the concert. Like all newbie converts, he is extra-enthusiastic [if a little graceless].)

• Jeffrey Radisson: The straw elephant in the room. I saved the professor for last because he is the fulcrum on which the whole film turns  As far as characters go, he's the film's black eye shiner. Worse than a caricature, he's a boogeyman.  His character is a gross mischaracterization. It can only be the creation of someone who believes that our higher-educational institutions are actively involved in some insidious effort to silence religious believers on their campuses. This imagined affront to religious expression is the very motivation to make a film like this in the first place; it is its raison d'être. The screenwriter's/director's portrayal is a mischaracterization, nay, a demonization, of both what a freshman philosophy course is and what a philosophy professor's job is. As such, it is insulting to philosophy and to higher education in general.

Imagine for a moment that it's the first day of a freshman year philosophy class. Given such a bare scenario, what would we expect to see? Sure, one might expect an austere man to walk in and turn over a chalkboard on which he'd prepared a list of famous philosophers. Such a list, on the very first class session, might include a few of the Greeks, maybe a couple of the later influential thinkers—the course in skeletal outline, basically. But would such a list include Ayn Rand, Noam Chomsky, and Richard Dawkins? I dare say not. Why on earth would a philosophy department start with that angle? Ayn Rand? Richard Dawkins? Seriously? This was the first sign that something was terribly amiss in this movie. The producers don't seem to know what philosophy actually is. They seem to be under the impression that the central question of philosophy is about atheism. As someone who enjoys philosophy, it seems bizarre to me that in this film the professor relies exclusively on quotes from biologists (Dawkins) or physicists (Weinberg, Hawking) and not from philosophers (not even once) to counter Josh's all-too-recognizably Craigian nonsense spiel. Why would a philosophy professor quote an evolutionary biologist in this context? It makes no sense. What I fear is happening there is that the commitment and fervor that the producers of this film feel toward their religion is being projected, equal and opposite, to how a liberal arts professor 'might' feel for his corresponding "atheism." The missionary zeal projected onto him is telling.  In their view, Professor Radisson is not just an asshole, he's an active agent of the encroaching secularism that the producers of this film imagine themselves to be at war against in America. There are atheists waiting in ambush around every corner, chompin' at the bit, seeking to win souls for the other guy (wink wink).

This film owes almost its entire conception to this sort of projection, in fact.

  • Radisson demands written professions of faith. 
  • The arguments that he offers are all arguments from authority. 
  • He relays this received authority onto himself and uses it to coerce his students into compliance. 

The film presents these as normative in academia (or at least as tolerated on campuses). They are not. Quite the contrary, in the real world, a professor like Radisson would be reprimanded and corrected just for his combative stridency alone, nevermind for the fact that he is engaging in such unethical activity as that of religiously coercing students. These just wouldn't fly in an American University. The irony is, of course, that these sorts of things are normative in the Christian paradigm, where all roads lead to the authority of the Bible and where mandatory statements of faith as academic or professional prerequisites are standard fare. As such, these projections are all proverbial logs in the eyes of filmmakers too busy looking for motes in the eyes of academia to realize it.They know not what they do. 

This projection of academic intransigence onto institutes of higher learning, coupled with a tendency to believe that religion is being actively repressed by secularist forces within them (what a psychologist might diagnose as a martyr complex in an individual) is where the real interest lies in this subgenre of filmmaking for me. I get the feeling (films like this drive the point home) that there really are people out there who believe that the secular world is out to get them, that it is out to silence them and take their religion away. It sort of reminds me (and disturbs me in much the same way) of the current subculture of Americans who imagine that Obama is coming to take away their guns. There isn't any legislation pending that could conceivably be interpreted that way, but that doesn't seem to matter to them. They've decided that Obama is coming and that they have to stand their ground. This not only makes sense to them, they consider it their patriotic duty.  Facts be damned. And now these kinds of imaginary bogeymen are inspiring movies.  Oh, great. 

Now, it's not a sin to make a bad movie. People have been doing it for decades. The banal products of Hollywood far outnumber the sublime. They have from the beginning of the medium's history. The fact that art is such a subjective thing in the end always allows us a lot of wiggle room in our judgments, however. Criteria are flexible rather than absolute, and this results in the arbitrariness and ambiguity that are inherent in our perceptions of art. As an example, in the eyes of those within the particular subculture that God's Not Dead targets and panders to, namely North American Evangelicalism, the fact that its conception and execution are so facile and overtly apologetic (a deal breaker for me) does not at all mar the film's artistic integrity. In fact, if anything, it heightens it in a significant way for this demographic group. Their sense of piety easily overrides their sense of aesthetics and they tend to judge an artwork in relation to a cause célèbre rather than as simply a work of art.  Because they perceive beauty in piety, they mistakenly conflate these two concepts. In this sense "testifying" is beautiful by definition. 

I have to stress this conflation before I conclude my review because of the particularly weird movie-going experience I had for this film.  Many of the people in the audience were very expressive.  They felt free to sporadically utter audible paroxyms of approval throughout the course of the film. That's fine, I guess. I get that it is all part of the act of public "worship," but it was nevertheless kinda weird to me in context. I went to a movie theater, not to a church. It was more tactless and awkward than rude, but it needs to be mentioned. I am not that frequent a movie-goer, but I've seen my share, and this kind of audience-participation is definitely out of the ordinary in my experience. The round of applause that erupted as the end-credits began to roll was as ostentatious and out of place as all the "amening" throughout.  It just made no sense. [spoiler alert!] How the film ends: The bad guy dies, but not before the good guys (clerics #1 & #2) elicit a deathbed conversion from him. They go as far as calling the incident a "cause for celebration." It's perverse. Just when I thought this was the pinnacle of bad taste, there I was, scratching my head at this incredibly bad movie, when, as if the horrendous screenplay I am being subjected to weren't bad enough, here comes a syrupy over-produced saccharine musical number (performed by a band called the Newsboys). Finally the movie ends with the punchline of its only comic-relief tangent, involving the pastor and the missionary's "faith that the car would start."  This was the best ending the film's director could think of?  I mean, I'm a friggin' atheist and even I knew that the car would start! This film is so bad that when the audience applauded at the end, I wondered if the twilight zone had overtaken the theater we were in. Had we just watched the same movie? It boggles the mind that such banality could incite applause. Obviously, these people were applauding for their love for Jesus, not for any merits the film may have had. How could they? The film simply had none (again ... that is, unless of course one counts piety, which the film did have in spades). If what you are looking for in a movie is maudlin edification and/or reinforcement of the faith you already subscribe to, then you will probably think God's Not Dead is pretty good.

I found it to be nothing more than badly conceived, badly executed, alarmist, paranoid religious propaganda.

— — —

Loose Ends Footnotes

  1. A word of advice to aspiring novelists and screenwriters: if a character hammers a nail into a wall during the course of a narrative, there better be a framed painting hanging from that nail by the story's end.

  2. A podcast sermon about 1 Corinthians on her IPod is the unresolved nail in the wall in this instance.

  3. Is he a school chaplain? — We are told nothing about the community he pastors.

  4. Here, I'm going to take a moment to say something nice about the film. One of the only scenes I thought was well-written was when Mark finally visits his mom and where she, in a moment of graceful lucidity, responds to a question he asks rhetorically into the room about life being unfair, essentially scolding him for being a  selfish prick before fading back into her dementia, no longer recognizing him as her son. I liked that scene a lot. :)

  5. If these are attributes of the professor and his department that are to be rejected and rebuked, what does this say about the Church?

09 March 2014

Fessing Up ...

Posted by at 10:44 PM
(An Open Response to Mike Dobbins)
“By their fruit you will know them.” This saying, attributed to Jesus as part of what is arguably his greatest hit, the Sermon on the Mount, is in my opinion as true a statement as anyone has ever uttered. The context in that particular passage is that of distinguishing between true and false prophets, but even removed from this specific setting, I think that the statement would be just as brilliant and would ring just as true in virtually any human activity. This includes rhetoric. The methods and style that one uses in one’s rhetoric will always reflect one’s underlying motives. If you have an axe to grind, it will quickly become apparent not only in your content but in your phrasing and in your choice of words and emphases, try though you might to maintain an objective and/or academic posture as you proceed. It’s hard to hide rancor.
Mike Dobbins has written a blog piece called “What Atheism Really Means” that I think illustrates this point very well. Objecting to the simple definition of atheism as a “lack of belief in god(s),” he essentially exhorts atheists to “fess up,” that is, to drop the dishonesty he sees as intrinsic to their position and finally admit that they are deliberately being evasive in their self-identification as atheists. He insists that there is more to atheism than that, that there is a positive claim being made, that it is not just a rejection of a proposition, but that it is a proposition in itself, and further, that we atheists know this. This sounds serious. Those atheists sure do sound like some pretty insincere people. His is, of course, not the first such formulation of what is essentially a “burden-of-proof” challenge.
But it’s not just that one cannot prove a negative (though we can‘t escape that fact). It's also that some such negatives don’t even warrant any attempt to do so. For example, if a claim is made, say, that the moon is made of bleu cheese, for instance, and yet no rational evidence is presented in defense of this idea, then I am justified in simply ignoring this claim, just because it is unsupported. It’s that simple. I need no other reason. It has nothing to do with “proving” it false; who would want to try to disprove what is no more than a speculative proposition, anyway? This goes for ANY claim made in the absence of evidence. If evidence is not advanced, then the claim does not reach the threshold necessary for it to be considered a truth in any meaningful sense. This is akin to Christopher Hitchens’ famous aphorism: “That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” It really is that simple. I can certainly entertain all kinds of ideas as useful speculations in my brainstorms if I find them sufficiently intriguing or esthetically pleasing. Indeed, it is often such abstract speculation that lubricates the mind into insight and into action, and makes possible eureka moments through which history and science continue to progress. I have nothing against speculation. I’m all for it. But it takes evidence to elevate a speculation to the category of a truth. There is no shortcut.
Dobbins knows that one can’t prove a negative claim. He also knows that any positive claim that is made bears this burden of proof it must meet if it is to be considered true in any significant way. Therefore, if he could demonstrate that atheism is a “belief” in itself then it would render the simple definition of atheism as a “lack” of belief invalid, and this would place atheism on the same level that theism occupies: both positive claims, both “unproven.” In other words, if you object to theism’s indefensibility, then you must also object to atheism on the same basis. See how that works? Clever, eh?
But notice that, even if this were correct (it‘s not), Dobbins’ charge entails a tacit admission that he cannot meet his theism’s burden of proof. So instead of trying to meet it, he points his finger at atheists and says, “Sure, okay, I can’t prove my claim, but you can’t prove yours either, so there!” Thus, it is not just a projection of his own erroneous logic onto his opponents, it is a textbook example of a “tu qoque” (“you too”) fallacy.  “By their fruit you will know them.”
But it’s worse than that. He could have really tried to engage this idea seriously, but, instead, in attempting to demonstrate that atheism is a positive claim rationally, he puts forward an argument that is not just erroneous, it is downright facile and embarrassingly naive. Namely, in making his case, he actually appeals to dictionary definitions of the word “atheism.” A word of advice to all students: in almost every subject, no matter what some teacher may have told you years ago, do not ever waste your time or words repeating a dictionary definition in an academic or a debate setting. Dictionaries are descriptive references, not authorities, and almost certainly they are useless for the argument you wish to make. How the Oxford Dictionary defines “discrimination,” for instance, has nothing to do with demonstrating an understanding of the issues and the materials involved in a discourse on civil liberties. There are obvious exceptions (in philology, etymology, etc.), but I have yet to see a paper where a dictionary definition didn’t motivate tooth-grinding or face palming. This tactic is a distraction from what the writer needs to do in a paper, it’s poor debating technique, and it is trite. (Dobbins, his bio says, managed to earn a master’s degree in special education, so he should know better than to try to pull such a sophomoric stunt.)
Moreover, while this bald appeal to authority is bad enough in itself, in making it he implies that atheists all derive their self-identification from a sub-par dictionary (he even specifies which one, the online Urban Dictionary), while he, on the other hand, prefers the definition culled from a more-prestigious one (he cites Webster’s as supporting his case).
Right … right … because people always automatically consult dictionaries when they are working out their metaphysical outlooks, contemplating their mortal souls and meditating on the purpose of their life and on the ground of their being. Worse … when atheists consult a dictionary for this purpose, being the terrible and stupid contrarian people that they are, not only do they reach for a dictionary, they  intentionally  reach for a misleading and inferior one. — It's ludicrous.
This doubly idiotic straw man is Dobbins’ lead-off argument in his blog piece, mind you, his first line of attack (!). He has the audacity to open with this stupid insinuation. It’s somewhat dumbfounding to find that someone would take this approach and yet still wish to be taken seriously as a thinker. “By their fruit you will know them.” Perhaps he’ll have better luck with another reader.  It’s too bad too, because he is pretty good with a turn of a phrase. He could be a decent writer if he weren’t so angry at atheists, angry enough to forego valid (or even relevant) arguments. (“My team, right or wrong! Right?”) That he cannot control himself in this way is embarrassing and it taints and ruins whatever modicum of validity his position may have.
At any rate, his opening salvo may be an ineffectual dud, but it is worth noting that he delivers it (and the rest of his rant) with such defiant and self-assured stridency that it’s as if he imagines that standing his ground with his dukes up is enough, that that can somehow substitute for a valid argument. In this sense he reminds me of scrappy apologists like Dinesh D’Souza. I get the feeling Dobbins (and D‘Souza), presumably offended and inspired to counter-attack by the recent publication and success of a number of books on the irrelevance of traditional theistic religion and perhaps by the resultant growing number of atheists in the world, feel it is okay to fight fire with fire. If the “new atheists” are mean and scrappy (he reasons), why shouldn’t he also be mean and insulting in return? All that turning the other cheek and meekness business is for pussies who are afraid to defend their faith. No, a real apologist comes ready to fight. (O, the irony.)
Since I think that even Dobbins would admit the dearth of evidence in this case, all of his bravado and bluster is no more than his own exercise wheel squeaking along while he runs in place. Maybe he likes the sound of it; maybe it makes him think he’s doing something noble. Me? - I think it’s kinda funny.
We’ve seen that he’s obviously ready, willing and able to use pathetic non-arguments as part of his strident anti-stridency ranting, and so he is not a threat to anyone with half a brain, really.  In fact, I fear that I’ve probably already spent more time on his blog piece than it deserves (chalk it up to my generosity, I guess, or, more likely, to my having the evening off tonight). On the other hand, being more or less one of those pesky atheists that he finds so maddeningly evasive, I’d like to personally respond to the challenge he raises there directly by pointing out some of the places where it fails. I’d like to humor him in the hope of clarifying his misguided ideas even a little.
The main failure of Dobbins’ outlook, from which all others flow, lies in his conflation of two different words: “god” and “God.” To him, these are one and the same thing; they’re interchangeable, and so not being capable of making a distinction between them leads him to treat them both the same, so that what is true for one is also true for the other. When an atheist says that he doesn’t believe in god, Dobbins presumes he means that he doesn’t believe in God, and vise versa. It’s therefore no wonder then that he finds atheists to be so frustratingly obtuse. He doesn’t realize that it’s his own deficient understanding (to be fair, it is the paradigm he subscribes to that‘s at fault, the error is not ultimately his personally, but his culture’s) that is the cause of his frustration.
Let’s first take the case of “God.” The use of the word “God” as a proper noun is problematic even before you try to equivocate it with the lower-case “god.” Dobbins never quite specifies whether he is a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew, so I don‘t know whether he is speaking of Yahveh, or Allah, or Yahveh 2.0 (Abba), or, for that matter of Odúdua, or Ozomatli, or Shiva, or any number of other gods available to us from history‘s rich pageant. I suspect this is intentional on his part, since his bio doesn’t specify his religion either, which is something that an apologist would ordinarily include. He probably wishes to be seen as a champion of all of them simultaneously (at least that is the impression I get). Fair enough. But I think that Seneca was essentially correct when he noted: “If you are everywhere, you are nowhere.” And so I am compelled to ask which God he is asking me whether I believe in or not. One can surely assume that Jews, Christians, and Muslims acknowledge the same God. This has been a proposition (indeed, a presupposition) held by many for a long time now. But it can be shown that in fact what they have in common is their conviction that there is only one God, the creator of the universe and of us, not that their God is one and the same as the others. The god of each respective corner of this would-be Abrahamic triangle is far from identical to the other two. A cursory reading of these three religions’ respective holy texts would show this. But even if for the sake of Jerusalem we were to grant these “Gods” identity, could we also grant it to Kali? To Neptune? One would be hard pressed to show Shangó and Yahveh to be the same personage. If someone is a devotee of Yemayá, queen of the sea and bringer of fertility, are they worshipping “God”? If not, are they “atheists”?
The first point to be gleaned from this is the absurdity of this conflation of sundry deities and divinities into a single term: “theism.” The second is that the recognition of this non-unity of “God” allows me (and anyone else) to compare and contrast these different formulations of “Gods” (with names) and to make certain probabilistic determinations about each accordingly. In this sense, when I (or Mr. Dobbins) “don’t believe in" the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I am employing my rational and critical faculties on some specific claims about a proposed divinity. It’s not that I am claiming knowledge regarding Zeus' ontological status; it’s that since the only data I have concerning this deity comes from a body of literature which I recognize as mythological (and, mythology being one of the most beautiful of human activities, I do not use the word as a pejorative in the least), and since no empirical corroboration of those stories are forthcoming, I am justified in proceeding in my day to day life as though the proposed deity is no more than a mythic construct until some evidence should appear. I am not making a categorical statement about the nature of reality by dismissing it. That would be silly of me since I have no evidence (and therefore no warrant) to make such airy proclamations. No, when I say that I don’t believe in Zeus, or Yahveh, or Thor, or Exu,  my reasoning process is the same as it is when I say that I don‘t believe that the moon is made of bleu cheese. To Dobbins, it feels as though I am making some important ‘positive’ proclamation about the universe when I merely negate an unsubstantiated claim. The difference between the bleu cheese moon and God is the importance he places on the latter. I doubt the cheesiness of the moon would upset him. All knowledge being provisional, his attitude is misguided and unnecessary. In the case of atheism, the rancor he feels is directly proportional to the cavalierness with which a given atheist may express his opinion regarding that which he (Dobbins) feels so very strongly about--i.e. the existence of some God. That rancor, of course, is in his head and is not my problem, except inasmuch as he openly challenges or questions my motives or my honor (in a defiant blog post calling all atheists liars, for instance), which I am ready and willing to engage.
The lower-case gods all exist, of course, in the Jamesian sense that they are part of mythological complexes of scriptures, symbols, metaphors, and archetypes and can be distinguished and described within the sociological and historical contexts of the cultures in which they germinated and developed. In this sense, Zeus exists and the Great Spirit exists, and Ishtar exists and Yahveh exists. It is the only sense I find at all interesting. Like most human creations, gods have evolved over the ages, but this, of course, is not the kind of sense that Mr. Dobbins was hoping for.
In closing I should add that Dobbins has written a pamphlet (136 pages) called “The Case Against Atheism” which is available from Amazon for 99c for the kindle version. He also has a forthcoming one called “Atheism as a Religion,” which I predict will be pretty horrible. If these are anything at all like his blog post, I can make two general statements:

  1. He fancies himself a “new” apologist, a counterweight to the new atheists‘ forcefulness, and to this end he employs more bluster than substance. 
  2. If he’s at all indicative of the “new” apologetics, I think they are already sunk.

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