Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

And a Happy Boxing Day to you, Garrison Keillor!

December 26, 2009

I must have been doing a spectacularly poor job wasting time over the last week, because only today did I see Garrison Keillor’s Christmas rant:

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Golly. For the record, he also says bad things about Lawrence Summers and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and unaccountably refers to the good people of Cambridge, MA, as “Cambridgeans.”

One has to wonder exactly how serious this is intended to be. On the one hand, Keillor is a professional humorist and satirist. He’s also an inveterate rewriter of lyrics, Christmas lyrics not excepted. On the other, well… it isn’t very funny, now is it?

I’m leaning towards thinking it’s satire, or at least thinking that he thinks it’s satire. I am hardly Garrison Keillor’s biggest fan1—I find A Prairie Home Companion both precious and grating, not to mention endlessly, mindlessly, numbingly repetitive—but I don’t think he’s stupid. I can easily imagine him being sufficiently egotistical to blast the UU’s for rewriting lyrics even as he does it himself (possibly by distinguishing “serious” and “humorous” rewrites). I can’t imagine him being so ignorant of musical tradition as to think that lyrics haven’t been rewritten continually since there were lyrics to rewrite. Or that Christmas music was universally wonderful and timeless until those Unitarians and Jews had to go and spoil it all.

I think he’s adopted a sort of vaguely anti-Semitic (and anti-Unitarian (and heck, while we’re at it, homophobic)) curmudgeonly Andy Rooney persona, full of misty nostalgia for those good old days that never existed. Perhaps he’s also kidding on the square.

And this wouldn’t be the first time Keillor’s attempted satire was taken more seriously than he claims to have intended. Here’s his apology, in the context of Dan Savage’s response to same, for the above-linked column.

FWIW, I looked up the offending Godless Silent Night. I’m not sure which of the two versions in the UU hymnal so offended Garrison. The first is just like the one he’s used to, except that it replaces “son of God” with “child of God” and ends each stanza with “Sleep in heavenly peace”—no Sons or Lords here. The second is a much more literal translation of two of the original German verses, very mildly Unitarianized so as to avoid the word “savior.”

Lots of responses to this on the internets, of course. Here‘s one from folk-singer-(pretty good folk singer, in fact)-turned-Unitarian-minister Fred Small, whose church it was that Keillor was talking about. This piece includes links to other Unitarian-Universalist responses (some of which seem angry and wounded—UUs, like “Cambridgeans,” are natural Keillor fans). Here‘s something pretty icky from Powerline, the gist of which is that Keillor must be sublimating his anger at the Jews (isn’t it really the atheists, and those who like the First Amendment?) who have so rudely driven Christmas from the Public Square.


1. Garrison Keillor’s biggest fan is Garrison Keillor.

Traditional Marriage, Bible-style

January 3, 2009

Apropos that last post, I should say that I really don’t understand Rick Warren’s statement (with which I’m certain many others would agree) that

For 5,000 years, marriage has been defined by every single culture and every single religion – this is not a Christian issue. Buddhist, Muslims, Jews – historically, marriage is a man and a woman.

It doesn’t take a particularly deep reading of our own sacred scriptures to see how wildly wrong that is. Biblically, marriage is a man and a woman, and another woman, and another woman… Mitt Romney was sorta right on that one, if you really believe your scriptures. And let’s not get started on Levirate marriage.

That’s all Old Testament, of course. Without knowing anything about it I assume that Hellenization and then Romanization put the kibosh on polygamy at some point after the Exile. Or maybe it was just relative peace—polygamy works better if there are constant wars and things to create a nice supply of widows. But the New Testament isn’t particularly friendly to “traditional marriage.” Jesus—not noticeably family-friendly—seemed to care at least as much about marriage as a metaphor as an institution. And has there ever been a less ringing endorsement of anything than Paul’s “better to marry than to burn?”

So seriously, can anyone explain this to me? It’s not a rhetorical question. I genuinely don’t understand how anyone who has read the Bible can think it even conceives of, let alone mandates, anything like what we label “traditional marriage.”

The Purpose-Driven Inauguration

January 3, 2009

I was not at all surprised that Barack Obama picked Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Not that I called it, but hey, I did write that “he’s headed towards being the next Billy Graham, only without the anti-Semitism.” I was surprised at the outraged reaction of many of my fellow liberals, including those who are generally thoughtful and reasonable—see for example Dahlia Lithwick (whose writing I love) et al. of Slate‘s “XX Factor.”1 We liberals loved Obama’s inclusive bipartisan rhetoric, but many of us are apparently appalled to find that he actually meant it.

Now I understand not much liking Rick Warren. I wouldn’t go to his church. His book left me cold.2 I am annoyed about Proposition 8. But (AFAICT) Warren is very much not Pat Robertson and James Dobson. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but he really does seems to represent what’s good about evangelical Christianity. And there is much that is, or can be, good about evangelical Christianity. The fact that so many of us liberals don’t seem to understand that saddens me. Anathemizing anyone who disagrees with you just isn’t good policy. Warren and the many evangelicals he represents don’t demonize us; we shouldn’t demonize them.

The Bush administration and its many admirers lived in an echo chamber that drowned out anything they didn’t want to hear. We shouldn’t make that mistake.

[But if you’d prefer to think of Obama as Machiavellian than broad-minded, see this.]


1. Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, objects to Warren for more considered self-consistent reasons: he objects to anyone religious.

2. True, I had a hard time getting past the font.

Jesus the Palestinian?

October 13, 2008

From Bill Poser at Language Log:

Reports that the textbook The World: Social Studies asserts that: “Christianity was started by a young Palestinian named Jesus.” have triggered considerable controversy. Some maintain that this is a gross inaccuracy reflecting the intrusion of anti-Semitism, to which others respond that it is correct and so unexceptionable. The former are correct: the description of Jesus as a Palestinian is both inaccurate and offensive.

And of course Professor Poser is right. Saying that “Jesus was a Palestinian because he live in Palestine” is akin to one of Jesse Jackson’s attempts to weasel out of his “Hymietown” troubles: that he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic, because he was on such good terms with Semitic Arabs. “Palestinian” in modern usage never means “one who lives in Palestine,” just as “anti-Semitic” never means “hatred of speakers of Semitic languages.” It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise, whatever the superficial etymology.1 Humpty Dumpty may say, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less,” but those of us not in Wonderland shouldn’t expect to get away with that.

Having said that, I should mention that I haven’t seen the textbook in question, and I don’t really trust any of the commentary I’ve googled (other than Professor Poser’s, and he doesn’t claim to have seen the textbook, only the secondary commentary). The commentators strike me as social conservatives with axes to grind, but really I don’t know. Maybe there is context in the textbook that matters. My guess is not, but still. My further guess is that the textbook authors are more sloppy than biased, and certainly not overtly anti-Semitic. Gosh knows there are plenty of sloppy textbooks.

One more point, illustrative of the dangers of textbooks trying to talk about religion: one could easily argue that Christianity was not started by Jesus, but rather by Paul and/or others of Jesus’s followers. I’d happily take either side of that debate, just for fun.


1 Not to mention that, as Poser points out, in the case of “Palestinian” even the etymological pseudo-definition is iffy: Jesus would have called himself a Galilean, and he lived a century before the term “Palestine” was applied to the region.

The Vision of Gabriel and early Christianity

August 22, 2008

April DeConick is skeptical of Israel Knohl’s new article in the Biblical Archaeology Review:

I am a bit disturbed about Knohl’s argument in the BAR piece, since the second temple passages that he quotes as evidence for a Jewish suffering messiah are from texts that have clearly been revised by later Christians.

Professor Knohl doesn’t think so, but in the article he acknowledges that others do. Indeed, his point (or one of his points) in the article seems to be that the Vision of Gabriel (in his interpretation) supports his thesis that those second temple passages are not so influenced by Christianity:

Several scholars have argued that these late passages should be traced to Christian circles.5 A leading rabbinic scholar, Saul Lieberman, has argued otherwise.6 I have agreed with Lieberman.7 I believe “Gabriel’s Revelation,” now published in BAR, supports the view that the tradition of the Messiah son of Joseph who is killed goes back to the late first century B.C.E. or the early first century C.E. Although much of the text of “Gabriel’s Revelation” has not been preserved or is difficult to read, enough is there to make these points.

So there seem to be two takes on this:

  • [Knohl] The idea of the “Suffering Servant” Messiah already existed in Judaism, or at least in some strains of Judaism, by Jesus’s time. The Vision of Gabriel is evidence for this.
  • [DeConick] The Messiah as Suffering Servant Messiah was either new with Christianity, or at best an obscure and unpopular idea that the early Christians, desperate to explain their leader’s shameful death, latched on to.

Not that these are necessarily all that incompatible: I don’t see Knohl claiming that the Suffering Messiah was a particularly popular idea.

I have nothing intelligent to say about the cited second-temple-era sources, and I have no idea what the arguments Professors DeConick and Knohl cite are (heck, even if I had easy access to the article Knohl cites, I couldn’t read them, because they seem to be in Hebrew). I will say something (not necessarily intelligent) about something else he says, though (please forgive the extended quote):

This may shed new light on what has been a puzzling Gospel tradition. In parallel passages in the Synoptic Gospelsb (Mark 12:35–37; Matthew 22:41–46; Luke 20:41–44), Jesus is teaching on the Temple Mount. Surprisingly, he rejects the idea that the Messiah is the son of David: “How can the scribes say,” Jesus asks, “that Christ is the son of David?” (Mark 12:35).

To demonstrate that the Messiah is not the son of David, Jesus quotes Psalm 110, attributed in the Hebrew Bible to David himself. As the text of Mark (12:36) recites, David speaks in the psalm: “David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declared …” Jesus then recites a passage from the psalm:

“The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
till I put thy enemies under thy feet.”

Jesus then uses this passage to prove his point: “David himself calls him [the Messiah] ‘Lord,’ so how is he his son?” That is, David speaks of the Messiah as “my Lord,” rather than as “my son.” The Messiah therefore cannot be a son of David. Using Psalm 110 as his proof text, Jesus here refutes the scribes’ view that Christ, the Messiah, should be a son or descendant of David.

This seems strange in light of the fact that, as I noted earlier, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ lineage is specifically traced to David. I am inclined to regard the passage in which Jesus quotes Psalm 110 as a historically reliable passage in which Jesus rejects the view that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. Not only do versions of this incident appear in all three Synoptic Gospels, but the very fact that it runs counter to the genealogies of Jesus suggests that this contradictory version must be authentic. Otherwise, the authors of the Gospels would not have included something that so blatantly clashes with their frequent reference to Jesus as the Son of David.8

The inconsistency there does seem real, but, well, the Gospels (like the rest of the Bible) are not noteworthy for their consistency. And in fact in the Gospel of Mark, presumably the original source of the passage, it’s not terribly inconsistent—only once in Mark is Jesus called the son of David, and then it’s neither Mark nor Jesus who uses the term (it’s blind Bartimaeus, if you’re curious). The (inconsistent!) Davidic genealogies are only in Matthew and Luke. And really I think much of the point of the passage, especially in the Matthean version, is to emphasize Jesus’s is confounding the scribes and Pharisees (“scribes” in Mark and Luke, “Pharisees” in Matthew).

More to the point, I think it’s a bit useless to speculate about the historicity of the passage—we really are pretty much completely clueless about The Historical Jesus. Those second-temple documents may or may not have been influenced by early Christians trying to explain Jesus’s death, but the Gospels certainly were (um, that’s an understatement, isn’t it?).

The Purpose-Driven Pastor

August 18, 2008

I failed to mention the other night that the real winner of Rick Warren’s “Civil Forum” was Rick Warren. He came across as articulate and intelligent, as a devout man of God, and as a genial regular guy you’d want to be your pal. Evangelicals already knew who he was and (as far as I know) held him in pretty high regard; but I should think this exposure will also score him major points with the rest of us. His affect is nothing like that of the vile televangelists that so sully evangelical Christianity’s reputation.

Since he apparently is on good terms with both candidates, I would imagine he’s headed towards being the next Billy Graham, only without the anti-Semitism.

Mind you, this is only based on my superficial observations on Saturday. I know little about him beyond that. I started reading one of his books once, but didn’t get very far; I didn’t find it all that interesting, and pretentious type weenie me had troubles with the dreadful font1

1Actually, it’s a fine display font, which is what it was intended to be. It’s dreadful only when abused as a text font.

The Purpose-Driven Candidates

August 16, 2008

Just watched (more or less) Rick Warren’s forum with Barack Obama and John McCain, and I thought I’d get my impressions down quickly before I’m polluted by pundits.

Though it pains and surprises me to say it, I thought McCain won the evening. He was both genial and decisive, in that folksy way of his. He seemed much more comfortable than Obama, who seemed unsure just how much to pander to Warren’s crowd—McCain had no doubts there. Obama suffered from the curse of the intellectual liberal, wanting to eschew easy and popular but fundamentally silly soundbites, and trying to give reasonably nuanced answers. Alas, the American People do not seem particularly interested in nuance.

And nuance not something with which McCain is noticably burdened. Asked whether they believed in Evil and what they would do about it (multiple choice, something like “understand it, contain it, defeat it”), Obama rambled for a bit, while McCain answered “defeat it” without having to think. Then he said something about going to the gates of hell to capture Osama bin Laden. Seriously. Not a terribly realistic or useful answer, but I fear it’s what people like to hear.

I also remain annoyed with Obama for being against same-sex marriage. Mere political posturing? Don’t know, I think he’s been pretty consistent about it. Interestingly, he and McCain’s stated positions on that tonight were pretty similar—they’re both against it personally, both think it should be left to the states, both oppose a constitutional amendment (with McCain adding a proviso about whether states should have to recognize marriages from other states)—although again I think McCain sounded decisive and Obama waffly.

The pandering question is sort of an interesting one—the setting was obviously evangelical, but I presume this had a much wider audience watching on TV (e.g. me). How did all the God talk go over in America’s living rooms? Probably pretty well, actually.

The One, Continued

August 9, 2008

Re the preceding, I should note that the more prominent self-proclaimed Millennium Experts—the likes of Left Behind‘s Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, and old favorite Hal Lindsey of Late Great Planet Earth fame—pooh-pooh the notion of Obama as Antichrist. Obviously he is merely a precursor! As far as I can tell that’s because the antichrist won’t be an American. It’s perfectly clear from Daniel 7:24

And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings.

—that the antichrist will be the leader of the Revived Roman Empire, embodied in the ten-nation Common Market—erm, excuse me, Western European Union.

Jeez, you can’t make this stuff up. I should be clear that I really do think there’s a large and scary market for Rapture-related propaganda, I just don’t think McCain’s ad guys meant to tap into it. Or rather, I think it’s more likely that anything antichristy is there by accident.

Scott McLemee does make an excellent point, assuming (as he does) that the AC thing was on purpose:

On second thought, this might not help the campaign very much. If you are waiting for the Rapture, it’s not like preventing the rise of the beast with seven horns and ten crowns etc. is a huge priority. (You sort of want to get it all over with, ASAP.)

The RNC panders to these folks, but it doesn’t actually consist of them. The ad’s makers know their audience but not quite well enough to grasp how it really thinks.

Absolutely right (about what the Rapturites want, I mean, but also about the Republican elite pandering to them without totally grokking them). That’s why, for example, John Hagee is so pro-Israel—he wants the Israelis to get on with rebuilding the temple already, so that we can go ahead with the end of the world (or rather, with the end of the current Dispensation).

One more point. If I may psychoanalyze McCain and his campaign for a moment—and I may, because it’s my blog!—what “The One” and “Celebrity” are really about is McCain’s pique and jealousy. He thinks he’s The One, dammit, and he should be the world’s biggest (not just oldest) celebrity. He doesn’t understand why so many of his journalist pals have dumped him for Obama—they should still be fawning over him and talking about what a straight-talking maverick he is. Gosh, it’s kind of sad when you think about it like that… [Not an original thought with me, but I forget where I saw something similar.]

The One

August 9, 2008

I’m loving the brouhaha about whether John McCain’s ad “The One” (best watched at his website) is in fact a coded message to America’s Dispensationalists that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. I think it’s hooey, but entertaining hooey.

Before I go into details, let me maintain my loony-left moonbat cred by saying that I absolutely think the McCain campaign is fully capable of suggesting that Obama is the Beast. Weird coded messages are nothing new to politics, certainly not to modern Republicans—remember W’s apparent non-sequitur about Dred Scott? And certainly McCain and his sinister minions have shown themselves to be no more impaired by Honor and Truth than were Bush and Rove (fortunately, they seem to be considerably less competent). I just don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I wonder if they now wish they had thought of it themselves, so they could have done a better job. But I don’t think they’re that good; the ad looks to me just like what they say it is.

Now to business. Something called “The Eleison Group” has a handy memo detailing the ad’s alleged antichristiness. The gist is that the ad’s imagery and text are so similar to those of the Left Behind books—featuring, of course, an antichrist politician—that the ad must be meant to refer to the books:

Viewers will notice how similar these very odd pictures that appear in the middle of the McCain ad are to the cover art and fonts of the Left Behind series, especially to the image, font, and colors of the final book in the series that would be most recent in reader’s memories.  The hidden images in the clouds and sun in the ad, which took a great deal of editing and are so strange that they had to be intentionally chosen and placed there by the McCain camp for their symbolic value, are of screaming, frantic crowds.

Mere coincidence? They think not!

I’ll be super-nerdy and start with the fonts (see the cover of the last Left Behind book here, and the ad at the link above). Yes, they look kinda similar. But then, all serif fonts look pretty much the same to most people. These do have one obvious superficial similarity—the serifless top vertices on the Ns and Ms—and they were both designed the same year (1989), but that’s about it.

The book jacket looks to me like it uses ITC Giovanni, designed by Robert Slimbach, who (quoting that description from Adobe) “based his design on classic oldstyle typefaces such as Garamond and Bembo.”

The ad uses Trajan, based not on oldstyle fonts but on Roman inscriptions. The differences are especially pronounced (I think) in the construction of the serifs, and in the spur and the  on the G, but lots of the proportions are pretty different too. Check ’em out (that’s the book title on the left, Trajan on the right):

lb-giovanni-sample lb-trajan-sample

OK, maybe they look the same to you, but they don’t to a proper type geek, and any proper conspiracy theory is going to have to assume McCain’s ad guys know their type. Perhaps more to the point is that Trajan is used a lot—it’s probably the typeface a designer would be most likely to use for a political ad if s/he just couldn’t be bothered to think about it. Using Trajan needs no explanation. Actually, if you want to connect it to the Left Behind books, you’d have to explain why they didn’t just use ITC Giovanni.

So that’s a bit of a digression, but I think it applies to the imagery as well. I just don’t see anything particularly odd in those “hidden images” that “took a great deal of editing.” They just don’t look that odd to me.


Again, if the McCain camp was really trying for some heavenly image here or allusion to God shining his light on Obama or to Obama shining his own light on the people, they would have used a different image. The classic and obvious image most viewers would recognize as divine would be of the white beam of light shining down from heaven (e.g., Monty Python or Simpsons spoofs). But this is an odd orange light surrounded by darkness. So why would they not go with the classic divine light imagery?

…and another has a stair leading to heaven.

Hm, a stairway… to heaven… Nope, no non-rapture-related cultural resonance there: that imagery could only have come from Left Behind! Seriously, I don’t think that picture (and the rest) are outside the mainstream of Messiah imagery. McCain and the Left Behind designers were drawing from the same image pool.

One more. Quoting from Amy Sullivan in Time:

Perhaps the most puzzling scene in the ad is an altered segment from The 10 Commandments that appears near the end. A Moses-playing Charlton Heston parts the animated waters of the Red Sea, out of which rises the quasi-presidential seal the Obama campaign used for a brief time earlier this summer before being mocked into retiring it. The seal, which features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign’s red-white-and-blue “O” logo. That confused Democratic consultant Eric Sapp until he went to his Bible and remembered that in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle.

That idiot seal was one of the Obama campaign’s silliest goofs, and the McCainiacs would certainly want to take every opportunity to remind us of it. I don’t know how many people will get the joke—I did—but even if they don’t, it does say “Obama” right on it, so it works in context anyway.

UPDATE: Had I looked even cursorily at McCain’s website I would have noticed that he (or his lackeys) use Trajan in lots of places. Definitely not Left Behind-specific.

UPDATE 2: Read the comments for more incoherently evolving thoughts.

Suing Bible publishers for bad translations

July 12, 2008

Via Language Log and Religion Clause and a whole lot of other places: the story of Bradley Fowler, who is suing Bible publishers Thomas Nelson and Zondervan “on the grounds of malicious negligence, breach of duty, duty of care, intentional torts, malice, strict liability, and violating [his] civil right according to the U.S. Constitution, 14th amendment.” Specifically, he objects to the use of the word “homosexual” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and related passages, and appears to think the publishers are engaged in some sort of conspiracy to change the translation capriciously, I suppose with the intent of causing him further confusion and heartbreak.

The post at Language Log has oodles of great stuff, both in the body and in the comments. Religion Clause has links to the hand-written complaints. For rather less useful commentary, here‘s a discussion of the suit in the context of an anti-Barack Obama screed (really!). [My own commentary will also be rather less useful than LL and RC, but in a different way.]

In no sane world could this case have any merit. I would say “it should be laughed out of court,” but really it’s more sad than funny. Mr. Fowler is clearly a disturbed and desperate individual. He might benefit more from anti-depressants than from frivolous lawsuits.

Fowler’s complaints are seriously confused and confusing. His notion of what publishers do seems somewhat muddled. From the Zondervan complaint:

Zondervan Publishing House knowingly implemented the term — homosexual — to its 1982 and 1987 new edition Bibles. Yet elected to revise that text and remove the text from the 1994 editions. Ironically, the 1989 edition didn’t include the term either. Still, Zondervan Publishing neglected to inform the public of their changes.

You get the idea. Earlier in the complaint he cites the New King James version, but the 1982/1987/1989/1994 “editions” he quotes are actually the NIV, the Amplified Bible, the NRSV (you can find it here), and the King James.

As far as the translation itself, the Greek words in question are μαλακοι and αρσενοκοιται, malakoi and arsenkoitai, the “soft” and the “man-bedders.” No one is really sure what Paul meant by the terms—well, plenty of people are very sure, but they’re sure of different things—so the translation is necessarily tricky. “Arsenokoitai” is particularly interesting, as this passage is its first known use (and for all I know all the other uses are quoting Paul). He may have been referring to Leviticus 18:22, literally something like “Thou shalt not lie with a man in beds of woman; it is an abomination.” Or not. See the comments at the Language Log post for much better-informed commentary.

My own ill-informed opinion, for what it’s worth, is that “homosexuals” is a lousy translation, as it carries anachronistic cultural connotations. I prefer the King James’ “abusers of themselves with mankind” just for its pungency. But “homosexuals” isn’t obviously completely wrong either. I’m pretty certain Paul would not have approved of homosexuality as we understand it, either as a sexual preference, or as a “lifestyle,” or simply in terms of sex acts themselves. He only barely tolerated sex at all, and then only in marriage.

In any case I doubt this is the most egregious mistranslation in the Bible. Nor is it the most portentous—my nomination for that would be Isaiah 7:14. I think that one goes back to the Septuagint, whose translators would be difficult to sue.