Thursday, June 29, 2006

Quiz for Skeptics at Tekton

I took this Quiz for Skeptics at the Tekton evangelical site and tested as an open-minded skeptic, apparently in contrast to most infidels who take it. Whether or not I'm ripe for conversion, as these charitable folks seem to think, is another issue. But it's fun business, and I was pleased to see Dick Rohrbaugh acknowledged as a good guy in one of the questions.

Here are my answers. The A answers earn you 1 point, B 2 points, C 3 points, and D 10 points. Obviously the D answers are correct from Tekton's point of view. I answered 27/43 questions with an unqualified D.

(See also Peter Kirby's answers.)

UPDATE: Chris Heard, though a believer, answers some of the questions.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Limited Edition Lord of the Rings DVDs

Thanks to Jacob from the newly launched Grey Havens for mentioning an upcoming treat:

"Three Lord of the Rings Limited Edition sets, one for each movie, will hit store shelves on August 29. Each two-disc set will include the original theatrical and the extended versions of the film, along with Costa Botes' feature-length documentary on each film's creation... How can they do this? By using a 'branching' format that gives you a visual cue to view an extended scene if you want to while you're watching the film."

Like Jake, I can't understand why anyone would want to watch the inferior theatrical versions. And the visual cues will end up wrecking the viewer's experience in any case. Still, as a hard-core fan I'll be getting these for the documentaries alone, and even if this is a shameless way for New Line to make more money.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Questions About Blogging

Mark Goodacre responds to Francis Ward's questions about blogging. Since Francis is apparently looking for many responses, I'll take a stab at them.

1. How long have you been blogging?

Since July 11, 2005.

2. What got you started?

Other bloggers inspired me, most notably Mark Goodacre (NT Gateway), Stephen Carlson (Hypotyposeis), and Michael Turton (The Sword; now dead). I thought blogging would be a good way to keep sharp in the biblical field (since I'm an amateur), and get across some ideas that have been coalescing for years now.

3. Do you have a history of diary/journal/log writing beforehand?

No. My previous writing energies went into fiction, reviewing, and list-serve activity.

4. How in your own mind do you negotiate the boundary between private and public? E.g. are there things that you would not put on your blog that you would put in a journal?

The focus of this blog is on Christian origins, with sub-topics including J.R.R. Tolkien and evolutionary theory. I do some film review too, and I have an abiding interest in the medieval crusades. Occasionally I relate personal things for a little variety (and humanity) but prefer not to do much of this. I expect most of my readers will be checking in for the regular blog topics.

5. How do you decide? What criteria do you use for inclusion/exclusion?

Anything related to the academic study of the bible, Tolkien, the medieval crusades, and evolutionary psychology are fair game.

6. How much time, on average, do you spend blogging each day or week?

As of today the blog has 297 posts to its name. So I've averaged 5-6 posts a week since I started.

7. How many other people do you actively engage with – e.g. are part of your blog community?

Too many to count these days. See my blogroll and Wason & West's

8. Who is your readership – literally; as far as you know?

Regular readers of this blog include professional scholars, independent scholars, amateur exegetes, and friends who don't study the bible much themselves but are interested in what academics have to say about it.

9. and metaphorically? Do you imagine someone to whom you write/with
whom you engage?

I want to accommodate all my readers (see 8. above). So I try not to pitch too high or too low, and also keep most of the posts brief and concise to engage everyone's interest.

10. What counts as successful blogging?

(1) When readers keep coming back. (2) When they resent you not blogging. (3) When others in your particular blog community value your insights, link to you, etc. (How successful I am by these yardsticks I'm not entirely sure.)

11. What does blogging offer as a method of theological reflection?

I don't normally do that kind of thing on this blog.

12. What potential do you see for blogging as a method of theological reflection?


13. Do you know of examples of theological education programmes where students are required to keep a learning journal and blog as a form of journal?


14. Blogging and gender: do you think gender makes any difference to
any of the above questions?


UPDATE: Rick Brannan, Michael Barber, Pete Phillips, Stephen Carlson, Sean Winter, and Chris Weimer provide answers.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Sense of Humor

The recent issue of Psychology Today (July/August '06, pp 76-77) has a test for determining your sense of humor. The four types listed are (1) put-down, (2) bonding, (3) hate-me, and (4) laughing-at-life.

(1) Put-down humor is used "to criticize and manipulate others through teasing, sarcasm, and ridicule", which can be harmless enough if used sparingly. In heavy or nasty doses it becomes "a socially acceptable way to deploy aggression and make others look bad so you look good". (examples: Eddie Murphy, George Carlin)

(2) Bonding humor "gives humor a good name", used "to reduce tension in uncomfortable situations". This is good-natured humor used by warm and kind people. (examples: Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O'Donnell)

(3) Hate-me humor is "often deployed by people eager to ingratiate themselves" and who enjoy being clowns. Small doses are charming, but heavy doses can erode self-respect. (examples: Chris Farley, Rodney Dangerfield)

(4) Laughing-at-life humor involves a wry perspective used "to cope with challenges" and take a step back by laughing at the absurdities of everyday life. People like this have a positive outlook, and tend to be healthy in general because of it. (examples: Dave Barry, Bill Cosby)

The test scores you in each category:

18-28 is HIGH
11-17 is AVERAGE
0-10 is LOW

Here's how I turned out:

Put-down: HIGH (24)
Bonding: LOW (3)
Hate-me: LOW (10)
Laughing-at-life: LOW (6)

So according to these graders I'm fairly humorless, save on the put-down front. That would explain my distaste for comedy films, with the glaring exception of hard-core yelling/screaming satire like All in the Family (which I still can't get enough of on DVD).

One of my colleagues firmly diagnosed me before I took this test (a not-so-subtle hint about put-downs and insults, however playfully intended), and my results are pretty accurate as far as they go. But I think there are special categories which go unacknowledged here. My humor goes beyond put-downs, but it's rather off-beat humor which gratifies me in weird ways. So these results are only part of the story.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Jew or Judean?

Related to Mark Goodacre's concern about pluralizing the word "Judaism" is the proper translation for Ioudaios itself. While I agree with Mark that taking pains to pluralize (so as to underscore diversity) is over-cautious, the question of whether we should speak of Jew/Judaism or Judean/Judahism remains an important one.

There are good and bad reasons for preferring the latter, but I think good wins out. Properly speaking, Jews refer to the adherents of beliefs and practices associated with the Mishnah rather than the temple cult of Judea. Only by the third century had a Jewish religion really emerged, or a common pattern of religion irrespective of locale. The predecessors of the Jews, the Judeans, were localized and provincial, with a very different pattern of religion based on the temple cult. Given that the temple's destruction in 70 CE was "the ancient world's equivalent of a nuclear explosion" (Donald Akenson, Saint Saul, p 62) -- forever changing the religion of the chosen people -- we should take seriously distinguishing between Judeans and later Jews.

"Judean" (Ioudaios) is an admittedly slippery term; K.C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman list five possible meanings depending on context: (1) the inhabitants of Judah, distinct from Galilee, Samaria, Perea, Idumea, etc; (2) all the inhabitants of Palestine, including Galilee, Samaria, Perea, Idumea, etc; (3) all those in the Mediterranean and Middle-East with ethnic connections to Judah; (4) all those professing allegiance to the state religion of Judah (even if converts); (5) the elites of Judah (as opposed to peasants). (See Palestine in the Time of Jesus, p 176)

It's the relationship between (1) and (2) which mostly concerns us here. I think scholars will continue to resist using "Judean" for Ioudaios simply because it's covenient in English to have two words -- "Judean" for those only who lived in Judea (1), "Jews" for everyone (2, 3, and/or 4). But as Philip Esler says, our convenience is besides the point, when we have a first-century historian himself who resists such covenience. Citing Josephus' War 2:43, Esler says:
"In a context where it is necessary to refer to both groups, Jospehus does not designate the diaspora representatives by some other name [Galileans, Idumeans, Pereans, etc.] but invents a periphrasis to describe those who do live in Judea. Accordingly there is no justification for refusing to translate all representatives of this people as 'Judeans' just because some live in Judea. Rather, when referring to the latter group we should follow the example of Josephus and employ a periphrasis." (Conflict and Identity in Romans, pp 67-68)
Esler, however, offers another reason for preferring "Judeans" over "Jews", and one that leaves me cold:
"It is arguable that translating Ioudaioui as 'Jews' is not only intellectually indefensible...but also morally questionable. To honor the memory of these first-century people it is necessary to call them by a name that accords with their own sense of identity. 'Jews' does not suit this purpose, both because it fails to communicate the territorial relationship they had with the land of Judea and its temple and because it inevitably imposes on them associations derived from the troubled, indeed, often terrible history of the Jews. As long as the temple -- the sacred heart of the land and its chief attraction -- stood, and even between 70 CE and 135 CE when there was a hope that it might be rebuilt, 'Judeans' is the only apt rendering in English of Ioudaioui." (Ibid, p 68)
Well...yes and no. The territorial relationship the chosen people had with the temple is important for historical reasons, and with historical precedents (as the Josephus passage indicates), but not because inaccurate terminology becomes somehow immoral or disrespectful. Frankly I think this idea is a bit ridiculous, and it obviously smacks of political correctness.

In sum, I do believe that "Judean" is the preferred term for Ioudaios as long as we're speaking of a time when the temple, or a realistic hope for its rebuilding, remained alive and well. Having just said that, I should say it's not an issue I feel compelled to crusade over -- and indeed I use "Jew", "Jewish", and "Judaism" all the time, not only as a lazy covenience, but especially when talking to laypeople. Until more scholars and bible translators follow suit, using the proper term will come across as confusing to some, and anal to many.

Tying this back to Mark Goodacre's initial concern, I agree with both him and Michael Bird that whatever term we use -- whether Jew/Judaism or Judean/Judahism -- we should eschew pluralizing the religion, because it gives the misleading impression that there were no common denominators holding the admittedly diverse Judean groups together.

UPDATE: Carl Conrad comments on the B-Greek mailing list. Thanks to Wayne Leman for the link.

UPDATE (II): Jack Elliott strengthens my convictions in his powerful essay "Jesus was neither a 'Jew' nor a 'Christian'".

Friday, June 16, 2006

Honor Thy Father

I might have completely forgotten about Father's Day this week-end if not for the reminder of a friend just now. That's ironic in light of yesterday’s blogpost about the prodigal son. A timely blogpost, as it turns out.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The 25 Most Controversial Movies of all Time

This week's issue of Entertainment Weekly has a wonderful list of the 25 most controversial films of all time. These are movies which
"...get someone's goat without any studio goosing, whose incendiary elements can inspire an offended party to picket, call for a boycott, even pray for divine intervention. These can be important, progressive, taboo-shattering films -- or merely films that feature a lot of randy humping. They can also be films that are truly, objectively despicable. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all reflected in [this list]." (issue #882, 6/16/06, p 32)
Passion of the Christ came in at #1, with A Clockwork Orange a close second. Two films now in theaters -- Da Vinci Code and United 93 -- also find a place on the list. It's worth reading the article for concise explanations of the controversy behind each film.

I put Tomatometer ratings next to the films (red = fresh, green = rotten), and as you can see, most were actually well received by the critics. Only six are rotten tomatoes -- The Da Vinci Code the most rotten of all, not suprisingly.

1. The Passion of the Christ. 51%
2. A Clockwork Orange. 93%
3. Farenheit 9/11. 83%
4. Deep Throat. ?
5. JFK. 85%
6. The Last Temptation of Christ. 78%
7. The Birth of a Nation. 100%
8. Natural Born Killers. 53%
9. Last Tango in Paris. 84%
10. Baby Doll. 100%
11. The Message. ?
12. The Deer Hunter. 90%
13. The Da Vinci Code. 23%
14. The Warriors. 92%
15. Triumph of the Will. 100%
16. United 93. 90%
17. Freaks. 97%
18. I Am Curious (Yellow). 59%
19. Basic Instinct. 63%
20. Cannibal Holocaust. ?
21. Bonnie and Clyde. 96%
22. Do the Right Thing. 100%
23. Kids. 56%
24. Caligula. 35%
25. Aladdin. 88%

World Trade Center Film

For a detailed description of the first twenty minutes of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center see here. The reviewer offers his opinion:

"From what I saw here tonight, I have to say that Oliver Stone has certainly taken great care of the event so far (nothing sensationalistic or controversial in the first 20 minutes) and seems to be gearing the whole thing toward a more human story within the inconceivable horror that surrounded those buildings on that day… I wasn't sure if I wanted to see this movie before this screening, but when the 20 minutes were over, I really wanted to see the rest of it and not from a voyeuristic point of view, but because I believed that the story...would be somewhat required for myself, as a small, yet hopefully significant step into seeing some ray of light come out of that day so very dark. It will obviously be a personal decision that everyone would need to make for themselves, much like for United 93."

As I mentioned before, Oliver Stone appears to be cleaning up his act and getting back to decent filmmaking.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Chris Weimer on Elitist Hypocrisy

Chris Weimer thunders on the subject of professionals and amateurs. He covers a lot of ground, from who has the "right" to interpret the bible (everyone obviously), caricatures of atheists, elitist hypocrisy (some zingers here), and the value of contributions from specialists and non-specialists. It's nice to see so many bloggers weighing in on this question.

(See previous posts here and here.)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Professionals and Amateurs (II)

Yesterday I thought Chris Heard said it best on the subject of professionals and amateurs interpreting the bible, and I still do. But there's another way of looking at the matter. Consider the parting remark of Duane Smith:

Am I qualified to interpret the Bible? I am not, certainly not if the ignorant are asking anything but the most trivial of questions. So why do I, from time to time, post my interpretation of various things related to the Bible on Abnormal Interests? Well, once in a while I delude myself into thinking I have something interesting to say. But, unless you, my reader, have the skills to critically evaluate what I say, you shouldn't pay too much attention to it.

Readers of The Busybody will recall my series on lying and deception (see the sidebar under "best posts"), in which the topic of self-deception was seen to play a stronger role than anyone likes to admit. Cognitive scientist David Livingstone Smith -- a leading professional on the subject if there ever was one -- said the following in an interview:

Right now I'm trying to sound as knowledgeable and impressive as I possibly can. I sort of convinced myself that I'm this great authority on lying. But really, I'm lying, in the sense that when we're interacting with others, we're always performing. So for this interview, I've been playing the role of an expert trying to impress you. There's deception involved. I, however, am aware of this effort. But plenty of people are not aware of their self-deception; they are narcissistic and have convinced themselves that they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, most people tend to believe their own lies.

Whether we're experts or amateurs, we love the sounds of our voices, especially our blog-voices, and especially if we're men. (That was one of my explanations for the dearth of female biblio-bloggers.) We naturally think we're right about things, even when we're not; that's what having opinions is about. It takes the passage of time and hindsight wisdom (and humility) to inform us otherwise. Back when I was a fledgling amateur, with only a few books by Bultmann, Kasemann, and Sanders under my belt, I felt equipped to take on the exegetical world. Time works wonders.

Chris Heard is correct. Sound biblical interpretation comes from diligent and honest work with the text over time, whether one is professional or amateur. But Duane Smith reminds us that even the best interpreters, professional and amateur, can be self-deceptive, and because of this readers need to use their critical faculties as much as the interpreters. To echo Duane: Don't trust anything I have to say, much as I want you to. Look into things yourself, and only then will you properly see that I'm always right. :)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Professionals and Amateurs

Jim West's crusade against amateurs has prompted James Crossley, Tyler Williams, and Chris Heard each to weigh in on the question of credentials and creed.

They all make good points, but I honestly can't say it better than Chris Heard:

I do not believe that being professionally trained is necessary or sufficient to producing good biblical interpretation, and...I also do not believe that being a Jew or Christian is necessary or sufficient to producing good biblical interpretation... In my judgment, the ideal interpreter of the Bible is someone who is attentive to and honest with the text. The ideal interpreter of the Bible reads the text closely, works hard to understand it, and attempts to give a rigorous account of what is actually there. Professional training and religious commitment may contribute to or, in some cases, detract from these intellectual virtues, but they are not unique in doing so on either count.

As an amateur I've been studying the origins of Christianity for about sixteen years (since the fall of '90), but it took a while before I was prepared to engage comfortably with professionals on the internet (such as e-lists like XTalk and Corpus Paulinum); I've been doing that for about six years. So that's a decade of "getting a foothold", so to speak, and sifting through wheat and chaff -- and, as Chris implies, there's plenty of chaff in the professional field as much as the amateur.

If we're going to distinguish between professionals and amateurs, let's do so meaningfully and not meanly. The professional is equipped for the interpretive task through formal training (especially with languages), but what one does with that training is another matter. The amateur has less authority to stand on, but that doesn't stop one from being a good interpreter. (There are professionals I would take over amateurs, just as there are amateurs I would take over professionals.) The amateur should be conversant with professional literature, but none of this is dependent upon creed. It just doesn't matter whether one is Christian, Jewish, atheist or otherwise. What matters is that everyone listens to each other, because each is capable of spotting things others will miss. I've profited from the evangelical as much as the secular (and seen a fair share of nonsense from both), and would never condone insular thinking. We need our multitude of voices.

Thank goodness for professionals in the field; we'd be lost without them. But I'm also thankful for interpreters like Stephen Carlson, Rick Brannan, Peter Kirby -- and yes, even the now exiled Michael Turton -- those amateurs right there on our sidebars.

Christian Utopia, Christian Slavery

Two upcoming books from Augsburg Fortress caught my eye. First, Mary Ann Beavis' Jesus & Utopia: Looking for the Kingdom of God in the Roman World:

"Scholarship on the historical Jesus and, now, on the 'Jesus movement' generally divides into separate camps around two sticky questions: was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet and was the movement around him political, that is nationalistic or revolutionary? Mary Ann Beavis moves the study of the historical Jesus in a dramatic new direction as she highlights the context of ancient utopian thought and utopian communities, drawing particularly on the Essene community and Philo's discussion of the Therapeutae, and argues that only ancient utopian thought accounts for the lack of explicit political echoes in Jesus' message of the kingdom of God."

It will be interesting to see how Beavis teases out the relationship between utopian thought and politics (or lack thereof, as she seems to see it).

Also Jennifer Glancy's Slavery in Early Christianity:

"Glancy here situates early Christian slavery in its broader cultural setting, arguing that modern scholars have consistently underestimated the pervasive impact of slavery on the institutional structures, ideologies, and practices of the early churches - and upon the bodies of the enslaved. Her careful attention to the bodily experience of subjection and violation that constituted slavery makes this an indispensable book for anyone interested in slavery in early Christianity. Includes special chapters on Jesus and Paul."

Both of these are coming out in September according to the website, but October according to the catalog I received in the mail.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Omenous Blogposts: The "666"

There are some blogposts worth revisiting in view of today's date. See Ed Cook and Stephen Carlson for whether the right number is 666 or 616. In either case, they should have made a movie about Nero instead of Damien, not only because Caesar was the actual anti-Christ, but because the remake of The Omen got atrocious reviews.

Tolkien the Fascist?

Against my better judgment, I'm going to address the claims of someone who commented on my spoof audio commentary for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. Jonathan doesn't care for my sense of humor (I'm unapologetic), and he hates Tolkien's story, actually agreeing with what my commentary satirizes:
Lord of the Rings is outrageously conservative, sexist, and (above all else) anti-urban fascist. When Tolkien ranted about Hitler, he was protesting too much - because he was at war with the beast in himself... I'll never understand the 60s love affair with Tolkien. He wasn't an environmentalist (unfortunately), he was an anti-urban fascist. He stood for all the crap we hippies despise: Victorian virtue, national obligation, and Wagnerian racism. All this poison finds its way into Lord of the Rings.
Many feel this way. Neil Camberly describes the attitude of egalitarian critics who have attacked Lord of the Rings for being racist and fascist:
"The films are "fascist"... They hold up beauty as something inherently good, and ugliness as something inherently bad. Their heroes are strong men and women of honor, decency and moral character. The films glorify ethnic collectivism and nationalism, self-sacrifice on behalf of one's biological community, and courage in the face of overwhelming odds and overbearing evil. Like the 20th century's fascist philosopher-kings, Tolkien's kings spend little time taking votes from their nervous soldiers and citizens over whether their kingdoms should perish with honor or perish with each man desperately trying to save his own skin. But most of all, the films earn their "fascist" credentials by clearly delineating good and evil in the tradition of Western literature's great adventure stories."
But Tolkien was, if anything, an anarchist. This is what he wrote to his son Christopher in 1943:
"My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) -- or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remain obstinate!... Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people... The most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity." (Letter #52; bold mine)
Tolkien was no fascist. He railed against Hitler, not because he was "at war with the beast in himself" (as Jonathan preposterously puts it), but because he was at war with the corruption of the Germanic spirit. This is what he wrote to his son Michael in 1941:
"I have in this War a burning private grudge: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble, northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true lights." (Letter #45)
Nazi-fascism was a perversion of the ancient pagan ethic to which Tolkien was drawn (despite his Catholicism). And it's that northern ethos which makes its way into Middle-Earth -- not a "Wagnerian racism" supposed by commenter Jonathan, nor any implied Hitlerism. Tolkien's themes are so simple that they sound trite when listed: courage in the face of hopeless odds, loyalty and friendship, love for nature, and doing good for goodness sake. In that light, I suppose it's easy to see why people misconstrue Lord of the Rings as fascist. Middle-Earth presents "fascism" -- if we could suppose it -- in an unfallen state, uncorrupted by tyranny and bigotry.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Sidebar Upgrade: Best Posts and Book Reviews

I've reorganized my sidebar and added two new sections. First, I moved the primitive archives to the very bottom, and previous posts (most recent ten) next to last. In the middle I added "best posts" and "book reviews". Ben Myers inspired me to do a best posts section, and I've written enough book reviews now that it's time to make them readily accessible.

For best posts I chose seven biblical-studies related, four Tolkien, two special, and one humor (that last isn't for the easily offended). For book reviews I have eleven so far. I'll continue to update these sections as time goes on.

Enjoy the new bells and whistles!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Biblical Studies Carnival VI

Don't miss the sixth Biblical Studies Carnival hosted by Ben Myers.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Why Christianity Happened

James Crossley has a book coming out in November, a secular approach to the origins of Christianity. Follow this link and scroll down to page 24 (of 49) for the blurb and endorsement from Maurice Casey. I'm anxious to read this, James.