Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The book of joshua

Sometimes, no make that all the time, I think we're bound to be surprised by what God has in store for us. Just when you think God is finished with His work, it may turn out that God was only just beginning.

My friend and associate in crimes against orthodoxy, Marauder, has recently been posting links to me, and I was considering it might be kind to post links back, but I was in the middle of this series, you know? Still, I suppose he's theoretically boosting my traffic, and I sort of owed him one or two links, especially after a butt-kissing post such as this, so I gotta send a shout-out back and return the favor. (We'll see how he likes being linked to me when I do an upcoming post I've been working on in the back of my mind on the subject of pedophilia.)

How does this all relate to God and new beginnings? Bear with me, it comes together eventually. Marauder talks about the nature of Satan as modern Christendom sees him/it, and muses as to whether it's really an accurate reflection of the spiritual reality. The view has definitely spilled over into mainstream society, where we live with an understanding of Satan as this powerful being who opposes God and all forms of goodness. You know the guy: wears a red suit, carries a pitchfork, has a fondness for heavy metal music? Of course, that image is all crap, but various parts of it are widely accepted as true in various degrees, and that's not even the parts cribbed from Milton's Paradise Lost.

Actually, there are Biblical bases for a lot of these ideas, although they're few and far between. The fact is that orthodox Jews, modern Christians, and mainstream society each have their own understandings as to the nature of Satan, and it may very well be that all of them are off the mark. The Bible says so little about Satan and his nature that it's really an educated guess on our part, whatever we may think of this being. What is true however is that Satan was still created by God, and therefore, one may assume He has a purpose in mind for him. The Bible actually teaches that Satan is to be treated with respect, and that's in the New Testament!

Jude 8-9 says, "In the very same way, these dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, 'The Lord rebuke you!' " This is a weird verse for various reasons, most of which I won't go into now, but one of which I was specifically wanting to address, as it directly relates to my previous essay on spiritual/Biblical authority.

"The body of Moses"? What is this about? Assuming this story is an actual event, one might assume it took place right after the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Just as you thought Moses' story was over, it turns out there's another chapter to be told. Moses drops dead in Moab, and instead of simply returning to dust as the way of all men, apparently conflict ensues, and spiritual powers are fighting for control of whatever it is he's left behind. This may be symbolic and literal on many levels.

Have you ever thought about the transition from Moses to Joshua? I have considered the fact many times that Moses (if he indeed wrote the Torah, but we'll not go back to that question) was the first person to write a book that was meant to be the Holy Word of the God of Israel. Pretty much from day one--and we can go back to Deuteronomy 6 for this--this was writing that was considered deeply important from the moment it was written. Here's the Law of God; keep it and revere it!

Then comes Joshua, who is also writing Scripture (supposedly the author of the book bearing his name, although doubted for many of the same reasons people doubt the authorship of Deuteronomy), but does he think of it that way? He's got to fill the sandals of Moses. Do you think he thought his writings were deserving of being put in the same volume as the great prophet Moses? There were probably moments, especially during the early days of his leadership, that he might have thought that Moses was the be-all and end-all of God's involvement with Israel.

So on a certain level, and as a certain person once suggested to me concerning the passage in Jude, there was a possibility, even in the very day its writing was completed, of a "disputing... about the body of Moses", that is, not just his physical body, but his life's work. With Moses gone, what happens to the nation he created, and the books that he had written? Every time God wraps up a chapter in history, surely there must be a temptation to think that it's all done. God's finished giving the Law, the Israelites must have thought, so we've got all we need. Indeed, there have been those, including the "Saducees" in the New Testament, that have felt that the Torah is God's Word, complete and final. And they disputed with Jesus about it.

Now as Christians, we have the blessing of hindsight to even a greater degree than they did, knowing that not only was there more to come after the Law, but more to come after the Writings and the Prophets. Scripture was about to be opened again in their very day, and was to be written about events that unfolded in their presence. Why? Because God had sent another Joshua, whose name in Greek is of course rendered "Jesus".

Who was Jesus? It's a fascinating thing to me that the very person who opened up the idea to me that the "body of Moses" might refer to the Torah made another implication far more startling, and one that many mainstream Christians would consider blasphemous: that the "archangel Michael" was Jesus Himself. You may or may not be aware that this is a belief held dearly by Jehovah's Witnesses, among other out-of-the-mainstream Christian groups: that Jesus was not an incarnation of God, but rather an incarnation of the Archangel Michael.

It fascinates me because I wonder if indeed this is technically heresy. After all, what is an "archangel"? It's not a term that the Bible uses too often. (In fact, it's only used in one other verse, at which time it is more closely and clearly associated with Jesus than in Jude.) An "angel" is, once again contrary to popular culture, simply a "messenger". That's what the word in both the original Hebrew and Greek means. It follows that an "archangel" (literally "ruling messenger") would be a high-level messenger, and indeed, who is a more important messenger in history than Jesus Himself, at least as far as the Christian mindset is concerned? And the name Michael? It's understood to be Hebrew for "Who is like unto God?" I think any Christian would have a ready and obvious answer to that question. (Or is it possibly wrong that it's rendered as a question in the first place?)

At the death of Moses, there's a danger. The danger is that with the end of the giving of the Law, we close the book of God's truth, and consequently close our minds. "Here are the rules, now you're on your own. -God." Don't question, don't grow, don't seek deeper understanding and maturity. But God sent Joshua to take them forward into the Promised Land, where Moses could not take them. Likewise, our New Testament Joshua takes us to a place that Moses could not. The old book is closed, but a new book opens. The Law has guided you all the way to the border of the Promised Land, and now Jesus takes your hand and carries you across the Jordan in into the full blessing of God.

I think Christians know this, but they may miss a deeper implication of the history that the Bible presents to us. Once the children of Israel became slaves in Egypt, it wasn't yet over. Once Moses finished his farewell address and died in Moab, it wasn't over. Once they crossed into Canaan, and subsequently crossed into idolatry and paganism, it wasn't over. Once a dynasty was established for King David, it wasn't over. Once they were taken away into exile and lost their land, it wasn't over. Every event in the Old Testament that seemed like a moment when things could have either settled into stability or degraded into utter destruction, it wasn't the end, but just another chapter of God's plan. Do we have the audacity to think that's no longer the way things work?

When Jesus hung on the cross, he famously said, "It is finished." What exactly was finished? Theologically, we understand that it was His payment for our sins that was finished, but the story was not finished. It wasn't the end of the chapter, the chapter was not the end of the book, and after each of the four Gospels come to a close, there are still over 20 books left in the Bible to tell us the story of God and how He is working it out for our benefit. For those of us who believe that the book of Revelation is a description mainly of events that come in the future, we're not even out of the Bible yet in our own lives!

This is the lesson of both the first and last Joshua: that the book is never closed. So many people would be offended by the questions raised in Marauder's short piece on the nature of Satan, but really, is there anything that contradicts what God has told us? Throughout history, times have passed in which people were ostracized or even killed for simply asking questions. But whatever you may think of the nature of Jesus/Joshua and the devil/Satan, the two share something in common that conservative voices don't often like to hear: the purpose of suggesting that there is something more to life and to God than that which we already know. One leads to truth, and the other to deception, but indeed, both of them lead.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The book of deuteronomy

This was a hard series of essays to figure out, at least for me. I sort of like these odd little series that take off on a theme and go wherever they go. Initially, when I wrote the "Book of genesis" one, my thought had been merely how interesting it was that Darwin was actually so little-known in a very personal way; what with his works being considered far more important to the modern secularist than the Bible, why is it that he is still not widely read? Actually, the practical answer for that is that while secularists do often claim the Bible to be a very boring book, the book of Genesis with its tales of incest and intrigue are bound to be more stimulating reading than a treatise on biology could ever hope to be.

Yet once I started in on the thought, I realized there was more that could be said. These are the words of the Bible (and supposedly God) on one hand, and on the other hand, the secular world has its own words to live by. A guest speaker at my church a few weeks ago actually said something that stirred up a bit of controversy, although I hope I was far from the only one in attendance that got his point. He said that when we look for a basis for our morality in life, if we decide (among other options he discussed) that basis should be the Bible, we're actually making a bad judgment. The only basis we should have for our morality is truth. (Now as Christians, we probably have come to the conclusion that the Bible is true, so there's no conflict there, but it sounds subversive.) How that plays out may be problematic, of course, as most of us feel that "truth" is subjective.

In the end, whatever the truth may be, it's inescapable. If Darwin is speaking truth, if Marx is speaking truth, if people of religions and cultures differing from your own are speaking truth, then it doesn't matter whether you like what they say or not. It's still truth.

The Bible is claimed by Christians (and others) to be truth, but truth of what nature? The first five books of the Bible are supposedly truth given to us from God by way of Moses. But is this truth about the Bible itself true? The book of Deuteronomy is probably the one book in particular that is Moses' own. Genesis? Moses' book of ancient history of his people. Exodus? Moses' book of recent history of his people. Leviticus? Moses' book of the laws of his people. Numbers? Moses' book about where his people are now, and what they're going through. Deuteronomy? This is Moses giving a speech summing it all up in his own words, telling his people what it's all about.

It's Moses' farewell speech, and he takes a lot of time to say a number of things we've already heard, just for review. But there are a number of new things as well, and significant things. While Christians tend to view John 3:16 as a verse that sums it all up, Jews go for Deuteronomy 6:4: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our G-d, the LORD is one." It's a prayer that virtually every Jew knows by heart, and holds dearest to their heart. Jesus, when asked what the "greatest commandment" is, didn't quote from the Ten Commandments back in Exodus, he quoted the very next verse, 6:5: "Love the LORD you G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." One of my personal favorite verses from the Bible comes from this book as well, 29:5, which paraphrased says, "Hey, did you notice that after walking in the desert for 40 years, nobody ever needed a new pair of shoes?" For some reason, I find that wild!

But detractors of the Bible find a favorite verse in Deuteronomy as well, one to highlight what they see as "truth" trumping over what those of "blind faith" see in the Bible. Deuteronomy 34:5, "And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said." Hmm, how many people in history, when writing their autobiography, include a chapter on their own death? (Actually, I'd really like to know, as I suspect that Moses isn't unique in this respect, just rare. I believe Graham Chapman's autobiography includes info on his death, as well as a few interesting stories that happened years after he died that have to do with his life. Of course, these stories were "ghost written", a very appropriate term in these particular circumstances, and a possibility concerning Deut. 34 that few people seem to accept despite it being the most likely case.) Yes, it seems unlikely that the (whole) book was written by Moses after all; but then, who did write the thing?

I was in the library, looking for a book on this particular subject that I knew was out there. I didn't find it (Dewey Decimal section 222.1066 was unfortunately empty, which is apparently where it should have been; it was probably checked out.) but I did find another interesting book that referred back to it. The book I did come across was Kenneth C. Davis' Don't Know Much About the Bible, perhaps a very appropriate title for one of the subjects of the first essay in this series. Davis is the author of several books in this vein, such as Don't Know Much About the Civil War, which are largely books of interesting factoids about whatever subject. Good reads, but from the bit I perused, the author sometimes falls prey to the same sort of problems he accuses the Bible of having: he takes some bit out of the Bible and says "Hey, the Bible claims to know the truth on this subject, but it's way off, because actually I'm the one that knows the truth!" Cute. Not as bad as I make it sound, though; it's a good read overall, I think, but I base this on reading probably less than a tenth of the book.

As I said, the book does refer to the other book I was looking for, Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?, a book that I think may be the definitive source for what is known as the "Documentary Hypothesis". For those not highly familiar with the concept, many modern scholars have come up with a theory as to how the Books of Moses came to be, and it involves the postulation of essentially five people given letters as code names, since their true identities are not known.

J is an author that writes a lot of the parts of the Bible that deal with people having more personal interaction with God, known in these sections of scripture as "YHWH" or "Jehovah", which is where the J comes from. In contrast, portions where God is referred to as "Elohim" are considered to have been written by author E, whose style is more prosaic. Author D is who is usually credited with writing the bulk of the Book of Deuteronomy (thus the D designation) and other sections that review and revise parts given elsewhere. Author P is mainly concerned with the establishment of the Jewish priesthood and codification of laws concerning it. Lastly, but far from least in importance, is R, the Redactor (a fancy word for "editor"), the one who took all the works of the other writers and wove it together into a single storyline, and rather poorly, if many textual critics are to be believed.

It's an interesting theory for a number of reasons. One thing that's interesting about it is that even being a strong Bible-believer, the first time I heard of this I was far from surprised. I don't know if it was something I was taught as a boy in synagogue, but I'd always believed that in particular the Book of Genesis was a collection of oral history put down on paper by Moses. Yes, those old stories came from multiple sources and were "redacted" by a later author, this person being Moses. As for the rest of the books of Moses, I do suppose that certainly that final chapter was likely to have been added after the fact, although given the supposed supernatural aspect of the books of Moses, it might be the case that Moses knew the circumstances that would surround his death and wrote about them before the fact. (It's also a possibility, although one purists would like much less, that Moses wrote about his death and then simply wandered off by himself, thereafter dying in a manner not actually recorded in Deuteronomy that remains a mystery to this day.) Be it a plus or minus to his authenticity, Moses is the fellow who called himself "more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth", as pointed out by Davis, who asks the obvious question as to whether a truly humble man would make such a statement. It seems like a rhetorical question, but if it were true, then couldn't he? No matter.

The fact is, in the end, whatever the source of the Bible, it's a very unique book. (Is "very unique" redundant?) Even assuming Moses is the one and only writer of these five books, the story would suggest to us that he wrote them over the course of forty years in a number of different situations, in a number of different locations, during a turbulent and difficult time for the country he was trying to lead. He traveled back and forth between continents, lived in different cultures, and played numerous roles in his life, including prince, outlaw, shepherd, prophet, and priest. Proponents of the veracity of the Bible often point out how remarkable it is that the Bible holds together so well given the fact that it was written across a vast span of time by a broad spectrum of authors in a variety of cultures and moments in history; much the same could be said of Moses' writtings alone.

The real problem with the Documentary Hypothesis is that it's just like the views that those of us of "blind faith" hold: it doesn't hold up to logical scrutiny. There are plenty of books in the Bible that have never been questioned as to being authored by a single person that have changes in style and/or preferred usage of certain names for God. The changing of style of writing within a single work can just as easily be a matter of change of mood or subject as change of author. So many of the bases for this theory have the same sort of self-contradicting tone as criticisms of the Gospels have: If a story is told twice in the Bible, and the two tellings match, critics will say that one was simply a copying of the other, and therefore meaningless. If, on the other hand, the two tellings do not match in any particular point whether major or minor, then there is a grievous contradiction that the editor has sloppily failed to fix. If a bit of the story indicates a prohibition of unusual practices, then it's labeled "intolerant", but if it allows unusual practices, it's labeled "inconsistent". If the story matches with a well-known event in history or in the folklore of other cultures' traditions, it's plagiarism, but if it tells a unique story, it's unsubstantiated. In short, just as there are certain people you will never be able to convince that the Bible has anything wrong with it, there are certain other people you will never be able to please when it comes to the Bible. To them, it's just plain wrong, and any and all evidence that supports this view will be accepted with joy.

But there's a middle ground here, and one that's not often explored for some reason. Yes, there are certain issues that the Bible has that need explaining, but I'm not sure this is one of them. How great of a blow falls upon the faith of those who believe in the Bible to suggest the possibility that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses? Does it really matter when all is said and done? When we're trying to determine what basis we have for religious belief and for our morality, if saying the Bible is our basis is inherently less sound of a choice than calling for a basis of truth, then how much less solid is a foundation that bases our core beliefs on oral tradition about a translation of a book that is an edited revision of an earlier oral tradition? Bible purists, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to minimize the significance of the Bible here. What I am trying to do is point out that the real point of the Bible, the real meat of its message, is not in who may or may not have written any given portion of Scripture, but in what the source of that Scripture ultimately is. Does it matter whether God dictated the Torah letter by letter to Moses as he chiseled it into stone on Mount Sinai, directed Moses to write it down over the course of his forty-year wanderings, or inspired one of the followers of Moses to piece together the traditions of the people years after Moses died, so long as it is the case that God was the one behind the work in the end?

On the skeptics' side there is even something to be said. Robert Alter, in his translation of the books of 1&2 Samuel (The David Story), points out some interesting things about the nature of redaction. I've often quoted him on scriptural matters because although as far as I can tell from his writings he is an atheist, he also is a lover of the beauty of the Hebrew Scriptures, and doesn't let his theological bias detract from seeing a good story. Although he makes the claim that the book(s) of Samuel are likely the result of editing long after the death of David, there are parts of the story that are viewed by skeptics as contradictory, but in fact should be seen as a beautiful bit of artistry on the part of whoever put these stories together. Both 1Sam.10 and 1Sam.19 include a reason why "...they say, 'Is Saul, too, among the prophets?' " which is considered by many to be a problem.

"The doublet, far from being a stammer of transmission or inept or automatically inclusive redaction, is vividly purposeful...To the ancient audience, however, the recurrence would not have seemed a contradiction, and the conflicting valences given to the explanation of the proverbial saying add to the richness of the portrait of Saul, formally framing it at beginning and end." (The David Story, p. 122)
In other words, this is just an ancient style of writing that is out of the norm for today, but totally acceptable in ancient Israel. Sometimes we insist on interpreting ancient writings through our modern filters, and they simply don't fit. The problem may not be with the writings, but with the filters, which are being used in the wrong context. I understand and accept that people will refuse to believe the truths put forth in the Bible, but I have a hard time standing idly by when people reject supposed faulty logic on the basis of their own faulty logic.

Of course, I'm sure many skeptics feel the same way about me. Maybe I've just had too much coffee today?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The book of numbers

I remember many years ago, a couple of people came knocking at my door. I seem to recall they were Jehovah's Witnesses, but I may be remembering wrong; it's not important.

"Do you know what the most popular book in history is?" they asked me, their way of starting up a conversation. This is the sort of conversation I enjoy greatly; not the theological conversation, which I also enjoy and of course they were aiming towards, but the conversation of interesting but ultimately pointless trivia.

"That's an easy one," I replied, "The Bible of course. Now here's a stumper for you: what's number two?" See how I did the very thing that so often annoys me (probably most people, actually)? I took their train of thought and switched it off to a different track so they had no idea where we were going. Next stop: Trivialand.

Actually, the funny thing about pointless trivia is that often enough, it's not even so vital that it's true, which, in thinking about the story lately, I realized that I may have been incorrectly parroting back what I had been told. I'm fond of asking the trivia question: "What's the only animal with four knees?" This confuses people, who mostly don't notice that most quadrupeds don't have knees on their front legs. The answer is supposedly "elephants", but I not only don't know if this is true, but I don't know if even elephants truly have four knees. I don't think they do, actually.

...and I'm going on a tangent again, and from a tangent off of a story about going off on tangents, at that! So, back to my first tangent, the one I gave the poor confused representatives of the Watchtower Society: I had been told repeatedly in college that the #2 book--whether it was supposed to be in popularity or influence or what, I do not know--was Euclid's Elements, an ancient textbook on the fundamentals of mathematics. Wikipedia says it is "second only to the Bible in the number of editions published", which may be the basis for its supposed #2 slot.

I definitely think there's something very significant in the fact that a math textbook holds such a vital place in world history. The average person may find mathematics a very dull subject, but it has been said, and I believe quite truly that "Mathematics is the only true universal language." Some people find it strange for a Christian to say such things, but I believe that even God cannot subvert some of the basic principles of mathematics. As Galileo said, "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe."

Numbers interest me deeply. They have a power in them that people do not realize. I've worked for years as a computer programmer, not because I love computers, but because there's something in me that greatly distrusts computers, and wants to know as much about them as I can. Understand HTML, JavaScript, PHP, ASP, etc., and you understand how the web works. Understand mathematics, and you understand how reality works.

People shy away from understanding numbers and how they interrelate, but they don't realize the vulnerability it gives them. As a someone who has also worked as a statistician, I also understand that. Another famous quote is "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." People who control the numbers can have power over those who don't understand the numbers. Even my father, who was not good at math, understood the principle. He once told me, "I noticed there was a brand of soup in the local supermarket that nobody wanted to buy at 25¢. The managers of the store took away the 25¢ sign and put one up that said '4 for $1', and they couldn't keep the stuff in stock!" Lack of a basic understanding of mathematics clearly leaves one wandering in the wilderness of confused ideas. And manipulation of statistics can be even worse than this sort of amateurish manipulation of simple fractions.

Statistics is a "science" of mathematics that involves sometimes a process of incredibly complicated calculations and delicate statements of degrees of confidence that are actually quite precise and accurate. But most people don't operate on that level, and don't want to operate on that level, so statistics tends to come at people with a simple pecentage, or a cutesy chart; a method that tends to simplify things to the point of meaninglessness.

Case in point: a friend elsewhere on the web posted a link to an article suggesting that statistics show gun ownership decreases the rate of "hot" burglary, i.e. burglary that happens while the residents are in the house. Here's the article. Can you spot the problem with this? In the first paragraph, we are told, "In studies involving interviews of felons, one of the reasons the majority of burglars..." Now a citation is given, so the original study may show more, but here we are told about "studies" which may mean anything. When I was in high school, I was fond of bolstering my arguments in research papers by interviewing classmates and citing useful responses. There's no good reason to assume that's what's going on here, yet there's not really any reason to assume something better. As far as the numbers go, "one of the reasons the majority" is worded so nebulously I'm not even sure it's safe to say that 50% of the interviewed felons feel this is important. Of course on top of that, we also don't know if this claim holds true in real life. Some felons (and which ones? I assume these are felons who were caught; who knows if those who got away with their crimes have the same feelings?) may claim that they behave this way, but how do we know how they act in real-life situations?

Here's where the numbers come in, right? The numbers were compared to Britain and the Netherlands in the second paragraph. Questions here that occur to me are: How do we know that theses are reasonable comparisons at all? What are the actual levels of gun ownership in those countries versus the U.S.? Do criminals know the statistics before they approach a house to burglarize it? What was the computation used to come up with the number of 450,000, and assuming this is a reasonable computation, what's the current number? I mean, is this 450,000 "hot" burglaries that would have still ocurred, but would not have been "hot", or brand-new burglaries that simply wouldn't have happened? Are we talking about doubling the number of burglaries, or increasing by 50%? (For that matter, do you know that those aren't the same thing?) That last statistic of 30% is tossed in with no comparison to the other two countries, so what's the significance?

The most important question to ask, however, is whether guns are really the deciding factor behind these numbers. Another article my friend linked to pointed out that in Britain, many people are getting high-tech security systems for their homes, making it a necessity that burglars need to strike while someome is home. Many years ago, I remember hearing that the proliferation of "The Club" device for securing one's car was causing a rise in carjackings. Does that mean security systems are bad? I don't know much about the Netherlands other than the fact that drug use is much higher there. Could that have something to do with crime rates? Look, the conclusion that the article is trying to support may actually be true, but the numbers and info given are largely meaningless. How many people realize that, though? People love to say, look, I've got statistics! I am right! But who knows what numbers really mean, and who knows when numbers are misleading, whether intentionally or accidentally?

Our whole world is made of numbers. Numbers to count items, numbers to measure time and distance, numbers to represent complicated concepts. They're simultaneously the most abstract concepts of our minds and the most fundamental building blocks of concrete reality. They're powerful, they're meaningful, and they're there whether you try to understand them or not. Ignore their power at your own peril.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The book of leviticus

I'm sure I've mentioned it to everyone who knows me, and yet, I never feel like anyone knows, because in a sense, I don't even know it about myself: I am Jewish. Or am I?

See, my father was (and still is) Jewish, but my mother is not; at least not in the technical sense. For most people, this implies that I also am not in the technical sense. Yet I was raised by my father to believe that I was a Jew, and he called me one, and so I genuinely thought I was one. Anyway, a large portion of society feels that having any Jewish ancestry at all makes one a Jew.

Certainly I will always remember a moment in my freshman year of high school when I was waiting patiently behind a fellow student who was trying to negotiate another few points on his physics exam, and the instructor told him he would have to take his grade as it stood. This classmate of mine actually slapped his test on the teacher's desk and exclaimed, "I can't believe this. That's so Jewish!" This was probably the first time in my life that I lost my temper at an insult not leveled directly at me. This guy was bigger, stronger, taller, and older than me, and I saw red and gave him a shove and said, "Oh hell no! I don't know what problems you have with your grade, dude, but *I* am Jewish, and you owe my people an apology!" I don't know if I had steam coming out of my ears or what, but I've never seen someone back down from me so quickly.

But am I Jewish? I won't take anyone using a racial (or similar: sexist? homophobic?) slur around me without getting a bit ticked off anyway, but of course, this was a bit more personal. I can't help but identifying with the Jewish people to some degree, no matter what I might be told about the fact that my status as a half-Jewish, non bar mitzvah Christian puts my Jewish identity at question. Oddly, to some extent while one would expect the Torah--a document chronicling the creation of the Jewish nation and defining its laws--to give a definition of what a Jew is, really any sort of official definition has come later in extrabiblical writings.

If I stay on the originally unintentional thread of these last few musings, I suppose I would do well to mention A Jew Today by Elie Wiesel, a book of writings in which the writer explores what it means to be a Jew in 20th century America that I happened to pick up from the same used-book bin where I picked up my copy of Marx/Engels. A much larger book than the Manifesto, I haven't had time to read more than small portion of the first chapter, in which he talks about how often being a Jew means being a stranger in the gentile world, where people will always look at you as something strange and foreign. It's an uncomfortable feeling, and yet it's a feeling that the average Jew holds within themself with a great deal of pride.

A book that I did read recently that's in a very important way about being a Jew is Responsa from the Holocaust, by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry. The author details what it was like to be a Jew in Lithuania during the horror that was World War II, and how it effected the Jews of Europe. Throughout this horrible time, when the lives of European Jews were daily on the brink of total destruction, individual Jews continued to consult with their rabbis concerning how to practice their religion in the midst of persecution. If Nazis seem to be more likely to attack Jewish men with beards, should we shave them off? We only get the food that the Nazis let us have, and it's clearly not kosher meat, what can we do about that? Is it a crime to commit suicide when all indications are that you are not long for the world anyway, and the powers that be are seeing to it that every day you live is intense suffering?

It's tragic, but at the same time inspiring. These people did their best not to let their oppressors keep them from doing what they believed to be right, even seemingly little things (to a non-Jew) such as whether they should say Sabbath prayers on a Saturday when they were suffering through forced labor seven days a week. These Jews held strongly to their beliefs and identity in the face of torture and death. How many people today avoid stating their beliefs openly simply for fear of ridicule?

The thing that really struck me about these stories however, was where Oshry and his fellow rabbis allowed exceptions to general rules and where they did not. Can't find kosher food? Well, you can't starve yourself, so eat what you can. A 12-year-old boy wants to have his bar mitzvah ceremony early because he suspects he will not live to see 13? The boy seems mature and earnest in his desire, so luckily he is granted his request, and indeed he died a short time later.

But where were exceptions *not* granted? Perhaps oddly enough, in the one place that might have been the one sure-fire way to save their own lives: the rabbis never once wavered from their conviction that pretending not to be a Jew was an unacceptable compromise, although it would seem that it was for this one fact that they were being killed. Steal if it takes care of your family, kill if it's in self-defense, defy the law if you believe it unjust, and lie: lie about where you live, what you do for a living, how old you are, who's in your family, but never, NEVER lie about being a Jew.

It's a strange thing to an outsider perhaps, and it may even be strange to Jews themselves, but when all else has been stripped away, either by an evil, tyrannical government or by an individual's apathy towards the strictness of the Mosaic Law, there still remains an essential fact of identity that is central and indelible to Judaism. The Jews of Europe essentially said to the world that you could take away their beards and special clothing, take away their kosher foods and festivals, take away their temples and holy books, but you can never take away their Jewishness.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The book of exodus

So I got fired. Actually, it was about a week ago, and I considered writing about it. I actually even considered blogging about it fully in a new, separate blog chronicling my experience with unemployment, something I've been lucky enough to go about ten years without having to experience. I'm not sure I really understand the blog concept, though, even after having my own for some time. Really there's no real need that society has to know what goes on in the minutiae of my daily life, despite the fact that that's what technology has allowed us to experience in so many ways lately.

It's funny, although it's not so much a coincidence as an end result of my earlier rantings about Darwin that I ended up buying a copy of Marx & Engels' Communist Manifesto yesterday. (These are the names that one doesn't tend to bring up in church, but I do at times.) See, I was looking for a copy of Origin of Species but couldn't find one (to buy, they probably had one at the library to check out, but I was perusing the bargain books in the bin at the front of the library) and ended up settling for what was probably nearly as embarrassing a book as the other would be, at least were I to be seen reading it by a fellow evangelical fundamentalist. I'd always wanted to read Marx in his own words, so to speak.

I've gotten about halfway through it, and so far the only surprise has been the double-takes at how modern the concepts seem to be. This book was written 160 years ago, but you could pop into the text and make a minor change like substituting "Internet" for "telegraph" and it would read like it was written yesterday. The world hasn't changed so much from the time of Marx after all it seems, even with the rise and fall of Soviet-style Communism. Perhaps he's even still right, as I suspect he's on track in saying that the number-one product created by the bourgeoisie is their own gravediggers.

Getting back to my original point of being fired--which I was planning on writing about anyway long before the Manifesto crossed my path--I was actually quite happy with it, to my slight surprise. I think it may come down to my being in many ways a communist at heart. I'm not likely to be the sort of person to rise up and start a revolution to destroy those who create in me an unhappiness with my lot in life, so it's actually quite nice to have them simply toss me out.

The fact is that there are concepts that have come from Marx and the like that are surprisingly very Christian, albeit the Christian response to the situation is different in so many ways. So often I hear nonbelievers rail on and on about how awful it is that the Bible doesn't come right out and condemn slavery. There's an interesting thing about slavery that so many Christians accept as a fact of life that's not often stated, however. No, I'm not talking about the party line that I also often take that "Biblical slavery [is] very different from our modern understanding of the practice." What I'm talking about is that "slavery" and "employment" are just different words for something that is in many ways the same at its heart.

We are fortunate in this day and age in a way that looks different but is surprisingly similar to the ancient Israelite culture. Slavery in ancient Israel was a matter of personal choice: if you had no way to support yourself independently, you could choose to sell yourself into servitude to your neighbor. Really, this was like taking a job with a six-year contract, as you would be paid, and you would be released in the seventh year. In our society, we really aren't that different, besides the fact that we don't get six-year contracts. (Most of us get something more like a six-month contract, twice a year coming together with your master boss to decide whether you continue to be happy with the arrangement you have.) We get to choose who we're going to be slaves to, and our servitude is not spent bound in chains of iron, but in chains of dollars.

Sure, so few of us would actually willingly sit at our desks doing what we do day in and day out if there was not a paycheck tying us to our employer. There are exceptions, but it seems that 99% of us would drop what we're doing at a moment's notice for a chance at more money, and also we dream of the day when we'll be free of our wage slavery and get to RETIRE! Free at last, free at last!!!!

So anyway, I've escaped from slavery, and come to the promised land of freedom, but I know it's temporary, and I dream daily of finding a new master with larger, stronger chains to bind me to a new desk: it's the American way of life. Higher income doesn't make for more freedom, but less. How many opportunities do I have to potentially walk away from an $8/hour job flipping burgers, vs. say a $50k/year job sitting at a desk processing pointless paperwork? Believe me, I'd rather be flipping burgers or washing dishes; it's tangible and feels meaningful to feed people and protect people from food-borne pathogens than shuffle a pile of papers designed to tell some CEO that their pointless business could profit greatly from joining forces with our pointless business for more efficient pointlessness!

But we all end up this way, don't we? And the Christian belief is this: we're all slaves, some of us just have more obvious chains. The question is, all of us have a certain amount of control over who we choose to be our master. I assure you that while I have worked for many companies that do things I consider meaningful on different levels, and I always strive for a job that will make me feel that I'm making a difference in the world, the only way to consistently find meaning is to not let my job be master over me, not let the almighty dollar be my god and my chains of oppression.

Communists suggest the way to be free is to cast off the chains that bind you from the outside, and there's wisdom to that to some degree. For the Christian however, (and we are not the only idealists to feel this way--it's part of why I always say I admire Buddhism that they take this concept even farther) the solution is to cast off the chains from within. Whether I truly may be a slave with literal chains on my body or a symbolic slave with monetary chains lashing me to my desk in an office, in my heart, I know who I really serve as master. Yes, I look for financial prosperity, but I don't seek money for money's sake, nor even for my sake. Yes, even though I have a wife and kids, and financial responsibility to them that society and God smiles upon when I fulfill that responsibility, I don't even serve that master at heart. No, as a Christian, my master is, and must always be, Christ Himself. I choose freely to subjugate myself to the "easy yoke" of a Master who I believe will protect me and love me in a way that no other master will, or even possibly can.

As a Christian, that's the closest to complete freedom (a mythological concept) that one can ever get, and I am content in that alone.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The book of genesis?

I realized something this morning that for some reason struck me as funny. Skeptics of Christianity have often pointed out (quite rightly, mind you) that despite the fact that the world is full of people who claim to be Christians, it's surprisingly uncommon to find a Christian who has actually taken the time to read the Bible. How many of them know the Ten Commandments, which they claim to highly esteem? (Hey here's some fun a non-believer can have with an ignorant believer: convince them that there's something strange in the Ten Commandments. Remember, though, you've got to make it believable, so something like "Thou shalt not touch the flesh of the swine" or "Thou shalt not lie with man as with women." Your best chance is to lift a verse from elsewhere in the Bible and pretend it's in Exodus 20. Fun for you, hopefully educational for them.)

Let me be clear that I am not saying, as some have, that it's the "atheist Bible", but I was thinking about Darwin's Origin of Species, and wondered: how many people who believe in evolution have read that book?

Of course, the position that Origin of Species holds in the world of evolutionary science is not analogous in many ways to the position of the Bible. Really, the Bible is supposed to be the definitive book on Christianity, and while one can know a lot about Christianity and even be a Christian without ever having opened the book once, every book that there is on Christianity is in some way going to refer back to it. Origin of Species, on the other hand, while a book that was there in the beginning of evolutionary thinking, is far from required reading. Any reference work discussing evolution need not even give a simple nod to Darwin, but can formulate its own opinions on the meaning of fossil evidence and the like.

Still, a principle is there, hidden beneath the question of how many evolutionists have actually read Darwin's work. Just as one might wonder what sort of a Christian a non-Bible reading self-proclaimed Christian might be, isn't it fair to wonder about a believer in evolution who has never read a word on the subject, be it written by Darwin or not? I would say such a person has true "blind faith" in evolutionary theory, and even those who believe in evolution from a position of fuller knowledge ought to be worried by this sort of belief. Sure, most Christians can't name all Ten Commandments; how many people who would profess to believe in evolution can even define the word "evolution"? You might be surprised. (Try yourself: whatever you think the word means from a biological standpoint, jot it down, then check your answer against Dictionary.com or something. You might be surprised! Wait, didn't I just write that?)

Now, I myself have not read the book, but I'd like to. I'd also like to encourage others to do so. While not a "holy book", Origin of Species is a book that probably ranks up there with the scriptures of various religions in importance. Just as my fellow Christians are often found saying "How can you reject the Bible when you've never read it?" I ask how they can reject Darwin without reading his work. Even if you're convinced it's 100% crap, all the more reason to open it up and see what's inside: to know what sort of crap it is and let people know. As a believer in many of the concepts of evolution (creationists, make sure you completed the dictionary exercise above before criticizing me for my position) I do have expectations as to what I will find in Darwin when I get around to him: a man with great powers of observation, keen insight, and a touch of laxity in his scientific methods. Very thought-provoking, I'm sure.

I hope it's not the first time I've urged this when it comes to this subject, as well as many others: both skepticism and faith have their place in obtaining full understanding, and one should not blindly accept nor reject any significant piece of information that comes one's way. Just as I tell people they should read about Christianity from the source and judge for themselves, so I believe that they should read about evolution in the same way.

Once I do manage to get around to it, I'm sure I'll be more than happy to share my views on it far beyond what anyone cares to listen, just like everything else.