Zeitgeist

I was driving around yesterday, running some errands. The radio was on. The program was a talk show with three voices chatting about the pending US elections and their probable outcome, each offering opinions as to the key issues and the like. I wasn’t really paying attention, not that I am uninterested in the elections (far from it), but I had other things on my mind. To me it was all so much background noise.

Then I heard something. What did he say? One of the voices had referred to something or other as embodying “the Zeitgeist of the day.”

Huh? Zeitgeist of the day?

Growing up on a college campus, where my father taught, was great. All the amenities were open to “faculty brats,” the ice rink, tennis courts, pool, golf course, library, and most college events. On Friday nights movies would be shown in one of the large classrooms. This was a big deal as the campus was “out in the country.” There was no “theater near you!” Two groups hosted these movie nights, alternating Friday nights. One, whose name I have forgotten, featured “recent releases.” The other, which I enjoyed far more, showed classic black and white films, and many, though not all, “international.”  The group hosting this type of film was the Kinokunstgesellschaft. I would study German years later, but at the time the professor of German, a native speaker and good friend of our family, explained this name to me, introducing me to the German penchant for creating new nouns by heaping one upon another to coin a new word. Thus Kino “cinema” plus Kunst “art” plus Gesellschaft “a voluntary society/club.”

Back to my radio voice.

Zeitgeist is a combo noun. Zeit means “time” and Geist (think ghost or gust) means “spirit.” The Zeitgeist is the spirit of the time or the spirit of the day.

But, my voice said, “the Zeitgeist of the day.” Huh?

I could say, and guess I will, that part of our Zeitgeist is epidemic verbal carelessness and imprecision to the point of permitting pretentious obfuscation to pass as wisdom, but that would be churlish. More important is the point that possibly the voice meant something like this: our Zeitgeist today is novel, the axis is turning, we are at the dawn of a new day, new glimpses and intonations of this new Zeitgeist are there to be picked up if only we pay close attention. Maybe so.

If the Zeitgeist of the day is vaguely true then it might have to be detected in our Ebola confusion. The US government has announced that all military personnel returning from Africa, none of whom have been in direct contact with the disease, are to be quarantined while simultaneously insisting that nobody else returning from the disease areas should be. Nurse Kaci Hickox has announced that she is no threat to the American people and will not stay in her house for the requisite number of days, but the Maine authorities have announced a plan to enforce her quarantine. The University of Texas has produced a study (thrown together rapidly?) that claims quarantines are not effective in controlling the spread of disease.  

Ebola is very much an issue of “the day.” The “spirit” of dealing with it? Utter confusion and probable massive incompetence.

Welcome the new Zeitgeist of the day? I hope not. Let me recommend a window into an alternative.

It’s long, running for about an hour and twenty-five minutes, but watching and listening will do you a world of good … literally. It will make you feel better about our world. It is a Q&A session at the end of a conference at MIT with Elon Musk. He is more than a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur. He is an evangelist for the human spirit and boundless optimism.

Do yourself a favor. Watch this.

Elon Musk captures the true Zeitgeist.

Amazing dogs again

Dogs are amazing.

I have written before about amazing dogs, about our pug, Andy, then a very young puppy bravely heading out, at risk to his life, to poop in the snow and freezing temps of winter. This morning he struck me with amazing-ness again.

Let me ask any pugs owners reading this: is it normal for a pug to play fetch? Andy loves to, or at least his version of it. Let me describe.

The morning routine is that I get up, waken Andy, feed him, take him out for his short morning walk, and we come back in, by which time my coffee has brewed. I take a mug, flop down in my chair with my tablet to catch up on the news (the latest White House fence jumper appears not to be an ISIS lone wolf and is unconnected to the madness in Ottawa) and scores of games (the Giants got hammered in game 2 of the World Series, Real Madrid demolished Liverpool, and most importantly Les Canadiens remain top of the East Division of the NHL.) This catching up on the tablet is punctuated by our game of fetch.

He brings a pair of old (at least they are now!) golf socks rolled together in a ball. Does he drop this ball down so I can throw it for him? Oh no. A dance ensues; left and right he dances on an arc just beyond my reach, shaking the socks, growling and making all those distinctive pug whuffly noises and me waiting, sometimes reaching to grab the socks, in utter futility, until he pauses. My moment. I can lift my toe on an outstretched leg, slam it down, and trap the socks. Then I swoop them up and toss them across the room to the front door, Andy in racing pursuit. Back he comes and it starts all over.

In amongst this I catch a whiff of the news. It usually reeks so it’s not hard.

But, then suddenly Andy has had enough. At this point it is time for communion. He jumps up on my lap, sits facing me still as a mouse. He knows what’s coming. With two hands I scratch the spot beside his ears, my thumbs rubbing their velvet softness. His eyes droop and close. I have to be careful. One time he fell sound asleep and collapsed right onto the floor. Since then I now lean forward and put my forehead on his. He makes soft little throat noises, and I make some back.

I think I know what we are saying to each other: life is good; it’s a wonderful world.

It always flows over me at this moment, the overwhelming sense of the sacredness of all life, of the towering wisdom of the Sanskrit notion of ahimsa …. cause no harm.

Andy brings me a wonderful early morning reminder, a better and more indelibly true message than the so-called news. That’s what he fetches for me.

Pistorius and Python

Having been found guilty of culpable homicide, Oscar Pistorius was sentenced yesterday to five years in prison. The case attracted more attention than otherwise might be expected due to Pistorius’ global fame as a disabled athlete, running on hi-tech prosthetic legs. He never denied shooting his  girlfriend, Reva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day, 2013 ironically enough, but defended himself on the grounds that he thought an intruder had entered his home and was hiding behind a bathroom door through which he fired three shots. He had got out of bed leaving Ms. Steenkamp there, as he mistakenly thought, for it was she behind the door. They had, allegedly, had a fight earlier that evening, an apparently not unusual occurrence in their relationship.

For those of us outside the legal profession, the notion of culpable homicide, though difficult to grasp (after all, is there any other kind?), does at least signal a distinction from premeditated murder. As I understand it (note this qualification) the key to it centers on intention. If there was no intention to kill, but death resulted from, certain action then culpable homicide is the criminal charge. If this is so, charging Pistorius with culpable homicide carries the implication that he fired not one but three shots with a handgun through a closed door at someone, but without any intention to kill. His intention could have been to warn, to frighten, even to wound, but not to kill. The death was an event that falls into the category of accident.

But, another principle applies. It is called the principle of dolus eventualis, which means the natural awareness of the likely outcome of a particular action. Thus, if I fire a weapon three times through a closed door at someone hiding in a small space behind that door, I ought to be able to anticipate that I might very well hit that person with one or more shots and that death might well result. Hence the “culpable” in the homicide.

Thus, the five year prison sentence, instead of house arrest coupled with community service for which Pistorius’ defense team  had argued. Ms Steenkamp’s family are satisfied with the sentence as are South African legal experts who have commented on the matter as “appropriate.” Members of the public, needless to say, have voiced differing opinions, generally of the type calling for a far stiffer punishment.

I mention this example to highlight the reality of the unforeseen consequence to our actions and behaviors. Intentionality and comprehension go only so far in determining adequate accountability. 

How unlike computers we humans really are. I say this because, at the urging of my younger son,  I am currently learning (via a fabulous online course) the programming language Python. Writing computer code (which is a grandiose phrase to describe the little exercises I have been asked to do so far) makes indelibly clear and instantly what the real nature of accountability is. Nobody is responsible for the code but you, the writer of it. You write it, submit it, and the desired output does not appear. Instead you confront one of a series of error messages. You write the code again, thinking you have sufficiently understood the problem. Another, or even the same, error message. And so it goes, until the Voila moment. It works. There appears the desired output. I indulge myself at this moment with a huge smile of self-congratulation. The computer is doing exactly what I have told it to do. The error messages were mere harbingers of temporary confusion, not of permanent doom. They now seem comically silly. Of course the code would not work that way, I smugly tell myself.

Killing someone by accident in the manner Pistorius killed his girlfriend is not some sort of tragically dramatic error message. It would be like me throwing a hammer through the computer screen when my code did not work. This is not an appropriate response; I hardly need the principle of dolus eventualis to see that. I guess I am puzzled by the sentence too. Culpable homicide, after all, is till homicide.

Resisting temptation?

There has been much coverage of the recent Vatican conference or Synod on Family Life, especially of its rejection of a committee drafted paper advocating certain liberalization of views on the status in the church of homosexuals, divorced persons, and those who have lived together either before marriage or after a civil wedding.  Even more so, the media has fixated on remarks Pope Francis made at the end of the Synod in which he spoke of the two “wings” of the church falling prey to temptation.

The “traditionalists” have fallen prey to the temptation of “hostile inflexibility,” of

wanting to close oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises; within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not what we still need to learn and to achieve.

The liberals’ temptation was characterized as “a destructive tendency to goodness,”  of

a deceptive mercy [which] binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots ….  the temptation of the do-gooders, of the fearful, and also of the so-called progressives and liberals.

These words need some parsing, to be sure, but most commentators offer them in the broader context of the pope’s own agenda, as expressed here:

The attempt at liberal reform of the church’s teachings are part of Pope Francis’s attempt to steer the Vatican towards new thinking on gay rights and doctrine on marriage and the family.

The implication, I think, is that Pope Francis has managed to resist temptation. This is great, if true, and yet ….

Another piece of news has received far less coverage: Cardinal Burke’s reassignment from head of the Vatican Supreme Court to the ceremonial,  and thus both irrelevant and isolated, outpost of patron to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The connection with the foregoing news on the Synod on Family Life is that Cardinal Burke has long been one of the most outspoken and principled advocates of a conservative interpretation of various matters, a man who finds freedom not imprisonment in the words as written, if you will.

Things are rarely as clear as they seem. In speaking of resisting temptation, it would seem Pope Francis did not mean to exclude embracing the notion of cleaning house, of  getting peoples’ thinking right, of wielding political power in the pursuit of intellectual purity. Frankly, at the very least he has managed to set up the next vote on the issues before the Synod.

Deflated ballons

The juxtaposition of two totally unrelated stories from today’s news is irresistible.

First, out of Saudi Arabia comes this. A Shiite cleric had been earlier arrested for delivering sermons deemed unacceptable to the government, although his followers assert he never in such sermons explicitly urged them to violence.

Second, out of Houston, Texas comes this. The City of Houston has demanded that sermon copies which are deemed to have  possibly violated new city ordinances be handed over by the preachers.

These stories are far from parallel or even equal in seriousness. Together, however, they illustrate an intriguing point:

sermons, not all but some for sure, can and probably should challenge, upset, and threaten governing authorities.

It seems to me that this follows not so much from an examination of the content of any one or group of sermons, be they Christian or Muslim or Jewish or of any other faith’s proclaimers, so much as from an understanding of their form. Sermons are not intended to be editorial opinions or even aesthetically pleasing essays, witty and pithy insights for a lazy afternoon. However  poorly constructed, lazily prepared, and haphazardly delivered, sermons are intended to be the proclamation of the Word of God; a message, that is to say, from the Wholly Other, from the-that-which-is-not-the-world. Since governments see themselves, and alas are all too often fawningly and mistakenly identified, as masters of the world and its affairs, a message from that which is, by definition, beyond the control of governmental power, even at its most ambitious, is bound to prick the bubble of self-importance and indeed to deflate it.

What a pathetic sight a deflated balloon is. Laughable really.  

Bible 018: Jesus saves 1

In preparing some material for a class on Jesus’ role in Salvation History I got engaged in what biblical scholars call a “word study.”  I was curious to discover the incident rate and locations of New Testament occurrences of the Greek words for salvation, sōteria, and savior, sōter. The results are revealing. Here they are, in summary:

Sōteria 46 times in the NT;  1 [Mark 16: 20 “disputed the longer ending”]; 11 from Luke [6 in his Gospel, of which 5 are Jewish quotations; 5 in Acts]; 1 in John, the quotation of the Samaritan woman [referencing the Taheb]; 17 from Paul; 7 from Hebrews; 5 from Peter;  1 from Jude, and 3 from Revelation

Sōter 24 times in the NT; 4 in Luke [2 in the Gospel and 2 in Acts]; 1 in John, the Samaritan villagers react [as above?]; 12 in Paul (10 in the Pastorals); 5 in 2 Peter; 1 in 1 John and 1 in Jude

Based on some premises widely accepted in the world of New Testament scholarship (that Luke was part of Paul’s circle and also that he wrote Acts; that there is an intimate authorship connection between 2 Peter and Jude; that the foundational premises of and the standard solution to the Synoptic Problem are generally correct; that Hebrews is of Hellenistic origin; that some otherwise unknown “John” is the author both of the fourth Gospel and the first letter and a disciple of his the author of Revelation and that the Johannine material is amongst the latest in the New Testament) some revealing observations can be made.

Of the 70 total occurrences:

1) only 11 total of the 70 occur in the entire body of the four Gospels

2) of these 11 only 3 occur in the non-Pauline Gospels and of these the 1 in Mark is widely disputed as authentic to the original version of the Gospel and the other 2 in John quote Samaritans who are clearly referring to their highly particular version of the Messiah notion, namely their belief in the Taheb, a word meaning “restorer” or “rescuer”, i.e. “savior”

3) the person of Jesus is titled “savior” only 2 times in the entire body of the four Gospels, both by Luke, in the Infancy narratives

4) the work of Jesus is described as “salvation” only 6 times in the entire body of the four Gospels, all by Luke, of which only 1 is not a direct quotation, either from the Old Testament or John the Baptist. But this unique 1 is found on the lips of Jesus.

Some tentative conclusions based on these observations:

a) the rarity of the salvation descriptors for the person and work of Jesus (the two classical subcategories of Christology) is astonishing given the fact that his name (Yeshua) means “Ya saves.”

b) the popularity of salvation descriptors in Christology and ecclesiology increases with the deepening of the roots of the Gospel in Greco-Roman culture via the work, missionary and intellectual, of Paul and Pauline disciples

Thus two questions:

1) Does Greco-Roman salvation vocabulary “translate” some other category found in Jewish theology?

2) What does the 1 unique exception (the use of salvation vocabulary by Jesus himself) in Luke 19: 9 & 10, as conclusion of the Zacchaeus story, teach us about the later use, spread, and eventual domination of this vocabulary in the Christian community to capture Christological distinctives?

Stay tuned.

Going viral

Heart ache. Worry. Disgust. Fury. Bewilderment. Pity. Frustration.

These are only some of the words I can use to describe my reaction to all the horrid mess going on in and around Kobani, Syria. Note that I say “all” the horrid mess. That is intentional so as to include the knock-on messes, on the streets of European cities and within Turkey.

It is one thing to acknowledge that “war is hell” for those in uniform. It is an altogether different thing to acknowledge and see that hell coming to the innocent, those who are “caught up” in the mess, to use the phraseology of the news media, a phrase which somehow seems to create distance between us, the witnesses, and them, the victims.

But, there really is no distance. YouTube and Twitter have blown that distance away.

Yesterday, as the bombs fell on Kobani, I watched a Twitter account from a witness on a hill outside the city, describing each explosion and providing pictures. It was “real time” horror.

YouTube has shown spontaneous gun battles from the streets of Turkish cities between civilians caught up in the emotional turmoil to the extent of being willing to shoot and kill other civilians with whom they disagree.

I do not choose to emphasize some of the more horrific images that are available on the internet.

Informed comment on the ideology of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh or on the internal politics or statesmanship of Turkey is beyond me. The policies of the USA, current and leading up to this point over the past several years, are both baffling and also beyond my ability to excuse.

But, prompted by the YouTube videos and Twitter account strings, one oddly discordant and self-contradictory thought does occur to me..

There is an element of ours becoming a “selfie culture.” Our ever-present cell phone cameras allow us to capture any and every moment of our lives and post them. This very act of posting on the internet is itself a powerful force, an alluring, if utterly deceiving, siren call to fame. It was Andy Warhol, I think, who intoned in the mid-1960’s that “everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”  Nowadays the time for fame has been compressed. You may get noticed for fifteen seconds, if you are lucky! But, I can keep taking selfies, keep posting to Twitter and YouTube. My life can be a movie. I can be a star. A celebrity. Famous.

So, there’s a demonstration outside. A political protest. Quick, grab my camera … my ever-ready and oh-so-excellent-GoPro … and my gun and …… Lights! Camera! Action! Guess what? I am Dirty Harry. Punk, you just made my day, and I got it all on video.

But, however much the allure, the deception is even more powerful. There simply is so much stuff out there. Such a constant flow. The competition for attention is enormous.

How is a really successful video described. “It has gone viral.” That’s right. Viral! Since when have viruses ever been a good thing?

And yet ….. (I told you my thought was discordant and self-contradictory) …

Much of the stuff we are getting from Twitter and YouTube out of Syria and elsewhere right now will not be found anywhere else. For whatever reason it is the freelance journalist or Dirty Harry wannabes who are bringing the world these images.  And that informing of the globe has got to be a good thing.

I have on my desk a book. It comes from the pre-Twitter/YouTube/computer/internet age. It was published in 1936. It’s entitled The Yellow Spot with the following subtitle: The Extermination of the Jews in Germany, the first complete documentary study. It has pages of pictures and charts, first hand eye-witness accounts, and dire warnings of what lies ahead.

1936!

It was sent to public officials across Europe and the then free world. Pleading for help.

I bought my copy in the late 1960’s in a Glasgow second-hand bookstore. I found it fallen down behind a row of dust-laden books of Old Testament theology. Inside was a letter to “Councillor Greenhill” of the Glasgow City Council. It was his copy. The book was a paperback and I could easily tell …. it had never been opened.

The message of The Yellow Spot, delivered in 1936, had not gone viral.