A tale of two videos

I caught last night’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s interview with Sea Hannity on the web this morning. She was promoting her new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now, which I have not read. I have read other books by her, however, and understand why she is a darling voice for certain ears, described by someone somewhere recently as “a political superstar.” The ears for which she offers re-enforcing insights were represented by Hannity’s comment in the interview that Hirsi is claiming, in Heretic, that Islam is “not a religion of peace” and yet when he says the same thing he is branded an “Islamophobe.” 

The interview was all very predictable to someone familiar with Hirsi’s train of thought which has been consistent and constant, although somewhat more discordant since her embracing of atheism.

Be all that as it may, what caught my attention was her comments regarding American policy in the Middle East, and indeed more globally, over many decades. You can hear them in the interview, as linked above, at 01:30 – 01:48. Hirsi references, as explanation in great part for the explosion of current  Islamic  terrorism, traditional, even standard, American support of “despots” and which enabled, legitimized, and thus sustained their despotic leadership.

Immediately another video popped into my head, this time a portion of a sermon. In this clip you can hear what echoed in my mind at 02:19-02:50.

Jeremiah Wright was excoriated for his “America’s chickens coming home to roost” statement.  His sermon was especially publicized and commented on in the tumultuous and bitterly sore aftermath of the 9/11 calamity, not its original context. Some at the time were hinting if not explicitly stating that the victims in the Twin Towers conflagration were somehow “getting what they deserved.”  Wright, I think, was not saying anything to support that, which is outrageous and insane  He was with drama, flair, and dynamism saying that America’s support for despots over the years was behind foreign detestation of the USA as well as America’s reliance on violence itself to advance its interests.

Hirsi states it calmly and is lionized. Wright preaches it with passion and is both despised and rejected, as President Obama, his parishioner,  was driven to do.

My interest lies in the medium and manner, not the message.   As for the message, that a nation’s foreign policy can be morally culpable and provide cause for violence against that nation, it is nothing more than a basic lesson of history down the ages. It can shock only those who know nothing of history, their own or others’.  As for the implication that this insight applies to the USA in the case of 9/11 and all that has followed, that, it seems to me, is in need of far more examination, particularly by placing US foreign policy in the Middle East in the broader context of what America does and seeks to accomplish globally. This context, let it be said, is such that recognition is demanded of an enormous amount of good being done. So, moving on from that:

An interview delivered in calm tones in a polite context is received with equanimity, if not total acquiescence, while a sermon uttering the same sentiments with theatrics, passion, and memorable phraseology is greeted with amazed disdain, if not stunned horror.

This tells us something, it seems to me, about the Western public square’s unease with religious faith per se.  Hirsi is welcomed and attention given to her and Wright not; quite the opposite in fact; Wright was slashed by comments hinting, not at bad theology, but treason. Hirsi was far tamer than Wright.

More controlled and controllable perhaps?

Less threatening?

What could be more cool than an atheist telling religion how to reform itself?  Religion without God? Cool!

Cool, perhaps, in a NYC  television studio and along the corridors of western academia, but I have no doubt that she, even though saying what Western ears think they want to hear, will be the one ridiculed and despised in Riyadh, on the streets of Sana’a and Tehran, and the crowded rooms of every madrassah.


You might have read about it or even seen it. Pope Francis has performed a miracle, what some are referring to as a “half-miracle. The former is a theological concept with some authenticity from antiquity; the latter? Not so much. If you missed the video here is a link.

The blood of this particular saint, kept in a glass vial, has liquefied in the presence of former popes some nine times over the centuries.

When teaching about the miracles of Jesus, I always try and point out that miracles and parables are cousins. Each works with two realms, on the one hand the realm of the mundane, the familiar, and the everyday (farmers working, women baking, lost sheep, sibling rivals, and the like) and, on the other, the realm of the eternal, the unfamiliar, and the divine (the kingdom of God.) Parables using words seek to draw our attention from the former to the latter, while miracles using actions seek to pierce the latter with the former. If one seems to slip away from interpretation it is a useful tool to try and interpret it as belonging to the other cousin category. This technique often helps understanding. The key point is that each has a purpose beyond its mere utterance, in the case of a parable, or its mere performance, in the case of a miracle. In the absence of such a purpose all we are left with is theotainment, religious wisdom and power as fun, even, I am driven to say as is the case with much liturgical theotainment these days, as manipulative fun.

Now it is not too far-fetched to claim that the miracle the other day was a sign (as the fourth Gospel calls miracles, by the way) or, in other words, power with a purpose. The pope was visiting what is described in the CNN video I linked as the “epicenter” of crime in Italy. His liquefying the blood of a saint could be seen as a declaration about blood: The criminals shed it, I liquefy it, and the Church has it, the Blood of Eternal Life for you.

But this suggests staging does it not? Which brings us back to manipulation and theotainment, even if well-intentioned. Manipulation and theotainment are, of course, the two essential ingredients in the devil’s last temptation to Jesus: “Go ahead, jump down from the top of the temple tower and float to the ground, dazzle them, show them, wow them, win them.”

I have heard ISIS criticized for “medievalism” in their outlook and methods.  The Middle Ages were indeed characterized by much barbaric behavior, if that is what is in the mind of those who attribute medievalism to ISIS, but they were also the age of superstition and dazzling shows, of tangible displays of power both political and ecclesiastical, designed to sway and control the masses.

There was a whiff of medievalism in Naples the other day.

Incidental warning

A headline low down on the BBC News website caught my eye.

Royal Navy unveils ‘modern’ uniform.

I was curious as to why the headline employed quotation marks around the word modern. Who were they quoting? I wondered. Of course, they were not quoting anyone, other than the Royal Navy itself. But the Navy’s statement had also used the word uniform and so the BBC had been selective.

All very annoying, if not curious. Quotation marks have become an indication of emphasis in contemporary journalistic English and not necessarily a reference to words spoken by someone other than the author. This can lead to ambiguity and possibly more, namely deliberate misdirection and  evasion by obfuscation. And why would this be necessary when discussing a change in naval clothing?

Another indication of pressure to make the reader think a certain way is the photograph accompanying the article. Here it is:


Wearing the old uniform the sailor is standing at attention. Wearing the modern uniform he is standing, not technically at ease but in a casual and relaxed posture. He could be waiting for a bus. The visual message seems to be that things are way more relaxed in the modern navy; no spit, no polish; no yessir-nosir-three-bags-full-sir; all of us aboard are just pals together; chums. And you perhaps cannot tell, but in the original it is clearly the case that the sailor’s face to our right is fixed in determined, obedient, inexpressive respect, while that to our left has an ever-so-positive hint of a grin; relaxed, enjoying it all, looking at an equal.

This visual message in turn may be intended, on the one hand, as a come-on-and-enlist, life in the Navy isn’t so bad or, on the other, a criticism that the modern Navy is going to hell in a hand-basket.

I can’t make up my mind, but I do know this: if the picture was meant to allow us an unbiased view of both uniforms as uniform per se, the differing posture of the sailor is a subtle attempt to influence our judgment.

Would journalists try and do that? Really? Attempt to influence us by going beyond objective reporting of the facts? Surely not.

Stay alert.

Facebook on nudity

I was interested to read this piece about new policies on hate speech, violence, and nudity issued by Facebook. My interest was caught, not because I am a user of Facebook which I am not, but by the nudity reference.

Let me explain (hastily lest you misunderstand.)

As part of a self-imposed Lenten discipline, I have been closely reading the Hebrew texts of Genesis 1:1- 2:3, on the one hand, and Genesis 2:4 – 3:24, on the other. These foundational passages frame much of our total understanding of life’s adventure by raising some of the fundamental questions of the human spirit. Amongst them, it strikes me, is the real nature of nakedness, which constitutes a symbolic theme of such power that to ignore it will deflect attention from the true dynamic of the God-Humanity relationship, what it is and what it ought to be. This dynamic lingers behind the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, not only in that some scholars believe criminals executed this way were hung naked on the cross. but also by the Gospel reference to the soldiers casting lots to see who would get Jesus’ clothes and the later reference to his body being wrapped in a shroud to be laid in the tomb, this latter without any mention of taking anything off of him.

You may well object that you have never seen a crucifix depicted this way. Well, artists are rarely as free thinking as they are rumored to be. Go back to Adam and Eve. Ever see a painting of them? Every one I can think of shows them with the well-placed fig leaf.  They were naked, but paintings/painters cannot bear it. How odd. And then, to make matters worse, each of Adam and Eve, in every painting of them I have seen, has a navel. Why would they have navels?

The theme of nakedness comes up again in that oft-quoted verse from Job in which he seeks to capture the very essence of human experience as a balance between the deceitful trappings of empty accomplishment and pride over against the ruthless honesty of nakedness. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart,” Job 1:21.

Back now to Facebook. I simply ask you to read what it says it now means by “nudity” in the context of the biblically serious, by which I mean profound not somber and sober, perspective outlined above:

We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures. Restrictions on the display of both nudity and sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless the content is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes. Explicit images of sexual intercourse are prohibited. Descriptions of sexual acts that go into vivid detail may also be removed.

How ridiculously incoherent is this? You can show a female breast but not the nipple? The nipple has to be air-brushed out? Or stuck in the mouth of a feeding infant? Or as part of mastectomy scarring? The buttocks are OK, but not when “focusing in” on them? How about the word “displaying” in the first sentence. Is it transitive and thus describing something the “people” are actively doing or intransitive and thus describing the “photographs?” As for “digitally created content” being OK for certain purposes (“educational, humorous, or satirical”) I am driven to ponder what other purposes there are which could not be claimed to fall under one of these three categories.

What about a photographed re-enactment of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden behind some bushes, crouching there with nipples and genitals or buttocks showing and no fig leaves covering anything, afraid because they know they are naked?

I quickly add that I am not seeking to castigate Facebook. I understand why they have made a shot at defining their standards in this regard. It’s just that I am ever uneasy when some entity or other seeks to control public morality by defining what is and is not acceptable. Besides, today’s shock is tomorrow’s ho-hum and vice versa.  The piece I linked closes this way:

Of course, whether any of these clarify anything for anyone will be interesting to see. Certainly, all of these definitions remain highly subjective and it’s unlikely Facebook is going to resolve on its own debates that have raged on for ages.

For ages? Since the Garden of Eden I’d say.

Pinning down

It has been said that theology is nothing more than a debate about how many angels can dance on the point of a pin.

(This question, however, is not so flippant as the jesting tone with which it is often uttered would lead one to assume. For an interesting brief treatment see here and be prepared to bend your mind around “the Pauli exclusion principle,” the “basic issue is the maximal density of active angels in a small volume,” and “space is likely not infinitely divisible beyond the Planck length scale of 10exp-35 meters.”  Enough!)

That abstruse, even obtuse,  type of concern has raised its head in a most unlikely context, if today’s news reporting is to be believed.

A controversy has bubbled up or broken out between the Daliai Lama and not only the Chinese Communist Party but also the number two figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchem Lama. The issue? Reincarnation, or rather the absence of it. The Dalai Lama has said that when he dies he is “not coming back.” This is seen as an attempt on his part to exert political pressure on the Chinese on their desire to control Tibetan Buddhism.

You might think that a decision to be reincarnated is in and of itself impossible and/or a contradiction. One either does or does not reincarnate, but one does not make a decision about it. This notion of making reincarnation a matter of our deciding may strike you as the central issue here. You would be wrong. Here is what the article states:

The head of Tibet’s regional congress, Padma Choling, said, “I think [the Dalai Lama] is actually profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism …. He says ‘no reincarnation’, so it’s no reincarnation? The crux of this issue, where the problem really lies, is that he wants to try and take away the central government’s rights on reincarnation.”

There you have it. What’s that? Ah, “where the problem really lies.” The Dalai Lama has no right in making a decision about his reincarnation, but the government does. 

Religion in its most arcane form (reincarnation as a matter of human decision a sort of angels on the tip of a pin debate) has burst forth into the public eye because it is threatening “government rights.” 

You’d better believe it does!


Saturday morning. Two piles of paper on my desk; each with sets of stapled together mid-term exams from two undergraduate courses, Mythology and World Religions. They need to be graded and grades posted by Monday.

I look at them. Any surprises in there?

I think students sometimes think grading is a process of “taking marks away.” On no. I read their answers looking for ways to throw points at them.

Maybe a student confused Artemis with Athena in a retelling of the transformation and killing of Actaeon; but, the story was correct otherwise; maybe a 5 out of 10 was harsh; it might have been a mere slip (of the tongue? the pen?); two points would make all the difference to the total, lifting the grade from a D+ to a C-; I go back: 7 out of 10.

OK, so a simple mistake: a confusion in speaking of the four stages of life in Islam; life in the period between death and rising again is Barsak not Buraq, which was the winged horse of the Night Journey; hey, this is not a course in Arabic, right? She needs those points to pass….

Before every quiz I remind them that this is an opportunity to show me what they know and what they understand, that the two are different, the former informing the latter, and the former having been molded by what they have learned in the course. The evidence I look for in an exam is a melding of these three elements. Alas, too often one encounters opinions substantiated with biases and views they entered the class with on day one. Anecdotage not learning.

Any surprises in there?

I play a little game with myself. After a quiz or two I write down in the record book, in pencil of course, a letter grade for every student. Then at the end of the semester I look to see how right or wrong I have been. It is the surprises I notice. The D that ends up with a B+; the A- that collapses to a C.

I look at the two stacks. Any surprises in there?


Isn’t Manchester United playing Arsenal in the FA Cup today? It’s gotta be on US TV, right?

PS Later:

They play tomorrow. Surprise!

Leaving home

In amongst the various major stories that screamed for our attention yesterday (Netanyahu’s speech and Obama’s reaction; Hillary’s email address and Bill’s portrait avec shadow; not to mention the ongoing battle by Iraqi forces to take back Tikrit from ISIS; and so many more) was this little piece.

 Here is the gist:

Archaeologists working in Nazareth — Jesus’ hometown — in modern-day Israel have identified a house dating to the first century that was regarded as the place where Jesus was brought up by Mary and Joseph. The house is partly made of mortar-and-stone walls, and was cut into a rocky hillside. It was first uncovered in the 1880s, by nuns at the Sisters of Nazareth convent, but it wasn’t until 2006 that archaeologists led by Ken Dark, a professor at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, dated the house to the first century, and identified it as the place where people, who lived centuries after Jesus’ time, believed Jesus was brought up.

I am always amazed by and full of admiration for archaeologists. Their work has illuminated so much of the biblical background and enriched our understanding of many ancient texts by providing fuller context. The archaeological enterprise demands many expert scholarly techniques, but the requirement that fuels my deepest admiration is the archaeologists’ patience. Their work is so painstaking and agonizingly slow that the temptation to rush to judgment on this or that dig’s significance (and thus rush to fame and profit) must at times be almost irresistible. But nearly always there is caution, the tentative suggestion of significance, a whiff of speculation as to lasting impact on our understanding.

So too in this case. Immediately following the words quoted above, we read this:

Whether Jesus actually lived in the house in real life is unknown, but Dark says that it is possible.

Right. Gotcha.

If you read the entire article you will discover that the potentially most impactful insight of Dark’s team’s work is a clearer understanding of what New Testament scholars have known for some time, namely the fact that Galilee in general and the Nazareth area in particular was a hotbed of agitation against and resistance towards the centuries’ long occupation by the legions and cultural influences of the Roman Empire. Zealotry (which we today would call “terrorism”) was the Nazareth neighborhood’s normal mood and past-time. I could make something of this, but just now want to get back to “Jesus’ house.”

There are two possibilities: it was his house; it was not his house. These two possibilities each share a conditioning control: there is no way of ever making a definitive determination between them. Of both, then, we can ask: what difference does it make?

Here is something we know for sure about Jesus’ home in Nazareth: he left it. His headquarters were in Capernaum, a much larger and vital population center, some miles away. It was from Capernaum he conducted most of his teaching, preaching, and healing ministry. Read Mark 2:1 for example, the verse opening the story of the healing of the paralytic: it states quite clearly that this incident happened while Jesus was in Capernaum “at home.” We also know that the one time Jesus went back to Nazareth his visit was a disaster and he could do nothing significant there because the locals heaped scorn on him. Once again, he left. (By the way, we also know that some of those who remained living there, namely his mother and family, came after him later to “take him away” because he was .… I loosely translate …. “a nut-job.”)

Maybe this, then, is something we can take away from the good work of Dark and his archaeological team, a simple and obvious lesson but so often resisted and neglected.

To save the world, you have to go to the world:

To impact the world, you have to engage the world:

To heal the world, you have to touch the world:

To do any of these things, you have to leave home.