Category: Notices

Religious Studies as Environmental Studies

Todd LeVasseur, “‘The Earth Is sui generis‘: Destabilizing the Climate of Our Field,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 83:2 (2015) 300–319.

Humbly and without any agenda beyond that evident in their tone, in the paragraphs below I present my notes on the above mentioned article. The notes appear here virtually unedited, straight out of my annotated bibliography. I’d be interested in further discussion of LeVasseur’s programmatic call for the transformation of religious studies in the comments, if anyone cares to engage this subject further.

Todd LeVasseur is the convening editor who put together the “Roundtable on Climate Destabilization and the Study of Religion” — a virtual panel consisting of nine papers gathered in Vol 83 issue 2 of the JAAR. LeVasseur teaches both Religious Studies and Environmental studies at the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC). The above cited paper is the first paper in the roundtable.

The first few pages of the article offer a bleak survey of the state of modern climate science and the consensus on global climate change (300-307). For the purpose of moving on to examine his recommendations regarding the future of religious studies, let’s go ahead and stipulate that LeVasseur has presented the science fairly and accurately.

Turning to the situation of Religious Studies in the Anthropocene, LeVasseur writes that the discipline has emerged, as did Darwin, Sociology, etc., within a modern industrialized colonialist civilizational context, mainly as a result of the “slack afforded by cheap carbon” (308). Our work, at present, is also sustained by that “slack.” [Presumably, LeVasseur does not intend to allude to the concept of “slack” as deployed by the Church of the SubGenius.] Critically appraising this legacy, he suggests that “[w]e might want to pause and ask what happens to our field when the slack afforded by cheap carbon is removed” (308).

LeVasseur thinks we need to do more to account for “nature and the natural world” as “variables” (308) impacting “the construction of religions” and “religious production.” For the record, I do not know what Todd LeVasseur means by “religious production” (p. 308, and 309 n. 17). He faults leading theoretical accounts of religion and the critical categories of religious studies for assuming “that the natural world has no agency in our affairs” (308) and “that the natural world has no influence on religions” (309) — though he immediately lists three important titles, two existing journals, and several AAR working groups that would seem to belie his claim (309). Lamenting the general “neglect” of “religion-nature interactions” in the field, and of the very category “nature” as a theoretical tool, he suggests there are but few programs offering doctoral level work in of the kind he is imagining (mentioning, however, programs at University of Florida, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, and Drew University). Having admitted the existence of these several programs, LeVasseur also observes morosely that job prospects are limited for scholars coming out of them (310). This is due, of course, to the lack of a focus on these areas of inquiry in religious studies. To LeVasseur, that is precisely the problem.

On pp. 310-311 LeVasseur appears to call for scholars of religion to take up a variety of projects that might emphasize either critical appraisals of religion as an enabler of the human destruction of nature, or might show the ways ways that religion fosters human stewardship of nature. This critical constructive project is to be hampered only by his caveats that make it sound like he understands how complex it might be to make such theoretical-ethical appraisals of our subject matter, since it is often very hard to predict future environmental consequences of present practice and ideology, or to trace the line of cause and effect from cultural configurations to the natural environment.

Furthermore, pointing not only to the literal loss of “research sites” due to environmental devastation and its political ramifications (311), he also brings up the potential collapse of the context of the University in general as a site for research and teaching (311-313). Both types of losses will take place through the same dynamic: climate change and its economic and political consequences. [In this section, an offhand and unsourced reference to the Peak Oil concept (see p. 312, and fn. 20) shows that LeVasseur may not always be committed to a historicizing and genealogical scholarly investigation of every idea that informs his understanding of global economics and environmental science.] The collapse of the university context (as presently constituted) will happen due to the changing economic and political climate that attends a changing environmental situation. LeVasseur appears to imagine his own College of Charleston being swallowed up by the sea, as he asks, plaintively, “How much deeper will the water be in another twenty years?” (312).

Ultimately LeVasseur suggests that this threat to our constructed slack-enabled context that comes from agent nature requires us to become “engaged voices” shaping University policies, championing “sustainability programs” and “environmental humanities courses” and embedding “courses on religion and nature” into our curricula, listing a variety of course topics that should be offered by religious studies departments (313). Presumably, such courses would facilitate combating climate change by educating publics? He does not elaborate on this evident assumption. He goes on, offering further suggestions for engaged activism by faculty, ranging from encouraging divestment to shaping food service policies (giving a nod to the AAR Task Force for Sustainability).

Finally, he shows that his intent is to impose an ethical duty on the field as a whole. Invoking and paraphrasing environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold, he writes that

“higher education—whether it is content taught, research undertaken, or the structure of our institutions and the daily operations of our campuses—is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Given the tipping points and earth-system shifts underway, and the guiding auspices of the precautionary principle, then it is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (314)

Right and wrong. Such are the stark ethical choices that face the field.

In the conclusion of the article, which stridently calls on the field to take up these concerns, LeVasseur refers us to a study by David Loy, “Religion and the Market” [JAAR 65:2 (1995) 275–290] which argues that global capitalism is religious in nature, with “extreme social and environmental costs… that are anathema to the religion’s promised eschatology of endless consumption and economic growth… the sole criteria of happiness” (315).

The final paragraph renews the urgency of the call, invoking an apocalyptic counter-eschatology, the spectre of human extinction (315). And of course he urges the reader to go on to read the remaining eight papers in the roundtable.

I looked through the whole article and although the title includes quotation marks around the phrase “The Earth is sui generis” I could not locate a reference to this phrase in the article itself or in a citation to a source of the quote. Apparently, LeVasseur imagines someone else saying this, someone other than himself. Or perhaps he imagines that the quote marks represent some kind of public statement. Perhaps the title is presented ironically, and the quote marks signal his awareness of the irony? It might be intended as irony since the justification of the study of religion was, historically, offered on the basis of a (now discredited) claim that “religion” is a “thing” existing in the world sui generis. Literally the phrase “sui generis” means “of its own kind,” but in theoretical discussions of religion it is sometimes glossed as “existing of itself” or even as self-caused. In the latter sense the phrase is plainly meaningless when applied to the concept of “the Earth,” but in the literal sense, yes, the Earth is functionally, for us human beings, one of a kind. It’s our only accessible environment. Our biosphere. It remains unclear why LeVasseur does not return to or explain his title in the piece; he could at least have brought it in at the end to form an inclusio but I guess his meaning is intended to be self-evident and self-justifying. Like the recommendations he makes in the article.

Houston Sermon Subpoenas: Timeline and Links

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Timeline and Facts

• Wednesday, May 28th, 2014 — Houston City Council passes HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.

• Tuesday, Aug 4th, 2014 — Opponents of HERO submit petition for a ballot initiative to repeal HERO in November election; City Rejects Petition.

• Tuesday, Aug. 5th, 2014 — Opponents of HERO sued the city of Houston for rejecting petition; ask judge to verify it.

• August–October: Lawsuit ongoing? news reports are slim.

• Tuesday, Oct. 14th — news surfaces (reported in Houston Chronicle) that city attorneys had subpoenaed five local pastors who are considered as “tied to the conservative Christian activists who have sued the city.” The subpoenas, which ask for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to [the equal rights ordinance], the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” are widely criticized with immediate reactions from the left and right.

• Wednesday, Oct 15th, 2014, about 00:12 AM, Houston Mayor A. Parker tweets “if the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.”

• Wednesday, Oct. 15th, 2014, in the afternoon: Houston Mayor A. Parker issues a statement stating that she was “surprised” by the subpoenas, withdrawing them, and stating that the city will seek a narrower scope of discovery during a hearing yet to be scheduled.

Bibliography

Bailey, S. P. “Houston subpoenas pastor’s sermons in gay rights ordinance,” Religious News Service (10/14/2014) http://www.religionnews.com/2014/10/14/houston-subpoenas-pastors-sermons-equal-rights-ordinance-case-prompting-outcry/

Driessen, L. “City subpoenas sermons in equal rights case,” Houston Chronicle (10/14/2014) http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/City-subpoenas-sermons-in-ERO-court-case-5822800.php

Gershman, J. “Houston Mayor Says City’s Sermon Subpoenas Came as a Surprise,” Wall Street Journal (10/15/2014) http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2014/10/15/houston-mayor-says-citys-sermon-subpoenas-came-as-a-surprise/

Morris and Driessen, “Equal Rights Ordinance Opponents Sue City: Group asks judge to verify petition for a referendum,” Houston Chronicle (08/05/2014) http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/article/Equal-rights-ordinance-opponents-sue-city-5670743.php

Parker, Tweet of 10/15/2014 https://twitter.com/AnniseParker/status/522238662033956866

Posner, S. “Houston’s Pastor Subpoenas: A Meme Made For Fox News” Religion Dispatches (10/15/2014) http://religiondispatches.org/houstons-pastor-subpoenas-a-meme-made-for-fox-news/

City of Houston Webstie, “Equal Rights Ordinance,” http://www.houston.org/equalrights/

Vridar on the Ascension of Isaiah

This is just a quick note, mostly to myself, but also to you, dear readers, about my latest discovery. It turns out there exists a whole series of blog-posts relating to the Ascension of Isaiah at the blog Vridar, authored by Neil Godfrey, Roger Parvus, and perhaps a few others.

I haven’t read them as of yet, but I will soon.

While a number of different writers publish on the Vridar blog, the main “publisher” is apparently Neil Godfrey. According to the site’s “about” page, Godfrey is an Australian library scientist with a special interest in the study of Christian origins. His postings on that topic are mixed in among a variety of other randomly organized writings on a spectrum of interests.

The header of the blog "Vridar".

The header of the blog Vridar

A blogger after my own heart, to be sure!

Apparently Vridar gets associated—by its detractors? in spite of Godfrey’s protests to the contrary?—with the so-called “mythicist hypothesis” in Jesus-research, a school of thought called by some the Christ-myth-theory. This is the idea that “the Jesus of history” never existed. The view has a long pedigree, going back at least to Bruno Bauer in the mid-19th century.

I have no idea whether Vridar belongs to this scholarly camp or not, and no particular stake in the outcome of such disputes. I’m sure that Vridar has staked out some suitably nuanced position. A quick review of Godfrey’s bio and recent posts shows that he is a former Christian atheist who cares to examine and publicize so-called “secular” studies of Christian origins, and also that he is critical of theologians who do history. Naturally, this stance of his dooms his blog to being criticized by those who can’t get past the idea of secularists doing Biblical studies.

There is a relevant larger question about how we ought to theorize or describe the landscape of voices arguing over Christian Origins in the “blogosphere.” Insofar as it concerns the practices of “interpreters of the New Testament,” and “researchers on Christian origins,” such a question properly belongs to “religious studies.” If we ask what’s at stake among those squabbling about where Vridar should be positioned, relative to some “field,” we must begin a complex inquiry into the networks of actors and practitioners manufacturing their identities and affinities (as scholars, laypeople, experts, believers, non-believers, insiders, outsiders, members of schools and nations, etc.)—a tangled and diffuse web of contested discourses to be sure!

For the moment let’s not get caught up in all that. Right now I am just trying to get on with my (admittedly incohate) research on the Ascension of Isaiah. (“Full” disclosure: I not really ready to reveal, as of yet, why I care about this particular ancient book. But I will say something more on that soon.)

I will be interested to see what Godfrey and company make of the Ascension—by which I mean, to see what they do with it—and you can count on a follow-up here looking at their work.

VICE NEWS on the Islamic State

I urge friends and readers to spend 42 minutes watching the following video, published to YouTube by VICE NEWS about one month ago. A well done documentary focusing on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the video mainly depicts ISIL’s efforts to establish the city as the central capital of their new “Caliphate.”

 

 

Westerners and moderate, state-aligned Muslims decry ISIL as out of step with traditional Islam. Or even as “not Islamic.” (For more, see here.)

Certainly we should celebrate the ways that the majority of Muslims, worldwide, seem determined to fit into a world order rooted in a rule of international law and respect for human rights. We don’t desire to be pulled into the madness of a third world war between two artificially constructed facades. We must not permit our conflict with ISIL to become a war between an “Islamic East” and a “Secular (or Christian) West.”

But I still maintain that the United States’ current policy towards ISIL is based on a profound distortion of the facts. US officials are trying to win a rhetorical war in which “ISIL” is denigrated as a mere “terrorist organization.”

IS partisans are not just “terrorists.” This is painfully obvious to anyone with a modicum of sense, or with access to what VICE NEWS is doing in their reporting on ISIL.

As the above video clearly demonstrates, the term “terrorism” is completely inadequate as a descriptor of what ISIL is doing. “Terrorism” doesn’t explain a thing about their goals, tactics, or actions within and on the edges of their territory. Outwardly, they appear quite “serious” about imposing a totalitarian “Islamic” order within the areas they control.

The vision of ISIL is to create a thoroughly Islamic society, international in scope, spanning and eliminating current borders in the Levant and indeed around the world. They employ a wildly ambitious expansionist rhetoric, articulating desired fates for Turkey, Europe, Russia, and America.

Thanks to a video like this, a great number of better categories for thinking through what ISIL is doing suggest themselves. “Cult of personality.” “Sharia-based Totalitarianism.” “Anti-secular reactionism.” “Fundamentalist Islamic social organization.” “Ritualized identity formation practices.” “Potentially pre-genocidal social classification systems.” “Indoctrination of the youth.” “Military training.” “Reeducation camps.” Etc.

All of this calls for scholarship that is outside of my areas of competence. Who is up to it?

Right now we are saddled by a leadership, a cross-party political and military-industrial order, that is determined to drop billions of dollars worth of ordinance on the nascent “Islamic State,” while claiming falsely that we won’t invade and put boots on the ground. They justify our policy with oversimplified propaganda that magnifies fear while minimizing understanding.

For the moment it appears that we Americans will have no choices between different policies, in either the 2014 or 2016 elections. We will be at war for the next few years—at least into 2017. An invasion may follow. What could stop it?

In the meantime, let’s at least be clear about who we are bombing, and honest about what we think that will accomplish.

A boy waves the flag of IS in Raqqa, summer 2014 (VICE NEWS).

A boy waves the flag of IS in Raqqa, summer 2014 (VICE NEWS).

Obama on ISIL: Not Islamic, Not Religious, Not a State

Who Put the IS in ISIL?

«ISIL … calls itself the “Islamic State.” Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.»

— Barack Obama, 9/10/2014

Obama’s words need to be taken apart and examined. I’ll do that later. For now, I post this quote for the simple purpose of highlighting the absurdity of this public statement. It’s a funny joke to say that the “Holy Roman Empire” was neither holy nor roman nor empire. But it’s neither as funny nor as accurate to debate the IS in ISIL.

Bibliography

The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the President on ISIL” (9/10/2014) http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/10/remarks-president-barack-obama-address-nation

The New York Times on YouTube, “Obama ISIS Speech [FULL] Today on 9/10/2014: ‘Ultimately Destroy’ Militants | The New York Times” (9/10/2014) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spIWGoNZnaU

UPDATE: 9/19/2014

I did write a more extended critical examination of the above quote, “Religion, Public Policy, and War: The Case of ISIL”.

When Encyclopedias Fail: “Ascension and Martyrdom of Isaiah” in RPP

Critic of Wikipedia? Get over it. When Wikipedia is wrong, you can fix it. When a venerable print encyclopedia, such as Religion Past and Present (RPP), is wrong, it’s just a shame, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

This short post can be classified as a critical notice, or a rant. Maybe both. Read on for details.

Today, while doing my DD (“due diligence”) in preparation for more advanced writing on the Ascension of Isaiah, I decided to look up the entry on the work in the well respected German encyclopedia Religion Past and Present (or RPP, in English translation; in German it is known as Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart or RGG).

Cover Image of Volume 1 of Religion Past and Present

Cover Image of Volume 1 of Religion Past and Present

Here’s the bibliography for the entry I am dealing with here:

Irina Wandrey, “Ascension and Martyrdom of Isaiah” in Religion Past and Present (Leiden: Brill, 2007) Vol. 1, page 428.

I regret to state that this is a singularly bad article. I might even have wanted to tear it out of the volume, it is that bad, but I’m using a library book. You have to take care of such things.

What is wrong with Wandrey’s piece? Let me list only four problems with this short article. That is enough.

1) Bibliography. The article lists only two sources. Now, both of them are monographs from the well respected series “Jüdische Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit,” which one might think, ought to suffice. But are Hammershaimb’s 1973 short monograph, Das Martyrium Jesajas and Lehnardt’s 1999 general Bibliographie zu den jüdischen Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit adequate sources for grounding an encyclopedic introduction to the “Ascension of Isaiah”?

Comment: No, they are not adequate. The omissions from this bibliography are significant. Neither of the works cited represents a current approach to the text or context of the Ascension of Isaiah. Both of these sources—appropriately, given their publication context—focus on the Jewish elements in this text. However, it is well known that the Ascension as we have it has been thoroughly worked over by a Christian redactor; thus, in today’s scholarship, whether you cite the English, French, or Italian, you will find it increasingly common for scholars to treat the work as a Christian unity. Some scholarship reflecting that position should have been cited. At a minimum Norelli’s Commentarius (1995), which makes just this argument, should appear in the bibliography. (It is, however, quite unfortunately, in Italian.) The CCSA critical edition of the text, of which Norelli is one of the editors (1995), should also appear. Another important monograph that is more recent than Hammershaimb is by Ascerbi (1987; also Italian). A 1983 edited volume of papers on the Ascension (also, dagnabit, in Italian!) is another important source: Isaia, il diletto e la chiesa. Also published in the 1990’s are some foundational articles by Robert G. Hall (1990 and 1994, both in Journal of Biblical Literature) and by Darrell D. Hannah (1999, in Vigiliae Christianae). Finally, two English volumes by Jonathan Knight, published in 1995 and 1996 by Sheffield, ought to be considered as basic introductory works. The various approaches to the text articulated in this scholarship should have been sketched out.

2) Concerning the structure and origins of the work. Wandrey writes, uncontroversially, about the “two distinct parts” to the Ascension: chapters 1-5, called the “Martyrdom of Isaiah,” and long considered by many to be Jewish in origin—though of course it has “a Christian insertion” at 3:13–4:22—and chapters 6-11, called the Vision of Isaiah, considered by some to be later (but by Norelli to be earlier), and Christian in origin. However, Wandrey’s account of the origins of these documents has been skewed, apparently by Hammershaimb. Of the first part, chs. 1-5, she writes: “The Martyrdom of Isaiah was very likely written in Hebrew in Palestine,” adding that it is “a Jewish martyr legend dating back to the religious persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes.”

Comment: although many people share the opinion that the Martyrdom of Isaiah is originally Jewish and the vision is originally Christian, not all scholars, and perhaps not even the majority of scholars share these views. At a minimum, the early history of debate on the composition of the text (from Lawrence, 1819, to Dillmann, 1877 to Charles, 1900) could have been flagged, and arguments relating to its probable dating could have been mentioned and evaluated. More troubling than this omission, however, is Wandrey’s overconfident assertion about the origins of the Martyrdom text. It is certainly not widely agreed that the Martyrdom, in any form remotely as we have it today, ever existed as a Hebrew text in Palestine in the second century BCE. That is pure wishful thinking. We have, rather, only second century CE evidence from Rabbinics and Patristics that both Jews and Christians knew of the bare minimum facts of the martyrdom of Isaiah. There are no testimonies to the text prior to the second century CE. Dillmann’s discussion (1877) of the external testimonies remains foundational. There is absolutely no textual evidence that would support the claim that the original language of our text was Hebrew, and it is a tendentious, wishful argument that sees a Seleucid context for its origin.

3) Concerning the language of transmission and extant versions. There is a serious error of fact in this encyclopedia article. It needs explanation, and the more I think about it, the more I think it may have been some kind of awful mistake that crept in during the translation of RPP from RGG. Wandrey writes: “A complete version of the Vision of Isaiah is only available in Egyptian translation… additionally, some Greek and Latin fragments exist, and the Vision also exists in another version (Latin and Old Slavonic).”

Comment: where to start with this? First, what does Wandrey mean by “Vision of Isaiah” here? Does she refer to 6-11 only, or to the whole? From the content of what follows, it looks as though she has, inconsistently, applied the term “Vision” to the whole work (quite in defiance of the article title). That’s a problem in itself. But however that question is answered, the truth of the matter is that the none of the so-called “Ascension of Isaiah” is preserved “in Egyptian translation.” Rather, the text as a whole (chapters 1-11) is preserved only in Ethiopic—and to be clear, this language is not in any sense “Egyptian” and should never be confused with Egyptian by anyone who has done even minimal philological research. Perhaps this is merely an error in translation; maybe Wandrey wrote, in German, “Äthiopisch” and the translator simply made an error. After all, German for Egyptian is “Ägyptish.” I guess they have the same first and same last three letters? I really don’t know how this basic error could have taken place. But in any case, between the ambiguous name that is used for the text here, and the erroneous statement about the transmitted language, and the confusing statement about the versions (“some Greek and Latin fragments” and “another version” in Old Slavonic), Wandrey has made a muddle of this portion of the article. It’s utterly useless for a novice student of the text. Wandrey may have spent little or no time examining the philology of the work (remember, she cites neither Charles nor the CCSA). Certainly she doesn’t treat the philology of the text as an important issue. So, we have here a fatal combination of ambiguity, error, and neglect of philology. Whether all this happened somehow inadvertently (through poor planning, editing, and translation) or because of ignorance, ultimately, the problem is inexcusable in a printed encyclopedia.

4) The summary and content of the text. There is nothing strongly to object to in Wandrey’s summaries of the text contents, except to state that summaries of content in Encyclopedia articles are tiresome, and that the generalities Wandrey highlights do not really serve the readers of this entry. Although Wandrey offers a few general statements—e.g. “interesting from a theological point of view are the demonology in the Martyrdom and, in the Vision of Isaiah, the probable influence of Gnosticism shown in the report of the heavenly journey (6:1–10:6)”—and presents a few cross references to early Christian parallels to significant themes in the text, she doesn’t have much to say about the scholarly inquiries that have examined these issues or what they have concluded.

Comments: About these phrases, “theological point of view” and “probable influence of Gnosticism”—what can we make of them? Flusser’s article on the Dead Sea Sect and the Ascension of Isaiah (1953), even if it was a demonstrable failure at establishing its main point, contains a rich discussion of the demonological terms used in the text; yet it is hardly a “theological” point of view explored by Flusser. I suppose it depends on what you mean by Theological. Hannah’s article, mentioned above (on the alleged docetism of the text) would be one place to look for discussion of “gnostic” influences, and Knight’s work (along with a number of other short treatises including some dissertation sections) have attended to the theology of the text. Basically most contemporary scholars would say that this text is more likely to reflect Hellenistic Jewish cosmological ideas than any form of developed “gnosticism.” If anything, the direction of influence probably runs the other way; certainly the early heresiologists reported the later use of the Ascension by gnostics.

All things considered, the good old Dictionary of Christian Biography article on the “Ascension of Isaiah,” contributed by G. T. Stokes way back in 1882, offers a much better introduction to the text and the problems of its interpretation: see for yourself!.

Can it really be true that in the 125 year span between Stokes (1882) and the English translation of Wandrey (2007), we have hardly “advanced” in our understanding of the Ascension of Isaiah, and have maybe even regressed in the sophistication of our approach to the text? Thankfully, it is not true. There has been a great deal of work done—though too much of it has been done by Italians, for my taste (relax, only kidding!)—unfortunately, you would never know that from reading this entry in the RPP.

Students and novices, try Wikipedia instead!

When an encyclopedia article goes bad, who is to blame? The author? The translator? The editors? Surely, since the finished, translated form of the article appears to get at least one very basic fact about the text completely wrong, it is the editors of RPP — with all due respect to these eminent scholars, some being mentors and teachers of mine as well — who deserve the lion’s share of the blame here.

Random Self-Censored Facebook Comments about the Nye / Ham “Debate” in Part being Focused on a Reply to Albert Mohler

This is possibly one of the most ill-conceived blog posts I have ever done. It consists mainly of things that I wrote that I was going to post to facebook, but which I instead cut and pasted into a file on my computer. I then brushed and polished it slightly for publication here on my blog.

Basically, what follows is a random, barely edited, not at all organized series of paragraphs each of which was once almost going to appear in a comment on some unsuspecting friend’s post. Until I censored myself. I could see that I was being too long winded for facebook, and that I was going to cross the line in ways I didn’t want to. All the comments were on threads on the topic of extended debate-show between Bill “The Sciecnce Guy” Nye, and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, which took place last night. (I’m not posting a link to that. They are everywhere at the moment. If you’re reading this at some later date and haven’t heard about it, you can google it.)

Bill Nye looks sideways at Ken Ham during their Debate (2/4/14)
Bill Nye looks sideways at Ken Ham during their Debate (2/4/14).

I don’t want to offend, but I’m afraid it will be impossible to avoid offense. Because these words were pouring out of me and I wanted to record them. So here goes.

The bulk of this rant started in response to the following article, which, I suspect, you’ll have to read in order to follow what I write here.

Albert Mohler, “Bill Nye’s Reasonable Man — The Central Worldview Clash of the Ham-Nye Debate,” AlbertMohler.com (2/5/2013) URL: http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/02/05/bill-nyes-reasonable-man-the-central-worldview-clash-of-the-ham-nye-debate/.

For those who don’t know, Albert Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship graduate school for preachers and scholars who belong to the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s an avowed young earth creationist, but he’s also a remarkably well read scholar. For my money, Al Mohler is the most educated man in conservative Christendom, and I always seem to enjoy reading his take on things. That is not to say that I agree with him—I almost never do—only that I respect his learning.

Mohler had a front row seat at the debate, and he shares a stimulating set of reflections about his experience. He seems to be striving for balance and respect. He praises Nye’s outfit and pen, and essentially calls him a man of style. Nevertheless, something about Mohler’s analysis of last night’s has just set me off.

First off, let me say that I do think Mohler is right when he says the debate “was [really] about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all?” That is, Mohler points out that the real debate concerns what is properly called epistemology. The problem is that Mohler falsely characterized the epistemic commitments of Bill Nye.

Selfaganda from Al Mohler’s Twitter Feed

The way I read the debate, Nye clearly stated in so many words that his mind could be changed by evidence, whereas Ham (and Mohler by self-identification) insist instead that their minds cannot be changed no matter what evidence is presented to them. Mohler and Ham are already standing on Christ the solid rock, they already have all the “answers in Genesis.” Bill Nye is ready to be persuaded to think otherwise than he does if evidence is presented that contradicts the evolutionary model.

Yet Mohler writes, falsely, “Both men were asked if any evidence could ever force them to change their basic understanding. Both men said no.”

Actually Bill Nye explicitly said that his mind could be changed by evidence, whereas it was Ham alone who denied any possibility of ever changing his mind, and asked for our understanding and sympathy, because his stance is rooted in faith in God’s word. Mohler basically denies the facts of what happened on stage. That bummed me out, because I usually respect Mohler’s ability to conduct a relatively accurate analysis of a person’s position, in spite of his disagreements.

Of course there is a big difference between a scientific way of knowing the world, and a religious way of knowing the world, and it was fully on stage for all to see last night. There is a clash of worldviews, but it is not the case, as Mohler suggests, that naturalistic science is one kind of “faith” and a Biblicist creationist science is just another equivalent kind of “faith.”

I don’t need to bother to deny formal or structural similarities between science and religion to make my point. I can allow a large number of parallels. There’s no denying that homologies exist between “Magic, Religion, and Science,” or that in practice, trust plays a role in scientific knowledge. Of course scientists must have some faith in authority, etc., in order to sustain scientific practice. This is what we have peer review for. “Trust” in the reports of others is a fundamental aspect of any sane epistemology; the alternative is either radical skepticism or an unrealistic individualism which requires each person to construct their own complete picture of the world through a comprehensive empirical study. Of course scientists trust other scientists to be truthful and accurate and careful in their work and reporting of their work.

Even so, when it comes right down to it, science remains that way of knowing the world which is flexible and open to persuasion and change—it does not set prior authority into a position where it can be considered a sacred inviolate authority. On the other hand, religion all too often, at least in its fundamentalist mode, is characterized precisely by its refusal to let go of prior traditional authority, which it treats as sacrosanct and perhaps, in a fundamentalist mode, inerrant.

Nye’s epistemology is empirical. He seems content to accept a pragmatic or verificationist approach to truth. This is a hallmark of what is usually called simply “science.” Of course, Ham insists on calling this “observational science,” and wants to insist that such science cannot tell us anything about the past. That is, of course, poppycock. All that humans have access to is technically “in the past.” As it has been observed by Faulkner, the past isn’t even past. When you read a scientific report of an experiment, you’re reading about something that took place last week, last year, or decades ago. The same laws of nature and Nature’s God applied then as now.

For this reason, all scientists that I know would insist that all science is observational; palaeontology, geology, etc., are rooted in observation of phenomena that are present in the world, but that have, undeniably, a past.

One cannot begin a debate on paleontology and evolution by insisting that “science” per se is not qualified to investigate the past because “we can’t observe the past.” This is hogwash, and Mohler’s claim that it is rooted in a different notion of epistemology (what he calls a worldview) just covers up the plain intellectual bankruptcy of Ham’s version of creationism.

Science’s empirical epistemology works by starting with observation, modelling what is observed, and then testing the adequacy of models through continued experimentation, which is actually just doing more observing. Science consists exactly in this and in this only: proposing and testing models that can be used to explain observed phenomena. When models fail to account for observed experience (empircal data) then they must be revised or thrown out.

You can thus argue that scientists do trust in and have faith in their models and theories—they do because they are hard won products of hard labor by people over long periods of time—but you can’t simply invoke this fact in order to plead that there is a moral equivalence to fundamentalist intransigence on the authority of (one interpretation of) the Bible as God’s word. Prior models and authorities just aren’t God’s word for scientists. They are starting points from which the work goes on.

Ham and Mohler are epistemic authoritarians, which is to say that in addition to their normal practical use of everyday science for getting around and feeding themselves, they also hold on tightly to a script of “Answers in Genesis” (and all of scripture). Their scriptural “answers” pre-determine how they will answer questions raised by any new observation or experience in the world.

Like normal scientists, people of faith must of course rely on observation and modeling for going through the everyday world (as everybody must… you don’t read the bible to find out whether your car needs gas, you look at the gauge on the dashboard). And they also rely on a prior authority for what they claim to know. The difference lies in the relationship to prior authority. Fundamentalists treat the authority of the Bible as an inviolate absolute. No matter what they observe or experience—no matter what the empirical data is—if a proposed interpretation of that data conflicts with what they know about the world from authority, then that interpretation must be wrong. Thus all their “knowledge” of the world is necessarily shaped by the contents of an external authority (some theologians call this a heteronomic, as opposed to autonomic epistemology). In the case of Biblical Christian fundamentalsits, the chosen sacred authority is the Protestant canon of scripture, which, it is important to point out, is regarded as a direct revelation from God. Therefore their position ultimately rests on a presupposition that knowledge as such can only be grounded in divine authority; it cannot be grounded in rational agency of creatures. This is a theistic epistemology that locates knowledge with God. It resembles, in some ways, Neoplatonic idealism, but without Plato’s optimistic assessment of the inborn divinity of the human mind, which could then approach the divine source of knowledge.

Mohler suggests that Ham would agree that human knowledge cannot be created autonomously. Humans aren’t capable of coming to true intellectual understanding of the world or its origins without divine aid. Why? He argues this on the basis of his belief, which he says comes from the Bible, that the human intellect is completely corrupted because of the fall. (I would refer you to Mohler’s use of Romans chapter 1 in his post.) We have a noetic deficit that prevents us from truly knowing anything on our own. Instead, we must have a divine revelation of truth—not to say, a divine regeneration of our minds?

By the way, my own theological view, as a Biblical scholar, is that this Calvinist insistence on total depravity of the human mind diminishes way too far the notion of the status of human beings as being created in the “image of God;” it further ignores the fact that in Genesis, the fall itself was a fall from ignorance and innocence into knowledge that made us aware that we are “arum” that is, naked—but the word is a pun for “arum” meaning “clever,” “crafty,” “astute,” or “subtle” (like the Serpent). By eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we end up being more, rather than less, like God. At the end of the episode, God announces his intention to drive the humans away from Eden; why? “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, so, lest…” (For all this see Gen 2-3). But this is Biblical exegesis, interesting, but irrelevant to my main “point” here, if there is one. Sorry to go off on a tangent.

Logically, there is circularity in Mohler’s type of argument. How does Mohler know that the Bible is the authoritative text, which can tell us authoritatively that, because of the fall, knowledge is only possible if we accept an authoritative text?

What makes Ham and Mohler so sure that it is the Christian Bible that constitutes the supernatural revelation which can ground our true “historical science”? Ham calls “scientific” ideas about the past “historical science” and suggests that his own faith in the Bible is just his version of “historical science.” So, if that is true, give us your scientific arguments for why this text, rather than others, offers the best account of historical origins? If you say, it is because God revealed the text, then I ask, how do you know this before you accept the text?

Why not the Tao Te Ching? Why not the Popol Vuh? Why not the Vedas? Why not the Quran? Why not just the Jewish Bible? Why not the Theogony? Why not the Theaetetus?

Calvinist fundamentalists might argue that, because we are noetically diminished through the fall, God reveals this truth to us directly in our hearts, convicting us in advance of his truth. Such a position makes all doubt of Christian truth claims into rebellion against God. Convenient for their claims to authority, but not persuasive in a scientific argument.

Returning to an earlier point, the creationists are fond of charging naturalist scientists of having their own faith. Ham characterizes it as a naturalistic anti-theist materialism. Yes, we all have “faith” in something, and we all must trust in prior authorities if we wish to know much of anything in this vast world. But the real question is, how do you arrive at this “faith,” and moreover, what status do you give it in your practical dealings with experience? What process do you acknowledge as being a pathway to knowledge? Not all have Christian faith, but anyone with any faith will ultimately have the problem of accounting for how they got that faith. Saying “God gave it to me, glory to God” is not a satisfying answer except to another believer. Rather, show some evidence. Yet, the difference between young earth creationism and ordinary science is that ordinary science is open to seeing the evidence, and will happily challenge and test anyone who claims that they have evidence for any thing. In contrast, young earth creationism likes to change the subject or ignore the questions. That’s what Ken Ham did to Bill Nye. Nye’s repeated refrain was, ‘show me the organism that swam up from one geological layer to another, and I’ll change my mind.’ We might as well put it more bluntly: until you can show me a fossil bed preserving humans and dinosaurs on the same level, conventional “naturalistic” geology will win this debate. Humans and dinosaurs did not overlap in history. In point of fact, at present there simply isn’t any evidence for the kinds of predictions that a young earth creationist might make. At the Creation Museum there’s a triceratops with a saddle on its back, where you can take a funny selfie. But there are no fossilized remains tying humans to dinosaurs. For young earth creationists, though, even though there’s no evidence, that would never stop them from believing it, or wanting to call it a science!

Scientists just don’t operate on this kind of faith. They don’t take for granted that prior authorities are always right no matter what, forcing them to adjust their interpretations of available data in light of that prior, infallible authority, or forcing them to begin all hypothesis making from the starting point of that authority. They alwas remain open to revision of their knowledge and of their faith. And THAT, that is the ultimate difference. It is the one that Ham and Mohler have denied in this exchange.

A final thought on this topic here is that when one grounds one’s truth-claims and epistemology in an external authority, one still has the problem of how that authority is interpreted. In other words: what does the Bible mean? How does Ham or Mohler know that they have interpreted the Bible correctly? That they have accurately seen its meaning for us and formulated their faith properly in accord with the contents of the authority? Only by having a securely grounded interpretive method could they be sure that their use of prior authority had validity in interpreting experience or making predictions.

In answer to such issues the fundamentalist believer may appeal to the human authority of tradition in interpretation (without admitting it is human), and instead will appeal to notions like “perspicuity” and the internal testimony of the spirit that infallibly does the interpreting on behalf of the believer. This is again a great circular affirmation of one’s own position: God inspires the believer to correct faith, and then inhabits the believer to ensure correct interpretation. Those who are without such grace and inspiration are, I supposed, simply doomed to noetic confusion.

These kinds of appeals cannot account for what we can easily observe happening when we look at the way texts are used within religious tradition. We can make a large number of empirical observations about the origins of the Bible, and we can investigate, using what Ham might call “historical science,” (but which I just call “history,”) the wide variety of human responses to it. We will certainly observe: differences in opinion among sects and commentators about the significance of texts, the formulation of doctrines, the essential contents of faith, etc., not to mention differences in responses to the text (faithful acceptance or rejection). Unless you maintain a radically sectarian vision of faith (namely that only that small minority of believers who share your same opinions have the true “light of God”), you have to embrace epistemological humility when it comes to the question: “what does scripture communicate?”

Twenty Two Creationists Ask Questions About Evolution

In another thread, we got interested in a brilliant photographic essay by someone else who was present at the debate. Photographer Matt Stopera records the comically insufficient ideas of twenty-two of those who attended the debate by asking them to write notes to evolutionists, posing for portraits with their messages. This viral sensation is layered in irony but is ultimately a sad testimony to the poor state of philosophical and scientific and theological education in this country.

Matt Stopera, “22 Messages from Creationists to People Who Believe in Evolution,” BuzzFeed (2/5/2014) URL: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/messages-from-creationists-to-people-who-believe-in-evolutio.

One picture from the essay, in particular, stuck in my craw:


Photo Credit: Matt Stopera (2014); reproduced here by claim of academic fair use. For link, see above.

The phrase “just a theory” needs to be banished from discussions of whether or not a body of science should be taught in classrooms. People seem to think the word theory means “hunch” or is interchangeable with “speculation,” or even just “idea.” Not so.

The root word, “theoria,” is a Greek term that comes from the world of the theater. Originally it refers to the place (or seat) you can purchase which affords a view of the stage. The implications of the use of the term to talk about scientific models is that when you have a “theory,” you have a point of view on an object of study that lets you see it fully. It is implicitly a term that weds empirical observation (of the object of theory) with conscious understanding (by the subject who theorizes).

If a science teacher begins class by saying, “today we shall learn about the theory of gravitation,” she is not proposing to discuss whimsical possibilities about what gravity might possibly be. She is not referring to myth, legend, poetry, verse, or song. She is proposing to review those models (mostly mathematical) which have been discovered, tested by experiment, and verified by replication, and thus shown to be useful for giving us a coherent and consistent understanding of certain phenomena we can observe in the world, like a ball falling to the ground.

Biological scientists call evolution a theory, not because they are just guessing, or because there is a serious doubt out there about its validity. Quite the contrary! They call it theory because there’s so very little doubt about the validity of the model. Evolutionary theory is different than gravitational theory; I grant that. It is a composite theory, drawing together model(s) that have been developed to explain phenomena observed in a variety of related sciences (geology, anthropology, archaeology, palaeontology, biology, genetics, etc.). Together these models have given rise to the theory of evolution. It’s called a theory precisely because the model can explain our observations, can predict future observations we might make if we go and look (such as, predicting finding fossils of a certain type of unknown animal in certain layers, because that would be where we expect transitions to be found), and it remains a theory for us precisely because there aren’t any observations, so far, that really fail to fit into the model or call its premises and structure into question.

In my understanding of the history of science, young earth creationism began to die the death of a thousand cuts long before Darwin observed any finches. If I recall correctly, the science of geology was the first to draw blood, as the observations of that science were the first to really draw into question the concept of a 6000 year old earth. Throughout the early centuries of the modern era, new discoveries constantly called rigid and literalist Biblical orthodoxies into question.

Before Darwin, anthropology, particularly driven by reflective encounters with peoples of the new world and the far east, began to draw into question the tripartite theory of human cultural origins that had been assumed in Christendom on the basis of Gen 10-11. Critical philology and archaeology radically undermined confidence in the reliability of the Bible. Text criticism showed that the “revealed” word had been notably unstable through time, and dependent on fallible human tradition for its preservation. Historical “higher” criticism raised questions about authors, sources, cultural contexts, and other human factors in the composition of the texts. Archaeology not only shed light on Biblical narratives, it raised doubts about the full accuracy of every “historical” detail in the Bible. Comparative mythology put the Biblical stories into the light of other ancient accounts of universal origins.

In the hard sciences, Geology led to palaeontology, and the ever expanding observations of the fossil record revealed that different geological ages had been populated by completely distinct biomes. Furthermore, geological paleontology revealed that there were strange and unknown ancient species, now extinct, a finding that very well shocked believers in its day, who believed that God had always willed all kinds to persist, even through a destructive flood. It seemed impossible that God would have created species only to allow them to die out; Darwin’s later embrace of this kind of waste, or excess, as a part of the process of natural selection, was particularly offensive to Biblical theologies. But it perfectly accorded with the observations of the fossil record. It was what Ham would call “observational sciences” that raised so many serious doubts about the validity of a literal understanding of scripture… and this long before Darwin’s ideas began to be taken up, discussed, and so to contribute to the theorization of all the data. If Darwin hadn’t argued what he argued, someone else would have; in fact others did.

From the end of the 18th to the end of the 19th centuries, the humanities and the human sciences thus offered converging accounts of global origins and human history, telling a new story that sealed the fate—or should have sealed the fate— of literalist young earth creationism. This point of view never died out in American Christianity. But it did become the minority position.

It is beyond the scope of any one scholar to master every detail of the Bible. Therefore, those who hold to the full plenary verbal inspiration and “historical” “factual” inerrancy of the bible read literally are quite simply… ill informed. They haven’t even bothered to take up the full depth of the detail in the Bible (not that any one person could do so fully). They are obviously unaware of the many areas in which insoluble tensions among Biblical texts (let alone with the testimonies of external sources, like Assyrian records, for example) point clearly away from any firm notion of “factual” inerrancy. Far from resting epistemologically only on scripture, most fundamentalist believers accept the human testimony of scholars who have, frankly, falsified data and claimed, wrongly, that apparent problems are only that, apparent.

In the real world, the tools we use to measure empirical facts are not infallible (gas gauges break, etc.), but thankfully, we don’t need our tools to be infallible. They just need to work reliably in most instances. If your tools are in general unreliable, you get rid of them, you use different tools.

Now, if you want to know how old the earth is, should you just look in your Bible, where you’ll find your “Answers in Genesis”? Or should you look empirically at all available evidence—textual, archaeological, geological, astronomical—and using the best models available for understanding what you have observed (i.e. those tools we call scientific theories), formulate your best answer that way?

The answer is: use all the available evidence, and strive to understand that evidence using the best available models (theories) for making sense of it.

If in fact you answered “just look in your Bible,” I have three further questions for you. (1) How can you verify that the Bible has authority other than by quoting some part of the Bible itself? (2) What reasons can you give to a person who does not currently accept the authority of the Bible that would convince them that it should have authority? (3) How can you be certain that the way you read the Bible is the right way to read it?

This essay may inevitably be read as an attack on theism and religion, although it is not intended to be such an attack. It could probably get me in trouble with my employers, but I trust they will recognize my good faith in putting this out there.

In my own defense, as a prophylactic against attacks by people who see a straightforward defense of ordinary science (even as applied to the Bible) as somehow wrong, then, let me close with a final observation. The venerable old happy-face TV Evangelist Pat Robertson himself has already now gone on record to condemn Ham’s young earth creationism as beyond the pale of acceptable Christian apologetics.

Elias Isquith, “Pat Robertson Begs Ken Ham to Shut Up: Yes, Even the Radical Televangelist Thinks Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham is Ridiculous,” Salon.com (2/5/2014) URL: http://www.salon.com/2014/02/05/pat_robertson_begs_ken_ham_to_shut_up/.

Actually, as with so many things, this video has to be seen to be believed.

My apologies to all for any typos, misspellings, errors, misrepresentations or whatnot. They are unintentional and I’d be happy to correct myself if I made mistakes.

Corrections and Clarifications: in a comment on Facebook, a colleague (Adrienne Akins) asked me to clarify that it was not Faulkner, but his fictional character Gavin Stevens, who said the past is “not even past.” She also objects to my characterization of Mohler (as being too kind, and inaccurate besides, since others might have a better claim to the title most educated voice in Conservative Christianity) but that’s “my money” at stake there so, for the sake of my rhetorical strategy here, I’ll let that error stand.

Notes on the Editing of this Piece: this post was slightly edited on 2/6/2014.

I know what I read last summer (2013)

For some reason, Summer 2013 has been good for reading. I spent less time on the facebook and twitter feeds and more time with my Kindle or actual physical books.

In this post, purely for personal reasons, I attempt to list all the books I spent time reading or I finished reading from after graduation in May to just before the start of school in August, 2013. In lieu of proper bibliographic information, I’ve included an Amazon.com link for each book.

Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (Harper, 2008).

This book should be required reading for students of religion in America. Sharlet tells a story almost nobody seems to know, about a small group of fundamentalist Christian elites who have built a secretive international network of men holding power in government, finance, and industry. If you don’t know the names Abram Vereide or Doug Coe, you may not actually know much about religion in America since 1935. Sharlet is a fine stylist, a dogged and personally invested reporter, and tells this compelling story with a (mostly) even hand. Reading Status: COMPLETED, mid-May 2013.

Jeff Sharlet, C-Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy (Harper, 2011).

This is a follow-up to The Family, beginning with the Obama-era scandal that almost brought “the Fellowship” (or “the Family”) into the public eye, after a series of highly public sex-scandals brought down Family-affiliated politicians (most famously, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who, at the time of the publication of the book, was still living in disgrace). These men had all sought refuge and counseling at the Family’s Fundamentalist-elite Hostel (C-Street house), the story of which provides the central axis or springboard for this study. Besides detailing the exploits of randy Christian congressmen, Sharlet revisits the history of the Family (mostly overlapping with the previous book), offers a look at the growth and origins of the family’s influence in Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy and the United States Military (both sections of the book draw on previous articles in Harper’s), and in the Christian-inflected homophobia of Ugandan politics. Some of this material seems redundant, if you’ve followed Sharlet’s work, but here it is updated and revised. Taken together as a block, Sharlet offers a frightening and sobering look at how “the Idea” distorts democratic institutions in the US and around the world. Once again, you don’t understand Fundamentalism in American life if all you see is Bob Jones, Liberty University and Joel Osteen. The true story is much deeper and more frightening. STATUS: completed as of late May 2013.

Roger Scruton, Kant: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2001).

Like other Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” titles, Scruton’s book on Kant lives up to at least some part of the promise of its title. It is about Kant, and it is Short. I read this book hoping it would help me understand Kant better, the better to grasp the philosophical background of the American philosophical tradition, which has, historically, been deeply impacted by Kant. I’m not sure the book met my goals, but it did provide me with a fairly level-headed approach to beginning study of Kant himself. Scruton doesn’t conceal the fact that Kant can be very obscure, that scholars can disagree on his meaning, and that Scruton’s own interpretations do not always represent even the majority view. I truly appreciate his humility, which provides some cooling comfort to beginning scholars who have realized that the study of Immanuel Kant involves one in complex, technical and deeply difficult reading. On the other hand, by approaching Kant topically rather than textually and historically, by minimizing detailed interaction with the interpretive tradition, and by minimizing technical language, Scruton fails to meet the needs of a reader who wishes to transition from beginning- to intermediate-level study of Kant himself. STATUS: completed as of early June, 2013.

Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Basic Books, 2006).

I read this book at the recommendation of my colleague John Gripentrog (professor of History at Mars Hill College), and I loved every minute of it. Larson usefully revises the myth and legend of the Scopes trial to bring out the humanity and complexity of the event and its participants. Everything is sourced back to the contemporary press, court records, and personal papers of the major figures involved in the Scopes Trial. Larson’s account brings to life 1925 Dayton, Tennessee, and America in a fresh and illuminating way. Then, adding historiography to history, he traces the subsequent legendary and literary re-imaginations of the Scopes trial. Thus, Larson’s account both clarifies the story of what happened and demonstrates that, for decades, the Scopes trial and its meaning have been misrepresented and misappropriated in all corners of the political grid. In the process, Larson opens another way of assessing what “the trial of the century” might mean for our society today. The story of the trial and its aftermath should draw our attention directly to the difficult and unresolved epistemological questions — questions with political (and scientific and religious) implications — that structure the conflicts of contemporary American life. STATUS: completed as of early June, 2013.

Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Belknap Press, 2012).

Another recommendation from my colleague John Gripentrog, this book attempts to do one of the most difficult things in all historiography: give a definitive name to a period of time. The time-period in question is the last quarter of the 20th century in America, and the proposed name is “Age of Fracture.” Rodgers is concerned to trace the development of capital-I “IDEAS” in American Culture and Politics. He attempts to show how the dominant discourse of American politics shifted from the mid-20th century Idea of “Society” as a unified democratic whole to a more individualistic, late 20th century Idea of society as a fractured aggregate of competing interests. For intellectuals of a certain age (such as, mid-40’s), this book will be a revelation.  The history it tells is the history of the ideas we ‘discovered’ as we went through college and graduate school.  It is incredibly rich, offering a discussion of impressive breadth and depth.  I found it to be relatively convincing in its account of the “fracturing” and atomization characteristic of the era,  and at every step of the way, deeply informative.  I would recommend it, and would myself read it again if I could find the time.  STATUS: completed reading in late June, 2013.

George R. R. Martin, A Feast For Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 4) (Bantam, 2007).

What can I say? I read the first three books, and, after taking a break, I needed to re-enter the world of lushly described sensual delights, unfathomable violence, and menacing doom. “Winter is coming” makes good summer reading. Personally, I was a bit disappointed to discover that, at the end of this epic tale, Martin steps forward as author, pushes narrator aside, and explains that he couldn’t finish the story in just one volume. My plan was to read only one volume of “the Song,” but it was just too easy to purchase the next volume on the kindle. STATUS: began it in early June, 2013, finished early July, 2013.

George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 5) (Bantam, 2011).

I devoured this one, and it displaced everything else on my list for a number of weeks. A great read, even if the “end” is no end at all. What will become of Starks, Lannisters, Martells, Freys Boltons, and all the rest? The five volumes, and 4200 pages of this epic, don’t answer that question. STATUS: completed as of mid-Aug, 2013.

 

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One: A Novel (Broadway Books, 2012).

I can’t quite express how awesome this book is! I devoured it in three days, and ended by stealing sleep and time away from family to do so. For a computer nerd, video-game enthusiast, television watching gen-Xer like me, male, aged 44, born 1969, this book is an amazing trip through pop-Geek-culture memory lane. Such a great read. STATUS: complete as of mid-August, 2013.

 

James Joyce, Ulysses (Wordsworth Editions, reprint 2010).

There is obviously no need to justify wanting to read Ulysses, which is widely acknowledged to be one of the most difficult books ever written in the English language. This one is going slow. Not sure if I’ll actually get through it or not. Oh well? I am trying. STATUS: began it in early May, 2013.

 

The Epigram to Horace Bushnell’s Life and Letters

Taken from The Life and Letters of Horace Bushnell (ed. Mary Bushnell Chenry; New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880; available in the public domain on Google Books).

There are some of all ages—a holy few—whose lives have been preserved to us in writing and tradition, and who thus live among us still as known causes, who are not silent, whose names and works and Christian characters are even freshened and made more vigorous by the lapse of time. God has saved these elect men to us by means of written language, that we may ever have them with us, and look to them as our lights of love and truth. They were God’s experimenters, I may say, in all their struggles and trials and works, and so God’s witnesses; and therefore it is expected that we shall go naturally to them for help and life-direction, as one who would open a mine will seize upon the instructive suggestions of an experienced miner. They were the true miners of faith, and we may go to them to be told where the treasures of faith do lie, and how they may be opened. — Horace Bushnell (L&L, p. iii)

Curiosities: Institutio Interpretis Novi Testamenti by Ernesti (1761), Translated by Moses Stewart (1822) as The Elements of Interpretation

To accept this as a notice, one has to allow that it is severely belated. I happened upon this book today, while following a lead like a rabbit down a Google Books hole after playing in the meadows at JSTOR. (See the following link for the book in question: Ernesti, Elements of Interpretation, translated by Moses Stuart.)

Moses Stuart (graduated from Yale 1799, died in 1852) was a famous Biblical Scholar of Yale, Andover, and Harvard, and is credited by the Encyclopedia Britannica as a father of the practice of American scholarly interpretation of the Bible.

Stuart says in the preface to his translation of Ernesti, that he needed it to make it for his teaching; it “originated for the want of a text-book,” he says (page iii). He taught at the university level throughout the first half of the 19th century, training hundreds of ministers, theologians, and Biblical Scholars. Stuart was fluent in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, and other languages; in the case of the Ernesti the original is Latin. Ernesti writes in a Germanic Latin, explains Stuart, that is difficult to translate; accordingly he settles on a free method of translation and rearrangement of sentence structure that permits him even to compose additional text within the body of Ernesti’s work as needed (see page vi). To what degree that effort of interpretation makes the work more Stuart’s than Ernesti’s, I cannot say. Yet I draw your attention to the conclusion to the preface, where Stuart emits an academic sigh of the heart:

It is possible, if this endeavor to promote a knowledge of the science of interpretation should meet with approbation, it may excite an effort on my part, at some future period, to give the whole work a new form, more specially adapted to the circumstances of this country. At present, official duties are too numerous and urgent, to admit of such an effort. M. Stuart. Andover, Theological Seminary, Jan 22., 1822 (page vi).

This seems like an important document in the history of higher education and the practice of “Biblical Studies” in American universities. You see, Stuart wished he could translate Ernesti entirely, consume him, and make him his own. Yet thought he could not, or had not. But maybe he did, by bringing him to America and himself teaching from him as the text.

Stuart’s publication of his translation of Ernesti occasioned a brilliant riff and rant of a book review, nine pages on the follies of the history of interpretation of scripture, by a writer in the premier literary magazine of America, the North American Review (volume 14 issue 35, 1822, pages 391-400). This review, along with the book, ought to be required reading. The reviewer notes:

The work of Ernesti, in passing through the hands of its translator, has undergone some alterations; some things have been omitted; notes hae been added where the subject appeared to need further elucidation; and copious extracts are given from Morus, the able commentator on Ernesti, as likewise from Keil’s Elementa Hermeneutices, and Beck’s Monogrammata (page 396).

An enormous background of forgotten past worlds is out there to discover. Just reading through the reviewer’s survey of the 18th century’s critical awakening is enough to make a professor reflect on his lack of depth in the understanding of his own field. It certainly makes one consider how it is we think we know what we believe we know. So much to learn.

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