During my hiatus I spent even more time reading than was usual. (Movie watching, on the other hand, remained pretty much as before and was entirely dependent upon the quality of fare reaching Minneapolis and what we ordered from Netflix; more on that in tomorrow’s post.)
Books read or re-read, in no particular order:
Mentioned or to be mentioned in others of these initial post-hiatus entries, a very important volume has been British historian Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. In my life, and in over forty years spent as a student of history, three books stand above all others as influencing my worldview. First came William McNeill’s The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community,
famous for its ambitious scope and intellectual rigor. In it, McNeill challenges the Spengler-Toynbee view that a number of separate civilizations pursued essentially independent careers, and argues instead that human cultures interacted at every stage of their history. The author suggests that from the Neolithic beginnings of grain agriculture to the present major social changes in all parts of the world were triggered by new or newly important foreign stimuli, and he presents a persuasive narrative of world history to support this claim.
Then came David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, in which “Landes’s [argues] that the richest nations continue to prosper while poorer nations lag behind because of their relative ability or inability to exploit science, technology and economic opportunity.”
Now comes Christianity. As I put it in my original mention of the book back in April,
Faithful readers of this blog will know I’m no particular friend of religion, and especially not of organized religion or fundamentalist sects such as Shia Islam, Orthodox Jewry, and — bête noire of bêtes noires — fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity. So it might come as a considerable surprise to know I’m actually enamored of a new book and will probably buy it: Christianity — The First Three Thousand Years. The review in Sunday’s The New York Times Book Review is especially erudite and suggests that the book itself will prove an intelligent and informative read.
For example, I’ve always been curious about a seeming failure in the Christian record: the principal New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were all written at least forty-five years after Christ’s death. Why are there no contemporary accounts of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ story? As Jon Meacham, the reviewer, puts it, the first several decades, perhaps as long as two centuries, following the Crucifixion, Christians believed that the Rapture was imminent, the end of the world, when all would rise bodily into heaven to become one with God, so there was no need to write anything down — no one would benefit from the record. Fascinating. The Gospels came about because of disillusionment, after apocalyptic predictions failed to materialize. All of which contributes to the so-called “mystery” of Christian belief.”
It’s a big book (over 1,000 pages), not to be undertaken lightly.
A selection from early in the book:
[I]n the realm of ideas, philosophy and religious practice, [Greek] Hellenistic civilization created a meeting place for Greek and oriental culture, which made it easy and natural for Jewish and then non-Jewish followers of Jesus Christ to take what they wanted from the ragbag of Greek thought which any moderately educated inhabitant of the Middle East would encounter in everyday conversation.
The book is not per se an analysis or commentary on The Bible — in fact the Old and New Testaments are discussed in only a portion of the first 150 pages — but what it does say resounds for us skeptics:
[The] tangle of preoccupations with Mary’s virginity centres on Matthew’s quotation from a Greek version of words of the prophet Isaiah in the Septuagint [books of the Old Testament translated from Hebrew to Greek by (according to legend) seventy Hebrew translators in Alexandria, Egypt]: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’. This alters or refines the meaning of Isaiah’s original Hebrew: where the prophet had talked only of ‘a young woman’ conceiving and bearing a son, the Septuagint projected ‘young woman’ into the Greek word for ‘virgin’ (parthenos). This Christian use of the Septuagint was either cause or result of changing perspectives on Jesus, which emerged out of what is likely to have been a cacophony of opinions and assertions among his first followers, trying to make sense of the extraordinary impact of this Jewish teacher. Most of the cacophony is lost to us because it does not survive in written form, but we can glimpse in the biblical text one view of Jesus as the coming Messiah from David’s line, or as another Moses, the ancient Deliverer. These perspectives were not lost, but voices emerged to acclaim Jesus as having a Father who was divinity itself, and these voices are now those overwhelmingly dominant in the New Testament.
In other words, a faulty translation well after Isaiah had prophesied led one of the Gospel authors to create an historical fiction (Mary’s virgin birth) to fulfill a prophesy that was never made! Thus arises the Cult of Mary’s Virginity and discord and bloodshed echoing for two thousand years. Not to mention the fantastic concept of Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit. (Who worries about “creation” in seven days when one has divine parthenogenesis?)
And, finally, regarding the Resurrection:
Belief in the truth of the Resurrection story and in Jesus’s power to overcome death has made Christians act over twenty centuries in the most heroic, joyful, beautiful and terrible ways. And the fact that Christianity’s Jesus is the resurrected Christ makes a vital point about the misfit between the Jesus whose teachings we have excavated and the Church which came after him. It mattered much less to the first Christ-followers after the Resurrection what Jesus had said than what he did and was doing now, and who he was (or whom people thought him to be). And as he emerged in the first Christian writings, they now thought him to be a Greek Christos, not a Jewish Messiah — even though Greek-speakers beyond the Jewish milieu hardly understood what a Christos was, and quickly assumed that it was some sort of personal name. Historians might take comfort from the fact that nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the Resurrection: it was beyond the capacity or the intention of the writers to describe it, and all they described were its effects. The New Testament is thus a literature with a blank at its centre; yet this blank is also its intense focus.
Books and Movies to be continued ….
Plus Ça Change Department
A comment on another blog brought this to my attention. From The NY Times:
A MISUSE OF AUTHORITY
A Policeman’s Arrest of a Photographer
A clear case of misuse of authority was made out against Officer E.C. Tonery, of the steam-boat squad, at the Jefferson Market Police Court yesterday, and he was more damaged by his own testimony than by that of any other person. He came into the court at 11 o’clock, suspiciously flushed, having as prisoner Charles Noll, a photographer, of No. 232 Bleecker-street, and his brother Lawrence and his son Charles A., who are employed by the Edison Electric Illuminating Company, and charged them with violating the Penal Code. It appeared that Tonery, who was off duty and in citizen’s dress, and a friend started yesterday morning to have their photographs taken, and went to various places in Fourteenth-street and Sixth-avenue, only to fine them closed. At Noll’s place, which was open, Tonery, who the Nolls say, acted as if he were not excessively sober, paid $1 for tintype portraits of himself and his friend. Then Tonery and his friend discussed styles and attitudes and decided on posing together, and Tonery demanded 50 cents back, as in this way they would want only one set of portraits. Noll told him that he should charge the same price as for two sets taken singly, and Tonery demanded and received the money he had paid. He was angry, and said: “I’ll take yez all in, I guess, for violating the Penal Code. Yer working on Sunday. Put on your coats.” The Nolls were forced to obey, and they went to court under protest. When the case came before Justice Duffy, Tonery, who had received a hint that he had made a serious mistake and looked very sheepish, made a complaint that the three prisoners had violated the Penal Code by taking portraits on Sunday. He admitted that he and a friend had gone to get their portraits taken at Noll’s, and that there had been a dispute. Justice Duffy asked: “If there had been no dispute, you would not have arrested these men?” Tonery muttered: “I would prefer not answering that question, Judge.” Justice Duffy immediately discharged the prisoners, who will to-day take measures to punish the officer.
Published May 14, 1883.
It Could Be Worse Department
An article from The NY Times entitled “In Restive Chinese Area, Cameras Keep Watch” speaks of seven million CCTV cameras ever-watchful over the Chinese populace. So, think Britain is scary? Just think of this as the direction the U.S. could be going.
China also has another overriding concern — controlling social order and monitoring dissent. And some human rights advocates say they fear that the melding of ever improving digital technologies and the absence of legal restraints on surveillance raise the specter of genuinely Orwellian control over society.
Video software can already spot a chosen automobile in a stream of traffic by reading license plates, and cameras have improved so greatly that some can even take clear pictures of people inside autos. Facial-recognition software is in its infancy, but already, China requires Internet cafe users to be photographed, so that computers can identify them no matter which cafe they patronize, and what identification they present.
Someone Needs to Feel Guilty Department
Also from The NY Times, a story of a prominent law firm — Sullivan & Cromwell — that dropped the ball in processing an Alabama death row inmate’s appeal. If the guy is executed, who at S&C will feel responsible?
How Stupid Is This? Department
The FBI wants Wikipedia to remove a facsimile of its official seal from an article about — you guessed it — the FBI. Claims something about it being illegal. Problem is, the FBI is citing a law meant to prohibit impersonating a FBI agents — or, to be more correct, miss-citing it. Don’t pick on Wikipedia, however:
Wikipedia sent back a politely feisty response, stating that the bureau’s lawyers had misquoted the law. “While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version” that the F.B.I. had provided.
Small Pleasures Department
Once you start watching “Instant” movies on Netflix (i.e., via the Web) they begin prompting you to watch more. And more! And more! They even remind you of all the movies you’ve previously watched (they presume so because you’ve rated them). So I watched Julie & Julia again last night. My, what a delight that movie was!
(Was this secret food cravings running wild? Actually, this diet my wife and I are sharing has some very tasty offerings once you get beyond the first four meals. Last night was Dijon-mustard coated pork chops on a bed of shredded red cabbage and apples. Each meal is structured to come in under 400 calories. Somehow I think there will be little fettuccine alfredo in my future.
(I got so food-involved I decided I needed to add a page of my “food movies” listing. So, you’ll see that up top.)
Gone But Not Forgotten Department
An account of shooting the last roll of Kodachrome, by Steve McCurry (he who shot that haunting photo of the green-eyed Afghan girl). Caught my eye:
[McCurry's] nerves were jangled again when he had to run the loaded camera through airport X-ray machines in Italy and Turkey. One security guard joked, “‘Oh, take a picture,’ which was kind of funny because we were trying to make every frame count.”
“Imagine leaving digital images in a hard drive and coming back 40 years later. Would anybody be able to read that data? That’s the great thing about film. It’s a self-contained object. You hold the picture up to the light and there it is.”
Good and Necessary Speech Department
Mayor Bloomberg’s defense of the Islamic community center proposed for lower Manhattan. A good speech, tracing the history of tolerance, and a rebuke to those who consider Ground Zero (and apparently blocks around) some kind of “sacred ground.” (The community center has now cleared its final administrative hurdles.)
Beautiful gal from the West Indies.