Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Tolkien no longer interests me

I first really noticed that a few weeks ago, when prowling the stacks at a nearby university library. Sorry, Kindle, it's not the same. Actually, I'm not sorry, it's just not the same. But I digress.

When in the P section, for literature, a tail end of one shelf caught my eye.

All Tolkien studies. J.R.R. Tolkien. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Lord of the Rings author Tolkien.

And, I then realized it's been at least, what, 7 years, if not nearly a full decade, since I read LOTR?

I may have read it once since Peter Jackson's third movie came out, but not too long since then. And, it's been at least 5, if not 7 or more, since the Hobbit. And surely 15 since the Silmarillion.

My background?

I read LOTR the first time about the time I started high school, which was a little over a decade after the first authoritative, copyrighted U.S. edition came out. In short, LOTR was riding the end of its first, hippie-era (which Tolkien was ambivalent about) era of popularity. I believe I then read the Silmarillion the first time when in college.

I remember the original Hobbit cartoon movie, the cartoon movie of the first half of LOTR, controversy over the second half, controversy over hearing Jackson would do a live-action version, seeing that "The Two Towers," at least, WAS produced as an action flick for 25-year-olds, nearly not going to "Return of the King" for fear he'd butcher it, and being pleasantly surprised at the ending.

I'm not a cultist, but, a decade ago, I was certainly an ardent devotee.

All told? I've read the LOTR cycle itself half a dozen times — as in read through, cover to cover. I've read the Hobbit that many times, though with less interest as I got older, even before the LOTR waned from my mind. I've read the Silmarillion through twice, if not three times. And, read most extraneous, Chris Tolkien-edited material up through Jackson's third movie in 2003, at least.

I don't know why it's lost its drawing power.

I've always read a lot more non-fiction than fiction, but my total ratio hasn't changed. Since last reading the LOTR, I've re-read Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, as well as first-read other material by her, and that within the last 3-4 years. I've read Huxley's "Brave New World Revisited" in that time.

I think part of it is that, in the back of my mind, as I've become socially, politically and culturally generally more liberal, Tolkien's essential conservativism has been unconsciously apprehended more and more by me.

Second? At my current age, I'm not sure I want some of the quasi-depressive poignancy the book invokes. Let me check back with myself in five years. And, yes, I know that Earthsea had its own sadly poignant moments, too. Other than the "Final Endings" though, I think they're better handled. That's because Tolkien's other seeming poignancy, lamenting modernity, is about as stovepiped as Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" setup, which I've noted elsewhere.

I think another reason Tolkien interests me less is Chris Tolkien. The flood of post-Silmarillion material, especially after Jackson's movies, seems off-putting. It seems highly capitalist, even almost crassly commercial. And, the older I get, the more anti-capitalist I get, flat-out loathing its greatest excesses.

In that sense, part of JRR's semi-screed against modernity resonated.

At the same time, he seems partially hypocritical. First, re forests, trees, and the Ents of Middle Earth, in actual England, forests were cut for firewood, for catapults of war and many other things long before coal began to be mined, which in turn fueled the steam engines of the Industrial Revolution. Speaking of, Tolkien can have his dwarves mine gems and precious metals, but interestingly, there seems to be nary a coal miner among them.

And, back to those Ents. Shepherds of the trees. Shepherds of actual sheep raise their sheep for eventual slaughter, and, of course, shearings before then, but eventual slaughter. The analogy he attempts to draw doesn't work quite so well.

Beyond that, it was modernity that let his family emigrate to South Africa relatively easily. And it ws modernity that let them come back to England after his dad died.

Meanwhile, Tolkien left something else out of calculations with his beloved Elves. Even with many of the Sindar eventually going over the sea, and some dying from war wounds and other injuries, being otherwise immortal, and propagating with multiple children, over several thousands of years, one would expect Middle Earth to be blanketed with them. The population explosion would certainly not be Edenic.

I'm writing this over multiple sittings, in quasi-diary format. I'm going to take a break again, as I risk moving into territory too critically cynical.

I will add that I just watched, for at least the third time at home as well as twice at the movies, "Cast Away." It of course has its own degree of pathos, and one in a real world, and pretty realistic, setting. So, it may be that fear of setting loose the black dog at a less than ideal time in life is not such a driver against LOTR as I have thought. It simply may be that it is a taste that I have moved beyond for now, and perhaps permanently outgrown.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Ross Douthat and Tyler Cowen have mutual intellectual lightweight religious talk

Reading Ross Douthat and Tyler Cowen have a back and forth on religious belief that is laughable.

Among Cowen’s biggest hoots is deploring the lack of Bayesianism in most religious belief. I suppose he thinks Richard Carrier’s Bayesian book-cooking in the name of Jesus mythicism is spot on? Cowen also confirms that his libertarian bona fides are deep and thoroughgoing when he claims to be a Straussian on religious issues. Anyone who invokes Leo Strauss for THAT bears careful watching. (Note to Massimo Pigliucci: Remember, Cowen strongly blurbed Harry Frankfurt’s new book, which was the first reason I became highly skeptical of it.

Douthat responds by ignoring that both Blaise Pascal and C.S. Lewis stacked the deck with their wagers on, respectively, the existence of god and the divinity of Jesus.

Cowen then replies that he takes William James seriously. Wow. “Varieties” only shows how deep-seated are the human mental evolutions that have been “hijacked” by the development of religion. Nothing more.

Rusty then extends that to a “mystical ineffability means its true!” stance.

Surprisingly, near the end, Douthat lays out his own Bayesian take, and only 45 percent of his total of 100 percent is for classical theism.

That’s called “Cafeteria Catholic,” Rusty, next time you lay that label on the likes of John Kerry or any pro-choice Catholic.


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Douthat finishes by invoking Nicholas Taleb’s black swans and saying that, among religions, Christianity is the blackest of all. This is nothing more than a fancy new presentation of Tertullian’s “Credo quia absurdum.”

Monday, November 20, 2017

Who wrote the book of Revelation?

Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals in the pews — and still many in pulpits and even a fair bit in academia — stand by the idea that the “beloved disciple” John did.

Well, there may have been SOME John behind it. But, not that one.

That person didn’t write the Gospel of John, nor three letters attributed to him.

In fact, one person wrote John 1-20 (whether working from an original “Signs Gospel” or not), another appended John 21, somehow, later than that, John 7:53-8:11, the woman in adultery story got appended, and the whole schmeer, either before or after the adultery pericope, likely had some sort of editor.

And, a different person yet, in all likelihood, wrote the three letters.

And, none of them wrote Revelation, and certainly didn’t write its core.

The book almost certainly has a non-Christian core. That background has been discussed by James Tabor, as influenced by an older contemporary, J. Massyngberd Ford.

Ford wrote the original Anchor Bible volume on Revelation.

Here's my review of the volume on Amazon.

Her idea? John the Baptizer wrote it.

James Tabor offers his reconstruction of a pre-Christian text of Revelation

This is based on an earlier post speculating it was likely it had such a core.

As Tabor notes, he has an academic relationship with Ford.

They both seem to be on the right track, but neither seems totally correct.

I believe, contra Ford, that a follower of the Baptizer wrote it after his death, not John the B himself.

Accepting Paul's comment in Galatians as true, as well as others in Acts, John had disciples in Asia Minor. Given that its provenance has always been considered to be there, and many of the elements in the non-Christian core seem to fit the times of the 60s CE, that fits the idea of a “Mandean” (to use an anachronistic word) core, but not one from John himself. For that same reason, there’s no need to follow Tabor's specifics in trying to anchor Revelation to his pseudo-Clementines take on the whole New Testament and claim it is reflecting 40s-50s Judean politics.

Rather, it should be seen as the reaction of 60s-era diaspora apocalyptic Jews to the Temple Revolt.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Luther bio not worth reading

Having recently done, and updated, a blog post about the 500th anniversary of the legend, and the reality, at the start of the Lutheran reformation, when I saw this new bio at my local library, I figured to give it a whirl.

I could tell it was a pop bio not an actual history. But, even by those standards, Eric Metaxas has written dreck.

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the WorldMartin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Meh at best as a pop bio from a conservative evangelical POV; worse than that otherwise

Per the first half of my header, that's the only reason I rated this book with two stars rather than one. Even though Metaxas discusses Luther's differences with the Reformed on the Eucharist, and a lesser degree on other things, and even tries to take a look at both the philosophy and theology behind this (while failing as much as succeeding), Metaxas still tries to paint Luther as a modern American conservative Evangelical rather than as a German Evangelical, ie, Lutheran.

The epilogue, trying to pretend Luther was some sort of forerunner of modern Western democracy, only made this worse — and more laughable at the same time. Again, though, the fact that it's being tried, and will probably be tried by others from now through maybe 2030, with the 500th anniversary events, gets it that second star rather than 1.

That said, there's other errors, mainly errors of fact, though a few others of interpretation, like those above.

I actually was originally going to rate it three stars, despite the above, but two errors late in the book got it knocked down to two stars, and almost to one, in spite of me wanting to hold it up as an example.

OK, let's dive into those errors.

First, after debunking several Luther myths in the introduction, Metaxas perpetuates two BIGGIES himself.

In reality, the consensus of good historians is that Luther did NOT nail, paste, or otherwise affix a sheet or two of 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517.

A similar consensus says that Luther did NOT say "Here I stand" at the Diet of Worms.

OK, next. Erasmus did NOT restore first-century Greek to his edition of the New Testament. Instead, his "textus receptus" was similar to that in the Orthodox world of this time. Erasmus didn't have Sinaiticus, Vaticanus or other older codices, nor did he have the treasure of modern papyri finds. Also, Erasmus had no detailed methodology of textual criticism.

Tonsuring? It's Christian martyrological legend that emperors inflicted it upon apostles or later generations of Christians. That said, per the likes of Candida Moss, the severity and broadness of Roman Imperial persecution of Christians has itself been mythologized. Finally, although in these cases it involves shaving the head entirely, not just in spots, tonsuring-like practices are known to other world religions.

The idea that Luther didn't have a "modern" idea of consciousness? Well, Metaxas sets up a straw man by claiming that what he calls the "modern" idea of consciousness is modern. Less than a century after Luther, Shakespeare has Polonius in Hamlet say "To thine own self be true." And, a full 2,000 years earlier, the oracle at Delphi said "Know thyself." And, from that, Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Of course, Metaxas is here ultimately setting up a bank shot for how Luther was different from today, but yet, was a lead-in to Merika or something.

After Erasmus, Metaxas trips on his Greek New Testament again. While the verb synago is in the New Testament in various forms, including as a participle for gathering together for worship, including gathering for the Eucharist, the noun synaxis is not. It is used in post-NT writings, I believe beginning as early as the Didache, but the noun is not in the NT.

Now, the two biggies, which give the game up.

On page 391, Metaxas claims that Suleiman the Magnificent, as part of expanding the Ottoman Empire, was trying to expand sharia law.

Tosh and rot. The Turks, and their Central Asian Turkic cousins, have been known for their generally moderate interpretation of Islam. And the Ottoman Empire was known for its millet system, which gave a relatively high degree of freedom to its Christian — and Jewish —residents.

Given that Metaxas, if not a full blown right-winger, hangs out with a lot of conservative politicos and is a talking head for a major right-wing radio network, I can only consider this to be rank pandering.

Page 417 follows in its train.

Metaxas claims that Luther, in his anti-Jewish diatribes, was influenced by "Victory over the Godless Hebrews," which he claims contain things "which we now know to be untrue." Among this, he lists Jewish blasphemies against Jesus and Mary, and claims by Jews that Jesus did his miracles by kabbalistic magic.

Deleting the "kabbalistic," as it didn't exist 2,000 years ago, and actually, these things ARE true.

Metaxas is either ignorant of some things written in the Talmud, and even more in the Toledoth Yeshu, or he's heard about such things and refuses to investigate, or thirdly, he fully knows about them and covers them up.

In any case, I suspect political leanings not just of general conservativism, but specifically neoconservativism, are now in play.

And, with that, I decided that this book could be held up as an example of wrongness AND get one star instead of two as well.


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Friday, October 20, 2017

In the year 2020, the Nones will ...

Riffing on an old rock anthem, per Scientific American, by 2020, self-identified "Nones" in the United States of America will equal self-identified Catholics.

Don't be so smug, you Baptists and Church of Christers, either.

By 2035, Nones will catch you, too.

And, you should, in fact, be even less smug, per this image:



That comes from the author's own blog, linked at the bottom of the SciAm piece.

In other words, the liberal wing of Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians has already caught you Baptists, etc.

Sure, they may go to church less — setting aside the fact that time and motion studies show that most of you don't go to church as much as you claim — but they don't feel the guilt-tripped NEED to go to church.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Robert Wright writes about religion again (Buddhism), fails again

So, Robert Wright has a new book.

Like his older “Evolution of God,” it applies ev psych to religion, in this case one specific religion.

I won’t bother to read, as I one-starred that previous book for both that reason and the fact that Wright uses his old one-trick pony of “non-zero,” as in applying non-zero sum game theory to religious evolution.

That said, one can derive anthropological-based insights from the best of ev psych, and THEN apply THAT to the study of religious origin and development. Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, among others, have done it quite well. And Robert Wright can't hold a candle to either.

Besides, I don’t need to review it for another reason.

Adam Gopnik, in a long piece at The New Yorker, has already done the favor both with him, and his somewhat older quasi-paralleling British secularizer of Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor. It's so good I re-read the whole thing.

I agree with Gopnik a LOT on both of them. That said, while still not planning to read the book (I’ve read previous Batchelor, too) I did click link to the Amazon page for Batchelor's one book.

I wanted to look at the one- and two-star reactions.

Funny, most of the people who accuse him of "pillaging" Buddhism for secularist ends most likely do their own pillaging for New Agey ends.

And, this also ignores that the history of all religions is full of pillaging. Today's Hinduism, whether Vedanta or many other branches, isn't the Brahmanism of 2,000 years ago. Today's Judaism isn't the proto-Rabbinic Judaism of 2,000 years ago or the Israelitism of 2,500 years ago and more. Today's "fundamentalist" Christianity isn't that of the pre-Nicene age.

To run Churchill through Marx: "Religion is written by the victors."

That said, my personal, philosophy-of-religion definition of religion remains a basic two-item one.

First: A belief in metaphysical matters that are of ultimate concern to human life. Note that this allows atheistic versions of Buddhism to be — rightly — defined as religion. Note that this also rightly, versus many Gnu Atheists — uses the word "atheist(ic)" as what it is, not a synonym for "irreligious."

Second: A set of praxis and/or dogma that is developed to rightly "align" believers with these matters of metaphysical concern. Note that this allows for both what are called "orthodoxy" religions and "orthopraxy" religions.

So, Buddhism — if not stripped of ALL metaphysics, is a religion. Certainly, it originally developed as one. Brahmanism of circa 500 BCE believed in some form of reincarnation and karma. Most versions of Buddhism today, setting aside things like Pure Land Buddhism that believe in a one-off afterlife, not reincarnations in a cycle. And, though not really having a dogma, Buddhism does indeed have a praxis. (Note to meditating New Agey Westerners — most Buddhism in its homeland still has plenty of other praxis for the laypeople, most of whom don't have the time or the inclination for meditation.)

This, then, gets to my earlier comment.

Wright isn't offering up Buddhism. He's offering up "Buddhist secularism." Per good linguistics, the noun is controlling, the adjective is modifying.

In a discussion with David Hoelscher on a Facebook page, I say the same. Ditto for what we should call “Jewish secularism” rather than “secular Judaism.”

That said, what about “secular humanism”? Shouldn’t it really be called “Christian secularism,” at least in some cases? I’m thinking primarily of non-Wiccan/pagan Unitarian churches and similar.

Shows that “cultural Christianism,” per Samuel Huntington, Rodney Stark and others, still dominates American culture, that we don’t do that.

One doesn't have to be a Gnu Atheist to critique — critique to the point of heavily criticize — Wright.

And, that all said, regular readers of this blog know that I am in general unfriendly toward attempts to pass Buddhism off as something it is not. Above all, that's when it's done by — speaking of "secular Judaism" — so-called BuJews.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Why neither Buddhism nor Robert Wright is true

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of EnlightenmentWhy Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment by Robert Wright
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Wrong from the title on

Ignore the blurbs, it’s still a bad book

There are several reasons for that.

First, IMO, Wright is overrated. I rated “The Evolution of God” as a one-star. This one had a chance to get lucky, even though it was starting minus 1 star due to the title alone. That title, and ding, along with puffery from too many others, though, cost it that chance to do better.

Now, within specific reasons it’s a bad book.

First, ev psych isn’t nearly as true as Wright claims. And, as I said in the review of “The Evolution of God” if you want to apply something like that to religion, try the evolutionary anthropology of Scott Atran or Pascal Boyer.

Second, the Stephen Batchelor denatured, demetaphyticized “Buddhism” that Wright presents isn’t Buddhism. (Wright even backhandedly, and out of the side of his mouth, admits this in the first chapter.

Third — or, if it is, then Unitarianism is just as much Christianity as is what Wright et al call “Buddhism.” And, it’s not.

Fourth — If Unitarianism WERE that, yet, nobody writes a book called “Christianity is true” unless they’re a fundamentalist.

That alone should show what’s wrong with the book.

But BuJews like Sam Harris on one said, and BuGoys like Wright et al on the other, find millions of people who can still be conned this way.

Fifth, it is possible, indeed, that Buddhist secularism has special mediation insights derived from its religious roots. It’s also possible Christianist secularism does, too. It’s also possible neo-Stoicism does, and derived from its original philosophical roots. Maybe self-hypnosis does, derived from original empirical results followed by trial-and-error fine tuning. Or that modern science does, and influenced by a Buddhist-derived general idea of mediation, but NOT by anything specific.

(From what I know, there is indeed at least some degree of truth to all of the above. That’s from reading a new bio of Rorschach, on precursors to modern science; from some experience with self-hypnosis; from a philosopher friend who teaches neo-Stoicism counseling; and more. And, much of these things started happening before Batchelor, or precursors, started popularizing Buddhist-derived meditation ideas in the west.)

Sixth, note my adjectives two paragraphs above. Non-metaphysicians within Unitarianism would practice Christianist secularism, not Christianity. (Not all Unitarians are non-metaphysical.)

Wright seems to make the assumption that only Buddhism, among world religions, has unique insights that can be secularly distilled. Tosh. I haven’t even mentioned Taoist secularism. (Confucianism? I agree with many philosophers of religion that it’s a philosophy, not a religion.)

None of this is to say that meditation is bad. I think it can be good, indeed, for reasons in the book and beyond. So, don’t feel discouraged if the meditation Wright derives from Buddhist secularism doesn’t float your boat.

Seventh, Wright ignores the irony of people — selves — reporting on the idea that there is no self. This is part of a larger issue that certain Buddhist principles should be ineffable. Wright also ignores this connection to karma, vis-à-vis what is, and is not, reincarnated, and why the whole idea of karma is senseless at best and repulsive at worst if there is no “self” yet we have punishing karmic reincarnations based on actions of past selves.

Of course, he ignores it in part by presenting Buddhist secularism as “true,” and as true without having to look at its religious and metaphysical background.

In fairness, he does note that issues related to this are raised by “maverick” Buddhists.

Eighth, Wright, like other BuJews and BuGoys ignores that real, actual Buddhism has its own version of fundamentalism, violence against other religions, etc. Take the 969 Movement, leading the attack against Muslim Rohingya in Burma.

And, no, please no “no true Scotsman” claims that this is modern, and just one small offshoot. Before Buddhism in its Indian homeland went over the mountain to China and then was pushed out of India by a new, reformed Hinduism (Vedism or Brahamnism or similar are better terms for the main religion of India at the time of Siddhartha Gautama), Buddhists are documented as persecuting Jains.

Beyond Buddhism, he gets things wrong elsewhere. That includes muddling emotions and instincts, which he does so baldly and badly.

Finally, the title.

Often, it may be an editor at a publishing house that chooses a title. In this case, I highly doubt it; I’m sure that’s Wright’s baby. It is provocative and smug as well as wrong.

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If Wright were just offering up a book called “Buddhist-based meditation tools and ideas,” he might get another star. But, he earned the low rating.


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