Saturday, December 07, 2013

Authentic modern culture vs fakery

Is there such a thing as fake culture? Roger Scruton has a very interesting essay in which he discusses these issues in depth. As somewhat an appreciator of modern art, and a huge one of modern classical music, I can appreciate just where he's coming from.

And, he names names in his list of real vs fake modernists, in literature, music, art and philosophy. In the first three categories, as the prime creatives and innovators, he lists Eliot, Stravinsky and Picasso.

That said, Roger, I'm very surprised Dali's not in here. I would see him as someone who was earlier in life an actual modernist innovator, but later descended into schlock. (There's a great book I read a couple of years ago, which also describes how almost all of Dali's late life works were fakes. And, no, not assistants filling in the details after he did the basics, like a Renaissance "school of Dali," but, pretty much from the ground up fakes.) Richard Strauss offers a parallel example, perhaps, in classical music. Barbara Tuchman once described much of his later work as "schlock."

So, with the link, and the few examples provided, who would you list as the top real and fake modernists in these three areas?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Philosophers without gods

Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular LifePhilosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life by Louise M. Antony

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great book of essays, each running from around 10 to 20 pages in length, about issues of "deconversion" to non-theism, all by people who are now professional philosophers.

Only one, Dan Dennett, is an outright Gnu Atheist. Only a few others might be called "evangelizing atheists." But none is a shirking violet as to how they address these issues.

Some spend more time on their actual deconversion and how that appears from a philosophic angle. Others, whether evangelizers or not, focus on their current relations with religion in general, or conservative apologists for the religion of their childhood, either Christianity or Judaism. (The one small down point: no ex-Muslim atheist philosopher seems to be in this book.) On this issue, the different philosophers vary within themselves on issues such as "respect" for Christianity in general (I'm taking this as the "default" in America and Britain alike), or how much respect, or whatever, more liberal versions of Christianity deserve.

Others focus more on their post-deconversion lives, including with bits of wistfulness, though not full regret, for some parts of their past.  One, Paul Farrell, whom has promised me some materials via snail mail, talks about second-order values and applying those in a secular way after having learned to in a Catholic way when younger. (I found this triggered thoughts of Catholic, and Lutheran in my case, "vocation," and also got me to thinking about Aristotelian flourishing, among other things.)

Anyway, per that last comment, you'll probably gather, if you're someone who follows my reviews, that this is a book to read. There's no formal logic or anything else even very close to being technical or jargonistic.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 08, 2013

Happy 100th to Albert Camus

Albert Camus/From Wikipedia
I missed the centennial birthday anniversary of Albert Camus yesterday, somehow.

But, it's never too late to commemorate a great philosopher and a great human being.

To talk about that latter part, while at the same time refuting recent rumors I've seen online that he was Jewish, please read this excellent piece, which talks about his Jewish friendships, his work in the French Resistance during WWII, and his support for the formation of the state of Israel.

Camus didn't always walk a perfect line between support for Israel and anti-Arab occasional sentiments. Even before the start of the Algerian civil war, his stance toward Arabs was surely part of his pied-noir Algerian native heritage.

But, in general? Per  Wikipedia's comment on his Nobel Prize award, his literature:
(W)ith clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."
Can't say it better myself.

And, speaking of:

The video is in French, but has English subtitles if you turn on the captions. It's from this tribute, which has selected quotes:
 For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth.
The full speech, translated, is here. Camus' justification for why he wrote, and more, still speaks to us today:
Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death.
That said, he and Sartre, who met during Resistance work, eventually became alienated when they didn't see eye to eye on how to address these issues. Why?

Camus "saw through" the reality of the Soviet Union early on, while Sartre remained, essentially, a "fellow traveler" all of his life. Sartre's blank-check support for the Munich Olympics kidnappers and Che Guevara only  further illustrate that.

That said, again per  Wiki, on Camus:
In the 1950s, Camus devoted his efforts to human rights. In 1952, he resigned from his work for UNESCO when the UN accepted Spain as a member under the leadership of General Franco. In 1953, he criticized Soviet methods to crush a workers' strike in East Berlin. In 1956, he protested against similar methods in Poland (protests in Poznań) and the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution in October.

Camus maintained his pacifism and resisted capital punishment anywhere in the world. He wrote an essay against capital punishment in collaboration with Arthur Koestler, the writer, intellectual and founder of the League Against Capital Punishment. He was consistent in his call for non-aggression in Algeria.
And, even if his birth might have left him a bit indisposed toward Arabs at times, it didn't do that much:
Although favouring greater Algerian autonomy or even federation, though not full-scale independence, he believed that the pied-noirs and Arabs could co-exist. During the war he advocated a civil truce that would spare the civilians, which was rejected by both sides, who regarded it as foolish. Behind the scenes, he began to work for imprisoned Algerians who faced the death penalty.
So, happy birthday, Mr. Absurdist. Speaking of that, here's some earlier blogging of mine about his absurdism, what he saw as philosophically separating him as an absurdist from existentialism and why, and more. (It's somewhat similar to why Stravinsky, and rightly, rejected the label of "neoclassicist" because that lumped him with Prokofiev. And, for more of my thoughts on THAT issue, and a level of a mix of jealousy and outright contempt that goes beyond Sartre on Camus, go here.)

I see in Camus, beyond philosopher and litterateur, a humanist, a man of and  for humanity.Add

Add to that this great piece from Columbia Journalism Review about how Albert Camus' career as a journalist, and his writing on real-life events, ties in with his work as a philosopher, especially on ethics and related issues.

As part of that, I see a person of integrity. By that, I mean far more than honesty, but someone "integrated" within himself. If we think about the idea of Aristotelian flourishing, Camus seemed to have exemplified this in many ways, and to have done so without being anywhere the rich slave-owning upper-class Athenian of Aristotle's day, to whom he limited the idea and possibility of such flourishing.

This idea of integrity, and an updated version of Aristotelian flourishing, is something I understand more, and aspire to more, as I get older. 

And, on Google Plus, a friend of mine talked about the desired Venn diagram overlap of atheism (in a non-Gnu Atheist way), true liberalism (with a humanist bent) and skepticism. I don't know how much of a science-type skeptic Camus was, but he certainly punched the ticket on the first and second.

American philosophy has certainly produced nothing exactly like Camus, in part because the true non-Communist leftist class in America generally has not produced such intellectuals, in part because it's so thin, and some have veered beyond that "non-Communist" part, or at least to a semi-reflex anti-American part. And,  even more, America hasn't produced a Camus because of the broader anti-intellectualism of much of America, per Richard Hofstadter.

That said, per his falling out with Sartre, Europe in some ways really hasn't produced anyone exactly like him.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jesus mythicism and Jesus reality — moved back a century

Seeing how uncritically accepting many Gnu Atheists are of Joseph Atwill's claim, recently doubled down on with this non-academic press release, that the Flavian dynasty of Roman emperors invented Jesus and Christianity, I decided to throw my semi-academic hat (see near the bottom for how I make that claim) about the Jesus of history or the Jesus of mythicism here.

That said, let's jump in.

Despite what the new round of mythicists like Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier say, I can't accept mythicism, though, per Wikipedia, I do support those like R. Joseph Hoffmann who say it deserves academic discussion. Bart Ehrman, insightful as he may be otherwise, is simply wrong here.

The earthly Jesus of Paul

On Price, I believe he's simply wrong when he says Paul didn't believe in an earthly Jesus. The "born of a woman" in Galatians 4;4 flatly contradicts him and others.

For example, Earl Doherty engages in verbal flim-flammery here, to try to talk around the passage. Some of it is just laughable, like claiming, based on the Old Testament, that "exapostello" can only be used for sending forth "spiritual beings." I don't know that Price has even tried to do that much ersatz heavy lifting.

What about James?

And, the mythicists also, by and large, don't seem to address Josephus' discussion of lynching of James the brother of Jesus. James (Ya'akov) was a hugely common Jewish name, of course, but so was Jesus (Yeshua). So, Josephus seems to recognize that this James needed to be identified. He does so by calling him the brother of Jesus. But, that presumes that this Jesus is so well-known as to not need identifying. (Note; I do not see this as a Christian interpolation, certainly not the "brother of Jesus"; I am still undecided on the "who was called Christ.")

Carrier does address this, saying this was the brother of a Jesus who was high priest in the year 63. But, to follow Carrier, you have to hold the "who was called Christ" as an interpolation. You also have to assume an audience 30 years later was familiar enough with THAT Jesus for Josephus to not need to identify him further, and I'm not ready to commit to that. Per Wikipedia, Josephus' audience was Gentiles; unless you narrowly restrict that audience to "friends of the Flavian imperial dynasty," they probably wouldn't know who this Jesus was.

(And, on the personal side, that Carrier, or a minion, can't approve a comment or two on his blog 12 hours after posting it makes me look a bit askance at him anyway.)

So, I stand by some sort of non-mythical Jesus. And, I'll deal with Josephus myself, below.

Early Christian growth rates: One view

This leads to Christianist sociologist Rodney Stark. (I use that moniker because, like Samuel Huntington, he believes in a "clash of civilizations," but he's not a religious Christian, though he is a nutter in other ways.)

Stark postulated that, with a start point of 5,000 believers in the year 50 CE, and a growth rate of 40 percent per decade, we get Christians up to being half the Roman Empire by the time of the Council of Nicea.

I think that end number is too high, and I'm far from alone. I think Christians at that time were higher than a Robin Lane Fox thinks (more below) but not that high.

Anyway, how did Stark get there?

His 40 percent per decade comes from historic growth rates of Moonies and Mormons. However, there's several problems. Moonies moved their base from small South Korea to the US, and the Mormons recruited immigrants, especially in Scandinavia, before they emigrated, for one thing. Also, he fails to allow for Christians outside the empire, who may have been as high as 15 percent of the total by the time of Constantine. And, he doesn't try to fit this growth into a bell curve, especially given that total population in the ancient world remained almost flat, and indeed did so, over longer periods, until about 1700 CE.

Now: My alternative

So, what if we "move Jesus back"?

Why not? G.R.S. Mead, and others, either entirely on their own, or influenced by the Jesus Pandera tales from pre-Rabbinic Judaism, postulate a Jesus who lived circa 100 BCE, possibly a Jesus who was among the Pharisees executed by Hasmonean king Alexander Jannai. (Here's Mead on this.)

This idea has long appealed to me. Mead and former mythicist G.A. Wells (I consider him to be a recanted mythicist, not a "soft" one) were two major influences on me in my late 20s, beyond modern historical criticism, as I did intellectual judo on what I was being taught in conservative Lutheran divinity school as well as what I had been taught to avoid.

The idea still appeals today, maybe even more so, and for two main reasons.

We get a slower, easier-to-believe growth rate, and a longer period for development of Christian traditions and their move from oral to written forms.

First, my take on the growth rate issue

I see two "hinge points" in the growth of the Jesus movement, later Christianity. (Dating Acts to 115 CE or so, it wasn't "Christianity" before 100 CE.)

The first one is for there to be at least 5,000 Jesus followers by 50 CE. Even with allowing for uneven distribution, the number of Jews in Rome, and the religious inquisitiveness within Rome (the city, not the empire), I think this is the minimum number for a "Jesus community" to be in place for Paul, never having been there, to address in his Epistle to the Romans.

The second? Per the likes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and other professional and amateur social theorists, is a "tipping point" that led Diocletian to start serious persecution of Christians. (Per my review of Candida Moss' "The Myth of Persecution," I don't think there was serious, imperially-directed persecution of Christians before Diocletian, but there certainly was then.)

Such sociological tipping points are very serious. Urban sociologists have shown that when an all-white, or nearly so, neighborhood, gets X percent African-Americans, the rate of moving out picks up. When it hits Y percent, the rate increases.

I see a similar "tipping point" behind Diocletian. What might it be?

I started playing around on a simple computer based 10-key calculator. I started with a much earlier time frame, which allowed lower growth rates over a longer period, but also gradually accelerated growth rates as Christianity got larger mass.

And, I came out with approximately 1.25 million Christians in the year 285. If I assume an imperial population of 50 million, and act like Stark and assume all these Christians were inside imperial boundaries, that's 2.5 percent. Given Christianity's strength in the east, maybe 3 percent or a little bit more, counting Italy and Roman Africa (today's Tunisia) as part of the east.

And there you go.


I assume 1,000 "Christians" in the year 70 BCE.

From there, I assume a growth rate of 10 percent per decade  until 30 BCE. (Again, I'm assuming flat population rates, in part for simplicity but in larger part because, over the longer term, that's the simple reality of the ancient world.)

That gives us about 1,460 "Christians" in 30 BCE.

For the next six decades, I up the growth rate to 15 percent, starting a bell curve. (The proclivities of Herod, followed by direct Roman control of Judea, are assumed as "stimulators" for this higher growth rate.)

At 30 CE, that gets us to about 3,380 "Christians."

I then ratchet the bell curve up a bit, to 20 percent growth over the next 70 years. Worsening Roman action in Judea and the first revolt, plus the work of a man named Paul, are taken as "stimulators."

That gets us to 12,130 "Christians" (per above on the book of Acts, the scare quotes will be dropped from here on out) at 100 CE.

I next ramp up the bell curve a bit more.

For the next 80 years, I assume 25 percent growth per decade. This gets us to about 72,300 Christians by the death of Marcus Aurelius. Still a tiny minority, not much more than 1/10 of 1 percent of the Empire. The myth of Paul before Felix and Festus aside, we now, with people like Justin Martyr, see the first interactions of Christians with Roman officialdom. Somebody is noticing them. That's a "stimulator" of growth.

But now, the growth rate is going to pick up again. No external stimulator, just a larger semi-critical mass, more publicity in non-Christian circles, and social and economic decay in Rome making some people look more favorably on Christianity. (The movement, also, now has no scare quotes, as first attempts at doctrinal organization begin.)

So, for the next 90 years, I put the growth rate at 30 percent.

That gets us to 453,000 by 250 CE, which would be 3/4 of a percent or more. And 767,000 by 270 CE, comfortably above 1 percent.

So, I turn the bell curve higher. To 35 percent.

That gets us to 1.89 million by 300 (and about 1.25 million in 285, the year after Diocletian assumed the throne).

If I keep that same growth rate for 25 more years, we're at around 4 million by the time of Constantine calling the Council of Nicaea. That's 8 percent of a population of 50 million. (And on tipping points, for Constantine, we're at around 2.75 million  Christians, or 5.5 percent of the population, by the time of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.)

I don't ever need to go to Stark's 40 percent. And, I don't even see that happening. Due to "backsliding" and the "leisure" of Christianity being legalized, the growth rate probably plateaued until Theodosius made it the state religion of Rome.

Now, the development of Christian tradition

Different ideas of Jesus, such as a teacher of wisdom, allegedly reflected by the hypothetical Q document and the Gospel of Thomas, a faith healer/wonder worker with parallels in some Jewish holy men of the era, and a "divine man" of some metaphysical import with possible soteriological import, would all have longer to ferment, and more under any communal "radar screens," with an extra century of development time, and with a slower growth rate to bring less attention to any perceived need for uniformity.

We can postulate brief written bits being put down by the second generation after the death of this Jesus, around 30 BCE, when I see the growth rate tick up a bit, or maybe after 30 CE, when I see the growth rate tick up a bit more.

We can then simply put the first Jewish Revolt against Rome, and the destruction of the Second Temple, on top of this as a motivator to record the first unified "gospel" of Jesus in light of similar gospels of wonder-workers both before and after this time that floated around the Mediterranean world.

More on and from Paul

That still leaves connecting Paul to all of this.

He claims to be a Pharisee himself in Philippians. I accept this as true. I reject that he was a Roman citizen, as he never claims that about himself. He could well have come across the "Jesus movement" as part of a trip to Jerusalem or something.

If his "thorn in the flesh" was temporal lobe epilepsy, or whatever led him to his visions and revelations, his version of Christianity took off from there. And, if he did die in Rome, or nearby, we can perhaps peg the first Gospel, Mark, to there, in part based on the "Latinisms" in its Greek. But, that's aside from the main focus of this argument.

That said, now I, in a different way than Carrier, have a problem with Josephus' statement above. And, I also have a "problem" with the thinking of the likes of Robert Eisenman on the history of Jewish Christianity. And, on the issue of James as a historic person. (That said, Eisenman takes Acts as being WAY too historic. Example: He thinks the phrase that people of the "Way" were first called Christians in Antioch first dates to the 50s CE.)

Paul and James

Of course, Mead potentially founders on this, too. Paul talks about meeting James, and Paul in his own writings, not Luke's "Paul" in Acts. (It's been a long, long time since I read Mead; I don't know how he addressed this issue.)

But there's a way around what Paul says in Galatians 1:
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.
Note he says "the Lord," not Jesus. This is usually means the risen Christ, not the earthly Jesus. Hence, not to sound like a Catholic protecting Mary's perpetual virginity, but, there's no reason this has to be read as James being the earthly brother of an earthly Jesus.

So, let's then go back to Josephus. And, let me one-up Carrier.

Perhaps EVERYTHING after "James" is a Christian interpolation. There may have been an earlier identifier of James, rather than just his bare name, in Josephus' autograph. (I admit I'm unaware of textual variants on this.) But, maybe an early copy got edited for this interpolation. In fact, if Luke borrowed from the Antiquities, he could have made that interpolation himself.

In for a penny, in for a pound on interpolations. But, that's the only one I need to get past the issue of a historic James at the time of Josephus and a historic Jesus of nearly 150 years earlier.

World religious history

I'm going to briefly morph over to other world religions, then.

The late-Victorian England original "surge" in mythicism wasn't about Jesus, alone. As the British Raj expanded in India, the historicity of the Buddha was questioned, too.

There's both similarities and differences. The early Buddhist writings might be compared to the hypothetical early Q strand, if there was a written Q. The Buddha as a teacher of wisdom, occasionally esoteric, just like Jesus in this tradition. The difference is that the idea of the Buddha as a divinity didn't develop until later, so no textual fusions were needed. But, if we push back Jesus, we have about the same gap between his life and the first writings about him as we do the Buddha and the first writings about him.

Islam is a tougher nut, with so little textual criticism so far. But, it's possible we didn't have a finalized version of the Quran until a century after his death or so.

Finally, to tackle one other "hard mythicist" counter-thrust.

Now, I've seen one mythicist (sorry, no link, can't remember where it was) cite the Micronesian cargo cults, specifically noting that in one place, two different deities or whatever were being venerated in less than 20 years.

However, on the typical Micronesian or New Guinean site, the issues that started the cargo cult were HUGELY intrusive. A white man crashing an airplane during World War II into a dark-skinned, often Stone Age, society. And then leaving as soon as rescued.

Whereas, a messianic movement starting in late Second Temple Judaism? With all the other messianic claimant that Josephus documents in his time and others probably earlier? Hardly intrusive at all.

My academic and personal background

Who am I to be laying this scenario out with any presumption to credibility?

I'm a "semi-academic," in case any scholars noted in this post, or friends or followers of theirs, question my presumption.

I have an undergraduate degree in classical languages, part of spending most of my time in a pre-divinity program. (I also read Hebrew as part of that, though not enough to get a biblical languages degree.)

I also have a "professional/terminal" masters, a master of divinity degree. Being at a conservative Lutheran seminary, we weren't taught too much about the critical theological method, but we were taught a little. And, from there, I did a lot of reading on my own, eventually doing intellectual judo to refute what I was being taught there and had been raised to believe.

That said, I had several classes in exegesis of particular biblical books. I audited a class on introductory Aramaic. I took a class on the Greek of the Septuagint and also did readings in patristic Greek. And I took an upper-level graduate course on textual criticism. And, in English, I've read much of the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of the Nag Hammadi finds and more.

And, in the years since graduation, I have kept up with a fair amount of biblical studies on both testaments.

So, I feel comfortable calling myself a semi-academic.

And, I feel quite comfortable, as a semi-academic, and as an atheist who's not a Gnu Atheist, telling the mythicists they're wrong, and how and why.

Anyway, this isn't an overarching redaction criticism of any specific New Testament book, or some other detailed academic exercise. For example, I'm not going to try to tackle how a Mark relocated Jesus 100 years earlier. Suffice it to say that, albeit with a mythical leader, we historically had "early" and "late" dates for the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and the certainly mythical Zoroaster has had floruits dated as much as 1,000 years apart.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Non-ideal, non-Platonic, ideas and bodies

I roll over in bed
And my arm touches
My slightly pudgy, definitely non-Platonic stomach.
My mass of human flesh
Feels vaguely warm, vaguely bland
On a semi-sleepless early night of sleep.
I feel detached from my self,
Reflected by being detached from my body.

More than detachment from my body,
Or from my self, in general,
I feel detached from life.
I feel burned out by the world.

It is of little help
To read that I am not alone
In modern America,
Or in the modern West.
Misery, when the psychological level
Of a low-grade, chronic toothache,
Cares little for company one way or another.

The world of Platonic ideas
Usually as currently dressed in Christian drag
Is thereby appealing for many.
But it is the ideas
That are shadows on the walls of the cave
And not the reality.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Overall piece length similarity can mask differences

In case the header didn't give it away, I'm talking about classical music, and about large-scale works in particular.

Given that I've had multiple posts about Mahler recently, you might guess this is another. But, it's not.

I've been YouTubing multiple recording of the Bach B minor Mass recently.

I've found three about the same length overall, around 1 hour 45 minutes, which means they're not draggy. (Please, no 2-hour performances from mid-20th century Romanticizing conductors.)

One's John Eliot Gardiner with the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir. The first Kyrie had a quite slow start, but then got to what I would consider a decent tempo. (Gardiner to me is interesting in general. I like him on Beethoven. He does a good Symphonie Fantastique with period instruments, and a highly rhythmic Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances; the third movement alone is all worth it. But, his Mozart Requiem is draggy at the start and never recovers.)

The second is Franz Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century. I've got this on CD at home. It's got a full volume and balance. Solid tempos overall. It has less nuance in tempos than Gardiner does. In this case, it's neither all good nor all bad for either one. At the same time, there's a crispness to phrasing, subtle but audible, from

The third is one new to me: The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, conducted by Daniel Reuss. This one appears to have a bit more gravitas in spots. Also, it's in a more intimate setting, with even smaller choir size and instrumental size than the others, or so it seems. And, thus, it has very "clean" sonic lines. I do know that the basses come "out" a lot more on this recording than the others.

None is wrong, not at all.

But, overall, I like the Reuss best, followed by the Brüggen then the Gardiner. And, my opinion of the Gardiner may have been influenced by first sampling his Mozart.

Anyway, here's the Reuss. Listen for yourself.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Two Lutherans, now atheists — different paths, same end

A very nice brief biographical piece here in Salon. Author Ed Suominen (nice Finnish Lutheran name!) explains how studying science with an open-mind, evolution above all, led him to become an atheist. It includes a brief excursus on why fundamentalists, in his opinion, feel compelled to defend a literal creation story, etc.

Here's the short and sweet:
Outsiders sometimes scratch their heads about the dogged insistence of creationists that Adam and Eve actually existed 6,000 years ago in a perfect garden without predators or pain, until they took Satan’s bait and bit into a world-changing apple. How is it, 100 years after Darwin, that we are still fighting about what will be taught in biology classes? Why, in their determination to refute evolution, do some Christians seem intent on taking down the whole scientific enterprise?

The answer lies in Suominen’s lived experience. As he puts it, “You don’t have original sin without an original sinner. And without original sin…you don’t need a redeemer.” In other words, the central story of Christianity, the story of a perfect Jesus who becomes a perfect human sacrifice and saves us all relies on the earlier creation story.
His basic take is that, once he moved off his particular brand of conservative Lutheranism, Laestadianism (think a more Finnish version of Lutheran Pietism), he couldn't stop at halfway houses of more liberal Protestantism.

He talks also about that:
I enlisted my friend Robert M. Price to see if there was any plausible theological solution. Dr. Price had been serving as a sort of spiritual therapist for me, helping me deal with the issues I’d been finding with my religion once evolution had “cracked the walls of my information silo,” as you adeptly put it. At this point, our work together turned into a full-blown writing project, and together we plowed through books by Francis Collins, John Haught, Kenneth Miller, and others who claimed to make sense of Christianity in view of evolution. But to us, despite trying to approach the theology with an open mind (which Price does even as an atheist), the only thing sensible about their books were their eloquent defenses of evolutionary science.
I would have to agree, having gone down a broadly similar route.

My departure point, as a graduate divinity school student, was somewhat different.

For various reasons, I realized the critical method of studying the bible was correct, and that I couldn't accept literalism for that reason.

I then asked, how do liberal mainline Protestants and non-literalistic Catholics decide to draw their "boundary lines" about what's inside the doctrinal and faith tent, if not all of it is.

For example, if Israel didn't migrate out of Egypt, and any "Israel" was formed by natural cultural evolution, and other non-divine factors, then how can we see it as a "chosen nation"? And then, if it's not a chosen nation, that also affects the Christian claim to be the "new Israel."

Then, if you believe New Testament writers were mining the Old Testament for "proof quotes" to make sense of the tragic death (whether as a Zealot-type rebel, an unfortunate hasid, or whatever) of their leader, and you accept this was all likely after the fact stuff, then why should you believe the death of Jesus (if he even existed, but that's tout court for this discussion) mean anything?

I realized, without becoming snooty over it, and without the bombast of a P.Z. Myers lumping liberal non-literalists with fundamentalists (more on that below) that the answer was ... those things didn't mean anything.

The answer was that fancy theological language like "Ground of Being" was vacuous. (In the east, the need for reincarnation is vacuous if you reject the idea of karma, so I'm not just picking on Western monotheism.)

Arguably, it's not as bad as the Omphalos hypothesis:
The most robust attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable may well be Philip Gosse’s “omphalos” idea that the universe was created recently with the appearance of great age. Of course, God created Adam with a navel and trees with rings! They wouldn’t be recognizable without those “retrospective marks,” after all. (Christians are faced with the same issue concerning Jesus and his magic Y chromosome.) It’s ridiculous and reduces God to a cosmic cosplayer, but at least it doesn’t try to dismiss all of the Bible’s clear teachings about a young earth and special creation, or fancifully reinterpret 2,000 years of Christian theology.
True on that. But then, per the "cosplayer" comment, we're really in Wonderland.

But, I want to pick up on that "magic Y chromosome."

I'm not a basher of the non-fundamentalist types, but if you are a more liberal Protestant, and yet you believe "Son of God" has some metaphorical meaning, how do you get around this? (That said, allegedly, a woman in Dresden gave birth at the end of World War II, nine months after the firebombing, to a baby who was allegedly her spitting image when she grew up, with the woman saying she hadn't been sexual. Possible? Well, actually heat applied the right way can cause female rabbits to give birth by parthenogenesis, kind of like Dolly the cloned sheep. But, no gospel writer ever said, "And Mary was overshadowed by the power of the Bunker Buster Bomb.")

This does lead to other questions ... snarky yet serious at the same time.

If an immaterial, metaphysical soul is formed at the moment of a mother's egg cell being fertilized by a father's sperm cell, what happens with Siamese twins? Does one soul split into one and three-quarters?

Or, the other way around. When you have twins (many human conceptions are actually twins, and usually from dual conceptions at the same time) but one twin gets a bit bigger a bit faster, and ultimately swallows the other, which becomes a "teratoma," usually, what happens to that second soul? Does it get swallowed, too, by the first soul? Or a "mosaic," with the second individual more blended into individual cells?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Thoughts on the Rite of Spring centennial

Yes, this is the centennial of the piece that arguably, more than any other of the past 150 years, changed modern Western art music.

With this year being the 100th anniversary of the Rite of Spring, here's a great article, one scandalous when it appeared, by Stravinsky's eminence grise, Robert Craft, about what all went into its formation, including Stravinsky's connections with Diaghilev, Ravel, and others.

And go here for a YouTube search of works by the Lithuanian composer Mikalojus Ciurlionis, mentioned in the piece.

Craft also gives a good analysis of the creation of this masterwork itself.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A good Mahler 6 is about nonexistent, I think

While I've got his Mahler 6, Boulez's effort here is not one of his best. And, between used CD stores and YouTube, I've sampled at least three dozen different M6 recordings, or at least the opening movement.

And, more than any other symphony, getting the opening movement correct is key. Normally, I have a very good understanding within 2-3 minutes of just how good, or bad, a first movement in general, and likely a whole M6 in general, will be.

Too many conductors pay too much attention to the "Ma non troppo" and not enough to the "Allergo energico" notation of the first movement. Among those that do pay attention, half or more of them don't nuance the tempo enough (listening to Bernstein now, with just that problem). And, for a few who get the whole first movement more than halfway correct on "snappy but nuanced" on tempo, and on good volume, usually either get one or the other of the middle movements a bit wrong, or get the finale way wrong.

That said, in an M6, I prefer the Scherzo come before the Andante on the middle movements. And in this structure, especially, it's key not to dawdle the finale.


I had new hopes in listening to Zinman's M6, part of a new recording release of the full Mahler cycle. He's better than Boulez on this one, in some ways. However, he clocks the overall symphony at more than 80 minutes, meaning he's dragging somewhere. Ditto on the M2. (Note: Every Mahler symphony, except the 3rd with repeats included, should be a 1-CD affair. And righly so, without rushing.)

And, not, this isn't "just me" saying this, and even if it were, it's not because I'm cheap about buying CDs.

Reportedly, the composer himself, baton in hand, clocked the 7th at under 75 minutes at its premiere.

Due to this, primarily, a lot of modern conductors whom many classical aficionados tout as being great on Mahler are bleah or worse in my book.

Michael Tilson Thomas is so-so at best; semi-hit and more-often miss might be more accurate.

Simon Rattle is simply horrible. I heard him, and saw him, on PBS, not too long after he got the baton in Berlin, do either the 2 or the 6. It was awful.

Bernstein? Lenny was OK at times, godawful at others. I heard him earlier doing a Mahler 6 at Vienna. Certainly "allegro energico," but certainly also totally lacking in tempo nuance, per my plaint above. (Of course, Lenny's Beethoven Ninth after the fall of the Berlin Wall showed just how much he lacked nuance. The finale was the worst Beethoven train wreck I have ever heard.)

Giuseppi Sinopoli got touted for his alleged psychological insights in the early 1990s, when he started branching out into non-operating major conducting. His M6 got draggier with each movement; the finale sounded like a funeral march and I've never bought a CD of his stuff since.

Gustavo Dudamel knocked the socks off the Shostakovich 10, or at least the "Stalin's dead" movement. But his Mahler is almost somnambulent.

As I noted above, Boulez is generally good on Mahler tempos, including some degree of nuance, though he misses some of the late-Romantic side of Mahler. But, he's not always great, or even very good. His M2 just is wrong, and that's with having recorded it before officially jumping into the full Mahler cycle with Deutsche Gramophone, then again as part of that cycle, near the end. He blew it both times and didn't seem to have learned a lot in between.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An incredible Allegro from the Shostakovich 10th

I don't think I've ever heard the "hair on fire" (also known as the "Damn, I'm glad Stalin is dead") Allegro from Shostakovich's 10th Symphony conducted in anywhere near 4 minutes flat.

Until now. And this, by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony under Gustavo Dudamel (who I heard live in Dallas several years ago):

Man, that just bristles!

It's interesting in part because I am now listening to his Mahler 2, opening movement ... and it's slow. Not quite so slow as to be ponderous, but slow. Actually, as I listen further, I withdraw that. It at least hits the edges of ponderous later on.

He does have some good sonic work, but ... it's not fully to my taste. Mahler had a lot of tempo changes, but they were usually fairly subtle and nuanced. These are too heavy. So, not fully to my taste.

However, this is. Indeed.

(The Mahler slowness doesn't seem to be limited to the Second; I've sampled the First and Ninth, and same thing. His opening to the Ninth is pretty bad.)

Friday, August 02, 2013

A 100-minute Mahler Ninth?

Boy, now I understand more of why I've never been a fan of Bernard Haitink.

And, no, that's not hyperbole. Browsing YouTube shows him turning in a performance clocked at 1:37:41.

As with most of Mahler, other than the Fourth without cuts, if its over 80 minutes, the length of a CD, it's too long.

Indeed, the maestro and disciple, Bruno Walter, comes it at 70 minutes on the Ninth.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

#SciAm has a culturo-centric fail on music

A recent blog post at Scientific American talked about the "sad" feeling of minor keys vs. the "happy" feeling of major keys, and how the author wanted to do some more specific investigation of this issue.

Several historically or culturally relevant items were missing from the piece, though.

That includes, but is not limited to:

1. The major and minor scales of modern Western music (more on that below) did not become the only two regularly used scales until the Renaissance, and even then, not really so until the later part of the Renaissance.

2. They evolved from two of the several church modes of the medieval modal system, which in turn had involved from older classical Greek modal scales.

3. Even when the Western musical world focused on the major and minor scales, they didn't all sound the same until the adoption of even or mean tuning in the 1700s, pushed by people like Johann Sebastian Bach in his two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Before then, instruments generally had to be tuned to sound best in one or two major or minor keys. Keys that were harmonically "distant" from them had certain intervals that basically sounded ... bad at least. Perfect fourths and fifths, in the most distant keys, might instead sound halfway like the infamous "devil's tritone," the augmented fourth or diminished fifth.

4. Since Debussy's work with whole-tone scales in the late 19th century, followed by Arnold Schoenberg's serialism, Western classical music has become more loosely connected to the major-minor system.

5. Much non-Western traditional music is based on non-12 tone scales. These include India's classical 22-tone scale, the pentatonic scale of stereotypical East Asian music and more.

6. Some modern Western music has also rejected 12-tone scales, not just the major/minor system within 12-tone scales. Harry Partch is known for his work with microtonal music.

Basically, the post (I'm not going to bother hunting up the link) came off sounding like someone halfway through grad school in science program but without a single class in music theory or history spouting forth personal ideas on happy/sad and major/minor, plus tapping into modern pop Western musical preconceptions.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dan Dennett's intuition pumps are leaking

"Intuition Pumps" is the name of Dennett's latest book. I probably should put "latest" in scare quotes because, like about anything he's written in the last decade, there's probably little new in it.

That said, it looks like the most subtly snarky of the original Four Horsemen of Gnu Atheism* hasn't lost that touch!

His new book, Intuition Pumps, seems like it is more of the same. Emmy van Duerzen has a good take on it, even if a bit too existential for me.

That said, while her review is more in depth, it's less scathing than this one by Eric Banks.

* I say this legitimately, with a couple of specific issues in mind.

First is Dennett's invention of the word "brights" for secularists, especially fellow Gnus. That was followed by his denial that he was implying religious believers were "dims" or anything similar. Hey, philosophers lie all the time, as well as attacking one another. (See "Wittgenstein's Poker" for the latter.) But they're usually less bald-faced in the lie levels.

Second is his hurling of the charge of "greedy reductionism" against others, while using that, either consciously or unconsciously, as a defense mechanism while refusing to look in the mirror and admit the same applies to him.

There's another good takedown here. And a longer blog post by me about both his and Doug Hofstadter's new books is here.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Dan Dennett, Doug Hofstadter get a double-barreled takedown

They've both got new books out, and one great paired set of reviews blasts both, especially Dennett.

It appears "Uncle Dan" is being more snide than ever, including to the dead who can't speak back, like Steve Gould:
Intuition Pumps is valuable in providing an overview of a body of recent work in the philosophy of mind, but it suffers as well from Dennett’s penchant for cleverness—no more egregiously than in his soi-disant playfulness in mapping nasty flaws on his favorite intellectual targets, like Stephen Jay Gould. It grows tiresome and tacky: He returns to a long-ago pissing match with Gould to discuss rhetorical sleights of hand, and even coins a new word to describe the tendency to advance straw-man arguments and false dichotomies—“Goulding.”
Can't believe Dennett has hit new levels of petty via-a-vis Steve Gould, for example, but he has. And, of course, he's pretty much been recycling old thoughts for more than a decade.

And, let me add that most of the time, re Gould, that Dennett was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Definitely on his claim that evolution is algorithmic. That statement's nowhere close to being provable, let alone proven. And I suspect it never will be. That statement is also an example of the greedy reductionism Dennett can see in others but never himself.

And, recycling? Hell, yes. Dennett hasn't had major new thoughts in 15 years. 

Meanwhile, beyond "Goulding," his intuition pumps sometime involve an element of straw-manning, if we're going to coin phrases.

Finally, Dennett didn't invent the concept of Cartesian theater, as philosopher of science Steve Toulmin noted 15 years ago. (After all, he wasn't the only smart student Gilbert Ryle ever had.) More, though, he failed to carry out the idea that we lack a Cartesian theater-running self to the next logical conclusion — there's no Cartesian free willer, either. Imperfectly, a Daniel Wegner has carried that ball further down the field, as have others. 

There's another good takedown here.  Faustin Bargain is about right.

Hofstadter gets off relatively lightly, but not unscathed.

The biggest criticism he gets is for taking the idea of analogies too far. For being too ... er, reductionistic with it! That said, it appears to be another book chock-full of his sense of word play in the service of analogies. But, with the reviewer, I think he's all wet if he really thinks analogical thinking is the core of human thinking. Ev psych is right when it points to pattern-detectors, agency-detectors, then discriminators, as being more core. And all of those are about concepts and categories first, analogies second.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Judas kisses a shape-changing Jesus

No, really!

A newly-deciphered Coptic gospel-type text tells us exactly like that, and should reignite discussions about whose interpretation of the recently translated and interpreted Gospel of Judas is correct.

Here's the nut graf:
(T)he ancient text tells of Pontius Pilate, the judge who authorized Jesus' crucifixion, having dinner with Jesus before his crucifixion and offering to sacrifice his own son in the place of Jesus. It also explains why Judas used a kiss, specifically, to betray Jesus — because Jesus had the ability to change shape, according to the text.
Note TWO bizarro things there.

One is a shape-shifting Jesus, which is actually the less bizarre of the two.

The more notable one is Pilate offering his own son in place of Jesus.

First, why is the shape-shifting less bizarre?

In canonical gospels, in post-resurrection appearances, Jesus appears to have powers at least vaguely similar. In Luke, the Emmaus disciples don't recognize Jesus until he seemingly allows it. And in John 20, in the "upper room appearance," he pops in out of nowhere. And in the apocryphal, but early, Gospel of Peter, Jesus becomes mega-giant sized.

Here's the specifics of the shape changing here:
"Then the Jews said to Judas: How shall we arrest him [Jesus], for he does not have a single shape but his appearance changes. Sometimes he is ruddy, sometimes he is white, sometimes he is red, sometimes he is wheat coloured, sometimes he is pallid like ascetics, sometimes he is a youth, sometimes an old man ..."  
That said, the story notes that this idea goes back at least to the Egyptian Christian Origen, who died in 254. So, even if the text is "newer," the tradition is not THAT new. That said, as the story notes, the text is written pseudepigraphally in the name of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Cyril  lived during the fourth century, so this text is surely at least 100 years later than Origin's death. That said, it may have a "history," beyond the Judas kiss, that goes back earlier.

More on this, and the Pilate offer, after I mention it.

As for Pilate?
"Without further ado, Pilate prepared a table and he ate with Jesus on the fifth day of the week. And Jesus blessed Pilate and his whole house," reads part of the text in translation. Pilate later tells Jesus, "well then, behold, the night has come, rise and withdraw, and when the morning comes and they accuse me because of you, I shall give them the only son I have so that they can kill him in your place."
That said, in the story about this text, a scholar notes Pilate had higher, even much higher, standing in early Coptic Egyptian and Ethiopian Christianity than elsewhere, even being regarded as a saint.

As for the tie-ins with the Gospel of Judas and its interpretation? It may bear some light as to whether that Gospel should be interpreted as Judas being Jesus' enemy rather than a being, a person, specially enlightened by Jesus. The fact that at least one quasi-semi-Gnosticizing text, the one at hand, points to Judas as an enemy means that this interpretation of the Gospel of Judas, contra a Bart Ehrman, is more likely.

As for the reality of the existence of Judas (operating on the assumption of the existence of Jesus) and Jesus' betrayal by Judas?

That's below the fold.

Monday, March 11, 2013

This is your brain on #spirituality? Well ....

A human brain allegedly hooked on "spirituality."
Ocean/Corbis photo via Daily Mail
Not totally. Perhaps not even close to totally.

The only parts of this research that I would accept as true are:
1. That, however "spirituality" is defined, it is driven by more parts of the brain than previously believed;
2. That, speaking of the above, there are all sorts of experiences we might define as "spiritual."

Here's where the over-hyped rubber hits the road, though.
1. Various electronically-driven brain scans, whether fMRI, CAT, or SPECT, are still, to use a Photoshop word, very "bitmappy" in terms of low spatial resolution, and quite time delayed to boot.
2. This particular study, even with the allowance it was specifically designed to focus on people with parietal lobe injury, only studied 20 people. Wayyyy too small of a sampling sizes.

And, that's just on "measurement error" problems.

We haven't even talked about research bias problems. Like this, from University of Missouri researcher Brick Johnstone:
He surveyed participants on characteristics of spirituality, such as how close they felt to a higher power and if they felt their lives were part of a divine plan. 
Johnstone later tries to claim that the non-religious also experience "spirituality." But, since he's definining spirituality in metaphyiscal terms, religious ones if we count New Ageism, 12-Steppism and "atheistic" varieties of Buddhism as religion, then he's skewing his research.

That means this statement by the reporter:
The research indicated that there are all kinds of spiritual experiences that Christians might call closeness to God and atheists might call an awareness of themselves.
Simply isn't true; or at least, it's only "true" in a question-begging light. 

And, since it's bylined only as "Daily Mail Reporter," I don't even know who to blame.

But, it's simply not true. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

RIP Van Cliburn

Pianist Van Cliburn performs for a packed house in the Great Hall of the Moscow Coservatory in April 1958 during
the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. Associated Press file photo via Dallas Morning News

The man who put Fort Worth in particular and Texas in general on the fine arts map of the world has died at the age of 78.
Van Cliburn's talent alone might have earned him a place among the 20th-century giants of his instrument, alongside classical pianists like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. But after a magical Moscow spring in 1958, Mr. Cliburn's fame eclipsed even those musical contemporaries, rivaling that of another young superstar of his time, Elvis Presley.

Mr. Cliburn was "The Texan Who Conquered Russia," according to a Time magazine cover. At the height of the Cold War, the lanky 23-year-old from East Texas traveled to Moscow and won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, an event created to showcase Soviet cultural superiority. Mr. Cliburn's unlikely triumph was thus said to bring a thaw in tensions between the rival superpowers and created a mythic parable about the power of art to unite mankind.
It was an iconic moment. Not just in the Cold War, but in American classical music, demonstrating that American home-grown talent in the highly competitive world of the piano did exist.

Per the New York Times obit, he wasn't alone.

Read more here:
At the time, America had produced an exceptional generation of pianists besides Mr. Cliburn who were all in promising stages of their own careers, among them Leon Fleisher, Byron Janis, Gary Graffman and Eugene Istomin. 
Like Rachmaninoff, one of the Russians he played in Moscow, he could span 12 white notes with his hands, allowing his technique, described like this:
He developed a commanding technique, cultivated an exceptionally warm tone and manifested solid musical instincts. At its best, his playing had a surging Romantic fervor, but leavened by an unsentimental restraint that seemed peculiarly American.
That said, I also agree with this portion of the Times' assessment:
But if the Tchaikovsky competition represented Mr. Cliburn’s breakthrough, it also turned out to be his undoing. Relying inordinately on his keen musical instincts, he was not an especially probing artist, and his growth was stalled by his early success. Audiences everywhere wanted to hear him in his prizewinning pieces, the Tchaikovsky First Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Third.

His subsequent explorations of wider repertory grew increasingly insecure. During the 1960s he played less and less. By 1978 he had retired from the concert stage; he returned in 1989, but performed rarely. Ultimately, his promise and potential were never fulfilled.  
Van Cliburn himself said he felt like he "had been at this thing for 20 years already" by 1958, and that in part explains why he didn't develop further.

It's a shame. Prokofiev and other moderns could have well stood the attention of a more mature Van Cliburn.

However, he did, through starting the Van Cliburn Competition, give another gift to American classical music -- its further development. For that alone, we should all be very grateful.

Scott Cantrell at the Dallas Morning News, an email acquaintance of mine from my days in Dallas describes the start of that, as well as his life in Fort Worth:
He already had many friends in Fort Worth, where in 1962 the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was inaugurated in his honor. He served as an artistic adviser to the competition, to be held again in May and June 2013, and he took a keen interest in its winners’ careers.

With the aura of an old-school Southern gentleman, with a velvety baritone voice, Mr. Cliburn became Fort Worth royalty. He was as warmly gracious to the youngest piano student as to the city’s movers and shakers.

“He was a true, true gentleman,” (Richard Rodzinski, former executive director of the Van Cliburn Foundation) said, “genuinely modest, self effacing, always surprised at people remembering him, appreciating him. Generosity, modesty, gentleness, incredibly loyalty as a friend, great, great kindness — these were the attributes that made people so terribly fond [of] him.”
That said, Cantrell reflects what the Times said about his later career:
In 1989, Mr. Cliburn started to revive his concert career, and he performed that September at the opening of Dallas’ Meyerson Symphony Center. He again appeared with major orchestras and continued to draw rapturous audiences, but the old magic appeared only intermittently. The rich tone of his earlier years had hardened, his memory and technique had become less reliable and his interpretations had become fussy, mannered. A couple of onstage fainting spells made headlines.

“Something died there,” Bryce Morrison, a British critic specializing in piano performance, said in a 2004 interview. “I do think he was a victim of his own success, a victim of a commercial thing that can make you and destroy you at the same time. It wasn’t a very long career before things started to crack.”
No matter. He continued to grace the Cliburn Competition with his presence, his self.

Here's a performance, from 1962, of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto that won him fame in Moscow in 1958:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Paul of history and the Christ of faith

Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed ChristianityPaul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity by James D. Tabor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not much new here for those of us already critically informed by things, but some tidbits.

Tabor shows how Paul took personal visions of Jesus, merged them with what must only be considered his conception of a Hellenistic mystery religion, used this to invent the Eucharist and his idea of Baptism, and got either his direct followers of the next generation, or those directly in his orbit, to write most of the Christian New Testament that's not directly attributed to Paul. In doing so, he gave James (Jacob), Jesus' brother, the back of his hand at best and possibly worse. And even more so with Peter, Tabor argues.

None of that is new to me, other than thinking more clearly about Paul creating a mystery religion. What was a bit newer is realizing just how much Paul transformed crudely corporeal Jewish ideas of a bodily resurrection into something creative, somewhat along the lines, perhaps, of middle Platonism, but without any school of Platonism's antithesis to matters bodily.

That said, the book has a couple of weak points. While it generally rejects the gospels for historical value, Tabor still accepts conventional datings of Jesus' birth and death. Alternate ideas, such as "Jesus" perhaps actually being the Pharisee leader crucified a century earlier by a Maccabean king, don't cross Tabor's mind.

And, Tabor is not one to psychologize Paul, namely on the "why" this persecutor became a zealot.

I'd say this book is a four-star for people with little familiarity of the actual development of the New Testament, but just three stars for those who know more.

(Sadly, Tabor is an Eisenmann/Baigent-crowd "Jesus dynasty" guy, per another book of his.)  The third star is probably too much.)

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Lorin Maazel just made me throw up

I'm listening to the start of this week's New York Philharmonic broadcast.

Opening work? The Brahms First Piano Concerto. Lorin Maazel's got the stick.

And, the opening was HUGELY slow. Draggy. Tired. Tired far beyond Romantic-era drama. And, the rest of the first movement isn't much better. It's a waste of Yefin Bronfman at the keyboard.

This has to be the worst NY Phil performance I've heard since Lenny Bernstein's Berlin Wall performance of Beethoven's Ninth, and for similar reasons.

I won't keep listening to this. I'm afraid the Sibelius Second will get butchered just as badly.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

So, how good is #Faitheist? What’s it about?

Chris Stedman/Via Center for Inquiry
If you’re not familiar with that name, it appears to have been something  largely developed by Chris Stedman, now the recently published author of a book by that name, which is what this blog post is all about.

First, some personal identification by me.

Regular readers of this blog, or at east the part of it that deals with religion, philosophy and metaphysics, know that I normally don’t have a lot of use for the New Atheist, or Gnu Atheist, “movement.” I've written about my issues with Gnus on many occasions, most recently here. I consider them too confrontational, for one thing. I consider them too … fundamentalist, to be wry, secondly. Third, unlike them, I have no desire to “evangelize” the religious, let alone conduct an intellectual browbeating quasi-jihad.

Well, that same angle is where Chris generally comes from.

That said, is Faithiest the book about branding Faithiest the idea as well as telling Stedman’s own quite interesting journey, which includes his gay sexuality and coming terms with that while spending part of his time growing up in a conservative evangelical church?

Well, two different reviews have two different takes. Which I will get to in just a bit, because, first, I'm going to give you my own answer, now that I've read the book myself.

Here's a list of observations, going generally in order of the book, but also somewhat, in the later ones, in order of imporance once I get to the meet of the book. First, those observations on the book, then the rest of my original post, followed by other, earlier updates at bottom.

1. He doesn't use the phrase, but Chris clearly was an "old soul" as a kid. I relate. He was also naive as a kid, at times, it seems. Maybe even clueless. I also relate.However, he also doesn't always seem aware of that in hindsight, which is a bit different, and relates to his joining that church. On the other hand, maybe he is aware of today. Maybe it's part of a persona. Yes, my thought is going more that way.

2. The first time he visited, he talks about how felt "moved" by the embrace from the "welcomer," and he later notes that was probably a budding gay sexuality issue. However, he never explicitly says that that was part of why he joined the church. Is this an ellipsis of deliberateness of some sort? Or has it not occurred to Chris?

3. He joined this church for community. Only later did social justice drives arise. Since he had gotten his mom more interested in church then, why didn't they go back to her family's Methodism? We're not given any story here. Nor, if we want to find out more, are we given the name of the presumably nondenominational conservative evangelical church.

4. His dad gets almost no mention. Yes, his parents divorced, but it seems Chris as at least 10 when that happened. What was, and is, their relationship? Good, bad, nonexistent? Simon Davis, in one of the longer reviews mentioned below, faults Chris for not telling how any of his academic religious background influenced him, as far as naming particular religious names, etc. I'll go further. I'll ding him for not discussing in any way relations with is dad. Per other comment by Davis, it makes the book more depersonalized. Sorry, Chris, and please, don't even give the "Minnesota nice" excuse as to why you didn't talk about him. 

5. Another family issue. If Chris had gotten his mom more involved at that conservative evangelical church, how did she know to have him talk to this particular liberal Lutheran minister immediately after she read his journal? Did she already suspect he was gay? Chris gives us no background.

6. This too, reflects an odd "depersonalization" of the book. None of his siblings are named. None of their reactions to his "journey" are related to us. For that matter, neither is his mom's reaction. The more and more I think about some of the "depersonalization" aspects of the book, not just vis-a-vis his family but primarily there (see blogger Davis' comments about Stedman seemingly so detached from his academic influences), I wound up dropping my Goodreads review rating by a star.

7. Was Chris really "that much" of an atheist in his early years after "coming out"? Several things in teh book tell me now. He says that, at the end of his undergrad time at Augsburg, he felt jealous of progressive theologians, and he felt angry that he couldn't be and believe the same. He went to a graduate divinity school. And, after getting to Chicago, he only discovers "atheist community" after a full year of active involvement with Interfaith Youth Core? (One great blog review, below, picks up on that.)

Chris, Minneapolis is a big and diverse enough place that, had you done some simple Googling, you surely could have found something there. Considering that "community" was the primary reason you joined that conservative evangelical church, I find another disconnect here, to put it a bit mildly. It sounds like "atheist community" was not that important to you. And, related to that (and before any interaction with folks like American Atheists) we have:

8. A comment like this, page 130, my emphasis at end:
Anyone who looked remotely religious ... was given a suspicious sideways glance by my nonreligious friends as they went outside for their continual cigarette breaks.
Sorry, but I find that last clause gratuitous, and you're a good enough writer I can't quite believe that just somehow got there. I wouldn't quite call it snide, but it's gratuitous with baggage, let's say that.

9. Per the branding angle, I'm wondering if Davis isn't right about Chris' claim to be "fashionably underdressed" at the secularist event in Chicago in chapter 1 of the book. I see that claim to be possibly "branding" related, if it's not totally correct. As in, "Look at my, the green around the ears kid." Other parts of that incident are ... interesting, too. Chris never says why he took his shoes off when he entered the apartment hosting the post-event soiree, and if others did or not.

10. Per the branding angle, in another way. It sounds like "atheist community" was not that important to you, at least not until after extensive involvement with Interfaith Youth Core; is there a marketing/branding related issue? This is about the time that Eboo Patel gets you on the Washington Post religion pages blogging, about the time Greg Epstein of Harvard gets in touch with you, etc.

Some of this may have been luck, fortuitous circumstances, etc. Some of it may have been a conscious decision, as in "I need to investigate atheism as community as part of my next steps and moves." But ... there's little discussion of that. (Yet another illustration of how the book is relatively "thin." Or, per the "story" issue below, of how the story telling is selective.)

11. Like Davis, below, Chris' use of the word "queer" is a bit interesting, especially in light of his criticizing Gnu Atheists for, among other things, being a bit too much in the faces of the religious. From what I know of the LGBT world, perhaps not to the same degree, but I think "queer" has a bit of that itself. It's interesting that he starts using the word in his story (go near the bottom for more of the "story" angle) just after accepting that he's gay, and disengaging from that conservative church.

12. Finally, there's the matter of luck, and hard work/drivenness. Chris merely hints at it, but, below his Minnesota Nice, there seems to be a Type A personality scrambling to climb ladders. There is also a definite bit of luck, like landing the position with Interfaith Youth Core, then having the likes of a Greg Epstein contact him back, after his Type A "push" started. This all ties in with the marketing/branding angle I see in the book.

At least one FB friend common to Chris and I probably won't like the review. But, it is what it is. And, with a strong marketing push for the book, and it getting a lot of attention in the atheist and skeptic blogosphere, and me having seen some of that (like the reviews below), it was going to get a close read from me. And, not just the book, but the Faitheist brand, and the brander, were going to get that close look too.

Beyond critiquing the book as it interacts with branding, and a particular way to do non-Gnu atheism, the "depersonalization" makes it not a very good memoir coming from wherever, whomever, for whatever reasons. If it didn't have the Faitheist angle, would it get any buzzplay at all?

Anyway, to other reviews, detailed below the fold (and yeah, I may post just book review comments separately, since this has become as much a review of Chris Stedman as of his book):

Monday, January 21, 2013

Are we seeing the end of a Fourth Great Awakening?

Per discussion with friends on Facebook, over the book "The Rocks Don't Lie," I'd say the answer is yes. (Partial review of the book below.)

The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood
The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood by David R. Montgomery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A genial refutation of young-earth creationism

Montgomery generally keeps this story about how the earth's geology refutes any version of a literal Noahic flood light on detailed scientific language. And, it is written as a story.

He takes the reader to various geological formations in the world thatr have been key to the development of geology as a science, while narrating how key figures from geology's history have studied and analyzed such formations. At the same time, he narrates the history of Christian theological thought on literal vs non-literal biblical interpretation in general, and specifically on the Noahic flood. He intertwines the two in discussing how different strands of Christian thought reacted to these scientific findings.

Basically, by the end of the 19th century, a literal or semi-literal young-earth creationism (if not 10,000 years or less, certainly no more than 100,000 years) had fallen out of favor with the great majority of theologians in most of the Western world.

With the exception of the United States.

Montgomery puts YEC developments in the historic context of:
1. Anti-evolutionism and the Scopes trial of the 1920s and
2. Anti-communism and the Cold War, etc., of the late 1940s and beyond.

As talk of "culture wars" continues, and as Montgomery stretches YEC roots back to the Second Great Awakening, this is good to remember.

View all my reviews

That said, unlike the First Great Awakening. the Second Great Awakening, or the Third Great Awakening, this "Fourth Great Awakening" has a much more political component.

The First one may have had some connection to the American Revolution; Wiki's entry claims that, but I think it overstates the case. The Second spawned the short-lived Anti-Masonic Party, but was not directly connected to abolitionism. The Third  (I partially accept there was one, but definite more narrowly in time than Wiki) had a bit of a political angle, more in the "Social Gospel" of mainline Protestantism, though, than in the rising Holiness Movement. was a bit more political, but not extremely so.

I also accept the idea of a Fourth Great Awakening, but while I disagree with Wiki that its timeframe for the Third is too long, I think it's too short for the Fourth.

Evidence for one starting includes that the National Council of Churches "peaked" in the late 50s/early 60s, mainline Protestantism had clergy/laity separating more at that time, and fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism grew rapidly.

That said, previous "Great Awakenings" shot their Roman candle in 35-45 years, really. (Which is part of why I think Wiki is too long on the Third and too short on the Fourth.)  So ... W's two elections aside, is the Third Awakening pretty much dying? And, does that in part explain some of the vitriol? Angry death spasms?

We're at about the right time frame. Each previous Great Awakening died differently.

The First petered out, as much as anything. The fervor of the Second got a nurture in sects such as Mormonism, Adventism, etc. that got new life in the Third, which also faced American industrialization.

The Fourth had a start, if you will, and was almost stillborn, in the Scopes trial. Not all conservative Christians were young-earth creationists, and so, while they may not have been fully reconciled to Darwinian ideas aobut evolution, many probably could have halfway accepted a "tamer" version of evolution if combined with old-earth creationism.

But, the Second Red Scare ( the first being after World War I) changed everything. But not by itself. The Civil Rights Movement added a "second stage" to this rocket. (Although black megachurches have grown recently, the Fourth Great Awakening is much more a white Christian phenomenon.)

Because the Fourth Great Awakening tied with this, not just the Second Red Square, it naturally became more political. Non-Catholic parochial schools, battles over school prayer, tax exemptions and more, as well as political appeals, both open and coded, by both Democrats and Republicans, became part of this.

But, now, has it shot its bolt?

It may have. One sign? Per a new Wall Street Journal poll, almost 70 percent of Americans want to keep Roe v. Wade.