Sunday, December 31, 2006

How to remember a President

In a radio address on the late President Ford, Bush gives us some tips on how to remember a President:
He always put the needs of his country before his own, and did what he thought was right, even when those decisions were unpopular. Only years later would Americans come to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man.
This is, of course, how the American people will come to see Dubya's Presidency. It's very unpopular now, but someday Dubya's stupid, shortsighted detractors will come "to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man".

I'm sure he has great faith in this.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Justice is served

Not that anyone is going to shed tears over Saddam Hussein's death, but it looks like all the TV news media are reporting this as justice served at long last. At last, the Iraqis can feel certain that they live in a regime under the rule of law, with the age of tyranny firmly behind them.

But I doubt whether the fall of Saddam is plausibly seen, from an Iraqi point of view, as having been authorized by any applicable law. Similarly for the subsequent establishment of the court system which subsequently tried and sentenced Saddam to death. Saddam's law certainly didn't guide the overthrow of Saddam's law. American law is some other place's law. International law withheld its approval.

One law that applies in any case is the law of the jungle. Has the age of Saddam come to its final end under the rule of law, or just because Saddam the strong man ran afoul of a yet stronger man?

Well, who cares what I think about it. What I'd like to know is what the Iraqis think about it.

Maybe the talking heads will say something about this after the story about the petition to name a Chicago street after James Brown.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Caption?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Is Jeopardy dumbing down?

I've been distinctly disappointed by a couple of the Final Jeopardies I've witnessed recently. I remember a time, not too long ago, when I found pretty much every Final Jeopardy to be utterly obscure, but a couple of weeks ago my jaw dropped when I saw this one:
This Britishism is a homophone of one of the letters of the alphabet, and is spelled with a consonant followed by a line of four vowels.
One of the contestants actually missed this one.

And just now, I saw this one:
This elevated area, where the Dome of the Rock sits, is also called this, after a different religious building
Two of the three contestants (including the returning champion) missed this one.

I mean, OK, maybe they're a little tricky, especially when you're working under a time limit with that annoying theme music going, but they hardly require the heroic feats of arcane knowledge that were required of Jeopardy champions in the past.

Maybe Jeopardy is under pressure to dumb down, what with all the competitor game shows where you can basically win a million dollars for being able to count to 30. But, come on, Trebek, where's your pride?

It's just so sad.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Quick, someone slap a Bibble up there

Some dude named Chuck Baldwin offers some helpful advice as to What patriotic Christians can do for America.

I read through the article without glancing at the sidebar, so it took me a while to figure out what he was advocating. Baldwin spends the first half or so of the piece talking about how Christians have to avoid allegiances to the two main political parties, the mainstream media, and various sorts of bad theology. Well, fair enough, but the "patriotic Christian" might also like some positive advice as to what sorts of commitments to seek out. Advice which is given here:
Hook up with your local John Birch Society. Join Larry Pratt's Gun Owners of America. Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership is another terrific pro-Second Amendment organization you should be familiar with.

In addition, I recently left the GOP and am now proud to be identified with the Constitution Party. I recommend the CP to my readers. I also like what Jim Gilchrist is doing with the Minuteman Project.
And... that's about it. Guns and keeping out the Mexicans. There may be other concerns floating around, but these are the ones that merited specific warrant.

Well... OK, that does fit in with a certain vision of patriotism.

As for the latter half of the "patriotic Christian" label, that is addressed, in the manner of an afterthought, in two brief sentences about prayer - presumably, asking God to give us guns and keep out the Mexicans. (Earlier in the article, there's also advice to seek out churches that uphold the central Christian ideals, which turn out to be: guns and keeping out the Mexicans.)

Speaking of Christianity-as-afterthought, I greatly enjoyed seeing how the site as a whole expresses its devotion to Jesus, that embodiment of the ideals of guns and keeping out the Mexicans. If you go to the drop-down menu at the top of the page, under "Documents", the last item is "The Holy Bible". This is a link to an online KJV Bible. Except nobody seems to have noticed that the link is broken, so all it really leads to is "File not found" in big red letters.

Profound.

(I just noticed that site is affiliated with Alan Keyes. That explains a lot.)

(hat tip Jesus Politics)

Behold the voluptuous sea-cow

I'm pretty late to this party, but, oh well.

I heartily recommend this latest creation from Conan O'Brien: HornyManatee.com.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Can a T-shirt send you to hell?

Saying you don't believe that the holy spirit exists won't do it. Neither will buying and wearing this, but it's probably closer to the mark.

(That's the worst I could find on that website, but there are some other ones that are pretty bad, too. I'm fascinated by this artful depiction of Ann Coulter, which scrupulously conceals the fact that Coulter is actually a sack of centipedes poorly disguised as a man poorly disguised as a woman.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dream the impossible blaspheme

The Rational Response Squad has issued the following Blasphemy Challenge to all non-believers:
The Rational Response Squad is giving away 1001 DVDs of The God Who Wasn't There, the hit documentary that the Los Angeles Times calls "provocative -- to put it mildly."
Incidentally, I saw that documentary a while back (well before my conversion), and found it pretty underwhelming. Maybe that's partly because I was then part of the choir to which it was preaching, but I also thought that some bits were uncomfortably childish and petty. But, hey, free is free, and this remains a pretty generous giveaway. Back to the Challenge:
There's only one catch: We want your soul.

It's simple. You record a short message damning yourself to Hell, you upload it to YouTube, and then the Rational Response Squad will send you a free The God Who Wasn't There DVD. It's that easy.

...

You may damn yourself to Hell however you would like, but somewhere in your video you must say this phrase: "I deny the Holy Spirit."

Why? Because, according to Mark 3:29 in the Holy Bible, "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." Jesus will forgive you for just about anything, but he won't forgive you for denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. Ever. This is a one-way road you're taking here.
Indeed, Mark 3:29 comes from the mouth of Jesus himself. Unfortunately, the claim that he's talking about denying the existence of the holy spirit is textually indefensible.

I don't know if anyone really knows what Jesus is talking about here, but it's clarified a bit by the context. The set-up for Jesus' declaration in v.29 is given in v.22:
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, "He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons."
It's in response to them that Jesus says (vv.28-29):
"I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin."
And, in case the reader has forgotten the context given in v.22, a reminder is given immediately thereafter (v.30):
He said this because they were saying, "He has an evil spirit."
So, blaspheming the holy spirit involves something like accusing the holy spirit of being an evil spirit. I'm not sure what it would mean to do that (it's not clear that Jesus is even accusing the people in v.22 of doing it - this could just be a warning), but, at the very least, it seems that blasphemy of the holy spirit involves having certain spiritual beliefs, which might also involve believing in the Abrahamic God.

This pretty much rules out the possibility that any genuine atheist could truly rise to the Blasphemy Challenge. Merely denying the existence of the holy spirit has nothing to do with blaspheming the holy spirit, and whatever this unforgivable sin really is, atheists can't commit it. Blasphemy Challenge is right that this is a "one-way road", but it seems likely that it's not a road that atheists can take. And one consequence of this is that there's nothing an atheist can do to eliminate the possibility of someday undergoing the terrifying process of Christian salvation.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Kierkegaard quotes (II)

The Kierkegaardian pseudonym Johannes Climacus, in Philosophical Fragments, recommends the following as a kind of (you might call it) statement of faith:
"...despite all objections, which I myself have fully considered in a form far more terrifying than the formulations anyone else is capable of posing to me, I nevertheless chose the improbable."
A point of clarification: The context in which this quote appears suggests that the term "improbable" here means not of low probability, but rather, beyond all categories of probability. The distinction between low and high probability is a quantitative one, as opposed to the qualitative distinction (parallel to that between finitude and infinitude) that is meant here. So Climacus' use of "improbable" is nothing like when e.g. Dawkins says that it is "improbable" that God exists. As Dawkins means it, the claim (that the probability that God exists is very low) is a category mistake: the realm of probability is the realm of the empirical, while religious categories are qualitatively higher.

The quoted statement sounds excessively strong, to the point of being prideful. But I kinda feel that the learning curve with respect to arguments contra (and also pro) faith reaches its plateau relatively quickly - I think you can pretty much exhaust all the important moves in the arguments without too much trouble. And if you've done that (a worthwhile endeavor for every believer), and weathered whatever crises of faith as might have popped up, the "objections" get demoted to the status of non-"terrifying" intellectual exercises. (It's impossible to inoculate oneself against crises of faith entirely. But dealing with the intellectual routes into them seems to be a tractable task.)

A piece of trivia: A prof informs me that the original Danish title is better translated as "Philosophical Crumbs". That is an awesome title. Why the hell someone would choose to go with "Fragments" instead is beyond me. Bloody fuddy duddy philosophical translators.... (The Danish, Smuler, even sounds like a crumby word.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Chuck Norris adds new Facts

The man himself has responded to the "Chuck Norris Facts". For example:
Alleged Chuck Norris Fact: "There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live."

It's funny. It's cute. But here's what I really think about the theory of evolution: It's not real. It is not the way we got here. In fact, the life you see on this planet is really just a list of creatures God has allowed to live. We are not creations of random chance. We are not accidents. There is a God, a Creator, who made you and me. We were made in His image, which separates us from all other creatures.
So, it's not quite as funny as him having a third fist hidden under his beard, but it's a fact that Chuck Norris is a creationist.

There's this curious trend where the tough guys of my youth have grown up to be conservative Christians (Mr. T and Hulk Hogan also come to mind). What's up with that? If he'd lived, would Bruce Lee have gone that way also? It boggles the mind.

Some words from Kierkegaard

From the Journals and Papers:
The more the phenomenon, the appearance, expresses that here God cannot possibly be present, the closer he is. This is the case with Christ. The very moment the appearance expressed that this man could not possibly be the God-man—no, when the appearance expressed that, men even refused to recognize him as a man (See, what a man!), then God was the closest to actuality he had ever been.

The law for God's remoteness (and the history of this is the history of Christendom) is as follows: Everything that strengthens the appearance distances God. At the time when there were no churches and the few Christians gathered together in catacombs as refugees and persecutees, God was closer to actuality. Then came churches, so many churches, such great, splended churches—to the same degree God was distanced. For God's nearness is inversely related to phenomenon, and this ascending scale (churches, many churches, splendid churches) is an increase in the sphere of appearance. When Christianity was not doctrine, when it was one or two affirmations expressed in one's life, God was closer to actuality than when Christianity became doctrine. And with every increase and embellishment of doctrine etc., to the same degree God was distanced. For doctrine and its dissemination is an increase in appearance, and God relates himself inversely. —When there were no clergy but the Christians were all brothers, God was closer to actuality than when there came to be clergymen, maybe clergymen, a powerful ecclesiastical order. For clergymen are an increase in appearance, and God relates inversely to phenomenon.

And this is how it happened that Christendom has step by step become just about the farthest distance possible from God, all under the claim that Christianity is perfectible, that it progresses. Christendom's history is one of alienation from God through the strengthening of appearance, or (as in certain situations we speak of removing someone tactfully and politely) Christendom's history is one of progressively removing God tactfully and politely by building churchs and monumental buildings, by a monstrous doctrinal system with an incalculable host of preachers.

Thus Christendom is just about the greatest distance possible from God.
This is probably too strong, and Kierkegaard says as much elsewhere in more measured moments. It is not that these external circumstances could suffice to automatically cut the individual believer off from God (nothing has that power). But as the edifice of Christendom is raised higher and higher, it becomes less and less likely that the average person will ever face the genuine question of becoming a Christian.

Blessed are you when you are given pizza and a nice toilet

Via the NY Times, some striking examples of church-state-conflating faith-based-nonsense, such as this one:
Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks — white porcelain ones, like at home — were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress.
I suppose the "E" in "Unit E" stood for "Evangelical".

"Unit E" was run on tax dollars, and was of course clearly unconstitutional. So much so that, when it was brought to court, the judge not only cut off its funding, but also ordered that the ministry repay the $1.5 million it had already received, on the grounds that "the constitutional violations were serious and clearly foreseeable".

Given that the program was so blatantly unconstitutional, why would anyone have tried it in the first place? I can't help wondering if it occurred to some clever soul that they should give this a shot, so that, in the likely event that it got shot down in the courts, then at least pastors of a certain politicized stripe would have something to get the flock riled up about. After all, it was helping inmates, and wasn't doing any harm.

Well, no harm apart from, say, this:
One Roman Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith.

“My No. 1 reason for leaving the program was that I personally felt spiritually crushed,” he testified at a court hearing last year. “I just didn’t feel good about where I was and what was going on.”
This isn't too surprising, given the attitude that many evangelical Christians seem to have towards Catholics. (Are they even Christians? They seem to worship an awful lot of idols. Even so, they still might not deserve to be "spiritually crushed".) Presumably someone who didn't lay claim to any form of Christian faith at all wouldn't have made it into the program in the first place.

Setting aside the political point of view, I'm wondering what, from a religious point of view, could make anyone think this program was a good idea. Are the privileges of "Unit E" supposed to prod the inmates along a path of "spiritual progress" (as judged by the people who run the program, naturally)? Are these material comforts meant to help convince these inmates to love God? I'm not sure how that could work, but maybe they're operating on the logic of Pascal's Wager - except instead of the infinite reward of heaven, they dangle the carrot of private toilets, live music, and food from Subway.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Every second of the night, I live another life

A dream.

This was a long dream, and I only remember this bit of it, which happened at about the half-way mark. I was walking up to my car (a mini landrover?), and I noticed some weirdo loitering nearby, who then started to walk after me as I approached the car. I got in and sat down in the passenger seat; shortly thereafter the weirdo walked up, and I locked the door. He pawed at it for a while, in weirdoish fashion, and then walked over to the driver's side. I then realized that the door was unlocked, but it was too late: he'd already opened it. There was a Club on the steering wheel, so I took it off and brandished it at the weirdo, trying to keep him at bay. Some stressful moments follow, as I fail to get the weirdo to go away. But then, help arrives: a kind man comes up and gets the guy to go away.

And that kind man was William H. Macy.

I forget what happened after that exactly, but he got in the car and we went for a drive. Somewhere along the line we drove the car up a slope until the slope went perpendicular and the car fell off. We didn't get hurt, though. I think it was indoors, in a structure shaped like a halfpipe, except it totally wasn't a halfpipe.

And this reminds me of another dream I had a while back.

This also involved a car and a celebrity. As I recall, I was in a car with Christopher Walken. We were on a terribly important mission of some sort. We didn't complete the mission, because along the way the driver (not me, not Walken) drove us off a cliff. Just when things seemed doomed, I somehow escaped the car, and found myself sitting alive but stranded on a ledge of the cliff. (I dunno what happened to the others.) I had a cell phone, so I called for help. And I guess the person I called was my mom, because shortly thereafter she appeared on the ledge with me. But instead of helping me, she criticized me for getting stuck on the ledge. So I remained stranded, but I must have been OK with that, because after the conversation I curled up with a blanket and pillow (I remember briefly wondering where those came from), and went to sleep.

Motifs: male celebrities, cars, being in cars with male celebrities, being in falling cars with male celebrities. Really cool and talented, but pretty weird looking male celebrities. Plus a hint of maternal beratement concerning things that aren't my fault. I wonder what it all could mean.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

All your praises they shall ring

A while back I saw "I'm Your Man", a recent doc about Leonard Cohen. The movie is based on various singers doing covers of Cohen's music, which turns out to be a recipe for general mediocrity, since only Leonard Cohen can really do Leonard Cohen.

There are a couple of nice exceptions, which are available on YouTube.

First, Antony doing a cover of "If It Be Your Will". (At first I was actually a little unsettled by how very weird-looking he is. But he has a great voice, so I got over it.)



Second, the final performance from the movie, with Leonard doing the singing, at last. When I saw this in the theatre, there were audible gasps when the camera zooms out after the first verse (you'll see what I mean; it's a nice touch).

Friday, December 01, 2006

A long post about The Gay

Gay marriage is now legally recognized in South Africa.
The law was approved by MPs two weeks ago despite objections from religious groups and traditional leaders.

The Constitutional Court ruled last year that the existing laws discriminated against homosexuals.

The Civil Union Act gives gay people the same rights as heterosexual couples.

The ruling was based on the constitution, which was the first in the world specifically to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference.

This is unusual in Africa where homosexuality is largely taboo - notably in its neighbour Zimbabwe.
Whodathunk that South Africa would have beat America to this bit of political progress. But I'm confident America's time will come, because the political stance against legal recognition of gay marriage is just so weak.

It's true that specifically religious arguments based on scripture are relatively difficult to attack (though I think that ultimately the politically most important version--the Christian one--doesn't really work), but these purely parochial arguments can't carry the full weight of anti-gay politics, and need to be supplemented by non-parochial political arguments. So we see the development of arguments based on concepts like "the sanctity of marriage", and these arguments are so thoroughly specious that I think they will certainly collapse in the face of the cruel onslaught of reality.

The American political community is genuinely responsive to reasons--it just takes a while sometimes. I'm going to go out on a limb, and give this process 20 years. This might sound overly optimistic in the current political climate, but back in the day one might well have thought the same thing about mixed-race marriages. (Today's arguments against gay marriage show remarkable parallels with yesterday's arguments against miscegenation, which carried the day in at least some American courtrooms until the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in 1967.)

So much for optimism. Against that, I see that the South African debate got caught up in a rather disquieting trend on the liberal side of the gay rights debate:
During the parliamentary debate earlier this month, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told MPs: "In breaking with our past... we need to fight and resist all forms of discrimination and prejudice, including homophobia."
What we see here is the common liberal assumption--or, let's say, the fantasy--that all moral/political opposition to gay rights is rooted in the psychological phenomenon of homophobia. And, to be clear, let's understand homophobia in the strict sense of an excessive emotional aversion to homosexuality or homosexuals. (The Wikipedia article on homophobia lists "discrimination" as part of the definition of "homophobia". This is a distortion of the psychological concept of phobia, but it's also commonly accepted, and often facilitates intellectually dishonest ad hominem attacks on the part of liberals.)

This liberal fantasy has a number of problems.

Most straightforwardly: it's empirically false. Homophobia is present in some cases, but it's simply false that all the opponents of gay rights are homophobic. There are people who make the moral/political judgment that homosexuality is immoral and needs to be legally distinguished from heterosexuality, and do this as a matter of principle, without any excessive emotional reactions to homosexuality, one way or the other.

And there are also moral problems with this liberal fantasy. For one thing, it at least partially removes people's responsibility for opposing gay rights--after all, it's generally unreasonable to hold people responsible for phobias, and the same ought to hold for homophobia. On a similar note: if the fantasy were true, then it would rule out the possibility of genuine conversation, because you can't reason with a phobia.

And, in any case, the fantasy is a form of insult and condescension towards opponents of gay rights, which makes it less likely that they'll enter into a reasonable discussion with liberals, which in turn reduces the prospects of political campaigns which attempt to further gay rights.

I'm not sure why this liberal fantasy has so much currency, but here's the naughtiest hypothesis that comes to mind. Probably the most common version of the liberal fantasy claims that the homophobia in question is the result of repressed homosexuality on the part of the opponents of gay rights. This is especially problematic, in that it exempts heterosexuals from responsibility for anti-gay attitudes: "heterosexuals don't hate homosexuals; repressed homosexuals hate homosexuals". And I strongly suspect that at least some liberals who hold to this view are themselves repressed homosexuals.

Here's how this would work. Our hypothetical repressed-homosexual liberal is a liberal only as a matter of abstract principle: as a matter of purely abstract principle, he supports equal rights for gays. But he doesn't want to have anything to do with gays in his personal life--his repressed homosexuality makes him homophobic. The way he covers up his repressed homosexual urges is by supporting gay rights in the abstract, and then imagining that all opposition to gay rights can be identified with repressed homosexuality--because if this is the correct theory of the psychological roots of opposition to gay rights, it follows that, as a proponent of gay rights, he himself can't possibly be gay. Thus his liberal attitudes, combined with the fantasy that all his ideological opponents are repressed homosexuals, amount to a very sophisticated strategy for coping with his own repressed homosexuality. "Heterosexuals don't hate homosexuals; only repressed homosexuals hate homosexuals; so as a supporter of gay rights I can't possibly be a homosexual"--he thinks such thoughts, and thus protects his shaky sexual identity.

I doubt this is a particularly common phenomenon, but I'm pretty sure it happens.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Children of Men

Another sneak preview: Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men.

I have a bit of respect for Cuarón, so I was a bit disappointed when I saw this movie's trailer a while back--it seemed hokey and uninspired. Luckily, the mediocre trailer really doesn't do justice to the work itself.

So I guess Cuarón might be my favourite living director. For example, on at least a couple of occasions in this movie, I was watching an amazing scene carefully unfold--very tense, very close, lots of action, great acting--and then I realized that what I was watching was in fact one long uncut shot, and I just about bit off my tongue. On a less jaw-dropping scale, Cuarón makes great use of bits of the set (ads, graffiti, etc.) to give the audience a feel for the world of the movie, which lets him avoid getting bogged down in lengthy and contrived expository dialogue.

The premise of the movie is that it's 2027, and no one has been able to have any children since 2009. Humanity seems doomed, and, naturally enough, most people seem to react by doing their best to ensure that the world ends sooner than later, and as violently as possible. So, all of humanity is lost in utter despair--but now comes, at long last, hope that humanity might yet survive.

In response to this, everything ought to change, the whole world ought to be still and silent, every other agenda ought to be stopped and forgotten. But this isn't what happens at all. For all but a few of the people we see in the movie, either nothing changes, or some things change, but only out of the recognition that this enormously important source of hope can be directly translated into power.

So, the movie has some hefty morals, but it doesn't waste time preaching. Explosions and bullets notwithstanding, the whole thing is nicely understated. Even heroism in the movie is understated--it isn't established through the familiar devices of close-ups of steely gazes or one-liners or rousing soliloquys or even slow-motion shots; rather, the heroism is displayed through (of all things) actions, shown in unadorned, documentary-style fashion.

The movie's also really funny, with some great moments of satire and black comedy.

So, great movie. It even managed to redeem Clive Owen in my eyes, which I wouldn't have thought possible following the breathtakingly awful King Arthur--that alone is quite the feat.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Apocalypto!

I caught a free sneak preview of Apocalypto tonight. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but the outline on the IMDb page for the movie reads:
As the Maya kingdom faces its decline, the rulers insist the key to prosperity is to build more temples and offer human sacrifices. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young man chosen for sacrifice, flees the kingdom to avoid his fate.
The tagline for the poster for the movie reads:
No one can outrun their destiny
And the Wikipedia writeup for the movie claims:
The movie is partially intended as a political allegory about civilizations in decline, in a way referring to the perceived crises Western civilization, and the United States more specifically, may be facing. Gibson compares Mayan human sacrifice with "sending guys off to Iraq for no reason".
All of which gives a pretty much completely misleading impression of the movie. It doesn't deal at all with themes like the collapse of civilizations, or destiny, or political allegory, or anything else of substance. It's a pretty standard Hero's Journey kinda action flick. The hero is ripped out of the world as he knows it (which is almost but not quite entirely destroyed); he has to fight his way back to what remains; he confronts some bad guys along the way. There are depictions of tragic events which momentarily manipulate the heart strings--and then, in most cases, get entirely forgotten in the rest of the movie.

On the other hand, it's got some impressive bits of action, some great gore, and some scenes of absolute hilarity (of both intentional and unintentional varieties). All the dialogue is in some variety of Mayan, which is kinda cool, and some of the costumes and sets are amazing. It's too bad they had to support a Mel Gibson plot.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Fake American Thanksgiving

According to Wikipedia, the Canadian version of Thanksgiving started with Martin Frobisher in 1578, a full 41 years before the Pilgrims started doing their thing at Plymouth. So I guess that basically means that the Canadian Thanksgiving is the authentic one.

Anyway, I spent this year's Fake American Thanksgiving in Indiana.

One of the highlights of the trip was passing through the city of Gary, Indiana (birthplace of Michael and the other Jacksons). Let me preface my comments about the place by saying this: I'm sure that, for those who live in Gary and have learned to love Gary, it contains wonders and moments of beauty that my untutored eyes simply fail to register. That said, it seems to me that Gary is quite possibly the most depressing city in America. Despite having a population of just 100,000, it's consistently one of the top ten most dangerous cities in the country. I guess it's basically a big suburb of Chicago, with all the disadvantages of urban sprawl, but not any of the advantages of being urban. A prominent billboard announces that the people of Gary are currently "Celebrating 100 Years of Steel". Evidence of their love of steel, and assorted matters industrial, can be seen in the forest of smokestacks which populates a good part of the city. (I've been told that at night the fire and smog does a fair impression of the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie. This sounds pretty awesome, and I plan to make a return visit to see this first hand.) Between the smokestack forest and the endless sea of suburbia, Gary features a small lake, which some gentle soul has adorned with an abundance of metal platforms and spikes--these don't seem to fulfill any functional role, so they were probably put there purely for their aesthetic value, as they nicely complement the canopy of criss-crossing powerlines hanging over the lake.

So much for Gary. In some other town in Indiana (I forget the name), there are street signs that read "CHURCH". I don't mean signs put up by the churches, but street signs put up by the town (or county or whatever), like ones that announce "DEER CROSSING" or "SCHOOL ZONE", except instead of warning drivers about the presence of deer or school children, they warn about the presence of churches. This is hard for me to understand. Are they meant to be interpreted as "PASTOR CROSSING, SLOW DOWN", or "NO SINNING, NEXT MILE", or what?

So, parts of Indiana are kinda weird. But for the most part it looks just like Alberta.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dr. Dino gets rendered

Recreational creationism has been dealt a blow by The Man:
Kent Hovind, founder of Creation Science Evangelism and Dinosaur Adventure Land in Pensacola, was found guilty of 58 counts, including failure to pay $845,000 in employee-related taxes. He faces a maximum of 288 years in prison.

Jo Hovind was charged and convicted in 44 of the counts involving evading bank-reporting requirements. She faces up to 225 years in prison but was allowed to remain free pending the couple's sentencing on Jan. 9.
The defence:
Kent Hovind, whose life's mission is to debunk evolution, says he and his employees are workers of God and therefore exempt from paying taxes.
Wow. Among other things, one might wonder if Hovind ever bothered actually reading the bible:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?"

But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, "Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax." And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"

They said to Him, "Caesar's."

Then He said to them, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's."
It's not exactly an obscure passage.

Then again, it just might be that Hovind rightly perceived this response which Jesus failed to anticipate in his argument. Imagine:
"Kent, show me the bill used for the tax. Whose likeness and inscription is this?"

"Well," Hovind replied, "that's a picture of Ben Franklin, but the inscription says 'God'."
Ha! Take that Jesus!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A poem

By Pablo Neruda (translated by Nathaniel Tarn):
I'm Explaining a Few Things

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I'll tell you all the news.

I lived in a suburb,
a suburb of Madrid, with bells,
and clocks, and trees.

From there you could look out
over Castille's dry face:
a leather ocean.
My house was called
the house of flowers, because in every cranny
geraniums burst: it was
a good-looking house
with its dogs and children.
Remember, Raul?
Eh, Rafel? Federico, do you remember
from under the ground
my balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
Brother, my brother!
Everything
loud with big voices, the salt of merchandises,
pile-ups of palpitating bread,
the stalls of my suburb of Arguelles with its statue
like a drained inkwell in a swirl of hake:
oil flowed into spoons,
a deep baying
of feet and hands swelled in the streets,
metres, litres, the sharp
measure of life,
stacked-up fish,
the texture of roofs with a cold sun in which
the weather vane falters,
the fine, frenzied ivory of potatoes,
wave on wave of tomatoes rolling down the sea.

And one morning all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings --
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children's blood.

Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!

Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives!

Treacherous
generals:
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain :
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every socket of Spain
Spain emerges
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.

And you'll ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
In the streets!
Happy Remembrance Day.

(On this day about a decade ago, someone pointed out to me that In Flanders Field, a central symbol of Remembrance Day in Canada, doesn't do a very good job of symbolizing the right sort of remembrance. The first two stanzas are all right, but the third hits the wrong note:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Remembrance Day originated with Armistice, and thus marks the end of the quarrel with the foe. At least, that particular quarrel with that particular foe.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Driscoll: The Gay stops with Haggard

Via Jesus Politics, some thoughts by Mark Driscoll on the Ted Haggard spectacle. The post mostly consists of bits of practical advice on how men of the cloth can keep themselves from cheating on their spouses.

It occurs to me that there are a number of shots I could take here, but I've got reading and (other) writing to do, so I'll just briefly take the snarkiest shot that comes to mind.

In particular, let me call attention to Driscoll's implicit belief that The Gay stops with Haggard, and definitely doesn't exist elsewhere among his putatively straight and non-repressed fellow pastors, and most definitely nowhere around Driscoll personally. This is seen in the curious fact that the post starts by talking about Haggard, who was engaged in some sexual-or-quasi-sexual shenanigans with a gay prostitute, and then quietly shifts over to the topic of pastors (male pastors, naturally) having heterosexual affairs.

Why the change in topic? Does Driscoll not have any ideas on how pastors might improve their ability to resist the temptation to abandon sexual relations with their wives (who, as Driscoll explains, have probably "let themselves go") in favour of some hot man-on-Christian-man action?

In light of such questions, consider Driscoll's note that:
I have been blessed with a trustworthy heterosexual male assistant who can travel with me, meet with me, etc., without the fear of any temptations or even false allegations since we have beautiful wives and eight children between us.
I'm not sure how this is supposed to distinguish them from pre-scandal Haggard: decades into a heterosexual marriage, with 5 kids to show for it.

Alas, if only Haggard had had a truly trustworthy, "heterosexual" male assistant with whom to travel, meet, "etc.", his secret double-life would still be happily out of the media spotlight.

***

On a related note, there's a wave of anti-gay marriage action going on in the midterm election. Let us take this occasion to remind ourselves of the two leading theories on why (as I have heard more than one TV preacher state in no uncertain terms) gay marriage is The Number One Threat Facing Civilization As We Know It Today: the Octopus of Marriage theory and the Familion Decay theory.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

OMG, it burns!

Dawn drew my attention to the following claim from Spinoza's Ethics:
...when we look at the sun, we imagine it as about two hundred feet away from us...
And then my brain stopped working for a few minutes.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Say this three times fast

"pancake-shaped cables"

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Because I'm just not busy enough

This year I intend to participate (successfully) in NaNoWriMo; i.e., I intend to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November.

No, this isn't a particularly bright plan. But it's not the stupidest possible plan, either. The month of November will end before this quarter's paper-writing season begins (at least, as I procrastinatorially understand the quarterly paper-writing season).

I invite others to join me in my madness. (If you need a writing-buddy, look me up under "flyingricepaddy".)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Duty, duty: what hast thou dunst?

1. From Kant's Critique of Practical Reason:
Duty!--you sublime, grand name which encompasses nothing that is favored yet involves ingratiation, but which demands submission, yet also does not seek to move the will by threatening anything that would arouse natural aversion in the mind and terrify, but merely puts forth a law that on its own finds entry into the mind and yet gains grudging veneration (even if not always compliance), a law before which all inclinations fall silent even if they secretly work against it: what origin is worthy of you, and where does one find the root of your noble descent that proudly rejects all kinship with inclinations, the root from which to be descended is the irremissible condition of that worth which human beings alone can give themselves? (Ak. 5:86)
2. William Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty":
Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!
O Duty! if that name thou love,
Who art a light to guide, a rod
To check the erring and reprove;
Thou, who art victory and law
When empty terrors overawe;
From vain temptations dost set free;
And calm'st the weary strife of frail humanity!...
Ew, ugh, ick, OK, stop.

3. Ogden Nash's "Kind Of An Ode To Duty":
O Duty,
Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?
Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously?
Why art thou clad so abominously?
Why are thou so different from Venus
And why do thou and I have so few interests mutually
in common between us?
Why art thou fifty per cent martyr
And fifty-one per cent Tartar?

Why is it thy unfortunate wont
To try to attract people by calling on them either to
leave undone the deeds they like, or to do the deeds
they don't?
Why art thou so like an April post-mortem
Of something that died in the ortumn?

Above all, why dost thou continue to hound me?
Why art thou always albatrossly hanging around me?
Thou so ubiquitous,
And I so iniquitous,
I seem to be the one person in the world thou art
perpetually preaching at who or to who;
Whatever looks like fun, there art thou standing
between me and it, calling "you-hoo".

O Duty, Duty!
How noble a man should I be hadst thou the visage of
a sweetie or a cutie!
But as it is thou art so much forbiddinger than a
Wodehouse hero's forbiddingest aunt
That in the words of the poet, When Duty whispers low
"Thou must," this erstwhile youth replies, "I just can't".
I think that "albatrossly" line must be something like what Kant meant by the "sublime".

(If you don't get the joke in the title, you have yet to be exposed to "Look Around You". In which case you have a duty to get over to YouTube right now.)

Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope

My copy of Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope arrived in the mail the other day.

The first of the many cool things about the book: you can't tell from the product shots that you find online, but the dust-jacket is shiny. The spine is all silvery and metallic blue, and I doubt that it will ever lose its status as the most attractive book on my shelf.

I've mentioned this book before: it deals with the collapse of traditional Crow culture, and how the Crow dealt with that collapse under the leadership of Plenty Coups. Lear has an online essay about the book. Quick description of the problem the book addresses:
If we were to have the historical bad luck to be living at a time when our culture was collapsing, what would it be to face such a disaster with courage and integrity? This turns out to be an incredibly difficult question to answer. Precisely because one's culture is collapsing, one can no longer turn to the received tradition of what counts as courage or integrity: for that tradition is part of what is collapsing. In the case of the tribes of the northwest plains, they had understood courage in terms of warrior honor; but intertribal warfare had become impossible. How can one face courageously the fact that it is no longer possible to live courageously — at least, as courage has been traditionally understood?
I haven't finished it yet, but I can say that the first third of the book includes some of the most chilling philosophical writing I have ever read. This stuff gives me the creeps. It's awesome.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Shelley: atheistic champion of reason

It's common in some quarters to associate atheism with rationality. Sometimes people can make a decent case for this. But, for others, it's just a dull prejudice which, on occasion, moves them to say some silly things.

Here's an example from a Wired article on "the New Atheism" (via Paul in comments):
Oxford University is the capital of reason, its Jerusalem. Logic Lane, a tiny road under a low, right-angled bridge, cuts sharply across to the place where Robert Boyle formulated his law on gases and Robert Hooke first used a microscope to see a living cell. A few steps away is the memorial to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here he lies, sculpted naked in stone, behind the walls of the university that expelled him almost 200 years ago -- for atheism.
So, Boyle, Hooke, and Shelley are cited as champions of reason? Well, Boyle and Hooke (both of whom were Christians, as it happens) are all right, though they're not the best a person could come up with.* But Shelley? The author implies that Shelley's atheism shows how rational he was. But Shelley was a great Romantic poet, part of a movement that was, in large part, a reaction to the unconditional veneration of reason (and associated ideals of the Enlightenment).

A quick glance at Shelley's The Necessity of Atheism (which led to his expulsion from Oxford) suggests two things about his thoughts on religion. First, the tract is hardly a showcase of reasoned argument. Second, Shelley wasn't an atheist:
This negation [that there is no God] must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.
The term "atheism" used to be used quite a bit more loosely than it is nowadays; nowadays, we'd probably say that Shelley was a pantheist. (Coincidentally, I'm currently reading On Religion, by another prominent Romantic, Schleiermacher. In that book, Schleiermacher defends a conception of religion which is probably more or less identical to Shelley's belief in a "pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe". Both Schleiermacher and Shelley seem to be fond of Spinoza, who was another famous pantheist who used to get labeled as an atheist.)

_____
* It seems to me that Kant trumps pretty much everyone else in this regard. Of course, Kant doesn't fit into the setting of the article, because he taught at the University of Königsberg, not Oxford. (And this, I'd say, suffices to show that the University of Königsberg has more right to the title of "capital of reason" than does Oxford, based on this principle: If X is the place where Kant worked, then X is the capital of reason.) Plus, Kant was a theist (albeit not much of one).

Monday, October 16, 2006

Richard Dawkins: faith is evil

Some more confused ideas from the Dawkins interview:
I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence.
Actually, a lot of believers think that there is plenty of evidence for their beliefs. Some creationists, for example, will say that it takes more faith to be an atheist than a creationist. I think they're wrong about the evidence, and wrong about what faith is, but in any case Dawkins' characterization of faith doesn't fit this substantial section of the religious populace. Anyway, moving on:
And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything.
Technically what I think he's talking about is believing things without justification. So I suppose he's saying that it's evil to believe things without justification.

There are two problems with what Dawkins says here. The first is that this doesn't have much to do with religion: most cases of unjustified belief have nothing to do with religion at all. The second is that unjustified belief (in and of itself) isn't evil or problematic or even optional. The most rational among us can justify our beliefs only to a point--eventually justifications run out. As per the namesake of this blog:
If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do."
Of course, having an unjustified evil belief is evil--but that's because the belief is evil, not because it's unjustified. So, let's cut to the kernel of insight which Dawkins provides: evil things are evil.

Dawkins provides some examples of such evil beliefs, and then goes on to discuss the role of faith in society (the bolded emphasis is mine):
If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die -- anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed -- that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that.
I'm not sure how Dawkins could possibly think that last sentence there is true. Hereabouts, nobody is the least bit expected to respect the notion that blasphemers and apostates ought to be killed. And while my knowledge of the cultural norms of Britain is somewhat limited, I'm pretty sure the same goes for Dawkins' side of the pond as well.
Whether or not we're actually faithful ourselves, we've been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it's had historically -- the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York -- all in the name of faith.
Well, we are expected to respect some forms of faith, and let some forms of faith go without challenge, at least at a political level. Dawkins has apparently convinced himself that this ideal of mutual religious respect extends, without qualification, to those "evil consequences" he lists. This is simply false, obviously bizarre--maybe Dawkins should turn his critique of unjustified belief against himself.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Richard Dawkins on literalism

Richard Dawkins has an interview in Salon promoting his new anti-religious book. He makes a number of claims against religion (in all its forms). None of them is particularly good, and I've got something to say about them all. But I'll start with a relatively easy one:
Dawkins: [Some people who were raised religious] remember reading their holy book, and they take it literally. They really do believe it. Now, the moderate ones don't really believe it, but they have taught children that faith is a virtue.
So, the first claim I'd like to address:

Believers who don't interpret their religious texts literally don't really believe in those texts.

Regarding the possibility of different ways of really believing in scripture, I'll just repeat this bit from this Real Live Preacher post:
That old man that you brushed aside? The one you called a liberal and a wishy-washy Christian? He spent the last fifty years with his hands and his heart in the pages of that sacred book. He has wept over it and searched for truth in its stories. His unanswered questions have increased every year until finally he knows nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor.

He knows something that you do not know.
So, yes, you can interpret scripture non-literally, and yet truly believe in it.

But there's a deeper problem with Dawkins' claim. Far from believing that only a literalist can really believe in a religious text, I'm actually inclined towards aliteralistism: the belief that literalists don't exist. At least, I believe that this is the case in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

My reasoning here is that there are verses in the Old Testament which cannot be interpreted literally. And by "cannot" I mean it's impossible--not wrong or awkward or silly, but impossible. Consider, for example, Song of Solomon 4:12 (I've chosen the King James translation, which is of course the most literalisty of all translations):
A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
Interpreted literally, this verse means that there exists a garden, which is also a spring and a fountain, and that this garden/spring/fountain is the author's sister and his wife. It's not just false or silly or awkward, but (literally) impossible to suppose that the author of the verse is saying any such thing. (Just to be perfectly clear, I'll point out the problems here. For one thing, while springs and fountains are kinda similar, gardens aren't much like either of them--although a garden might contain a spring, a garden cannot be identical to a spring. For another thing, neither a garden nor a spring nor a fountain is a person; hence such an entity cannot be a member of a human family as a sister, and cannot enter the bonds of holy matrimony as a spouse. As for the claim that the author of the verse is married to his sister, that's a little weird, but there might be some precedent for that sort of thing in the Old Testament.)

So I can only conclude that, when it is claimed that someone is a literalist, that claim is necessarily false, and also crazy.

Either that, or the term "literalist" isn't meant to be interpreted literally, which would be cute.

(Via Jesus Politics.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Academic update

I asked around about the format for the German exam, and decided that, at least for now, I can't translate quickly enough to really stand much of a chance of passing. So I guess I'll be doing in the spring instead. In the meantime, I've got some practising to do. Oh, joy.

(Why didn't I study up for French instead? I could take a French exam instead of the German. The French language puts its verbs in sensible places, doesn't make its basic vocabulary play 3 or 4 drastically different roles, plus I studied the bloody language for something like 8 years. Mais que je suis bête!)

In case anyone's curious, here are the courses I'm taking at the moment.

First up is one on the philosophy of religion, from Hume to Kierkegaard. This is largely about the demise of natural theology. Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and Philosophical Fragments are on the syllabus. Yay, Kierkegaard!

Next is a course on Plato's Protagoras. Ancient philosophy isn't really my thing, but Socrates was one of Kierkegaard's things, so that gives me a reason to pay some attention.

Last is a course on Heidegger's Being and Time. Reading Heidegger is a chore--which you would expect, since he was German. Of course, I'm reading it in translation, but no matter how well you translate German writing, you can never fully cleanse the sentences of their intrinsic awfulness. Still, he is very cool, and so far the prof has been targeting what strike me as the extra cool bits (his writings on philosophical method, and the significance of anxiety).

Monday, October 09, 2006

Books! (Bücher!)

Tis the weekend of the local coop's annual used book sale, where pocket-book-sized paperbacks go for a quarter. A fricken quarter. Even in American money, that is absurdly cheap.

Following a pair of lengthy expeditions spent digging through trashy romance novels in search of gold, I think I've expanded my library by about 40 or so. My finds included a number of good Freuds (both Sigmund and Anna, plus an absurdly large biography on Sigmund), some all right philosophy (Husserl, Pascal, Montaigne, Locke, Marcus Aurelius), classic sci-fi (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke), and some fiction written by snooty foreigners (Kazantzakis, Nabakov, Solzhenitsyn, Achebe).

Since I'm all into religion now, I picked up five carefully chosen exemplars of that category: Dianetics, Left Behind, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad-Gita, and Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology.

In other news, I'm trying to prepare for the German translation exam which I'm planning on taking on Friday. I don't think I have the words to express how unbearable it is to read German--but that's OK, because Mark Twain did a fine job back in the day of describing The Awful German Language. An excerpt:
The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called "separable verbs." The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab -- which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:
"The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED."
However, it is not well to dwell too much on the separable verbs. One is sure to lose his temper early; and if he sticks to the subject, and will not be warned, it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it. Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six -- and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.
Reading that essay is pretty much a necessity for anyone who wants to study German without going insane.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Danielson!

Baboon Palace makes its triumphant return to the blogosphere with a post linking to a music video for Danielson's Did I Step On Your Trumpet? I defy you to watch that video and not be put into a better mood.

It was a BP post from a while back (right after I converted, I think) that introduced me to the wonderful world of Danielson in the first place. Immer schon Excelsior!

Danielson's music is generally distinctively Christian (though Did I Step On Your Trumpet? is not obviously Christian). Of course, it's easy to miss that aspect of the music on a casual listening. This is mostly because it isn't awful.

Danielson remains pretty much the only Christian music I can stomach, excepting stuff written by people who are long dead. The essence of most of the other Christian music I've encountered has been nicely captured by the Wittenburg Door: Evangelical Mad Libs. See some concrete examples of this sort of depth and artistry here. One of those songs shows up fairly frequently at the church I go to--it's a weekly spiritual exercise for me to set aside my moderately snobbish sense of musical aesthetics for the duration of the service (though I had a brief respite the time we did Be Thou My Vision).

Here are five other examples of great Danielson songs (and great Danielson lyrics).

What to Wear
Goin' to a dance party with God!
Goin' dancin' with God!!
What to wear to the funeral!
Be Your Wildman
My loins say just one thing to me...
But my brain...
My brain says another thing to me!
But my loins...


I deserve to be dropkicked!
I deserve to be backdropkicked!
Dropkicked by my God, but he won't...
I deserve to be dropkicked!
Fathom The Nine Fruits Pie
Our Lord of the Dance will come!
Time to eat, time to eat! Come and get it, time to eat!
Love, and joy, and peace, and patience!
Kindness! Goodness! Faithfulness!
Gentleness and self-control!

Time to eat, time to eat! Come and get it, time to eat!
the lords rest
A certain day has been set!
And it's called "Today"!
Today with a capital "T"!!

Fire will test the realness of each man's fire will test the realness of each man's fire ...
(His banner over me is love...)
Can We Camp At Your Feet
I get down ...
from my sky ... high ... chair ...
to camp ... at ... your ... feet ...

With what can I get away?
Your love will have your way!
With us...
Your love will have your way!
I'm not sure if these are my favourite all-time Danielson songs, but there are listed roughly in order of increasingly preference. The first two are just hilarious, and make me grin. Fathom The Nine Fruits Pie is like a shot of pure, unadulterated joy, and makes me want to dance. And I wish songs like the lords rest and Can We Camp At Your Feet would show up in church, although the arrangement and Danielson's falsettos make that idea somewhat less than practical.

(The internets tell me Danielson will be coming to Chicago next May. Woo!)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

One more stat

From a Time article:
HOW MUCH EASIER IS IT TO GET INTO A TOP SCHOOL IF YOU HAVE THESE SPECIAL PREFERENCES?

If the parent pledges enough money or is a big enough celebrity or powerful enough alumnus, the break can amount to 300 SAT points out of 1600, which is as much or more than a typical affirmative-action preference would be. About a third of the kids at the typical élite university would probably not be there if not for those preferences.

Universities, privilege and hypocrisy

Via Jason Stanley, an Economist article about the "bastions of privilege and hypocrisy" that are American universities.
No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks.
We can probably discount sports scholarships as accounting for a fraction of that 60%, which implies that a solid majority of the student body at America's top universities were accepted (at least in part) for completely unmeritocratic, classist reasons. A majority.

I'd be interested to see what percentage of students in top Canadian universities are "hooked" applicants. I suspect we ought to be grateful that our major universities are public institutions and aren't completely beholden to rich alumni. Back at SFU I remember hearing that some visiting prof from some big-shot American university had remarked that the SFU undergrads were generally brighter than the ones at his home institution. At the time I figured that was empty flattery, but maybe it was just a matter of his usual students having more money than brains.

Two points from the article I found particularly curious.

First:
You might imagine that academics would be up in arms about this. Alas, they have too much skin in the game. Academics not only escape tuition fees if they can get their children into the universities where they teach. They get huge preferences as well. Boston University accepted 91% of “faculty brats” in 2003, at a cost of about $9m. Notre Dame accepts about 70% of the children of university employees, compared with 19% of “unhooked” applicants, despite markedly lower average SAT scores.
I'm a bit more ambivalent about tuition waivers--it might be considered a relatively harmless job perk. But my objectivity is impaired here, since I'm hoping to be one of those academics someday. In any case, it's clearly outrageous (embarrassing, pathetic) that the applications of children of faculty should get preferential treatment.

Second:
Asian-Americans are the “new Jews”, held to higher standards (they need to score at least 50 points higher than non-Asians even to be in the game) and frequently stigmatised for their “characters” (Harvard evaluators persistently rated Asian-Americans below whites on “personal qualities”).
Well, this was the first I'd heard of that. I did some googling, and it turns out that race-based affirmative action policies benefit only non-Asian minorities, and admission "hooks" tend to go to whites.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Emerson quotes

I read Emerson's Self-Reliance yesterday. (In connection with Stanley Cavell's Cities of Words. "Self-Reliance" is one of many texts which Cavell addresses in that book. I was told Cavell's interpretations are "idiosyncratic". I'm beginning to suspect that that's an unnecessarily charitable way of saying "spurious".)

Anyway, some quotable quotes from Emerson.

On, of all things, whim:
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.
And on Christendom (I wonder if he ever read Kierkegaard):
For every Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?
And on an activity which I find periodically confusing:
Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Decider becomes the Definer

Q: If we called a tail a "leg", how many legs would a horse have?
A: Four.

It's a tricky question, because it can sometimes be difficult to remember that things are what they are, regardless of what we call them.

And torture is torture regardless of what the American President wants to call it--a point missed by the recent anti-terror legislation:
As provided by the Constitution and by this section, the President has the authority for the United States to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions and to promulgate higher standards and administrative regulations for violations of treaty obligations which are not grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
At times like this, when the American government has effectively legalized torture, it's important to find reason to laugh. I think the right note of absurdity can be found by comparing the legislation with Bush's attempt to rationalize it a couple of weeks ago:
This debate is occurring because of the Supreme Court's ruling that said that we must conduct ourselves under the Common Article III of the Geneva Convention. And that Common Article III says that there will be no outrages upon human dignity. It's very vague. What does that mean, "outrages upon human dignity"? That's a statement that is wide open to interpretation.
Bush vigorously protests that he doesn't have the foggiest clue as to what the Conventions might mean--and then the Senate goes and gives him the job of interpreting the damn thing. It's like something straight out of an episode of Seinfeld.

But comedy tends to walk hand in hand with tragedy. Consider how Bush continued his rationalizing:
And what I'm proposing is that there be clarity in the law so that our professionals will have no doubt that that which they are doing is legal.
But this new law is only as clear as Bush's own understanding of what might count as "outrages upon human dignity"--a matter which he professes to find utterly opaque and obscure. Where does this leave America's torturers? Imagine the plight of those poor souls who would practice sadism on behalf of the American people: the President had promised them peace of mind, but, alas, those hopes have now been cruelly dashed.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Identity crisis

Dawn and I were waiting in line at the grocery store, and I was browsing the newspaper headlines. One of them caught my eye. Why can't Americans make a cup of tea? it asked.

Me: "Why can't Americans make a cup of tea? What? I can make- ...uh, hold on, I'm not an American."

Dawn: "...you had to think about it?"

I very nearly started crying.

I spent the next few minutes mentally spelling "colour", and thinking about toques and poutine.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sam Harris doesn't grok goats

Albert Mohler writes a brief review of Sam Harris' brief new book. I found it interesting mostly for the quotes. Naturally, Harris' new book has some things to say about "religious liberalism/moderation":
I have written elsewhere about the problems I see with religious liberalism and religious moderation. Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than the liberals and moderates generally admit. [...] If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself.
I guess he's talking about hell. I'm not sure why Harris has any interest whatsoever in what any theist thinks his fate in the afterlife will be. In any case, he wants to accuse "liberals" of faithlessness on the grounds that, for example, they think Christian salvation is more universal than the Bible really says it is.

Regarding what he takes the Bible to really say about salvation (and, by implication, where "liberals" get Christianity wrong), he writes:
If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell. Worse still, I have persuaded others, and many close to me, to reject the very idea of God. They too will languish in "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41).
It's a curious choice of scripture to prove this particular point. I can only assume that Harris came up with it by typing "eternal fire" into the search function of some site like BibleGateway and picking the best looking verse on the search result page:
Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Of course, before using this verse to prove his point, he might want to consider reading the context. In this case, the context is the parable of the sheep and the goats.
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'"
Let's focus on what this parable doesn't talk about: namely, belief. In this parable there is nothing, not even a single word, about accepting Jesus as your saviour, or having any thoughts about Jesus at all, or having any thoughts about God at all. There is nothing here to support the idea that "unbelief" implies damnation. To the contrary, this parable ought to make one wonder whether professing a Christian faith, or being any kind of theist at all, is in any way essential for salvation.

Without presupposing any particular interpretation, it seems clear that you would be hard-pressed to read this passage and think that it makes the positive claim that salvation is the exclusive province of Christians. Either Harris didn't bother to read the rest of the parable, or he read it and decided to ignore the context and cite the verse anyways.

(It is also curious that Albert Mohler implicitly endorses Harris' use of Matthew 25:41, or, at least, doesn't think to comment on it. This might have something to do with his theology.)

(Hat tip to Jesus Politics)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Fringe benefits

A couple of days ago I was on campus, and was randomly accosted by this smiling stranger who came up to me, said hello, told me his name, and then asked me for mine.

An ominous, aggressively friendly opening.

Sure enough, after exchanging names and a few pleasantries, he started proselytising, inviting me to his bible study, yadda yadda. I found myself confronted with the dilemma of either getting into what could turn out to be a drawn-out conversation that I didn't really feel like, or figuring out some way to extricate myself from the situation--and given how focused this guy seemed to be, it looked like that might involve either quick thinking or a touch of distinctly unCanadian rudeness.

Then it occurred to me that I now have access to a quick and easy response.

"I'm a Christian. I already have a church."
"Oh. OK."

This conversion thing is really paying off for me.

I've been reevaluating this way of responding to proselytisers. I think this guy might have been a Jehovah's Witness, and it's possible that a determined JW might respond to a profession of Christian faith by asking a bunch of follow-up questions about it. Usually this is not the desired outcome. Maybe in the future I could say I'm a born again Christian (technically true), which should be enough to convince all but the most foolhardy JW that the prospects of recruiting me are dim.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Witness to an unexciting coup

So I know this guy Paul. He's starting a new job training Burmese activists. (At the moment, Burma is not a happy place.) His work will be based in northern Thailand.

As such, on Monday he flew into Bangkok.

Then, on Tuesday, there was a coup.

I'm sure this was no coincidence. I was expecting him to trigger a coup in Burma, but perhaps he got confused.

He says the coup is pretty uninteresting in his neighbourhood, and might well stay that way, but I'll be watching his blog anyways.

Sam Harris: hard on terrorism

In his latest, Sam Harris (the End of Faith guy, and self-described liberal) declares:
On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right.

This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that "liberals are soft on terrorism." It is, and they are.
Here is his chief complaint against liberals (except for himself):
...despite abundant evidence to the contrary, liberals continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism.
I'm not sure what this abundant evidence is--Harris provides no hints. But let's focus on the connection between American militarism and Muslim terrorism; let's also focus on Bin Laden's followers, since that's the brand of terrorism which Harris is specifically addressing. How did Bin Laden attract his followers in the first place, pre-9/11? In 1998, he issued a fatwah declaring jihad against all Americans, in which he listed "three facts" which he took to provide an argument for the conclusion that America had already effectively declared war on Islam, necessitating jihad in response.

The three "facts", in brief: US military presence on the Arabian peninsula; US aggression against the Iraqi people; and US military support for Israel. Note the common theme.

A few details aren't immediately relevant here. It's not relevant how bad this "argument" for jihad is. It's not relevant that the "facts" are distortions (well, at least in parts). It's not even relevant that Bin Laden himself possibly didn't really give a damn about most of these issues. What is relevant is that some people received these "facts", and believed that they were true, and believed that they yielded an argument for the violent jihad of which 9/11 was a part.

Of course the situation has changed since 1998. The first "fact" no longer applies, but one imagines that the force of the second "fact" has been immensely strengthened in the eyes of Bin Laden's target audience.

In any case, it certainly looks as if American militarism (or, certain perceptions of it) was in fact a crucial part of Bin Laden's recruitment drive. I'm not sure what Harris would say in response. He ought to have something to say in response, though, if he is going to accuse liberals of ignoring, and even abetting, the One True Cause of terrorism: religious ideas, and the refusal to criticize them.
Given the degree to which religious ideas are still sheltered from criticism in every society, it is actually possible for a person to have the economic and intellectual resources to build a nuclear bomb — and to believe that he will get 72 virgins in paradise.
This is Harris' constant theme. The greatest problem facing the world today is religion: a certain murderous form of it, in the first place; but also liberal ideals of religious tolerance which prevent the criticism of all religious ideas.

Including, apparently, those of Bin Laden and his ilk. Thus it becomes impossible, I guess, to criticize the idea that blowing up a bunch of people with a nuclear bomb will get you into paradise--which is why you'll never find any real criticism of that idea from a secular liberal pluralist, or a theist of any kind, and certainly not any Muslim.

Right. So much for the most substantive points in Harris' article. It mostly goes downhill from there.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Jesus Camp

I mentioned this Jesus Camp movie before, and I keep getting more and more excited about it. It's a great concept for a documentary, and I think we can be fairly confident that it's a fair portrayal, given that Becky Fischer, who runs the camp, has endorsed the documentary and helped promote it.

YouTube vids:
  • The trailer again.
  • Clip with Fischer explaining how Christian kids need to be taught to lay their lives down for the truth.
  • Clip with 10 year old Tory explaining her taste in Christian music, and how she needs to dance for God and not "for the flesh".
  • ABC News segment on the documentary, including clips of kids at the camp praying for an end to abortion, and "worshipping to a picture of President Bush".
Some articles via Jesus Politics:
Apparently this bible camp documentary thing is some kind of fad: here's another one about a camp for gay Christians (also via Jesus Politics).

Christian makers strike back

Judy Abolafya, who was the focus of part of a Salon article I made a post about a couple days ago, has made a response to Salon, which she's been copy-pasting to some of the blogs which picked up the story. (Apparently the article made a big splash on some of the internets.)

I'd figured that the article might have been written so as to focus on some aspects of the interview at the expense of others, but Abolafya's response suggests that it might have involved more serious misrepresentations. (At one point she complains about a quote attributed to her in the article. I'm not sure if she meant to say that she was misquoted there.)

Echidne of the Snakes writes a response to part of Abolafya's response. Not the part that claims that she was misrepresented (I'm inclined to think that she was), but Abolafya's attempt to defend her church from the charge of sexism. Apart from the portrayal of Abolafya's home life, one might wonder about this feature of her church (from the Salon article):
Following Driscoll's biblical reading of prescribed gender roles, women quit their jobs and try to have as many babies as possible.
I'm not sure where in the bible one gets that from.

Anyways, Abolafya responds:
To suggest that I am at the effect of a misogynist husband and church is hilarious when you consider the real sexism that I experienced in the music industry as a single woman. I toured with a band once whose tour manager used to make jokes that I should play “bunk roulette” with the guys on the bus. I got kicked off a tour for the simple fact that I was a woman because the drummer’s girlfriend thought he’d hit on me. And I couldn’t go to a venue without local security guards assuming I was a groupie or that one of the guys in the band was my boyfriend.
Echidne:
This statement reminded me of other defenses of the voluntary submission of women I have read on my tours of Christian Lady blogs. The basic idea is that women must make a bargain with the sexist world: either you will be molested and treated poorly by most men out there or you can choose one husband to obey and he will protect you. But in either case you submit, really. That there might be a third alternative for women doesn't enter the discussion at all.
Every woman needs a good strong man to protect her from the patriarchy.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Define means: "to give a definition of something"

I got a great treat in the mailbox today: the latest issue of Ability, the Magazine of the Church of Scientology of Illinois.

So it would seem that some former tenant of my apartment was a Scientologist.

I can't say I'm completely surprised--when I first moved in, I could intuitively feel that the place had a lower-than-average concentration of body thetans.

The magazine opens with an article excerpted from an old work of L. Ron himself, about "our biochemical society", in which we see Mr. Hubbard mimic the best analytic philosophy by beginning with the clarification of terms:
Chemical means "of or having to do with chemicals."
Ohhhhh.

Six degrees of zombification

My friend Tucker recently demanded that I get addicted to his new blog:
Not the old dumb blog, but a new dumb blog.

It's not very good and it has nothing to do with Jesus... but... It's Got Videos!
Nothing to do with Jesus, eh? Well, what does it have something to do with? Could it be, oh, I don't know... SATAN??

Anyway, I dunno if I'd say I'm addicted, but I kinda liked this post about the edifying nature of horror:
I find that realistic outlook on the world common to many horror films to be exemplified in the thought that, the world was not built for us to live in (and, for matter of that, the world for which we are adapted might be other than the one in which we dwell). Thus, to my eye, horror films come as an antidote to a certain form of anthropocentrism, which I believe to be not only common to our outlook but perhaps even intrinsic to it. That form of anthropocentrism takes for granted that our way of living is well suited to the world and will continue to be so. Horror films like Night of the Living Dead deprive us of this assumption, insofar as we find, quite suddenly, that our world is not what it used to be, or what we thought it was. In the process of showing the attempt to adapt to the new situation, the flaws in our current ways of living come to light.
I can go along with that.

I wonder if Freud ever got a chance to see a horror flick. The concept of horror, as conceived above, seems more or less identical to the the concept of anxiety as Freud understood it. Anxiety is the feeling you get when you have to respond to an experience that violates your most fundamental preconceptions. These are the preconceptions that you bring into every experience, according to which you give that experience a meaningful place in your life: your own personal "paradigm" (to use a word that doesn't really mean much any more, but sounds pretty good). What causes anxiety is an experience that breaks your preconceived notions so utterly and terribly that you find yourself incapable of making any sense of the experience at all, incapable of giving it any meaningful place in your life at all. So, to make sense of the experience, you have to create some new ways of understanding your relation to the world--ex nihilo, on the spot--and that takes a lot of work. (Sometimes too much work. Freud thought that, for many people, a central organizing principle of psychological development is: to avoid dealing with anxiety. This is problematic. An honest confrontation with reality necessarily produces anxiety from time to time, so to avoid dealing with anxiety is to turn away from reality. What Tucker calls "anthropocentrism" in his post is a form of this.)

The connection between horror and anxiety is hinted at in the translation of one of Kierkegaard's books. The title of this book is sometimes translated The Concept of Anxiety, and sometimes The Concept of Dread. (The original word in the title is "Angest", which is the Danish cognate of the German word "Angst", which is what appears in the original title of Freud's Problem of Anxiety. Neither of these words have very much to do with the English word "angst", which has a rather different meaning: it denotes an attitude characterized by routine, habitual expressions of emotional frustration, which functions as a rather clever way to avoid dealing with "Angst" proper.)

Anyway, back to this idea that the blog has nothing to do with Jesus. Tucker, you fool! Everything has something to do with Jesus. As established above, horror is basically the same as anxiety. But anxiety is connected with original sin, and original sin is why Jesus is so important. Now, I would go over the connection between anxiety and original sin, but this post is already too long. Also, I'm making that claim on the basis of the blurb on the back cover of my copy of The Concept of Anxiety, which I haven't read yet, so I basically have no idea what I'm talking about. But zombies totally have something to do with Jesus (and not just because he got up and walked around after being dead for three days).

Friday, September 15, 2006

On the art of making Christians

Via Jesus Politics, a Salon article about an evangelical church in Seattle. As one might expect, the article could maybe be more sympathetic to the evangelicals, but, even allowing for that, it's still an interesting read. The Jesus Politics post focuses on one of the more interesting stories, which concerns the life of Judy Abolafya before and after converting.

Before:
...Abolafya toured all over the world with bands like Bush and Candlebox, staying at four-star hotels, living life on her own terms. She made a great income heading up merchandising on tours, managed it well, enjoyed her freedom, and was confident and outspoken.
And after:
She shudders as her daughter wails, shaking her auburn ponytail. "Listening to her like that just grates on me." She grimaces. In a high chair at the table, her toddler, Asher, glumly pokes at blocks of cheese with grubby fingers, periodically mashing them into a paste he rubs into his black Metallica T-shirt. "Let's face it. Asher is whiny and clingy and talks back. It's dull and tedious here -- there are myriad things I don't enjoy about being at home, but it's a responsibility."

..."We had originally planned not to have kids, but now we have to do our best to repopulate our city with Christians."
Granted, I myself would be inclined to go to great lengths to get away from the music of Bush and Candlebox, but this seems like a bit of an overreaction.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with abandoning an exciting, successful job to become a stay at home mom. But something seems off about this particular case.

One might wonder, for example, how she came to the conclusion that it was her Christian duty to stay at home and spend all her time making new Christians. The story here is a little sketchy, but this seems to be a central moment:
In the Bible, Abolafya found story after story about women being willfully deceived, following their own desires, wreaking travesty in their relationships and homes. In these stories she saw signs of her own past, her mother's behavior, her friends' actions. She began to submit to [her husband] Ari about purchases and plans she wanted to make.
In contrast, men never exhibit such character flaws, either in the Bible or in contemporary society. This is why they get to do things like pursue whatever career they like, and decide how their wives should spend money.

A final, sad note from the article:
Abolafya no longer reads secular books or speaks to her old friends.... Abolafya says she doesn't have time for many relationships anyway.... "It's not what I ever imagined," she tells me, "or even what I ever wanted, but it's my duty now, and I have to learn to live with that."
Oy.

It seems that "duty" and "responsibility" are the most positive terms she can come up with when discussing her life as a Christian, and this is cause for possible concern.

And (as was pointed out to me) not just concern for her own religious life.

Abolafya intends to help "repopulate our city with Christians", which is a terribly problematic intention, given that (even if she gets her husband's permission first) she doesn't have the final say on whether her kids turn out to be Christians, or theists of any sort at all. She does not get to decide. For each child, the question of faith--if and when it is raised at all, and if (this is a big if) it is raised properly--will be raised between that child and God. And, try as hard as she might, mom won't be able to intervene.

On the other hand, she could have a great deal to do with shaping how her kids understand the religion that they will eventually either follow or abandon. One wonders about the prospects of someone earnestly embracing a religion, if that religion is associated with joylessness, and characterized by "duty" and "responsibility", while lacking in any understanding as to why those duties and responsibilities might be worthwhile.