uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The NRA's Fantasies of Violence

So we finally got to hear what the National Rifle Association thinks about the horrific shooting deaths of twenty children in Connecticut last week. The answer: not much. Certainly nothing that would make it rethink any of its pet ideologies or standard sloganeering in favor of any meaningful reforms on how easily people can obtain guns in this country.

The remarks made by Wayne LaPierre, the vice president of the NRA, were astonishing in their tone-deaf reaffirmation of rigid ideology. What was less astonishing, however, was the use of paranoia and fear throughout his speech to drive home the statistically absurd notion that every American should own a gun.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Hobby Lobby Should Stick to Frames, Avoid Theology and Pseudo-Science

The CEO of Hobby Lobby, a store where I've been known to shop on occasion, sent a letter this week denouncing the Obama administration for supposedly trampling on the company's rights of religion by requiring employers to offer emergency contraception coverage, in the process offering a host of erroneous assumptions and flat-out bad theology. His company is also filing a lawsuit.

David Green, CEO and founder of the chain, writes that he has always tried to run his business "in harmony with God's laws," and suggests that he knew starting out "that we would succeed if we lived and worked according to God’s word. From there, Hobby Lobby has become one of the nation’s largest arts and crafts retailers, with more than 500 locations in 41 states."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The 'Incredible Story'

You've probably heard by now that President Obama won re-election because most of the country now wants to receive government handouts and doesn't want to work for a living.

No, you haven't heard that was the reason? Then you haven't been listening to the Right, where this narrative has been ubiquitous since Obama won Ohio and thus the election.

Fox News' lead host Bill O'Reilly bloviated that people "want stuff," and included a bit of racist hand-wringing in with it: "It's a changing country. ... It's not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it. And he ran on it. ... Whereby 20 years ago President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney, the white establishment is now the minority."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Grand Scheme of Things: Narrative Deceit in the Greek Novel


This is a talk I gave as part of the Fall Colloquium series at the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota, where I am completing my Ph.D. For the handout that accompanied this talk, please click here. If you wish to follow along with a text of the paper, it can be found here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cycle of Absurdity: Media Hype, Apologetic Backlash Overshadow Another Find From Antiquity

When I heard that Professor Karen L. King had announced a papyrus fragment that makes reference to Jesus' wife, I was at first excited and fascinated. But that was immediately followed by a reflexive foreboding. Having studied antiquity, including early Christianity, for the past decade, I've seen what typically follows such a discovery, and within 24 hours, my concerns were proved right.

The fragment that King announced is the size of a business card and only contains about a dozen lines total. But it appears to distinctly refer to Jesus' wife (as well as his mother). King acknowledges the reference to his "wife" might be one to the Church, but notes that with talk of his mother (by name) and his wife as a "disciple," that seems unlikely.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Of Satan and Sex Tanks

All the rage nowadays among fundamentalist Christians is an emphasis on "manhood," masculinity, and manliness, which they of course think is next to godliness. From Mark Driscoll to a plethora of lesser-known wannabes, everybody's telling American males to man up.

This is none too surprising. Changing attitudes about sex and gender have almost always incurred backlash, and Driscoll et al. are really just following traditionalist (albeit modified) ideologies on these scores in the face of changing attitudes, and they are then rationalizing them with convenient Bible verses (while ignoring or explaining away the inconvenient ones).

So it was with little shock, yet persistent awe, that I learned about the new talked-about book "Date Your Wife" by Justin Buzzard. I have not read this book. But from what I read of his recent treatment running down some of its particulars, I'm guessing I wouldn't make it through very many chapters without the unique nausea that only outdated, belligerent sexism can promote.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Brian Brown's Slavery Lie

Given all the lies spread about gays and lesbians by Brian Brown's National Organization for Marriage, it might seem trivial to point out his giant fabrication when it came to slavery in the Bible during his recent debate with Dan Savage. But you stick with what you know, and my field happens to be classical studies: the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

And it bears remembering that the debate happened in the first place because Brown went on a chest-thumping tirade of bravado about Savage's remarks regarding the Bible: "Let me lay down a public challenge to Dan Savage right here and now. You want to savage the Bible? ... I’m here—you name the time and place and let’s see what a big man you are with someone who can talk back."

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Apologetics and Intellectual Dishonesty

Manuscript depicting Eusebius
Recently New Testament Prof. James McGrath posted a succinct critique surrounding the problems of biblical inerrancy, musing that "sooner of later, you have to choose between the Bible and inerrancy." Like almost any scholar of the Bible outside of fundamentalist seminaries and institutions, McGrath notes that the Bible has points of tension that are inconsistent. He cites the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, which disagree between David and Joseph, as an example.

The Facebook group Unfundamentalist Christians posted McGrath's musings, and a trolling apologist posted the following video in response:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Chick-Fil-Anity: America's Hottest New Faith

The New Crucifix?
In case you weren't aware, tomorrow you can skip sloppy joes in the church basement between choir practice and Bible study and instead head over to the nearest Chick-fil-A, because eating fast-food chicken in support of opposition to same-sex marriage is now Jesus-approved Christian fellowship of the highest caliber.

In fact, Chick-fil-A is Christianity, apparently, according to some of the highest clerics of our land, because they have spent $5 million in support of groups that oppose same-sex marriage. Even Billy Graham himself, apparently over the embarrassment of Richard Nixon, has again launched into politics, saying he'll be eating at the fast-food chain on Aug. 1 -- Mike Huckabee's self-proclaimed "Support Chick-fil-A Day." Why? Because in the words of his son Franklin Graham, good Christian folks need to stand up to the "concerted attack from same-sex marriage advocates" and "a culture that has grown openly hostile to the Christian faith and its followers."

By "hostile to the Christian faith and its followers," Graham really means "hostile to prejudice against gays and lesbians." But more on that in a bit.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fowl Exegesis: Some Thoughts on Chick-Fil-A

By and large, I think the boycotting culture that we live in has become rather absurd. On a grand scale, consumer politicking -- picking and choosing the companies one supports with dollars based on their political  leanings -- is a fruitless and ineffectual business. The basic rules of economics suggest that self-interest is too strong an impulse to expect companies not to protect their bottom lines at all costs and consumers not to protect theirs by buying the cheapest products or dining at the most convenient locations.

So when I heard Dan Cathy, president of Chick-Fil-A, muse nonsensically about "biblical marriage" and how his company supports such shams that pretend marriage under state law must somehow conform with their own personal religious convictions, I was mostly just amused. But I was also moved not to eat there any more.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Irrational Prejudice: "Natural Repulsion," Then and Now

Folks on the Right love to compare themselves to great American patriarchs. Not a day goes by that I don't see some Facebook posting with a doctored quote by Abraham Lincoln claiming to be against big government, the ACLU, or the Obama health plan.

But here's a Lincoln comparison that is perhaps more apt considering the vote last night in North Carolina to ban gay marriage. Like most Southern states, North Carolina once also had on the books anti-miscegenation laws forbidding the union of blacks and whites.

Robert Gagnon, the Right's go-to anti-gay scholar, during a radio interview that touched on gay marriage, said: "I think that God does place in us a natural repulsion to some forms of behavior that are simply wrong and offensive.” Gagnon made the remark in response to the host's leading question as to why it is that many people have a "natural repulsion" to same-sex relationships.

Such pseudoscientific reasoning was certainly behind the prejudice of Lincoln's day as well. In his Springfield speech in 1857 in response to the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln remarked: "There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races."

Yet another reminder that same-sex marriage opponents are on the wrong side of history.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Five Major Problems With Arizona's Bible-Teaching Bill

I was excited and supportive when I first heard that Arizona, like several other states, had passed a law adding a Bible elective to its high schools' curriculum. The Bible has, indeed, been enormously influential on Western culture, most especially in matters of aesthetics: western art, literature, culture, and even language have been infused in ways that are unintelligible to someone without Biblical knowledge.

Unfortunately, after reading the text of the bill, it appears to have numerous problems. The motivations behind the bill, sponsored and supported by a host of right-wing folks, are laid bare in the language of the bill, which while including much of what I just enumerated above, also includes not-so-subtle hints of religious-right narrative about the Bible's role in "law and government," popularized most effectively by the pseudo-historian David Barton.

Chief among my concerns are that, once this bill goes into effect, further bills will follow when conservative legislators realize the can of worms they've opened. While the bill ensures that the classes are taught from a religiously neutral point of view, one wonders just how comfortable legislators will be with that when the time comes. In university classes, we teach the Bible from a critical standpoint, just as we do any other text from antiquity. This means probing their ambiguities, investigating their historical inaccuracies, and analyzing the motivations of their authors. In history courses, the historical-critical model is still largely used, teasing out what we can about what most probably occurred, even if that is not consistent with what the text says (or wants to say). From a literary standpoint, we might examine what sorts of genres are at work in a given passage: myth, folklore, biography, encomium (praise), polemic (attack), etc.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Black Saturday: Satan, Hades, and Greco-Christian Syncretism

Oft forgotten amid the Holy Week observances of Palm Sunday, Maundy-Thursday, Good Friday and then Easter is Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, the day Jesus supposedly lay in the tomb after his crucifixion on Friday and prior to his resurrection on Sunday.

But this day worked on the imagination of early Christians in fantastic ways. In the Apostles' Creed is the statement that Jesus "descended into Hell" as it is often translated into English. But in the Greek it is κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, or "going down into the lowermost parts," and in Latin something almost identical, descendit ad inferos, or "he descended to the lower ones/places." This is not necessarily Hell, because such a concept was not fully worked out yet, but rather the netherworld or underworld of Greco-Roman mythology, the conception of which would eventually provide us with the imagery most commonly associated with Hell.

The most fascinating account of Jesus going down to the underworld has been handed down in the  Gospel of Nicodemus, an apocryphal work that includes the Acts of Pilate (yes, that Pilate, whose ahistorical contrition in the Gospels is later elaborated to the point that he becomes canonized in some Christian sects) and Christ's Descent into Hell. The older, out-of-copyright translation by M.R. James is available in many places online. But the more updated and much less baroque translation by J.K. Elliot is far superior.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Classical, Biblical Scholars Come to Ehrman's Defense Amid Attacks

Sometimes, watching those rare occasions when your academic discipline is thrust into the public light can be quite fun, even if frustrating at the same time. The last time I remember the community of scholars from antiquity speaking in such a unified voice was after the release of Mel Gibson's awful "Passion of the Christ" in 2003. We all knew it was awful, all knew it contained some glaring historical problems (like having those in the Greek east speak Latin), and we all pointed this out, ad nauseam, in newspaper letters, in blog posts, in radio and television interviews, and to our no doubt less-than-thrilled students, friends, and spouses.

Fans of the film (mostly conservative Christians) responded with typical narratives about how academics were all liberals who just couldn't stand a "positive movie about Jesus."

A similar phenomenon, albeit not quite as widespread, has occurred with the publication of Bart Ehrman's latest book last week, "Did Jesus Exist?" I wrote a short blog post about the book's launch and drew the ire of at least one of these "mythicists," those who, outside of the scholarly community, insist that Jesus was a myth invented by early Christians and thus never existed as a human being.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ehrman Finally Dispatching With Jesus-Didn't-Exist Skeptics

Bart Ehrman's latest book takes on one of my biggest pet peeves: the skeptical "cottage industry," as he calls it, that suggests Jesus was a fictional character (Ehrman, like virtually every other scholar of antiquity on the planet, calls this nonsense).

I haven't read Ehrman's book yet (it's being released tomorrow), but his introduction is available at the link above. What I look forward to most is Ehrman setting out for a popular audience a thorough understanding of the term μῦθος, most often translated as "myth" today. In just his introduction, he takes aim at the so-called "mythicists" who claim Jesus was only a myth and not a historical person:

"The authors of this skeptical literature understand themselves to be 'mythicists' -- that is, those who believe that Jesus is a myth. Rarely do mythicists define what they mean by the term myth, a failure that strikes scholars of religion as both unfortunate and highly problematic, since in technical scholarship the term has come to mean many things over the years."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Proof-Texting Prejudice: John Piper and 'Biblicalism' Lite

This morning, the local conservative theologian John Piper created a cyberspace firestorm when he tweeted a quote upon which he has based a recent blog post. It is by the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Piper bizarrely (and unbiblically) relates it to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

"The church that approves of homosexual relations has by that act ceased to be a true church. Wolfhart Pannenberg"

Piper takes a traditionally selective and apologetic movement through the scriptures to support his claims, starting with Paul's category list of sins in 1 Cor. 6:9-10. Here is Piper's citation of it, including the translation he uses and his italics for emphasis: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Manufactured 'Judeo-Christian Tradition'

Asked at last week's Florida debate how his religion might influence his decisions as president, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney on cue responded with boilerplate, right-wing narrative: "We are based on Judeo Christian laws and ethics."

Not really, no. But this trope is repeated by the right with such frequency that even well-meaning individuals will use the phrase "Judeo-Christian" without understanding where it actually comes from. In short, the "Judeo-Christian tradition" is a manufactured tradition from the 1950s. It was at the time, and remains today, a right-wing political term, not at all a descriptor of any real, singular tradition, much less one that stretches back through the founding of the American republic and into the first century.