Monday, June 30, 2008


I wonder if Jesus ever swore.

Many Christians will say no, and cite Colossians 3:8 by way of argument: "But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips," as the prooftext against profanity. I can't picture Jesus using words like "bunt," "sickhead," or "flocksuckers" when he's talking to or about other people, and certainly I can't see him talking in a crude sort of way about women.

But I've often wondered if "filthy language" in this context refers more to crude or vulgar language rather than to profanity or cussing. The Greek word in Colossians 3:8 that some translations render as "filthy speech" is aischrologia. The aischro part can mean base or filthy, but that's hardly the same thing as saying, "Damnit!" when you realize that the wood you've been working with for the last eight hours has begun to split, and now you have to start that chair all over again.

For the same reason, it's not the same thing as saying "Oh, shit," when you realize that everything just went way down south for you, and the next several hours, if not days, are going to be fairly stressful and difficult.

The issue isn't word choice, although if the range of your vocabulary is limited to the F-bomb, you desperately need a dictionary. It's the thought and intent behind the word that determines whether language is filthy, or not.

When Jesus talks about righteousness, it's clear he's concerned with what's going on in a person's heart far more than with the externals of what they are doing or saying. A person whose vocabulary is limited to expletives may not be fit for polite society, but I wasn't aware that polite society is what we hope to be fit for.

For a rather tongue-in-cheek essay on this, take a look at Toward An Evangelical Theology Of Cussing.

foreign language

Five years later, I find it ironic where we are today. Evangeline and Rachel are learning some Spanish, by virtue of living in New Jersey. They're not as proficient as I would like, but they have some basic vocabulary and understand a few basic questions when I ask them in Spanish.

Similarly, I've really stepped up the Haitian Kreyol this past year, so that they understand what I want when I say things like, "Vi-n isit! Se tann pou soti kounye-a, non?" or "Ban-m men ou you le n travese rout la." They don't answer in Kreyol yet -- and Rachel is very quick to complain, "Please speak in English!" when I go on long enough. But they're getting it.

And a month ago, Evangeline and I were chatting about languages, and I mentioned off the cuff about Esperanto. Wouldn't you know, she glommed onto it right away, and has made it a goal this summer to learn some Esperanto. So I sent away for the free lessons, and already have started going over some of the basic grammar with her.

No luck on Arabic or Chinese, though I have some hopes of getting something done at the charter school in the next couple years.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

courtship in kyrgyzstan

So, like anybody else with insomnia would do, I'm spending needless waketime on the Internet, surfing the blogs of friends. One of them has a link to her friend's blog, and she in turn links to a Frontline story about Kyrgyzstan:

With his translator and friend Fatima Sartbaeva, a young Kyrgyz woman, as his guide, Lom sets out on a journey of discovery, driving deep into the countryside to a small village just outside the ancient city of Osh.

Petr and Fatima arrive as a wedding is about to begin. Women are busy making traditional Kyrgyz bread for the occasion, and men sit in chairs outside, talking and sipping tea. The groom confesses he has had some difficulty finding a bride, but he is hopeful that "this one will stay."

When the bride does arrive, she is dragged into the groom's house, struggling and crying. Her name is Norkuz, and it turns out she has been kidnapped from her home about a mile away.
Disturbing, isn't it? Still, I find myself thinking of parallels in history and literature. The Western custom of a groom carrying his bride over the threshold of their new home has its roots in a Roman custom, which in turn grew out of the legendary "Rape of the Sabine Women" in the eighth century B.C.E., when the men of Rome abducted women from the surrounding tribes so they could have wives and families. The Bible recounts a similar event undertaken by the surviving men of the tribe of Benjamin, at the tail end of the book of Judges.

The article notes that some women in Kyrgyzstan see the tradition of bride kidnapping as an important part of their culture, and doubtless it has enabled men to obtain "wives" without having to pay expensive brideprices.

I find the end of the article disturbing, because of the moral relativism it suggests. Abduct a woman from her family and village, harrangue her over several hours into accepting a marriage as her lot in life, and then make that her identity over the next several months, and sure, she'll accept it.

But that's not acceding to anything, is it? That's a survival instinct present in us all, one that leads us to identify with our captors and see their happiness as our own.

I find it disturbing, and I hope that the practice comes to an end, however ethnocentric, closed-minded and judgmental that may make me.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Can we protect traditional marriage from its defenders?

Fear not, traditional marriage! The Republican Party is coming to rescue you from the chance that loving gay couple soon may enjoy equal legal protection.

Yes, U.S. senators Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and David Vitter (R-La.) are co-sponsoring the Marriage Protection Amendment, which would make marriage constitutional only for heterosexual couples. Larry Craig was charged with lewd conduct on June 11, 2007, after allegedly soliciting a police officer for gay sex. Vitter was identified that July as a patron of a brothel owned by the late Deborah Jeane Palfrey.

 Irony really is dead.

How on earth can you propose a constitutional amendment to "defend the institution of marriage" when your own peccadilloes have robbed you of any claim to the moral high ground? To put it another way, it's (not) great that they want to defend marriage from including couples; but who's going to defend it from them?

My mind would boggle if I still had one left.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

thor's busy tonight

Lots of lightning flashing over Nova Bastille, with thunder rolling across the rooftops.

No rain, though. The painful heat wave concludes its second day tonight, with only tantalizing intimations of relief. The actual rain isn't on the books until Wednesday, if we're lucky and get the requisite 50 roll on our percentile dice.

Stupid thunder god. If he really wanted to impress us, he'd send rain instead of beating giants about the head with his little hammer.

wine and water

To my friends who enjoy a glass of wine and those who don't:

As Ben Franklin said, "In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom." In water there is bacteria.

In a number of carefully controlled trials, scientists have demonstrated that if we drink one liter of water each day, at the end of the year we will have absorbed more than one kilo of E. coli, a bacteria found in feces. In other words, we are consuming one kilo of poop.

However, we do not run that risk when drinking wine, tequila, rum, whiskey or other liquor because alcohol has to go through a purification process of boiling, filtering and/or fermentation.

Remember: Water = poop, wine = health.

Therefore, it's better to drink wine and talk stupid than to drink water and be full of crap. There is no need to thank me for this valuable information, I'm doing it as a public service.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The kind of Bible study I'd like to lead

I'm hosting a weekly Bible study on the book of Judges starting this Wednesday, but it's anyone's guess whether anyone besides me actually will attend.

I'm trying to do mine a little differently from how I've usually found Bible studies to be done in the American church. Specifically, I want to set aside many of the preconceptions we bring to the Bible when we read it.

Some of them are Golden Book assumptions; for example: "Why did God save Daniel from the lions? Because Daniel was faithful."

Others have to do with our assumptions about the morality of the Bible heroes. We assume that Joseph was a virtuous man whom God honored because he was faithful to him the whole time, or that Samson killed all the Philistines as an act of devotion to God.

Neither of those is a particularly deep reading. The Genesis account is clear that Joseph wanted nothing more than to make his brothers suffer for all that they had done to him once he had them at his mercy. As for Samson, he killed the Philistines he did mostly because his pride had been hurt and he wanted to get even. Neither of them is much of a role model in those stories.

Beyond that, I can see plenty of exploration of the character of God himself. If we question and explore the motivations of the characters in the Bible, at some point we have to remember that God himself is a character in the Bible, with motivations stated and unstated, goals and conflicts that he must face and overcome.

And if we're giving the Bible an honest reading, we have to admit that there are some shocking things in there: the genocide of the Canaanites, the near total destruction of the human race in a global flood, and even young men getting mauled by bears for making fun of a prophet's baldness. We need to recognize problem passages when they come up, and face their problems honestly.

Even without getting into the odd passages like "Zipporah at the Inn," where God plans to kill Moses until Zipporah circumcises their son, there are times we have to stop and ask "Is this really God we're talking about, the same God we sing those nice songs to on Sunday morning?"

These are questions that make us stop and reassess what we mean when we say that Scripture is divinely inspired, infallible and inerrant. They even make us stop and ask whether God really is good, or if he just has good publicity agents.

I've found over the years that raising those questions is an important part of growth and of faith. Proverbs cautions us, "Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him." Doubts drive us into deeper faith because questions make us seek meaningful answers.

That sort of exploration is something I've seen to be largely absent in Bible studies I've attended, not just at the church I now attend, but elsewhere as well. What I have seen instead is a lot of contentment to repeat things we've heard before and to pass them off as deep insights, or to get sidetracked into discussions that have nothing to do with the passage at hand.

The truth is, the Bible is one of the most widely misunderstood books in Western literature, probably because it's actually a piece of Eastern literature. It's misunderstood by non-Christians who react to it based on unpleasant experiences with Christians, and it's misunderstood by Christians themselves.

That's a shame, because it really is a phenomenal piece of literature, and like all phenomenal pieces of literature, there are some deep currents that flow through its pages. If we're willing to pull up our oars, stop rowing our way, and just let those currents carry us where they go, we'll all find it to be a much more fascinating and spiritually insightful book than we've ever realized before.

This sort of honest search is something that I think will engage people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not Christians, and it should engage Christians as well. One attitude I consistently have encountered is contempt for Christians who swear unswerving allegiance to the Bible yet have no idea what it actually says or make no attempt to deal with issues like Paul's apparent sexism, the appallingly strict penal code in the Mosaic law, and so on.

I'd like to lead a study that does those things. Naturally, I can't get the church to promote it along with the other Bible studies.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.