Monday, September 23, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: Tower of Babel

Let me state right up front that I don't have much to say about the Table of Nations.

Following the narrative of Noah's Deluge in Genesis 6-9, the redactor gives us one of the Bible's genealogies, this one revealing a partial family tree of Noah, beginning with his three sons (but not their wives, who also were on the Ark) and following the line of descent from Noah's boys down to the peoples whom the book's earliest audiences would have been familiar with.

As Bible stories go, this is one you'd have to do a lot of study to appreciate, and one you'd need to muster a lot of enthusiasm to find interesting. It reminds me in a way of books like Virgil's “The Aeneid,” or Geoffrey of Monmouth's “History of the Kings of Britain.” In both those books, the authors traced their people's ancestry back to antiquity and made historically dubious claims that their people were descended from the Trojans, and therefore much greater than other peoples.

There's a bit of that at work here. The author of Genesis 10 (possibly the Priestly source, given that the chapter is a genealogy) names three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham, whom Noah cursed in the previous chapter, is named as the father of several nations that figure rather negatively in the history of Israel and Judah, among them Nineveh, Mizrayim (Egypt), the Philistines and the people of Canaan.

Japheth, for his part, is listed as the ancestor of peoples who lived north of the historical borders of Israel and Judah, what we now would call Indo-European; and Shem, of course, is the big one, from whom come all the Semitic races, including the Hebrews, the Assyrians, the Arameans, and a few others.

Chapter 10 relates the familiar story of the Tower of Babel, which comes from the Yahwist source. I've read some scholars have linked the Tower of Babel to the ziggurauts of ancient Sumeria. Some small basis for that association may lie in the Table of Nations, which mentions that Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, became a mighty hunter and established a kingdom that began in Babel, Erech and Accad, all in the land of Shinar, the biblical name for Sumer.

Erech itself is another transliteration of the Sumerian city Uruk, one of the oldest cities ever built, and home to the mythological Gilgamesh. There is also a Sumerian tale about “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta,” which also relates how languages became confused. Since Chapter 12 relates how Abram came from the land of Erech, it seems reasonable to assume that the author of this passage drew on a storied tradition held in common with Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata.”

At one level, the story of the Tower of Babel is etiological in purpose; that is, the Genesis narrative includes the story as a means of explaining where all the different human languages come from. But, given its placement – it comes just after the story of the Deluge, and between the Table of the Nations and the genealogy linking Shem to Abram – the author had a deeper purpose than merely explaining why everyone doesn't speak ancient Hebrew.

So what exactly are we to believe has God so worried that he needs to bust humanity up into a bunch of ethnolingiostic groups? Given that chapters six to nine showed God flooding the entire planet, I would argue that it's outside the bounds of reasonable interpretation to claim that God was wringing his hands over the architectural enterprises of the Sumerians.

What the text does indicate is divine concern that human ambition and accomplishment will be unlimited, if God does not confuse human speech. As the story falls immediately after the genealogy of Ham and Japheth and immediately before the lineage of Shem, the implication is that ethnic division is also a point of this narrative, which we will see more of immediately afterward in Chapter 12, the Yahwist account of the covenant with Abram.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Esperanto image macros

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Prayer deconstructed

Prayer is one of those fundamental Christian disciplines. If you want to grow in understanding, we're told, we have to pray.

Of course, given that we believe in an all-knowing and loving deity, it's understandable that there is some confusion over the purpose of prayer. If God is all-knowing, are we really telling him something he doesn't already know, or are we like a difficult colleague with a knack for stating the obvious? ("Look, the wall is blue today!") If God is all-knowing and loving, isn't asking for something in prayer a bit like a 3-year-old asking for the shoes her mother is already getting her?

And if we're praying to gain understanding, then why the heck don't we ever hear God answer us? (Or, for that matter, why do we check ourselves into a hospital once he does?)

These are deep and complicated topics, and I'm afraid that all I can share are the meager insights I have gathered over the years, like the unwanted scraps of food that have been shoved under the table for the dog to eat. (Note to young readers: Dogs really don't go for gelatin salad.)

Here are some popular phrases about prayer, and what they mean:
  1. "I'll pray for you." Means: That sounds awful. "My child has just discovered recreational pooping, and I'm out of baby wipes." "Oh, wow. I'll pray for you." Please note that they probably won't pray for you.
  2. "I'll pray for you." Means: You're going to hell on a pogo stick. "I don't think C.S. Lewis was anywhere near as good a writer as J.R.R. Tolkien." "I'll pray for you." Please note that they probably will pray for you, with unmatched fervor.
  3. "You should pray about that." Means: Pray about it until you agree with me. "I'm thinking of being a stay-at-home dad, since my wife makes more than I do." "You should pray about that."
  4. "I have a prayer request." Means: Juicy gossip is on the way. "I have a prayer request. I just found out that Heather is pregnant. The poor woman doesn't even have a boyfriend! She's really going to need God to help her through this difficult period."
  5. "I have an unspoken prayer request." Means: This one is so good I'll have to share it discreetly. Come see me afterward.
  6. "I've been praying about this, and I really feel God is telling me ..." Means: If you disagree, then you are disagreeing with God and are headed to hell on a pogo stick. "I've been praying about this, and I really feel that God wants you to come to a hotel room with me." Run.
Hope this helps.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, June 24, 2013


Like many other students entering high school in the fall, Oldest Daughter has a list of books she is supposed to read this fall.

As I suspect is true for many of her peers, one of the books on her summer reading list is "Anthem." Written by Ayn Rand, “Anthem” is a hymn to the importance of the individual, set in a dystopic future where individual choice and even individual identity have all but been eradicated . The protagonist is a man named Equality 7-2521, although he later chooses the name Prometheus, because he hopes to return the spark of individual value to a world that has lost it.

“Anthem” is Rand's first work to advance her Objectivist philosophy, which grew in large part as a response to the Bolshevik Revolution during her childhood, and her family's ensuing loss of wealth and comfort. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, her family had enjoyed a comfortable existence in Russia. That all came to an end afterward.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the dystopia in "Anthem" is a grotesquerie of collectivism. In the course of the story, Equality 7-2521 recounts the various sins he commits: a desire to learn and to understand the world, rather than being content with being a street sweeper, the job that was assigned for him by the committee; singing and being happy, because everyone is already happy in this dystopic paradise, and he should not presume to be happier than his fellows; feeling and friendship and love for specific people, because that means he favors some people over others; and of course, being taller and healthier than others, because difference is wrong.

In that sense, "Anthem" has an empowering message for teens and other young readers who may feel social pressure from their own peers to be something other than what they want to be, or to do things that don't interest them. It is a good thing for people to pursue their own dreams, forget their own identities, and conform to others' expectations for themselves, rather than to forge their own identities and pursue the things that interest them.

But one of the things that irks me about Rand's philosophy, especially as I've seen it applied by libertarians in recent years, is that it rejects the notion of responsibility to one another. (Equality 7-2521 is pretty clear on this point in Chapter 11.)

The other thing is that, particularly in books like "Atlas Shrugged," Rand inverts the order of the world and claims despite all logic that it is the wealthy and the powerful who are oppressed and exploited by society, and not the people whose hard work makes their success and fortune possible.

In order for a society to truly function and not come apart at the seams in a generation, it is necessary for us to respect the inherent worth we have as human beings created in the Imago Dei, something Equality 7-2521 explicitly and repeatedly rejects in his grand-sounding but ultimately self-serving essays at the end of the book.

Ironically, as  Equality 7-2521 becomes the the first of Rand's characters to espouse this worldview, he claims for himself the name "Prometheus." Unlike Rand's sympathetic but ultimately unlikeable hero, the original Prometheus was driven by compassion for others and a concern for their welfare that came before his own.

By bringing fire from Olympus to Earth, Prometheus earned the ire of Zeus and for a thousand years was tormented daily by an eagle that came to tear out his liver, which would regrow every night so that he could suffer anew in the morning.

Which Prometheus would you say is the better, and more moral role model?

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Comments to someone else's post

I'm a few years late coming to this discussion, but in the event you still read these comments, I wanted to add my 2 cents of gratitude for their being written.

I'm a recovering Pentecostal myself. I spent about seven years in the Assemblies of God, from around 1989 until 1996. I do not consider the Assemblies of God to be a cult, and I would defend it from anyone who would charge that it is. That said, I do understand why someone would make that claim.

There are a number of things about the Assemblies of God that encourage people to regard it if not as a cult then at least cultlike. At least when I was a member, there was a tremendous preoccupation with eschatology and the rise of the Antichrist, usually pertaining to how events of prophecy supposedly were playing out in the daily news.

This often was accompanied by alarm over generally innocuous or even generally good events, and a fear of the secular world. To this day I can remember the fear of people at my church that their children might attend secular colleges, like the one I was attending, and the harsh, alienating rhetoric about those outside the church.

Admittedly this was my own experience 20 years ago, in one church, but things I have seen since then haven't given me much reason to hope that the church has turned around. I know someone in another state who attends an Assemblies of God church, where his pastor recently inveighed against Easter and Christmas as primarily pagan celebrations that have corrupted the church.

I've also heard this person and his co-congregants repeat the lie that our president is a secret Muslim and possibly even the Antichrist, while they also rail against having a U.S. Department of Education. Let me repeat that: They dabble in jingoism, repeating the easily discredited lie that Preisdent Obama actually is a Muslim, because they feel that this discredits him; and they want to cut national funding and standards for education. Islamophobia and anti-education stands don't exactly endear them to the rest of society.

One can only imagine how they are reacting to the recent decision of the Boy Scouts of America to allow openly gay boys to participate in Scouting. My own Assemblies of God pastor was vehemently opposed to anything but the outright rejection of gay people.

He would try to portray that as loving the sinner but hating the sin, but the truth is that he only would welcome a gay person if they knew that he disapproved of their being gay and somehow were OK with that. (Compare that to Jesus, who never turned away anyone who wanted to be with him.)

Such fear of and disdain for those outside the church walls -- to say nothing of what happens to those who act differently within the church -- does a lot to cement the negative reputation the Assemblies of God has had for years, and encourages the rest of the world to view the church as a cult.

For that matter, I was a member in good standing for eight years, and there are times I have difficulty viewing it in a positive light myself.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: Noah and the Great Flood

I first saw this in the Wittenburg Door. No idea whose it is.
Noah's story, told in Genesis 6-9, is one of the most immediately recognized Bible stories.

Coming from a rich vein of deluge stories that includes the saga of Utnapishtim, as related in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha in Greek myth, Noah's story is one in which the world has become so wicked that God decides to flood it, and wipe out not only humanity, but also all the animals, sparing only Noah and his family, and the animals that Noah takes on the Ark with him. Modern creationists have added a lot more detail about the first hibernation, a collapsing vapor canopy that had been letting people live hundreds of years, dinosaurs and fossil fuels, and all sorts of other fun stuff not found in the original story but still useful for making the book sound more scientifically plausible.

Well, OK; if that's your thing, I won't argue with you. But I personally find that the story of Noah presents what is probably the best illustration of the Documentary Hypothesis. Developed in the 18th and 19th centuries by Bible scholars puzzling over some of the disparities in the Torah, the documentary hypothesis  says that much of Genesis is spliced together from two earlier stories, one that used the divine name YHWH and the other that used the more common name Elohim. (In Hebrew, YHWH is the name used exclusively for God; elohim is a more generic term, like the English word god.)

The Yahwist version of Noah's story would go something like this:

When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.

5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate; 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive upon the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” 5 And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.

n the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. 13 On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, 14 they and every beast according to its kind, and all the cattle according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth according to its kind, every bird according to its kind, every bird of every sort; 15 and the Lord shut him in.

17 The flood continued forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20 the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; 22 everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, 7 and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him any more.

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.

It is interesting how well and how easily this reads; if you look at the original story and cut out the parts that reference YHWH, you'll find an eminently readable Elohist version of the story.

The documentary hypothesis was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and these days is pretty much taught as a given in seminaries and other university settings, though I won't claim that it's universally accepted. There are a number of Bible colleges that still contend that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.

What else to say about this passage that hasn't been said a billion times? Structurally it repeats the theme of sin and divine judgment, although in this case, people aren't exiled from God's presence as Adam and Eve were, nor from the company of other humans, as Cain was. This time it is a final and absolute judgment, where the entire planet is drowned. (The writer of the Petrine epistles also tells us that Noah steadfastly warned the people of his age about the impending judgment up until the day the flood came.)

What is interesting is that in this case, we see the divine judgment also acting as a means of renewal or redemption. The language used in the blessing of Genesis 9:1-5  mirrors the blessing found at the end of Genesis 1, another Elohist passage. In both cases, God blesses the people, tells them to be fruitful and multiply. and tells them what they can eat. In Genesis 1, God allowed people to eat any plant; here, he allows them also to eat animals. Se we see (in a sense) a sort of eucatastrophe, in which the undeniably horrible catastrophe of worldwide flood brings about something good, namely a return not to Eden but to something similar or approximate. It's as though the wickedness of humanity has been washed away from the earth -- essentially what the author of the Petrine epistles talks about when he refers to the earth as having been baptized in the days of Noah.

I do find it interesting that the Yahwist material is what refers to the sacrificial animals, which (admittedly) makes sense since it was the Levite priesthood that became most closely associated with Temple worship, and it was Moses the Levite to whom the Name was revealed in Exodus 3:13-15. The Elohist material simply refers to two of every kind of animal coming to Noah to be loaded onto the ark, while the Yahwist material has Noah being told to go out and fetch the animals, including the clean sort that will be required for sacrifice.

Beyond that, this passage of the Bible is sandwiched with two odd anecdotes. The first is the sons of God and the daughters of men, and the Nephilim, their offspring. The second is that odd incident with Noah getting drunk and his son Ham seeing him lying naked on the floor of his tent, and getting cursed for it, just like Cain did. They're both odd, though as far as that goes, the Nephilim story takes the cake.

The passage talks about the sons of God, which often gets used to refer to angelic beings, as in Job 1. It also gets used as a euphemism for the righteous, those who walk with God and seek justice. Jesus himself even uses the term to describe those who work for peace, in the Beatitudes.

I regret that I've heard a few people say that the opening verses of Genesis 6 describe a situation where the descendants of Seth are marrying the descendants of Cain. What's troubling about this? For starters, it completely misses the entire notion of personal accountability for one's own actions, and claims that righteousness (being a "son of God") is dependent upon one's ancestry. That's just messed up, and goes against the teaching found elsewhere in the Bible, like the book of Ruth or the teachings of Jesus himself.

The other explanation is that we're supposed to assume that angels were having children with human women, like a bunch of Greek gods running around raping young women so that they could have heroic children like Perseus or Heracles. Whether it was this or the commingling of racial lines, it's pretty clear that God didn't like it, since it's right after this is reported that we read God decided to wipe everyone out. (Or maybe it was that the people revered the Nephilim as heroes.)

adam lay with his wife, eve

I've been reading some of the updated New International Version translation of the Bible over at Bible Gateway, and it keeps amusing me.

The NIV is one of the most popular translations among contemporary evangelicals because of its readability and the generally conservative bent of its translators. Like just about every other translation in existence, every now and then it gets minor tweaks and updates to reflect changes in the English language.

The NIV first appeared in the 1970s. It was updated in 1984, and more recently in 2011. Older NIVs euphemistically referred to conjugal relations as "lying with," as in "Adam lay with his wife, Eve, and she conceived a son."

The most recent update renders this as "made love to his wife, Eve," and for some reason it makes me titter. I keep picturing Adam telling his wife, "Come on, baby. Give me some of that sweet lovin'."

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: Cain and Abel, and beyond

And now it's time for Cain and Abel.

Cain and Abel are the infamous brothers of the Bible. We all know the story: Cain and Abel make a sacrifice, God like Abel's sacrifice but not Cain's, and so Cain becomes angry and kills Abel. Following the murder, God marks Cain and sends him into exile. Somewhere in there Cain has sex with his sister, a man named Lamech kills somebody else, and a bunch of people live improbably long lives.

There's a lot to be said about their story, but what I'm noticing right now is the parallels at work between their story and their parents'.

For starters, God tells Adam not to eat the forbidden fruit, Adam eats it anyway. God warns Cain that his anger is threatening to overpower him and that he must master it, but Cain gives into his anger and kills his brother. (I once heard an interesting analysis on this, that Cain couldn't have known that Abel would die when he attacked him, since at this point in Scripture, no one has died.)

Next, God comes upon the guilty party. Adam and Eve equivocate a bit, but still pretty much come right out and admit that they've done what they shouldn't have. Cain's doesn't do that. His response comes across as more than a little petulant, "How should I know?" he asks God. "Am I my brother's keeper?" You almost expect him to add, "You want to make something of it, tough guy?"

In both situations, God shows that he pretty much knows everything that's been going on. In the case of Adam, he asks rhetorically, "Have you eaten of the fruit I commanded you not to?"; with Cain, he just out-and-out tells him "I hear your brother's blood calling out what you did."

Now here is what's interesting. Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden, and sent to the East. That's also what God does to Cain, sending him East of Eden, into the land of Nod. Also interesting: God cursed the ground for Adam, and he curses it again for Cain. In Adam's case, the curse was that work would become toil and drudgery; for Cain, the farmer, it would cease to yield crops at all.

The author seems intent on setting up the motif of sin and exile, which makes sense given that the theme is expressed later in the Torah and then in the histories, which explain the Babylonian exile as divine punishment for breach of the covenant between God and the Israelites.

A lot of the other stuff that comes to mind with Cain and Abel is pretty standard: Cain is punished either for sacrificing vegetables instead of meat, or for giving only "some" of his vegetables, and not the best and firstfruits, as his brother Abel did. I prefer the second explanation, given the language in Genesis 4:3-4, but the other makes sense thematically as well, when one considers that God dressed Adam and Eve in animal skins after they had dressed themselves with clothes made from plants.

There's also the mark of Cain, which all sorts of people have given all sorts of crazy interpretations to, to justify all sorts of evil things, like racism. It's obviously tied into the mark of Ham, several chapters later. I can't help but wonder if St. John of Patmos had this in mind when he mentioned the mark on the forehead of those who follow the Beast.

Chapter 4 rounds out with Cain's genealogy, beginning with his son Enoch and running down to Lamech and his three sons, Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-Cain. I can't see much point to this genealogy, except that ends in a brief description of each of Lamech's sons and their contributions to society: Jabal was the first nomad and keeper of livestock, Jubal was the first musician, and Tubal-Cain was the first metalworker. All three of these discoveries are defining to human civilization.

For some reason, the genealogist mentions that Lamech had a daughter, named Naamah. This is unique enough to note, but I've no idea what to make of it beyond saying "Hey, there's a woman listed here among the men. Cool." I'd love to know if anyone has an idea why the genealogist thought she was worth including, when clearly the other women weren't considered worth the ink.

Lamech was the man who killed somebody who attacked him, and evidently was worried about retribution from his victim's relatives and friends. When God exiled Cain for killing his brother in a fit of anger, he promised Cain that if anyone attacked him, Cain would be avenged seven times over. Lamech claims the right of seventy-sevenfold retribution if he is attacked.

That, I suppose, sounds to me like a fair amount of self-aggrandizement, in that Lamech feels he can not only invoke God's actions for his own defense, but he also can build upon them. His name, for whatever it is worth, may mean "For Lowering" or "For Humiliation."

Chapter 5 is entirely the lineage of Noah, whose name means "comfort." The people in here lived impossibly long times, though I noticed once that if you do the math, the time passed from the creation of Adam to the birth of Noah isn't that long. It's only around 1200 years.

The genealogy of Noah repeats a few names, like Lamech and Enoch. This Lamech is Noah's father, and this Enoch is the one who famously walked with God and then disappeared at age 365, apparently without dying, to judge by the wording.

This genealogy ends with Noah's three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. There is probably some sort of comparison being made here between the two groups, but I'm drawing a blank right now on what it could be. Tubal-Cain and his brothers were descended from the "evil line" of Cain, while Noah's sons all descend from the "righteous" line of Seth. (And whoever came up with the idea that people are evil or righteous based on their ancestors was a serious nutter, probably related to the dimwit who conceived the idea that the mark of Cain was black skin.)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: So what's up with that?

In the short time since I posted my most recent post, I've had one essential reaction: Who the heck cares?

My post says nothing original, offers no meaningful insights, and really doesn't reflect any great amount of reflection on my part. For the most part, it's stuff I've heard or said previously, repackaged. Like I said in the post, the creation passages in Genesis are among those passages that have been read, studied and talked about so many times, it's hard to find anything new to say.

But let me ask this about Genesis 1, since I've never heard a satisfactory explanation. Why does God refer to himself in the plural?

I know Christians see this as Trinitarian thinking, since a being who is at once three distinct people and yet cohesively one distinct being, could conceivably refer to himself in the plural. But that's a latecomer to the passage, applied hundreds of years after the text was written, and it's not something the rabbis ever entertained, and the Jewish people owned this story long before Jesus ever the focus of Augustine's meditations.

Elohim is a noun both singular and plural in Hebrew, and so elohim can be translated as Capital God, or as lowercase gods. Without knowing the Hebrew text at hand, it looks like the translators are trying to have it both ways, saying singular God when the text grammatically says plural gods. And as I understand, this story appears to have literary roots in Babylonian creation myths, where there were plenty of lowercase gods running around and helping to create the heavens and the earth.

So what's up with that?

Secondly, what's up with the snake in the garden, in Chapter 3? Yeah, I know that Christians traditionally believe that the snake is Satan, and we've developed a whole extrabiblical mythology found in the works of John Milton, about a war in heaven where Lucifer rebelled and became Satan, the Adversary, and in Genesis 3 is working to mar God's creation.

The difficulty is that the war in heaven and Satan's rebellion is just that, mythology found in the works of John Milton. It's not in Scripture, and if sola Scriptura is our standard, I want this passage to make sense on its own merits.

I'll accept that the world was marred by Adam's disobedience, given that we have the testimony of YHWH to that effect in the Genesis 3 poetry, about women suffering in childbirth and men now facing toil and drudgery instead of pleasure in their work, and about the two sexes fighting for dominion over one another, but what's up with the snake?

Clearly from this passage, Adam did not bring evil into the world, because the snake already was there and working to undermine Adam's obedience to the command he had been given about what fruit to eat, so where did the snake's evil come from? And if Adam had no evil within him, what caused his evil choice?

I read once that in the Hebrew scheme of things, choice never entered into the argument of why there is evil in the world and why we suffer. I think the story is suggesting that our capacity for evil is something innate to us, part of our very design, and not just something that happened. I'm curious to hear the thoughts of others who have given this thought beyond "Adam sinned and paradise was lost." What is the nature of evil in this story, and from whence does it come?

Blogging through the Bible: Genesis 1

Perhaps the best place to start when writing about the book of Genesis is with an affirmation of the authority of Scripture.

Most famously asserted in the Latin phrase sola Scriptura, the doctrine of Scriptural authority in the Protestant tradition asserts that the Bible is the final authority on matters of holiness and salvation. Any teaching that purports to explain how humanity may be reconciled to itself and to God, must square with the revelation contained in Scripture. Tradition, contemporary claims of revelation, pastoral teaching and personal insights, all have to square with what the Bible actually teaches.

That's it. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible should assume primacy in matters of mathematics, genetics, history nor even poetry. The books are understood best in the cultural linguistic context in which they were written, and in the original sense of the letter.

In this vein, it is important to remember that the earliest chapters of Genesis were not written as a textbook account of the origins of the world. The ancient culture that produced the book of Genesis wasn't looking for the source of the hibernation instinct common to lower animals, an explanation of the fossil record, nor were they carefully detailing how God created the cosmos ex nihilo.

Contemporary readers may find those things in these stories, but the people who told these stories told them for the same reason we tell stories today: to instill cultural, religious and personal values; to provide a sense of identity; and to ponder the deep mysteries of life. That is the sense that I want to explore these stories.

Beyond that, the opening scenes of Genesis are interesting for a few reasons, one of the most obvious is the structure.

To begin with, there are the famous two creation stories in Genesis. I know some people point this out as a flagrant contradiction, since man is created on the sixth day in Genesis 1, and is listed as first in the created order in Genesis 2; and I know other people argue that it's nothing of the sort. Blah, blah, blah.

The first chapter of Genesis regularly refers to "God"; the second regularly refers to the "Lord God." A lot of times we don't notice this sort of thing, because we automatically see these both as names of God, who admittedly has a hefty roster of names. Still, more than a century ago, a Bible scholar noticed that this particular variant continues all the way through the book of Genesis (and beyond), with the writer sometimes using the Hebrew elohim, and other times using the Tetragrammaton, YHWH. If you remove these passages from one another, you're left with two complete, parallel passages, one about Elohim and the other about YHWH.

What can I say about these passages that I haven't already said a million times before in a million different blog posts? Well, for starters, I guess, the Elohim passage is more transcendental than the YHWH passage. By this I mean it describes God as creating the world by the power of his word -- in contrast to a similar Babylonian myth, where Tiamat and Marduk brought the world into being through their conflict -- and we're given a sense of the inherent goodness of the world that God has created.

That admittedly doesn't sound very groundbreaking or original a thought. In traditional Christian thinking, after all, the events of Genesis 1 take place before the Fall of Man, when evil entered the world. But if we look at the Elohim account on its own, separate from the YHWH passage, the text gains a new import. It's not a meditation on the world that was, the world that Adam screwed up and cost us forever; it's a meditation on the world that is, a good world teeming with life in the sea, in the sky, and upon the ground, and each facet of that world, each river, each stream and vernal pool, each blade of grass illuminated in the afternoon sun, and the sweet crunch of each apple, was created by God for us and for our benefit. Not in a world that was lost, but in a world that still exists.

There's a lot that can be made of this, both good and bad, in terms of humanity's dominion over the earth. A few days ago when the subject of factory farming briefly surfaced, an acquaintance of mine remarked that he really doesn't give a toss about the chickens that lay eggs or provide us with drumsticks on a Tuesday evening, since they are animals and exist to give us meat. That's an extreme though common view that has some roots in this passage, though it's worth noting that this passage expressly does not authorize killing animals for their meat, and though I can't say I think much of anyone who sees his authority as bestowing the right to do whatever he wants to those under his authority. Kings who oppress their subjects usually find their kingdoms collapsing under them.

In that vein, it might be worth noting that the Genesis 1 creation account follows a structure of two sets of three days. The first day brings light and day, the second day brings sky (the Hebrew cosmology here indicates that the sky physically separates the water on the earth from water above the sky, and that rain comes when God opens doors in the sky -- something I've yet to hear a convincing creationist argument address, though I digress) , and the third day brings dry land and plants.

The second cycle of three days follows the pattern of the first cycle of light, sea and sky, and dry land. On Day Four, God creates the sun and the moon to maintain the light from the first day; on Day Five, he brings forth birds to fly through the sky and sea creatures to move through the waters under the sky; and on Day Six he creates land animals and he also creates man.

This is significant because the first cycle lays the ground for that second cycle to build upon. Without the light, there is no use for the sun, moon and stars. Without the sky and the waters, there is nowhere for the birds or the sea creatures to live. Without dry land, there is no space for animals. And of course, all this leads the way for humanity, men and women, the pinnacle of the created order. A king who oppresses and exploits his subjects poisons the source of his power and military might; a human atop a ladder who insists on kicking out the steps below him, will have no way to get down safely when the ladder begins to fall.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Stand with the Outcast

I want to start by saying something that should be obvious: Religious discrimination is an awful, awful thing.

It is a horrible thing to demean someone because you don't like her religious beliefs. It is a horrible thing to demean someone because you don't like what you assume her religious beliefs to be. Religion is one of those things that define us as individuals and as communities. Belittle a person's faith, and you are not only belittling and demeaning them, you are belittling something that defines them, inspires them, and connects them not only to the Transcendent but to the teeming masses of humanity.

Mocking that, belittling that, or discriminating against a person because of their religious beliefs is wrong, wrong, wrong. I wish everyone could see that.

Which is what makes what is happening in Washington state right now so aggravating.

Washington state Sen. Sharnon Brown (R-Kennewick) is sponsoring a bill that would grant an exemption to the state's anti-discrimination laws, so that business owners could refuse to serve customers if doing so would violate their religious principles. As reported by Rachel La Corte of the Associated Press, the bill has its genesis in a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union has filed against florist Barronelle Stutzman.

Stutzman, you may recall, made national news on March 1 when she refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding, because she believes homosexuality to be sinful, and gay marriage immoral. (Stutzman has told TV station KEPR that she is a Christian. I regret that this disclosure does not surprise me.)

Of the law that Stutzman ran afoul of, and that Brown is trying to amend, Joseph Backholm, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington state put it like this: "The government is now saying if you have a conviction about an issue that we happen to disagree with, then you as a business owner are going to be fined or shut down because of that. People should and do have the right to their own convictions."

Well, yes; people do have a right to their convictions. There is nothing in the law that says that people can't have their convictions. Our Constitution guarantees all of us the right to our convictions, and even our right to express those convictions. That's a cornerstone of our free society, and it's been put to the test repeatedly; only last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of Westboro Baptist Church to proclaim its virulent hatred of gays even at funerals.

It's really hard not to appreciate the irony here, that Brown essentially is arguing that Stutzman has a right to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and that denying her this right is discriminatory. But let's be clear about this: No one's convictions give them the right to decide who they'll do business with. If Stutzman and her attorney want to argue that she has that right, then they're on shaky ground. Deep-South segregationists also wanted to decide whom they would and wouldn't do business with, and they also claimed that their convictions were based in Scripture.

I'm also really curious to know what Bible Stutzman and her supporters are reading from that give divine sanction to take this stand. It's safe to say that Jesus encourages his followers to stand by their convictions, but it's also plain to see that the most basic conviction Jesus wants us to have is one of compassion.

See a man who's blind, heal him. Bump into a woman who has been bleeding for years, then you not only heal her, but you also stop and pay a little attention to her. Hug a leper, commend the faith of a heretic, eat and drink with gluttons and drunkards, love the hookers, and welcome the outcasts. Whatever Jesus' view on the righteousness of any given behavior, the gospels make one thing clear time and time again: Jesus valued people more than he was bothered by their sin.

It's worth noting that there was one group in the gospels that was really offended by the sins the people committed, and they were shocked that Jesus allowed sinners to come near him. They would go to great lengths to make sure that people knew what God thought of their sin, so that they could repent and be forgiven. I suspect they would approve of Stutzman's decision not to serve a gay couple.

This group was called the Pharisees, and Jesus had some harsh words for them. Their words were even harsher; and, in the end, they had him killed.

Perhaps no one gets to the heart of the issue like Victoria Childress. Back in 2011, Childress, who runs a bakery from her Iowa home, refused to sell a wedding cake to a lesbian couple. As she explained to KCCI-TV, "It is my right, and it's not to discriminate against them. It's not so much to do with them, it's to do with me and my walk with God and what I will answer [to] him for."

Exactly. Christians believe that we ultimately will stand before God and have to answer for the choices we made, including the choice to devalue the worth of another human being because we don't approve of their lifestyle, exactly the choice that Jesus rejected, and exactly the choice he castigated the Pharisees for making.

Discrimination is wrong. Cloaking it in the mantle of religion and claiming divine sanction for it is even worse. We need to stop justifying morally reprehensible behavior, and we need to hold accountable those who want it to be legal.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

'From Hell'

Well, I finished "From Hell" last night, around four in the morning after getting it in the mail that afternoon, so I think I have to give it a thumbs-up.

The book is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell about Jack the Ripper. Detailing events leading up to the infamous Whitechapel murders and an ensuing coverup, "From Hell" is a tightly scripted piece of historical fiction.

As an on/off fan of Moore's work -- I loved his run on "Saga of the Swamp Thing," was blown away by"his V for Vendetta," and found "Watchmen*" to be amazing, but was unimpressed with "Tom Strong" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" -- I've been looking forward to reading this one.

The book did not disappoint. It was a tightly written graphic novel, as meticulously plotted as I've come to expect from Alan Moore, and thoroughly researched. The book is structured around a widely dismissed conspiracy theory that Jack the Ripper's actions were a plot orchestrated by the Freemasons to protect the British Crown during the reign of Queen Victoria from a scandal involving her grandson Albert.

The action is gruesome -- this is a story about Jack the Ripper, after all -- but Moore's ability to tap into the power of symbolism and to further imbue those symbols with the semblance of deeper order and power, drives some of the most absorbing sections of the book, such as Sir William Gull's taxi ride back and forth across London as he completes an arcane circuit of the city's churches and landmarks.

On the downside, the artwork did make it difficult at times to differentiate among the characters, particularly given the size of the cast; and as an American reader unfamiliar with 19th-century London slang, customs or culture, I had to consult Wikipedia at times to make sure I was following the story correctly. (I also had to re-read the first two chapters, since I found I didn't understand properly what was happening in the fourth chapter, when the story started to progress.)

The artwork also was explicit, not just in terms of the violence, but also regarding human sexuality. Jack the Ripper, after all, wasn't just a serial killer; he was driven by psychosexual demons that led him to prey upon prostitutes in the Whitechapel district with a particularly vicious sexual violence. As a result, I doubt I'll be letting my daughter read this anytime soon. Maybe around the time I let her read my "Swamp Thing" collections, which I've summed up previously as "When you're older, and I'm dead."

I do recommend it, although if you've decided you're not an Alan Moore fan, I concede that you probably won't like it.

* I think I finally enjoyed "Watchmen" on the fifth or sixth time through. To be fair, on first reading I think I initially was expecting a superhero comic, and wasn't ready for the superhero deconstructed. By the time I was in my early 30s, though, I was finally able to see myself a little in Nite Owl, and could appreciate better what Moore had done with the other nonheroic "superheroes" like Dr. Manhattan and Rorshach.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Life of Cesar Chavez celebrated on Easter, people freak out

My faith is in shambles today, because Google honored Cesar Chavez today instead of celebrating Easter. Or at least so the Christian Right would have it.

Google has a custom of altering the logo on its main page to mark major holidays, significant events and anniversaries, and just because it can. A lot of these doodles are fun, like the time it replaced the Google logo with a functioning Pac-Man game. (My daughter still plays that.) Others are educational, like the time Google honored M.C. Escher. Other times, they're just odd, like the logo honoring the 150th birthday of L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto. (For what it's worth, I speak the language, and just shrugged at that one.)

But heck, it's their logo, they can do whatever they want with it. Right?

Apparently not. On Easter Sunday this year, Google honored Cesar Chavez, a labor activist born on March 31, 1927, and not the Resurrection, and that, apparently, was too much. Glenn Beck got all snarky at the imagined disrespect; other Twitterfolk suggested that Google was elevating Chavez over Christ, or even found it a tremendous insult to their religion.

Come on, really?

I fully understand that Christians on Easter may greet one another with cries of "He is risen!" and "He is risen indeed!" But it's silly, it's pointless, it's completely un-Christlike, to demand that everyone else celebrate the Resurrection with us, and to take offense when a corporation like Google, with users who are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, Jainist, Shinto, Sikh and Wiccan as well as Christian, does not take the time to affirm our particular set of religious beliefs, or even to celebrate our holiday with us.

The empty tomb on the first Easter is foundational to my faith. It is the basis for my belief that Jesus is the Son of God, the foundation of my hope that one day I too will rise from the dead, and for my conviction that God's dream is for us one day to live in a world free of pain, disease, death and infirmity, for us to walk with him as his people and for him to walk with us as our God.

I don't need a Google Doodle to affirm my faith today, and even if Google actually savaged Christians today with a doodle that declared "He's dead, you nitwits," my faith would be unrattled. (Though at least in that case I could understand being upset.)

But, in fact, Google's choice of doodles today is one that affirms my faith, and if you're a Christian you also should find it encouraging.

Cesar Chavez, after all, was a tireless advocate for the rights of poor workers. Himself an American farm worker, Chavez was a leader in the labor movement in the 1960s and also worked for civil rights, encouraging Mexican Americans to become registered voters involved with the political process.

With Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, a labor union that worked to ensure laborers were paid well and treated with dignity. One of the hallmarks of his activism was his strict commitment to nonviolence.

Chavez, it should be noted, was a devote Christian, He drew his inspiration for all these stands and for his actions from the person, the teachings and the life of Jesus Christ.

And isn't a transformed life the best way to honor the man we believe rose from the dead?

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The 'Djesus Uncrossed' flipout

So were you offended by “DjesusUncrossed,” Saturday Night Live's riff on Quentin Tarantino's latest film?

I wasn't, but judging by the reaction of the nation's culture warriors, I should have been. Once the sketch aired last weekend, the Internet erupted with the predictable cries of foul. Fox News ran an opinion piece by Todd Starnes melodramatically claiming “NBC Declares War on Christians.” Michael Farris, chancellor of of Patrick Henry College called it the “worst possible attack on the person and character of Jesus Christ.” Seriously?

For its part, the American Family Association, in its official statement, essentially consigned those involved with the sketch to the flames of hell.

Something is missing amid all this outrage: a sense of perspective.

“Saturday Night Live” hasn't stayed on the air the past 40 years for its biblical scholarship. It is a variety show built around short comedy sketches. Comedy works on its ability to surprise us, and the strength of its surprise often lies in the unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated ideas, especially if the link breaks a taboo.

That is why we laugh at a faux commercial for edible Pampers. This is why it was funny to listen to a Eddie Murphy and a reggae band sing about killing white people, at an American Legion fund-raiser. The images are too bizarre, too contradictory, too exaggerated. They make no sense. So we laugh.

In the case of “Djesus Uncrossed,” the writers at Saturday Night Live link the excessive and gratuitous violence of Quentin Tarantino's movies – “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds” specifically – to the figure of Jesus. The joke requires viewers the recognize the jarring disconnect between the violence of “Djesus Uncrossed” and the essential pacifism of Jesus in the gospels.

Quentin Tarantino's movies routinely make a spectacle of violence. Compare that to Jesus, who went peacefully when he was arrested, rebuked his disciples when they raised arms, and told his followers “Do not resist an evil person.” Pairing Jesus with Tarantino's love of violence isn't blasphemous; it's humorous. It works because we know that Jesus isn't the kind to cut someone's head in half.

Put simply: The joke would fail if the writers didn't count on us to respect Jesus as a peaceful man. Where's the blasphemy in that?

Is the issue that Saturday Night Live used the likeness of Jesus in a manner that doesn't match the preapproved evangelical manner? That's a narrow attitude to take. Christianity has provided the framework for Western thought for nearly 1,700 years. In America its influence predates the founding of the Republic.

With that sort of legacy, it's only natural to use the language and the symbols of Christianity to communicate and to critique Western thought, civilization and art.

Is the issue that Saturday Night Live portrayed Jesus specifically in a violent manner? Perhaps it is. Either way, I think we have deeper problems than “Djesus Uncrossed.”

Years ago, some people complained that Jesus too often was being portrayed in popular culture as a hippie sort of flower child, powerless and weak, the sort of guy who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach.

The Jesus pushed by the Right has the opposite problem. The Right too often has used Jesus to stoke up people's anger, to justify invading Iraq and other Muslim countries, to marginalize gays and lesbians, and even to deny women access to contraceptives. This Jesus is no milquetoast; he's the guy who's going to kick sand in your face at the beach.

The difference is that Saturday Night Live portrayed the vengeful Jesus as a joke, while the Right is completely serious about theirs. Who's committing blasphemy now?

About the only stereotype missing from Harry Hanukkah is that he wasn't a lawyer.
Starnes asks rhetorically why Saturday Night Live never pokes fun at Judaism – I guess he never saw“Harry Hanukkah Saves Christmas” – and never tells jokes about Islam. I'd wager it's not because they're afraid of offending Muslim viewers, nor because they hold a special regard for Islam, as much as that it's rude to pick on the little guy.

Because the truth is, in America at least, Islam remains a minority religion, with only about 2.6 million adherents in a nation of 300 million people. For all the complaints of the Religious Right that Christianity in America is under siege, Christianity remains the dominant narrative of our culture. Christmas is a federal holiday, not Eid al-Fitr. Everyone in America knows what Easter celebrates; I doubt you'll find one Christian in 10 who knows what Shavuot is, or what its relationship is to the Day of Pentecost.

The Religious Right loves to play the persecution card. The message it has been hammering for years is pretty simple: Be afraid. There's a war on Christianity, and we're losing. Liberals are attacking God. Our culture, our heritage, our legacy, are all under attack.

Faith should lead us to reach out to other people and to forge connections with them. If the most it inspires someone to do, is to tell you to be afraid, do yourself a favor.

Tune them out. Their attitude is the most offensive thing of all.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Fox continues its war on reason

Does Fox News think Christians should be thin-skinned and sensitive to everything that isn't exactly how Fox thinks it should be?

That's what I find myself asking after reading an opinion piece by Todd Starnes, titled "NBC Declares War on Christians." In his opinion piece, Starnes takes umbrage at the Saturday Night Live sketch "Djesus Uncrossed."

Aside from the Saturday Night Live sketch, NBC's offenses include sports blogger Rick Chandler's recent post about Tim Tebow's plans to speak at First Baptist Dallas. Starnes calls this post a "scathing smear." I just read it, and it seems like a fairly accurate description of the controversies centered on the church and the teachings of its head pastor. Don't take my word for it, though; decide for yourself.

Beyond that, the litany of NBC's supposed offenses includes editing the phrase "under God" out from the Pledge of Allegiance during the U.S. Open a year-and-a-half ago, NBC chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman expressing her personal mislike of religion on the "Today" show during a back-and-forth discussion, and of course shows like "Good Christian Bitches" and "The Book of Daniel." Plus there was a piece by Bart Ehrman, published in Newsweek, called "The Myths of Jesus," that lightly details the historical difficulties with the gospel accounts of Jesus' infancy.

By this point in his column, Starnes has got himself worked up pretty well over NBC's supposed war on Christians, and it's obvious he believes that the rest of us feel this way too. I'm sorry to disappoint him, but I just can't muster the outrage. I just don't see it.

For starters, Starnes has done a good job of stacking the deck. He neglects to mention other things that could put NBC in a more favorable light: the annual Christmas-tree lighting, for instance; Christmas specials like "It's a Wonderful Life," which NBC aired this past November. NBC also has aired shows like "VeggieTales" and "3-2-1 Penguins," which couldn't be more overtly Christian if they tried.

On "The Book of Daniel," Starnes notes that Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association hated it and called it anti-Christian bigotry. I should point out that Wildmon also was offended by "All in the Family" and "Charlie's Angels," and worried that Mighty Mouse would encourage kids to snort cocaine. More sensibly, the Rev. Gordon Atkinson said the main offense of "The Book of Daniel" was chiefly that it was a bad show.

Christ means everything to me. I've been a Christian for 25 years, even served God on the missions field in Haiti for a while. Perhaps I should be offended by "Djesus Unchained," but I just can't see it. It's Quentin Tarantino's over-the-top violence they're mocking, not Christ. If anything, the piece shows respect for Jesus. Its goal is to make us laugh by teaming jarringly graphic violence with the man best known in the United States for nonviolence. If anyone should be offended, it's Quentin Tarantino.

Fox loves to play the persecution card. The message they've been hammering for years is pretty simple: Be afraid. There's a war on Christmas. Liberals are attacking God. Our culture, our heritage, our legacy, are all under attack.

Simple truth is, we're not. If it sometimes feels like Christianity is being singled out for ridicule, there are two things to remember. One is that it's easy to overlook the negative portrayals of minority faiths like Islam, because they're not ours and we often don't understand them as well as we think we do. And the second is that because Christianity has provided the dominant underpinning framework for Western thought for as long as it has, it's only natural to use the language and the symbols of Christianity to communicate and to critique Western thought, civilization and art.

I'll also add this: Faith should lead us to reach out to other people and to forge connections with them. If the most it inspires someone to do, is to tell you to be afraid, do yourself a favor.

Change the channel.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Open Letter to Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council

Dear Mr. Perkins:

I was always under the impressions that the bullies were the ones who excluded other people. As my parents taught me when I was younger, those who stand up for the rights of those being excluded are the ones we should respect.

If the Boy Scouts want to continue a national policy of excluding gays from membership and leadership positions, by all means, let them do so. It tarnishes their reputation, it cheapens their claims to be a place for boys to grow into mature role models, and it puts them on the same side of history as men like George Wallace and Laurie Pritchett, men who also argued that discrimination was morally superior to inclusion and upholding human worth. It's not a choice I would make, but it's their choice.

I'm encouraged that the Boy Scouts are reconsidering their national ban on gay members and might be willing to leave it to individual troops to decide to permit openly gay men to serve in Scouts, based on the views of their sponsoring organizations.

The Scouts can and do accomplish a lot of good things for the children and teens who belong to their troops, but it's despite that ban, not because of it. It's time to do right on this issue as well.

David Learn

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What a piece of work

I have of late, but wherefore
I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise;
and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition;
that this goodly frame the Earth, seemes to me a sterile
Promontory; this most excellent canopy the air,
look you, this brave o'er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof,
fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing
to me, then a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

'The Korvac Saga'

If I'm a fan of alternate histories and realities, and I am, the reason lies in a comic book Marvel Comics published up until 1984.

Narrated by Uatu the Watcher, "What If?" revisited some of Marvel's most iconic or successful stories, and showed how thy could have unfolded based on a single decision made differently. The initial run of "What If?" gave us stories, often by the talent behind the original story, of things like Peter Parker stopping the burglar and becoming a TV star rather than a superhero. Another story had Reed Richards wait for better shielding against cosmic radiation, with the result that he and his flight team never became the Fantastifc Four.

In one of of my personal favorites, Michael Korvac defeated the Avengers and pursued his dream of remaking the universe, taking out one being after another and adding their power to his own. As his power increased, the threat that Korvac posed alarmed more and more of the big hitters in the Marvel Universe until it reached the point that both he and the forces arrayed against him were unstoppable.

Backed into a corner, and unwilling to let go of his ambition, Korvac destroyed the entre universe with a single click of the Ultimate Nullifier. I want to stress that this wasn't cheap melodrama as later issues of "What If?" became. This was a logically structured story that progressed the only way it could. Even now years later, I still get a chill thinking about the way the it went.

In the regular Marvel Universe, where he did not destroy everything, Michael Korvac was the creation of Jim Shooter. He was one of many of the nemeses Shooter created for Marvel whose godlike powers were so tremendous that he was virtually undefeatable -- except of course, the heroes always manage to find a way, alternate realities excepted.

The Korvac Saga, as it is now known, first ran in 1978. Goaded on by that "What If?" story, I searched through comics conventions in my teens for individual issues in the series, and even managed to buy some. I never read the entire story until I finally got a collected edition this past week from

It's disappointing.

In all fairness, comic books in 1978 had a younger readership than they do in 2013, and so you have to expect that they're going to focus on the adventure and cosmic spectacle more than on the humanity of their characters. That is particularly true for comics about superhero teams with rosters with legends like Captain America, powerhouses like Iron Man and Wonder Man, and the occasional Norse or Greek god.

But, to a 42-year-old who still finds something to enjoy in superhero comics, this comic did disappoint. There are too many clumsy asides to bring the reader up to pace on what happened last issue; too many people casually walking around in public or in the privacy of their own home in silly costumes; and too much melodrama to make sure we know just how powerful and menacing a figure Michael Korvac cuts.

And then there are other things that just feel odd. Never in my life did I expect to see Captain America and Iron Man squabbling like children, but that's a spectacle that awaits inside this volume. "It's my turn to be in charge and give the orders!" Iron Man whines. "But you're doing it wrong!" Captain America shouts, before punching him in the face. (I am not making that up.)

That's not to say the comic was awful, though, because it wasn't. If the story seems too juvenile at times, there are moments when the writer's wit shines through. There's the fashion show hosted by the Wasp, crashed by a supervillain wannabee wearing a suit made of brown projectile quills and calling himself the Porcupine. Or there's the moment when the Avengers realize, their special flight privileges revoked, that they will have to take a bus to Queens to save the world.

The story's got some of the great Marvel cliches, like a threat to the entire universe, but it also uses some of the storytelling techniques that have made Marvel Comics worth reading for so long, such as the use of a subplot involving the Collector that finally reveals its relationship to the larger story just as the subplot concludes. And of course, this is the story that gave us Henry Gyrich, the government bureaucrat every superhero is afraid of.

All told, I enjoyed the story for what it is, though I'd be lying if I said I didn't skim it at times. On the other hand, my daughters, who still love a good superhero romp as much I once did, have been enjoying it quite a bit.

Once they finish it, I need to turn them on to the story where Korvac wins.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Egyptian poem

Death is before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going forth into a garden after sickness.

Death is before me today
Like the odor of myrrh,
Like sitting under the sail on a windy day.

Death is before me today
Like the odor of lotus flowers,
Like sitting on the shore of drunkenness.

Death is before me today
Like the course of the freshet,
Like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.

Death is before me today
Like the clearing of the sky,
Like a man longs for something that he does not know.

Death is before me today
As a man longs to see his house
When he has spent years in captivity.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

broken hearts and lost love

My daughter's heart got broken yesterday.

I've been watching the past several weeks as she has fallen in love, and it really has been a sight to see. It started out as a mild curiosity that I unwittingly encouraged. I've known the object of her affection longer than she has, and when I've spoken of it, I have spoken only with the utmost regard and respect. That was enough. Her curiosity got the better of her before long, and she decided to check things out.

It was love at first sight.

Rachel is only 10, maybe a little young for a book the size and depth of "Les Misérables," but I've learned to trust my children's judgment on what they're capable of. Every morning for the past month, I have watched as she walks into school, the book tucked under one arm.

The sight of Rachel lugging an unabridged hardback copy of "Les Misérables" around the school quickly became iconic. Staff who never had her for a class asked me what book she was reading that was bigger than she was. They were amazed to hear not only that she would tackle a book so epic but also that she understood it.

And understand it she did. As she read, Rachel got caught up in the story. She groaned with good humor when she read Victor Hugo's 52-page essay on the Battle of Waterloo that is as fascinating as it is irrelevant to the story. (Just wait until you get to the chapter on the sewers, I told her.) She grieved for Fantine, hated the impassioned coldness of Javert, loathed the Thenardiers, and loved that brisk autumn evening when Valjean came to rescue Cosette.

Her experience with "Les Misérables" came to a cruel and premature end on Friday. When I arrived at the school to pick her up, I found Rachel distraught and almost in tears. "Les Misérables" was gone. She had left the book in its accustomed place during the school day, and now it was gone. She and the teacher had checked around the classroom and around the school, but they couldn't find it anywhere.

At first I thought she was upset because she had lost a book of mine, and I tried to console her. "It's all right," I told her, and I meant it. "I bought it 20 years ago at a used bookstore for seven bucks. It's not like it's your great-grandfather's second-edition copy of 'Moby Dick.' If it doesn't show up, we can find a new one."

Later, I realized how badly I had misread the situation. To me, "Les Misérables" was a book, a phenomenal book even; but to Rachel, reading it was a nearly religious experience. We could find another copy of the book, even the same edition, but it wouldn't be the same.

This wasn't just a book that Rachel had fallen in love with; it was a book that she had fallen into. The dust jacket was battered and worn, its edges frayed from being carted around every day for a month. For weeks she had taken every moment she could spare, and she had spent them all on reading that book. She had discovered the humanity of every character she had encountered, and established a connection with each one. Like the Velveteen rabbit, this book had become real.

And then it had disappeared. It was brutal. I had bought the book, but on Friday afternoon I realized that it wasn't mine anymore. Rachel had established a claim on the book and loved it right from under me. It's her book, through and through.

There is another possibility, though I prefer not to think about it. It's possible that one of the other students took it, out of spite. Every school has bullies, and Rachel has had problems with a few classmates over the past year.

But everyone in that school knows how much Ruth has been enjoying that book, and the thought that someone could be so deliberately cruel to another child is one I hate.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, January 04, 2013

the daniel fast

Among the more interesting things I've tried in the past year: a meal plan that lets you eat as much as you want, whenever you're hungry, and still lose weight.

Of course there's a little more to it than that, because it does restrict you from meats, bread  and a few other things. Known as the Daniel fast, it's essentially a vegan diet with a spiritual gloss, although it's just as effective without the religious aspects.

It's based primarily on what the book of Daniel records that he, Azariah, Mahalel and Hananiah ate, with additional restrictions taken from the fast Daniel kept while praying for the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. I lost about 20 pounds on it over a two-week period this past June.

It's pretty straightforward. Under this regimen, you can eat any fruit, vegetable, nut, legume, root or whole grain that you want, cooked or raw. Use any natural herbs or seasonings that you want. You drink water. Quantities are unlimited, so there's no worries about getting enough calories.

The benefits of a vegetarian diet are pretty well documented, so it's not too surprising that the book of Daniel reports that he and his friends outperformed both physically and mentally those who ate choice meats and drank fine wines.

From a proscriptive angle, the Daniel fast allows no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no sweeteners of any sort (including honey) and no flour. This pretty much eliminates all processed foods, so you can see why it's a big saver on the waistline. In the first few days alone, a person usually drops about 10 pounds of retained water.

The downside is that this is a big change from the diet we're accustomed to eating as Americans, and we can get strong cravings those first few days for junk food, or just find ourselves hungry for more food.

At the same time, though, that is part of the appeal of the Daniel fast both for losing weight and for being able to stick to the commitment -- if you're hungry, just get something to eat. You're not relying on willpower alone to tough it out for the duration of the fast; you're training yourself to eat more healthily, and you're breaking an addiction to unhealthful habits the way you're supposed to -- by replacing them with good habits.

One thing I discovered after trying the Daniel fast in June was that, after a few weeks without meat and sugar, I really didn't have an appetite for them. They not only lost their taste to me, they annoyed my stomach. If I hadn't insisted on getting back into some unhealthy eating habits for the sake of convenience, I probably would have stuck with it just fine.

Make that a goal for 2013.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

'Black Like Me'

There are times I feel that my public education denied me important parts of my education. This is one of them.

"Black Like Me" is the true account of journalist John Howard Griffin and his journey through the South as a black man during the days of jim crow justice and segregation. Through a combination of melatonin pills, ultraviolet light treatments and a dye, Griffin made himself appear to be black, in order to better understand racism and how it affected society. The idea alone is incredible. That someone actually did this and then wrote about it, is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Griffin's book is written as a series of journal entries detailing his experiences as a black man in the South. Much of this details things that are textbook segregation: not being able to eat at white restaurants, not being allowed to drink from white water fountains, and not even being allowed to use white restrooms. What raises this above mere textbook knowledge is the immediacy of the narrative. Reading the book, you get a real sense of the indignity of having to walk for more than a mile just to go the bathroom, of not being given a drink of water on a scorching hot day, and of being subjected to what Griffin calls "the hate stare."

Beyond the obvious racism and racist attitudes, there were a few things revealed in the book that I found disturbing. One is that, in the afterword, Griffin notes that once the Civil Rights Act was passed, a number of white Civil Rights advocates felt that the work was finished. Blacks were guaranteed the right to vote, segregation was over, and things were looking up, What else was needed? Further demands by blacks for advancement and opportunity were met with incredulity and anger.

Right now there is a lawsuit headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, calling for a repeal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ensured that states that had practiced segregation and jim crow justice would need to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before they made any change to their voting laws. The argument is that, with a black president now elected to a second term, surely we have put this sordid chapter of our past behind us.

At the same time, a number of state legislatures have tried to pass voter ID laws in a sometimes brazen attempt to give Mitt Romney the upperhand in the election; and other states have gerrymandered their voting districts so that a Democratic-leaning state consistently elects Republican representatives. (Stop and think about the racial implications of this.)

Have we really come as far as we think we have? The white majority thought we were fine in the 1950s, thought we were fine in the 1960s and thinks we're fine now. I'd suggest that the white majority doesn't really know what it's like for the black minority, and should find out from the people who do know.

Secondly, Griffin had some illuminating thoughts on black achievement and the attitudes Southern whites had on that subject. As he traveled the South, Griffin noted the substandard living conditions many black families had, and noted that many whites attributed this to the overall shiftlesness of black culture, and the lack of desire on the part of blacks to get ahead and achieve for themselves.

At the same time, blacks routinely were being denied economic opportunities, funding for their schools was low, and their overall access to culture in the form of theater, concerts, and even libraries was minimal. And why should the wealth be taken from hard-working whites, and given to people who haven't worked for it?

It's not much of a stretch to see some disturbing parallels between those attitudes from the late 1950s and views recently expressed in the contemporary political dialogue about the 46 percent, and about people who benefit from safety net programs like Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment.

In the past 25 years, we've seen the wealth of our nation aggregate into the hands of an increasingly small group of people. Right now public schools and teachers are under tremendous fire, and the Republican Party has made a lot of noise about freeloaders trying to live off the hard work of others.

Have we really come as far as we think we have?

Right now we're at a crossroads in American education, where our standards are being adjusted to stress nonfiction reading, to "improve work-readiness" and to make us "more competitive in the global job market" and a lot of other things like that. There are a lot of books that are being cut from the national standards that shouldn't be, like "To Kill a Mockingbird." This is another book that should be part of our national curriculum, because it should be a part of our national conversation.

We have made some progress since the 1950s in terms of race, but we still have more to go. As we make that progress, "Black Like Me" should be a part of our discussion.

Copyright © 2013 by David Learn. Used with permission.