Tuesday, February 28, 2012

(WR) Revelations of Revelation

Critic Adam Gopnik reviews biblical scholar Elaine Pagels's new book on Revelation in the current New Yorker:  http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/03/05/120305crbo_books_gopnik
An excerpt:
Pagels then shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the “Left Behind” books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look. “When John says that ‘the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth,’ he revises Daniel’s vision to picture Rome as the worst empire of all,” Pagels writes. “When he says that the beast’s seven heads are ‘seven kings,’ John probably means the Roman emperors who ruled from the time of Augustus until his own time.” As for the creepy 666, the “number of the beast,” the original text adds, helpfully, “Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person.” This almost certainly refers—by way of Gematria, the Jewish numerological system—to the contemporary Emperor Nero. Even John’s vision of a great mountain exploding is a topical reference to the recent eruption of Vesuvius, in C.E. 79. Revelation is a highly colored picture of the present, not a prophecy of the future.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

(WP) Masculinity and the Other

Writing about the novelist Russell Banks in the current issue (March 8th) of the New York Review of Books, Diane Johnson observes Banks' preoccupation with the way conventional images of masculinity blight his characters' lives. She then cites Martha Nussbaum:

"The Philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, writing about patriotism, points out how much mischief, even downright evil, is done in the world because of "diseased norms of manliness." In her view, which is informed by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, these arise from primitive emotions of shame and disgust. Disgust stems from our unease with our mortal bodies, because they will 'die and decay,' but it is often projected onto others, either the other sex or other ethnic groups. Most important, says Nussbaum, studies associate the feelings of disgust and shame with 'aggression against the weak and against women,' something that seems an ingredient, if not the root, of a lot of the political and religious ferment we see everywhere in humiliated societies, and is very much one of Banks' concerns."

The full article is not open source, so you will have to pay for it or go to the library if you want to read it, but this excerpt alone gives some perspective on the concrete, practical importance of Beauvoir's existentialist concept of 'the Other.'

Monday, February 20, 2012

Target on Your Back

Sunday's New York Times Magazine has a fascinating, and rather creepy, article by Charles Duhigg on the science of habit formation and how companies use it and the vast web of data mining, not just to sell you stuff, but to manipulate your behavior. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=Charles%20Duhigg&st=cse

Thursday, February 16, 2012

(WR) Christianity as a Response to Jesus

Why should an intellectually rigorous historical reconstruction of Jesus matter to the theology of Christianity or the lives of Christians?

Since the foundings of Christianity as clusters of Jewish sects and Greek neighborhoods in the first century, every Christian, and every Christian community, has been faced with the fundamental question of the life, work, and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and how to respond to it. Theologically, as well as in everyday life, the histories of Christianity's many strands wholly consist in the working-out of this relationship.

Christian responses to Jesus have been persistently various and often contrary. Was Jesus an apocalyptic messiah? A social critic? A magician? The son of God? A rabble-rouser? Was he resurrected after his death, and if so does this mean his body came back to life, or does it mean something else? Was he an avatar of God, projected like a hologram into first century Palestine, or a flesh-and-blood person with desires, doubts, and fears? All these and many more have been claimed for him.

If to be a Christian in any time is, at a minimum, to take seriously the need to respond to Jesus, then of course one must  choose for oneself among many competing options for how to respond. To take uncricitally the word of any specific theological or traditional view of Jesus, however, would be to abdicate this most fundamental query:  Who and what was Jesus and what (if anything) does this mean for our own lives? Thus, perhaps ironically, we must go outside particular theological interpretations, and behind traditional narratives, to find what we can reasonably know about Jesus' life, work, and death before we are in a position to decide how, or whether, to respond.

In this sense, the rigorous and ongoing systematic reconstruction of Jesus and his time is not an antiquarian curiosity or a threat to the spirit of the religion (though it may at times threaten specific political power blocs and dogmatic ideologies within the churches). It is, rather, an indispensable basis for Christianity as a living practice.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

(WP) Zadie Smith on "People 2.0"

As promised, here is the great literary critic Zadie Smith, in a famous review essay that takes as it's starting point the film about Facebook.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

(WP) Friedman on Friendship

In deflecting communitarianism's emphasis on communities of place in favor of voluntary association as (re)constituting selves, does she herself risk presupposing a version of abstract individualism?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

(WR) King James at 401

Run, don't walk, to the library and check out Robert Pogue Harrison's article on the quadricentennial of the King James Bible in the February 9th New York Review of Books. An excerpt:

 "What does Western culture lose when it loses its biblical literacy? At the very least it loses a great deal of access to its literature. This is true not only of medieval and Renaissance literature but of a large part of the modern canon as well. How much of Nietzsche is comprehensible without a basic knowledge of scripture? ... The spiritual depths of writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson are largely closed off to those who cannot hear in their inner ear the basso continuo of these New Englanders’ ongoing dialogue with the Bible. The same can be said of any number of modernists—Yeats, Joyce, Stevens, Eliot, and the bleak Samuel Beckett, who constantly engaged, if only to subvert, biblical motifs and paradigms."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Tony Kushner on Puffins

For anyone who missed it, playwright Tony Kushner's recent speech in acceptance of the Puffin Foundation Award for creative citizenship is both very sharp and very hilarious.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Triumph of Irrational Fear

The MCLA Board of Trustees decided this evening by a nearly unanimous vote to arm the campus police force with loaded, semiautomatic firearms (the student trustee voting against). Most of the reasons members gave for their support had to do with the safety of the campus, as though armed police were obviously synonymous with greater safety.

Of course, well-trained and disciplined as they are, police officers make mistakes, and the statistical risk that they might do so – or that their weapons might be taken from them and used – is far, far higher than that those weapons might come in handy in protecting anyone. Make a mistake with a nightstick or pepper spray and people can be badly hurt; do so with a gun, they may well die.

It is interesting that in the face of overwhelming opposition from all sectors of the campus community, no compromise proposal came before the board, such as that firearms be available in the police office or vehicles, unloaded and locked away, for the unlikely event that they are ever needed. This strikes me as reflecting a serious absence of imagination, and of sensitivity to both the opinions and the cogent reasons against the decision.

Several board members voiced the concern that they would be responsible if something bad happened and they had said no to arming the police. None observed that if something bad does happen as a result of that arming, they will be at least equally responsible. I sincerely hope that nothing bad happens, but I hope we will all hold them responsible if it does.