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Monday, April 30, 2012

The "Shrouded" Sign: Can Thomas de Wesselow explain the Rez?

Skeptic theories about Jesus, C. S. Lewis noted more than half a century ago, tend to succeed one another with "the restless fertility of bewilderment."  Indeed, while the idea that Jesus was, say, a "copy-cat savior" like Osiris or Mithras were old hat already in his day, even Lewis might be surprised to hear some of the wilder recent theories, such as that Jesus was a "hippy in an age of Augustan yuppies," a rip-off from his beloved Iliad, or just a fictional excuse for people to inject hallucinogenic mushrooms. 

No, we have not quite reached the end of this road, yet.  The ingenious, we still have with us.  A Cambridge-trained art historian has just come out with a new one, tracing the rise of Christianity back to the Shroud of Turin.   Jesus' followers took him down from the cross, his wounds were printed (don't know how, yet) on his burial cloth, and the resulting image launched the whole Christian myth!  Judging by the introduction, this is not the most poorly-written or weakly-imagined "Christ of Doubt" yet to have been conceived. Certainly, this Thomas De Wesselow fellow has wit and smarts, has read a bunch of books (but already, it seems, not nearly enough), and has that impregnably cool Enlightenment "Tude" down double kosher.

Who knows?  Maybe De Wesselow will be the one who finally strikes paydirt, and the Christian church will have to pack up its tent and use its spare crosses as stakes to hang laundry lines from by mid-summer! 

Or maybe, yet again, the evangelists and the facts they report will find a way to outwit their oh-so-scientific, Ivy-League, Oxbridge-educated critics, once again. 

Let's see how be does, section by section, sometimes chapter by chapter. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The "Carrier Myth" Debate

The following debate occurred in a smoke-filled Virtual Cafe somewhere in space between geeky Christians.  They saw the spring sun shining outside their windows, but rather than going outside and enjoying it as is healthful, fell into a mood to poke cheerful fun at a "famous historian" who sorely tempts that muse of satire and whimsy which emerges in spring with the tulips.     

Some participants, no doubt recognizing the gravity of being cited positively on this blog, asked to be honored with anonymity.  So let us cast this as one of Zhuang Zi's parables, and give the disputants properly distinguished, sagely titles.  Let us imagine them splitting sunflower seeds, drinking tea, and chatting about the strange goings-on on Earth below, as the Great Conversation takes a strange bypath (cue Twilight Zone background music) by that mighty Stoica in the Sky.  The symposium begins with a paper read by a senior sage, who looks somewhat like an elderly Tim McGrew. 

Socrates: The initial odds that Richard Carrier exists are -- let's be generous -- a hundred to one in favor of the proposition.

Friday, April 27, 2012

"Oh no! Ehrman is giving the Christians ammunition!"

Those who frequent the web sites of anti-Christian atheists have lately come across many comments of this sort, by a guy named Steven:

"Bart is now claiming that a story of a girl being raised from the dead dates from very early because , wait for it, some of it is written in Aramaic.

"John Loftus is going to really struggle in his job of debunking Christianity now that apologists can wheel out Bart Ehrman claiming there is multiple independent early attestation of stories of people being raised from the dead, stories which date back very early.

"And that this (according to Bart) the scholarly consensus.

"Sorry John, but Bart has handed your opponents a really big stick to hit you over the head with.

"Look forward to a lot of Christians saying to you 'But even a sceptic like Bart Ehrman says.....'"

Don't sweat it, Steve. What you should sweat are the facts, which Ehrman does little more than recognizes, in some cases. I've been using the Jesus Seminar, and Morton Smith, radical as they are, to argue for the truth of the Gospels, for years. I'm less inclined to use Ehrman for that purpose, maybe because he's not radical enough.  Also, he's focused too much on minor issues, like whether minor books in the New Testament were written by their putative authors, their scribes, the scribes of their disciples, or just a good forger who wanted to give some solid Christian instruction to a random church in Anatolia. 

Get your head around this: 'All truth is God's truth.'  Translate that into atheist-speak, and you'll have a principle to live by.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ninth Best Review: Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle 


"The Perfect Novel"  (*****) 79/ 82

The theme of this book is not prison camps: it is nothing narrower than life itself. And it is almost as rich in characters and stories within stories (here Solzhenitsyn is very like Tolstoy) as life: constancy in love, artistic integrity, the whimsy of fate, literacy in Medieval Novgorod, the prison in the Count of Monte Cristo, snow, how to sew, the law of unintended consequences.

A few major abiding themes run like threads throughout the book, providing unity: First, the life of the "zek," the prisoner in Stalin's camps. Second, loneliness: not just of (male) prisoners longing for a woman or lost loved ones, or of persecuted wives trying to make lives for themselves, but ultimately of each person. Every conversation carries a different meaning for the people involved. The author "gets inside of peoples heads" in an amazing way -- from the janitor Spiridon to the "Best Friend of Counter-Intelligence Operatives," Joseph Stalin himself. Third, and on a deeper level, the theme of this book is integrity, both artistic and moral.

Fourth, and I don't know if this was the conscious intent of the author or not, the book reminds us of the unity of Western civilization. Aside from mentions of Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Pushkin, and Lermontov (which, I might add, also describes the company Solzhenitsyn belongs in, with honor), the book is honeycombed with references to the great thinkers and artists of European civilization -- from the ancient Greeks and the Gospels, to Dante, the Holy Grail, Bach and Beethoven. The Marxist Rubin even quotes Luther. Primarily, no doubt this is a reflection of the fact that the prisoners in the "sharashkas," the top-secret scientific work camps, were educated men, unlike, say, the hero of his shorter novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. (The contrast Solzhenitsyn draws to their well-paid Neanderthal captors is just one form of the irony that is his most distinctive and powerful stylistic weapon. But even the Neanderthals, including Stalin himself, are portrayed not as cardboard villains, but with insight and imagination.) These references also remind us that, as much as Solzhenitsyn has been accused of being a "Slavophile," as if that were an insult, the Russian culture he loves is an integral part of Western civilization. This iconic dialogue of the ages, similiar to the works of great Chinese painters, also adds another layer of delight to the book.

The final and greatest thread that unifies this work is the idea of achieving humanity, of becoming what a person ought to be, of heroism. The prisoners are poets, eccentric, and philosophers (though there are also scoundrels, and everyone is tempted that way), beaten down by life and the forces of disolution within, trying to preserve their souls, or civilization, from the barbarians who are their masters. In describing the simple heroism of some of his characters, Solzhenitsyn achieves brilliance. In my opinion, First Circle is the greatest of his works, and one of the most powerful pieces of writing of the 20th Century, at least. And it is not about the Gulag, primarily: it is about what it means to be human, and the choices we all face.

Aside from the characters and stories, many of the scenes are wonderful (again like Tolstoy): of Rubin standing in the courtyard at night in the snow when he hears the train whistle, of the party at the prosecutor's house, of the arrest of the diplomat. If life is sometimes too strange for fiction, (and it is) there are also pieces of fiction that seem truer than life. First Circle is a marriage of style and substance made in heaven, or at least, the highest circle of hell.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ninth "Worst Review:" Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism

We continue with an occasional series of most and least popular reviews I have posted over the past 14 years on Amazon.  Today we feature what for now I will call the ninth most unpopular -- a book by the famous critic of "Orientalism," the Palestinian scholar, Edward Said.   

Culture and Imperialism, by Edward Said

"Grow up, Professor Said" (**)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Spring in White and Blue


Mount Baker, if you can see it.
One of the great things about the Northwest is that the best of winter so often overlaps with the best of spring.  Here we are in Alvin Plantinga territory -- read his books, and you'll often see references to places like Mt. Shuksan (upper left) and Mt. Baker (right, sorry I couldn't fit these all in one left to right panorama).  I'm at the top of one of the more rugged runs at Mt. Baker Ski Resort.  More than 300 inches of snow lie on the ground under our feet.
New cherries, old grapes.
John looking cool, even
on a warm spring day on
the snow.

Here, meanwhile, are some flowers coming out at home, and a shot or two of John and James learning how to ski -- and doing pretty well, on just their second downhill outing. 

Mt. Shuksan: the most photographed, under-recognized
mountain in the world.   Posing with us.   

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Against Stephen Law: Miracles and the Parable of Bert

The editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal Think, Stephen Law, has just posted an article called "Evidence, Miracles, and the Existence of Jesus," arguing that the occurance of miracles in the Gospels undermines the credibility of those documents, and even the likelihood that Jesus ever really lived.  (This article was originally published in  Faith and Philosophy last April.)

I am inclined to respond by asking, "What took you so long?"  As Machen observed the better part of a century ago, the "liberal Jesus," who told people to be nice, made few ostentatious claims about himself, and having died, remained politely in the grave, never was so very plausible.  Morton Smith observes that not only every Gospel, but every layer of Gospel material, portrays Jesus as having worked miracles.  And by the standards of David Hume (Law begins his paper with a quick bit of what John Earman has called "genuflecting at Hume's altar" [Earman: 2000, Preface], speaking of Hume's allegedly great contributions to the debate over miracles), one cannot countenance anything that smacks of a miracle, or anything in the neighborhood of a miracle. 

But in my opinion, Law does not understand what a miracle is (neither does Hume), and therefore literally doesn't know what he is talking about.  Nor has he fully taken in the empirical nature of the Gospels, and the quality of the evidence they carry.  He may even have overlooked some important matters going on in the world today.  For these reasons, his critique, I will argue, fails.  Indeed, his critique helps shed light on the uniquely persuasive character of the Gospels.   

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Top Ten Amazon Reviews: Howard Zinn.

I imagine there will be two kinds of reaction to the title of today's blog: "Who?" and "How in the world?"

As I explained in the last blog, over the past fourteen years, I've somehow become one of the more popular reviewers of substantive non-fiction on Amazon.  So assuming all my readers to be great lovers of books, I thought I'd share some of the most popular, and also unpopular (and I think in many cases, among the best), of the some 400 reviews I've posted. 

Howard Zinn is a radical left-wing, Marxist, revisionist historian whose Peoples' History of the United States is, well, you'll see in a minute.  I am, frankly, surprised that my critical review of his book, unapologetically Christian, gained more "thumbs up" votes than "thumbs down."  But if you haven't read Zinn's book, yet, you may find this analysis interesting -- and the book, as well.  It may also shed some light on our contemporary talk about the "1%" and the "99%." 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bottom Ten Amazon reviews: Carl Sagan.

I've been reviewing books on Amazon, and sometimes other places, for some fourteen years, now.  Since moving to Japan last time, this has been one of my favorite hobbies: reading the best, most important, or provocative books in the world (those three do not, of course, always coincide), and giving not just my "gut reaction," but trying to offer fair, yet punchy and informed (when possible) evaluations.  I've reviewed some four hundred books, and received over 8000 "helpful" votes, not to mention a couple thousand "unhelpful" votes.  If my reviews were grouped together -- they are divided into three groups, since I lost access twice, and had to start over -- I would rank between about #150 and #200 among Amazon's millions of volunteer reviewers.  Since I tend to post hard-hitting reviews of substantive non-fiction, and some classic fiction, I'm grateful at how my remarks have been received, by and large.  (Though I also managed to pick up a stalker or two, along the way.) 

This series will share (and maybe occasionally improve) reviews that have gotten among the best and worst responses from other readers.  Some of the authors whose books are to be highlighted include Karen Armstrong, Michael Behe, Jimmy Carter, GK Chesterton, Richard Dawkins, Elaine Pagels, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, John Spong, Rodney Stark, NT Wright and Howard Zinn.  The title of the series promises ten of each, but don't try to hold me to that!

(Note on methodology: "Top" reviews are ranked, straightforwardly, by how many "helpful" votes each book has received.  "Bottom" reviews are ranked differently, since you have to get some positive reviews to even draw much attention.  I multiply the number of negative votes, by the ratio of total to positive votes.  For instance, if the book gets 10 positive votes, and 30 negative votes, its total "score" is 30 times 4, or 120.  I won't use a calculator, I'll round.) 

Let's begin with one of the "bottom ten" reviews, by a famous and much beloved astronomer and forerunner of the "New Atheists," then alternate, till we reach the twin summits of grace and disgrace.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Adam & Steve: Religious Oppression Edition.

I've just been challenged by a couple of the thoughtful skeptics who visit this site, both male, progressive, and heteorosexual, on the issue of gay marriage. 

This is not my favorite topic -- I'd frankly rather talk about the Mariners.  (While they're still a few inches above .500, probably for the last time in the year)  But I think this needs to be put in perspective.  It amazes me how quickly and completely "progressives" have chosen to conform to an idea that goes against biology, English syntax, and the traditions of thousands of human cultures.  It occurred to me this morning to wonder why . . .

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sara Robinson vs. Jane Austen: On Sex, Again

A lady futurist named Sara Robinson posted a remarkably hysterical bit of social commentary cum prophesy in February, which "went viral" (if it didn't start that way), entitled

Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control -- And Why We'll Still Be Fighting About it 100 Years From Now

Let me provide the "terror-stricken patriarchal commentary" as we go. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Theology in Hades: Explaining Faith to Loftus and Pearse.

Do you know the story of Sisyphus?  He was a real fink of a king, who killed and tricked and seduced mortals, then also tricked the God of Death and locked him in hell.  (So he couldn't come out, and collect the newly dead.  Men would thus fight in wars, and no one would die.)  The gods punished this duplicitous tyrant by making him roll a stone up a hill in Hades.  Every time the stone almost reached the lip of the hill, it rolled back down again, and Sisyphus would have to start again from square one. 

That is what it can feel like, explaining what Christians mean by "faith," to some atheists. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ko Thah Byu: Murderer and Apostle to the Karen

"God has chosen the weak things of the world to overcome the strong," wrote St. Paul, thinking perhaps of his own journey as a one-time theo-thug and ayatollah of hate, to his role in bringing the Greco-Roman world to Christ, who preaches love.  So, might the people of Burma think about a man named Kho Thah Byoo, a one-time mass-murderer and slave who was partly responsible for the conversion of millions of Karen to Christianity. 

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Acharya S as a Hindu guru

The other day I was confronted with two wild claims by people who seemed quite well-informed.  One came from a physicist who had written some 60 articles, but believes in Young Earth Creationism -- that the world is only some 6,000 years old, never mind the Grand Canyon, T Rex or light from distant stars.  The gentleman seemed coherent and to the point, and I felt little compulsion to try to disuade him. If the combined observations of nearly every astronomer, biologist, geneticist, paleontologist, geologist, and even archeologist on the planet, are not enough to convince an intelligent, educated man that the planet has been around for a while, what could my voice possibly add to the din?

The same day I also heard from a disciple of the famous Christ-mythicist, Acharya S (D. M. Murdock), who claims that Jesus never lived.