Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Vincent wants to sea - A Review

Vincent will Meer (English title: Vincent wants to sea) is a German road film made in 2010. Vincent is played by Florian David Fitz, who also wrote the script.

Shunted off to an institution by his politician father just before an election, Vincent finds himself thrown together with Marie, who suffers from anorexia and Alexander, who has a severe form of obsessive compulsive disorder.  Vincent himself suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, a disease that makes him react with any number of motor tics, and a psychological tic that leads him to shout obscenities.

The three are all under the care of a Dr. Rose, whom they all share a desire to escape from. Marie finds her chance and steals her car keys.  This then enables Marie to pay Vincent back for his kindness to her and help him take his mother's ashes to Italy to be scattered.  Vincent, Marie and Alex, each suffering from their own severe social handicaps, race through the Alps to the sea, gradually learning that they can survive only by taking care of each other. The magnificent scenery works like a character in the film, providing a backdrop of beauty as if to suggest things will be all right in the end.

To round out the story, Dr. Rose and Vincent’s father chase down the road after them, all the way to the Adriatic, trying to avoid scandal and to bring them safely home.   Without giving away the ending, the conflicts are resolved in not entirely unexpected ways.  

The movie has its flaws.  Like all road trip movies, cliches are always just around the corner. They need gas and realize they don’t have any money.  The humor is slapstick at times.  The plot lines stretch credibility in places.  The idea that a politician wrapped up in a political campaign can suddenly take off on a road trip of his own, and a doctor working in a clinic and responsible for other patients can do likewise, for example.   In the real world, what are the chances they could have kept the police out of it, one wonders.   And probably the most annoying thing about the film is the title.  The German title,  “Vincent will Meer (Vincent wants sea)” is a clumsy attempt to pun on “Vincent will mehr (Vincent wants more).” Translating the failed pun into something no English-speaking person would say simply compounds the nonsense.

Then there is the attempt to make the characters complex, which doesn’t always work.  It just makes them unsympathetic. Watching Vincent beat a bullying kid bloody, for example.  And watching Alex drive off at one point car and leave the others stranded made his already difficult character even more dislikable.  

But these negatives are offset by sympathy for the characters as they reveal their vulnerabilities.  Marie and Vincent sneak away to have sex in the woods at one point, but Marie lacks the energy or the will to carry through.

What is very well done are the background stories.  We are shown, and not merely told, where Vincent's motivation comes from to get to the sea to bury his mother's ashes.  We understand how the mother came to withdraw from her husband and from life because of the overpowering challenge to care for a child with Tourette's Syndrome.  And this explains Vincent's intense devotion to her and outlines his desperation.  Other motivations are equally well-explained.   How Vincent's acts of kindness to Marie should make her want to do him a favor, for example, and help him attain his goal and how his love of Alex’s music opens the door to their eventual friendship.  Gathered together, these details are nice touches and give the plot a smooth run.

Vincent must sea is not what I’d call a must-see, necessarily, but it has its moments.   I can’t quite understand where all the awards came from.  It strikes me as a B-grade film, at best.  But it apparently did draw a million viewers to German movie theaters.

It has also inspired an English-language re-make.  The Road Within, written and directed by Gren Wells and starring Robert Sheehan, Zoe Kravitz and Dev Patel, is scheduled for release on June 18th of this year. 

photo credits: ;

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bishops and Girls in Neckties

Several Catholic schools have been in the news lately, reflecting the ongoing culture wars between tradition and change.  They all illustrate the role the church plays in holding back the progress toward human rights.  That’s not the way they see it, of course.   They don’t call it a culture war for nothing.

What strikes me as especially curious is how easy it is for people to make fools of themselves.  The church makes a case that it represents eternal verities.  And then it shoots itself in the foot by silly little ways of overextending itself.  Belief in sin and the redemption of sins by a Savior is essential.  Eating meat on Friday is not.  Adopting a moral code that sees one’s fellow human beings as children of God is essential.  Holding the view that civil same-sex marriage should be illegal and that girls should never wear tuxedos is not.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I no longer make the mistake of seeing the Roman Catholic church a monolith, despite the claims of authoritarians who see it as one happy family all taking orders from the man on top.  For me one simply has to dig around to see what or who is making the gears turn.  Who are the movers and shakers in the stories that constitute the ongoing history of our culture wars?

An event in Cincinnati last year set off a string of examples of how badly a bishop can muck things up.  A year ago last February the assistant principal of Purcell Marian High School, one of 110 Cincinnati diocese parochial schools, was fired for expressing the view on his personal blog that gays and lesbians should be entitled to have civil unions.  He was not addressing Catholic doctrine.  He was speaking as a citizen about secular matters.  But since his view is at odds with the official Catholic doctrine that same-sex relationships are “intrinsically disordered,”  to use the words of the Catholic Catechism, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr removed Vice Principal Mike Moroski from his job.  He then overreached even further.  He wrote a so-called “morality clause” into a new contract his teachers were forced to sign.  It read:

Such conduct or lifestyle that is in contradiction to Catholic doctrine or morals includes, but is not limited to, improper use of social media/communication, public support of or publicly living together outside marriage, public support of or sexual activity out of wedlock, public support of or homosexual lifestyle, public support of or use of abortion, public support of or use of surrogate mother, public support of or use of in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination, public membership in organization whose mission and message are incompatible with Catholic doctrine or morals, and/or flagrant deceit or dishonesty.

Wretched syntax aside, the clause is obviously an attempt to cover all the bases of things teachers might do wrong.  They might live with or even fall into bed with somebody they are not married to, might advocate abortion, might blog “improper(ly),” might try to get pregnant using available technology instead of by means of their God-given genitals, and so on.  Note what is not specifically included.  No reference to making war, to supporting the death penalty, to walking past the homeless on the street.  The Cincinnati diocese leaves open the use of drones on civilian populations, but makes a clear stand against the homosexual “lifestyle.”  Talk about missing the donut for the hole.  And let's not forget that while church schools have rights accorded religious institutions, they are in part funded by all of us taxpayers, and need to be in line with laws regarding labor rights.

A Human Rights Campaign blog reminds readers that this contract is actually in keeping with past practices of discrimination against gays and lesbians and others with “incorrect” views.   A nun was suspended in 2009 for publicly supporting the ordination of women, and a teacher was fired in 2010 for becoming pregnant by artificial insemination.  In that latter case, the woman sued the diocese for improper firing and won.  

What is endlessly irksome about the way the church acts out its homophobia is its cherry-picking.   Does it not realize how transparent this obsession is?   Frank Bruni, for example, points out the bizarre nature of this preoccupation in a New York Times editorial on the Cincinnati case.

What makes this not only an obsession but an overreach is the fact that the church is attempting to dictate how its teachers should behave in their private lives.  One can understand that they might not want their Protestant or Jewish teachers to use their classroom to deny the authority of the pope.  But while it’s obvious these are the views of Protestants and Jews and others, no attempt is made to tell them they must not light the shabbas candles on Friday or attend a Protestant religious ceremony on Sundays – both actions clearly in opposition to Roman Catholic church teaching and practice.  Why this obsession not just with sexual practices, but with shutting down publicly expressed views on sexual practices?

The Cincinnati story, it would appear, has legs.  Something similar is happening in Hawaii and much closer to home.   Oakland (which begins six blocks from my house here in Berkeley) is faced with the same challenges, at Bishop O’Dowd High School, which the kids of friends of mine attend.  And just this week, the church’s attempt to hold the line for tradition backfired in San Francisco, also in the Bay Area.  This time it was Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep school in San Francisco.   Here, the efforts of church officials to oppose change had a different outcome.

In the Sacred Heart's case, a graduating senior named Jessica had her picture taken for the yearbook wearing a tuxedo.  Formal dress, not the uniform of a clown or a bikini.  Sacred Heart decided this broke the rule of gender-appropriate dress, and removed her picture from the yearbook.  What happened next is telling.  Jessica’s female classmates came to school wearing neckties.   In fairly short order, the school administration reversed its policy, apologized to Jessica and her family and made efforts to put things right.  They even offered to reprint the yearbooks, this time with her picture in it.  No drawn-out controversy this time.  A quick apology – blame it on “miscommunication” and move on.   The church (San Francisco diocese, at least) appears to be getting a lot more media-savvy.

While these are not exactly parallel stories, what intrigues me is the degree to which local community values play a part in how the church weaves its way through the culture wars, and the degree to which the bishops respect those community values when they differ from those that are officially approved by the church hierarchy.  One might be tempted to think it’s all about a relatively conservative Ohio diocese on the one hand and a relatively progressive California diocese on the other.  But then what are we to say about Oakland, which more closely resembles Cincinnati than it does San Francisco in this case?  Does this not mean that it’s the bishops calling the shots, without a whole lot of regard for how the community thinks?   Or rather, how some bishops are more attuned to the larger community values than others?  We have to remind ourselves constantly we’re not talking about any monoliths here.  The culture wars are internal as much as they are conflicts between traditionally rival groups.

The church is an autocratic institution, after all, not a democratic one, and it protests on a regular basis that it must do what’s right and not what’s politically desirable at any given moment.  But the protests can't hide the fact that the church is no different from any other political organization.  Over time it will act pragmatically, as circumstances demand, and tune itself to the moral values of the surrounding culture.  One needs to listen less to what it says it must do and watch what it actually ends up doing.  

The conflict of values today would seem to be far more consequential than whether women should cover their heads in church or whether one may eat meat on Friday.   These days the church has to justify its patriarchal views on women each time a bishop makes moves to prevent a politician who favors abortion rights to take communion.  It has to justify its theology on who gets to heaven and how each time they find themselves in the public arena praying alongside Muslims and Jews and Protestants.  And they have to answer the question, why does becoming “more progressive” make so many members of the church worry it is starting to look so much like the Protestants?

It’s always useful, when discussing the role of the church, to look at the kind of men in power in the various dioceses.  San Francisco bishops have included such men as William Joseph Levada, one of the church’s worst examples of men responsible for child-abuse cover-up, later appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (successor to the Inquisition), the organization responsible for doctrine and morals.  And George Hugh Niederauer, one of the architects of Prop. 8, which used a slander campaign to remove the rights of lesbians and gays to marry, a right that was later reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court.   The current archbishop, Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco is chairman of the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) Subcommittee on the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, one of the leaders, in other words, in the effort by the American Catholic Church to withhold marriage rights from lesbians and gays.  What role did he play, if any, in determining whether Jessica Urbina appeared in her yearbook in a tuxedo?  Is he a hands-on kind of guy, a micromanager?    Or did he give the school principal a free hand to make his own call?  And if that’s the case, is there a Catholic position to be observed at all?  When we speak of “catholic” positions in the culture wars, are we talking more about individual management styles or degrees to which individuals play well with others?  These are not profound questions, and there are plenty of people around who have the answers to them.  But that doesn’t mean they are not worth asking.   One ought to know what one is dealing with in the struggle for civil rights.  It's not a monolithic church we are fighting.  It's a limited number of particular people.  The majority of the people in the church are not homophobic.

And what about the bishops of Cincinnati?  Immediately prior to the current Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, we had, you may remember, one Daniel Pilarczyk.  Pilarczyk caught the notice of Catholics when he fired a nun for her views on the ordination of women.  Pilarczyk is also known for entering a plea of nolo contendere regarding five misdemeanor charges of failure to report child molestation in 2003.   And, to make my point on bishop diversity, just prior to Pilarczyk there was Joseph Bernardin, a man who was once accused of molestation by a seminarian who later recanted.  My intuition (how would I know, actually?) tells me Bernardin may have been wronged, and I find myself speculating about how this might have influenced him to “get it right” when it comes to the sex abuse challenge within the church.  Bernardin was not only an ecumenist, who worked toward bringing Christians of all persuasions together.  He challenged the use of nuclear weapons as a threat, established an AIDS task force in 1985, and made a name for himself by holding a mass in Holy Name Cathedral for divorced and separate Catholics, demonstrating at least, that the church is not of one mind on policies of exclusion.

Powerful men, all.   But maybe not all that powerful, if a group of schoolgirls wearing neckties can turn around a Catholic high school’s policy of not including a girl dressed as a boy in its annual yearbook. 

Slowly but surely the world comes around to recognizing the harms that can be inflicted on ordinary people by would-be do-gooders working in the name of “tradition.”  It has taken centuries to raise the consciousness of white people about the evils of white supremacist notions.  Centuries to move women out from under patriarchal beliefs in the inherent right of men to rule over women, beliefs still espoused by official Catholicism.   Centuries to recognize that anti-Semitism lay not only in tribal notions of us and them, but in Christian organizations using the writings of leaders such as Martin Luther and the Scriptures themselves to justify brutality and exclusion.  And centuries to recognize that same-sex attraction is not a moral evil, but a variation on human sexuality, a reality still being fought tooth and nail by the official Roman Catholic church hierarchy.

But we are making progress.   While the Church (certain individuals within the church, I repeat) attempts to gag its high school teachers, out in the world beyond the church’s grasp, twelve U.S. federal judges in a row have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, and optimism is high that the Supreme Court will take these decisions into account when issuing a final decision on same-sex marriage when the issue finally appears on their docket.

Not only is the devil in the details, but stories change their significance as the context changes. One cannot draw lasting conclusions, necessarily, from a couple of distantly related news items.  But one can gain some confidence that one is getting closer to understanding the real nature of the culture wars by digging around a bit in the background of these stories and seeing how events look close up and personal, by jumping the gap between church officials and the proclamations they issue, and the flesh-and-blood people affected by their decisions. 

State laws regarding same-sex partnerships in the United States*
  Same-sex marriage allowed1
  Domestic partnerships or civil unions granting privileges similar to marriage for same-sex domestic partners2
  Limited/enumerated privileges granted by state
  No prohibition or recognition of same-sex marriage or unions in territory law
  Judicial ruling against a same-sex marriage ban stayed pending appeal3
  Statute bans same-sex marriage
  Constitution and statute ban same-sex marriage
  Constitution and statute ban same-sex marriage and some or all other same-sex unions
Church officials and other opponents of same-sex marriage like to point out that there are still bans in place in 28 states against same-sex marriage.  Equal rights opponents like to claim this suggests the majority of citizens are behind them.  But that number represents views held ten years ago or more, when an uninformed panic led to a rash of states passing bans on same-sex marriage. Today, not only does a majority of American favor extending that right to lesbians and gays, but with only two exceptions, North Dakota and Montana, all those bans are now being challenged in the courts.  And in Montana the number of citizens expressing approval for same-sex marriage has increased with each annual poll.  This year, it became the majority of Montanans.  And if you search the news for the names Jenny and Nancy Rosenbrahn, you'll see that they are women who are about to challenge the ban in North Dakota, as well.

Not quite 100%, but close enough, as they say, for government work.

I go back and forth between considering the Roman Catholic Church a totally irrelevant organization, and remembering how many good folk I know who want it to be a force for good in the world and wanting to actively support their efforts.  While celebrating the civil rights of my fellow LGBT Americans, I also share in the joy my Catholic friends feel when their retrograde bishops take a back seat to a little Catholic girl wearing a tuxedo in her high school year book. The church may only come kicking and screaming to the embrace of universal human rights and the morality of equality without regard to race, creed, gender or sexuality.  But one day they will come around.

Correction: In my original posting of this article I referred to the San Francisco Catholic High school as St. Mary's and described it as an all girls school.  It is coeducational, and it is Sacred Heart.  My apologies.

Would Francis sign contract photo:  
Map of same-sex marriage rights distribution: 

Monday, May 12, 2014

How Jesus Became God - A Review

I’ve just finished reading Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.

This is my fourth Ehrman book.  He’s a New Testament scholar and professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  I heard him speak some time ago here in Berkeley and was quite taken with his ability to express complex ideas in plain language.  Since then I have read the views of this one-time Sunday School teacher and preacher who chucked his fundamentalist understanding of the Christian Scriptures and went on to become a serious historian.  I like, by the way, how he managed to do the smart thing of building on what he knew when changing careers. 

The only problem with publishing so much (some twenty-five books and counting) is that he tends to repeat himself.  That’s fine, I suppose, and I’m willing to grant that as he continues to read and research and to think, he may be not so much repeating himself as casting what he has said before in a broader, or at least different, context.

The previous books of his I’ve delved into include Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why; Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them); and Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine.  The subtitles would seem to have been generated by the publisher (they are in the third person) and not the author, with an eye to selling to a broad audience.

That’s a bit dishonest.  While it’s true he has a wonderful way with words and writes about things this fundamentalism-infatuated country really ought to know, he also can be deadly dry and serious.  Such was the case in the latter half of How Jesus Became God, where, after tracing the notion of divinity among the early followers of Christ, he fills out the picture with the battles over what would come to be established doctrine.  So you learn how various power groups battled over whether Christ would be fully human, fully divine, first one then the other, or both at the same time.  What makes this of great interest to Christians and others living in a christianesque or post-christian cultural world is learning that virtually every possibility has been held at one time or another, and Christ’s divinity came about only long after the flesh and blood man of Galilee had been dead for some time, almost as if to suggest that if you knew the guy, knew his acne and bad breath, you would be far less likely to see him as a God.  These concepts are important enough to have names: incarnational Christology - the belief that Jesus started as God and took on human form; and exaltation Christology - the belief that Jesus was exalted as a human being in whom God was "well pleased" - so pleased, in fact, that in the end he became divine.

The first serious thinking I did while reading the book came with the notion of the development of the concept of divinity in the first place, and the fact that we live in a cultural space today when things are pretty much in black and white.  There is the Divine Being, and there are us human beings.   We are mortal, fallible and weak; He (capital H, male pronoun) is omnipotent, omniscient and Perfection personified.  But that’s not the only way of looking at the concept of divinity.  In fact, even today, the Roman Catholic church sees divinity as a spectrum of holiness.  We like to put Satan at one extreme and Almighty God at the other.   We put man at the center and make him a pawn in a game between Perfect Good on the one hand and Perfect Evil on the other, notions we personify and give the names of God and the Devil.

But it turns out that we have created in our imagination a number of gradations in between.  What exactly do we think saints are?  After they die, I mean, not while they perform magical or even simply lofty acts while alive.  How do we explain the “beatification” process?   Where do the angels fit in?  What’s the difference between a saint and an angel?  What are demons?  What do we do with all these creatures?  And what, exactly, does the expression Son of Man mean?   I always thought it referred to the fact that Jesus was born to humans.  That’s not exactly true.  Ehrman’s explanation is not totally satisfactory (it’s actually a precursor in the Book of Daniel of a messiah figure), but he makes you wonder how many more of your assumptions you might ought to question.   And what, exactly, is a hypostasis?   Is it something too obscure for most of us, a piece of theologian-jargon?  Or is there something to the idea that the “Wisdom” of God is different from other kinds of wisdom and from other abstract concepts?  And does that fact demonstrate that we can consider even words as having a divine nature?   Logos, for example.  I know this may not read easily here in summary form, but if you bury yourself in Ehrman’s history, I suspect you’ll find yourself as intrigued as I became.

As a historian, Ehrman places Jesus in a world where even the Emperor was considered a divinity.  The larger Greek and Roman worlds were filled with multiple gods, each with distinctive features and roles to play in messing with the fate of man.  It did not take a great leap of faith for folk to wonder, once word got out that Jesus had appeared to a number of people in the flesh, had been seen eating and drinking (and was thus still human and not merely a specter), just how “divine” this Jesus of theirs actually was.

But that then begs the question, if he was divine, did he become divine at birth?  At his baptism?  At his resurrection?  It would take centuries for the followers of this man they believed to be the messiah to work out.  And it’s interesting to note that it had to be worked out post-scripturally, by church authorities, since the Bible doesn’t give the answer to that question.  In fact, the Bible reveals only that the questions started coming early on, and were not answered by the time the books of what we call the Bible were codified.

This would not seem to bother Catholics all that much.  They have a tradition of the “magisterium” – the teachings of the church stemming from the seventy or so “church fathers” from the second century on – men like Augustine and Origen (who was eventually bounced out) and Jerome and Athanasius and John Chrystostom.  But for Protestants, for whom scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the authority on Ultimate Truth, it can be more than a little disconcerting to discover what the Bible presents is not so much “answers,” as fundamentalists like to believe, as differing points of view, which, of course, is the source of debates about what actually happened in Jesus’s lifetime and what it means and the entire field of theology in the first place.

Many will want to buy the book to find these contradictions that abound in the bible, to find proof that the literal fundamentalists don’t really know the Bible they would shove down our throats.  But Ehrman is not very helpful here.  He makes it clear that he has no intention of addressing the question of whether the resurrection actually took place.  That’s a question of belief.  As a historian, he can only observe that people believed it took place and trace the consequences of that belief.    Life goes on, believers on one side, empiricists on the other.

I had a friend who used to steal Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms, take them home and cut them up.  He covered the walls of his garage with butcher paper and he would paste biblical stories alongside analogous stories in the Koran, as a way to understand the Koran.  His saw the Koran as essentially a desire to “correct” biblical errors, and was interested in finding out which parts of the bible they selected to correct.  I was reminded of him when reading Ehrman’s suggestion that we read the Gospels “horizontally” – side by side - and not in isolation – to see what they cover and don’t cover, where they overlap and what one leaves out that you have to get from another.

These questions then lead naturally to the next question.  What about the contradictions contained in the Gospels that were left out?  What are we to do with the information contained in them?   A believer has a ready answer:  God decided which books he wanted us to read.   There is no evidence of that, of course, and a historian looking for answers only finds more questions.

We laugh at the idea of medieval scholars debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but overlook the fact we’re still debating other questions that may to folks in the future appear to be equally silly.  Why do we ask the questions we do?  Where do they come from?  What are we not asking?

To read a book such as this is to find yourself opening yourself up to an explosion of questions, and in the end, it may be this experience of mind-expansion that matters more than the particulars of any scholarly investigation.  The details of how Jesus became divine are interesting in themselves, but so is the discovery of how many long-held assumptions you have that could use some questioning.  If Ehrman were writing less of a popularizing book, he might have located his writing in the work of other biblical scholars.  He does make passing reference to one theologian, Raymond Brown, but this book was clearly written, in large part, as were his previous books, for the general public and not for other scholars.  His claims about how Jesus became God or vice versa are not original.  Ehrman’s goal was to make these claims readable to modern audiences.

I have deliberately not tried to address the claims Ehrman makes.  I am in the camp of Ehrman's general audience (not scholarly audience) readers, interested to some degree in biblical scholarship, but not one of Ehrman's colleagues.  For what it's worth, a number of scholars who disagree with Ehrman's claims took the time to write a rebuttal.  Just as Ehrman's title reflects his position as an exaltationist Christologist, the title of his opponents' book, How God Became Jesus, marks their approach as incarnationalist.  If it's not too much dancing on the head of a pin, you can hear their arguments here.   Without chiming in on the criticisms, I have to note that one of them is that Ehrman closes his mind to the possibility of divine intervention in history.  Well, yes. As Ehrman took pains to say, he is a historian, not a believer.  

It’s probably in the nature of religion that some people become obsessive about their search for answers.  These days few people are exercised over whether Christ became God at his birth, or his baptism, or his resurrection.  It’s enough for them to think that Jesus wants them for a sunbeam to shine the whole day through.  Or to be their friend sitting next to them in the cab of their truck as they thunder across the plains delivering wheat to the population west of the Rockies.  It’s refreshing to discover religionists, frankly, still inspired to go beyond America’s package tour approach to the topic.  Refreshing to find somebody who tells you he may have lost his faith that Jesus was a god, but not his admiration for the historical apocalyptic preacher who believed the world was about to end and was so admired by his followers that they came to believe he could walk on water and raise people from the dead.   He must have been one hell of a guy, Ehrman thinks, and you find yourself agreeing with him.

The Catholic Church has lost its grip.  Its obsession with sexual purity and reproduction and male dominance has led to its ever increasing irrelevance.  The Evangelicals are a sad bunch of cannon fodder for the right wing in American politics.  Neither of those groups inspire people to want to dig around, as Ehrman and other historians of religion love to do, to know and to understand more about the roots of Christianity as part of World Civilization.  “Christology” – the name for that practice – does not figure in the top ten of human activities.  So I don’t image a very large audience for Ehrman’s latest.

But, if only to shut those folks up who tell you to read your Bible for answers, there is something to be said for learning how Mark was written first, copied in large part by Matthew and Luke, and how John was written much later, by a Greek-speaker far removed from the world of the other three.  And then wondering how it came to be that this most divergent of the four gospels came to be taken the most seriously.  And then maybe you’ll want to know more about this curious belief system that is Christianity.  And maybe you’ll actually read some of this history.

There’s definitely something there.  Ehrman’s books have been translated into twenty-seven languages and three of them have actually made the New York Times bestseller list. 

Just a side note.  Although this has nothing to do directly with Ehrman’s work as a scholar and historian, I note with interest that while Ehrman has left his faith behind, he has not left behind his belief in the importance of looking out for “the least of these, my brethren.”  He supports local efforts to aid the homeless, for example, and writes a blog, using money from it to support such groups as Doctors Without Borders, an organization I also admire greatly and contribute to regularly.  His organization is known as the Bart D. Ehrman Foundation, a “not-for-profit organization whose overarching purpose is to raise money for charities devoted to poverty, hunger, and homelessness.” 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

One thing usually leads to another

You’re familiar with Zeno’s Paradox, right?  Sometimes called the Infinite Halfway Theory.  It’s the theory that you can never reach your goal because in order to get there you have to go half way first.  And in order to go half way, you have to go half way to half way.  And from there there is an infinite regress of prior steps you have to take before taking the next one.

My version of Zeno's theory is something I like to call movementiasis, the inability to get where you're going because of one distraction after another.   I discovered years ago that I’m one of those people who can’t get anything much done because before I finish one task, I tend to start another.  I've got four or five books going at any given time.  I can't read the Sunday papers anymore because halfway through one article I begin to wonder what else is out there to read.  

Or I get ready to go to the store and go back for my jacket, but when I do that I notice there’s a dirty dish on the table and so I put it in the sink.  But before I can do that I notice there is an unopened letter on the table, so I look for the letter opener, etc. etc.

I do get out the door eventually, but not before vacuuming the house or straightening my sock drawer, usually.

I was reading the news this morning when I came across a word I didn't know, so I decided to stop and look it up.  Don't ask me how I ended up with a commentary on Luther's Small Catechism entitled Fülle des Lebens (The Fullness of Life) by a theologian named  Klaus Schwarzwäller.  I just did.  Then I found this thing called a necrologue from which I learned that Prof. Dr. S. died at the age of 77 on December 11, 2012.  I was further informed that there is a separate necrologue for animals.

Anyway, in the sample reading of Fullness of Life provided, I came across this sentence:

Denn ihn als wahren Gott aussagen heißt ihn als den aussagen, der im Geschiebe und Gewirr und Gewusel unserer Welt gerade nicht aufgeht, auch wenn er sich ganz hierhinein begab, der vielmehr alledem, was vorfindlich, zeitlich, von Menschen gemacht oder auch festgestellt ist, gegenübersteht - unabhängig, in Verfügungsmacht, als Herr.

I know it's unseemly to speak ill of the dead, and I certainly would not want to cast aspersions on Herr Prof. Dr. S. and what for all I know might have been a stellar career as a theologian, but this sentence gives new meaning to the concept of turgidity.

My first thought was I need to run this through Google Translate.

Google Translate provided a translation exquisitely designed to illustrate the limits of machine translation:

Because testify him as true God called him to be the state that is not just rises in the sediment and clutter and bustle of our world, even if he quite in here came to pass, the contrary to all that is vorfindlich, in time, of man-made or found on facing - independent, in available power, as Lord.

When that didn’t work, I set about doing a gloss of each individual word.

That gave me:

Denn ihn als wahren Gott aussagen heißt ihn als   den aussagen,      der im
For    him as  true    God  to testify means him as the one to testify,  who in the

Geschiebe und Gewirr und Gewusel unserer Welt  gerade    nicht aufgeht, auch
shoving and confusion and bustle     of our   world just now not rises,        also

wenn er sich       ganz      hierhinein begab,       der vielmehr alledem,     was
if       he himself entirely  hitherto     gave over, who rather    all that,      what

vorfindlich, zeitlich,     von Menschen gemacht oder auch  festgestellt ist
           at hand,    transitory,  by  man          made       or    also  established has been

gegenübersteht - unabhängig, in Verfügungsmacht, als Herr.
confronts –         independent, in power-to-dispose, as  Lord.

And that, I suspected, not only did not move me forward, or arguably even sideways; it actually seemed to move me backwards.

So I did what you often have to do when confronted with badly written language.  You swim in it for a while, hoping that somehow you might grog the meaning through your pores.

After a brief time, here’s what I came up with:

To testify that he is the true God means to declare that, for all that he was of the here and now, he stands, independently, as Lord, with the power to dispose, in opposition to the hustle and bustle of our world, to all that is at hand and transitory, made or established by man.

Don't ask me what it means.  I just work here, kind of.  That version at least flows somewhat better in English, but I have little confidence I have come up with the best way of doing justice to Schwarzwäller’s original.  If you can do better, by all means clue me in.  I have no illusions about my translation skills, and will not be offended by corrections or other suggestions.

I could, of course, take it to one of those sites translators use to share their translation problems with other translators.  But that strikes me as cheating, somehow.  Sort of like asking for directions when you are lost.   I try to avoid people who do that.

Next steps?  I could order Fülle des Lebens from Amazon.  Perhaps if I read the entire book, the context would help me with the translation.  There are copies available in the United States in the $80-100 price range.   But I don't want to read the book.

I could ruminate on why Luther was such an anti-Semite, and go back and read the parts of his writing where he urges people to drive the Jews out of town and burn down their houses.  But that, too, is a distraction I’ve done before and don’t need to repeat, particularly.

I’ve forgotten now how I got into this.  Looking something up, no doubt, and getting distracted.

I read in  Schwarzwäller’s obituary, by the way, that in lieu of flowers he wanted people to contribute to "Bread for the World."   While the good Professor Dr. Schwarzwäller may have made sausage of the German language, it appears he was a mensch.

Conchita Wurst,
previously known as Thomas Neuwirth
And speaking of sausage, did you hear about the gender-f*ck transvestite named Thomas Neuwirth, from Austria, who just won the Eurovision Song Contest?  Her stage name is Conchita Wurst.

Wurst is German for sausage, as you know. 

But did you also know that Conchita is Spanish for “little cu*t”?

Didn’t think so.

Russia, Ukraine, Belarus all tried to keep her out of the competition, but the West won out.

And she goes and wins!

I remember how embarrassed I was forty-five years ago now, when a bunch of drag queens poured out of the Stonewall Inn, on Christopher Street in New York, and set off the modern gay rights movement around the world.  (What we call “Gay Pride” they call “Christopher Street Day” in Berlin, for example.)  I still felt at the time that we needed to “pass for straight” in order to make any progress.  Can’t believe how much has happened since those early days and how my views, like President Obama's, have evolved.

It’s not all forward movement, of course.  Here in the U.S. we still have Sarah Palin, the one-heartbeat-from-the-presidency idiot John McCain chose as his running mate, addressing the NRA Convention in Indianapolis attended by 70,000 people and telling them if she were running the country she would “baptize” terrorists with water-boarding.  No kidding.  That really happened.    

But at least in Europe, Catholic Austria has put forward as its candidate for one of the largest singing contests in the world, a drag queen named “Little C*nt Hot Dog,” and my sense of despair for the human race has been held at bay for another day.

 Photo credits:  RoadsignsConchita Wurst