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Harmony of the Bible?

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Podcasts by Alex L. on December 2, 2016

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For those interested in Scripture, I highly recommend The Bible as Literature Podcast. In a recent episode (149), the hosts (whom I know personally) make the case that reading the Bible literally (though without prooftexting) is a good thing. In fact, they call out those that “[spout] platitudes about the ‘dangers’ of taking the Bible literally.” In this post, I will examine this claim and why I have a difficult time coming to grips with it.

On the surface, there are admittedly many strange and discomforting passages in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. The intellectual underpinnings of the exegetical view above, it seems to me, is the assumption that the unsavory parts of the Bible can be explained away by using the literary context surrounding the offending passages. In other words, if the Bible is saying something “bad,” then you haven’t read that section of the Bible correctly. The mistake that the fundamentalist makes, this view goes, is to prooftext and thereby ignore what the context of their chosen passages is, missing the greater picture. Another related axiom that can be implied from listening to the podcast (as I understand it) is that the individual books of the Bible also harmonize into a cohesive whole, producing one singular message of goodness about God.

I find these assumptions difficult to accept (though I try) for reasons of historical context. Mores change. The past seems more barbaric to us than the present as civilization progresses to reduce rates of disease, poverty, illness, homelessness, ignorance, and other ills. An alternate view of the Bible emerges than that put forward in the podcast. The Bible, rather, is a collection of works spanning centuries and the older books of the Hebrew Scriptures are murky waters filled with questionable moral standards from a time of primitive understanding and tribal justice. We should take into account not only the literary context but also the historical context and recognize that some stories in the Bible are good and others come from a time less civilized than our own. (more…)

Populism or nationalism?

Posted in Economics, Politics by Alex L. on November 30, 2016

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The election of Donald Trump took almost everyone (who followed the prior campaign news) by surprise. One of those who did see it coming was Cenk Uygur, the host of the progressive online news show, The Young Turks (TYT). His claim was that there was a mood of populism in the country of which Donald Trump took advantage. In a recent edition of The Economist, on the other hand, the writers of that magazine made the case that there was a mood of nationalism sweeping across the United States (and, indeed, the Western world). So which is it: did the election of Donald Trump signal a populist or a nationalist mood in the country?

One theory goes that the populace was simply dissatisfied with the current state of affairs in the country, and a leader who appealed to these feelings of discontent (i.e. a populist) could turn this negative political energy in a direction of his or her own choosing. It just so happened that Donald Trump turned this dissafected mood in a nationalist direction. This is the point of view of TYT.

Another theory is that there is a true feeling of nationalism brewing into which Trump managed to tap. This is the point of view of The Economist in their Nov 19 edition. The writers there make a distinction between two types of nationalism. Civic nationalism is the good kind that inspires universal values of caring for what is in one’s realm of responsibility. Ethnic nationalism, the bad kind, is accompanied by habits of exclusivity and xenophobia. There is a stew of nationalist feelings, the theory goes, and it’s up to the leaders of the country to turn it in one direction or another. Donald Trump marches to the drum of ethnic nationalism. (more…)

A balanced media diet

Posted in Journals, Politics, Reading, Television by Alex L. on November 28, 2016

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Every presidential election cycle, I get interested in politics all over again. This recent election was no different. But apart from conversation with politically-minded friends, something has to fuel and sustain the interest over the long months of the build-up to the election: informative and entertaining media sources. During the many months before November 2016, the go-to media source for me was The Young Turks, an online news show.

TYT is a progressive daily (Monday through Friday) show that is freely available live on YouTube. It has pros and cons for me. The big benefit is the commentary of Cenk Uygur, the outspoken founder and co-host. Like a more aggressive Noam Chomsky, Cenk cuts through the noise of establishment rhetoric to tune into a rarefied perspective about what’s really going on behind the scenes in the halls of power (it rarely looks pretty). The drawback of the show is a lack of intelligent conservative perspectives to provide a counterpoint to Cenk’s commentary. Cenk and his co-hosts (who rarely disagree with him on substantial issues) are always “right” and listening to TYT exclusively can lead one to develop political blinders, in my opinion.

There are intelligent counterpoints out there, though. Recently, I picked up The Economist from the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble. I used to read The Economist weekly back in college, but let my subscription lapse some years ago. Like TYT, the magazine has a self-confident tone backed by factual evidence. There are some areas where The Economist agrees with TYT, such as on the threat of climate change. On other issues–such as support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and whether the Democratic Party should go in a populist direction–these two media sources disagree. (more…)

HC 004 – “Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century” by H.J. Kim

Posted in American, Ancient, Podcasts, Politics by Alex L. on August 8, 2016

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In the fourth episode of the History Considered Podcast, I discuss new books critical of the right wing in American politics. I also conduct an overview of a new article from the Journal of Ancient History about the contemporary study of Herodotus. Please send your feedback about the podcast to historyconsidered [at] gmail [dot] com.

Listen: HC 004 – “Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century” by H.J. Kim.mp3

The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:
Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism by George Hawley (2016)
Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr. (2016)
Dark Money by Jane Mayer (2016)
“Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of Ancient History, by Hyun Jin Kim (2016)

HC 003 – “Baltimore Teaches, Göttingen Learns” by Emily J. Levine

Posted in Academia, Ancient, Podcasts by Alex L. on August 1, 2016

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I have finally recorded the first publicly-available episode of my long-promised podcast, History Considered. Although I’ve recorded two episodes prior to this one (see end of this post) I have decided to feature only the third as the “first,” which I recorded today.

Listen: HC 003 – “Baltimore Teaches, Göttingen Learns” by Emily J. Levine.mp3

The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:
Pericles: A Biography in Context by Thomas R. Martin (2016)
Pericles and the Conquest of History by Loren J. Samons II (2016)
The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta by Paul A. Rahe (2015)
The Classical World by Nigel Spivey (2016)
The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand (2010)
“Baltimore Teaches, Göttingen Learns,” American Historical Review, by Emily J. Levine (2016)

If you are feeling particularly intrepid, feel free to listen to my rough-hewn first and second episodes of the podcast (but I don’t recommend it :)).

New books with unique approaches to religious history (2015-16)

Posted in Ancient, Books, Pagan by Alex L. on July 18, 2016

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Today’s selection of interesting new books ponders the origins of religious impulses and also their detractors. These works look interesting enough to read, in my humble opinion.

The first book is Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity, by Peter T. Struck, and it’s being published tomorrow, July 19. There has been a renewed interest in historical scholarship in what was once dismissively labeled as “magic” in history, and this book provides a deeper examination into divination–the reading of signs–as perceived by ancient philosophers. The thesis, in a nutshell, suggests that the philosophers saw divination as a form of human intuition and took it seriously, unlike academic scholarship until as of late.

In February of this year, Susan Jacoby published her book, Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Her approach looks at a slice of religious history related to the changing of faiths of various prominent people. Since faith exerts such a powerful influence in people’s lives, the locus where a person decides to accept one path over another seems like a worthy area of study.

Finally, published by Knopf last year, we have Tim Whitmarsh’s book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. The central theme of the work appears to be that atheism wasn’t invented during the Enlightenment but rather has its roots even in classical antiquity. As a religious person myself, such a book would be challenging (in a good way) to read, but I think it is important to remember the complexities of religious experience as well as the adherents of atheism that profoundly changed our world even for the better (such as Democritus, who posited the atomic theory of the universe).

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A progressive rebellion in Mississippi

Posted in American, Film, War by Alex L. on June 25, 2016

Newt and Moses from the movie "Free State of Jones"Yesterday, I watched “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey. The movie follows the story of Newton Knight, who led a pro-Union rebellion deep in Mississippi during the American Civil War. I liked the movie, and there are a few things that stood out to me about it.

First, the film challenges the idea that all white Southerners during the Civil War were racists bent on preserving the institution of slavery. Newton was a complicated man who bucked convention, married a black woman, and also allowed an ex-wife to live on his property. His rebellion in Jones County seems to have been as much a socioeconomic one as well as abolitionist — he resented the poor fighting a rich man’s war.

Second, the film portrays the transmutation of racism in the south throughout generations very well. There are scenes cut into the Civil War narrative of a 20th-century trial of Knight’s descendant that put the question of his racial composition to the court. The institution of “apprenticeship” during Reconstruction and of course segregation itself illustrate how the South continued to grapple with virulent racism even after the overthrow of slavery.

An interesting article to read as a supplement to the movie is the Smithsonian’s “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones.'” It examines attitudes toward the film in the complicated world of the South today. It also clued me into something that I wish the film did portray. Newt Knight was staunchly pro-Union, but strangely ended up voluntarily enlisting to fight in the Confederate Army. I wish the film would have explored Newt’s pre-war life to explain this contradiction, but already being over two hours long, it may have risked excess.

New books with alternate views on history (Spring 2016)

Posted in Books, Culture, Reading, Stories, Storytelling, War by Alex L. on May 28, 2016

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I’m always on the look-out for interesting perspectives on history. The books I will feature today are just such finds. I again have not ready them yet, but they do look intriguing enough to spend a few evenings with.

The first one is Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Author of The Perfect Storm, Junger in this later work–which came out on May 24–examines humans’ instinctual tribal affiliations and the powerful alienation that happens when modern society fails to organize itself into meaningful and productive tribes. I think that “tribe” is an interesting category with which to study history, and personally agree with the general points made about the importance of tribes to human life that are mentioned in the book’s synopsis.

The second book is Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World?, which was released on May 10. Chomsky is one of my personal heroes because, though I don’t always agree with him, he argues his points dispassionately and always buttresses them with hard facts. Although he usually takes an axe to established modes of thinking, I think there has been a growing awareness in society that America is not in the best of shape. Perhaps his and society’s views are converging. Either way, his perspectives are always provocative of thought.

I heard about the third work on the radio–fittingly, since it was published in April by StoryCorps. This is Dave Isay’s Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. I’ve been on a longish search for my own “calling” in life, so philosophical works such as this are appealing to me. It seems to be a collection of stories describing everyday people’s relationship to their work–some as humble as a popcorn seller at a baseball game (this is the one I heard about on the radio). It promises to be an inspiring look at human creativity in even the unlikeliest of places.

New books about colonial America, part 2 (2014-15)

Posted in American, Books, Politics, War by Alex L. on March 9, 2016

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Today we’ll look at an eclectic selection of books about colonial America in the second installment of this “series.” As I always like to mention, I have not read these books yet; I’m earmarking them rather as interesting works to check out later.

The first book is Revolution: Mapping the Road to American Independence, 1755-1783 by Richard H. Brown and Paul E. Cohen. This seems to be essentially an atlas for the Revolutionary War which uses the beautifully-designed maps made during that time period to tell the story about battles and other important events. In an era before photography, creative works like these help to better illuminate in our minds what happened during those important years.

Our second work is about perhaps as unique an individual as you can find in this era. Turk McCleskey has written The Road to Black Ned’s Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier. Ned Tarr was one of the first freed black landowners in America, was a community leader, decided to take two wives (both white women), and had to fend off efforts to reenslave him by his former master’s son. Sounds like a fascinating read about an individualistic personality in history.

Lastly, we have a work by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph J. Ellis, called The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, works like these about the Constitutional era, I think, are very important to dispel the myths that are thrown about by politicians about what ‘the Founders intended.’ Often those Constitutional era debates were as messy and varied in their arguments as any modern political discourse, so even grouping “the Founders” together into a single category can be a simplistic rhetorical trick that is not reflective of the variety of history.

7 years of blogging!

Posted in Blogs, Podcasts by Alex L. on March 8, 2016

HistoryJournal.org temporary logoToday marks seven years since I started blogging on HistoryJournal.org! I did have another history blog before that on blogspot, called Trojan Walls. In this post, I’ll do a bit of reflection, per tradition, on how I have been blogging lately.

The year of 2015 was very sparse for me in terms of updating my blog. But in 2016, I’ve had a recent spurt of posts about upcoming history books, which I’ve been following on Amazon and taking notes on for some time. These posts are relatively easy for me to create — and I enjoy making them — so I think I’ll be focused on them for some time. Hopefully they are of some value to others beside me, who also enjoy keeping up to date in the latest literature about U.S., Russian, and ancient history (my general areas of focus).

About my much-promised podcast… I think I’ll cease for now to make more promises about it. I have everything ready to go in terms of hardware and software, but I can never quite be satisfied with anything I’ve recorded already to bring myself to publish it here. This is perhaps, admittedly, a lame excuse. But in any case, since blogging (and podcasting) are meant to be hobbies for me, I’m hesitant to push myself too hard on content creation if I’m not naturally feeling an inclination toward creative endeavor.

So I’ll try to continue on the path I’m currently on, publishing semi-daily posts about upcoming history books. And I’ll see where it goes from here. Thanks for coming along on the journey with me for the past seven years, and hopefully there will be more to come!