The internet often seems like one faceless mass of websites and media without any discernible communities. But if you look carefully, one can find micro-communities embedded within this fabric on such websites as Twitch and YouTube. One such example I stumbled into is a small community on YouTube of religious apologists, of different faiths, who often vehemently disagree and try to disprove each other. My first point of contact with this virtual village was the channel of David Woods.
A self-admitted sociopath turned Christian, Woods now practices Christian apologetics on YouTube with abrasive (in my opinion) zeal. But what does it entail to do apologetics on YouTube? I’ve found apologetics videos of generally three different types in my exploration of this community: (a) videos defending certain doctrines of one’s faith, (b) video criticizing doctrines of other faiths, and (c) videos of debates between Christians and Muslims or either of them against atheists. This latter category mostly features formal debates usually on college campuses.
But one interesting subset of this third category are religious debates in the park. I encountered this on the Muslim EFDawah channel, which I found through the grapevine of the apologetics community on YouTube. There, a group of Muslims apologists go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park (London) and engage in rapid-fire discourses with all takers who seek such a challenge (usually with Christians but sometimes with an atheist). I watched a few of these exchanges between Hamza Myatt, an Englishman who converted to Islam, and others. (more…)
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…)
A few days ago, I started reading a book that I bought about a year ago in a bookstore’s bargain aisle. The book is Paul by E.P. Sanders from the “A Brief Insight” series. The letters of the Apostle Paul form a big chunk of the New Testament. In those letters, his unique way of addressing problems in religious communities have had an enormous influence on the development of Christianity.
But Sanders’s 200-page work is the first book I’ve ever read focused specifically on Paul. Before I even finished reading the first chapter, I already started thinking about what the next book would be that I would read about Paul. I do this often: whenever I get interested in a new topic, I go on Amazon.com and try to find the most authoritative book on that subject. It’s handy information. Sometimes I even make a short bibliography of what the first books would be that I would read if I were to study the topic more closely.
It’s always satisfying to find the one definitive book on a subject: a recently-published and comprehensive resource you can turn to that will bring you up to speed on a subject in one fell swoop. Interested in Johannes Brahms? A quick search on Amazon.com will reveal that Jan Swafford’s biography, a 752-page tome decorated with 33 reviews averaging 4.5/5 stars, is beyond a shadow of a doubt the place to turn for all your Brahms needs. (more…)
Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books, and these are previews not reviews).
I’m currently reading William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and one of among many striking things about Nazi Germany is how easily a multitude of religious leaders in that country kowtowed to Hitler’s religious decrees (which needless to say were staggering in their impiety—replacing the Bible in pulpits with Mein Kampf, for instance). Religions like Christianity derive their power from writing and oratory. But if those mesmerizing words are not backed by deeds when the going gets rough (i.e. when the Gestapo will kill you if you continue practicing authentic Christianity) then such sermonizing appears in hindsight like idle chatter.
That’s why I can’t help but admire a guy like Sam Childers. After he converted to Christianity, he traded a life of drugs, motorcycle gangs, and chasing women in America to become a machine-gun armed protector of orphans and other destitute children in violence-ravaged Sudan. That’s some tough, in-your-face Christianity and not of the “Have you heard the Good Word? Here, take a pamphlet” variety. Childers has published a memoir of his experiences. (more…)
Below the fluorescent lights of an auditorium, a professor lectures to students about current historical ideas gleamed from countless of hours of collective research and collegiate debates. A journalist, after decades of reporting on current events in a foreign land, publishes a book about a historical subject she deems particularly important to understanding what is happening there today. A popular film gets released about the past that lights up the public imagination to a certain era of history.
Public recollection of the past happens in many ways. To follow every one of these events, which occur daily, is almost impossible. But patterns emerge from observation, though understanding why they occur is sometimes difficult. In the following previews of new books, I hope to draw attention to trends in the public discourse about history. A more detailed look at the context and causes of these dialogues, though, requires further research.
Fighting to the last
Ever since I first heard the lyrics of Alexander Gorodnitsky’s song “Atlases”, the Siege of Leningrad has become elevated in my mind as an eternal symbol of people’s remarkable ability to endure suffering and emerge victorious. The symbols and metaphors of the song are ingenious. In the famous Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, there are sculptures of Atlas from Greek mythology that act as structural columns for a portico . The Soviet men and women who died to stymie the advance of Nazi warriors before Leningrad are, to Gorodnitsky, like the Atlases of the Hermitage, “up-holding the sky / with arms of stone”. (more…)
Have your relatives ever told you stories about your ancestors that made you reevaluate your own identity? My grandmother once told me that her father (my great-grandfather) possessed a mellifluous voice and staged concerts for his fellow Allied soldiers imprisoned in a German POW camp during World War I. Hearing this story, it made me question how genetic quality could dissipate so quickly, for my vocal chords can’t produce a single melodic note if my family’s honor depended on it.
Like talking to our grandparents about departed relatives, reading history can change our perspective about our own selves or our community. I selected the books for August (remember, these are previews, not reviews: I have not read these books yet) that drew me in either because they addressed a need for self-knowledge or promised to inform me about the world around me. As a result, almost of them, I noticed later, have to do with U.S. history. But I think our subjectivity is what lights our interest afire. Our bias is our personality, and without it history narratives wither before us like dehydrated fruit.
New York City roots
For several months, I’ve had an itch to discover “literary” neighborhoods in Chicago. Seeking counsel, I asked fellow Chicagoans (full disclosure: I live in the suburbs, not the city proper) where writers live or congregate in the Windy City. No one had an answer, which made me despair that the only destination for writers in the United States was prohibitively-expensive Manhattan. (more…)
I hadn’t heard of the new movie “True Grit” until my friend Mike called me up to go to the theater a few days ago. Because I was vehemently uninterested in seeing “Tron”, the Coen brothers’ new movie seemed like a good alternative after glimpsing descriptions of shows playing in local theaters.
I saw “True Grit” that evening, and I can’t wait to watch it again while it’s playing on the big screen. The movie was fantastic. I hadn’t heard of the original “True Grit” with John Wayne, nor had I read the novel by Charles Portis on which both movies were based, but I think I appreciated the movie more for having known nothing about it beforehand. If you haven’t seen “True Grit” in theaters yet, I recommend you don’t read the rest of this article.
Stanley Fish of the New York Times has a high-quality article about the religious undertones that he perceives throughout the new “True Grit”. His point is that this movie avoids creating a two-dimensional picture of reality. This is what makes it different from (and perhaps better than) the John Wayne version. Protagonists suffer alongside antagonists, and all display traditional heroic qualities. Reward and punishment for any kind of virtue or immorality, respectively, is not meted out in the way everyone expects; if you have lived virtuously, it is no guarantee that something unspeakably horrible won’t befall you in this world.
And yet “True Grit” is different from the Coen brothers’ earlier Western-style film, “No Country for Old Men”. That film was thoroughly depressing. Evil, in the form of the cattle-gun wielding character of Anton, stalks every good person, eventually destroys them all, and leaves nothing redeeming in its wake. “True Grit” has brighter moments.
I grew up in the video game generation. The public discussion about video games for the past decade, I have noticed, has been about whether violent video games encourage violent behavior in real life – parents worrying about children growing bloodthirsty. More recently, some research has attracted attention that suggests that video games may develop logical thinking and hand-eye coordination. Xbox may not be so different from chess and baseball after all. But to me and perhaps others in my generation, video games mean a bit more than that.
If I were to be brutally honest, I would have to admit that my interest in history has a bit (or a lot) to do with me playing the computer game Civilization II as a young boy. Sure, my grandpa read to me – to my great delight – when I was even younger from a children’s book about how man made fire by rubbing sticks and crafted the first primitive tools. But that did not capture my imagination as much as building an empire while playing as the ancient Egyptians in Civilization II or amassing an armada of ships that terrorized the high seas while commanding the Spanish. I piloted an aircraft in the game Aces Over Europe (like my granpda, who flew in real planes in World War II) and won glory for my country as a skilled warrior. I was a hero, like my forebearers. Or, I practiced to become one.
Games are more than about shooting people and destroying things. They are even more than about cognitive and reflexive development. For a child, especially in America where communities lack other rituals for developing self-identity, such games allow you to imitate the greatness of your ancestors. In Plato’s terms, by imitating great deeds (such as defending one’s country as a fighter pilot in World War II) a child may take part in the Forms of Courage, Duty, and Camaraderie. In such a way, he fosters a sense of belonging and duty to his community.
Playing computer games, seen from this perspective, is not much different than taking part in the Divine Liturgy in church. The Liturgy is a play similar to ancient Greek drama: the congregation, an adaptation of the Greek chorus, re-enacts the story of Christ every Sunday and takes part as participants on the stage. After all, is not theater just a type of game, where the actors and audience suspend their sense of disbelief at their imitation of reality just as gamers do? For the sake of something greater, every person is willing to suspend their sense of disbelief.
These are just some cursory and perhaps simplistic observations. I thought I may post this because I have been thinking that this pull towards imitating greatness – either through games or theater or rituals – remains with people (or at least has with me) even into adulthood. I read about the Battle of Britain and I still want to strap into a virtual cockpit. I watch an episode of The Pacific on HBO and I feel the urge to play Call of Duty: World at War. I feel the lack of adventure in my life, and I play The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. Or I read literature, for it too is an escape (or transcendence) of reality.
We all played games when we were children, but we also all persist in other forms of imitation as adults. Why? And to what end? Maybe if we can answer these questions, we could clear up a lot of others about the purpose in contemporary life of religion, art, and – not to forget – even video games.
One of the greatest challenges for Judaism and Christianity has been to reconcile the law of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures with the moral law described by Greek philosophers. Writers of every generation from the Hellenistic Age to our own have sought to understand their Jewish tradition in light of philosophical reason, because they had come to believe that both are true. This task has always been a difficult one, because, fundamentally, I think the Philosophical Law and the Hebrew Law work in different ways.
The philosophical law, is more familiar to modern people. Through reason, as described by Plato and Aristotle, man can deduce the best way to live his life. Living the best life is the highest happiness, therefore the promise of the philosophical law is human happiness. The philosophical law seeks universal application – how to order one’s actions, emotions, conversations, work, and beliefs by reason to achieve the best possible life for ourselves and others. The philosophical law has often been called the Moral Law. The Hebrew law, though, functions in a different way.
The Hebrew law, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the law of an ancient community, the Jews. Its regulations are very contextual to that age – rules regarding livestock, slaves, barbaric punishment, and the like. Moreover, the law is delivered by God as a tyrant (in a classical sense of the word, as someone whose actions and decrees are a law to themselves and obey no higher standard). The Mosaic law is not subject to reason like the philosophical law. The promise of the Hebrew law is not happiness, but solely faithfulness to the one who designed it, God. The function of the Hebrew law, in the context of Christianity (this is the only context I can knowledgeably speak for), is to teach people how to be merciful. The Mosaic law is designed to trip us up – we are meant to never live up to it (unlike, again, the philosophical law, which is always practical). Proof of this is that Christ himself was cursed by the Mosaic law by doing a profane thing when he was hung on a tree (the cross). The purpose of the Mosaic law, then, is this: if everyone, even Jesus Christ, is guilty under this law, and if God has mercy on all people anyway, then every individual must forgive others their trespasses of the law as he himself is forgiven of his. The Hebrew law teaches us about repentance and mercy.
The difference between the philosophical (moral) law and the Hebrew law can be summarized as this: the best life according to the former is happiness by way of reason, while the best life according to the latter is godliness by way of obedience. But what if godly obedience does not seem reasonable? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law” and that anyone who teaches others to disobey any commandment at all will be condemned. But, in our Christian communities, we have let many letters of the Mosaic law pass away as society has progressed. Reason, it seems, has trumped obedience to God.
I’m not by any means advocating a return to following the Mosaic law. Perhaps this conflict between the moral law and the Hebrew law is much adieu about nothing. Perhaps there is no problem with being both a philosopher and Christian, though the Bible itself makes bold claims about the standard of lawful obedience. In any case, understanding the purpose and function of the philosophical law as opposed to the Biblical law can clarify one’s goals and beliefs to help one lead a better life.