Friday, August 24, 2007

The Questionable Authorship of Second Peter

The New Testament letter of Second Peter has traditionally been credited to Simon Peter, the apostle, as a follow-up to the letter that we know as First Peter. The letter itself states that the author is Simon Peter and that this is his “second letter.” But what is the evidence that Second Peter was actually written by Peter the apostle? There are a number of interesting clues, all of which lead to an almost unassailable conclusion that Second Peter could not possibly have been written by Peter the apostle, no matter what the Church tells us.

The first clue comes simply by analyzing the text. If we assume, for a moment, that First and Second Peter were written by the same author, we would expect to see a similar writing style in the two letters. Unfortunately (that is, unfortunately for those who argue that the two letters have the same author), the writing styles vary dramatically. First Peter is written in a gentle, loving, reserved style, and focuses on teaching its listeners how to live serene, peaceful, and Godly lives. It includes a suggestion that Christ’s return is very near at hand. Second Peter, on the other hand, is forceful, unforgiving, and has a hellfire and brimstone tone that would have made Jonathan Edwards proud. It has all the hallmarks, in fact, of Christian writings from the early 2nd century, which, of course, would make it about 50 years too late for Simon Peter, who most likely died in Rome during the persecutions of Nero in the mid-60’s C.E. It also does an about-face from First Peter in suggesting that Christ’s return isn’t so near after all. We’ll get into that more later.

Of course, writing styles alone can’t lead us to a definitive conclusion about authorship. So we move on to the second clue. This clue involves what we know of the historical Simon Peter. Born in rural Galilee, and living in Capernaum as a fisherman when he first met Jesus, Simon Peter most certainly came from a poor, uneducated family. Archaeological digs in the area of Capernaum – which sits on the Sea of Galilee – have found that it was little more than a one-road village with a few ramshackle huts. There are no structures remaining from the era in question, which leads to the logical conclusion that the homes were made of mud brick or wood, with thatched roofs. This would have been par for the course for rural villages in 1st century Galilee. Furthermore, there is no archaeological evidence that Capernaum had any synagogues or schools. It was literally just a little cluster of huts, populated by fishermen and laborers. Its population was less than 1,000. From this evidence, we can make the conclusion that Peter was an uneducated laborer from rural, backwater Galilee. Being uneducated, he would have most certainly been illiterate. He would have spoken Aramaic, and might have understood Hebrew, but he most probably would not have been able to read or write either language. He certainly wouldn’t have known Greek at all, as only the most educated scribes could read or speak Greek.

This brings up, of course, an interesting conundrum. How could an illiterate peasant from rural Galilee have written letters in fluent Greek? Furthermore, the writer of Second Peter is clearly an expert on the Hebrew bible, as he quotes it freely and accurately throughout his letter. Simon Peter, as illustrated above, would not have been able to read Hebrew. Therefore, he could only have been familiar with the Hebrew scriptures through teachings at the synagogue. And, as we have seen, Capernaum had no synagogues, and no schools. Simon Peter would likely have had very little, if any, knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures – certainly not the kind of knowledge required to quote those scriptures so fluently, eloquently, and accurately, as the writer of Second Peter does. Is it possible that, following Jesus’s death, Peter took it upon himself to become a full time student, studying Greek and Hebrew in both speech and literature, familiarizing himself with the intricacies of the Hebrew scriptures and learning to write Greek with fluency and style? Possible? I suppose. Probable? Not on your life. If Peter was the missionary that he is portrayed to be throughout the New Testament, when would he have had time (not to mention money) for such study? Greek and Hebrew teachers weren’t exactly a dime a dozen in 1st century Palestine. Peter would have needed to spend literally years in Jerusalem studying with the best rabbis and scribes to have any hope of becoming the prolific and knowledgeable writer who wrote Second Peter (or First Peter, for that matter). Where would he have gotten the money for this, and why would he have spent such effort learning the Hebrew scriptures, when his focus was, presumably, on Jesus and his message? And how could he have done his missionary work if he was in Jerusalem for years on end becoming a prolific linguist and author?

The more reasonable counter-argument to this clue is that Peter simply used an interpreter/scribe to write his letters. There is no evidence of that in the letters themselves, however, and it seems unlikely that Peter could have afforded a personal scribe. However, it is possible that such a scribe might have offered his talents, supposing he was a converted Christian. Still, assuming the scribe would have been writing from Peter’s dictation, how did Peter become a man of such in-depth Hebrew scriptural knowledge, such that he could quote and reference the Hebrew scriptures so fluidly and accurately? Only rabbis and those who had devoted their entire lives to the study of Hebrew scriptures could quote and reference Hebrew scriptures so fluently. Furthermore, how did Simon Peter go from an uneducated peasant who probably couldn’t even write his name, to being able to dictate beautifully constructed letters that had all the elements of good structural prose?

From here, we move on to the next clue. A good portion of Second Peter deals with warnings of false prophets, and another section deals in depth with the second coming of Christ. As to the former, is it reasonable to assume that the issue of false prophets was a big one in the 60’s C.E., when Second Peter was supposedly written? In fact, we have almost no evidence to suggest this. Most of the New Testament and non-canonical texts in existence that deal with false teachers are late 1st century or 2nd century writings. As Christianity spread, a lot of new theologies spread along with it, and by the start of the 2nd century, many of these “unorthodox” views were prominent in many communities. So early in Christian history, it is hard to imagine that Peter would have been concerned with false prophets. His primary concern was spreading the message – there had not been enough time yet for false teachers to twist it into something unorthodox. Yet, in Second Peter, the writer even goes so far as to explain that prophecy is guided by the Holy Spirit, not by the prophet himself. 2 Peter 1:21 – “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This seems a case of “protesting too much.” Would Simon Peter – Jesus’s right hand man and the leader of the Christian Church – have needed to include this caveat?

As to the sections of Second Peter that deal with Christ’s second coming, the writer goes out of his way to encourage his readers to be patient. He quotes common gripes of the time when he refers to those who say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” He encourages his readers to stay strong, but to recognize that to God a thousand years is like a day and a day is like a thousand years (which is one of his instances of quoting Hebrew scripture). Clearly, he was writing at a time when fear and impatience over Christ’s return were at the forefront of many Christian communities. Early on in Christian history, Christians had expected Christ’s return in their own lifetimes. This is evident, for instance, in the writings of Paul (who was a contemporary of Peter), from the 50’s and 60’s C.E. By the end of the 1st century, when Christ still hadn’t returned, a lot of people began to fear that he wasn’t coming back at all. This is evidenced in books like the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples to build the church first, in preparation for his return – that is, the gospel must be spread first, before Christ will return. This was a way that Matthew and his contemporaries explained the fact that Christ hadn’t come back yet. But as the years and decades passed, this anxiety only grew. So when you read Second Peter’s encouragement to stay the course, but to recognize that God’s time is different than man’s time, it can only fit reasonably into a later period, when these issues were at the forefront of Christian consciousness. If Peter was writing his letter in the same era as Paul (60’s C.E.), why were his listeners so concerned about the delay of the second coming? At that time, they were still in the first generation following Jesus’s death. It wasn’t an issue for Christians of that era, and, as alluded to above, this is evidenced by Paul’s own writings, where he makes it clear that he believes Jesus’s return is imminent. It was only after that generation that people began to worry. And don’t forget that in First Peter, the author seems serenely confident that Jesus is returning soon (“The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled”). If we assume First Peter was written sometime in the 60’s C.E. (which is a big assumption to make, but we’ll make it for the sake of argument), why is there such a sudden change in perspective after only a few years? Surely it would have taken more than a couple of years with no Jesus for the Christian population to suddenly start asking “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?”

The fourth clue we turn to is a reference that the writer of Second Peter makes to Paul himself. At the end of the letter, he encourages his readers to study the words of “our dear brother Paul.” He then goes on to acknowledge that Paul’s letters are sometimes confusing, and that “ignorant and unstable people” distort them, as they do other scriptures. The first thing that raises an eyebrow in this passage is the loving reference to Paul, and the encouragement to stick closely to Paul’s teachings. If you read my blog on the rift between Peter and Paul, you know that many scholars have good reason for supposing Peter and Paul were as much competitors in early Christian theology as they were teammates. Considering that the two men evidently disagreed on some of the most central aspects of Christian theology, it seems unlikely that Peter would have heaped such flowery praise on Paul.

The second statement in this passage about Paul is the most intriguing. Indeed, it is the most important clue in our search for evidence of Second Peter’s author. It is the reference to Paul’s letters being in the possession of the target audience, and those letters being “scripture.” Scripture, of course, consists of collected religious writings, used and studied by communities to deepen their spirituality and their understanding of their god. Hebrew scriptures consisted of the Torah, the writings of the judges, and the prophetic writings. These had been collected over the course of many centuries, and had been read, studied, interpreted, and applied for many, many years. For Second Peter to call Paul’s writings “scripture,” it is clear that Paul’s letters had already been collected together, copied, and dispersed throughout the Christian communities. There is virtually no chance at all that this was the case during Paul’s own lifetime. Paul’s letters would not have been gathered together as “scripture” until many decades after his death. His letters, after all, were individual letters to individual Christian communities – not generalized tomes written for all people. It would have taken years for all his writings to be gathered into something that could be called “scripture,” and then dispersed around the Christian world. If the writer of Second Peter was writing to a community that already had copies of Paul’s letters, which they were studying and reading as “scripture,” then clearly it was a community that existed many decades after Paul’s (and thereby Peter’s) death. It would appear that, in his effort to secretly write in Peter’s name, the author of Second Peter openly gave away his own ruse.

When you add all these clues together, it paints a pretty convincing picture. It would be practically impossible to argue reasonably that Second Peter was written by the apostle Peter. Yet, this is precisely what the Church has done for 2,000 years. Academia, scholarship, and the scientific method be damned, apparently.

Despite the Church’s traditional stance on this issue, most every scholar agrees that not only was Second Peter not written by the apostle Peter, but it was, in fact, probably the last book of the New Testament to be written. It is dated as late as 120 C.E. This would mean its composition came later than some other Christian writings that are not in the canon – such as the Gospel of Thomas and perhaps several others.

If this is the case, what does it say for the validity of the teachings? That’s something that you will have to determine for yourself.

But in the meantime, why was Second Peter selected, but texts such as the Gospel of Thomas were not? Indeed, Second Peter was apparently included only grudgingly, and only after fierce debate over its authenticity.

But why did the ecumenical councils exclude the earlier Christian text known as the Gospel of Thomas? For that, you’ll have to read my next blog.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Peter and Paul - A Rift

Were Peter and Paul good friends who felt that they were working together in the spread of Jesus’s message, or were they bitter competitors who both felt that the other had the wrong idea?

While the first possibility is the one generally accepted by the faithful, and the second possibility is one pushed by those who either have a strong bias toward one theology over another or who have an agenda to discredit Christianity as a whole, the truth is probably somewhere closer to in between.

As I understand it from my years associated with the protestant Christian church, the general feeling among mainline Christians – if they even consider it at all (and most don’t) – is that Peter and Paul, like the other apostles, were generally united in their efforts to spread Jesus’s message. The evidence, however, is that most all of the primary apostles (that is, both members of Jesus’s inner circle, as well as early Christians like Paul who never actually met Jesus) had their own ideas about the meaning of Jesus’s life. By the 300’s C.E., Rome’s version of orthodox Christian theology had deftly woven these competing apostolic theologies together, set up Peter as the primary apostle on whose theology (that is, the Church’s interpretation of Peter’s theology) the Church’s dogma would follow, and had put together a nice little package of orthodox Christian writings. These writings, of course, came to be called the New Testament and were introduced to the faithful as the only divinely-inspired Christian texts. The countless myriad other Christian texts were first called heresy and greatly discouraged, and then, beginning in the 390’s C.E., were outlawed completely by Emperor Theodosius, who subsequently sent his lackeys around the empire to collect and destroy the banned texts.

It’s little wonder these non-canonical Christian texts were largely unknown until the 19th century, and many that we do have now (through various archaeological discoveries over the last hundred years) are incomplete and unreadable. Countless others, no doubt, have never been discovered. Yet, I’ve had traditionally-believing Christians in just the last six months point to the fact that these non-canonical texts are so rare and so few-and-far-between that it must be God’s way of showing that they are unreliable – if they were reliable, so the argument went, they’d still be around. They’re rare, of course, because the Church systematically destroyed them 1700 years ago! It had nothing to do with God!

But I digress...

Even in the canon, there is much evidence of the contention between Peter and Paul. Scholars and theologians generally portray Peter as the missionary to the Jews, while Paul is described as the missionary to the Gentiles. Paul himself paints it precisely this way in his letter to the Galatians. Indeed, it is widely understood that Paul was the one who first began spreading the “Good News” to the Gentiles in large numbers.

What could have led to such a dichotomous set-up? Why was Paul designated the Gentile missionary, while Peter was designated the Jewish missionary? If they were doing God’s work, shouldn’t they have been missionaries to everyone? Why the specialization?

Clues both in the canon and outside of the canon can help lead us toward an answer. In Galatians 2, Paul admonishes “Cephas” for not eating with the Gentiles. Galatians 2:11 reads: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” He goes on to explain that Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles when his Jewish friends were around. Paul then transcribes a two or three paragraph admonishment that he supposedly gave to Peter in front of everyone, calling him to the carpet for not associating with Gentiles and even calling him a hypocrite and suggesting that he fooled Baranabas (Paul’s missionary companion) into doing the same thing.

Pretty harsh words for two men supposedly united in a cause.

Anyone familiar with Jewish eating customs will quickly be able to figure out the significance of this admonishing by Paul. Paul, who argued that Jesus’s message was for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, did not believe it was necessary to become a Jew, and live by Jewish law, in order to accept the message of Jesus and become a Christian. In other words, one did not have to live by the kosher rules of Jewish consumption in order to be a Christian. Peter, apparently, felt differently. When given the opportunity to eat with Gentile converts in front of his Jewish friends, he chose not to. He did not want to eat Gentile food, as it would have meant he was breaking kosher Jewish laws. Not only did he, apparently, not want to do this for himself, but he also did not want to offend other Jewish Christians. Paul clearly took issue with this, and upbraided him for it in public. For it to have been important enough to reference in one of his letters, it must have been a major issue between the two Christian leaders – one that everyone knew about.

Some scholars and theologians, in an effort to preserve the idea of Peter and Paul being united in the message of Christ, have attempted to suggest that the “Cephas” referred to in Paul’s letter is not Peter. If you read my previous blog, you will know that “Cephas” is the Greek transliteration of Peter’s Aramaic nickname – Kepha. It is true that in most places in the New Testament, the writers referred to Peter as “Petros” – that is, they translated his name from Aramaic to Greek, rather than “Cephas.” But there are several places, Paul’s letter included, where the Greek transliteration was used instead, for whatever reason. It’s hard to imagine that there would have been two major Christian leaders named Cephas, particularly when you consider that “Cephas” is not a real name at all, but merely a transliteration of one language to another. Were there really two prominent Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians in 1st century Palestine whose nicknames were “Kepha,” thus transliterating into the Greek “Cephas”? Probably not. Most every reputable scholar and theologian agree that Paul’s Cephas was, in fact, Simon Peter.

If we assume that Paul’s Cephas was Simon Peter, then we are faced with trying to understand the context of this apparently major disagreement the two had on the necessity of abiding by Jewish law and custom. Peter seems to have believed that Gentiles first needed to convert to Judaism – with all its kosher laws – before becoming Christian. Paul, on the other hand, makes it clear that we are saved through grace alone, and works (that is, sticking to kosher laws, etc.) are not necessary for salvation. In Galatians 2:16, during his admonishment to Peter, Paul says, “A man is not justified by observing the law [that is, the Jewish law], but by faith in Jesus Christ.”

The writer of James takes up this very issue when he argues that while we are saved through grace, a faith without works is dead. James, apparently, wanted to heal the long-standing rift created by the prominent disagreement between Peter and Paul, over whether religious laws had to be followed in order for salvation to be granted. James, then, argued that salvation comes through faith, but that without works, there can be no faith. A nice middle ground. But, as alluded to above, the very fact that James felt it necessary to address this issue so in-depth in his writings is evidence that it was a major issue in the early Christian church – and it’s an issue that can be traced to a fundamental disagreement between Peter and Paul – one that eventually led Paul to proclaim himself the missionary to the Gentiles, while Peter stuck with the Jews.

There are other clues to the rift in the New Testament as well. Luke, who wrote two volumes of Christian works – the first a narrative of Jesus’s life, and the second a narrative of the early days of Christianity – wrote many years after Paul’s death. His books, of course, are known to us as the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. Luke seems to have been aware of Peter and Paul’s disagreement, and so, in an effort to show that Peter didn’t really think you had to be Jewish before you could be a Christian, he describes a scene in which Peter converts a Roman centurion – that is, a Gentile – to Christianity, after eating with him, no less. It starts with a story that is a Sunday School favorite – Peter dreams of a large sheet covered with a bunch of Gentile (that is, unclean) food. God instructs him to eat it. Peter is appalled and tells God he hasn’t ever eaten unclean food in his life. God then tells Peter that he shouldn’t call anything unclean that God has made pure. Peter then goes and eats with the Gentile centurion and converts him to Christianity. Clearly Luke was familiar with the kosher disagreement between Peter and Paul, and he attempts to “clear Peter’s name” by describing this scene in which God himself tells Peter that non-kosher is just fine. In my opinion – and in the opinion of many scholars – this is a rather blatant attempt by the writer of Acts to counter contemporary ideas that Peter had been a follower of Jewish law right up to his death.

Evidence of this rift between Peter and Paul is even more prominent in non-canonical writings. A set of writings attributed to a 1st century Christian leader named Clement includes a letter supposedly written by Peter to James – the same James who wrote about faith and works, referenced above. (The Clementine writings were supposedly written by the man who the Roman Catholic Church calls Pope Clement I, the fourth bishop of Rome, the third in succession after Peter, and an actual traveling companion of Peter. A whole series of blogs could be written about whether Clement actually authored this set of writings, or whether it was authored later and simply attributed to him, or whether it was based on some of his authentic writings – now lost – but was heavily changed and edited. After that, we could go into a discussion of whether Clement himself even existed, and whether he was, in fact, a bishop of Rome, and whether he was actually a companion of Peter. But this isn’t the place to delve into all that.)

In this letter supposedly transcribed by Clement, Peter rails against those who suggest that he teaches a “dissolution of the law.” He states, emphatically, that he never teaches for dissolution of Jewish law, “for to do so means to act contrary to the law of God which was made to Moses and was confirmed by our Lord.” He goes on to talk about how many Gentiles have rejected his “lawful” preaching and have preferred a “lawless and absurd doctrine” preached by “the man who is my enemy.” This is a clear and obvious reference to Paul.

In another Clementine writing, called the Clementine Homilies, there is a confrontation between Peter and a character named Simon Magus. Simon Magus appears in the New Testament, as well as in other non-canonical writings. He was a magician (that is, a pagan who worked wonders) in Rome, and some evidence even suggests that he was, in fact, a rival Christian leader. In one non-canonical work (The Acts of Peter, written in the 2nd century), Simon Magus and Peter engage in a long, drawn-out battle of magic. The winner (who, of course, is ultimately Peter) has the pleasure of getting all the masses to proclaim allegiance to his god. In the Clementine Homilies, however, Simon Magus is portrayed as rival Christian leader, and a rather lengthy passage is devoted to Peter’s derision for this pagan-in-sheep’s-clothing. Interestingly enough, even though the name used is that of Simon Magus, all the “facts” given about his life – and about which Peter speaks with contempt – are “facts” we know from the life of Paul. For instance, Peter says that Simon’s conversion on the road to Damascus was a sham, and that just because he saw a vision of Jesus decades after Jesus’s death, did not give him authority over people like Peter, who knew Jesus personally. Of course, it was Paul who was converted on the road to Damascus, and it was Paul who claimed authority through a vision he had of Jesus. Clearly, the writer of this non-canonical work was acutely aware of the rift between Peter and Paul, and used the character of Simon Magus to weakly mask the real source of Peter’s derision – that is, the apostle Paul.

Of course, just as we can’t read the New Testament as though it is a history book describing linear, historical events, we can’t read the Clementine writings, or any non-canonical work, as if they deal with literal events. However, we can glean from the non-canonical sources some insight into the mindset of the early Christians; as such, we can see that even in the 2nd century, perhaps as much as 100 years after Peter and Paul had both died, traditions surrounding their theological disagreements remained. If no such disagreement had ever existed, stories such as the ones I have outlined above would not have come into existence. It’s a matter of following the trail of canonical and non-canonical evidence to logical conclusions.

While mainstream Christian theology suggests that Peter and Paul were a united front in spreading the message of Christ, I believe the textual evidence points more toward Peter and Paul being as much competitors as they were comrades. In the book of 2 Peter, which has traditionally been credited to Peter himself, the writer, after a vitriolic exposition on the dangers of false prophets and a long, flowery sermon on the second coming of Jesus, encourages his readers to follow the teachings of “our dear brother Paul.” He goes on to admit that while Paul’s writings are sometimes confusing, they should be studied deeply and followed completely. Bearing in mind the likely reality that Peter and Paul had some major theological differences, what are the chances Peter himself actually wrote this passage? I’ll delve into that in my next blog.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Kingdom of God

The book of 2 Peter, although containing a claim of authorship by Peter the apostle, is dated by most scholars as the latest New Testament book, written as late as 120 C.E. (making it later than some non-canonical writings, such as the gospels of Thomas and Peter). Virtually all scholars agree that it was not written by Peter, due to a variety of clues in the text, the least of which is the fact that Peter was an uneducated fisherman from backwater Galilee, and would have almost certainly been illiterate. Even if he could have written in Aramaic, it is a virtual certainty that he could not have read or written Greek fluently enough to have written 2 Peter (or 1 Peter, for that matter), nor have been fluent and educated enough in Hebrew to have quoted the Old Testament so freely in his writings. To suggest such a thing is to simply be ignorant of peasant life in 1st century Palestine.

Regardless, the book of 2 Peter is a harsh, 3-chapter letter, supposedly as a follow-up to the letter of 1 Peter, wherein the author lays a stream of vitriol against false prophets and those who fall away from the Christian faith. In the final chapter, the author turns to questions of when Jesus will return. He starts, in verse 3:2, by saying that he wants to “recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.” He then goes on to talk about the imminent return of Jesus and the ushering in of God’s kingdom. It is clear, then, that the writer of this canonical book is supporting the idea that not only is Jesus returning soon, but that Jesus, during his life, taught the same thing. The writer of 2 Peter does include the caveat that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day,” which is quoted from Psalms, but it is clear from his tone and his admonitions that he fully believes Jesus is coming soon, just as Jesus himself promised. “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” Read the passage yourself and see if you don’t get the same impression.

The point, of course is this: when you follow the scriptures from the earliest stories to the latest stories, you can see an obvious and apparent change in theology that goes like this:

1. The earliest teachings of Jesus indicate that God’s kingdom is imminent, and that Jesus himself is bringing this Kingdom, and those who hear his message must repent now in order to not be left out of God’s coming kingdom. This is generally why many scholars describe Jesus as an apocalyptic wisdom teacher -- that is, someone claiming to have special insight from God and urging followers to take the message to heart, for the end of the world is near -- there were many like him in 1st century Palestine.

2. After Jesus is executed, it seems that all hope is lost, but then the apostles experience the resurrection (however you interpret what the resurrection was), and Jesus’s message begins to spread out from Palestine.

3. That message includes a promise that Jesus will return to usher in the kingdom of God, as he had promised on earth. It is clear from the earliest writings (Paul and Mark, for instance) that this return is expected in their very own lifetimes.

4. By the time several generations have passed, and Matthew, Luke, and John are writing their gospels, fears and worries are beginning to arise because most, if not all, of the earliest followers are dead, and Jesus still hasn’t returned. Thus, you have the appearance, in Matthew’s gospel, of the idea that Jesus brought the message of salvation, and will return to usher in God’s kingdom, but the church must be built on earth first, before that happens (thus, the passage where Jesus tells Peter he is the rock upon which the church will be built, and then later utters the great commission to go out to all nations and teach).

5. By the final books of the New Testament, everyone who knew Jesus personally is long dead, and it’s already a new century, and so you see writers, like the writer of 2 Peter, remarking about skeptics who say “Where is this coming he promised?”, urging Christians to hang on to the hope, to stay true to the faith, and to keep looking forward to Jesus’s imminent return...but adding caveats that to God a day is like a thousand years.

It’s very clear and obvious that early Christianity was forced, as the decades passed, to consistently change their theology in regards to the kingdom of God. It went from Jesus, who apparently preached that it was coming in his own lifetime, to Paul who preached that Jesus would return in Paul’s own lifetime to usher in the kingdom, to Matthew who said that the church had to be built first, to the writer of 2 Peter who urged followers to keep the faith but to remember that a day is like a thousand years to God.

My personal belief is that Jesus was right. The kingdom of God did come by and through his teachings, and was experienced and exemplified through his death and resurrection (which, of course, I understand as a spiritual awakening, not a physical resuscitation). The people following in his footsteps in the first 8 or 9 decades after his death kept waiting for him to return in glory so that God’s kingdom could be ushered in, and they never realized that the kingdom was already here, available to them through Jesus’s life itself. And for the 2000 years since that time, many Christians, in my opinion, have been making the same mistake.

Jesus’s message was about abundant and renewed life in the here and is my opinion that Jesus’s message was never about life after death.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Etymology of New Testament Names

I am currently working on a short novel fictionalizing the birth of Christianity as it might really have happened, stripped of the mythology that strangles our common understanding of the event. It started as a short story, but as I have written more and studied more, I have decided that it would serve me better as a short novel. There’s too much I want to dramatize to fit it all into a short story.

In writing the book, I have decided not to use the common English names that we normally use to refer to the various main characters in the biblical stories. Thus, you won’t see names like Peter, Andrew, and Jesus in my story. Instead, in order to better ground the story in historical terms, I am using the characters’ transcribed Aramaic names. The apostle John, for instance, wasn’t really called “John.” That’s just an English version of his real Aramaic name. Aramaic, of course, does not use the Latin alphabet like English does (it was based on the Hebrew alphabet and was derived from Hebrew), so in order to write the real Aramaic names in English, I have to transcribe them into Latin characters. So while the spelling isn’t historically accurate, the way the name sounds will be as close to historical as I can get it. This involves not only researching the etymology of all the names of all the characters, but also coming up with a reasonable English spelling of the Aramaic name.

In doing this research, I’ve come across some fascinating tidbits. I’ll outline these below:

1. Jesus

As much as we identify with the name “Jesus,” this was, of course, not his real name – which sort of makes hymns like “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, sweetest name I know,” seem rather silly. If you listen to certain hymns, and listen to the way some people talk about Jesus’s name, it seems that a lot of people actually hold the name “Jesus” as somehow holy and spiritual. This sort of devotion to the name “Jesus” is reemphasized when we warn against “taking the Lord’s name in vain” or ending our prayer’s with “in Jesus’ name, a-men.” Indeed, Jesus’s name is an important and integral part of mainline Christian theology. Because of this, we easily forget and/or gloss over the fact that the enunciated name “Jesus” was not what Jesus was called. In fact, his real name doesn’t sound like “Jesus” at all. To his ears, the name “Jesus” would as been as foreign as calling him Billy or George.

In Aramaic, Jesus’s name was “Yeshua” – pronounced “yesh-wa.” That’s an English spelling, of course, but “Yeshua” is how it would have sounded to Jesus’s own ears. You can see that there is very little similarity between the two names. The interesting thing is that Jesus appears to have been named for the Old Testament figure of Joshua. Joshua was the successor of Moses, and is the one who actually led the Israelites into the Promised Land. As such, he is an important figure in Jewish history. In Hebrew, Joshua’s name was “Yehoshua.” When the Aramaic-speaking Jews of the 1st century (1,200 years after the time of Joshua) wanted to name their child for this important Jewish figure, they used the Aramaic version of the Hebrew “Yehoshua” and called their child “Yeshua.” Basically, they simply dropped the second syllable. So Jesus, then, was most likely named after the ancient Jewish military leader who led the Israelites into the Promised Land. Bearing that in mind, it is interesting that we end up calling the two figures by different names in English. The Hebrew “Yehoshua” leads us, etymologically, to “Joshua,” while the Aramaic “Yeshua” leads us to “Jesus,” despite the fact that the two names were linguistically equal.

2. Peter

Next to Jesus, Peter is probably the most important figure in the New Testament. Roman Catholics revere him as the first pope, and all Christians revere him as Jesus’s number one guy. Most biblical scholars agree that whatever the resurrection was, Peter was probably the first to recognize it and the first to spread the message to other people. If we have Jesus to thank for the message, we have Peter to thank for determining that the message was important enough to pass on after Jesus’s death.

The etymology of Peter’s name is interesting. “Peter,” as most of us familiar with biblical passages will know, was actually a nickname. His birth name was Simon – or, in Aramaic, “Shimon” (pronounced “shee-mone”). However, according to the Gospels, at some point during his ministry, Jesus gave Simon a nickname. Matthew’s gospel says that Jesus decided to call Simon “the rock” because he would be the rock upon which the church was built (thus the Roman Catholic claim to apostolic succession). This is how Simon ended up being called Peter.

The New Testament, despite describing people who were Aramaic-speaking Jews, living in Roman-controlled Palestine, was written entirely in Greek. “Peter,” then, is an English transliteration of the Greek name “Petros.” “Petros,” on the other hand, was a Greek translation of the original Aramaic nickname. In Aramaic, the word for “rock” was “keef” (again, that’s an English spelling...but it shows how the Aramaic word would have been pronounced). Thus, when Jesus decided to call Simon “the rock,” he began calling him Keepha (or Kifa, or Keefa, or any of another dozen ways you could spell it in English). The New Testament, as I said above, was written in Greek. So in a few places, the Greek writers of the New Testament transliterated “Keepha” into Greek, thus calling him “Cephas.” If you’ve ever heard of the name “Cephas” before, and wondered why that was an alternative to Peter’s name, this is why – it was a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic nickname (my grandfather had a brother named Cephas). However, in many places in the New Testament, the writers simply translated (not transliterated) the Aramaic nickname into Greek. Since “petra” is the Greek word for “rock,” they called him Petros, to denote that it was a male name. And then, from “Petros,” we transliterate it into English as “Peter.”

When you look at the etymology of this name, you begin to realize that “Peter” is probably the most nonsensical choice – historically speaking – of names to call this apostle. As illustrated above, it is a transliteration of a Greek translation of an original Aramaic nickname. It would make a lot more sense to simply call him “Petros,” using the translated Greek name that is most often used in the original language of the New Testament, call him “Keepha” in order to stick to the actual Aramaic name, or, at the very least, translate the name from Aramaic directly into English, instead of first going through Greek.

Of course, if we did that, then the father of the Catholic Church, and Jesus’s closest apostle, would be Pope Rocky.

3. Bartholomew

Bartholomew is one of the lesser known and lesser illustrated apostles in the New Testament. Other than being one of Jesus’s named apostles, very little is known of him or his life. In Aramaic, his name was “Bartolmay” – or, more accurately “bar-Tolmay.” That name literally means “Son of Ptolemy.” This was the form 1st century Jews used for their surnames. Jesus’s full name, for instance, would have been “Yeshua bar-Yosef.” In other words, Bartholomew is referred to in the New Testament only by his last name, for some reason. Perhaps it’s a situation similar to ones we have today – some people, for whatever reason, get called by their last name more than their first name. I have a friend who, to this day, I call almost exclusively by his last name. It just fits him. Perhaps that was the case with the apostle Bartholomew. Either way, its curious that we don’t ever get a clear picture of what Bartholomew’s first name was.

In the Synoptic Gospels – that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke – Bartholomew is listed as one of the 12 disciples. Additionally, most every other reference to him in those gospels always has him paired with the apostle Philip. Thus, we have a lot of references to “Philip and Bartholomew.” Apparently they were bosom buddies – maybe even relatives – who both decided to follow Jesus around Galilee, but tended to stick together. In the Gospel of John, however, there is no reference to Bartholomew. This, by itself, is not necessarily noteworthy, as John never gives a complete list of the apostles, and there are several others who are never mentioned as well. However, there are a couple of references to someone who appears to be an apostle, and whose name is Nathaniel. There are no references to an apostle called Nathaniel in any of the Synoptic Gospels. The interesting thing is that John’s references to Nathaniel always pair him with Philip. Thus, stories about “Philip and Nathaniel.” This leads many scholars to think that “Nathaniel” may have been the first name of the apostle Bartholomew. If this is true, it means that Bartholomew’s Aramaic name was something like “Natanel bar-Tolmay” – that is, “Nathaniel, son of Ptolemy.”

4. Andrew

Andrew is noted in the gospels to be the younger brother of Simon Peter. Together, Peter and Andrew were fishermen in Capernaum, and both were called by Jesus to be apostles. The New Testament writers – writing, of course, in Greek – called Andrew “Andreas.” “Andrew,” then, is simply our English transliteration of the Greek name “Andreas.” However, it is almost certain that Andrew’s real name was not “Andreas” – a 1st century Palestinian peasant Jew, with a brother given a good Jewish name (“Shimon”), would almost certainly not have been given a Greek name. So while it is possible that Andrew’s real name was the Greek “Andreas,” it is unlikely. The problem, however, is that scholars apparently don’t know what the equivalent Aramaic name would have been for Andrew. I don’t know if this is due to etymological discrepancies with the Greek name “Andreas,” or some other reason, but it appears that his real Aramaic name has been lost to history. As such, unless I can do some more research and uncover something, Andrew will be the only character in my story whose Greek equivalent name is used, as opposed to an Aramaic name.

5. Judas Iscariot

There is a lot that can be said about Judas, even down to whether or not he was a real historical figure or a literary construct used in the Gospels to represent the Jewish people as a whole, but none of that is relevant to this discussion. Judas’s name in Aramaic was “Yehuda,” and it was a name that was basically equivalent to the name of the Jewish nation. It would be like someone in the United States being named Americus, or a British person being named Britannia (this, along with a number of other clues, is one of the reasons some scholars postulate that Judas was not a real person, but rather a metaphorical representation of the Jewish nation – that is, those who betrayed Jesus – thus, the derogatory idea of the Jews as “Christ-killers”).

The more confusing name is the surname – “Iscariot.” No one is quite sure exactly what this means. In 1st century Palestine, Jews didn’t just have random surnames that held no relevant meaning, the way people may have surnames now that don’t necessarily hold any relevance. The surname for a 1st century Palestinian Jew was a means of saying who they were, who their father was, what group or profession they belonged to, or what town they lived in. Thus, you have surnames like that of Bartholomew – i.e., “son of” somebody – or you might have surnames that indicated the place the person was from – for example, “Saul of Tarsus” or “Mary Magdalene” (the latter meaning that her name was Mary and she was a Magdalene – that is, from the town of Magdala). In the case of Judas Iscariot, historians and scholars are divided on just what “Iscariot” refers to.

There is a brief reference in the Old Testament to a Jewish town called “Karioth.” No one knows exactly where this town might have been, and other than one brief reference in the Old Testament, it is otherwise unknown to history or archaeology. It is not believed to have still been in existence by the 1st century. However, some scholars have postulated that perhaps Judas was from Karioth, or that his family was historically from this town, and thus “Iscariot” is a bastardization of that town’s name.

Still others look toward a 1st century group of zealots known as the “iscarii” (“iscarii” means something like “dagger-man”). The iscarii were a group of extremist Jews who were intent on using terrorist tactics to drive the Romans out of the Promised Land. They engaged in everything from inciting rebellions to committing political assassinations. They were basically 1st century Palestine’s version of the PLO or the IRA. The iscarii, however, were not known to be in existence in Roman Palestine until the 40’s or 50’s C.E. That would have made it impossible for the historical Judas – who, we are told, committed suicide shortly after Jesus’s death in the early ‘30’s – to have been a member of the iscarii. Despite that, many scholars believe that this is the basis of the name “Iscariot,” and that either the iscarii, or some related group, were around earlier than we previously thought, or that perhaps the betrayal and suicide stories surrounding Judas were not true, and perhaps Judas, later in life, became part of the iscarii. If that were the case, it would mean that when the gospel writers were writing their stories many decades later, they were drawing on several layers of common knowledge and mythology – that is, they describe Judas as killing himself in the 30’s C.E., but still use his surname “Iscariot,” even though that wouldn’t have been a valid surname for him until long after his supposed suicide. Still other scholars suggest that “Iscariot” – derived from “iscarii” – might have simply been used by the New Testament writers as a derogatory reference – suggesting that Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus, was like a terrorist or extremist. In my opinion, that is probably the most reasonable conclusion.

One final, interesting point is the case of Simon the Zealot and Judas (or Jude) the Zealot. Simon the Zealot is the name of another of Jesus’s disciples about whom very little is known, and Judas the Zealot is another name for the apostle we know as James the Lesser, or St. Jude. The Zealots in 1st century Palestine were related to the iscarii, but were not necessarily assassins or terrorists. They were simply intent on driving the Romans out of the Promised Land, but not necessarily through violence (although this may have been part of their efforts as well). Some suggest that “Judas Iscariot” is simply another name or reference to either Simon the Zealot or, more likely, Judas the Zealot. This, of course, is rejected strongly by many Christian theologians, as it would imply that Jesus’s betrayer was the same person as the apostle James the Lesser, whom the church venerates as a saint.

Either way, there is no scholarly consensus on exactly what “Iscariot” refers to. In her novel “Mary, Called Magdalene,” writer Margaret George opts for the “iscarii” theory surrounding Judas’s name, and paints Judas as an assassin and Jewish zealot who falls under the sway of Jesus’s teachings about love and peace.

In my story, Judas is going to play an entirely different role, one which might make traditional believers bristle, or at least roll their eyes. I won’t give it away entirely, but I am developing Judas’s character more in line with the recently translated Gospel of Judas, which paints Judas as a confidant and conspirator with Jesus. It suggests Jesus actually approached Judas and asked him to betray him to the authorities, in order to fulfill his mission, and that Judas, despite knowing that it would make him a traitor in history, agreed to do it, in order to help Jesus do God’s work. I am not necessarily going with that specific route for my depiction of Judas, but I am basing my depiction of Judas on the idea that perhaps Judas wasn’t the evil betrayer of Christ that traditional Christian theology says he was. Perhaps there were other reasons why Judas became notorious to later Christian communities, unrelated to any betrayal of Jesus.

In summary, the important thing to remember from all these etymological discussions is that “Jesus’s precious name” wasn’t really “Jesus,” and his central apostle, the father of Christianity and the Catholic Church’s first pope, was named Rocky – you know, like the boxer.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Treatise on the Killing of Bugs

I have decided to stop killing bugs.

This may not seem like such an earth-shattering decision in the scheme of life, but I believe it’s vitally important.

For a long time now, I have read and heard Buddhist philosophical ideas about the sanctity of all life. My favorite Buddhist writer, Thich Nhat Hanh, routinely talks about vowing to protect all forms of life, from humans to animals to plants to minerals. As I’ve read these things and heard these things, I’ve always been a little bit skeptical. Obviously most of us can understand the importance of protecting the sanctity of human life, but animal life? Plant life? Mineral life?

Some time back, I was doing some walking meditation, and I had sort of a “break-through” (for lack of a better word). I was meditating on the idea of killing bugs. Why do we kill bugs? Understandably, if we find a black widow or some other poisonous bug in our house, we want to get the danger away from us. But what makes us step on a bug on the sidewalk, or squash a spider on the porch? Why, when we find a bug in the house, do we kill it, instead of just taking it outside? Why do we swat flies and spray bug spray at wasps? Are these insects really presenting a threat to us?

Killing bugs, of course, is a favorite past time of kids. It seems to be a way for them to dominate something else, the same way that they perhaps feel dominated by their parents, teachers, and older children.

I wonder if our propensity for killing bugs isn’t related to that need to dominate? I run my foot through an ant hill so the ants can’t later crawl into my house and get in my food. I squash a spider on the sidewalk because then it can’t come into my house and threaten me. I spray a wasp in my garage because then it can’t sneak up on me and sting me.

And yet, isn’t this the same mindset that causes the Stalins, Hitlers, and Pol Pots of the world to stamp out the potential danger they see in a certain race, culture, or political group?

Of course I’m not suggesting that someone’s propensity to step on spiders every time they see one is equal to the Nazis exterminating the European Jews. What I am suggesting, however, is that the prime motivation is the same. Kill now what may threaten us later.

Some may think, as I used to, that this is overblown and overdramatic. “I refuse to believe that stepping on a bug, putting a garden hoe through a snake, or chopping down a tree has anything to do with wars, genocide, and violence in general.”

And yet when I had that break-through, it suddenly dawned on me. The reason it matters is because if we can’t respect even the smallest of life, how can we ever respect each other? And, more importantly, if we can learn to respect and hold sanctified all forms of life, even the tiny spider on the sidewalk, then how much more can we learn to respect and hold sanctified human life?

If all human beings learned to respect even the smallest of life forms, could things like playground bullying, barroom brawls, violent crime, wars, and genocide ever happen?

I understand now why the Buddhists teach nonviolence not just to other humans, but to all forms of life, plants, and minerals. We must learn to cultivate nonviolence toward all living things, and water the seeds of love, compassion, and understanding within ourselves, if we ever hope to end things like violent crime and war.

Is this a Utopian dream? Maybe so. But as a lifelong Christian, who is now studying and practicing Buddhist philosophy and incorporating it into my Christian practice, I recognize that in the Western world, we have used our Christian understanding of reality to justify not working toward Utopian ideas. This is a fallen world, we say. We can only lean on God and hope for a better life in heaven, we say. And we use these concepts to justify continuing patterns of violence, hatred, and prejudice. Before we put a criminal to death, we send in a priest to pray for his immortal soul. This makes us feel better, because we may be ending his life on earth, but we’re arranging for his eternal life. What we’re really doing, however, is justifying violence and murder. We do the same thing when we send soldiers off to war to die bloody, violent deaths. “Well, at least, if he was a Christian, he will be rewarded in paradise.” This helps us justify the slaughter of thousands of young people. All of our ideas about the depravity of the world are mitigated – and, thereby, ignored – by looking toward a perfect, Utopian afterlife. It relieves us of any responsibility to work toward peace, love, compassion, and nonviolence. It convinces us that those things are unattainable in this life, and that we must wait until after death for such Utopian dreams.

I believe Jesus called us to have life now and to have it more abundantly. I believe Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as a present reality, not a future, post-life hope. Jesus, therefore, called us to the same path of consuming love, compassion, and mindfulness that the Buddha called us to. The language and imagery is different, but the basic gist of the teaching is the same. Love wastefully. Live life fully in each and every moment. Respect life in all its myriad forms. Be everything that you can be. Buddhists call it watering the seeds of love, compassion, and nonviolence. Christians call it having life and having it more abundantly.

Looking toward a Utopian afterlife is not an excuse to ignore efforts for Utopia now. It is our responsibility to work toward heaven on earth, the kingdom of God, Nirvana, or half a dozen other terms that stand for consuming love, compassion, and nonviolence.

So I am not going to step on bugs anymore. I am going to respect all forms of life, even the lowliest forms of life, because if I can learn to do that, how much more can I respect fellow human beings?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

We Hold On

Track 13: We Hold On

How many times
Do we tire of all the little battles
Threaten to call it quits
Tempted to cut and run

How many times
Do we weather out the stormy evenings
Long to slam the front door
Drive away into the setting sun

Keep going until dawn
How many times must another line be drawn
We could be down and gone
But we hold on

How many times
Do we chafe against the repetition
Straining against a fate
Measured out in coffee breaks

How many times
Do we swallow our ambition
Long to give up the same old way
Find another road to take

Keep holding on so long
There’s every chance that we might not be so wrong
We could be down and gone
But we hold on

How many times
Do we wonder if it’s really worth it
There’s got to be some other way
To get me through the night

Continuing their long tradition of finishing out their albums with really strong tracks, Rush has come up with another gem in We Hold On to close out Snakes & Arrows. This is one of the best songs on the album, in my opinion. There was some dismay early on about this song, because there is a slight production error in it. Just prior to the beginning of the second verse, there is a editing error, and it results in the verse and base drum seeming to come in a fraction of a second too early. I hadn’t noticed it on my own – it was only after hearing the discussion on Counterparts that I first noticed it. Production error or not, this is a fantastic song.

The lyrics of this song are really meaningful to me. Having been stuck in a series of desk jobs that I have hated since graduating from college ten years ago (Jaysus, has it been that long?!), I definitely identify with the image of chafing against the repetition and “straining against a fate measured out in coffee breaks.” In his essay that accompanied the release of the album, Neil says the “coffee breaks” phrase came from the works of T.S. Eliot.

More than anything, it’s that third stanza that really hits home for me as being highly relevant. “How many times do we swallow our ambition, long to give up the same old way, find another road to take.” Throughout my 20’s, as I worked a day job I didn’t like, I spent my evenings writing. I finished five novels between the ages of 22 and 28, and had two short stories published. Throughout that time, I always said that if I got to 30 and still wasn’t successful enough to write for a living, then I would go back to graduate school. I put it off until 30 because I wanted to pursue writing. I didn’t want to do anything else, I wanted to write. Well, of course, I’m now 32 and still don’t have a book published, but I still feel the same way. I still want to write. But I’ve had to swallow my ambition in order to give up the same old way of office work, and find another road to take. That’s why I’m now completing a degree in radiography. But my ambition is still there – it hasn’t gone anywhere, faded, or died. I still want to be a writer when I grow up, and I still intend to pursue writing as a full time job. With a degree in radiography, however, I will at least have something to fall back on that won’t drain me and leave me feeling like a burned out shell – which is what office and desk work makes me feel like. If I am to spend my life sitting behind a desk, I want it to be writing my own books, not doing some corporate or legal bigwig’s tedious bullshit.

In his essay, Neil says, “If many of the other lyrics illuminate the struggles we all have to face, in love and in life, this one shows how we deal with it: We hold on.” In that sense, this song makes for a perfect, neatly-tied ending to this superlative album. It binds it all together, and gives sage advice for how to deal with the snakes and arrows that we all inherit from life.

For me, it gives relevant guidance to completing my radiography degree and then continuing to pursue my dream of writing for a living: “We could be down and gone, but we hold on.”

Monday, August 06, 2007

Malignant Narcissism

Track 12: Malignant Narcissism


The third and final instrumental on the album, this is probably the best one, short and sweet, with a nice groove focused on bass and drums. From the first couple of times I heard it, I felt that it was a perfect “launch” song for Neil’s traditional concert drum solo, and indeed, it is the song Rush is using on tour this year to segue into the seven- or eight-minute solo.

According to Neil, the song was conceived in the studio one day when Geddy was fooling around on a fretless bass. Not being a bass guitarist, I’m not sure exactly what makes a fretless bass more special than a standard bass, but I assume it gives it a richer sound, more in line with an upright double bass (which, like all classical string instruments, is also fretless). Anyway, Geddy was grooving along, just making it up as he went, and somebody heard it and thought it sounded fantastic, and so Malignant Narcissism was born. It’s aptly titled, as the song is an exercise in self-indulgence, displaying particularly Geddy’s virtuosity on bass and Neil’s prolific percussion ability. Rush is one of the few bands I know of who can write a rock song for guitar, bass, and drums, and have the guitar be the background, accompanying instrument. Despite that, the guitar in this song is just perfect, backing up the more prominent bass and drums exquisitely.

Now, for a bit of philosophizing, a few definitions:

Ma-lig-nant – adj. 1: evil in nature, influence or effect: injurious. 2: tending to produce death or deterioration, esp: tending to infiltrate, metastasize, and terminate fatally.

Nar-cis-sism – n. 1. egoism or egocentrism. 2: love of or sexual desire for one’s own body.

By the very definition of the words, the phrase “malignant narcissism” is redundant. Egoism, by its very nature, grows, infiltrates, and metastasizes, resulting in the fatal termination of goodness, compassion, and human usefulness.

When we think of a malignancy, we think of cancer, and when we think of a narcissist, we think of someone who believes themselves to be unsurpassingly beautiful, intelligent, and self-reliant, and who looks on others as being unworthy, incapable, and weak. Psychologists define Narcissism as a largely irreversible mental problem. That may or may not be true, but I think we’ve probably all known people in our lives who had narcissistic tendencies. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we all have these tendencies, and, if not controlled, they can eat us away like cancer.

Buddhist meditative practices are geared toward nurturing compassion within ourselves – compassion not only for ourselves, but for others. I find meditation to be a very practical and effective tool for learning to have compassion. And compassion, of course, is what combats narcissistic and self-centered tendencies. I can’t recommend enough the practice of meditation to nurture compassion. It is very enlightening.

Without the practice of compassion, we are left to care only for ourselves, and if a few more people would lose some of their malignant narcissistic tendencies, and nurture compassion instead, imagine how much better our world could be. Rene Descartes said “Cogito, ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am.” I’ll take that phrase one step further: I am what I think. In the words of that renowned Buddhist philosopher MCA (a.k.a. Adam Yauch) of the Beastie Boys:

“Like a bird floating down on a New York breeze, every thought in the mind is a planted seed. So watch the mind, or the thoughts will stack. Before you know it, they’re boomeranging on back.”*

How we believe affects how we think, and how we think affects how we behave, and it’s how we behave that matters.

I’ll say that again, because it bears repeating: How we believe affects how we think, and how we think affects how we behave, and it’s how we behave that matters.

*MCA’s cerebral and intellectual partner, Adrock, follows up this wonderful Buddhist-inspired stanza with the thought-provoking phrase, “I’m the king of Boggle, there is none higher, I gets 11 points off the word quagmire.” So sublime.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Good News First

Track 11: Good News First

The best we can agree on is it could have been worse
What happened to your old benevolent universe
You know the one with stars that revolve around you
Beaming down full of promises that bring good news

You used to feel that way
The saddest words you could ever say
But I know you’ll remember that day
And the most beautiful words I could ever say

The worst thing about it all is that you might have been right
And I’m still not really sure what started that fight
But I still get this feeling there’s more trouble ahead
So never mind the dark news let’s have the good news instead

Some would say they never fear a thing
Well I do
And I’m afraid enough for both of us
For me and you

Time if nothing else will do its worst
So do me a favor and tell me the good news first

This song is sort of like the counterpart to the previous song, Bravest Face. Where Bravest Face seems to be suggesting that we need to stand up and face the terrors and fears of life on earth with courage, Good News First seems to be suggesting a different course – to focus on the positive things, the good things in the here and now, and let the bad things be. The former seems to suggest action in the face of negativity, while the later seems more pessimistic about the nature of negativity – the bad is here to stay, so focus on the good instead.

Both songs give good advice, in their own way, I believe. As companion songs, they also poignantly display the changing emotions and feelings that we all have on a day to day basis. Some days we are ready to stand up to the bad things with our bravest face, other days we would prefer to ignore the bad and focus on the positive instead.

As for the lyrics themselves, there have been a number of discussions and debates about exactly just what Neil is talking about. He seems to be intentionally enigmatic. What are “the most beautiful words I could ever say,” for instance? What is the “fight” Neil references? In the essay he wrote to accompany the release of the album, Neil states, “Other lyrical themes include a twist on the time-honored ‘relationship songs,’ framed along the lines of Robert Frost’s epitaph, ‘I Had a Lover’s Quarrel with the World.’ In ... ‘Good News First’ ... the lyrics are deliberately presented in the context of a ‘lover’s quarrel.’ The addressee, though, is not a significant other, but a significant portion of the whole, wide world ...” This clears up some of the enigmatic nature of the lyrics, but not completely.

The opening stanza seems pretty straightforward. He seems to be addressing someone who has argued in the past from the perspective of the traditional believer – that the universe, as God’s creation, is benevolent, as opposed to cold and empty, and that all of it is made for us (i.e., “the stars that revolve around you”). And Neil is saying “So what happened to this so-called kind, human-centered universe, in light of all the ‘bad news’ that we’re constantly inundated with?”

The interesting line in this song is the first line of the second stanza: “The worst thing about it all is that you might have been right.” If that’s a reference to the first stanza (and it’s not entirely clear that it is – again, the lyrics are enigmatic), then Neil seems to be suggesting that maybe that traditionalist view is right. But if so, then God seems to get pleasure out of making us suffer. So, Neil says, “never mind the dark news, let’s have the good news instead.”

In general, I think this song encourages us to accept the harsh realities of the world as it is, but attempt to focus on what is good and beautiful and encouraging. And there is certainly plenty of that, too, if you know where and how to look.

“I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world”

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Bravest Face

Track 10: Bravest Face

Though we might have precious little
It’s still precious

I like that song about this wonderful world
It’s got a sunny point of view
And sometimes I feel it’s true
At least for a few of us

I like that world it makes a wonderful song
But there’s a darker point of view
But it’s sadly just as true
For so many among us

In the sweetest child there’s a vicious streak
In the strongest man there’s a child so weak
In the whole wide world there’s no magic place
So you might as well rise
Put on your bravest face

I like that show where they solve all the murders
An heroic point of view
It’s got justice and vengeance too
At least so the story goes

I like that story, makes a satisfying case
But there’s a messy point of view
That’s sadly just as true
For so many among us

In the softest voice there’s an acid tongue
In the oldest eyes there’s a soul so young
In the shakiest will there’s a core of steel
On the smoothest ride there’s a squeaky wheel
In the whole wide world there’s no magic place
So you might as well rise
Put on your bravest face

Though we might have precious little
It’s still precious

Late on the album, this song isn’t as strong as most of the others, but it’s still got some fantastic moments and has a nice little jazzy bridge in the middle that sounds unlike anything else Rush has ever done. I rank it an 8 out of 10 (as I’ve said before, no song on this album ranks lower than 8/10, in my opinion).

The phrase “Though we might have precious little, it’s still precious,” repeated at the beginning and end of the song, is really poignant, I believe. It’s a lesson we’re reminded of each day by the news media. Things in life are so fleeting and we tend to cling tight to the precious few things we can truly call our own. Unfortunately, it’s that emotional clinging that so frequently causes us such suffering. This is the basis for the Buddhist practice of seeing the inherent emptiness of material and emotional possessions. That’s not to say that Buddhism teaches indifference, coldness, or detachment from reality; rather, Buddhism teaches that by embracing the present moment, seeing through the ups and downs of our emotional state, we can learn to experience life more deeply, and (to quote a line from Dead Poets Society) to “suck the marrow out of life.” Buddhism teaches to let go of material and emotional desire and attachments, to be mindful of the rise and fall of your feelings, and to cultivate the seeds of compassion within yourself. Here in the West, where we’re taught from infancy that “happiness” comes from success, money, and material possessions, this is a very hard philosophy to put into practice.

The first verse of the song references the Louis Armstrong crossover jazz hit, What a Wonderful World, which was first released in the late 1960’s as a sort of response to all the tragic and awful things going on in the world during that decade. I think it’s a very relevant and apt reference, considering the first decade of the 21st century is turning out to be not unlike the 1960’s in terms of tragedies, cultural tensions, and a general feeling of pessimism about the future. It also makes one wonder if the jazzy sound of Bravest Face isn’t a nod to the jazz roots of What a Wonderful World. That song has always been one of my favorite “oldies,” not only because it’s a beautiful song, but because one can’t help but hear the ironic overtones in the lyrics, particularly when set against the backdrop of the 1960’s. The movie Good Morning Vietnam (completely unintentional, but that’s the second Robin Williams movie reference I’ve made in this post) has a montage scene where Robin Williams is observing all the pain, death, and destruction going on in the country around him, and all the while What a Wonderful World is playing with delicious and disturbing irony in the background. One almost wonders if that montage wasn’t part of Neil’s inspiration when writing the first verse of “Bravest Face,” which references the song and then speaks of a “darker point of view.”

Overall, the meaning of this song seems pretty clear – the world isn’t always so wonderful and justice doesn’t always happen, but you have to put on your bravest face anyway. I think that’s good advice.