Saturday, February 27, 2010

Billy's Story

I think this is the funniest one yet. I know I laughed my way through writing it in a way that I hadn't done with the previous attempts. I really should stop writing these because I am heading towards certain "You should have quite while you were ahead" land.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, I've started writing occasional historical accounts using a clownish narrative voice that I've adopted from Kurt Vonnegut. When I did it the first time, with Eddy's Story, it was totally spur of the moment. I enjoyed it so much, however, that I wanted to do it again. So I did. That second attempt resulted in Danny's Story.

I wasn't as happy with the result of Danny's Story as I had been with Eddy's Story, so I kind of figured I would stop there. But then my sister said she thought it was good, and encouraged me to keep doing it.

So I have.

I sat down to write this one as a serious historical account. But as I studied the story more and more, and realized just how much information is out there on it, I felt discouraged and overwhelmed. I felt like I had two choices: write a short account that would come off sounding like a dry Wikipedia article, or get really into it and produce a Sprawling Epic that no one on earth would ever read. Neither option sounded very appealing, and I also didn't feel like either option would really add anything to the wealth of information already out there. Not that this is necessarily a motivation for everything I write, but still.

So I more or less gave up and forgot about it for a few days.

Then tonight I came back to it and it suddenly dawned on me that I could perhaps put a twist on all the available information by writing in my Vonnegut-inspired narrative voice again. Make it funny and cynical and outrageous.

So I did. I think it turned out really good. Hope you enjoy.

Oh, and one other thing. For any artists or art-lovers out there, please realize that my incredibly condescending tone of voice toward the World of Art in general is done purely for narrative effect. I doesn't necessarily represent how I personally feel about art.


Look: Billy was an ugly little cuss who shocked his parents by being born with a Van Dyke beard and two little red eyes the color of Satan’s balls.

You see, Satan has red balls. But they’re little. At least that’s what Pat Robertson says. And he’d know, because he ate Satan’s balls about 45 years ago, which is why he’s had diarrhea of the mouth ever since.

Pat Robertson, praying to Satan

Anyway, Billy was born in 1853 in a country called Holland, but the Germans always liked to call it the Netherlands. Germans are the people who live in Germany, which is a country made famous because all of its inhabitants love Internet porn. The Germans always called Holland the Netherlands because back before the days of the Internet, Holland was the place they all visited to engage in their favorite pastimes, like sadomasochism, water sports, fatty sex, and something known as the Dirty Sanchez. They learned that one from the Spaniards, but this isn’t a story about Spain’s homosexual underground.

In reality, Billy wasn’t the Spawn of Satan. Pat Robertson is. And honestly, Billy’s eyes were probably blue.

But I can tell you one thing: Billy was crazier than a shit-house rat.

A snapshot of young Billy. He's not wearing pants in this photo.

His father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, which really explains everything. In fact, there were a lot of ministers in Billy’s family. Everyone who wasn’t a minister in his family was really big on art. Art is an industry where depressed gay people draw pictures for a living, and then pretentious assholes sell these drawings to other pretentious assholes.

Billy thought that was a bunch of shit. Instead, he decided to enter the ministry.

He spent a couple of years studying for his entrance exams into divinity school, but he failed and wasn’t able to get accepted because God only likes people who can score well on standardized tests. Instead, Billy decided to become a missionary.

Turns out, God was right. Billy was a really crappy missionary. He believed in all sorts of batshit crazy ideas like giving up all his possessions and living together with the poor people he was trying to help. For obvious reasons, this made the Religious Authorities uneasy, the way you feel uneasy when your uncle shows you his balls. Religious Authorities are the white men who run religion and who sometimes act like your perverted uncle. You perverted uncle is me.

Your perverted uncle

The Religious Authorities were uncomfortable with Billy’s actions because poor people are sinners. Hence, that’s why they’re poor. There was no question about it: Billy was crazier than a shit house rat.

The Church had no choice: Billy got shitcanned from his missionary job for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.” I’m sure the Religious Authorities felt really bad about it. One or two of them tried to make it up to him by showing him their balls. Turns out, that didn’t help.

In any case, Billy was pretty depressed. His Mom and Dad were Really Worried and decided to do the only thing that can be done with depressed people: commit them to a lunatic asylum. But they changed their mind at the last minute because Billy started doing something else.

He started to draw.

His pictures were really terrible. They looked like a crazy shit-house rat had drawn them. Either that or an armless 7-year-old.

Okay, they weren’t really that bad, but they weren’t very good and Billy finally went to art school, which is a place where San Francisco Liberals teach you how to draw pictures.

Look: Like all artists, Billy got steadily more insane as the years went by. His art got better and people started buying it, but Billy of the Van Dyke beard kept adding to the bats in his belfry. He stopped eating. He lived on cigarettes and absinthe. Absinthe was a type of alcohol that was really popular with pretentious assholes in the 19th century. He moved around a lot. He met a lot of famous artists.

In 1888, Billy attacked his roommate with a razor blade. He did this because he was crazier than a shit-house rat. Turns out, Billy wasn’t any better at razor blade fighting than he was at ministering to poor people. His roommate escaped without injury, which is another way of saying he ran screaming down the hall. He didn’t come back.

Billy's roommate, trying to look like a suffering artist. It was probably this picture that drove Billy to try to cut the bastard.

Billy felt really bad. He decided the best way to make things right was to cut off his earlobe and give it to a prostitute. So he did that.

They put Billy in an insane asylum. An insane asylum is a commune where people who are one fry short of a Happy Meal go to live together. It’s sort of like Washington D.C. that way.

A rare look inside an insane asylum

There are nurses there who feed you, bathe you, and clean up your poop. The reason they work there is because they couldn’t get jobs anywhere else and Wal-Mart wasn’t hiring. There are also doctors there who put you in straightjackets when they catch you putting your penis through a hole in the wall so that the man next door can give you fellatio. These are called Glory Holes, and they are considered perverted everywhere except Germany and in Pat Robertson’s church.

Billy got to leave after a few months, but he ended up in several more asylums over the next couple of years. All his family was Really Worried about him again. They spent a lot of time over the years Really Worried. He was still drawing a lot of pictures though, and art critics have been happy about that ever since. An art critic is a pretentious asshole and failed artist who has convinced himself that his life is not a waste.

Look: Billy and his brother Teddy were really close. Like, so close you’d almost think they were gay except that they were brothers and that’s just creepy, even for artsy people. The relationship of Billy and Teddy was made into a movie in the 1980’s called Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which describes the time Billy and Teddy rode in a time machine. Most of it wasn’t true though.

Billy was played by Alex Winter, and Teddy was played by Keanu Reeves. The only historically accurate thing about the movie is that the actors looked exactly like the real Billy and Teddy.

Anyway, since Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet yet (something German lovers of granny sex were really pissed off about), Billy and Teddy wrote a lot of letters to each other over the years. Teddy wasn’t batshit crazy and had a reasonable amount of money, so he was always supporting Billy’s lazy ass. He felt bad for Billy because Billy was crazier than a shit-house rat and because he thought Billy was a Great Artist. In his turn, Billy pretty much treated Teddy the way you treat a prostitute you’ve woken up to discover in your bed. You light a cigarette and kick the bitch out. That’s how Billy treated Teddy.

It was kind of like a soap opera, only set in the midst of the Post-Impressionist art movement of the late 19th century, and thus way gayer.

Look: Billy and Teddy had a major codependency. Codependency is a fancy word psychologists use to refer to relationships where two people act gay. A psychologist is a person who didn’t have any idea what he wanted to do when he got to college, so he just took psychology classes. Psychologists are famous for knowing why everyone is crazy.

Sigmund Freud says you have penis envy

Anyway, Billy and Teddy were codependent. That’s why Teddy died just a few months after Billy, and both of them were only in their 30’s. I used the word “only” there because I am in my 30’s, and I like feeling like I’m not old. People who are 20 think I’m old. Fuck them. They’re barely out of diapers for chrissakes.

Look: Billy was living near Paris in 1890. There was a doctor there who was famous with all the Post-Impressionist artists, all of whom needed a doctor. He was kind of like Dr. Drew that way. Billy was living there to be near this doctor to the stars. One day, Billy went out into a wheat field and shot himself in the chest. He really liked wheat fields, so it made sense to commit suicide there.

Funnily enough, he only mortally wounded himself and had to suffer for several days with his guts leaking out. His brother Teddy got word of Billy’s condition and came to his bedside. See, I told you they were codependent. Teddy held Billy’s hand as Billy “passed from the land of the living and made that terrifying journey through death’s dark threshold.” That’s a literary way of saying that Billy croaked.

Teddy croaked a few months later. He died of a broken heart. And syphilis.

After he died, Billy became the Most Famous Artist in the History of the World. One of his paintings sold at an auction in 1987 for 53 million dollars. An auction is a place where pretentious assholes spend a lot of money on inanimate objects so that they don’t have to give their money to poor people. Billy has paintings in big art museums around the world. Everyone knows his name.

Look: Have you ever heard of a lunatic named Vincent Willem van Gogh?

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Founding Father Wars

Let me open by saying I'm pretty darn proud of this one. Please enjoy.


Let’s be honest: a lot of Americans treat the Founding Fathers with the same level of mild divinity that they treat the characters of the Bible (Peter, Paul, Moses, Elijah, etc.).

In that same vein, a lot of folks also treat and quote the Constitution in the same way they treat and quote the Bible – as a kind of inspired, infallible text.

I like to call this “Founding Father Worship” and “The Doctrine of Constitutional Infallibility.” I hope you’ll forgive my cynicism.

In any case, this sort of treatment of the Founding Fathers and the constitutional document they gave us tends to get under my skin. The Constitution was designed as a fluid document, a document to serve as a roadmap rather than an infallible truth. The court system was given the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution, and a lot of the wording of the Constitution is intentionally vague and open to different possibilities for that very reason. The Constitution was also designed to be amended, illustrated by the fact that its own writers amended it ten times, giving us the Bill of Rights.


In recent years – thanks, in large part, to the Internet – a new phenomenon seems to be sweeping popular culture. I call it the Founding Father Wars. Everyone has their pet quote from a Founding Father that they use to support their own perspectives and opinions. You see them in profile signatures on Internet message boards. You see them on bumper stickers. You see them on various “quotation” websites. You see them in email signatures from friends and co-workers. You see them on social networking sites as status updates. Sometimes you even hear a politician, journalist, or media mouthpiece repeat one.

The problem, of course, is that like the Bible, one can find a Founding Father quote to support just about any perspective under the sun. Consider someone arguing against women’s rights:

John Adams: “As to your extraordinary code of laws [for women’s rights], I cannot but laugh. Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”

Thomas Jefferson: “The happiness of [a woman’s] life depends on continuing to please a single [male] person. To this all other objects must be secondary.”

Clearly, Founding Father quotes can be found to support just about any peculiar belief system you can come up with.

One such quote that seems to be making the rounds recently is one attributed to John Adams (he of the “masculine system”). It goes like this: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

As one can surmise from the content, this quote is frequently used by religious conservatives to support a blurring of the lines between the separation of Church and State. I found references to it on a number of websites, including the site of Coral Ridge Ministries, which was founded by Dr. James Kennedy, a prominent televangelist, and the website of Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh’s site included a transcript of Limbaugh providing an analysis of the quote on air in 2009. I also found it listed on a site dedicated to legislating prayer in schools. This site, called “Free To Pray” includes this gem on its main page: “A Nation [their own capitalization] that refuses to teach its children right from wrong, good from evil, will become a corrupt nation, where sin prevails, evil abounds, and children do as they please!” This site also includes a topic called “The Myth: Separation of Church and State.” I hope you’ll click on this link, because the picture at the top of the page is priceless.

In any case, this quotation is a good illustration of everything that is wrong with the phenomenon of the Founding Father Wars.

John Adams delivered this line during his presidency, in a short letter he sent to a military brigade in the Massachusetts militia in 1798. Here’s the paragraph that precedes the quote in question:
But should the people of America once become capable [of dignity] towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practicing iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world.
Written in dense 18th century prose, this passage might be tough to comprehend without reading it through a few times. Here’s what he’s saying: if we pretend to believe in justice and moderation, and we charm the world with images of sincerity, while in reality we are practicing “iniquity” and “extravagance,” then America will be a “miserable” place to live.

He goes on to say:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
In other words, we cannot be barbarians and expect to have any legitimate place in international society. Remember, he is writing these words to a military unit – he is not delivering them to the general public or the houses of Congress. The clear implication is that Adams is encouraging the military to behave honorably, and not to engage in activity that is dishonorable and hypocritical (“rioting in rapine and insolence”).

Notice that phrase immediately preceding the quote in question. “Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.” In other words, the “moral” and “religious” lifestyle Adams is supporting is a lifestyle that rejects avarice (greed) and ambition, revenge and gallantry. That last word – gallantry – seems odd at first glance, but I believe Adams was talking about soldiers engaging in risky behavior for the sake of being a hero. It may also have been a reference to the 18th (and early 19th) century love of the duel. If a man felt his honor (or the honor of his woman) had been offended, he would often challenge the offender to a duel. This sort of "gallantry" - which is really just vigilantism - may be what Adams was talking about.

In any case, it is worth noting that none of the sources I could find for Adams’ quote ever mentioned this preceding sentence. And that is including several sites that quoted the sentence before the one about greed and ambition. Consider the version analyzed by Rush Limbaugh: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and true religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He includes the entire final paragraph except for that phrase about greed, ambition, revenge, and gallantry.

What could be the possible reason for such a unanimous exclusion among those citing this quote to support a blurring of the separation of Church and State? (Picture me with a finger poised thoughtfully upon my lips.)

The answer is obvious: Neo-conservatism is built on these principles, particularly the first two – greed and ambition.

Adams asserted that our Constitution was made for moral and religious people. But he also made clear that religious morality, for him, was humility and justice, dignity and fairness, moderation and honesty. None of those ideals defines modern America very well, and particularly the powerful neo-conservative wing of the Republican party.

How could someone like Rush Limbaugh possibly quote a Founding Father speaking negatively against ambition and the pursuit of wealth?

He couldn’t, of course, which is why he conveniently omitted that part of the quote.


The Founding Father Wars are built on the idea of Founding Father Worship, which is one half of a two-sided coin with The Doctrine of Constitutional Infallibility on the other side.

As we have seen here, quotes by the Founding Fathers can be dug up to support just about any kind of peculiar viewpoint a person might adhere to. In most cases (if not in every case), they do very little to provide a genuine insight into what said Founding Father actually meant or actually believed on the topic in question. Instead, they function as stand-alone quips with an authoritative name attached to them, allowing them to be used almost willy-nilly in whatever way seems most appropriate for the person repeating the words.

In that sense, they are about as valuable as a fart directed upwind of a manure pile. They don’t add anything new to the conversation, but they certainly reinforce the stink.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

David and Goliath

Among numerous familiar stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps none is quite so well-known as that of David and Goliath (Noah and his ark might beg to differ, but you get the idea).

I haven’t given much thought to this story over the years. It’s kind of a grade school story, right? The kind of story they teach you songs about in Sunday School because it has a tendency to captivate people like 10-year-olds. Not a whole lot there for adults, it would seem.

I’m sure there are plenty of ministers who would disagree with that sentiment, and I have no doubt they are right. A few possible sermon titles come to mind: “Overcoming Obstacles;” “Facing Impossible Odds;” and “Believing in Yourself.”

What I want to talk about here is a bit more textually-based, addressing some of the interesting problems with the text itself.

One of the most recognizable facts of the story is that Goliath was exceptionally tall. His very name has fallen into the general lexicon to refer to something extremely large. The text of 1 Samuel calls his height “six cubits and a span.” A cubit was roughly 18 inches and a span was about 6 inches. Thus, “six cubits and a span” is exactly nine feet, six inches. Goliath was a true giant.

I’m not here to discuss, on faith, whether Goliath really was that tall. It certainly seems far-fetched. But interestingly enough, there is some evidence to suggest that the original story might not have made any such suggestion.

This requires a bit of background about the various textual traditions of the Old Testament. Stick with me here, because this will inform several other points later. I’ll try to make it as short and sweet and easy to digest as possible.

The Old Testament was originally written, quite obviously, in Hebrew, the languages of the ancient Jews. By late antiquity, however, there were a lot of Jews who still practiced the Jewish faith, but did not live in the Jewish homeland. They were spread throughout the Mediterranean basin. Because of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 300’s B.C.E., these Jews came to be Greek-speaking Jews.

Because of this, a new form of the Old Testament fell into common usage among Jews outside the Jewish homeland. Called the Septuagint, it was a Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures. This Greek Septuagint is the version known and used by the writers of the New Testament.

The Septuagint began to fall out of use by the 3rd and 4th centuries, C.E. By that time, Jews began returning to Hebrew versions of their scripture. This re-emergence of the Hebrew Old Testament culminated, over several hundred years, into a textual tradition that is known as the Masoretic Text. While the earliest copy of the Masoretic Text dates only to about the 10th century C.E., scholars know that it is fairly accurate to the Hebrew version of scripture used as far back as the 1st century. They know this thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to around the time of Jesus.

The problem, however, is that the Masoretic Text differs dramatically in many places from the Septuagint. Why are these two texts so different? The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the original Hebrew, and the Masoretic is purportedly a direct descendent of the original Hebrew. They should be very similar, but they’re not.

Scholars have theorized and debated about the possible reasons, with the general consensus being that the Septuagint was clearly translated from a different strain of textual tradition than that used by the compilers of the Masoretic Text. This indicates that instead of just one “version” of Hebrew scripture coming down through the centuries, many different versions abounded, thanks to scribal additions, omissions, and errors, which includes not just slips of the pen, but also conflating multiple accounts into one story, rewording stories, writing a story differently based on oral transmission, and so on and so forth.

In this extremely oversimplified chart (yes, I did it myself), the black dot on the left represents the original text.  The lines represent textual traditions diverging from the original over time.  As the decades and centuries of scribal hand-copying go by, the lines grow farther apart, meaning the texts diverge more and more from each other and from the original.  

So if we accept that two different textual traditions of the same Jewish scriptures produced the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text, which one do we take as authoritative? Some might say the Masoretic is primary because it purports to maintain the original tradition in Hebrew. Many Christians, on the other hand, might say the Septuagint deserves primacy because that is the tradition considered authoritative by the writers of the New Testament.

Regardless of one’s own personal opinion, modern English translations rely almost exclusively on the Masoretic Text. The Septuagint’s version of events is relegated, at best, to an occasional footnote.

So how does this relate to the story of David and Goliath? Well, primarily, where the Masoretic Text tells us Goliath was “six cubits and a span” in height (9 feet, 6 inches), the Septuagint says that Goliath was only “four cubits and a span” – 6 feet, 6 inches.

Which one is correct? Was Goliath the tallest person known in human history, or only about the size of an NBA guard? And more importantly, which version accurately reflects what the original story told?

The answer to those questions, of course, is that no one knows. I would be inclined to say the Septuagint is probably more accurate to the original and here’s why: to assert that the Masoretic is the correct version is to say that the tradition that produced the Septuagint shrunk Goliath by three feet. It seems more likely that as his legend built, Goliath would increase in height by three feet, rather than decrease in height by three feet. But that, of course, is just my opinion based on how stories, myths, and legends evolve. In the end, no one can say for sure. It is noteworthy to point out, however, that later versions of the Septuagint change the wording to “six cubits and a span.” This, again, seems to suggest that the larger number is a later tradition not an earlier tradition.

There are other reasons, however, to believe that the Septuagint more accurately retains the original elements of the story. The story of David and Goliath comes to us in 1 Samuel 17. In the story, the shepherd-boy David hears Goliath taunting the Israelites and decides that he can defeat him. When King Saul hears of this, he calls David to him and David convinces the king to let him go fight Goliath. After David kills Goliath, Saul starts checking into his past and asks his advisors who David’s father is (in its Jewish context, this is essentially a way of saying that Saul was trying to find out who David was). After learning who David is, Saul invites him to serve in his royal court.

The problem here is that if you read the previous chapter – 1 Samuel 16 – David and Saul had already met, with David being introduced to Saul as the son of Jesse. David plays the harp for Saul and soothes him during a time of distress. Saul is so pleased that he makes David part of his own retinue – an armor-bearer who doubles as Saul’s personal harpist. There’s no question that Saul already knew who David was, so his actions at the end of chapter 17, after David kills Goliath, are puzzling.

When we turn to the Septuagint, the problem goes away. In the Septuagint’s David and Goliath story, there is nothing about Saul asking for David’s background, finding out who he is, then inviting him to serve in his court. Instead, David simply comes to Saul (as his already-established armor-bearer and harpist), asks to fight Goliath, and Saul agrees. End of story.

Consider another small oddity from the story, 1 Samuel 17:50-51:
(50) So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. (51) Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.
David kills Goliath twice. He “kills” Goliath with the stone, then he “kills” him with a sword before finishing it up by lopping off his head.

Again, this is a problem in the Masoretic Text but not in the Septuagint. The Septuagint does not include verse 50 – the verse saying that David killed Goliath with the stone. In the Septuagint, David knocks Goliath into next week with the stone, but Goliath is presumably still alive. Then David runs up to him, grabs Goliath’s own sword, and kills him with it before lopping off his head. Not only does the Septuagint’s version make more sense, but it also is more dramatic and less barbaric. David doesn’t just stand back and fire a fatal missile from afar, then mutilate the corpse in a barbaric frenzy. In the Septuagint, the stone only disables the Philistine; David must then run up to this still living warrior, take the warrior’s own sword, and kill him with it.

It certainly seems to me that the Septuagint, at least in regards to the story of David and Goliath, is more reliable than the Masoretic Text. In any case, it has a much clearer and unified story line. Scholars have suggested that the apparent corruption in the Masoretic version of this story comes from different transmissions of the story being fused together. Thus, in what we might call Version 1, David was already known to be Saul’s harpist, thus there is no story about Saul seeking David’s identity after defeating Goliath. In Version 2, there was no story of David being Saul’s harpist, so after the fight with Goliath, Saul seeks out David’s identity and invites him to serve in his retinue. The Septuagint gives us Version 1. The Masoretic Text (as found in the Old Testament) gives us a conflation of Versions 1 and 2.

There is one other interesting aspect to this story. Many readers may not realize that Goliath actually turns up again in two other Old Testament books.

The first is in 2 Samuel, which continues the story of David. In chapter 21, there is a list of exploits achieved by David’s army (David has by now replaced Saul as Israel’s king). Verse 19 tell us: “Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”

Odd, no? Consider what the story of David and Goliath tells us: “And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath [i.e., a Gittite]…The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam…”

In one story, David – of Bethlehem – kills Goliath of Gath, whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. In another story, one of David’s warriors, also from Bethlehem, kills Goliath of Gath, whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.

What the heck is going on?

Then consider 1 Chronicles 20:5, which is a later version of David’s story: “Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”

So did Elhanan kill Goliath or Goliath’s brother Lahmi? Is this the same Goliath David killed?

I don’t have a whole lot of insights to provide here (the issue between Septuagint and Masoretic Text doesn’t help on this one as far as I know). The one thing I can give is something I read in a commentary on this issue. Baruch Halpern, an archaeologist and the chair of Jewish Studies at Penn State, has argued that in the story of David and Goliath, the Philistine originally had no name. He wasn’t Goliath, he was just “the Philistine.” Later, this anonymous Philistine came to be called Goliath, based on the similarity with story of Elhanan. Finally, the writer of 1 Chronicles, writing much later and drawing on these stories that were already well-established, changed Elhanan’s victim to be the brother of Goliath, thus reconciling the problem. This brother’s name – Lahmi – was created simply by using the last few letters of the Hebrew word “Bethlehemite” (“beit-ha’lahmi”), which is found in the earlier Elhanan story from 2 Samuel.

In the end, my dear reader, you may not find all this stuff nearly as fascinating as I do. But I hope, at the very least, it makes you think about things, namely the textual tradition Jewish and Christian scripture comes from. I don’t know about you, but I know I’ll never think of David and Goliath in quite the same way again.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Christian Forgiveness

Recently, in an online discussion about Christian forgiveness as it relates to the Tiger Woods situation, one of my good friends, who is a pastor, made the following statement:
In my experience there is no such thing as forgive and forget – that lets people off the hook. And forgiveness is not condoning either. Forgiveness is being able to let go and move on.
I think this perspective on Christian forgiveness is a pretty common one. I also think it’s probably common in general among people whether they are Christians or not.

I agree that forgiveness does not (and should not) equate to condoning a behavior. Obviously if someone wrongs me, and I forgive them, that doesn’t mean I approve of whatever wrong they committed. Similarly, if I wrong someone, and they forgive me, I wouldn’t read that forgiveness as a suggestion that my behavior was okay after all.

The point, of course, is that receiving forgiveness is not a license for continuing hurtful behavior.

On the remaining points, I would like to write in a sort of “dialogue” with my friend about forgiveness because my perspective is somewhat different.

First, my friend notes that the idea of forgive and forget “lets people off the hook.” My view diverges here. I guess you could say that I am “big believer” in “forgive and forget.” I have always had a forgiving spirit. I don’t know if that is because of the Christian background I was raised in, or if it is simply part of my personal nature. I suspect it’s probably a little of both, but probably more nature than anything else. I simply don’t tend to hold grudges. When someone wrongs me, it is not difficult for me to forgive them if they sincerely ask for forgiveness. I’m not a robot, of course. I have certainly had experiences in my life that I had trouble letting go of – experiences where I had trouble forgiving the person who I felt had wronged me. But in many (if not most) of those cases, the person in question never actually showed any remorse or gave any kind of sincere apology.

Be that as it may, those incidents are few and far between. Throughout most of my life experiences, I have not struggled with forgiveness. To put it in the words of the apostle Paul, forgiveness is perhaps one of my “spiritual gifts.”

I recognize, however, that forgiveness does not come so easily for many Christians. This doesn’t mean they are bad people. It just means that forgiveness is not one of their spiritual gifts; it is something they frequently struggle with. They’re only human, after all. But whether one struggles or does not struggle with forgiveness, I can’t identify with the argument that forgiveness, at its core, is not about “forgive and forget.” In my opinion, that is exactly what forgiveness is about.

In the New Testament, the word used for “forgive” is aphiemi. This Greek word has many possible usages, but in general it means to “leave,” “send away,” “disregard,” or “let go.” The most frequent Biblical usage is “leave,” but it is also the word the writers of the New Testament used for “forgive.”

In the same way that our word “forgiveness” is a form of the word “forgive,” so too in the Greek. Aphesis means quite literally to release someone from captivity (such as a prisoner). It is translated as “forgiveness” in most English language Bibles.

Thus, in the Biblical sense, forgiving someone means letting go or disregarding the wrong they have done you. It means releasing them from the debt they owe you. The idea of sin being like a debt is one that is deeply entrenched in the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament. For the ancient Hebrews, sin was equated with breaking God’s commandments handed down in the Torah – the law of Moses. When one of these laws was broken, obtaining forgiveness for the sin was not just a simple matter of asking God to forgive you. Your sin was like a debt you owed to God, and that debt could not just be “released” or forgiven. In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul makes this Jewish sentiment quite explicit: “The wages of sin is death.”

For the ancient Hebrews, the way to erase this debt was to offer blood sacrifices. The slaughtered animal atoned for the debt you owed God. God accepted the sacrificed animal in your place. The sin wasn’t actually forgiven – “forgive,” remember, means to “let go” or “release.” Atonement, on the other hand, refers to accepting one thing in payment for something else. If I run my car into your living room, you can forgive me – release me from the debt – and I will go my merry way. Or, I can atone for the “sin” and pay to have your living room fixed. For the ancient Jews, there was no forgiveness for breaking the law of Moses. Only atonement. For those of us living in the modern world, this may seem like insufferable hair-splitting, but for the ancient Jews, it was most definitely not.

Consider the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel. David commits adultery with Bathsheba, a married woman. She gets pregnant. David tries to cover it up by calling her husband – Uriah – back from his military campaign so that he will sleep with his wife and never know that her child was not actually his own. When this ruse fails to work, David arranges for Uriah’s death by ordering him to the front lines of the battle. When that deed is accomplished, David takes Bathsheba as his wife. Thus, David has broken three of the Big Ones from the Ten Commandments – he has committed adultery, lied about it, then orchestrated the death of his lover’s husband. The story ends with one of the more humorous moments of understatement in the Bible: “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” You can say that again.

After David has committed these sins, God sends the prophet Nathan to condemn him. David admits to his sins. God accepts this repentance, but does not simply offer forgiveness. Instead, David’s “atonement” for the sin is that the child carried by Bathsheba will die. The sins are not forgiven; they are made up for – atoned for – by the blood of David’s child. In modern language, we might call this a “punishment,” but punishment is, in fact, “atonement” for a wrongdoing. You do something wrong, you have to pay the price. If the price is paid (in the case of David, the price was the blood of his son), then forgiveness becomes a moot point, because the wrong has already been made right through atonement.

In the Jewish scriptures, atonement and forgiveness are most definitely two different things.

The New Testament brought a new perspective to this old Jewish idea. Since Jesus’ death, in the Christian view, had functioned as the ultimate blood sacrifice – the ultimate atonement for sin – Christians were no longer in “debt” to God because of their sin. Instead, forgiveness was theirs for the asking. No longer did God require a burnt offering or a blood sacrifice. The sin had been atoned for by Jesus, so Christians had only to believe in his death and resurrection and accept the gift of salvation.

But how does all this relate to the question of “forgive and forget”? Going with the Biblical model, it is clear that “forgiveness” means just that – to forgive and forget. If my bank forgives my debt, that means I don’t have to pay it anymore. It has been “forgiven and forgotten.” “Forgive and forget,” in that sense, is a redundancy. To forgive means to forget. To release. To let go. If I forgive someone in the Biblical sense, I have let it go. I have freed my “debtor” from their debt. I have made it as if it never existed. Atonement, on the other hand, does not imply forgetting. Atonement, in fact, implies that the debt is not forgiven and must be repaid in some form or fashion. Thus, if I forgive someone, I am not requiring atonement for the debt, and therefore I have forgotten it – I have made it so that it doesn’t exist.

This is why I disagree that “forgiveness” is not about “forgive and forget.” In the Biblical model – the model Christians follow – forgiveness is forgetting. It is making it as if the sin never happened. Of course we are not robots. The event may remain in your memory. But if you have truly forgiven someone, the event remains just that – a memory. If the event continues to hold a special place in your heart – if you hold a grudge, as it were – then you have not actually engaged in forgiveness.

For that reason, I believe Christian forgiveness involves completely releasing someone. In his comment, my friend said that forgiveness is about “being able to let go and move on.” I agree with that to some extent, but I disagree with the general implication that forgiveness is primarily about the person doing the forgiving. Forgiveness, in the Biblical model, is about the person receiving forgiveness, not the person giving it. Yes, it’s about letting go. But it’s primarily about letting go for the sake of the person being released. When you truly forgive someone, it is a selfless act of love done for the sake of the person being forgiven, not necessarily a self-centered act of moving on with life so you don’t have to fret over it anymore. That’s part of it too, but that should be the result of releasing the other person, not the motivation for releasing the other person.

In the Lord’s Prayer, which is given to us in Matthew and Luke – meaning it comes from the now lost document scholars call the Q source – Jesus tells us to ask God to “forgive our debts” in the same way that we have forgiven our debtors. We are told to release others just as God releases us. In Luke’s version, in fact, we are told to ask forgiveness (release) from God for our sins because we also forgive (release) those indebted to us. In other words, in Luke’s version, forgiveness for sin comes from God if and only when we also release others from their sins against us.

If we aren’t forgiving (which means releasing and thus “forgetting”) other people’s sins against us, how can we expect God to do the same for us for our sins against him?

This may sound nice, some readers may think, but what about situations in which a person continually wrongs us? I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people, Christian or otherwise, would agree that forgiveness only goes so far. If someone engages in hurtful behavior, apologizes, receives forgiveness, then continues to do the same thing over and over, surely there comes a time when forgiveness is no longer an option?

As hard as it is to swallow, Jesus seems to suggest otherwise in Luke chapter 17. There, he says: “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.”

This material also comes from Q, and Matthew gives a slightly different version of it, one that is even more radical than Luke’s (and seems, in fact, to contradict Luke’s version):
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Jesus’ vision of forgiveness is far more radical than what most people practice (especially in the Gospel of Matthew!). His entire message, of course, was far more radical than what most people practice. This is what makes his message so appealing but also so difficult to follow. This is also why Jesus constantly talked about the dichotomy between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of “this world.” “This world” says that forgiveness only goes so far. Jesus says that forgiveness never goes far enough.

I believe that fostering a forgiving spirit is vital to the Christian lifestyle. It is one of the very core philosophies of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels. For those who like numbers, Jesus uses some form of the word “forgive” no fewer than 36 times in the four Gospels of the New Testament. By way of comparison, he uses the word “hell” about 12 times (and he never uses it in the Gospel of John).

In the Biblical model, forgiveness is about releasing someone from their debts, which is the same as making it so that the debt no longer exists. Forgiving and forgetting are one and the same.

Also in the Biblical model, forgiveness is a selfless act of love which results in an ability for the forgiver to not only receive divine forgiveness themselves, but also to move on with a life of purity.

Despite that “give and take” nature of forgiveness, it is foremost and primarily an act done for the sake of others, just as God forgives us for our sakes and not for his own.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Danny's Story

Note: Let me apologize right from the start. My regular readers will no doubt see the title of this blog and be reminded of one I did recently with a similar title: Eddy's Story. For those who read that account, you'll know that I told that story - the story of Prince Albert Edward - with a narrative voice in the style of Kurt Vonnegut. I did that for two reasons. The first is because I had just finished reading a Vonnegut book and wanted to test my literary chops by mimicking him. The second is because Eddy's story just screamed to be told with Vonnegut's unique narrative style.

I think I did a fairly good job with it. Those familiar with Vonnegut's work seemed to think I did well.

Because of that, I had wanted to try it again. I finally decided I had my chance when I came across the story of Daniel Sickles. Like Prince Albert Edward, this story just screamed to be told with Vonnegut's style, because it was so outrageous and sensational and tabloid-like.

I think I probably should have quit while I was ahead. If I pulled a 7.5 out of 10 on my first attempt at Vonnegut's voice, I think this one is probably solid 4.  It doesn't have the same flair, I don't think, as Eddy's story.

But in any case, I post it here for your enjoyment, because whether I did a good job with the narrative voice or not, the story is still an interesting one.


Born in the famous year of 1819, the Year Nothing Happened, Daniel Sickles went on to live a life way more interesting than yours or mine. He was a pedophile and a politician, a murderer and Congressional Medal of Honor winner, an ambassador and a ladies’ man who once had sex with the Queen of Spain.

Look: he first became a lawyer, like Dear Old Dad. He studied at New York University and apprenticed himself to Benjamin Butler, who was a big time lawyer and had served as Attorney General under President Andrew Jackson – the president who had famously fought the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

After passing the bar, Danny became a politician, because that’s what lawyers do, and his first seat was in the New York state assembly.

In 1852, when he was 33, he married a 15-year-old. New York pedophiles have been really jealous of him ever since.

After he knocked up his teenage wife by having sexual intercourse with her, he traveled to England on a political visit. But he didn’t take his teenage wife, because she was busy finishing high school. Instead, he took a prostitute whose first name was, of course, Fanny, and stood with her on his arm as he met Queen Victoria.

After several years of having sex with a minor and cheating on her with prostitutes, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1857. Which totally makes sense.

In 1859, he found out that his wife, who was by now an actual grown adult, was having sex with a lawyer named Philip Key. Key just happened to be the son of the guy who wrote the Star Spangled Banner, which is America’s National Anthem.

Look: Danny was really mad, so he took a pistol that had bullets in it and made one of the bullets go into Philip Key’s body. Philip Key died.

Danny was charged with murder. Because he had a lot of friends in Washington, he was able to get really good lawyers. One of them was Edward Stanton, who would later become Secretary of War (wars need good secretaries) under Abe Lincoln. The night that John Wilkes Booth made a bullet go into Abe Lincoln’s head, one of Booth’s co-conspirators broke into Stanton’s house and made a knife go into Stanton’s body several times. Stanton lived, but the guy who stabbed him was later killed by the U.S. government after falling through a trap door with a noose around his neck.

Anyway, back to Danny.

He pled temporary insanity. Temporary insanity is characterized by being so upset by something that you temporarily become a lunatic, just long enough to kill someone you don’t like, and then full sanity returns to you.

That’s what happened to Danny.

Everyone in Washington thought that sounded completely reasonable. Unbiased media outlets noted that Danny had done a good thing by saving all the chaste women of Washington from this sex-starved son-of-a-national-anthem-writer.

The jury agreed, and Danny became the first person in American history to be acquitted of murder by claiming to have become a lunatic for only a short period of time. Now a free man, Danny publicly forgave and reconciled with his wife, then took some time off from politics to repair things at home.

The public was outraged. The man was clearly still insane if he was willing to reconcile his marriage to a harlot and adulteress whose lover had justifiably eaten a bullet. Temporary insanity my ass, they cried.

In any case, Danny didn’t resign his spot in Congress (why should he? His only crime was reconciling with his whore-of-a-wife) and retained his seat until the early 1860’s.

When the Civil War broke out, Danny decided to become a soldier. But because he was a famous politician, he didn’t have to be a private. Instead, he got to raise troops and be a brigadier general.

Look: Danny’s brigade got to kill a few Johnny Rebs at some minor battles, but always seemed to miss out on the fun of the real slaughters at places like Bull Run and Antietam. But Danny was gonna be goddamned if he couldn’t get into the thick of things.

Lucky for him, he was really good friends with Joe Hooker, which makes sense because Danny really liked hookers. But in any case, Joe Hooker was the commander of the Army of the Potomac, which is a fancy old-timey name for the U.S. Army. Danny and Joe both liked to drink liquid that makes you drunk, and they both shared a passion for having sex with a lot of women. Because of this, General Hooker made Danny a Major General and gave him command of the Third Army Corps, which was a really big group of soldiers with guns. Danny, who had already become the first person to ever be acquitted of murder because he temporarily lost his mind, thus became the only Union commander of an army corps without a West Point education.

As General Major Daniel Sickles can attest, it certainly pays to be an alcoholic and whoremonger.

In any case, Danny finally got to see some real action. In July of 1863, he brought his army to Gettysburg, which is famous because a major Civil War battle took place there. The leader of the Union army in Gettysburg was a fellow by the name of Meade. Which Danny must really have thought funny, because he loved prostitutes and alcohol, and now he had served under both Hooker and Meade.

But anyway.

Meade told Danny to take his troops to Cemetery Ridge, so-called because there were corpses buried in the ground there. Danny really didn’t think his army should be in Cemetery Ridge. So he took them up about a mile ahead of Cemetery Ridge to the Peach Orchard, which he thought would be a much better place to slaughter Confederates from.

Look: Meade was not happy. He rode up to Danny and asked him what the fuck he was doing. But by then it was too late because slave-loving Johnny Reb was already advancing. A battle took place where soldiers from both sides fired bullets at one another in an effort to kill each other. Johnny Reb was a lot more successful because he had a lot of experience shooting guns at runaway black people. Danny’s Third Army Corps produced a whole heap of corpses to join the others already buried in Cemetery Ridge.

Danny didn’t die, but he did have a very large, round, steel ball run smack dab into his leg. It had been shot out of a really big gun called a cannon. Cannons were really popular because they were a heck of lot more efficient at slaughtering humans than rifles. They were also fantastic for destroying buildings and houses and ships, which is something you want to do when you’re at war.

Look: Danny had to get his leg cut off. Since he knew that his leg would be a really neat thing for schoolchildren on field trips to look at, he gave it to the Army Medical Museum in Washington.

Since Danny was really wealthy and famous, and because he had been honorably wounded in battle, he didn’t get court-martialed for disobeying Meade’s orders and nearly costing the Union the victory at Gettysburg. All those soldiers under his command who got slaughtered by Johnny Reb because of Danny’s insubordination were not important. What’s a few thousand extra corpses between drinking buddies?

Instead, Danny got the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Danny stayed in the military for several years after the war, then he was appointed as the Ambassador to Spain, with the title of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. I have no idea what that means, but it probably has something to do with sex and alcohol.

Since his wife had thankfully died in 1867, Danny was able to get a lot of ass while in Spain. Rumor has it that he gave the hot meat injection to none other than Spain’s Queen Isabella II, who by that time had been deposed because she was fat and ugly. After a few years of tasting all that Spain’s women had to offer, he finally got married again 1871.

Danny eventually came back to New York, where he served in various political capacities, including another term in the U.S. congress in the 1890’s. Though he remained married throughout this time, he was estranged from his wife for the last thirty years of his life and she lived separately from him with their two children. Thus, he had the Perfect Marriage Arrangement, and he was able to scare up as much ass as he wanted.

He lived a long time. He died in 1914 at the age of 91, although he was broke by then because crippled, doddering old perverts are not very popular.

They dug a hole in a place called Arlington National Cemetery and put his bones down inside it, all except his leg, which is still on display for schoolchildren at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

For Mormons living in the Utah Territory in 1857, the end of the world was nigh.

Having fled the United States a decade earlier because of persecution, the Mormons under Brigham Young had settled into what they thought of as their new “Zion.” As the “people of God,” they were so moved during that era by Old Testament images that they even referred to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.”

Brigham Young was named governor of the Utah Territory in 1850 and the subsequent years saw the establishment of Joseph Smith’s vision of a “Theodemocracy” in Utah – a government that is in theory secular, but which is headed up by Mormon leaders who are freely elected by the uniformly Mormon populace (or, in the case of Young, appointed by the federal government).

By all accounts, things seemed to be moving along quite well for a few years, but trouble began in the mid-1850’s when a severe drought descended upon the Utah Territory. Like Old Testament prophets of old, fiery Mormon evangelists blamed the unfortunate weather pattern on sin and immoral living, and a sort of revival took place, with countless Mormons undergoing re-baptism and re-dedication to Mormon principles. In addition to re-baptism, a movement of blood atonement began, championed by no less than Brigham Young in an 1856 sermon, wherein the offending Mormon sinner would voluntarily be slain as a blood atonement to God and to ensure the sinner’s own salvation. It is not clear how widespread this practice ever was, but it is significant to note that it wasn’t officially repudiated by Mormon doctrine until 1978.

By 1857, with the drought beginning to wane (attributed, of course, to widespread repentance and re-baptism), a new and even bigger problem began to form on the horizon, causing the drought and repentance era to seem rather like the days of tribulation promised in the Bible as precursors to the End.

Around June of 1857, fueled by a desire to establish stronger federal control of the Utah Territory – which was viewed as more or less in rebellion against the U.S. – President James Buchanan dispatched 2,500 troops to Utah, whose ultimate job was to secure the area so that federal appointees (such as judges) would be free to do their jobs without interference. Buchanan also decided to replace Brigham Young with a non-Mormon governor, and the federal troops were slated to ensure his safe and effective emplacement in the halls of power in the Utah Territory.

Word of this impending arrival of federal troops seems to have sent the Utah Mormons into a period of religious hysteria. Convinced by rumors and newspaper reports that this “army” was on its way to exterminate them, the Mormons began preparing for a fight. Leaders, including Brigham Young, publicly discussed the possibility of secession from the United States. The Mormon militia, called the Nauvoo Legion (because it had first been summoned in the 1840’s in Nauvoo, Illinois, where Joseph Smith had been assassinated) was commissioned by Brigham Young to protect the Mormon territory. In August of 1857, Young declared martial law in the Territory – securing the borders and disallowing anyone to enter or leave. Mormon leaders went around Utah preaching the end of times and Armageddon, stirring the population into a frenzy, encouraging people to arm themselves, stockpile grain, and prepare for the coming apocalypse.

Into this tinderbox environment came the blissfully naïve party of Arkansas emigrants known as the Fancher-Baker Party. Comprised of some 120 people, they were on a wagon train heading for California, as so many thousands had done before them. In years past, emigrants to California had been provided safe passage through the Mormon territories in Utah. But now, with martial law declared and the Mormon population fired up for Armageddon, the Fancher-Baker Party found itself at the center of a politico-religious firestorm that its members likely didn’t even know existed.

As the party of emigrants passed through what is now southern Utah, they had several run-ins with local Mormon communities that refused to sell or trade with them. This refusal was due to the instructions they had received from various Mormon leaders to stockpile grain and not trade with any “Gentiles” in the area. Later reports from some Mormons in the area claimed that members of the Fancher party were antagonistic and threatening, used abusive language, and promised that the U.S. Army was just days behind them, coming up to Utah to lay siege to everything Mormons held sacred. Later investigators, however, found very little evidence for any of these claims, although it’s certainly not hard to imagine that the Arkansas emigrants did not take very kindly to being rebuffed in their efforts to buy and trade goods. That they may have responded with aggressive or antagonistic language is not hard to imagine.

In addition to this, a rumor began to spread among the Mormons in the area that the Fancher-Baker Party had poisoned an oft-used well in an effort to kill unwitting locals and their cattle. Like the other accusations, later investigators found no evidence to substantiate this claim and ultimately concluded, in fact, that it had been intentionally fabricated by Mormon militia leaders in the area. All the reports these later investigators took from locals and other witnesses suggested that the Fancher-Baker party was well-behaved and was simply a benign party of emigrants passing through to California at just the wrong time.

In any case, as the Fancher-Baker Party made its way across southern Utah, local community and militia leaders began to meet to discuss what should be done with the emigrants in light of the declaration of martial law by Brigham Young – a declaration the emigrant party was in clear violation of. Many of these leaders had met just days earlier with Mormon leader George A. Smith (pictured), one of the “12 Apostles” of the Mormon hierarchy, who had traveled into southern Utah to prepare inhabitants for the coming war.

From these meetings, the Mormon leaders in the area decided to siege the “Gentile” emigrants who had invaded their territory during this period of martial law and coming apocalypse. To placate some dissenting voices, they sent a messenger to Brigham Young to get his opinion, no doubt knowing full well that the deed would already be accomplished long before Young’s response could reach them – which, it turns out, is exactly what happened.

The purpose of this siege was, presumably, to teach the emigrants a lesson – to put the fear of God into them. Cut a few of the “Gentiles” down and then be done with it.

Displaying a certain level of disturbing political savviness, the Mormon leaders conspired with local Paiute Indian tribes to make the siege look like a run-of-the-mill Indian attack of white settlers – effectively covering their own culpability and participation in the event. The Indians would get the blame, the emigrants would be taught a lesson, and the Mormons could get their revenge.

On September 7, 1857, while the Fancher-Baker Party was encamped in a place known as Mountain Meadows, a group of Paiute Indians, together with a number of white Mormons dressed up as Paiute Indians, attacked the wagon train. The emigrant party quickly moved into a defensive position within a circle of their wagons. According to reports, about seven men of the party were killed in the initial attack. After that, the siege ground to a stalemate, with the emigrants slowly running short of provisions and ammunition.

After several days of siege, the local Mormon militia leaders again discussed the issue and initially decided to end the siege and let the emigrants pass through safely. Several of the emigrants had been killed and the lesson, therefore, had been taught. Might as well end it and let them go their merry way at this point. But upon learning that the ruse of dressing up white Mormon militiamen like Paiute Indians had not fooled the emigrants of the Fancher party, the council changed its mind and ordered an all-out massacre. They couldn’t afford for reports to get back that this “Indian” attack had actually been planned and carried out by Mormons.

On September 11th, the Mormon militiamen involved in the siege approached the wagon encampment without their Indian disguises. John Lee (pictured), a confidant of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, one of the earliest leaders of the Mormon movement, and one of the masterminds and leaders of the Indian attack against the Fancher party, came up to the ring of wagons carrying a white flag. He explained to the emigrant leaders that he had negotiated a truce with the Paiute Indians and that his Mormon militiamen would escort the entire party safely to Salt Lake City if they were willing to turn over their cattle and supplies to the Indians. The emigrants, with no other course of action, agreed.

Two wagon trains were set up for the emigrants, the first carrying wounded men and women, as well as 17 very young children, and the second carrying the remaining women and children. The male emigrants were escorted on foot by Mormon militiamen. As they made their way across the terrain towards Salt Lake City, one of the militia leaders uttered a prearranged command to his troops. At his word, they immediately turned their guns on the emigrant men they were escorting, and shot them down to the last man. Then more militiamen, together with Paiute Indians, emerged from hiding along the trail and attacked the two wagons, slaughtering the remaining men, women, and children.

Only the 17 very young children, intentionally separated from the rest before the massacre began, were spared. Their lives were spared because they were children and because they were deemed too young to represent any threat of revealing the Mormon involvement in the massacre. After being looted for valuables, the bodies of the dead were left to rot in the Utah sun, and the 17 children were dispersed into various Mormon homes around the territory. The Paiute were paid for their involvement with cattle and personal items taken from the emigrants.

On September 13th, two days after the massacre, a letter from Brigham Young arrived telling the militia to allow safe passage for the emigrants. Too little too late, quite obviously.

In any case, the Mormon involvement in the massacre eventually leaked out. Investigations by the federal government were impeded, however, by the Civil War, and it was not until the mid-1870’s that anyone was charged in the crime. Though nine people were originally brought up on charges, only one – John Lee – ever stood trial. He was convicted and executed by firing squad.

The Utah War, which had precipitated this event, eventually ended without a shot fired between the Mormon militia and the federal troops. The emigrants of the Fancher-Baker Party were the only true casualties of this otherwise bloodless war.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Academy and the Pulpit: A Disconnect

Among those who study Christian history and New Testament scholarship, there is one issue that frequently comes up: Why is there such a disconnect between what is being taught in universities, divinity schools, and seminaries across the country, and what is being taught every Sunday from the pulpit?

This isn’t a question that presupposes any theological bias – scholars and historians from across the theological spectrum agree that this disconnect exists. I’ve heard it discussed by New Testament scholars who are agnostic, and I’ve heard it discussed by New Testament scholars who are evangelical Christians. Across the board, scholars of Christian history recognize that what is being taught in universities to future ministers is not translating to the pew.

Why is that?

Well, there are probably dozens of reasons. Based on my own consideration of the problem, I would suggest three possible explanations.

The first is that some ministers, though they learned about the conclusions and debates within Biblical scholarship while in college, never really bought into much of it. If they learned something that did not mesh well with their faith, they simply rejected it as either wrong, or highly unimportant. Thus, when they later become ministers, those conclusions are not at the forefront of their minds, because they never really accepted them anyway.

The second possible explanation is simply that ministers don’t want to alarm their congregations by consistently talking about the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship. Since congregations are made up of lay-people, they might have their faith shaken if they learn that, for instance, we don’t actually know who wrote most of the books of the Bible, Church tradition of authorship notwithstanding.

Daniel B. Wallace, an evangelical scholar at the very conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, has said: “Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage…The intentional dumbing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ultimately lead to defection from Christ.”

His argument here is that by keeping congregations in the dark about issues of Biblical scholarship, when the “barrage” hits them (from books, magazines, movies, documentaries, etc.) it may shake their faith to such an extent that they lose their faith – they defect from Christ. Wallace is ultimately, of course, arguing that the disconnect between the academy and pulpit is real, and should be dealt with accordingly. In the same article quoted above, he states: “Those in ministry need to close the gap between the church and the academy. We have to educate believers.”

The third possible explanation is that pastors want to keep their jobs. People come to church to worship God and to hear how the Bible can be made relevant to their modern lives. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this. But, if instead of this, a pastor is constantly barraging his congregation with historical scholarship instead of feel-good sermons reinforcing their faith, not only will he start losing members, he might even put his own job in jeopardy. I’m not suggesting that many pastors are, therefore, liars, I’m simply saying that pastors frequently don’t see their role in church as a historian and scholar – they see their role as shepherd to the flock. Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but this is one of the reasons, I believe, why the disconnect between academy and pulpit exists.

With that established, I want to highlight one issue from critical Biblical scholarship that perfectly illustrates this disconnect.

One of the most famous stories in the entire Gospel tradition is that of the woman caught in adultery, found in John, chapter 8. In this story, Jesus is approached by a group of “teachers of the Law and Pharisees.” They bring with them a woman caught in the act of adultery and, after reminding Jesus that Mosaic Law says adulterers should be stoned, ask Jesus for his opinion.

At this point, the writer tells us that they did this in order to lay a trap for him, so they could have a basis for “accusing” him. You might wonder exactly what this “trap” was. If Jesus affirmed Mosaic Law, he would be contradicting his own message of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. But if he contradicted Mosaic Law from the inspired Word of God, handed down by God through Moses, he could be accused of blasphemy.

As in so many other similar Gospel stories, Jesus outwits them. He first refuses to answer, biding his time by writing “on the ground with his finger.” The Pharisees, however, continue to pester him for an answer. Jesus finally stands up and delivers what is arguably his most famous quip: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Justifiably chastised, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law leave one by one in shame, never uttering another word.

Jesus is finally left alone with the woman. Apparently not realizing that she’s still there, he suddenly notices her and says: “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She tells him no, and he responds, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.”

As I said above, this is one of the most famous stories from the Gospel tradition, and it includes a quip from Jesus that is one of his most recognizable. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” is such a familiar statement that it’s even commonly used in secular circles. A quick Google search returned several secular references to this saying on the first page, the least of which was a Star Trek episode named “Let He Who is Without Sin.”

The aforementioned Daniel Wallace, of Dallas Theological Seminary, notes that “strong emotional baggage” is attached to this story for many people. It’s a good story. It’s one we like. It illustrates the kind of Jesus we believe in.

There’s one problem though.

It’s a forgery.

Scholars have known for at least 300 years that this story was not original to the Gospel of John. Edward Gibbon, famous for his 18th century tome “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” was the first mainstream writer to note that the story is inauthentic.

Textual scholars have literally thousands of manuscripts and manuscript fragments of the various books of the Bible, going back to the 2nd century. In the case of this story from John, it is completely absent from every ancient manuscript in existence, and does not appear in any existing manuscript until the beginning of the 5th century – roughly three hundred years after the Gospel of John was written. Scholars know from other clues, such as diacritical marks in earlier manuscripts that suggest there are alternative readings of the chapter in question, and commentary by early Church fathers, that the story probably originated sometime in the 3rd century. That is still, of course, 150-200 years after the original composition.

That it was added much later to a text that originally did not include the story is obvious even from a general reading of the passage in question. If you read all of chapter 7 and all of chapter 8, the story of the woman caught in adultery doesn’t seem to fit. It starts abruptly and ends abruptly, and doesn’t fit the flow of the narrative. Furthermore, if you skip the story (which occupies John 7:53-8:11), John 7:52 flows naturally and cleanly into John 8:12.

The point of all this is clear: the story of the woman caught in adultery was not original to the Gospel of John. At the earliest, it was developed well over a century after John was written and more than two centuries after Jesus died. The scribe who first added it may have been telling a story he knew from oral tradition, or may have been loosely conflating two stories attested in 2nd century writings, but in any case, the story as it appears in our Gospel is not original and is not historically reliable.

This is not the opinion only of “liberal” scholars or disinterested academics. Scholars from across the theological spectrum recognize that this story is not original to the text and almost certainly does not provide a historically-accurate account from the life of Jesus. I’ll refer again to the evangelical Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary: “For years, it was my favorite passage that was not in the Bible. I would even preach on it as true historical narrative, even after I rejected its literary/canonical authenticity. And we all know of preachers who can’t quite give it up, even though they, too, have doubts about it…This inconsistency is appalling. Something is amiss in our theological seminaries when one’s feelings are allowed to be the arbiter of textual problems.”

So what does all this mean? As I said above, it is a clear illustration of the disconnect between the academy and the pulpit. Ministers are not educating their parishioners. And with this particular story, what is the possible reason why so many church-goers have never heard about the historical problems with the text? First, it’s a feel good story. It’s the kind of Jesus we like. Who wants to face the fact that it’s not actually something Jesus said or did? Secondly, we can turn again to Daniel Wallace, from a statement I quoted earlier: “Instead of trying to isolate laypeople from critical scholarship, we need to insulate them. They need to be ready for the barrage.” What barrage? The slippery slope into defections from Christ when people begin to learn that maybe the book they believe is infallible is not actually infallible. If it has scribal errors, additions, and omissions, what other mistakes might it have? Maybe it’s not reliable at all and Christian faith is in vain? This is the barrage Wallace is talking about, and it’s that barrage that no doubt causes many pastors to fail to tell their congregations that this story is not historical.

From Wallace’s perspective, pastors need to educate their parishioners to “insulate” them from this barrage, so they don’t lose faith. Let them know about it from the pulpit, so they hear it from their pastor and not from a novelist or a college professor in a CNN interview. From my perspective, pastors need to educate their parishioners because people deserve not to be lied to, even in the name of their faith. Wallace points out, I believe correctly, that this particular story doesn’t impact the core doctrines of Christianity. It’s just one story from the life of Jesus, given in the Gospels, that isn’t historically accurate. But it’s important for Christians to know the truth about this story because it’s important for Christians to have authentic and realistic perspectives on their own religious beliefs.

In the first chapter of Proverbs we are told: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” Christians should not be afraid of knowledge. They should welcome it and embrace it as the pathway to better understanding God. When people turn from knowledge, and when pastors are culpable in that endeavor, God is not served, and Christianity begins to lose its meaning.

Friday, February 12, 2010

UK Basketball: Race to the Finish

If we haven’t already seen what the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team is made of, we certainly will find out in the next three weeks – the final three weeks of the regular season.

As of today, Kentucky is 23-1, with their only loss coming a few weeks ago to South Carolina. They ran through their nonconference schedule undefeated, beating several ranked teams in the process. However, those two ranked teams – UNC and UCONN – have since gone on to mediocrity in conference play, and neither team is currently ranked. In fact, both are now hanging on to the slimmest of hopes of even making the NCAA tournament. For that reason, one could argue that while Kentucky’s perfect record in nonconference play this year was a great achievement (of the other top-ranked teams, only Syracuse went undefeated in nonconference play), the fact that Kentucky didn’t beat any top-tier teams in nonconference play could be held against them in evaluating just what they are made of.

After conference play began, Kentucky won its first four games, putting them at 19-0 as the last undefeated team in the nation. Again, a great achievement (it was their best start in over 40 years), but of those four teams, only Florida presented any serious challenge – and even Florida is probably only average this year, having only one signature victory – a win early in the season against Michigan State. They’ve lost to every other ranked team they’ve played since then.

In any case, after achieving that 19-0 record and attaining the number one ranking, UK promptly lost – and lost bad – to South Carolina. It seems clear that the pressure of being number one, together with the pressure of an undefeated season, was too much for this young team to handle.

Despite that loss (and the subsequent drop to 4th in the rankings), Kentucky has gone on to win its last four games, all by double-digit margins. Two of those four games were against ranked teams, one of which was undefeated in the SEC (Vanderbilt). But both of those wins also came at home.

Now at 23-1 and ranked 2nd in the nation (3rd in the AP poll), Kentucky will finish its season with a string of tough games. The first is this Saturday at home against 12th ranked Tennessee. Tennessee, of course, is the team that gave #1 Kansas its only loss earlier this year. They follow this game up with road games at Mississippi State (17-7 and did crack the top 25 for one week a few weeks back), and Vanderbilt (18-5 and currently ranked 22nd in the AP poll and 24th in the ESPN poll).

After that, they play South Carolina again – the team that gave them their only loss so far this season – then they play two more road games, at Tennessee and at Georgia. They end the season at home against Florida.

Of these remaining seven games, only the Georgia game should be a simple win. Even that game, however, can’t be underestimated. Georgia is only 10-12 this year, but they have won some big upsets, most notably against Vanderbilt and Tennessee. And in their earlier game against Kentucky, UK only beat them by 8 points – and that was in Lexington. It is not out of the question for Georgia to pull another upset at home.

So if we haven’t already seen what Kentucky is really made of, we’re definitely going to find out in the next three weeks. If they go 7-0 and finish the regular season at 31-1, I doubt there will be very many people doubting that they are the nation’s best team. That, of course, will depend on what Kansas and Syracuse do in the next three weeks.

Syracuse (24-1 and ranked 3rd by ESPN, 2nd by the AP) has six games left, including a game at home against 4th-ranked Villanova and a road game against 8th-ranked Georgetown. They have not played Villanova this year, but they did beat Georgetown at home a few weeks ago. They also have games against Providence, St. John’s, and two against Louisville. None of those teams are ranked this year, however.

As for Kansas (23-1 and ranked 1st in both polls), they have seven games left, including games at Texas A&M (17-6) and Missouri (18-6). They also play a home game against Kansas State (19-4 and currently ranked 9th in both polls). Kansas has not yet played Texas A&M this year, but they have already played and beaten both Kansas State and Missouri.

Of these three teams – UK, Kansas, and Syracuse – I think Kentucky has the toughest schedule. Kansas and Syracuse will both play teams ranked higher than any team Kentucky will play, but they also have several games apiece against “easy win” teams. Kentucky won’t play anyone ranked higher than 12th, but they play that 12th ranked team (Tennessee) twice, and they don’t really have any “easy win” games, with the possible exception of Georgia. Additionally, four of Kentucky’s remaining games are road games, compared to only three apiece for Kansas and Syracuse.

Debate can no doubt be had on the topic of toughest remaining schedule, but in any case, the likelihood of three teams ending the regular season 31-1 is not very high. Probably none of them will do it. But in the case of Kentucky, these remaining three weeks will certainly gives us some insight into just how good (or how not good) they really are. I think these seven games will represent their toughest stretch of the entire season, and when you factor in pressure and late-season fatigue, it promises to be a real test for this young team.

My hope is that they will shine, but time will have to tell.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

It's a Small World After All

Major Archibald Butt

Despite his unfortunate name, Archibald Butt lived a distinguished life. Born in war-torn Georgia just a few months after the end of the Civil War in 1865, Archie’s uncle was General William Boggs, a Confederate general noted for his defense of Savannah, Georgia, where a fort was named after him.

The Butts were a prominent family in Augusta, Georgia, in the antebellum days preceding the Civil War, but the war cost the family its place in society and by the time young Archie was fourteen, his father died and he was forced to take odd jobs around town to support his mother and siblings.

Heading off to college at age eighteen, he graduated in 1888 and began work as a journalist. He first worked for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, before transitioning to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a congressional reporter for several southern newspapers. By the late 1890’s, his connections in Washington allowed him to become the secretary to Matt Ransom, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Ransom had been a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate army and a veteran of Antietam.

In 1898, when the Spanish-American war began, Archie joined the army as a lieutenant, serving in the Philippines from 1900 to 1904. During his tour of duty there, he took part in the founding of the Military Order of the Caribao, a social organization for military personnel that is still around today and has counted among its ranks people like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former NASA chairman Sean O’Keefe.

In 1906, Archie was sent to Cuba by President Roosevelt, and two years later he returned to Washington to serve as Roosevelt’s chief military aide. He continued this position under the following president, William Howard Taft, attaining the rank of Major in 1911. During his time serving these two presidents, he wrote numerous letters to his sister in California. These letters are still around today and have proven invaluable to historians for their insights into the private side of the Roosevelt and Taft presidencies.

In the picture below, Archie is standing in uniform to the far left, with President Taft at center, flanked by two British ambassadors.

In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt was considering another run at the presidency, running against Taft, and Archie felt torn between loyalties to the two men. At President Taft’s insistence, Archie decided to take a well-deserved overseas vacation in the spring of that year, in order to recuperate and prepare for the coming election. He took a 6-week trip to Europe, which included delivering a personal message to Pope Pius X from President Taft.

In 1910, Archie had accompanied the president when Taft famously threw out the first pitch of that year’s baseball season for the Washington Senators. Archie again accompanied the president in 1911. In 1912, he was due to return from Europe just in time to accompany Taft a third time to Washington’s Griffith Stadium.

He never made it.

And neither did President Taft. The Vice-President, James Sherman, went in the president’s stead.

Taft was too distraught with grief.

Walter Douglas

Born in Iowa 1861, Walter Douglas was a first generation American, born to a Scottish father and Irish mother. Attending school at the prestigious Shattuck Military Academy in Fairbault, Minnesota, Walter later became a successful businessman, working in the mill industry that would become a hallmark of Minnesota infrastructure. In this endeavor, he followed in his father’s footsteps. His father, George Douglas, owned a large cereal mill in Iowa that, in 1901, would merge with several other grain companies to form the Quaker Oats Company.

After starting several businesses with his brother that grew to great success, and then selling them for windfall amounts, Walter became a partner in a large grain company in Minneapolis in 1899. In that same year, his first wife died, leaving him a widower with two young sons. He remarried in 1907.

In time, he became a well-known businessman in Minneapolis, serving on the boards of several large companies, including his father’s Quaker Oats Company, Empire Elevator Company, and the First National Bank of Minneapolis.

At the age of 50, on January 1, 1912, Walter retired a millionaire. With the children now grown, and a new wife at his side, he wintered in Europe, where he and his wife spent three months finding swank furnishings for their new retirement villa in Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota.

It must have been a magical three months, knowing years of hard work were behind him, and knowing he had an easy and fabulously wealthy retirement ahead.

But he never made it to Lake Minnetonka.

His wife returned there alone.

Father Thomas Byles

Thomas Byles was born in Leeds in 1870, the eldest of seven children to a Congregationalist minister and his wife. Young Thomas showed signs of intellectual curiosity and advancement from a young age, and ultimately graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1894 with a degree in theology, having served as the vice-president of the school’s elite debating society.

While at Oxford, Thomas had converted to Roman Catholicism, and for several years after he attained his degree, he taught at a Catholic boys’ school in Hertfordshire, where he published a book on Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

In 1899, Thomas traveled to Rome to study for the priesthood at Gregorian University. Once ordained, he was assigned to St. Helen’s Parish in Essex, where he served starting in 1905.

During his many years of study and travel, a number of his siblings had left England for the United States. In early 1912, his younger brother, William, asked him to come to New York to officiate at his wedding. Thomas readily agreed.

But Thomas never made it to New York.

Another clergyman officiated at William’s wedding.

Jacques Futrelle

Despite his French name, Jacques Futrelle was an American, born in Georgia in 1875. An intellectual and a brilliantly gifted writer, Futrelle attended a series of public and private schools and also learned French and other liberal arts basics from his father, a professor at an Atlanta college.

At the age of 18, Futrelle got his first writing job, working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he would eventually establish that newspaper’s sports department. From there, his gifts quickly earned him ever increasing notability. He worked for the New York Herald and later the Boston Post.

In 1902, Futrelle moved from journalism into theater, managing a theatrical company in Virginia and splitting his time between production and acting.

In 1904, Futrelle went back into journalism, taking a position with William Randolph Hearst’s Boston American. While writing for Boston American, Futrelle published a serialized novel called The Problem of Cell 13. This book featured as its detective Professor Augustus Van Dusen, who would go on to appear in more than 40 of Futrelle’s short stories. Van Dusen became a famous literary character, well-known for his uncompromising use of logic to solve crimes. The character would later inspire Agatha Christie’s work.

Thanks to the success of the Professor Van Dusen short stories, Futrelle quit his job at Boston American in 1906 to pursue writing full time. He and his wife and their two children moved to a sprawling home called The Stepping Stones in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, on the wind-swept coast of Cape Cod Bay. There, Futrelle wrote seven novels and two short story collections, all of which helped solidify his fame as an emerging mystery writer.

In the spring of 1912, Jacque and his wife traveled to Europe for a 3-week vacation, which culminated with his 37th birthday party in London. On returning home, Jacque expected to publish his latest novel, My Lady’s Garter.

The novel was published, but Jacques didn’t make it home to see it in print.

His wife wrote the book’s dedication.

Michel Navratil

Born poor in Slovakia in 1880, Michel later moved to Hungary and finally Nice, France, where he became a tailor in 1902.

In 1907, he married an Italian woman in London, Marcelle Caretto, and the couple had two boys. Within a few years, however, things began to get rough for the Navratil family. Michel’s business began to fail and he discovered that his wife of five years was having an affair. In early 1912, the couple separated, with his wife gaining custody of the children. Michel was devastated by this.

Granted visitation for Easter that year, Michel was due to meet his estranged wife in Nice so she could pick the boys up. When she arrived at Michel’s house, no one was there and the place looked abandoned.

Michel had taken the boys to London, where they were bunked at the Charing Cross Hotel. His plan was to take the boys with him to America and begin a new life.

The boys arrived in New York as orphans.

Mauritz Adahl

Born in Sweden in 1881, Mauritz grew up in a family of laborers, learning the trade of carpentry and take odd jobs around Sweden during his youth. In 1903, he immigrated to America in hopes of making more money and providing better for his family. In 1906, his fiancé, Emelie, arrived and the two were married in 1907. Two daughters came later, in 1908 and 1910.

Mauritz was finding moderate work as a carpenter and providing a modest living for his family, but his wife began to feel homesick. She returned to Sweden for an extended stay in 1911, and when Mauritz’s father died later the same year, he followed her. Arriving for Christmas, he stayed for several months to help his mother in the wake of his father’s death.

Mauritz’s wife, Emelie, had decided to stay in Sweden for good with the children, but Mauritz intended to return to America to continue working for a few more years so the family could build a home on a piece of property they had purchased in the town of Asarum.

Mauritz never made it back to America, and Emelie and her children never got their dream home.

Irene Colvin

Irene Colvin was born in Utah in the early 1880’s, the daughter of a Mormon bishop. A typical 19th century Mormon housewife, she married a man named Walter Corbett and had three children.

In 1911, moved to enter into the medical field, she traveled to London to study nursing at a Mormon mission, leaving her children behind to stay with her parents. She planned on returning in the spring with several Mormon elders.

She never arrived home.


On April 10, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic sailed from Southampton, England, with 2200 passengers and crew. On the night of April 14, the ship struck an iceberg and sank. Only 700 people survived, most of them women and children from among the 1st and 2nd class passengers.

Millvina Dean, the youngest passenger on the Titanic at nine weeks old, was also the last Titanic survivor to die. She died just last year, May 31, 2009, at the age of 97.