I Can’t Get No

Just jotting down thoughts here for lack of a better place to put them.  Recently there was a bit of a kerfuffle in certain Protestant circles when Hank Hanegraaff (I’d never heard of him, but he is or was a major player in American Protestantism, apparently) converted to my own faith, Eastern Orthodoxy.  The general response of Protestants was that he had “left Christianity,” and there’s been a lot of back-and-forth about incense and idolatry and whatnot.

Most of this is tiresome and impossible to resolve because of Protestants’ and Orthodox Christians’ radically different beliefs concerning the ultimate source of “authority” for Christians.  I’m not going to go into the sola this-and-that rabbit hole.  However, the concept of “penal substitution” did get brought up, and that seems worth discussion.

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Please Stop Quoting Leviticus

I’m probably going to be too busy to do this regularly, but for old times’ sake here’s another.  I’m not trying to take any position on the gay marriage fight in this post; that would take a much longer post, and everybody’s made up their mind on that already.

Is there anything sillier, or more painful to watch, than an amateur trying to show up an expert by citing cherry-picked information from the expert’s own subject of expertise?  For example, creationists trying to “disprove” evolution by pointing to some trivial anomaly in the body of research.  Much of the time it isn’t even a real anomaly, and reflects only the creationist’s ignorance of how evolution is supposed to work.  My favorite: “If people evolved from apes, why do we still have apes?”  The creationist smiles smugly; every educated person listening to or reading him winces, sighs, and decides it simply isn’t worth the effort of even beginning to correct this rube. Continue reading

The Panda Reflex

Because it’s that special Roe v. Wade anniversary time of year . . .

I once heard somebody refer to “a vegetarian pro-choicer” as a contradiction in terms.  At the time, I chuckled appreciatively, since it made sense to me; how could you feel concerned over the lost lives of chickens, but not unborn human children?  Since then, however, I’ve come to appreciate that there’s no contradiction there at all.  In fact, I would argue that it is logically inconsistent for a pro-choice individual to not be vegetarian, or indeed fail to show what most of us would consider an inordinate concern for animal welfare.

In general, the pro-life stance is based on the idea that fetuses (and possibly embryos, blastocysts, etc., depending how one defines “pro-life”) are human and thus worthy of protection.  In turn, the typical retort from the pro-choice side is that, while a fetus may be human, it has not acquired personhood prior to one particular point in development.  There are other arguments–Post-Abortion Syndrome, the “famous violinist”–but these are largely peripheral.

Let us suppose that personhood is definitely acquired by the time of birth (again, I have read arguments to the effect that infanticide is morally permissible, but that’s thankfully a fringe position).  The notion of personhood, in this context, is usually contingent on the entity in question having reached a certain level of mental sophistication–it has a mind, and is therefore a real person.  So, the intellectual level of a newborn is definitely enough to make you a person. Continue reading


(this should be a brief one, for once)

I was subbing a class on Thursday–eighth grade American history–when, for whatever reason, a student needed to know the definition of the word “lurid.”  They were doing a project on George Washington, arguably the least lurid man ever to be called president, so I don’t know how it came up, but it did.  I fumble-tongued my way around the subject for a moment, dropping words like “grotesque,” “vulgar,” “sensationalistic,” and so on, getting blank stares.  At length I remembered that they had laptops with internet access, and told them to just Google it.  Which they did, but they didn’t quite understand it.

So I tried to explain in more detail, only to run into a different, and unexpected, obstacle.  These children grew up with the internet; they’re quite accustomed to “click-bait” articles getting their attention by whatever means necessary.  The idea that some subjects are beneath polite discussion, or that there exists such a thing as “prurient interest,” is totally alien to them.  At length I referred to the supermarket tabloids: “you know how they run articles every other week: ‘Obama caught in gay love scandal,’ or some trash like that?”

The girl I was talking to just about exploded.  “Hey, what’s wrong with gay people?  There’s nothing wrong with gay people, they’re just expressing themselves.  Do you have a problem with gay people?  Do you think it’s okay to be gay?”

“What?  Huh!  No, I–”

“NO?!?!  It’s not?  Why not?”

“No, I don’t care, I mean, that doesn’t matter, whether you or I think it’s okay to be gay or not.  The point is, some older people are offended by the idea of gayness, and the magazines include that detail to get them fired up, along with the adultery.  That’s what ‘lurid’ means.”

She nodded, somewhat but not entirely mollified.  I’m not sure if she understood or not.  It certainly opened my eyes a bit, to just how far we’ve moved in a few decades.  I think these children are typical of their generation; they have adopted a purely utilitarian, libertarian (or perhaps libertine), external conception of ethics, far beyond even the previous American norm.  They do not believe in “good” or “bad” as modes of being, only “good” or “bad” actions as defined by effect on others (including, say, offending a currently fashionable demographic group).  They’ve internalized “don’t judge” to the point that any attempt to criticize anyone’s preferred way of living is offensive.  The word “lurid” is quite simply meaningless.

Tolkien’s Crusaders

When J.R.R. Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings in the mid fifties, it was broadly assumed–at least by some–that his fantasy trilogy, much of which was written during World War II, was meant as an allegory for the war itself.  Here Gondor stands for Britain, Rohan for the U.S., Mordor and company for the axis powers, etc.  It makes sense, from a certain point of view, but the speculation irritated Tolkien intensely, to the point that, in an introduction added to later editions, he explicitly debunked it, explaining, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its forms,” and noting that, if it were properly an allegory, Sauron would be enslaved, not destroyed, and Isengard would wind up creating its own ring, setting off a lengthy period of hostilities with Gondor.  Or some such.

I’m willing to take Professor Tolkien’s word that no conscious allegory was intended.  Still, there are intriguing historical parallels, which I think are worth examining.  One of the critical errors made by the “allegorizers” (for lack of a more graceful term) was to seek out links to modern history, when the author was a medievalist, and his magnum opus takes place in a world which is not just technologically, but spiritually, medieval. Continue reading

The Holes in the Boat

Ancient Athens, at the height of its power, commanded an empire of millions, covering most of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Nominally, they were the foremost city of an alliance, but in practice, they dominated and extracted tribute from settlements in the Cyclades, Ionia on the west coast of Asia Minor, Italy, Sicily, Cyprus, and various points on the north coast of Africa.  They even had a couple of colonies in Spain.  This whole maritime empire was held together by the trireme, a 120-foot warship alternately propelled by sails or three banks of rowers, with a vicious battering ram on its tip.  I’ve mentioned the trireme before, in my Darkened Ages post.  It was a mighty weapon, but it had its limitations; it was strictly a coastal vessel, which had to make landfall every night to restock with food and water.  Also, very expensive.  At its aforementioned height, Athens could only build three or four triremes per year.  Usually this was done by selecting one of the city’s richest citizens for the “honor” of funding it, in the form of a charitable endowment called a liturgy (lit. “work for the people”; also an apt term for our religious service, but one wonders exactly how the term got transferred!).

Anyway, suppose you were to go to one of Athens’s busiest shipyards and tell them that, at some point in the past, a man and his three sons, possibly assisted by their wives, had built a ship three times the length of a trireme, and far wider–a boat the size of a modern American football field.  That these men had then loaded down said ship with massive amounts of heavy cargo–live animals, and plenty of fodder–and kept it afloat through forty days of nonstop storm conditions, plus an indeterminate period of calm afterwards. Continue reading

In the Name

I apologize for the lengthy interval since my last post–with the proviso that there will probably be just as long an interval before the next one.  Ordinary life calls, I have children, and so on, plus I have been bitten by the novel-writing bug yet again.  But, since I don’t have access to my novel-writing PC right now, I might as well do my duty here, right?

Since I’m feeling lazy, I’ll tackle another of the internet’s common attacks on religion: the argument from atrocity.  Here I mean extra-biblical atrocities: certain incidents from the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, various pogroms, the Thirty Years’ War, etc.  Those weird little bits from the dusty back corners of the Pentateuch, which all go something like, “And the Lord commanded Jerushaphat to slay seven and fifty of the Edomites, together with their wives, and their children, their slaves, and the slaves of their children, the children of their slaves, the children of their slaves’ children, and their oxen, and their sheep, and the sheep of their neighbors, but not the sheep of their neighbors’ slaves, etc.”–well, those are a different matter, which I will probably not bother over, because those bits are only ever read by infidels with chips on their shoulders, and these days said infidels tend to focus more on obscure anecdotes from the Koran.  Also, it’s not clear whether any of the early Biblical atrocity anecdotes ever even happened. Continue reading