Saturday, March 12, 2016

Trumpmania and Beatlemania

Years ago I watched a special about the Beatles. In one segment, McCartney explained why the Fab Four stopped doing live concerts. He said they got tired of the screaming fans. There were huge crowds of girls who'd scream through every number. Wall-to-wall screaming. They weren't listening to the music. They couldn't hear the music. Their screaming drowned it out.  

At that point the reaction had nothing to do with the music or lyrics. The Beatles could do a Gilbert and Sullivan number for all the difference that would make to their fans. The reaction feed on itself. Screamers imitating other screamers. It's contagious. 

Trump mania is eerily like Beatlemania–except Beatlemania was fairly innocuous compared to choosing a president. Trumpkins proudly demonstrate that they are impervious to facts, impervious to their idol's flip-flops. Compare the mindset of Trumpkins to this description of Bealemania, and see the common psychological dynamic:


"The girls were beginning to overwhelm us," remembers Lothian, now 73 and a business consultant…"It was absolute pandemonium. Girls fainting, screaming, wet seats. The whole hall went into some kind of state, almost like collective hypnotism. I'd never seen anything like it."

As Grant says, "Teenage girls are perceived as a mindless horde: one huge, undifferentiated emerging hormone."

The so-called Columbus Day Riot, when thousands of teenage "bobby-soxers" rampaged through Times Square, inspired reporter Bruce Bliven to call it "a phenomenon of mass hysteria that is only seen two or three times in a century. You need to go back not merely to Lindbergh and Valentino to understand it, but to the dance madness that overtook some German villages in the middle ages, or to the Children's Crusade". Again, the behaviour sounds very familiar to the modern reader. One of Sinatra's publicists described how fans "squealed, howled, kissed his pictures with their lipsticked lips and kept him prisoner in his dressing room. It was wild, crazy, completely out of control."

The Beatles Come to Town, a Pathé newsreel recorded in Manchester in November 1963, was practically a how-to video, depicting a sea of howling, tear-stained faces wearing a curious expression best described, by Tom Wolfe, as "rapturous agony", and producing a high, relentless wail, like a hormonal alarm clock.

It was the noise that [the] made most impression on contemporary observers, who called the fans "screamers" and wondered why anyone would want to drown out their favourite band's music. And it was the noise, eventually, that prompted the Beatles to retire from live performance in 1966. "I never felt people came to hear our show," Ringo later grumbled. "I felt they came to see us."

They also came to see one another. Paul Johnson wrote, "The teenager comes not to hear but to participate in a ritual."…"You soaked up energy from the crowd," says Ihle, who attended the band's first Shea Stadium show in 1965. "The screaming never stopped. We could barely hear the music because the sound systems weren't very good back then. There were police everywhere, trying to keep fans from jumping on to the field. It was a happening, to use a word from the time. It was the event itself. It was being there."

"I didn't understand why you had to scream and I didn't have an impulse to scream but it was what you did," says Linda Grant. "It was mandatory. There was this cult-like element to it."

All the fans I spoke to mentioned the sense of solidarity and group identity..."The writer Susan Clerc says the most primal instinct of the fan is to talk to other fans and I think there's something in that. The idea of community and collectivity is important.""It makes you feel like part of something larger," says Ihle. "You're not by yourself.

The scale of Beatlemania caught the band by surprise. When Myers secured her first autograph from Paul in early 1963 he was still in the habit of signing his name "Paul McCartney (The Beatles)", as if an explanation were necessary. Later, she noticed them becoming more defensive. "Paul would say, 'Oh God, not you again,' but he was the best at talking with the fans. John was very unpredictable. You had to be careful with John. But when you're a fan you let them say whatever they want. You were happy he'd talked to you directly, it didn't matter what the words were." She sighs. "How pathetic is that?"

Jar Jar Binks gives keynote speech at GOP convention

Yahweh and evil

Bart EhrmanThis is obviously a very difficult issue to address in 300 words or less!!! I have devoted a book to the question, God’s Problem (HarperOne, 2008), and even that is very much only barely scratching the surface.
So, let me give just a brief background. When I was teaching at Rutgers in the mid-1980s, I was asked to teach a class on the problem of suffering as presented in different parts of the Bible. That was a revolutionary experience for me, as I realized in teaching the class just how many explanations for human suffering can be found in the Bible. Some of them are at odds with one another. I explain all that in my book.
When I taught the class, I was a deeply committed Christian. And I continued to be for years afterward. But I began to wrestle deeply with the problem of suffering. There are some kinds of suffering that make sense (to me): humans do wicked things to one another, involving such awful experiences as incest, rape, torture, mutilation, killing, war, and so on. Those things one can explain on the basis of free will. If we weren’t free to do such things, we would not be fully human (I think that explanation is problematic, as I detail in my book, but it would take too long to explain why here).
I couldn’t believe that there was a God who cared about his people and was active in the world and intervened on behalf of those in need and answered prayer, when there is an innocent child who starves to death every five seconds.Other things are less explicable: famine, drought, hurricanes, tsunamis, birth defects, and so on — all leading to horrible, unimaginable suffering. How do we explain these things? I used to have explanations (based on what I had read in biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, and so on). But I got to a point where I just didn’t think it made sense any more. I couldn’t believe that there was a God who cared about his people and was active in the world and intervened on behalf of those in need and answered prayer, when there is an innocent child who starves to death every five seconds.
I certainly don’t buy the Augustine view. It’s all well and good to say that suffering makes us better, makes us more noble, brings a greater good. But what about that poor three-year-old child who starved to death since you started reading this paragraph? She had to experience such gut-wrenching agony to make my life, or anyone’s life, the world’s life better? And that’s true of all the children who have starved to death — millions of them, just over the past few years (not to mention all the years since Augustine was writing). I came to a point where I just didn’t believe it.

This is, of course, well-trodden ground. There's a lot I could say. And I've said it before. But for now one observation will suffice: By Ehrman's own admission, the Bible contains many accounts of moral and natural evil. In addition, Bible writers were undoubted acquainted with many other examples of moral and natural evil that they never have occasion to write about in Scripture. It's illogical to say the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of Yahweh when, in fact, the Bible constantly depicts Yahweh coexisting with evil. Indeed, you have unbelievers who think Yahweh commits or commands evil. So how could moral and natural evil even count as evidence for Yahweh's nonexistence?

The argument from evil typically uses an abstract philosophical construct as the standard of comparison, rather than the concrete deity of living religion and historical revelation. Not Yahweh, but perfect being theology. 

I'm Angry! So I'm Voting For Donald Trump

Friday, March 11, 2016

What's the endgame?

I've observed a few things about Trump supporters and Cruz supporters that I'd like to comment on. It's based on what I've run across. I don't claim it's a scientific sample. So it may not be representative. For instance, Jerry Walls as spent a lot of time berating Rubio. So I'll return the favor.

i) One contention is that it's time to unite behind a single candidate–that candidate being Ted Cruz. Critics like Walls are very impatient with Rubio supporters. Time is running out to block Trump. Cruz is our last best hope!

But a reason I prefer Rubio, a reason I've been hanging back with respect to Cruz, is that I find that advice nearsighted. What's the endgame?

There's a twofold goal: beat Trump, then beat Hillary (or Bernie). There's no particular advantage to beating Trump in the primaries if you lose to Hillary in November. You need a good general election candidate. So you have to think ahead. What's the second act? 

I'm not saying for a fact that Cruz can't beat Hillary. I'm not saying for a fact that Rubio would beat Hillary. You can only go with the best information you have at any given time.

If he can get nominated, I think Rubio has a much better shot of beating Hillary than Cruz. I'm not keen on uniting behind a candidate who can edge out Trump in the primaries only to lose in November. I want a conservative candidate who has a good chance to cross the finish line. Leading in the backstretch is not enough. 

ii) Jerry totally supports Cruz and totally opposes Rubio. I've encountered this same mentality among other Trump supporters and Cruz supporters. The mindset is that you can't support one candidate unless you totally oppose his rival. In addition, some Trump and Cruz supporters so identify with their candidate that he's above criticism. 

That's unhealthy. Now, there are candidates who richly deserve unmitigated opposition. I totally oppose Trump, Hillary, and Bernie. If Christie were still in the race, I'd say the same thing about him. But it's irrational when Walls can't find anything good to say about Rubio. The problem is not with opposing a candidate, but acting as though the only way to support one candidate is to utterly oppose a rival candidate. 

Which brings me to a related point: while there are candidates who deserve our wholehearted opposition, there's rarely if ever a candidate who deserves our wholehearted support. Our political support for candidates should always be qualified. In particular, Christians should not be blind loyalists. 

Although I support Rubio, I don't totally support him. To the contrary, I've made a note of positions he's taken that I oppose. Conversely, the fact that I prefer him to Cruz doesn't mean I totally oppose Cruz. In fact, I think Cruz has a lot going for him. Mind you, I doubt he's equally sincere on all his current positions. 

iii) Another problem with this polarized mindset is that it's a recipe for disillusionment. What has catapulted Trump to the frontrunner status, and what attracts many voters to Cruz, is bitter disillusionment with the GOP "establishment". 

But when you totally support one candidate, it takes very little for him to let you down. And when that happens, the cycle of bitter disillusionment repeats itself. That can be a vicious circle. It's prudent to lower our expectations. Work for improvement, not utopia. As William Rusher said, "Politicians will always disappoint you." 

iv) Apropos (iii), I've seen both Trump supporters and Cruz supporters use a common narrative. Here's one version:

After Obamacare became law, House Republicans ran on a repeal and replace platform. "Give us control of the House, and we'll revoke Obamacare!" But they broke their promise. Then Senate Republicans ran on a repeal and replace platform. But they broke their promise. The GOP establishment betrayed us!

Here's my problem with that complaint: it's inherently impossible for the House to singlehandedly repeal Obamacare. One house of Congress simply lacks the unilateral authority to pull that off. So that was never in the cards. Now I fault House Republicans for making a campaign promise they knew they couldn't keep. And I was aware of that at the time.

But if you voted for Republicans because you thought the House could repeal Obamacare, you have only yourself to blame. Voters have a duty to know how the system works. There's no excuse to be that ignorant. That's not betrayal–that's being a patsy. 

The situation is similar with respect to the Senate. Now it's true that in principle, both houses of Congress, acting in conjunction, can repeal a law. But that's not automatic. If you have a hostile president, then the only way to do that is if both houses pass a bill by veto-proof (or even filibuster-proof) majorities. And although the House of Representatives may currently have that margin, the Senate does not. 

I'm not sympathetic to voters who are complain about how they were "betrayed" when they are politically illiterate about the rudiments of our legislative system. This isn't arcane knowledge. You don't need a law degree to figure that out. Even if they don't teach that in public school, anyone with Internet connections can find out. Is that really asking too much? 

Ironically, the same mentality makes them suckers for Trump. They are being duped all over again because they refuse to think. They don't bestir themselves to do the most elementary research. 

BTW, it's always a good idea to sweep Democrats out of power. 

v) Let's take another example: I've seen people express admiration for Cruz because he called Mitch McConnell is a liar on the Senate floor. Sorry, but I think that's a really dumb thing for Cruz to do. 

McConnell is majority leader. How do you get anything done as a lawmaker if you antagonize the leadership? They determine who gets to sit on what committees and subcommittees. They determine if a bill gets voted out of committee. They determine if a bill gets a floor vote. 

I'm not saying there's anything necessarily wrong with challenging the leadership. That can be a good thing. But unless you have someone viable to take their place, it is foolish to alienate the leadership. 

The legislative process requires teamwork. If you have open contempt for your colleagues, what does that accomplish? Why are you there in the first place? Why join an organization that requires collaborative effort to get anything done if you can't stand your associates? 

We need to distinguish two different issues. To say it's true to call McConnell a liar doesn't mean it's smart to call him a liar. For instance, imagine a subordinate who publicly said his commanding officer was a moron. And suppose his commanding officer really is a moron. But it's counterproductive for a subordinate to say that. He will be relieved of duty and court marshaled for insubordination.

Likewise, suppose a football player says the coach is an idiot or the quarterback is an idiot. Even if that's true, why join the football team in the first place if you have such open contempt for the coach and the quarterback? You will either be booted off the team or spend the rest of the season on the bench. What purpose does that serve? 

The political process requires cooperation. If you're better at making enemies than allies, that's self-defeating. If you find it demeaning to schmooze people you don't respect, then choose a different line of work. Sometimes Cruz acts like the stereotypical autistic savant: high IQ but antisocial. 

Once again, what is the endgame? Is it just to have a moment of emotional release? Moral satisfaction, or is it to make a difference? Change the status quo? 

To a great extent, etiquette exists for folks who dislike each other. The amenities submerge the enmities to make social life possible. 

Imagine a family reunion or Thanksgiving meal where everyone finally decides to say what they really think of each other. They've been saving that up for years. All the cumulative grudges. Well, that may make them feel better for the next hour or so, but they will never be on speaking terms for the rest of their lives. 

vi) Which brings me to another point: in my observation, Trump supporters and some Cruz supporters are unable or unwilling to put themselves in the shoes of voters who aren't naturally drawn to candidates like Trump or Cruz. Indeed, they seem to think it would be demeaning or compromising to do that. Just today I ran across a perfect illustration:

Some Cruz fans wrote in, “the fact that these people don’t like him makes me like him more!”

Okay, but while that might make Cruz fans like him even more, how does that endear him to voters who aren't already members of his fan club? 

Problem is: that's a prescription for defeat at the polls. You need to be able to think like other people. Assume their viewpoint. The electorate is very disparate. A winning coalition consists of different voting blocks. If you wish to win, you need a candidate who has fairly broad appeal. That's not a question of right or wrong, but how to achieve your objective. Maybe it shouldn't have to be that way, but that's the way it is. Once again, what is the endgame? 

vii) A danger I see among some voters is that if you insist on too much, you end up with nothing at all. You don't get more. You don't get less. You don't get anything. 

viii) Florida is do-or-die for Rubio. I think it's droll for Cruz to suggest that Rubio should drop out and unite behind him because Rubio can't win Florida. Classic self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Now I'm not suggesting this is about fairness. Cruz has a perfect right to run in Florida. It's a competitive process. But the question is the endgame. If the Rubio is knocked out, and Trump nets the delegates, what's the endgame? 

Depending on how Tuesday turns out, it may be hard to shake an air of futility. I'm already becoming fatalistic about November. It's shaping up to be one of those tragic dramas where the stage is strewn with bodies at the end of the play. You know how it's going to end before it begins. The only man left standing is the villain. Or in this case, Hillary. 

Some Of The Reasons Why Trump Will Lose

I just saw Rick Wilson link an article by Adrian Gray, Alex Lundry, and Patrick Ruffini. It addresses some of the difficulties Trump is facing in winning the nomination. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here's an excerpt:

Third, should we arrive at a contested convention, it is also important to recognize how delegates could differentiate from Republican primary voters. In many ways, they will be very similar. Three-quarters of both will be conservative. The median age for each is about 54. And the gender split is similar. But over 80% of convention delegates will have a college degree, whereas, 52% of Republican primary voters in 2016 have graduated college. Exit polling has shown that Trump has an Education Gap, where 42% of non-college Republicans backed him while only 30% with degrees have voted for him. This may not be a harbinger for Trump’s doom, but should we go multiple ballots into the convention, it will require support from a more upscale electorate than the broader GOP electorate.


Because Trump is unacceptable to most Republican voters, even though he's the frontrunner, this has enhanced the role of spoilers (i.e. Rubio, Cruz, Kasich). A spoiler can't win, but he can block a rival from winning.

Whether it's good or bad to be a spoiler depends on the specifics. The current GOP primaries raise some interesting questions about voter priorities and candidate priorities. Which is more important: opposing Trump or supporting a particular anti-Trump candidate? Preventing Trump from getting the nomination, or helping a particular anti-Trump candidate to get the nomination?

Is it more important to support a particular anti-Trump candidate at the risk of making it more likely that Trump will win the nomination–or opposing Trump at the risk of sacrificing your preferred candidate? 

In addition, a campaign can be like a game of chess. You don't know ahead of time what's a winning move or losing move. You can't say in the abstract what's a winning move or losing move. That's because it depends on what the other player does. There is no winning move in the absolute sense, only in a relative sense. 

As the campaign evolves, a winning strategy may become a losing strategy. Candidates must adapt to the state of play. And it depends on priorities. Each candidate wants to win. But in the event he can't win, who's the backup? 

Take the Florida race. Cruz has a twofold agenda: defeat Trump and defeat Rubio. Those are his two main rivals. And he has an order in which he wants do to it: drive Rubio out of the race to make it a two-man races between Trump and Cruz.  

That, however, makes Cruz a spoiler is a dicey sense: it's more important for him to prevent Rubio from winning than to prevent Trump from winning. Cruz has no realistic chance to win Florida, but he may be able to prevent Rubio from winning. That, however, means it's more important to his strategy to sacrifice Rubio to Trump. To make Rubio lose at the cost of Trump winning. Cruz's strategy requires him to become a temporary Trump-enabler, in the hopes of stopping him further down the line. 

That's a very risky strategy. If Trump wins Florida, it accelerates his momentum. In addition, Florida is a big delegate cash cow. If Trump wins Florida, that makes it much easier for Trump to rack up the remaining delegates to win the nomination outright. If Trump wins Ohio in addition to Florida, then his nomination is probably inevitable.

Although it would be advantageous to Cruz to knock Rubio out of the race, it would also be advantageous to Cruz to deny Trump victories in Florida and Ohio. 

That would give Cruz two possible paths to the nomination: winning the nomination outright, or winning at a brokered convention. If Trump loses Florida and Ohio, that's a backstop that probably keeps him from winning the nomination outright. 

Cruz's preference is to win the nomination outright, and that makes sense. It would, however, be prudent for him to have a fallback. 

Suppose Trump can't net the winning number, and Cruz comes in second. If at the end of the primary season, Trump is still failing to get a majority of Republican voters, and Cruz comes in second, Cruz would be the obvious alternative to Trump at a brokered convention.

For Cruz to compete in Florida is quite a gamble, because it runs the risk of a twofold loss: it may make it harder for him to win the nomination, and it makes it harder for another anti-Trump candidate to win the nomination. It clears a path for Trump to win the nomination. On that scenario, not only does Cruz lose, but the party is likely to lose in in November. And even if Trump wins the general election, that's just as bad in a different way. Trump winning or Trump losing to Hillary are both worse-case scenarios. 

Is Scripture evidence for God's existence?

Unbelievers, as well as certain apologetic schools, say it's question-begging to cite the Bible as evidence for God's existence. Here's a book by two philosophers challenging that widespread assumption:

The Agnostic Inquirer: Revelation from a Philosophical Standpoint by Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan provide a straight- forward defense of using revelation to defend belief in God’s existence...Menssen and Sullivan specifically target what they call the “tacit assumption” of philosophy, namely, that one must show that God exists before one can ask whether God has revealed.

The tacit assumption is that a claim to have received a revelation can be evaluated only after the existence of God has been proved. In opposition to the tacit assumption, they make the following claim: If it is not highly unlikely that God exists, then it is reasonable to examine particular claims to revelation from God as evidence for God’s existence. It is not highly unlikely that God exists; therefore, it is reasonable to examine particular revelation claims as evidence for God’s existence. More boldly, they contend that if the existence of God is not highly unlikely, then a reasonable inquirer must actually examine a number of revelation claims before a judgment can be made that God does not exist.

Consider, they say, the proposal that a single person named Homer was responsible for the Iliad. In the course of history, many have rejected that possibility because it was believed that no preliterate person, such as Homer, could have composed such a work. Given the complexity and length of the poem, the argument reasoned, a single individual could have produced it only if that person had the capacity to write. If it were impossible for a preliterate person to produce the poem, no amount of contrary evidence internal to the poem would raise the likelihood that a single person produced it. In other words, the probability of an impossibility is zero and any evidence added to an impossibility does not improve the odds.

Suppose, however, that it were possible for a single individual, in a preliterate context, to produce such a long and complex poem. The probabilities change, and evidence for authorship does matter. Once such a possibility is recognized, then internal evidence derived from the content of the poem itself becomes relevant for judgments about authorship.

Menssen and Sullivan take revelation claims to be closely analogous to arguments about the production of the Iliad. If the possibility of God’s existence were nil, or next to nil, then no appeal to the internal content of revelation could support belief in the existence of God. On the other hand, if it is not highly unlikely that God exists, then just as it is relevant to look at the content of the Iliad to determine authorship, so is it reasonable to look at revelation claims for evidence of God’s existence.

A concerted effort to stop Trump

"The Deal is Made: Kasich to Ohio, Rubio to Florida, Cruz Out of Both" by Erick Erickson.

The true enemies of the Roman Catholic Church are the “bad Catholics”

The most dangerous Roman Catholics are the “bad Catholics” (perhaps someone like “Pope Francis”?):
It is a well-known account. Sister Marie Bernarde (Bernadette) Soubirous is in the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, it is 1870, war is raging throughout northern France as the Prussian-led German armies march towards Paris. The first printed version of the account,* published while she was still living, is the following. A visitor came to Bernadette at that time and made her the following questions:
- Did you receive, in the grotto of Lourdes, or after then, any revelations related to the future and fate of France? Did not the Blessed Virgin deliver any warning for France, any threats?
- No
- The Prussians are at our gates; does that not cause you any fear?
- No.
- There is thus nothing to fear?
- I only fear bad Catholics.
- You do not fear anything else?
- No, nothing else...
The true enemies of the Church, those who can cause Catholics great harm and peril of damnation, are instead those who are within, the “bad Catholics” [emphasis in original] Saint Bernadette feared so much. And they are more dangerous the more powerful they are and the more empowered they feel, their fury, deception and bold vulgarity unleashed.

Sticking to my guns

I got into an impromptu debate over banning guns in light of pro-gun advocate Jamie Gilt accidentally getting shot in the back by her 4 year old son while she was driving.

I'll post my side of the debate. I won't post people's names or the link to the thread itself since it may not be ideal to do so (e.g. some people may wish to protect their privacy which I'll honor here).

I've slightly edited some of it mostly for the sake of clarity as well as privacy. I've added a couple of arguments and evidences here and there. Nothing novel or new to what I've already said, I don't think, but mostly meant to better support what I've already said.

However, I did have to make one significant correction with the number of firearms in the US in the 1990s vs. 2010s. Originally I had said 80 million vs. 350 million, but I now think it's closer, though the difference still seems significant i.e. 200 million vs. 300 million. At any rate, those in the know seem to agree gun ownership is at a high today. Higher than in the 1990s.

Finally, the debate isn't in chronological order. Instead, I'll arrange it by topic and interlocutor.

Here it is:

A building from God

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Ehrman follies

I'll comment on some statements that Bart Ehrman made in a recent interview:

In some cases I will rearrange his statements to collate statements on the same topic. That will make the review more logical and less repetitive. 

I never argue that the empty tomb and the appearances somehow are incompatible and cancel each other out, or that they are in any way incompatible. My view instead is simply that they are two different traditions and it’s important to recognize their differences. It has long been noted that the apostle Paul speaks of Jesus’s appearances, but never mentions the story about the women going to the tomb and finding it empty. Strikingly, the Gospel of Mark tells the story about the women going to the tomb to find it empty, but never mentions any stories about Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances.
In the Gospels (and Acts), the empty tomb functions to show that Jesus really was physically raised from the dead. But, strikingly, it never leads anyone to believe. (And why would it? If a body was buried in a tomb and later it was not there, would someone immediately say: “He has been raised from the dead?” Of course not. They would say: “Grave robbers!” Or, “Hey, I’m at the wrong tomb!”)
On the other hand, the resurrection appearances function to show that Jesus really did come back to life. And it is these appearances, and only these appearances, that cause people to believe.

i) If Jesus did rise from the dead, then you'd expect two outcomes: an empty tomb and post-Resurrection appearances of the risen Christ. These aren't two different traditions. Rather, these are two logical consequences of the same underlying event. Of course, Ehrman denies the event, but the point is that you don't need to appeal to two different traditions to account for this twofold phenomenon. Rather, if Jesus rose from the dead, that would have both results. His death would empty the tomb and he'd appear to acquaintances to attest his resurrection.

ii) In addition, the Gospels record that Jesus predicted his resurrection. So it's not just empty tomb accounts. That must be complemented by predictions which explain why the tomb will be empty. 

iii) The fact that Pal doesn't mention the women finding the tomb empty is such an old chestnut:

a) Paul is writing a letter, not a biography.

b) Paul is writing to Christians who already knew about the life of Christ.

c) It's a mark of Paul's integrity that he doesn't say more than he knows. He doesn't make up a story. 

The book is about how we go about the incredibly difficult process of knowing what the authors of the NT wrote, given the circumstance that we don’t have their original writings, or copies of those originals, or copies of the copies of those originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of those originals.
That book was less about how specialists reconstruct the NT text (the theme of the Metzger book) than it was about the enormity of the textual problem (as presupposed in the Metzger book). Yes, we have abundant evidence for the text of the NT. But very little of that evidence is early, and much of it is highly problematic.

I find that very deceptive:

i) This isn't like anecdotes that are passed down by word-of-mouth. Rather, when a scribe copies a text, the text furnishes an objective standard of comparison. It's not like relying on memory. Or secondhand memories. 

ii) If a scribe introduces the wrong word into the text, that will usually be detectable, because using the wrong verb or noun will generally make the sentence nonsense. The next scribe will be able to see that there's something wrong with the sentence. And he will be able to see where the problem lies. The wrong word will stick out. A detectable error is generally a correctible error. You can usually figure out what the original word was. 

We do this all the time when we run across typos. We can spot the mistake and fix the mistake. 

iii) Even if we're unsure what the original word was, yet because communication tends to be redundant, you usually get the gist of what the sentence meant even if one word is wrong.

iv) In addition, we have thousands of manuscripts. There are usually many manuscripts that contain the right word for every manuscript that contains the wrong word. 

I have long been struck by the fact (which historians generally take to be a fact) that Jesus died around the year 30 CE, but the first surviving account of his life was not written until around 70 CE (the Gospel of Mark; Matthew and Luke were maybe 10–15 years later than that, and John may another 10–15 years after even that). 
So, where did the Gospel writers get their stories of Jesus from? There are compelling reasons for thinking that the authors of our Gospels were not eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life (none of them claims to be). They were living in different countries, in different communities, speaking different languages, decades later. And so how did they get their stories?
For nearly a century now, scholars have argued that they got their stories from the “oral tradition.” That is, people told and retold the stories, until the Gospel writers heard them and wrote them down.
The reason there are so many differences (and similarities!) in the Gospels is that the stories they narrate were being told by word of mouth, year after year, decade after decade, after the disciples had come to believe that Jesus had been raised. What happens to stories that get circulated this way? They change. People forget things. They misremember things. They invent things. Happens all the time. It happened to the stories of Jesus.
It is true to say that many parts of the New Testament show knowledge of first-century geography, religion, and culture. But how could it not show this knowledge? It was written by first-century authors! Presumably, they knew about the geography, religion, and culture of the first century! But that doesn’t mean that what they say is historically accurate or not. Suppose I were to write a novel, or even a biography, about someone who lived in my home town of Lawrence, Kansas. Presumably, I would know about the main street (Massachusetts), the location of the university (on the hill), the basic size of the place (middlin’), the industries in the area (e.g., the Lawrence Paper Company), and so on. Would that make the stories I told about my protagonist true? Of course not. I could simply be making stuff up. If in 2,000 years an archaeologist digs up Lawrence in order to see if my novel is “true,” well, the location of the university on a hill would have no bearing on whether my stories about a professor who taught at the university are true or not.

The problem with his illustration is that his fictional story about Lawrence, Kansas is based on his firsthand knowledge of the town. That's his hometown, where he grew up. That's why, even if the story is fictional, it will contain many historically accurate details. 

But that's precisely where the comparison falls apart when he says the Gospels were written decades after the fact by authors who weren't eyewitnesses, or had access to firsthand informants. Under that scenario, it's puzzling that the Gospels would contain so much accurate information about a time and place decades earlier. Information that archeology can corroborate. All the more remarkable when you consider the random preservation and discovery of corroborating evidence. 

So, about five years ago it occurred to me that scholars of the Gospels would be well served to learn more about what we know about oral cultures, and about story-telling practices, and more broadly about memory. How do we learn things? And remember them? And reimagine them? And forget them? And invent them? And retell them? And then the person we tell a story to: how do they learn, remember, reimagine, forget, invent, and retell them? And the person they tell a story to: how do they…? And so on.

He acts as though he's breaking new ground on a neglected topic. Evidently, Erhman doesn't bother to read standard monographs of the historical Jesus that discuss memory studies, viz. Dale Allison, Reconstructing Jesus, Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.

The view is that even if miracles did happen in the past — let’s simply grant that they happened — there is no way to establish that they happened using the historical disciplines (i.e., to show they are, using your term from earlier, “objective historical truth”). Again, that’s not a result of atheist, anti-supernaturalist presuppositions. It is the result of historical method. Historians simply have no access to supernatural activities involving the actions of God. Only theologians (among the scholars) have access to God. Theologians can certainly affirm that God has done miracles, but they are affirming this on theological grounds, not historical grounds.
The past is everything that happened before now. History is what we can establish as having happened before now. Miracles may be in the past. But they cannot be established as having happened. Big difference.
Historians, by the nature of their craft, have no access to any activities of God. That is the purview of theologians. Historians do not have tools to access the supernatural. That’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way it is. Historians also have no way of establishing if a poem is beautiful, if I love my wife, if there is dark matter, if the Pythagorean theorem is true, or anything else outside the realm of “history” (please remember, “the past” is not synonymous with history). To believe in the resurrection of Jesus is a religious commitment. It is a belief. It is no more susceptible of historical “proof” than is the claim that there is only one God (or that there are two; or 24).

i) A miraculous past event would be a certain kind of historical event. If history can establish the occurrence of past events, why can't history establish the occurrence of miraculous past events? If they happened, they are past events. In that respect, they are just like other past events: something that happened in the past. 

ii) Likewise, the type of evidence would be the same: testimonial evidence. 

iii) Suppose Ehrman lived in the time of Christ. Suppose he witnessed Jesus walk on water, change water into wine, multiply the loaves and fish, or raise Lazarus from the dead. Is he saying an observer would have no access to the event itself? He could see it happen right before his eyes. He could see what things were like right before the event, and what things were like right after the event. 

He could see and feel that Jesus was really dead. He could see and feel that Jesus was really alive. Presumably, that would suffice to establish this as having happened. 

iv) Perhaps he'd say that's different because we're dealing with reported miracles rather than miracles we can see for ourselves. And there's a degree of uncertainty with respect to secondhand information. But even if we grant that distinction for the sake of argument, that's not a categorical difference between historical events in general and miraculous events in particular. In both cases, a historian is dealing with reported past events. Yet Ehrman wants to say there's something qualitatively different about miracles that render them inaccessible. 

v) Or does Ehrman intend to distinguish between the occurrence of an event and the interpretation of an event? A historian could establish the occurrence of a miraculous event qua event but not the occurrence of a miraculous event qua miraculous? A historian is disqualified from classifying the event as miraculous. He can't access supernatural agency in the sense that a historian can't establish that God caused it. Is that what Ehrman is groping at? 

If so, why can't a historian "access divine activities" from the effects of divine activities? If there's historical evidence for the effects, why can't a historian infer the cause? For instance, historians routinely attribute certain effects to personal agency. They go behind the event to the source. 

vi) Apropos (v), consider a definition of the miraculous. Here's how J. L. Mackie unpacks the concept of the miraculous:

What we want to do is to contrast the order of nature with a possible divine or supernatural intervention. The laws of nature, we must say, describe the ways in which the world–including, of course, human beings–works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it.
Even in the natural world we have a clear understanding of how there can be for a time a closed system, in which everything that happens results from factors within that system in accordance with its laws of working, but how then something may intrude from outside it, bringing about changes that the system would not have produced of its own accord, so that things go on after this intrusion differently from how they would have gone on if the system had remained closed. All we need do, then, is to regard the whole natural world as a being, for most of the time, such a closed system; we can then think of a supernatural intervention as something that intrudes into that system from outside the natural world as a whole. 
However, the full concept of a miracle requires that the intrusion should be purposive, that it should fulfill the intention of a god or other supernatural being…It presupposes a power to fulfill intentions directly without physical means. The Miracle of Theism (Oxford 1982), 19-22.

Suppose we grant that definition for the sake of argument. Since Mackie was a prominent atheist philosopher, I'm not tilting the scales in favor of Christianity by using his definition. (I disagree with his notion that a miracle must bypass physical means.)

In that case, a historian can classify a past event as a miracle if it meets the definition: an event that happened, but would not have happened if the natural world was left to itself, as opposed to outside agency (i.e. supernatural intervention). 

Let's consider how Erhman tried to justify his position ten years ago:

I’m just going to say that miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works. They are so highly improbable, their probability is infinitesimally remote, that we call them miracles. No one on the face of this Earth can walk on lukewarm water. What are the chances that one of us could do it? Well, none of us can, so let’s say the chances are one in ten billion. Well, suppose somebody can. Well, given the chances are one in ten billion, but, in fact, none of us can.
What about the resurrection of Jesus? I’m not saying it didn’t happen; but if it did happen, it would be a miracle. The resurrection claims are claims that not only that Jesus’ body came back alive; it came back alive never to die again. That’s a violation of what naturally happens, every day, time after time, millions of times a year. What are the chances of that happening? Well, it’d be a miracle. In other words, it’d be so highly improbable that we can’t account for it by natural means. A theologian may claim that it’s true, and to argue with the theologian we’d have to argue on theological grounds because there are no historical grounds to argue on. Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did.
I wish we could establish miracles, but we can’t. It’s no one’s fault. It’s simply that the canons of historical research do not allow for the possibility of establishing as probable the least probable of all occurrences. For that reason, Bill’s four pieces of evidence are completely irrelevant. There cannot be historical probability for an event that defies probability, even if the event did happen. The resurrection has to be taken on faith, not on the basis of proof. 
Read more:

But that's confused in multiple respects:

i) Using Mackie's definition, a miracle is improbable with respect to what could happen when nature is operating as an isolated system, absent outside "interference". 

ii) That, however, doesn't mean a miracle is improbable given divine intervention. 

iii) Why does Ehrman assume it's unlikely that God will interfere with natural order? What's his justification for that supposition? 

iv) I'd add that even if we frame the issue in terms of natural laws, unless we define a law of nature in contrast to divine agency, there's no reason to say divine agency "violates" a law of nature. Why can't divine agency sometimes be in accordance with the laws of nature? 

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Hostile takeover

Trumpkins frame a brokered convention in terms of the "establishment" denying Trump the nomination, or "stealing" it right out from under him. But that miscasts the issue. 

i) To my knowledge, the rules for a brokered convention were drawn up before the primary season. They aren't designed to favor or disfavor any particular candidate. 

ii) If Trump maintains his current pattern, where a majority of Republican voters oppose him, then he failed to win the key constituency. It's not the "establishment" taking something away from him. Rather, he failed to persuade even a majority of Republican voters. Since he's running as a Republican candidate, that's hardly an unreasonable bar.

iii) Indeed, Trump is staging a hostile takeover of the GOP. I wouldn't mind that if he were a solid charismatic conservative who could expand the base. But he's a Trojan Horse. There's no reason delegates should open the gates to the Vandals. 

iv) As I understand the rules, it won't be party bosses in smoked filled rooms who award the nomination, but delegates. 

There are two or three potential risks of a brokered convention:

i) It will alienate Trump voters. But from what I've read, these are mainly disaffected Democrats. They wouldn't normally vote for a GOP nominee anyway. So you're not losing voters.

And while it's nice to bring in new voters, there's evidence that Trump repels more voters than he attracts. 

ii) There's the possibility that he will exact revenge by running as a third-party candidate. How damaging that would be depends on whether he'd pick off more voters from Hillary or the GOP nominee. He brags about his crossover appeal, but if so, that would drain Democrats from Hillary.

However, even if blocking Trump is politically risky, that's a necessary risk. This is a matter of principle. Sometimes the good guys are on the losing side. That's not a reason to switch sides and join the enemy. 

iii) Apropos (i-ii), a brokered convention raises the specter of a televised brawl. A divisive event that signals dissension at a time we need to unify behind an opponent to Hillary.

However, that may well be a dated scenario. If it's clear that we're headed for a brokered convention, then it's likely that delegates will settle on a nominee in advance of the convention. In that event, the outcome will be a foregone conclusion–just as if it wasn't a brokered convention. As one pundit notes:

This year you can get delegate counts any time you want by going on, or any number of other websites. You can bet that all the candidates have the cellphone numbers and email addresses of every delegate, and will be in touch (or are already) with those who are currently not committed to them but could, initially or on a second ballot, vote for them. They probably know which magazines they subscribe to and which websites they favor (hint: check them out on Facebook). Campaigns won't wait till July in Cleveland to get in touch. And when a campaign has enough commitments to get 1,237 votes, it will let the media know, even as the media try to figure out who's getting close.

Hans Küng to “Pope Francis”: “Re-open discussion on ‘Infallibility’”

The renegade Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng has made an urgent appeal (urgent given that he is 88 years old) to his little buddy Bergoglio, a.k.a., “Pope Francis”, to “re-open the discussion on ‘Infallibility’”.

Küng notes, “I have spared no effort to collect the relevant texts, order them factually and chronologically according to the various phases of the altercation and elucidate them by putting them in a biographical context for Volume 5 of my complete works.” Much of what I took from this link was from Küng’s “Infallible? An Inquiry”.

“Receive this comprehensive documentation and allow a free, unprejudiced and open-ended discussion in our church of the all the unresolved and suppressed questions connected with the infallibility dogma. In this way, the problematic Vatican heritage of the past 150 years could be come to terms with honestly and adjusted in accordance with holy Scripture and ecumenical tradition. It is not a case of trivial relativism that undermines the ethical foundation of church and society. But it is also not about an unmerciful, mind-numbing dogmatism, which swears by the letter, prevents thorough renewal of the church’s life and teaching, and obstructs serious progress in ecumenism. It is certainly not the case of me personally wanting to be right. The well-being of the church and of ecumenism is at stake.

“I am very well aware of the fact that my appeal to you, who ‘lives among wolves,’ as a good Vatican connoisseur recently remarked, may possibly not be opportune. In your Christmas address of Dec. 21, 2015, however, confronted with curial ailments and even scandals, you confirmed your will for reform: ‘It seems necessary to state what has been — and ever shall be — the object of sincere reflection and decisive provisions. The reform will move forward with determination, clarity and firm resolve, since Ecclesia semper reformanda.

“I would not like to raise the hopes of many in our church unrealistically. The question of infallibility cannot be solved overnight in our church. Fortunately, you (Pope Francis) are almost 10 years younger than I am and will hopefully survive me. You will, moreover, surely understand that as a theologian at the end of his days, buoyed by deep affection for you and your pastoral work, I wanted to convey this request to you in time for a free and serious discussion of infallibility that is well-substantiated in the volume at hand: non in destructionem, sed in aedificationem ecclesiae, ‘not in order to destroy but to build up the church.’ For me personally, this would be the fulfillment of a hope I have never given up.”

It will be interesting to see how he expands on what he has already written about “Papal Infallibility”. Küng says he is not writing to destroy, but if ever there was a need for destruction, it is here. Wrong-headed from the start, both “papal infallibility” and “the papacy” both need to be headed toward “the ash-heap of history”. If anyone can muddy the waters right now (further than they have been muddied), it will be “Pope Francis”.

I should note that much of what Küng says is for the purpose of admitting things that Reformed believers would never admit to. On the other hand, Küng is someone of whom Steve has said, “knows where all the bodies are buried”. And of course, “Pope Francis” and Hans Küng are not far apart in many respects. Note the respect that “Pope Francis” has for Küng’s former assistant, Walter Cardinal Kasper, who today has most recently been instigating for a “pastoral” way to re-admit divorced-and-remarried Roman Catholics to communion.

This instigation for a new discussion of “Papal ‘Infallibility’” should prove interesting to say the least.

Round them up

1. Trump made some statements about Japanese internment last December. However, that was in the context of Muslim immigration policy, so the Japanese comparison got swamped by the Muslim issue. 

Muslims are a social mascot of the Left. By contrast, Asians tend to be ignored by the liberal establishment, when they are not positively discriminated against by the liberal establishment (i.e. college admissions). In addition, it's my impression that Asian-Americans are apt to be less political vocal, so Trump's statements about them didn't get the same buzz. 

2. Trump frequently makes statements that are denounced by both sides of the political spectrum. However, it's not enough to denounce his statements. Indeed, that can be counterproductive. The very statements that come in for denunciation are popular among his supporters, and they take this as vindication that he's the anti-Establishment candidate.

Therefore, we need to dissect some of his statements and explain what's wrong with them. In reference to Japanese internment, he said:

“I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he said during a recent interview in his office in New York City. “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”

But that gets it exactly backwards. Historical distance can give us a much better perspective than public officials at the time who were reacting in the heat of the moment. 

On Morning Joe, Trump appealed to FDR's internment policy as an analogous precedent to justify his position on Muslim immigration:

i) But that simply begs the question of whether FDR overreacted. 

ii) Moreover, the analogy is vitiated by equivocation. Islam is an ideology, not an ethnicity–unlike Japanese ancestry. 

3. In fairness, Trump is not the only person to suggest the internment was justifiable, and extrapolate from that example to Muslim counterterrorism. To take a lowbrow example, there's Michelle Malkin's In Defense of Internment: The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror.

But among other things, that suffers from the same specious and pernicious comparison: criminal profiling isn't equivalent to racial profiling. That conflates ethnicity with ideology. To be Japanese is not an ideological identity; to be Muslim is not an ethnic identity. 

4. To take a highbrow example, you have pragmatic, authoritarian judges like Richard Posner (Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency) and William Rehnquist (All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime) who view the Bill of Rights as an accordion that expands in peacetime and contracts in wartime. But there are basic problems with that approach:

i) Isn't the whole point of having a written Bill of Rights to isolate some civil liberties from the vicissitudes of politics and current events?

ii) I reject the false dichotomy between liberty and security. A police state isn't safer for the general public. Indeed, it's dangerous to the general public. 

iii) Likewise, I reject a dragnet approach to public safety. I don't object to criminal profiling. "Racial" profiling is usually a misnomer. 

5. Apropos (4), as US citizens, Japanese-Americans were entitled to full due process rights under the Constitution. Surely the interment policy was a flagrant violation of the Fifth Amendment. Not to mention the hardship of Japanese-Americans or foreign nationals who lost their homes and businesses in a fire sale. 

6. The rationale for internment was to take precautionary measures against domestic espionage and sabotage by Japanese-Americans. But there are multiple problems with that rationale:

i) Even if that was a legitimate concern, it doesn't contravene other considerations (see above, under #4-5). 

ii) What about the disparity of treatment? If folks with Japanese surnames are suspect, what about folks with German surnames like Hans Bethe and Dwight Eisenhower, or Russian surnames like Boris Pash and Igor Sikorsky, or Italian surnames like Enrico Fermi? These, too, were hostile countries. 

iii) A continental nation like the US was in no danger of being conquered by an island nation like Japan. Japan is about 146,000 square miles while the continguous US is about 3.2 million square miles. It's not as if Japan could stage a successful invasion and occupation. 

iv) American military intelligence was dependent on Japanese-Americans to serve as interpreters and translators. In addition, Japanese-American soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion fought with utmost dedication and valor. Evidently, Trump knows nothing about the contribution that Japanese-Americans made to the US war effort. For instance:

It's absurd to have folks fighting and dying to defend your country when their relatives are summarily incarcerated in internment camps. It's absurd to think they can be trusted to furnish vital expertise in military intelligence, but can't be trusted to live and work in the civilian population. 

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Wittgenstein and the Cambridge spy-circle

Recently I was wondering about the potential connection between Wittgenstein and the Cambridge spy-ring. I'm not the first person to suggest it. Reviewing Cornish's controversial book, Antony Flew said:

Chapter 2 concerns "The Spies of Trinity" (College, Cambridge). Mr Cornish opens by pressing a question never previously asked:  "What is the explanation for the fact that Wittgenstein was in 1935 offered the Chair of Philosophy in the University of Kazan?" An explanation is needed since Wittgenstein was very far from being a Marxist philosopher. And the Great Terror, which had been signalled by the assassination of S.M. Kirov in late 1934, was during 1935 in full swing.  Mr Cornish contends that the reason why the government of the USSR treated Wittgenstein with such peculiar generosity was that he had been the recruiter of all the Cambridge spies. 
The question whether or not this hypothesis is true or false can be definitively settled only if and when the relevant Soviet archives are examined. But I am myself as confident as without such knock-down decisive verification it is possible to be that Mr Cornish is right. For people who during the crucial years between Wittgenstein's return to Cambridge in 1929 and that 1935 offer were attending his classes and/or enjoying other personal contacts with him have given me accounts both of the extraordinary and overwhelming force of Wittgenstein's personality and of the absoluteness in those years of his Stalinist commitment.

My theory is different. Is there a homosexual connection? Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt were homosexual. So was Wittgenstein. Indeed, they were part of a homosexual subculture at Cambridge that also included John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and  Alan Turing. 

I'm not suggesting Wittgenstein was a spy or KGB recruiter, although that's possible, I suppose. But you have several mutually reinforcing elements in play. 

The Cambridge Apostles and Bloomsbury Circle reveled in a sense of intellectual superiority and contempt for average men and women. Both cultivated a libertine lifestyle and attitude. Homosexuality fostered sense of alienation from the general culture. Finally, atheism and homosexuality both foster a carpe diem attitude. Youth is fleeting. There is no afterlife. 

It becomes a question of sharing a common outlook on life. All you have are friendships. No sense of solidarity with humanity in general. Or the wellbeing of future generations. So your ultimately loyalties will be subversive. 

We Simply Don’t Care about What’s Important

Trumpeting Planned Parenthood

From James Jenkins:

Imagine a young man bringing his fiancé home to meet his parents for the very first time. He is very proud and tells his parents all of the wonderful things about her. She volunteers for two charitable organizations, is a great cook, plays the piano at church, has her degree in nursing and she is just an all - around great catch! But there's one small problem: For 11 days each year (only 3% yearly!), she insists on going to Las Vegas for sexual liaisons with strange men. She has no intention of curtailing these liasons while married. The parents are astonished, not only at the young woman's demands, but their son's defense of her behavior. “BUT SHE DOES SO MANY OTHER WONDERFUL THINGS!"

What we have here is a deal killer. No one in his right mind would marry under these terms. Why, then, would anyone with true pro-life credentials tout Planned Parenthood's good deeds when it's bad ones are legion? Providing a free breast exams does not make up for ripping faces off unborn human beings. Good deeds do not atone for bad ones.

Trump is ignoring the severity of abortion. Abortion is wrong because it intentionally destroys an innocent human being in the most inhumane way imaginable. Planned Parenthood performs over 300,000 abortions every year. Of course, PP claims only 3% of its activity is abortion-related. Fine. Then stop the 3% and the controversy ends! Planned Parenthood can enjoy near-unlimited funding from Congress. Of course, Planned Parenthood has zero interest in stopping abortion. For Donald Trump to highlight PP's alleged virtues while ignoring its known evil is tantamount to justifying spousal infidelity because you still have a majority interest in your adulterous wife's activity calendar!

In short, only by assuming that the unborn are not human can a person justify Planned Parenthood's alleged virtues. Would Trump or anyone else defend an organization which killed 2-year-olds but provided free pap smears to their mothers? Never in a million years--unless, of course, they assume toddlers aren't human!

Trump wants it both ways. He wants the pro-life vote, but he wants Planned Parenthood's services. God help us. A nation willing to live with that tension has aborted its conscience as well as its children.