A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Noise of the Day 9/30/09

Gene Lyons on the warmongering of Beltway pundits.
TV news anchors gravely pronounce upon the "Iranian threat," as if a nation whose military budget totals less than 2 percent of ours, and which suffered millions of casualties defending itself against Saddam Hussein's mighty legions, seeks war with the United States. Or possibly with Israel, although detonating a nuclear weapon there would kill countless thousands of Iran's Palestinian clients, destroy some of Islam's holiest sites and bring a devastating counter-strike from Israel's nuclear arsenal. Skeptics are advised that Iran's (very unpleasant) leaders are "madmen," like Adolf Hitler. "Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman," as Cohen famously wrote in 2003, "could conclude otherwise." Never mind that the Post columnist was then invoking the dread specter of Saddam Hussein's (nonexistent) "weapons of mass destruction." Also that we fools and Frenchmen turned out to be correct. Bogus intelligence and vapid cheerleading drove the United States into an unnecessary war.

Rachel Maddow on how the Republicans are shocked, shocked by Rep. Alan Grayson.

Gail Collins on Obama's Olympics trip.
No American president has gone to lobby for the Olympics before. But then no American president had gone on the David Letterman show before. No president had ever made a speech in Cairo before. No president had ever been called a liar by a U.S. representative during a speech to Congress. No president had ever been accused of “following Marxist theory” by Andy Williams, the pop singer we haven’t heard from since “Moon River” was in vogue.

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Part III: The Invention of Christianity

These days, proclaiming oneself a Christian can put you in the company of political belligerents, right-wingers and ideologues. Which may be one reason I now choose to call myself an agnostic rather than what my upbringing suggests: a conflicted Christian. But reading Wright's account of the origins of Christianity does reinforce my sense of alienation from the religion in which I was raised.

For one thing, Wright's depiction of the "historical Jesus" is somewhat unsettling: He comes across as anything but the Sunday School "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," or even the appealing, if austere, moral philosopher that I fancied him as in my maturity. If, as Wright does, we take the gospel of Mark as "the most factually reliable of the four gospels" because it's the earliest in composition and hence closest to the time in which Jesus lived, he "sounds rather like other healers and exorcists who roamed Palestine at the time" and "like a classic shaman in a 'primitive' society." Moreover, "the earliest renderings of his message will disappoint Christians who credit Jesus with bringing the good news of God's boundless compassion."
In short, if we are to judge by Mark, the earliest and most reliable of the four gospels, the Jesus we know today isn't the Jesus who really existed. The real Jesus believes you should love your neighbors, but that isn't to be confused with loving all mankind. He believes you should love God, but there's no mention of God loving you. In fact, if you don't repent of your sins and heed Jesus's message, you will be denied entry into the kingdom of God.... In Mark there is no Sermon on the Mount, no beatitudes. Jesus doesn't say, "Blessed are the meek" or "Turn the other cheek" or "Love your enemy."
To be sure, there exists the possibility that what's missing from Mark -- including the Sermon on the Mount -- may have been recorded in another document, known as "Q," that was a source for Matthew and Luke, "and some scholars think it was much earlier, bearing at least as close a connecton to the 'historical Jesus' as Mark does." But in Wright's view of things, what Jesus actually said is less important than what Paul made of his words and his life. "[M]ore than Jesus, apparently, Paul was responsible for injecting [Christianity] with the notion of interethnic brotherly love."
In the Roman Empire, the century after the Crucifixion was a time of dislocation. People streamed into cities from farms and small towns, encountered alien cultures and peoples, and often faced this flux without the support of kin.... The Christian church was offering the spirit of kinship that people needed.... In that letter to the Corinthians that is featured at so many weddings, Paul used the appellation "brothers" more than twenty times.
Wright sees Paul as an entrepreneur, "who wanted to extend the brand, the Jesus brand; he wanted to set up franchises -- congregations of Jesus followers -- in cities across the Roman Empire." As the CEO of Christianity, he used the only "information technology" he had at hand, the epistles, "to keep church leaders in line." And the "brotherly love" that he promoted in his letters was a way of making "churches attractive places to be" and also "a tool Paul could use at a distance to induce congregational cohesion."

Another means to attracting followers among the Gentiles was to rid the church of some of the harsher aspects of Jewish Law, such as circumcision:
In the days before modern anesthesia, requiring grown men to have penis surgery in order to join a religion fell under the rubric "disincentive." Paul grasped the importance of such barriers to entry. So far as Gentiles were concerned, he jettisoned most of the Jewish dietary code and, with special emphasis, the circumcision mandate.
Still, "Paul may have considered himself a good, Torah-abiding Jew, albeit one who, in contrast to most other Jews, was convinced that the Jewish messiah had finally arrived. (In none of his letters does Paul use the word 'Christian.')"

Paul also went out of his way to recruit converts from among the well-to-do. "Though Christianity is famous for welcoming the poor and powerless into its congregations, to actually run the congregations Paul needed people of higher social position." Wright notes that the early convert mentioned in Acts, Lydia, was "a dealer in purple cloth," which was "a pricey fabric, made with a rare dye. Her clientele was wealthy, and she had the resources to have traveled to Macedonia from her home in Asia Minor. She was the ancient equivalent of someone who today makes a transatlantic or transpacific flight in business class." And one of the perks of becoming a Christian was that the churches offered hospitality -- lodging, advice, "connections," etc. -- to other Christian travelers.
Paul's international church built on existing cosmopolitan values of interethnic tolerance and amity, but in offering its international networking services to people of means, it went beyond those values; a kind of interethnic love was the core value that held the system together.
But we haven't quite got to the concept of universal love yet. "If you were outside the circle of proper belief, Christians didn't really love you -- at least, they didn't love you the way they loved other Christians.... Even the people who had introduced this God to the world, the Jews, didn't qualify for the kingdom of heaven unless they abandoned Judaism."

Paul's organizational skills wouldn't have been enough to allow Christianity to survive if he hadn't had a product to sell. That product was salvation: "The heart of the Christian message is that God sent his son to lay out the path to eternal life." The odd thing is that this notion of "Jesus as heavenly arbiter of immortality ... would have seemed strange to followers of Jesus during his lifetime." T
he whole question of heaven, of the kingdom of God, grew more complicated when it became more apparent that the kingdom Jesus preached was not going to arrive in the lifetimes of the first believers.

Wright points out, "In the gospels, Jesus doesn't say he'll return." He refers instead to prophesies in the Hebrew Bible of "a 'Son of Man' ... who will descend from the skies at the climax of history." It took much ingenious reasoning on the part of early Christians to interpret this as Jesus referring to himself. But it "may have been crucial in the eventual triumph of Christianity.... The postmortem identification of Jesus with the Son of Man was a key evolutionary adaptation."
Wright notes, "It is more than a decade after Paul's ministry before Christian literature clearly refers to immediate reward for the good in the afterlife.... Had Christian doctrine not made this turn, it would have lost credibility as the kingdom of God failed to show up on earth -- as generations and generations of Christians were seen to have died without getting their reward."

Of course, the concept of immortal life was not unique to Christianity, so what the young religion also needed to do was provide what other religions also did: "not just a heavenly expectation, but an earthly experience: a dramatic sense of release," a lifting of people's "burdensome sense of their moral imperfection -- the sense of sin." One of Paul's contributions to the selling of Christianity was to define sin "so that the avoidance of it sustains the cohesion and growth of the church." So in the epistle to the Galatians, Paul provides a list of sins, of which only two "-- idolatry and sorcery -- are about theology. The rest are about workaday social cohesion" -- things like adultery, promiscuity, drunkenness, jealousy, envy, anger. Avoiding these sins "makes a blissful afterlife contingent on your moral fiber -- a fiber that, in turn, gives sinew to the church itself."

In the end, the arrival of Christianity also signified a next step in the evolution of god -- the concept of the deity as "protective, consoling, and, if demanding, at least able to forgive." But he cautions against attributing this concept entirely to Christianity. It arose in part because of the development of civilization, which "defused old sources of insecurity" such as attacks from wild animals or the need to hunt for one's daily sustenance, but also created new psychological insecurities.
Christians worship a loving father God, and many of them think this god is distinctively Christian: whereas the God of the Old Testament features an austere, even vengeful, father, the God of the New Testament -- the God revealed by Christianity -- is a kind and forgiving father. This view is too simple, and not only because a god who is kind and merciful shows up repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, but because such gods had shown up long before the Hebrew Bible was written.... Any religion that grew as fast as Christianity did must have been meeting common human needs, and it's unlikely that common human needs would have gone unmet by all earlier religions.

Christianity was the outgrowth of a particular social system, but that system has radically changed. "When Christianity reigned in Rome, and, later, when Islam was at the height of its geopolitical influence, the scope of these religions roughly coincided with the scope of whole civilizations." But now the world "is so interconnected and interdependent that Christianity and Islam, like it or not, inhabit a single social system -- the planet."
So when Christians, in pursuing Christian salvation, and Muslims, in pursuing Muslim salvation, help keep their religions intact, they're not necessarily keeping the social system they inhabit intact. Indeed, they sometimes seem to be doing the opposite.

Nicety of the Day 9/30/09

Connie Casey recalls the early days of the National Book Critics Circle -- a time when the Mercury News had a (gulp) 12-page stand-alone book section.
“Is this your school paper, honey?” said the publicity director of a major publishing house somewhere in Manhattan’s East 50s. I’d been hired to start a book section for the San Jose Mercury News and given 12 pages to fill in a Sunday tabloid—Arts & Books. Different days. Needless to say, the Merc no longer has a book section. There barely is a Mercury News at all.