Saturday, August 31, 2013

Alas, Seamus Heaney Is Dead

And more's the pity...

Irish poet and man of letters, Seamus Heaney translated my favorite edition of Beowulf. I made a gift of that translation to my late and much lamented friend Eric S.H. Ching one Christmas not so long ago.  Heaney's passing also reminds me of my embarrassing, odd, and unrequited ambivalence about my Irish heritage.  

Rest in peace, Seamus Heaney, aged only 74 years...gone too soon.

How soon the grave beckons, inexorable, regardless the quality of our contribution.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Homegrown Violent Extremism by Erroll Southers

Brought to our attention by Arnold Bogis at Homeland Security Watch...

Thanks for bringing our attention to Erroll Southers’ new book Homegrown Violent Extremism

Coincidentally, Mr. Southers is currently working for Johnathan Tal, of TAL Global, an associate of mine from the Silicon Valley days.  Southers has a blog where he discussed his book in a recent post in which he reminds us:

Absent a set of specific criteria, we will continue to direct the vast majority of our national security efforts against only one violent ideology (i.e., Muslim extremism).

The federal government has had a legal definition of terrorism for quite some time.

Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
By that measure most (almost all) of the terrorism we have experienced in the U.S. since 1865 has been the work of angry white men, not transnational Islamist extremists. There was a time when the federal government aggressively investigated the bombing of churches and the assassination of civil rights workers without regard to the skin color of the perpetrators or victims. Unfortunately, these days our frightened neighbors and their political representatives are not much interested in chasing anti-government extremists, white supremacists, anti-semites, tax protesters, violent homophobes, or “right to life” bombers and assassins, especially, it seems, if they happen to be white and nominally Christian. There is some tolerance for tracking down the tree-hugging arsonists, animal-loving vandals, balaclava-clad anarchists, but they’re radical lefties and probably atheists after all. I suppose it all depends on whose ox is gored, or what sort of news coverage sells the most advertising.

I look forward to reading Mr. Southers’ book.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Back to School

At good old iTunes U...

Got some serious drive-time coming up so I'm loading the iPhone 5 with my usual variety of courses from iTunes U.

Bibliology/Theology Proper

Knowing why Bible-believing Christians bestow upon their scriptures inspiration, inerrancy, and authority is interesting to me.  Is there a practical difference between Biblicism and Bibliology as practiced by the fundamentalist? Perhaps I'll find out in the course of 51 episodes.  So far Dr. David J. MacLeod - Dean for Biblical Studies and the Program Director for Biblical Studies, Bible Exposition and Theology at Emmaus Bible College, is earnest but not compelling.

Crass Plagiarism

Instead of Jewish authors cribbing foundation myths from their Babylonian captors, Dr. John Currid - professor of Old Testament at RTS, argues that Moses engaged in a polemical take-down of other Near Eastern theologies.  Interesting spin from the Reformed tradition.  Now where's that Occam's Razor?

Genesis Through Joshua

Dr. Richard P. Belcher, Jr. -Professor of Old Testament at RTS, engages in all the acrobatics necessary to explain a literal and inerrant Genesis (even without mentioning non-literal scholarship) without much success.  Seems it helps to believe it before trying to make sense of it.  UPDATE: Finished. It's not a bad course if a person wants to understand a literalist view of the Pentateuch from a Reformed perspective.

Colonial and Revolutionary America


New Thinking: Advances in the Study of Human Cognitive Evolution

Thought and Experience

Philosophical Problems

Philosophy of Mind

Religion x3, check.  History x1, check.  Science x3, check.  Philosophy x2, check.

Diet Coke and beef jerky?  Oops, almost ready...

C'mon, open road! 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Whale Rider

An engaging film about the importance of tradition, change, and hope...

Whale Rider is a 2002 film by director Niki Caro.  The story opens with a tragedy that threatens ancient tradition in a remote Maori community. A powerful performance by 12 year-old actress Keisha Castle-Hughes earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 2004.

I saw Whale Rider when it was first released in the U.S. but not since.  But I was asked to speak this last weekend at the HD690 seminar for the Saint Mary's M.A. Human Development program and I got to thinking about films that resonated with me while I was doing my coursework.  Whale Rider would be a great tie-in for my friend Jim Notebaart's class on ritual.  He and I are going to watch it one of these next few weekends.

On that note, of all the neat surprises I encountered as I dug around for links to Whale Rider is that fact that you can watch it in its entirety, for free, today, right now, via a link to Hulu from the IMDB website.  Very cool.

Another delightful feature of the film is its ethereal soundtrack by Lisa Gerrard which I find to be just about perfect listening while reading.

This thoughtful, finely crafted film is worth your time.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

If The NSA Was Cable TV

Unintended consequences or inscrutable public policy...?

When you fire 90% of your system administrators your system crashes.

When your system crashes you can't spy on anyone.

When you can't spy on anyone there's no sensitive information to leak...

You know, this just might work.

"Don't have a grandson with a dog collar" image courtesy of DirectTV

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kerygma and Myth

Ooh, crunchy outside, chewy inside...

Like the title of my blog suggests, my choices in reading material are eclectic, if not largely random.  Many of the books on my To Read list are there for no reason but serendipity. More than a few of my favorites were found not only at my favorite used bookstore, Half Price Books, they were plucked from the haphazard clutter of the closeout shelves and purchased for a only a dollar or two.  So it is with my study of religion and its history.  Other than a philosophical inclination to soft atheism and a deep appreciation for the neurobiological origins of the religious impulse, my theological studies lack any sort of orderliness.

Thus we come to Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, by Rudolph Bultmann and Five Critics.  It was edited by Hans Werner Bartsch and translated by Reginald H. Fuller.  The cover looks like it was done by Maurice Sendak but it wasn't.  Judging by the name imprinted on the fly leaf of my copy it was formerly owned by Rev. Dr. Gene Straatmeyer.  A receipt from the University Dubuque Book Store dated 28 January 1965 suggests it was one of six items purchased that day for a total of $8.60.  I so love used book stores!

A reprinting of Bultmann's 1941 essay, "The New Testament and Mythology," including five responses to it, two responses by Bultmann to his critics' essays, and yet another afterward, "Kerygma and Myth" is a gold mine of challenging ideas and most excellent quotations on the merits and demerits of Biblical Christianity as it was taught in the early 20th century. It's a chewy read, like the sort of sticky caramel that threatens to pull your fillings out of your teeth. Bultmann and his peers were deep into a sophisticated and nuanced theology one does not encounter among our current surplus of evangelical apologists or the dominant wing of Roman Catholicism that seem intent on stealing the Religious Right's conservative credentials. 

Here are a few that I find most striking:

The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. (Page 1)

To this extent the kerygma is incredible to modern man, for he is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete. (3)

Can Christian preaching expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true? To do so would be both senseless and impossible. It would be senseless, because there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age. (3)

A blind acceptance of the New Testament mythology would be arbitrary, and to press for its acceptance as an article of faith would be to reduce faith to works. (3)

The miracles of the New Testament have ceased to be miraculous, and to defend their historicity by recourse to nervous disorders or hypnotic effects only serves to underline the fact. (5) 

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. (5)

And to attribute human mortality to the fall of Adam is sheer nonsense, for guilt implies personal responsibility, and the idea of original sin as an inherited infection is sub-ethical, irrational, and absurd. (7)

Moreover, if the Christ who died such a death was the pre-existent Son of God, what could death mean for him? Obviously very little, if he knew that he would rise again in three days! (8)

The real purpose of myth is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives. (10)

Mythology is the use of imagery to express the other worldly in terms of this world and the divine in terms of human life, the other side in terms of this side. (10)  

Myth is an expression of man’s conviction that the origin and purpose of the world in which he lives are to be sought not within it but beyond it -- that is, beyond the realm of known and tangible reality... (10) 

The kenosis of the pre-existent Son (Phil. 2: 6ff.) is incompatible with the miracle narratives as proofs of his messianic claims. (11)

The liberal theologians of the last century were working on the wrong lines. They threw away not only the mythology but also the kerygma itself. (12)

The danger both for theological scholarship and for the Church is that this uncritical resuscitation of the New Testament mythology may make the Gospel message unintelligible to the modern world. (12)
[W]hereas the older liberals used criticism to eliminate the mythology of the New Testament, our task to-day is to use criticism to interpret it.(12)
History may be of academic interest, but never of paramount importance for religion. (13)

Christian faith is not the same as religious idealism; the Christian life does not consist in developing the individual personality, in the improvement of society, or in making the world a better place. The Christian life means a turning away from the world, a detachment from it...Hence the supreme manifestation of religion was to be found not in personal ethics or in social idealism but in the cultus regarded as an end in itself.  (14)

Can the kerygma be interpreted apart from mythology? Can we recover the truth of the kerygma for men who do not think in mythological terms without forfeiting its character as kerygma? (15)

Perhaps [Paul, Rom. 5:12] means to say that with Adam death became possible rather than inevitable. (18) 

Everybody tries to hold fast to his own life and property, because he has a secret feeling that it is all slipping away from him. (19) 

This is what is meant by "faith": to open ourselves freely to the future. But at the same time faith involves obedience, for faith means turning our backs on self and abandoning all security. (19)

The new life in faith is not an assured possession or endowment, which could lead only to libertinism. Nor is it a possession to be guarded with care and vigilance, which could lead only to asceticism. (21)
[F]aith, by detaching man from the world, makes him capable of fellowship in community. Now that he is delivered from anxiety and from the frustration which comes from clinging to the tangible realities of the visible world, man is free to enjoy fellowship with others. (22)
[C]an we have a Christian understanding of Being without Christ? (23)

[A]ll history, not only Christian history, involves transference of power. (24)

For him the chief characteristic of man’s Being in history is anxiety. Man exists in a permanent tension between the past and the future. At every moment he is confronted with an alternative. Either be must immerse himself in the concrete world of nature, and thus inevitably lose his individuality, or he must abandon all security and commit himself unreservedly to the future, and thus alone achieve his authentic Being. [24]

For Heidegger man has lost his individuality, and therefore he invites him to recover his true selfhood. [27]

How then, if the fall be total, can man be aware of his plight?  [29]

Now, it is clear from the outset that the event of Christ is of a wholly different order from the cult-myths of Greek or Hellenistic religion. Jesus Christ is certainly presented as the Son of God, a pre-existent divine being, and therefore to that extent a mythical figure. But he is also a concrete figure of history -- Jesus of Nazareth. His life is more than a mythical event; it is a human life which ended in the tragedy of crucifixion. [34]

The New Testament claims that this Jesus of history, whose father and mother were well known to his contemporaries (John 6:42) is at the same time the pre-existent Son of God, and side by side with the historical event of the crucifixion it sets the definitely non-historical event of the resurrection. [34]

The doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence as given by St. Paul and St. John is difficult to reconcile with the legend of the Virgin birth in St. Matthew and St. Luke. [34]

The cross releases men not only from the guilt, but also from the power of sin. [36]

For them the cross was the cross of him with whom they had lived in personal intercourse. The cross was an experience of their own lives. It presented them with a question and it disclosed to them its meaning. But for us this personal connection cannot be reproduced. For us the cross cannot disclose its own meaning: it is an event of the past. We can never recover it as an event in our own lives. All we know of it is derived from historical report. [38]

[B]oth the legend of the empty tomb and the appearances insist on the physical reality of the risen body of the Lord (see especially Luke 24:39-43). But these are most certainly later embellishments of the primitive tradition. St. Paul knows nothing about them. [39]

The eyewitnesses therefore guarantee St. Paul’s preaching, not the fact of the resurrection. An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable! Yes indeed: the resurrection of Jesus cannot be a miraculous proof by which the skeptic might be compelled to believe in Christ. [39]

No; the real difficulty is that the resurrection is itself an article of faith, and you cannot establish one article of faith by invoking another. You cannot prove the redemptive efficacy of the cross by invoking the resurrection.  [40]

It is precisely its immunity from proof which secures the Christian proclamation against the charge of being mythological. [44]

Fascinating stuff.

 All that said, I find it striking that these essays were written and presented at meetings in Germany during the Second World War.  It feels strange and somehow incorrect to me that these men of faith applied their prodigious talents and energies to go at each other hammer and tongs while their government was grinding Europe under its brutal boot, building extermination camps, and hurtling toward an ignominious devastation of the German people.  We're told Bultmann and his peers spoke out against some Nazi excesses, but inasmuch as they all seem to have survived the war, they must have chosen their battles more carefully than their coreligionist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who did not.

UPDATE: I wrote to the Reverend Doctor Straatmayer as follows:

Dear Rev. Dr. Straatmeyer,
I hope you'll forgive an intrusion from a stranger, but you and I have a very particular book in common.  I live in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and enjoy browsing the stacks at our local Half Price Books used bookstore.  Recently I purchased a copy of Kerygma and Myth by Rudolph Bultmann and Five Critics there.  When I opened it I found your name stamped on the fly leaf and a receipt from the University of Dubuque bookstore dated 28 JUN 65.  I finished the book this evening and thought I'd reach out to you to mention our small, strange connection.  I wrote a brief review of the book and the nature of serendipity on my blog I don't want to trouble you, but if you have time to tell me what you thought of the book, how you used it in your studies or ministry, and how it came to be resold in my local used book store I'd love to hear from you.  In any case, thank you for consigning your Bultmann. Had you not done so there is no telling when I might have gotten around to reading him.  Be well, Reverend.

Best Regards,


PS I enjoyed your recollection of Salem Presbyterian Church, Tea, SD. It reminded me of my mother's small country church in Traill County, ND, which recently closed.  Mother converted to Roman Catholicism in order to marry my father, but in my youth I attended several weddings, too many funerals, and more than a few Sunday services at Norway Lutheran Church.

I am excited at the prospect of a reply... 

I was taking continuing education at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary when I bought the book. I was raised in evangelical/conservative German Presbyterianism and after seminary (I read, read and read some more), Blaise Pascal started me moving toward a more open, inquiring view of my faith. Bultmann was one of the courses I took and he aided and abetted the process. From there I moved on to Bonhoeffer. And after that I just kept reading and reading and reading some more.

I have no idea how that book got into your neck of the woods. I am thinking I did not give it away but rather loaned it to someone who never gave it back and who unloaded it whenever since I had probably by then moved to Alaska and it was too large a distance for most Iowans to comprehend, even by mail.

I am presently writing a history of the German Synod of the West where I grew to faith and the child it produced, the University of Dubuque - College and Seminary. About 100 churches were a part of this group and I will have a history of each of them when I am finished. I am third generation American from Ostfriesland in Northwest Germany. In 2011, we spent six weeks in the village of my grandfather Straatmeyer in Loquard. We hope to go back next year. The Salem Church is just one among the many others where German was the language of communication until 1942 - the war.

Thanks for the contact.
Gene Straatmeyer

Reverend Straatmeyer's long lost copy of Kerygma and Myth - much the worse for wear and highlighted in the extreme - is in the mail on its way back to him.   

I so love used book stores!

Helping Sick People Can Get You Hurt

Free On-line Violence Prevention Training for Nurses...

The NIOSH Science Blog is not updated very often but when it is I always pay close attention.  Today they posted on a topic near and dear to yours truly - violence in the workplace.  Anyone who's been paying attention to this issue for past couple decades knows that healthcare and social service professionals serving disordered, intoxicated, pain-wracked, angry, or frightened patients is a recipe for a shiner, or worse. 

In 2012, the Healthcare and Social Assistance (HCSA) sector was amongst the largest industry sectors in the U.S. employing an estimated 19.4 million workers (13.5% of the total workforce)[1]. On average, over the last decade, U.S. healthcare workers have accounted for two-thirds of the nonfatal workplace violence injuries in all industries involving days away from work [2]. Healthcare workers face the risk of both physical violence and non-physical violence, such as verbal abuse, on the job. These numbers represent only the assaults that resulted in time away from work and not the less severe physical injuries or the psychological trauma that HCSA workers experience from workplace violence. Additionally, these data only capture the reported incidents. The literature suggests that the number of assaults reported by healthcare workers is greatly under-reported.

The CDC (aka the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has developed a brief and free on-line course to help providers help without getting hurt.  In true federal style they wasted no money on titling their new program, Workplace Violence Prevention for Nurses - CDC Course Number WB1865.  Still, their heart and our tax dollars are being put where they're needed. 

Because no one should come home with a black eye for being nice...

Monday, August 5, 2013

Unbelievable Indeed

Faith as Pseudoscience...

Last week Justin Brierly hosted on his radio program (and podcast) Unbelievable a much anticipated episode addressing Young Earth Creationism versus its more sensible alternatives.  Does the Rock and Fossil Record Point to Noah's Flood or Evolution? ought to be finished science, but biblicists clinging to long supplanted theories of geologic catastrophism hold out hope and continue throw around a lot of sciency chaff to impress the faithful.

Young Earther and Intelligent Design proponent (?) Andy Macintosh's commitment to his conclusions marks his efforts as pseudoscience - choosing facts to fit beliefs.  His primary tool appears to be an "argument from incredulity" - a PhD chemist can't imagine a complex idea from outside his discipline so therefore it couldn't happen.  For example, he apparently regards bird feathers as both irreducibly complex and obviously unrelated to reptile scales.  If Professor Macintosh had studied the literature with an open mind (or spent 30 seconds entering the Google search terms: evo devo scales feathers fur) he'd understand that the study of evolutionary development has long offered credible postulates for the expression variously of scales, feathers, and fur over time.  The most accessible paper served up may be Which Came First, the Feather or the Bird? American Scientific, March 2003.  

Professor Macintosh's opponent in the discussion was Cambridge paleontologist Robert Asher, who did his best to defend a more scientific view of biological origins and development.  It was a tough and testy slog.

On a much more rewarding note, I just listened to Krista Tippett's uncut interview with David Montgomery (author of The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood) for the 1 August 2013 On Being episode titled Reading the Rocks: Flood Stories and Deep Time.  Haven't listened to the produced podcast, but the raw dialogue is sometimes more fun.  Tippett's is the other religious podcast I enjoy regularly (I listen to Bill Craig's Reasonable Faith podcast too, but primarily because it irritates me so).

UPDATE: Ouch! The follow on episode was much worse and horribly sad. The mountain of flawed thought processes required to resolve Professor McIntosh's cognitive dissonance must be an extremely heavy burden. Ironically, his fideist biblicism is a greater threat to Christianity than any angry atheist. And to think he was once a scientist. Poor fellow. It's quite sad actually, but do let's keep this man away from the science classroom!

Artist's impression of the world's most ancient bird species, Aurornis xui, from

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

From the front of the queue to the "read it" shelf...

I finished Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth last evening.  I bumped it to the top of my "to read" list after the shabby treatment Aslan received on Fox.

There is little in Zealot not already covered by White, Frederiksen, or even Ehrman, but Aslan has a very engaging story telling style so the The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth feels more accessible.  

UPDATE: The plot thins...