Saturday, June 26, 2010

Twilight: What I hope my daughter learns

Twilight is phenomenally popular. For anyone who has somehow managed to avoid hearing by now, it is a teen vampire romance series, and the next installment is coming to theaters shortly. Really, as teen romances go, it's better than you might expect -- it earned the popularity, even if the hype is over-done.

In the series, Edward (vampire) Cullen has a near-uncontrollable bloodlust for human Bella Swan, whom he also happens to love. The author is a Mormon, and the books are packed with pro-abstinence messages about waiting for marriage, especially once the powerful vampire bloodlust is decoded as a stand-in for lust, especially in the form of raging teenage hormones.

Edward Cullen is actually an interesting character -- someone that the teenage boys could take some tips from despite his real flaws. (Real flaws include being wound way too tight, being almost pathologically insistent on blaming himself for everything, and being something of a drama king.) On the good side, though:
  • He takes responsibility for his own self-control
  • He takes religion seriously without any prompting from the females
  • He desires celibacy while unmarried simply because he believes it is right
  • He does not apologize for wanting to stay ethical, both for his own sake and for Bella's
  • Despite the fact that Bella literally begs him to take advantage of her once or twice, he refuses to use her lust (or, on one occasion, guilt) against her, and wants their first time to be better than that.
Now there's someone I could endorse dating my daughter ... if it weren't for the whole "undead" thing ... or is "mopey" worse than undead? ... hmm.

As the next movie comes to theaters this week, I hope my daughter has caught some of the subtext in the series:
  • Edward is more more dangerous to Bella than to anyone else precisely because he is so strongly attracted to her and wants her so badly
  • Bella is depending on Edward's self-control for her safety
  • Imagine if Edward had given in to Bella and they had faced their very unexpected pregnancy without the support of an actual marriage
That's on the "cautions" side, and the book does have a tendency to paint morality in the negative terms of thou-shalt-not's. Some positives of love are shown, but there is no real recognition that they are the aim and the goal of the whole thing, that the "shalt not's" are meant to clear a space where actual love can grow. Still, the book does show positives:
  • No one who can love is entirely a monster; love has redemptive power
  • Love is cause for celebration
  • Love is worth some risks
  • Love can be life-changing
Those are possibly not the deepest thoughts we've ever been moved to, but it is a teen romance series after all. The Twilight series has a lot of fun moments, and the underlying question of the book is an interesting one: What makes someone a monster?

P.S. Yes, I know some Christians have taken exception to the religious conversations between Edward and Bella. As a vampire, Edward believes himself to be eternally damned. Bella says she isn't interested in heaven without Edward. Does Bella disrespect the things of God? That's one reading; another possible reading is that she is a Christ figure who would give up heaven to redeem the one she loves.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Book of Mormon and the Bible: resolving an impasse with reference to surrounding cultures

Why I am not a Mormon, Part 4: World cultures, world geography, world history

Here I continue reviewing the options for finding an answer to questions about the ancient world. The case study question is about coins in the Book of Mormon, but it is just a case study for a larger point.

Well, ok, no manuscripts of the Book of Mormon and no idea of the original language of the Book of Mormon does pose a problem; are we out of options for finding an answer to our question? The world is a big place; there are usually multiple ways to find the answer to any given question. With the Bible, even if we had lost every ancient manuscript, even if we had no knowledge of the original language, just based on modern translations we could still check the culture of that place and time. There are all kinds of ways to date the happenings in the Bible, from the rulers they mention to the neighboring countries they mention to the wars they mention. From all these kinds of things we could place the happenings on a map and on a timeline, even if all the original manuscripts were gone and we had no idea of the original language. This could help us settle the question of what was in use for currency at the place and time in question. In the Bible, the mention of rulers like Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzer or Herod, kingdoms or empires like Persia and Babylon and Rome, places like Lebanon and Cyprus and Malta, cities like Nineveh and Tarshish and Jerusalem – these are known from world history. These are known from their own cultures. There are records of them entirely outside the Bible. All these would allow us to place the writing in its historical context even if we were so exceptionally challenged as to have no manuscripts at all and no idea of the original language at all.

Problem: with the book of Mormon, there hasn't been any real luck identifying the people or places mentioned. That's why Bibles come with maps and timelines showing how the events fit into the history of the world, and the Book of Mormon does not. It's as though nobody else in the New World had made a record of the culture that is claimed to have produced the Book of Mormon -- or even of themselves when they happened to interact with the people whose history is recounted in that book.

By this time, it is high time to wonder: how, exactly, can that be? But let's not give up yet. After all, there was a time when the anti-Bible skeptics claimed that Nazareth didn't exist at the time of Jesus, only to have a construction project in modern Nazareth show that the town was, after all, around in Jesus' day. Who is to say that the next construction project somewhere in the New World won't turn up evidence that some culture or place or person mentioned in the Book of Mormon may have been historical after all?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Book of Mormon and the Bible: resolving an impasse through the original languages

I have been tracking through one of the controversies about the Book of Mormon: does it discuss "coins" when there are no known coins from the ancient New World? I've reviewed one skeptical claim and the Mormon counter-claim. This series focuses not so much on the original question but on the background: if this question were raised about the Bible, would the conversation end there?

Why I am not a Mormon, Part 3: The original languages

Well, ok, as we have seen previously: having no manuscripts at all does pose a problem for someone wishing to study the Book of Mormon, but are we really out of options? With the Bible, even if somehow every manuscript of the Bible were lost or destroyed, we could still check into a question based on the original languages. We could see what words for money were in use at that time. That is to say, in ancient Hebrew (or in the Greek of 2000 years ago) we can check whether various words meant “coin” or “piece of metal.” We have knowledge apart from the Bible of the words that were used, what they meant or if there were different shades of meaning for some words.

Many people are familiar with translation issues in the Bible. Where there is some question about the best way to translate a passage or how best to render it in English, there are footnotes in Bibles that mention when alternate translations are possible. The original languages play a key to understanding the Bible, and scholarship of those languages has improved our understanding of the Bible over time. The cultures involved in writing the books of the Bible had living languages; many other works were written in those same languages. Scholars and linguists still study those languages in our colleges and universities and use them as tools to study not only the Bible but other written works as well. You can buy dictionaries of the languages in question. That kind of background knowledge of the original languages could get us a long way towards answering our question.

Problem: with the Book of Mormon, we do not know what the original language was supposed to have been. Again, this is vastly different from the Bible. In many Christian denominations, pastors and other leaders have to study the original ancient languages as part of their required education to join the ministry. This knowledge of the original languages is required so that they can read the literature in the original languages themselves. When it comes to the Bible, nobody is required to take on trust whether a passage originally said what someone else claims; anybody at all could take the time and trouble to research it for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Studying Hebrew and Greek is a requirement to becoming a minister in many Christian denominations because not only do we have actual ancient documents, but they are written in known ancient languages. Anyone – whether a skeptic, a believer, or any kind of inquirer – can research further based on known facts and an existing body of scholarship on the original languages. Not so with the Book of Mormon. Not only do we not have any manuscripts in the original language, but we do not even know what the original language was supposed to have been.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Book of Mormon and the Bible: resolving an impasse with ancient manuscripts

Why I am not a Mormon, Part 2: The ancient manuscripts

Last time I mentioned one of the controversies about the Book of Mormon: does it mention "coins", and is that a problem for claiming it is a product of the ancient New World? And I mentioned that the defenders of the Book of Mormon counter-claim that "coin" was not part of the original text. One claim; one counterclaim. Do we have an impasse?

Here's the thing: if this discussion were occurring about a passage in the Bible instead of the Book of Mormon, the discussion wouldn't end there. It wouldn't automatically be an impasse. The next step would be to go back to the manuscripts of the documents and research further in the original languages. We would look at any of the hundreds (or thousands) of copies of the documents that still exist in the original languages spanning various nations and centuries, and we would check the translation.

Problem: with the Book of Mormon, there are no ancient manuscripts. It's not that there are only a few manuscripts, or that they are in poor condition, but there are none at all. There is no way to check the completeness of the translation, or the accuracy of the translation. People have to take it on faith not only that the translation is correct, but even that there ever was an original document that was translated. That's vastly different from the Bible, in which so many copies remain and are a matter of study for papyrologists, archaeologists, historical linguists, and in short a host of scholars with various specialties who have actual, real ancient documents to study.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit was in town, I went to see the ancient manuscripts at the museum. There is no museum to visit to see an ancient copy of the Book of Mormon in the original languages.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Why I am not a Mormon: Introduction

It may seem strange to some people that I would bother explaining why I am not a Mormon. Most of us are familiar with the Mormon “elders” – generally a pair of teen-age looking boys with fresh, earnest faces and good intentions. Most of us don't really feel a need to explain to them exactly why we think they're mistaken – and it seems nearly heartless to explain it all to sweet, earnest youths who are so sure they're doing the right thing. And there's a risk in explaining it to them: I've met people on-line who are ex Mormons. After coming to the conclusion that Mormonism was all a big lie, some are so bitter and disillusioned that now they have given up faith in God and anything “religious” altogether. That may seem like an overreaction, but overreactions are part of human nature.

I have no interest in bashing Mormons. The Mormons I've known personally have mostly been hard-working and kind, good neighbors and good parents. And anyone with even the faintest interest in genealogy can appreciate the contribution the Mormon church has made in that area. Mormons generally lead clean and healthy lifestyles precisely because they're Mormons. I'm not sure whether they have a longer life-span than average, but it wouldn't surprise me if they did. You have to acknowledge that level of uprightness – and the fact that their church takes their moral authority seriously enough that they can help their people, when these day so many churches completely abdicate their moral responsibility to their members for fear of offending them.

So if Mormonism is a good influence morally and can be credited with creating a whole population noted for its healthy lifestyle, why write a piece disagreeing with it? Religion is a complicated thing. A religion can have a good ethical teaching and a good moral influence, and that does not necessarily mean it is on solid ground in what it teaches about history or the nature of God. Yoga has some good effects, but that does not by itself make the Hindu faith to be true. The Muslims have strong teachings on sexual morality that lead to praiseworthy, low rates of HIV infection in many Muslim lands, but again that does not by itself make their faith true. These good effects are evidence that certain teachings and practices have real-life benefits, but those particular teachings and practices are not the key beliefs of each group. So the real-life benefits that arise from good morals and good practices do not mean that their other beliefs are true.

The key claim of the Mormon church is, at the most basic, that the Book of Mormon is on the same level as the Bible. Because so much has already been written on the topic, I'd like to take a different approach. I will look at just one of the existing controversies about the Book of Mormon, not so much in order to answer the question behind the controversy, but to compare the kinds of tools we could use to resolve the controversy. As we will see at the end, it will lead us to a different kind of question. But here I will begin with one of the typical questions that arises about the Book of Mormon. It's a small question in itself, but it illustrates vital differences between the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

Why I am not a Mormon: An impasse?

Here's the question: The Book of Mormon mentions “coins”. Critics have claimed that, because the New World cultures did not have any coins before the Europeans arrived, that the reference to “coins” in the Book of Mormon is evidence that the Book of Mormon was made up by someone without good historical knowledge of the ancient New World, rather than actually being a product of the ancient New World. Mormons have responded by saying that the “coins” are referenced only in titles or headings added later after the original translation, and that the “pieces” of precious metals referenced in the original translated text of the Book of Mormon are measured out by weight and are not truly coins. In this way, the complete absence of archaeological evidence for coins would no longer be a conspicuous embarrassment to the Mormon community's claim that the Book of Mormon is the product of the ancient New World rather than the product of Joseph Smith's imagination.

That looks like an impasse, doesn't it? Two sides have made claims and counter claims, and there is no way to research it further. Each side has made its claim; each side has its own beliefs. How can we know any more than that? Each will believe what they will – won't they?

This is where the more interesting questions come into play. (To be continued.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

In which I admit to myself that busy season is upon me at work ...

Hi there

I've actually gone an entire week without posting, and looking at my hours at work this past week I have to admit: busy season is here. I've mentioned before that I have some new pieces I've been waiting to post until busy season; they'll be up next. I will still be interacting with any comments, since this is the first time I've put these particular thoughts out in public.

Thanks for your patience during the annual busy season at work.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

So "TEOTWAWKI" wasn't a character from the movie Avatar?

I recently met the acronym TEOTWAWKI: The End Of The World As We Know It. Kind of sad that it has its own acronym, isn't it?

But I came across it on some websites that were part of my research as I've taken up hobbyist-level gardening, and have been reading up on sustainability, re-using seeds (no hybrids!) and so forth. It's also the beginnings of hurricane season and I live in hurricane country, so I've been making sure my disaster preparedness plans are all set for the upcoming year. But these days, if you google "disaster preparedness plans", you generally find people worrying about something more interesting than hurricane season.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not bothered by people who try to live sustainable lives in their own back yards, or take their gardening to the next level as part of a survival plan, or do urban homesteading, or any of that. It has a kind of geeky appeal that I thoroughly understand. I mean, there were Victory Gardens in WWII, right? What bothers me is that some people are seriously discussing, as part of their TEOTWAWKI plans, having enough ammo to blast away the mobs that would steal all of their food. Sure, food is a survival matter; sure, stealing is wrong; sure, self-defense is justifiable. It's just that, if we're seriously planning for things we can buy to make us less likely to starve to death if a hungry mob comes along, how about enough seeds for them too, and some spare flour to keep them going until then? Just saying.

The main fault I see in the TEOTWAWKI discussions I've seen on-line is this: not taking seriously the need to *rebuild*, not just merely survive. And that takes being able to see people as a community -- even if they're too panicked to act like one at the moment.

Just food for thought, if we see the mythical TEOTWAWKI in our day.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Jabez maneuver: Jehovah's Witnesses and "stauros"

I am friendly with the Jehovah's Witnesses in my neighborhood. They do their best to serve God; anybody who does that has earned some respect from me. I believe they are deceived; and I believe they were deceived (and continue to deceive others, unknowingly) by the use of "the Jabez maneuver" -- a pet name I've had for the tactic of using obscure trivia to mask shallow knowledge and instead claim expertise.


Did you know that "stauros" -- the Greek word used in the New Testament for "cross" -- originally meant something like "stake"? The Jehovah's Witnesses are banking on you not knowing that. They believe that the whole church went far astray very early in its history, and is deceiving people about all kinds of things and hiding information and so forth. It's fairly boilerplate conspiracy-theory stuff. One thing they advance as proof is that "stauros" meant "stake" -- that Jesus was crucified/impaled on a vertical stake without a crossbar. Their artwork of the crucifixion has Jesus on a vertical stake, his hands pinned above his head rather than out to the sides. The traditional style of cross is considered something like a pagan import; "stauros" proves that the Jehovah's Witnesses are the true remnant of original Christianity, while our cross-shaped crosses prove we're the apostates, you see.

Besides the shape of the cross being irrelevant for our knowledge of Christ, it also ignores all kinds of information about the history of crucifixion as capital punishment, placing most of the weight of the argument on a single Greek word for a Roman form of punishment. Still, they claim that "stauros" is the key piece of knowledge. Many Christians have advanced arguments from the gospels, from ancient Roman sources, and from early Christian writings showing that the cross of Jesus was actually a cross (not that it much matters, other than keeping the Jehovah's Witnesses from sheep-stealing by advancing faulty arguments). I'd like to add one more piece of information: how the words for "cross" and "crucify" (you know, the "stauros" type words) were written in the oldest copies of the Gospels that we have.

The staurogram

One of the oldest manuscripts we have of the Gospels is a papyrus known as P75. Scholars date it somewhere around 175-225 A.D. -- fairly early in Christian history. In that papyrus, the scribe used special forms for the words "cross" and "crucify" (stauros and its cousin the verb stauroo - pardon the transliteration there, I'm not really going to switch over to another font just to get an omega). The Greek letter tau (second letter of stauros) looks roughly like our upper-case T; the Greek letter rho (fifth letter of stauros) looks roughly like our upper-case P. In several cases where the words "cross" or "crucify" appear in this ancient manuscript, the scribe has gone out of his way to drop out the "au" so that he can write the T and P shapes on top of each other, making something that physically resembles a person on a cross.

This is an enlargement of an actual photo of part of Luke 24:7 in the ancient papyrus P75. Luke 24:7 reads, "The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day be raised again." The italicized part ("and be crucified", or "kai staurothenai") is the part shown in the image above. The original image can be found here, where if you patiently count down to the 25th line of text on that page and look towards the end of the line, you will see the original written by the hand of a scribe somewhere around the year 200 A.D. The word has a horizontal line written above it indicating the special form of the word. Notice how two letters have been dropped in order that the scribe can make the T and P shapes overlap to resemble a human figure on a cross.

There are several places in this ancient manuscript where either the noun for cross (stauros) or its matching verb for crucify are written with that special form. Other ancient manuscripts have been found from roughly the same time with the same special form of stauros: a form where the writing has been deliberately arranged to physically resemble a man on a cross. Given that there are other manuscripts from around the same time, it is really unlikely that these are the first people ever to write "stauros" that way; it was more likely becoming an accepted practice in Christian circles. But this would make it an accepted practice in Christian circles by around 200 A.D. to write "stauros" in a way that it was clear that, in this case, "stauros" itself did not mean a stake.