Monday, February 28, 2011

women's biblical role

"this is an especially important point to keep in mind when considering women's religious life in ancient israel and judah. the yahwistic cult, as it is presented in the bible, is one that was almost exclusively in the hands of men. despite certain evidence to the contrary...the reality for women was that opportunities for spiritual expression within the biblical tradition were sparse. there was little choice for a woman who wished to participate fully in a religious life but to avail herself of ritual behaviors that thrived outside the priestly and prophetic purview. when read in this light, poems like isa. 1:21-23 and especially 57:3, 6-13 serve not so much as evidence of female apostasy, but as testimony to the fact that the heavily male orientation of biblical religion forced many women to seek spiritual fulfillment elsewhere."

--from women's bible commentary: with apocrypha, edited by carol newsom and sharon ringe

is it any wonder many people have asserted that "christianity is not a religion for women"?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

union maid

I had an interesting argument with a friend this morning at church about the protests going on further out on the rim in madison. she's a former union member who's now a member of management and thinks the protestors are overreaching. I disagree. we went back and forth about this for at least 10 minutes while preparing for a church breakfast for the kids and what made the argument interesting is the realization I had as it was winding down that we had arguing past one another at an opponent who was elsewhere.

essentially, her argument was that unions make unreasonable demands that hinder efficient operation of a business or an institution. she gave a couple examples from her own workplace. my argument was that those were examples of a poor negotiating team on her side and that it isn't a sufficient reason to eliminate collective bargaining. it was awhile before I realized that neither of us had made the argument the other was responding to: I hadn't said that unions were perfect and she hadn't said bargaining should be eliminated. this is a prime example of the effect that media have on determining the terms of debate between people: what we were arguing against was not what each of us said but what each of us had heard said.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

a little on hannah arendt

"throughout her career, [hannah] arendt reflected beautifully on the nature and critical importance of friendship. truth, she declared...should be sacrificed to friendship and humanity. yet--and this is the climactic surprise of [her] correspondence [with gershom scholem]--it was she and not scholem who declined to continue the friendship. intriguingly, at more or less the same time that their...controversy [over arendt's book eichmann in jerusalem], scholem made sure to send arendt his [work]."

--from "between new york and jerusalem" by steven aschheim in the winter 2011 issue of the jewish review of books

arendt was famously hard to get along with. I first read about her in a 1982 issue of the new york review of books, a review of elisabeth young-bruehl's hannah arendt: for love of the world that is more famously known now for being a record of how difficult she was to know by alfred kazin.

but the essay piqued with a "q" my interest and soon after I found myself reading young-bruehl, which doesn't stick with me (I probably never finished it, not a mark against the author or the subject: I often find myself dropping books as quickly as I pick them up). but later I did read eichmann in jerusalem and most of the origins of totalitarianism and I came away from the two absolutely in awe of her ability to render the most abstract ethical decisions into approachable language. here from eichmann she explains the existence of free will even within the limits of political powerlessness under totalitarianism:

"[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation."

Monday, February 21, 2011

o house of israel: fallen

as I'm not christian it's not often that I indulge in biblical exegesis, except for class. this is a short piece I've been working at that I'm somewhat proud of (as I would argue everyone ought to be at least somewhat proud of everything he or she produces).

“O House of Israel: Fallen”
Exegesis of Amos 5:1-14

Identifying his audience as the peoples of Judah (2:4) and Israel (2:6) and Amos as Yahweh’s prophet (most recently in 4:11), the Amos author, midway through his denunciation of them turns to lamentation “take[n] up over [the] house of Israel” (5:1). Unlike his contemporary author in Hosea 4:15, Amos mourns his peoples’ fall, calling them “maiden Israel, forsaken… with no one to raise her up” (:2b), sounding a rueful note for a people soon to return to exile.

Amos prophesies doom for the nation that has turned away from its former glory and for which there is only punishment (3:2). But Amos’ funerary lamentation holds out hope for “maiden Israel”: “Seek me and live…Seek the Lord and live…” (4b and 6a). You, that is Israel, “that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground” (:7), “[s]eek good and not evil, that you may live…” (:14a) This call is reminiscent of the earlier command of Deuteronomy 30:19: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore, choose life…”

Yahweh, who created the stars in their courses (:8a) and operates the world for the people’s benefit (:8a & b), and who operates justly (:9), takes offense at the misuses that Israel and Judah have put their strength: they have trampled “on the poor and take from them [unjust] levies of grain…[they] afflict [and bribe] the righteous…and push aside the needy…” (:11a & :12b). Amos, “the one who reproves in the gate…the one who speaks the truth” (:10), who knows “how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins” (:12), knows “the prudent will keep silent in such…an evil time” (:13); but he can’t remain so. Yahweh still cherishes Yahweh’s people (foreshadowing the visions of :7-9) and gives them via Amos’ lamentation an opportunity for repentance if only they will “Seek the Lord and live…”

Saturday, February 19, 2011

evolution and revolution, part 3

"We may remember comments from our own history, comments we heard repeatedly in the late 1960s and early 70s about our own attempts at change: evolution, not revolution. It’s not necessarily a bad suggestion, a gentle but irreversible change versus a sudden violent alteration in the environment. Its speakers had the best intentions in mind while saying it—let no one be hurt—but to mean it required forgetting that evolution works on a scale of time in which the slightest, most important changes occur at a pace at which they are unfelt and invisible to the subjects. This did not happen in Egypt. It happened over a course of fewer than three weeks. It did not happen in Tunisia, the other African nation credited with lighting the match to what has come to be called the Jasmine Revolution. The Tunisian uprising, reportedly sparked by the December self-immolation of would-be vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, led to the mid-January ouster of that nation’s president Zine El Abadine Ben Ali after twenty-three uncontested years in power.

"The Jasmine Revolution is a name, by the way, given the Tunisian protests by journalists outside Tunisia interested in developing a 'color narrative' of sometimes successful spontaneous popular uprisings in reaction to contested elections; in addition to Jasmine there are the 2003 Rose Revolution of Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, the 2005 Tulip Revolution of Kyrgyzstan, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon that same year, the Kuwaiti Blue Revolution also of 2005, and the notoriously unsuccessful 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. There was also the Bush Administration’s labeling of the Iraqi elections of 2005 as the Purple Revolution, a label that was never picked up by the Iraqis, Americans, or the press. The so-called Jasmine Revolution is credited with sparking similar recent uprisings in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan.

"We cannot forget that the use of “evolution” to describe these events is not meant to somehow suggest they are bloodless or smooth. The word 'evolution' can often mask the uncountable lives lost and pain experienced by real generations of animals to develop a single useful change. Neither must we forget Human Rights Watch has confirmed at least 120 dead in Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria. I don’t know if that number includes the reported sixty-five prisoners shot in their cells at al-Qatta prison outside Cairo in the first days of unrest. Those numbers may grow. [They are now at nearly 300.] The United Nations has reported at least nearly one hundred fifty people killed and over five hundred injured during the protests in Tunisia. Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper has published the identities of over a thousand people killed or jailed during Iran’s 2009 uprising and immediately after, the most famous of which is Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year old music student whose cell-phone and videotaped shooting death has been called by Time 'probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.'

"We are spoiled I think by the bloodlessness of our political shifts, even one as charged as the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, into thinking that other such events in other places are equally mundane. Despite the rhetoric used by Obama detractors about the tree of liberty being watered by the blood of tyrants and the multiple deaths of innocents at the weapons of various hard-right figures, including our own deaths at Knoxville’s Tennessee Valley UU Church, the United States has been blessed in recent decades with relatively painless revolutions, almost to the point where the word means nothing anymore: the sexual revolution, the educational revolution, the digital revolution, the cultural revolutions and cultural wars. We toss those sobriquets out too quickly, as if all it takes to be a revolutionary is to disagree with someone in authority, forgetful that, in a real revolution, as in real evolution, people are hurt and people die.

"But the species goes on. Despite revolutions, societies also go on. Tunisia is still a chaotic place but Tunisia continues to exist as a real entity where people eat and fall in love and sell produce and sing and are born and die. There is no telling how events will settle in Egypt and sometime soon we may look back on these days after the uprising with a wistfulness and embarrassment that we could ever be so dewy-eyed and na├»ve. But Egypt too remains a real place where people are dancing and singing and setting off fireworks and honking truck horns and hoping and expecting. Just as with the American Revolution, history doesn’t stop after the immediate goal is accomplished. Like with evolution, life has a tendency to continue and just because a creature develops an arched foot doesn’t mean the effects end or the problems the change was meant to remedy stop. Work continues, responsibility continues. Reflection will be good for the Egyptians and the Tunisians and for us, looking back at our own euphoria after Barack Obama’s election, to decide whether we have been guilty not of having been somehow taken in but of having too quickly excused ourselves from our responsibilities."

Friday, February 18, 2011


in preparation for an online meeting this afternoon I've prepped a new mashup.
this began life as a compilation of still photos and video clips but I swiftly decided I wanted to use all video. the difficulty I'm running into is how to determine whether a video will be smooth, like most of the clips I use, or jerky, like a few end up. I can't see any difference between them when looking at them online or as they download--it's only after I use them that I discover they jump from frame to frame, almost as if the speed is slowed or a few frames get tossed out between them. not a dilemma I've figured out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

evolution and revolution part 2

"Equally apt was the release Friday of the results of research into the metatarsals found among Australopithecus afarensis bones in Hadar, Ethiopia. The metatarsal is a long bone connecting human toes to the base of human feet. You are probably aware of the discoveries of both hominids called Lucy and Lucy’s Baby, but I’m going to quote myself in refreshing your memories in explaining the importance of their discoveries. This is from a 2008 sermon of mine about the history of walking:

"The new findings of the research published in the journal Science report that the feet of Australopithecus afarensis were similar to our own. There were no feet bones uncovered either with Lucy or with Selam so scientists were uncertain, as Solnit points out, as to whether our ancestors’ feet were still accustomed to clinging to tree branches. The research team, led by integrative anatomist Carol Ward of the University of Missouri, discovered by examining the metatarsals, which predate Lucy and Selam by multiple millions of years, that the hominids 'were fully humanlike and committed to life on the ground.'

"The metatarsal itself was stiff and arched, like our own, and not flexible like an ape’s. Ape metatarsals are spongiform to allow their feet to clutch like our hands do when their prehensile toes grabbed branches. Ward writes, 'The development of arched feet was a fundamental shift toward the human condition, because it meant giving up the ability to use the big toe for grasping branches, signaling that our ancestors had finally abandoned life in the trees in favor of life on the ground.'

"Like the forebears of Australopithecus aferensis, the Egyptians are standing and walking on unsteady feet accustomed to something different. The progenitors of Lucy and Selam who were themselves our progenitors had made the fateful decision at some point to leave the shelter of trees and step out into the wide, hostile, unknown world. Similarly, the people of Egypt at some point realized they needed to leave the shelter of a political system many of them had known all their lives to step out into the wide, hostile unknowable result of changing that system. Their decision, I’m certain, is no less fateful. There is no little consequence in both cases: in our ancestors’ case, there was the awful certainty of death by long-teethed predators on the savannah. No less, for the people of Egypt, there is the uncertainty of chaos, ruled now by the Egyptian military—in which, I should note, many of them have the amount of confidence many of us would have in our own military, for good and for bad—but in the near future by whatever strong political faction, secular, religious, civilian or military or a combination, might be strongest. Fox News, for instance, fans fears that they will be eaten up by a government harnessed to the worst elements of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and while that’s as unlikely as a US government composed of members of Christian Identity militias and the Ku Klux Klan, it remains a possibility all the same."

Monday, February 14, 2011

monday morning reading

"[The Rise and Fall of the Bible author Timothy] Beal would prefer that people read the Bible as if it were a work of art -- that is, as a text permitting multiple interpretations and as a spur to further thought and self-examination rather than as the last word on all of life's enigmas. Or, as he rather fetchingly puts it at one point: 'This is poetry, not pool rules.' His approach is, of course, more congenial to nonbelievers than the conviction that the Bible describes historical facts and constitutes the 'inerrant' word of God...Beal thinks the current boom in biblical consumerism amounts to a 'distress crop,' the last great efflorescence of the old authoritative ideal before people move on and learn to embrace biblical ambiguity. I'm not so sure. Craving the certainty and absolutism of fundamentalism is a fairly common response (across many religious faiths) to the often terrifying flux of modern life. If certitude is the main thing American Christians are seeking when they turn to the Bible, then they're unlikely to tolerate, let alone embrace, Beal's 'library of questions' model."

--from "rethinking the good book" by laura miller in the february 13, 2011, edition of salon

Sunday, February 13, 2011

evolution & revolution pt 1

after yesterday's inclusion of part of my evolution sunday sermon, I've decided to publish the rest of it in pieces and with links. today is part 1:

A Sermon Delivered to Dakota Unitarian Universalist Church
On February 13, 2011

The images are electric. People dancing with flags. Small fireworks zipping up into the night sky. Hands high over heads that are shouting and singing. Truck horns honking. Innumerable numbers of people surrounding Tahrir Square in Cairo and in public squares in Memphis, Alexandria, and other cities, in symbolic spinning circles that mimic the spinning circles of pilgrims on hajj around the Kaaba in Mecca.

Can we imagine anything like it? Yes, I think we can. Many of us remember similar euphoria, dancing and singing and crying, over the swiftly developing ruins of the Berlin Wall. Or the joy and release of revolutions in South Africa and Czechoslovakia that left former government prisoners Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel as their presidents. And of course many of us felt a similar elation a little over two years ago after the results of the 2008 election were announced and Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the Oval Office.

Of course, I would be remiss not to refer also to the joy and elation many of us experienced at other times that didn’t turn out well. In February 1979 we watched the Shah of Iran run with his tail between his legs, defeated by the twin intensity of protests by students and religious leaders and heard the thanking of god and thanking of history; and it was only a few months later, in November, when some of those same students rushed the American embassy, taking fifty two hostages for nearly a year and a half. Some may remember the exultation when economics professor Robert Mugabe entered the President’s Palace as the first elected black African leader in the coup that replaced notorious corrupt Rhodesian leader Ian Smith; our cheers would stick in our throats within two years. And of course we all remember the images from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, as the students and intelligentsia there, emboldened by the success of other revolutions, occupied the Square demanding democratic and economic reforms, and the iconic photo of Tank Man, a lone protestor who stared down four tanks armed with nothing more than shopping bags; and we may remember the images from seven weeks later when the People’s Liberation Army, on orders to clear the Square, did so with bayonets and clubs and bullets, leaving an unknown number of civilians dead, their numbers estimated between eight hundred and three thousand, and countless others injured.

It’s entirely apt that Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981, should find the exit door from Cairo the day before Charles Darwin’s birthday. Like everything else, political entities and societies evolve. And like evolution itself, it’s not always to the immediate benefit of the subject and it’s not always pretty. Of course, political revolution, played out in the space of years or months or, in the case of the Egyptian uprising, eighteen days, is far different than biological evolution, which takes place over a sense of scale that dwarfs our ability even to imagine it. But I think it’s fair to make a connection between the two.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

walking and evolution

I'm in the process of writing a sermon for tomorrow's evolution sunday and, in order to explain the background to the importance of lucy and selam to the anthropological record, and thus the importance of friday's science article about hominid metatarsals, I quote myself from a 2008 sermon about walking. I am rather proud of this writing and, in the spirit of telling my students they ought to bring attention to the things they do that make them proud, I've reproduced it below.

"That our earliest known progenitor is Lucy, the skeletal remains of Australopithecus afarensis found in Hadar, Ethiopia, in 1974 by Donald Johanson—now joined by another Australopithecus afarensis found in Dikika, Ethiopia, and nicknamed Selam, the so-called Lucy’s Baby, although Selam is approximately 120,000 years older than Lucy and so would be Lucy’s multiply-great grandmother, except that she was killed when 3 years old—these facts are unassailable. When [Rebecca] Solnit [the author of the seminal book Wanderlust: The History of Walking] wrote, only Lucy had been found, and she describes her thus:

"'[Lucy] was apelike in many respects; she had little in the way of a waist or neck, short legs, longish arms, and the funnel-like rib cage of an ape. Her pelvis, however, was wide and shallow, and so she had a stable gait with hip joints far apart tapering to close-together knees like humans and unlike chimps (whose narrow hips and far-apart knees make them lurch from side to side when they walk upright). Some say she would have been a terrible runner and not much of a walker. But she walked. This much is certain, and then come the arguments.'

"The arguments Solnit refers to relate not to the how our progenitors walked, but the why. On this few concur. Solnit, in reporting on the 1991 Paris-based Conference on the Origins of Bipedalism, call these
'a kind of academic stand-up comedy routine. [The] ‘schlepp hypothesis’…explained walking as an adaptation for carrying food, babies, and various other things; ‘the peek-a-boo hypothesis,’ which…connected bipedalism to penile display…to impress females rather than intimidate other males; ‘the all wet hypothesis’…involved wading and swimming during a proposed aquatic phase of evolution; ‘the tagalong hypothesis’…involved following migratory herds across the…savannah; ‘the hot to trot hypothesis,’ which was one of the more seriously reasoned theories, claiming that bipedalism limited solar exposure in the tropical midday sun and thus freed the species up to move into hot, open habitat; and the ‘two feet are better than four’ hypothesis, which proposes that bipedalism was more energy-efficient than quadrupedalism, at least for the primates who would become humans. '

"Whatever the reason we started walking upright, albeit in an ungainly manner, it is important to note that doing so is the single development that made us what we are: separate from the other animal species. It’s what made possible higher-brain development and, ultimately, a sense of entitlement that led to permanent homes, agriculture, the five-day work week, the Humvee and the Mall of America."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

tuesday afternoon reading

"I’ve been in jail more than once
on account of my drinking, but my
favorite time was a weekend I did in
Olathe, Kansas, as part of a DUI deferment.
The second day of the
jailed retreat, the counselor asked us:
“How many people here believe you
got here because you are an alcoholic?”
Of the twenty-five or so of us, I
was the only one who raised his
hand. I was honestly astonished. The
other members of the group looked
at me with surprise, dismay, or pity.
It turned out, as we told our stories,
that for most of the people there “it
was my first time driving drunk. I
just had bad luck.” I think they were
worried that we were being videotaped
and that somehow an admission
of guilt might be used against us
later, in court. But one of the younger
women approached me after the
session and said, “So you really think
you’re an alcoholic? I’m so sorry,
Clancy. That really sucks.”

"I don’t mean to suggest that these
people were all deceiving themselves,
only that I believe—though I may be
self-deceived; it’s so hard to know
these things—that I have become a
much more honest person since I
quit drinking, and that the cleanliness
of honesty is a big reason I don’t
go back to drinking when it seems
tempting. “But then I’d have to tell
my wife I had a glass of wine, and
then . . .” No. It’s easier to skip the
Burgundy and have an
iced tea."

--from "the drunk's club: a.a., the cult that cures" by clancy martin in the january 2011 edition of harper's magazine

Friday, February 4, 2011

my book collection

I have been reading this book for 30 years, give or take a few. it popped up as I was moving some other books around and I have never finished it. my bookmark sits at page 514 of 762. I remember where I bought it--rodger's book barn in craryville, new york--and for how much--a quarter--but not when, only a rough approximation that I started it in the winter of the late 70s.
every vagrant of my generation has a book he carries around from place to place to while away time in the event he's stuck somewhere a few hours, and he only reads it then. emma goldman used to say, "always carry a book, you never know when you'll be arrested." it's traveled around the country with me, not only when I was living in my car but years before, a hedge against boredom while waiting for my 1st wife while she was shopping or if I had to wait in line somewhere or was stuck in traffic or snowed in. I only read a few pages at a time without concern for stopping at chapters or pauses, which is a good thing since each of the 11 chapters is roughly 70-80 thin, narrowly-guttered, closely-printed pages. when I open to page 514 I am in the middle of an argument between henri and scriassine involving dubruilh, until scriassine leaves for an appointment. other than henri being the hero of the novel, a manque for jean-paul sartre, as I remember simone de beauvoir wrote the novel as a roman a clef about the french intellectual left during and after the resistance, I don't recall anything else of these characters. I could start the novel all over again from page 1 and not recognize a thing.
I think there is a reason we lose ourselves in such books. the back cover has long since disappeared and the front cover, as you can see, is nearly ready to join it. what you cannot see is the way it has taken on the worn soft feel of leather, the coffee stains and watermarks and bits of food and grass stuck between its pages, or the smell of ripe, disintegrating paper it gives off. that smell is unique to books, a mix of pulp and moisture and dust, and I swear I smell cinammon. I taped the cover back on after it fell off decades ago and the tape is now yellow and brittle under the cover where it hasn't lifted up completely. such books are old, ugly remnants of our past lives, reminders of what we have been through and that we did get through, frank, steady reproaches that, again, this too, whatever it is and however bad or good, shall pass. we are honored to be in their company.
de Beauvoir, Simone. Les Mandarins, published in Paris by Librairie Gallimard 1957. Paperback pocket edition, "Twelfth Impression March 1977." Fontana Books, "Made and printed in Great Britain by William Collins Sons & Co Ltd Glasgow." No ISBN.