Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Unintentional Mutilation of Text: Speaking the Written Word, Reading the Spoken Word

It is common practice to task students with reading poetry. They have an anthology book, or some electronic text on a class’s website, and are told to read various poems by various dates, and then to be ready to discuss, analyze, write about, or take a written examination about these poems.

This is the ubiquitous structure of literature classes.

In this way, students are exposed to, and hopefully consume, magnificent poetry: Longfellow, Wordsworth, Blake, Poe, etc.

There may, however, be something fundamentally wrong with this approach: poetry is almost always designed to be an auditory, not a visual, experience.

Among the exceptions are visual poems, sometimes called ‘concrete’ poetry, like Lewis Carroll’s “The Mouse’s Tale.”

Despite these anomalies, the vast majority of poems are intended mainly to be heard.

Would it be more legitimate for teachers and professors to assign students to hear, rather than read, poetry? With the ability to post audio files on the web, this could be easily done, and might in some cases conform more closely to the author’s intent.

By the same token, is violence done to written texts when they are transformed into ‘audio books’?

A novel by, e.g., Jane Austen or Mary Shelley, was written to be visually consumed, not auditorily. If a person listens to Middlemarch or Atlas Shrugged, rather than seeing the text, is the experience less than, or other than, what the author intended?

When approaching a text, then, it is worth asking, relatively early on in the process, whether the author intended the text to be seen or heard.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Ethics and Exodus, Morality and Moses

According to the dictionary, ‘ethics’ or ‘morality’ have to do with right and wrong conduct in accordance with set rules or standards. Often, ‘morality’ is associated with specific and concrete standards or prescriptions, while ‘ethics’ describes a more generalize and conceptual meta-level view of good and evil.

Often the relation between religion and morality is blurred and confused in the popular imagination, in part because they are intertwined in texts. While interwoven with each other, they are not identical, and the relationship between them can be loose or indirect.

To be sure, there are ethical principles and moral obligations that are stressed in, e.g., the Mosaic Code as it was revealed in the Exodus text. Moses gives, simultaneously, a moral code and a spiritual worldview.

But it is possible to disentangle these: a Mosaic morality and a Mosaic theology can be distinguished from each other. They are not identical, although they are connected by concepts like mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

Moses differentiates, e.g., between a murder and an accidental homicide, and reduces the legal punishment for the latter. He also addresses the notion of deterrence, hoping to prevent crimes rather than avenge them. He introduces, in some cases, a revolutionary equality between men and women.

Moses also establishes a legal recognition that a slave’s life is a human life, and is to be treated as such - not surprising, inasmuch as Moses was establishing a legal and social structure for a nation of escaped slaves.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hit or Miss: Experimenting with New Forms of Religion in Response to the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution changed many aspects of daily life for a large segment of the population in Europe, and later in North America. These changes prompted changes in religious life.

Religious institutions found new ways to carry out their old tasks: education, care for the poor, and caring for the spiritual concerns of ordinary people as they faced the challenges of life.

As spiritual leaders experimented with new forms of caring for people, some of these attempts were more successful than others, as historians Hans Hillerbrand and Martin Marty write:

The Lutheran churches in Europe in the 19th century also engaged in what they called “inner mission,” the effort to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor and downtrodden, especially those who had been marginalized by the Industrial Revolution. Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–81) was the great organizer of this work in Germany. Under his aegis, the inner mission movement established local branches throughout Germany. Although the Lutheran churches thus ameliorated some of the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, they did not adequately address the vast demographic and social changes it had caused. The common people, therefore, became increasingly alienated from the church, which they perceived as being allied with the state.

In the city of Hamburg, Johann Wichern founded his charitable institution which still operates today, educating and feeding the poor, offering medical assistance and counseling.

Johann Wichern is also known for inventing the “Advent Wreath,” a circle of greenery laid horizontally on a tabletop, with three purple and one pink candle placed equidistant around its circumference and a white candle placed in the middle.

These attempts in Europe were parallel to efforts in England and in the United States, when Christian organizations like the YMCA and Salvation Army were likewise addressing the social needs which were caused by the living circumstances of the Industrial Revolution.

But, as noted, some efforts in continental Europe failed to gather momentum because in the mind of the public, they were linked, correctly or not, to the government. They were therefore not perceived as an authentic expression of a charitable impulse.

By contrast, the Red Cross, which was also started in Europe, was successful and spread quickly to other parts of the world. It was seen as a successful application of distinctively Christian principles to the new conditions of the Industrial Revolution.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

When Civilizations Behave in an Uncivilized Way

The great trove of texts, sculpture, and architecture - along with the occasional engineering or military masterpiece - left by the societies of 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 years ago is so dazzling that it sometimes tempts the student - or teacher - to forget that these cultures had a side which was not only dark, but sinister and inhumane.

“The ancient pagan world,” writes historian Michael Salemink, “regularly disposed of lives deemed unproductive.” The concept that every human life is valuable - the concept of the dignity of every individual - hadn’t yet travelled widely throughout various cultures.

Tucked away in obscure corners of Semitic societies, the concept of individual freedom and the concept of value of human life were still in chrysalis forms. They would emerge onto the stage of world history a few centuries later.

Despite their magnificent achievements in philosophy, literature, and other fields, the ancients were not uniformly honorable, as Michael Salemink explains:

Greeks and Romans routinely abandoned babies to exposure, disowned and drowned unwanted infants — especially the impaired or female ones. In addition, they persistently pursued fresh and more effective methods for aborting pregnancies — surgically and chemically — as had every Mesopotamian empire that preceded them. Popular demand for amusement pressed slaves, condemned criminals, and prisoners of war into service as blood-sport gladiators. The thrill-seeking public forced them to fight each other or wild animals to the death (popular not only with Romans but also in Greece, Syria, and Asia Minor). Human sacrifices — particularly newborns and captives — were often offered to heathen idols by Canaanites, Irish, and other predecessors of present-day European peoples, as well as Meso-American Aztecs and Mayans prior.

Only later, after the time of Constantine, would there be a wider trend toward what might be called a ‘recognition of human dignity.’ Until that trend, which flourished and became an intellectual edifice during the Middle Ages, a callous disregard for human life was common.

Classical philosophers popularized suicide in Greco-Roman civilization, not only accepting but encouraging it through instruction and example. Women were denied basic freedoms and deprived of human dignities such as property, employment, monogamy, and mobility.

Simply put, human life was cheap, and some lives were cheaper than others. Slaves were property, and their owners could with impunity kill or injure them. Women were also often treated like property. Prisoners could be killed for entertainment.

After the humanitarian trends of the early Middle Ages, which moderated these cruelties, society was still, to be sure, dotted with occasional holdovers from the earlier, more vicious era. Occasional instances of inhumane behavior, even at the present time, are sadly to be expected, and are to be understood as an empirical manifestation of that earlier era - as a manifestation of innate human nature which our current culture can only imperfectly hold at bay.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Quest: Defining ‘Western Civilization’

Classes titled ‘History’ or ‘Social Studies’ often make reference to ‘Western Civilization,’ yet the exact referent of that term remains elusive. What is Western Civilization? Attempting to clarify, historian Jonah Goldberg writes:

I mean the thing both liberals and conservatives alike have celebrated for hundreds of years since words like “liberal” and “conservative” had any relevance to politics.

Indeed, the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have a long and convoluted history, each coming to mean near its opposite at times. The direction on the compass is not relevant: the “West” is, first, a relative term: any point on a map has a relative location to any other point, but none of that has anything to do with culture, society, or civilization.

Secondly, the “West” was born in the “East” - Hammurabi and Moses, the two founders of civil law, were nowhere near Europe, as Goldberg notes:

the West has largely been defined by Christianity, but who can deny that? Though let’s not forget that Christianity itself was born in what used to be called the Orient (ditto Judaism).

This observation segues neatly to the next: whatever “Western” civilization is, it’s not something exclusively Christian. The word ‘Christian’ demands an entire discussion of its definition, but in any case, many individuals who are by their own declaration not Christians - those who are atheists or Hindus or Buddhists - have long since come to embrace “Western” values.

Part of the “Western” mindset is xenophilia: the fascination and affection for that which is ‘other’ or different:

even in the earliest days when Western Civilization was not particularly civilized, it was borrowing from other cultures. That’s a huge part of what makes Western Civilization so special. Sure, it’s got its history of bigotries, atrocities, and other sins — quick, tell me which civilization or society doesn’t? — but a central part of the West’s modus operandi has been to sift through what is best in other cultures and our own and appropriate it or modify it. The West, historically, has been more interested in other cultures and civilizations than any other. Celebrating our long history of open-minded curiosity and tolerance is not closed-minded bigotry>

Western society has a long list of failures and mistakes in its past, but it has demonstrated a dogged persistence in its effort to correct those errors. One characteristic feature of the West is self-criticism.

The willingness to point out its own inconsistencies and its own hypocrisies is a distinctive feature of the West.

The West uniquely rejected concepts such as torture and slavery - while other cultures celebrated them and designated them as foundational. But the West went even further: when it violated its own tenants, when it embraced that which it had declared to be evil, it exercised self-examination:

Slavery is a human universal, appearing in every culture around the world. What makes the West unique is not that we had slavery, but that we put an end to it because it was not compatible with our values.

It will always be difficult to define ‘Western’ civilization, but at least four points are obvious: an emphasis on the individual; an emphasis on liberty and freedom; an emphasis on self-criticism; and an emphasis on xenophilia.

Western civilization cannot be limited to territory on a map: wherever a passion for individual political liberty emerges, Western civilization is there. Wherever something resembling the concept of ‘property rights’ emerges, Western civilization is there.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Societal Development: Iceland

In many locations, like Europe and the Americas, a native civilization was in place for centuries or even millennia before the arrival of Jesus followers.

The inhabitants of Europe, with their light-colored skin and red or blond hair, must have been curious about the Jesus followers from the Near East who arrived with darker skin, darker hair, and news about a Messiah.

Perhaps these original Europeans were even skeptical or suspicious.

But gradually the new Semitic faith spread. The native cultural practices, like slavery and the buying and selling of women, were replaced with new values. The Jesus followers nudged the Europeans, and later the Americans, toward a society which valued each individual human being.

But traces of the ancient roots remained. In Europe and in the Americas, wherever gender inequality or chauvinism emerged, they were the faint echoes of those civilizations which held sway before the new faith arrived.

The history of Western Civilization can be conceptualized as a type of struggle between between two sets of ideas: the ancient paganism, which embraced slavery, treated women as property, and saw human life as expendable; and the new ideas introduced by the Jesus followers.

Iceland is an exception to this generalization. Iceland was uninhabited until relatively late in history. There were no permanent dwellers there in prehistoric times, and even in early historic times the island was uninhabited.

At some time in the 700s, Iceland became home to continuous residents. As historian Sigurdur Magnusson writes,

The first human beings known to have lived in Iceland were not Norsemen, but Irish monks and hermits (papar). As early as A.D. 795 we have an account of some Irish hermits staying in Iceland from February to to August. When the Norsemen came to Iceland in the ninth century they met some of these Christian hermits.

In contrast to other nations, then, Iceland’s earliest beginnings were shaped by the presence of Jesus followers. To be sure, some of the Norse settlers, who arrived a few decades after the first Irish residents, were pagans.

Some of these Norsemen brought with them the paganism of their Scandinavian homelands. Norse polytheism was thus introduced to the island and coexisted with the Jesus followers for a several decades.

The difference, however, between Iceland and Europe was this: Europe had been thoroughly saturated by paganism long before any Jesus followers arrived there. Iceland, by contrast, from its very beginning had a strong presence of Jesus followers, even if paganism arrived and endured for some years thereafter.

During its first inhabited century, therefore, all the residents of Iceland seem to have been Jesus followers.

While all or most of the European nations developed their separate and different cultures along similar lines, Iceland’s pattern was different.

In Europe, Jesus followers encountered a strongly rooted culture of pagan values, and worked to gradually make inroads against that social pattern. In Iceland, Jesus followers arrived to a totally uninhabited land, and could create a new social pattern without having to displace a previous one.

What are the measurable and observable results of Iceland’s unique developmental path? A report released in 2010 by the Obama administration’s State Department (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) evaluated Iceland’s society as being at the highest levels of protecting both civil rights and human rights.

Likewise, a 2015 report by the Obama administration’s State Department (International Religious Freedom Report) depicted Iceland’s excellent record of protecting and preserving individual political liberty and religious freedom.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Athenian Politics: Not So Nice

Thucydides made a career, around 400 B.C., of documenting how contemptible and despicable the Athenians were. Despite his careful documentation of their bribery, extortion, and dishonesty, some modern readers still assume that the Athenians were noble and honorable.

Although Thucydides provided ample data to show that the Athenians were largely scoundrels and miscreants, later generations were led astray by the self-serving propaganda of Pericles, whose famous ‘funeral oration’ presents the Athenians as virtuous and moral.

Archeologists have unearthed evidence which strengthens the case which Thucydides made more than two thousand years ago. As historian Jarrett Lobell writes,

The end of the seventh century B.C. was a tumultuous period in Athenian history. Though once ruled by a king, the increasingly powerful region of Attica, home to Athens, had come to be presided over by aristocrats who maintained their hold on power through land ownership and lifetime appointments. But as the century drew to a close, the political climate was primed for a new type of government — that of a single ruler, or tyrant. An evocative gravesite on the outskirts of Athens is a testament to this contentious moment in history.

Athens seems to have oscillated between oligarchs and dictators. In such power struggles, both sides were unprincipled and unscrupulous.

Although Athens is associated with democracy, the word is misleading. Athenian democracy was based on exclusion and inequality.

As Thucydides made clear, the Athenians were more than willing to use intimidation and brute force in their political dealings.

Excavators at the Phaleron Delta necropolis have uncovered the remains of 80 men, shackled together at their wrists, lying in a mass grave. The most recent osteological studies have determined that the majority of the men were between 20 and 30 years old, although four were much younger, and that all 80 had been killed in the same manner — with a fatal blow to the head.

The excavation in question here deals with events a few years prior to the Peloponnesian War which Thucydides describes. But the evidence dug up is also after Home and after beginnings of Greek colonization.

The data from this archeological site, then, are of a piece with ‘Classical’ or ‘Golden Age’ Athens. These data are late enough to be part of a transition out of ‘archaic’ Greek history.

They do not belong in the core ‘archaic’ history, and are therefore relevant to Thucydides. Jarrett Lobell discusses the date of the site:

The discovery of two small vases buried with them has allowed archaeologists to date the grave to the mid-to-late seventh century B.C., suggesting to project director Stella Chrysoulaki that the men were executed in the course of one of these attempts to gain political primacy. “For the first time,” Chrysoulaki says, “we can illustrate historical events that took place during the struggle between aristocrats in the seventh century and led, through a long process, to the establishment of a democratic regime in the city of Athens.”

The brutality of Athenian political murder is enough to cure the reader of the illusion that the Athenians were high-minded and respectable practitioners of political fairness. In face, Greek philosophers often analyzed virtue precisely because they found so little of it in their society.

The murders detailed in this evidence were not a rare occurrence, and constituted rather the usual procedure and methodology of politics in ‘classical’ Greece.