Sunday, February 12, 2017

Why Milepost100?

I've been focusing less on creating new Milepost100 sermon helpers and instead adding to my background knowledge. One big source for that has been Richard Carrier's recent work, “On the Historicity of Jesus”. In this peer reviewed scholarly book, he applies modern tools to the questions surrounding Jesus and discusses how two approaches to the New Testament have failed; the religious apologist, who attempts to find the meaning that has been handed down by the theologians for centuries, and the historian who looks for some historical truth behind the text.

“Modern apologists respond with implausible ad-hoc harmonizations, while historians attempt to isolate the historical truth behind the conflicting accounts. This method has been found invalid. If the gospels are myth, both efforts are futile. Both assume the author is recording a collection of historical facts reported to them. If instead they are intending to construct myths about Jesus, we don't expect historicity, they aren't trying to distinguish fact from fiction, so the text does not give it to us. External evidence helps, and we can't use this approach to disprove historicity, but it does limit our ability to determine historicity. Instead our focus would be to extract the mytho-symbolic meaning and intent.” 

To answer that question, it is more important to look at the background information, the history of what was happening while the scripture was being written, and what earlier scripture they would have had available to them at the time. This is the opposite of how Christianity is presented to us now, beginning with the birth of Christ and following through to later letters written about him as if he existed. It is presented that way, but in actuality, those letters were written first, by someone who never claimed to have met a living Jesus. The accounts of his actions in life, came much later by different authors.

To begin before that, at the beginning, with Genesis and one family, is to ignore all the other creation stories that were being written at the time. It ignores that there were very few who could write at all. There were no fact checkers, no media watch dogs. If you wanted to write a counter narrative to someone else's myth, you wrote another myth, using the same characters, but added a new element that expressed your values and your desired outcome.

Any phrases inserted on an ad-hoc basis that claim the writing is true are there to attach the value message to the story. These were not notes to future readers in future millenia, these were devices for the illiterate, telling them to simply remember the name of John and don't be like those who are like Thomas. The listener then could express their values through that simple formula and had no need to remember a chain of logical arguments or even a list of what the values are. If anyone asked, they could refer them back to the story.

Biblical writing has special challenges because we have so many translations, so many copies and so many differences across those copies. The slight changes made back when copies were done by hand could have been mistakes, or they could have been purposeful redactions to steer the political message in a new direction. We know that this type of changing of the narrative happened in modern times and have no reason to believe it didn't happen back then.

It doesn't help that Romans were attempting near genocide of the Jews just as the gospels were being written in the late 1st century, or as the Romans would have said, “repressing a rebellion”. They lost track of who the authors actually were and they had far fewer tools than we do now for determining truth from fiction in the writings they were left with in the early 2nd century. We can't be certain what later emperors were thinking, but just as myth writers are more concerned with message over facts, the 3rd and 4th century co-opting of the message of this tiny Jewish sect  certainly helped both the emperors and the Catholics.

The rest is history, and history that we can become increasingly more confident about as we get closer to the present. We also get better at interpreting earlier history. We find more artifacts and we determine by the lack of evidence, that some things are highly improbable. We are also very far removed from any conquering Roman emperors who might not want us asking pesky questions.

So I will leave the medieval history to the historians. I may mention it occasionally, but only to point out how a particular verse led to a later belief. I may also mention an early church father who was just as sceptical as I am about the truth of a particular passage. Primarily, I want to put myself into the mind of peasants under extremely difficult living conditions, hearing a message of hope for their people.

Milepost 100. The sermon helper that doesn't tell you what to think.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What Liberals aren't hearing from Conservatives, and vice versa

Half a lifetime ago, I went to a community organizing planning meeting and someone brought up the issue of providing child care. The event that was being planned was going to be out of town, with an overnight stay and families were invited. Surprisingly, the idea of child care was met with some opposition. People with children were expected to figure out how to attend and function in adult group sessions and, I don’t know, keep their children quiet or something. I was a single young man at the time, so I had no reason to care until someone pointed out that I should and I realized I was being thoughtless. I’ve brought this issue up at almost every group I’ve been part of since, and not much has changed.

To put a fine point on it, this includes my stint as a board member for a group called “Kids Against Hunger”. KAH events require children to be at least 8 years old, but the organization is geared around encouraging kids to participate. It’s in the name. It’s a family fun time, packing meals for other children who need food. It reinforces the education of what chronic hunger is by having them participate with their bodies and relate to people who look just like them. But my other board members balked at the idea of providing child care. Did they not realize that families with 8 year olds in them also often have children less than 8 years old in them? Did they not realize that they were forcing those families to send us only one adult and leave the other at home to take care of the toddlers?

This is what conservatives mean when they tell liberals that we are forgetting about families. Liberal events tend to be marches, letter writing campaigns, protests, speeches and book groups. Conservatives are generally what you think of when you say “hog roast” or “spaghetti dinner”. But there is no silver bullet I’m proposing here. The Lesbian Wiccan Bikers for Peace aren’t going to pull off a Corn Feed and expect soccer moms to show up. Even if they provide child care.

Another story about KAH illustrates how this divide cuts both ways. I was asked to speak at the County Fair to the inter-denominational service on Sunday Morning. A sizable collection was taken and it was put in the charge of the church that organized the service, earmarked for a future KAH event. After that service, someone from that church came up to me and asked if I believed the Bible was the literal word of God. I didn’t give him a straight answer, but he knew my answer was “no”. I told him we are a 501(c)3 non-profit, not a religious organization. That event never happened. My phone calls were not returned.

If I can’t talk about family with people who want to fight conservative politics and I can’t talk about the politics of chronic hunger without passing a religious test, we’re all screwed. People who care only about themselves will use those divisions to keep us from working together and even working at direct odds against each other. They know how to speak to both sides and get what they want from either. They will profit from our pain. They will sail off in their yachts while we argue about what color and shape our bread should be and where our strawberries came from and the size of our guns and how we wear our pants and when we can kneel and when we shouldn’t and how many terrorists there are and how afraid we should be and what you can say on TV and what the President shouldn’t say and who can buy a wedding cake and where the universe came from and what we are all doing here anyway.


"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Frederick Douglass

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Everything old...

Before I could vote, I called older people “The Establishment”, and thought maybe Russia might have some good ideas. I thought our government was not legitimate and didn’t care too much about other people outside my little world. I thought laws were too strict and repressive. 

Then I grew up. I realized we have a pretty decent system of agreeing how to deal with our differences, and sometimes war and imprisonment are necessary. But in the last few months, it seems like those childish ideas are the ones getting voted in. So I made this comparison between now and 40 years ago.

1977

  • Considered communism as a potentially viable government system for the USA. 
  • Supported protests against lying and war mongering government that was building toward  nuclear war.
  • Pretty much nihilist and self-centered moral compass. 
  • Called older people “the establishment” and thought they were out of touch.
  • Advocated for the reform of marijuana laws and jailing of people for minor and harmless crimes.
  • Pretty sure the lies coming out the White House were the “tip of the iceberg”.
  • Questioned the legitimacy of the President (unelected President Ford and Vice President Rockefeller).
  • Uncomfortable with patriotic celebrations like the bicentennial.
  • Wondered if there was a conspiracy in the government, a secret hidden government.


In between now and then, up to just a couple years ago, my trust in government grew, I understood the complexities of compromise and economic trade-offs and that conspiracies are usually not true, or are quite transparent and get discovered within a matter of years, not decades or centuries. Most elected officials are honest and try to do what they say. That’s still true. Much of the above seemed childish and uninformed when I looked back on it, up to just last summer. 

The difference today is half of the government officials are publicly saying they want to destroy the progress we’ve made in the name of some unclear political agenda. So that leads to the comparative list for this year:

2017

  • Understand that socialism is what we actually have and we’re a leader among the other free countries with a mix of democracy and socialism and a republic.
  • Support protests against a Republican party that supports dictatorships currently killing children and taking over weaker countries.
  • Have an ethical system (basically “moral realism”, if you want to google it).
  • Don’t use the word “establishment” anymore. People of all ages can be corrupt and violent and self-serving and ignorant. Older people, as well as younger, are supporting foreign governments, defending their self-centered morals, and labeling others instead of getting to know them. Many of them adopted the attitudes from above, attitudes I had when I was 17 years old.
  • Drug laws have actually progressed, more people are getting high and not getting busted, but the privatized prison system has become a version of debtor’s prison out of the Dark Ages .

The rest of list from above had pretty much dropped out of memory, until this last few weeks. I hope that reverses again soon. We have made such progress toward a healthier and more inclusive world, one that works for everybody. Let’s not throw it all away.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Grain of Sand

You are as insignificant as a grain of sand. It takes so many grains of sand to make a desert, each grain is insignificant. Even if that grain is taken up by an oyster and makes a pearl, then the pearl is insignificant. It's merely a reaction to an irritation.  It doesn't matter to the desert. It doesn't matter to the ocean. It doesn't matter that the ocean gives life or that it is lined with beautiful coral reefs. Those reefs are just there to be eaten by the fish and excreted as sand to be washed up on a beach and blown back into the desert. 

All of that is part of something so large that it is beyond comprehension, rendering each part insignificant. It is a vast, incomprehensible collection of insignificant things, rendering the whole just as insignificant. It could be nothing else. There is nothing against which we can judge significance. 

Your statements, your thoughts about the "is" that it is, are meaningless to all the interactions of all the galaxies and all the waves on the all the shores. Your thoughts are just that, yours. You think them. You write them down.
You speak them. You live with them.





Friday, December 23, 2016

Fake News

I posted this last week. I've since updated it with a comparative news item from a fake news YouTuber, with a liberal bent. Also, you might like this article that explains just what fake news is. My comments are at the bottom.  Fake news is different from President Johnson fabricating a military incident like The Gulf of Tomkin as he did in 1964. Reporters were not there to verify the facts. Today's fake news is reporters making up facts. 

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This is what fake news looks like. I saw this on facebook yesterday and decided to google it. Note the time stamps. Within minutes all of the fake news sites had picked this up. Many of them just cut and pasted the original story. Note the language "harass", "accosting", "trumprage". Read any one of them and you will have trouble finding supporting evidence for those words. 


The list of websites that picked this up early went on for 6 pages. They all have names like "RedState", "WND", "inquistor" and "hollywoodlife". That's your first clue. And watch out for names like The Washington Times. Many are in that "credible yet biased" gray area. Just the fact that they reported it so quickly, without time for gathering any information, should tell you something. That's a major part of their strategy, to blast the internet with their version of the truth and don't worry about facts. It makes it difficult for you to find any professional journalism on the topic. 



2 days earlier, there was a similar incident, where someone videoed themselves getting kicked off a plane because they were speaking Arabic. Sounds like something that a liberal would want to hear as proof that there is a conservative conspiracy against Muslims, being enforced by a corporation. I saw it, but didn't click on it or look it up like I did the Ivanka story, but here's what I came up later.



Note several differences. The name of the person creating the news is mentioned in many of the headlines, unlike the tweeters in the Ivanka story. And it tells you he is "known for pranks". It says he "claims". This is more like Jon Stewart from the Daily Show, starting his show by saying "welcome to the fake news". He told his audience often to listen to other news sources. A fake news site would never say those things.  

You will also notice a mix of mainstream media and fake news sites. What's interesting though is, the story looks about the same in both. For a conservative news site that wants to sensationalize everything, the true story of an Arabic speaking man making up a story to get attention, is the narrative they want to sell. Their audience is conservatives. That's who gives them the clicks. 

So this story about Saleh is actual news. The mainstream media tells you who did it, and tells you what he normally does, so it's pretty easy to figure out his motives. Fake news sites tell you the same thing, and maybe add a little something about how stupid the prank was, or how this proves something about all liberals and how "they" create fake news. But it's not fake news, it's news about a guy faking something. 

The difference between these two is one started with a tweet that was not intended to be picked up, but was then broadcast by TMZ. The other 6 pages of conservative fake news providers watch for things like that and repeat it. It gives the appearance of it being important because it is being reported, and it drowns out actual fact checking news organizations. 

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But the worst part of fake news is it legitimizing the kind of lying that has always come from politicians. Fact checking helped for a few years, but now the fact checkers are being called fake. It's true that fact checking often favors Democrats, but only in the sense that they are said to be lying less often. That doesn't account for the fact of whether or not they are actually lying less often. When a fact like; Snopes debunks more conservative news stories than liberal stories becomes evidence that they are bias, we have moved very deep into the post truth world. The data that says fake news is more often geared toward conservatives is now considered illegitimate. The space for a reasonable conversation is now lost. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Birth Lottery

I heard a "Millennial" the other day say she had lost in the "birth lottery", that she was born into high college costs and dwindling job prospects and a service economy. That's all true, but who ever won this lottery? It seems to me it's not the time you are born, but to whom, and that is usually about a 1% chance that you will win.

I was born in the previous generation and there were lakes on fire from garbage, Presidents being shot, murder rates on the rise and corruption so bad they impeached an administration. The generation before me had free love, but they also got drafted into Vietnam. You have to go back another generation to get to 80% of young people doing better than their parents, but how did they do it? America did well because the economies of Europe were destroyed by World War II.

Before that, you were the "Greatest Generation", which means you saved the world from Fascism, which means a lot of you died. It gets worse. The Great Depression, the First World War, the Civil War and there were Depressions back then too. And if you were born somewhere else in the world, it was probably under a King who choose your religion for you and your job choice was most likely to do the same thing your parents had done. For women, that would be raising children.

If you were doing well, you were most likely white and your affluence was directly related to the exploitation of people from non-European countries, or the fact that your country was stripping resources from one of the other continents. If that's the lottery you want to win, maybe you need to rethink your values.

I'm not picking on this Millennial young woman. This happens to most people in their 20's, they start to look beyond the limits of what their education handed them and find out things don't work the way they thought they did, the way they were told. It's not just the education systems fault, it's also that each of us has to do some of that figuring out on our own.

That's a long conversation, but I think it's instructive to look at that period of growth and prosperity right after the 2nd world war. At that time, we all were working on spreading the wealth by working on making the world wealthier. We invested in Europe and Japan because the people who lived there, the people being born there, weren't the same people that tried to kill us. They didn't cause the problem, just like a child born in Mexico or Afghanistan is not causing us any problems now.

The birth lottery ticket most of us get is to work on some little part of the world and try to make it better than you found it.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Speaking to Racism

Have you ever wanted to ask tough questions to a racist? This journalist, Al Letson, does it. The result might be what you expect, but that it didn’t devolve into yelling and end with either one walking off, is out of the ordinary. What this tells us is, racism never ended, it just dressed itself up nicer. This has been happening for decades. The language of racism is no longer acceptable, but the institutions of racism are basically the same. It was working for a while; blacks were losing votes, losing jobs, more were going to prisons. All of these indicators were there, but with the indicators of more blacks in business and government, you might have missed it.

But it’s coming back out into the open now. No matter how powerful or pervasive, culture like this can’t remain hidden for very long. It worked because it was kept quiet. Now that people are “finding their voice”, we’re hearing it again. Meet Richard Spencer, a self-proclaimed leader of the alt-right. He believes America should be all white and of European descent. He believes the races all hate each other according to natural human nature and we should have policies that reflect that. On his website it proudly says,  “Spencer’s publications and activities have been reported on by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, The Rachel Maddow Show, Buzzfeed, Salon.com, Vice.com, among many others.  Spencer has been a frequent guest commentator on the cable network RT International.” This of course does not mention what any of those publications actually say about him, or that RT is funded by the Russia government.

He lives in a small town in Montana now, but he thinks it is time to move to Washington DC and seek more attention and more funding. It’s entirely possible that he is right, and it’s also quite probable he is completely deluded. He thinks he can become an institution of the type that was started by people like Lewis Powell, in the Nixon Administration. They created the misinformation that was reported by the news organizations that were created to report them. Legitimate media had to respond but this often only served to legitimize the poorly done studies and biased data.



These include; the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute. They are not designed to answer questions or find solutions so much as instill doubt and add confusion to already difficult issues. Instead of using the university system that we built over centuries, politicians and pundits can now pick their sources. For an average person who just wants to be assured that they are right, this is a gold mine. With the rise of self-publishing and web based news, the powerful people who started this now have little control over it.

Actually, most of those people are dead. We really can’t be sure what was in their hearts. They probably didn't anticipate the world wide web. We can look at what is coming out of this cesspool of misinformation and who is using it and we can do something about it. It has a very social nature to it, so I’m afraid that means talking directly to the people who believe it. Attempting to fight non-facts with facts tends to have the effect of simply entrenching both sides. Al Letson instead talks about the people he loves and how he wants them to live together and care for each other. Spencer had little choice but to say he believed in hate.

It’s in the last 5 minutes of the show. Link is in the first sentence of this post. There’s a transcript too.

"I think we actually kind of hate each other, and that is a very tragic thing, and that's a very sad thing, and we don't trust each other. We can talk about how one day we're going to all be holding hands, or we can actually be realistic about this, and we can actually look at the power of human nature and the power of race." -- Richard Spencer

“If that is your world view then I'm sorry because like I said I have white family members that I love, and I think that they love me, so no I don't think that we hate each other. I think that there's not a nation in this world that doesn't have problems, but I would say when you just said like if we could go back X amount of years would we be better? No, because I wouldn't be talking to you right now.” – Al Letson