Riddling the Sphinx: Egypt 2011

The invocation of “freedom from oppression” by sullen powers trying to secure the oppression of freedom-fighters is nothing new in the history of civilization. It’s a particularly tantalizing mantra when the cameras are rolling and reporters sniff blood on the streets. It helps if the protesters are young, confused and loud, as they are in Cairo, and as they were in Tehran in 1978.

It’s true, of course, that loud and bloody rebellions have sometimes resulted in the oppressed masses getting what they wanted, even if they were never particularly clear about what they wanted. Americans (some anyway) wanted fewer taxes and fewer ostensible reminders that they were third-rate toadies of “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King”, in Shelley’s verdict on royalty. The French wanted less of it too, royal attitude and opulence that is, the repeal of the salt tax (gabelle), and (like Zimbabwean peasants later) more bread. There are other examples of popular uprisings that led to reform, social improvement, and greater freedom for the activists. But not many. The French revolution, glorious as it was, got France a funny kind of Republic and a deliverer who crowned himself emperor. Zanu-PF, a “freedom struggle” even the British got behind, got Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, a racist dictator who knew how to punish his enemies and finesse the guilt-ridden colonial masters.

Russia was an industrial and economic mess in 1912. By 1917 things had become ripe for agitation. The October Revolution (Великая октябрьская социалистическая революция), was an armed, popular insurrection following on the February Revolution of the same year. By 1922, following a full scale civil war, Russians awoke to find their earlier unhappiness contained by the Soviet state. Somewhere between closing the banks, repudiating its national debt, firing prelates, and seizing the factories, the idea of freedom got lost–especially among vulnerable populations like Jews, intellectuals, poets and critics.

That wasn’t the first example of populism gone crazy: Martin Luther’s rock star status, his mulish defiance of papal power, gave hope to religious dissidents and sympathizers that the Italian “whore” would finally be off the streets of Germany. That in turn, due to the preaching of Luther’s favorite lieutenant Thomas Muentzer, gave hope to the peasants that their day had finally come. There had been similar upsrisings across Europe–stretching back to Wat Tyler’s rebellion in England in 1381. The English cause was all about the poll tax, greedy land lords, labour shortages (the plague, remember?).

The German situation, inspired by Luther’s ambiguous, and as it turned out totally hypocritical concern for the common man, was a nastier affair, one that left as many as 100,000 dead, with his blessing, out of a peasant militia that reached over 300,000. The causes of the revolt sometimes intersect with modern popular complaints: the Emperor was petitioned to abolish the “cattle tithes,” and the death tax; and to preserve all “common fields, forests and waters” for use by the peasants, rather than “allowing these lands to fall into private hands,” and “allow the peasants to hunt on the common lands and fish in the common waters.” As the intensity of the movement grew, Luther became squeamish and finally not only withdrew support for their (expanding) list of grievances against the princes, the nobility and the wealthy, but defended the right of a lawful king to mow them down where they stood in opposition to God-given authority. He got the idea, of all places, from St Paul (Romans 13.1-7).

That brings us to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the US-cradled Shah of Iran–a well-known autocrat who nonetheless developed virtues in dealing with his neighbors, in a chessman kind of way that left him few friends when the going got tough. Pahlavi wasn’t Louis XVI. He was a reformer who developed an enviable record of improving the quality of life for millions of Iranians.

The Shah, on the Peacock Throne

The Shah, despite a pretty listless playboy life to which he felt entitled by the rules of the game, alienated the traditional elites by redistributing the largest estates for the benefit of more than four million small farmers. As a modernizer (the “White Revolution”) he extended the vote to women, which he declared was in accordance with Islamic law. In industry, he enabled the participation of workers in factories through share-holding, based on sweat equity, and other measures. He created an American style elementary school system, ran literacy courses in remote villages using members of the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces as teachers. He promoted health care and health education in rural areas and cities (“Sepāh e Behdāsht”), and offered free lunches to poor children. And perhaps topmost, he introduced a series of rigorous exams for Islamic theologians which were required for them to qualify as clerics. In many ways, he was Mubarak’s mirror image opposite: Much do and little talk.

The young protesters in blue jeans who took to the streets in 1977, 1978, and finally 1979 (he left the country in January of that year) began to chant the phrase “Unislamic” in the direction of the palace, partly reflecting the simple European-style anti-Americanism that was rife in the Middle East, in its import-form, at the time. It was an old story replayed, in which the encounter with “western values,” especially among the children of the elites, engendered identity-crisis soul-searching and remorse among young Muslims; that in turn evoked a Freudian regression to their most cherished adolescent illusions. The reaction is sometimes fearsome: My Islam is not Islamic enough. I must try to walk the narrow path. Our leaders are corrupt. There is only atonement in purification–which of course means, often enough, insurrection and violence–cutting away the cancer. But it is not simply “curious” that the encounter with liberal ideas and values by educated young Muslims is almost always beneath the surface of Islamic rage. The west (and I do not especially equate the west with American values) is inherently provocative. Islam is inherently vulnerable to its allure.

In December, 1979, between six and ten million Iranians marched in the streets of Tehran and elsewhere. By February, the monarchy had been dissolved, Iran was proclaimed an Islamic state, Qom had been declared a Vatican-like religious city-state, the epicenter of both religion and political power, and the Ayatollah Khomeini came home. The Revoution against Reform was complete.

Tehran march, 1979

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, was born in 1928. He is a well-preserved 82, but a man of another time. He succeeded the very popular and affable Anwar Sadat. He has ruled for thirty years, walking a razor wire between Al-Ikhwān (the Muslim Brotherhood), the Copts, the Muslim factions, the reformers, the West, and the military. In general, despite heavy-handed tactics and inertia, he has not proved to be a totally bad deal.

Americans are a funny lot. It is in their constitutional, gun-loving change-worshiping blood to think that anyone who rules a country for so long can’t be any good. The country probably isn’t worth a damn either. That is the depth of American political wisdom, a nation where citizens become quickly bored two years after a “transformative election” and throw the majority party out and chew gum until they can change drivers yet again.

Thus, when American and (some) European media see thousands of violent protestors in the streets, in Cairo or anywhere in the world, they do not stop to think how few such demonstrations in the history of the planet have resulted in good, or change, or benefit for the “oppressed.”

They think this because (they think) change is good, and a little anarchy, backed up by weapons, never hurt anybody. Isn’t that what our Revolution was all about?

The other visual coordinate is Tienanmen Square, where as many as 800 Chinese protesters, or perhaps many fewer depending on whose frames you believe, were killed in April, 1976, following a show of mourning for the respected Premier Zhou Enlai. The gathering was, ironically, labeled “counter-revolutionary” by China’s surviving, ancient leaders. Both in its inception and in its results, the Chinese affair was completely anomalous. China’s patient evolutionary processes triumphed over the moment. The analogy, despite its visual power, is irrelevant.

Yet the American infatuation with violent protest and massive unrest abides, along with the idea that public demonstrations always convey promise, a fetish they equate with “the will of the people.” This largely mythological view about how change happens persists as all block-headed notions do. At its most banal, it represents a cult of emotion, of mob rule, or the belief (which history can’t corroborate) that chaos always sorts itself out in justice and peace. A few recent NPR interviews with “serious” political scientists” (I mention no names) who claim to know something about the politics of Egypt have been even more heart- and mind-breaking, fraught with ideas that the only live topic is the post-Mubarak era, which of course will be better than the Mubarak era because new things are better than old things.

Hassan al Banna, founder of the Brotherhood

The movers and shakers of this outburst and the final beneficiaries of the game are the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Ikhwān. They are the ones who are fanning the flames, puppeteering the young, skewering the discourse with predictable references to human rights and (naturally) freedom.

Their English language website (Ikhwanweb) called for January 25th to be a “Day of Rage” because, among other things the dictator Mubarak has “insulted” al Qaeda.. Like all incendiary movements, the MB are using statistics like monopoly money, big numbers with no factual value. “At least 100 protesters killed since yesterday.” –And the number continues to climb. It is another case of a dangerous Islamist wing-command using “human rights violations” as a framing device for arrests and detention, and where the attempt to restore civil order becomes “aggression” on the part of the security forces. The MB pours gasoline on grievances, calls it water, then stands back in feigned surprise, like a batch of medieval Dominicans, when the flames leap higher. The strength of the protest, its sheer volume and bloodiness, will be seen as proof of the rectitude of the cause by millions. While American viewers with their limited understanding of such outbreaks begin to conclude, Time for Mubarak to go, millions of Muslims will be thinking something else: Time to join.

And what is our response? What does the United States have to say? The United States government talks about “restoring internet access” in the name of free speech. The President insists that the right to protest peacefully is a “human right.” Fair enough. Mr. President: this is not about Facebook. For the engineers of these protests, it is about God. It is about confusion, and how unconfused men with wicked principles that they hold to be right–purpose-driven men–can turn images that the American media can’t exegete into a government America can not do business with.

That’s what it was about in 1979, too, when the marching stopped, the Shah safely evacuated (to Egypt, by the way) and the shouting died down, and Americans watched their embassy ravaged. Five hundred ardent, shouting student supporters of the Ayatollah, the “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line,” seized fifty two American citizens and held them captive for 444 days as the United States and a fumbling American president stood by helplessly. There is nothing like reform.

It is undoubtedly true that history doesn’t alter the present. But this present and these scenes are so much like the recent past that whatever the United States gets–a new fundamentalist terrorist state in one of the most important countries in the Muslim world?–it deserves.

The Birth of the Messiah Legend: A Post-Epiphany Reality Check

In Honour of America’s Annual Nativity Feeding Frenzy

(First published as First Century Pulp Fiction: CBS at the Manger
A review of the recent CBS 48 Hours special “Birth of Jesus”

Once again the American media and a few scholarly mercenaries have tried to focus attention on New Testament mythology as though startling historical facts are waiting to be discovered beneath the layers of legend.

It happens every year, at Christmas and Easter: new revelations, startling discoveries (often described as “archaeological” to give a scientific ring), the latest scholarly finds, expert opinion. Given the lineup on CBS’s recent 48 Hours special on the birth of Jesus—John Crossan, Elaine Pagels, Michael White, and Ben Witherington (appropriately the gamut from skeptical to credulous in their approaches)—the ready supply of expertise (read: informed opinion) is no more in doubt than a burned out bulb in a marquee display.

But the opinions are. Quote Witherington, for instance: “[Mary] was very young at the time of the annunciation, barely a teenager. We’re talking about a small town girl here.” But the basis for this is nowhere to be found in the gospels; it’s based on guesses about marriageable age in Jewish tradition, spliced together with a prophecy from Isaiah 7 about a “young woman bringing forth a child,” spliced further with an event which defies historical explanation: an “announcement” of a virgin birth by one of God’s favorite messengers.

As with so much network (and general) docu-drivel, the scholarly shovels are out digging holes in air as though solid ground were beneath them. Other Class One errors: Elaine Pagels playing the Gnostic card, saying that the Gospel of Philip questions the entire concept of the virginity of Mary. Actually, the GP says that Mary is the “virgin whom no power defiled” and denies the historical Jesus (including his physical birth) completely.

Relevance to this discussion: nil. Witherington on the slaughter of the children by Herod described in Matthew’s gospel “From what we can tell about the ruins of first century Bethlehem, a few hundred people lived there. I think we’re talking about six to ten children [slaughtered] max.”

Queried as to why the event isn’t recorded outside the gospel account Witherington says “it was a minor event” by the standards of the time. So minor, in fact, that no other gospel writer mentions it, and New Testament critics have known for ages that while Herod may have been a no-gooder, the “massacre of the innocents” is just another case of Matthew milking prophecy to exploit his notion that Jesus was the “true” king of the Jews, Herod an evil imposter.

Slaughter of the Innocents, Giotto

In another instance, CBS took its crew to Egypt (receipts, please: no poolside drinks) to ask the visually tantalizing question, “Did the holy family actually live there for a while?” Matthew says they did. He says so because he is “reenacting” the Exodus scenario and gives his hand away by linking the sojourn to Hosea 11.1. Great story. Terrible history.

The problem with all such television exercises is that most of what is claimed is simply not true, or new, or revolutionary. The vast majority of biblical scholars know this; shame on them. It is the seasonal game to boost ratings, with Jesus Christ Superstar heading the pack—this year in tandem with ABC’s provocative query, Where is Heaven, How do I get There? Since archaeology is especially useless in answering that question we can leave heaven to one side, or up there as the case may be, and focus on the Christmas story, rightly beloved by children because it was a children’s story from the beginning.

Here is what we really know:

1. The Nativity Story is late—very late: The original gospel was communicated orally, chiefly by illiterate peasants. It possessed no story of the birth of Jesus because no one was interested in that part of the story until later. Paul has never heard of Jesus “of Nazareth,” or Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, or kings from eastern provinces, or a distant guiding star, or a virgin named Mary. He knows a story about a semi-divine messianic “man from heaven” (Philippians 2.5-11) whom he names Jesus Christ, “born of a woman [unnamed, unhusbanded], under [Jewish] law” (Galatians 4.4).

2. The earliest gospel and its copies possessed no birth story: When the basics of the story of Jesus were written down, the earliest literature still contained no story of the birth of Jesus. The earliest and (we think) the latest gospels–Mark (ca. 70, at earliest) and John (ca. 95, at earliest)–also know nothing of the birth of Jesus. Well, that’s almost right: the Fourth Gospel, John, knows a story similar to the one Paul knows, fancified a bit using ideas borrowed from popular Stoic philosophy, so that the semi-divine man becomes the “divine Word” of God, “who became flesh.” But still, no manger, no virgin birth–a mother he addresses, in fact, as “Woman” (John 2.4) , no angels singing Gloria, and instead of Bethlehem, active embarrassment that he hails from Galilee (John 7.40-2).

To add to the confusion, Matthew knows nothing of Jesus being from Nazareth; the family resides in Bethlehem and end up in Nazareth because it’s part of an escape route (Matt. 2.23). Luke on the other hand has the family living in Nazareth and ending up in Bethlehem because of an otherwise unknown Roman tax census (Luke 2.4f.). There is no historical memory here, and not even the Nazareth tradition is secure since despite all the very energetic attempts to find references to it no such “village”—not even an outpost of Empire–existed in the first century. (Yes, I know the contravening evidence; it is not compelling).

Discussions of the inscription from Caesarea Maritima have not alleviated our ignorance of this location and thus discussions of the implications of its proximity to the Hellenistic mini-city of Sepphoris are completely conjectural. The solution espoused by some scholars, of making this man of mystery Jesus of Bethlehem from Nazareth near Sepphoris makes him less a mystery than a cipher.

In fact, the birth in Bethlehem is legendary and the “hometown” (or refuge) of Nazareth was, if anything, a large farm.

3. The Stories are legends based on other legends: The birth stories are pious tales appended to the gospel of Mark by later writers whom tradition names “Matthew” and “Luke,” – but probably not by the authors known by those names.

Scholars know that the original gospel of Luke did not have its familiar nativity story because our earliest version of it, used by the famous second century heretic, Marcion, did not have it.

And as Marcion was writing and quoting away from his version of “Luke” in 120 AD or so in complete ignorance of the tale (just like Paul), we can assume that the nativity story came later. It arose at around the same time many other legendary accounts of the birth and infancy of Jesus were being written: The Pre-Gospel of James, for example, or the (in)famous Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which are full of entertaining stories about the birth of Jesus. In Infancy Thomas Jesus makes sparrows out of clay, then brings them to life, and smites his playmates—dead—for being rude to him. In some of the apocryphal tales he performs cures in the manger as a newborn. The tendency in the early church was to make Jesus “miraculous” from the get-go. The sources of these stories are tales told about emperors like Alexander the Great (whose mother was thought to be a virgin), Augustus (emperor, allegedly, when Jesus was born), Vespasian, heroes such as Herakles/Hercules (another virgin birth), Apollonius of Tyana, and Jewish folktales, like those associated with Chanina ben Dosa.

The story of the star is taken from Virgil’s praise-hymn (Eclogue IV) in honor of the “Peace” of Augustus. Nothing in the story is original, but its popularity was ensured by having its roots in a hundred other famous myths and legends. The point was to show Jesus the equal of the cultural heroes of the time.

4. What about the Genealogies? Another reason for knowing that the nativity tales are legendary is that, like all legends, they are uneven, flamboyant (even by the standards of miracle tales, which were the favorite form of first century pulp fiction) and contradictory. The two tales, Matthew’s and Luke’s, were not written very far apart in terms of chronology–perhaps Matthew’s coming first. But they were written to satisfy different audiences, different tastes, and for different religious reasons.

There are too many of these discrepancies to list here but there’s no need to dig very deep: Both Matthew and Luke provide “genealogies” of Jesus designed to defend their saviour from the Jewish calumny that he had been the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier (another proof of the lateness of the tales). But the genealogies themselves are out of synch: Among many discrepancies, Matthew (1.16) knows Jesus’ grandfather as Jacob, Luke (3.23) as Heli, and neither writer seems aware that the whole genealogy is negated by the doctrine of the virgin birth, which makes Joseph’s paternity irrelevant in any case. This shows to biblical critics that the genealogies originally served a different purpose from the virgin birth story—the first to prove the Jewish/Davidic pedigree of Jesus, the second to prove his divinity, mainly to gentile converts. Even the earliest Jewish Christians, the Ebionites, rejected the genealogies as forgeries, and the gospels of Mark and John know nothing about them.

5. Virgin Birth, Manger, and the Rest of It: As Christianity forged ahead, the church became less interested in the Davidic/Jewish pedigree of Jesus than in arguing his divine status–as son of God (filius dei, the designation used by Roman emperors from the time of Augustus, and conditioned by their belief that Jesus was their true lord and king). The miraculous birth was the culmination of this belief, the stage at which the virginity of Mary is introduced into the picture (Matthew 1.13-25 and Luke 1.5-8).

Matthew tells a Jewish story, more or less, and links the birth to prophecy by misusing, or misunderstanding, a verse from Isaiah (7:14, which in Hebrew simply reads, “A young woman [not a virgin] shall conceive and bear a child.”) Luke tells a Greek story, with awe-struck shepherds and harp-playing angels singing in the provincial skies. The Christians who adhered to the earliest tradition long enough to be regarded as heretics in the second century, the Ebionites, regarded the virgin birth story as heresy.

The earliest Christians seem to have followed Mark’s opinion that Jesus was promoted by God to lieutenant godship at the moment of his baptism (Mk 1.11), but the idea of a divine child sent by God for the salvation of his people was a part of the mythological picture of the late first and second century, Christianity’s formative decades. It was too tempting to leave aside: Wondrous manifestations of light, cave-births, hidden divinity made manifest to trembling onlookers. They were all part of the story of the birth of the gods and heroes before Christianity came onto the scene to share them.

Virgin birth of the Buddha

In Buddhist tradition, at Gautama’s birth, in equivalently odd circumstances, a great light shines over the world. Persians marked the birth of the Sun, symbol of the god, in the cave of Mithras at the winter solstice, and the Roman co-option of the cult of the sun god, Helios (combined with Mithras in the pre-Christian pantheon) made the solstice the date the birth of Jesus, “the light of the world.” In Greek tradition, Zeus as the Sun divinely illuminates the birth chamber of Herakles in the stable of Angras. And the poet Ovid presents Hercules as the child Horus, who shares a midwinter birthday with Zeus, Apollo, and other calendar gods. The Greek god Hermes was born in a cave in swaddling clothes. The story of the annunciation in Luke 1.30-33 is itself a borrowing of the Egyptian idea that impregnation can be effected through a ray of light falling from heaven, or a word (logos) spoken in the ear, a legend associated with the birth of Apis. The list goes on.

In summary: The stories of the birth of Jesus are late, legendary, and totally without historical merit. They are the additions of devotional writers who are at cross-purposes over whether to understand Jesus in messianic or heroic context and end up doing both. The failure to iron out contradictions is not their problem, because they were doubtless unaware that such contradictions existed. That the contradictions do exist, however, gives us important insight into the mythological foundations of the nativity tale.

Real scholars need to pay closer attention to the origins of religious myth and story and in communicating their opinions to have fuller regard for their role as reporters of reasoned conclusions. Looking for the manger, like looking for Noah’s ark, will probably continue to transfix believers once a year, but historians and biblical scholars should have no part in that quest.

Defending Sarah

“Poets…are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society… Social and linguistic order are not the sole products of the rational faculty, as language is ‘arbitrarily produced by the imagination’ and reveals ‘the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension’ of a higher beauty and truth. In short, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”(A Defence of Poesy, Shelley)

“English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!'” (Of Refudiation, Sarah Palin)

Frankly I am sick of the blood libel being hurled at Sarah Palin. I don’t know whether it comes in buckets or baggies, but enough is enough.

Following the shootings in Arizona, it should be clear to anybody who cares about the English language, the future of democracy, and the subtle allure of pencil skirts over yummy black tights that what America needs, Sarah Palin is.

I used to admire her mainly because she knew her way around a moose and had failed, like many of us, at teaching our children good abstinence habits. Ever since I saw her grit when she wrestled John McCain for the microphone during his concession speech in 2008, she has been my uncrowned princess of the rough and tumble American Dream, a spacious and verdant field where every man hopes to train his plow, elbow deep in grizzly grease on a Saturday morning, but, by golly, soaped up, perfumed and ready for business at the Mat Su Family Restauarant LLC on Saturday night. I knew I wanted in.

That’s where Sarah and I met–the Mat Su in Wasilla, I mean, and where she asked me to become her official poetry and General Culture Advisor. “I can’t pay you anything,
she said, winking, “but there are perks. Can I call you Joe?” “Of course,” I gasped, almost overcome with surprise. “Can I call you Governor?”

Since then we have spoken directly by phone whenever questions about poetry come up. Not all that frequently really–until the shootings in Tuscon last week.

She told me that the Lame-stream media was at it again, only this time they were “pulling no prisoners,” and saying that she may as well have pulled the trigger. She said she was besides herself, mad as heck and smoking like a seive. Someone “would have to hang from the yardstick for this and they want it to be me,” she said.

I told her to calm down, catch her breath and tell me what she was wearing. After a few minutes she said that she had no choice but to grab this bull by the horns of the dilemma and run with it even if it meant eating humble crow.

She was planning to make a speech, and naturally wanted to hit all the right punches. Bristol was home for the weekend and was arguing in the background with Piper over how many smores to make for a camping trip to “Russia” as they call their back yard. Sarah shushed them saying that as the road unfolded before them and they confronted new horizons, yes even in the future, they would have to learn to get along whether it was skinning an elk or making cookie treats, and now Piper is learning from Bristol that no one will buy the eggs if they can get the cow for free. It’s life I said.

But then to business:

“Joe,” she said a little shakily, “I need to make a statement about this Tuscon thing. People are you know whatever pointing fingers and saying it’s all about things I have said. And I’m afraid this is just the tipping of the iceberg.”

“I’d do anything to help, Sarah:You know that,” I said. “I’m always here for you. Especially in matters of state. Just tell me what you need.”

“Ok, for starters, They say this is all about my rhetoric. What’s rhetoric?”

“That’s easy,” I said, “It’s the language you use for a specific purpose. For example, if you say in a public place, ‘This man is a wife-beater and should be driven out of town on a rail,’ that’s rhetoric.”

“Who?” she said searchingly.

“No, Sarah, that’s just an example of inflammatory rhetoric. I don’t know any wifebeaters in Marblehead. Maybe a few drunken sea captains in the last century. That’s just an example.”

“Then why did you bring it up? I’m talking about these people who got shot in Tuscon. I can’t very well say that they should be driven out of town on a rail. Some of them are dead for Pete’s sake. People will think I’m nuts.”

“Don’t listen to people Sarah,” I said serenely. “Driving someone out of town on a rail is a metaphor.”

“A metawhatchit?” she said.

“It’s a figure of speech–like saying lipstick on a pig. Remember that one?”

“Well, take it from somebody who tried, it’s easier to do that than get it on a caribou.”

In the background, Piper had decided that they would need at least one hundred smores and that they would give all of them silly African names beginning with O.

“No, Sarah, I mean when people are saying rhetoric caused this to happen, they mean language you used in the political campaign. Comparisons. They think you’re intemperate, that you use language without thinking about the consequences. Maybe–and please understand, this isn’t me talking–that you’re reckless. If a guy did get run out of town because I said he should, it’s a problem I caused. And some people might say that by putting Ms Giffords in a crosshairs helped to get her shot, especially when you made that don’t retreat reload comment…..”

“Listen, I don’t like where you’re going with this metaphor stuff. We talk the talk up here In Alaska. We keep our eye on the price and our finger on the trigger. And we don’t shoot that bridge until we come to it, otherwise we’re just, so to speak, throwing the house out with the baby.”

That reminded her that Trig had to be fed. “Todd,” she yelled in a soft way, “When you finish replaying Bristol’s concession speech on Dancing with the Stars can you put some smashed nannners in a pan on the stove.” Todd’s unmistakable voice in the background affirmed he would.

“I still cry when I think of it,” she said. “If her name had been Obeejobee Obama you know she would have come in first. But heck, I’ve raised my kids to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. When the going gets tough…”

“The tough get going, ” I said, trying to be helpful.

“You never make any sense,” she said. “I was just about to say you don’t bite the hand that rocks the cradle.”

I smiled. All I wanted was for her to go on spinning her magical web of words. Was I in love with her? Maybe.

Finally I said, “Sarah:you think in metaphors, beautiful images, almost snowflake-like in their intricacy and lightness. And no one can blame you for what you don’t mean literally. Just like my example of the wifebeater.”

“Well, up here in Alaska which is a great and worthy part of this sublime and scrumptuous landscape we call America, we shoot wifebeaters. We don’t want our dirty laundry coming home to roost. Anyway, Joe, I need some language. Some language that will let people know that when they say I caused the shooter to do this they’re barking up the wrong whatever. I need to drill that message home.”

“What’ve you got so far?” I asked.

“Well. What I said is that nobody worth heck would believe the trash these liberal pundunts are talking about me and my family and they had better shut up or they’ll find themselves on the business side of my Glock 19. But the ones on my side, I want them to know that just like this wonderfilled beautiful land we call home I have a heart as big as gold.”

“That is nice and direct,” I said. “It has punch. Especially the last part about wonderfilled. But, Sarah, here’s the problem: some people won’t know you’re speaking in metaphors. They’ll think you mean it.”

There was a long pause; Sarah was asking Todd if he had ever heard the phrase Blood Libel. “Nuh-uh” came a voice in the background.

“One other things. I want to work in the word blood libel. This person who got caught in the crosshairs, she’s a Jew right, so this is just another case of Jews trashing on Christians. I have to make that clear to my people.”

I paused. To correct Sarah is to betray her confidence in me, ruin any chance there might be that she could truly love me. I had to be careful–deft even. “Gabby Giffords is Jewish, that’s right,” I said, “but a blood libel refers to the legend that Jews used the blood of Christians in their preparation for Passover meals. It’s just a legend. But even if it was true, it wouldn’t make any sense–it’s like mixing a metaphor. I think it might hurt, to be honest.”

“Exactly. Mixing metaphors. That’s what we’ll do. Whaddya get from mixing: Cake, that’s what. You’re thinking just what I was thinking. It gets into the Jewish thing and the Christian thing in a good way that let’s people know that you can’t trash Christians just because you get shot by some rogue maverick crazy man. I’ve been taking notes and I think I’ve got it. Thanks for your help, Joe. It’s always nice to talk to you about these language things–helps me spew it off your chest and see light at the end of the rainbow. Anyway, I’ll get Todd to write this up and text you. Right now I don’t have two minutes to rub together.”

There was a click–the sudden climax of hopeless love and a busy woman. The message came about an hour later.

“I implore you to avoid casting aspersions on any individual or group for influencing alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner. If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision,…If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundunts should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”

Brilliant. No matter how hard I try, she’s always ahead of me.

Of Atheist Tribes: A Repost and Riposte in Honor of David Silverman’s Foolery


Atheism is badly served by the likes of a stammering David Silverman, recently made mincemeat by an intellectual third-rater on Fox News.

Richard Dawkins & Co. invented the term “Brights” to describe non-believers in general. A price on their head for those of us who have been disgraced by this episode.

Now we are confronted with a new phenomenon: Atheist Dims. –Spokesmen [sic] who think an adequate description of religion entails the axiom that all people who take the idea of God seriously actually believe in a great Watchman in the sky who takes an interest in my personal hygiene. They don’t speak for atheists, and they don’t speak for me.

No wonder the billboards are so wasteful, not only conforming to a ‘fifties Impeach Earl Warren aesthetic, but simply dumb, as they degenerate from “You Know its a Myth,” American Humanist Association message to “You Know its a Scam,” American Atheist-style. Interesting and totally cynical change of tone: the sort of thing you get in bad music.

Atheists will not make friends or influence people by suggesting that religious persons are morons. Some are. Many aren’t. Worse, their vaunted intellectual superiority is too reminiscent of the evangelical’s vaunted spirituality. And both claims are based on premises as leaky as cheesecloth.

And then there is the puling defense of this uglification of the landscape: that you are really not preaching to religious people but to people who privately entertain doubts about religion. Please get back to me with the testimonials and statistics when the stats come in. Most of human life is lived in the spaces between what we would like to believe and what we cannot say openly. Everyone who has been married on paper but visited other sheets knows that: Why don’t the American Atheists, and why don’t they know this about religion? Or do atheists leave doubt and skepticism behind when they arrive at their position?

And even if your Dawkins-avatar whispers to you that you are the Brightest shining star, even if at night and in your left ear, be mindful that history has laid to rest countless asserverators of the idea that God is dead, senile, useless, out to lunch, gone fishin’ or the invention of paltry minds.

Silverman does one thing more that I will get to presently: He has also come up with the barking idea that it was all done consciously and with premeditation: as a lie.

Oh my goodness. Can you imagine the apostles or servitors of the Prophet planning the coming millennium around a campfire, when politicians in Whitehall and Washington can’t set policy for the next two years?

I thought not. Religion is a “lie”–maybe–in the sense that many of its cardinal tenets cannot be supported by modern science. A premeditated lie? Give me a break.

The challenge? The atheist “movement” must disown Silverman as a fool. Or acknowledge that what they are now facing is a huge fissure in the ranks between hard, foolish, trendy unbelief, Guanilo-style, and soft, educated unbelief. What we are witnessing is an outbreak of atheist piety, a conviction that unbelief is self-evidently true. We used to call this faith, not logic. Tell me where I’m wrong.

The real Brights are not atheists. They are the ones who know that science is not a messiah but one way of knowing about the good, the true and the beautiful, and a way that cannot exclude religion and the religious imagination.


Shame on religion for abusing the gullible, the vulnerable, the innocent, for political or monetary gain.

Shame on the Atheists, old and new, for their copycat tactics in exploiting science, subverting humanism, and convincing ill-educated followers that their argot is supreme and needs no further discussion when, down to an individual, they know this is not true or honest.


Of Atheist Tribes First of all, I refrain from mentioning any names or organizations that can properly be called atheistically thick-headed. They know who they are. I’ve named them before, without salvific effect. They are proud of who they are. They like their atheism short, sweet, rude, and raw. If they get on people’s nerves, that’s okay because religion gets on their nerves. Who can disagree? The standard cable network service, before they cut you off entirely … Read More

via The New Oxonian