The Catholic Bishop Holocaust Denier Is Making the News and, ba-da-da-da-da, I’m Lovin’ It

Find out why in my latest column in the Nashville Free Press! Click HERE.

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Religion in the News: Exciting New Discovery of Syria’s Largest Ancient Church

In Palyrma, a town in central Syria, what is thought to be the largest church ever discovered in the state has been unearthed. Archaeologists think that it is 1500 years old; they have even discovered other building of significance, including an amphitheater, in the area of the church.

I love new discoveries like this: anything that sheds light on our picture of early Christianity and allows us to understand the religion’s dissemination and early theology better. Plus, it’s an interesting reminder to us all that Christianity was so popular in certain regions of the modern Middle East. In fact, Syria’s Antioch is one of the five patriarchates.

There is no period of Christianity (or history for that matter!) that I don’t find fascinating, but I’m particularly intrigued by the early period, which is often dated between the first and sixth centuries – though I don’t think it would be inappropriate to cut it off earlier. In any case, this church is a really cool find from that period, and I hope that the archaeologists continue to find other things in the area that shed light on the period and religion. After all, the dry dessert heat preserves scrolls really well, so it’s not impossible that some awesome texts stored in ancient jars will be unearthed!….but nothing yet.

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Fun with the Bible: The Theme of the Second Son in Genesis and How God Does What He Wants

The Nifty Theme of Anti-Primogeniture

One interesting theme to note in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is how it’s all about God changing the way that the natural order plays out. One primary example of the way this happens is who the inheritance goes to in the line of the Israelites ancestors. In each instance, it is the older son that tradition and convention and ‘nature’ tell us should get the inheritance – known as primogeniture – but the second son who actually receives it because that is God’s will.

Abraham’s inheritance should actually go to Ishmael as his first born male son. However, it is actually Isaac who receives Abraham’s inheritance. Similarly, Isaac had two twin sons, Esau, who came out first, and Jacob, who came out second. Esau was meant to get his father’s blessing and inheritance, but it was Jacob who received it.

Why Can’t I Have Babies?

This theme presents itself in the case of the matriarchs as well. In each case, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel are all barren and unable to provide children for their husbands, but God reverses the natural order and allows them all to have children because he will affect the way this line goes.

Applying This to the Torah at Large

This notion sits behind the entire experience of the Israelites as they are given the land of Cana’an by God, and is the point that the Five Books of Moses are making (in the story part, not the laws). God, at creation, has partitioned the land of the earth accordingly, but because it was His land, He was entitled to change His mind later on – something He did – and give certain parts to other people. The Torah is the story of him opting to give an already alloted piece of land to the descendants of Abraham.

In a cynical sense, the Torah is, in essence, an Israelite justification for why they had the right to dispossess the local people and take the land for themselves and live there. Their book says, because God told us it was ours when He changed his mind about the people here! The Torah is an old-ass piece of political propaganda, if you look at it this way.

Disclaimers

A. the Torah is A WHOLE lot more than this.

B. this is a cynical view though something to consider

C. Though the attitude may have modern ramifications this understanding is not meant to be applied – nor should it be applied – to the modern circumstances in the state of Israel. That would be foolish and lack consideration for myriad other factors like factual historical circumstances and other purposes of the Torah.

Wrap Up

What do you think of these ideas? What do you find noteworthy around these stories in the book of Genesis?

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Around the World Pic: A Statue of Jesus with a Jewish Prayer on a Prague Bridge

When I first went to Prague I thought this statue was incredibly fascinating. It is a statue of Jesus on the cross but around him are the words, in Hebrew, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts.” These words are part of an important prayer uttered by Jews every day the world over. They, under no circumstances, refer to Jesus, and so finding this statue on the Charles Bridge in Prague was a bizarre discovery for me.

As it happens, these golden Hebrew letters were part of a humiliating punishment assigned to a Jew at the end of the 17th century who’d been accused of blasphemy. He was forced to pay for them, and it made it seem that when the Jews said this prayer, they were referring to Jesus.

Needless to say, my love of European history and studying Jewish-Christian relations, made stumbling across this statue a wonderful treat.

Plus, a friend of mine stripped down to his boxers right here and planned to jump over the edge before something (Jesus?) compelled him to stop, because the river was likely more shallow than he imagined.

Have you ever been to Prague? Have you seen this statue? What’d you think?

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To read about Jesus’ connection to King David in the book of Matthew because of Hebrew lettering, click HERE.

Andrew Davidson’s Debut Novel, The Gargoyle, is Worth Every Penny of the 1.25 Million He Was Advanced

Now, personally, I have no idea how one gets awarded 1.25 million dollars as an advance on a first book, but when people start bidding, who knows what crazy things can happen. Then again, maybe it’s not so crazy. The book is spectacular. The writing is fresh and interesting, the style engaging and seductive, and the humor edgy and risque. You don’t want to put it down but you’re not annoyingly attached like a crappy Dan Brown novel.

In short, it’s a great read.

One thing I really loved about it was the endless religious imagery and integration of religious concepts, all discussed by the main character, who was, as luck would have it, an atheist. Now, talking about symbolism abstractly in regards to a book you may not have read really seems silly, but I don’t want to ruin anything for you or give any plot spoilers.

I will say, however, that you will be doing yourself a service if you constantly bear the book’s title, The Gargoyle, in mind. It holds beautifully throughout the entire novel.

And the history! Multiple periods, personal characters, a variety of places. You learn so much and from a guy who’s done his homework, too. Great research went into this book, and the author does a wonderful job of integrating and crafting the material, bringing us through times and places beyond our own but that become so very close through the telling of his story.

As you’ll see, Dante’s Inferno has a prominent place in The Gargoyle and as it’s been sitting next to me on my desk for months now, I suppose it’s finally time and only fair that I pick it up. I’ve always wanted to and this provided sufficient impetus.

Have you read The Gargoyle? What’d you think? Will you read Davidson’s next book? Was this one worth the advance he got? Get your own copy of The Gargoyle.

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Religion in the News: The Dead Sea Scrolls, One of the Greatest Finds of All Time, Are Coming to the Internet

I know, it’s exciting, but we’ve all go to keep our pants on.

Okay, okay. This may not be as exciting to some of you as it is to me, but this is a really big deal.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 in caves above the Dead Sea by a Bedoin, are perhaps one of the most amazing discoveries of all time. Not only are they the oldest Hebrew copies available of the books of the Bible (except the book of Esther) but they contain numerous other writings that tell us all about a fascinating, ascetic, Jewish sect from the first century of the Common Era (the time of Jesus, in case you were wondering).

This find and the information derived from it have had a profound impact on scholarship since its discovery, seriously affecting our understanding of Judaism in this period, arguably shedding light on earliest Christian theology, general history, biblical studies and so much more.

However, there’s always been a debate about who should have access to the scrolls, both because of scholarly dibs but also because of the difficulty of preserving the scrolls and keeping them intact. Finally, that problem is solved.

Now all scholars will be able to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls in their original form on the internet, opening up the world of scholarship to all who may wish to partake. This project, in my eyes, is similar to others that seek to put very old materials on the internet that are otherwise only available in particular archives (EEBO, SSB, etc.) so that everyone who wants to browse the originals can do so.

The decentralization and dissemination of knowledge is awesome and I, for one, frickin’ love it. The more people who have access to more information, the better our world becomes. I say, great call putting the Dead Sea Scrolls online.

What are your thoughts on the dissemination of knowledge? Have you ever read parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls or are you familiar with the Qumran sect? Do you think this will matter?

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Quran Day: The Story of Adam and the Angels in The Cow 30-39

The Quran and the Bible – Influence, Harmony and History

I loved reading this section, but as many of you are probably figuring out, I love to talk about the Quran’s relationship to the Bible.

On a basic level, reading Genesis 2-3 alongside these verses provides a great comparison of two texts telling the same (but a different) story. Next, you get to extrapolate to a comparison of Judaism and Christianity v. Islam based on their respective texts, all the while wondering to what degree the Quran is influenced by the actual biblical story or by the people who believe in the biblical story (i.e. Christians and Jews). And then you have to wonder what stage of their religious development those Christians and Jews were at; what I mean is that Christians and Jews didn’t just believe the biblical story as is (by the first to sixth centuries CE) but had all sorts of theological interpretations and alternate understandings by the rise of Islam – some which are more visible and some less in the Quranic text. So where are the influences coming from and how!?

That I find this ridiculously fun is like lifting up my dress to reveal my nerdiness, but I think that religious interplay and influence between peoples and their texts is the bees’ knees – one of the coolest and most fascinating things to study.

So what do I have to say about these verses then…

I wonder why the angels are such a large part of the story of the creation of man. Admittedly, it adds a fascinating element if one knows enough about “angelology.” The angels here reflect a common theme whereby angels are jealous of men, because men sin and don’t worship God constantly as angels do yet are still given so much by way of paradise (Garden) and forgiveness/mercy and access to Heaven. These knowledgeless angels are not unexpected – Angels always seem to be simple peons of God who do what they’re supposed to not because they should but because it would never occur to them to do otherwise.

Some interesting contrasts with the biblical story are that no particular tree is mentioned at this point in the Quran (is it later?). Plus, there’s only one tree. The Garden of Eden in the Bible had two forbidden trees (Knowledge of Good and Evil, which Adam and Eve ate from, and the Tree of Life, which gave immortality). It stands to reason that God would not want Adam and Eve to eat from those trees (all-knowing and immortal people could be problematic – though in the Quran God gives knowledge of reality and all things before the tree scene!) but in the Quran we have no reason for this tree being a no-no. It’s simply an injunction that Adam cannot eat from a certain tree. Why? What does this teach more pointedly that the Bible does not? Obedience?

Also, the biblical story doesn’t have Satan as the tempter. Sure, Christians will tell you that the snake was Satan, but as you may have learned with me on Fun with the Bible day, we must believe the Bible for what it says and not what we want it to say. There is no Satan in the biblical story of creation – only a snake and the original author intended that this be a snake. I imagine that the story, by the composition of the Quran, was long since one with Satan and not a snake and that is why we have what we have here.

I also find this element of male-female antagonism fascinating. Is this etiological (that is, a story about history meant to explain the present)? Why do men and women not get along? As a punishment from God when they ate from the wrong tree and were kicked out of the Garden, of course. Fortunately, God only gives this punishment for a specific time period, a luxury the biblical reader was not privy to.

Really fascinating things here and so much I just can’t get to!

Questions and Other Posts

What did you notice in these verses? What did I leave out when comparing this passage to the Bible? What do you think of the theological elements in these verses? Please feel free to answer the other questions I’ve posed above.

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The Cow 30-39

30. Remember, when your Lord said to the angels: “I have to place a trustee on the earth,” they said: “Will You place one there who would create disorder and shed blood, while we intone Your litanies and sanctify Your name?” And God said: “I know what you do not know.” 31. Then He gave Adam knowledge of the nature and reality of all things and every thing, and set them before the angels and said: “Tell Me the names of these if you are truthful.” 32. And they said: “Glory to You (O Lord), knowledge we have none except what You have given us, for You are all-knowing and all-wise.” 33. Then He said to Adam: “Convey to them their names.” And when he had told them, God said: “Did I not tell you that I know the unknown of the heavens and the earth, and I know what you disclose and know what you hide?” 34. Remember, when We asked the angels to bow in homage to Adam, they all bowed but Iblis, who disdained and turned insolent, and so became a disbeliever. 35. And We said to Adam: “Both you and your spouse live in the Garden, eat freely to your fill wherever you like, but approach not this tree or you will become transgressors. 36. But Satan tempted them and had them banished from the (happy) state they were in. And We said: “Go, one the antagonist of the other and live on the earth for a time ordained and fend for yourselves.” 37. Then his Lord sent commands to Adam and turned towards him: Indeed He is compassionate and kind. 38. And We said to them: “Go, all of you. When I send guidance, whoever follows it will neither have fear nor regret; 39. But those who deny and reject Our signs will belong to Hell, and there abide unchanged.”

What Are We Really Voting for This Election Season, Asks “Douche and Turd,” episode 808 of South Park

As we arrive at day 72 on our countdown to vote for the next president of the United States of America, we have to ask ourselves, What are we really voting for?

Some will say “CHANGE!” and some will say, “NOT BLACK PEOPLE!” but no matter what they say we’re presented with two choices that are likely to provide us, the American people, with very comparable outcomes. And this is what “Douche and Turd” is saying.

When South Park Elementary has to vote for a new school mascot, the boys think it will be funny to write in two ridiculous things: a giant douche and a turd sandwich. When there’s a run-off between these idiotic candidates, Stan just can’t figure out what the point of voting is and why he would even bother when the choice is going to be stupid, pointless, unable to be differentiated and nothing you’d want between two pieces of bread.

Now, of course, it must be noted that this episode was written and aired before the Bush v. Kerry election, when the two candidates had a lot more in common and America appeared a lot less in trouble. This election, admittedly, looks a little different.

To pose the more obvious observation of how the two candidates are different, one of them is white – much like John Kerry. Similar to John Kerry as well, one of them has actually served in the United States armed forces. But let’s take a quick peak at the bigger picture and remember that the two aren’t actually so different after all.

They are both members of one of America’s two big parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Though one would like to convince you that the other spends more money or that they’re more “less-hand-in-government” as a political approach to governing, that’s crap. They’ll both spend a crapload of money; they’ll both interfere in your life in a way previously unprecedented in American history, and they’ll both provide us with rhetoric that is full of shit and excuses on a pretty regular basis. And then you can turn to The Daily Show to laugh at either of them as our country and its glory spin down the drain, only to be documented in 45 years when historians can finally be far enough away to recognize some identifiable patterns.

Gloomy, no? Do I really think it’s going to be that bad? I certainly hope not – but I will say that neither candidate has actually outlined in detail or demonstrated the executable-ness of any programs that will solve any of America’s many major problems. Though I hope this isn’t the downward sloping side of the America-on-top mountain (because I think we have a lot to offer the world by way of collective equality before no one is listening to us again), I do think that when historians look back in time and have to assess, neither candidate so far has differentiated himself enough in his actual planned execution (not just policy rhetoric) so as to make him any different from the other or cause this to be the presidency of change. That’s not to say it won’t be, but just that if we went forward with what’s been outlined so far, we wouldn’t see any tangible results because nothing is really being said.

I hope that come election day we’re voting for something other than a giant douche or a turd sandwich.

What do you think? Who will you be voting for? What did you think of this episode? Do you think it’s applicable to every presidential election or just every one before a black man got in there?

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Around the World: The Acropolis in Athens is an Incredible Place

Enjoying the View from the Acropolis

Enjoying the View from the Acropolis

Greece is a spectacularly beautiful place. Most of my time there was spent hopping around a few islands, and I only spent about 4 hours in Athens before I caught a plane to London at the end of my trip. All I really cared to do was explore the ancient forum and climb up to the Acropolis.

Like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that is currently home to the Dome of the Rock, the Acropolis, meaning ‘sacred rock’ is an elevated mountain platform that has always been associated with the sacred and the holy. Since the sixth millennium BCE it has been inhabited or built upon and though it is no longer in use for worshiping the gods, it’s still a breathtaking place to visit.

The 360 degree views from the top are spectacular. The columns are insanely enormous and the entire structure dwarves you and all the people hopping around the edges of it. Funny enough, I saw the friezes that adorned the Acropolis a year earlier when I was in London visiting the British Museum. They’re also incredible, and I can’t imagine what they would have looked like at the top of this amazing structure.

Have you ever been to the Acropolis? What did you think? Have you seen the parts of it that are in the British Museum?

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Topical Tuesday: How Historical Should Historical Fiction Be?

I’m going to have to preface this with the qualification that I’m a historian by training, specializing in Judaism, Christianity and comparative religion. This makes me, for all intents and purposes, a little biased when it comes to my opinions on the necessary degree of historicity of historical fiction.

The Benefits of Historical Fiction

But this doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. It actually means I love historical fiction, because I think, when done well, historical fiction can provide a flavor and understanding of a time and place that is missed amidst facts and theories and trying to understand the whys of history. Historical fiction allows us to imagine dimensions of historical circumstances not previously thought about by creating characters with personalities and lives that before were only a series of dates and events.

Moreover, by including a complex story in a finite amount of space the disconnected facts can more easily be visualized as a multitude of simultaneously occurring factors and motivations that coalesced in that which we consider to be the relevant moments. That reflects history better than many history classes can. Though this is often the goal of historians – to properly blend the whys and hows in order to arrive at the historical circumstances in question – historical fiction allows far more people to achieve this outcome and see the beauty of the events as the historian might wish for them to be seen.

Good Historical Fiction

There are some television shows right now that I think do a particularly great job: Mad Men and The Tudors, to name but two (The Tudors is a complicated issue though). One book that I found to be particularly well done historical fiction was The Last Jew. Another excellent one was Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore, written as a lost gospel and the parts of Jesus’ life that are entirely absent in the Bible. Truly excellent stuff.

How Historical It Should Be

That said, I expect an incredibly high level of competence and understanding on the part of the author before s/he undertakes a project of historical fiction. A veritable expert s/he must be. I think it’s fine to invent people that don’t exist and conversations that didn’t happen amongst people that did, and to create new events so long as they don’t distort history. It’s a difficult line to walk.

I think that the characters who were real should reflect all current and respected scholarship on the personality of that character, though interpretive liberties are obviously acceptable so long as the character does not become someone else. If, in the Tudors, Henry VIII were portrayed as a courteous, non-self-centered, timid fellow, I would be pretty put off. Historical fiction should seek to better explain and bolster what we do know and our understanding of the people or era under discussion – as well as to entertain of course. Changing known historical events, which isn’t to say embellishing, is unacceptable.

I also think that all historical fiction should come with an explanation by the author of what’s being done: the goal, what’s being changed and what liberties taken, what’s not, why these decisions were made, and anything the reader should know to be able to differentiate between history and historical fiction. There’s nothing I hate more (hyperbole) than someone with a poor knowledge of history (or religion) reading historical fiction and then thinking that what they read is all true and having no way to differentiate the true from the invented. Case in point, The DaVinci Code.

First of all, horrible book – so bad I wanted to rip my own head off. Worse still, that a friend of mine thought he understood the fine points of Christian theology and the truth behind Christianity and the Church after reading this book. Yes, we are told up front that places and works of art are being described as they are, but I don’t think that helped everyone. Even if it was a sufficient explanation, the book itself sucked: three page chapters with suspense that turns out to be nothing at the end of every one. I thought I was reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps again.

But that’s more than enough from me for now. What do you think about historical fiction? What’s important to you and how historical should it be? What are your favorite works of historical fiction and why?

Check out Chandler’s different take on the matter HERE.

To read some other Topical Tuesday posts, click HERE. To read Fun with the Bible, click HERE.