Month: February 2010

Oh, Mr Wilson!

I hope not to be as annoyingly menacing as ‘Dennis’, but I do fear that my curiosity will bring a level of frustration to some.

Recently, I began (re)reading AN Wilson’s book, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, primarily because it was one of those books I thought I read completely but was not entirely sure. I just finished the third chapter and I cannot begin to recall how many times throughout I’ve laughed or shook my head at some of the assertions Wilson makes. Since there are 13 more chapters (plus an appendix), I will either find my sides rather sore from splitting or my neck in a foam brace from too much oscillation (or both).

At the start of his chapter on Tarsus (chp 2), Wilson mentions (far too briefly) the story of Cleopatra’s arrival to Tarsus for some, shall we say, extra-circular activities with good ol’ Marc Antony. It does not appear that Wilson discounts the historicity of the event in general. However, he does point out that this general story found its way into the writings of Plutarch, North and Shakespeare and was elevated to the place of a glorious tale of love and passion. For Wilson, it was at this point that the general, historical event was turned into a celebrated myth to be remembered throughout time. Then, a seemingly random comment emerges:

Even this story [i.e. the rendezvous between Cleopatra and Marc Antony], which seems so romantic, starts out with a dubious political pedigree. Christianity does not own a monopoly on myth-making (23–emphasis mine)

Wilson then goes on to provide an alternative reading for the historical event which reveals the ‘dubious political pedigree’–i.e. the real story. After offering this variant perspective, Wilson dives into a discussion about the freedom Paul experienced in travelling via Roman roads and sea-faring ships throughout the Mediterranean region. Then, the discussion turns toward the social and religious life of Tarsus leading up to and surrounding the time of Paul. Thus, Wilson’s ‘Christianity does not own a monopoly on mythmaking’ comment appears to be not only random but also one given for the sake of effect (or, affect). I do, however, have a distinct feeling that this apparently random comment will play a crucial role later on in Wilson’s book. For now, I will simply voice my curiosities regarding Wilson’s comment.

First, the very premise is unqualified (and dare I say, unjustified); he just throws it in as though it is indisputable fact–or ought to become so. Second, Wilson assumes that historic Christianity would either claim to be in the business of myth-making or that it would it take legal action on those who engage in intellectual copyright infringement or want a piece of the mythical pie for themselves. Third, and following a strand implied the second, labelling something ‘myth’ is often an interpretative decision made by an external reader–generally one who is far removed from the events described, and commonly by one who personally dislikes (or disagrees with) the contents. Finally, and I realise this may be a tired argument but it still holds relevancy, Wilson does not seem to recognise the historical and literary progression needed for mythical texts. This progression requires several generations so that the reliable witnesses, who could refute false accounts, are all dead and gone.

However, Wilson seems to be ill-concerned with the potential issues that arise from these assumptions. He simply has an argument (i.e. gripe) and he wants to make it. Given the context of Wilson’s comment, it would appear as though he wants to suggest that Paul has a hand in the myth-making process of the Christian story. If that is not Wilson’s intent, then the comment is contextually meaningless and carries no real relevance other than shock-value. If, however, it is Wilson’s intent to say that Paul does contribute mythical elements to the Christian story,* then the comment is not necessarily meaningless; it’s just sadly hilarious.


* My hunch is that Wilson does want to take the discussion in this direction.  I base this on the way in which the chapter continues and ends.  Wilson dives into a discussion about the Mithraic worship practices of Asia-Minor in general and Cilicia in particular. For Wilson, because Paul grew up in Tarsus during the formidable years of his early life (a point of serious scholarly debate), Paul must have been influenced by the rites, practices, and (mythical) stories told about the gods of the Mithras cult. This influence thus shaped Paul’s view of belief–especially belief in one claiming to be the Son of God, who died for the sins of the world and now lives eternally in heaven with God. (Bruce Chilton’s book, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography makes a similar case, which is also sadly hilarious).

If it smells fishy, it probably ain’t good

Anyone who knows me and my ‘fussy’ eating habits will not be shocked by my aversion to seafood. I admit to the odd occasion when I have had seafood of some kind, but those are not exceptions that disprove the rule. It is sadly to the point where all I have to do is smell it and my stomach locks up like a high security vault and my taste-buds voice scathing threats.

On a completely different level (sort of), there are times when I can sense that something is not good–or that something is terribly afoul. The way in which my mind reacts to various things usually tells me something is wrong, and because of that reaction I proceed cautiously. I will then do all that I can to see if what I sense is indeed correct so that my claims are not based on mere intuitions, which may occasionally be correct.

This has proven helpful on several instances in the past while grading papers for classes I’ve taught. The paper would all of a sudden sound all too familiar with either course texts or other works I know moderately well. (Sadly, on a couple of occasions, contextually speaking, the paper would be ‘okay’ and then become absolutely brilliant before returning to ‘okay’). A few weeks ago, I smelled fish in a particular individual’s writing–one who is intriguingly popular amongst a specific demographic of people–and I wanted to make sure that I was smelling properly before saying anything.

Unlike my usual respect for the students I’ve taught, which is to keep them absolutely anonymous when discussing their work, I will name this most recent individual–primarily because he is not a student of mine in any shape or form. Jack Kinsella is the leading writer for the Omega Letter website, which is nothing more than an extension the (wacky*) theological ministry of Hal Lindsay. As such, and admittedly so, the Omega Letter (and Kinsella) stands firmly entrenched in Dispensational views of Scripture and allows such views to dictate how they view and understand culture.

I came into contact with the Omega Letter and Kinsella only because I was referred to both by a well-intention individual, who also holds Dispensational views. The reference came to me in a ‘What do you think about this?’ sort of manner. I read through what Kinsella had to say, laughed a bit, shook my head alot and then responded kindly to the individual expressing my disagreement with Kinsella’s arguments. After my response, I decide to engage in a bit of mental masochism and continued to read through previous Omega Letters and then a few of Kinsella’s articles. It was when I began going through his articles–one in particular–that I began to smell fish.

The article in question was called, ‘The “Hidden” Bible’, which dealt with the interesting (at least for me) debate on the Apocryphal books–i.e. those not included in modern (Protestant) Bibles. At first, I expected his treatment of the topic to be rather polemical and dismissive, and then launch into a whole bunch of reasons why the Apocrypha is worthless for Christians (i.e. his usual approach to anything that he deems non-conservative). However, I was rather surprised to read through the first part of his summary; it sounded legitimate, historical, fair and even cogent (i.e. not like Kinsella’s usual approach). It then turned into a scathing treatment of how the Apocrypha is worthless for Christians.

It was those very features that caused me to wonder if these were Kinsella’s actual thoughts. Something about the initial summary was not jiving with me. First, he begins by saying ‘First,’ but then never comes up with a ‘Second.’  (One normally does not begin with ‘first’, as if making a list, without providing additional points). Second (ha-ha), is the fact that he uses ‘B.C.E.’ as a time designator, which by Kinsella’s normal reckoning would be a liberalising of chronology. Further, a couple of sentences later he uses ‘A.D.’ as a time designator which, for Kinsella, would be the proper Christian way of defining history. Thirdly (and finally for the purposes of this rant), the flow of logic, grammar and syntax were completely unlike Kinsella. All of these things (and a few others) just didn’t sit well with me. I knew something was wrong. I smelled fish.

I did a number of searches and found several websites containing the exact same description that Kinsella gives for the Apocrypha. (The most telling one is found here).  The logical assumption is that he simply did a copy-and-paste (i.e. stole) from these previous sources and created his own version (so to speak). In order to test this assumption, I did a quick text-critical comparison of these other sources and Kinsella’s version. It became quite clear that Kinsella restructured the order of material but kept the contents virtually untouched.  Moreover, it does not appear that Kinsella bothered to recognise or even change the details of the contents–hence, the use of ‘B.C.E.’ in one place but ‘A.D.’ in another.

Well, wait a minute: this switching needs explanation. My first guess was that Kinsella inserted his little comment about ‘the Rheims-Douay version (1582 AD)’ into the other material he copied (i.e stole). I assumed this simply because the Rheims-Douay comment does not exist in the description of the Apocrypha found elsewhere. But then I found this, which contains the exact phrase regarding the Rheims-Douay version of the Bible. Either Kinsella copied (i.e. stole) from Robert Sargent, or Sargent copied (i.e. stole) from Kinsella, or they both copied (i.e. stole) from an unknown source. Given that Sargent’s page has a time-stamp of 25-Apr-2008 and Kinsella has 30-June-2009, one of the three options is ruled out; however, neither of the remaining two are good ones.

This illustrates another key point. All of the sites I found were prior to Kinsella’s Omega Letter and nearly all of them had copyrights on their material. This raises obvious ethical questions for Kinsella. If he is going to write his Omega Letters as though they are his own thoughts and conclusions (which is precisely what he claims at the start of his letter), then he needs to own up to instances where he must borrow from someone or somewhere else. That’s just plain courtesy. However, if he is going to borrow from someone or somewhere else and pawn it off as his own (i.e. without proper citation, or at least a ‘most say’ comment), that’s plagiarism which is tantamount to theft–plain and simple. Moreover, presenting something in writing as though it is your own when it is clearly not, but wanting people to believe that it is your own, is lying. Either is Kinsella is guilty of plagiarism and lying, or he is not. The evidence, however, does not appear to be in his favour.

* That’s really the nicest term I could think of at the moment.

On Pliny’s ostrich and reactive behaviour

For generations, many believed that Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) was the source for the most recognised and iconic description of ostriches–i.e. that they bury their heads when scared.  While it is true that Pliny does suggest as much, it is a passing comment at best.  He says:

They have the marvellous property of being able to [swallow] substance without distinction, but their stupidity is no less remarkable; for although the rest of their body is so large, they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed. (Natural History, 10.1)*

However, Pliny was not the first to mention this apparent phenomenon, for Diodorus Siculus (fl. 1st century BCE) notes:

When she [the ostrich] is near being taken [by her pursuers], she thrusts her head under a shrub or some such like clover; not (as some suppose) through folly and blockishness, as if she would not see any pursuers, or be seen by them, but because her head is tenderest part of her body, she seeks to secure that part all manner of ways she can. (Historical Library, 2.4)

Even here we can see that describing this supposed reactive behaviour circulated before and during the time of Diodorus.  The obvious difference between Pliny and Diodorus is that one sees the behaviour as foolish while the other views it as sensible.**   While this behaviour has gone unobserved in the modern world, which allows people to assume a mythological element to the account; at the very least, Pliny should be exonerated for being the originator of this assumed mythical behaviour.  However, regardless of its historical accuracy or origin, there are lessons to be learned from this description that can be applied to real life.  Too many times, when confronted with difficult and even fearful obstacles in life, people opt for the proverbial ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach.  However, this over-reactionary approach is never helpful nor it is ever truly good.  This is the case for at least three reasons.

A proper assessment of what is ostensibly difficult has not been given.  Here, the person automatically assumes that the obstacle is to be feared without determining whether or not that assumption has any merit.  It is entirely possible that a difficult moment in life is not as daunting or fearful as it might appear.  It is equally possible that what is superficially frightening is ultimately peaceful and even beneficial.  In the case of the ostrich, it is quite possible that what terrifies it truly meant it no harm; however, the automatic assumption compels it to take drastic measures thus removing any chance of knowing what was real and true.  In the case of people, the same thing applies; however, the difference is that humans have the ability to decide consciously either to act animalistically or properly assess the obstacle before taking appropriate action.  Only after such patient assessment can a person know if they should run or be receptive.  Furthermore, if the obstacle is only superficially frightening and ultimately peaceful and beneficial at its core, then the animalistic decision to be an ostrich is painfully revealing.  It shows a lack of concern for the value of what might be, and it shows a lack of willingness to be wise and patient so as to properly assess difficult and fearful moments in life.

A proper assessment of one’s self has not been taken seriously.  Here, the person by default assumes that they do not have the abilities, strength or even intelligence to confront this obstacle–again, without determining the merits of that assumption.  It is entirely possible that the obstacle is in fact adversarial.  It is equally possible that the obstacle in life does not have good intentions.  (However, without dealing with the first problem, neither of these two possibilities can be known for certain).  Even if such is the case, it is also possible that the ill-intentioned, adversarial obstacle can be confronted and resisted.  The confident decision to stand and fight arises from knowing one’s abilities and strengths.  In the case of the ostrich, their immensely powerful legs and talon toes can inflict serious injury on their opponents.  While seemingly contrary to the ‘stand and fight’ defence, Diodorus Siculus notes that when an ostrich is running from a pursuer, it will hurl stones backwards from the ground at incredible speeds toward their opponent, often resulting in death.  Moreover, the powerful legs of an ostrich can achieve speeds up to 45mph (or more), thus enabling it to outrun most predators.  These abilities and strengths are in favour of the ostrich.  In a similar way, people are equipped with numerous abilities and strengths that can prove useful in difficult and fearful times.  More times than not, these strengths and abilities are of the cognitive nature–i.e. the ability to reason and rationally dialogue.  Furthermore, these abilities and strengths might wind up being superior to what is encountered; but this cannot ever be known if a person automatically chooses to run and hide the moment difficulty rears its seemingly scary face.  Thus, to ignore abilities and strengths in one’s self is to allow easy victory for what could have been easily defeated by such things.

A proper assessment of the outcome has not been fully given.  Here, the person merely assumes what will happen as a result of their decision, with the further assumption that the result will be in their favour.  It is quite possible that one’s decision to run and hide will be successful, but this is usually only fortuitous–i.e. the apparent adversary either proves to be non-adversarial or simply does not give chase.  However, if the apparent adversary is truly harmless, then the decision to run and hide was futile (if not insulting).  On the other hand, if the apparent adversary is truly harmful and yet did not give chase, knowing that the person will run and hide at the first sight of danger becomes an advantage for the adversary–i.e. they know they can make the person afraid.  If this the case, then the person’s decision to run and hide only has a temporary effect.  More to the point, and returning to Pliny’s interpretation of the ostrich’s behaviour, the decision to hide from that which is fearful by burying its head is based on the assumption that the entire self is hidden.  This then leads to the assumption that the adversary will simply pass by and not see where the ostrich is hiding.  But seriously, is this posture not painfully obvious and visible?  (One would have to be a complete fool to think otherwise).  When applied to human behaviour, however, the true folly of this approach is not that the one hiding believes that they cannot be seen (although, that might be part of the logic); the true folly is that by adopting such a posture, the difficult and fearful obstacle no longer exists.  This seems to stem not only from the ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ assumption of an infant but also from the modern empirical assumption of ‘only that which can be perceived truly exists’.  For the ostrich, both of these assumptions would be quickly revealed as false the moment the hunter shoots the now easy target.

Where does this leave us?  If we run away from something that appears difficult or fearful, and we do so without taking the time to find out if that something really is difficult or fearful; then we expose more about ourselves than we do about that which confronts us.  We show that our perception of reality is more important than what is truly real.  We also show that we do not care to know if our perception even respectfully reflects reality.  Furthermore, we show a lack of willingness to be patient with difficult times in life; we are much more willing to give in to the escapist desire to run and hide.  If we fail to value and employ our strengths and abilities–especially in the face of difficult times–then we refuse to acknowledge and faithfully use what God has given us.  Moreover, not employing what God has given us and choosing instead to run and hide exposes a lack of faith–not only in our gifts but also the Gift-giver.  Problems in life must be confronted openly and honestly, and their true nature must be assessed patiently and carefully before making any decisions on how to respond.  God must be trusted in the midst of such times for it is from God that we have ability to assess and confront that which hinders us from moving forward.  Finally, if we decide to run and proverbially bury our heads in the sand, believing either that the difficult time will pass by or that it no longer exists, we not only set ourselves up for future disappointments but we also acknowledge our delusionalness.  Ignoring problems does not make them go away; believing that by ignoring problems they no longer exist borders on the insane.

* Pliny earlier describes a similar behaviour with mullet fish: ‘One singular propensity of the mullet has afforded a subject for laughter; when it is frightened, it hides its head [in the sand] and fancies that the whole of its body is concealed’ (Natural History, 9.26).  Aristotle says virtually the same thing in his book, History of Animals, 8.4.3.
** Diodorus goes on to say that the ostrich does this for naturalistic reasons–i.e. for the sake of securing its own life, thus enabling it to perpetuate its species.