Archive for the ‘My Life’ Category

The Nativity According to Luke

December 22, 2014

The Gospel of Luke tells us what Christmas is all about

 

Linus quotes from the Gospel according to Luke.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.(Luke 2:1-21)

Luke is a historian of the Hellenistic school, like Herodotus or Thucydides. Although he tries to establish times and places, he is actually less interested in being precise than in understanding the meaning of the events he records. In fact, it wasn’t so easy to give exact dates in those times, given that every city and region had its own calendar and way of numbering or naming the years.

There is a considerable amount of skepticism about the census, both on the dating and the procedure. Most skeptics regard it as extremely improbable that the Romans would make people travel here and there to register in their home towns. As a matter of fact that is just how the Romans conducted their censuses.

Every five years, each male Roman citizen had to register in Rome for the census. In this he had to declare his family, wife, children, slaves and riches. Should he fail to do this, his possessions would be confiscated and he would be sold into slavery.
But registration meant freedom. A master wishing to free his slave needed only to enter him in the censor’s list as a citizen (manumissio censu).
Throughout the entire republican era, registration in the census was the only way that a Roman could ensure that his identity and status as a citizen were recognized. Fathers registered their sons, employers their freedmen.
Primarily the census served to count the number of citizens and to assess the potential military strength and future tax revenue. Most important, the census transformed the city into a political and military community.
But the census performed a highly symbolical function. To the Romans the census made them more than a mere crowd, or barbarian rabble. It made them a populus, a people, capable of collective action.
To the Roman the census was one of the foundation stones of their civilization.

As the Roman Empire expanded and citizenship was given out to other cities in Italy and around the Mediterranean, I would imagine that every Roman citizen had to go to his native city to register. Presumably there were lists of citizens kept in major cities and in Rome. Paul claimed to be a Roman citizen at various times in Acts and you might wonder how he was able to prove it. Well, every Roman citizen had a sort of ID or diploma which would have been issued in his city.

But with the steady extension of the citizenship by individual grants to provincials isolated in peregrine communes, and with the informal settlement of large numbers of Italian immigrants in the provincial territories, a more effective means of registration became necessary. Formal documentation of the grant of citizenship to provincial soldiery appears first in 89 B.C., in the shape of a bronze tablet recording the decree of a proconsul enfranchising a unit of Spanish cavalrymen in the Social War, who are all named in a general list. Presumably each soldier received a copy. The cities of persons of higher status enfranchised by Octavian in c. 40 B.C. received a copy of a decree detailing all the privileges of their new status, while his auxiliary veterans could acquire copies of the enabling edict that enfranchised them. But it is only with the regularization of the grant of citizenship to the all time-expired auxiliaries by Claudius that a standardized document appears. This is the small bronze diptych known as the diploma civitatis, containing a brief and uniform formula conferring the Roman citizenship on the holder and his descendants, who is indicated by his name and military unit. These documents were not normally used for civilians, who received instead a copy in libellus form of the brief imperial warrant authorizing the registration of their enfranchisement in the archives at Rome.

Diplomata and libelli provided for new citizens. For the mass of the citizenry, for whom censorial registration at five-yearly intervals was an inefficient instrument, adequate provision was finally made by the creation of an official system of compulsory birth registration under the social legislation of Augustus (A.D. 4)… The Roman citizen was required to register the birth of his children within thirty days before a Roman official, and he received a wooden diptych recording the declaration, which acted as a certificate of citizenship for the child for the rest of his life. Like the military diplomata this contained the names of seven witnesses, and provided a presumptive proof of citizen status… Similarly the enfranchisement of freedmen, which depended upon a formal act, was recorded in a documentary tabella manumissionis. Citizens of diverse origins thus came to have some form of documentary evidence of their status.

Presumably Paul registered at Tarsus while he lived there. To get back to the census; obviously Joseph wasn’t a Roman citizen and Judea was under the rule of Herod, not the Romans. The census could have been a small time affair, the mention of Caesar Augustus being either an exaggeration or a long-standing policy of Augustus to encourage the provinces to conduct censuses, but conducted according to Roman norms, with every resident registering in his home town. You must not imagine, however, large crowds of people traveling to and fro. Remember that in this time most people would have lived their whole lives in the same village. Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been very much an exception. The only thing really odd about this account was his taking Mary with him. As a woman, her residency would not have mattered much. In the other hand, she was also of the line of David and perhaps her presence in Bethlehem might have been desirable. Again you must not imagine that Mary was on the point of giving birth as they traveled. They could have spent several weeks in Bethlehem.

 

 

Frosty

December 14, 2014

The other night I watched the Christmas classic Frosty the Snowman on television. I hope any reader is familiar with the Rankin-Bass animated production of the snowman who came to life via a magic hat. It is a silly story, but it is silly in a rather charming way and it is still entertaining.

Frosty the Snowman (TV program)

Skip Frosty Returns (TV program) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following Frosty the Snowman, they aired Frosty Returns, a more recent production made in 1992. Rankin-Bass, producer of many Christmas shows, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer dissolved in 1987, so Frosty Returns was made by Broadway Video, and was not exactly a sequel to the original Frosty. It featured a snowman named Frosty,voiced by John Goodman, but all of the other characters were different, and Frosty’s personality was somewhat different.

I had never seen Frosty Returns before, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it entirely lacked the charm of the original. It was simply silly. I actually couldn’t watch it all the way through so I will have to rely on Wikipedia to provide a summary of the plot.

The special begins with a musical number showing that Beansboro Elementary School is canceled for the day due to a seven-inch snowfall. While the adults incessantly complain about the problems snow and ice cause, the children enjoy the opportunity to play in it.

We then see Holly DeCarlo (Moss), a relatively lonely young girl and aspiring magician with only one friend, a tone-deaf, somewhat geeky character named Charles (Carter) who has a knack for climatology. While practicing a magic act with Charles, Holly’s hat blows off her head, out the window, and onto a snowman who comes to life as Frosty (Goodman), thus revealing that Holly’s hat was “that old silk hat” featured in the original song and previous adaptations.

Meanwhile, evil Mr. Twitchell (Doyle-Murray) is the inventor of “Summer Wheeze”, an aerosol spray that makes snow instantly disappear He hopes to use the product to win over the people of Beansboro so that he will be crowned King of the Beansboro Winter Carnival, apparently believing that the title will give him actual dominion over the townspeople. When one of the members of the town council voices concern about the environmental impact of the untested product, Mr. Twitchell has her dropped through a trapdoor.

To Twitchell’s delight, and Frosty’s dismay, the town of Beansboro falls head over heels for “Summer Wheeze” which makes Frosty concerned about his safety. Although many of their classmates rally for the elimination of snow, only a day after singing about its virtues, Holly and Charles take on the duties of protecting Frosty, including hiding him in a freezer and securing refuge for him in an ice castle built for the Carnival. Later, Holly gets Frosty to appear at the Winter Carnival in an attempt to persuade the townspeople to rethink their hatred of snow. Singing about the joy of winter, Frosty is unanimously declared king of the carnival. In the end, Frosty and Holly make amends with Mr. Twitchell (now realizes that he’s no match for Mother’s Nature) and let him wear the crown and cape and ride in the sled of the carnival king. Frosty must leave Beansboro, but assures Holly that he will be back someday.

Notice that the villain is an inventor who has created a product that many might consider very useful. Snow may be fun to play in but it is dangerous to drive in. Imagine how much labor could be saved by a product like Summer Wheeze, or how many lives could be saved if roads could be instantaneously cleared. Is this an example of Hollywood’s anti-capitalist bias, or promoting an environmentalist agenda? The Wikipedia article adds that, unlike the original, there is no mention of Christmas or Santa Claus in Frosty Returns. The people are celebrating a “Winter Carnival”. The Frosty song is altered to eliminate references to Frosty’s corncob pipe, and, needless to say, the new Frosty didn’t have one.

The article describes the plot as being “more political and/or socially conscious” than the original and that really is the problem. Back in 1969, Rankin-Bass wanted to make animated Christmas specials and perhaps a profit. The makers of Frosty Returns felt a need to insert socially conscious messaging. Political correct indoctrination has infected our Holiday Specials and we are all the worse for it. Imagine a Christmas show that can’t mention Christmas!

Up in Arms

December 1, 2014

I got this email from Organizing for Action last week, but with the Thanksgiving holiday and everything else I didn’t get the chance to write about it until now.

Friend —

There are a lot of people on the other side up in arms right now about the President’s immigration plan, and I’m having trouble understanding why.

Either they don’t think the President should be allowed to take action to help fix our broken immigration system (just like several presidents from Kennedy to Reagan have in the past)…

Or they think that 500 days isn’t long enough to wait for John Boehner to hold a vote on the bipartisan reform bill the Senate passed.

Most Americans are tired of the excuses.

Stand up to the people who just want to drag their feet and block progress at all costs — add your name:

http://my.barackobama.com/Immigration-Reform

Thanks,

Jack

Jack Shapiro
National Issues Campaign Manager
Organizing for Action

As someone on the other side, perhaps I can explain why so many of us are up in arms against President Obama’s recent actions regarding immigration.

First, it is often said that our immigration system is broken, yet somehow no one ever explains how the system got broken. The simple truth is that our immigration system is broken because there a large number of  people in Washington DC who simply do not wish for our current immigration laws to be enforced. There are a number of motives involved and this is a bi-partisan issue. Suffice it to say that many members of this country’s political elite want to have effectively open borders while most ordinary Americans of both parties do not. The system is broken because those in charge of maintaining the system want it broken.

Aside from the immigration issue, many Americans are wary of unilateral executive action by the president without regard to the wishes of their representatives in Congress. Even Americans who might agree with the provisions of Obama’s orders dislike the manner in which he has enacted them. This idea that either Congress rubber stamps what ever the President demands or he will issue rules by decree seems more suited to the days of absolute monarchy or some third world dictatorship than to a free republic under the rule of the constitution. This by now famous sketch from Saturday Night Live neatly demonstrates the misgivings many Americans have over the Obama method of getting things done.

And it’s no good claiming that previous presidents have taken similar actions with executive orders on immigration. As David Frum pointed out in his article in the Atlantic,  these previous presidential executive orders were clarifications of existing legislation that affected relatively few people. They were not attempts at passing new laws from the Oval Office.

I have a parable in mind that perhaps will help Mr. Shapiro, and others, understand our point of view. Suppose I decided that I wanted a new car, perhaps something a bit sportier than what I now own. My wife, however, explains that the family finances are such that we cannot afford a new car and that anyway my current vehicle works perfectly fine for my needs. I then drive my car into the nearest telephone pole, totalling it. I go back to my wife and explain that since now my car is broken, I really need a new one. She responds that the finances are in worse shape than before from the expenses of the towers taking the car away and my medical bills so that I will have to walk or take a cab. I decide that if she wants to block progress and not take action, I will so I take executive action and go and buy a new car for myself. For this egregious violation of the Family Constitution, I then get impeached (divorced) or censured (sleep on the living room couch for the next year).

I suppose it is a bit late to divorce President Obama, besides being politically inadvisable, but maybe we could make him sleep on the couch for the rest of his term.

Inferno

November 24, 2014

I absolutely love Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, since after reading this book for the first time, I felt encouraged to try out the original source for their story, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, surely one of greatest works of literature ever. While Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno doesn’t quite rank with Dante it is still an update of Dante that is wonderfully fun to read with a serious exploration of why Hell might exist.

 

 

n3580

 

Allen Carpentier is a science fiction writer who falls out of a window during a convention. Since Carpentier is an agnostic, he is astonished to wake up in Hell where he meets a man named Benito who assures him that Hell is arranged just as Dante described it in the Inferno and that He knows the way out of Hell. Carpentier cannot believe that he is in Hell at first, he believes it to be an artifact created by advanced aliens for their amusement, but as he and Benito make their way through Hell and observe the punishments meted out to sinners, Carpentier has no choice but to concede that he is, indeed in Hell. Then he must wrestle with the problem of why God would create Hell. The punishments seem to be just, but far out of proportion. No sin however great could be worth eternal agony. In the end, he learns who Benito really is and begins to have some idea why Hell might be necessary.

 

The authors largely followed the path described by Dante updating the sins and punishments when it seemed advisable. Thus, polluters are found among the hoarders and wasters, politicians voting along party lines rather than what they believed good for the country among the traitors etc. Like Dante, Niven and Pournelle included their personal causes and pet peeves in the story, damning to Hell the people they seemed to particularly dislike, but then that is part of the fun.

Inferno is a great science fiction/fantasy novel, worth reading. After you are done with it, see if you can’t tackle Dante too.

 

The Bubble Boy Cured

November 20, 2014

One of the funniest episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld was The Bubble Boy, which naturally featured a boy with a severe immune disorder who lived in a “bubble”. The main characters of the show; Jerry, Elaine, George and George’s girlfriend Susan are all going  on a trip to Susan’s family’s cabin with a stop along the way for Jerry to meet a young fan of his who happened to be a bubble boy. Driving in two separate cars, the group becomes separated and George and Susan arrive at the bubble boy’s house not knowing where Jerry and Elaine are or how late they might be.

 

This episode aired back in 1992 and advancing technology has rendered the premise of a party being lost and separated obsolete. In our age of ubiquitous cell phones, Jerry Seinfeld and his friends could have easily kept in touch with one another. Even better, recent advances in medical research may soon make the whole concept of keeping children with severe immune disorders in sterile environments, or bubbles, as obsolete as the iron lung or bleeding with leeches. Here is the article from Time with the good news.

Alysia Padilla-Vaccaro and Christian Vaccaro owe their daughter’s life to stem cells. Evangelina, now two, is alive today because she saved herself with her own bone marrow cells.

 

Evangelina, a twin, was born with a severe immune disorder caused by a genetic aberration that makes her vulnerable to any and all bacteria and viruses; even a simple cold could be fatal. But doctors at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Broad Stem Cell Research Center gave her a new treatment, using her own stem cells, that has essentially cured her disease. She’s one of 18 children who have been treated with the cutting-edge therapy, and the study’s leader, Dr. Donald Kohn, says that the strategy could also be used to treat other gene-based disorders such as sickle cell anemia.

Known to doctors as adenosine deaminase (ADA)-deficient severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), it’s better known as “bubble boy” disease, since children born with the genetic disorder have immune systems so weak that they need to stay in relatively clean and germ-free environments. Until Evangelina and her sister Annabella were 11 months old, “We were gowned and masked and did not go outside,” says their mother Alysia Padilla-Vaccaro. “Our children did not physically see our mouths until then because we were masked all the time. We couldn’t take them outside to take a breath of fresh air, because there is fungus in the air, and that could kill her.”

 

The only treatments for SCID are bone marrow transplants from healthy people, ideally a matched sibling; the unaffected cells can then repopulate the immune system of the baby with SCID. But despite being her twin, Annabella wasn’t a blood match for her sister, nor were her parents. Padilla-Vaccaro and her husband, Christian, were considering unrelated donors but were concerned about the risk of rejection. “We would be trying to fix one problem and getting another,” she says.

That’s when the doctors at the Children’s Hospital at Orange County, where Evangelina was diagnosed, told her parents about a stem cell trial for SCID babies at UCLA, led by Dr. Donald Kohn. “As soon as they said trial, I thought, ‘my kid is dead,” says Padilla-Vaccaro of the last resort option. But a dozen children born with other forms of SCID—in which different mutations caused the same weak immune systems—who were successfully treated by Kohn convinced the couple that the therapy was worth trying. Kohn had one spot left in the trial and was willing to hold it for Evangelina until she matured more. Born premature, she was diagnosed at six weeks old and needed more time for what was left of her immune system to catch up to weather the procedure.

When she was two months old, Evangelina was admitted to UCLA and had bone marrow drawn from her tiny hip. It contained the stem cells that go on to develop into all of the cells in the blood and immune systems. Kohn treated them with gene therapy, co-opting a modified virus to carry the healthy ADA gene so it could infect the stem cells from Evangelina’s bone marrow. The idea was that by transplanting these healthy ADA-containing cells back into Evangelina, she would soon be making her own healthy immune cells. And because they were made from her own cells, her body wouldn’t reject them.

“After the transplant of this miraculous tube of stem cells, which literally took five minutes, we had to just wait and see for a good six weeks,” says Padilla-Vaccaro. “The week after Christmas [in 2012], Dr. Kohn came in and told me, ‘It worked.’ It worked. Those words…besides the birth of my children, that day will always be the best day in my life.”

There is more about how Dr. Kohn developed his procedure.

This is truly wonderful news and I hope that the techniques used in cases like this can be used to treat or cure other genetic diseases. As Glenn Reynolds might say, faster please.

 

Felix Culpa

November 9, 2014

During the week running up to Halloween the humor site Cracked.com ran a series of articles with horror or Halloween themes, one of these being Adam Tod Brown’s 6 Compelling Reasons to Consider Switching to Satan. This was meant to be humorous, of course, but some of the reasons he gave are worth considering. Brown’s observation that some cultures do not consider a “Devil” figure to be bad was what inspired me to write a recent post on Prometheus.

It is the first reason he gives, number six on the list, that I would like to consider now.

#6. Because He’s Why You Know Things and Ask Questions

Hey! You believe the story of Adam and Eve, right? Just joking, but you at least know it, right? God makes a man and a woman, drops them into the middle of the Garden of Eden, and tells them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. A talking serpent shows up and convinces Eve to ignore that one command and, just like that, we’re all born a bunch of filthy sinners because we possess the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, and all that other fun stuff.

Perfectly reasonable! Anyway, whether he was an actual serpent or not is open for debate if you don’t value your free time much, but most people agree that the “serpent” in question represents Satan. Before he came along, we were built to blindly follow God without ever questioning how or why the things around us happen.

I mean, call me whatever you want for saying it, but that doesn’t sound particularly great to me. I’d honestly rather know some things and make some decisions and, to hear the Bible tell it, Satan is the one who made that possible. Is that really such a bad thing? Well, it depends on who you ask.

Well, as a matter of fact, I do believe the story of Adam and Eve though I will not quibble over whether the story of Genesis ought to be taken literally or as a myth or whether Adam and Eve were real, individual human beings or represented the human race generally. It does not take a particularly keen observer to notice that there is something seriously awry with Homo sapiens. The story of Adam and Eve and the Fall is as good an explanation on how and why we have gone bad as any I have ever heard.

The sentiment that Adam Tod Brown expresses here is close to the theological concept of felix culpa or the fortunate fall. The idea is that it was actually a good thing that Adam and Eve sinned and fell since it led to Christ’s redemption of the human race. Several very important Christian thinkers have explored this concept, including Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, generally in the context of God’s ability to bring good out of evil. I do not believe that the act which led to the fall could be described as being good in itself. Good did come of it, since God can always turn evil into good, but it was not the good which God originally intended for humanity. A fire fighter who rescues a child from a burning house has done a good act, but it would have been better if the house had not caught on fire. No one would think to praise an arsonist who started the fire because his act led to the heroism of the fire fighter.

But, Adam Tod Brown makes the more specific statement that thanks to the temptation of the Serpent, Adam and Eve were granted the ability to learn things and ask questions. Surely, that was a great gain for humanity. If we have fallen into sin, at least we have the consolation of gaining wisdom as compensation. Is that true? Perhaps we should look at the third chapter of Genesis for the full story.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the [c]cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”10 He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” 11 And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the LordGod said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” 14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
Cursed are you more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you will go,
And dust you will eat
All the days of your life;
15 And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall [d]bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.”
16 To the woman He said,
“I will greatly multiply
Your pain [e]in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.”

17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;

Cursed is the ground because of you;
In [f]toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
19 By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.”

20 Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. 24 So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.

Painting from Manafi al-Hayawan (The Useful An...

Most depictions of Adma and Eve seem to be White. Here is something different. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Serpent promised Eve that she would be like God, knowing good and evil. She and Adam certainly learned about good and evil, but they were not made wiser or more like God. If anything, they lost the perfect communion with their Creator that they had formerly enjoyed and they had even become foolish enough to believe they could hide from God. The Serpent was lying to Eve.

The reason that we know things and can ask questions is because we have been given the faculty of reason by our Creator. This faculty was corrupted by the Fall as was every other aspect of being human. If it were not for the Fall, we would not be ignorant or simple-minded. Mind, body  and spirit would work in harmony with each other. It is possible that our thinking wouldn’t be subject to the sorts of superstitions or logical fallacies it is apt to fall into now. We would learn and discover new things not out of the necessities of survival, as is the case now, but out of the joy of learning about the good world our Creator gave us and we would have a better relationship with the One who knows all.

This is all speculation,of course. I do not and cannot know if that would really be the case, but I do know that we ought not to give the Devil credit for wisdom and knowledge he does not have, nor should we consider rebellion against our Creator to be in any sense a good act. Switching to Satan would be switching from light to darkness or knowledge to ignorance or being to nonbeing, not a good idea at all.

Halloween

October 31, 2014
Jack-o-lantern

Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit:

The name “Halloween” is actually derived from “All Hallow’s Eve“, that is the day before “All Hallow’s Day” or All Saint’s Day. All Saint’s Day was and is a Christian, primarily Roman Catholic, holy day which celebrates all the saints in Heaven and includes prayers for those in Purgatory.

Halloween, however, is not a Christian holiday. It seems to have come from the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was a summer’s end or harvest festival. The Celts celebrated Samhain with bonfires to ward off evil spirits and sacrificed animals and sometimes humans to their gods. This pagan heritage has made Halloween controversial among Christians at times. The Protestant Reformers in England did not like the holiday and tried to suppress it because of its pagan and Roman Catholic origins. The Scots were more lenient and Halloween is celebrated there more than in England. The Irish, of course, still celebrated it as they remained Catholic and true to their Celtic Heritage. Halloween was not much celebrated in America until large numbers of Scots and Irish immigrated here during the nineteenth century.

As for the customs which have grown up around Halloween, it would seem that carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns is an American innovation. The Scots and Irish used turnips. Pumpkins, which are native to North American, turned out to be larger and easier to carve. Trick or treating seems to be derived from the Scottish custom of guising. Guising is the custom in which children would go from door to door in costume begging for treats and performing a trick or song in return. This custom was first noted in America in the early twentieth century. Trick or treating became the custom by the 1930’s. Haunted houses have also become popular since the 1970’s.

So, Happy Halloween, or Samhain.

Hey, Christian, Have You Read the Bible

October 17, 2014

Not too long ago, I finished reading the Bible. This is an undertaking I have completed numerous times, to the point where I honestly don’t know how many times I have read the Bible all the way through. I became curious about how many people have actually read the Bible all the way through, I doubt there are many even among devout Christians and Jews, so I asked that fount of all knowledge and wisdom, Google.

The first thing I noticed from the results is that there seems to be a prevailing idea that few Christians have read much  of the Bible. Only Atheists have actually read and studied the Bible in any sort of rigorous fashion and they are uniformly appalled by the ignorance and atrocities found in the “Good Book”. This line of thought goes on with the corollary that anyone who does actually read the Bible will, if he is honest and  intelligent immediately convert to Atheism.  This, Isaac Asimov said, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”, and we get these sort of graphics.

atheists and the bible piechart

 

 

and

reading-bible

 

I don’t find that to be the case myself. In fact, I do not think I could be an honest atheist. The best I could manage might be a sort of Deism, but that is a subject for another post. I also find that the Bible “grows” on me, even the less interesting books. I find, in a curious sort of way, that I get more out of the Bible every time I read it and this appreciation grows even greater when I study the historical and cultural background in which the Bible was written. It is a grave mistake to read your Bible as though you were reading a newspaper or a contemporary novel. While the truths of the Bible may be eternal, they are expressed from the viewpoint of  cultures very different than our own, ones closer to the edge than our comfortable modern, Western world. For this reason, I suspect that a reader from the Third World must have a much easier time understanding the motives and actions of the people in the Bible than a middle class American ever could. I can also see why an ignorant and superficial reading of scripture may lead to many very wrong ideas, including Atheism.

One of the results of the Google search was an article from the website Atheism Resource titled, “Hey, Christian, Have You Read the Bible.”, written by a fifteen year old Atheist named Cassie Huye.

I have read the bible from cover to cover. How many people can actually say that? I will admit that I have forgotten many of the small details and even some of the major events, but at one time my eyes did glaze over the entire thing.

At school, I once had a girl in my class ask why I knew so much about Christianity. When I told her, she was astounded that an Atheist knew anything about her precious little religion, and could not bring herself to find any reason at all that I could be capable of not believing in her god, had I read all of his wondrous miracles in the bible.

What is considered a wondrous miracle anyway? I’ll admit that the ability to turn water into wine is pretty cool, but it seems like that should be a magical spell in some Harry Potter type book with an alcoholic wizard.

I think we have the next great Atheist apologist here. With snarky comments like “her precious little religion”, and generally deriding her classmates, she could be the next Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

And then there is Kings 2: 23-24 “And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.”

I guess if you are the bald man, the death of those who made fun of you for something you can’t help is a miracle, but it really isn’t fair to the kids. The reason we cannot even legally drink until we 21 is because children’s brains are not even totally developed until they are 21. God made us right? He is all knowing… so doesn’t he know they were just using their underdeveloped child brains to make the stupid decision of making fun of a chosen one of God? I mean, if anything, it is God’s fault that they made fun of the man. He made them to have underdeveloped brains!

Do I even have to note that the word translated as “children”, נצר na’ar could also mean young man, adolescent or even servant and that “little” קטנ qaton means little, small, insignificant?  Keep in mind, also, that the city of Bethel was a center of worship for the Kingdom of Israel and thus was a rival to the Temple in Jerusalem and to the prophetic tradition of Elijah and Elisha.

25 Then Jeroboam fortified Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. From there he went out and built up Peniel.

26 Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David.27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”

28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.

31 Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. 32 He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. 33 On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings. (1 Kings 12:25-31)

It is possible, then that the “little children” were actually a mob of young men intent on insulting and even attacking Elisha. You may still find the incident with the bears disturbing, but a closer investigation shows that the incident is not what it seems to be based on a superficial reading based on ignorance of the historical conditions of the time.

Cassie continues.

This is just one example of the many absolutely insane things that are written in the bible. I promise you that the language the bible is written in was made to bore, but if you want a violent story or just a little comedy, you can find it in your bible.

She is right here. You can find action, comedy, romance, even zombies in the Bible if you know where to look.If you find the language boring, try another translation. But as for insane, again a knowledge of the background of the times will lead to a greater understanding. Dismissing things you do not understand as insane is simply pride in remaining ignorant.

But back to the original question of how I can read about the wondrous miracles of God and be an Atheist. It’s easy, all I had to do was actually read the miracles, and after reading them I don’t know how anyone could be Christian knowing what they say they think is true.

So I encourage you to go out, whoever you are, whatever religion you are: read about your own religion, and read about someone else’s too. Maybe you will realize that you have wasted years listening to someone scam for your money, or maybe you become convinced that you have found the true answer. But at the very least, you will know a little more about the world. As the motto goes, knowledge is power.

Actually, she assumed that miracles cannot happen and that any account of miracles must therefore be false. This assumption that miracles cannot occur is a reasonable assumption given that we do not ordinarily witness miracles, but it is only an assumption. The fact that the Bible contains miracles in its narratives does not prove that the narratives are completely false. They could be reliable history with some exaggerations included. The Bible could be literature, like Homer or Virgil, with a grain of true history at the core, or the miracles could have actually happened. Some of the stories in the Bible may seem strange to us. They did not seem strange to the people who wrote the Bible. As I have indicated, a knowledge of the culture and history of ancient times good serve to make the “insane” stories of the Bible less insane.Cassie Huys dismisses the Bible and Christianity at the age of fifteen after reading the Bible without even trying to understand it. She should take her own advice.

The Home Lie Detector

October 16, 2014

I have mentioned before that I am on the mailing list of Hammacher Schemmer, the store that has sold the best, the only, the unexpected,and the absurdly expensive for the last 166 years. In a recent catalog, I spotted a must have item, the home lie detector.

This is the USB lie detector kit with digital pulse and skin monitors for conducting a polygraph test at home. Using sensors applied to a subject’s fingers, the system takes baseline readings of the pulse rate and the skin’s electrical resistance and measures any changes in response to questioning. Data is graphed and stored in real time using free software, so testers can assess whether the subject’s pulse accelerates or the conductivity of their skin begins to change—the same physiological signs that professional polygraph examiners use to determine whether a suspect is lying. Although results are not legally binding, they may provoke a teenager’s confession about sneaking in after curfew or simply elicit laughs at a party. The system connects to a computer using the included USB cable. For Windows 8,7, Vista, XP, and Mac OSX. Box: 8″ L x 6″ W x 4″ D. (2 lbs.)

HLD

 

This can be yours for only $399.95.

There is, of course, not really any such thing as a lie detector, at least not in the sense that there is actually a machine that can determine if a given statement is truthful or not. What is often called a lie detector is, in fact, a device called a polygraph.

A polygraph operates by measuring various physiological processes, such as pulse rate or the skin’s electrical resistance, as mentioned in the catalog, and perhaps respiration and blood pressure depending on the device. The theory is that these measurements change when the subject is telling a lie.The extent to which this theory is valid is unknown since there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on how effective the device actually is. Professional polygraphers and their trade associations claim a better than 90 % effectiveness. Others, including the American Psychological Association are skeptical about whether the device is effective at all.

It is not quite true that the results of a polygraph test are not legally binding. That actually varies by state in the United States. Something like nineteen states do admit polygraph results as evidence, depending on circumstances. Polygraph evidence may also be admitted in a Federal trial, if the presiding judge at a court permits it. In general the results of a polygraph test can only be used in court if both the prosecutor and the defendant have no objections.

Since every individual responds to stress or lying in a different way physiologically. no polygraph device can determine if a person is definitely lying or telling the truth. No such device has a button that lights up or a alarm that sounds if a lie is told. The results of a polygraph examination must be interpreted by the examiner, and this is why there is so much uncertainty concerning the effectiveness of the polygraph is at detecting lies. The usual procedure is for the examiner to ask a series of innocuous questions to the subject being tested in order to establish a baseline for the various physiological processes being measured. Once that is done, the examiner can proceed with the actual interrogation of the subject. Even then, the results are far from being unambiguous and determining whether a subject is being honest is more an art than a science. A good many polygraph examinations end up being simply inconclusive. I suspect that in the cases in which a polygraph examination is effective at detecting lies, it may be more because the subject believes the polygraph to be effective and is more nervous about lying than he otherwise should be.

It occurs to me that a person who is knowledgeable about the workings and actual effectiveness of a polygraph would be more able to cheat the device than someone who really believes it can detect lies. I would also imagine that an experienced liar or criminal would display less of the reactions tested than a person who is naturally honest. It may well be that the honest, law abiding citizen, or the inexperienced and perhaps guilt ridden criminal would have more to fear from a lie detector test than the career criminal used to lying, or the sociopath who believes there is nothing especially wrong with lying. It should be noted that the notorious traitor and spy Aldrich Ames passed two polygraph examinations with flying colors while he was passing information to the Soviets, as did Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. There have been suspects who have failed polygraph examinations only to be exonerated by actual evidence.

If you are ever asked to submit to a polygraph test as part of a criminal investigation, you should refuse unless your attorney is present. The police cannot force you to submit to a lie detector under any circumstances and you should not be certain that the results of such a test will show you to be innocent. You also cannot be required to take a polygraph test as a condition of employment by most private employers, the exception would employers who work with the government and have access to classified materials. If you apply for a job and are asked to submit to a polygraph test or if your employer asks you to take an exam as a condition of continued employment, chances are they are breaking the law. You might want to consider whether you want to continue working for someone who obviously mistrusts you.

So, if you want to have fun at parties, by all means buy the Home Lie Detector. I wouldn’t recommend you use it on your teenager or anyone else. If even people who administer polygraph tests professionally can sometimes find the results difficult to interpret, you might not want to be too confident of your own, or the computer’s interpretations. And, forcing your child to submit to a polygraph test might not be the best way to build trust in a relationship.

Open Carry Follies

October 11, 2014

I happen to be a staunch supporter of the second amendment right to bear arms, and naturally I oppose strict gun control laws. This is not because I have a great love of guns. I have never owned a gun of any sort and I don’t have any plans to acquire any sort of firearm. I have never even shot a gun in my entire life. I am certain that if I did happen to have a gun, I would be more dangerous to myself than to any potential enemy. My support for the second amendment is entirely on libertarian grounds. If you want to own and carry a gun, that’s your right and I wouldn’t want to stop you. I have no use for guns, but I respect your right to have one.

Having said all that, I must confess that I find that the thinking of some of the more enthusiastic gun lovers to be a bit, well, dumb. What I mean is the idea some of them seem to have that they will happen upon the scene of a crime in progress or will be confronted by a mugger and they will whip out their trusty sidearm and take care of the situation. I think they must have a scene rather like this one playing in the theater of their minds.

I wish I could have found that clip without the commentary. Anyway, this story relates a somewhat more likely outcome.

A Gresham, Oregon open carry enthusiast was robbed of his weapon on Saturday by another man with a gun.

According to KOIN Channel 6, 21-year-old William Coleman III of Gresham was standing and talking to his cousin shortly after 2:00 a.m. on Saturday when another man approached him and asked for a cigarette.

The other man — described as a black male around 6 feet tall with a lean build and wavy hair — asked Coleman about his weapon, a Walther P22 pistol.

He then pulled a pistol from the waistband of his pants, pointed it at Coleman and said, “I like your gun. Give it to me.”

Coleman did as he was told and the man then fled on foot. He was reportedly wearing gray sweatpants, flip flop sandals and a white t-shirt and had a small patch of facial hair on his chin.

Coleman told police the suspect appeared to be between 19 and 23 years of age.

Now, concealed carry makes sense in that if the bad guy doesn’t know you are armed, you can give him a nasty surprise. That element of uncertainly whether a potential victim is armed may act as a deterrent to a criminal. Openly carrying a gun makes less sense, since a criminal can see that you are armed and take precautions, such as pointing his own weapon at you and disarming you, or even deciding to shoot first.

But the real lesson in this particular story is that it is easy to concoct fantasies about what you might do in a dangerous situation but the simple truth is that none of us can possibly know what we might do until the situation is actually occurring. Unless you are specially trained or have actual experience, chances are that you will not engage in a shootout with a criminal. You will not stop a madman shooting up a shopping mall. You will be running and hiding like all the other people. Carry a gun, either openly or concealed if you wish, but don’t take for granted that you will be a hero when the time comes.

I should say that I am likely to prove a bigger coward than most if I were confronted with an armed attacker. Since this is not something that occurs in my environment, I would have no idea how to react and would probably freeze and stand looking at the shooter stupidly, not even being able to panic. I say this in case anyone reading the previous paragraph might imagine that I am trying to make myself look braver or smarter than others. I know myself better than to imagine that would be the case. (Although, the one time I was robbed while working the night shift at a convenience store, I was not afraid but irritated. I do not know whether they were actually armed. One of them had his hand in his jacket pocket as if he were holding a hand gun, but I think he was bluffing. They tried to open the cash register but it locked and when they told me to open it, I told them I couldn’t because they had messed it up. A customer entered the store and they fled with nothing for their trouble. I cannot say I was especially brave, just irritated because they really had messed up the cash register.)

I should also say that looking over the comments of this story is a really depressing experience. I don’t know whether the ignorant and the vindictive are drawn to the comments section of stories like this, or commenting on such stories brings out the worst aspects of human nature. Either way it is depressing.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 468 other followers

%d bloggers like this: