Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Zombie Jesus Day

And another Easter has passed us by, or as we celebrate it in our house, Zombie Jesus Day. We had our annual dinner to celebrate, and 13 people feasted on Lamb and Ham and a wonderful assortment of veggies. And, as is my custom, I did my annual Zombie Jesus Day reading from a heretical gospel.

It’s the third year in a row that we’ve done this. The first two years I read from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark. The Infancy Gospel is a favorite of mine, as it narrates the life of Jesus as an omnipotent little boy, who kills his friends when they piss him off, until he is tutored by a wise Rabbi. The plot closely follows that of the famous Twilight Zone episode, ‘It’s a Good Life:’

‘…The son of Annas the scribe was standing there with Jesus. Taking a branch from a willow tree, he dispersed the waters which Jesus had gathered. When Jesus saw what had happened, he became angry and said to him, "You godless, brainless moron, what did the ponds and waters do to you? Watch this now: you are going to dry up like a tree and you will never produce leaves or roots or fruit." And immediately, this child withered up completely. Then, Jesus departed and returned to Joseph's house. The parents of the one who had been withered up, however, wailed for their young child as they took his remains away. Then, they went to Joseph and accused him, "You are responsible for the child who did this."…’

The Secret Gospel of Mark is a famous fragment of an ‘alternative’ version of Mark, preserved in quotes from a letter written by Clement of Alexandria in the second century, and discovered in 1958. This alternate version, supposedly containing secret teachings of Jesus, became notorious in the late 1960’s and 1970’s when it was first published, because of the homoerotic overtones of the passages:

‘…And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan…’

This year in honor of the latest news coming from Albany, I read from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It’s a more traditional Gnostic text, and is organized like others, such as the Gospel of Judas, where a single favored disciple is given secret teachings by Jesus and then proceeds to tell them to everyone after Jesus ascends to heaven. In the case of the Gospel of Mary, it is Mary who has been given the teachings, but they are initially rejected by the other disciples, as she is a woman.

The first six pages of the Gospel are missing; the best copy we have is a version in Coptic from the fifth century, but it is thought that the Gospel was originally written in Greek in the middle of the second century, a hundred years after the death of Jesus. The gospel starts with Jesus, post resurrection, preaching to the assembled disciples and finishing up a speech on Gnostic theology, about how we are divorced from reality, and that ultimately we will be ‘resolved again into our own roots.’ Jesus then departs, after giving the instructions to go out and preach to the world. But the Disciples are confused and worried, after the bad reception Jesus had just received, having been killed and all that. Mary then gets up and begins speaking, rallying them, and giving the secret messages that Jesus told her. Unfortunately that is where another 4 pages of text are missing.

When the text picks up, Mary is in full Gnostic mode, going on and on about the crazed numerology that is part and parcel of Early Christian Gnosticism:

‘…The first form is darkness, the second desire, the third ignorance, the fourth is the excitement of death, the fifth is the kingdom of the flesh, the sixth is the foolish wisdom of flesh, the seventh is the wrathful wisdom. These are the seven powers of wrath. They asked the soul, whence do you come slayer of men, or where are you going, conqueror of space? The soul answered and said, what binds me has been slain, and what turns me about has been overcome, and my desire has been ended, and ignorance has died…’

This is a very standard Gnostic Text, all about a very complex organization of beings that are behind our wrongly perceived reality. When Mary finishes speaking we have one final Chapter in the Gospel:

‘…When Mary had said this, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Savior had spoken with her. But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas.

Peter answered and spoke concerning these same things. He questioned them about the Savior: Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?

Levi answered and said to Peter, Peter you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.

And when they heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach…’

What I like about this Gospel is not the crazed Gnostic teaching, which I can never make heads or tales of and doesn’t interest me much, but the role of Mary as a female teacher in an otherwise male room of disciples. For despite the pushback she receives, she is ultimately received as the most important teacher in the room, in spite of her gender. And this reflects a lot of what happened in the early Christian churches. The contemporary patriarchal structure of the Church has not always been that way, and many texts from the first few centuries reflect the different and changing roles of women. You can read this in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 11 (which has been badly translated for millennia) and also it is easy to see in the Gospels of Mark and, especially, John.

There is a lot of evidence that many early Christian churches were led by women, and also that early Christology transcended gender roles. As well, one can also see a constant pressure, as the church matured and gradually became the official religion of an empire, to make the church more hierarchical and more patriarchal. Next year I may read from the Odes of Solomon, another early Christian text from the second century, featuring a gender-bending Christ who’s gender shifts from ‘he’ to ‘she’ in the middle of a speech, and who as a ‘he’ has breasts that feeds the generation (Ode 19):

‘…A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness. The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him; because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released. The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father. Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing, and those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand…’

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Coke Adds Life

In this Easter Season, it always pays to play it safe:

"...Many people in the Philippines consider crucifixion and self flagellation good for the soul, but it is bad for your health according to new government advice for penitents.

This Holy Week, the thousands of guilt stricken or pious worshipers who will flay the skin off their backs, and the handful who will crucify themselves, are encouraged to get a tetanus shot first and be sure to use a clean whip or nails.

"We are not trying to go against the Lenten tradition here because whipping has somewhat already become some form of ’atonement for sins’ for some of us,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque the 3rd said.

"Getting deep cut wounds during whippings or lashings is inevitable and being so exposed during the course of the penitence, with all the heat and dust blowing in the wind, welcomes all sorts of infections and bacteria like tetanus,” he explained...

...“The City Health Office (CHO) autoclaved all the nails to be used and will administer anti-tetanus vaccine to all the “Cristos” to ensure their protection from possible infection,” it points out. City officials will conduct an inspection of the Golgothas on Thursday.

The festival is sponsored by Coca-cola and a company called Smart Telecommunications...'

I love the Coca Cola sponsorship. It reminds me of the famous (and debunked) stories of the Pepsi or Coke Slogans ('Come Alive with Pepsi,' or 'Coke Adds Life') being mistranslated into Chinese as 'Pepsi/Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead,' thus driving down sales. Though neither of those mistranslations actually happened, perhaps those lingering urban myths have convinced some at Coca Cola to try their hand at resurrection.

Friday, March 14, 2008

What Light?

Jake: The band... the band...
Reverend Cleophus James: DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT?
Reverend Cleophus James: DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT?
Elwood: What light?
Reverend Cleophus James: HAVE YOU SEEEEN THE LIGHT?

From the UPI:

'...KOTTAYAM, India, March 11 (UPI) -- Reports in India of a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary in the sky have led about 50 people to blind themselves by staring at the sun.

The visions are said to appear over the former home of a hotel owner in the Kottayam area in southeast India, The Daily Telegraph reported. One hospital in the district reported 48 patients had been admitted with burned retinas since last week, the British newspaper reported.

Churches have warned their congregations that looking at the sun will cause permanent blindness and have told them the supposed miracle is not one.

Before moving out, the hotel owner reportedly had also claimed to have statues of the Virgin Mary that cried honey and bled oils and perfumes...'

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Singing, 'This will be the day that I die...'

Apparently Don McLean's 'American Pie,' is now being used by the American Military as a form of 'interrogation technique.' Mother Jones Magazine has assembled a list of 24 songs that the military is using to:

'...induce sleep deprivation, "prolong capture shock," disorient detainees during interrogations—and also drown out screams...'

It's quite a playlist:

Deicide: Fuck Your God
Dope: Die MF Die
Dope: Take Your Best Shot
Eminem: White America
Eminem: Kim
Barney: Barney Theme Song
Drowning Pool: Bodies
Metallica: Enter Sandman
'Meow Mix' TV Commercial Jingle
Sesame Street TV Theme Song
David Gray: Babylon
Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A.
AC/DC: Shoot to Thrill
AC/DC: Hells Bells
BeeGees: Stayin' Alive
Tupac: All Eyes on Me
Christina Aguilera: Dirrty
Neil Diamond: America
Rage Against the Machine: Bulls on Parade
Don McLean: American Pie
Saliva: Click Click Boom
Matchbox 20: Cold
Hed P.E.: Swan Dive
Prince: Raspberry Beret

One's first reaction would be that this sounds like a typical playlist in any college dorm room. Mother Jones has helpfully assembled a complete audio file of all of these songs, which should come in useful if you need to get your puppy to stop piddling on the carpet. Simply go to the site, hit play, turn the speakers to 11, and go out shopping. Presto - instant Gitmo. By the time you return, Good ol' Spot will be cowering in a corner vowing never to pee again, muttering, 'Meow meow meow meow. Meow meow meow meow...'

Phantom Menace

Above: Charlemagne bumming, because he never existed

I’ve just started a new book, ‘God’s War,’ a history of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman. It’s a hefty and daunting tome, clocking in at over 900 pages; I’ve committed myself to the introduction and the first few chapters to see if I really want to make the pledge to the whole thing.

It can be a tough slog – to set up the story, the book starts by going over European and Asian History for the 500 years prior to the first crusades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. And that is precisely the time period that we all blanked out on in our World History Classes in high school and college. You’ve got the Greek and Roman Empires, and then a bunch of people hanging out in Europe until Michelangelo and Martin Luther. The years from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance are just a fog of inconsequence; if a country becomes prominent, a decade later it’s overthrown. Memorizing the important dates and people and such of that time is a tremendous mnemonic feat.

But there is another way to simplify things and get a better grasp of history. Thanks to Herebert Illig, we now have the wonderful idea that the early Middle Ages didn’t exist. It’s called Phantom Time Theory, and it states that the years 614 to 911 never happened:

‘…The Phantom time hypothesis is a theory developed by Heribert Illig (born 1947 in Vohenstrau├č) in 1991. It proposes that there has been a systematic effort to make it appear that periods of history: specifically that of Europe during Early Middle Ages (AD 614–911) exist, when they do not. Illig believed that this was achieved through the alteration, misrepresentation and forgery of documentary and physical evidence…’

So it’s not 2008, but actually 1711. There is actually a known period of Phantom Time that definitively exists: the dates October 5th through October 14th, 1582 never existed, thanks to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar. Those ten days were skipped to make up the problem of the Julian Calendar being off by 674 seconds per year; after a long period of time, that added up to many days, causing problems with when to harvest and such.

Mr. Illig’s hypothesis is actually based on that event. For ten days helps bring the calendar back in line with 1282 years of error, but:

‘…The ten days that were skipped in October 1582 corrected the mistake that had accumulated in the Julian Calendar over the previous 1,282 years. However, if you deduct these 1,282 years from 1582, you don't arrive in the year of Caesar's calendar reform, 45 BC, but in the year AD 300! If he had gone all the way back to Caesar, Pope Gregory would have had to skip 13 days. He did not do so, and yet: the astronomical situation and the calendar agreed. His jump was too short, yet he landed in the right place…’

Mr. Illig goes on to try to account for the missing 300 years, and comes up with the Early Middle Ages because, well, he can’t think of anything that happened then either:

‘…Now it was a question of making the first thesis plausible: Which period was superfluous? At first glance it was obvious that the Roman imperial era was very well documented. The Renaissance period before 1582 was also very well documented. Even the Romanesque and Gothic eras - looked at from an art-history perspective - are well documented, with thousands - even tens of thousands - of buildings. So almost automatically we hit upon the Early Middle Ages. Only here was there darkness. Only here did we find the technical term "Dark Ages"…’

In addition to helping ease my reading load, this theory also has very positive applications for the Republican Party. If it’s only 1711, that makes their platform of building a bridge to the 18th century much more relevant. Also, it becomes much harder to criticize them for eviscerating the U.S. Constitution if it isn’t even going to be ratified for another 77 years.

As for poor Charlemagne, he is explained away in a puff of logic:

‘…To sum up: archaeological testimony clearly contradicts the documents of that period. Since our calendar shows "slack", it is permitted to state: Charlemagne has no historical background. He is an invented figure. This conclusion is compelled by the lack of finds, to which I would add that there would be an absolute absence of finds if scholars did not strive so hard to attribute any available works of art or objects of daily use to the Carolingian era…’

Tant pis...

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Moses on High

And now for the latest in craziness:

'...High on Mount Sinai, Moses was on psychedelic drugs when he heard God deliver the Ten Commandments, an Israeli researcher claimed in a study published this week.

Such mind-altering substances formed an integral part of the religious rites of Israelites in biblical times, Benny Shanon, a professor of cognitive psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote in the Time and Mind journal of philosophy.

"As far Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don't believe, or a legend, which I don't believe either, or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effect of narcotics," Shanon told Israeli public radio on Tuesday.

Moses was probably also on drugs when he saw the "burning bush," suggested Shanon, who said he himself has dabbled with such substances.

"The Bible says people see sounds, and that is a classic phenomenon," he said citing the example of religious ceremonies in the Amazon in which drugs are used that induce people to "see music."

He mentioned his own experience when he used ayahuasca, a powerful psychotropic plant, during a religious ceremony in Brazil's Amazon forest in 1991. "I experienced visions that had spiritual-religious connotations," Shanon said.

He said the psychedelic effects of ayahuasca were comparable to those produced by concoctions based on bark of the acacia tree, that is frequently mentioned in the Bible.'

This represents a problem I have with a lot of journalism covering 'scientific studies.' To start with, the 'study' isn't linked to, so I have no idea where Mr. Shanon is coming from. As a result, it sounds like idle cocktail party chatter, but being reported as the result of a 'researcher's study.'

So while articles like this make for fun coffee room humor, they actually bother me. If you're going to claim some pedantic reasons for unexplained historical phenomena (such as the appearance of the ten commandments on a hill in the Sinai, or a star in the sky over Bethlehem,) you'd best actually provide some valid evidence behind your theory. Billions of people have believed in divine reasons for these events; to pull a theory with no backing out of your ass (they were all stoned) to account for them goes beyond the point of disrespect.

The parts of the Hebrew Bible that cover the events of Moses were written in a period between 1000 BC and 700 BC, but we have no manuscript copies that date from anywhere near that far back. So these events are lost to time, both from a literary standpoint as well as an archaeological one. Anyone who comes up with definitive 'rational' explanations for such events is actually more of a moron than someone who believes in them being the result of divine intervention; a belief in divine intervention requires both faith, and a belief that faith trumps 'rationality,' so it isn't moronic to believe in the divinity of such events when you believe in the supremacy of faith.

However a need to come up with 'rational' explanations requires a belief in the supremacy of rationality over faith; but to believe that you can rationally come up with good explanations for events without evidence is in itself irrational. Someone who is irrational and who values the supremacy of rationality is therefore a complete idiot.