Category Archives: history

An agnostic view on The Ten(Twelve) Commandments

This post is a re-edit of one I wrote years ago for my other blog.  As would be obvious to any of my readers who have hung about for a while, I’m a religious agnostic who is intensely curious about others religion and welcome an open discussion of same with anyone who cares to have it.  Unlike many who claim the moniker of agnostic or atheist, I’m respectful (hopefully) and appreciate the views of others.  In this spirit, I’m putting this post up to prompt my Christian friend Grant Dawson to begin the project we’d agree upon that pits us both head-to-head in a discussion of modern Christian faith.  Help me in motivating him by visiting his blog.  He has a lot of great posts but he has one in particular that I consider his writing “hook”.  Read that, follow his blog and let’s get this party started.

Firstly, it should be noted that while the Christian faith is keen to claim the Ten Commandments as their own invention, the concepts embodied in those rules predate Christ by tens of thousands of years.  The Christians are certainly the best known codifiers of these somewhat obvious laws of behavior but by no means did they invent them.  Just for grins though, let’s look at each one in detail.

#1:  I am the Lord your God

This one is rather obvious.  In order to have a religion of any merit whatsoever, you have to have a cohesive leadership.  It also establishes the speaker as GOD and lends weight and influence to the other commandments.  It’s a good start, though somewhat predictable.

#2: You shall have no other gods before me

Somewhat redundant with #1 really and undermining of the speaker’s position.  It seems to admit to the existence of other gods and attempts to subordinate them.  A real king of kings doesn’t need to do this.  He stands on the mountain and says, “I AM KING, tough cookies”.  This commandment seems like a throw away.  The speaker’s position would be stronger without it.  If you must say something, say I am the ONLY God or depending on your position on the trinity question, say that you’re God, father of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.   Either way, this one doesn’t work.

#3: You shall not make for yourself an idol

Alright, this one bugs me.  As I would understand this, the speaker is forbidding his followers from creating anything which constitutes a stand-in for him.  In other words, you can’t make a physical representation of God and worship that instead.  You must worship the unembodied idea of  god but you can’t construct a golden cow or anything else in an attempt to give him a material representation on this earth.  If that’s the case, then isn’t the cross itself a violation of this?  Isn’t this a physical representation of the holiness of god that is treated with veneration?  Similarly, what about graven images?  I see a lot of portrayals of Jesus in churches.  This seems like a violation of that commandment.  Even worse, I’ve seen people dressed up as Jesus for various reenactments and that seems like it would violate the spirit of the commandment entirely.  I’d be interested to have someone explain this one to me.  As commandments go though, not a bad one.

#4: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God

This is your basic, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain or use it to sell vegetable choppers on late-night television.  I get this.  If you’re the boss you don’t want people sullying your good name.  Does strike me as a tad vain, however.

#5: Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy

Well, this is certainly open for interpretation.  Personally, I like the Jewish interpretation of this commandment.  Jews can’t even turn on a light switch during the Sabbath because it would be considered ‘starting a fire’.  I really respect that because they go to a LOT of trouble to keep this.  I can’t help but admire anyone who goes to a lot of trouble to obey such a rule.  I like the Jewish faith.  From a commandment perspective though, this says, “dedicate a day to me and me alone.”  Not a bad idea, especially if that day is also a day of leisure.

#6: Honor your father and mother

This one isn’t all surprising considering that the promulgation of religion primarily from parent to child.  Even if it wasn’t in the Bible per se, I suspect an enterprising parent would add this commandment themselves just to keep the young people in line.  It’s also worth noting that this commandment represents a transition from the previous ones which were designed to establish the authority of God and those which are intended to confer a competitive advantage to the adherents of the religion.  From an evolutionary standpoint, this has a lot to be said for it.  Previous generations are invaluable to the child-rearing process.  It would be a distinct evolutionary advantage to foster those relationships.  Say what you will about the Bible, it has a fairly good grounding in simple practicality.

#7: You shall not murder

Continuing in the vein of practicality, we have the prohibition on murder.  I can almost hear a primitive man, millions of years ago talking to a friend around a roaring fire: “You know Both, me no like Gorth.  Me want kill Gorth but if kill Gorth, Gorth no hunt, no bring food.  Me think not good kill Gorth.”  And thus was this commandment was born.  The simple fact is that we all do better when we get along and don’t slaughter each other.  Again, simple practicality.

#8: You shall not commit adultery

This one is actually an oddball in that in strictly biological terms, it works AGAINST the group.  Promiscuity is actually a POSITIVE trait from an evolutionary perspective.  Males and females of the species are likely to bear more healthy offspring if they have several sexual partners.  The only problem, of course, is that possessive males, when they find their brides violated, tend to violate the previous commandment.

#9: You shall not steal

Similar to murder and adultery, there’s an advantage to cooperating and not filching each other’s stuff.  Adultery is actually a subset of the concept of theft in this case and it’s simple good sense to get along, keep your hands off other people’s stuff and not subject yourself to the potential for murder.

#10: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor

As with #9, we have to just find some way to get along.  More than that though, we have to be honest with each other.  Of all the commandments, this one is probably the deepest and most meaningful for me.  It’s a lot of wasted energy to be anything BUT truthful so the optimal and most efficient state is to just start out that way.  When we’re all straight up with each other, we all benefit.

#11: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife

#12: You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor

These two are merely subsets of one another, recognized as separate, according to Wikipedia anyway, only by the Catholic faith.  This seems to simply say that you must not even CONTEMPLATE breaking commandment #9.  If you covet, that will inevitably lead to theft.  So the origin of this falls directly in line with the idea that we have to get along and not get ourselves murdered.

Looking back over the list in general, it’s really somewhat disappointing.  Everything that God has to say to us in these 10(12) snippets of wisdom is obvious to any school child.  There are variations to these (cannibalistic, polygamist tribes) rules but in general all societies that live in groups adhere to these laws quite naturally.  Sure there’s an occasional primitive tribe that shares wives between all the males but in general they don’t go around killing each other for no reason.  The rules are basic common sense even to the most unrefined.

The fatuousness of these rules makes me question the very motives of any God who would hand them out.  Why proclaim with such formality something which is so obvious?  Is this is the best that God can do with all the forces of omniscience on his side?  How about some rules about which berries to eat and which are poisonous?  Something we can use but not pick up on any street corner?  Further, why is God so insecure that he spends nearly half of the commandments trying to solidify his own position?  If I’m God, omnipotent and omnipresent, I might spare one commandment to say, “Look, I’m watching you.  I see everything so don’t even THINK about breaking my commandments” but *5*?!  To me this indicates a certain level of narcissism on god’s part.  He spends half the time talking about himself and only after he’s done telling you why he’s the only god you’ll ever need does he get down to the business of telling you anything useful.  Frankly, it’s a disappointment.

If anything, I’d say this is just more evidence that god, if he existed, had nothing to do with the commandments at all.  A real god wouldn’t bother.  He’d tell us something useful rather than spouting obvious truths.  If this is God’s best work, then I’m sadly disappointed.  Of all the things to be promulgated among the mass of humanity, this is a poor effort.  Perhaps he’ll do better at the second coming.  Not that anyone would care at that point, of course.

Now that you’ve suffered through that, read Grant’s response from the Christian perspective.

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On the Fairer, Daintier, Gentler Gender

Recently I’ve been spending some time reading a book from 1969 that centers quite specifically around how the male gender should conduct itself.  It details in long-form the recommended manner of performing many of life’s most vital processes: which silverware to use and when, how to conduct yourself if your phone is on a party line, which actors and actresses you should use as role models, and how much to tip the porter when you check into a hotel.  For the curious, the answer is $.25 per bag with a minimum of $.35 even if you only have one bag.  In today’s world, I’m pretty sure that a tip of such magnitude would be hurled back at you with all the force of a Nolan Ryan fastball.

On the whole, I’m surprised at just how little has changed in 40 years.  The expectations themselves haven’t changed much, but merely the determination with which they’re enforced.  A gentleman is still expected to pull out a lady’s chair for her in a restaurant, but where today this is seen as cute and quaint, in 1969 it was viewed as absolutely mandatory.  In years gone by, the man was expected to order dinner on the lady’s behalf and shield her from the waiter but in today’s world this might be viewed as absolute effrontery.  Yesterday’s mandates are seen as today’s curious and somewhat nerdy aberrations.

One somewhat shocking facet of all this is the assumed naiveté of both genders during this time.  In many cases the details laid out for the man’s benefit are stunningly ponderous and obvious.  Doubtless after 37 years on this Earth, I’ve forgotten the ignorance of youth and just how blessedly idiotic I was, but it’s hard to fathom a man who needs advice as simplistic as this tome provides.  Even more stunning is the image that is painted of womanhood.

There was a time in my youth when I firmly held with the belief that women, in addition to having divine powers, were absolutely moral and perfect in every way.  This book, written near the year of my birth, would seem to offer evidence of this fact.  I can easily draw the lines to conclude where I might have come across this simple truth.  Society at large during this time period seems to paint the same picture.  June Cleaver was still held as the absolute good of the American family.

It wasn’t until… well, to be absolutely humble and honest, it wasn’t until a few years ago that this image began to break down for me.  I realized with a rather large gulp that women, as fearsome a prospect as this might seem, were just as human as men.  While men suffer from certain ineffable drives and desires, women too are slaves to similar motives.  The crystalline purity of the female soul was shattered into a million pieces when I realized that biology enslaves us all.  Women are equally as petty, as sexual, as driven by base emotions as the male gender.  This, to me, was the greatest revelation of my adult life.  My entire vision of women as perfect snowflakes was sullied by the realization that in many ways, they are just as base a creature as is man.  In some ways, even moreso.

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Annoyance and the Underground Railroad

Until two hours ago I was rather annoyed.  Something incredibly and unforgiveably evil happened to me and I was not at ALL a happy camper.  Oh… Oh, it’s hard to even say this without breaking down.  My…. Oh god… oh GOD… yes, I’m going to say it… oh GOD!!!!  Be strong!!!!….  My home internet was down.

*exhale*

OK.  That wasn’t so hard.

Really, in retrospect, I was rather annoyed but in retro-retrospect that’s just a laughably asinine thing to be annoyed about.  We are *SO* spoiled.  SO, SO spoiled.  Well… at least I am.  I remember a time when I sat and typed away for hours on my Tandy Color Computer 2 with a tape drive and I had to record over a Bananarama tape in order to save anything from one day to the next.  Half the time the stupid thing didn’t really record properly and I had to retype everything I’d spent hours on the previous day.  Now I’m perturbed endlessly by not being able to update my blog for a day because the blasted internet isn’t accessible and all my namby-pamby neighbors are all security conscious and have to encrypt their wireless connections.  (I know, because I sat here for 20 minutes and flipping checked all 57 of them).  What’s the blasted world come to when an internet connection is second only to Mountain Dew in the “list of things that a nerd needs to survive.”  To paraphrase Scrooge, are there no books?  Are there no wireless ereaders?  Bah.  Regardless, I’m glad it’s back.

So while I was disconnected from the world… well, while I only had my iPhone available and wasn’t desperate enough to actually try to blog with it, I did something… oh my… it makes me laugh to think about it.  It’s so antiquated, so backwards.  It’s like I was Amish for an entire Monday night!  Good God.  Yes… yes I am forced to report… that I read a book.  I know, I know.  Please sit down, sit down.  Come to order.  Let’s not fling things at our computer screens because, after all, it’s just hurting you, not me.  And yes, it was a book… on paper.  Good God… what have I come to…

In some modicum of seriousness, the book in question was “Hidden in Plain View, a secret story of quilts and the underground railroad.”  I bought this book just the other day from a Goodwill thrift store for the corpulent sum of $2.49.  Hardcover, dustjacket, whole deal.  Premium shizzle, yo.  On the face of it it’s a wonderful little tome.  It goes over in some detail the Underground Railroad quilt code and discusses the way in which quilts put out for “airing” were actually signals to slaves on southern plantations.  Some specific designs meant “get ready to head out in a week” and others indicated that “today was the day” and maps were worked into the stitching so that runaways could actually take the quilts with them and use them as reference.  It’s a fascinating story that would make a wonderful 10-page paper on the topic.  Unfortunately, the authors of this particular book decided to stretch those 10 pages of content to 190 pages.  So by the time the 190 pages are finally consumed, the reader has heard at least 27 different variations on the phrase “And the quilts… they were a code!”  When on page 160 I read the words, “The quilts were a code that only the slaves could read” I threw the book at the cable modem and shouted, “YOU ALREADY F—ING TOLD ME THAT ON PAGE 2!!!!!”  I’m fairly certain that’s what fixed the internet.

In total seriousness, the book does have some really grand conceptual things to say.  In general, I think that we look back on the slave trade and think of the victims of slavery as passive heathens without any real culture of their own.  In several parts of the book, however, the authors are quick to point out (repeatedly) that the African populations from which slaves were taken actually had a very rich and complex history.  When the Europeans came and plucked them from their homes, they uprooted them physically but they could not take from them their language (both written and spoken) and a vastness of culture that we don’t tend to appreciate or remember very well.  This common culture was the foundation for the quilt code and for the resistance in general.  Lincoln may have emancipated the slaves, but they were far from passive participants in their own bondage.  As the book says, their resistance to oppression started when first they laid foot on the boat and never ended until they were either free or dead.

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Books – Ehrman, Bart: Misquoting Jesus

Ehrman, in this brief little book covers a topic near and dear to my heart: the textual tradition of the Bible. Even the most lax reader of this blog will realize that this topic isn’t dear to me for any religious reason but rather for a literary one. The Bible, as I’ve said before, is THE piece of great literature in the Western World. More of our culture has poured out of this book than from any other source. The West as we know it is built on this book whether anyone wants to admit it or not. That’s why it’s of such particular fascination that anyone should tinker with it.

In Misquoting Jesus, the author breaks down the tinkering into a few basic types:

The first type isn’t really tinkering so much as it is a difficulty of determining exactly what version of the text was correct in the first place. To understand this, it’s important to remember that the Bible isn’t just one book by one author, it’s a collection of writings. Even each separate ‘book’ of the Bible wasn’t written and distributed the way books are today but were more likely the compilation of innumerable smaller writings by Christian authors of the period. Before there even WAS a Bible, these bits and pieces that would later become a single book were floating around, being copied and distributed by hand (no printing presses in these days) so the same document in one part of the world may look entirely different from the same document in another part of the world. Copying anything by hand is a laborious process to be sure and prone to mistakes of an unintentional nature. So if a text is subject to regional differences, how do you decide, when making your Bible for the first time, which one is correct?

The second bit of tinkering seems to have been caused by scribes who sought to improve the Bible. The most startling of the author’s examples appears at the end of Mark. The last twelve verses of this book don’t actually appear in the earliest copies of the text. Later copies that include those verses show an abrupt change in writing style indicative of a change of authorship. Ehrman theorizes that a scribe simply added the extra verses (Chapter 16 verses 9 – 20) to tie the story together and provide a less abrupt ending to the book! In less blatant cases, scribes may have changed the text to try to avoid a misunderstanding or improve the construction of a sentence or phrase in the text. Terrifyingly, this means that the Bible text we know today could have been determined on the whim of a 5th century scribe rather than the original author. Even the Lord’s Prayer, appearing in Luke 11:2-4 falls victim to such improvement. Originally it was much shorter but later lengthened to match the version found in Matthew 6:9-13.

Other changes are more subtle. Many fall simply into the realm of typographical errors caused because words look very much the same on the written page. In some instances, multiple copies of a book were made by having the original read aloud and several scribes writing what they heard. In these cases, even words that sounded the same could be confused. The author’s personal favorite source of typographical inaccuracy seems to be ‘periblepsis occasioned by homoeoteleuton.’ This is the technical term for omission of a line of text because it ends with the same words as the line immediately above it. Many early texts have been found missing entire lines of text because of this phenomenon.

Most upsetting of all the changes are those that were perpetrated for a theological reason. Many of those responsible for transmitting Biblical texts had a particular system of beliefs that they personally wanted to promote so they took the opportunity to add a bit here or there to support their version of things.

The Adoptionists believed that Christ was a flesh-and-blood human and that he only became Christ when God adopted him by baptism. Since the Adoptionists were not mainstream Christians, they didn’t get the opportunity to modify the Bible in their favor but there is evidence that Orthodox Christians did so in order to counteract their ideas. Modern versions of Mark 1:11 read “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” In earlier versions of the text, this passage read, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” The original could have been used as a strong Adoptionist argument that Jesus was not in fact the son of God but instead adopted. The text ran contrary to the thinking of Christian officials so it was promptly changed.

At the opposite end of the argument, the Docetists believed that Jesus was not actually a man at all. They argued that he simply had the appearance of a man outwardly but really he was a divine spirit. These too were non-Orthodox Christians so while their modifications don’t appear in the Biblical texts we do see modifications away from their beliefs. Luke’s version of the crucifixion seems to have been modified from the original to make Jesus seem more human including references to Jesus’ sweat and great anguish at his coming execution. Even the passages in Luke 22 referring to the Body and Blood of Jesus at the last supper never appeared in the original texts but were apparently added to make him seem more human.

Though this book doesn’t cover it, there’s also the issue of the other writings of the time that simply weren’t deemed appropriate for the Bible because they failed to agree with mainstream Christian doctrine. God may very well watch over his own word, but it seems evident that for the most part, he’s just watching.

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Headed to the Bijoux: Charlie Wilson’s War

In addition to simply entertaining, Charlie Wilson’s War reminded me of several of my pet peeves. Least significantly, I can never watch a semi-historical movie without constantly asking myself exactly where the line between fiction and fact lies. As with any product of Hollywood, one has to assume that whatever appears on the screen has been exaggerated by at least a factor of three. While I realize the intent is solely to entertain, it does a disservice to truth to warp reality for this purpose. It’s also worth noting that my wife and I were the youngest people in the theatre by a wide margin. Apparently the 30-something crowd isn’t interested in historical drama. That’s probably related to the fact that none of this ever happened…

I don’t know about you but when I was in school they taught the same 450 years of history every single year. Somewhere around 1500 some guy found the New World and then there were some wars and finally there was this Hitler guy who started a HUGE mess in Europe but we never really found out how that ended because then it was time for summer vacation and when the next year rolled around we just started all over again at 1500. As far as I was concerned (at least in class) the Korean War, Vietnam War, and the Cold War didn’t even exist. So while watching this movie, one’s forced to ask: “Afghanistan? Where’s that and why would the Russians be doing anything there? Aren’t they busy enough with Hitler on the Eastern Front?” (at least if one depends solely on your public school education).

And really, if you take a look at the Indiana Academic Standards for Social Studies it’s not hard to see why. Who in their right mind can look at this 149 page document and think that there’s time to teach all this? Remember, there are similar documents for other subjects too that all need to be taught concurrently and consider that there are standards like:

6.1.4 Analyze the reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

That’s one standard out of about 100 in 6th grade social studies; how long shall we dedicate to it? A week? A month? It’s such a simple topic after all that can be easily summed up in 1300 pages of text or so.

It’s no wonder then that teachers come up short at the end of the term. My question though is, why neglect the end of history that’s has the most to offer? One can easily see why kids always think of history as ‘dry’ and ‘uninteresting’ when most of the history they’ve been taught is so dusty and ancient that they cannot possibly relate to it in any way. If kids were exposed to the history that’s taking place around us every day they’d be much more likely to appreciate it (and remember it).

Imagine that little Stevie spends the first month of history class learning about the first war in Iraq. He goes home and mentions this to his parents who may very well have taken part in the war and may even have the scars to prove it. At that moment the child experiences the most important revelation history has for us, that history isn’t merely “something that happened” but “something that could happen to me.” That’s when history is truly alive and meaningful but in the traditional history class you never actually get to this point. Without this connection, the realization that history is real and happens to people JUST LIKE YOU, history is just a jumble of unconnected facts, a series of dry and uninteresting tidbits to be memorized until the next exam… and then discarded.

In the teaching of history we bow to the logic of cause and effect without regard to the audience we’re trying to reach. From a purely logical standpoint we have to teach history in chronological order because that’s the way it happened. World War I perpetuated World War II, not the other way around. Unfortunately, that leaves our audience with no sense of what any of the facts and figures really mean. To teach history or any other subject effectively we have to teach from the standpoint of the student and work your way outward. We must give our students history in a context they can understand and relate to first, and as their sphere of knowledge expands so does their ability to connect with what we’re teaching. Learning is like a bridge, we cannot simply begin at some arbitrary point in the hopes that when we finally arrive at our destination the student will still be there waiting for us.

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