Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Genesis 9: Rep. John Shimkus, the Flood, and Global Warming

A lot of American greens are getting very nervous that John Shimkus might nab the chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee--the group responsible for setting the U.S. House of Representatives' environmental agenda.

Why? Apparently, God told Shimkus that global warming isn't a real threat. Comforting, eh?

Speaking before a subcommittee meeting last March, Shimkus backed up his skepticism with Biblical evidence taken from Genesis and Matthew. Here's the Youtube clip, in all its grainy terrifying-ness:

To borrow a line from Tony Kushner, parsing this argument is like throwing darts at Jell-O; there are no satisfying hits. But let me see if I can try to break down the "theological" parts of this rambling mess.

Shimkus's first quote comes from Genesis 8, in the moments after Noah emerges from the ark onto the still-drying earth. Speaking to the head of the only family to survive the watery apocalypse, God calls a truce:

"I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease" (8:21-22).

Shimkus's second text--and yes, it sounds like he's getting ready to preach a Protestant sermon --comes from Matthew: "And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (24:31).

He concludes this bizarre Bible minute with a quick exegesis: "The earth will end only when God declares its time is over. Man will not destroy this earth; earth will not be destroyed by a flood."

Apparently, Shimkus believes that God's promise in Genesis--that he won't wipe out mankind again--means that global warming is a myth, because God won't let us hurt ourselves. (I think?) And the Matthew passage confirms that God will only usher in total global catastrophe on his own timetable. (I've never quite understood why conservative Christians take such solace in the notion of apocalypse. Granted, they probably assume they're on the right side, but come on: it's still the end of the world, right?)

As Politico reported a couple weeks back, Shimkus still stands by these claims, and as a result, he is unlikely to push for meaningful climate legislation if named chair of Energy and Commerce. This is disturbing stuff, in no small part because we should start shaking in our collective tunics if our legislators have begun governing on literalist readings of the Bible.

But for what it's worth, Shimkus is playing fast and loose with scripture here--especially Genesis--and his Biblical logic is pretty far off.

To begin, it's worth noting that no environmentalist believes that global warming is tantamount to "the earth ending"; its results may be devastating, but it is not the apocalypse. But just for fun, let's assume that when Shimkus speaks of the end of the world, he's actually referring to significant environmental disaster.

His first assumption--that only God can or will bring along such disaster--falls by the wayside in the second half of Genesis, when earth-cracking drought imperils God's chosen (Jacob's family) and drives them to Egypt, where they will eventually be enslaved. There is no evidence in the text that God sends this deadly drought, and Jacob and company only survive it by the cunning of his black-sheep son, Joseph.

Shimkus's second assumption--that man will not bring environmental calamity on himself--is also incorrect by Biblical standards. In 2 Samuel 24, David angers the Lord, who threatens the nation of Israel with drought and famine once more. And though David ultimately receives a different punishment (pestilence, hooray!), the passage leaves open the possibility that God's people can invite meteorological cataclysm whether or not the eschatological timetable demands it.

Shimkus is on firmer ground with his third claim--that "earth will not be destroyed by a flood." However, he draws from the wrong passage for support. Indeed, God makes that promise not in Genesis 8, but in 9:15, which reads, "waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh." (Whether or not water may one day destroy some flesh remains to be seen, but I'll let Shimkus's hope stand for a moment.)

That being said, let me go on the record as saying that I wouldn't trust the post-diluvian God any farther than I could throw him. Why? Well, God's promise in Genesis 9--that he will not destroy humanity by "water"--is actually an attenuation of his oath in Genesis 8, where he swears he will not destroy humanity at all.

Many Bible scholars note this syntactical distinction and argue that God is hedging his bets. After all, it took all of a half-dozen chapters to get from Eden to Studio 54-style debauchery--and the deluge; who's to say that God won't want to fire away at a new set of heathen a few more verses down the line? (Sodom and Gomorrah, anyone?) Said differently, I'm not sure I even believe God in Genesis 9, so I sure wouldn't want to base federal energy policy on a fickle Lord's promises.

In summary, Shimkus shouldn't be legislating on the basis of his Biblical knowledge--first, because doing so violates the first amendment, but second, because his Biblical knowledge kinda sucks. Click here for more

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Psalm 65: Happy Thanksgiving!

It's Thanksgiving week, and I'm giving you a Thanksgiving post. I'm so cute and considerate--just like your great aunt, who sends you a card every year.

And when you're looking for a Thanksgiving Bible verse, there's no better place to turn than to the Psalms. Why?

Well, I've mentioned previously the work of Hermann Gunkel, the German scholar who first suggested that the Psalms fall into a variety of different generic categories: psalms of lament, hymns of praise, songs for the king, etc. Gunkel also argued that one of the most important minor genres includes thanksgiving psalms.

Makes my job easy, huh?

So this week, I give you my favorite, a passage from Psalm 65 in which the author praises God for the earth's bounty--indeed, in which the earth itself seems to break into joyous shouts. Here are verses 8 through 13, with my warmest Thanksgiving wishes:

"Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy." Click here for more

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mark 5: On Exorcism

This past weekend, American bishops met in Baltimore to prepare themselves for a rite that many thought had gone the way of other now-defunct Roman Catholic practices ... like public berating of long-winded priests, or pantsing of the smallest monk, or nun-flying.

The ritual that just won't die? Exorcism.

The New York Times quotes Notre Dame's R. Scott Appleby in explaining the bishops' rationale: "It’s a strategy for saying: 'We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons'." And I have to admit that every time I watch The Exorcist, I'm totally on board. Please, Catholics, please: train crack demon-hunters, and keep them at the ready! Regan scares the argyle socks off of me.

Conference organizer Thomas Paprocki hedges his bets, however, by pointing out that exorcism is necessary only in very special cases: “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person."

Still, the notion that the Devil might "actually be in possession" of anyone raises eyebrows. Epilepsy might have looked very much like possession to a medieval scientist--and depressives may feel as if a devil sits on their chest--but today's physicians and psychologists have the diagnostic tools to banish demons from our collective lives. We are not possessed; we have seizures. We are not possessed; we are paranoid schizophrenics.

But make no mistake, if the Catholics are on shaky medical ground, they remain on sound scriptural ground. The Biblical record is clear: this world is infested with malevolent spirits who can and will possess.

I often suggest to students that the Gospel of Mark is so full of demons that it is best read as a horror story. (I'd love to see William Friedkin's film version.) But Mark is not alone in characterizing Jesus as a Highlander-type hero pitched in battle with diabolical forces. For Matthew and Luke, too, Christ is the first ghostbuster, and the gospels speak of his exorcisms no fewer than a dozen times.

For today, I think I'll just give you my favorite--and the most elaborate exorcism story in the Bible. It is Mark's story of the Gerasene demoniac, told in chapter 5, and it goes like this:

"They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake" (Mark 5:1-13).

A few quick notes on this chilling tale ...

First, the famously laconic Mark flexes his descriptive muscles in explaining the demoniac's state: he lives among tombs; chains cannot hold him; his howls disturb the night landscape; he bruises himself with rocks. Mark might have added, "It was a dark and stormy night." Seldom in gospels--heck, seldom in the entire Bible!--do we get such narrative detail. The author knows the attractive power of a good ghost story.

Second, note that the possessed man seeks Jesus out--not the other way around. But note also that the sequence of events is jumbled. The man comes, he bows, and he screams his welcome. However, in the next verse, we find that the demoniac's first statement is actually in response to a comment that we don't hear at first: Jesus's command that the demon "come out of the man." We receive the dialogue in the wrong order; the sequence is messed up. Perhaps these destabilizing techniques are meant to mimick the tortured mindscape of the possessed man.

But note also that the demon knows exactly who Jesus is--"son of the most high God." That demons infallibly recognize the divinity of Jesus--and that his disciples almost uniformly do not--is one of the most uncomfortable truths of Mark.

Then the chilling core of the tale, when the demon introduces himself: "My name is Legion; for we are many." The pronoun slippage--from the singular "my" of the first clause to the plural "we" of the second--is a creepy grammatical effect. Many scholars also point out that the demon's name--Legion--clues us in that this story is an also a colonial allegory. Palestine, at the time, was also "possessed" by groups of Roman soldiers--legions.

And then the "denoument," if we dare call it that. For in this tale, evil cannot be wiped out: it can only be transferred. Jesus compels the demons to enter a flock of pigs, who immediately rush to their drowning death.

This is an unsettling conclusion for some. Jose Saramago, in his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, wonders what happens to these pigs; he then proposes--in a fictional extrapolation--that they are scavenged and eaten by Gentiles--for whom pigs would not be unclean--who are then themselves possessed; they go on to wreak havoc on the Palestinian landscape in what I can only assume is an ancient Palestinian preview of Night of the Living Dead.

And indeed I wonder ... what happens to exorcised demons when they are cast out? I'll have to attend the next Catholic possession clinic and ask.
Click here for more

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Matthew 25: Jesus, Youth Hockey, and Progressive Taxes

Last night as I was walking home from class in the drizzle, I was listening to Radio Lab, a snazzily produced NPR program that focuses on science topics. The title of the piece was "Secrets of Success." (You can hear the podcast here.)

In it, cohost Robert Krulwich asks author and New Yorker contributor Malcolm Gladwell why successful people thrive. (Gladwell answers this question at length in his recent book Outliers.) In responding, Gladwell brings up "the Matthew effect," a term coined in 1968 by the sociologist Robert K. Merton to describe the tendency of the rich to get richer--and vice versa.

The phrase derives from the last lines of Jesus's "parable of the talents," found in Matthew 25: "For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" (Matthew 25:29).

Gladwell applies the Matthew effect to youth ice hockey in Canada. He suggests that when considering young hockey players, we find that talent is almost always directly related to age. Therefore, if Calgary selects its nine year-olds' all-star team, most of the players will be nine years and eleven months old; many players nine years and one month old will be left off the squad. Players on the team will receive more practice, more ice time, more coaching, and better equipment. And this trend will only snowball as time passes. Thus, a seemingly insignificant age advantage will eventually become a statistically significant talent advantage--the slightly rich get much, much richer.

Merton himself sees the Matthew effect in academic science departments, and argues that researchers with small advantages--specifically, posts at better universities--get disproportionally greater rewards than their more poorly placed colleagues. Said differently, a research scientist at the prestigious University of Wisconsin will win much greater renown--and more grant money, and better offices, and hotter research assistants--than a fellow researcher doing similar work at, say, the slightly less prestigious Kansas State. (No hate to Kansas State!)

As I got to thinking about it, I realized that we can also use the Matthew effect to rationalize progressive tax codes--whereby the rich are taxed at a higher rate than the poor.

Imagine two men residing in suburban Boston, where the cost of living for a single guy is around $50,000 a year. Imagine that both men earn that much money--$50,000--and both can make ends meet.

But then pretend that the second man also has a modest trust fund that pays out an extra $10,000 a year, bringing his total income to $60,000. The difference between the two salaries is small, but the second man's disposable income--$10,000--is infinitely larger than that of the first. If, over the course of a 30-year career, the second man puts that $10,000 a year in a standard individual retirement account, his modest investment will eventually pay out at over $1.4 million!

Small earnings advantages deliver significant income disparities over time. Just imagine, then, how larger advantages pay off. The progressive tax code softens Matthew effect disparities by taking more money from those with greater opportunities.

(And I know that I'm swimming out of my depth here--I'm not a tax lawyer. But I did find at least one tax guy who agrees with me.)

So check it out. Jesus can help you figure out tax policy. Or choose your tenure-track science position. Or pick a youth hockey team. Or write a hugely popular piece of popular sociology. You're welcome, Mr. Gladwell. Click here for more