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Friday, November 24, 2017

God, Music, Language, Art

Given the notion of a creator God, it can easily be guessed that it--this creator-god--would communicate with its creation, yes? One might imagine a less collaborative deity, I suppose, one that just exists, theistically, and that was the view of many of our own founding fathers. That view, however, seems such a blind alley. A creator without the interplay, the teamwork, of its individual creations, that is just a stifling thought.
So what would this communication be like? Would it be in language, in words, that men use? How could words work to convey the mesh of a creator’s inner-workings? Can language hold that much meaning? Even if so, the best language can do is to hold it within one language at one time. Anyone who has attempted the fool’s errand of translation knows how impossible it is. But I guess it is possible for a creator to speak in one language. Maybe he chose Hebrew, then Greek and Aramaic. But what of the native tribes out there? Where is their Bible? What of the Slav’s and the Chinese (all eight different linguistic groups with their many different dialects), and the Saxon and the German and the Romance languages and the Asian-Tibetan and Viet and African language groups? What is “The Bible” to them?
It gets worse: What is the Bible for the trees? The shrubbery, the grasses? Don’t laugh: a creator would treat all its creation as its children, yes? What is the language meshwork for the fungi and the potato?
Perhaps it isn’t in language at all. Maybe that is a blind alley.
Perhaps it is in music. Listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Opus 135. Is that a communication by our creator? Is the sound of a chord played by a concert symphony the sound of God [Now, I've heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord /But you don't really care for music, do you?]? What is this creator-god saying to us? What happens when we attempt to “translate” the joyful sound of a Mahler Symphony into words? Or any music into words?
It is impossible, as absolute music is...absolute. It registers as emotion, not rationality. How many wars would not have been waged had we heard the voice of a creator in music, instead of words? How many acts of terror avoided?
Not to say that this creator wouldn’t have used words as well. But not words as historical artifact, not words as descriptions: that kind of language does not hold enough power. I cannot envision a creator-god of the universe describing the comings and goings of some small group of people.
But language as poetry, with the artful techniques that can be employed by people of genius, that I can envision. That’s possible. I think of works like The Song of Solomon, Psalm 23, the Gospel of John, but also of The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote, King Lear, Hamlet, and countless individual poems and stories. These are like music; they cannot be translated (at least, they cannot be translated without another genius who creates in that translation another great work of art--an entirely different work of art). They cannot be distilled into some summary of rationality. They are of a whole, indivisible as works of art must be.
The music of art allows us to hear this communication with a creator; we can call it spirit, we can call it any number of things. When you hear it you feel it, and once you feel it, you can know it.
Here is an exercise some might want to entertain: After watching a movie with a wonderful score (I suggest Gladiator, or The Last of the Mohicans), listen to just the score. As you do, don’t you re-track the movie? Don’t you re-examine it, see it, feel it? The weight of the movie’s core is within the score, held in the notes, the melodies, the harmonies. The remaining parts of the film, the plot, the actors, the cinematography, seem excess, seem dross: as the skeleton falls away we hold onto the essence of the movie. The Bible is like that, too. If we could scrape the literalness away, we could feel the essence remaining; we could slough off the silly notions of historicity and literal inerrancy and just feel what remains at the core.

What prevents us from understanding is the literal word. It hinders in its walling off of possible connections, possible meanings, possible...possibles. It is the impossibility of language--its inevitable failure at conveying total communication of any idea--that opens the door to spiritual connectedness. This is what the genius does when he writes great works of art, great poems, great stores. He takes the failure of language, its cracks, its broken pieces, and molds something that conveys great emotional meaning: the lie that language tells gives way to a spiritual truth. The closer language comes to music, in the way it can hold truth and experience closer due to the brokenness of itself, to allowing the music of a truth to fill in the cracks in language,  the closer it becomes possible to see, and feel, what it is we really are.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Museum of the Bible

The new Museum of the Bible  has officially opened in Washington, D.C. It does not proselytize (openly). It does not apparently teach Creationism. It seems to be fairly open about certain narratives that ended up being, shall we say, in disrepute (slavery, ahem). It attempts, in the words of one of the directors, to make the Bible “cool.”

Nice location, right near where the Smithsonian sits, not far from the Mall, so it takes in the gravitas of a serious museum along with a near hand-holding with government. One might be forgiven for thinking the Green’s (the Hobby Lobby family and chief funders of the museum) are acting within the Dominionist ideology, which states that Christians (meaning evangelical Christians, not those of the baser mainstream denominations, thank you very much) must integrate themselves into government. Can you say, “theocracy”?

There is likely not going to be an exhibit showing visitors how the Green family stole artifacts, and was fined $3 million dollars. It seems they bought some Iraqi cuneiform tablets on the cheap, labeled them as “clay samples” with a worth of a couple hundred dollars, when they were actually worth...well, who knows; unquestionably their value was much more than a couple hundred dollars. Maybe the Green family feels the Eighth Commandment to be too communist. No one, except the Green family, knows if their are other stolen artifacts held in their collection.

Now, there has been some mention that the Green family ended up supporting ISIS through their fraudulent purchasing of stolen artifacts, but that isn’t strictly true. The fraud occurred before ISIS formed. However, these acts of purchasing artifacts through the black market do support the further demolition of archaeological sites.

The Museum of the Bible attempts to show the Bible as one narrative. It doesn’t mention the Koran, doesn’t mention The Book of Mormon, even though those books are dependent on the Christian Bible. It doesn’t treat them at all. The Museum of the Bible pretends that there is one view of the Bible, and that view is that of evangelicals such as the Greens. The Bible to them pretty much stopped at The King James Version. It pretends that the scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries never happened. It pretends that the Bible is entirely without flaw, that scribes copied “The Bible” perfectly down through the ages. It pretends that we have one original Bible. It avoids the deep questions of what is the “original” Bible? I doubt it treats of translation problems at all (though I have not visited the site and cannot say for certain). It pretends that the Bible is the perfect text that they show within the museum and that evangelicals are the authorities on the Bible.

There is an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although there is a plaque that states that their authenticity has not been verified (yet), there is the implication that these are the real deal: Scholars are just about united in stating that they are forgeries. But worse than that, although the Dead Sea Scrolls can be used to show that the Bible is not the concretized uttered Word of God, evangelicals like to pretend that the Bible is inerrant, and that there are no grey areas of textual divergence.  

It would be nice if there was a public catalog of all the 40,000 items held by the Greens. Are they correctly provenanced? Were they legally purchased? Is the black market of archaeological tablets, scrolls, and the like still being supported by the Greens?

The Museum of the Bible is not about truth, it is about propping up a monument to evangelicals. This is the FOX News of Museums, somewhere people can go who have preconceived notions of the Bible, who do not wish to have those notions challenged, and who can feel good about themselves for belonging to the correct religion, and even the correct subset of that religion.

There should be no religion above the truth”--motto of the Theosophical Society. You will not find that motto in the Museum of the Bible, nor will you find that sentiment.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Leonard Cohen's Sufi Mysticism

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch be my homeward dove
And dance me to the end of love.--Leonard Cohen

and this made me think that this could easily be a Sufi poem, something like

Suddenly the drunken sweetheart appeared out of my door.

She drank a cup of ruby wine and sat by my side.
Seeing and holding the lockets of her hair
My face became all eyes, and my eyes all hands.--Rumi [Translator: Shahram Shiva]

Mary Blye Howe's book, Sitting With Sufis, instructs us that:
"For the Sufi, Love is the path to God. Rumi tells us that only the person whose garment is'rent by the violence of love' can be be wholly pure from covetousness and sin."
And this love is not the "agape" love that protestants like to portray it as, or rather, it is and it isn't. Agape love is a general term, one that can also include the passion of a lover (it is used in the Septuagint to describe Amnon's love for his half-sister, Tamar (not that Tamar...the other Tamar) who he then rapes.
Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We're both of us beneath our love, both of us above
And dance me to the end of love. --Leonard Cohen
What wedding is Cohen speaking about here? And what time period does he refer to, dancing very long? And how can we be beneath our love and above it at the same time? Perhaps this no ordinary human love he speaks to.
Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, through every thread is torn
And dance me to the end of love.--Leonard Cohen
"Through the curtains that our kisses have outworn." Doesn't that dovetail nicely with Rumi noting that our garments should be rent by love? And the tent of shelter...a temple?
I don't know enough of Cohen's theology to make him into a Sufi mystic or Kabbalist (the Zohar text of the Kabbala is replete with this sort of language like The Song of Songs) or even a proto-Christian. As a columnist once said, "If he were to be theologically categorized, he could be called a panentheist, in dialogue with a God that lured him onward."
It really doesn't matter what you label him as. Cohen was a man who sought to find the right question more than to find the answer. And that question was filled with an ocean of love.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Mental Health and the American Problem

Emil Kraepelin, who in the 1880s helped cement how the West deals with schizophrenic individuals (he is called the father of biologic psychiatry), eventually came to see psychotic thought not as merely a "nature" problem, but also as a "nurture" issue. He saw culture not as causative, but as contributing, especially in its treatment. Nev Jones, PhD, has begun to delve into the ways in which culture exacerbates the lives of individuals with mental disease. 

Jones, who herself has had schizophrenic episodes, is now the leading advocate for re-thinking how the West must treat these individuals. Rather than simply rounding these people up and locking them away in a padded room, or--not much better--walling them off from friends and family and employers and classmates via society's ostracism, she sees a reinventing of treatment to allow for inclusion of the individual into their current culture. She isn't, as far as I know, an advocate for eliminating pharmacological care, but rather for the allowing of these troubled people to continue living their lives within the culture that they find themselves in, or, even better, of widening their circle of influence within that culture.

Currently our western culture views these people askant, and fearfully. They think of mass shootings and wonder...Will this guy go off and kill indiscriminately? Does he have a trunk full of guns? They think of James Holmes, the "Batman" killer, who gunned down 82 people in a cinema in 2012. James Holmes had tried to get psychological help just a few days before the shooting occurred. If James Holmes had successfully received some help, what would that help have been like? Would it have helped? It is doubtful, since current medical treatment is inadequate. 

As Jones makes clear, a person undergoing a psychotic episode needs to be in contact with their circle of influence, their friends and acquaintances, their culture. And the wider culture needs education on the elements of schizophrenia. It is not a cancer or terminal illness; many undergoing these episodes will revert to normal life. What makes it less likely for these people to live normally is a culture that cuts them off and treats them like prisoners. 

Those with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime. They are no more likely to be assailants than those in the wider population. For incidents of mass murder, such as the recent Las Vegas shooting (and we simply don't have enough data currently to make any conclusions as to the motives of the shooter), we should be ramping up our mental health care system, using the latest information concerning the best possible care for the best possible outcomes. (This doesn't obviate the need for common-sense solutions to gun regulation, either; we can do both.) 

Knowledge and action can reduce the incidents of mass shootings. And the lives of those with psychotic disorders can all be improved as well. Society wins; the patient wins. And if we lived in any other first-world nation it might well be possible. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Third Man

We recently hosted a movie crew for five days. Twelve film students from the New York Film Academy  used our house as a film set--and hostel--to complete what was the final project for the year. The director/screenwriter/producer was a vivacious, very intelligent girl from China, who we had hosted a couple of years ago while she matriculated at a local high school.

The project was fascinating to observe. Movies are omnipresent in our culture, but little is known of them outside the industry, as to how they get made, what is involved in their construction. What most people know about movies consists of the actors. Movie buffs will also wax on about this or that director, and you occasionally will hear something about some cinematographer. Nothing about the writers (there are always many, many writers, as in plural, within just one film), or the costume designers, or set designers, or the guy in charge of lighting or sound or editing. These people are anonymous, but nothing goes on within the making of a movie without them.

Indeed, the many different production companies that role down the screen at beginning and end credits seem now to me to be absolutely necessary. It takes an army to make a movie. It takes a company just to feed this army. The final impression this adventure had on me was that what we experience from our entertainments--but really from any and all aspects of life: our businesses, jobs, our friends, our religions, our politics--is but the surface. The Third Man, my favorite film, is not great because of Orson Welles’ performance, nor Alita Valli’s, nor Joseph Cotten’s. Nor any of the amazing supporting actors (I particularly like Ernst Deutsch’s Kurtz, and Erich Ponto’s Dr. Winkel). It isn’t even about Carol Reed’s wonderful direction or the great writing from Graham Greene (who was the sole screenwriter who originally wrote the novel as a prelude to the film). The film is a miracle --all films are miracles of a kind-- of collaboration. If at the end it all works, and if it can be said to be art, you can chalk it up to an amazing symbiosis of talent, opportunity--meaning money--effort, and luck. What you see on the screen is the apex of the effort which bobs on the sea of time (our iceberg in this analogy), and this is true of all our creations, all our connections in life: our connections being our friends, our interests, our experiences.

The “movie” of our own life has this same dichotomy: lived underneath in the algal weeds, the currents flowing here and there, with  the messiness of our exertions, is where the true meaning lies, full of questions upon questions; and on the surface is where the actors play their two-dimensional lives and where we barely notice --but don’t often allow ourselves to ask about -- the deeper questions flowing in the muddied currents.

Everything can be considered entertainment. The show, the theater, but also science, philosophy, history, the arts, the many religions. There is the surface, the show upon which we project our hopes and expectations, our needs, the surface which we accept without questioning too much. The scientists say this or that, and we, not being scientists, accept it all. The religious leaders also propound this or that is true, or this or that is false, and we accept it because we are not divinity students after all. We see the show, and then we genuflect before it.

This is no way to live a life. To accept blindly. To walk in single file hither and yon wherever you are told to go.

Do this go to Hell! Don’t do this...and you go to Hell! Judgment! Fall on your knees! This is the show. This is the surface play. Underneath it is all the mess of texts and historical judgments, cultural ideas that changed with the wind. Asking one question brings this house of cards down, just one simple query, and it is this: Is it true?

There are ten thousand different ways to see the truth. Every truth has its gaffer, its sound technician, its lighting director. The further down you go, the further you see how things work, how things are put together, the more despairing it can all seem. We want one truth, not ten thousand. We want the movie to be about Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton and Alita Valli, not the swirling truths that fly out tangential to all those third man references. Who is the third man? Is he the dead man, the man before the war, the man who used to believe in things, the man who existed behind the scenes, but is now projected high up on a Ferris Wheel, talking of cuckoo clocks, the man Alita Valli loved, then lost? The man of shadows, cast by a lighting guy getting paid a buck-fifty an hour?

Keep going. There must be thousands of others not yet thought up.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Message Bible--A translator's conundrum

“Poems are not perfect crimes. Too often, meaning is reduced to a feat of amateur detection which assumes that a poem is a kind of murder or a jewel theft, with a corpse, a hidden weapon, and a blueprint of the plumbing, all of which can be logically deduced by any Englishman with a large magnifying glass and credentials from Scotland Yard. But poems are not perfect crimes, for all their apparatus of passion, intention, and obsessive ingenuity in transforming fantasy into experience and experience into fantasy. Their procedure is vascular or sonal, rather than rational. They move like snails under a shell, carrying the coiled weight of their language over a sensitive paraphernalia of sticky horns and protoplasm in little bursts and thrusts, leaving the glistening accident of their chemistry behind them. Meaning is the trail of the snail.”--Ben Belitt

“The translation of poetry can never exceed the enigma of it, and be true.” --Ben Belitt

I’d like to discuss The Message Bible, a translation that has become extremely popular. It is written as a kind of “street language,” in a common tongue, easily understood and read. That is its mission, in a sense, to deliver the message of the Bible into thoughts that are easily grasped, and implied, easily propounded. Here is an example, from Galatians 3, The Message in red, NIV in blue:

The Message: Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? 3 Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? 4 Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!

NIV: I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?

An important point here is to understand that neither of the above (and one could also include the KJV, ESV, or any other English translation) is actually the Bible. The Bible, always to be regarded as a library of books, not one book, is a result of a kind of “cutting and pasting” from thousands of versions of artefacts collected over hundreds of years. These artifacts are mostly in Greek and Hebrew. They, in order to be read in English, must be translated. Therefore, it is important to have some idea of translation theory as you pick and choose among the variety of Bibles out there.

There are a number of translations that seek a word-for-word style of translation. Is this possible, even? What are words? What is language? These are questions at the very heart of translation theory, at the very heart of humanity itself, for what is it to be human if we do not have the tool of language?

Let’s view words as little Russian nesting dolls, dolls filled with “meaning.” Not just one meaning, since this isn’t mathematics we are talking about. The meaning within even just one doll has within it another doll--these are nesting dolls, remember. Each word has multiple dolls within it, some many, some less. Some are so filled with other dolls that we wonder if we'll ever reach the final doll. In any case, let’s color our dolls red, to indicate Greek. We wish to re-color all these dolls to a blue color, to indicate English. How best to do that? Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message (and please don’t make the mistake that it is not he himself who is the author, not God Itself), reads the Bible as a story, and he himself has told us that he believes that we all as human beings create our stories, that we live our stories--this is how we perform our human lives. This is how we give meaning to life. We. Create. Stories. How wonderful to hear a pastor state that so clearly. And I agree, wholeheartedly. He tells us that every translation is basically a new story, because each language will breathe into the Bible a new outlook with the new language. Again, this is impossible to argue with. Translation is indeed a betrayal. But… Peterson has seemingly forgotten something here regarding translation. Translation is a carrying from one doll to another doll, of meaning, much as if we were to fill a bucket full of water (please excuse my mixing of metaphors) and then to carry that bucket to another, pouring it all into that second bucket. Except we note that some splashes out due to the endeavor to get that bucket over to the other. Some also splashes out as we pour. What we have is less than what we began with. On the other hand, we also note that there were some bits of other materials in the second bucket and it has colored the water. It looks different now...because it is different. It is different and it is less--and it is more--as it has been diminished by the work of carrying it to the second language/bucket.

But Peterson is marvelous in that he understands that to translate is to offer a new language, a new story. (I wonder how many pastors would agree with him on that.) He understands that reading, too, is a type of translation: the reader takes these nesting dolls, pops them open, and attempts to fill new dolls in his own mind...again though, something gets lost in the translation, things are added, too.

Ben Belitt, the brilliant poet and translator, who passed away about ten years ago, realized that you need to do something more than just empty the dolls and carry the water. You had to go to the original and experience the enigma of that original as for the first time. Belitt saw that there wasn’t just the original on the page, the spanish poem by Neruda, say, but the original that the poet, that Neruda himself, experienced as he was writing his spanish poem. Each translation was to be a tapping into the experience of the poet, and so each translation was a new poem, a new “story” as Peterson himself realizes, I think.

So Peterson, I conclude, errs not so much with his theory, but with his execution. I think he just doesn’t have the chops to bring the original experience into play. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be praised for the effort. But the readings from The Message that I’ve heard do not elevate my spirit, and they do not contain the Spirit. (See those verses from Galatians? They even leave out the Holy Spirit entirely.)

Any serious biblical reader will still need to study a variety of translations, using principally the NIV and NRSV (the latter was composed by the very best scholars attending to meaning and ease of understanding). Though the King James and NKJ versions are the very best for English literature they also happen to be the very worst for scholarly attention. Still, it helped form, along with Chaucer and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, the English language itself, so that is saying something.

One more word about The Message. There must be hundreds of different translations out there now. The Living Bible became very popular and gave rise to a number of versions that one suspects exist not so much for their perspicacious perspective on The Word, but for their sales figures. Is The Message just another way to line the pockets of the author, and his agent and publisher? I don’t know, but I suspect it is a factor. If The Message served to hook someone on to the Bible and some spiritual journey it would be a good thing; it might however make for a lazy man’s effort to forego the task of looking under the doll’s skirts, to continue my prior metaphor. In other words, if The Message is a beginning on a journey to more adult, more satisfying investigations then it is well worth plunking down a sawbuck or two for it. If it is merely the last effort to bring one into a dull, unsatisfying slog through some alien culture, then it is best to pass it by, since there simply isn’t enough meat there to sustain anyone for very long.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

What is reality?

What is reality
Joining religion to science


Quantum Gravity Research, based in Los Angeles, has created a video uploaded to YouTube here, that attempts to explain Emergence Theory. Emergence Theory is based on the idea that our reality has a foundation of a crystalline “language” of geometric shapes of which our 4-dimensional reality is but the shadow or projection. Time is thought of as illusory, at least they do not see it as a moving arrow into the future.  It is more likely to be like a block of the ultimate crystalline shape: no past, no future. More of a Now. QGR appears to me to think time is still something, something that influences the whole. Here is where I cannot agree, or cannot understand their view, which is to say that time is in flux, but not showing the normal arrow into the future. Yet science does not show the future influencing the past. QGR views reality as information, information as reality: and it is, further, a reality that needs consciousness to “read” it.


QGR does not come out and say it, but obviously God could be that consciousness. They postulate, though, that since theoretically speaking the universe can be itself conscious at some point in the future (though there is no real future, only our perceived future) this universe-consciousness could very well *be* God. Not how we think of God now, not Jehovah God, not Jesus God, but a Consciousness-God. It seems to tend toward the Eastern way of thinking of the Oneness of the Universe. The main tenet of Jesus, too, that of seeing yourself in one’s neighbor, can also be put forward as a link.
[The video also points toward a science that predicts the unity of the quantum world with that of the general relativity world, and in doing so predicts the constants of the universe, namely the speed of light and the golden mean.]


The path forward in science may well reach to religious aims: the experience of the universe and our role in it. We are conscious agents acting as “readers” of the language, influencing the universe by our reading, and being influenced in turn by other elements: all aspects of the universe in the end being of one consciousness, one God-Heaven. The common elements of all the major religions can be understood to be pointing in the same direction as science.