Friday, February 24, 2017

Is Slapstick Sinful?

Derived from a 2014 article in the E-Block.


Is slapstick comedy unbiblical or immoral? Is it a sin to laugh when Bugs Bunny blasts Elmer Fudd with his own shotgun? And more broadly, is it wrong to enjoy it when other people suffer, even if (we might say) they "deserve" it?

These seem like odd questions, but they were raised of late in the context of some of my YouTube videos, in which I freely make use of outrageous physical humor which resembles that found in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. And closer to home, my local ministry partner Carey and I have discussed the enjoyment of reality television programs like Survivor, in which contestants are frequently subjected to public humiliation. According to some, the sin here concerns what some term schadenfreude -- a German word that refers to pleasure felt at someone else's troubles. According to my YouTube critic, we enjoy seeing Elmer Fudd get shot because he is suffering.

To answer this point, I relied on my own (admittedly layman's) knowledge of the animation industry, and then discussed the matter with a longtime reader of Tekton who is a Hollywood insider with professional credentials in animation. The results of this are that the basis for our enjoyment of this form of humor, which I too have employed, is not the suffering of others but rather that it is comic precisely because it lacks suffering. But TV shows like American Idol do raise some serious questions for the Christian.

As we know from news stories, a real shotgun blast causes serious damage to flesh and bone. Elmer Fudd comes away from such a blast with nothing worse than torn clothes and gray skin. He does not cry out in pain, and nor does any blood spurt. The intrinsic immortality of cartoon performers, and their ability to walk away from such scenes and return in the next one fresh and unharmed (or at worst, encased in bandages that they can immediately shake off and come out of whole, like some sort of revivified Pharaoh!) are the true source of this type of humor.

Of course, there is a certain matter of degree involved here. "Slapstick," a related genre, can refer to Moe poking Curly in the eyes; but it also can refer to humor such as depicted in America's Funniest Home Videos, where the pain can be real. And, it is fair to say, that the lower the pain the greater the laughs. Under such circumstances, we are not laughing at misfortune, as schadenfreude would have it; rather, we are laughing at misfortune not ending up worse than it could have been, which really renders the laughter a sign of relief and not joy at pain.

What, then, is true schadenfreude? For an answer to this I picked up the highly recommended Joy of Pain by Richard Smith (Oxford University Press), which is regarded as a respectable and leading treatment of the topic. It comes as no surprise that Smith does not use either Stooge-like slapstick or cartoons as examples of schadenfreude -- except to the extent that certain cartoon characters (like members of the Simpson clan) engage it in their treatment of each other, but not in terms of what the audience experiences and not in terms of what would be regarded as unique to the cartoon genre. The classic examples of schadenfreude from television are rather to be found in programs like American Idol, as when a contestant falls flat on his face. And how would this tie in, if at all, to the sort of cartoonish antics used by Bugs Bunny or Popeye, and what does it say to the Christian about enjoying such things as that, or slapstick comedy, or even American Idol?

Misfortune or humiliation happening to others can make us feel superior, and lead to schadenfreude. This sort of experience may indeed be ripe for sin; however, it would rather strain credulity to suppose that anyone gains any sense of "superiority" from watching cartoon characters bash each other with mallets, or even the Three Stooges poking one another in the eyes. I would regard any such claim as a strained effort at psychology; and we would be told, by those who prefer to argue about it, that we are harboring "secret" schadenfreude and not realizing our doing so. At such points the matter becomes akin to history as written by Dan Brown: The conspiracy covered up the evidence, then covered itself up to make sure we wouldn't know what it did, so, it is little more than a begged question.

The bottom line is that it is difficult to argue that a person can feel "inferior" or "superior" to a fictional character. The most that could be said, perhaps, is that one imagines one's despised neighbor to be much like said character, and what we really want to feel superior to is the real-life person who has (whether in reality or not) the same traits. In other words, the fictional character becomes a proxy for schadenfreude, not it's true or actual object.

In contrast, it is quite possible for this experience to legitimately emerge on a showing of a program like American Idol, and encourage sinful thoughts. It is readily conceivable that one might envy, and feel inferior to, someone who performs well on the program, and then delight in their failure to perform at a critical moment. What this suggests, then, is that (as is often the case) it is not the object that is the problem, but the person who makes use of the object. It is akin to Paul's attempt to sort out the question of who should eat idol meat. If you watch American Idol to see people humiliated - you probably shouldn't watch it. (If you watch Popeye cartoons to see Bluto humiliated...there is probably something much deeper wrong with you than schadenfreude!)

Smith also refers to a "superiority theory" of humor, in which it is maintained that "humor has social comparison at its core." A related theory is that some things are funny because they make us feel superior.

Here again, it is impossible to dovetail our subject into the issue in any realistic way. Elmer Fudd, and Moe Howard, are not "safe" targets; they are phantom targets. They are not members of any group "disliked" by anyone. (Again, if someone thinks so, their problems are much more deep-rooted than anything we can discuss here.)

So then: Is there indeed anything in the Bible relevant to this emotion? No, not directly, but we do know that the Bible speaks of justice being a "joy to the righteous," (Prov. 21:15) and also says that those who rebuke the wicked will have delight (Prov. 24:24-25). This is probably as close as we will come to what we call schadenfreude in a good sense. (In contrast, the "bad" sort of schedenfreude might be covered by 1 Corinthians 13:6, which warns us to not rejoice in iniquity.)

How then does, or can, this relate to our subject at hand - fiction? Again, I would say only in a vicarious sense, at best. A bad guy like Yosemite Sam, we may say, gets what he deserves when his own rifle goes off in his face, but these are not only phantom targets, they are phantom injustices. At most, these gags may remind us that we would like to see justice done in real life.

This is especially the case because, as Smith points out, this sort of schadenfreude emerges most often when our target is convicted of hypocrisy, as was the case with Jimmy Swaggart. Yosemite Sam is a roughneck, but he is not a hypocrite: He doesn't condemn others who shoot varmints! It is also at its height when the subject is someone evil, as is the case with the reality TV program To Catch a Predator. Yosemite Sam is a "bad guy," sure, but it would be excessive in the extreme to apply the term "evil" to him.

We will close this examination with a comment from my friend in the animation industry. As a response to the criticisms I encountered from the objector I referred to above, he told me about one of the older (black and white!) Popeye cartoons which seemed to be a response to those who thought that the point of cartoon violence was to enjoy schadenfreude. The title of the episode was It's the Natural Thing to Do, and it begins with viewers of the cartoon requesting by telegram that the characters stop fighting and act more refined. The bulk of the story thereafter shows the threesome of Popeye, Olive, and Bluto clumsily trying to act more "refined" by wearing tuxedos, engaging in small talk, and consuming sophisticated appetizers. The threesome end up bored and unable to cope with refined behavior, and Popeye and Bluto quickly return to fighting each other...and enjoying such behavior. It can hardly be said that we could take pleasure in this sort of "pain"!

The pleasure in this genre, then, cannot come from schadenfreude, least of all from what Smith describes as its "dark" side; rather, it comes from absurdity, and from reversal of expectations, and surprise. As noted, it is certainly possible that someone uses the sufferings of a character like Daffy Duck as a proxy for their desire for someone they know, who is like Daffy, to suffer ("He sure reminds me of my boss"), but this is clearly a case of an innocent surrogate taking the blame for the guilty party. There is nothing sinful about laughing at gross physical comedy.


Friday, February 17, 2017

The Washington Monument Conspiracy

It's been three years since I put out m ebook Jesus Was a Mushroom and Other Lies You Won't Believe. To celebrate the anniversary, and the fact that we have a President now who thinks Alex Jones is a great guy, here's a bit of the ebook on the Washington Monument.
This one would have to be a second favorite of the conspiracy theorists. It stands right at the axes of the nation’s capital (Michael Bednar, L’Enfan’t’s Legacy), so it serves the very purpose we’ve said an obelisk is supposed to serve. If that’s the case, why read more into it?
The first thing that makes the conspiracy theorists suspicious is that the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid by Benjamin French, who was a Freemason. Well, it’s true that he was, as confirmed even by the National Park Service.  But so what? That’s only a problem if you assume the Masons are up to no good. But as we’ll see later in this book, there’s no reason to think they are.
Second, it might be pointed out that a lot of Masonic lodges contributed to the building of the Washington Monument, and left memorial stones in it. Well, it’s true that some lodges did this, about 24 of them, but that’s out of a total of 193 memorial stones, which means Masons have contributed only about 12% of the stones. That’s not very impressive for a vast conspiracy, especially when you also had a lot of stones contributed by groups like, "The International Order of Odd Fellows."
The third thing that gets these guys upset are the measurements of the Washington Monument. For them, these numbers add up to bad news:
“At the ground level, each side of the Washington Monument measures 55.5 feet, which is 666 inches.”
The math is right, but the measurement isn’t. It’s actually 55 feet, one and a half inches, which makes it 661 ½ inches. Maybe instead of the Mark of the Beast, it can be the neighbor of the beast!
“The height of the Washington Monument is 555.5 feet which is 6,666 inches.”
Again, the math is right, but the measurement is wrong. Or maybe it isn’t. The thing is that there has been more than one report of the height. According to the National Park Service, the Monument's height has been variably reported between 555.43 feet and 555.75 feet. Maybe the Washington Monument is only the Mark of the Beast on the weekends!
Now, someone might say, “OK, but that’s so close on both counts, someone was obviously up to something.” Really? Like what? Here are a few things to consider.
First, there’s a good deal of the Monument that’s below ground, which makes the actual height of the structure more like 592 feet. Second, we have to ask: What do conspiracy theorists think anyone was trying to accomplish by matching up the height to the number of the beast? Do they think people will want to worship the beast because of it? Is this supposed to be some kind of subliminal advertising for Satan? Do you know anyone who’s converted to Satanism because of these measurements? I sure don’t!
Some of these guys tell us that the numbers convey a message to the initiated about the importance of America in the plan of some New World Order. Well, can I ask a really dumb question? Why would the “initiated” need the Washington Monument to get this information? Can’t they just tell each other verbally, or with secret signs? Or, how about just talking in a corner somewhere? They obviously have to do something like that to tell each other what these numbers mean in the first place. So why bother spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction costs towards engineering a giant obelisk to relate the same message? Or, is this some kind of weird, childish, "ha ha we know something you don’t know" game the “initiated” are playing with the rest of us?
If that’s what it is, I’d say let the conspiracy run its course. The "initiated" are so dumb that they’ll likely all soon die in some sort of freak accident involving a calculator.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Deconversion Biography Genre

I posted a vid on my TektonTV channel today that illustrates one of my favorite themes, which is  that some things never change.

I've probably read a couple of couple of dozen "deconversion biographies" by people like John Loftus, Gary Lenaire, Valerie Tarico, and so on. I even wrote about the genre for the Christian Research Journal. It doesn't matter who writes them, they're always the same story in different words. As Nick says in the vid, "They're SOOOOO formulaic!"

Sure, some of that has to do with the natural chronology of a person's life. But when you have so many of these pretending to have claimed the high ground, it's just an annoyance, not a truism. E.g., Gary Lenaire calling his book a "eye opener" when it's filled with garbage like, "The Council of Nicaea voted  on the New Testament in 324 AD."

Despite his hot air, John Loftus, the dean of the genre, isn't any better. He's still using arguments that earned him a laugh track on TheologyWeb back in 2006 or so before I caught him with that "fake blog trick." (Don't know that story? Maybe I'll write a blog entry about it.)

Frankly, you could switch the covers on these in the bookstore and I doubt anyone would know the difference. Which is funny, because I'm sure they say that about "conversion" stories.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Size 42

The story of Elisha and the two bears, as I call it, tells us that the prophet Elisha is set upon by 42 youths. I've written plenty about the moral and historical issues in this story, but while reading Joel Burnett's new book The Absence of God, I came across a more developed form of an argument I've dealt with before and that concerns the use of the number 42.

Some time ago an atheist had argued that the number "42" was somehow symbolic, and that this made the account historically suspect. I noted that the atheist provided insufficient data to show that the number 42 was used in symbolic ways. Burnett does a much better job than the atheist in providing data, but his applications are rather questionable.

Burnett provides the following instances of 42 as "a number representing divine blessing or curse":

  • Psalms 42-83 is a collection of 42 Psalms, the "Elohistic Psalter."
  • In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the dead stand for judgment before 42 deities who dispense either blessing or punishment. They judge based on 42 deeds.
  • In Numbers 22-23, Balaam performs a total of 42 sacrifices to invoke a divine verdict.
  • Within the Bible, apart from 2 Kings, Burnett cites examples of 42 as significant of "divinely ordained disaster" in Judges 12:6, 2 Kings 10:14, 2 Chr. 22:2, Dan. 7:25 and 12:7, Luke 4:25, James 5:17, and Rev. 11:2-3, 12:6, 13:1-6.
  • Finally, several Mesopotamian hymn collections have 42 (or sometimes 21) hymns.
  • Initially, we may note that even if all of this is granted, and even if the number 42 was chosen to represent those youths who attacked Elisha, this would not prove that the entire story was ahistorical. Ancient historians were quite adept at inserting symbolic forms into otherwise historical narratives. If the number of youths harmed was anywhere close to 42 (less or more), then it is certainly of no moment for the author of Kings to have used 42 to transmit a symbolic message.

    With that said, does the evidence indeed suggest that 42 functioned here in a symbolic fashion? The answer is, not really. Burnett's examples are certainly correct, to the extent that they used the number 42 in some way. But he has also biased the conclusion in a way that is similar to that of imitation theorists like Dennis MacDonald and Acharya S. i.e., by choosing his own words and his own description ("representing divine blessing or curse") he has biased the results. Let's start with the Scripture citations.

    For example, Judges 12:6 tells of how 42,000 Ephraimites were killed in war when they failed to say a password correctly. A form of 42 is used, to be sure, but where is the "divine blessing or curse?" There is no sign in the text that the deaths are part of some divine curse. Here also, Burnett has biased the outcome by using the word "curse" as a descriptor for any undesirable fate. Finally, if the number 42 is meant to be symbolic here, we have to ask why we also have examples of numbers of people killed in battle that are not a variant of 42.

    2 Kings 10:14 is in fact such an example, of 42 people killed by Jehu. This is a little closer to being able to be a divine curse in action, to the extent that Jehu was commissioned by God's prophet to do his work. But these are nevertheless only seen as deaths in battle. There is no sign of a "divine curse."

    2 Chr. 22:2 probably does not even belong. It lists the age of Azariah, and some manuscripts say 22. This is paralleled in Kings as the age of Ahaziah, along with some Septuagint manuscripts of Chronicles. It is also open to question how one's age is a curse, or how this passage represents a divine curse (or blessing).

    The two verses from Daniel seem puzzling as an inclusion, since they do not seem, at first glance, to reference the number 42 at all, but instead, to "time, times, and half a time." Actually, the 42 is hidden; this refers to 42 months of time. The passages in Revelation echo Daniel, so they should not be counted separately in statistical terms. It is also a question of how these represent "blessing" or "curse." The 42 months here is an interruption of sorts, which seems to be followed by divine judgment. Perhaps that could be argued to be either a blessing or curse.

    Luke 4:25 is also obscured. It does not use 42 directly but refers to three years and six months, which equals 42 months, as the time during which Elijah stopped rain from falling. This is arguably the best example so far of what Burnett claims to provide. It is echoed by James, which therefore should not be counted statistically.

    Erasing duplicates and the likely erroneous case of Azariah, we are left with four total Biblical references to 42. Of these, only two seem to strictly qualify as referring to a "divine blessing or curse." And the case of Elisha, indeed, may only marginally be argued to join those two references to make a third: Elisha does issue a curse, which has some sort of effect towards 42 victims. But now break down each use, including those outside the Bible:

  • Three uses of 42 refer to numbers of people killed. Only one references a curse.
  • Two uses of 42 refer to a period of 42 months, after which judgment (a curse?) takes place.
  • Two or more uses of 42 number collections of books - which record judgments (which may be blessings or curses?).
  • One use of 42 refers to a number of sacrifices.
  • So, as it happens, only one incident - that of Elisha - precisely fits Burnett's description. Four more might be massaged to fit. Three simply do not fit. This means that statistically, Burnet's conclusion is insufficiently justified.

    Being fair, it may be argued less precisely that 42 is used in contexts of judgment; however, this creates another problem. We would need, in order to validate a statistical conclusion, to show that e.g., 42 appears an unusual number of times in reports of sacrifices. In other words, are there also reports of 37 sacrifices, or 15, or 13? Is there an established pattern, sufficient to show that the incidences of 42 are not merely coincidence?

    In conclusion, I would have to say that Burnett's conclusions about the use of 42 require further statistical validation in order to be jusitified.

    Friday, January 27, 2017

    Where's Semiramis?

    This is a chapter from an ebook I did which included a look at the works of Alexander Hislop -- the Christian version of Acharya S. Sadly, even Christian leaders as prominent as John MacArthur fall for this kind of stuff.


    Who can forget those "Where's Waldo?" books, where you had to strain your eyes while scanning a giant cartoon picture looking for that one guy with the glasses, the striped shirt and the funny hat? If you were good at finding Waldo, you might also be good at finding Semiramis. She isn't in the Bible. She's also not in the works of the Jewish historian Josephus. So, we have to ask ourselves a question. Alexander Hislop says that Semiramis is pretty important as the wife of Nimrod, and co-founder of the Babylonian mysteries. But how can this be the case about someone who isn't even found in the Bible?

    Let's start this round with a look at the history of Semiramis in the real world. The most complete and detailed history of Semiramis is found in the work of Diodorus, an author of the 1st century BC. In his Bibliotheca Historica, Diodorus says that Semiramis was born at Ashkelon, to her mother, the goddess Derceto, and her father was an anonymous young man, who was doing a sacrifice to Derceto. Apparently, Derceto wasn't much for the romance. Ashamed, she killed the young man and abandoned the child, leaving her to be taken care of by doves. Eventually, the child was adopted by the head of the royal sheepfolds, Simma, who named her Semiramis, which is a variant on the word for "dove."
    Semiramis became a very beautiful girl, and the Assyrian governor of Syria, Onnes, fell in love with her and asked for her hand. He took her to Nineveh, where they had two children, Hypatus and Hydaspus. Later on, Onnes was called to military duty, and after he went away, he sent for Semiramis to join him. As it turns out, though, Semiramis had a hidden talent for military tactics: She used a ruse to help defeat the city they were besieging.

    Thanks to all the fame that came of this coup, the Assyrian king, Ninus, rewarded her and also fell in love with her. As kings were wont to do, he first asked for her hand in marriage and then threatened to take her from Onnes if he didn't comply. Not being able to handle the stress, Onnes hanged himself, leaving Ninus to marry her. (Based on our last chapter, you can now begin guessing how and why Hislop connects Nimrod to Semiramis.)

    Eventually, the couple had a son they named Ninyas. After Ninus died, he left Semiramis as queen, and from there, she went on to have a successful career founding Babylon. During her reign, she toured her kingdom and she created all sorts of wonderful parks and public works. She never remarried, but did give certain favors to handsome men in her army, who she showed her gratitude towards by making them disappear.

    For her last great act, Semiramis raised a huge army of 3 million men and went after the natives of India, who ended up sending her back home defeated, with wounds in her arm and back. At that point, Ninyas plotted against her, but by this time, she was 62 years old and pretty tired, so she handed the reins of power over, and disappeared.

    This won't sound a great deal like what Hislop has to say about Semiramis. The biggest problem, though, is the assigned date for Semiramis by scholars. She's supposed to have been around somewhere between the 9th and 7th century BC. That means that she's over a thousand years after the time when Nimrod lived, if we take Biblical chronology strictly.

    Part of Hislop's confusion comes from the story of Semiramis founding Babylon, while Nimrod founded Babel. As we explained in the last chapter, although the two cities are related, they are not exactly the same. The city has undergone more than one renaissance in its history, and Hislop merely assumed that there was just one possible "founding" event - and that is one reason why he incorrectly put Nimrod and Semiramis together as contemporaries.

    Historically, Semiramis is probably to be identified with Sammuramat, who was known from an inscription to be a queen from 823-811 BC, during the reign of a king named Shasmshi-Adad V. She was a regent for approximately four years, as is confirmed by the Babylonian 3rd century BC historian/priest Berosus, who interrupts his Babylonian King list to refer to "government of Semiramis in Assyria."

    This equation does leave some aspects of her legend unexplained, like her alleged founding of Babylon. There are also some other testimonies about her that seem contradictory; however, all agree that she didn't live at the same time as Nimrod. [1]

    [1] For more on Semiramis, see an essay by Georges Roux, "Semiramis: The Builder of Babylon, in Jean Botterfo, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Johns Hopkins University, 1992, pages 141-61)."

    What would Hislop offer in response to this, in order to foist Semiramis into the time of Nimrod? Again, we won't be able to address every single point Hislop makes, but we can address a good number of them, sufficiently to show that he cannot be taken seriously.

    Eusebius. Hislop initially notes three sources about Semiramis: Ammianus Marcellinus, Books 14 and 23; Justinus, Historia, Book 1; and the Chronicle of Eusebius.

    Ammianus' reference in Book 14 doesn't even mention Semiramis. It only mentions Ninus:

    And first after Osdroene, which, as has been said, I have omitted from this account, Commagene, now called Euphratensis, gradually lifts itself into eminence; it is famous for the great cities of Hierapolis, the ancient Ninus, and Samosata.

    Book 23 does reference Semiramis, and says:

    In this Adiabena is the city of Ninus, which once possessed the rule over Persia, perpetuating the name of Ninus, once a most powerful king and the husband of Semiramis; also Ecbatana, Arbela, and Gaugamela, where Alexander, after various other battles, overthrew Darius in a hot contest.

    Neither of these, though, does anything to advance Hislop's case to early date Semiramis.

    The reference in Justinus offers much of the information we related above, including Semiramis as founder of Babylon. As noted, Hislop confuses Babel and Babylon, so this does not aid his case.

    The last reference, in Eusebius, Hislop considers prime evidence, for he says that Eusebius had Ninus and Semiramis reigning in the time of Abraham. This turns out to be true, but there isn't much useful about it:

    Year one of Abraham. He was the first patriarch of the Jewish people. During his time Ninus and Semiramis ruled over Assyria and all of Asia.

    Once again, though, we're hard pressed to see why Eusebius, writing some 1000 to 2000 years after the fact, is to be taken as correct over the evidence that has been gathered by historians indicating a different chronology. And, even more problematic for Hislop is that Eusebius disagrees with Hislop on certain other issues as well. Contrary to Hislop, Eusebius identifies Asshur as a person (see prior chapter). He also clearly does not regard Ninus as the same person as Nimrod, and doesn't think Ninus/Nimrod was chopped into pieces by Semiramis (i.e., Eusebius says: "Semiramis buried Ninus' body in the palace").
    A secondary problem is that Eusebius isn't here testifying to what he thinks is actual history. In the Chronicle, Eusebius was collecting and reporting varying chronologies from different sources.

    Beyond this, Hislop found himself compelled to address an authority in his own time and who dated Semiramis to a later age. Hislop's reply is instructive:

    Sir H. Rawlinson having found evidence at Nineveh, of the existence of a Semiramis about six or seven centuries before the Christian era, seems inclined to regard her as the only Semiramis that ever existed. But this is subversive of all history. The fact that there was a Semiramis in the primeval ages of the world, is beyond all doubt, although some of the exploits of the latter queen have evidently been attributed to her predecessor.

    In other words, Hislop is compelled to invent a second Semiramis to accommodate his thesis, and then, to accommodate his thesis yet further, speculates that the deeds of the earlier one have been attributed to the later one! The reality is that there is no evidence of an earlier Semiramis - save in the writings of authors like Eusebius who were in no position to confirm the chronology. Once again, Hislop merely picks and chooses what he wants to believe ignoring the rest.

    Today, Rawlinson's view is the standard among scholars, and is also decisively in accord with the evidence. We're also compelled to ask, if we use Hislop's rules of evidence, why Berosus is to believed over Eusebius, when he was much closer to the time in question than Eusebius. That doesn't mean Berosus is automatically right - but it does put a burden on those who support Hislop's theories to give an explanation.

    God of fortifications. To further connect Semiramis to Nimrod, Hislop appeals to Daniel 11:38, which refers to a "god of fortifications." But it's not really that "god" with whom Hislop is concerned just yet. He rather uses the reference to segue into a "goddess of fortifications," whom he identifies as Cybele, because she "is universally represented with a mural or turreted crown, or with a fortification, on her head." This much is true as Cybele's crown looked like a city wall, but what does this have to do with Semiramis?

    Hislop quotes the Roman poet Ovid as saying that Semiramis, as first queen of Babylon, "surrounded Babylon with a wall of brick." This is not exactly true. The line from Ovid says:

    In Babylon, where first her queen, for state, Rais'd walls of brick magnificently great...

    Semiramis is not specifically named, but, since other writers of Ovid' s day regarded her as the first queen of Babylon, that is probably who is in mind. At any rate, Hislop completes the equation by saying that Cybele wore a crown that looked like walled towers because "she first erected them in cities." From this he concludes that Semiramis must also be Cybele, since Babylon was the first city in the world after the Noahic flood that "had towers and encompassing walls"!

    The problem here is that we just don't know if or when Babel had walls. We also don't know for sure what city was the first to have them, though we have a relatively high degree of certainty that Jericho was the first walled city (Cambridge History of Warfare, Geoffrey Parker, 414). Babylon did have walls as well, but it is not regarded as a contender for "first walled city."
    Hislop also has another problem as he must admit that another ancient historian, Megasthenes, reported that it was a "Belus" who built the walls of Babylon. Here is what Megasthenes reports:

    It is said that from the beginning all things were water, called the sea: that Belus caused this state of things to cease, and appointed to each its proper place: and he surrounded Babylon with a wall: but in process of time this wall disappeared...

    As you may guess from the context, "Belus" was a Babylonian creator-deity. But Hislop doesn't report this; in fact, he misrepresents what the text says of Belus:

    As "Bel," the Confounder, who began the city and tower of Babel, had to leave both unfinished, this could not refer to him. It could refer only to his

    So Hislop has "solved" his historical problem by conveniently rolling yet another identity into Nimrod - namely, Belus! It doesn't matter to Hislop that Megasthenes doesn't say Belus didn't finish the wall (indeed, his words imply that Belus did finish it). Instead, Hislop covers all his bases by making Nimrod responsible for starting the walls of Babylon, and Semiramis responsible for finishing them! And so, in turn, Hislop also claims that Daniel's "god of fortifications" is none other thanĂ¢€¦you guessed it -- also Nimrod.

    Like a Virgin? As noted, one of Hislop's goals was to rebut Catholicism, and to this end he found another use for Semiramis:

    As time wore away, and the facts of Semiramis' history became obscured, her son's birth was boldly declared to be miraculous: and therefore she was called "Alma Mater, the Virgin Mother."

    The object here, of course, was to imply that this pagan accounting was a source for Catholicism. Not that this would work even if it were true: Hislop himself would hardly deny that Mary was a virgin even when she was the mother of Jesus. Unfortunately, Hislop was so excited about this proposition that he neglected to provide documentation that Semiramis ever was called a "virgin mother." He also does nothing to keep from undermining his own (quote Protestant) belief in the virgin birth, using the same arguments.

    Even more poorly documented is this argument:

    The dove, the chosen symbol of this deified queen, is commonly represented with an olive branch in her mouth, as she herself in her human form also is seen bearing the olive branch in her hand; and from this form of representing her, it is highly probable that she has derived the name by which she is commonly known, for "Z'emir-amit" means "The branch-bearer." (From Ze, "the" or "that," emir, "branch," and amit, "bearer," in the feminine.)

    As we noted above, though, "Semiramis" means dove, not "branch bearer." But once again, Hislop has a -- connect the dots explanation: Noah's wild dove (or pigeon) carried a branch back to the ark, and that is how we also turn "Semiramis" into "branch bearer"! Nor can he produce any record of "Z'Emir-amit" as a historical person rather than as a fanciful linguistic construction.

    In short, Hislop's treatment of Semiramis, like his treatment of Nimrod, is more fantasy than fact.

    Friday, January 20, 2017

    Defining Hitler Into Christianity

    This is a reprint of the last chapter of my ebook Hitler's Christianity. In it I address claims that in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, Hitler should still be reckoned a Christian because...well, because!!


    In spite of all the information we have presented in this volume, and the twisted nature of Hitler's Positive Christian beliefs, and of the Nazi persecution of mainstream churches, and in spite of the attempted destruction of European Jewry, there are critics who will nevertheless insist that this is insufficient to disqualify Hitler (or any Nazi figure) as a Christian. We will now consider a collection of objections designed to argue this point, although ineffectively.

    The Self-Profession Argument

    The first objection has been formulated by one online atheist source as follows:

    The basic problem (for religious folks) is that Hitler said he was a Christian, and God apparently didn't feel the need to disagree in public.

    We may disregard the rather childish supposition that God is in some way obliged to think on our behalf, and save us the trouble of critical discernment when it comes to the religious professions of others. The key argument in this statement is that: Hitler was a Christian, because he said he was one. In the same way, referring to theologians like Kittel who accepted Nazi doctrine, Ericksen says: "Their self-definition as believing Christians cannot be doubted." He notes other signals of their religious allegiance: A professed personal meeting with Christ; being asked to preach; practicing piety, and regular Bible reading and prayer. [1]

    A more sophisticated variation of this argument can be found even in the otherwise excellent historical work of Steigmann-Gall, who points out that "many Christians of the day believed Nazism to be in some sense a Christian movement." He further states that "only false-consciousness theory allows us to contend that millions of sincere Christians could create a non-Christian movement." And, finally, he adds that proponents of Positive Christianity "maintained that their anti-Semitism and socialism were derived from a Christian understanding of Germany's ills and their cure." [2] Though written in more formal terms, the argument is little different in substance than that of the former atheist website; namely, a self-profession and self-conception is sufficient to objectively classify one's self as a Christian.

    We may immediately note that this argument sets a rather low bar of evidence for how one may be defined as a Christian. If simple self-profession and self-conception is all that is required to define one's personal identity, without any reference to objective criteria, then there is little to stop even a hardened atheist from referring to themselves as a Christian.

    This is not so outlandish a proposition as one might suppose. Among the wide variety of movements on the market today is one that terms itself "Christian atheism." The sum of this view is that, while Jesus is not God, and God does not exist, the moral teachings of Jesus are superior and ought to be followed.
    The designation of "Christian atheism" leads to a salient point. As we have noted in prior chapters, cults or deviant movements are frequently posed as, "Christianity plus," or, perhaps "Christianity minus," with the implication that the differences make the variation purer than, or superior to, mainstream Christianity. Can we accept that when a person or group adds a term (or beliefs) to differentiate themselves from another group, that this might place them outside the defining bounds of that other group?

    Indeed, the extra designation exposes a key problem with the "self-profession" argument. The critic is intent upon resting in the broad definition of "Christian" as defining a group or body of persons which would include Hitler. One critic put it this way: "A Christian is simply a person who believes in God and Jesus in some form or manner." Needless to say, such a broad designation is difficult to defend. [3]

    But let us grant for the sake of argument that Hitler and his associates added the designation "Positive," to define themselves separately from other persons designated as "Christian." The critic argues that Hitler was a Christian in order to suggest that persons in the category of "Christian" are somehow immoral, dangerous, or could be responsible for the sort of evils Hitler perpetrated. But why then use the broader designation of "Christian" rather than the more specific designation of, "Positive Christian?" Why not say, as we all will agree, that it is "Positive Christianity" specifically that leads to immorality in its adherents?

    The "Variety of Christianity" Argument

    The above offers a segue into the second form of objection, which is that Hitler's Positive Christianity was simply another "variety" of Christianity. One atheist critic put it this way:

    There can be little doubt that Hitler was a Christian. You really don't get to disqualify Hitler's beliefs just because you believe a different version.

    And, yet another atheist critic said:

    The trouble is, there are thousands and thousands of different groups out there and they all claim to be Christians. Isn't it just a little bit arrogant to say that a Jehovah's Witness, a Mormon or a Roman Catholic is not a true Christian, especially since they might well say the same about you? Since as far as I can see there is no way of being able to decide who is and who is not a Christian Adolf Hitler's claim to be one is as good as yours.

    Steigmann-Gall again provides a more sophisticated form of the argument: "[T]he Nazis represented a departure from previous Christian practices. However, this did not make them un-Christian." [4]

    As with the first objection, however, the critic is refusing to consider objective criteria, and is instead making an emotional appeal to the sensitivities of those who are designated as not Christian. It is at this stage that we must now show that objective criteria are the only basis whereby a person's religious identity can rightly, and must be defined. To illustrate this, I have created what I term the Patriot Analogy.

    As one may ask, "Who is really a Christian?" it is also possible to ask "Who is a loyal, patriotic American?" (Of course, the reader may substitute any national or political designation for "American.") Would it be someone who:
  • Displays a flag?
  • Is willing to join the military (or other organization) to serve the country? Or, to serve the country in other ways outside an organization?
  • Knows the contents of the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence?
  • Knows the laws of America? Arguably, these are all things (though not the only things) one can or must do to be called a Patriot. Yet of course, the absence of these things does not cause us to say someone is not a Patriot. At a minimum we suggest they must love their country. Yet if they do none of these things, or are unwilling to do them, or refuse to do them, what do we say? Is it evident that they do love their country as they profess? They may be:
  • A real patriot, but not an active one; or,
  • A patriot who takes issue with some of the claims of the country upon them, but still loves the country and adheres to the core values of the nation; or,
  • A "wolf in sheep's clothing" pretending to be a Patriot, for whatever reason (i.e., like friendship, etc.) By now one can guess that this is analogical to the question, "Who is a true Christian?" Let's rework some of the questions above. Who qualifies as a real Christian? Someone who:
  • Displays a cross or a Christian T-shirt?
  • Is willing to join the church (or other organization) to serve the body of Christ? Or, to serve the body in other ways outside an organization?
  • Knows the contents of the Bible?
  • Follows the precepts of the Bible? Arguably, these are all things (though not the only things) one can or must do to rightly be called a Christian. So in light of the above, does the absence of these things not cause us to say someone is not a Christian?
  • At a minimum we suggest they must love God, and Jesus. Yet if they do none of these things, or are unwilling to do them, or refuse to do them, what do we say? Is it evident that they do love their God as they profess? They may be:
  • A real Christian, but not an active one; or,
  • A Christian who rejects some part of the Bible's teachings, but still adheres to the core principles of the faith; or,
  • A "wolf in sheep's clothing" pretending to be a Christian, for whatever reason (i.e., like friendship, etc.) Of course, there is another issue: What about someone who is a member of a cultic group (like the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses) who qualifies on all counts for the list above? In that case, the question turns not just upon, for example, whether they follow the Bible, but it also follows upon whether they do so accurately. Ericksen pointed out that professed Christians as Kittel performed actions in accord with that profession (e.g., Bible reading and prayer). This adds a step to the argument, but is no more definitive. These actions are expressions of devotion to a specific doctrine, but if the doctrine is a false one, those actions may as well be directed to a brick wall.

  • If someone claimed adherence to the Constitution, but professed to somehow read out of it a model for a dictatorship (!), wouldn’t we rightly wonder of their ability to be defined as a “patriotic American?" Certainly, the more selective a person is with beliefs, the less likely it is that they can satisfy the definition of "patriot" to a given cause.

    Now, let us turn this back to the issue of Hitler's religious beliefs. Is it really impossible to wedge Hitler or anyone else into the fold at our convenience, just because they say "I am a Christian?" To do so, one must show that Hitler was at the very least loyal to Christian principles, otherwise, the claim is unreasonable. To illustrate the folly of the critics, can you imagine a conversation like this being seriously pursued?
  • Skeptic: "Osama bin Laden is a patriotic American!"
  • Christian: "What?"
  • Skeptic: "He said in one of his own speeches he was!"
  • Christian: "Anyone can call themselves a patriotic American, but that doesn't make them one."
  • Skeptic: "Oh yeah? How can you judge who is a patriotic American?" Of course, it is always possible that some flag-waving, Bill-of-Rights-quoting person out there is really some sort of false patriot, a terrorist in disguise plotting to blow up something, but we recognize that such people are the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, consider the absurdity of designating, as an American patriot, someone who, in parallel to the major deviations of Positive Christianity:
  • Declares that we should ignore half of the Constitution, including more than half of the Amendments;
  • Claims that George Washington was actually a Communist;
  • Believes that we should ignore the nation's laws and just concentrate on activities like having Fourth of July picnics. How much credence would we give to someone who advertised this as “Positive Patriotism?”

  • There is one final point, which shows that this objection can also backfire. One frequent argument of Christian apologists is that Hitler was inspired by the teachings of Darwinism. We will not here pursue the accuracy of that claim, but it is rather instructive to consider one Skeptic's response to this argument:

    ...what reached Germany was not the English version of Origin of Species, it was a translation by German paleontologist Heinrich Georg Bronn that was a main source of German notions of Darwinian evolution, and those notions were a distortion of Darwin’s views. Bronn had a substantially different conception of evolution than Darwin, and Bronn’s translation apparently incorporated a good bit of his own conception rather than being a straight translation of Darwin. Bronn even added an extra chapter to OoS to incorporate his own ideas. [5]

    Using the same logic of critics, however, can we not say that Bronn's "distortions" are merely another "variety" of Darwinian teachings? The critics who use the "variety of Christianity" argument end up cutting off their nose to spite their face.

    The Flattened Criteria Argument

    Once a critic is compelled to consider objective criteria as a way to define who is a Christian, an attempt may be made to flatten the criteria by classifying Hitler's Positive Christianity variation as somehow comparable to the mainstream. In this regard, the critical issue is whether the key variations of Positive Christianity -- a bowdlerized canon, a dejudaized Jesus, and a hypertrophied orthopraxy -- are sufficient to divorce it from mainstream, orthodox Christianity. The matter is somewhat tendentiously summed up by one critic as follows:

    Hitler was no more anti-Christian than your run-of-the-mill Protestant bigot. His Christianity was odd, surely, but so is that of many die-hard believers today.

    Concerning the canon of Positive Christianity, Steigmann-Gall, though he admits that Hitler's conception of Christianity "contained a good deal that was far from orthodox," [6] says that the criterion of canonicity "do[es] not constitute a reliable gauge, as others whose Christian credentials are undisputed would similarly fail to pass." [7] Unfortunately, Steigmann-Gall does not say to whom he refers in this context, only vaguely saying that “the rejection of the Old Testament in fact found expression within bona fide varieties of Protestantism." [8] But what were the "bona fide varieties?" Steigmann-Gall does not explain, so no answer can be directly made. Why would it not be argued in reply that the "varieties" Steigmann-Gall has in mind are not "bona fide" at all? And why would this not especially be the case for Positive Christianity followers, whose radical surgery on the canon involved discarding some 80 to 90 percent of it?

    What about the doctrine of a dejudaized Jesus? As we noted earlier, one critic has pointed out that the Aryan Jesus of Positive Christianity has parallels in mainstream views that depict Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon. But this is an inapt comparison. Mainstream depictions of Jesus in this fashion come of a mistaken idea that all Jews of the first century were white Anglo-Saxons. In other words, it is not the result of an active racism, as was the case with Positive Christianity, but rather, the result of simple ignorance. At the same time, if we ignore questions of Jesus' fundamental identity, and say that someone who "follows Jesus" counts as a Christian, we are left to admit into the Christian fold all manner of outlandish deviations. As noted earlier in this volume, one of my "favorite" books as an apologist is titled The Elvis-Jesus Mystery, by Cinda Godfrey. This amazing volume declares that Elvis Presley was the Messiah, and as the title indicates, makes a direct connection between the fundamental identities of Elvis and Jesus. If we follow the logic of such types of critics to its proper conclusion, even Godfrey must be admitted to be a Christian!

    It is true that even early Christianity was subject to a certain amount of diversity. Nevertheless, it must also be apparent that diversity has its limits. Critics naturally have no desire to place limits on the acceptable limit of diversity within Christianity, but if they fail to do so, they risk making the definition of "Christian" so broad that it has no meaning at all.

    Steigmann-Gall writes, "By detaching Christianity from the crimes of its adherents, we create a Christianity above history, a Christianity whose teachings need not ultimately be investigated. Seen in this light, those who have committed such acts must have misunderstood Christianity, or worse yet purposefully misused it for their own ends. 'Real Christians' do not commit such crimes." [9] But this is not a matter of detaching Christianity from the crimes of its adherents. This is a matter of whether, indeed, the alleged adherents have, in fact, misunderstood, distorted or misrepresented Christianity, according to a set of objective criteria, and not their crimes. In the final analysis, the critics simply do not do enough analysis to answer this question.

    [1] Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler, 39.
    [2] Steigmann-Gall, Holy Reich, 5, 6, 10.
    [3] A distinction should be made, though, between defining "Christian" in historical and theological terms, and defining it in strictly anthropological terms. Social scientists with no concern for theology may define a wide variety of groups as "Christian" using the same broad definition as the critic, with no intention to besmirch the Christian belief. Of course, the critic may try to shift the goalposts by arguing that Hitler was anthropologically a Christian, when whether he was theologically a Christian is far more meaningful in terms of their argumentative goals.
    [4] Steigmann-Gall, Holy Reich, 262.
    [5] Accessed August 10, 2013.
    [6] Steigmann-Gall, Holy Reich, 37.
    [7] Ibid., 6.
    [8] Ibid., 11.
    [9] Ibid., 267.

    Friday, January 6, 2017

    Is Inerrancy a Heresy? Part 2

    For Part 2 of our look at Rodger Cragun's The Ultimate Heresy (TUH), which claims that the doctrine of inerrancy is heretical, we first look at examples in which he supposes he has shown that what is found in the text is incompatible with inerrancy. As we have noted last time, however, while what Cragun presents would cause problems for a hyper-fundamentalist view of inerrancy, it would have little bearing on a contextualized understanding of the doctrine. He also presents far fewer arguments than I expected him to provide -- in fact, what he offers amounts to three broad arguments:

  • Jesus broadened or sometimes placed restrictions on the law. This shows that he didn't consider it inerrant. Cragun offers multiple examples of how Jesus either broadened or narrowed the OT law, but Cragun could have saved himself the trouble, and spared the reader pages of irrelevant examples. As we have noted in numerous contexts, the OT law was didactic, which means that it was never meant to be understood as a wooden, "follow to the letter", procedural handbook. Within that context, the adjustments made by Jesus (and rabbis, as Cragun notes) to the OT law are within the proper bounds of understanding that law as inerrant.

  • That Cragun fails to understand the didactic nature of the law is shown when he complains that, e.g., Deut. 22:13-22 does not consider that an unmarried girl might have a ruptured hymen for reasons other than that she had sexual intercourse before marriage. A didactic code leaves it to the discretion of local judges and officials to make such determinations.

  • The NT misuses OT texts like Is. 7:14 as prophecies of Jesus. Yet again, Cragun unwittingly imitates the worst sort of atheist critic with this charge, and also unwittingly adopts his own fundamentalist hermeneutic of the text. As we have also pointed out in numerous venues, the NT's use of the OT is perfectly in accord with Jewish exegetical methods of the period, in which a text like Is. 7:14 is not seen as a prophecy of the future, but in which present events are seen as a re-enactment of Is. 7:14. That means that the NT is not using texts like Is. 7:14 "out of context," because the idea is that only that single verse is being re-enacted.

  • There were a lot of different ideas about what should be in the canon. Again, like some of the worst atheists, Cragun appeals to "specter of diversity" arguments as though they have any relevance or merit, which they do not. All they would mean is that humans may not have recognized the contours of what was inspired as inerrant but not that the texts themselves weren’t inerrant. The contours of the canon would have no bearing on the matter, whether the text was inerrant or not.

  • And that, oddly enough, is all Cragun has to offer before he once again returns to the prior non sequitur routine e.g., "inerrancy is a heresy because it has led to divisions." He also offers what he presents as a survey of the historical development of inerrancy as a doctrine, but even if it is 100% correct (and it may well be), it would still be a non sequitur to raise it as though it had any bearing on the truth of the matter.

    In contrast to the above, I would raise a point of agreement with Cragun. I would agree that 2 Tim. 3:16 would not really bear the exegetical weight put on it by some inerrantist commentators. Cragun spends a great deal of time on this verse, but as far as my views are concerned, all that he offers is moot.
    We will close with a look at places where Cragun professes to find "loud dissent" with inerrancy within the text of the Bible itself. His first example, which he alleges to be "most decisive and destructive," fails to produce anything but another massive non sequitur. He notes that in Acts, after his vision of a sheet from heaven, Peter acknowledged he was wrong about something; namely, Gentiles in the Kingdom. From this Cragun concludes that he has demonstrated that Peter "could be in error." Oh? By that rubric, if I find one mistake in Cragun's text, we have thereby proved that he could never produce any text without errors -- no matter how short it is, or no matter what the conditions are. Indeed, by that logic, even if he writes "2 and 2 is four" he is immediately under suspicion of error. Cragun's error is again typical of the "all or nothing" mentality of the very fundamentalism he decries.

    Cragun's next argument is that because some prophets like Jonah were able to resist their prophetic call, they were only human. What bearing this has, again, on inerrancy, and on specific conditions associated with producing an inerrant text, is hard to say, but it would once again place Cragun under suspicion, even if he told us the sky was blue.

    Third, Cragun points out that some pagans, like Balaam, were inspired. Yet again, we're not sure what the point is. Apparently, Cragun thinks the only way someone could produce an inerrant text is if they were being inerrant on everything 24/7. I know of no one, not even a fundamentalist, who believes such a thing.

    Fourth, Cragun delivers some arguments against a mechanical view of inspiration. Since I don't hold to such a view, there is nothing for me to address, though there may be something there requiring an address by some fringe fundamentalists.

    Fifth, Cragun argues that church fathers did not "idolize" the Scriptures, but that is not really the point. What he needs to show is that the church fathers thought Scripture erred. As it is, he can come no closer to this than e.g., Jerome discussing problems in the text (such as Matthew referring to the "thirty pieces of silver" passage in Zechariah -- an issue, by the way, that is easily resolved under Jewish exegetical and citation procedures). Although Jerome discusses the problem, he does not say, "this is an error." What Jerome does do is suppose that e.g., Matthew might be charged with "falsehood" for such things as adding, "I say unto thee" to the translation of "Talitha cumi." But as Cragun admits, this sort of thing comes more of Jerome's perceived neurotic compulsion for detail than from any real problem.

    Thus concludes our look at Cragun, and all in all, he could have spared us the trouble of what amounted to his own exercise in neurotic compulsion.