Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Bible-Reading Project

I recently decided to read a page of the Bible each day. Through this effort, I reasoned, it will take only 2,179 days to read the entire book, if you include The Apocrypha, annotations, commentary and background.

Before anyone finds out about this, I must clarify a few things. My friends (if I still have any) may jump to the conclusion that I have suddenly discovered religion, had a spiritual awakening, or worse yet, fallen under the influence of television preachers.  

Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not like the Bible schools and discussion groups that churches conduct for children and converts. When I began this effort, my motivation was not religious in nature. I am a skeptic in these matters, as readers of this blog (if there are any) are aware. My motivation was threefold. 

First, I was simply curious to see what is contained in this book that so many people live their lives by and accept as absolute truth -- even though I do not. Having survived for so many centuries, I reasoned, there must be something meaningful here. Now that I am retired, I have the time to explore this. 

Second, I wanted to read certain things in their original context. I wanted to track down the source of various church doctrines, as well as the anti-Semitism of the New Testament as outlined in the book Constantine's Sword. 

Finally, during my university days I learned that the Bible contains passages of great depth and beauty that are worth reading even by those who lack faith. That was one of the things I took from Dr. Russell Peck's course in classical and scriptural backgrounds of English literature. I took that course, which was required of all English majors, as a college freshman in 1972. I wish I'd been mature enough to fully appreciate it at the time.  

My page-a-day Bible reading project has already had an unexpected benefit. I keep coming across phrases I recognize from literature and everyday life. I had no idea they originated in the Bible. Here are a few examples.

The place name "Bethel" is found all over the United States. Bethel, or Beth-El, was an ancient city in Palestine described in Genesis 12:8 and 13:3. 

"Born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards" is a phrase I remember from a Herman Wouk novel. The source seems to be Job 5:7.

On a lighter note, Genesis 45:19 states: "You may live on the fat of the land." I clearly recall that phrase from an episode of the Dennis The Menace TV show (1959 - 1963). Dennis' long-suffering neighbor Mr. Wilson decides to go camping. Clutching a hatchet, he declares that he will live on the fat of the land. Dennis wants to go with him. Trouble ensues. 

Further Reading

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Urim and Thummim

Among the pleasures of retirement is the freedom to research anything that arouses my curiosity. That is what led me to the Urim and the Thummim. These oddly-named and hard-to-pronounce objects came to my attention when I decided to read a page of the Bible each day.  That effort is further explained in a separate post, The Bible Reading Project. 

The Old Testament

The Urim and the Thummim are briefly and cryptically mentioned in Exodus 28:30, in which God directs Moses to make "a breastpiece of judgment," to be worn by the high priest Aaron. God declares:
"In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron's heart when he goes before the Lord; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the Lord continually."
There is a similar reference in Leviticus 8:8. But apparently the Bible contains virtually no direct explanation of what the Urim and the Thummim actually are.  They seem to be objects, since they are put in the breastplate.  Based on 1 Samuel 14:41, scholars suggest that they were somehow used in divination by the high priest. These may have been objects (perhaps stones or bones) which were cast in attempting to discern God's answer to a yes-or-no question. 

I hasten to add that these are the findings of biblical scholars, not my own. But I will offer this observation: the names Urim and Thummim are vaguely disturbing. I can barely pronounce them. Thummim is particularly bothersome. It contains too many "m" letters. Those words sound ancient, far removed from any modern language. They remind me of Bifur., Bofur and Bombur, the dwarves in The HobbitThey are alien, otherworldly, like something from an H.P. Lovecraft story, originating perhaps in another reality from whence the Old Ones came, and great Cthulhu lies dreaming. 

The Mormon Connection

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), claimed that he possessed the Urim and the Thummim. He stated that this came about after he was visited in 1823 by the Angel Moroni, who had been sent by God. 


The angel, Smith said, revealed the location of the breastplate of judgment, with the Urim and the Thummim attached, and golden tablets revealing "the fullness of the everlasting Gospel." Upon looking into the Urim and the Thummim (two "seer stones" set in silver bows), Smith claimed to receive revelations from God. He also claimed that he used the Urim and the Thummim to translate the tablets into at least part of what ultimately became The Book of Mormon. 

There is much more to this story, involving magic spectacles, a sword, a second set of golden tablets, and the bizarre process by which the translation occurred (one witness claimed Smith dictated the words while gazing into his hat). The matter is complicated by conflicting accounts from Smith's associates, his wife and the prophet himself. Those with an interest can consult Fawn Brodie's excellent and objective biography of Smith. It reveals that in addition to Urim and Thummim, Joseph Smith had certain "peep stones" that enabled him to detect the presence of buried treasure of a very secular nature. 

The New Age

Among New Age mystics, interest in the Urim and the Thummim continues to this day. Authors have published entire books on the subject, despite the fact that virtually nothing is known beyond what I've summarized above. And to my dismay, I have discovered products for sale which are supposed to be replicas of Urim and Thummim and the breastplate of judgment. In fact, I was given one of the latter years ago as a housewarming gift, and did not even know what it was supposed to be. 

Further Reading

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Metaphysics

I read recently of the theory of the multiverse, which states that our reality may be just one of a huge number of parallel universes. Articles on this can be found all over the internet; this one is from one of the more authoritative publications.

The Case for Parallel Universes - Scientific American

Setting aside astrophysics, string theory and the like, I understand that some things are hidden to us, and always will be. They exist even though we are unaware of them. There are limits to what humans can perceive. What we do perceive cannot be the complete reality.

Suppose that there are an immense number of parallel universes, existing side by side, only one of which we can perceive. Close but not touching...beyond time, beyond reason, beyond comprehension. If so, who created all those different universes? The inhabitants of one of these bubbles would reason that something must have created what they believe is "everything." They would call that entity God, the supreme being. But what about all the other universes? Must each and every one of them necessarily have been created by the same God? If there are an unlimited number of universes, could there also be an infinite number of beings which created them? Must there be one entity which is supreme over all?

The very concept of a supreme being is imponderable. Every thing -- at least, every concrete thing - we can think of is exceeded by something greater. The largest number you can think of is always exceeded by something larger. You may be strong, or smart, or beautiful, but there is bound to be someone stronger, smarter, more beautiful. You may be the fastest gun in the West, or the best guitar player in the world, but inevitably you will encounter someone faster or better.

Where does it end? People of faith believe that there is something greater than everything, and they call that God. But if there are multiple realities, it is at least possible that each was created by a different being -- not supreme, but merely superior: an artisan, who like a watchmaker assembled that particular universe and set it in motion. Must there be a supreme being who created all those artisan gods and has dominion over them? Or is there no supreme being, just an endless series of higher and higher beings, each greater than the next, on and on to infinity?

Or perhaps there are no higher beings at all. If something exists, must it have been created by something else?

These are questions with no answers.

Unofficial Retirement

Such has been my status for the past three years. I never pictured myself as the sort of person who retired early. But somehow events and chance brought me to this point. Two corporate mergers in four years left me out of a job at age 60. At that age professional options narrow considerably, especially when you’re as specialized as I am and unwilling to relocate. 

At this point the relocation issue hardly matters. Most corporations don't spend tens of thousands of dollars to relocate a well-paid professional who is less than 2 years away from normal retirement age.

Interviews for several local jobs in my chosen profession produced no results, and also confirmed what I already knew: I have lost my appetite for corporate life, with the attendant stress, anxiety and long hours I endured for decades. 

I thought I was prepared for this situation. My fallback plan was to finish my working years in a less demanding job, or even a menial one: limousine driver, casino employee, night watchman, or something of that sort. But I can’t bear to think about the drudgery and poor working conditions of such a job, especially when there is no financial need for it. 

On a lark, I applied for a job with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). As I worked my way through the application process, I found myself warming to the idea of being an airline security officer (i.e. bag screener). I knew I would do that job properly and thoroughly. I pictured myself as a man doing important work, protecting our nation. A commanding figure in a uniform and badge,  directing air travelers to take off their shoes and step through the metal detector. I stated that I was willing to work nights, weekends, part time, full time, overtime and split shifts. But the TSA had no interest in my candidacy, as recruiters say. What’s the big deal? I’m only 63 years old. 

So, here I sit, weighing the remaining options: Community service? Volunteer? Start my own little business, doing God only knows what? I'd better begin by pulling  myself out of this funk. A trip to the gym would be a good place to start. 

Friday, June 02, 2017

The Gnostic Gospels

By Elaine H. Pagels
1979; Vintage Books/Random House; 182 pages
ISBN 0-679-72453-2

I wasn't seeking religious enlightenment when I started reading this book. I bought it mainly because I'm interested in archaeology and history. But I got much more than I bargained for.

First, as to the archaeology and history which so intrigued me: in 1945 an Egyptian peasant discovered a jar buried in the desert near the town of Naj Hammadi. In it were 13 papyrus books, bound in leather. Sold on the black market through antiquities dealers in Cairo, some were eventually acquired by a Dutch biblical scholar. The first line he translated was: "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down." 

He recognized this as the first line of the Secret Gospel of Thomas. Written by a gnostic Christian sect in the second century AD, this was one of many texts that early church leaders excluded from the New Testament. As Pagels put it:
"What we call Christianity – and what we identify as Christian tradition – actually represents only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others. Who made that selection, and for what reasons? Why were these other writings excluded and banned as 'heresy'?"
Pagels makes a convincing argument that what we know as Christianity was influenced not only by competing religious beliefs, but also by church politics in the first two centuries AD. What follows is a summary of Pagels' key ideas.

The roots of this conflict lay in disagreements over the nature of the creator, and how one gains  access to the supreme being. Some of the gnostic Christians who wrote these gospels believed that the self and the divine were identical. They believed that to know oneself at the deepest level is simultaneously to know God. 

The gnostic Christians believed in a supreme being. But they also believed that a lesser and imperfect divine being, the demiurge, created the universe. Since the demiurge was not perfect, this explained why the universe is not perfect.

Gnostics believed that orthodox Christians were mistakenly worshipping the demiurge, believing it to be God. They also believed that the bishops and priests of the established church understood only the elementary doctrines. The gnostic Christians claimed to offer access to secret mysteries and higher teachings, which came from the supreme being. 

Thus, for the gnostics, the established church could not be the ultimate religious authority. The individual gnostic did not need the established church hierarchy in order to attain self-knowledge, and thereby to know God.  

This brought the gnostic Christians into conflict with the orthodox church, which insisted that there is only one God. Orthodox Christians believed their church's legitimacy came directly from the 12 apostles, who had direct contact with Jesus during his lifetime.  The apostles' successors, and the inheritors of their authority, were the bishops, priests and deacons of the established church. Therefore, according to orthodox church thought, theirs was the one true faith, and none could come to the father except through Jesus, who died to save the world from sin and thereby redeem all believers.

In contrast, gnostic Christians viewed Jesus as a spiritual instructor who came from the supreme being to show the path to God, which proceeded through self-knowledge. Once the individual had attained this gnosis (usually translated as "knowledge"),  Jesus was no longer the instructor, but an equal.

For these reasons, gnostic Christian beliefs represented a threat to both the doctrine and the authority and hierarchy of the established church at Rome. That, Pagels says, is probably why the gnostic gospels were called heresy, suppressed, and excluded from the New Testament.

I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church. But I have never been a person of faith, because the church's concept of God has internal contradictions that I can't accept. I cannot accept the idea of a creator, king of the universe, who loves us but also stands ready to judge each and every one of us for doing or thinking the wrong things. I can't bring myself to believe that a supreme being with the power to create all things visible and invisible would also watch us and insist that we worship and obey him. But to this reader, what Pagels has written is nuanced and acceptable. History is written by the victors. Christianity is a doctrine shaped by the victors in a dispute over fundamental matters of theology. The gnostic scriptures put the early church in a less than divine light. 

Further Reading

The New York Times, June 14, 2003 - The Heresy That Saved A Skeptic (interview with Pagels)

Gnosis.org -  The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism 

The Catholic Encyclopedia - Gnosticism

Wikipedia - Catharism (two Gods, one good and the other evil)

The Internet Classics Archive - Timaeus, by Plato (demiurge as a craftsman who created the visible and tangible world as a model of something greater)

Bitches Crystal

I've long thought that "Bitches Crystal" is one of the best tracks on Emerson Lake & Palmer's 1971 LP Tarkus.  It has the familiar ELP formula, with a brisk tempo, a genre-bending piano solo, cool washes of synthesizer and interesting lyrics. It's hard to forget a line like "Heretic priestess dwells on the weakness she sees."

Heady stuff. But there are several issues here. First of all, the title: is there an apostrophe missing? Shouldn't the title be Bitch's Crystal or Bitches' Crystal?

And, as with Karn Evil 9, we face the old problem: what do the lyrics (written by Greg Lake) mean - if anything?

Bitches crystal notes how you twist all the lines
Fortune teller, future seller of time
 
Chorus:
Tortured spirits cry
Fear is in their eyes
Ghostly images die
 
Witch's potion mixed in the ocean of tears
Mystical powers emerge from the towers of fear
[Chorus] 
 
Evil learning, people burning
Savage blasting, no one lasting
Witchcraft, sadness, madness turn in their minds
 
Ritual killings that swear in the [shillings?] to be
Heretic priestess dwells on the weakness she sees
[Chorus]
Groping for meaning, it occurred to me that the lyrics could be describing television. The bitch’s crystal is your television set. The song describes the programs shown thereon. When you turn off the set, “ghostly images die.”

But this is tortured reasoning. We must accept the possibility that the lyrics have no deeper meaning. Perhaps this is just a song about a witch looking into her crystal ball, the spells she casts, and the images she sees.  Or perhaps these are merely clever phrases strung together in free association, a loosely connected series of cool-sounding words that rhyme and fit the song's cadence, like some Moody Blues tunes.

That may be how the song actually came to be. But I have imagined a scenario that is much more satisfying. It's an extension of an experience I had some years ago at a late-night street fair in Las Vegas.

It was well after midnight, and the crowd was thinning out. The only street performer that interested me was a woman dressed like a gypsy, standing beside a cleverly painted gypsy wagon. She was darkly handsome, and looked haughty and cruel, and rather dangerous as well. Inside the wagon, I could see a small table and two chairs.  Stay away, my inner voice told me.

But had I entered that wagon, what might the fortune teller have seen in her bitch's crystal? She would be a heretic priestess that dwells on the weakness she sees. Her words would be dark and disturbing, foretelling suffering and a frustrated life of thwarted plans which never come to fruition.  In her crystal ball tortured spirits cry, fear in their eyes. Then the ghostly images die, and darkness overcomes me. I awake in an alley, with my watch and wallet missing and a pounding headache from the witch's potion (mixed in an ocean of tears) she slipped into my drink. Before the sun comes up, I stagger home and write the lyrics to Bitches Crystal.

There is in fact a gypsy fortune teller in Las Vegas on Fremont Street. I never went into the wagon, so most of this never happened. If you don't like this fevered fantasy, I challenge you to submit a better one.

Further Reading:

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Alien: Covenant

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. 
In the past week I've seen Alien: Covenant, Prometheus and Logan. The experience has left me feeling weary, overstuffed and over-stimulated, like a little kid who eats all his candy on the day after Halloween. I don't want to see any more sci-fi or films about comic book characters for a while. 

Browsing through the user reviews on imdb.com, I 'm surprised to see how many negative comments Alien: Covenant has attracted. But when you're Ridley Scott, it's possible to be a victim of your own success: if you make a film that is not absolutely wonderful and doesn't measure up to  Blade Runner  or Gladiator, a certain segment of the audience (fanboys, you might say) are disappointed. And a certain subset of that segment will go out of their way to write negative reviews. That's showbiz. 

I will leave it to others to pass judgment on whether this is a "good" movie. I don't pretend to the role of critic, nor do I require my sci-fi/horror films to meet Ingmar Bergman standards. I wiill say that I enjoyed all 122 minutes of Alien: Covenant.  Why? I suppose it's because it has a credible story, satisfying tie-ins to the previous films, great action sequences and beautiful visuals. But now I sound like a critic, so it's time to stop agonizing over why I liked it. I just liked it, and that's enough for me.  
As for themes, deeper meanings and big thoughts in general: yes, there are some here. But somebody smarter than I will have to instruct me on that.

I'm a big fan of the first two Alien films, and Prometheus as well. This compares well to those entries in the canon. And it's brilliant compared to those awful sequels like Alien vs. Predator and so much else I see on DirecTV. So I guess the negative reaction from the fan audience just boils down to deflated expectations. As for me, I'm sure I'll watch it again on home video.  


Whatever format you choose, here's a word of caution: you might want to watch Prometheus before Alien: Covenant. This story arc is getting pretty complex. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Drunken Man Sues Tavern

After a four-hour bender at a neighborhood tavern in Youngwood PA, including "shots of liquor," this patron became so intoxicated that he fell off his bar stool. In doing so, he suffered a painful 
shoulder injury. Aching and angry, he has decided to sue the tavern.

“They kept giving him drinks," said his attorney. "You're not supposed to feed people so much booze they fall off a bar stool." He has a point there.

I think I'll go down to this tavern  tonight. I want to sit on one of those bar stools and have a few shots. I'm pretty good at this sort of undercover work. 

Tribune-Review, Westmoreland PA, May 16, 2017
http://triblive.com/local/westmoreland/12289956-74/drunken-man-falls-off-bar-stool-sues-youngwood-tavern-owners

Friday, May 05, 2017

Self-Castration

When it comes to self-castration stories, this one tops this list. It's from The Latrobe (PA) Bulletin. Briefly: this person castrated himself and became a transgendered female. Then she (?) somehow convinced two of her six husbands to let her castrate them as well. I don't know what to say about this, except that life is full of surprises.  
source: The Latrobe (PA) Bulletin