The Atlantic Monthly, April 2009


Robert Wright’s “One World, Under God” begins with the assertion that most New Testament scholars now regard the Gospel of Mark as significantly older than the other gosples, perhaps not much newer than the oldest writings in the New Testament, Paul’s letters.  Mark stands out from the other gospels in that the sayings of Jesus recorded there are all quite harsh:

The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). In Mark, there is no Sermon on the Mount, and so no Beatitudes, and there is no good Samaritan; Jesus’ most salient comment on ethnic relations is to compare a woman to a dog because she isn’t from Israel.

The gentle Jesus meek and mild whom liberal Christians preach and the “great moral teacher” whom moderate secularists and ecumenical-minded non-Christians praise appears in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  If these accounts took shape as long after Mark’s as Wright says they may have done, then it is possible that they were influenced by Paul:

Of course, since Paul was writing after the time of Jesus, it’s been natural to assume he got these ideas from the teachings of Jesus. But when you realize that Jesus utters the word love only twice in the Gospel of Mark—compared with Paul’s using it more than 10 times in a single letter to the Romans—the reverse scenario suggests itself: maybe the Gospel of Mark, which was written not long after the end of Paul’s ministry, largely escaped Pauline influence, and thus left more of the real Jesus intact than Gospels written later, after Paul’s legacy had spread.

This hypothesis cuts against the grain of New Testament criticism, which at least since the Enlightenment has tended to cast Paul as the main figure in an effort to make Jesus seem less like a sweetheart and more like an apocalyptic crank than he really was.  Perhaps the opposite was the case, and it was Paul who invented the idea of Christianity as a religion of boundless good will. 



Tabby’s Place

Jonathan Rosenberg loves cats.

Lou Gehrig

“A” and I were talking the other day about the sad fact that lou Gehrig’s awesome accomplishments get over shadowed by the tragic way he died.  I will be putting up a number of posts that highlight his baseball career.  I am doing this to honor the real and spectacular lives of Lou Gehrig, my physical therapist Jane, and others who should be remembered for the way they lived.

The Nation, 6 April 2009

nation-6-april-2009Lorna Fox Scott reviews the new Library of America volume True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter.  She quotes Americans who have tried to explain acts of extreme violence that their countrymen have committed.  Cotton Mather could say that acts of violence were symptoms of irreligion.  But what would Mather have made of a case like this?

Farmer Yates, who in 1781, as he tells his examiners in what reads like an uncensored transcript, is suddenly commanded by an unidentified “Spirit” to slaughter his beloved family for being “idols”? Vividly reliving the inner struggle of human love with mystic duty, in between enthusiastic pursuits of the victims through the snow, this text stands out as the only perpetrator’s narrative in the collection; its anonymous presenter cannot in the end decide whether Yates was stricken by “the effect of insanity” or “a strong delusion of Satan.” The old certainties are fraying.

Ambrose Bierce was less interested in explaining why people commit acts of extreme violence then in pointing out the glee with which the public receives accounts of those acts:

His “Criminal Market Review” from the late 1860s is unusual for its admission that crime is not so much a deviation as the very image of the national economy: “Robberies are looking up; Assaults, active; Forgeries, dull.” Taking a swipe at the veiled Californian relish in violence–“Our joy at the mutilation of old Hulton has been deeply unspeakable; our lively interest in the shooting and hacking of and by the Dudleys, Ingham and Miller, has been testified in a novel and interesting manner by a private scalp dance at our own apartments”–Bierce links this to the war. “It pleasantly reminds us of the time when we were a soldier.” Then, like Twain satirizing the social worship of “blackguards”: “Yosemite is a conceded fiction, and the Big Trees a screaming joke…. But we are handy with the pistol and wield a butcher-knife as deftly as an Indian or anybody.”

Twentieth century writing has shown new forms of self-consciousness.  Edna Ferber’s comments on the trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann include not only scorn for the gawking crowd but sympathy for the accused murderer; Zora Neale Hurston’s reports on the trial of Ruby McCollum, a black woman accused of shooting a white physician, show the defendant and the crime lost to public awareness as black and white act out the rituals of race. 

Fox quotes a haunting conversation that occurred in 1949.  A man had gunned down a dozen people on the street in his New Jersey neighborhood, then gone home.  The phone rang.  He answered it.  Calling was a reporter from The Camden Evening Courier

Mr. Buxton asked how many persons Unruh had killed.
 The veteran answered. “I don’t know. I haven’t counted. Looks like a pretty good score.”
  “Why are you killing people?”
  “I don’t know,” came the frank answer. “I can’t answer that yet. I’ll have to talk to you later. I’m too busy now.”


Mr Procrastination

Thanks to Ukulele Hunt for posting this video of a song that speaks to the condition of, I think, most web users. 

The Nation, 30 March 2009

nation-30-march-2009A review of The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills mentions  Mills’ concept of “crackpot realism,” introduced in his Causes of World War Three to explain how a group of highly intelligent people could come to believe that each step in a course of action certain to lead to their destruction was the safest, most prudent one possible.  Mills feared that “citizenship was obsolete”; “Modern society made freedom in the liberal sense of autonomous and reflective citizenship increasingly impossible.” 

The new Library of America volume The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on his Life and Legacy from 1860 to  Now draws  a review titled “Sallow, Queer, and Sagacious.”  Dissenters from the celebration of Abraham Lincoln as America’s great secular saint are well represented in the volume.  Among them are Edmund Wilson, whose portrait of the sixteenth president in 1962’s Patriotic Gore has reminded more than one critic of Stalin, and Lerone Bennett Jr, who since the 1960s has been arguing that Lincoln was no friend to black America.

Ukulele Lady

An old ukulele standard, played by a familiar ensemble.

Victoria Vox also recorded a marvelous version.  Here’s a video of her playing the end of the song:

The American Conservative, 23 March 2009

Sun and Wind on the Roof, by John Sloan

Sun and Wind on the Roof, by John Sloan


Bill Kauffman takes on the idea of a federal department of Arts and Culture, a proposal long championed by someone he admires, Quincy Jones.  Kauffman quotes the painter John Sloan, who in 1944 said, “Sure, it would be fine to have a Ministry of Fine Arts in this country.  Then we’d know where the enemy is.”  He goes on to praise William Saroyan, whose pacifist principles led him to refuse to shake President Roosevelt’s hand at a reception during World War II, and William Faulkner, who rejected a social invitation from President Kennedy on the grounds that “the White House is too far to go for dinner.”  Kauffman himself once served on a National Endowment for the Arts panel, and the experience convinced him that Quincy Jones was wrong and these men were right.

Paul Gottfried argues that, contrary to what one might gather from cable TV, for most of the history of the USA it has been conservatives who have been the most prominent and most consistent opponents of the expansion of militarism and of presidential power.  For example, the only senator to vote against internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two was the original “Mr. Republican,” Robert Alphonso Taft.  Today’s “conservative” militarists, Gottfried claims, have succeeded because their approach enables them to combine two basically disparate impulses:

Neoconservative historiography prevailed against the Old Right because it could build on the Left’s moral assessments- treating Lincoln and General Sherman as great emancipators, for example- while at the same time tapping into the patriotic, pro-military sentiments of American Republicans and Fox News-viewing conservatives.

More adventures in commenting

Over the last couple of weeks, I (Acilius) have posted some comments on two sites I read daily.  At “Dykes to Watch Out For,”  I quoted the opening of the “Periodicals Note” about Chronicles magazine that triggered so much discussion here a few weeks ago.  

At Language Log, I posted a comment which confused the author of the original post.  That comment kicked off a discussion in which I felt constrained to post several followup comments (here, here, here, and here), and which spilled over onto The Volokh Conspiracy.