Miscellaneous Christmas Gleanings

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain routinely gives little gifts to their fans at Christmastime in the form of particularly generous postings on their (already very generous) website; this year they’ve posted a series of videos under the title “Christmas Playalong.”  Here’s one of them:

Also, our old friend Al Wood has posted his usual excellent Christmas things at Ukulele Hunt, including the Christmas UkeToob.

I remember Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fondly, or perhaps I should say I am of the age of people who remember that show fondly. I didn’t have a TV when it was on. Anyway, I don’t think I’d ever heard this one before.

Here‘s a holiday favorite:

And a great classic from the 1980s:

Thanks to theologian Alastair Roberts, I found a new favorite Christmas song just this morning, as I said on Twitter:

This has been making the rounds today:

Psychologist James Thompson engages in one of the most venerable of all Anglican religious traditions, publicly declaring that Anglicanism is doomed and wondering whether it deserves to die. I can’t explain why we do that, I can only say that it’s our way.

Jacobin magazine has a brief summary of how the Christian Left in the USA tends to think of Christmas, which picks up where James Brown left off a few decades ago:

I allowed myself a little scholarly musing on Twitter this morning, in response to a remark by Tom Holland:

As to who should do what with which holiday at this many-festivalled time of the year, here‘s a view from Mya Gosling:

Asked on tumblr whether it’s okay for Gentiles to celebrate Hanukkah, Scott Alexander writes:

To stick with stuff on tumblr for a minute, here’s a cartoon in which Gahan Wilson expresses irritation that various holidays, including Christmas and Halloween, run together in the USA:

This is kind of neat:

The Comics Curmudgeon has taken a vacation over the holiday, and it looks like Rebecca Watson is missing him as much as I am:

Ross Pearsall has put together a nice concept cover for a Christmas comic book that ought to exist:


So, Merry Christmas, everybody.   And:

Power keeps faith with power

The recent death of longtime Cuban despot Fidel Castro has led many to remark on the admiration Castro received from many who might have been expected to find in him an enemy. For example, Roman Catholic blogger Mark Shea wrote a post remarking on Castro’s brutal repression of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba; his commenters responded by pointing out that leading members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including the past three popes, have made many signs of friendship towards Castro. Rod Dreher documents the complicity of Roman Catholic bishops in Castro’s regime in some detail; Mr Dreher is not Roman Catholic, but Russian Orthodox. However, in the same post he reports on a statement made by his own chief pastor, the Patriarch of Moscow, in praise of Castro, showing that his church is in no better a position.

That the leaders of the largest theistic organization in the world would make themselves so useful to the leader of a regime that has oppressed the adherents of that organization so fiercely ceases to seem strange if we take this as the first rule of analysis: Power keeps faith with power. If a common ideology or common social identity ensured loyalty, the hierarchs of Rome and Havana would stand with the laity, the religious, and the parish priests who have been imprisoned for their faith; yet they rarely mention these persecuted, happily consorting with their persecutors. The only ideological consideration that moves those in power to act is the belief that the institutions which maintain their position should continue to operate, which means that those who are in a position to help or hinder those institutions in matters affecting their survival must be brought on board. The only identity that influences the actions of the mighty is their identity with each other; the powerless, even the powerless among their own supporters and putative fellows, are abstractions whom they rarely encounter in person, but see primarily as figures on revenue statements, opinion surveys, and other ledgers.

Flagrantly corrupt organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party are easy targets for this sort of analysis. But the same principle applies everywhere. So the policies by which USA has opposed the Castro regime are unintelligible except as a case of power keeping faith with power, betraying every other trust. The two chief prongs of the economic warfare that the USA waged on Cuba throughout virtually the whole of Castro’s time at the head of the regime there were, on the one hand, a highly restrictive policy on trade between the USA and Cuba, and on the other a highly lax policy on immigration from Cuba. The trade embargo has been greatly eased in recent years, but only after it had consistently failed to weaken Castro’s grip on power for a half-century. And the “Dry Foot” immigration policy remains in effect. Though the Dry Foot policy has certainly helped to immiserate the people of Cuba by accelerating the Brain Drain of skilled professionals and other highly productive individuals from the island, it has probably strengthened the regime’s grip on power, by luring to Miami and points north the people likeliest to lead a revolt .  Both halves of the economic warfare policy were worse than useless to those who were ostensibly supposed to be its principal beneficiaries; that the embargo persisted for so long, and the Dry Foot policy persists still, is explicable only in terms of the powerful interests in the USA who benefit from their continuation, and from power’s tendency to keep faith with power.

Remembering that power keeps faith with power, we see what people may be getting at when they deride “identity politics.” Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” of the 1980s, inviting disenfranchised white working people to identify with people of color and other minority groups, is a better model for a revival of the American Left than is Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders’ vision of a politics that puts class first. Mr Bouie sums up his case thus:

But the history of the Democratic Party contains a model for moving forward, with an approach, honed by Jesse Jackson, that bridges the divide. And thinkers in the political and policy world have crafted solutions that reflect this approach. It respects the reality of the modern Democratic Party: a formation that represents—and depends on—the votes of women, young people, and people of color.

Mainstream Democrats have set their sights on white voters. But the path forward—the way to win them and energize those voters of color who didn’t come to the polls in 2016—might lie in the insights of black voters and black communities and a larger appreciation of how and why identity matters, in a politics of we kin, blackness in many shades. Against a political movement that defines America in exclusionary and racial terms—as a white country for white people—a renewed Rainbow Coalition is the only defense worth making.

As far as it goes, this is unexceptionable. When we get to “the reality of the modern Democratic Party,” though, we see a big trap door about to open under our feet. The Democrats can get the votes of 60,000,000 or more people in national elections, roughly half the electorate, yet hold fewer than 30% of all elected offices in the USA. Part of this can be blamed on institutional quirks such as the boundaries of the states, gerrymandering of electoral districts within states, the advantage that Republicans derive from their greater financial resources, etc.

Other parts of the problem derive from a vulnerability inherent in the structure of “the modern Democratic Party.” The great majority of African Americans may vote for Democrats, but the voices heard in the councils of the party are not those of that majority, but of the professional politicians who presume to speak for black people. Likewise for each of the other groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Often the spokespeople will come reasonably close to the views of their constituents, but even then there is an Achilles’ Heel- voters know from long experience that power, including the relatively modest power to draft portions of the Democratic Party platform and to have a say in who will be appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development under Democratic presidents, keeps faith with power.

Nonblack voters thus hear invitations to identify with blackness, when they come from the Democratic Party, not as invitations to identify with their African American neighbors, but as invitations to go along with the policy positions of the Congressional Black Caucus and similar groups. Those groups may do a fairly good job of speaking for the people they claim to represent, but are made up of human beings, and are therefore ships tossed on the rough seas of politics. As such, they are as likely, given time, as the US foreign policy establishment or the Cuban Communist Party or the Roman Catholic church to find themselves making common cause with the deadliest enemies of anyone who is so incautious as to trust them without reservation. That leaves whites open to the appeal of the ethnic bloc voting that they have long practiced in the South and that they increasingly display in other parts of the country where their numerical majority is as weak as it is in the South, perhaps less because they prefer the leaders of the Republican Party to those of the Democratic Party than because they can see a clearer path to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on them for its core support than they can see to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on everyone but them for its core support. When an ethnic group votes as a bloc, it is a power within the party it backs, and the other powers within that party dare not betray it too obviously.  When the members of a group scatter their votes, that group is no power, and its role is to be betrayed at every turn. So, in the absence of a labor movement or other force uniting people on a basis other than race, white voters are no more likely to identify with blackness than African American voters are to identify with whiteness.

Humanist Comic Elements in Aristophanes and the Old Testament, by Benjamin Lazarus

978-1-4632-0243-9I’m a member of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. As such, I regularly receive book reviews in my email on recent scholarly publications dealing with the ancient Mediterranean world.

One of these recent reviews was by Ioannis Konstantakos of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Professor Konstantakos discussed Humanist Comic Elements in Aristophanes and the Old Testament by Benjamin Lazarus.  The book sounds extremely interesting. Here are a couple of paragraphs from Professor Konstantakis’ review:

Jonah and the Dionysus of the Frogs exemplify another comic prototype, the “Comic Failure” (Lazarus’ term) or “comic anti-hero”, as he might be called in contrast to the heroic Aristophanic protagonists discussed by Cedric Whitman (Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964). This kind of character becomes laughable by constantly failing to live up to the expectations of his role. The buffoonish Dionysus proves unable to judge poetry correctly and even to impersonate Heracles competently, despite his celebrated associations with the theater. Jonah cannot meet the requirements of his prophetic mission and repeatedly fails to recognize the will of Yahweh. There are additional analogies in the two story patterns, as both anti-heroes experience a katabasis into the world of death (the belly of the fish in Jonah is expressly likened to Sheol), but return without real improvement. Both Dionysus and Jonah are parodies of serious models, respectively Heracles’ dark journey to Hades and Elijah’s prophetic career. Their incompetence is underlined by figures of lower status, such as Dionysus’ slave Xanthias or the Gentile Ninevites, who successfully perform the very tasks which these comic anti-heroes ridiculously mismanage. In this case, Lazarus has traced an important satirical structure, probably as old as the Margites and applicable to many other comic figures, from Master Ford to Iznogoud.
The final chapter brings together Wealth and Tobit, two works revolving around an ordinary protagonist, a “Comic Everyman”. Both works are set in a world of mundane suffering and injustice and use a domestic, down-to-earth kind of humor as a means of relief from the difficulties of life. In this connection, another line of enquiry would be worth pursuing. Tobit, a character at once ridiculous for his rigidity and sympathetic for his sufferings, and thus evoking a complex response from the audience, is closer to the personages of Menander than to Aristophanes’ Chremylus. Like Menandrian heroes, the characters of Tobit have a limited understanding of the universe, and their apparent tragedy is eventually turned into comedy by a supernatural force which approximates the workings of Menander’s Tyche. The shift towards domestic, low-key humor is common to New Comedy and Tobit, which is also, significantly, a Hellenistic product.

I’ve always thought Jonah was funny, and I’m glad to see a scholarly argument to the effect that this perception of mine does not mark me as an incorrigible heathen.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to imagine that the original audience of Tobit felt it was supposed to laugh at anything in it. Not that I don’t smile a bit at the idea of all those guys, one after another, dutifully marching off to their deaths in Sarah’s bridal chamber, and it’s true that that dog has a disconcertingly well-developed personality. Maybe the ancients smiled at those things, too. But the whole thing is paced so much like a thriller that any breaks for laughter or classification of major characters as “ridiculous” would throw it off badly.

I say something about politics and something about religion. No sex or money, though.

I’ve recently been participating in two discussion threads at The American Conservative. In a thread on Noah Millman’s blog, I’ve been laying out a theory that Florida Senator Marco Rubio will either win virtually every state in the Republican Party’s presidential nominating contest, or he won’t win any states at all. It all hinges on whether he can pull an upset win in the Iowa caucuses. My comments are here, here, and here.

In a thread on Rod Dreher’s blog, I’ve been talking about how the request by the “Primates” of the Anglican Communion that the leaders of the Episcopal Church scale back their participation in the Anglican Communion’s policy-making structures raises questions about how we can tell whether formal organizational bonds are helping or harming efforts to unify Christians, and if we decide that a particular structure is doing more harm than good, how we can dissolve it without making matters even worse.  My comments are here and here.

I’m not going to vote for a Republican for president in any case, and I think Mr Rubio would do an especially bad job in the White House.  The fact that I have worked up a theory about his prospects, therefore, just goes to show what a political junkie I am.  The other topic is of more direct personal interest to me, since I am a member of the Episcopal Church, and I find some value in the “Anglican” label.  Still, I discuss that topic also in terms of political strategy.

Scope and Limits

When we started this blog, my attitude towards religion was very much that expressed by Philip Larkin in his poem “Church-Going.” Visiting a church on an empty weekday, the poet wonders “who/ will be the last, the very last, to seek/ This place for what it was”; will it be someone looking for scholarly information, or for a nostalgic thrill, or for something to steal; or:

will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

In those days, as indeed in all my days up to that point, I was like my parents, a mellow sort of agnostic who had a sense that the grown-up thing to do was to treat all the world’s major religions with as much respect, and as little outright incredulity, as possible.  I was indeed Larkin’s representative, visiting churches and other houses of worship on occasion, not to humble myself before the God in whom I could not quite imagine believing, but as a step towards assuming an adult mien.

Nowadays I’ve become a mellow sort of Christian. But the last day or two, I’ve found myself reminiscing about my Larkin-like past self. What brought me back to this was the front page of yesterday’s New York Daily News:


I saw a blog post about this by Rod Dreher that got me thinking. I read Mr Dreher’s blog every day, largely because his views are very different from mine. He is a self-identified member of the Christian Right, while I would be considered an ultra-progressive Christian if I had joined almost any group other than the Episcopal Church. So, Mr Dreher regularly hyperventilates with rage and terror over developments that I find either unimportant or entirely desirable, and occasionally ignores or even praises developments that would move me to purple-faced fury. It does me a lot of good to look at him when he’s worked up and to realize that I would look as ridiculous to him or people like him if I were to choose to get on my high horse and get all worked up about my opinions as his profession of opinion writing requires him to do about his opinions.

Mr Dreher’s post yesterday wasn’t entirely free of hyperventilation, but it did include some very good bits. There were long quotes from an Atlantic Monthly piece in which Emma Green patiently dissects the understanding of prayer that seems to inform this “prayer-shaming,” contrasting it most pungently with a request for prayer that one of the victims texted while hiding from the gunmen. Mr Dreher also quotes to good effect an essay by mellow secularist Roland Dodds on why the Left needs a vibrant Christianity.

And Mr Dreher contributes several highly trenchant remarks of his own. For example:

This is not a post about gun control, about which I believe honorable people can disagree (though let it be said that not everyone who disagrees, on both sides of the issue, does so honorably). This is a post about liberals — ordinary liberals, not fringe folk like boob-choppers — who hate conservative Christians so much that they react to a mass shooting by denouncing those Christians for praying for the dead, calling their prayers “meaningless platitudes” (unlike #SendOurGirlsHome, I guess).

This is where I remembered my Larkin-like former self. Hashtag activism, like the #SendOurGirlsHome campaign, differs from prayer, as prayer is practiced in the world’s major religions, in that it is simply an attempt to make oneself feel powerful in the face of a situation where one is in fact powerless. Prayer can be used to do that, of course, as can any practice around which superstitions accrete.

But look at the most prominent prayers of the world’s major religions. When Muslims make their confession of faith, they say that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. To say that there is no God but God is to acknowledge that there are limits to the power of human beings. The state can’t raise the dead and deliver final justice, which is what “Fixing This” would mean in the aftermath of a mass shooting.  The market can’t, and the individual can’t. Those are all phantasms created by human beings in the course of their interactions with one another, by themselves as inert and as much a dead-end as were any of the idols of wood and stone that Muhammad busied himself destroying.  To say “Muhammad is his prophet” is to say that, limited as we are, we do have access to knowledge of our duties and we have been granted the power to at least try to fulfill those duties. So a prayer like that acknowledges both the scope and the limits of human power and of human moral responsibility.

In my youth, I spent a great deal of time studying the works of the theorist Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.) As I was when I was reading his works, Babbitt was an agnostic who believed that there were great truths to be found in the world’s religions. He embarked on a Perennialist project, finding that all of the great wise men of history, including the founders of every major religion, agreed with him on all the most important issues of morality, politics, art, etc. It’s easy to look at that sort of conclusion and chuckle, but it is worth pointing out that Babbitt’s students from China, such as the famous Lin Yutang, remarked that his understanding of Confucius was deep and that his learning in Confucian and Buddhist thought was comparable to that of experts in their homeland.

One of Babbitt’s great contributions to the study of Buddhism was his translation of the Dhammapada. In that translation and in the accompanying essay, “The Buddha and the Occident,” Babbitt stresses the contrast the Buddha draws between pamada, which Babbitt translates as “laziness,” and its negation, appamada, which he translates in a variety of ways. Since pamada is often characterized by frantic activity, it may seem odd to call it laziness- perhaps “procrastination” would create a clearer mental image. What one does in a state of pamada, one does as an evasion of the true work of adjusting one’s will to the higher law, the moral constants of the cosmos.

In this distinction, I think I see the same sense of the scope and limits of human responsibility that informs the Muslim confession of faith.  Our attempts to control the material world, to control other people, to remake the past, are futile, are pamada, because these things are not in fact within our power. We show true appamada only when we surrender our useless attempts to control the outside world and concentrate our energies on controlling ourselves so that we may conform to the supernatural order.  As we approach this conformity, we may become more active or less active in the world, but that activity is incidental to the great struggle within.

As for Christians, when we say the Lord’s Prayer we too acknowledge the scope and limits of our powers. “Our Father,” we call God- we are his children, not his servants, for the servant does not know the master’s business; but we know God’s business. If we are children, we are heirs, and heirs have the power and the duty to do the father’s business. But our knowledge is limited, and our power is limited. The prayer brings us up against those limits sharply. We are so weak and needy as to be dependent on God even for our daily bread; so broken that we are dependent on him even for the forgiveness we continually need to receive and to give, and for freedom from an infinite array of temptations, none of which we could resist on our own. It is his will that is to be done, not ours.

“Thy will be done.” I often think of a colleague of mine who, many years after earning his doctorate, after decades of toiling in low-paying jobs in and out of his his field, was finally about to receive tenure at a university. Then his wife, a nurse who worked with the severely disabled, was hit by a reckless driver and herself rendered massively disabled, physically and cognitively. He took early retirement to care for her full-time. He remarked “Sometimes it dawns on you just what those words we say every day really mean.” Thy will be done.

Whatever else it may or may not do, prayer does cure the state of mind which reflexively demands “Fix this!” in the face of death. It may be, as Alexander Schmemann so memorably argued, that the Christian does look at death with defiance, confident that God will fix this. But God will fix it in God’s own time, in God’s own way, which is beyond our power and beyond our imagining.

As for gun control, if it is a good idea, then surely prayers like those which Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and others say will incline them to support it, inasmuch as these prayers involve accepting that there is a sphere within which do have the power and therefore the duty to do good things. Most of the world’s population does, after all, follow one or another of the great religions, and in very few countries are legislators and rulers unable to find ways to pass the time.

What does induce culpable inactivity, I would say, is exhausted panic. Earlier today I saw a brief article in which Hamilton Nolan points out that, in all likelihood, “You Will Not Die in a Mass Shooting.” Of course the first comment identified “this pronouncement” as “basically the working talking point of every conservative politician ever” and extrapolated from it the idea that “People don’t ever really die in ‘mass shootings.'” As if people who do not actively believe that they personally are about to die in a mass shooting will not accept the reality of mass shootings or support policies that they were convinced would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings, as if there was no space between panicked lunacy and sullen lunacy. Realism, as in the acceptance of the fact that human power is considerable but not infinite that prayer induces, creates such a space, while sentimentalism collapses it. So, I call for your prayers today.


Four reasons why quoting the Bible rarely settles political disagreements

I spend a fair bit of time hanging out with mild-mannered progressive Christians.  One thing that I like about the members of that group is that they don’t often try to spring Bible quotes on you as a means of settling political disagreements.  The last couple of weeks, though. there has been a tremendous amount of backsliding among progressive Christians in this regard. As a result, I’ve been avoiding social media lately.* So many of my friends have been quoting passages from Leviticus and the Gospel According to Luke as if those passages made it obvious what policies the United States of America and the European Union should adopt towards refugees and migrants from southwest Asia, and have been calling down fire and brimstone on those who are unconvinced, that my news feed on Facebook and my stream on Twitter have started to feel like a tent revival with an especially dyspeptic preaching staff.  Quite a few people whom I know to be committed universalists, believers in a doctrine holding that all souls are destined for salvation, have posted statements that those who do not share their position on this issue will be going to Hell.

There are many hazards to attempts to use the Bible to settle political disagreements.  Some are more obvious than others.  For example:

  1. Not everyone agrees that the Bible is authoritative. This is a sufficiently familiar point that I can hardly imagine it needs elaboration.
  2. Not everyone who does agree that the Bible is authoritative agrees on how it should be interpreted.In connection with border policy, relaxationists like to quote two excerpts from the Gospel of Luke. These excerpts are the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  The Samaritan is good because he shows hospitality to a non-Samaritan, the shepherd chooses those who perform such acts of mercy as welcoming strangers and rejects those who do not.  Advocates of a relaxationist stand on border policy trot these verses out in confidence that they will clobber restrictionists into silence.

    And so they may.  But beware.  One Samaritan is good to the beaten man; three Jews are bad to him.  That story could as easily be called “The Parable of the Bad Jews” as the “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  And so on with the rest of the Gospel of Luke, including the sheep and the goats.  The consistent, overarching theme of the whole thing is that early first century Jews are hypocrites, unworthy of their divine heritage, and that they will be punished unless they join the movement forming around Jesus.  Progressive Christians reflexively identify themselves and the church as the heirs of this rebuke, and say that the strictures that Jesus lays upon the superficially pious Jews of his day apply to the superficially Christians of our day.  But that is not the only interpretation Luke has received over the centuries.  Plenty of readers, among them people wielding whatever form of sacred or secular authority you may find impressive, have read Luke as a mandate for every form of anti-Jewish activity, up to and including genocidal violence.  If that’s the road you’re bent to follow, nothing in the Bible will stop you traveling down it.

  3. The Bible is a complex book, political disputes are complex situations, and overlaying the one complexity on top of the other leads to more confusion than enlightenment.  It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone really does not accept that a book like the Bible, 36,000 verses in a variety of languages and literary genres, produced by the work of untold numbers of people over more than a dozen centuries, can provide a reader with support for any position that reader would like to see supported. Still, people do seem to lose sight of this.Here’s a tweet that exemplifies the problem:https://twitter.com/owillis/status/666345924013252609

    To which a smart-aleck might reply that the command to uproot the seed of Amalek is limited neither by the liturgical calendar nor by the passage of centuries, and inquire if that is the model Mr Willis would have us follow.

    If we do want to stick with something specifically called for by the liturgical calendar, in the impeccably progressive Episcopal Church this morning’s Daily Office reading from the Old Testament was from the prophet Joel (chapter 3, verses 1-2 and 9-17.) It includes a call for the Jews of the Diaspora to reverse what Isaiah had seen, to beat ploughshares into swords and pruning hooks into spears, to stand in the valley and do battle for the heritage of Israel.  It concludes with the lines “And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it.”

    I’d certainly rather we lean towards a relaxationist line than a restrictionist one, and if we have no choice but to cite Bible verses in defense of border policy, I’d always prefer a sanitized view of Luke to a full-throated version of Joel, or Exodus, or Deuteronomy, or Samuel, or Joshua.  But I think a wiser use of the Bible starts with verses 26.4 and 26.5 of the Book of Proverbs:
    26.4. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
    26.5. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

    Do these verses contradict each other?  Obviously they contradict each other; that’s the point.  The Bible is a reliable companion, and can be a wise counselor, if we listen to it in the right mind.  But it doesn’t make our decisions for us.  We’re still responsible for living our lives.  We need our own judgment to tell us whether any particular group of people are fools or not.  Having decided that they are fools, we need our judgment to decide whether, in a given situation, it is more important to keep ourselves distinct from their foolishness or to try to persuade them to leave it behind.  Once we’ve made that decision, the appropriate proverb will tell us the consequence of our decision.  Holding aloof from folly, we must abide it in silence.  Trying to correct folly, we must ourselves become somewhat foolish.

    In regard to border policy, I think the Bible is useful to us only after we have decided whether we, like Moses and Joshua and Samuel and Joel, are members of a community that is called upon to establish itself as a distinct people with a distinct destiny in the divine drama of history, or whether we, like the contemporaries of Jesus as described in Luke, are members of a community that has gone as far in that drama as distinctiveness will take it and so must set our distinctions aside and embrace a new kind of identity.  I tend to lean toward the shedding distinctiveness side, and rarely read the violent passages of scripture without horror and revulsion.  But my progressive friends, in their spasms of self-righteousness, have managed to take their immigration relaxationism so far that I am coming to see value even in the injunctions to smite Amalek.

  4. One theme the Bible makes abundantly clear is that God will surprise us.  The Bible time and again tells us explicitly that God will surprise us; it articulates a world-view every portion of which implies that God will surprise us; it tells the stories of hundreds of people, all of whom are at some point God surprises; and readers of the Bible, every time they turn to it with their ears and minds open, will be freshly surprised by its contents.  Sometimes the surprises the Bible tells us to watch for will be pleasant. God will answer prayers, make miracles, and provide evidence that we are right and the other fellow is wrong.  These are very agreeable surprises.  Other times the surprises are extremely disagreeable.  Among the consequences of disagreeable surprises is the realization that all of our beliefs have been ill-founded.  Therefore, citing the Bible in order to justify one’s certitude that one’s beliefs are well-founded is likely to exasperate those daily readers of the Bible who have internalized its injunctions to accept that God alone is wise, that God alone knows in full what God’s plans are for us and for the world, and that God’s ways are not our ways and cannot be searched by our lights.

*WordPress is an unsocial medium, an online hermitage, as witness the fact that it’s almost indecent to blog under your real name here.

Halloween logic

Saul and the Witch of Endor, by Washington Allston

A few days ago, Rod Dreher posted some thoughts about séances, mediums, and the like.  This prompted me to arrange some thoughts about the topic as a formal argument.

  1. Either disembodied spirits operate in the world, or they do not.
  2. If they do not, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would not be able to deliver the service which they advertise.
    1. Moreover, any good we might incidentally receive in the course of our dealings with mediums would be, on the one hand, offset by the harm we would be doing by supporting a fraudulent business, and, on the other hand, would likely be available in other forms, offered by trustworthy psychotherapists or other honest dealers.
  3. If disembodied spirits do operate in the world, either they have intentions concerning our well-being, or they do not.
  4. If they do not have intentions concerning our well-being, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would in such a case have no messages to convey to us.
  5. If they do have intentions concerning our well-being, either those intentions are all alike, or they are not all alike.
  6. If they are all alike, either all of them are friendly, or all of them are hostile.
  7. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are friendly, the degree of suffering and injustice humans endure in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  8. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are hostile, the degree of prosperity and good feeling humans enjoy in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  9. If disembodied spirits are of little consequence in the world, we ought not to do business with mediums, as the information they offer is of insufficient practical value to justify the investment, not only of money, but of intellectual attention and emotional energy, which they demand.
  10. If disembodied spirits exist, have intentions concerning our well-being, and are of great consequence in the world, points 7 and 8 above show that some of them must be friendly towards us, while others are hostile.
  11. There is not now and likely will never be an empirical test to determine whether a particular disembodied spirit is friendly or hostile in its intentions concerning our well-being.
  12. Either there are mediums who can facilitate communication between us and disembodied spirits, or there are not.
  13. If there are not, then we ought not to do business with mediums, for the same reasons explained under point 2 above.
  14. If there are, then we ought not to do business with mediums, as we would have no empirical test to determine whether the spirit communicating with us through the medium was a friendly spirit providing information that would lead us to good, or a hostile spirit providing information that would lead to our destruction.
    1. Even if a friendly spirit did provide us with information that would benefit us, the success of that act of communication would likely bring us back to the medium for further consultations.  Since there is no test to distinguish friendly spirits from hostile ones, each further consultation would represent another opportunity for a hostile spirit to approach us.
  15. Therefore, we ought not under any circumstances do business with mediums.

I rather wonder what the relationship is between a logical construction like this and the sorts of games fortune-tellers play.  Games such as the Tarot, the I Ching, the Ouija board, etc.

Once, when I was in a logic class in college, the professor said something he usually had occasion to say at least once a week, “A valid argument is one where, if you accept that the premises are true, you must accept that the conclusion is also true.”  What made this occasion different was what he said next: “You may wonder where that ‘must’ comes from.  Who says you ‘must’ accept the conclusion of a valid argument if its premises are true? That would appear to be an ethical statement.  In that sense logic is a subfield of ethics.”  This remark was particularly striking coming as it did from a professor who taught only logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mathematics.  He never taught ethics or anything too obviously derivative of ethics.  But it did seem unavoidable to him that logic was ultimately rooted in the moral sense.

A culture might regard a particular divination game as a holy act of obligation.  It is certainly the case that many groups of people defined by religion look on each others’ practices as so much traffic with the spiritual forces of darkness.  Perhaps the rules of logic according to which I constructed the argument above would seem to some or other religious group to be as peculiar and as unwholesome as the rules of a séance would appear to me.

A logical God?

Probably the least popular of all the familiar arguments that are from time to time offered to prove the existence of God is the Ontological Proof.  Here is a one-paragraph synopsis of Saint Anselm’s version of the Ontological Proof, taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The first, and best-known, ontological argument was proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th. century C.E. In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists.

Even believers tend to react to the Ontological Proof with distaste and irritation.  So it was rather interesting when, in 2013, German logicians Christoph Benzmüller and Bruno Woltzenlogel Paleo proved that Kurt Gödel’s demonstration that the basic axioms of Logic K, a form of modal logic developed by Saul Kripke (the “K” in “Logic K” stands for “Kripke,”) imply that the Ontological Proof is sound.

Logic K is not the only possible system of logic, so this implication does not by itself prove that God exists.  What makes Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work so interesting is that Logic K is an extremely simple system, especially as compared with a system like arithmetic, which as Gödel himself showed is infinitely complex in its basic axioms.  The reasoning we use in practical life adds manifold layers of complexity to propositional frameworks such as those of formal logic or mathematics.  If something as specific as monotheism can come springing out of something as spare as the basic axioms of Logic K, then the idea that any form of rigorous intellectual activity can be neutral regarding the kinds of questions monotheism is supposed to answer becomes tenuous.

That is not to say that our cultural formation precedes our intellectual activity, and so that all of our systematic reasoning is infused with the particular circumstances of the society in which we were raised, often in ways of which we are unaware.  It would no doubt be true to say this; however, it is a statement that rests on the findings of the social sciences, expressed in language that has grown up in the development of those sciences.  And the social sciences themselves derive their authority from their status as products of rigorous intellectual activity.  If all such activity is already implicated in theology, then an attempt to confine the implications of Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work to areas already explored by the social sciences is an attempt to minimize the scope of the problem.

A God who holds the world record for eating the most skateboards is greater than a God who does not hold that record

xkcd 1505

Nor is it even to say that as we develop a system of reasoning we are condemned to stack the deck, consciously or unconsciously, in favor of our own religious commitments.  Aristotle grew up in a society in which monotheism was an alien phenomenon which, on those rare occasions when it would be mentioned, was regarded with undisguised contempt. Yet, as such Muslim and Christian commentators on Aristotle as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas showed many centuries ago, Aristotle’s logic works best when it is applied to a monotheistic universe.  Aristotle himself would no doubt have regarded this as a reductio ad absurdum of his work, and would have gone back to the drawing board to produce a new system of logic, one that fit with what he regarded as the real world of multiple gods and other beings whom it was obligatory to worship.  Perhaps he would have succeeded in creating such a system; he was Aristotle, after all, and was as well equipped as anyone has ever been to accomplish such a thing.  But as it happens, he never had occasion to try, and for two thousand years Aristotle’s logic was the prevailing system in the world from India to Ireland.

When Aristotle’s system of logic was in favor, the work of men like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas gave compelling grounds for accepting monotheism.  That Aristotle, as a polytheist from a resolutely polytheistic culture, could not be accused of stacking the deck to produce a system that supported monotheism, certainly added to the force of these grounds.  Nowadays, Aristotle’s logic is obsolete, and so one could hardly expect logicians to become monotheists simply because the Medieval Scholastics found in it support for monotheism.

Still, that it is monotheism that jumps out, not only from a logical system constructed by a rabbi’s son like Saul Kripke on the basis of a metaphysics constructed by vaguely Christian thinker like Leibniz, but also from a system constructed by the thoroughly pagan Aristotle, does make it difficult to claim that the relationship between monotheism and systematic reasoning is entirely an illusion resulting from indoctrination in monotheism.  It is likely that the idea of a single deity who is the supreme creator, ruler, and judge of the world is a sort of default position built into the whole project of codifying the rules of logic.

Just as it does not follow from the fact that Logic K rests on axioms which, taken together, imply the existence of God, that God in fact exists, so it would not follow from God’s status as a default hypothesis of formal logic that God in fact exists.  Like all other human activities, formal logic is a byproduct of any number of particular and contingent circumstances, starting with the biological adaptations that enabled our ancestors to survive, continuing through the particularities of our cultural backgrounds, and continuing through the countless vicissitudes that make it possible to distinguish the life of one individual from that of another.  It may well be that formal logic, mathematics, and the sciences, pursuits in which only a small minority of the people in the world today and only a minuscule percentage of all the people who have ever lived take an interest, will ultimately prove to be trivial matters sharply limited in their ability to cast light on the weightiest matters.  Perhaps the sorts of things most people find more interesting and which a majority has always found to be more interesting will prove to be more powerful aids to understanding, or perhaps systematized reasoning in the forms we now know will ultimately turn out to be relatively trivial preparations for some new form of understanding that awaits us in the future.  Perhaps neither of those things will happen, but we will simply come to accept a tendency to monotheism as a not-very-interesting shortcoming inherent in projects to codify the rules of correct reasoning.

Of course, monotheism is also a minority pursuit in the overall picture of humanity.  At no point in the history of the world has a majority of the human race been monotheistic in its views.  Today Christians, Muslims, Jews, and members of other monotheistic groups are probably more numerous than ever before, yet they still comprise well under half the world’s people.  What is more, monotheism seems to have been invented only once, in Babylon during the Captivity, while polytheism, animism, ancestor-worship, and other religious orientations all likely arose independently in many times and places.  In that context, monotheism looks like a freak occurrence.

It is that very freakishness that makes the recurrence of monotheism at the roots of logical systems a matter of interest.  If something so particular can keep cropping up wherever people make their most intense attempts to be general, what oddities might come out of the far more complicated sets of axioms that underlie applied reasoning?  In the light of what Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo have shown about Logic K, we could hardly be surprised if hidden somewhere in the axioms of trigonometry were a recipe for kosher chicken soup, or for that matter if a description of the Loch Ness Monster were encoded somewhere in Newton’s Laws of Motion.

We used to dream of having a hundred sheep

The good shepherd

The other day, Mrs Acilius and I went to see the feature film Shaun the Sheep.  A story about a flock of sheep who rebel against their shepherd and then struggle to be reunited with him sounds rather like a pastiche of Jesus’ parables, so I remembered something about those parables that I’d been meaning to post for some time.

Amy-Jill Levine, author of last year’s Short Stories by Jesus, remarks that the characters in Jesus’ parables are usually pretty rich. Very few people would have a flock of a hundred sheep, for example.  I don’t think this is very hard to explain.  Most people do fantasize from time about being rich. These fantasies give a speaker many reasons to populate stories s/he wants his or her audience to remember with rich characters.  Among those reasons are these four:

  1. Fantasies of wealth draw people to collect information about the rich and to identify with them.  Therefore, details about the lives of the rich are likelier to be familiar to a large and diverse audience than are details about any other subset of the population.

    If Jesus were telling parables that took place among workers in the building trades, for example, members of his immediate family might have been able to follow what he was talking about, but people who made their living in other walks of life would probably have lost the thread somewhere along the way.

  2. Fantasies of wealth bring some measure of cheer to people who entertain them.  They bring other feelings too, of course, and are often cause and symptom of serious problems, but people get hooked on them the way they get hooked on everything else, by pleasure in the first few experiences.

    We can see something similar in, for example, the way debates about pacifism tend to go.  Godwin’s Law states that every Internet discussion that goes on long enough involves a reference to Hitler; discussions of pacifism, whether conducted online or face-to-face, needn’t go on more than about 10 seconds, usually, before someone asks “What do you do if you’re confronted with Hitler?”  Well, if you’re an average person, you hope he doesn’t notice you, since there’s bugger all you can do if the absolute dictator of your country decides you are his enemy.  But the “you” in that question is not the average individual under Hitler’s rule.  Rather, it is some hypothetical person who rules an empire capable of opposing the Third Reich effectively by military means.  Of course this is the example opponents of pacifism always choose; examples drawn from situations in which an average person might actually have a strong reason to consider the use of violence, such as bullying, street crime, domestic violence, etc, are not only complex, but are also immensely depressing.  Imagining oneself to be the hugely popular prime minister of France in the early 1930s, or the unchallenged dictator of Britain in the mid-1930s, or the god-emperor of the USA in the late 1930s, is quite pleasant enough to offset any discomfort that arises from thinking about the Nazis for a couple of minutes.

  3. Fantasies are abstract enough that they can be narrowed in application to a single point.

    If the first audience that heard the parable of the lost sheep were a convention of extremely prosperous sheepmen, then the line “If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one who wandered off”? might have led to an intricate discussion about the practicalities of flock management.  If, on the other hand, no one in the audience has done more than wish s/he had a hundred sheep and tried to imagine what it would be like to have so large a flock, then the speaker could be confident that the audience would bypass such irrelevant matters and take the main point.

  4. Fantasies, no matter how many people share them, always take shape in the intimate confines of the private mind.  So when first one hears a fantasy of one’s own described in public by someone else, the thought might occur, “That person is reading my mind!”  Even if, upon reflection, one realizes that one’s fantasies are probably quite commonplace, indeed that the intimate confines of one’s private mind are probably pretty much indistinguishable from the intimate confines of everyone else’s minds, that reaction often lasts long enough that one is left with a feeling that one has been understood.

    That’s one of the reasons why science fiction is so popular.  No matter how many people might fantasize about flying among the stars, meeting aliens, traveling through time, etc, the first time one sees such a fantasy in a book or film or other product created by someone else, there is a shock of recognition, a feeling that the creators of that work have heard and shared one’s own secret thoughts.  So of course a preacher who knows his or her business will try to create that same shock of recognition as a step towards encouraging his or her audience to feel that s/he has an intimate connection with them.

Does the Shroud of Turin disprove the Gospels?

More than meets the eye?

In April, I noticed a post on Rod Dreher‘s blog about the Shroud of Turin.  Mr Dreher had been impressed by a book, Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery: Six Holy Objects That Tell the Remarkable Story of the Gospels, by David Gibson and Michael McKinley, a companion volume to the CNN series of the same awkwardly punctuated name.  The other day, I saw that the Reverend Mr Dwight Longenecker, a former Anglican priest turned Roman Catholic, had also posted about the shroud, quoting at length from an article at National Geographic in which the shroud’s puzzling nature is explored.

I will take the liberty of reproducing the bits in which Messrs. Dreher and Longenecker quote the scientific results which they find most exciting.  From Mr Dreher:

The one artifact in the book that really cannot be explained satisfactorily is the Shroud of Turin. Watch a CNN clip about it here. Gibson and McKinley write that the 1988 radiocarbon tests that demonstrated the Shroud was a medieval fake turned out to have been made not from the original shroud, but by an edge that had been patched onto the shroud in the 14th century. “Subsequent experiments cast further doubts on a medieval origin for the burial cloth,” they write.

Then, in recent years, the pace of revelations picked up. In 2011, scientists at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and Sustainable Economic Development found that the markings on the shroud could have been created only by a “blinding flash of light.” Other, new experiments detected the ancient version of a “death certificate” on the shroud, while a recent study showed that the blood patterns on this “Man of Sorrows” indicated he was crucified on a Y-shaped cross — not the traditional T-shaped one that is the central icon of Christian art, and so central to Western civilization.

The authors say that “of all the Jesus relics in existence, [the shroud] is the best documented.” We know that the existence of a shroud-like burial cloth for Jesus is written about in the Gospels, having been purchased by Joseph of Arimathea. Jewish burial practices of the day are consistent with the image of the man on the shroud. Shroud debunkers allege that it was not mentioned in writings until the Middle Ages, but that is not true. St. Jerome writes about it in the fourth century. There is other historical evidence that Christians in the early church were aware of the shroud, and written accounts of it being displayed in the Christian East. Evidence strongly suggests turned up in medieval France as Crusader loot after Western Christian armies sacked Constantinople. In 1207, the authors write, a Catholic translator for the newly seated Latin patriarch of Athens wrote about how French knights robbed “the treasury of the Great Palace, where the holy objects had been kept,” and how he personally saw, with his own eyes, the burial linens of Jesus.

Scientifically, the tests on the shroud have produced remarkable results. Detailed analysis of the image showed that there is a three-dimensional quality to it, not observable to the naked eye, and that could not have been produced by painting. The stains on the shroud come not from paint, but human blood, and their patterning indicate that the man of the shroud suffered a savage flogging consistent with what the Gospels say Jesus endured before crucifixion.

The shroud depicts a crucifixion victim nailed to the cross through his wrists — this, even though Christian art shows Jesus nailed through his hands. We now know that the crucified had to have been nailed through their wrists, because nailing them through their hands would have been insufficient to support the weight of the body on the cross.

Scientists have found pollen on the shroud that can only have come from plants around Jerusalem — plants in bloom in the spring, in the season of Passover, when Jesus died. Particles from limestone tombs found in the Jerusalem area were discovered embedded in the shroud. More recently, detailed medical analysis confirms that the man of the shroud suffered precisely what the Gospels say Jesus suffered.

And then there is the matter of the Sudarium of Oviedo. I knew that the Sudarium existed, but I did not know until reading Finding Jesus that it had been used to validate claims for the Turin shroud as the burial cloth of the Nazarene.

From Mr Longenecker:

After my visit I am more convinced than ever not only that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Christ, but that the mysterious image was produced by a blast of radiance from the resurrection. Those who wish to research the shroud can find scholarly and popular articles here and here. The most interesting thing about the shroud is the more scientific research is done the more the claims to authenticity accumulate. Not only is the image on the shroud that of a crucified man, but a particular crucified man.

He wore a crown of thorns. His legs were not broken. His face was punched. His side was pierced in a way consistent with a Roman spear. His back shows the marks of a severe flogging consistent with the flagellum used by the Romans. In other words, all the wounds match those not just of any crucified man, but those unique to Jesus of Nazareth.

Other details match in an extraordinary way. Fabric experts acknowledge that the particular linen cloth matches that used in the first century by wealthy individuals. The chemical traces on the cloth match the herbs and spices that were known to be used for Jewish burials in Roman times. Pollen from the shroud matches that present in Jerusalem in the first century. New scientific dating techniques counter the 1988 carbon 14 dating which identified a medieval date and they date the shroud to the first century.

Most mysterious is the image itself. In 1978 a team of American researchers were finally given access to the shroud. They ran a whole series of tests covering the range of scientific disciplines. Their analyses found no sign of artificial pigments and they concluded, “The Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist.” What formed the image? The scientists were stumped and admitted that “no combination of physical, chemical, biological or medical circumstances” could adequately account for the image.

Di Lazzaro and his colleagues at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) experimented for five years, using modern excimer lasers to train short bursts of ultraviolet light on raw linen, in an effort to simulate the image’s coloration.So what formed the image? The best description is that it is an extremely delicate singe marking. Italian physicist Paolo Di Lazzaro concedes in an article for National Geographic that every scientific attempt to replicate it in a lab has failed. “Its precise hue is highly unusual, and the color’s penetration into the fabric is extremely thin, less than 0.7 micrometers (0.000028 inches), one-thirtieth the diameter of an individual fiber in a single 200-fiber linen thread.”

They came tantalizingly close to replicating the image’s distinctive color on a few square centimeters of fabric. However, they were unable to match all the physical and chemical characteristics of the shroud image, and reproducing a whole human figure was far beyond them. De Lazzaro explained that the ultraviolet light necessary to reproduce the image of the crucified man “exceeds the maximum power released by all ultraviolet light sources available today.” The time for such a burst would be shorter than one forty-billionth of a second, and the intensity of the ultra violet light would have to be around several billion watts.”

The scientists shrug and say the only explanation lies beyond the realm of twenty-first century technoscience. In other words, the extraordinary burst of ultra violet light is not only beyond the ability and technology of a medieval forger. It is beyond the ability and technology of the best twenty-first century scientists.

What could explain all of this?  If no known technological process could have produced the image on the shroud, and the only unknown technological processes that could have produced it would be the result either of the greatest design fluke in history or of contact with visitors from outer space, perhaps we should discard the forgery hypothesis and turn next to a search for a natural process that could have produced the image.  There may in fact be such a process.  Lightning is an extremely energetic and poorly understood phenomenon; it was only in 2009 that it was discovered that lightning often produces significant amounts of antimatter in the upper atmosphere.  No one had expected to find this, and no one can explain it.  Bursts of ultraviolet radiation are a lot less exotic than appearances of antimatter, and so would be significantly less surprising as phenomena associated with lightning.

So, perhaps at some point in the middle decades of the first century CE in or near the city of Jerusalem the body of a man who had been scourged, jabbed in the side with a spear, mounted on a cross, fastened to that cross with nails through his wrists and feet, and subjected to a group of small puncture wounds on the forehead was wrapped in the shroud that has been on display in Turin for the last several centuries.  Before that man’s body was buried or entombed, it was struck by lightning, producing a burst of ultraviolet rays that created the image on the shroud.  This event, occurring in an urban area and centering on the body of a man whose gruesome death a crowd would have witnessed at most a few hours before, would certainly have been very much discussed.  One must suppose that people would try to find religious significance in it, and that in the course of those discussions many people would claim, whether truthfully or not, to have been associated with the man during his lifetime.

Perhaps the whole story of Jesus, as it has come down to us, grew from the reactions to this event.  Or perhaps the story of Jesus as we have it represents the conflation of several stories.  It is difficult to imagine that the man whose image is preserved in the shroud is not the man whose crucifixion is described in the Gospels, but not so difficult to imagine that stories about another man, who was also crucified in Jerusalem around the same time and who was well-known locally before his crucifixion as the leader of a new religious movement, would be combined with the story of the man whose crucifixion was followed by the spectacular event of a lightning bolt and the transformation of his burial cloth into the object we now see in Turin.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that Jesus’ body was struck by lightning after it was removed from the cross.  If the image on the shroud turns out to have been created by lightning, the evidence connecting it with first-century Jerusalem, the fact that its appearance in first-century Jerusalem would certainly have caused great excitement there, and the similarity of the wounds the man had to the wounds the Gospels attribute to Jesus makes that silence a tremendous obstacle to accepting the historicity of the Gospels, I would say a far bigger obstacle than any of the gaps or discrepancies of detail that New Testament scholars have yet uncovered.

All the other problems fade pretty quickly once you start thinking of the Gospels as what they originally were, a collection of liturgical resources more akin to a hymnal than to a biographical study.  The Gospels are series of pericopes, distinct passages designed to be read aloud or recited at particular moments in worship services.  No doubt these pericopes took shape gradually in the worship services Christians conducted in the decades between Jesus’ death and the production of the first written versions of the Gospels.  It is hardly surprising that the Gospels diverge in various details and leave out many things a modern reader might like to know.  To the extent that those divergences and gaps show us anything, they show us only that there are certain things we care about that the late first century Church didn’t care about at all and that the fourth century Church didn’t care about sufficiently to do anything about them at the First Council of Nicaea (325 CE.)

However, if the body of the man whose crucifixion was described in the Gospels was struck by lightning before it could be buried or entombed, and if that lightning strike created the image we see on the Shroud of Turin, that is something we can be sure everyone in Jerusalem would have cared about and would have talked about for years. If that did happen and it isn’t recorded or even hinted at anywhere in the New Testament, we must ask whether any of the authors of the New Testament had any connection with Jesus at all, and if not whether their accounts are reliable at any point.  Surely anyone who was in Jerusalem that day, or who had talked about the events of the day with people who were there, would have known about such an extraordinary occurrence.  And surely anyone who goes to the lengths the authors of the New Testament do to stress the point that extraordinary occurrences tended to happen when Jesus was around would have been highly motivated to make note of it had a lightning strike hit his body and emblazoned his image on his shroud.  If the Gospels and the liturgies for which they were prepared grew up among people who were so remote from Jesus and his inner circle that such an event could have taken place without their knowledge, then there isn’t much left for Christians to believe.

So, for Christians, there seems to be a great deal at stake in the question of what precisely the Shroud of Turin is.  If the recent studies of it are all wrong, if the researchers have been led astray by their religious biases and it is after all a forgery from the Middle Ages, then the crisis is averted.  If the studies hold up, and if the image does prove to be the result of a lightning strike, do Christians have a way out?

Maybe they do.  I can think of two reasons why something so important might deliberately be left out of the New Testament.  First, it could be that the Church, subject as it was to persecution, did not want to attract its enemies’ attention to the existence of so precious a relic.  Second, since the shroud is a single object, it must be kept in a single location owned by a single authority.  Yet by the time of the very earliest writings in the New Testament, the Church was already composed of multiple autonomous groups bound together by goodwill and the habit of imitation rather than a unity of command-and-control structures (see 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:3,) and the Gospels explicitly state that Jesus endorsed this decentralized organizational model (Mark 9:30-39, Luke 9:46-50.)*  Whichever group had the shroud in its possession would be in a unique position to claim to be The Church, as indeed the Roman Catholic Church has for some time been pleased to do.  So, other groups would be leery of such claims, and the group that had safekeeping of the shroud would be tactless to make too much of that fact.  A document originating from a group other than the one that had custody of the shroud would therefore be unlikely to call its own authority into question by dwelling on the shroud, while a document originating from the group that did have custody of it, if the group meant to invite other, independent groups to make liturgical use of the document, would not be much likelier to dwell on it.

If the shroud is the shroud of someone else, and it is simply a fantastic coincidence that the body of another man, crucified in the same city in the same century with the same wounds as Jesus was struck by lightning and that that lightning created the image we see on the Shroud of Turin, then I believe Christians must hope that someday a scrap of paper will surface from some lost first-century document mentioning that coincidence, and saying that people marveled at the fact that in one city in one lifetime two crucified men were the center of fantastic events that took place after their deaths.  Perhaps such a hypothetical scrap would go on to say that the shroud had fallen into the hands of some gang of heretics who were using it to prop up their claim to be The Church, and that orthodox Christians, embarrassed by this gross blasphemy, tried to pass it over in silence.  Failing the appearance of such a scrap, if we should learn that the shroud was someone else’s, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the crucifixion stories in the Gospels are retellings of that man’s crucifixion, not the crucifixion of Jesus.  In that case, everything about Jesus before and after the crucifixion narratives would also fall to pieces.

Now, this idea of mine about lightning is just a hypothesis.  Subsequent examination may prove that a lightning strike could not have caused the image to appear.  Tests may also confirm the results that seem to rule out a forgery.  And our knowledge of nature may advance to the point where we can be confident that no other natural phenomenon could have produced the image.  Should that day come, we would be left to choose between, on the one hand, a miraculous explanation such as a burst of ultraviolet radiation accompanying the Resurrection, and on the other a science-fiction explanation involving either incautious visitors from outer space or mischievous time travelers from the far future.  We aren’t there yet, and devotees of the Shroud of Turin should be aware that the road that may someday lead us there may also, for all science can now tell us, lead us to the very last place they would ever want us to find ourselves.

*Matthew 7:22-23 limits the application of these verses to the ecclesiological question by excluding them from the question of salvation.  That is to say, the fact that people welcome the lowly and cast out demons in Jesus’ name shows that their acts are the acts of the Church, but it does not by itself show that those people will not ultimately be damned.