Friday, July 31, 2015

Please Exercise Caution

A reader asked about my pronouncements on the Second Commandment.  It started with the discussion of the numbering, because different traditions do divide them differently, and I use the Lutheran numbering just from habit. I think my children use the numbering common to the Reformed churches.

He wondered about my sources for the ideas, as it has some bearing on a related discussion he is involved in.  That set me back.  I can usually identify where I first encountered such ideas, but could not think of anything. It seemed to have been part of the furniture for a long time. Here is the more difficult part of this: therefore, I don’t know who else teaches this.

I still assert it. I consider the main idea behind the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain to be a warning against false teaching, claiming that God said something that he actually didn’t.  “Don’t put God’s signature under your ideas,” is my favorite metaphor for that. However,  I think the common interpretation has some value. Most cultures, and certainly Hebrew culture, placed a lot of importance on words as words, and even more on names as names.  To treat God’s name(s) with reverence is consonant with the whole style of taking off your shoes on holy ground, or not touching the Ark of the Covenant. I think that is also a meaning.  The set of ideas around vows and swearing by what is on the altar is referenced by Jesus and is also part of the commandment, though it doesn’t seem to have much utility in our culture now. I see this teaching as related to idolatry and graven images, of confusing in our minds (or misleading others) who God actually is and the importance of his voice as opposed to his appearance.

I can’t imagine I’m the first person to come up with this idea.  If I am, then I would have to declare it wrong. It is beyond credibility that God would leave an important main idea lying around for a few thousand years without poking someone to pick up the threads. We can safely assume that the collective wisdom of the church exceeds the wisdom of an assistant village idiot. I have thought of this as a neglected interpretation, which people have avoided because it is uncomfortable to the point of being frightening. But if it’s new, then it’s invalid.

I have certainly thought it for many years. My associations with the idea are from Genesis and Exodus, from the first chapters of the prophet Isaiah, from the Revelation to John, and from the words of Jesus. Those are also the areas I would point to as evidence for the idea that the commandment focuses on not misrepresenting God. The idea shows up at the beginning of Scripture and the founding of Israel - it is prominent right out of the gate; neither adding nor subtracting from the scripture is also one of the last things said in the Bible; when Jesus comes on the scene we would expect him to focus on main points, and he does devote a lot of energy to criticising scribes and Pharisees not so much for their personal behavior (though that is there), but for misleading others about what God is telling them to do. Blind guides, weightier matters of the law, millstones around the neck and all that. As for Isaiah, I think I take that as a synecdoche of all those discussions in the prophets of “Thus saith The Lord.”

So be cautious. I think it’s valid, but it’s not common, and people aren’t going to recognize it when you bring it up at Bible study.

Two For Ben

I finally finished and sent along books for my second son.
The daily strip has its home over at Radio Free Babylon. This is a collection of the first year or so.

The Amazon reviews are almost uniformly five-star.  I'm only going to four. The old Sunday-School art works wonderfully in the context, and I did laugh out loud every few pages. Wilkie does a wonderful send-up of dumb things Christians say, and keep saying. They occasionally sting, as they should.  My only objection is that one can tell after a while who is not going to be teased/accused.  The cartoonist makes an effort to poke fun at everyone in some strips, but it rings a little false.  He knows he should be evenhanded, but really, he has his favorite targets. There is some tendency to go after the easy targets as well - in a daily strip, that seems usual. Sometimes he hits it spot on - funny, critical, and not unkind.

Bayard is clearly sending up literary culture with this, but it is underplayed enough that you find yourself thinking "Wait, maybe he's serious about this after all." He is a professor of French Literature, and thus is breezily at home talking about "texts," and "words failing to communicate meaning and all that." However, he seems to have had about enough of it when taken to extremes, and it is his own field he is satirising.

Each chapter starts off reasonably, asking if we can count a book as "read" if we have forgotten it, or how much of a book we must read before commenting on it knowledgeably. There are ways of not reading a book, and they are not all the same.   He identifies prominent critics who clearly have not read the works they are commenting on, with no apparent damage to their wisdom or reputation. If a book is terrible, must we read it all to know this? Is it not enough to know its place in the network of writing and ideas? As all texts are experienced differently by the reader, is it perhaps enough to have merely heard of a book?  Might reading actually bog one down in unnecessary details?

I loved it. It actually is thought-provoking on how far we might let out the kite strings of modern criticism and still know there is a kite at the other end.  But it tackles the serious questions only to leap past to the more important task of reducing them to comic absurdity.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Derbyshire, Putnam, Murray

I have neglected John Derbyshire since he got himself in trouble with his too-gleeful observations of recorded African-American pathology.  He still writes well and has important things to say.
Here’s a suggestion to sociologists writing books for the general-interest public: Drop the last chapter. You know, the chapter where, after 200 pages of describing some social problem or other, you offer solutions to the problem. the opening paragraph to his essay The Prescriptive Poverty of the Social Sciences, which reviews Robert Putnam's new Our Kids, with significant reference to Charles Murray's Coming Apart. Derb doesn't dislike either book, but finds serious flaws in both.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Malware Warning?

A reader got a malware warning when going to one of the posts in my archive.  My guess is that my wife has been right all along and I should have deleted all those cheap diablo gold comments and the like.

Please tell me if you have the least problem.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Social Media Signalling

I happened upon this article from the British magazine The New Statesman, The Echo Chamber of Social Media, etc. It's good right the way down, well written, and several of the other articles there were good as well. One of the early quotes is not far from things we have discussed here.
A lot of what happens on Facebook, as with Twitter, is “virtue signalling” – showing off to your friends about how right on you are.
When purity leftists do actions and organising, their interest is not in reducing oppression as much as it is in reducing their own participation in it. Above all else, they want to be able to say that they are not oppressing, not that oppression has ended.
I mentioned this long ago in terms of Not In Our Name, and also suggested that Jonathan Haidt overlooks those places where liberals are just as purity vs. disgust* concerned as conservatives. (See also environmentalism, vegetarianism, NASCAR and a host of other disgust issues, including, I think wealth - though that is more ambiguous in both camps.

The site is useful because it discusses many political issues that are similar in the UK to US discussions but have a completely different cast of characters, and slightly different alignments.

*And authority driven, another trait supposedly more common among conservatives.  The imprimatur of Roberth Reich or Paul Krugman is enough in economics; climate change catastrophe is based on choice of authorities.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


I have been reading conservatives who insist that the left is eating its own, the conflicts among the coalition parts is just too enormous to continue, the center cannot hold...

I think I have been hearing this for a long time.  the closest thing to it actually happening was Ralph Nader in 2000 likely costing Al Gore the election by drawing 2% of the vote. Republicans think this level of hostility must signal imminent breakup, because among them, it would.  This much accusation, and someone's going third party. Maybe 2016 will be the year it happens to Democrats again, but I'm suspicious. They do this all the time.

On the other side, Democrats assume that whenever Republicans oppose redistribution, it can only be because of greed and selfishness.  After all, if Democrats opposed any such program it would be for that reason, so that must be true for others.  That we might not be getting a lot of bang for or buck, or that there were unfortunate unintended consequences does not occur to them, therefore, it cannot be occurring to their opponents.

Church Music II

Texan99's comment reminds me: participation in worship by th3e congregation is worth pursuing.  I heartily disliked screens with song lyrics projected when they first came on the scene.  As a book person, and a music-reading person, I liked having my Gestalt verses and my bass lines in focus as I sang.  Leading worship in a painfully small congregation I learned a different lesson:  people looking down and singing into a book do not build that sense of soaring elevation with their neighbors which leads to community worship; people looking up at screens do. It's just the physics of sound waves.

In an earlier era, when people had a limited repertoire - 100 hymns out of a hymnal of 250 - which did not change much over their lifetimes, they could sing up and out, using the hymnal only as an aid. Those days are gone.  If you want people to sing together, they either have to all know it ( a very small number these days), learn it on the spot (call-and-response or extremely simple), or put it up on the screen so they raise their heads.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Church Music

So again, another evangelical writes with dismay about the superficiality of praise songs, with the usual complaints about "happy-clappy" and limited theology.  Heck, I've done it myself years ago. But I am minded that better Christians than I sometimes think differently, and remember Retriever's comments years ago.

Yes, of course.  Trained musicians are going to find it too simple, and word-people are going to want something more substantial. So what?  Do you not realise that you are putting outsize importance on the music portion of worship? Sing the songs. It's not all of worship. The old style of five verses of complicated imagery carried its own death in its obscure references.  "Here I build my ebenezer..." always made me think of Mr. Magoo.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Flexibility of Morality

Going about our daily affairs and being exposed to the depressing news of the evils that people gradually learn to put up with, we comfort ourselves with the thought that there is a limit. There are things up with which we will not put, to paraphrase a great man.

I am not so sure.  There are things we would not put up with today, that we would riot in the streets against. I have seen people who I hadn't thought had much moral backbone at all suddenly rise up and say "No.  You shall not pass." But ten years later, twenty years later, I don't know.

Some of us are entirely influenced by the current fashions in morality, though we don't perceive that. We would take to the streets for certain causes, without realising that those causes are the ones on their way in, the ones where any inconvenience would be quite temporary, and the payback in self-righteousness great. There is a vast pool of folks for whom the popular morality is the only real morality, though we don't see that.

Beyond that, there is a greater pool who are partly influenced by the trends of the day.  I am certainly one.  I have reflexive suspicion of This Tuesday's Great Cause; yet I also have a reflexive suspicion of those who still cling to causes from the immediate preceding era that are no longer much noticed.  Dead-enders, we call them. Why die on that hill? Why beat a dead horse?

I have near-certainty that God takes his measure of real goodness entirely separately from either consideration, and I can't find strongholds in myself to dig in with Him. He may take such extenuating circumstances into account in judging us, but I doubt they are even a feather's weight in his scales of what is good and what is evil. When I wake in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep, and worry that I have lost moral determination rather than gained it over the decades, it is very disquieting.

***  ***

My wife's prayer at church this week reminds me:  we blithely talk about "God's Promises," often quoting partial verses that are general wise observations (Wisdom Literature) or promises to the Nation of Israel alone, without certain individual application. Yet God absolutely promises in several places that if we pray for wisdom, that he will give. Pray for wisdom.

Improving The Criminal Justice System

Volokh Conspiracy is publishing an interesting series by Judge Alex Kosinski on improving the criminal justice system. It exploded a few of my myths pretty rapidly. Much of the basic message is A lot of what we "know," we have no evidence for. The actual evidence about prosecutions, criminals, and trials points in a different direction.

When I served on jury duty, I felt we had eventually reached the right conclusion, but it was a near thing. Three things needed to be proven, and I believed the prosecution had established two of them clearly, but not the third.  The rest of the jury believed that none of the three items had been proven, though I can't imagine how.  Their reasons were worrisome, including one woman who said "even the prosecuting attorney admitted the boy might not have been there at the time," when it was in fact the defense attorney who had said that. There was no need to make a stand, because I also thought Point #3 was insufficiently supported, so the boy was getting off anyway.  At the time, I rationalised that maybe this was how the system did indeed "usually get the right answer."  I am now not so convinced, especially after reading Kosinski.

It was personally valuable to me to read it as well.  I was quite depressed about uncovering a significant betrayal by a friend at work, only now revealed a few years later, after he has moved on to a job elsewhere in the system. Reading about the false incarcerations reminded me that my problems are small potatoes.  Pray for those who are innocent but behind bars.