Jeremy Pierce: January 2009 Archives

SciFi Samson

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Warner Brothers has announced a science fiction retelling of the Samson story in a futuristic context. SciFi Wire's description of Samson catches my interest:

Samson gives a futuristic twist to the story of the biblical strongman who was invincible until he was betrayed by Delilah, to whom he entrusted the secret that his strength came from his long hair.

I have no idea if they're just repeated something WB had given them or are going by their understanding of what the Samson story is about, but it strikes me as relying on a popular misconception of Samson, one that I've seen gotten right in pop culture only once that I can think of (and that was Veggie Tales' Minnesota Cuke: the Search for Samson's Hairbrush).

Samson's strength in the book of Judges doesn't derive from his hair at all. His hair is only mentioned twice. The first time is God's command to Samson's parents that he would be a Nazirite from birth, an exceptional situation given that a Nazirite vow was usually voluntary and temporary. Those who took the vow wouldn't cut their hair, among other restrictions, for the duration of their vow. Nothing is said there to tie the strength to the hair. His hair is simply part of his being a Nazarite. Nowhere else in the Samson narrative is his strength mentioned in the context of his hair until the Delilah account. His strength is simply something God gives him for use in judging those who are evil toward God's people. When Delilah presses him for an explanation, and he mentions his hair, with every reason to believe that she'd have it cut (given her past responses to his lies about the source of his strength), he in effect sets himself up to violate his vow. So God takes his strength away. But the narrative itself never endorses the view that his strength really did come from his hair.

Now it's possible that Samson himself really did think the hair was the source of the power, in which case the fact that he's willing to boil it down to his hair is a sign that he doesn't get it himself. That theme appears throughout Judges and the Samson narratives in particular. The judges get progressively less faithful and more mixed in motivation, culminating in Samson, who frequently shows little care for the Torah's stipulations, up to the point of putting himself in a position where his Nazirite status gets prematurely cut off (pun intended). But it's not clear that he really thought this, as far as I can tell, and the narrator never tells us this.

I can see how a scifi version of it can get some basic plot similarities, but it certainly loses the main point of the whole thing unless it's not replacing the religious elements with scifi ones but simply tells the story with that side intact but in a different context. I have a feeling they won't do that, though, since the point of doing a futuristic version of it is probably to have some science fiction explanation of how hair can contain within it the explanation for super-strength.

Christian Carnival CCLXI

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The 261st Christian Carnival is up at Ignorant Historian.

Also, I want to announce the new Christian Carnival Archive. Thanks to Henry for putting that together. The person who was doing it was unable to continue it, and no one had gotten around to starting up a new project of continuing it. Henry has gone all the way back to July 2007 to provide an up-to-date, as-complete-as-possible archive.

I pointed out over a month ago that Bush's views on religion have often been misrepresented, usually out of ignorant assumptions about what he must hold given the ongoing narrative they've been using in opposition to him. The responses to a reference in President Obama's inaugural address [registration or BugMeNot required] to non-believers in apposition to members of various religions seems to me to be another instance of this same phenomenon, but this time it's heightened by messanic expectations about Obama. Here is the line in Obama's speech:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.

This may well be the first reference from a U.S. President in an inaugural address that treats non-believers this way, but it's certainly not the first time a U.S. President has made such a comment. See the comments here for some typical examples of those who assume without much examination of any evidence that Obama must be the first who has. There are even some pretty bold claims that assume George W. Bush would never have done such a thing.

The first commenter calls it "a great step forward" and "a move -- albeit a small one -- in the right direction". Another says, "I think this may be the first time for Obama, let alone any other U.S. president." Another ends his comment, "To me, Obama's mention of us was both startling -- and wonderful." As the thread continues, we see a move to recognizing that this kind of comment is actually not new for Obama. Only two days into the discussion does someone point out that Bush did indeed make a comment like this (although it's called "a very surprising quote"), which is promptly followed by several other instances:

they can choose any religion they want. Or they can choose no religion. You see, you're just as big a patriot -- as good a patriot as the next fellow if you choose not to worship. It's your choice to make
We stand for freedom. We stand for people to worship freely. One of the great things about America is, you're equally American if you're a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, an agnostic or an atheist
In our country, we recognize our fellow citizens are free to profess any faith they choose, or no faith at all. You're equally American if you're a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim. You're equally American if you choose not to have faith

I would find the back-pedaling that follows pretty humorous as commenters try to cover their embarrassment by excusing their ignorance with references to how surprising it is for Bush to say such a thing, except that it's only surprising if you're as ignorant about Bush's views on religion and civic life as these commenters seem to be. He's always been like this, despite the attempts of those who don't pay any attention the actual Bush. It's much more convenient to think of him according to a stereotype, because it's much harder to portray him as a fundamentalist and a theonomist if you have to do something like fit the actual man, who isn't all that close to either, to their preconceptions of him.

The comment that I think should be most embarrassing, though, is the second-to-last: "And as some have mentioned elsewhere in this vein, it's probable that the former president was merely anticipating the the current president." This is supposed to diminish the realization that Bush seems to have been the first to do this. So when it's finally clear that Obama can't be shown to be the first to include atheists and agnostics and that it's the hated George W. Bush who seems to have that honor, the only option left is that Bush can have said such things only in anticipation of Obama.

I'm pretty sure this is the first time Obama Messianism has come out in a way that makes Bush into Obama's John the Baptist. It's quite a strange notion, but I'm not sure how else to read that comment. Surely Bush in 2006 wasn't trying to anticipate the Obama presidency, and equally surely it's not that he only foreshadowed in a subtle way what Obama has now more explicitly done. If anything, Bush's words were more explicit, even to the point of using the word 'atheist'.

This is not the first instance I've seen of so-called change from Bush to Obama that has turned out to be pure invention, and I'm sure it won't be the last. There's going to be enough genuine change that there should be no need for this kind of thing, but there seem to be too many reality-challenged assumptions about Bush and his presidency that somehow have the ring of truthiness to those critical of him, and I think that's a sad reflection of the kind of ignorance about political matters that you can find even among supposedly well-informed intellectuals who follow politics and comment about it online.

X-Men and Philosophy

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X-Men and Philosophy: Astonishing Insight and Uncanny Argument in the Mutant X-Verse will be published in about two months, at the end of March. You can see the table of contents to see the range of topics covered (and here is the Amazon entry). My chapter, "Mutants and the Metaphysics of Race", will be my first publication besides a book review on the InterVarsity four views volume on God and time, so I'm looking forward to getting a copy to hold in my hands rather than having to look at it in PDF form.

The chapter on destiny and prophecy I wrote for the forthcoming volume in the same series on Harry Potter will not be surfacing anywhere near as quickly. The publisher decided they wanted it to come out at the same time as the final movie. Since they haven't released movie six yet, and there will be eight movies, we'll have a while to wait. The current expectation for the second Deathly Hallows movie is May 2011. The book is pretty much done, but they're going to sit on it for two and a half years rather than releasing it with the sixth movie and then allowing themselves the opportunity to do a second one with the final film.


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The 261st Christian Carnival Christian Carnival is coming Wednesday at Ignorant Historian. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

I've been reading through Joshua lately. When I got to the Gibeonite episode in chapter 9, I noticed something that I don't think had ever registered with me before. Several other examples have since occurred to me.

In Joshua, Israel had a divine mandate to carry out: God's judgment on the Amorites declared all the way back in Genesis 15. I think most Biblical scholars take the Genesis 15 reference to include all the people living in the land, not just ethnic Amorites, just as later texts use the term 'Canaanites' to refer to all of the people, even though several lists include Amorites and/or Canaanites among lots of other names (Hivites, Girgashites, Jebusites, Hittites, Perizzites; no list actually has exactly the same combination in the same order).

The Gibeonites were part of that mandate, but they deceived Israel into thinking they were from a far-away land and had come to Canaan to make a covenant with Israel to protect them. Israel bought the deception and made the covenant.

What I hadn't noticed before is that the text seems to assume Israel's responsibility to keep that covenant, even given the deception. It's common nowadays to assume that a promise is void if it's made under false pretenses, because your words didn't apply to exactly the thing you thought you were agreeing to. If I promise to pay off a debt you have that you tell me you accrued due to an oppressive landlord's cruel policies, and then I later discover that you have the debt merely because of gambling, the idea is that I don't have any obligation to pay the debt for you, because I didn't agree to pay off a gambling debt. I only agreed to pay off a debt caused by an unjust landlord. I know of one philosophical paper on the subject of consent that argues that someone hasn't given voluntary, informed consent to sex if they've given explicit consent but the person had been hiding the fact that the two were close relatives, because giving consent to sex doesn't amount to giving consent to incest if you don't know the person is a close relative and the other person does.

I'm seeing a several biblical accounts that seem to assume a contrary position. The Gibeonite case is just one instance among a few that have occurred to me, but it's a particularly vivid example of how fully in force this covenant is, even generations later, even to a king who had no idea that it was being violated until he inquired of God. By II Samuel 21, Israel's failure to keep that covenant in Saul's time (Saul had tried to wipe the Gibeonites out) had led to God causing a three-year famine as judgment. David, in his ignorance, was facing the famine in the kingdom as a consequence of not keeping that covenant. The covenant was made in ignorance, and it was continuing to be broken in ignorance, but that did not exempt Israel from their obligation to it. David was even ignorant of the cause of the famine, but he still bore responsibility for dealing with it. David remedied the problem and honored the covenant.

I can think of several other instances just in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 12, Abram visits Egypt and says that his wife Sarai is his sister (which he later says is technically true; see Gen 20:12, but it's still deception). Pharaoh gets upset when he discovers the deception, because he could have married her and thus married another man's wife. Even if he had done so in ignorance, the reason he gives for his outrage is that Abram could have caused him to sin ignorantly. A similar circumstance occurs later in Abraham's life in Genesis 20 but with Abimelek the king of Gerar instead of Pharaoh. A third instance of the same fault occurs with Abraham's son Isaac in Genesis 26, who also faces a similar situation with someone called Abimelek the king of Gerar (not necessarily the same figure, since it could be a title like 'Pharaoh'). It's possible in these cases that it's just an ethical framework shared by the Hebrews, Egyptians, and Gerarites. If so, it doesn't mean someone holding to the authority of scripture would have to say that God endorses it. It's the words of the Pharaoh or Abimelek that assume the principle.

But in Joshua and the subsequent Samuel text, it seems harder to say that. I think the narrator more clearly endorses the principle there. That also seems to me to be true of a couple more cases in Genesis, involving Jacob. First, In Genesis 27, Jacob deceives his father Isaac into giving his blessing to him rather than to his older twin brother Esau, who would normally have received it. Since this was not just a father's blessing but a passing on of the blessing bestowed on Isaac via the covenant with Abraham, there was only one blessing of this sort to give, and Isaac recognized that once the blessing was given, he'd passed on what had been entrusted to him by God. He couldn't undo it. That sacred trust had been given to Jacob now. The narrator seems to assume that as much as Isaac does when he explains to Esau that he can't now give his blessing to him also.

Was Obama the President?

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A lot of people have been making a lot of the fact that Obama didn't say the exact oath required by the Constitution until last night. I've heard several constitutional scholars on NPR saying this was nonsense, because the Constitution is clear that the term of the new President starts at noon on January 20, and it doesn't matter if the oath is said at all. My understanding, given that, was that the oath was constitutionally required but not a condition of the presidency beginning. It was just something Obama needed to do, just as the VP is constitutionally obligated to break tie votes in the Senate, and even if he did it late he did it. But his term starts before the oath in any case.

[Update: See comments.] Then I went and actually read the relevant portions of the Constitution. I'm not sure it's all that clear who was president between noon on Tuesday and last night when he said the oath properly. I'm not saying that he wasn't president, but it's not clear if he was or in what sense he was if he was, and it's not clear if anyone was legally allowed carry out the duties of the President. Here are the relevant stipulations in the Constitution:

1. The previous president's term ends on Jan 20 at noon. There's no indication in that amendment about the next president's term beginning at that time, despite claims by several constitutional scholars I heard on NPR that it does say such a thing. So Bush was clearly no longer President, but that amendment says nothing about who, if anyone, was.

2. Article 2 does specify the oath to be said. It says the new President must say it "Before he enter on the Execution of his Office". It seems pretty clear that Obama couldn't enter on the execution of his office, whatever that means, until he said the oath or affirmation that follows (I believe to accommodate Quakers, it gives the option of swearing the oath or simply affirming it). So he was violating the Constitution if he was executing his office before Wednesday night if the oath he said isn't the same oath the Constitution requires.

3. Article 2 goes on to say: "In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected."

It's not entirely clear to me if the last clause "until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected" applies grammatically only to the bit about someone provided for by law (or in the actual case an amendment providing the line of succession declaring it to be the Speaker of the House) or if it also applies to the first part about the Vice President. I first thought the latter, since otherwise the election of a president doesn't remove the vice president from office when it would remove someone lower in the line of succession. That would be weird, and I can't see how the wording could have intentionally meant that. So that looks like any vacancy or inability of the president to perform duties (such as Obama being constitutionally prohibited from entering the execution of his office) would make the VP President or someone down the line of succession if there is no VP. But it could be the former, if there's a need to fill the gap with no elected officer to step in, and the former case is when an elected VP can take over, and there's no need for an election to fill the gap.

Biden had already been sworn in by noon on Tuesday, so presumably he was VP already at noon. I don't see any argument that he couldn't have been VP just because Obama hasn't sworn the oath, and this would be true even during the short intervening time between noon and an oath normally taken in the proper way just afterward. So on the assumption that an inability to enter into the execution of his office means he was not yet President, I think there's an argument that Biden was at least acting President, then, if Obama was not President. I don't think there's any reason to think Pelosi was, as some have claimed, and it's certainly not possible that it was Bush or Cheney. I think there's even an argument that Biden was acting President if Obama was President but couldn't carry out his duties as President because he hadn't entered the execution of his office. [But this may not be so if he hadn't said the Presidential oath, in which case no one could act as President. He had said the VP oath, but that probably isn't sufficient.]

4. But there's even one more puzzling factor. The article 2 paragraph I quoted does have that bit at the end "until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected." The Disability was clearly removed when they did the oath properly last night, so there's no question that Obama is now President in every important sense. But on the assumption that he wasn't President when he didn't get the oath right, there's still the election to account for if the last clause applies to the whole sentence and not just the case of a line of succession below VP. The condition says "or a President shall be elected". A President was elected by that point. What does that mean? Is it an argument that Obama really was President, even if Biden was Acting President?

There are several steps in this are unclear enough to me that I wouldn't be very sure about them, but there's a plausible case for that, unless Biden would have had to say the oath himself intending it to be for the acting presidency, in which case no one was acting as President in the intervening time. The line of succession specifies who takes on the Presidency in the event of a vacancy or inability to perform the duties. But it doesn't say they immediately become President. In fact, Pelosi would have to resign from the House to become Acting President, which she would never do for a temporary lapse because then she couldn't return to her House position as a Representative (although the House could re-elect her as Speaker even if she's not a member of the House, as far as I can tell; they've just never done that). The same would be true of Senator Bird, who is next in line, with his Senate seat, except that he could be reappointed to the Senate by his governor (although I believe he'd lose his seniority because of a gap in service and thus lose his status as President Pro Tempore). There's no condition of resigning from a cabinet position, though, and there's no specification that cabinet positions end at noon on Tuesday. In fact, some departments are now actingly-headed by Bush appointees who didn't resign, since a number Obama's appointees have not yet been confirmed. So presumably Condoleeza Rice, if she'd taken the oath to be Acting President, could have been Acting President given that Obama and Biden hadn't taken the Presidential oath and that Pelosi and Bird hadn't resigned from Congress. There's never any way such a thing would happen when none of the people higher in the line of succession were dead or incapacitated in any way but due to technical legalities, but I think that's the legal possibility.

It's funny how an argument that I thought was crazy after listening to some pretty confident constitutional scholars actually appears to have some merit, but I'm very hesitant to take it as far as many have and say that Obama wasn't President in any sense in that intervening time. I do hope he redoes anything he signed during that time if he wants to make sure they are legal (although some of them I'd probably be happier for them not to be law, so maybe I should be careful what I wish for).

Christian Carnival CCLX

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The Broadness of Inerrancy

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When I last hosted the Christian Carnival, I linked to Henry Neufeld's Interpreting the Bible III -- The Impact of Inerrancy. Henry does not hold to inerrancy, but he wants to point out how there's quite a variety among people who hold to a relatively high view of scripture. There's been an excellent discussion in the comments since I linked to it in the carnival, and I wanted to express some of what I've been saying there (much of which is simply modified from my comments).

My main claim is that the variety of views Henry is pointing to are not entirely but are largely available within inerrantist views. But I don't think that's because there are different views called inerrancy, as Henry's post seems to take it. There surely are different things people mean by calling a view inerrancy. But most of the variation doesn't come because people mean something different by 'inerrancy'. It's because they think the ultimate determiner of whether something counts as an error in the relevant way is the context and culture of the original human author, and disagreements often arise on that issue. That means two people can both be inerrantists in exactly the same sense but disagree about whether an inerrantist should accept a certain claim about a certain part of scripture.

There are some people who think inerrancy requires thinking of Ruth, Jonah, Daniel, and Esther (for example) as historical, and there are others who think inerrancy allows thinking of them as allegories or parables. I'm not sure it follows that these involve two different conceptions of the meaning of the term 'inerrancy'. After all, those who don't think Jonah is a parable but think it's an actual recounting of real events nevertheless have no problem thinking of Jesus' parables as parables that didn't really happen. So they have no problem with inerrancy allowing for parables. The dispute seems to me to involve books that seem on the surface just like the historical accounts elsewhere in the Old Testament, something not true of Jesus' parables. Some hold that the presumption is to take them as historical. Others do not. But they might believe the same thing about what inerrancy involves, given that a book is presumed to be historical.

I don't happen to think Jonah and the narrative portions of Daniel are parables. I don't think Isaiah 40-66 (often called Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah by scholars) were written by later authors. I think they were composed by the actual Isaiah. But I don't think you need to deny inerrancy to hold that Jonah is a parable or that Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah were written by later authors in the Isaianic tradition. I just think you have to make a mistake about the historical background and how such works could be taken in context. I'd say the same about pseudonymity in New Testament epistles. I hold that inerrancy, combined with an accurate view on historical matters, will lead to conservative positions on such issues. That means I often disagree with the majority view among scholars about questions of historicity. But it's not inerrancy itself that makes the difference. It's a judgment on such other issues. I should mention that Craig Blomberg and Tremper Longman have made similar points in published works, and they're both pretty conservative inerrantists.

One place this applies in my own thinking is that I don't think Genesis' early chapters give a chronological historical account, but I do think they teach what God did, and they do so without error. Six-day creationists claim my view is at odds with inerrancy, but it's not, and I don't think this is a different view of inerrancy. It's a different view of how inerrancy applies given of a different view about how genre works. I don't share the mainstream consensus about genre with respect to Jonah and Daniel, but I do on Genesis to some extent.



The 260th Christian Carnival: 5th Anniversary Edition will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Fish and Cans. January 21 is exactly five years after the very first Christian Carnival, to the day. Unfortunately, the first edition is no longer online, although you can see its preservation here. The 13th Christian Carnival is actually the oldest still available in its original location, a sad reflection of the transitory nature of the blogosphere.

The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Galactica 4.5 Begins

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The last leg of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica aired last night. If you haven't seen it yet and intend to, you might want to avoid this post for now.

Eight months ago, I suggested a possibility for who the final Cylon model is. Based on the information available at the time, I had concluded that the final model must be someone who wasn't on Galactica when the four had heard the music. What I didn't have at the time (it came a few weeks later) was D'Anna Biers's revelation when she arrived in the colonial fleet that the final Cylon wasn't in the fleet at all. That actually rules out several people I'd considered in that post, but it doesn't eliminate my favored choice. In fact, it only made me more sure by eliminating the only other serious contender I was considering.

Even though I've given a spoiler warning, I want to save discussion of the details for after the jump, but I can say first that it looks like I was wrong in my May post about the significance of the numbering of the twelve models. Models 1-6 and 8 were the known models before the last scene of Season 3. The final five consisted of a group of four revealed at the end of season 3 plus one unknown, not revealed until the end of last night's episode. I suggested that maybe the four known of the final five were models 9-12 and the unknown one was model 7, a number often significant in numerology. But according to Wikipedia, Ron Moore has said that the final five aren't numbered. It also looks as if what sets the final model apart from the four we've seen is nothing significant in terms of origins. It's just that not all of the final five are still with the fleet, for reasons that have nothing to do (as far as we can tell) with how the final five got into the fleet to begin with. I don't think that's a big enough spoiler to have to put it after the jump, since it's based partly on Moore's statement and partly on information I was thinking through in my post back in May, not on what happened in the episode.

I do want to raise a question about this statement by Moore, though, before I muse on the details of last night's revelations. How can it be that the final five have no model numbers, and yet the seven we know do? It may be that the two groups have completely different origins. I get that. But why are the ones we first knew about numbered 1-6 and 8 if there's no number 7? If they're not going to number the final five, they at least need an explanation of why the seven are numbered the way they are, or they're going to look pretty foolish for setting things up that way and not thinking to work their revised storyline into an explanation for it (because I'm pretty sure the idea of the final five being different is a later idea, after they'd already numbered Sharon's model as Eight). I was almost expecting a downer after the excellent final episode of Stargate Atlantis last week, and there were certainly low points to this episode (most of the scenes focused on Adama, Roslin, Lee, and Dualla). But I'm looking forward to the rest of the season in a much greater way than I was at the end of the opening episode of the season back in March.

(Was it really that long ago? There's got to be some moral rule about spreading out two halves of the same season that much.)

Barack Obama resigned from the U.S. Senate on November 16. Roland Burris was sworn in as his replacement yesterday. In the intervening time, there were no black U.S. Senators.There have been relatively few black Senators at all. The first was Hiram Rhodes Revels, elected by the Reconstruction-era Mississippi legislature (state legislatures chose U.S. Senators at that time) in 1870. He resigned to become a college president before serving a full term, but not long afterward Blanche Bruce became the second black senator in Mississippi's other U.S. Senate seat.

After the Reconstruction period until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there were no blacks in Congress at all. The black population in the South was de facto disenfranchised because of literacy requirements, poll taxes, and other legal measures that in practice kept black voters from voting. Once the Voting Rights Act took effect, majority-black districts began electing black members to the U.S. House of Representatives, but until 1992 these were mostly from only nine cities. After the 1990 census, a lot more majority-black districts were gerrymandered to allow for majority-black populations, often from several disconnected communities, to elect black representatives in the House.

Four Senators since Reconstruction have been black. Edward Brooke, a Rockefeller Republican, was elected as the third black senator in U.S. history, this time from Massachusetts during the Civil Rights era. He served two terms, leaving office in 1979 when he was beaten by Paul Tsongas. Carol Mosely Braun served one term from Illinois from 199-1999. She was a moderate liberal on economic issues but very liberal on social issues. She was beaten by Peter Fitzgerald, a rare Republican win in that state. Barack Obama was elected, also from Illinois, in a bad year for Republicans given several GOP scandals in that state, when he had no serious contender as an opponent. Roland Burris was just appointed to replace him, with no electoral process at all. It's fair to say that even the few black Senators in the modern period have largely not gotten there with hard electoral victories and have had a hard time remaining there.

The vast majority of blacks in the House of Representatives have come from majority-black districts, which seems to reflect a general fact that black legislators can't seem to get elected easily from majority-white populations. There have also been few black governors. In 1972, P.B.S. Pinchback served as governor of Louisiana for 35 days at the end of a gubernatorial term that had been vacated due to corruption charges. In the modern period, Douglas Wilder was elected in the 1980s to only one term in Virginia as a moderate and libertarian-leaning Democrat who promised to implement policies contrary to union dogma. Deval Patrick is in his first term in Massachusetss. He ran as a business-friendly Democrat. David Paterson is filling out the remainder of Eliot Spitzer's term as governor of New York. He's governing as a fiscal conservative but is very socially liberal, and many political experts think he's going to have a hard time maintaining his governorship, probably losing in a primary contest to Andrew Cuomo if Cuomo doesn't take Hillary Clinton's Senate spot or possibly losing to someone Rudy Giuliani if he runs for governor. Those are the only four black governors. Only two of them managed to get elected, and both ran as moderates in typically liberal states.

What's the explanation for this, and why is it still true in an age when the nation can elect Barack Obama to the officer of President of the U.S. and Colin Powell can have such high bi-partisan popularity ratings among white voters, even after his association with the Bush Administration and the argument for a very unpopular war (even if he later has distanced himself from that process)? Does Obama's victory not show what so many people think it shows? Does it mean Obama is more the exception and that white people just don't want to elect black people to public office but will occasionally do so if they want to replace an unpopular party and don't want to do so by setting up a Democratic legacy for the Clintons? Is there something about Obama himself that explains why he's different, something that must be true in some sense for these other exceptions? Or is there a different explanation for why so few black politicians can manage to get elected by a mainstream voting public? I think the correct answer to all of the above questions is actually a qualified "yes", but the qualifications are pretty important.

Daddy, did you know that people can be musketeers too, besides animals that talk?
    -- Sophia, about a minute into the new Backyardigans episode "The Two Musketeers"

Update [3:18 pm]: That was yesterday. Then today she somehow transitions from a completely unrelated conversation with, "Just like in Bear-Bear's dream when he was trapped in tropical sunlight!" I asked her if she was in Bear-Bear's dream, and she said. "No. He was alone. In tropical sunlight." I'm not sure if he was trapped in the dream or trapped in the sunlight, but I suppose if stuffed bears are dreaming then either is possible.

Christian Carnival CCLIX

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Welcome to the 259th Christian Carnival. For those not familiar with the Christian Carnival, it's a weekly collection of Christian bloggers' submissions of their best Christian-related posts from the previous week.

As usual, let me know if I missed anything or got any links wrong. At the end I've added a few other posts that weren't submitted that I would consider among the best posts of Christian bloggers in the past week. On to the Carnival!

Diversity in the Cabinet

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Since President George W. Bush has, by some measures, had the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history, I thought it would be interesting to compare President-elect Obama's picks for the cabinet to see how they compare just on this one measure. I'm not talking ideological diversity here. I intend to reflect on that at some point. I'm simply talking about the standard kinds of diversity usually intended when people use the word, and the only ones I've ever heard people discuss with the cabinet are race/ethnicity and sex/gender. I'll go position by position. I'm only including full appointments with Senate confirmation, not acting secretaries. I'm also only counting cabinet secretaries, since the precise list of which other positions are in the cabinet varies with each president.

Madeleine Albright was the first woman to hold the position of Secretary of State, under President Clinton. Colin Powell replaced her and was the first black in the office. His replacement, Condoleeza Rice, was the first black woman. Obama chose not to go with a new first here, appointing Hillary Clinton, another woman.

As far as I can tell, there has never been anyone but a white man to hold the office of Secretary of the Treasury. That will not change under President Obama, at least not at the start of his term. Timothy Geithner certainly has a diversity of experience, but he's another white man. Diversity isn't the only consideration Obama should have factored in, but it's fair to say that he did miss an opportunity here to appoint the first person to this office who isn't a white man. If he appoints another person to this officer later, that might be a strong consideration.

The same goes for Secretary of Defense. The difference here is that Obama is just continuing the current occupant of that position in the interest of smoother transition in time of war.

Bill Clinton appointed Janet Reno as the first woman Attorney General. George W. Bush appointed Alberto Gonzales as the first Hispanic Attorney General. Obama has nominated Eric Holder to be the first black Attorney General. In his case, I have slightly more doubt that he'll be confirmed when compared with most of Obama's picks, because even if you ignore ideology there are excellent reasons not to confirm him given his leading role in Clinton's most unconscionable pardons (not just Marc Rich but a group of domestic terrorists who should never have been considered, never mind approved, for pardon) and his defense of pointing guns at small children by calling it respectful (in the Elian Gonzalez affair). Either is sufficient grounds to wonder if he's qualified to be the nation's chief law enforcement officer. But the Senate will probably roll over for Obama and confirm him anyway.

George W. Bush appointed the first woman Interior Secretary, Gale Norton. I'm not 100% sure of this, but I believe Obama's nomination of Ken Salazar would make him the first Hispanic Interior Secretary.

Mike Espy, Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture, was the first black person in that position. Ann Veneman, under George W. Bush, was the first woman to hold the office. Obama's nominee is a white man.


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The 259th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday right here at Parableman. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

John Hobbins divides Bible translations into the following two categories:

Which do you prefer: (1) a translation that makes sense on its own, without off-site explanation, or (2) a translation that is a head-scratcher until an explanation is given which clears things up, and even then leaves you wondering if you have it right?

Most people who speak this way intend the former category to be what is called dynamic equivalence and the latter what is called formal equivalence. Usually the English Standard Version is held up as the most recent and best example of the second category, although some put the New Revised Standard in that place. The New Living Translation is my favored candidate for the first category. A number of others exist that I don't like at all. The New International Version and its revision Today's New International Version occupy the middle ground between the two (but the NIV seems to me to be closer to the first category than to the second, and the TNIV is closer to the second than the first, except in gender language which is closer to the first than even the NIV).

John seems to be saying that pretty much everyone really wants (1), even if they actually use one of the translations in (2), but that many examples in translations in category (1) really don't achieve the purpose very well. Henry Neufeld responds with several reasons someone might actually prefer category (2) translations while insisting on a balanced perspective of using and recommending both kinds of translations as the circumstance warrants. I agree with Henry in general, but I think he's actually ignored some of the reasons why someone might want to use the kinds of translations usually put into the second category. The rest of this post is adapted from a comment I left on Henry's post.

Here are several reasons to prefer certain translations that are often classified in category 2 that don't require sitting at a desk with all your study tools present. One complaint against the NIV and TNIV that I believe also applies to the NLT has to do with consistency of translation. You always know when the KJV, NASB, and ESV are translating 'hesed', because it's translated as the same expression every time. All you need to know is that the KJV uses 'lovingkindness' for that term and for no other term and that the ESV uses 'steadfast love' or whatever it uses. When I read the TNIV, I often wonder which term is being used. It's actually the TNIV that I need my study tools to understand, not the ESV.

The same goes for terms often translated in the ESV as "flesh". While the ESV isn't as consistent on this as some of the other Tyndale-tradition translations, it's far more consistent than the TNIV or NLT. When I read the TNIV and see a term in that general ballpark, I often wonder if it's the same term usually translated "flesh" in the category 2 translations, but I usually know if it is by simply reading it in the ESV. So the category 2 translations are again in practice working out to fit the category 1 description and vice versa.

On the gender-inclusive issue, the same thing happens with 'adelphoi'. The ESV always translates it as "brothers". When I see "brothers and sisters" in the TNIV, I usually wonder if it says something explicit about sisters or if it's the translation philosophy supplying that.

Now you have to know something about Bible translation to be in a position to benefit from these translations the way I do, although you can get some of it just from reading the introduction to the translation, which doesn't require sitting at a desk with lots of study tools. Also, if you can think globally about what you read and have a good memory for exact words you can benefit somewhat in these ways without such prior knowledge, because you can observe much of it on your own. I'm not saying that this is a reason everyone should use these translations. But it's one of my primary reasons for liking the ESV, and it has nothing to do with the reasons Henry gives or the context he suggests for when someone would want to have a translation like this at hand.

As I was responding to this comment from Neil, I realized that I was getting into a bunch of issues that I don't think I've ever discussed comprehensively on this blog before, and I thought it might as well be its own post. Neil raises some questions about Christians reading (and presumably watching) science fiction and fantasy, questions that are more general (and more legitimate) than the common complaint about magic in fantasy. He wonders whether certain writers or stories (he has in mind a series by Stephen Donaldson that I'm not familiar with) can be dangerous in leaving behind what he calls an amoral residue. There's also the worry that spending time in fictional worlds is escaping from reality and might even be an addiction. It also might be a waste of time when there are more important things to do. He suggests that God might speak through such literature, but hasn't God spoken much more clearly in other ways already, so why should we need this kind of thing?

I think there can be a number of different healthy motivations for a Christian to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, many of them no different from the motivations for any other kind of fiction. One is simply entertainment. The idea that entertainment is just escape from reality seems wrong to me. I know people who think of it that way, but I don't think that's what they're actually doing when they see themselves as escaping. They might be distracting themselves from things they don't want to think about, but the things they're thinking about, while fictional, are based on reality in some way, or they couldn't think about them. It's just a rearrangement of real things, and those are good things that God created. It's also an engagement with the process of creation, an ability that I think God has given to us as part of being made in his image. The use of the imagination develops abilities God wants us to develop. Thinking about fictional worlds is one way to develop intellectual virtue. It's also simply good to enjoy good storytelling and to appreciate people using their God-given abilities to produce something enjoyable.

There are also moral themes in literature, and fiction of any kind helps us evaluate our lives in many ways. If the story in question only motivates moral evaluation of fictional cases, and those cases could never come up in real life, then at least it allows us to practice our ethical thinking in hard and strange cases, which is still a good skill to develop, because we will confront new situations that require such skills, especially as technology develops and social relations become further changed from what we see as the norm. But many ethical issues in fiction, even in fantasy and science fiction, are also going to come up in real life. Sometimes the author wants to make certain moral points, and sometimes we need to develop the ability to think for ourselves about those questions and not just accept what the author wants us to take away from it. But that's not a reason not to read or watch it except in cases where someone has a problem doing that. Maybe in Neil's case the Donaldson series was like that, and for all I know it might have that effect on me too (I know little about the series in question, so I have no idea). It's certainly worth being vigilant about how things affect you, but that's true of any fiction, and it's true of a lot of things besides fiction. It's true of observing how your friends live, and Paul tells us not to isolate ourselves from those who aren't Christians, even if he also says that Christians ought to live differently from the world.

I like fantasy and science fiction in particular because they help illustrate philosophical questions in ways that real life sometimes can't. One way to show that a sophisticated hedonism is wrong is to point out that with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak or Sauron's ring you could get away with almost anything you want, and it would still be wrong to do so. A sophisticated hedonism says it's only wrong to do certain things because it's against your self-interest (given that people will be mad at you for doing it and want to stop you and punish you). But these cases show that the real reason it's wrong isn't because it's against your self-interest, because you can achieve the self-interested goal in such cases, and it's still wrong. Scenarios like the Matrix or science fiction or fantasy worlds with very different social relations raise interesting questions about the moral principles that we assume as fundamental, because they lead us to wonder if they would apply in a very different situation. If I spent ten minutes coming up with a list, I could probably name off at least a dozen examples from science fiction and fantasy that I use regularly in my philosophy classes to illustrate points that are a lot harder to make clear or vivid without the aid of such examples.

So you don't need to think of fiction as revelation in any important sense to think that it provides an occasion for something that can be productive. It's bad if it distracts from more important things, as is true of any kind of enjoyable activity. At the same time, a little rest and relaxation, especially if it engages aspects of our thinking that we don't otherwise use, is part of being productive in the long run. So there has to be a balance, but I think this kind of imaginative fiction can contribute a lot of good toward our moral development and to our lives as well-rounded human beings, even if there are also risks and dangers, as there are with most pursuits in life.

Christian Carnival CCLVIII

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The 258th Christian Carnival is up at Fathom Deep: Sounding the Depths of God.

A commenter here directed me toward a series by Michael Craven on the moral issues regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage, asking what I thought of it. This post gives a pretty detailed answer to that request. I think Craven is better than most conservatives on this issue. He doesn't seem to have the screed that I often find in many of those who bother to spend much time on this issue. I don't think all his arguments are as effective as they could be, though, and a few seem to me to be real mistakes. Overall, I don't think he's actually achieved his goal, which is to provide an argument based on secular premises that establishes the traditional view of marriage in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Craven's first part starts in the right place, by noticing the difference between what the Bible calls marriage and what most Americans call marriage. That's the most fundamental observation you need to make if you're going to have an intelligent conversation about this issue. I'm a bit disappointed in how he handles comments. Instead of pointing out that his commenters are tackling issues he hasn't gotten to, he asserts conclusions he hasn't argued for yet, and it makes it sound as if he's just making assertions that he can't back up.

Craven's design argument in the second part seems to me to rely on a mistake. He seems to think that evolutionary theory allows for a purpose in nature that affects morality. It's as if there's a purpose to procreate, and homosexuality prevents that. It's not as if homosexuality does prevent the continuance of one's genes. For one thing, gay people could become sperm or egg donors. For another, they could have a hand in raising their nephews and nieces, who may then go on to pass on genes that overlap with their own in a full enough way. So homosexuality isn't contrary to this supposed purpose of evolution anymore than singleness is. Even worse, it's a mistake to think evolution has purposes to begin with, at least if you restrict yourself to arguments that are secularly available without relying on theism.

I think it's kind of ironic that naturalistic evolutionary theorists can't resist talking in design terms, as if subconsciously they can't avoid attributing a designer behind the scenes, but they can't mean it literally and remain consistent. When Gould talks about selfish genes, he doesn't literally mean that genes have interests and that they consciously seek to promote them. So why should we think evolution has the purpose of procreation simply because it leads to a higher chance of procreation among those who survive to be able to pass on their genes? That could only be true if there's a designer (and it doesn't follow even if there is).

So he's trying to offer an argument that doesn't rely on controversial theistic premises, but I think this particular point fails in that regard, at least given that he doesn't spend the time motivating the thesis in a different way, such as arguing for a designer first on secular premises and then arguing that a designer who designed the world via evolution as contemporary biology holds must have intended procreation as a moral goal that requires some commitment to heterosexuality. That's at least not an easy task, and Craven hasn't really tried to fill out his argument in that way anyway. I happen to think the first step (a design argument) can be done. I don't think a natural law argument can succeed without that. But I'm also not sure a convincing natural law argument will work on this issue even given theism. The only versions I've seen lead to too much being immoral (e.g. voluntary celibacy or choosing to remain married to an infertile spouse) or involve a step to avoid such a result that seems hard to motivate independently (e.g. choosing to avoid a human purpose is wrong if you use the body parts associated with that purpose for non-natural goals but ok if you don't).

There's another gap in his argument in part 2 as well. If homosexuality is an unnatural perversion of something that has a designed purpose, it doesn't follow that it's morally wrong unless you again assume theism and our moral obligation to follow the intent of the designer as our purpose. The idea that we have natural purposes that we should follow goes back to Aristotle, so the argument finds good company in many who do not rely on theological premises. But I'm not sure they have a right to such attribution of purposes and to conclude moral properties as a result, not without divine intent as the basis of such a connection.



The 258th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Fathom Deep: Sounding the Depths of God. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.
To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

December License Plates

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U.S. States: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin

other U.S.: District of Columbia
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Fantasy Recommendations

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We usually listen to audiobooks while we're driving. We've gone through the whole Harry Potter series (after reading them in hard copy). We've also tried out some new authors. We didn't like Ursula LeGuin's first Earthsea book very much, but we did like Terry Goodkind's first Sword of Truth book (something I can't say about the new TV adaptation Legend of the Seeker, which doesn't have much of anything to do with the book besides the character names and a few very general characteristics taken from the original storyline but modified enough to remove the most interesting aspects). Sam has long been a fan of Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and we listened to one of those also (after having read a bunch). I'm not as impressed with her writing, but I like the world she's created, which is one of the things I like about fantasy and science fiction in general.

One of the problems we keep running into is that we listen to something and then can't continue on because our library doesn't have an audio version of the next volume in the series. They don't have the second Goodkind book or the next McCaffrey one after Moreta, where we left off. We also are re-reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and the library had book 6, so we've been listening to that, but they only have a few more, and they're much later in the series. We could always listen to books we've read or ones one of us has read. I'm thinking Lloyd Alexander might be good (new to Sam). There is always Tolkien or Lewis if we want to go through those again. Our library system has Stephen Lawhead's first few volumes in the Arthur/Pendragon series. I tried reading the first one when it came out but didn't get very far, and maybe having an audio version would make it easier to get through it.

But I'm wondering if anyone has further recommendations of authors to try who would be similar to what we've liked. I don't like Stephen Donaldson. I thought his white gold series was awful. Besides what I've mentioned, we both really like Terry Brooks. I've thought about Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Raymond Feist, Fred Saberhagen, Katherine Kerr, and David Eddings, but their respective first volumes aren't in the library system. They do have some of the Dune series, including the first one, but I'm somewhat hesitant about that unless Sam decides to push it. Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber is available, but I don't know much about that other than seeing his name mentioned a lot in scifi/fantasy contexts.

Christian Carnival CCLVII

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The 257th Christian Carnival is up at Ancient Hebrew Poetry.


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