Friday, October 31, 2008

"Corpus Christi" revisited

Born in 1939, Terrence McNally is a gay American playwright whose works have garnered a number of significant awards. In 1997 McNally stirred up a storm of controversy with “Corpus Christi,” a modern-day retelling of the story of Jesus' birth, ministry, and death in which both he and his disciples are portrayed as gay. Just before its scheduled opening, the play was cancelled because of death threats from extremist religious groups against the board members of Manhattan Theatre Club, which had undertaken to mount the work. However, Tony Kushner and several other playwrights threatened to withdraw their plays if “Corpus Christi” was not produced, and the board finally relented. When the play opened, the theater was besieged by almost 2000 protesters, furious at what they considered blasphemy.

In the controversy, which was enacted entirely in the present mode, neither side seemed to be aware of the deep roots, stretching over a thousand years, of this kind of play in Western culture.

During the the Middle Ages the celebration of liturgical feasts invited expansion in the form of poetry and music, deployed to impress on the congregation the significance of the events commemorated. In the tenth century the Benedictines of St. Gall created sequences, hymns, litanies, and tropes, setting them to music. The tropes—elaborations of parts of the liturgy, particularly the Introit—found wide acceptance, remaining in use in various forms until the end of the seventeenth century. These tropes were dramatic in construction and, as their musical settings prove, were sung alternately by two choirs of men and boys, or by two half-choirs.

The history of the ecclesiastical drama begins with the trope sung as Introit of the Mass for Easter Sunday. The conversation held between the holy women and the angels at Christ's tomb forms the basic text (the famous “Quem quaeritis,” Whom do you seek?). The trope, however, did not develop into a dramatic scene until it was brought into connection with the Descent from the Cross.

This kernel of liturgical Easter celebration grew through the addition of Biblical sentences, hymns, and sequences, in particular the "Victimae paschali," which dates from the first half of the eleventh century. Other additions were the representation of Peter and John running to the grave, and the appearance of Jesus, who thenceforth becomes the central figure.

Eventually the dramas moved from church to the exterior--the churchyard and the public marketplace. These early performances were given in Latin, and were preceded by a vernacular prologue spoken by a herald who gave a synopsis of the events.

In 1210 the pope forbade clergy to act in public, so that the organization of the dramas tended to be taken over by town guilds, with several ensuing changes. Vernacular texts gradually replaced Latin, and non-Biblical passages were added along with comic scenes.

In their day, the Easter Plays represented the highest development of the dramatic art. Nevertheless the climactic events in the life of Jesus did not suffice: the people wished to see his whole life. Since Jesus’ persecution is intelligible only in the light of his work as teacher, this part of the life of Christ joined the texts. Moreover, some authors went back to the Old Testament for symbolic scenes, which they added to the passion plays as "prefigurations," Some plays begin with the Creation, the sin of Adam and Eve, and the fall of the angels.

Two elaborations, short dramas in their own right, were inserted: the Lament of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and the Mary Magdalene Play. The latter piece depicts the seduction of Mary Magdalene by the devil and her sinful life up to her conversion. This proved to be a juicy role, giving rise to the English adjective “maudlin.”

About two years ago, an obscure theater group in Los Angeles, headed by the director Ric Arzner, revived McNally’s modern-day passion play. They gradually improved their conception, taking the production on a national and international tour. I was privileged to see the last performance in New York’s Greenwich Village this last Sunday.

While the play seemed a little jokey and uncertain in the opening sequences, I found the main part of it moving, as did the audience. The play begins with the days of Joshua (as the Jesus figure is known) at Pontius Pilate High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, and then quickly shifts to a timeless realm with many features of Roman Palestine. Joshua officiates at a the wedding of two men. At the end, in an interesting twist, he is mockingly crowned "King of the Queers."

McNally, who was present, thanked the group for in effect giving his play back to him. The actors perform without salary. Outstanding among them was the charismatic Steve Callahan, enacting the role of Judas.

In retrospect, several aspects of this production of “Corpus Christi” seem problematic. As originally conceived, the play was to have an all-male cast. However, the new production divided the cast between men and women, so that John the Baptist and several disciples were played by female performers. Suspension of disbelief was at best imperfect, and I can’t see what was gained by this excursion into the realm of “nontraditional casting.” In view of the gender bending, it is curious that the figure of Mary Magdalene does not appear in the text of the play.

In the discussion period after the performance we heard a great deal about the need of modern persons to experience “spirituality,” which apparently overrides specific religious doctrines and prescriptions. I confess that I don’t know what is meant by this spirituality.

We also heard that enduring mantra: the only important thing is love. I’m sure that we can all agree that the world would be a better place if there was more love. However, can andy decent person experience love for a Hitler or a Pol Pot? I don’t believe that one should. Such monsters must be opposed with all one’s might.

A bit of light was thrown, perhaps inadvertently, on this problem by one brief episode in the play. Confronted by an opponent, Jesus becomes hostile. When one of the disciples seeks to rebuke him for not adhering to his precept of turning the other cheek, Jesus replies “I was in a good mood then.” It would seem that the love imperative is not absolute after all.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fantasies about Yiddish

The latest issue (November 6, 2008) of the New York Review of Books contains an article by that irrepressible mountebank, Harold Bloom of Yale University. This piece is entitled “The Glories of Yiddish.”

Bloom’s comments derive from a new edition of a book first published in translation in 1940. Max Weinreich, the author, had died in 1969 without making any substantial revisions. As such, the book can hardly reflect recent advances and controversies in scholarship. On this basis, however, Bloom makes various debatable assertions about the origins and nature of Yiddish, which I won’t attempt to replicate.

He quotes a poem from Jacob Glatshteyn about his arrival in New York City in 1919. This poem consists of 113 words, of which only 8 are NOT German. Compare English where only an estimated 16 per cent of the vocabulary is Anglo-Saxon--a proportion that is close to the reverse. In any event, the massive presence of foreign loan words, the majority from Romance, does not alter the fundamental nature of our language, which remains Germanic. Ditto Yiddish. For political reasons, though, one tends to limit this fundamental Germanness with regard to Yiddish. That is just PC nonsense.

In addition to the vocabulary, which is overwhelmingly Germanic with small admixtures of Slavic and Hebrew, there is the matter of syntax, always the most decisive marker in the classification of languages. Consider the familiar Yiddish refrain in the delightful song popularized by the Andrews Sisters: “Bei mir bist du sheyn.” Obviously, this utterance corresponds to the High German “Bei mir bist du schön.” With a minor shift in pronunciation the vocabulary is just the same. The word order is also revealing, for the Yiddish expression follows the familiar and distinctive German rule in declarative sentences: the verb must always be in the second place. Such a rule does not occur in Hebrew or Slavic languages.

Further to illustrate the point, here is a sentence from Glatshteyn’s poem: “Der oyberhar hot mit dem himelbloy di gantse erd arumgeringelt un nito keyn retung.” Setting aside the idiosyncracies of transcription of Yiddish into English, this is simply the German “Der Überheer hat mit dem Himmelblau die ganze Erde herumgeringelt und nicht kein Rettung.” Vocabulary and syntax correspond exactly.

The truth is that Yiddish is not an autonomous language, but a nonstandard variant of High German. It is closer to High German than are either Plattdeutsch or Swiss German. Revealingly, the Yiddish word for “to translate” is fartaytshn, to Germanize.

As with all sorts of languages, from Sumerian to Old Provençal, most people will know about the glories of Yiddish only through translation. Bloom is resigned to this. “The vibrant Yiddish language, fused and open, questioning and celebrating, someday soon will be no more.”

[PS October 23, 2008. The following comments respond to the courteous remarks posted by "Anonymous" (below, in Comments). Please read these first.

The writer’s grammatical observation is correct; in High German it should be "keine" before "Rettung." Yiddish tends to be selective in its adherence to such grammatical rules.

Plattdeutsch, sometimes called Low German, is spoken in North Germany and some eastern parts of the Netherlands. Its primary marker stems from the fact that the language did not undergo the High German consonantal shift: thus maken/machen, eten/essen, teihn/zehn, sitten/sitzen/Peper/Pfeffer. In each case, the Yiddish term corresponds to the second, High German form.
Swiss German stands at the opposite pole to Plattdeutsch, in that many words have been subjected to a second sound shift. Thus the shibboleth chuchichäschtli/Kuchenkasten [kitchen cupbard]. Again, Yiddish follows the High German preference.

If I find that a Nazi writer observes that there are twelve months in the year, or that it gets dark at night, am I obliged to abandon these beliefs? As an art historian, I was at one time influenced by the Austrian scholar Hans Sedlmayr, who was a Nazi; he made many important observations about Renaissance and Baroque art, which it would be unwise to neglect. In such instances, one must follow the path that is correct, and not be frightened off by the fact that some undesirable group has at one time or other espoused such a view.]


Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Jesus in the Talmud"

The following remarks pertain to the recent book by Peter Schäfer, “Jesus in the Talmud.” To reach his conclusions Schäfer, Director of Judaic Studies at Princeton University, examined and collated dozens of Talmud editions and manuscripts.

In recent years the conventional wisdom has been that that appearances of Jesus and Christianity in the Talmud were limited to "a few oblique references." This in essence was the thesis of Johann Maier’s German monograph of 1978 ("Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Überlieferung"), which enjoyed the status of a standard work. Schäfer reexamines all of the available references to Jesu in the manuscripts and texts of the Babylonian Talmud. Opposing Maier’s earlier minimalizing approach, he nonetheless acknowledges that the rabbinic presentation of Jesus adds nothing to our knowledge of the actual life of Jesus. Indeed, how could it? By the same token, however, this material is not mere persiflage; instead, it is of eminent importance for understanding the Jewish intellectual elite’s response to the triumphant church of late antiquity. Comparable material in the Jerusalem Talmud, compiled mainly under circumstances of Christian domination, is relatively sparse. Only from the distance and security of the Mesopotamian diaspora, where the Persians were the supreme authority, could a direct and fierce assault on Christian claims to Jesus’ authority and divinity be launched.

Through careful sifting of all of the relevant source materials, Schäfer reveals the rabbinic texts’ actual force as “polemical counternarratives that parody the New Testament stories.” These passages clearly seek to subvert Christian claims to Jesus’ Davidic origin, authority as a teacher and healer, execution by representatives of the Roman government,
resurrection, and ascent to heaven.

In his book Schäfer does not limit himself to explicit references to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He also traces the code words employed in the Talmud editions expurgated and sanitized for gentile consumption. The Princeton scholar shows how "Balaam," "that man," "the carpenter," "ben Pandera" (son of Pandera), the blank spaces and the rest of the code words refer to Jesus. As has so many times been recognized by those who care to look at the evidence, the Talmud teaches that Jesus was a "mamzer" (bastard) conceived adulterously in "niddah" (menstrual filth) by a Roman soldier named Pandera [Kallah 51a] of a whore [Sanhedrin 106a].

Pandera is evidently an Aramaic variation on the surname Pantera (the Latin form of Pantheras, meaning “Panther”). For example, a first-century Roman tombstone in Bingerbrück, Germany, has an inscription which reads: “Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera of Sidon, aged 62, a soldier of 40 years' service, of the first cohort of archers, lies here." The ascription of Jesus’ paternity to Pantera can be traced back to the pagan anti-Christian polemicist Celsus, writing ca. 180 CE. Presumably Celsus derived the name from oral tradition.

The Talmud assures us that Jesus is now in Hell, boiling in excrement. In some renderings Jesus is portrayed as boiling in semen as punishment for sexual perversion [Gittin 57a].

There is much more, including the Talmud claim that the Sanhedrin justly executed Jesus because he was an idolater [Sanhedrin 43a] who worshipped a brick [Sanhedrin 67a], even boasting that the Sanhedrin overcame Roman opposition to the execution of Jesus [Sanhedrin 43a].

Schäfer’s monograph conclusively establishes that references to Jesus in the Talmud are more than scattered and coincidental. Still, one may question his suggestion that the texts constitute a “counter-Gospel” to the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John.

Lying outside of Schäfer’s remit is a strange late medieval book, the Toledot Yeshu (“Story of Jesus”), which retells many of the hostile motifs of the Babylonian Talmud, adding others. In one version, preserved in a manuscript in Strasbourg, Mary was seduced by a soldier called Ben Pandera. The miracle-working powers of Jesus derive from his having stolen the Name of God from the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus goes to Galilee, where he brings clay birds to life and makes a millstone float. Jesus is thus a sorcerer. Judas Iscariot learns the Divine Name as well, and Jesus and Judas fly through the sky engaged in aerial combat. As the winner, Judas sodomizes Jesus, whereupon both fall to the ground. The now powerless Jesus is arrested and put to death by being hung upon a carob tree, and buried. The body is taken away and his ascension is claimed by his apostles on the basis of the empty tomb. But Jesus's body is found hidden in a garden and is dragged back to Jerusalem and shown to Queen Helena.

The Toledot Yeshu is thus truly a counter-Gospel, offering a continuous narrative of the life of Jesus. This vile book shows that the belittlement and mockery found in the Talmud are not confined to that locus. In fact, the Talmud and the Toledot Yeshu represent two landmarks in a long history of Jewish disparagement of Christianity. This strand in Jewish thought continues to this day. In all likelihood it reflects perplexity at what must strike many Jews as a conundrum. How is it that Western civilization, under whose aegis most modern Jews live, was founded and nourished by Christians? Why is it that, in this signal instance, the Chosen People were not chosen?

Through his careful scholarship Schäfer has dispelled the myth that the Jews always responded to Christian attacks with quiet forbearance, declining to descend to the level of their adversaries. The scurrilous material in the Babylonian Talmud, together with its later avatars, shows that this is not so.

This evidence has a disturbing relevance today. As David Novak remarks, “at the most troubling level, Schäfer’s work might encourage those Jews who would be happy to learn that there were times when Jews were able to ‘get even’ with their Christian enemies: a kind of schadenfreude. In this way Schäfer’s work might hinder the emergence of a more positive Jewish-Christian relationship. . . . Such people could use his work to encourage Jews to speak similarly again, now that Christians are much weaker than they have been in the past. But it is naive to think that self-respecting Christians will simply sit back and not answer their Jewish critics in kind, which would easily revive all the old animosity against Jews and Judaism. Taken this way, Schäfer’s work could also encourage Christian ‘hard-liners’ to insist again that an animosity to Christians and Christianity is ubiquitous in Judaism and endemic to it, and that it cannot be overcome by the Jews. Why should Christians be any better when speaking of Jews and Judaism than Jews have been when speaking of Christians and Christianity?

“Many Jews like to dwell on the tradition of Christian anti-Judaism in all its ugly rhetoric, implying that the Jews have largely kept themselves above any such ugliness. . . . Schäfer demonstrates just the opposite. One might even speculate that had Jews gained the same kind of political power over Christians that Christians gained over Jews, Jews might well have translated their polemical rhetoric against Christianity (which, after all, posed a tremendous threat to the legitimacy of Judaism) into the political persecution of Christians, much the same way that Christians translated their polemical rhetoric against Judaism into the political persecution of Jews. Victimization does not confer sainthood. The Jews lacked the opportunity, but perhaps not the motive or the will, to practice the type of intolerance that they experienced at the hands of the Christians.”

ADDENDUM. A reinterpretation of the Mamzer allegation has come from an unexpected quarter. Bruce Chilton is Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College and an ordained Christian minister. His book “Rabbi Jeus: An Intimate Portrait” is yet another attempt to depict Jersus as a first-century Jew, and as such not notably original--except in one respect. Chilton believes that the definition of Mamzerut (the status of being a Mamzer) was broader than is generally recognized.

In John’s Gospel opponents appear to taunt Jesus with being born of "fornication" (porneia; John 8:41), a slur not endorsed by any other New Testament writer--and of course not by John either, since he is simply reporting the allegation. On this slender foundation, however, Chilton builds his argument that the young Jesus suffered from being stigmatized as a Mamzer. Perhaps the situation was not unlike fagbaiting today.

The ensuing social isolation gave Jesus a sense of apartness, permitting him to develop a new, “outsider” view of contemporary Jewish society and its traditions. “At base, a mamzer was the product of a union that was forbidden because the couple was not permitted to marry and procreate according to the Torah. Whatever became of the man and the woman as the result of their sexual contact, their offspring was what we may call a changeling or mixling (terms which perhaps better convey the sense of mamzer than "bastard" or "mongrel," the traditional translations). The sense of abhorrence involved, at the mixture of lines which should never be mixed, was such that the stricture of mamzerut could also be applied to the offspring of a woman whose sexual partner was not categorically identifiable and therefore was not known to have been permitted to her.”

In short, the broader application of the term would loosely correspond to the Hindu idea of chandala, referring to an individual in the lower strata of the caste system or one who is born of the (ostensibly illicit) union of members of two different castes. Put differently--very differently--Jesus would have been a kind of Barack Obama avant la lettre.

The problem is that the citations Chilton offers for his definition of Mamzerut are all later--from the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Talmud. There is no certainty that these definitions prevailed in Jesus’ time, or indeed that he was actually called a Mamzer, or some equivalent, in that period. As we noted above, Celsus is the first to report the slur that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier with whom Mary had an adulterous affair. If this allegation had any basis, it would double Jesus’ mamzerut: “he is the product of adultery (and therefore a mamzer according to the definition of the Mishnah) and the offspring of a non-Israelite father (and therefore a mamzer according to the definition which later emerged in the Talmud).” However, Celsus wrote some 150 years after the death of Jesus. As opponents of Christianity, neither Celsus or the rabbinical writers have credibility in this regard. Not disinterested observers, their aim is to disparage Jesus and Christianity with any means at their disposal.

Moreover, this broad definition would make every child today who is born of a “mixed marriage" a mamzer. While there is some disapproval of mixed marriages in Jewish circles these days, few if any rabbis would countenance labeling an innocent child in this manner.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Ayers kerfluffle

Sarah Palin’s attempt to link Barack Obama and the radical William Ayers was opportunistic and unacceptable. But that intervention does not excuse the fatuous efforts by some liberals to whitewash the odious Ayers. The New York Times (ironically, the source of Palin’s information) has been particular solicitous in the misguided campaign to exonerate Ayers. That newspaper had the bad luck to publish a fawning puff piece on the Chicago luminary on September 11, 2001. The piece appeared just hours before the Twin Towers came down.

Other voices have been better. Here are the words of an honest liberal, Michael Kinsley, writing in Time Magazine: “Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn . . . disappeared in 1969 after two of their colleagues in the Weather Underground died while building a bomb. Ayers and Dohrn spent 11 years setting off bombs and putting out statements threatening violent revolution. They promised to kill innocent Americans and praised the lunatic murderer Charles Manson. In 1981 two policemen and a security guard were killed in the botched holdup of a Brinks truck. Fake IDs used to rent getaway cars in an earlier robbery had been traced to a store where Dohrn worked. A grand jury wanted her testimony. She refused. Said she didn't believe in grand juries. Spent seven months in jail, and then the matter was dropped. Other charges against Ayers and Dohrn were dropped because the evidence was tainted by the Nixon Administration's illegal wiretaps. Ayers put it well: ‘Guilty as hell, and free as a bird. It's a great country.’”

And here is a statement by John M. Murtagh, a public official in Yonkers, NY:

“In February 1970, my father, a New York State Supreme Court justice, was presiding over the trial of the so-called “Panther 21,” members of the Black Panther Party indicted in a plot to bomb New York landmarks and department stores. Early on the morning of February 21, as my family slept, three gasoline-filled firebombs exploded at our home on the northern tip of Manhattan, two at the front door and the third tucked neatly under the gas tank of the family car. (Today, of course, we’d call that a car bomb.) A neighbor heard the first two blasts and, with the remains of a snowman I had built a few days earlier, managed to douse the flames beneath the car. That was an act whose courage I fully appreciated only as an adult, an act that doubtless saved multiple lives that night…
Though no one was ever caught or tried for the attempt on my family’s life, there was never any doubt who was behind it. Only a few weeks after the attack, the New York contingent of the Weathermen blew themselves up making more bombs in a Greenwich Village townhouse. The same cell had bombed my house, writes Ron Jacobs in "The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground." And in late November that year, a letter to the Associated Press signed by Bernardine Dohrn, Ayers’s wife, promised more bombings.”

Who is the bigger evil, O. J. Simpson  or William Ayers? What politician in his right mind would consent to attending a fundraiser at O. J. Simpson's home? Why is having contacts with  O. J. Simpson, who got off a murder charge, beyond the pale --as it clearly is--but  having contacts with William Ayers is just dandy?

In his interesting blog, Disloyal Opposition (, J. D. Tuccille offers some reflections that are highly pertinent:

“I am intrigued by the rather friendly treatment that Ayers and Dohrn receive in contrast to terrorists who adhere to different flavors of violent authoritarianism.

“And I do mean authoritarianism. While press coverage tends to emphasize Ayers' and Dohrn's anti-war activism (and to refer to the bombers as "radicals" rather than "terrorists"), their ideology encompasses rather more than skepticism about the long-gone bloodbath in Vietnam. They're hostile to the market system, fond of socialism and openly solicitous of repressive political leaders who share their goals.”

As Tuccille explains, Ayers and Dohrn are particularly enthusiastic these days about Hugo Chavez, whose Venezuela is “a beacon to the world.”

Tuccille goes on: “Compare the treatment of this pair to, say Eric Rudolph. Rudolph is another political terrorist who also spent years as a fugitive, apparently assisted, like Ayers and Dohrn, by sympathizers. Driven by hatred of gays and lesbians and opposition to abortion, Rudolph planted bombs that killed two people and injured over 100. . . . “

“Like the former Weathermen, Rudolph remains unrepentant. Referring to his bombing of an abortion clinic, he wrote, ‘I have no regrets or remorse for my actions that day in January, and consider what happened morally justified.'

“Unlike Ayers and Dohrn, however, Rudolph is serving hard time in prison -- multiple consecutive life terms without parole. Ayers never served time and Dohrn spent less than a year in prison for refusing to testify about a Weather Underground heist in which a guard and two police officers were killed. And there's never been any question about Rudolph's status: press accounts regularly (and accurately, I would say) refer to him as a 'terrorist,' denying him the nudge-and-wink 'radical' status afforded to the lefty bombers.

“While it's unlikely that we'll ever get the chance to see whether any American universities are eager to award Rudolph with a tenured teaching job, it's safe to say that the authoritarian right-wing bomber is treated rather more roughly by the press and the intellectual establishment than are the authoritarian left-wing bombers. Ayers and Dohrn are widely presented as otherwise-respectable activists who went a tad too far, while Rudolph is generally described as the unpleasant product of hate, intolerance and the dark underbelly of rural American society. . . .

“Journalists, academics and intellectuals run into even the most radical leftists often enough that the likes of Ayers and Dohrn might seem excessive without coming across as unsympathetic. That sort of familiarity can result in the occasional howler, such as the misty-eyed 1990 New York Times story on a failing retirement home populated by "political idealists" -- aging communists with a lingering nostalgia for Lenin. It's hard to believe the Grey Lady would have run a similar piece about octogenarian German-American bundists pining for Adolph. But I'm certain that aging reds strike many journalists as quaint, while old brownshirts just come across as pathetic -- despite the comparable body counts of the two totalitarian ideologies.

“So the minor kerfuffle over Obama's association with Ayers and Dohrn says less about the candidate -- who did nothing most of his peers would find unacceptable -- than it does about the thinking of a certain part of the American political and intellectual establishment. Violence to achieve political change may be a no-no, but it's a minor transgression in the service of a sympathetic kind of politics, and a reprehensible crime when implemented for the wrong ideas.”

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Bill Maher's romp

The recent spate of books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens signals a new aggressiveness on the part of non-believing intellectuals. Some of these people like to style themselves “brights,” implying that those who do not share their views are dumb. (Amusingly, the new usage of “bright” is modeled on “gay.” The enthusiasts don’t seem to be aware that nowadays young people are likely to use “gay” to mean “lame, boring, dorky.”)

At all events, it seems that the feistiness is trickling down. In the fervor of their proselytizing, some garden-variety atheists have even earned comparison with their mortal adversaries, evangelical Christians.

Non-believers like to quote the results of a new survey that indicates that the religiously unaffiliated amount to 16% of the American population. This is a rather heterogeneous category, though, and only five million people (less than 2%) actually avow that they are atheists. Moreover, a new report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that 21 per cent of US atheists believe in God. Well, why not? George Santayana famously avowed that “there is no God, and the Virgin Mary is His mother.” More generally, if some Episcopalians, Unitarians, and Jews can say that they are atheists, why can’t atheists say they believe in God?

Proselytizers of unbelief like to note that their number is increasing. And so it is--though mainly in the rapidly depopulating countries of Western Europe. Worldwide, the number of the religious is increasing by leaps and bounds.

Now the campaign against religion has a vehicle that promises to take the campaign to a wider audience--a movie that uses humorous infotainment as its vehicle. The film is “Religulous,” featuring the TV iconoclast Bill Maher and directed by Larry Charles. Laced with profanity, Maher’s effort certainly has entertainment value. In the end, though, his fervor escalates into a fire-and-brimstone conversion message--for his team. This film is his personal crusade to out religion as, in his words, “detrimental to the progress of humanity.” “The plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live,” Maher declames in a melodramatic flourish that is as blatant as the pitch of any late-night cable TV evangelist.

As one reviewer notes, “God, apparently, doesn't have a lock on fanatics.”

If Maher would just stop and think a minute before he delivers his next oneliner, he would realize that it is a nonsequitut to say that "religion must die for mankind to live." As it happens mankind has been living all-too-abuntantly under the yoke of religion, resulting in planetary overpopulation. Since nonbelievers tend to have fewer children, a more appropriate slogan would be "religion must die for mankind to diminish." (I leave aside the gaffe of "mankind," which in these PC times generally yields to "humanity.")

Relentlessly, Maher pushes and pushes. How can anyone possibly believe the Bible? A talking snake? A man swallowed by a big fish? “Complete bullshit,” he says, forgetting that four-letter words do not enhance an argument, but detract from it.

Missing from “Religulous” are the charities, hospices, soup kitchens, and shelters supported by faith. The recent study by the Barna Group points up this problem. Atheist and agnostic adults contribute only a paltry amount of money to charitable causes. “The typical no-faith American donated just $200 in 2006, which is more than seven times less than the amount contributed by the prototypical active-faith adult ($1500). Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics. In fact, while just 7% of active-faith adults failed to contribute any personal funds in 2006, that compares with 22% among the no-faith adults.”

Absent from Maher’s witnesses are the best and the brightest of the standard bearers. No real theologians need apply. They wouldn't suit Maher’s purposes.

Many years ago I learned from my teacher Karl Popper that when one undertakes to refute an idea, one must seek out the most potent version of the idea. Then one must devise other arguments of one'e own to bolster the mistaken view. Make the adversary as formidable as possible; then take him down. Ideas that are refuted in their strongest form are more likely to stay refuted. But of course Maher and his sidekick Charles prefer to take the easy way out, ridiculing the "rubes," but never confronting serious adversaries.

I am scarcely one to set up as a mouthpiece for religion. I only claim that with their vehemence and self-indulgence the latter-day opponents of religion are doing themselves and their cause a disservice.

In a certain frame of mind, one might say that the illusions of religion are the worst possible thing for humanity. That conclusion is crystal-clear to our new atheists. But in fact there is one thing that is worse than religion: programmatic atheism. In Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the abolition of religion failed to usher in the earthly paradise. Instead, the exact opposite occurred. Following the lead of his mentors Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, Maher is silent on this huge problem. Atheistic regimes produced tens of millions of unnecessary deaths in Eurasia--that is one reason why I am an agnostic, not an atheist.

In Maher’s celluloid screed, Asian religions are completely ignored. Hinduism, obsessed with caste and populated with ridiculous animal deities, abundantly deserves this treatment. It is not so certain, though, that Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism would provide similarly apt targets. At all events, the movie is not about the horrors of “religion” but about the incubus, or so it is perceived, of the three Abrahamic faiths. And even here it is scarcely even-handed, for Christianity, especially the evangelical and Catholic varieties, bears the brunt of the attack. Criticisms of Judaism and Islam are almost incidental.

A clue to this imbalance stems from the backgrounds of the two people responsible for the film. Maher, who had a Jewish mother but was brought up Catholic, evidently has a score to settle. Larry Charles, his director, has a similar, but different background. Jewishness is central to his comedy and his world view. "You can't dismiss any seminal influence. I grew up in Brighton Beach, New York, where essentially everyone is Jewish. I grew up thinking the whole world was like that. Obviously, Jewishness gives you a historical background, and a comedic one. The movie moguls who started the movie business tried to create an idealized gentile world. The idea of a white picket fence world is a Jewish creation. So it's pervading American culture and I know it has had an impact on me and my work."

Larry Charles is best known for directing the sophomoric “Borat,” featuring Sacha Baron-Cohen. Because of its premise--a clueless Kazakh journalist visiting the US--Islamophobia constitutes the very bedrock of the film. What fun to laugh at that hapless raghead! In addition,“Borat” includes several episodes ridiculing Christianity.

Anti-Semitism, though, is an entirely different matter. It is roundly condemned. But if anti-Semitism is wrong, why are Islamophobia and anti-Christianity just dandy?

These two recent films bring into focus a central problem that afflicts most of the antireligious propaganda of recent years. It is not even-handed, as it must be if it is to be taken seriously. Instead, this stuff is a compound of resentments that often reflect the personal experiences and backgrounds of its creators. For them, it seems, it is payback time.

As I have tried to show in my recent postings, mockery, fueled by personal grievances, is not the best way to handle the matter. Using the best of recent scholarship, the claims of religion must be carefully sifted. The results on the faith side of the ledger are, it could be argued, fairly meager. On balance, though, the step-by-step procedure is more likely to be productive of lasting results than sophomoric mockery and cheap laughs.


Friday, October 03, 2008

Psychotherapy: the meltdown continues

In 1952 the British psychologist H. J. Eysenck published a paper reporting the results of a massive study of mental patients, comparing those who received psychotherapy with those who did not. His conclusion was that available data "fail to support the hypothesis that psychotherapy facilitates recovery from neurotic disorder.” Not only did the application of psychotherapy, especially psychoanalysis, produce no noticeable improvement by comparison with the control group, it may even have worsened the condition of some patients.

Over the years psychotherapists have conducted a whole series of studies attempting to refute Eysenck’s conclusions. Repeatedly, we have been told that through this or that study depth psychotherapy has been vindicated--only to learn on further examination that the evidence proves no such thing. It is fair to say that there is still no solid, convincing evidence that the “talking cure” works any better than other forms of therapy. And of course because of the length of time involved, it is much more expensive.

As these dismal findings have finally sunk in, many universities and clinics have been closing down their institutes of depth psychotherapy. For better or worse, most practitioners now favor quicker procedures, usually involving prescription drugs. Yet the general public remains unaware of this meltdown, still eagerly snapping up books extolling the “boundless wisdom” of Sigmund Freud and other charlatans of that ilk.

An account of a new study, once again purporting to justify long-term therapy, has appeared in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, for October 1. Ostensibly, the results show that psychodynamic psychotherapy lasting for at least a year can be superior to shorter-term therapy for patients. However this is not true across the board, but only with a few specific chronic mental problems, such as anxiety and the so-called “borderline” personality disorder.

According to the JAMA press release, “[s]ome studies suggest that long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy (LTPP) may be helpful for these patients, according to background information in the article. LTPP is therapy in which emphasis is placed on more interpretive or supportive interventions, depending on the patient’s needs, and that involves careful attention to the therapist-patient interaction.”

Falk Leichsenring, D.Sc., of the University of Giessen, and Sven Rabung, Ph.D., of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, conducted a meta-analysis to examine the effectiveness of LTPP (lasting for at least a year, or 50 sessions) and whether it is superior to shorter psychotherapeutic treatments for complex mental disorders, including personality disorders, chronic mental disorders (defined as lasting at least a year), and multiple mental disorders. The researchers identified and included 23 studies for the meta-analysis (11 randomized controlled trials and 12 observational studies), involving a total of 1,053 patients receiving LTPP.

It seems, however, that rejoicing in the (shrinking) shrink camp is premature. According to a news account by Benedict Carey in the New York Times, “[e]xperts cautioned that the evidence cited in the new research was still too meager to claim clear superiority for psychoanalytic therapy over different treatments, like cognitive behavior therapy, a shorter-term approach. The studies that the authors reviewed are simply not strong enough, these experts said.”

Some qualified observers expressed surprise that JAMA would publish the article, because most review papers in major medical journals have hundreds of studies to draw on, not a mere 23.

The authors of the report left unaddressed the matter of cost effectiveness. What if, as appears to be the case, it is true that long-term therapy, including psychoanalysis, is simply too time-consuming and expensive?

Dr. Barbara L. Milrod, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, who is a clinical practitioner of psychodynamic therapy, said that further research is crucial: it is needed as a matter of survival for a “valuable treatment.”

Is it in fact valuable? It is now fifty-sex years since H. J. Eysenck laid down his challenge. Psychoanalysis and its congeners have had more than enough time to respond by proving that the techniques favored by their cult offer an effective form of mental therapy. Since they have signally failed to do so, consignment to the ash-heap of history appears to be inevitable.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

My travels

visited 46 states (20.4%)
Create your own visited map of The World or determine the next president

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Home truths

Frederik Willem de Klerk, 62, was the last President of apartheid-era South Africa (1989-1994). Despite his status as a stalwart of the National Party, De Klerk courageously stepped forward to engineer the end of South Africa's racial segregation policy. He supported the transformation of South Africa into a multi-racial democracy by entering into the negotiations that resulted in all citizens, including the country's black majority, having equal voting and other rights. In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela for his role in ending apartheid.

Could it be that Israel has now found its own F. W. de Klerk in Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister? Born in 1945, Olmert formerly served as mayor of Jerusalem. On January 4, 2006 he became caretaker for the prime minister Ariel Sharon, who had suffered a stroke. After Kadima, his party, won the 2006 elections, and Sharon’s incapacitation became clear, he became the official head of government. In 2008, however, as a result of a legal entanglement on charges of corruption, he felt compelled to resign.

On September 28, 2008 Olmert gave an interview that boldly affirmed a number of home truths. These serve at long last to correct areas--some at least--in which the Israeli establishment has long been in denial. Edud Olmert holds that Israel must withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank as well as from East Jerusalem if there is ever any chance of attaining peace with the Palestinians. Any occupied land it might seek to retain would have to be exchanged for the same amount of Israeli territory.

He also dismissed as “megalomania” any thought that Israel would or should attack Iran on its own to stop it from developing nuclear weapons, stating that the international community and not Israel alone was charged with handling the issue.

“What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me,” Mr. Olmert told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. “The time has come to say these things.” He said that the Israeli defense establishment had learned nothing from past experiences and that they seemed stuck in the mindset of the 1948 war of independence.

“With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop,” he said. “All these things are worthless.”

He added, “Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel’s basic security?”

Over the last year Mr. Olmert has publicly distanced himself from his earlier right-wing views and he did so again in this interview. As regards Jerusalem, he noted: “I am the first who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the entire city. I admit it. I am not trying to justify retroactively what I did for thirty-five years. For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth.”

He remarked that insistence on maintaining sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem, Israel’s official policy, would require including 270,000 Palestinians inside Israel’s security barrier. It would mean a continuing risk of terrorist attacks against civilians such as those carried out this year by Jerusalem Palestinians with front-end loaders.

“A decision has to be made,” he said. “This decision is difficult, terrible, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years.”

Up to this point the Israeli government’s policy on Jerusalem has been arrogantly to assert that the status of the city was beyond discussion. But Ehud Olmert made clear that the eastern, predominantly Arab, sector had to be yielded “with special solutions” for the holy sites.

Olmert also addressed the question of relations with Syria, acknowledging that Israel had to be prepared to give up the Golan Heights. In return, he expected that Damascus would change the nature of its relationship with Iran and renounce its support for Hezbollah, the aggressive Lebanese militia.

On Iran, Olmert reiterated that Israel must act within the framework of the international system, adding: “Part of our megalomania and our loss of proportions is the things that are said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself.”

Reaction from the Israeli right was predictable. In a radio interview Avigdor Lieberman, who leads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, claimed that Olmert was “endangering the existence of the State of Israel irresponsibly.” [What would endangering it “responsibly” amount to?---WRD]

In a related story, the New York Sun newspaper announced that, after a six-year run, it would close on September 30, 2008, amidst a historic week of financial losses in the American economy. When it debuted on April 16, 2002, it became "the first general-interest broadsheet newspaper to be launched in New York in two generations." The organ was the brainchild of Seth Lipsky, who had created an English-language version of The Forward, a long-standing New York Yiddish newspaper.

An earlier newspaper in New York, also named The Sun began publication in 1833 and merged with the New York World-Telegram in 1950. Other than their shared name, motto, and masthead, there was no connection between the current Sun and its namesake.

The newspaper attracted a number of bright young writers, who made it distinguished for serious coverage of the arts and literature.

It was better known, however, for its political views, which were right-of-center. In fact it was a haven for neo-conservatives. In keeping with this orientation it aggressively supported the state of Israel and the Iraq war. As Scott Sherman observed in its palmy days, The Sun is a paper “that functions as a journalistic SWAT team against individuals and institutions seen as hostile to Israel and Jews; and a paper that unapologetically displays the scalps of its victims.” The paper courted controversy in 2003 with a strident, unsigned February 6 editorial arguing that protestors against the Iraq War should be prosecuted for for treason.

The disappearance of The Sun is an encouraging sign that the times indeed are changing. Doubtless it will take a while longer for the New Republic, a venerable weekly that now follows a similar editorial line, to perish. When it does, that will be the occasion for rejoicing.