Sunday, December 21, 2008

End of the World Zoo

I'm thinking bioethics laws may be a bit lax over here.

In 2004 an acquaintance of mine in Taipei with connections and a background in genetics got funding and a bit of public space to open a new experimental zoo. Well, originally it wasn't meant to be an entire zoo, just an aviary featuring Taiwan's bird species. But it was going to be an aviary with a difference. He and his investors thought to make millions by displaying not just actual Taiwan birds, but a few "newer things" they'd come up with on their own.

At the time I told him I thought it sounded a bit out of line--modifying bird species I mean. But really I had no idea. To see these pictures I expect there's going to be some quite pissed off people out there.

Just last week they let Alex Worth, a local nature photographer, take some shots in their until now off-limits aviary. They're calling it the "Taiwan Open Aviary." It seems genetically mixing bird species wasn't enough for them: they couldn't resist dabbling in some other species too.

Worth himself is furious.

"I wanted to get it all documented," he told me. "I couldn't believe what was going on in there. It's sick."

But the guys behind all the experiments don't see what the fuss is all about.

"We'd like to start work on improving the human species as well," my friend Chen said at a recent lunch meeting. "We're hoping the world will be so impressed by what we've done so far that they'll realize how interesting we could make human beings."

"Imagine the Olympics with cheetah-humans running for the gold," another of the founders said. "It's really exciting what we could do. And imagine all the new clothing lines--the money to be made! Want a piece of the action?"

I bought into the dotcom boom in 1990s. Then I put my remaining money in the market two years ago. Now I'm thinking: Wow, I should have waited. This is going to be BIG.

Enjoy . . .

I probably ought to get Mike Hunt over at the Disassociated Press on this story. Hunt is the guy who uncovered the Marzipan Babies plot back in 2007. If it weren't for his whistle-blowing back then, we might be looking at a McCain-Palin inauguration next month. Which to me is scarier than any hound-headed parrot.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Father (by Yvonne)

A short composition by one of my adolescent students at ZEI. The task was to "describe someone important in your life." Yvonne, pictured below, did a great job.


My father is the most important person in my life. I can’t forget his appearance. He’s fatter than a pig, his feet are bigger than a car, his muscles are bigger than a gorilla’s, his face is more circular than a compass, and he has thick glasses.

He’s fully an adventurer. He’s more sociable than all the dames. With everything he does, after one minute he will start to get bored. He doesn’t care what he will be in the future, and he likes excitement, such as playing with animals.

He has many strange behaviors. He always does 1,440 things each day, he knows everyone in the world, he doesn’t care if he becomes a street cleaner, and he plays with lions at the zoo.

He’s my backer. When I need help, he helps me. He’s a river: he leads my through the wild woods. He’s a bridge: he conducts me so I don’t fall into the crime of river. He’s the warmth, the worm deep in my heart: he’ll share my tears. In my brain, he’s my god, always.

Yvonne is one of the sharpest students I've taught in my years at ZEI. She's creative in her writing, and great at interpreting the stories we read in class.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What Did Helen Say to Menelaus?

Paris and Helen in Wolfgang Peterson's film Troy. Brad Pitt did a fine Achilles, but my students could have written a better script.

After the fall of Troy, Menelaus found Helen and brought her back to Sparta. Given that her flight with Paris was the cause of the great war, one wonders what she first said to Menelaus when he met up with her. And what he replied.

This was the task I gave my students in Creative Mythology--to write the couple's dialogue. Here are a few samples of their work:


M: Hi, long time no see. You're still as beautiful as before.

H: Hah hah! Thank you very much. You didn't change much either. So, how have you been for these last ten years? Has the world changed much? I don't know anything--they put me in a room without TV, newspaper or computer. I felt that I'd almost become a hermit, except that I had a few friends I could talk with.

M: Really? That's amazing. Then let me tell you. There's a new resident in the White House, and what's more, he's not white. Secondly, one of our wedding guests, the leader of Iceland, well, his country is in danger now and has almost gone bankrupt. You really didn't know anything about all this?

H: No, not a bit of it. But tell me, what color is the new president of America? You didn't explain. Is he pink? That's my favorite color!

M: No, you're wrong. He isn't pink, he isn't white and he doesn't belong to any color. Actually, his color is "the color of dreams."

H: I see.

M: So, did you feel afraid when you, a Greek, staying in this dirty Trojan place alone? Did they treat you well? That shameful man, Paris, what about him?

H: Fine. Their food is OK too. But when dark night surrounded the palace, I often felt lonely. And some of my private secrets, such as how I missed my mother country, and missed my newly-wed husband. . . . I couldn't talk about these to them.

M: Then why not call me with the cell phone I gave you?

H: It ran out of batteries. However, all these things aren't important now. I only want to go home and see a movie--Cape 7. Many nobles visiting here from Taiwan promoted this film to Priam. It sounds like a really interesting place, Taiwan. So maybe we can have our honeymoon there after returning to Greece and seeing this film in the theater. It is supposed to really be worth seeing.

M: Sounds great.

May Lu


M: Why have you been there so long?

H: Because the Trojans just kept me in jail.

M: You liar! You stayed with Paris all day. Why didn’t you just kill him?

H: It was too hard. They have so many soldiers.

M: But you could have just killed him when he was beside you.

H: Because I was always thinking about you, so I had no time to kill him.

M: Oh. Really? I love you.

H: I love you too.



M: So how's life in Troy?

H (sadly): It's boring. I can't see you and I keep dreaming about my life in Greece.

M: I think we must go home.

H: But I want to stay here and visit some other places first.

M: Well, how long do you want to be travelling?

H: Maybe another, I don't know, maybe another ten years?

M: Okay, I'll wait for you. You can visit some other countries.

H: Then I'll go to China, Italy, France . . . lots and lots of places. And don't forget me!

M: Bye, then. See you ten years from now.

H: Bye. I wish you luck in the next war. I hope you win.


H: Oh, Menelaus! Nice to see you again! Do you know how the Trojans . . .

M: Stop talking sweet, you trickster! Do I look like a fool? Of course I know what you've been doing here. You've been talking to Paris like "Oh, my baby, come here! Don't worry about those foolish armies. Oh, how mean Menelaus is! I suffered so much with him!" Right?

H: No, of course not! I didn't say anything bad about you. I don't even talk to Paris. I always just hide in the bedroom and cry about "Oh! How poor I am! Why can't I be with my handsome brave husband Menelaus, but have to stay with this ugly coward Paris? Oh, please gods, bring my husband to me!"

M: Really?

H: Really.

M: It's true you will always be my sweetheart. So come here. Come into my arms!

H (coming forward): Oh, Menelaus!

M (pushes her): Back! Do you really think I'd say this to you? After what you did? Don't pretend to be so innocent!

H: Why . . . ? Why are you so mean to me? I didn't do anything wrong. He kidnapped me. Really. I really love you! What's wrong with you? Where's my little Menelaus?

M: Hm. . . . Oh, alright. I believe you, my little Cinderella. I love you too. I missed you so much.

H: I missed you too.

M: Baby!

H: Darling.

M: Sweetheart!

H: Honey!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Homeric Hymn to Hermes (with Sabrina’s Take)

The trickster god Hermes, grown up.

Of the twelve Olympian gods, Hermes is the messenger, and is often seen in the myths bearing messages for his father Zeus. He is also the god of thieves. The following poem is one of the hymns to the gods traditionally ascribed to Homer. The Hymn to Hermes was probably written some time in the 6th century B.C. It is a humorous narrative of the god’s first days after birth.

I post the hymn here, with a bit of student homework in the middle. I handed out the text in sections, forcing students to speculate as to what would happen next. At one crucial point, where Hermes must defend his actions before a council of the gods, I asked students to write what the baby god probably would say. Sabrina Fanchiang did the best job of it.

Working from the translation of most of the hymn in Barry Powell’s
Classical Myth, I simplified it for my adolescent students. E.M.


Sing, Muse, a song to Hermes, son of Maia and Zeus, the helper, messenger of the gods. Maia was a fair-braided and bashful nymph and bore Hermes to Zeus, ruler of all the gods. She didn’t like the noisy company of the immortals, so hid away in a shadowy cave. But Zeus found her out and embraced her in the darkness of night, when sweet sleep held the eyes of Hera tight.

Ten months later the child sprang into light; he would bring about many wonderful things!

Maia’s child was clever--a cheater, robber, liar, cattle thief, fast talker, burglar and breaker of safes. He quickly used his tricks against the wisest immortals.

Born at the break of day, Hermes wasted no time in the cradle his mother put him in. No, as soon as he found a chance he stumbled out.

Leaving the dim light of the cave, he found a turtle crawling along. It was destined to make him famous--for Hermes would soon create the first lyre from it.

The turtle was peacefully nibbling on some grass.

“Good morning to you!” Hermes said. “How cute you are, what a good dancer you’d be, I think you’d be great fun at a party! Where did you get that great costume? Why don’t you come inside with me awhile? It’s safer indoors. Besides, I have connections in high places. Really. I can make you famous.”

Hermes grabbed up the turtle in his baby fingers and carried him into the cave. Then, without pausing more than a second to think, he had his plan. He took a sharp knife and cut out the turtle’s insides.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

He drilled holes in the empty shell. Taking some strings and other things lying round the cave, he set to work measuring and fitting things together. Finally finding a pair of goat’s horns, he attached them and pulled the seven strings neatly over his beautiful invention.

He plucked it and sweet music came out.

Now five hours old, Hermes began to sing as he played the lyre, singing of the love of his mother and father.

He sang the story of Zeus, son of Cronus, and his fair-sandaled mother Maia, their smiles and whispering to at the edge of the cave, their sweet words of secret love.

He sang in praise of his mother’s beautiful home, the fine bronze pots and pans she had, the many cooking things that hung from the wall. But even as he sang, he was thinking of other things. He put the lyre down in his cradle, for a whim had entered his mind.

“A nice juicy steak really wouldn’t be bad just now,” he thought.

So he ran from the cave to see what he could find outside, plotting like a thief with each step he took.


The Sun, with its chariot and horses, had set when Hermes came to the shadows of Pieria, hill of the Muses, where the cattle of the gods were shut in for the night. The clever son of Maia, Hermes, led fifty of these out of the cowpens. They mooed as they went along.

He led them by backroads and twisted lanes, trying to find out where the way was most dusty. There he led them backward, while he walked forward, having reversed his sandals. Off again he led them from their dusty lying hoofprints, down some twisted way where their passing left no trace.

An old man working in a vinyard saw him pass the meadows of Onchestus, heading down to the plain. Before he could ask the baby any questions, the son of Maia spoke to him like this: “Old man, bending your back as you dig away in the vinyard, surely you’ll have good grapes when it’s time to harvest. But listen now to my warning. If anyone asks you any questions, tell him you haven’t seen a thing, okay? Start talking nonsense, forget the truth. Or pretend to be deaf as a rock, even though now you can hear me fine. Just keep your mouth shut, if you know what’s good for you.”

The old man was astonished and didn’t know what to say or think. Hermes continued on.

Already the darkness of night, his accomplice, had been chased away by Selene’s watery light as Hermes arrived with the cattle at the river Alpheus. He drove them across and took them to a secret enclosure at the edge of a beautiful meadow.

While the cattle drank from troughs and ate their fill of grass, Hermes gathered some dry wood. Over a piece of dry laurel he spun a drill with a small bow he had made, blowing on the smoldering tinder. And so the son of Zeus invented the kindling of fire by friction.

To the fire pit he carried more wood and laid it on. The fire began to blaze, its beams scattering out into the darkness.

Then Hermes went and dragged two of the stolen cattle toward the fire. Displaying his power, the baby wrestled the panting beasts down, then twisted and rolled them over, so they lay belly-up on the ground.

Hermes cut their throats with a knife and set to butchering them. Some of the rich, fatty meat he cut and put on skewers he’d whittled from wood; the rest he stuffed in the emptied guts, thus creating the world’s first sausage.

Putting all the meat he’d prepared onto a flat stone, he divided it into twelve portions, one for each of the twelve immortals.

God though he was, Hermes drooled at the wonderful scent of the cooked meat. Still he held back from eating it, deciding instead to store it up in a cave in the hillside where no one could find it, thus proving his skill as a cattle thief.

After hiding the meat, Hermes gathered more wood to add to the fire. In the blaze he burned the heads and feet of the butchered cattle, then went and threw his trick sandals into the Alpheus.

Returning under the silvery moonlight, he carefully covered over the fire with dirt, hiding all sign of it.

Dawn was beginning to appear as he quickly made his way home. The son of Zeus met no one on the road, neither mortal nor immortal. And no dog dared bark at him, son of Zeus and bringer of luck.

Hermes squirmed his way through the keyhole, entering his mother’s cave like a mist, then tiptoed over the floor, making not a sound. Reaching his cradle, he hopped up into it and quickly covered himself over with his blanket, looking just like any innocent baby, the lyre he had made lying there next to him.

Immortal though he was, his mother gave him a sharp scolding:

“You naughty boy! Where have you been, coming home at such an hour? Apollo will certainly get you for what you’ve done! He’ll drag you away, tied up so tightly you’ll have no way to escape. Whatever you’ve stolen, take it back. Your father only created trouble begetting you on the world. You’ll be trouble for gods and men alike!”

With a crafty answer, Hermes replied to Maia his mother: “Madam, why do you scold me as if I were only a baby? Do you think I’ll whimper and cry just because my mother is angry? No, I’ll pick whatever career seems most promising. And I can tell you now--whatever I pick I’ll be thinking for the both of us. Think about it: Why should we be satisfied, we who are both divine, sitting here in this dirty cave? We are gods, mother--we should be receiving prayers and sacrifices, but we’ll get none of that here. No, I know a better future for both of us: we should be having fun with the other immortals, rich as wealthy landowners; we should be living a life of abundance and luxury. You really want to waste your time in this cave? I just don’t accept it: I want the same honors and position as Apollo. And if my father Zeus won’t give it to me, I’ll find a way to get it myself. Think of all the riches that will come to the patron god of thieves! If Apollo tries to come after me, he might regret it. I’ll go to Delphi and tunnel into the temple; I know he’s got plenty of gold and fine things in there. How will the son of Leto feel when he sees it’s all been emptied out? You’ll see, mother! You’ll see!”

Mother and son continued chatting and arguing until dawn appeared, rising from ocean’s depth.


Apollo came to Onchestus, the lovely grove sacred to the Earth-shaker. By the road he found the old peasant. The son of Leto spoke to him:

“Old vinyard worker, I come here from Pieria, hunting for my cattle. This morning I found, to my amazement, that only my black bull was left, alone with my four fierce dogs: all the rest were gone. But all the cattle returned from the meadow last night, and were closed in after a day of grazing. So tell me, ancient man, have you seen a cattle rustler passing on this road, anyone driving cows before him?”

The old man answered the questions carefully:

“Friend, it’s not easy reporting everything you’ve noticed. Besides, many people travel this road, some with evil schemes, others on lawful business. How can I tell which is which? I was digging in my vinyard, all through the day, up to the hour of sunset. But, sir, I may have seen--I really can’t tell you for sure--what looked like the little moppet tending his cows. He carried a long stick and skipped from one side to the other as he drove them along, but to be honest--and I thought it was kind of strange--he seemed to have his sandals on backwards.”

Apollo listened until the old man finished, then hurried on. Consulting a bird, he learned that the thief was none other than the newborn child fathered by mighty Zeus, son of Cronus. Lord Apollo, himself Zeus’ son, wrapped a mist about his soulders for concealment, then sped quickly to Pylos, by the sandy shore, to hunt for his cattle. There he saw the tracks in the dust:

“What is this! These are definitely cattle tracks, but why are they turned the wrong way, as if headed toward the meadows? And these, what are these tracks? They look like some kind of tiny sandals, but the steps are wrong, as if the person didn’t know how to walk right. It’s all very suspicious.”

Apollo continued his journey, arriving at Cyllene, the mountain covered with forest. He came to a shadowy cave in the rock, where the nymph Maia lived, who had given birth to the child of Zeus. Apollo wasted no time, but entered the cave in all his radiance, dispelling the darkness. Maia and her child knew at once who he was, and knew why he was there: the god was enraged at the loss of his cattle. At the sight of him, Hermes bundled further into his blanket, making himself as small as possible. He lay there looking like a baby just born and washed; he held his turtle shell tightly against him.

The son of Zeus and Leto wasn’t fooled for a moment. He searched around the cave until he found a shiny key, then used it to open all the locked cabinets and storage cupboards. In fact there was plenty of gold and silver in the cave, and lots of fine dresses, all belonging to Maia. Apollo found no evidence against the baby Hermes: there was nothing one wouldn’t expect to find in the home of an immortal. Finally giving up the hunt, Apollo addressed the baby himself:

“Alright, kid, you look pretty innocent lying there in your cradle, but I know what is what. Tell me where the cows are. If you don’t talk, there will be trouble. I’ll grab you and fling you straight down to the windy darkness of hell--a terrible end, and one you’ll never be able to escape. No, neither your Mama nor your Dada will bring you back to the light. You’ll wander under the earth forever!”

Hermes replied to this with words that were carefully chosen:

“Tell me, great son of Leto, why are you talking so tough? And why have you come into a house looking for beasts that live outdoors? I never saw them, never heard of them, nobody told me about them. I couldn’t tell you who stole them, even if you paid me to. Do I look like a cattle thief? Do I look like the brawny type who runs about at night? No, that isn’t my style. I’m too busy with other important things, like sleeping, and drinking milk from my mother’s breasts, and having blankets round my shoulders, and splashing in nice warm baths. I hope nobody asks you how this argument started, because even the gods would wonder, if you told them a newborn baby walked into his house through the front door with a herd of stolen cattle. You claim things that don’t make sense! I was just born yesterday, my feet are so soft and the ground is so rough. Alright, if you insist I will take an oath, by the head of my father, and swear I am not guilty, nor have I seen anyone else stealing your cattle away--whatever ‘cattle’ are, because I don’t really know, having only heard about them from my mother.”

So Hermes spoke, but kept glancing from under his half-closed eyelids, watching how his words were affecting his audience. Apollo laughed gently and answered as follows:

“Rascal, liar, and knave--how good you are at persuasion! But I know how you have spent the last night: you’ve been stealing! I see you’re going to be the god of robbers. You’ll bring terrible suffering to many--those poor shepherds living out in the mountains, those who lose their cattle or wooly sheep to thieves that come in the night! But now, unless you really want to take the longest and deepest possible sleep, you’ll get out of that cradle quick, you creature of the inky night!”

And Apollo grabbed the baby Hermes and lifted him up out of the cradle, ready to carry him off. But Hermes had his way of fighting back, for the moment he felt he was lifted up, he let out a terrible portent, a hard-pressed slave of the belly, an impolite messenger.

Apollo heard with disgust, and dropped the newborn immortal to the ground. Then the son of Leto squatted down by the child, and said the following to him:

“Listen, my diaper-wearing friend, son of Zeus and Maia, don’t think your bad manners will scare me away. No, you will lead me to my stolen cattle one way or another, and you will do it today. You will take me to them or you will regret the day you were born!”

At this the baby Hermes indignantly threw his blanket from his shoulders and sat up to ask:

“Where will you take me, you hottest-tempered of the gods? Just because your cattle were stolen, you feel you have to take it out on me, a newborn? I tell you honestly, I don’t care anything about cattle, I wish the whole species of cattle would just disappear--anyhow, I’m not even very sure what they look like because I’ve never even seen one and have only heard about them. So why are you attacking me, you bully? If you want to cause trouble, let’s just take this matter to court. Let’s take it to Zeus, son of Cronus.”


On the way to Olympus, the baby Hermes and the glorious son of Leto argued about their case. Apollo, speaking the truth, did his best to trap Hermes in his lies, but Hermes employed all the tricks of rhetoric to escape Apollo’s traps.

The two finally reached the fragrant peak of Olympus, the home of their father, Cronus’ son. The balance of justice was set before the pair, and the deathless gods assembled just after golden-throned dawn.

Hermes and Apollo came forward and stood at the knees of Zeus.

Zeus who thunders on high addressed his glorious son:

“Phoebus, from where have you come, bringing such a prodigious booty, this newly born child, who looks more like a wise ambassador than a child? It seems there is some important case being brought before the council of the gods.”

Lord Phoebus replied:

“Father, it is true that soon you will hear an important matter. Do not reproach me for being the only one greedy for booty. This little child, who in truth is really a cunning bandit, I found him at the end of a tedious trip in the hills of Cyllene. He’s a cheat more crafty than any I’ve ever seen walking the face of the earth, divine or human. He stole my cattle at evening from the meadow, then drove them over backroads and dusty ways, making them walk backwards to confuse me and he himself leaving lying tracks. The little bandit had tied his sandals on in reverse! As long as he took the cattle along dirt-covered roads, I could follow his path, but once he got to harder ground, rocky ways as hard as iron, the path was lost. Only one poor farmer saw him hurrying along, straight down the road to Pylos, driving my precious herd. Finally he hid them somewhere, then hurried home and jumped in his cradle. When I arrived he was there rubbing his eyes with two chubby fists, trying to look like an innocent baby just woken up. When I accused him, he looked me straight in the eye and lied like an experienced thief: ‘I never saw them, never heard of them, nobody has told me about them. Cattle--what is that?’

Having finished his speech, Phoebus Apollo sat down. Then Hermes stood up and spoke these words in reply:

>>>>[At this point I asked my Creative Mythology students at ZEI to write what they thought Hermes’ reply would be. Sabrina Fanchiang, one of my wittiest students in recent years (certainly a promising young smart alec in the Hermetic tradition) did a great job of it. She described the scene as follows:

Sabrina Fanchiang

Hermes grabbed the lyre and hit the road to Olympus. Then Zeus, son of Cronus, sat on his throne and saw these two boys glaring at each other. He knew all the things that had happened.

Zeus liked Hermes so much because Hermes was as cunning as he. But he was also scared--what if Hermes would steal one of Zeus’ girlfriends next time instead of cattle? Or even more his throne? Zeus quivered.

So he decided to force Hermes to return the cattle. But Hermes knew what Zeus was thinking. He disguised himself sheepishly and drooped his head. He said to Apollo:

“My smart handsome brother. . . Hmm. . . I am terribly sorry to make you upset. But what are you going to do with those cattle? You don’t even eat them--they are smelly and silly. Can the cattle respect you and love you? Can the cattle listen to you and dance for you? I want to give you my lyre for apology. It’s handy and unplugged: you can bring it with you any time.”

Lonely Apollo took his word. And he really like this lyre. So he forgot about the cattle, took the lyre, and flew off into the sky.

Apollo became a splendid rock superstar with many crazy girl fans. As for Hermes, he kept the cattle very carefully, so he could make fine leather from them and open up a luxury handbag boutique for Zeus’ girlfriends and rich ladies. The boutique was named with his name.

Excellent take, Sabrina! I especially like how you showed Hermes’ persuasive power in action, and your explanation of the real origin of the handbag line.

Following is how the ancient poet presented Hermes’ reply and the rest of the story of his conflict with Apollo:]

Having finished his speech, Phoebus Apollo sat down. Then Hermes stood up and spoke these words in reply:

“O Zeus, my father, I promise to tell the truth, plain and simple. I am an innocent child, with no training in lies and deceit. Early this morning, just as the sun was rising, this guy came to our house to hunt for his cattle. He had no witnesses, not one of the other gods came with him, and he tried to make me admit what he wanted by threatening to hurl me to the lowest depths of Hades. Though he himself is obviously in the flower of handsome and glorious youth, he should be able to see that I--well, I’m sure he knows I was born yesterday morning. Do I look like a cattle rustler, the kind of brawny type that goes around and night? So please believe my story, if your claim to be my father is true. I didn’t drive off his cattle--and if I’m lying, may I never be wealthy! I never even left my mother’s cave--that's the truth! I have the greatest respect for Helius and all the immortals, and you, indeed, I love. But Apollo here terrifies me. You yourself can see how harmless I am, and I’m ready to take a great oath to prove it! I swear it by all these terribly expensive surroundings you have here. I swear I’m not guilty! Mark you, some day he will pay for harassing me like this. But for now, be clement to me in your judgment, me a poor infant.”

So the slayer of Argus spoke, glancing to left and right to measure the effect of his words, all the while holding his blanket around his shoulders. Zeus laughed aloud at the lies of his child, at how well he had defended himself against Apollo. Like a good father, he then told them to stop arguing and to behave like brothers. They were to go find the missing cattle together, Hermes leading the way. Hermes was told to stop with his trickery and show Apollo the secret place in which, not long before, he had hidden the stolen cows. So the son of Cronus ordered, and Hermes obeyed him, for though he was just newly born, he knew the will of Zeus could not be refused.

The pair then hurried away, these handsome sons of Zeus, and came to sandy Pylos, by the ford of the river Alpheus. At last they reached the pastures and high-roofed barn where Hermes had hidden the cattle for the night. Hermes went into the cave to start driving the cows out into the light, when Apollo noticed two cowhides on the face of a rock. He demanded of Hermes:

“How were you able, just an infant, to butcher these two cows? Didn’t you tell me before how you weren’t the brawny type? You won’t need to grow very big, you little thief, if you’re already so strong!”

At that Apollo grabbed some willow branches and began to braid a strong cord with them. He planned to tie up Hermes as a punishment for his crime. But the willow cord wouldn’t stay wrapped around the young god. Instead it fell off and snaked away from him, instantly rooting itself in the ground near the herd of cows and becoming a whole new stand of trees. The trees formed themselves into a shelter round the stolen cattle, so one couldn’t see the beasts through the leaves.

Apollo watched this trick with amazement. Where one minute earlier he could see his herd of cattle, now all he could see was a thick growth of willow branches. The mighty son of Leto pretended to stare down at the ground in annoyance, but his eyes were twinkling with fire, . . . trying to hide [the Greek manuscript is missing some words here] . . . .

Hermes easily softened the heart of Leto’s glorious son, strong though he was. With the lyre on his left elbow, he plucked each string with a pick so that it resounded clearly. At the sound of the pure music delight stirred in Apollo’s heart and he laughed. The great son of Maia, plucking away on the lyre, took courage and stood to the left of his older brother. He lifted up his voice sweetly, melodiously, and began a song of the creation of all things, of Earth and the immortal gods, how first they came into being and how each was given his share. First his song honored Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, who had inspired him to sing. Then he sang of each of the immortals in the order of their generation, honoring each with words fit perfectly to music. As he listened, a passionate longing began to attack the heart of Apollo. Finally opening his mouth, he addressed his brother like this:

“Cow-killer, trickster, operator, a joy at a banquet, this song of yours is worth far more than fifty fat cattle! What’s more, I’m sure our silly quarrel can be settled one way or another. But tell me, son of Maia, you of so many talents, have you been able to play like this from birth? Or is this the gift of some god, or even of some mortal man? Either way, it’s amazing. I’ve never heard such beautiful music. Nothing like it has ever been played either on earth or Olympus. It is a perfect charm for incurable sorrow--to hear it one feels one only has three paths from which to choose: joy, sleep, or the sweetness of love. I too am a faithful servant of the Muses, whose greatest delight is the dance and the shining pathways opened by song, the complex joy of rhythm, the passionate thunder of pipes. But nothing I’ve ever heard has ever shaken my heart like this. It’s amazing really! You are just a moppet after all, where could you get such skill? But listen to me, just listen. I’m willing to be a wise older brother for you. From now on, you will be praised as famous among the immortals, you and your mother both. I will make you a glorious leader among the gods; you’ll have fortune too. Listen to me, son of Maia, and I shall bring you many glorious gifts! I promise not to deceive you.”

Hermes responded to this with his usual cunning:

“How tactfully, son of Zeus, you make your suggestion to me! I have no objection giving you a share in my music, and I’ll prove this very day that I want us to be friends. As you sit with the gods, you can collect all kinds of information. You are powerful, and our father is right to shower favors on you. They tell me that you learn right from his mouth the proper ritual owed each god, you hear all the secret pronouncements of Zeus. With inside information like this, I imagine you collect enormous amounts of blackmail. But now, since your heart is eager to master the lyre’s sweet music, take it from me as a gift. Go right ahead: play and sing as much as you like; I promise you’ll get great enjoyment from it. You’ll warble a wonderful song to this party girl in your arms, because you already know all the answers, you always say the right thing. Take her along to a dance or a dinner gathering, or even a wild party, where nighttime is turned to day. If anyone asks the right questions, in a way both clever and wise, she will teach him curious things, a joy for his heart. Be sure, though, that you handle her gently, because she hates dull serious force. If any common fool comes to bother her with stubborn or stupid questions, she’ll give him stupid answers in return: her reply will be chatter and nonsense. But you’re not like that at all: you immediately learn whatever you want to, so this lyre is just the gift for you, O glorious son of Zeus. The two of us, brother, on mountain or wide meadow, will graze our wandering cattle on whatever pasture we choose. The lusty bulls will cover the cows, and abundance of calves will be born. You see, there’s no reason to fly into a temper. You are far too wise a bargainer for that.”

Then side by side the pair drove the cattle back home, to the holy meadow, then hurried to snowy Olympus, these handsome sons of Zeus.

Zeus, the giver of counsel, rejoiced to see them made comrades. Still today Apollo, son of Leto, and Hermes are friends, which can be seen by the gift of the lyre that Hermes gave the Archer God, the wondrous instrument Apollo strums so skillfully, embracing it in his arms. And Hermes had another clever invention, the Pan-pipes, whose reedy notes echo far.

Zephyr English Institute (ZEI)

Zephyr English Institute (ZEI) is a private English language school for kids in Taipei, Taiwan. The school was opened a handful of years ago by two friends of mine, Bill Allen and Daniel Auckland, and is currently owned by Bill. I’ve been teaching there and writing curriculum since 2004.

At ZEI, we teach Taiwanese kids from the very beginnings (the ABCs). It’s a great feeling to start teaching a 5 or 6-year-old who has no English ability, and then find, within a couple years, that they are capable enough to read, write and insult you in your native language.

In fact I’ve always been a teacher who needles my students towards jokes and irony, and as things go I’m usually set up as Target Number 1. Though they do also have fun using their rudimentary English skills to roast each other.

Recently I’ve been teaching more the upper levels: writing curriculum and teaching kids who’ve already gone well beyond the basics. I’ll be posting occasional things from these classes on this blog. Probably the most postings will come from a class I’ve developed called Creative Mythology.

In Creative Mythology, students are introduced to the Greek gods (the generation of Titans, then Olympians), the Greek mythical understanding of the universe, and and then brought into some of the literature. Just now we’re beginning an abridged version of the Odyssey and I hope to go on to Oedipus Rex in a serious, scholarly translation. The kids are sharp enough for it.

There are around a dozen students in the class just now. The youngest might be 11 or so (I’m not sure), the oldest is 18. It’s a very impressive bunch: many of them are amazingly smart, some are amazing smart alecs, all are very welcome.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

MUTT Ch. 6--On Asian eyes

What is it about some Asian eyes that's so impossibly desirable? I've often wondered about this. I think most Western men look at an Asian woman's eyes and feel they’re somehow defective in relation to his own tribe's eyes; he feels they're somehow aberrant. But why does that make them so sexy? There's something that seems weaker about Asian eyes, as if the skin of the eyelids enfolding them were a bit too taut, a bit too delicate; as if the eyelids were not as they should be, as if they could be easily torn. And behind the narrow slits of the Asian woman's eyes--two jet-black pools of ink. Their eyes are often so dark that the pupil is indistinguishable from the iris. The impression is one of impassive solidity; such dark eyes have a strong inscrutability that contrasts with the weakness of the delicate skin enclosing and hiding them.

Certainly these elements--the feeling that the eyes are somehow defective; the impression that they’re also somehow weaker; the unreadability of eyes so perfectly black--clearly all this has something to do with the erotic charge an Asian woman's eyes have in the Westerner's mind. Or at least in my mind. I can't speak for others. But I have to admit I was looking forward to exchanging glances with just such eyes when I accepted the job in Taipei. And already on Day One I'd caught this woman's glance in a bank, and here already she was driving me somewhere we could be alone. I may have been tired out from the flight across a dozen time zones, I may have been literally lost, but all this certainly boded well for the coming year in Taiwan. Or so I thought as her car wove its way through the maddening Taipei traffic.

She parked the Benz in her garage. We got out, and she opened a side door onto a large courtyard. I could hardly believe my eyes. There were about two-hundred dogs in that courtyard, and they all started crowding around us, greeting her. It was a bizarre sight for the middle of a big city. Why in the hell would a woman who drives a Mercedes have so many dogs? I stood there unsure what to make of it, the dogs nervously pawing at my calves and licking my hands. They all looked like mutts and street dogs saved from the gutter. She had an orange plastic kiddy pool in the shade with a hose running into it. That was for their water. When she led me back into the garage, I noticed three tall stacks of huge bags of dog food. She was smiling as she led me up the stairs to her flat. I was surprised by all the dogs, but figured it was a good sign that the woman I was picking up was a serious dog lover. I too loved dogs.

On to Chapter 7

MUTT Ch. 5--I get picked up

The traffic was three times that of New York and the air was stifling. There was sweat running off my head, down my neck, and down my back. Noticing a bank across the street, I decided to change some money. At least there'd be air conditioning in the bank, and maybe even a city map with romanized names.

In the bank were two lines. The teller for the long line was an older lady who looked very relaxed: she was wearing a wig, and her makeup was poorly done. The teller for the other line was a nervous-looking little man with grey hair. I decided the nervous man's line would be faster. That in fact was a mistake. Rather than speed, his nervousness induced in him a more refined carefulness regarding the authenticity of all foreign bills. He kept checking them in a machine.

As I was waiting, I noticed a woman who kept looking at me from the next line over. Attractive and rather tall. About 35. She'd look at me, then smile. Of course I smiled back. She was probably Japanese, I thought. She had a Japanese nose. My spoken Chinese was good enough to say to her: "Your nose is very Japanese, isn't it?" She laughed at this ridiculous remark, and the woman behind her smirked and gave a puff of disapproval. So this Japanese could understand Chinese too, or at least a little.

We got our money from the tellers at about the same time. If only we hadn't my life might be very different right now! As we stepped out of the bank, we both paused near the door, as if deciding which way to go. I asked the Japanese woman, first through my very faulty Chinese and then through hand gestures, where she was headed. She laughed again and smiled and pointed down the sidewalk. I began to walk along next to her.

I couldn't say much, so I didn't. As we walked she continued with the infectious smile, looking up at me in what seemed anticipation.

Her car was a silver-green Mercedes, which surprised me. I’d taken her for a tourist like myself. She played a CD of Spanish flamenco music, and during the ride--thanks to the flimsy seashell-pink dress she had on--I was able to consider her more carefully: her milk-white Asian skin; her long black hair draped over her bare ivory shoulders. Her legs under the steering wheel looked smooth as polished jade. Given the glint of promise in her smile, I had a hard time keeping my hands off her as we waited at the first stoplight. She looked delicious, and she was taking me with her.

On to Chapter 6

MUTT Ch. 4--Not yet serious

All this seems ridiculous so far, granted. What is interesting about this character me? Why should you follow him any further into what is, after all, not an exotic fantasy land, but instead just another sweltering Asian capital, one you can read about any day in The Economist or Time? I'm not sure. Maybe it will help you overcome my crankish first chapters if you put yourself in my shoes. I know this might not be easy. But give it a try. Just imagine you were me that first day in Taiwan. What's your situation? What do you expect from the place? As follows: You have a PhD. in Classics from a good American university. You are 29. You wrote a dissertation on the Greek satirist Lucian and the Russian theorist Bakhtin. Regardless of these academic credentials, you couldn't land a university job in the States, and you didn't want to be a taxi driver, bartender, hotel desk flunky, drug dealer, or waiter. Going abroad to teach English for awhile seemed like a decent idea. And you'd heard good things about Taiwan. Everything might have been fine that first day, but you left your contact numbers in a folder on a chair at the airport. You felt stupid about that, of course, but you knew it was a simple enough mistake, and probably within an hour or two you'd solve the problem of finding the school.

But then the drink with the frog eggs had reminded you of a scene from early childhood--a period you'd rather forget--and your fatigue from the long flight, your easygoing nature, and the involuntary memory from childhood all combined to provoke you into a harmless but ridiculous act: offering some of your drink, two bits of candy as it were, to a child who was terrified of you.

Then you were on the street again. There was sweat running off your head, down your neck, and down your back. It was around 1:30 p.m., and your good mood was giving way slowly to confusion and giddy fatigue. You had just crossed the planet, you were in the wrong time zone, and you were lost. All the signs around you were a blur of Chinese characters, and the people seemed completely taken up by the bustle of their day, paying you no attention at all.

Imagine you were me that first day. The situation wasn't serious, but it would be soon enough.

On to Chapter 5

Friday, September 19, 2008

Time to Pay the "Clown Tax"

It was the afternoon of November 3rd, the day after the 2004 election, and the Bush-Cheney team had just declared victory. Like many Americans, I was in a state of despondent disbelief. It was bad enough we had put these reckless clowns in office in 2000, but a second term? Having done such damage their first four years, I thought with another four they’d be likely to push us to the brink of disaster.

There was, however, one thin silver lining in the Bush win. At least he'd still be at the helm when the results of his policies began to be felt. In short: there’d be no blaming anyone else (i.e., the Democrats) for the mess they’d made of it. I penned a little ditty and emailed it to everyone I knew--especially the Republicans in my address book. The ditty ended as follows:

You’ve flouted the planet
Re-elected your man
He’ll still be in office
When the shit hits the fan

That was back in 2004. I think it’s pretty clear that the shit is now hitting the fan.

The fall in property values and the fall in the dollar and the fall in the stock market have got a lot of people down, worried actually. And for good reason. Because the bill America is now called upon to foot is really pretty hefty. We are finally starting to pay what we might call the "Bush tax."

In the past two presidential elections, many supported the Bush ticket because, they said, Republicans would “lower taxes” and “promote growth by deregulation.” And it’s true: ever since the Bush team came into office, the mantra has been “deregulate, deregulate, deregulate!” Deregulation is one of the main Republican planks. According to this economic philosophy, you cut all the regulations you can and allow companies to simply do whatever they want. Just as the Bush team cut most of our important pollution and environmental regulations, so they did the same thing with the regulations that used to keep the banking and finance industries in line.

Bush and the people he appointed gleefully tore up that carefully written rule book that previously governed Wall Street financial firms. And now we’ll have to pay for their irresponsibility. Bush and Co. let the foxes invent their own rules, because, in Republican doctrine, government shouldn’t have any oversight function. The result has been almost a decade of decreasing rules as to what kinds of financial instruments Wall Street firms could use to play hide-and-seek with each other. As is now clear, hide-and-seek is not the best game to play with a nation’s wealth.

Now we see how it all turns out--don't we--and now America is paying for its mistakes: its biggest mistake being to elect these extremists to begin with. America is finally paying the “taxes” it owes under the Bush Administration. And this tax assessment is proving rather expensive, isn’t it? Above I called it the “Bush tax.” But why not make it clearer? It is the tax modern citizens must pay whenever their leaders play fast and loose with the budget, with war and peace, with the laws governing finance and industry. And this is how Republicans, increasingly, have played it. We should really call it the “clown tax.”

Many have blamed (lifelong Republican) Alan Greenspan and his policies. It’s not unreasonable to blame this (lifelong Republican) finance guru. The problem is that Greenspan allowed too much cheap money--money was too easy to borrow. But why did Greenspan go so far in this direction? Some studies point out that the pressure was on to loosen lending standards because our government itself had borrowed enormous sums to finance the Iraq war and wasn’t ready to come even close to paying for these expenses by maintaining anything like a reasonable tax structure. So we see the Republican philosophy in action: You spend more than ever, go waaaaay into debt, but you don’t pay for these expenses, you just keep borrowing money from people you should be suspicious of to begin with, i.e., China. And you pour out this borrowed money on projects that, mostly, you don’t even pay attention to. Contracting for the Iraq war has been an incredible farce in terms of the accounting practices allowed. Our financial well-being was handed over in the form of huge bricks of cash to people who could be trusted, mainly, to steal them.

This is called “small government”? I’d call it robber baron government. Our country has been nearly bankrupted by eight years of Republican leaders doing whatever the hell sounded good for the time being and not thinking anything as to what the results would be. The Iraq war has been exactly this (we do not, contrary to current rhetoric, have anything like “victory finally in sight”) and our economy is proving another painful instance of the same thing: irresponsible, ideologically motivated policy decisions on a world-altering scale.

So as we watch our wealth decrease weekly--from the value of our homes to the stocks we have in our porfolios to the value of our currency itself--we should think about how all this disaster relates to the eight recent Republican years. How thoughtless arrogance on the world stage and voodoo economics at home have led to one pretty nasty tax bill. Yes, at the end of the day, Bush has raised your taxes more than anyone ever has.

John McCain is part of this same party and a supporter of the same economic philosophy. Sure, McCain can now see, like everyone else, the disaster that his own party’s policies have brought about. But he hasn’t presented anything in the way of how he will differ in his own approach. All he can do is imply that he is “different,” that he is a “maverick,” and will clean things up. But the problems we have are not mainly the result of individuals’ bad character, or individual politicians stealing directly from the public coffers. They are the result of bad laws and bad foreign policy and bad tax policy--policies that have hurt mainly middle and lower-class Americans but, as we see, have also finally hurt richer Americans too.

Want to see how closely McCain is connected to the deregulators who set the stage for this disaster? Just take a look the career of Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator McCain has counted on most for his economic policy. It should frighten anyone.

How long will we be paying the “clown tax”? I really don’t think a McCain White House would be independent enough of the big lobbying powers and beholden enough to our struggling middle class to bring our country back to what it should be: a country of law and order and reasonable, well-considered policies. I think the Republican party is too drunk on its own discredited economic philosophy, its own ties to (very) big business, to make and promote the kind of level-headed policies we need. What do you think? Does the Republican approach to economy and foreign policy deserve another four years?

Is your home’s value down twenty or more percent? Are you maybe in danger of losing your home? It’s the clown tax.

Is everything you buy at the store suddenly more expensive because your dollars are suddenly worth much less than before? It’s the clown tax.

Has your stock portfolio lost a third of its value, so that what you thought you could count on to help out your retirement is now less valuable than if you’d buried it in jars in the yard? Time to pay the clown tax.

How much has this hidden Republican tax cost you so far?

The clown tax: a payment assessed to all Americans for Republican deregulatory foolishness and arrogant cowboy adventurism. Want to really lower your “taxes”? Then don’t put another clown in the White House.


On the disconcerting career of McCain's main economic adviser:

What Phil Gramm Wrought

On the financial impact of the Iraq war:

A Talk with Joseph Stiglitz

On associational disorders of various sorts:

The Disassociated Press--News for Nation Builders

Thursday, April 24, 2008

More Contrarian Thoughts on the Gospel of Judas

Caravaggio: The Taking of Christ, 1602, National Gallery of Ireland.

Review of: The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says by April D. DeConick, Continuum, 202 pp., 2007.

When the English translation of the Gospel of Judas was first made public by the National Geographic in 2006, I posted an essay, entitled “Contrarian Thoughts on the Gospel of Judas”, on my web page. My essay took up issues of interpretation as I then understood them. In fact the title I chose for that essay might serve me in good stead for what I now have to say about Professor April DeConick's recent book The Thirteenth Apostle. This new book offers contrarian reading of a different sort: in it DeConick almost completely overturns the interpretation that informed the National Geographic translation. According to DeConick, the Judas depicted in the Coptic manuscript is in no respect the illuminated Gnostic the National Geographic version offers us. Rather she finds this Judas to be a tragically doomed figure, a "demon" actually, depicted in the text as being locked into a grim fate: to serve Ialdabaoth and his Archons by committing a sin graver than any committed by the other, already misguided apostles.

Though DeConick's book is at times a bit breathless and handwringing in style, her arguments are persuasive. If the Coptic words and phrases she analyzes in her third chapter in fact typically mean what she says they do, then her general reading, I must say, is going to be hard to deny. DeConick shows, for example, that where the original team translated Judas saying that Jesus would "set [him] apart for that [holy] generation," what the Coptic phrase really means is that Judas would be "separated from that [holy] generation." To be set apart for salvation and to be separated from salvation are truly quite different things. In this and many other instances, DeConick argues that the Coptic has been misconstrued. Most of these are somewhat minor misconstruals, it's true, but in a text already so fragmented they add up to a completely different sense of what is going on. Especially telling is the difference between the following two translations. Jesus is speaking to Judas:
National Geographic Version:

And when Jesus heard this, he laughed and said to him, "You thirteenth spirit, why do you try so hard?"

DeConick's Version:

When Jesus heard this, he laughed. He said to him, "Why do you compete with them, O Thirteenth Demon?"
The crux here, the word behind the difference between whether Jesus is calling Judas a spirit or a demon, is the Greek word daimon. In its Platonic sense, the word could certainly mean spirit, as anyone who has studied Plato would know. But DeConick argues that the Gospel of Judas was written five centuries after Plato, and that the term daimon had already come too far toward its modern meaning to retain this earlier, positive interpretation. I suspect, based on her arguments, that she is right. I also find her discussions of the text's use of the number thirteen and her discussion of the stars and luminous cloud into which Judas moves toward the end of the gospel to be more convincing than not. In these and other instances, DeConick's interpretation is well served by the fact that she keeps always in mind just how distinct the Gnostics considered the cosmic and aeonic realms: our corrupt earthly realm which included the stars and planets, and the realm of the true God beyond, to which the holy generation would return. A brightly shining star for the Sethians was not something to wish upon: rather it was a sign of the iron hand of fate. And so Jesus' comment to Judas that his star has ascended is not meant to be good news.

Professor DeConick's book contains a complete, new translation of the gospel, one which, in my judgment, offers a more logical progression than that found in the National Geographic version. This in itself suggests DeConick is probably on the right track. The earlier translation had certain odd logical contradictions that even seemed out of bounds for an ancient Coptic text. Consider that at one point in the National Geographic translation we find "[S]eth, who is called Christ" included in a list of the angels who assist the Archons in ruling over chaos and the underworld. I still remember being taken aback by this when I first read the line in 2006. How is it that Seth would be listed among the helpers of the Archons? DeConick has a convincing solution. She argues that what the damaged Coptic text presents simply as "[. . .]eth" with the added title "chs" should not be read as "[S]eth Ch[risto]s":
The five angels who rule over the abysses (Chaos and Hades) are called [. . .]eth, Harmathoth, Galila, Yobel, and Adonaios. The first of these names is probably a version of Athoth (Atheth) based on similar lists in other Sethian texts, not "[S]eth" as the National Geographic team has reconstructed it. Moreover, in the National Geographic transcription, Atheth is given the abbreviated title chs. The team has assumed that this is an abbreviation for christos . . . thus translating the line, "The first is [S]eth, the one who is called Christ." But this is nonsensical. Seth is never an Archon in these lists, nor is Christ ever made to be an Archon ruling over Chaos and Hades in the Sethian literature. Rather, the abbreviated title, chs, is more likely from the Greek word chrestos, with the same first and last letters, but which means "the Good One." This is the epithet associated with Athoth in other Sethian texts. (112)
This rescue of Seth from the Archon's retinue is an example of the kind of clear sense of many of DeConick's translation choices. Is she correct? It is not for me to decide, but if she is in even half her choices, her book offers a significant new version of this ancient text.

Though offering a scholarly argument, The Thirteenth Apostle should be accessible to any keen reader with an interest in Gnosticism and some knowledge of the issues. DeConick's book gives one of the clearest discussions I've encountered of how the Gnostic myths (possibly) arose. How did these groups of ancient seekers move from more normative Jewish belief to the complex cosmogony of Gnosticism? Scholars still aren't certain of the origins of the movement. DeConick opts for one of the standard explanations: it is mainly a matter of the collision of Jewish monotheism with the new science of Plato. Not standard, however, is DeConick's compelling step-by-step narration of this collision and its effects: how certain philosophical positions, once accepted, would likely result in a reconsideration of elements of the orthodox biblical faith, which would then lead to further effects, and so on. Beginning students of Gnosticism can learn a lot from her concise presentation of what may have been happening during these centuries.

Among the issues crucial to DeConick's argument, and which she addresses, are the relations between the Gospel of Judas and Mark, as well as its relations with Sethian works found in the Nag Hammadi collection. Marvin Meyer, one of the scholars on the National Geographic team, criticizes DeConick for her extensive use in this book of later Sethian works, but I suspect these later works, part of a general body of Sethian thought and doctrine, offer the best comparative material we have for assessing what the author of the Gospel of Judas might have meant. That she carefully considers elements from later Sethian literature so as to better understand the earlier text of Judas doesn't at all suggest, to me at least, that DeConick accepts Sethian Gnosticism to be a monolith without historical development.

Particularly of interest in relation to the Gospel of Mark is the theme of the ignorant, bumbling apostles. As is known, in Mark the first and almost only figures to recognize Jesus for who he is are the demons. In contrast to this, the twelve apostles are repeatedly berated by Jesus for not understanding, and upon his arrest they scatter in fear. DeConick points out that sectarians who rejected the doctrines of the apostolic church would be inclined to make use of this Markan portrait of the apostles to show that any church claiming descent from them must be a church of ignorance.
[The writers of the Gospel of Judas know that in Mark] Jesus' disciples are both faithless and ignorant. Tertullian of Carthage tells us that the Gnostics regularly "brand" the twelve apostles, in particular Peter, with "the mark of ignorance" and "simplicity." (101)
Such moves were indeed, as DeConick agrees, part of second-century turf wars between competing sects. The Markan portrait of the apostles' ignorance does not in my mind show an attempt to disparage them: rather it is in the main a matter of the gospel writer's dramatic power, and buttresses the theme of the "Messianic secret." (I also believe, with some scholars, that whoever wrote Mark was likely dependant on either firsthand testimony from Peter or a source dependant on Peter. Thus I don't understand the theme of "Messianic secret" in the sense William Wrede proposed: it is rather partly history remembered, partly an instance of Mark's narrative genius.)

DeConick also makes an argument for Judas' importance as a piece in the historical puzzle of the development of orthodoxy. It is her opinion that the kind of attack on the doctrine of atonement found in the Gospel of Judas may have been instrumental in pushing the early Church toward refining atonement theology. She discusses Origen's early atonement theology as a possible response to the Sethians.

Of course I am not a scholar of Coptic and so cannot myself make a judgment on the translation decisions of the (certainly distinguished) National Geographic team. A debate has opened up regarding the most general issues of interpreting this newly discovered text. What is interesting in any case is the question of why the National Geographic team might have gotten the gist of this gospel so wrong, if indeed they have. In an interview appended to her book DeConick speculates on this:
Judas has been a terrifying figure in our history, since he became in the Middle Ages the archetypal Jew who was responsible for Jesus' death. His story was abused for centuries as a justification to commit atrocities against Jews. I wonder if one of the ways that our communal psyche has handled this in recent decades is to try to erase or explain the evil Judas, to remove from him the guilt of Jesus' death. There are many examples of this in pop fiction and film produced after World War II. It seems to be that the National Geographic interpretation has grown out of this collective need and has been well-received because of it. (180-1)
Later she states:
Judas Iscariot is a frightening figure. For Christians, he is the one who had it all, and yet betrayed God to his death for a few dollars. He is the archetype of human evil, the worst human being ever to live. He is the antithesis of the true Christian. Because of this, his image works as a religious control--he is someone the Christian never wants to become. For Jews, he is terrifying, the man whom Christians associated with Jewish people, whose story was used against them for centuries as a religious justification for their abuse and slaughter. Even his name "Judas" has been linked to "Jew," due to their root similarities (Judas/Judea/Jews). I think that Judas is someone whose shadow haunts us. (182)
These latter comments in particular make for a very apt summary of the grim importance of Judas in our history.

I suspect, however, that if the National Geographic team's interpretation is flawed as DeConick claims, it is not a matter of the scholars unconsciously seeking to assuage a collective guilt. More likely it is simply a result of them working from their expectations of what the text was supposed to contain. All the scholars on the team, for instance, would have known of the Church Fathers' descriptions of the gospel, and these descriptions would have inclined them to preconceive a positive portrait of Judas, which in turn would have influenced their translation choices--one line at a time. Building up their own portrait step by step, and leaning meanwhile on their expectations of what the gospel was supposed to contain, once their translation was finished none of them would have gone back and questioned too carefully the individual snippets. But, as DeConick shows, those snippets added up.

DeConick sums up her idea of the intentions of the ancient believers who wrote the Gospel of Judas:
The Gospel of Judas was written by Gnostic Christians called Sethians in the second century. They wrote it to criticize Apostolic or mainstream Christianity, which they understood to be a form of Christianity that needed to reassess its faith. Particularly troubling for these Gnostic Christians was the Apostolic belief in the atonement, because this meant that God would have had to commit infanticide by sacrificing the Son. They wrote the Gospel of Judas to prove that this could not be the case. Why? Because Judas was a demon who worked for another demon who rules this world and whose name is Ialdabaoth. (181-2)
Over time we will get a better idea of whose arguments the scholars find more persuasive, DeConick's or the National Geographic team's. The Thirteeth Apostle is in any case a fascinating challenge.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Give the Reins to McCain?

As an American living in Taiwan, I’m made aware every day how deep and pervasive cultural difference can be. Having been here for quite awhile, I’m now watching my third U.S. presidential race unfold from across the Pacific, assessing the candidates both as an American and as someone who hears how their words echo in this particular corner of Asia. Following American politics from a foreign country always gives a slightly different perspective.

Over the years I've usually supported the Democrats. I know that in the U.S. Democrats are sometimes blamed for being too concerned about respecting foreign cultures, too “sensitive” to cultural difference. Those who raise such criticisms want to imply that Democrats are more worried about offending foreign sensibilities than they are about defending America: i.e., they are unpatriotic. But given our globalized world, I know attention to such cultural issues should be understood in another way: it is not a matter of political correctness, but rather of hard political realism.

With the Republicans the opposite seems true. They and their leaders seem not the least worried if they know little or nothing about the world they have to deal with.

Enter John McCain and the war on terror. Several times during his recent visit to Jordan, McCain spoke bizarrely about concerns that the Iranian government was “training al Qaeda in Iraq.” Such statements are bizarre because they are sheer nonsense: everyone knows al Qaeda is a Sunni organization, whereas the Iranians are backing the Shiite forces in Iraq.

Nonetheless it was not merely a “senior moment” for the Republican candidate: McCain made his statement several times.

At a news conference in Amman, he said Iranians were “taking al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.” Asked about his words later, he basically repeated them: “Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.”

What is unfortunate is that Americans don’t seem to recognize what a boneheaded mistake this is. If they did, they’d be thinking twice about putting McCain in the White House--a White House, by the way, that got us into our current can of worms precisely because of its willful ignorance of the religious differences that make a country like Iraq such a powder keg.

Consider: Any nation that might want to fight in or occupy such a country, any nation that plans to put its own young men and women on the front lines there, simply cannot afford to misunderstand such basic facts. Taking the time to understand such deeply rooted religious conflicts in a country one plans to democratize is not a matter of being too “sensitive” or “politically correct.” Rather it is a matter of the utmost military importance.

The Bush administration ignored such ethnic issues at the beginning of its Iraqi adventure, and now McCain is taking up the task of ignoring them again.

McCain only corrected his howler when Joe Lieberman, traveling with him, leaned over and whispered a correction in his ear. I guess Lieberman must have been embarrassed at how stupid Americans look making such statements in a Middle Eastern capital.

I don't know about other Americans, but I for one am sick to death of listening to Republican so-called leaders who can’t distinguish between Shia and Sunni. This is a basic fact of dealing with the Muslim world, and if a man who wants to be our next president can’t keep such basic facts in mind, then he can’t be trusted to oversee anything like a “war on terror.” Much less can he be trusted to manage the diplomacy we will need to keep the Iraqi mess from spreading elsewhere once we, inevitably, begin to draw down troop numbers.

After how many years of this war, and the Republican nominee John McCain still can’t keep the forces straight? And he wants to be in the White House? Imagine if a U.S. presidential contender running during World War II had mixed up Italy and Germany: “I intend to keep fighting until our troops have captured Rome, the German capital!”

Would such a candidate have been judged fit to manage the war against fascism in Europe? Is it any surprise, given the Republican indifference to geographical and cultural facts, that we've botched the occupation of Iraq?

The Manhattan Reichstag Review

Marcus Borg and the Language of the Bible

Review of: Marcus Borg: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally, Harper Collins, 321 pp.

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg is a religious thinker who thinks in stages. A period characterized by a certain set of convictions finally proves inadequate to knowledge or experience and must give way to a new set of convictions. Unlike many modern scholars, however, Borg realizes that these new convictions need not be anti-religious. In one autobiographical essay, Borg's personal religious development is laid out in stages: the naïve belief of his youth, followed by a period of atheism, developing in university into a quest to understand Jesus in relation to the political and social problems of his day.

For some years now Borg has been working out the implications of a more recent stage, a Christian faith one might call nascently postmodern. Is his work in this direction part of a new, more spiritually attuned Christianity--as he and likeminded Christians believe--or is it herald rather to the demise of Christianity? This is a question Borg's work everywhere begs.

My focus here will not so much be such general questions as the question of how Borg reads the Bible. I approach Borg's methods of biblical interpretation by considering his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, where he offers readings of important biblical texts, including Genesis, the prophets, Job and Ecclesiastes, the Gospels, Paul's letters and Revelation. For my concerns, the most interesting sections of the book come before the specific readings, so I will mainly take up his first chapters, in which he addresses the more general questions of biblical interpretation, i.e.: What kind of book is the Bible? How are we to interpret biblical texts?

One can't deny that Borg makes persuasive arguments against the fundamentalists, those who call themselves "Bible-believing" Christians and who define their belief via the insistence that everything narrated in the Bible is literally, factually, historically true. Fundamentalists believe their argument for the inerrancy of the Bible is in line with traditional Christianity. Borg demonstrates that it is not:
They typically see themselves as affirming "the old-time religion"--that is, Christianity as it was before the modern period. In fact, however, as we shall see, their approach itself is modern, largely the product of a particular form of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestant theology. (5)
As Borg explains it, Bible literalists, unbeknownst to themselves, have been made pawns of the very Enlightenment culture they struggle against. How could this be? It is a result of the pervasiveness of Enlightenment views of reality and how we ground our knowledge of reality.

All of us raised and educated in modern Western societies have, whether we like it or not, been indoctrinated with generally Enlightenment views. As Borg likes to put it, we are "fact fundamentalists." We learn early on that statements of truth must be factually verifiable: any statement that doesn't correspond to "the facts" cannot be true. Not factually true, it is false, or, worse, it is simply nonsense. Our culture's deeply ingrained respect for facts is a result of the success of Enlightenment science, which we credit with all the technological breakthroughs of the modern world. As Borg would point out, however, the success and pervasiveness of science in our world has made us deaf to other sorts of truth than the merely factual or empirically verified. Specifically, we've lost the ability to understand broadly metaphorical truths. As "fact fundamentalists," we assume that anyone intending to say something important will use a fact-based manner of presentation. This, after all, is how scientists and researchers state the truth, so it must be the way to state the truth.

According to Borg, religious fundamentalists, who also live in the modern world, have anachronistically imposed this modern perspective on the Bible. They mistakenly assume the writers of biblical times shared our fact-based understanding of how to communicate truth. Fundamentalists are thus led to insist on the factual "inerrancy" of the Bible because, as moderns, they tacitly believe anything not grounded in empirically verifiable fact will lose its authority. Indeed, given their narrowly modern perspective, they assume it could never have had any authority to begin with. In this way Borg shows that fundamentalists are duped by the very modernity they struggle against: insisting on the "literal truth" of the Bible, they risk shrinking the Bible down to the size of a high school science textbook. The problem is very clear: the Bible's manner of conveying truth is not and never was that of a textbook. The biblical writers did not share our obsession with fact-based presentation; their palette was more varied, and their works wove history and metaphor with a boldness we no longer appreciate.

Marcus Borg

Though Borg doubtless somewhat overstates his case, he is here generally persuasive. He shows throughout how biblical texts often contain internal cues as to their metaphorical intent. And he stresses that a literal reading was not necessarily the "normal" way of approaching the Bible even in the early centuries of Church history. Consider the following quote on the Genesis narratives:
What intelligent person can imagine that there was a first day, then a second and third day, evening and morning, without the sun, the moon, and the stars? [Sun, moon, and stars are created on the fourth day.] And that the first day--if it makes sense to call it such--existed even without a sky? [The sky is created on the second day.] Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human gardener, God planted a garden in Eden in the East and placed in it a tree of life, visible and physical, so that by biting into its fruit one would obtain life? And that by eating from another tree, one would come to know good and evil? And when it is said that God walked in the garden in the evening and that Adam hid himself behind a tree, I cannot imagine that anyone will doubt that these details point symbolically to spiritual meanings by using a historical narrative which did not literally happen. (70-1)
These words do not come from a modern liberal Christian seeking to water down the Bible's authority, but from the distinguished 3rd century Church father Origen. To men and women who lived before modernity, a story didn't necessarily have to be factual to merit reverence. They recognized other modes of truth. Though Origen affirmed that he saw much of the Bible as historical, he also insisted many things "were recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place," and that even "the gospels themselves are filled with the same kind of narratives."

Such statements may seem odd coming from one of the greatest of ancient Christian writers. But, according to Borg, it is we moderns who have become odd. He writes:
The modern preoccupation with factuality has had a pervasive and distorting effect on how we see the Bible and Christianity. . . . Christianity in the modern period became preoccupied with the dynamic of believing or not believing. For many people, believing "iffy" claims to be true became the central meaning of Christian faith. It is an odd notion--as if what God most wants from us is believing highly problematic statements to be factually true. And if one can't believe them, then one doesn't have faith and isn't a Christian. (16)
For Borg the Bible is neither infallible nor somehow a transcription, written down by dictation, of the words of God. Rather it records the experiences of God of the ancient Israelites and the early Christian movement. The Bible is thus a record made by human beings, a "human product," but one that nevertheless communicates "a reality." According to Borg, God is not a fiction or a lie but a real presence known in human experience:
To see the Bible as a human product does not in any way deny the reality of God. Indeed, one of the central premises of this book is that God is real and can be experienced. I have put that as simply as I know how. At the risk of repetition, I mean that God (or "the sacred" or "Spirit," terms that I use synonymously) is a reality known in human experience, and not simply a human creation or projection.
That "God is real," however, does not mean that there can be any perfect human explanation of God or God's will. And this includes the Bible.
Of course, whatever we say about the sacred is a human creation. We cannot talk about God (or anything else) except with the words, symbols, stories, concepts, and categories known to us, for they are the only language we have. Nevertheless, we also have experiences of "the holy," "the numinous," "the sacred." These experiences go beyond language, shatter it, relativize it. (22)
For Borg, the sacred is mainly to be found in these experiences of God. If any scripture results from such experiences, that is necessarily a secondary phenomenon. If the Bible is sacred, then, it not because it is "the Word of God" in the sense of a Word that came directly from God, but rather because it is recognized as sacred by the community of Christian believers. The sacred character of the Bible is grounded in its status as record of the ancient experiences of God most valued by the Christian community. The Christian community, in turn, is constituted by the Bible through constant dialogue with its texts, which dialogue Borg understands as one of the central sacraments of Christian faith. To put all this another way, one might say that the Bible is not sacred in origin (it is not a direct product of divine composition) but only in status (it is a crucial ground of Christian experience of the sacred). Borg writes:
The older, conventional way of seeing the Bible grounded scripture's authority in its origin: the Bible was sacred because it came from God. The result was a monarchical model of biblical authority. Like an ancient monarch, the Bible stands over us, telling us what to believe and do. But seeing the Bible as sacred in its status leads to a different model of biblical authority. . . .

The result: the monarchical model of biblical authority is replaced by a dialogical model of biblical authority. In other words, the biblical canon names the primary collection of ancient documents with which Christians are to be in continuing dialogue. This continuing conversation is definitive and constitutive of Christian identity. . . .

Yet because the Bible is a human product as well as sacred scripture, the continuing dialogue needs to be a critical conversation. There are parts of the Bible that we will decide need not or should not be honored, either because we discern that they were relevant to ancient times but not to our own, or because we discern that they were never the will of God.

. . . .

To be Christian means to live within the world created by the Bible.
Borg elaborates on what such living entails in his discussion of the Bible as a sacrament: "a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced." (30-1)

Borg's arguments are powerful and well thought out, particularly as regards the blindness induced in modern Christians by our "fact-obsessed" modernity. Though there are directions in which I wouldn't follow Borg, I agree with him on much. Still, I believe in this work he has not adequately addressed the issue of language and the divine. For Borg--it is a point to which he returns repeatedly--the language of the Bible is human: both its glories and limitations come from its being a human product. As educated Christians, we admire the brilliance of biblical writers even as we recognize their (sometimes obsolete) culturally determined prejudices. According to Borg, humanity most quintessentially encounters the divine in "experiences of God," which are understood to be somehow separate from the language in which they are (later?) recorded. Thus the biblical writers' strictly human language is placed on one side as an instrument used to record what is seen, on the other, as the more essential experience.

There are various problems raised by this model. One is that it simplifies how biblical texts came to be written. For instance, we cannot really say that the writer of the Gospel of John "experienced" the content of his Gospel one day and then wrote it down the next, as if taking belated notes on a meeting he'd had earlier. I would argue instead that the interplay between experience and language is much more complex--even that language itself is our most fundamental bridge to religious experience. Borg's model underestimates both the power and centrality of language: he puts language too exclusively on the human side of a divide between God and humanity. My own understanding of language would certainly be judged eccentric by some, but I believe it allows for a better understanding of the experience of the divine. I believe that our linguistic faculty is itself already partly divine. Through language, and particularly at certain privileged moments, the divine speaks in us. This is how the biblical prophets experienced language, and it explains, in my interpretation, a crucial part of the meaning of Christ as "the Word made Flesh." The Bible is not entirely a human product; rather, the language of the Bible came about across a bridge between God and ourselves.

Though sharing much with other species, we human beings are endowed, very mysteriously, with the power of language. Neither does any other species have anything approaching the complexity and power of human language, nor does any human community have a language that is less than fully developed: i.e., there is no such thing as a human group with a simple or "primitive language." Language, in all its complexity, is part of the human makeup. And with the power of language come other characteristics unique to our species, such as self-consciousness, reasoning ability, and religious sense. But where did our linguistic faculty itself come from, or, in evolutionary terms, how did it develop? Linguists, anthropologists, geneticists and brain scientists have struggled to answer this question, but a satisfying answer remains elusive. I would insist that this extraordinary faculty is the sign of some fundamental difference between us and other species, and that it is in this faculty, more than in our physical shape, that we should see the meaning of the line in Genesis: "So God created man in his image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (Gen. 1:27) For me, to be created in the image of God is to be created as linguistic, thinking beings. (NB: Although I use the language of creation here, I am not with those who reject the theory of evolution. On the contrary, evolution is the most compelling explanation of the origin of species, including our own. But evolution is not necessarily the most compelling explanation of everything that concerns the universe and life. Creation in my thinking was an oblique event: we are the species evolved in a way that allows the linguistic and spiritual bridge to God to open. That this opening may be in part the result of a multitude of chance mutations does not mean there is no God or no creation; it only means that the material universe was set to throwing the dice until such an opening should be made. It is becoming clearer and clearer that arguments for intelligent design make weak sense at the biological-genetic level, but very compelling sense at the level of the universe as a whole. Unless one subscribes to the utterly unverifiable theory of a multiverse, one is compelled to acknowledge that the universe we live in seems to an uncanny degree designed to allow for the rise of life.)

Our religious tradition, its understanding of God, forefronts language like no other. According to the first chapters of Genesis, creation itself was effected through language: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Gen. 1:3) The God who created through language is subsequently shown ordering the human world through it. The first human beings were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ignored God's express verbal command (and it was the verbal wiles of the serpent that undid them); the Tower of Babel story shows human pride defeated through a newly instituted multiplicity of languages; the patriarch Abraham is not given a kingdom or some special power but is rather made party to a covenant (a verbal agreement); both Mosaic law and the prophets are a matter of receiving and then remembering the correct verbal formulations of God's plan for humanity. In the New Testament, Jesus comes teaching like the prophets, and is called "the Word made Flesh." His common refrain is: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." One may experience and recognize many things visually, but what one hears is most essentially spoken language. Language and voice are Jesus' strongest metaphors for the link to God.

At one point in his presentation, Borg argues against seeing the Bible as a part-human, part-divine product:
[A]ffirming that the Bible is both divine and human leads to the attempt to separate the divine parts from the human parts--as if some of it comes from God and some is a human product. The parts that come from God are then given authority, and the others are not. But the parts that we think come from God are normally the parts we see as important, and thus we simply confer divine authority on what matters to us, whether we be conservatives or liberals. (27)
I agree that this will happen. Nonetheless the Bible is certainly such a divine/human product: the text is both shot through with divine formulations--expressions the Spirit forged in the crucible of the human mind--and inflected throughout by the dross of human mania and error. There is doubtless no single book of the Bible that is not in this way an admixture of the divine and human. Yet though we recognize the Bible as such a work, we will still be forever unable to separate out what comes from God and what is merely our own prejudice about God. This, however, is an attendant part of the human condition: to shift to St. Paul's visual metaphor, we see "though a glass darkly."

The closest Borg comes to my own view of biblical language is in a discussion of the Bible as "the World of God," where he writes:
"Word" is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense. As with metaphors generally, this one resonates with more than one nuance of meaning. A word is a means of communication, involving both speaking and hearing. A word is a means of disclosure; we disclose or reveal ourselves through words. Words bridge the distance between ourselves and others: we commune and become intimate through words.

. . . . The Bible is a means of divine self-disclosure. (33-4)
By evoking speaking, hearing and a distance to be bridged, Borg is getting close to contradicting himself. According to his repeatedly stated principle, it is not God we hear in the Bible, but men speaking of God. How then is the Bible a means of "divine self-disclosure"?

Though I find Borg's solution to the problem of the origin of the Bible to be unsatisfactory, his chapter on basic reading approaches, in which he explains the "historical-metaphorical" method, is excellent. Many of his points here have long been understood by readers, going back even to ancient times, but in our world of atheist materialists on the one hand and biblical literalists on the other, such ideas need the kind of clear presentation Borg gives. He concludes the chapter by presenting three stages Bible readers may go through: precritical naivete; critical thinking; postcritical naivete. I believe his stages are roughly right for many modern Christians, but think he'd be better served calling the third stage postcritical belief. Perhaps he doesn't because of his stress on the experiential and sacramental over the, for him, more fraught term belief. In any case, for me a postcritical belief would imply a belief in the sacred character and central importance of the Bible, not a belief that all its narratives are factually true. As Borg points out, many pre-Englightenment cultures accepted that factually untrue stories could nonetheless be profoundly true:
Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.

This way of hearing sacred stories is widespread in premodern cultures. In Arabia, traditional storytellers begin their stories with "This was, and this was not." . . . A favorite of mine is the way a Native American storyteller begins telling his tribe's story of creation: "Now I don't know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true." If you can get your mind around that statement, then you know what postcritical naivete is. (50)
There are many aspects of Borg's book I haven't addressed. Most obviously, I haven't referred to any of his readings of biblical texts. As stated above, the bulk of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is given to explicating important biblical books in terms of his historical-metaphorical method. Much of it is well worth reading, especially the chapters on the Pentateuch, the Gospels, and his well-balanced poetic defense of Revelation.

In an epilogue, Borg writes:
[This] book reflects my personal perceptions. I do not have an objective vantage point outside of my own history. . . . For me, this book comes down to what I have been able to see thus far about how to read the Bible. (297)
Such disarming statements are ultimately true, of course, but they are also somewhat belied by the amount of scholarship behind Borg's readings. After all, he has decades of study shaping his perceptions of the Bible; his "personal" interpretations are, to no small degree, a matter of what modern scholarship has allowed him to see. Borg struggles to be responsible both to his Christian faith and to what modernity has revealed to him. Whether he has been successful in this double allegiance is up to the reader to decide. Borg himself might argue, of course, that it is not a double allegiance and that it is not up to the reader to decide in any case. He might insist that success or failure here is a matter to be worked out in his personal relationship with God, in his own experience of the Christian tradition as a multifaceted sacrament. According to such a vision of the Christian life, this--and not self-imposed adherence to any creed--would be the truth of Christianity for the (post)modern faithful. Does such an individually modulated and dialogical notion of Christian truth do justice to the faith? Many will say No, and discard the lot of Borg's perceptions; others will embrace him as a brother in the Spirit; still others, like myself, will toss back some of Borg's catch, but keep a few fine fish.

Check Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time at