The Long View 2007-03-22: Conrad Black, Biblical Literacy, the No-State Solution, Theology in the Air

Council of Trent, painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento  By Laurom - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8465486

Council of Trent, painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento

By Laurom - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8465486

This paragraph contains a line that has echoed in my mind for more than a decade now:

This item caught my eye, however, because I am already taking the professor's advice: as an exercise for Lent, I am reading the whole Bible. I started on the New Testament just last night.

This exercise is strenuous but useful. Reading so much material so fast shakes the reader free of both the historical-critical method and theology. Those things are valuable, even necessary, but they obscure the canon. The canon is more than the sum of its parts. It has emergent properties. Just ask Northrop Frye.

The canon John J. Reilly has in mind here is the canonical books of the Bible, as defined by the Council of Trent during the Counter-Reformation. I was struck by the idea that the collected books of the Bible constitute something more than just a literal library of texts, but is a coherent whole. The proximate cause of the Council defining the canon was Luther’s attempt to excise books he found uncongenial. In retrospect, the Council also defended an idea that hadn’t really been well articulated yet: as literature, the Bible really does have a narrative arc that is destroyed by attempting to alter it.


Conrad Black, Biblical Literacy, the No-State Solution, Theology in the Air

We live in the land of biblical idiots, according to Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University. He has apparently been making this point for some time, as we see on his blog. His most recent comments along these lines were in the Los Angelos Times, which helpfully put them behind a registration screen. Here is the gist of it:

Public school courses that promote Bible literacy can enhance our civic life.

Biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem. It is a civic problem with political consequences. How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment or the environment without knowing something about the Bible? ...One solution to this civic problem is to teach Bible classes in public schools. ...the Supreme Court has repeatedly given a constitutional stamp of approval to academic courses about religion.

Persons of a cynical turn of mind might remark that public school courses in the Bible as an academic subject would create considerable demand for graduates with degrees in religion. This item caught my eye, however, because I am already taking the professor's advice: as an exercise for Lent, I am reading the whole Bible. I started on the New Testament just last night.

This exercise is strenuous but useful. Reading so much material so fast shakes the reader free of both the historical-critical method and theology. Those things are valuable, even necessary, but they obscure the canon. The canon is more than the sum of its parts. It has emergent properties. Just ask Northrop Frye.

* * *

Speaking of literary exercises, I recommend very highly the Tolkien site, Middle Earth Tours. The site is a an orderly anthology of Tolkien-related graphics from many sources, plus a little fan fiction.

Turning from Tolkien to fanciful matters, we note this illustration at Powerline of Jerry Pournelle's observation that Congress and the president are in a race to prove which is more unworthy to conduct the affairs of the nation and both are winning:

How many times have you heard that President Bush's approval ratings are low? Guess what: the Democratic Congress's approval rating is lower...For some reason, this hasn't been getting much press. But the low esteem in which voters held Congress prior to November's election barely changed after the Democrats took power in January. Today, Gallup notes that the modest bounce Congress experienced in January and February is now gone...

The modest uptick in approval of the job being done by Congress has dissipated for the most part after only two months. According to Gallup's monthly update on job approval of Congress -- in a March 11-14, 2007, national poll -- 28% of Americans approve of the job being done by Congress and 64% disapprove.

I wonder whether polls after the congressional elections of 1930 would have shown a similar result. Herbert Hoover was the increasingly unpopular Republican president, and in those elections he lost control of Congress. Congress, however, did not seem to be doing much good either: it was not in a position to make policy, just to oppose whatever the president was trying to do.

In any case, no one should take satisfaction that both elected branches of the federal government are regarded as repulsive and incompetent by a large majority of Americans.

* * *

Meanwhile, Conrad Black, hero of the Anglosphere, is on trial in federal court in Chicago for malicious mopery and public conspiculation. Well, the actual charges, which have to do with non-competition agreements and the use of corporate funds for private purposes, are a little hard to follow. The confusion is really not much clarified by the daily blogging of the event by Black's old protégé, Mark Steyn. Steyn's refrain is that both sides need "a narrative." His narrative so far is that a defense panel of grumpy and rumpled Chicago lawyers is running rings around the fashion-plate attorneys representing the government.

Black is not just a newspaper magnate (stripped of his holdings for the moment) but also a biographer. A few years ago, he published a well-regarded work, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion Of Freedom. He is just now publishing another book, The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon.

You can't make this stuff up.

* * *

Well, if you could make it up, you might come up with something like The Winter of Our Discontent by Harry Turtledove and Bryce Zabel. The latter is a film producer with an interest in alternative history. The book is about the impeachment of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: the idea is that, if he had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas, some awkward facts might have come to light about why certain people wanted him dead.

Note, by the way, that Zabel uses "alternative history" rather than "alternate history." As I have repeatedly observed, the latter phrase is unsatisfactory, because it implies just two possibilities.

* * *

Mark Steyn still has time for doomsday, despite his duties at the Black trial. I think this observation ties quite a lot together:

To modify the Palestinian peace-process cliches, these “collections of violent groups” are in favor of a no-state solution. In Thailand, they target the lowest officials of the kingdom – schoolteachers, policemen and municipal functionaries. The object is to emphasize that not only can these people not protect you but that associating with them is likely to endanger you, too. If the state reacts with a bloody crackdown on Muslims, that’s good news for the insurgents. If the state instead dithers uncertainly, that works, too. The Buddhist villages in the south are emptying out, week by week, remorselessly.

There are no-state solutions popping up hither and yon these days, from Somalia to southern Lebanon to Waziristan. If you can hollow out a state from within, the husk provides useful cover for all kinds of activities, as we should have learned from Afghanistan. In fact, these non-state actors practice a more effective multilateralism than most great powers. ....East is east and west is west and ne’er the twain shall meet, but Kipling never saw Heathrow and Manchester airports when the flights land bearing Pakistani wives from the old villages for young Muslim husbands in Bradford and Leeds and Birmingham and Bristol. There, too, is another no-state solution in the making.

Anarchism was (and is) a flaky ideology. The no-state solution, in contrast is a culture, capable of evangelization.

* * *

The anthropogenic global warming hypothesis is not essentially a religion, though it seems to excite a religious resonance in many people. Here is an unusually sophisticated example:

In a thought-provoking statistical analysis, Dr. Peter Tsigaris of Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, Canada, concludes that whether or not climate change can be wholly attributed to human factors, it makes strong economic and environmental sense to treat it as human-caused and take action now. ...“As one of my statistics students, Robert Guercio, wrote in his exam booklet, ‘The cost of a type I error would mean spending a great amount of money and time focusing on how we can stop humans from causing global warming when humans are not the problem, but the cost of a type II error would mean spending a great deal of money and time on finding what is causing global warming and then continue to work on some factor of global warming, but not focusing on the real factor, humans.” ...“The cost of changing behaviour and taking action now is estimated at one percent of global GDP and this can be seen as an investment from a long-term perspective: investing in cleaner technologies and also putting a price tag on the use of our atmosphere. If we delay as we would do if we accepted that climate change is not human-caused when this conclusion was false, we would be faced with a huge cost,” warns Tsigaris.

And what is this? It's Pascal's Wager.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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