Saturday, April 23, 2005

Knippenberg Sorts Out Justice Sunday

Read it and be enlightened. The good Professor Knippenberg correctly points out that having religious reasons for pushing a particular policy is quite different from enacting a religious law.

As the professorial pundit puts it:

Yes, the FRC and Focus on the Family are religious groups. But what they are asking for is an up-or-down vote on judicial nominees, not a religious test for office-holding. Whatever faith or reasons move them, the position they’re actually supporting is consistent with long-standing Senate practice (actually voting on nominees). Yes, there’s a slippery slope somewhere, and the judiciary may be the only remaining bastion of secular liberalism, but the alternative is not theocracy, but rather sober constitutional jurisprudence.

The distinction is frequently lost on journos who have studied little more than how to write crisp paragraphs. Lefties conveniently forget their outrage over incursions into the secular realm when the religious conclusions are other than conservative or free market. See my AmSpec piece on an interesting situation in Alabama last year.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Abortion and Crime

Steve Sailer has an interesting and comprehensive article answering University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt's argument, from his new book Freakonomics, that legalizing abortion cut crime in the United States. In addition to its controversial political and social implications, this is a fascinating question about causality. Sailer writes,

"[T]he acid test of Levitt's theory is this: Did the first New, Improved Generation culled by legalized abortion actually grow up to be more lawful teenagers than the last generation born before legalization?

"Hardly. Instead, the first cohort to survive legalized abortion went on the worst youth murder spree in American history."

Sailer writes from an openly anti-abortion point of view, but as in all of his writing, he pursues the statistics wherever they lead.

Read it here.

Karnick Gets Hired

Crux Magazine, currently an internet venture founded by the guys at the great print mag Touchstone, announced the hiring of our own S.T. Karnick as their Books and Arts editor today.

We expect Crux to be in print in the near future and can't wait to see what kind of section Mr. Karnick produces. I'm guessing it will stand out just as Whittaker Chambers' Books section stood out at the old Time.

Mainstream Voodoo Revisited

After reading Paul Volcker's April 10 Washington Post rant about the U.S. economy "skating on thin ice," followed by Alan Greenspan's efforts yesterday to resuscitate the handy hoax that interest rates depend on budget deficits rather than Fed, I thought it might be useful to recycle my characteristically respectful disagreement with such conventinoal claptrap back in 1984:

'Mainstream Economics': None Dare Call It Voodoo
By Alan Reynolds
The Wall Street Journal, 7 May 1984

The quality of public debate on economic issues is rapidly degenerating to the level of intellectual barbarism. Contradiction has become the mark of sophistication, evidence is dismissed as irrelevant, and "experts" are defined as anyone who advised the government during some economic catastrophe. Indolent journalists lean on an imaginary consensus, claiming that "most economists agree" about this or "Wall Street worries" about that.

Most economists are said to be concerned that a growing economy must raise interest rates, which will prevent the economy from growing. The solution, it seems, is for the Fed to raise interest rates to slow the economy, so that interest rates can fall and thus speed up economic growth.

Mainstream economists are reported to agree that a strong dollar causes trade deficits, and trade deficits make the dollar weak. The Fed therefore has to raise short-term interest rates to attract long-term foreign investment, or else the absence of foreign investment might raise interest rates. If foreigners keep investing in U.S. factories, on the other hand, most economists fear the U.S. will become a "net debtor" rather than a net lender (to Latin America and East Europe). The solution is to attract and repel foreign capital.

Most economists apparently believe that all countries should export more than they import, and can do that by periodically devaluing their currencies against each other. Exports are the benefit from trade, and imports are the cost. Inexpensive foreign goods make us poorer. The U.S. should try to raise import prices and cheapen exports, so that we can give up more wheat for less oil.

Most economists did not approve of the falling dollar of 1978-79, or the rising dollar of 1981-83. But most of all they do not like a stable dollar. The dollar must be free to float, but it always floats to the wrong level. Most economists agree that the dollar is overvalued 30%, and in danger of falling, but monetary authorities must ignore exchange rates and prices.

Most economists believe that future monetary policy should instead be based on either past real growth or past money stocks. The latter is because housewives and corporate treasurers decide how much to spend by consulting last year's balance in their checking accounts. If the Fed lowers interest rates, that always makes people expect more inflation, so interest rates rise. If the Fed raises interest rates, interest rates also rise. Most economists know that monetary policy is therefore optimal at all times, since easing or tightening raises interest rates.

Most economists understand that credit is good but debt is bad. Too much private borrowing will raise interest rates, and higher interest rates will result in too little borrowing. The object of tax reform is therefore to encourage lending by discouraging borrowing. There is a need to tax consumption in order to encourage saving for future consumption. The economy must produce more auto factories and consume fewer cars.

Most economists argue that budget deficits stimulate and crowd out private spending. Budget deficits also cause inflation and make the dollar too strong. Reducing deficits would therefore lower the dollar's value abroad and raise it at home.

Budget deficits are simultaneously described as the consequence of recession, the cure for recession and the cause of recession. Estimated future deficits are said to have effects in the present that actual deficits do not have now and did not have in the past. The 1989 deficit explains 1984 interest rates, but the 1984 deficit does not explain 1979 interest rates.

Budget deficits always "threaten to" do something. They threaten to raise inflation unless tax indexing is repealed, so that inflation can reduce the inflationary deficits. Using inflation to reduce the deficit would make people want to buy bonds, thus lowering interest rates. Deficits also threaten to stop a near-record increase in business fixed investment, unless taxes are hiked to reduce the after-tax return on capital.

Time magazine's "Monster Deficit" story noticed "a growing list of studies purporting to show that deficits do not raise interest rates." Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office's Economic Outlook lists two dozen studies with virtual agreement that deficits do not have a significant impact on interest rates, including several by economists at the Federal Reserve banks and Council of Economic Advisers. Yet Time goes on to explain that overwhelming evidence "has had very little impact on the thinking of mainstream economists." Reality, after all, is a matter of belief and consensus.

Economic policy has never before been so thoroughly dominated by ever-changing economic theories and forecasts. Economists who can't predict the next month now propose to fine-tune the 1989 budget or the 1986 inflation rate. There is a panicky political impulse to fix things that are not broken and ruin things that were almost fixed. Always, the rationale is that "most economists agree" that "something" must be done. If economists were actually guilty of believing half of the strange ideas that are attributed to them, it would be safer to base economic policy on astrology.


Check out the intro to this amazing study from the political science department at UCLA:

Our results show a strong liberal bias. All of the news outlets except Fox News’ Special Report and the Washington Times received a score to the left of the average member of Congress. Consistent with many conservative critics, CBS Evening News and the New York Times received a score far left of center. Outlets such as the Washington Post, USA Today, NPR’s Morning Edition, NBC’s Nightly News and ABC’s World News Tonight were moderately left. The most centrist outlets (but still left-leaning) by our measure were the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, CNN’s NewsNight with Aaron Brown, and ABC’s Good Morning America. Fox News’ Special Report, while right of center, was closer to the center than any of the three major networks’ evening news broadcasts. All of our findings refer strictly to the news stories of the outlets. That is, we omitted editorials, book reviews, and letters to the editor from our sample. (boldface type added)

Did any of us doubt that a careful study would lead to this conclusion? How good is Brent Bozell's Media Research Center looking right now? Roger Ailes ain't feeling too poorly either.

Baptist Higher Ed Fallout

In the previous blogging about Baylor's conference on the future of Baptist Higher Education, I mentioned one flare-up with Bill Leonard from Wake Forest in which he demanded an apology in the middle of his presentation. Turns out there's more to the story and that he engaged in further argumentation of the point in another session later. Here's the item from ABP, which is some sort of Baptist Press. I'm not familiar enough with the versions to tell which branch of the Baptist world it represents.

Right to dissent may be key mark of Baptist colleges, Leonard suggests
Date: 04/21/2005

By Ken Camp WACO, Texas (ABP) --

The right to dissent -- even about what makes a school religious -- should be a key distinctive of Baptist higher education,suggested church historian and seminary dean Bill Leonard.

Addressing a national conference on the future of Baptist higher education,Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said the conference's program planners were "rude" in the way they characterized Wake Forest."

Baptists began as a community of dissent," Leonard said during his presentation on how Baptist education functions within a context ofconflict. Early Baptist dissent was grounded in freedom of conscience and a commitment to uncoerced faith, he stressed.

"I would suggest that one Baptist way-no doubt there are many-for responding to the changing nature of campus life would be a reassertion of those early Baptist ideals of dissent, conscience and believers' church," he said.

"That is, Baptists should be at the forefront of the quest for 'voice' on college and university campus - not as a tepid, grudging response to nebulous political correctness, but because voice is endemic to the natureof Baptist identity, perhaps even its most profound distinctive."

At that point, Leonard departed from his prepared manuscript and said he intended to exercise his own Baptist right to dissent and voice disapproval of what he considered an unfair characterization of his school. He cited a statement in the conference's program about the loss of religious identity at many Christian colleges and universities.

"Secularization has been so powerful that these once-Christian institutions now speak of themselves only as having a religious heritage, the substance of which is reflected in vague language about values in their institutional mission statements," the printed program read. "Although these reach backinto Baptist history, with prominent examples being Brown University and theUniversity of Chicago, in the last quarter century, the light has been extinguished in a growing number of venerable Baptist institutions in theSouth. The University of Richmond, Wake Forest University, Stetson University, Furman University and Meredith College serve as examples."

Leonard characterized the language as "incorrect, inhospitable and downright rude." "If the light has gone out at Wake Forest University, then why invite me?"he asked. "If a public apology is not given, I will pack my bags and go homeright now, and I'll return to Wake Forest where we are trying to keep thelight burning."

Don Schmeltekopf, provost emeritus at conference host Baylor University,immediately stood and asked Leonard to accept his apology for any offense.

Schmeltekopf explained in an interview the language in the program was derived from a book by James Burtchaell, "The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches." Burtchaell devoted a chapter in the book to Wake Forest University, he noted.

Later in the conference, the issue re-emerged during a presentation by Larry Lyon, senior vice provost and dean of the graduate school at BaylorUniversity. Lyon presented a quantitative study in which he refuted the notion that national universities with religious roots must become secularized to achieve a strong academic reputation.

In his analysis, Lyon distinguished religious from non-religious universities on the basis of church affiliation, explicit religious language in the schools' mission statements, and required religion courses in theschools' core curriculum.

Analyzing how U.S. News & World Report ranks schools and how successful schools are at recruiting top students and faculty, Lyon concluded universities do not necessarily have to choose between religious commitment and a strong academic reputation.

One subheading in his academic paper-distributed to all of the seminar participants- raised the question, "Will Baylor go the way of Wake Forest?"

At the conclusion of Lyon's presentation, Leonard again spoke against a"regrettable generalization" about his school, saying he felt some at the conference had unfairly cast Wake Forest as a "straw-man institution" they could knock down.

As evidence of Wake Forest's commitment to religion, Leonard cited the selection of Nathan Hatch - an evangelical Presbyterian who was provost atNotre Dame University - as president, a $2 million Lilly Foundation grant on the theological exploration of vocation, and investment in the university's divinity school. Leonard called for "dialogue in which we don't characterize each other."

Lyon responded that his study was a quantitative analysis that did not factor in the kind of qualitative measures Leonard noted, and he felt the criteria used-religious references in mission statements and religion in the core curriculum-were clear measures for analysis.

Lyon also noted Wake Forest holds the "tier one" academic status to whichother schools, such as Baylor, aspire, and he said he did not feel his paper presented Wake Forest in negative light.

In an interview, Schmeltkopf said he shared Leonard's view that Hatch's selection as Wake Forest's president bodes well for Christian identity at the university, and he hoped it might signal a time when Baylor and otherBaptist schools could work more closely in "common cause" with Wake Forest.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Interview with Steve Babb

Composer, multi-instrumentalist, and singer Steve Babb, of the terrific musical group Glass Hammer, talks about many things, including the band's forthcoming album, in a new interview at Popthought. Steve's advice to young musicians: "Stay independent, write the music you truly wish to write, find your own place in the world, search far and wide for inspiration (novels, movies, romance, nature, God) and for goodness sakes, stop chasing the rock star dream." That describes Steve's own career admirably.

For more info on Glass Hammer, see the following:

Glass Hammer website

Review of Shadowlands

Review of Shadowlands and interview with band members

Review of Lex Rex

Absolutely THE BEST Pope Commentary EVER

Without comment, I offer the following bits from James Lileks:

The selection of Ratzinger was initially heartening, simply because he made the right people apoplectic. I’m still astonished that some can see a conservative elevated to the papacy and think: a man of tradition? As Pope? How could this be? As if there this was some golden moment that would usher in the age of married priests who shuttle between blessing third-trimester abortions and giving last rites to someone who’s about to have the chemical pillow put over his face. At the risk of sounding sacreligious: it’s the Catholic Church, for Christ’s sake! You’re not going to get someone who wants to strip off all the Baroque ornamentation of St. Peter’s and replace them with IKEA wine racks, okay?

* * *

To those who want profound change, consider an outsider’s perspective: the Catholic Church is the National Review of religion. You may live long enough to see it become the Weekly Standard. In your dreams it might become the New Republic. But it’s never going to be the Nation. And if ever it does, it will have roughly the same subscriber base.

* * *

The election of Ratzinger to the papacy has disappointed the Ordination of Catholic Women who were hoping to begin a modern era with a new pope.Habeum pap. Note: every era is the modern era to the people who inhabit it; a “modern” pope in 1937 would have announced that godless collectivism was the wave of the future, and ridden the trains to Auschwitz standing on top, holding gilded reins, whooping like Slim Pickens. The defining quality of 20th century modernity is impatience, I think – the nervous, irritated, aggravated impulse to get on with the new now, and be done with those old tiresome constraints. We’re still in that 20th century dynamic, I think, and we will be held to it until something shocks us to our core. Say what you will about Benedict v.16, but he wants there to be a core to which we can be shocked. And I prefer that to a tepid slurry of happy-clappy relativism that leads to animists consecrating geodes beneath the dome of St. Peter's. That will probably happen eventually, but if we can push it off for a century or two, good.

All The Livelong Day

Today, at The American Spectator, in the aftermath of the Terri Schiavo tragedy, I issue an appeal to stem the tide of "right-to-die" laws.

In support of my appeal, I enlist the wisdom of King Solomon. Please enjoy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Still More Baptists and Higher Education Reporting

The Future of Baptist Higher Education Conference wrapped up at Baylor today with some interesting sessions. Most notably, Martin Marty (in case you don't know THE RELIGION SCHOLAR IN AMERICA) addressed the entire conference. Your intrepid reporter showed up at the session with four friends who are also Ph.D. students. For some reason, perhaps nobility of soul, Dr. Marty made a beeline for us and spoke to us corporately and individually for 5-10 minutes. He asked about our research interests and commented on each. Before walking away he whispered his email address as though to say, "Write me. I'll actually field your questions and give advice." Shocking stuff from a tremendously prolific scholar. I'm still composing my message in my head.

In any case, Marty attacked the standard account that claims America is secularizing in linear fashion. Nothing new there, but he was trying to blunt the alarm many of us feel about the trajectory of the American academy. He sees America as very religio-secular, in a good way, with more give and take about religion than ever before. In particular he points to the profusion of good scholarship relating religion to . . .well, everything.

We also had a concluding session by young Baptist scholars who convincingly criticized older lions for being stuck in the old Southern Baptist Convention war and completely absorbed in defending freedom and autonomy. Being Baptist better mean more than freedom and dissent, otherwise we can just don our baseball caps and be Michael Moore-ons. Not a pretty future, not for me, anyway. Sadly, that's just what we heard from some conference speakers. Kirby Godsey, president of Mercer University, gave an account of reality that sounded exactly like Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Happily, the young scholars in the final session offered hope for something other than freedom (surely the value that needs less defending than any other in North America) as a basis for Baptist life and scholarship.

A Libertarian Critique of Corporatism

Our English Libertarian friend Dr. Sean Gabb has been speaking out on numerous issues as the British parliamentary elections approach, always from his decidedly principled and uncommon point of view (particularly rare in Britain). Dr. Gabb recently spoke at a joint conference between Christian Aid and Oxfam in London (after midnight, for some odd reason).

The conference was about Free Trade Versus Fair Trade—yawn—but Dr. Gabb characteristically turned things on their head by moving straight to a central principle that is very seldom discussed: in this case, the favoritism governments show toward corporations as opposed to individuals and partnerships, and the consequences of that treatment. Here is an excerpt:

"If you think that I came here tonight to defend multinational corporations and the international government institutions, you have chosen the wrong person. These are dishonest. They are corrupt. They are incompetent. They have blood on their hands.

"But do not suppose for a moment that the world trading order as it actually exists is liberal or more than incidentally connected with free markets. A free market is a place where individuals and groups of individuals come together to transact voluntary exchanges without any backing of government force. To call the actually existing order liberal—or "neo-liberal"—is as taxonomically accurate as calling the old Soviet Communist Party syndicalist. That order is based on tariffs, subsidies and a web of other often invisible regulations. The international institutions are a projection of Western states. The multinational corporations are creatures of these states. They shelter behind the privilege of limited liability. They get their political friends to cartelise markets, and do favours in return.

"This is not market liberalism. It is a fraud played on us all by our ruling classes—these being those politicians, bureaucrats, educators, lawyers and media and business people who derive wealth, power and status from an enlarged and activist state.

As a result, Gabb does not support the current free trade system, although it is far better than the presently offered alternative, so-called fair trade. "But give me a straight choice between this and the economics of the jungle that is fair trade," he said, "and I will choose the present system. Global corporatism may be unfair. But it does at least allow some wealth to be created. It does allow at least some rational economic calculation. Fair trade simply gives even more power to politicians and bureaucrats and favoured business interests in poor countries—that is, to the very people and interests that made and have kept these countries poor. "

In his accompanying comments available on his website, Gabb elaborates on the matter of corporatism:

". . . I grow increasingly convinced that allowing the creation of joint stock limited liability corporations was one of the greatest legislative mistakes of the 19th century. Their existence is based on a separation of ownership from control. The owners are released from all responsibility. The controllers form a separate class of corporate bureaucrats little different in outlook from civil servants. The usual psychology operates. They will commit immoral acts for their organisations they might not consider committing for themselves. The owners will assent. The legal privileges and unlimited lifespan of these corporations let them grow to enormous size and wealth. The opportunities exist for highly effective immorality. Collectively, they become part of the state apparatus, and work to destroy true, unregulated enterprise.

"These corporations could not exist in any natural economic order. I have heard other libertarians argue that they might emerge without legal privilege on some loose contractual basis. But I do not agree. The shareholders would still be liable in tort, and that alone would deter them from any involvement with a business that they did not personally control. As for the utilitarian argument, that large undertakings need large companies, I also disagree. So long as it showed an acceptable return on investment, there is no project too big to be taken on by clusters of sole traders and partnerships. No doubt, things like the Channel Tunnel would not have been built–but I fail to see how not having that would have made the world a poorer place. Even if some highly valuable projects might not be undertaken, their lack would be compensated by the greater general innovation to be expected in an order of small, unregulated firms.

"Indeed, the matter of what to do about the corporations is more interesting to me than world poverty. As I said in my speech, people in places like black Africa are poor because they have maniacally corrupt and oppressive governments. They would do better even with the most cartelised global corporatism than left in the clutches of their own rulers. And that is it. But how can this corporatism be replaced by a system of voluntary exchange between legally responsible small firms? I think I have a few answers here, but will give these at another time."

Gabb's search for the true liberal position on economic matters is a fascinating one, and his critique here is strangely reminiscient of G. K. Chesterton's views on economic affairs. I look forward to Dr. Gabb's continuing analysis of corporatism and the potential liberal alternatives.

Baptists and the Pope

Another item from the Baptist Higher Ed Conference at Baylor. Several speakers thus far have mentioned the passing of the Pope. John Paul II has only been spoken of positively, although speakers tend to emphasize whatever aspect of his papacy suits their ideological bent. The big news, though, is that he is recognized and appreciated as a Christian leader rather than as some dark harbinger of the end times. This group was impressed by the Pope, his clearly formed legacy, and the outpouring of grief that attended his death.

By the way, an up and comer is clearly identifiable at the conference. David Gushee of Union University looks very good in the younger generation of Baptist scholars. He delivered a paper encouraging Baptists to look to the great tradition for a theological basis for the life of the mind and higher education. His voice will be heard more and more as the years go by and older lions recede.

More on the Higher Ed Conference

Baylor's conference on the future of Baptist higher education has had some serious drama. Outgoing president Robert Sloan uncorked a high intensity speech to open the event. He criticized the willful stupidity of those who see fundamentalist conspiracies behind every attempt to take the faith seriously. He also questioned those who take "Baptist freedom" so far as to nullify even a basic statement of the faith like the Apostle's Creed. After blasting various parties all over the religious and political spectrum he concluded by asking, "By the way, have I already welcomed you to Baylor?" The crowd responded with massive applause.

Later, Wake Forest's Bill Leonard demanded an apology for a statement in the program casting Wake as one of the institutions where the light has been extinguished, common parlance for formerly religious schools that have secularized. Due mostly to hospitality, Provost Emeritus and conference organizer Donald Schmeltekopf gave the requested apology. Denton Lotz of the Baptist World Alliance pressed the issue with Leonard with a question from the floor wondering in what way Wake Forest is meaningfully Baptist. Leonard's response was weak, pointing to Baptist heritage and an emphasis on dissent. We all know Wake Forest isn't Baptist any longer. The purported insult was a clear example of protesting too much.

More later.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A Legal Query

Here is a comment that I appended to a discussion of the Terri Schiavo case at Patterico's blog, which is oriented to discussions of perspectives within the law. Please let me know what you think, especially if you are a legal beagle like the great Hunter Baker.

May I offer a legal theory that I believe could have been applied here with a modicum of creativity. Namely, the idea of the Federal Government appointing a guardian to supersede the State guardian. Now this idea is of the "out-of-the-box" variety, so let me give it a moment of development.

It seems clear that the status of "citizen" applies only as a description of a relationship with the Federal Government. One is a citizen of the United States and a resident of, say, Florida (like Terri Schiavo and me).

Theoretically, one could be a citizen of the United States and not be a resident of any state. Sell your house and move for a full year to another country and I don't believe that any State can claim jurisdiction over you as its resident.

Now, the institution of guardianship is usually left to the State to apply, within the context of its protection of residents. However, in theory there is no reason that the Federal Government cannot appoint a guardian for a person's rights of citizenship. That guardian would not be answerable to any State court.

Arguably, this might even be doable by order of the Executive branch alone, but it could certainly be done by the Legislative. The Congress could have passed a bill appointing Jeb Bush or some such personage as the guardian of Terri Schiavo, and the authority of Michael Schiavo would have been superseded and consequently circumvented.

No? Let's hear from all those finely honed legal minds.

Fifth Fessay

Regular readers are aware - and new readers are invited to learn - that I have invented a literary form that I call the "fessay", the fictional essay. I write an 800-word column about current events, except that I do it in the form of fiction.

Try it, you'll like it. The newest one is a mordant swipe at the CIA's pathetic intelligence-gathering apparatus. The one before that was a bitter synopsis of the cultural fallout from the Terry Schiavo case.

Go forth and read. In later years, you'll be able to say that you were there at the inception. And please leave a comment.

The Future of Baptist Higher Education

Baylor University is hosting an important conference on "The Future of Baptist Higher Education." Since the publication of books like George Marsden's "The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship," Mark Noll's "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind," and James Burtchaell's "The Dying of the Light," tremendous interest has been building in the concept of distinctively Christian higher education.

This week Baptists of several different persuasions will meet to discuss what higher ed. looks like within the nexus of Baptist and Christian distinctives. I'll be there and will serve as your intrepid reporter if anything interesting breaks out.

And by the way, Martin Marty will be there. If you don't recognize his name, you've never read a newspaper story on religion. The AP stylebook specifically states than any religion story must feature at least one quote from Dr. Marty.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Gnawing At A Biblical Puzzle (4)

And so the Jews march off into history, their initial, formative moral battle taking place in Egypt. Sure enough, the experience of Abraham is replicated on a national scale. This time the entire Jewish People is held hostage, plagues befall the Egyptian nation as a whole; then freedom results, once again with valuable parting gifts.

Then, this mysterious passage follows (Exodus 13:17): "And when Pharaoh expelled the nation, the Lord did not lead them through the Land of the Philistines, which was close, because the Lord said, 'Lest the nation regrets [leaving] when they encounter war and they will return to Egypt.' "

Why mention the road not taken?

Today we view this verse with an exciting new clarity. After the Jews had left Egypt, showing the world the national victory of morality as exemplified by Jews over corruption as exemplified by Egypt, the logical next step was to have a war of sorts with the Philistines, to demonstrate the superiority of God-based morality over the civil society founded on enlightened self-interest. The text perforce must explain that this skirmish had to be skipped, to be postponed until some future date, as the Jews were simply not in a condition to face another broad-based national struggle in their flegling state of development.

That battle would finally be fought in the era of Samuel, a uniquely great prophet whose leadership invited comparison to Moses. (See Psalms 99:6)

Thus, the demonstration of the power of the Ark within the Philistine camp is the very moment of national clarification that had been awaited since leaving Egypt. The Ark will show through symbols and plagues that ultimately true morality must be based on fear of God and that the finest civil society, replete with the loveliest manners, will eventually disintegrate along the fault lines of greed and lust when the voltage of temptation or desperation is turned high enough.

The first proof is in the human head and hands falling off Dagon, leaving the fish torso intact upon the pedestal. The fish represents the lesson of swimming paths around each other to avoid collision, enabling incredible quantities of creatures to coexist by circumventing the routes of others. This part of their ideology is fine and the Philistine avoidance of strife and theft is worthy of being celebrated.

But is there enough there to build a human head upon such a base, to create a thorough ideology that can provide a basis for human society? The answer is no: off with its head. Is there enough to guarantee a pair of human hands, human behaviors and actions that will withstand the push of temptation or the pull of desperation? Again no: off with its hands.

The people are punished, too, but not with externally manifest disease or violence. They maintain a society that has a nice exterior and their bodies need not be marred with wounds and lesions. But inside? Inside there is rot. So the punishment is hemorrhoids, an irritation at the border between the internal and the external.

Indeed the verse that provides the heart of that moment is this one (Samuel I 5:9): "...and they had hemorrhoids hiddenly."

Is this familiar? Have we seen this in our time? Do we see societies, or segments of societies, that have mastered the language and rhythms of civility, but do not find a place for God in their hearts? Have we seen such societies tested at the fringes, at the less-clear points, at the beginnings and the ends of things, with great pleasure or great pain, with great loss or great gain?

Let us reflect.

Gnawing At A Biblical Puzzle (3)

The visits of Abraham to Egypt in Genesis Ch. 12 and to the Philistines in Ch. 20 are notable first for their similarities and then for their differences. The stories begin the same way. Abraham arrives with his beautiful wife Sarah and presents her as his sister. Immediately, the border guards confiscate the woman and bring her to the king (Pharaoh in Egypt, Abimelech among the Philistines) as a trophy. Then God punishes the king until he is forced to relinquish the woman.

What are the points of distinction between the two stories?

1) Pharaoh's punishments are delivered by an angel, whereas Abimelech receives a prophecy directly from God telling him to free the woman. That prophecy takes the form of a dialogue in which the king declares to God that he would never have taken her had he known that she was married.

2) Pharaoh's punishments are described as 'great plagues', indicating that they were visible. Abimelech was punished by the wombs of his womenfolk being barren, something that takes place internally.

3) Abraham did not bother explaining himself to Pharaoh after the ruse was discovered, but when Abimelech confronted him, he took the trouble to parse his own calculations and motivations.

4) Abraham leaves Egypt entirely behind but he develops a comfortable working relationship with the Philistines and even signs a peace treaty that is valid for four generations.

The conclusion seems clear. Pharaoh was running an evil society but Abimelech was leading a decent society. Prophecy is not possible for evil Pharaoh but is quite appropriate for Abimelech, a basically nice person. Abimelech can tell God truthfully that he would not ordinarily behave in that fashion.

Being a nice person running a decent society, Abimelech is entitled to an explanation from Abraham. Pharaoh is a lowlife who is not deserving of such consideration. Eventually, Abraham can come to terms with Abimelech sufficient to the formation of a diplomatic relationship encoded in treaty. Such concord is impossible with a Pharaoh.

Consequently, the plagues visited upon Pharaoh are public and conspicuous. His society is openly corrupt and the punishment fits the crime. Abimelech, however, has an outwardly civil society, with some subtle internal flaw. Its retribution is delivered in ways that do not present themselves to the casual observer. The flaw is deep; the reproof is beneath the surface, as well.

What, then, is this shortcoming that prevents the Philistine society from being a truly virtuous one? Abraham answers that himself when he says (Genesis 20:11): "Because I said [to myself] that there just is not the fear of the Lord in this place, and they might kill me over the matter of my wife."

There it is: civil society without fear of God. For all that it is vastly superior to the Egyptian model of grab-now-ask-later, Abraham argues that it still is fatally flawed because it has no ultimate limiting force. The Philistines have arrived at the strong sociological conclusion that their lives will be better if they treat each other with civility and respect each other's property rights. But they do it because it works, not because it's right. At some point, that will break down. Maybe a million dollars, maybe ten million; there is a point at which the person will make the grab and forget the principles. Abraham did not want to test their resolve with his wife, the world-class beauty.

In our final installment, we will apply these lessons to the latter-day Philistines of Samuel's day.

Gnawing At A Biblical Puzzle (2)

When last we convened, we were pondering the matter of the Ark's effect on the Philistines. It made their idol, Dagon, lose its human head and hands, retaining only its fish torso: merman become ordinary fish. It also caused all the Philistine citizenry to experience extremely painful hemorrohoids, to the point where people were wailing loudly in the streets.

The key to this event, I would posit, lies in the initial encounter of Abraham with the Philistines. It is a basic principle of Biblical exegesis that the experiences of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on the individual level always presage national experiences of the Jewish People.

We know that Abraham is described as clashing with two specific cultures. Although he lived in Canaan, he occupied territories that had been lying fallow until his arrival, so there is no overt conflict between him and Canaanites. He only once is presented as interacting with a Hittite (a sub-nation of Canaan), when he negotiates to buy a piece of property for a burial plot. Additionally, whatever clashes he may have had with Nimrod and others before being called to go to Canaan are not specified in the Scripture; whatever we know of that period is through oral history, some of which was eventually written into Midrash.

In brief, the Bible chooses to record only the two collisions of weltanschauung, one with Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and one with Abimelech, first identified only as king of Gerar (Genesis 20:2). Later, when Abraham signs a treaty with him, the text (ibid 21:32) identifies his people as being Philistines.

Clearly, these are the two prototypical encounters for the man living the inspired life in the material world. The meeting with the Egyptians; then, the meeting with the Philistines.

More later.

Gnawing At A Biblical Puzzle (1)

My readers will forgive me, I pray, for allowing the spirit of the weekend to move me toward writing of matters Scriptural. Yet I feel certain that before we are done, we will have explored arenas that we encounter even in what we like to call the 'real world'. Realness in that context defining a thing's immediacy rather than its essence.

The story is told in the first Book of Samuel of the Jews fighting a war against the Philistines and taking very heavy casualties. On the second day of fighting, not only is the human toll high, the Ark that contains the Tablets of the Covenant is captured. The Philistines take this trophy and place it in the temple of their idol, whom they call Dagon. Dagon had the body of a fish, with the head and hands of a human being.

When they open the temple the next morning, they find that Dagon has fallen to the ground. They restore it to its perch. The morning after that, they awaken to discover that God has refined the message a bit. The fish torso is still in its position on the platform, but the human head and hands have fallen off. Thereafter, they assign a greater reverence to the portion that remained on its base.

After this, the Philistine people begin to suffer a widespread plague of hemorrhoids. Everyone seems to be suffering from them, so much so that the streets are a cacophony of wailing from the pain. Finally, they come to the conclusion that they must return the Ark.

The obvious questions are: why did the head and hands fall off and the fish body remain? And why were they punished with hemorrhoids of all things? These questions have been engaging me for twenty years or more and only recently have I arrived at a theory that explains this to my satisfaction.

Have a look at Samuel I, Chapters 4-6, and see what you think. I'll be back in a few hours to offer my analysis and its relevance to contemporary life.