Articles for the Month of February 2012

(An) original sin?

Adam and Eve by Hans Sebald Beham

For some reason the doctrine of original sin is problematic. It (along with the notion that the Godhead defies mathematics, by being both three and one) is one of the most often rejected Christian ideas. It is also apparently one of the drivers of the “Adam and Eve have to be actual people else the whole of Christian faith fails” movement (among both gleeful atheists and raging fundamentalists alike). Two of my NZ-based blogging companions (Otagosh and ξἐνος) have responded to Peter Enns book The Evolution of Adam I have not read the book and so make no claim to be responding to Enns.

But, let’s step back and ask a few questions about “original sin”. If we preface the term by the indefinite article it seems evident to me that there is no such thing as “an original sin”. Granted someone somewhere can claim the “honour” of having been the first laptop thief. Laptop theft was not a possible crime until the moment when luggables evolved into laptops. But was his sin “original”, not a bit of it! Theft of various objects for motives very like his have been committed since before the dawn of history. Indeed many sins can be seen in animals. One of our sheep (one of the bigger and bossier, not the biggest, but perhaps the bossiest) has an addiction to the sweet fruity aroma and taste of “Sheep Nuts”. When we go into the paddock with a box she will butt and heave her sisters out of the way to ensure she gets more. She will even pretend to run off causing a mini-stampede, so that she can then “bravely” be the first to return and gain an extra share. So where on the “Great Chain of Being” does greed “originate”. It is not original to humans, and probably not to mammals…

So, there is no such thing as an “original” sin. On the other hand, sin is inherent in all of us. That sheep is not uniquely sinful while her sisters are  virtuous, and that cute nine day old baby at the wedding on Saturday (though deserving the accolades of “what a GOOD baby”) is actually a selfish monster, just like you and I were, and still are when we forget our learned goodness!

But if there are no original sins, just adaptations of existing ones, equally none of us lives a pure and sinless life until one dreadful day we commit our first sin, we are inclined to sin from the start. Nothing is more selfish than a baby!

So does this mean that Paul’s whole theological edifice comes tumbling down? By no means, we are sinful (by nature inclined to sin and in fact sinners)1 we need to be freed from the power of this, and from its consequences.

  1. Just like “Adam” whether he was an actual person or a personification of human origins – and incidentally while we are on the subject does the fact that Paul does not here mention Eve mean that she is not also responsible for our sinful gene, is it somehow attached to the Y chromosome. In that case are all women sinless as Eve? ;) []

Cooking mistakes

It’s the weekend :) Time to cook and eat :)

But, though we know better, we all cut corners. In cooking some corners can safely be cut (caramelising onions can be hurried – a bit – by adding a little salt and sugar and water from time to time, so allowing a slightly higher heat) but most can’t.

The image from "6. You over-soften butter."

There’s a fine list of mistakes we have all made (well maybe none of us has made all of them but all of us have made some) at Cooking Light in a post: The Most Common Cooking Mistakes Most instructive, especially since they explain the science behind the wisdom :)

For example I have been wondering why my poached eggs have been getting less and less well shaped. I’ve been putting more and more effort into getting the water really hot and fiercely swirling. Wrong move, have the water just simmering, that way there is less stress on the egg, better shape. It is so obvious once you know why!


Is black humour also among the prophets?

Defining humour is very difficult or impossible. 1  So, a fortiori, defining “black humour” must be doubly impossible. Even delineating the boundaries of “black humour” is difficult. The coiner of the phrase, the surrealist André Breton,2  evidently saw it as anarchist and in a sense negative, pointing out the absurd and pretentious, but not offering any more constructive move.3 Yet Breton could write with approval:
[t]he subject has been handled with rare precision by Léon Pierre-Quint, who in Le Comte de Lautréamont et Dieu presents humor as a way of affirming, above and beyond “the absolute revolt of adolescence and the internal revolt of adulthood,” a superior revolt of the mind.

Revolt, though it must begin with rejection of something can move towards its replacement with something different. Thus black humour might point up and reject the weakness and failings of religion. Think of the ending of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Singing “always look on the bright side of life” during a crucifixion is surely black humour by anyone’s standard. But it is possible, for the viewer (whether or not the pythons encouraged this step) to use the recognition of absurdity and the emptiness of some religious ideas to generate a purer faith. If this is so then even a committed religionist can expect to find black humour in Scripture. Especially among the prophets.

Dry reeds (© Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

I’ve been doing a series of podcasts seeking humour in every book of the Hebrew Bible. Twice I have disagreed with Robert Carroll, a friend and teacher. Who wrote an article on humour in the prophets.4

Bob Carroll had a lively and mischievous sense of humour, which delighted in pricking the balloons which we inflate around many ideas that we hold important. Often Bob’s speaking fitted the descriptive “black humour”. Yet, in his article he consistently denies its presence “among the prophets”.
I do wonder what is going on. I watched The Life of Brian with Bob and others in Glasgow when it first came out. We both recognised and enjoyed the black humour. Why could he not see it in Hosea? (I explore one example, drawn from Bob’s own article in my podcast Humour in the Bible: book 28: Hosea.)
Was Bob right to write:

Brilliant, almost Shakespearian wordcraft; gives the book of Hosea a linguistic quality which is not well served by seeking humour in it. No doubt there are a few smiles to be had from the book but its real power and appeal lie elsewhere.5

Concerning Hosea 13, he wrote:
This is the irony of the gap between pretensions and reality, and the incongruity may be seen by some readers as not lacking in humour. The biting sarcasm of ‘Ephraim herds the wind’ (12.1) or ‘they kiss calves’ (13.2) can be construed as humorous observations on the folly of social and political practices. Religious sacrifices and ceremonies conducted in the presence of skilfully made idols may easily be satirized by the simple description ‘they kiss calves’, and this simple but devastating critique is not without its humorous aspect. But trawling the minor prophets with nets designed to trap humour is a wearisome activity, especially when the poetry of the collections sparkles with other far more obvious features.
But is that all? As well as the beauty and power of the language, the ambiguity of “according to their understanding” in v.2 – does it mean they make the idols as well as they can, or that they understand this melting of metal as a “libation”? massekem can clearly refer to molten metal or to a libation… the biting irony that follows too seems to me blackly humorous. But not to Carroll.
What do you think? Is black humour also among the prophets?
  1. Depending on your credulity or stringency []
  2. Breton, André, and Mark Polizzotti. Anthology of black humor. City Lights Books, 1997. []
  3. André Breton, “The Lightning Rod” especially p.xiv. []
  4. Carroll, Robert P. ‘Is Humour among the Prophets’. Pages 169–189 in On humour and the comic in the Hebrew Bible. Edited by Yehuda T. Radday and Athalya Brenner. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1990. []
  5. Carroll, “Humour”, 180. []

Bible Canons simply described

Part of the Codex Sinaiticus (as displayed in BibleWorks) this early text contains works like The Shepherd of Hermas as well as now more familiar Bible books.

Gavin has updated is fine simple description of the various Christian Bibles and how they came to be. Anyone who thinks they are a Bible student, and who could not write a decent essay on the development of the different Christian Bibles (which includes quite a lot of people with degrees in the field ;) should read it. For those who already know this is a fine short and easy to read article to point people towards for their education :)

Forking biblical criticism

St. Eutychus has an entertaining take on biblical criticism, all explained with forks: Fork Criticism: Understanding Biblical scholarship through cutlery

Having always had a surrealist streak I offer the following thoroughly derivative and trivial contribution to the discussion:

With apologies to both Rene Magritte and the good Saint... in English the inscription reads: This is not a fork.

Free Open Source Textbooks Project

AKMA has suggested (though it is phrased as a question: Time for FOSOT(NT)T? I think it was really a suggestion) that it is perhaps time to really start seriously on the project of producing a Free Open Source Textbook (probably as a prototype for a possible series).  Brooke (another initial primary discussant) seems both willing and more likely to be able (because of easing time-pressure) soon. The other initial contributor, Mark Goodacre, does not seem to have responded yet.

I pretty much agree with AKMA’s suggestions of format and approach, and for similar reasons I also agree that now might be the time to begin serious work on such a project. As he notes there is a conjunction of ripe technologies (together with a few exciting emerging – or at least not yet mainstream – ones) with a growing need and a growing willingness by scholars to consider such projects.I also have a personal reason for thinking the time is ripe. As I suggested in my Free open-source textbook project: call for participation I will soon begin to have more time available.

However I don’t think sitting waiting for volunteers to beat a path to our door will work – even though evidently we will be in the process of making a much better “mousetrap” than the existing expensive, out of date (by the time they hit print) and one-eyed offerings ;) We need a small self-appointed (unless we can persuade someone better credentialed to appoint) group to start putting the elements together, applying for funding, setting out clearly the parameters etc.

If at present the starters are AKMA, Brooke, Mark (?) and me who else is willing? (NB. perhaps looking at those names we would be aiming for an introduction to both Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament…)

For priorconsideration of the FOSOT idea on this blog see these posts.

Half-work days and “happy places”

I was interrupted by this Welcome Swallow, I think (since they seldom sit around on fence posts) he was on a Half-work Day too ;)

Today was a “half-work” day at Cloudy Paddocks. I got all the work I needed to done in half a day, and so could spend the other half on fencing the pig paddock. This is brilliant when it works as (on the change is as good as a rest principle) I get more than half the work done in each half that I would in a full day. It uses up a day of holiday, but keeps me on top of both my day job and my hobby job.

Pigcatraz or the pigs “happy place”?

Today I finished1 the new fence for the pig paddock. When Richard was here, but there’s been little progress since.

The fence to this bush needs upgrading still.

I had been calling the paddock Pig Heaven as it has trees, damp patches and all sorts of piggy delights. But then I began to think of the theology of that :( So now, I’m calling it the Pigs’ Happy Place. I know there’s an allusion to the Sky TV adverts in this, but think about it… Sky want to keep their customers more or less content so they become food for advertisers. I want to keep my pigs really content till they become bacon. Not much difference is there? Except I won’t charge my customers!

  1. Except for a few bottom staples on battens, really difficult with only one person despite Strainright’s brilliant batten holder, and the “Taranaki gate” which needs some thought. []

The Ethics of Animal Testing and being Carnivorous

Fattening beef, commercial "farming" (photo from Animal farm Life)

I was recently asked about the ethics of animal testing. While I’m aware that it is a very contentious issue for “animal rights activists” it is not one I have thought much about. Though, since I grow animals to eat, I am closer existentially to that related issue than someone who gets their meat from the supermarket.

It seems to me there are some simple principles that provide guidance:

  • God made animals so we have a general responsibility to care for them like for the rest of creation (see Gen 1)
  • God explicitly allowed the use of animals for human benefit including killing them to eat (see Gen 9:3) n.b. I’d see this extending to the next line…
  • Research and testing which is of other great benefit for humans should also therefore be considered within God’s will.

We have a duty to care for God's creation - including other creatures we use for food.

This leads to the tentative conclusions:

  1. We have the right to use animals for our benefit. (This is an extension, but a small one of the permission to eat them in Gen 9:3. Testing products for safety would (to my mind) fall under this category.
  2. We have a responsibility to care for them, and so the testing should not be cruel nor unnecessary.
I suspect that in NZ the Government and the SPCA ensure testing is not cruel and is “necessary”. So, cautiously, I am in favour of animal testing.
OTOH, especially now that I am involved in rearing animals for meat, it seems to me that much that today goes by the name of “farming” is unnecessarily cruel and therefore ethically indefensible. To keep animals penned up in small areas to make human food cheaper or more tender is wrong. Much pork and chicken and some beef (not so much in NZ where most is free range grass fed) transgresses the criterion of care.

Review copies

If you would like a review copy of the print version of my new book:

Tim Bulkeley, Not Only a Father: Talk of God as Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition (Signs) Auckland: Archer Press, 2011 ISBN: 978-1468091373

Please contact me, please say both where you expect to publish the review (blogs are quite acceptable though a full review rather than a short note would be good) and when you are expect to write it. There are no conditions and you should be as critical as you normally would.

Verbal inspiration, a question

I’m sure people who claim the verbal inspiration of Scripture have an answer, but I’m puzzled. Jesus says in Mat 19 and Mark 10 that “Moses”1 gave permission for divorce “because of your hardness of heart”. Does this mean that Jesus considered Deut 24 to be Moses’ own teaching? Please do not answer on behalf of others, or offer facetious answers, I am not trying to be “clever” just to understand how the claims of verbal inspiration work. Many of my students and fellow church members hold the idea, but I can’t get my head around it.

  1. Or “he” presumably refering back to the Pharisees “Moses” in Mark. []