I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you.
Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.
– P.G. Wodehouse
The Christmas story–the nativity of Jesus, not the beloved 1980’s movie with the BB gun–comes from the gospels. But each gospel writer took a different starting point for Jesus’ origin story.
Matthew starts the story 42 generations earlier, with Abraham fathering Isaac. The genealogy goes on through Jacob and Judah, Kings David and Solomon, and finally Joseph, husband of Mary. (Also in that bloodline are Jehoshaphat, Salmon, and Zerubbabel, whose names are curiously absent from most popular baby name lists.) Matthew goes into the annunciation (when an angel announced the holy pregnancy,) then the birth, and then the visit of the wisemen from the East.
Mark starts with a quotation from the prophet Isiah. He then skips Christmas altogether, and introduces John the Baptist and Jesus as adults.
Luke, not content to let the story speak for itself, starts with something of an author’s prologue. He addresses the gospel to someone called Theophilus (which, if my Greek is any good at all, must mean something like “God’s friend” or “God’s beloved” or “God-lover”.) Before getting into the classic Christmas stuff, Luke spends the better part of a chapter on the conception of John the Baptist, the annunciation, and John’s parents. It isn’t until chapter two that we get the birth, the manger, and the shepherds.
John famously starts his gospel “In the beginning…”, which seems reasonable enough. But the beginning that John identifies predates creation itself (if anything can be said to “predate” the very notion of time.) John covers the entirety of pre-creation through the birth of John the Baptist in about six verses. The birth of Jesus gets a single verse, and then jumps right into the exploits of adult Jesus.
As usual, a closer look raises more questions than answers. Why is the Christmas story relatively unimportant to most of the gospel writers? Why did the gospel writers start in such different ways? Who is Theophilus, anyway?
Beers of the week: Our Special Ale (2017 & 2019) – Our Special Ale is Anchor Brewing Company’s annual holiday beer. Having got my hands on a cellared bottle of the 2017 edition I decided to compare it with the 2019 version. (Although Anchor does not particularly recommend aging their holiday beers, they do claim that it will mellow with age.) The recipe changes from year to year, so differences between the two can’t be attributed solely to the aging.
The 2017 edition is very dark brown, with just a hint of red, and a tan, rocky head. Its aroma has notes of smoke and black licorice. The main flavors seem to come from dark-roasted malt, without much hops to speak of.
The 2019 is dark red-brown, with a lighter, more uniform head. The aroma has some bright hops. The flavor is nicely balanced, with some dark malt notes and a bit of bright hops and spice.
Between the two versions, I certainly prefer the 2019. It is brighter and more carbonated, probably because it wasn’t aged. And, whether it is attributable to the aging or not, the 2017 seems a bit flat and one-note.
Reading of the week: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Prologue – As Wharton points out in her introduction to the second edition, “the climax, or rather the anti-climax, occurs a generation after the first acts of” Ethan Frome. As a result, she set the prologue of the book long after the principal action, introducing the title character as a fifty-two-year-old with a bad limp. The reader must cross many chapters and two decades to learn the limp’s cause.
Question for the week: Where would your story begin? At your birth? At the birth of your most distant known ancestor? Or, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, would your story begin at your funeral?
This is the fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IV: The Complete Poems in English by John Milton
Samson, the Old Testament character of prodigious strength, is an odd sort of hero. Like a Hebrew Hercules, he performed tremendous feats, but the moral of his story not altogether simple. Samson was quick to anger, cruel to animals, indiscriminate in his violence, and, worst of all, he drank nothing but water.
Samson was a Nazirite, which means that he was consecrated to God and made specific vows: In the first place, Nazirites vow to drink no wine. The second vow is to leave one’s hair uncut. And finally, Nazirites vow to avoid ritual uncleanliness by coming in contact with the dead, including funerals.
How did Samson fare in attempting to keep his vows? As to the injunction against drinking wine, he appears to have followed through. Maimonides taught that alcohol is not forbidden for Nazirites, so long as it is not derived from grapes. But Samson’s version of this vow seems to be one of total abstention. Most English translations seem to follow The King James Version, stating that Samson was to “drink no wine nor strong drink.” Some more modern translations say that he was to avoid “wine or any other alcoholic drink.” The Contemporary English Version specifically includes beer. In the words of Milton, Samson’s “drink was only from the liquid brook.”
As for cutting his hair, Samson famously kept this vow until he was deceived by a prostitute called Delilah. She, then, cut his hair in his sleep, rendering him powerless. Having followed through on this part of the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength, and without his hair he was as weak as any other mortal.
And as for avoiding corpses, I am inclined to think that he did a terrible job. The Bible does not tell us about him attending funerals or strolling through cemeteries, but he killed a bunch of guys. And it seems to me that when he beat a thousand men to death with the jawbone of an ass, he got in plenty of corpse touching. I have heard it argued that at the time that he touched the Philistines, they were not yet dead, and that they only became dead after he touched them. This argument elevates form over substance. And, at any rate, that doesn’t account for the time that he killed thirty innocent men and stripped the clothing from their bodies to give to the people who figured out his stupid riddle. Stripping the clothes from dead men is most certainly NOT in keeping with the Nazirite’s vows.
If the goal of life is righteousness, then I think that the Nazirite vows may actually be a stumbling block. There is no doubt that the discipline and dedication required to follow though with the vows can be a valuable tool for contemplation and self-improvement. But if one simply follows through with the strictest literal interpretation of the vows, he risks achieving ritual purity without achieving righteousness. That is, the Nazirite vows are not the end. Samson followed the vows, but did that justify tying foxes together by their tails and lighting them on fire? Did leaving his hair uncut make it ok for him to frequent brothels? Is it ok to murder thirty men over a riddle, so long as he can do so and not break his vows? (And, again, I think it is important to emphasize that the men who were killed were not the ones who tricked his wife into giving up the solution to the riddle. They were presumably unaware of Samson’s reason for murdering them.)
And the fact that Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut seems to further this form over substance problem. Samson did not break his vow. His hair was cut while he was asleep. And yet, Samson lost his power and his favor from God because of what somebody else did. The power, it seems, was not even in the obedient dedication to God, but in the show of dedication – the hair itself. Without his long hair, nobody can tell that he is a Nazirite just by looking at him; he loses his strength, not because he broke his vow, but because he looks like he broke his vow. The appearance of righteousness is more important for Samson than inward righteousness.
In short, wouldn’t it be better to drink wine, sport a buzz-cut, attend funerals, and not be a violent psychopath?
Beer of the week: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – This is an uncommonly strong beer to go with a reading about an uncommonly strong man. Every year, Goose Island releases it’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand line of beers. These special brews are aged in used bourbon barrels. The 2017 Barleywine is an excellent beverage. It is 14% alcohol, and it shows. But it is so smooth that the alcohol is warm but not harsh. The aroma has notes of vanilla. In the flavor there is a hint of pepper (from the bourbon barrel, perhaps.) Dark cherry is a stand-out in a very rich flavor profile. What a treat!
Reading of the week: Samson Agonistes by John Milton – Milton’s version of Samson attributes his downfall to a lack of wisdom, and a weakness for women: “what is strength without a double share of wisdom?” In this section of the tragic poem, Samson is talking with his father Manoa about the proper course of action now that he is imprisoned and blind. Certain of Manoa’s exhortations are reminiscent of Crito’s appeal to Socrates: “Repent the sin, but if the punishment Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.”
Question for the week: Ultimately, I think that my reading of the story of Samson is not the intended reading. Samson is meant to be a hero, not a cautionary tale about elevating religious form over virtuous substance. How can his story be read more charitably?
We are told that there are certain individuals who subscribe to a notion known as “biblical literalism”. These people, allegedly, take the Bible as being quite literally true and accurate in all respects. But I doubt that anybody who has given the matter any thought actually holds such a belief. A very simple question based entirely on the first page of Genesis serves to disabuse anybody of the idea that the Bible can be read as literal fact rather than as allegory: in which order were plants, animals, and man created?
The first creation story, contained in the First Chapter of Genesis places the creation of plants in the third day. All sorts of plants sprouted all over the land and bore seeds according to their type. Animals came to be on the fifth day. Humans were created on day six.
1. Plants; 2. Animals; 3. Man.
In the second creation story, contained in the next chapter of Genesis, humans were created before any plants had sprouted. Only after the creation of man did God make trees for the garden of Eden. Then, after man was in the garden, God made all of the animals to keep him company.
1. Man; 2. Plants; 3. Animals.
If they are taken as literal accounts, these two creation stories are irreconcilable. Biblical literalism can go no further than the very first page of the very first book of the Bible. And because this initial contradiction is so evident and so immediate, it seems unlikely that anybody truly is a biblical literalist. This is actually helpful, because it immediately indicates that the purpose of the Bible is to teach something other than literal history. What is left open, however, is the question of what the Bible really means…
Beer of the week: Grapefruit Sculpin- Traditionally, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is represented as an apple. But who’s to say that it wasn’t a grapefruit? This beer is a grapefruit twist on Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA. The grapefruit aroma is evident as soon as the can is cracked. The beer pours with a fluffy head that hangs around. It has some of the bitterness of grapefruit rind and a smooth finish. Pretty good.
Reading of the week: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1 & 2 – In my younger days, I liked to engage street evangelists. On multiple occasions, I found them unaware that there are two distinct creation accounts. I suspect that they had simply not read much scripture, and had received their Biblical teaching second-hand.
Question for the week: The logical conclusion from the conflicting creation accounts is that they are allegorical, and that each is intended to teach a different lesson. Having abandoned these as literal accounts of creation, is there any reason that creationism remains in conflict with evolution, etc.?
“Black Friday” is a particularly appropriate time to consider the nature of crowds. Every year there are reports of people being trampled and assaulted in the rush to be the ultimate consumer. To get the best deals on crap that they don’t really need, people will behave in the most uncivil ways. And the vast majority of these people would be utterly ashamed to behave like that if they were not part of a faceless crowd.
There is nothing particularly insightful about the statement that crowds often bring out the worst in people. Looting, lynching, and rioting are all examples of how people, when relieved of individual responsibility, can engage in behaviors that no individual amongst them would dare. In the words of Kierkegaard, this is because “a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision.” And the temerity to loot or lynch or riot is not to be confused with courage. In fact, it is a symptom of a profound cowardice. “For every single individual who escapes into the crowd, and thus flees in cowardice from being a single individual… contributes his share of cowardice to “the cowardice,” which is: the crowd.”
But while the crowd seems to relieve individuals of responsibility, it can do no such thing. The fact is that the crowd is a mere abstraction. It has no hands to shove, no feet to trample, and no neck to hang.
Beer of the week: Laško Club – This Slovanian beer is a bit darker than gold with a very fluffy head. It’s aroma is typical of decent euro lagers, malty with that distinctive hops smell. I have been a bit disappointed by Eastern European beers in the past, but I rather like Laško Club.
Reading for the week: The Crowd is Untruth by Søren Kierkegaard – In this piece, Kierkegaard takes up the line from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, that “only one receives the prize.” He takes this to mean that the way to salvation is through an individual relationship with God rather than communion with others.
Question for the week: Is the crowd always more cowardly than the individuals in it? What about when a Gandhi or Dr. King inspires a group to noble ends? (I take it that Kierkegaard reply that the crowd cannot be inspired, only the individuals in it. But does that answer the question?)
A friend of mine once told me that his favorite Bible verse was from Chapter 6 of the Book of Job:
“Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together!
For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea: therefore my words are swallowed up. For the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me.”
What he liked about this verse is that it helped put his own troubles into perspective. The calamities that befell Job were so great that it makes our own pale in comparison.
A similar philosophy was espoused by Lucretius in On the Nature of Things when he stated that it is pleasant to watch a shipwreck from the safety of the shore. There is no misanthropic impulse behind that statement, just the recognition that people are subject to all sorts of misfortune and that we are fortunate when we are not getting the worst of it.
Polybius went even further. According to him, “the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others.” Is it really the only method? This seems like a step to far. Religion and stoicism spring to mind as two possible ways to learn how to cope with disaster that may not require looking to examples of unfortunate others. To be sure, both of them rely on examples to some extent (e.g. Job, the saints, Socrates, etc.) But I am not sure that they need them to be effective.
Beer of the week: Blue Moon Rounder – My past experience with Blue Moon didn’t prevent me from trying this beer. Perhaps it should have. This Belgian-style pale ale is not much to write home about. The photo shows how clear this beer is. This is a bit surprising since there actually is some wheat in the recipe. The smell is fairly bland and grainy. It tastes primarily of malt, but there is just a hint of spice in the finish. The name comes from the idea that one could drink several rounds of this beer. I suppose that this would be a fine beer to drink a half-dozen of in a sitting. There is something to be said for that.
Reading of the week: The Histories by Polybius – At the very beginning of his greatest work, Polybius announces that he does not need to commend the study of history because “all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner… have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History.”
Question of the week: Is there any other method for learning to face disaster than to look to the examples of others?
The only time I was ever in an ambulance was when I suffered a broken nose and several fractures to my upper maxilla. As a consequence of those injuries, I had my jaw wired shut for quite a while. To add insult to injury, I found that when the wires were finally removed my jaw muscles had become so tight that I still could not open my mouth. I was so looking forward to solid food, but would have to wait another week.
My disappointment at that time stands in stark contrast to my state of mind while sitting in the ambulance. I had just been reading Epictetus shortly before the injuries occurred, so I had an idea fresh in my head: “If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed.” So I thought to myself (no fooling, I actually thought this,) “if your face gets broken, you shouldn’t be disturbed. Faces occasionally break, but that is beyond your control.”
I now suspect that I was simply in shock. Once I was at the emergency room, I was miserable. Not very stoic at all. I am not sure that Epictetus would have been more possessed than I was, but he certainly talks a big game. After saying that you shouldn’t be upset if your cup breaks, he says that the same is true of your wife and children. “If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.” Brutal.
Since Epictetus was a crippled ex-slave who never married, it is impossible to say how he would actually react to losing a wife or child. Job, however, presents an interesting look at the way a Stoic responds to such a loss. To be sure, Job is a very difficult book to understand and it is arguable that Job’s reliance on faith is somehow opposed to the stoic’s reliance on reason. However, Job certainly starts out sounding like Epictetus.
Epictetus: He who has given takes away… [You say,] “I would have my little children with me and my wife.” What, are they yours? do they not belong to the Giver, and to Him who made you? then will you not give up what belongs to others?
Job (upon learning of the death of his children): The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Beer of the week: Blue Moon Belgian White – Incidentally, the same year that I took that ambulance ride, I also stole a few Blue Moons from some friends while playing a prank on them. I sincerely doubt that there was any karmic relationship between the two events. Blue Moon is meant to be a Belgian-style wheat ale. The aroma is sweet and yeasty, with just a hint of fruit. Typical of the style, this unfiltered beer is pale and very hazy. Overall, Blue Moon is rather bland. There is a distinct wheat flavor, but it is similar to that of a water cracker. There is a tiny bit of spice on the back end, but not enough to salvage this beer.
Reading of the week: The Book of Job, Chapter 6 – Job may come across as a stoic at first, but I could hardly imagine Epictetus saying “Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea!” On a bad day, this chapter is great for putting life into perspective.
Question of the week: Is it really possible to suffer a significant loss and not be disturbed? If somebody important to you died, could you simply shrug it off as Epictetus suggests, or would you curse your lot as Job did?
I went to Catholic primary and secondary school. Being a non-Catholic and something of a free-thinker, I occasionally caused my Religion teachers grief.
One such occasion was the result of a multiple choice test question:
Jesus came especially for ____________.
A. the poor
B. the rich
C. the Jews
D. none of the above
I answered D. none of the above. I’d always heard that Jesus came to save everybody.* The answer that my teacher wanted was A. the poor. The Catholics have a doctrine called “the option for the poor”. My teacher knew the phrase, if not its origin or meaning. As a result, I was unable to get partial credit for my answer, even though I could explain why my answer was the right one. I could even explain how answer C was also correct. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus says specifically that he came for the Jews and refers to gentiles as dogs:
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Another religion class run-in occurred when one of my teachers learned that there is a bush that produces volatile oils. In the summer, in hot climes, the oils sometimes ignite and burn away without damaging the bush. My teacher proudly proclaimed that this was surely the type of thing that happened in the story of Moses and the burning bush. This was proof that the Moses story is real!
I pointed out, however, that if the burning bush is explained rationally, it loses all of its meaning. In the Bible, the burning bush is a miracle, not a horticultural oddity. If the story is about a guy witnessing an interesting plant doing what interesting plants occasionally do, who cares? For the Moses story to have an impact, the burning bush has to be a miraculous.
I’ve seen this same thing done with the crossing of the Red Sea and the Seven Plagues. Some people take these explanations as proof that the Biblical accounts are real. But explaining the miracles does not make the story more believable, it only makes the story less meaningful.
Beer of the Week: Long Trail Belgian White – Although there is technically a few weeks of summer left, this sure feels like the end. There are still summer beers to be had though. Light, refreshing wheat beers are a popular summer choice. This unfiltered wheat beer is much like most other wheat beers I’ve reviewed: cloudy, sweet, citrusy. But there is something about the flavor that I can’t quite put my finger on. I think that the coriander that Long Trail uses imparts an earthy finish that I does not work for me. Overall, I don’t think I like this beer very much.
Reading of the week: Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestley – This letter, from the author of the Declaration of Independence to the man who discovered oxygen is, predictably, very interesting. The topic, however, is not politics or science; it is religion. In the letter, Jefferson outlines a project to compare the moral teachings of Jesus to those of ancient philosophers. In so doing, he would leave out any miracles or divinity and view Jesus as a philosopher rather than a messiah.
Question of the week: Questions of divinity and miracles aside, how do the teachings of Jesus hold up when compared with the teachings of ancient philosophers?
*One Lutheran pastor I knew held a particularly interesting (and thoroughly heterodox) belief: Jesus died for the forgiveness of all sins, even those not confessed or repented. The logical conclusion is that all people are saved. And, what’s more, salvation cannot be lost or avoided. There is nobody in hell because God has forgiven all sin, even the most vile or obstinate.