Category Archives: Bible

Is objectivity about Israel and Palestine possible?

One does despair. The nearest I have read to an objective account is an ageing book called The Palestine-Israeli Conflict by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami (Oxford, Oneworld 2001) – and that achieves “objectivity” by placing side by side a Jew and a Palestinian with space at the end for “addresses in reply”.  It seems you can buy a used copy from Amazon for one cent!

So I was surprised to find an evangelical writer – albeit what I would call an “informed evangelical” – veering very close to objectivity on the question of who “owns” Jerusalem. While the opening chapters of Whose Holy City? (Lion 2004) treat the accounts of Genesis through to Judges less critically than I would – for example I don’t believe the stories of Abraham, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, are strictly in the realm of history – or no more or less so than tales of the Trojan War, Colin Chapman becomes a very reliable guide to what happened from the reign of Constantine to close to the present day. He does concede that the Book of Daniel was written some four centuries after its apparent date, and further that it is reading against the grain to use it as any kind of road-map of the future.

A former Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Chapman well understands the claims of all parties to the “Holy City”. His solution is, unfortunately, not one the current Israeli government is likely to countenance.

One very useful contribution Chapman makes – just one of many – is to unmask the currently fashionable “rapture/Christian Zionist theology” as, well, heterodox in the extreme, a Johnny-come-lately in Christian history and, frankly, a parodic interpretation of the Bible. On that see too this page of quotes and reviews of another book, Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism, Inter-Varsity Press (an evangelical publisher) 2004. I haven’t read it.

Related too is the Joint declaration by Christian Leaders on Israel’s 60th Anniversary, signed by, among many others, our own Tim Costello.

We, the undersigned, church leaders and representatives of our different denominations and organisations, join together on the 60th anniversary of the Israeli state to offer a contribution to that which makes for peace.

We recognise that today, millions of Israelis and Jews around the world will joyfully mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel (Yom Ha’atzmaut). For many, this landmark powerfully symbolises the Jewish people’s ability to defy the power of hatred so destructively embodied in the Nazi Holocaust. Additionally, it is an opportunity to celebrate the wealth of cultural, economic and scientific achievements of Israeli society, in all its vitality and diversity.

We also recognise that this same day, millions of Palestinians living inside Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the worldwide diaspora, will mourn 60 years since over 700,000 of them were uprooted from their homes and forbidden from returning, while more than 400 villages were destroyed (al-Nakba). For them, this day is not just about the remembrance of a past catastrophic dispossession, dispersal, and loss; it is also a reminder that their struggle for self-determination and restitution is ongoing.

To hold both of these responses together in balanced tension is not easy. But it is vital if a peaceful way forward is to be forged, and is central to the Biblical call to “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14). We acknowledge with sorrow that for the last 60 years, while extending empathy and support to the Israeli narrative of independence and struggle, many of us in the church worldwide have denied the same solidarity to the Palestinians, deaf to their cries of pain and distress.

To acknowledge and respect these dual histories is not, by itself, sufficient, but does offer a paradigm for building a peaceful future. Many lives have been lost, and there has been much suffering. The weak are exploited by the strong, while fear and bitterness stunt the imagination and cripple the capacity for forgiveness.

We therefore urge all those working for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine to consider that any lasting solution must be built on the foundation of justice, which is rooted in the very character of God. After all, it is justice that “will produce lasting peace and security” (Isaiah 32:17). Let us commit ourselves in prophetic word and practical deed to a courageous settlement whose details will honour both peoples’ shared love for the land, and protect the individual and collective rights of Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land.

See also Changing Sides in the Middle East: Zionist and Palestinian Exchange Opinions about Jerusalem.


Bad Archaeology

And is there a lot of it around! Bad Archaeology explains itself thus:

We are a couple of real archaeologists fed up with the distorted view of the past that passes for knowledge in popular culture. We are unhappy that journalists with no knowledge of the methods, aims, techniques and theories of real archaeology can sell hundreds of times more books than real archaeologists. We do not appreciate news programmes that talk about ley lines as if they are real. In short, we are Angry Archaeologists.

One of us is Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, who began work on a version of this site as part of his personal home pages as long ago as 1999. Keith is a local authority archaeologist in North Hertfordshire with a long-standing interest in Bad Archaeology and who has grown increasingly concerned at the profession’s evident unwillingness to deal with it. He is also worried at the growth of anti-Enlightenment attitudes during his lifetime, which he worries may return us to a Dark Age of superstition-based belief.

The other of us is James Doeser, who is currently trying to finish his PhD in government and archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. James is interested in the way efforts to increase public understanding of archaeology (museums, media, tourism etc.) collide with a the belief that everybody has a right to understand the past in whichever way they want. We can’t all be right, can we?

Highly commended. Just to name one field, there is unfortunately a great deal of nonsense out there in the realm of Biblical archaeology. In that area you may also look at another good site, The Bible and Interpretation.

There are many other sections in Bad Archaeology. I will certainly be spending time on it.

Bad Archaeology is all around us: many of its ideas are pervasive in popular culture; its publications sell more than Good Archaeology publications; its web presence is much stronger than that of Good Archaeology. What we are trying to do with this site is to show the utter vacuity of most Bad Archaeology and provide a reference point for Good (or at least, Better) Archaeology.

At the same time, we hope that this site will be a useful resource to people puzzled by various claims about the past, about apparently anomalous artefacts, about religious claims to knowledge that are in conflict with those of science and about assertions that just seem a bit dubious.

Above all, we hope that this site will entertain and amuse you!

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Posted by on March 14, 2009 in awful warnings, Bible, historiography, History


Joshua to Gaza 2009

It is somewhat ironic that my private Bible reading scheme, which often follows the US Episcopalian lectionary, brought me today to the Book of Joshua.

1 Now after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD it came to pass, that the LORD spake unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ minister, saying,

2 Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel.

3 Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses.

4 From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast.

5 There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the days of thy life: as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.

6 Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them.

7 Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper withersoever thou goest.

8 This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.

9 Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.

The first thing that must be said is that we are reading saga and legend here, not history. One may as well take Beowulf literally, though of course Beowulf is very informative about the life and times of its culture and milieu and reflects history, which is also true of Joshua. It is pretty much certain that what really happened was nothing like what we read in this book. I don’t find that a problem, personally. One can be inspired by the words of the last verse there without believing that verses 3 and 4 represent some real kind of divine decree still relevant in 2009. Sadly, not everyone agrees.

Israel and Palestine: A Brief History – Part I on the Middle East Web captures this quite well.

The archeological record indicates that the Jewish people evolved out of native Cana’anite peoples and invading tribes. Some time between about 1800 and 1500 B.C., it is thought that a Semitic people called Hebrews (hapiru) left Mesopotamia and settled in Canaan. Canaan was settled by different tribes including Semitic peoples, Hittites, and later Philistines, peoples of the sea who are thought to have arrived from Mycenae, or to be part of the ancient Greek peoples that also settled Mycenae.

According to the Bible, Moses led the Israelites, or a portion of them, out of Egypt. Under Joshua, they conquered the tribes and city states of Canaan…

Paragraph one indicates what really may have happened; the next paragraph recounts the hallowed legend.

Leaping forward around 4,000 years we find ourselves where we are. You can trace that in varying degrees of depth on that Middle East Web, which I referred you to in my update yesterday on A whiff of sanity.

Long term the approach I commend there will be what must happen, but in the world as it is it will be a long time before such an approach is taken seriously by those in power. The point is, however, that we have been told. What looks like good strategy in current Washington and Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – which really should be an international city as the United Nations long ago proposed – or among irredentists in the Muslim world is actually short-sighted policy. Given that Israel may attain its objectives – more about that in a moment – the true cost is incalculable. In brief it involves fuelling further the problem. It inflames further the grievances that have made too many turn to terror as an appropriate response.  The present cost in human lives and suffering is only too manifest.

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald Paul McGeogh offers an interpretive report that rings true.

THE revelation of the daring objective at the heart of Operation Cast Lead calls for Israel’s air-and-ground assault on Gaza to be given a new name. As the rhetorical layers are peeled back, what we are hearing makes Mission Impossible a more worthy contender.

Tel Aviv’s early insistence that this massive military exercise was about putting a halt to Palestinian rockets being fired into or near communities in the south of Israel never rang true.

Measure it by the number of rockets – 8000-plus over eight years – and indeed it sounds like a genuine existential threat. Consider the toll – 20 Israeli deaths spread over eight years, which is about half the number of deaths in just a month of Israeli traffic accidents – and it all loses its oomph as a casus belli.

Israel does not want to deal with Hamas – it wants to annihilate the Islamist movement.

The Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, said as much when she dashed to Paris last week to head off a French push for a 48-hour ceasefire. "There is no doubt that as long as Hamas controls Gaza, it is a problem for Israel, a problem for the Palestinians and a problem for the entire region," she said.

If there was any doubt after Livni spoke, it evaporated on Friday when the Deputy Prime Minister, Haim Ramon, told Israeli TV: "What I think we need to do is to reach a situation in which we do not allow Hamas to govern. That’s the most important thing."

And at the United Nations in New York, the Israeli ambassador, Gabriella Shalev, also seemed to depart the approved script. "[It will continue for] as long as it takes to dismantle Hamas completely," she said.

Analysis and commentary through the first eight days of this conflict have been about Israel’s goal of stopping the rockets. But if the objective is obliterating Hamas, it does indeed seem an impossible task….

jan04 024a

Yesterday in Sydney

Good luck to Obama. Let’s hope for some shift in US policy, which is critical; I am not totally despairing on that front, nor am I totally hopeful.


See Jim Belshaw’s post this morning: Gaza, democracy and the question of world government. Very thoughtful. I think Jim and I share both a certain tentativeness on the issue – which I am sure is a clear sign of intelligence!—and a desire to get beyond the reflex responses we’ve been seeing. That Jim has used one of my photos is of course a bonus.


Posted by on January 5, 2009 in Bible, current affairs, Israel, Jim Belshaw, Middle East


Book notes and footnotes

sat29 On the right you will see a small stack of (bargain!) books, two that I have referred to just lately, and one that I am about to review.

The new book

LawrencePotter Lawrence Potter (left) has inadvertently led me to a very good book blog via This May Help You Understand the World by Lawrence Potter. As that entry says:

In a confusing universe, it’s reassuring to find that it isn’t only you who doesn’t grasp the intricacies – or even the basics – of the world’s problems. We probably all feel that at some instinctive level we understand most of the big issues, but the truth is – certainly as far as I’m concerned anyway – that we couldn’t even begin to explain the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims (and why it matters) or the US electoral system, or the Weapons of Mass Destruction controversy, or why the Palestinians are fighting each other or even why organic bananas are so much better for everyone, not just you.

In fact, I suspect that the number of people who could get any further in their explanation than “Err … well …” would be tiny.

Those are just some of the topics covered in this excellent and well-timed book…

I concur! The first entry is on jihad

Potter is very thorough and up-to-date (as of early 2007 of course). Other topics include: Israel/Palestine, US elections, world trade, climate change, Darfur, Russia, nuclear proliferation, and China. On China, about which I know a bit, I find it very well informed. Back to the review:

Considering what a comparatively slim volume it is, the amount of information in it is amazing, and it’s just so pleasing to be able to listen to a news broadcast or read a paper and actually have a reasonably clear idea of what they’re talking about. In fact, smugness is in danger of setting in …

Oh … and Mr Potter also tackles the thorny question of whether George W Bush really IS stupid.

The answer may surprise you.

And any author who looks like that has to be credible. 🙂

Seriously, this is an excellent and very readable book. He avoids pomposity and excessive predictability or overdone PC. Not a bad achievement, eh! It’s another Best Read of 2008.


Well, that horrible set of events in Mumbai continues to distress and perplex, doesn’t it? In my post Some thoughts on Mumbai I ventured some background gathered from good sources, but the plot really is thickening, isn’t it? Trouble is there are so many vested interests at play here it is hard to know what is most likely. There can be no doubt none of it bodes well.

In today’s Australian one letter writer expresses quite a common view, which would seem to have much in common with what I tried to say in Dark energy, God and humility, which in a way is also about Mumbai…

IT’S all too easy to see the current terrorism in Mumbai as the work of an insane minority. These men are not deranged. They are intelligent and psychiatrically normal men who just happen to believe literally the words of their silly and dangerous religious books.

Both the Koran and the Old Testament frequently advocate violence towards those of differing religious beliefs. Most people, perhaps influenced by secular humanism, instinctively do not take these “silly bits” literally. Unfortunately, a minority of the devout can’t make a distinction.

Until the major world religions, be they Muslim or Christian, are prepared to “clean up” their violent and often murderous literature, they deserve to be proscribed just like any other terrorist group.

David Phillips
Southport, Qld

As John Dominic Crossan says in God & Empire, however, it is not quite as David Phillips and many others portray it. If one considers a dual portrait of God as a God of Violence and/or a God of Love:

It is positively, absolutely not that one solution is found exclusively in the Old Testament and/or the Jewish tradition while another is found exclusively in the New Testament and/or the Christian tradition. It is not ecumenical courtesy, political correctness, or post-Holocaust sensitivity but simply biblical and historical accuracy to insist that both solutions run side by side, and often in the same books, from one end of the biblical tradition to the other. They are asserted relentlessly as the twin tracks of the Divine Express…

He’s quite right, an assertion I base on having read the Bible and Apocrypha from one end to the other, not cherry-picking as I went, and much the same can be said for the Qur’an, a substantial amount of which I have also read. (Few books are more bloodthirsty than The Apocalypse of John, after all.) It is what you do with this that matters. Crossan comes up with one solution, which I am not sure works, but at least leads to a rather healthy analysis of life and politics… I can’t help thinking, though, that the life-time study of the biblical traditions and the Ancient Near East/Greek World/Roman World has led to an only too understandable cultural myopia… We’ve all been there. What he knows he knows in depth and explains very illuminatingly, however. Can’t see fundamentalists liking it one little bit.

I make a case in that “Dark energy” post for quite a radical rethink by believers of their sacred scriptures, one that is not I have to say original to me. At the same time there are those not willing to be quite so radical who can still be perfectly harmless, even desirable, as neighbours and fellow-citizens, even if they regard me with suspicion and I regard them as being a bit cracked. Only through such benign tolerance do any of us have much hope, after all. We don’t have to be right, you know…

And the excellent blog I found…

… It’s Vulpes Libris (The Book Foxes). Have a look.

On Mumbai

This is pretty impressive: Terror in IndiaDileep Premachandran. (ABC Unleashed)

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Posted by on November 29, 2008 in Best read of 2008, Bible, Christianity, current affairs, events, faith and philosophy, humanity, interfaith, Islam, other blogs, reading, religion, South Asian, terrorism



Dark energy, God and humility

I’m afraid that for me theology really is a branch of poetry. When at Christmas we sing “He came down to Earth from Heaven” we know the preposition is objectively meaningless, that the whole expression reflects a long gone cosmology which saw the sky as a vault or “firmament” with God sitting above it. But I can sing it as a human and traditional way of asserting that the indefinable Ground of Being is close to us, in us, sustaining us. That is by no means a scientific proposition, and I have now lost the attention of just about everyone from more literal-minded Christians on the one hand to atheists on the other, who probably wonder why we bother. By “we” I mean those who share in the kind of theology I am alluding to, but which I do not pretend to expertise in. Explore it (and other theologies) on my links page, if you care to, bearing in mind those are just starting points.

A number of things bring all this forward here again. First, Christmas is coming. Second, I happened to catch Australia Talks on Dark Energy – fascinating, and well worth downloading while you can. You have about two weeks.

It’s called dark energy and it makes up about 73 per cent of the universe but the scientific community isn’t really sure what it is: is it matter, is it a vacuum, is it a constant?

The mystery emerged back in 1998, when astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe was accelerating; according to theories of gravity and general relativity, it should actually be slowing down. So what’s happening? Enter the idea of dark energy. Could it be a previously unknown fifth force and what does its existence mean for ideas about the big bang and, what’s more, the theory of everything? If you’re a science buff, a star gazer or just interested in new ideas, this is your chance to join the discussion with three of our leading astronomers. We’ll look at Einstein’s theories, glance back to the work of Edwin Hubble, and look forward to what the unravelling of the dark energy mystery might mean.

It was revealed that what we can actually detect with our senses of the universe is just part of 4%, in fact 90% of that 4% is invisible…  That we now exist in such a state of uncertainty is, as one of the guests on the program said, humbling.

Theology and religion need to be humbled too, but the stumbling block, I’m afraid, is the outdated – now so far past its use by date as to be toxic, indeed lethal – view that God has actually spoken or written infallible things which we can now read and follow. This particular teaching is unfortunately at the centre of all the Abrahamic religions, though the way it is manifested or understood varies.

I can believe God “speaks” – but I see that as a metaphor at best. I do not believe God has uttered contracts or documents untouched by human hands. Yet in those various scriptures, and not only on those of the Abrahamic faiths, one may be said to hear the spirit of God, just as long before Abraham was even born, if indeed he was an historic personage, my Aboriginal ancestors heard that spirit by other means, long before the putative era of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, which, it is interesting (as John Dominic Crossan does in God & Empire) to note, is very near the time agriculture and settled town life emerged in the Ancient Middle East. At that time, it could be argued, their world was created.

It is a big issue, this one of sacred scriptures. Even moderate Muslims, for example, are locked in the main into such a belief: “It is a tenet of the Islamic faith that the Qur’an is considered to be the literal, authentic, and unadulterated word of God. It is a tenet of the Islamic faith that the Qur’an is completely authentic; it has not been redacted, altered, revised or corrupted in any way.” – Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Great Threat: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (Harper San Francisco 2005). That book does go on to say that there are other traditions as well within Islam that need to be considered, and that the way in which the Qur’an’s teaching has been understood or mediated has been rich and various, and this is true. He also sets out to show that there is no necessary contradiction between adhering to Muslim belief, including the tenet under discussion at the moment, and living in a pluralistic or democratic society such as his own USA. Needless to say he does not accept the arguments of the terrorists.

Nonetheless, there is a problem, isn’t there, even if it is not necessarily a problem of being able to get on with one another whatever our beliefs. All that takes, naive as it seems, is the will on both sides to do so. However, see also What Is the Koran? from The Atlantic Monthly January 1999 for, I think, a fair assessment of what the shape of the problem might be.

In mainstream Christianity and in Judaism there are a range of views about their Scriptures, but the recognition they are human documents, albeit “inspired” in some way however that may be defined, has been gaining ground for the last 200 years. Some see this as a degeneration, of course. Unfortunately, the Jewish and Christian scriptures just are fallible human documents, and to pretend otherwise is (I believe) both pointless and dishonest. Also once they are seen for what they are and seen increasingly in their real contexts, the more interesting and relevant they often become. Or so I find.

And yes, there are big issues here about just who Jesus in fact was/is, and what he is for us today. Not to mention that we no longer believe that either Jerusalem, Rome, or the Mediterranean is the centre of the world, but rather that God’s “speech” has been rather more scattered and diverse than we suspected. But that’s enough theology for now.

My point of course is that theology is a very uncertain art, and should be seen by all to be such, whatever the religious tradition it inhabits. (And no, in case you are wondering, Popes are not infallible; even Popes only claim that some of the time, but I don’t believe it is so at all… That is not to say that they are never worth listening to.)

Back to the Science.

I was struck by the fact that the scientific view of the universe has made such a leap since just 1998! It is hard on us oldies, eh!  Now take something as muddled and unscientific as education. Theory there, some would say, oscillates rather than progresses! I know my 1998 essay on literacy is as up to date now as it was then, especially with some web links to places where other more recent discussions might be found.

Ah me, I am a back number, you know. Let’s face it… 😉

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Posted by on November 28, 2008 in Bible, challenge, Christianity, faith, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, inspiration, interfaith, Islam, pluralism, Pomo, religion


US election via George Negus, and the language of religion

Well, no doubt about it. Historic is no exaggeration; hence my previous entry in tribute to Martin Luther King, someone on the minds of many people just now. I will come back to that.

Last night I watched George Negus’s Dateline, mainly because here in Elizabeth Street Surry Hills something weird has happened to our communal TV antenna so that we now get SBS on around 4 channels – including digital, which is odd as my TV isn’t digital – but no ABC, except for an unwatchable VHF version. Still, watching George was fine.

GEORGE NEGUS: Martin, if I could go to you. We journalists tend to use
words like ‘historic’ freely as though we really know what it means. But this is probably an occasion when the word ‘historic’ is not out of place, is it?

MARTIN WALKER, POLITICAL ANALYST: ‘Historic’ would be an underestimate. I think the word is ‘epochal’. This is a new epoch in America. It’s also a new epoch for the world, because – let’s be frank – what we’ve really elected here is the guy who is the nearest thing to president of the world, particularly as we’re going into this global recession, because if this guy and his team can’t crack it then we are all in trouble.

GEORGE NEGUS: Clarence, I read a quote the other day from Anita Hill, who most of us know only too well – a person who’s been campaigning and working for this sort of thing for years. And she said that what Barack Obama’s election as president means, is that no longer will black Americans feel as though they can’t hold office in any job in this country, from president down. She also said that it indicates how far this country has come in the last 40 years.

CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: It does. I started in this business almost 40 years ago. Time does fly. I’m old enough to remember that when I was my son’s age I still had to go to ‘white’ and ‘colored’ water fountains in the South. Virginia just put Barack Obama over the top – that was one of the states of the old South, it was the capital of the old Confederacy. I always told my son, "This is your century – I’m just walking around in it." He has been out there knocking on doors in New Mexico for Barack Obama and when the man went over the top I congratulated my son because he put his work into it. But this is really hard for me to fathom now, because I’d been imagining this day – I wasn’t expecting it to come this soon. I saw Jesse Jackson crying at the celebration, and I think about my 101-year-old grandmother who died last year – didn’t quite live to see this – and you think of all the people who’ve gone before us, and what that means. It is epochal. This is changing the way that Americans look at themselves, I’m sure. It’s not just black Americans, I think, everybody. After eight years of really dwindling image around the planet, now all of a sudden the world is looking at us and seeing once again something to look up to in America. We kind of like that…

The full transcript is available on the link above.

GEORGE NEGUS: Joining us now from New York Australian James Wolfensohn who stepped down three years ago I think it was after 10 years as president of the World Bank, now a US citizen. James, thanks for your time. Good the talk to you.


GEORGE NEGUS: I was wondering, given your expertise and your experience with the world economy, would you really like to be Barack Obama at the moment, having to take over the reins of the American economy and the impact it’s had upon the world economy?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, I think he has the most difficult job that any American president Elect has had coming into the global scene. He’s got a $10,000 billion deficit in the United States. He’s got a banking situation where the world central banks have had to come in and pump nearly $9,000 billion into the banks and he has a huge overlay of bad debts around the world and within all of that, he’s got to try and get the economy moving again and stop a decline. So, he has a very, very tough job to do.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you think he’s up to it from what you have seen and heard?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, I think he has around him some very good people that he could bring in. People like Bob Rubin, Larry summers and my friend Paul Volker. There are many people around him who have the expertise to try and help, so he could bring in an excellent team. I think he himself has not had a lot of experience, but I think he has both the brains and the judgment to bring in the right people.

GEORGE NEGUS: Jim, your experience of the world economy is vast, as we know, but on a more general level, the rest of the world’s attitude towards selection has been intriguing. The Europeans are 60% in favour of Barack Obama becoming the US president, the Chinese wanted him US President and other countries have. Obama-mania seems to have spread throughout the globe. Is that going to make his job easier or harder, because Joe Biden reckons he will be tested?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: He will be very much tested. He and Joe Biden will be the most difficult challenge, as I said, that any incoming president or Vice President could have. I think there is a welcome to him because I think the rest of the world felt that the Republicans have not done a great job in the last eight years. But the task ahead of him is not just to provide liquidity to the banks, what has to work through the system are all of the bad debts that are there and to try and restore some sense of enthusiasm so that the economies of the world don’t go into a recession. It is almost certain now that there will be a recession and then Barack Obama has to lead the world by trying to turn that around, as the leader of the largest economy in the world.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you share John McCain’s view that he is a redistributionist?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, I think he’s a redistributionist that is clear. It is part of the democratic platform, but the issue for me is not the re-distribution, the more particular issue and the great focal issue at the moment is not changing the tax rates. It is really getting the economy moving again and we have to get the American economy moving again if you are going to get the rest of the world to have the sort of optimism and drive that is necessary…

And there was this:

MARTIN WALKER: George, I’m just remembering that it’s 40 years ago when Martin Luther King was shot, and the day before he died he gave a speech in which he said "I’m not going to get there to the promised land with you, but you’re going to get there, this country will get there". In a way, tonight it’s got there.

CLARENCE PAGE: "One day soon we will get to the Promised Land" that’s what he said. Moses wandered in the Promised Land for 40 years. I did a column earlier this year, about…Isn’t this a coincidence? 40 years later this black man has the possibility…And Barack himself preached in Alabama about "the Joshua generation". It was Joshua who took ‘the children of Israel’ into the Promised Land.

GEORGE NEGUS: We’re getting biblically poetic here – we’re saying that the USA has come out of the wilderness!

I instantly got the reference, as most biblically literate people would. That same “Joshua generation” theme caused some heartache earlier this year with someone on the Daily Kos: The potential naming problem for Obama’s "Joshua Generation Project". The writer went deep into the sewers and drains of US fundamentalism – from the Dominionists to Bob Jones “University” – to show that there were some nasty bits of baggage attached to the name of Joshua. I think it is fair to say that most of those who heard Obama make the allusion would not have linked it to any of that, just as they would not have linked it to the sad but true fact that the Book of Joshua, seen objectively, is something of a tale of genocide, but also a highly unreliable pointer to what actually happened in ancient Palestine some time in the second millennium BC. The power of the allusion derives from the tradition in which Martin Luther King was working — “I have a dream” is a virtual anthology of biblical allusions; it is based on an appropriation of biblical language and hope, not on any consideration of what that language might mean to an ancient historian or a right-wing fundamentalist wingnut. It’s a discourse Americans are accustomed to, and it is indeed very powerful poetically.

In the latest Monthly Don Watson, hardly an evangelical theologian, but rather Paul Keating’s speech writer, has some very interesting things to say, in an aside to an article about Louisiana, about why such language resonates. Unfortunately this article is only available to subscribers.

… In election season the media sea foams with embarrassingly lame professions of understanding, management cliches and stupefying patriotism. While politicians and technocrats of all varieties flounder in phoney empathy, the Bible and the church speak straight to the poor: their metaphors are stronger, their mix of poetry and intellect more potent by far.

People looking for another reason why so many Americans have more use for religion than for politics might begin by listening to a good preacher, and then to the average modern politician. While they’re at it, they might ask where the bullshit is deepest and truth hardest to recognise – in religion or a presidential election…

Martin Luther King was such a good preacher, and so in his own way is Jim Wallis: I have heard him. See Dear Mr. President-elect Obama. I refer you too to an article in Harpers which I first mentioned back in 2005: The Christian paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong by Bill McKibben, which reflected on what it means to be a Christian in America.

Meanwhile, back to SBS. Clarence Page said he congratulated his son on Obama’s election, because he, Page, felt this was his son’s world now, and he was just walking around in it. I feel rather the same, I have to say. This is the world of The Rabbit, Thomas, and other 20-somethings, and I am just walking around in it. Let’s hope it is a better world.


The unexamined religion…

… is not worth believing?

You will find relevant tags and categories in the side bar, and I also refer you to On the awkwardness (and fatuity?) of discussing religion, a post from January 2007, and to the relevant part of the Links Page here. All that is hedging around what may be a can of worms, if you will forgive the mixed metaphor.

I was drawn to this topic by Why I don’t envy Mormon apologists, a thoughtful post from a few days back on Runtu’s Rincón. This is a newish blog from “the heart of Zion in Provo, Utah.”

When I was an “apologist” (read: rationalizer) for Mormonism, I used to talk about the “shelf.” You know, there were things that we couldn’t quite explain, so we put them on a shelf, figuring that eventually God would sort it all out, and we’d see how everything fit together.

Somewhere along the line, the shelf collapsed, and I’m happy to say I don’t have a shelf anymore. Once you acknowledge that Mormonism is not what it claims to be, there is nothing about the religion and its claims that is so difficult to explain that it must go on the shelf until God explains it. But for the apologists, holy crap, what a shelf…

I don’t see this as a bitter post, and you really should read it. Mormons, for whom as people I have respect, do have a problem compared with other fundamentalists in the Abrahamic tradition. It is impossible for a Mormon to engage in any kind of real scholarship on their additional holy book, as there is no trail to follow. All they have is a translation, allegedly, of texts which can no longer be examined. I don’t envy Mormon apologists either. My own feeling, I’m afraid, is that The Book of Mormon belongs to the canon of 19th century American fiction, or pastiche. At least the many texts which make up the Bible, not to mention the ticklish question of the Quran, have a provenance in some cases even firmer than that of some of the Greek and Roman classics. Critical study of that provenance does not deliver what fundamentalists desire, however, as it shows an evolving set of human texts rather than the much desired infallible word of God. While there are many questions of detail to be settled — room for scholarship of the best kind — there is, it seems to me, no doubting that conclusion. Those who resist this scholarship, it seems to me, delude themselves and others.

All of this is in my view consistent — and do note this insistent qualification — with a humble theism. It’s terribly undramatic, I’m afraid, but there you go, and there I am.

As I said, explore what I have said before, and check the links. This is a work in progress, and certainty is not the goal. In fact, I rather see certainty as something of a problem, indeed as a very great danger. Some people are so certain they are willing to kill others who are less certain, or whose certainty does not match that of the homicidal zealot.

We could all do with being more rather than less postmodern in such matters.

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Posted by on September 20, 2008 in Bible, challenge, Christianity, faith, faith and philosophy, humanity, interfaith, Islam, pluralism, Pomo, religion