"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Where we are going is where we have come from....

I don't disagree with James Carroll here extensively (his book sounds interesting, but it's written for lay people, not for someone who's been to seminary; just sayin'.....), although I disagree with his interpretation of the Good Samaritan.  Still, this struck a chord:

Here’s what I recommend for every Christian: bring your Jewish friend to church with you, and let your Jewish friend listen to the text, and then ask your Jewish friend how they felt. Jewish folks listening to these very common texts—the Good Samaritan parable, the attack on the Temple, any number of them—or the way that polemical phrase, “the Jews, the Jews, the Jews” keeps showing up …
I've had two experiences with Jews in church.  One was at a Catholic wedding, where I ended up next to a Brooklyn Jew (just to identify our vast cultural differences, as I grew up in Southern Baptist East Texas, in the only town around with both a synagogue and a Roman church), and had to explain what I could (I didn't understand much of it myself, this being before I went to seminary) about the Catholic mass.

The other was at a Thanksgiving service, supposedly ecumenical, which meant the only non-Christian participant was a rabbi.  In the meeting of pastors before the service, he had specifically asked that God be referenced in a particular way (I honestly don't remember what he asked, but I think that's what it had to do with).  I was at pains to afford him this accommodation, but the pastor of the church where the service was being held and who felt himself to be in charge, said it was in a Christian church and mostly Christians, so they'd do it the way he thought best.

I only remember that I had to lead a prayer (every pastor present bobbed up to the pulpit and did some part of the service) and I pointedly followed the Rabbi's request.  As I said down next to him, he whispered a sincere "Thank you."

As for that "the Jews, the Jews" stuff; oddly, that mostly comes up in John's gospel, which is one more reason that is my least favorite of the canonical four (come to think of it, John Lennon always bugged me, too.  Hmmmmm.....).  In the synoptics the favorite enemy is the Pharisees.  It took a report from a rabbi in Tyler whom I never met but a friend interviewed, to realize how slanted the gospels were toward the Jews; and it was my seminary education which pointed out (largely through the work of Dom Crossan) how anti-semitic the gospels were, especially since it was Rome who crucified Jesus, not the Sanhedrin.  Pilate couldn't have cared less what bothered the locals; he was determined to impose the Pax Romana.  But even in the 2nd century (likely date of John's gospel, the youngest of the four), criticizing Rome too sharply could get you the same as it got Jesus.

But Carroll is right, and we all (we=Christians, I mean) seem to be members of the Johannine community long after the fact, still distinguishing ourselves from Jews, especially whenever we decide they were Pecksniffs about "the law" (which most Christians don't understand, beyond blindly endorsing public displays of the Ten Commandments, without even knowing what all ten of them are, or why they are "commandments" while dietary and clothing laws are simply, well, irrelevant, actually).  We make sharp distinctions about "the Jews" without even thinking about why we do it.  I had a seminary professor who studied at Notre Dame University, and loved to tell the parents of visiting prospective students that the statute atop the main building was of "a nice Jewish girl."

It runs deep, our denials.

Still, I find the greatest challenge of ministry, and of simply living as a Christian, is learning to see through the eyes of the other, to literally be last of all and servant of all.  Interestingly, or maybe not so interestingly, Carroll doesn't give any attention to that, even when he discussed Dorothy Day.

Which may, or may not, be an important lacunae.....

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cuba Libre!

Christians Interfering in Politics Division

Little noticed in all the press coverage (in America, at least) about what Obama just did for U.S. relations with Cuba (here it is all being covered as part of the horse race for 2016.  Well, of course, right?) is the role Pope Francis played in this.

It was the Pope who urged Castro and Obama to talk.  The Vatican facilitated discussions and the Pope was present for the final negotiations before the prisoner swap was made and a new relationship announced.  And both Obama and Castro thanked the Pope in their respective speeches.

Yet on "Morning Edition" and "The Diane Rehm Show" (Yes, my radio only picks up NPR.  Yes, it's broken.  Happy now?), there was no mention of the Pope at all, or only a very slight one.  There was a lot of attention paid to Marco Rubio and even to Jeb Bush, who doesn't even hold elected office right now.  But the importance the Pope played in this?


I think by now the narrative is set, and the Pope's efforts will disappear from public memory, at least on this side of the Caribbean.

Maybe Christians should stay out of public policy issues, huh?

*Rubio did make a glancing reference to the Pontiff's efforts, but if you didn't know the story, you'd think the Pope had only issued an approval of the rapprochement.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"The twelfth revelation is that the Lord our God is supreme Being"

And after this the Lord showed himself in even greater glory, it seemed to me, than when I saw him before, and from this revelation I learned that our soul will never rest until it comes to him knowing that he is the fullness of joy, of everyday and princely blessedness and the only true life.  Our Lord Jesus said repeatedly, 'It is I, it is I; it is I who am highest; it is I you love; it is I who delight you; it is I you serve; it is I you long for; it is I you desire; it is I who am your purpose; it is I who am all; it is I that Holy Church preaches and teaches you; it is I who showed myself to you here.'  The number of these utterances went beyond my wit and all my understanding and all my powers, and it is supreme, it seems to me, for there is included within it--I cannot tell how much; but the joy that I perceived as they were revealed surpasses  all that the heart may wish and the soul may desire; and therefore the utterances are not fully explained here, but, according to the powers of understanding and loving which are given by the grace of God, may everyone receive them as our Lord intended.

--Julian of Norwich

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Meanwhile, back in the courtroom.....

Yeah, the Romans thought torture worked, too....

So, here's the problem with bringing a case for torture against Dick Cheney.  Let's start with the torture statute:

As used in this chapter—

 (1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

 (2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from— (A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

 (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and

(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

Cheney never had any person within his custody or physical control, and upon whom he personally inflicted "severe mental pain or suffering."  Whether or not the jury decides he was wrong to rely on legal opinions which said what was being done by the CIA was not "severe mental pain or suffering" within the meaning of the law, how could the jury decide Cheney had anyone in his custody or physical control?  The U.S. government held them.  A jailer held them.

Dick Cheney didn't have custody or physical control of anybody.  Sorry, but he didn't.

Conspiracy?  There's a provision for that; good luck enforcing it. Here's the major problem with conspiracy:  it's an inchoate crime.  That means there doesn't need to be an action to have a conspiracy; a discussion will do.  What discussion hangs Dick Cheney up by the law stated above?  What conversation convinces a jury that Cheney is as guilty of torture as the guy holding the bucket of water and pouring it ever so slowly for the 178th time? And was that conversation a conspiracy?  Or a functioning government?

And by the way, your jury pool comes from these people:

A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

By a margin of almost 2 to 1 — 59 percent to 31 percent — those interviewed said that they support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying that they produced valuable intelligence.

 In general, 58 percent say the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”  
Cheney was protecting the United States of America from terrorists.  That's his story and he's sticking to it.  Sure it sounds like the stone you carry around to keep elephants away (seen any elephants?  That stone works!), but do you want to be the prosecuting attorney facing a jury that probably has the attitude torturing terrorists is not a bad thing?  You can imagine you're in a Rod Serling movie and crazy people like Cheney get punished because good always prevails.  But Cheney wasn't a military officer, and he acted (assuming arguendo that he did) as he saw fit, and as he was told the law allowed.

And he didn't violate the torture statute, because he didn't torture anyone.   Oh, maybe he conspired to; if you want to convince a jury that ordinary governmental operations can be treated as a criminal conspiracy by the next Administration, if they've a mind to.  That's a door we really shouldn't open, no matter what.  Does no one else remember the Special Prosecutor statute was allowed to lapse largely because it brought us the blue dress and "I did not have sex with that woman!" and a lot of discussion about how a prosecutor with a mandate can always find something to criminalize?

And always remember, Cheney didn't cheat the American people, or betray them, or act against them directly in any physical way at all.

Now, what do you convict him of?  Evil?  Cruelty?  Obnoxiousness?  Bad judgment?*

There may be some other statute you could try; undoubtedly there are several.  I'm not a federal prosecutor, I wouldn't know where to begin to look.  But unless you prove a conspiracy between Cheney and some CIA agent who actually poured the water, you'll have a hard time making a case that can lead to a conviction.  And the counter-argument to your prosecution is that you are criminalizing policy and a former Administration, deciding because you have the power to prosecute that your political opponents deserve to be treated as criminals simply because you don't like their policy decisions.

This all reminds me of a conversation in a comic book once, where the bad guy (I think it was Dr. Doom) has fled the scene after creating chaos and destruction, and the good guy explains there's nothing to be done, because trying to take over the world isn't a crime.  And it isn't, actually.  We came close to making it one at Nuremberg, but that was the outcome of a war, not the reason for the war.  Dick Cheney's political and policy beliefs may be vile and repellant and even deeply un-American.

But I don't see how we make them criminal.

I'd like to be wrong; but I don't see how I am.

*Another reason you won't get a conviction:  people are convinced torture is just an extreme form of interrogation.  Read the definition in the law again:  it says nothing about questions, makes no assumption that torture is used to extract information.  That's a two-edged sword.  Cheney will argue that what he did wasn't torture precisely because it was interrogation, while implicitly arguing torture that leads to information is "good," whether it is torture or not.  In reality, of course:

“The important thing to stress about the use of that it is unrelated to ‘getting information.’ Torture is used in counterinsurgency to terrorize a population . . . [it's] a preventative measure to suppress resistance by terrifying the insurgents, breaking their will to continue.” And America has a long, ignoble history of doing it.
And so we're quite comfortable with it.  And that isn't going to change in a courtroom anytime soon. 

And so this is...whatever you make of it

Look out, he's going off half-cocked again....

First, let me say there is no dearth of "old" Christmas carols (which were a type of song, not some Middle English religious term) available on recordings.  Both of the songs mentioned in this Slate article are known to me from the Kingston Trio's Christmas album (I have A LOT of Christmas albums), and the Windham Hill "Winter Solstice" series started out using expressly non-Christmas carols for its instrumentals (and the whole thing blew up when the songs got too specifically religious, and it was wrenched back to the original concept.).  Christmas carols, in fact, were delegated to a separate series of recordings called, yes, "The Carols of Christmas."

And then there's all the great stuff from Bach and the Baroque composers, Christmas music but not, by dint of unceasing play, "Christmas music," if you catch my drift.  And that's not to mention the medieval chant and polyphony (and forgive me for using those terms too loosely), as well as American and English "folk" songs, recorded by Anonymous 4 (I told you I had a lot of Christmas music), not to mention all the modern stuff about Rudolph and snow and horses.  Why, there isn't even a mention of the baby Jesus in the whole soundtrack to "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

My point being:  can we just go back to everybody enjoying Christmas as they wish to?  Religious, non-religious, atheist, agnostic, consumerist, pacifist, bread baking-ist (hello!); what have you-ist?

Charlie Brown is actually good instruction in this.  He's not cheered by the season, but nobody really knows why, or much cares.  Finally, when he snaps and Linus recites the nativity story from Luke, Charlie Brown feels better.

But it still ends with a festive Christmas tree, which is about as religious a symbol as the Easter bunny.  Does anybody feel cheated by that?

How you enjoy Christmas is up to you.  And what you enjoy about it is up to you, too.

There was some "bonus" content at Slate, about an atheist enjoying a "godless" Christmas.  Yeah, whatever.  The next time every Protestant (i.e., non-Roman Catholic) church in America is open for regular worship when Sunday is also December 25th, we can talk about how "religious" a holiday Christmas is.

I know:  every year somebody insists we must put the "CHRIST" back in "Christmas."  I want to tell them we should put the "MASS" back in it, too.  I mean, fair is fair.

As for the music:  the group mentioned in that Slate article sounds interesting, if only because it prompts memories of medieval English tunes from a recording I used to listen to years ago on a radio station in Austin.  Still wish I'd chased down those albums when I had the chance.

I have A LOT of Christmas music, and the stranger the better.  French tunes are especially good, because they aren't as drummed into our ears as the English/America stuff is.  But honestly, whatever makes you happy.  All the attendant foofaraw surrounding Xmas is meant to be an expression of celebration, an exuberance of joy, a time for festivity.  If your idea of festive is food and drink and singing, I think the grown up baby born in the manger would join you.  If you don't want him there, close him out and get back to what you were doing.  If you don't think he would want to be there, then I have nothing more to say to you.

Keep Christmas; but keep it as you wish to.  There are no rules about this, and no one is policing you.  Religious as I am, I still laugh at the lighted plastic baby Jesus manger scenes I used to see in rural Illinois this time of year.  Something about shoving a 100 watt bulb up the backside of a plastic baby just REALLY brings Christmas close to a person.  It's also about as "religious" as our Christmas symbols get, so....

May it be unto you according to your faith.  Because everybody trusts in something.....

Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Advent Interlude

This has nothing in particular to do with Sunday (which I spent cleaning up leaves and hanging Xmas lights on the house; still not finished with the latter, thank you very much....), but I keep hearing that "conservative evangelical Christians" are ruining public education.

I keep failing to find any sign of it.

I know the polls say people love them some Creationism, but those "polls" are always only one poll which everybody quotes but nobody understands (or gets the numbers right).  Nobody relies on one poll during any election season, but one poll is supposed to reveal the complexity of the American public in the opinions of 1000 people who answered their telephones.  And the poll is proven true because the next poll by the same pollster a few years later reveals substantially similar results.   Which you would expect from substantially the same questions.*

It's never proven by an election, however.  Most polls, in that case, are wrong about something, and what they get wrong is quickly swept under the rug as the results prove whatever some pundit says they prove, prior predictions and polls being forgotten in the rush to explain what just happened, with reference only to what just happened and not what was predicted by the polls.

So forget the polls and the scary numbers of people who supposedly think the earth was created in six days and rests on the back of turtles all the way down.  If it were true that so many Americans believed that, Ken Ham wouldn't need the state of Kentucky to reinstate their tax breaks for his Ark Park.

But if it isn't the great unwashed (democracy is great until people get involved!) whom we must fear, then it's the school boards and the textbooks.  I have been teaching the products of the Texas public school system for over 10 years now. I have yet to meet a student who "can't think" because they believe so firmly in creationism they "...have to suppress everything that they can see in nature to try to get a world view that's compatible with the adults in who they trust and rely on for sustenance."  Maybe there are some somewhere, from some back of beyond tiny school district in Texas; but I have yet to meet them, and I've been meeting and teaching at least 30-90 students five terms a year for the past 12 years.  I'm sure somewhere in those 5000+ students I'd have noticed some who couldn't think because they were suppressing everything they see in nature.

The problem with the public school students I meet is precisely that they don't know how to think, but that failure to think is a product of the school reforms championed in Texas by Ross Perot (remember him?  He did more harm to Texas than Rick Perry ever thought of doing), school reforms taken to Washington by George W. Bush and continued under Barack Obama, committed against the whole nation.  Students aren't taught to think because the entire emphasis of education is on data, knowledge, and the ability to stuff as much of it into young skulls as a French goose's liver will hold.

Oh, wait, sorry; crossed metaphors there.  Still, it holds.  When my daughter was in private school, the elementary school was exemplary and well tuned to the students in it, all of them backed by highly motivated families but in an educational environment geared to young children.  When she entered middle school, the direction of the school changed (under the direction of the school's board) and the emphasis switched to force-feeding the geese.  It was Ross Perot's reforms on steroids because, after all, what are you paying a private school for?  Such education doesn't place a premium on thinking, it places a premium on data retention.  It places a premium on knowing, not on understanding.

I struggle every year just trying to get my students, whether they are from Texas public schools, or have spent their lives in the private school where I teach a college course, to understand rather than simply remember.

Their struggle has nothing to do with conservative evangelical parents.

More and more I'm convinced the power of these conservative evangelicals is equal to the power of Fox News and Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and all the rest of that ilk:  they have power only because we say they do.  The actual audience for Fox News is at least one-third less than the audience for the lowest rated of the big three networks.  Any program on Fox News that drew the audience it gets now, including O'Reilly's, would be dropped from the major networks in a heartbeat.  And yet we declare that Fox News runs the world, and act as if the real enemy of progress and liberalism and reason is Roger Ailes.

Which is to say we still face the problem Thoreau identified over 150 years ago; thousands of us are hacking at the branches of the tree of evil, for every one person who is hacking at its roots.  Excessive fear is creationism running rampant is not at the root of any problem we have in America today.

Creatonism is a very stupid idea.  I've yet to meet one student who espouses it and clings to the anti-rational anti-science attitude it takes to support creationism.  I present my students with challenging ideas and force them to think, something a class recently told me make their heads hurt.  I know there are very closed minded people out there; they are a greater minority than we imagine.  But they are nowhere near a majority.

I grew up in East Texas, among tee-totaling Baptists who didn't think liquor should be sold in stores closer than the other side of the county line (because it's less of a sin if you have to drive to get it, thus weeding out the worthy from the unworthy; or something), people who took the Bible as literal, even as their livelihood depended, directly or indirectly, on engineering and geology and oil exploration and extraction.  I knew a number of very devout, religiously conservative engineers who nonetheless talked about geology and science as rationally as Bill Nye ever did.  It's rather surprising how easily people can divide their sensibilities into neat compartments.  There were fundies among us, but no one took them very seriously.  Most people simply divided their thinking into neat compartments and went on their merry way extracting money from the ground beneath them.

Nye's complaint, and response, is basically a variant on "Somebody on the internet is wrong!"  It's the discovery that there are people in the world who don't think as you do, and how dangerous that is, and how much of a burden it puts on you to stamp those people out because if you don't, they might actually exist!  They might propagate their idea, and not yours!  And then what???!!!????

The end of civilization as we know it, of course.  I grew up among those people (see the tee-totalling Baptists mentioned above.  Two popular jokes about Baptists in my home town:  why do you take two of them fishing?  Because if you only take one, he'll drink all your beer.  And when do two Baptists NOT speak to each other?  In the liquor store.); I recognize the type.  I also recognize the danger:  and it doesn't come from know-nothing Creationists.

The status quo is a far greater danger to us.  The tree of evil has deep roots, roots that lie even in us.  Maybe we would do better to start there, rather than worry about all those others.

*and thanks to the rustypickup, we can say that yes, it does matter what questions are asked:

The results show far more nuance, variation, and doubt than is commonly supposed. Most Americans do believe God created us. But the harder you press about historical claims in the Bible, the less confident people are. The percentage who stand by young-Earth creationism dwindles all the way to 15 percent.

Friday, December 12, 2014

'Tis the season to be linking....

And on how much "A Christmas Carol" 
is an influence on our sentimentality, and not our charity....

Every year about this time I pull down my copy of the New Yorker Christmas collection (and now I have the New Yorker on CD!  If only I can find the time to search it for what I want to read.  Well, it was remaindered at $10.00 instead of the original $100.00, so how could I pass it up?) and read Mencken's "A Bum's Christmas."

As ever, I highly recommend it.

And alongside that Yuletide offering which reminds us, again, of how only the "worthy" "deserve" our charity, even at this time of year, I would add this article at Slate, about letters to Santa and the charities which, in the early 20th century, evaluated them.

If you keep in mind it was Mother Jones who led the "Children's Crusade" to T.R.'s home in upstate New York, from which he turned them peremptorily away, you will better appreciate, I think, the tenor of the times.

And perhaps remember, again, that we will always have the poor with us; and we will always use them as whipping posts for our more charitable notions.

Consider it an Advent meditation.

The Middle Days

More or less in response to this:

But while this Syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in it's true and high light, as no imposter himself but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines.
I wanted, on this day of Advent, to mention this.

Paul wrote:  "Is it possible that I, an Israelite, descended from Abraham through the tribe of Benjamin, could agree that God had rejected this people?"  He then likens the Gentile Christians (us) to a wild branch grafted to a tree that is Israel.  "Remember," he says, "it is the root that supports you."

Remember.  But we forgot.  We took a Jewish prophet like Isaiah and decided he could only be talking about Jesus.  And with all those clear prophecies, how could the Jews have missed the Messiah?  And Christians got into a habit of drawing old/new comparisons:  the old way of the Jews being empty and sour, all in contrast to our shining selves.

Advent makes us face this. Our generation must do so with the Holocaust as witness.  We can love Isaiah as a Jewish prophet talking to Jews, still.  Vatican II taught that the writings of the prophets have their own value, entirely apart from the New Testament.  And John Paul II has affirmed--along with the apostle Paul--that God's covenant with the Jews is a living reality.

What then of these Advent readings from Isaiah?  Try reading Isaiah in light of what the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews wrote:  "Attentive to the same God who has spoken, hanging on the same word, we Jews and Christians have to witness to one same memory and one common hope to the one who is master of history.  We must also accept our responsibility to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah by working together for social justice."

To prepare the world for the coming of whom?  And how?

--Gabe Huck

What's so funny about peace, love, and a little historical understanding?

"little silent christmas tree"

So I stumble into this argument again, about Christmas being Saturnalia for Christians, and that sends me to my archives where I finally dig this up (I really need to index this stuff), which I repeat again this year in hopes that repetition will make a dent in ignorance (I'm not holding my breath.  "Engines of our Ingenuity" this morning, often a fairly well researched program, repeated most of the baseless nonsense about Christmas trees and Christmas traditions.  One day I'll just give up).

First, let's note there's a disagreement over whether Christmas was set atop "Sol Invictii" (per a comment at Salon) or the Saturnalia.  The two become interchangeable in these arguments, which is tedious but typical.  So:

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.

The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.21) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. [Ideler (Chron., II, 397, n.) thought they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar.] 
The first observance was in Egypt, not Rome.  I don't know that anyone thinks of Egypt as a hotbed of observance of Roman customs, especially since the Romans didn't do that much to export their religious customs to the hinterlands of the Empire.  Beyond declaring Caesar the "Son of God," they pretty much left local religious practices alone.  The discussion of the feast at New Advent goes on to conclude (the history is quite complex) that the feast (not the reference to the day of birth) reached Egypt between 427 and 433.  Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in 395.  About the time the Roman Empire was coming apart, in other words.  And this may or may not be wholly accurate, but it is useful in placing Alexandria in historical context:

In the late 4th century, persecution of pagans by newly Christian Romans had reached new levels of intensity. Temples and statues were destroyed throughout the Roman empire: pagan rituals became forbidden under punishment of death, and libraries were closed. In 391, Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Patriarch Theophilus complied with his request. One theory has it that the great Library of Alexandria and the Serapeum were destroyed about this time.
Not sure just how popular a Christian holiday placed atop a pagan one would have been, even some 40 years after such events.

I mention this not to seal a counter-argument to the prevailing ones, but to point out just how complex history is, and how much we over-simplify it.  We rush in where angels fear to tread when we decide we understand history as a simple narrative that only became complex when we arrived on the scene.

Back, then, to New Advent; the Natalis Invictii (not "Sol") was celebrated in Rome on December 25. It reached the peak of its popularity in 276, but the earliest mention of a Christmas observance on that date is in Rome in 354.  Given how much of the church was actually operating at a grassroots level (the churches around the Empire were tenuously connected to each other, not bound by the authority Rome now exerts), and, for example, the story of how the people pressed Augustine into service as their bishop (he was not imposed on them by Rome), and that was in the late 4th century, one might well accept that people used to celebrating on December 25 simply shifted their celebration to a new god.

The idea, in other words, that this date was "stolen" or appropriated by church officials, is actually one rooted in pernicious Puritanical anti-Papist thinking.   Even the idea that Rome took up pagan practices and therefore such practices aren't "really Christian" is a Puritanical one.  If you want to see clearly, take off the blinders.

If anything, Rome settled the date for Christmas on other churches as its authority spread.  In the 4th century, as Christmas celebrations were springing up around the Christian world (New Advent details the history for Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, Cyprus, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Alexandria), many of the celebrations were observed in January, not December.  Somewhere in there you get the 12 Days of Christmas, a period of celebration we would do well to resurrect.

As for Christmas tree and "pagans," I will be so bold as to quote myself:

The tree is a seasonal decorative item.  Rather like the concept of communion, it springs not from some cultural icon co-opted by the new dominance of Christianity in the dark places of ancient history, but from Christian sources:  specifically, the Genesis story and the Paradeisbaum inspired by German morality plays and the veneration of Adam and Even in the Eastern church which spread, unofficially, westward.

CHRISTMAS Eve is the feast day of our first parents, Adam and Eve. They are commemorated as saints in the calendars of the Eastern churches (Greeks, Syrians, Copts). Under the influence of this Oriental practice,  their veneration spread also to the West and became very popular toward the end of the first millennium of the Christian era. The Latin church has never officially introduced their feast, though it did not prohibit their popular veneration. In many old churches of Europe their statues may still be seen among the images of the saints. Boys and girls  who bore the names of Adam and Eve (quite popular in past centuries) celebrated their "Name Day" with great rejoicing. In Germany the custom began in the sixteenth century of putting up a "paradise tree" in the homes to honor the first parents. This was a fir tree laden with apples,  and from it developed the modern Christmas tree.

That first connection, to traditional stage decorations, is not to be overlooked.  The tree really is just a seasonal decorative item, just as Christmas in America is now just a time of year, with almost no connection to either Christ or the Roman Mass.

As Penne Restad documents it in Christmas in America, the small tree put up in German households on Christmas Eve (feast day of Adam and Eve) became the dominant feature of room-filling tableaus in 19th century America, tableaus complete with landscapes made of dirt hauled in for the purpose (think of Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters" hauling in dirt to build the Devil's Tower in his living room.  Now cover it with snow....).  It was never more than an excuse for decoration,  in other words.

There's also the fact that, at best, you are only likely to see "Chrismon" trees in Christian churches, and then only in the worship space of some Protestant churches.  You may find a decorated tree in a Christian place of worship, but odds are the decorations are specifically religious symbols, and even then the tree may (or may not) be up near the altar or pulpit.  It's a secular decorative item, not a religious "Xmas" item at all.

So the tree we get so manic about now is as American as Santa Claus and 24 shopping days 'til Christmas.

By the way, the earliest reference to a "Christmas tree" in English that I know of is Coleridge's, in the 19th century.  There are stories that Prince Albert brought it to England from his Germany, and so it became popular in that country (although Dickens never mentions one), and it became wildly popular, as Restad documents, in America.  It couldn't have dated back to pagan days in Germany and gone unnoticed by the rest of Europe until the 19th century.

Our Christmas celebrations are just a mess of traditions.  We might as well enjoy them, rather than play amateur scholars and try to dissect them.  Most of our attempts to do that betray our prejudices (against the Pope, or against an "impure" Christianity) and our sheer ignorance of history.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A funny thing happened on the way to the Denial of Responsibility Party....

Charlie Pierce was right, the Senate Report tried to put the onus of blame for torture on the CIA alone. Which means, of course, no one is responsible because whoever did it was "rogue" and we can't name them, anyway.

Fortunately, Dick Cheney will have none of it:

"The notion that the committee's trying to peddle, that somehow the agency was operating on a rogue basis, and we weren't being told or the President wasn't being told, is just a flat out lie," he later added.
The CIA is ever so grateful for the clarification.  Now, if we could just get the DOJ to enforce the law:

As used in this chapter—

 (1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

 (B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and

(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

I still don't see how you redefine what's detailed in the Senate Committee Report as "interrogation techniques" and not "torture."  Or why we should allow administrations and agencies to come up with their own definitions when it is convenient.

I mean, Cheney just handed them the case on a silver platter.  We're still a nation of laws, right?  Or does that only apply to certain men?