24 April 2017

John Adams and the Awful Blasphemy [2010]


[Originally posted at Fake History on 24 April 2010]
Did John Adams say
God is an essence that we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world
in 1820?
No. The two sentences given above were both written by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, the first in 1820 and the second in 1825, but (as the dates show) they were not joined together, not written on the same topic, and not even part of the same letter.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, fellow firebrands in the American Revolution, became bitter political rivals in the early constitutional period, Adams being of the Federalist party and Jefferson of the Antifederalist. The election of 1800, in which Jefferson defeated Adams to become the third president of the United States, was extremely divisive, and left lasting wounds. Nonetheless, when the sound and fury had died, the two ex-presidents resumed their friendship and exchanged what has become a classic series of letters on a wide variety of topics. One of those topics was religion. Neither man believed in the orthodox doctrine of the trinity, that desperate fourth-century compromise that tried to insist that the deity could be both tripartite and unitary. And neither bought into the doctrine of the incarnation, either. In a letter of 22 January 1825 Adams expressed his dismay about Jefferson’s plan to staff his college with European scholars because
The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices, both ecclesiastical and temporal, which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with episcopal and presbyterian creeds, and confessions of faith. They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton’s universe and Herschell’s universe, came down to this little ball, to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.
The bolded section will be recognized as the source for the second sentence in the frankenquote as given above. As for the first, in a discussion of matter and spirit suggested by a book the two had recently read, Adams wrote on 17 January 1820:
When we say God is a spirit, we know what we mean, as well as we do when we say that the pyramids of Egypt are matter. Let us be content, therefore, to believe him to be a spirit, that is, an essence that we know nothing of, in which originally and necessarily reside all energy, all power, all capacity, all activity, all wisdom, all goodness.
He followed this by signing off with “Behold the creed and confession of faith of your ever affectionate friend.” Again, the portion in bold is obviously the source for the first sentence of the alleged quotation. Had this been quoted
…God is … an essence that we know nothing of…
it could be said to be a fair quotation, though it would have been better to be a bit fuller, say
… God is a spirit … that is, an essence that we know nothing of, in which originally and necessarily reside all energy, all power, all capacity, all activity, all wisdom, all goodness.
Something like that, anyway. But following it with the 1825 sentence makes it seem as though the “awful blasphemy” is the concept of god, rather than the specific doctrine of the incarnation. (Which is why it earns the red designation, even though the words are all those of Adams himself.) The source for this misleading combination seems to have been a BBC program entitled Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief (later shown in the US as A Brief History of Disbelief) that first aired in 2004. Google Books shows it appearing in a 2008 book entitled The Quotable John Adams, compiled by Randy Howe.
It looks as though the editing of the 1820 quotation was done in the interest of making John Adams appear to have atheist leanings, something that would have been harder to maintain with a fuller quotation. However, I haven’t seen the program, or how the quotations were used, and the context might explain a lot. In any case, this quotation, as usually given, is bogus.
Links
Update
Jonathan Rowe and Tom Van Dyke have more information about the “awful blasphemy” quotation and other matters related to John Adams at American Creation. It may be more than you want to know, or maybe less. But it’s worth taking a look at.

23 April 2017

Deeply Bogged Down [1981]


[Journal passage, 23 April 1981]
I
 wrote a letter to my step-father thanking him for sending down that Norton Critical Pudd’nhead Wilson—actually it’s the last thing I need at the moment, another distraction with all the term papers coming up and everything, but it’s damn good to have (particularly since the library down here is not too good on Twain—and what stuff they do have has been checked out by professors for the past three years. Or graduate students. However.) Sidney Berger is the guy who was supposed to be doing the Pudd’nhead Wilson for the University of California definitive edition—I wonder if he still is, or what? I notice that the remaining unpublished passages from the text have been omitted from this text for copyright reasons—apparently they can’t be published until the U of C press publishes them. One of those passages, about the society of freethinkers in the town, is of crucial importance (I am convinced) for understanding the development of the novel, since it was in that passage that the main character was originally introduced—if I am correct in my understanding of the way the novel developed.
I’m deeply bogged down in papers and the like at the moment. One of them I don’t even know what it’s going to be about, and I may have to take an incomplete on it. That’s what almost everybody seems to do in Dr. Robinson’s classes—I wonder how he stands it. One of the students in the class—he’s working on his PhD—is supposed to present a paper in the NT seminar this week; at the end of the class session, as Dr. Robinson was leaving, he said, “Oh, by the way, I’ll have to leave at eight—I’m presenting a paper on Gnosticism on the East Coast.” I couldn’t see how Dr. Robinson took it, but I’m afraid that everybody else broke up—that’s something that’s virtually Dr. Robinson’s trademark.
The library is giving me shit again—I put a hold on a book I needed, so by the law of library karma somebody put a hold on a book I was using. The last time that happened I turned in the book and whoever requested it had the gall to either not pick it up, or to turn it back in at once, and nobody of course informed me of it. This time I went in and asked how I could be notified. Now I know damn good and well that there is a way, for the simple reason that when I’ve requested books the guy who has it has done such things as put a hold on it right after me, but the girl at the desk (who is relatively new) insisted that no, it couldn’t be done. Well, fines or no, I’m not turning in the book until I have some guarantee that I get it back as soon as possible.
The M_s just got back from a week in Hawaii—just resting at the beach, according to Mr. M_. I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but I’ve lost my Turkish fellow-boarder—he’s moved to Artesia, New Mexico. Oh, yeah, David M_ is planning to go to South America next fall, and spend a year to a year and a half down there. He’s interested in the Mayas and the Incas and all that—also knows some people down there he can visit.

22 April 2017

Class Notes: Q [1980]


[Notes, 22 April 1980]
I
 had a class in Q; we looked at isolated sayings of Jesus—the Agrapha, dialogues with the resurrected savior, papyrus discoveries. Dr. Robinson spent some time telling us all about these finds which have been discovered around the turn of the century and which no one has even examined yet because of various peculiarities in the law (see, in this one case the discoverer has the first right to publish the material, but he died twenty or thirty years ago, and so now apparently the material will have to wait until the resurrection…).
He also told us (indirectly) why it was that [a museum director] had a volume of essays published in his honor which gave a complete listing of his publications when the man is not a scholar. (I had wondered about that, by the way.) Dr. Robinson didn’t give the names, but I instantly recognized what he was talking about, and it seems that the only scholars who were able to get access to [certain] documents for some time were those who did favors for the director of the __ museum—and this was one of the favors.
He had a great comment about R. McL. Wilson to the effect that not many other scholars who had had so few original ideas have spent their time so usefully.

21 April 2017

Nothing Is Real [2007]


[Originally posted 21 April 2007]
D
ecades ago now talented songwriter John Lennon was murdered by a born-again Christian missionary. Did we hear in the news about the murderer’s religion? About his missionary work in Lebanon? How he once belonged to a group that prayed for the death of John Lennon? Of course not. That would have been politically incorrect. Instead we were given a fairy-story about this guy being a demented fan—something asserted without any evidence—a bizarre twist on the blame-the-victim theme. It seems it was Lennon’s own music that drove this guy to take his life.
Okay, right. This is beneath contempt, and posthumously justifies Lennon’s crack about reporters being the simple-minded chroniclers of our times. Still, there is actually an interesting story here, though it has very little to do with Lennon, and much to do with the vagaries of the religion-addled mind. Let’s start by going back, back, back…
In the first century (we may suppose, direct evidence being missing) people started writing what were later termed “gospels”, short accounts that told of the message, as the writer saw it, of Jesus of Nazareth. The oldest extant gospel appears to be the one entitled Mark. The author liked to harp on certain themes—the notion that Jesus claimed secretly to be the king (which is what the term christ means), for example. One of these notions was that Jesus’ closest followers didn’t understand this. His followers, according to Mark, failed him on every level. One of them turned him over to the authorities, another one “cut him dead,” (as Mary Magdalene puts it in Jesus Christ Superstar), and still others fail to recognize or report on the significance of his tomb being empty. A miserable performance all round.
Now historically this tells us that the author of Mark was acutely aware he was presenting a notion at odds with the teachings of Jesus’ closest followers. A new teaching, as it were. For our purposes, however, the key point is that collectively the impression given by the gospel writers is that his key followers just weren’t all that bright.
This notion has informed a great deal of scholarship (and faux scholarship) since. On the one hand it fits with the notion that Jesus was a god or an emissary of a god—it’s not unreasonable that his merely human followers might not understand him clearly. On the other hand, for those seeking to create a better Jesus—to free him of having said some of the things that are (in that person’s mind anyway) clearly unworthy of him—it works too. Who was responsible for screwing his message up? Those idiot followers, of course.
Yes, those idiot followers have a lot to answer for.
Now skipping quickly over some nineteen centuries from the first to the twentieth we come to the next step in the narrative. In the 1960s a fellow named Hugh Schonfield wrote a couple of books that became best-sellers and stirred up a lot of debate. If memory serves they were called The Passover Plot and Those Incredible Christians. As I recall Schonfield argued, on the basis of a painfully naive reading of the gospel texts, that Jesus planned for his own resurrection, but the plot failed. His followers spirited the body away, but the attempt to revive him failed, thanks to a spear in the side from one of the guards. The missing body, along with wishful thinking, inspired the story of the resurrection anyway—or something like that. I haven’t reread the books myself for decades, and maybe I've confused it with others of its ilk. The thing is, as Schonfield correctly pointed out, the gospel narratives have been shaped by decades of church history that must be taken into account in examining the events of the time.
What John Lennon got out of this, when he read Schonfield, is that Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. He remarked as much to a journalist.
He also remarked in the course of discussion that Christianity would shrink in the future and ultimately vanish. Indeed, he said, it’s already happening—the Beatles are more popular than Jesus now.
Nobody seems to have had a problem with this remark until the Beatles publicly stated their opposition to racial segregation, refusing to tour the Union of South Africa. This was still a hot topic in the south of the US, which was then segregated, and a few southern radio stations seized on this Jesus remark as an excuse to attack the Beatles. The manufactured outrage spread. The DJs organized book and record-burnings in their honor. In the end even the press got hold of the wrong end of the stick and started beating the bushes with it, as Neil Innes put it. The Ku Klux Klan joined the fray with various empty threats. Obscure fundamentalist ministers seeking their fifteen minutes of fame hopped on the bandwagon to issue vapid statements to the press. Then Lennon apologized, after a fashion, and the whole thing blew over.
Except among crazed fundies. What they got out of the whole thing is that John Lennon was an evil person who hated Christianity.
A historical footnote here. Lennon’s religious views may be described as complex—or confused, depending on where you stand. A theist of sorts, he believed that the universe was eternal and uncreated, and that it was impossible to know anything about the past through archaeology, palaeontology, and the like. Evolution was impossible; things are now as they always have been. People who study the past just dig things out of the ground and make up stories about how life used to be. He had equal contempt for creationists, and as far as I can see, an equal lack of understanding. According to one story, he hired an investigator to check out European monasteries and other cultural backwaters for the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, apparently believing it had some sort of mystic powers.
Not an orthodox Christian, exactly, but not outside the pale either. He liked to think of himself as belonging to a tradition of enlightenment shared by Zen Buddhism, Sufism, and Gnostic Christianity.
He was a musician, for god’s sake. You wouldn’t expect him to be well-informed on these sorts of subjects. You’d ask him maybe about say Aeolian cadences or the like—though, come to think of it, he wasn’t well-informed there either. But you see what I mean.
But the fundies could hardly be expected to understand these fine distinctions. For them, or a small subset of them, actually, John Lennon was Evil Incarnate, maybe even the Antichrist. His songs, seen through the lens of hate, seemed to support this. “Christ you know it ain’t easy | you know how hard it can be | the way things are going | they’re gonna crucify me.” “God is a concept by which we measure our pain … I don’t believe…” “Imagine there’s no heaven … no hell below us … and no religion too.” Some of them prayed for the death of John Lennon.
It was one of these guys who decided to do more than pray. He decided to carry out god’s will. He studied his prey carefully, and kept himself psyched up by reading pieces about him that cast him in a negative light. And in December 1980 he struck, silencing the voice that had entertained millions.
So who bears the responsibility of having launched an assassin John Lennon's way? Who was it who made sure that it would be Lennon who was the target, rather than say George Harrison (a non-Christian), or Mick “Sympathy for the Devil” Jagger? Was it the Christian cell that prayed for Lennon’s death? Of course not. They were merely exercising their god-given right to believe whatever hateful and addle-pated thing they liked, regardless of consequences. What about those disc jockeys who started it all? Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and all that jazz. No, they can’t be held responsible for anything, far from it. What about Hugh Schonfield, or the author of Mark? Let’s not get crazy here. No, let’s just call the murderer a deranged fan and be done with it.
Except that in my book it is a short step from burning the works to burning the man himself. People who misrepresent what somebody says, who needlessly stir up hate against him—and for ratings, at that—, who organize public burnings, who fan the flames of hysteria—people like this can’t morally wash their hands of the results when some nutjob takes them up on their words. But that’s just my opinion. I’m sure they never lost any sleep over the matter.
[Arthur_Vandelay responded to the original post, “It’s an interesting point. On the one hand, we shouldn’t understate the fact that Chapman was mentally unstable (much of the debate regarding the VT killer Cho Seng-Hui seems to downplay this factor). On the other hand, he hails from a subculture that produces abortion clinic bombers.”]

20 April 2017

A School Shooting in Littleton [1999]

[from my pre-weblog, 20 April 1999]
T
oday I got up in the late morning and instead of getting anything going I got sucked up in the ongoing disas­ter—a school shooting in Littleton, Colorado. At least two masked kids opened fire on the students there, killing fifteen people outright, apparently. Kids trapped in the school called out on mobile phones and watched events on cable. Local report­ers optimistically assumed that because kids were escaping the school that nobody was actually dead—this despite one girl’s report of seeing classmates killed in the library, and having been spared for no obvious reason by the killers. And another kid’s account of students behind him in the hall being shot while he escaped. I saw no reason to suppose that people had not been killed; obviously the dead and seriously wounded would not be in any position to escape from the school. So I wasn’t really sur­prised when an official came up with a figure of about twenty-five dead—appalled, but not surprised. (The actual figure seems to have been lower, thank god, but things could easily have been worse, given the situation.)
The kids who did the killing are supposed to have been from a group unknown to the school offi­cials but in the last yearbook whose members played war games and dressed in black. Very possibly none of this is true. The kids interviewed seemed to be fairly clueless; one of them said they reenacted World War Two battles (difficult, given that there were less than a dozen in the group, one would think), and another kid said they were homosexuals and part of some kind of homosexual conspiracy. Everybody agreed that the jocks picked on the group and harassed them mercilessly, which may explain why these two (if they were really members of this group) apparently picked on athletes. (It doesn’t however explain their targeting minori­ties.) Nobody interviewed seemed to think there was anything wrong with the jocks beating up on this group, with the apparent indifference of the school authorities, which make me wonder how idyllic this school really was, despite the pretty picture paint­ed by some of the students and townspeople. It all sounded fair­ly dysfunctional to me. However.
In the end the SWAT team in­vaded the school (they were actually inside earlier than was evident in watching), liberated the trapped, and finally got to the library, which was a shambles. Both the kids that had done the killing were dead (reports that a third person was present are now being discounted; I can’t help wondering, as at least one girl early on gave a detailed description of one of the killers that doesn’t appear to match either of the two kids found dead—however), along with their victims. What a screwed-up mess.
One more sickening aspect of the thing was the grandstanding by local politicians—the governor of Colorado and others, who used the opportunity to get a little publicity and push their particular quack nostrums. Oh well, what can you expect? They’re only human. Like those two kids who came to school with an arsenal and blew away their classmates.

19 April 2017

Inferno in Waco Texas [1993]


[from my pre-weblog, 19 April 1993]
T
oday the standoff between federal agents and a religious commune in Texas ended with considerable loss of life—on the part of the religious folk, anyway. One national guardsman was supposedly injured, but there are no details at the moment. There seems to be no escaping the fact that the Firearms people, the FBI, and the government in general mishandled this thing from the begin­ning, and the lame attempts of the various spokesmen today to make it look as though the group had initiated the violence were pathetic.
The fact remains that there was really no reason for the Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco people to be there in the first place. Whatever infractions of the law may have been involved—and my understanding is that they had only to do with possession of certain firearms—they were only minor violations, surely not worth this bloody armageddon. The initial assault on the com­pound was grotesquely mishandled, the result, I suspect, of over­weening arrogance on the part of the federal officials involved. The FBI account of the final disaster is ludicrous—they say that, even though they knew that the group members planned to commit suicide rather than give up (that’s their story, anyway), they decided to inject gas into the buildings in order to force them to give up. They never intended to provoke a suicide. And yet, if they had intended to, they could hardly have gone about it better. If they really knew this, and they actually expected that they would give up, then the FBI are bigger fools than I think they are.
Of course, all this assumes that I can actually believe anything the FBI says about what went on there, which in light of past experience, seems to be an unlikely assumption.

18 April 2017

I Could Count My Ribs [1981]


[Passage from my journal, 18 April 1981]
9:54 pm PST—Thingz to do: (1) Finish research for the Music in Culture Paper (2) Write the Music in Culture paper (3) Come up with topic of the Ephesians and Colossians paper (4) Do something about the Vortigern paper (5) Consider getting photo taken and going down to El Monte early next week (6) Write my mother and step-father (7) Finish transcribing material for the Dean.
Present trips: Okay, the major hassles over the past bit have been: (1) the best-friend’s-girl thing (2) Finishing “Keep on Piping” (3) Visiting the damn churches (4) Current new obsession with Mark Twain (5) Finding time to work on “Bad Vibrations” (6) Transcribing tape for the Dean.
For whatever reasons, visions of the two of them together periodically torment me—at the weirdest goddamn times. And the most grotesque and irrelevant situations. However, none of this is what I started to throw in. I wrote and rewrote a letter to my cousin, and then couldn’t decide to send it. The oracle gave conflicting advice; but finally gave me the go-ahead to-day (at one point it had said wait till Tuesday). I put the letter out (cut my lip on the envelope flap while sealing it) and then ate breakfast. I suddenly changed my mind and shot out to retrieve it—at the very instant my hand touched the doorknob the postman removed the letter from the mailbox and carried it off. I took it as an omen and let it go (I could have called him back I suppose). So that episode is finished for the moment.
“Keep on Piping” has been a bitch to do; I’ve “finished” it three times now, and I think I’ll have to do it again. Last Friday I got interrupted by a character who wanted to do some splicing, so my “final” mixdown wasn’t too hot; I think I’ll do it over. Incidentally, the way things have worked out, all my versions (but one) are on the same tape.
Nothing to say on visiting the damn churches, really, except that it’s been a constant drag and hassle. I intended to go to an Adventist meeting to-day, but it was raining and I frankly copped out.
My new obsession with Mark Twain results from getting a copy of Puddnhead Wilson in the mail—no, it doesn’t; that was just an aid. I had already been to the library digging up stuff.
Never mind, I guess; I’m getting tired out. Oh, yeah—I’ve noticed recently that my pants had a tendency to fall off me, and like that, but I was fucking shocked the other day to see that—when I looked at myself in the mirror—I could count my ribs. Freaked out I weighed myself on the bathroom scale, and discovered that I’ve lost about twenty pounds sometime. (I’ve been at a little over 130—say 132 or 3 for some time; now I weigh in at 113 to 114.) As a result, I’ve been indulging in food heavily—I had previously not been, from a variety of motives, mostly being hyped up, but also cash and the belief that I was getting fat, somewhat. I never imagined that I was that out of touch with reality.
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