31 October 2009

Riding Out On a Rail

Take a sniff of this
Then play a little riff
Don't be afraid to try
Don't need no airplane
To get off the ground
There's more than one way to fly
Have a little taste, baby,
Don't hesitate,
Every hit don`t have to be a song
Gonna take you to the cosmos, baby,
And boogie with you all night long.

...Riding out on a rail, feels so fine
Talking about that cocaine express mainline,
Taking a midnight cruise.
Never lived up in the northlands,
But I've been snowblind
Out in San Berdoo
Snowblind in San Berdoo.
Gr-t-f-l D--d (Tony Scheuren)

On 10 August 1974 I was living on the Oregon coast sharing house space with my mother, step-father, and a step-brother whom I will call for the purposes of this narrative Bill, as that happens to be his name. It was an interesting moment in time; President Nixon had just resigned and the fellow that was taking over, Gerald Ford, was largely an unknown quantity. Bill and I had marked the occasion of the resignation by eating all the frozen fish in the house; this because Bill had asked what a large red button on the refrigerator did, incautiously pushing it at the same time. Well, what it did was send the refrigerator into its defrost cycle, which on a hot summer day meant that the frozen fish had to be eaten...

We only got two stations on the radio then—I'm not totally sure why, now, to be honest—but one of them was a free-form rock station from Eugene, and I remember it playing away in the background as we frantically wrapped fish in newspaper and tried to get the refrigerator through its defrosting cycle before deciding we had to cook what we had. They had one of the best radio news people ever—I wish I could remember her name—Melinda something maybe—and I remember her dispassionate rundown on Nixon's entire career, complete with excerpts from his famous speeches—running as a counterpoint to our battle with the frozen food.

Bill and I had the house to ourselves at the moment for whatever reason, but our folks returned on Saturday, 10 August, bringing with them Aunt K, and things were festive. It was a Saturday, and on Saturdays the Eugene station played The National Lampoon Radio Hour. It was a favorite of mine at the time; I'd already discovered the albums Radio Dinner and Lemmings, and I liked the humor. I particularly enjoyed the song parodies. Burlesques were fairly common in that era; parodies were much rarer, and some of their efforts were pretty damn good. So that hot August day we all gathered around the radio and listened to it.

The episode was the one known as The Canada Show, and it started off with a lukewarm parody of something called "The Americans," a recording of an editorial written by a Canadian who was damn sick and tired of hearing the Americans being kicked around by the foreign press. To be honest I thought the original was pretty lame at the time, and the takeoff didn't impress me that much, though there were a couple of good lines: "I, for one, am damned glad the Americans had the generosity to invade Canada three times or we'd never have found out who our real friends are" for instance. And my stepfather laughed over the adventures of a Canadian library official after the nation's only copy of the Kama Sutra, now months overdue in the frozen north. And then came the moment that I, personally, have never forgotten.

There was the familiar guitar work, and then the voice—was that really the "sensitive whining of Neil Young"? He sang of his search for the ideal woman—the girl who would "keep my bed warm, and keep my shorts clean. I need a maid to give for free, ooo-ooh, and sew patches on my jeans." I was entranced. I was savagely depressed at the time, and the song suited my mood perfectly.

Gonna go home now, where I can grow old
With the cowgirl of my dreams.
Gonna stayed stoned now,
Just stare out my basement window and scream

When the final words faded into the sunset—"Topanga Canyon freaks, you won't see me around no more..."—my stepfather remarked, "I knew Topanga Canyon way back when it was still Topanga Canyon."

The Neil Young parody was both written and performed by a relatively young singer-songwriter named Tony Scheuren. He'd been in the band Chamaeleon Church in the late sixties, along with Kyle Garrahan, Chevy Chase (yes, that Chevy Chase), and Ted Myers, and he'd been part of the final lineup of Ultimate Spinach. By late 1973 he'd joined the cast of National Lampoon's Lemmings, working alongside John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Rhonda Coullet, Nate Herman, Bob Hoban, and Zal Yanovsky. (This is not the cast that appeared on either the album or the videotape, by the way.) None of his compositions appear to have been featured in the show, however, which seems amazing to me, as he was one of the most gifted song-parodists of all time.

As Johnny Cash he mused about the true unsung heroes of the world—receptionists, locksmiths, and reupholsterers—and all black men who polish brass spitoons.

'Cause without invisible menders
And deep-fried donut tenders
Our country wouldn't stand a chance of getting by.

As James Taylor he looked forward to the coming of his methadone maintenance man; as Cat Stevens he mused over his S&M lover; and as the Grateful Dead he celebrated that "cocaine express mainline". Both music and lyrics were dead on. It's instructive, perhaps, to compare his work to others in the field—his Johnny Cash parody to Neil Innes' for example, or his James Taylor to Christopher Guest's and Sean Kelly's. In each case Scheuren is truer to the original, and cuts closer to the bone in his takeoff. Only Philip Pope comes as close musically, and maybe Liam Lynch lyrically, though that last is a tough call.

One Tony Scheuren parody I've never found a copy of is his Bob Dylan "Hurricane Carter" parody, celebrating the exploits of Patty Hearst. Ted Myers wrote about it in a piece I can no longer find, except as quoted by a Scheuren fan on YouTube:

Tony and I drifted apart for a number of years when I moved out to California in April of 1969. I didn't see him again until around 1977 when he was in Los Angeles working for the touring company of National Lampoon's show, Lemmings. He showed me his new songs, and we even did some recording together when he was in LA. But what really impressed me were these parody tapes Tony had made for the National Lampoon's radio show. They were brilliant: perfect vocal impersonations of people like Dylan, James Taylor and Neil Young. What's more, the songs they sang were completely original, new songs, with rippingly funny, satirical lyrics, and in the exact style of that artist. For instance, there was a Dylan send-up called 'Queen Of the S.L.A.,' chronicling the exploits of Patty Hearst in the style of Dylan's Hurricane Carter song, or there was a biting James Taylor parody called 'Methadone Maintenance Man' where he would nod out before the song was over.

For whatever reason Tony Scheuren's work has been neglected since his untimely death on Halloween, sixteen years ago. I wish I could have let him know how much I personally enjoyed his work, but he might not have appreciated it. I read somewhere (probably that same Ted Myers piece I can't find) that he regarded his parodies as throwaways, something to pass the time while working on more serious stuff. Maybe so—but it's a rare talent nonetheless.

His family has released an album of his solo (serious) work on Wham! records in 2003, which appears to be still available. When I wrote to Beacon Agency (which represents him) a while back, I was informed that an album of his parodies is in the works, and I personally am looking forward to it. For the moment, however, it is possible to enjoy his James Taylor and Neil Young parodies, courtesy of uploaders at YouTube. They should appear below this paragraph, always assuming I managed to embed them correctly.

22 October 2009

Quotation of the Day

Modern fundamentalism is basically a series of aftershocks as cultures struggle to deal with the fall of gods.

20 October 2009

The Day They Knocked Down the—Liquor Store?

Exhaustion lingers, but I ventured outside today, making it as far north as Lombard to pick up a few grocery-like objects. I had second thoughts as I stood unsteadily at the MAX station, debating whether to commit myself by actually buying a ticket. Something didn't seem to be right in my immediate environment. There was something wrong, something missing.

It took me a second to figure out what it was. Across the street, where someone is leveling a city block to build an apartment-and-retail complex, a single earth-moving machine stood, claw uplifted. Most of the houses were now gone, even the debris and the naked chimneys that had marked the sites where they had stood for so long.had vanished. And that's when I noticed.

The Ice Cream Store was gone. It hasn't actually been an ice cream store for decades, but it was one for a long time, certainly throughout my childhood. The old-timers remember it for its fifty-nine flavors; what I remember primarily about it is waiting in the car while my father zipped inside to pick up magazines. The Scientific American, Mad, Galaxy—all these came from there, and I'm sure other magazines I've forgotten. When he returned, however, he would come bearing ice cream for my brothers, and a Hershey bar for me (I detest ice cream and always have). It was a treat; it was something we enjoyed, a ritual that rounded off an otherwise-mundane trip.

The geography of childhood is funny. The Safeway I remember as being a bit of a walk from our (then) home is actually just down the block and across one street, though it's a Harbor Freight today. The Ice Cream Store is—no, was—only a couple of blocks further on, but I remember it as being a long way off. And frankly, most of my memories of it do in fact come from a time when we no longer lived anywhere nearby; we would stop there on our way back from Portland to our home across the river in Vancouver. Maybe that affected my sense of location.

I can remember vividly sitting in the car, the huge neon sign across the front of the store flickering and buzzing, while waiting for my father to return. Looking out across Interstate I could watch cars stopping for gas at a station there. Up from it was an auto repair shop (the sign said it had been in business since 1924); in my memory it is always closed, but of course we stopped by the Ice Cream Store in the evenings. I can't help but think that I must have some time looked at the largish 1910 house to the other side of the gas station, but I have no memory of that. I certainly never imagined that that was the place I was going to someday own, that my brother's kids were going to grow up thinking of it as the traditional gathering place for Thanksgiving, that it would become by default the family center.

Now by the time we actually moved here the Ice Cream Store had become something else—I'm not sure what any longer. For awhile it quit being a store of any kind; the display windows were bricked up and the doors turned from glass to steel. For some of that time it was a distribution center for the Portland Oregonian, and most of the activity there went on in the early morning. For the past few years it was a liquor store. Then, this immediate past year, it was a vacant building awaiting destruction. And now, as I stood there at the MAX station, it was just—gone.

"Excuse me, sir, but I'm sixteen cents short for a ticket, and I need to get home." Real life in the shape of a rather shabby-looking guy, one half of a couple, intruded on my recollections.

I groped in a pocket for change, trying to hold on to the mood, to savor the liminal moment, and thrust a few coins blindly into his hand.

"I'm not a panhandler," he said, affronted, plucking out an offending dime and nickel too many, and shoving them back at me.

"Okay, whatever," I said. I really wasn't feeling up to this. I was committed, though; I'd bought my ticket and was ready to face the consequences. Sort of.

So, yeah, the Ice Cream Store. We didn't always wait out in the car; that was only when my father was in a hurry and just wanted to pick up a couple of things. Some times we'd go inside and look around.

The periodicals there were many and varied. Along the north wall was a rack of magazines my mother always encouraged me not to look at, bearing stories of true crime and degradation, desperate tales of survival, and pieces involving the deaths of large animals. I seem to remember one that advertised in large letters, "The Night Jackie had to Say No To Lyndon." (I'm sort of hoping that was a takeoff, but at this distance, who can tell?) Under the windows facing Interstate were a variety of puzzle magazines, children and teen stuff, glamour, TV, all like that there. Science magazines, Popular Electronics, that sort of thing seemed to move about more; you had to kind of guess where they would end up. The New Yorker, Atlantic, Saturday Review

"Excuse me, sir, but here's your four cents." The shabby Intruder from Reality was back, giving me change from the two dimes he had deigned to accept from me.

"Yeah, okay, thanks," I said, or words to that effect. I put the coins in my pocket, and tried to disentangle my thoughts again. The Ice Cream Store—old memories—there was nothing there. Literally nothing, in a way—a socket in the ground where Something used to be. It wasn't the Day They Knocked Down The Pallais, exactly, but still—

"Thank you." It seemed the social transaction was still not over; my new acquaintance was shouting at me halfway across the station. I peered around myopically (I've got to get new glasses). "Thank you," the shout came again. The guy was standing with his lady, glaring at me. His tone demanded a response.

"You're welcome," I said weakly. Screw it—let the dead past bury its own. "You're welcome," I said again, a bit more firmly, and that seemed to satisfy him. The transaction was closed. He turned to face the street where his train was about to pull in and I likewise turned to face my soon-to-arrive train. In the here-and-now I had groceries to pick up.

19 October 2009

The Mouse on the Moebius Strip

Feeling a little better now, without all the buzzing and burning and shakes, but I'm still a little unsteady on my feet. I've showered and changed and feel a little human, though maybe not very. And I renewed my library books, very much at the last minute, but I got it done. And I managed to find most of the ones I actually need to take back, which is good, but, damn it, somebody wants Metzger's Early Versions of the New Testament, and I was kind of using it. I hope our local Amazing Grace Baptists aren't planning their own Halloween book-burning.

Anyway, I guess I'm sort of prepared for the coming week, though I don't feel much like it. I've got to get to the grocery in the nearby-distant future, but there's still food to scrounge around here, and a 24-hour convenience store just a couple blocks up Interstate; I should be able to stagger up to it if I have to. Somebody carelessly left a case of instant chicken soup cups lying about in the kitchen, and that's got me this far. So life is beginning to make a certain amount of sense, for the forseeable future anyway. If that future doesn't extend much past the next six to eighteen hours, well, that's how it goes. There should be time for longer-range goals when I'm up and around again. Allah willing, of course.

18 October 2009

Absolute Idiocy

This piece from CBS News (h/t Jennifer McCreight) contains an entire month's worth of stupid. Examples:

John Boehner claimed, apparently with a straight face, that "Republicans believe that all lives are created equal, and should be defended with equal vigilance." When did Republicans start opposing capital punishment, again? I missed that day. Gee, one of the reasons I remain a Republican (though In Name Only, I'm constantly told) is that I believe strongly that certain people (mass murderers, killers motivated by ideology or money, and people who poison wells, for example) should be put to death. Most Republicans will defend a person's right to kill somebody for breaking into his home, or even for breaking into a neighbor's home. Are they willing to defend the trespasser's life "with equal vigilance"? I doubt it very much.

John Boehner's spokesman (and I suspect soon-to-be former spokesman) Kevin Smith adds that Boehmer supports existing hate crime legislation based on immutable characteristics, like religion and gender, but not on changeable characteristics like (apparently) sexual orientation or disability. (Uh, fact check: gender isn't actually covered under existing law; its part of the proposed expanded legislation.) I am again surprised to learn that the Republican Party is apparently endorsing the extreme position taken by Islamic militants—a person who has once joined a religion is a member for life. Doesn't this conflict with the First Amendment—you know, that whole pesky "freedom of religion" thing? Oh, yeah, that's right—the words "freedom of religion" don't actually appear in the Constitution; that's some fantasy cooked up by historical revisionists and activist judges. God, it's getting harder to keep up with the lunacy.

Republican Tom Price (whom I've never heard of before, thank the gods) calls all hate crime legislation "a despicable and unconstitutional bill that penalizes thought and places a premium on some classes of individuals over others". He claims to believe that "All violent crimes demonstrate hate"—this in the teeth of common sense. You don't have to hate your grandma to murder her for her money; you just have to put your own wishes above her continued existence. And what about "premeditation"—the thing that distinguishes first-degree murder from its lesser cousins? Doesn't that penalize thought? I mean, the victim is just as dead whether he was killed in the heat of an argument or in cold blood with malice aforethought. Murder vs. self-defense, rape vs. consensual sex, theft vs. borrowing—all of these involve reading minds, as the pro-hate-crimes crowd looks at it, that is, determining the motives of the people involved. All of these in Tom Price's idiotic world must then be written off as crimes, since we don't want to penalize thought, or place a premium on some classes of individuals (women who don't consent to sex, say?) over others (women who do, for example?).

And Price's spokesman Brendan Buck added a further touch of lunacy: "We believe all hate crimes legislation is unconstitutional..." I'm not sure under what clause they think the absolute right to commit crimes motivated by hate falls, but no, there is nothing in the Constitution that forbids looking into a person's motives for committing a crime, and for judging the severity of the crime accordingly. Our entire penal code is shot through with just those sorts of issues.

And finally, another gem from Kevin Smith: the present changes in the law "could eventually invite the prosecution of Americans for their thoughts and religious beliefs, basic provinces protected by the First Amendment." First I would point out that thoughts and religious beliefs are not actually covered by the First Amendment, which protects only religious expression (the "free exercise" clause). Thoughts and beliefs are nowhere mentioned in the Constitution; they are protected only by an implied right to privacy without which the First and Fourth Amendments at least make little sense. I can think all I like about how much I'd like to go out and murder my noxious neighbor. I can believe, if I like, that he is a blight on humanity and the world would be a better place without him. I may even hold as a religious view that I am required to go out and eliminate this pestilence from the face of the earth. I can make plans about how I would go about murdering him. Hell, I even have the right to go out and buy the materials I'm going to need to carry out my plan, assuming that no illegal substances are involved. But fantasy is one thing, and reality another. If I carry out the crime, if I murder this obnoxious fellow, then my thoughts and beliefs and the actions I carried out in furtherance of my plans are all fair game to determine my motive, and in particular, whether the crime was premeditated.

I can see no valid reason why anybody who is not planning on running about murdering gay men or beating up women or whatever depraved fantasy turns him on should be opposed to this bill. If the idea is that it may have a chilling effect on people advocating violence against women (whether from the pulpit or from any other venue), or against various minority groups, well, yeah, I kind of hope it does. People shouldn't actually urge their followers to commit violent acts. And if your religion says that you should murder your daughter for bringing shame on her family, or that you have a right to beat a man to death for your perception of his sexual orientation, then maybe it's time to change your fucking religion.

Oh, yeah, I forgot—religion is one of those immutable things.

17 October 2009

Amazing Grace

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound,)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
John Newton

My bones hurt and I'm alternately shaking and burning up—it's possible I have a disease of some kind. Could be the end of the world, I suppose; the voices in my head were saying something about that, but I'm inclined to doubt it. Mostly they keep singing this horrible Christian hymn.

The news arriving through various portals is beyond bizarre. Conservatives are supposedly rewriting the Bible again (I thought that was the point of the Living Bible?), though I'm inclined to suspect somebody is having a little fun at our expense with this one. There are very sound textual reasons, by the way, for leaving out the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery, at least as part of the Fourth Gospel, liberal conspiracies aside. And it's by no means certain that Jesus' "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" is really an original part of Luke. I personally think that textual evidence and not ideology should be the basis for making these sorts of decisions, but separating the two is not always as simple as it seems like it should be.

You know, textual evidence is important. People who simply accept the text of a piece as a more-or-less one-dimensional given have always baffled me. I really want to know what I have in front of me, where the text came from, how it got to where it was, and what its basis is. I like critical editions; I want sources, analogs, revisions, notes, second thoughts—the whole package. It's the difference between color and black-and-white, between 3D and 2D, between high definition and youtube.

Back in high school I thought it was ridiculous that neither literature nor history classes covered even the basics of text criticism. When we did Melville's Billy Budd in American lit my teacher thought an important key to Melville's point of view lay in his naming of the British ship the Indomitable. Okay, fair enough, but MS analysis shows that Melville changed his mind; at some point he decided to call the ship the Bellipotent instead. Does this make a difference to the analysis? Maybe not, but still, Bellipotent and Indomitable are not quite the same thing.

Billy Budd was quite an interesting puzzle to me at the time; the edition we read in school (Weaver's) differed in numerous ways from the copy we had at home (Freeman's). I had no idea why, but I ended up basing my paper on Freeman's edition rather than Weaver's, largely because I liked it better. Similarly, when we listened to a recording of a portion of Shakespeare's Othello while reading along in our books I was amazed at the differences between them; at the time I ignorantly blamed it on the liberties taken by our textbook editors, but in fact one was based on the Q1 text and the other based of the First Folio. Go figure. And when it comes to Murder in the Cathedral—well, maybe the less said, the better. There weren't enough copies to go around, you see, so those of us who could brought copies from home or the library and, well, confusion resulted when we attempted to read the thing aloud. Thank you T. S. Eliot for an entertaining and very confusing couple of afternoons.

Yeah, anyway, the point is—it's important to know your text. What exactly is it that you've got in front of you?

When I was working on a piece about the Modoc War I had occasion to refer to the wire dispatches sent out by the Associated Press (not the modern assocation; this one was connected with the Western Union telegraph system) from Ashland and Yreka. In a March 1873 dispatch describing the aftermath of a tumultuous meeting with the Modoc leaders it is said that Captain Jack (the principal Modoc leader) met with the Peace Commissioners in the morning wearing a woman's hat. At least that's what the Portland Oregonian version of the dispatch said. Most of the other papers I looked at (the San Francisco Call, various New York papers, etc.) however said it was a warrior's hat. Same dispatch, different reading. Which is correct?

Most people that I've thrown this out at over the years have responded that I should go with what the majority of the newspapers had, that is, warrior's hat. As one person observed, didn't it make more sense to suppose that he wore a warrior's hat rather than a woman's hat? Maybe so, but that wasn't the way I looked at it. I did what you're supposed to do in the textual world; I constructed a tree. It was easy to show that all versions of the wire stories from Yreka (not just this one) fell into three different groups. One of these was found in the Oregon papers, one in the Sacramento papers, and one in all the other papers. (This could actually be broken down still further; the Salem papers received their text from one of the Portland papers, for example, and the text that went out to New York was derived secondarily from the San Francisco text, but that gets beyond what is necessary for solving this particular puzzle.) The thing is there were three more or less independent branches to this particular textual tree. If two of them agree against the third, there is a strong probability that those two represent the correct text. And in this particular case the Sacramento and Oregon branches agreed against the Majority Text, making it clear that Captain Jack wore a woman's hat on this occasion, not a warrior's hat. (And in fact I later confirmed this through examination of independent accounts of the meeting, but that doesn't alter the significance of the textual analysis.)

The thing is that texts, whether they're being recopied or reprinted or whatever through the course of time, tend to become increasingly corrupt. Errors accumulate, and even when they're corrected, there is no guarantee that the corrections are in fact, well, correct. All that annoying apparatus that accompanies a decent edition of Melville or Shakespeare exists in the main to guarantee the purity of the text. It keeps the editors honest, and informs the reader of exactly what has happened over the course of time. Is what you're reading what appeared in the second quarto of Romeo and Juliet. or is it some editor's fix for an apparent misprint? Without the apparatus you don't know.

One of the most extraordinary textual feats of antiquity was the freezing of the Hebrew text of what Christians call the Old Testament. A group of seventh-century scribes, called the Masoretes, made an extremely interesting decision. They'd inherited a corrupt text, but rather than trying to fix it, they decided to quick-freeze it instead. Instead of correcting ungrammatical constructions, they called attention to them in commentaries running alongside the text. They made notes on how many words there should be in a section, where the center should be, stuff like that. The point of these notes, which some people have called arid and fruitless, was to provide a check on the text. They were in a way the medieval equivalent (though crude and superstitious) of a modern textual apparatus, and the result of this work was that they preserved an ancient text-type largely intact, as modern MS discoveries have shown.

By contrast the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which goes back to an independent text-type from the Hebrew, is a mess. Sad to say, some of this is the result of the efforts of a pioneering textual scholar, Origen of Alexandria. As part of his attempt to clarify the exact wording and sense of the Old Testament he set the various Greek translations side by side in parallel columns, something that would be of enormous use to us today, if only substantial portions of it had survived intact. What it actually did was make it easy to muddy the textual waters with eclectic texts, as readings could easily be transferred from one version to another.

The New Testament provides an even greater contrast. No textual care whatsoever was taken of the text by ancient and medieval scribes, and errors simply accumulated over time. Local text-types were eventually swamped by a single type, known as the Byzantine text, and a version of it, much later called the Textus Receptus (TR), became the basis for the first printed New Testament. A guy named Desiderius Erasmus created the text early in the sixteenth century on the basis of a handful of late manuscripts; for sections of the Apocalypse of John his basis was so defective that he had to use the Latin version, retranslating it into Greek. Many of the famous national translations, including the terminally ugly King James Version (KJV), are based on the TR.

Now as the years went by new manuscript discoveries, including the two oldest Bibles extant (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus), as well as the work of many scholars, changed the picture considerably. Whole verses fell by the wayside as better manuscripts became available. 1 John 5:7b-8a (the Comma Johanneum) was one casualty, and John 7:53-8:11 (the Pericope Adulterae) was another. Readings changed. Scholars like Brook F. Westcott, Fenton J. A. Hort, and Bruce Metzger engaged in the Herculean task of evaluating thousands of pieces of evidence to establish the best and purest text possible with the material available.

But not everybody has been happy with the results of their patient conservative efforts. Some people actually resent it. One of my fellow house-denizens, for example, burst out in a tirade the other month about how textual criticism was anti-christian—this in response to a comment I'd made about textual criticism and Mark Twain. There is in fact a not-inconsiderable movement against text-criticism, at least as far as it applies to Sacred Writ.

Actually, that's not quite the case. They may call it the "curse of textual criticism", but they can't get out of it that easily. There's no text available that didn't involve some sort of textual criticism—the only real issue is over whether it's done poorly, or done well. If you go with the TR you're using a text thrown together out of a half-dozen late manuscripts. If you go with say Nestle-Aland 27, you're using a text based on literally thousands of manuscripts, versions, patristic citations, and that is entirely transparent, since it tells you exactly where a particular reading comes from and what the alternative readings are.

So from this perspective, at least, these guys aren't so much anti-textual-criticism as pro-bad-textual-criticism. The reasoning behind this is convoluted, or rather, there is no reason behind it at all, just pure emotion. And for the most part it comes from attachment to a particular translation.

I've expressed elsewhere (though apparently not on the internet) my dislike, contempt even, for the King James Version. It is a poorly-written committee-driven hack job, devoid of style or class, except where expressions have been stolen from earlier translations (Tyndale in particular). To borrow an expression from one of William the Bloody's friends, listening to it is like having a railroad spike driven through your head. Still, some people like it. Hunter S. Thompson, the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century, for one. And Brother David Phillips of the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Wedowee, Alabama, for another.

Brother David was kind enough to supply us with his five reasons for preferring it to more accurate translations: it is (he writes) a (1) pure, (2) preserved, (3) powerful, (4) plain, and (5) perfect book. Now Brother David seems to be using the words in a sort of Humpty-Dumpty sense, so we'll have to kind of figure out what he means as he goes along.

The purity of the text is guaranteed (he claims) because it is a translation from the TR, which he (wrongly) asserts is in agreement with 95% of all Scripture-related manuscripts. He claims (again wrongly) that modern translations are based on a text derived from only two manuscripts. "What does all this mean?" he asks rhetorically. "Simply this, the King James Bible is derived from a more accurate Greek text, not from 2 suspect texts of suspect origin. Therefore, the King James Bible is a pure Book!" He then goes on to extol the scholarship of the KJV translators—and in all fairness, it was pretty decent, for 1611. Of course their knowledge of Hebrew was extremely limited, and their knowledge of the koine dialect of Greek—in which the NT was written—nonexistent, but what can you expect? We've learned a lot in the four centuries since then. Still, apparently Brother David is impressed.

Okay, point 2—preservation. What on earth does he mean by that? The text of the NT, whether TR, Byzantine Majority, or Nestle-Aland, is derived from preserved manuscripts. The length of the preservation might be relevant; the TR and BMT are based primarily on very late texts, while the Nestle-Aland is based primarily on early, but no—it seems that Brother David has something else in mind. "God has promised to preserve His Word," he writes. But "Preservation is not present in any modern version!" Certain late additions to the text (Brother David explicitly cites Acts 8:37 and 1 John 5:7) that were mistakenly printed in the TR on the basis of a few late Greek MSS are no longer included in modern translations. But Brother David likes them. On the basis of this personal preference of his he claims "These are 2 pretty important verses and they belong exactly where the Lord put them!" Yeah, okay, whatever. He goes on to add a bunch of jibber-jabber about how the TR (which actually didn't even exist until Erasmus created it) was "Written on tanned animal skins" and "1 mistake on a page, destroyed. 3 in a book, whole book destroyed!" This is absolutely baseless, as he'd know if he'd ever actually looked at a Greek manuscript.

His third point—power. The King James Bible is a powerful book, he says. I assume by powerful he means it's a committee-written piece of Jacobean crap. But no, apparently he knows "the King James Bible has power because I have felt it and seen it at work in my life and in the lives of others. It is a powerful Book!!" So yeah, Brother David, you like it. I got that. Well, I like Pink Floyd's "Atom Heart Mother." There's a powerful work, if you like. But I don't worship it, and I sure as hell don't confuse emotional appeal with textual authenticity or accuracy in translation.

Okay, number four—plainness. The only thing I get out of his gibberish here is that he thinks the King James Bible is written at a fifth grade level. Since I don't see how that's either a virtue or a fault, I really don't get his point. It certainly isn't that difficult to grasp for anyone with a working knowledge of Jacobean English; I don't know how many fifth graders are included in that group.

And finally, perfection. Again, he is using this word in some strange manner of his own. He picks several passages where he prefers the KJV translation—Isaiah 7:14, for example, where he prefers the KJV's "virgin" to the original Hebrew word meaning "young woman". I don't know what this has to do with perfection. Determining which translation you like best on the basis of personal feelings is all very well and good, but it doesn't really add up to much. It's just really not that persuasive, especially when the evidence is against you.

I probably shouldn't try writing this stuff when I'm running a high fever and "Amazing Grace" keeps playing in my head; I've somehow wandered way off the topic. And my hands are shaking so much I'm having trouble typing. Still, it beats lying down and feeling miserable, and I don't actually have to post the damn thing.

The point is, I just like knowing where my text comes from. If you want a translation based on the accumulated crap and errors of centuries, by all means use the King James Version or the World English Bible. I'm not going to join you, but I don't quarrel with your choice, if it makes you happy. Enjoy! The world is large. There's room for all kinds at the table.

But when it comes to hosting a good old-fashioned anti-American Halloween sacred book-burning and barbecue, my mind begins to reel. Is this actual news, or are fever-induced hallucinations kicking in? Apparently a certain pastor Marc Grizzard of the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, is in such desperate need of publicity, that he's hosting his own holy holocaust, and all translations not based on the TR (as well as at least one that is) are going to be ceremonially burned, along with works by Metzger, Westcott, and Hort. And there's going to be music as well, a delightful variety of "country, rap, rock, pop, heavy metal, western, soft and easy, southern gospel, contempory [sic] Christian". No, they're not going to play it, they're going to burn it. Really, these are delightful people. And there will be words from the likes of Billy and Franklin Graham, Chuck Colson, and Mother Teresa—yes, you guessed it, also burned. It sounds like a lot of fun. If all fourteen members of his congregation show up, they can do a reenactment of the Last Supper, with a couple of spares.

And people wonder why Christianity has fallen to such low repute. Seriously, with people like Marc Grizzard, Fred Phelps, Jimmy Swaggart, Tammy Faye Baker, and Jim Jones as its representatives, it's not really surprising.

16 October 2009

Quotation of the Day

It was the universal opinion of the century preceding the last, that civil Government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment, and that the Christian religion itself would perish if not supported by a legal provision for its clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The civil Government, though bereft of every thing like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success; whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State.
James Madison, Letter to Robert Walsh, 2 March 1819
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