31 December 2014

No Point

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ell, it’s New Year’s Eve, and it’s cold here, so I plan to confine my celebrating to the inside of the house where it’s warm. I had to spend the day racing around doing things—although most of those things involved many hours of waiting for other things to happen—and I’m mainly just glad to be back.
So, anyway, I wish you a happy new year on this seventh day of Christmas, on the last day of this year 12014 of the Holocene Era.

30 December 2014

Closing Tabs for the New Year


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oday has gone down the tubes worrying about how I’m going to make the rent (selling plasma looks like an option) and trying to get in shape for the upcoming year. One of the things I’m doing is closing the endless series of tabs that are open in my browser—literally hundreds of them, all (or most of them) pointing to something important or interesting or at least entertaining. Well, some of them are only Wikipedia articles I intended to edit when I got some free time, or a picture I meant to show somebody or other, or a dead link to something forgotten.
For one example, here is a link (David Edwards, “Mall cop ignores racist harassing Seattle protesters and pepper sprays black bystander instead,” Raw Story, 14 August 2014) to a story about an altercation in a Seattle mall. Some sort of demonstration against Israel was going on, and a shirtless guy (whose identity appears to be unknown) started harassing the demonstrators and apparently anybody else who happened along. (A picture sequence by Alex Garland documents the event.) Shouting “towelhead” and something that sounded like “sand n*gg*r,” the guy squared off against a passerby. The photo sequence doesn’t show who started it, but Shirtless Guy was being aggressive before the passerby—Raymond Wilford—had even showed up, so I know who I’d bet on. A mall security officer appeared. As the photos show, he walked right past Shirtless Guy and sprays something in Wilford’s face. A video beginning shortly after documents the crowd shouting that the mall cop pepper-sprayed the wrong guy. Police arrived, the mall guard took Wilford away, and things apparently quieted down. A relatively recent follow-up shows that no charges were filed against the mall guard. Scott Born, a spokesman for Valor Security Services who was not there at the time, claims that the mall guard gave repeated warnings. There is no evidence for this in the picture sequence, but of course it could have happened between pictures. The city attorney (who also wasn’t there) claims that Wilford acted aggressively towards the mall guard. (Again, this was missed by the picture sequence.) When you note that Shirtless Guy was white and Wilford black it is not hard to see why the mall guard went for the one and not the other, but as we all keep hearing, in America we live in a post-racial society, so that can’t be it.
Another tab I have open takes me to the works of Arthur Clement Hilton, whom I was doubtless researching for a parody anthology I was putting together before my life blew up when the axe finally fell on the long saga of The House Just Off Interstate Avenue. The project is actually older than that; I’ve been putting together a collection of parodies in English spanning space and time, including not only well-known parodists like Max Beerbohm and Wolcott Gibbs, but also lesser-known writers, like Barry Pain and Arthur Clement Hilton. Hilton is primarily remembered for his amazing Swinburne parody—you know the one—the ode to an octopus in an aquarium done in the meter of “Dolores”. Almost exactly one hundred years older than me, Hilton died relatively young, in his twenties. While his reputation (such as it is) rests primarily on the Swinburne takeoff, he also did amusing and apt parodies of Ouida and Christina Rosetti. (This is the one that ends:
What are nice? Ducks and peas,
What are nasty? Bites of fleas.
What are fast? Tides and times.
What are slow? Nursery rhymes.
If I recall correctly, Dwight Macdonald included this one in his anthology in spite of his claim that no parody involving fleas was ever enjoyable.) I meant to devote an entire entry to him earlier this year—and maybe I will some day—but for now this will have to do.
Another tab still open links to the Amazon page on M. R. James’ New Testament Apocrypha collection. This relates to one of my irritations over the past several years. I’ve wanted this book ever since I was young, when I used to check it out from the Vancouver library to read some of the lost books of the bible in a more reliable form than Hone’s 1821 volume. (That’s another blog entry—or rather a set of them—that I have yet to write.) Some years back thanks to this new-fangled contraption they call the internet, I managed to locate and buy a copy of the first edition—more for old times’ sake than for utility, as there are better editions out there now, and this was only a translation at that. But, I regret to say, it disappeared when my relatives thoughtfully cleaned out my room for me, getting rid of such old trash as my Lancer first-printing Conan collection, and my 1950 edition of Max Beerbohm’s A Christmas Garland. (Sad to say, many members of my family, whom I love dearly, are barbarians. Years ago I noticed that my 1875 copy of Kit Carson’s Life and Adventures (which contains an early though inaccurate account of the Modoc War) was missing. On asking about it I learned that one of my relatives had it in her room. Are you enjoying it? I asked, somewhat astonished. Well, she replied, one leg of the bedside table is broken, and it’s just the right size to hold it up.) Anyway, earlier this year, when I still labored under the delusion that I would have space for bookcases and books wherever I ended up, I looked about online for a replacement copy.
So that’s the story of three of the many things that occupied my thoughts this year. The links follow.

King staff, “Man pepper-sprayed by Westlake security says apology not enough” on King5, 12 August 2014.
Mike Lindblom, “City attorney won’t charge Westlake Center guard in pepper-spray incident” in the Seattle Times, 4 December 2014.
Arthur Clement Hilton, “Octopus” on Representative Poetry Online
Algernon Charles Swinburne, “Dolores” on The Victorian Web
Dewitt C. Peters, Kit Carson’s Life and Adventures, 1875, at Hathitrust
M. R. James, Apocryphal New Testament, page at Amazon

29 December 2014

The Mysterious William Shakespeare


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oday’s saint (among others) is Thomas Becket, the subject of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s Becket, the former of which is a personal favorite and the latter of which we had to read in high school. (There was this movie, you see….) He was also (sort of) the inspiration for one of my favorite episodes in the Blackadder series. But I’m not (sad to say) inspired by the subject myself, and therefore will have to cast about for something unrelated to say.
Fortunately just such a subject is close at hand. Amanda Marcotte replies (“The unsavory motivations of the Shakespeare truthers”) to a Newsweek article I haven’t read that (she says) is “a surprisingly sympathetic piece about Shakespeare truthers”—those raving loons that believe Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere or Queen Elizabeth wrote the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare, actor and theatre shareholder, of Stratford-on-Avon.
Raving loons is my characterization, by the way. Amanda Marcotte finds its origin in a “knee-jerk respect for wealth and authority” that is “fueled by an unsavory classism and hostility to bohemianism that manifests in an unwillingness to accept that someone could develop as a great poet without a formal education but merely by practicing through his work as a writer and actor.” This certainly characterizes some noted writers on the so-called authorship question—Thomas Looney, Charlton and Dorothy Ogburn and their son, and no doubt others. These guys are champions of the seventeenth earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, a bad poet (mediocre is much too kind) who is said by Francis Meres to have written plays, and who was in fact a patron of writers of the age, including the famous and influential John Lyly.
Personally I think it is a mercy that his plays have not survived. Some of his poems, unluckily, have. Here’s a sample:
The drone more honey sucks, that laboureth not at all,
Than doth the bee, to whose most pain least pleasure doth befall:
The gard'ner sows the seeds, whereof the flowers do grow,
And others yet do gather them, that took less pain I trow.
So I the pleasant grape have pulled from the vine,
And yet I languish in great thirst, while others drink the wine.
And here’s another:
If women could be fair and yet not fond,
Or that their love were firm not fickle, still,
I would not marvel that they make men bond,
By service long to purchase their good will;
But when I see how frail those creatures are,
I muse that men forget themselves so far.
The guy that wrote these lines was no Shakespeare. He could have been the author of Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes, or one of the plays of the era when rhymed and awkward verse was all the rage, maybe, but not in the age of Kyd and Middleton and Webster.
I skip over the glaring fact that the guy died too soon to be Shakespeare. Sources for Lear and The Tempest hadn’t even been published when he died. The teacher Charlie Moore in Head of the Class dismissed one of his student’s objections on that ground by saying that it’s true only if you follow the conventional chronology—but that conventional chronology is solidly based on dates of publication, entries in the Stationers Register, datable allusions, source analysis, records of performances, and so on and so forth. One nutjob Oxfordian had the earl writing Sir Thomas More (a play to which Shakespeare appears to have contributed part of a scene during a rewrite) in 1580—well before the 1587 edition of Holinshed actually used by its authors. Another put The Winter’s Tale before Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the novel on which it was based.
There are plenty of legitimate literary mysteries out there—but who wrote Shakespeare’s plays isn’t one of them. Robert Greene, or somebody writing in his name, bitched about an actor (whom he referred to as Shake-scene) who had dared to write his own plays, thus robbing his betters of a job. An anonymous university writer (who obviously considered Shakespeare a lightweight) lampooned his fellow-actors Will Kempe and Richard Burbage, having Kempe say, “Few of the university men pen plays well. They smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why! here's our fellow Shakspeare puts them all down; aye, and Ben Jonson too.” The first folio of his plays refers to his Stratford monument. And so on and so forth.
“It’s true” as Ophelia Benson writes, “that it’s mysterious how Shakespeare got to be Shakespeare, but you know what? It would be no less mysterious if he were Edward Vere or Elizabeth Tudor or John Dee or anyone else.” There’s the fact of it. Occasionally a few people manage to write songs or poems or plays or books that appeal to their own time. Out of this small group only a handful produce anything that lasts beyond its moment, that continues to appeal to people out of its immediate time and place. Even fewer from this group manage to keep people entertained, interested, intrigued, or enthralled as the centuries go by. There’s your mystery. Solve that one, if you can.

28 December 2014

Childermas


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’m really hoping to get something out today that isn’t crap, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely at this point. It’s wet and gloomy out this fourth day of Christmas, and it’s wet and gloomy inside, metaphorically anyway.
It’s Childermas, or Holy Innocents’ Day, commemorating the mythical slaughter of infants by Herod the Great. Fourteen thousand, or sixty-six thousand—the numbers vary according to the tradition—imaginary children aged two or less were killed in an attempt to eliminate one infant that might pose a threat to Herod, according to the story.
One Tony Jones complains (“James McGrath Is Wrong: Herod Really Did Massacre the Innocents”) that historians who point this out are silencing the victims:
It’s true that we don’t know how many infant boys Herod murdered. We don’t know if it was just the sons of a couple families, a village, or a whole territory. But does it matter?!? Innocent infants were killed. They were not myths. They were not fables. They were babies!
Forgive me if I pour a little cold water on these hysterical flames. There is no evidence whatsoever that this happened. It is not a matter of getting God off the hook or whatever, it doesn’t matter that Herod was a tyrant who murdered any members of his family that might conceivably pose a threat to his authority, it doesn’t matter that Josephus doesn’t mention this among the many crimes he attributes to Herod. The point is that there is no actual evidence.
Our only source for this story is the fabulous infancy narrative that is the beginning of The Gospel according to Matthew. It tells how astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem looking for the child who was to be the Jewish king, as predicted by a star. Herod is frightened at this news, and calls together the chief priests and scribes to ask where the future king will be born. They tell him in Bethlehem. Herod commissions the astrologers to find him, naively trusting that they will report back to him his location. They head off to Bethlehem, tracking the star, which comes to a stop over the place Jesus was born, in defiance of the laws of physics. They go inside, worship Jesus, give him the famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then go back home by a different route, so as to evade Herod. They’d had a dream warning them against him. Jesus’ father has a dream too, telling him to get the hell out of Bethlehem with his family, and he does so. Herod, realizing that he had been tricked, orders all the infants in the area murdered—but Jesus escapes unhurt, as his family has fled to Egypt.
There is not one probable thing in this whole fairy-tale narrative. Astrology doesn’t work in the real world, precognitive dreams never give useful information, stars don’t move about in the sky and stop conveniently over a particular house, and Herod was a paranoid maniac, not a blundering fool. Given his penchant for spies and undercover work, you’d think Herod would have had the wise men followed—not that anything in this story has to make sense. It’s a goddamn fable, telling of the miraculous escape of a miraculous infant, not sober history.
If stars don’t act like this, if dreams don’t work like this, if Herod wasn’t dumb, then what is the basis for this story? No star, no astrologers, no prediction, no need for Herod to order a massacre. No massacre, no holy innocents, no infant martyrs. It’s really that simple. There are good reasons for putting certain things in—that trip to Egypt, for example. Various writers pointed out that Jesus could have learned magic in Egypt and it would have been easy to fool people, when magic was not well understood. Okay, says this author, Jesus was in Egypt—but when he was an infant, not when he was of an age to learn magic.
And of course it is always possible that some real event inspired the story. Herod had young members of his own family killed to prevent them from becoming a danger to him, for example, and maybe that inspired the story. Or maybe there was some other fit of murderous madness behind it. But there’s no need to assume anything of the sort. It’s just a story.

27 December 2014

Everything's Fucked

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ell, it’s obvious that I’m not going to get anything out today. I wanted to write about John the Evangelist—it’s his saint’s day—but things really aren’t working out. The situation here isn’t conducive to writing; I have a couch in the living room (for which I’m paying a small fortune) and people talk here and watch tv and so on and so forth. I’ve got the bandage around my ears, but it doesn’t help much. Maybe tomorrow.

26 December 2014

The Protomartyr

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his second day of Christmas, the Feast of Stephen, is nothing to boast about either. Stephen of course was the First Martyr, or Protomartyr, who was supposedly stoned by an angry mob for making a speech. Apparently some men claimed to have heard him speak “blasphemous words against Moses and God.” Some witnesses said “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.”
By Wikipedia standards we apparently have to take these words at face-value, seeing that it was testimony given before some kind of court. Presumably then Stephen did say that Jesus came to destroy the temple and change the Torah, especially as he presented no testimony to rebut it. Instead he made a long rambling speech, concluding with insults: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” Quickly the audience became an angry mob and lynched the protomartyr, killing him by hurling stones at him. It was, so to speak, suicide by mob.
And there is some reason to believe that there were early Christians who taught that Jesus’ coming had changed the Torah; the author of Matthew or its source attacked them bitterly: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” he has Jesus say; “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Presumably these were the same “hypocrites” who prayed and fasted and gave alms openly, casting their pearls before swine, instead of doing things decently in secret, trusting that God will see them and reward them even if others don’t.
Well, Stephen showed the wisdom of keeping things secret, at least on an individual level, as “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” It would be interesting to know who turned him in. Why, exactly, were the “apostles” left unmolested when the rest of the church was persecuted? What were the connections among the “apostles,” the accusers, and the authorities? Likely we’ll never know, but there’s no law against speculation.

25 December 2014

On the First Day of Christmas

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 guess I’ve got nothing to say this first day of Christmas. The Christmas dinner we’d planned ended up in disaster, and I’m going to head out soon and try to find something not too horrible to eat. I intended to write something on the nativity, or whatever, but I guess I’ll just wish everybody a merry Christmas. And look out for the horsecars.

24 December 2014

Meet Gary Fishel, Goofball


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ome dumbass clown—his lawyer describes him as “a goofball who writes funny songs”—regaled the audience at an Elks Lodge charity event with a poor rendition of Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” He had fitted it with new words in the manner of (say) Mark Russell or Weird Al Yankovic or the Barron Knights, but without any of their their wit or skill. (And honestly, that’s not a high bar.) Instead of being about bad, bad Leroy Brown the song is now about dead, dead Michael Brown.
Yes, that’s right, this piece of excrement in human form was indeed making fun of the unarmed teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer who felt the kid might somehow be a threat to him. Gary Fishel—the clown in question—may well write funny songs as his lawyer claims, but this sure as hell isn’t one of them. The available recording begins:
… Michael Brown
Learned a lesson about a-messin'
With a badass po-lice-man.
And he's bad, bad Michael Brown,
Baddest thug in the whole damn town,
Badder than old King Kong,
Meaner than a junkyard dog.
It is heartening to report that the Elks Lodge audience, about half of which were police officers, was not amused, according to accounts. The host—a retired LAPD officer named Joe Myers—apparently had no problems with it. “How can I dictate what he says in a song?” the guy asked irrelevantly. “This is America. We can say what we want.”
What Gary Fishel wanted to say was:
Two men took to fightin'
And Michael punched in through the door.
And Michael looked like some old Swiss cheese
His brain was splattered on the floor.
Dead, dead Michael Brown,
Deadest man in the whole damn town.
His whole life's long gone,
Deader than a road-kill dog.
Why he wanted to spew this dreck is anybody’s guess. His lawyer said he figured an audience of police officers “would get a kick out of it.” My opinion of the police as a group has sunk greatly in the past couple of months, but even I wouldn’t have thought that they would find this funny. (It isn’t for one thing. It’s just dumb.)
And he's dead, dead Michael Brown,
Deadest man in the whole damn town.
His whole life's long gone,
Deader than a road-kill dog.
To each his own. If I could put the two of them in a bottle and set it adrift till eternity passes away, I probably would. But there never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do, once you find them. Me, I don’t think of the deadest man in the whole damn town. I think of the kid with the bright future who made the mistake of running into a killer cop.

Quotation of the Day

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o if you post about your gratitude to the NYPD right after one of its officers has once again gone unpunished for the cruel killing of a Black man, and as protests march right down the block where your coffee shop stands, that has a context, too.
I suppose it can feel like this is all a huge burden. Why shouldn’t you be able to just say what you think and feel without being held responsible for decades or centuries of terrible things done in the service of the beliefs that you are expressing? It’s true that what happened is not your responsibility, and every terrible thing done by people who believe the same things you believe is not your fault.
But that is why what you say hurts people, and that is why they warn you where your beliefs may logically lead.
Miri
[from “The Context of the Thing”, 24 December 2014, Brute Reason]

23 December 2014

Imagine an Aluminum Pole


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aturnalia week draws to an end with the decidedly nontraditional celebrations of Festivus and HumanLight. Festivus is the older of the two, going back to the 1970s (and first popularized by a Seinfeld episode of 18 December 1997), while HumanLight is the invention of members of the New Jersey Humanist Network in 1998 (first celebrated 23 December 2001).
Both seem to be intended as alternatives to the familiar Pagan / Christian / Commercial holiday of Christmas. Where Christian Christmas celebrates the intrusion of the paranormal into the natural world, HumanLight features “the unique human capacities for reason and compassion”. Where Commercial Chri$tma$ promotes consumerism, Festivus deliberately strips down the holiday (as symbolized by the unadorned aluminum pole rather than an elaborate Christmas Tree). Neither celebration has yet acquired the annoying religious advertising that unfortunately infests Christmas.
HumanLight, honestly, is so stripped-down you can hardly call it a holiday at all. It doesn’t really happen on any particular day—just whatever convenient occasion (a day off say) falls near the 23rd of December. There are no fixed elements because “Humanists tend to shy away from both rigid thinking and rituals”; it looks like little more than a social gathering with a color-scheme—red, blue, and gold, standing for reason, compassion, and hope. Celebration suggestions include those things that used to make Unitarian parties for kids so dismal—educational entertainment, audience sing-alongs, face-painting. Performances by magicians, jugglers, and comedians are also suggested. Forgive me for saying so, because I admire the sentiments of the occasion, but a HumanLight celebration is pretty damn close to my idea of hell.
Festivus, on the other hand, has its rituals. There is the low-maintenance Festivus pole, for example. There is the Airing of Grievances, where “each participant tells friends and family of all the instances where they disappointed him or her that year”. There is a Festivus dinner, followed by the Feats of Strength, in which “the head of the household tests his or her strength against one participant of the head's choosing”. It’s minimalistic, rather like a Samuel Becket play performed by a community theatre sans budget, but at least there is something distinctive about it. I believe I’ll pass, personally, but it sounds more fun than a HumanLight dinner featuring readings from Humanist authors, thank you.
As far as I can tell there are no Festivus songs. HumanLight has co-opted John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Madonna’s “Holiday”, and created in addition its own “HumanLight” and “Decorate the Tree of Knowledge” (Sonny Meadows), “These Three Flames” (Monty Harper) and “HumanLight Song” (Sara Brown). I haven’t heard any of them, except the ubiquitous “Imagine”, but they’ve got to be better than “The Little Drummer Boy” or “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (I say rashly).
Both holidays eschew the solstice with its pagan religious overtones. That may be a good thing, but ultimately seems to leave them rootless. At least the old traditions and symbols are ultimately rooted in the natural world around us. Evergreen boughs and holly, lights and candles—it doesn’t matter whether we are honoring Odin or Jesus or no-one at all. We continue the custom even as we assign different meanings to it. After all, as Latka Gravas (to borrow from a different situation comedy) observed, “the only things that separate man from the animals are superstition and mindless ritual.” These denatured holidays have all the fizz of flat cola. They leave out the heart of the thing, and are ultimately as unsatisfying as decaffeinated coffee or alcohol-free beer.

Quotation of the Day


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es, this nation will stand by and allow those who tortured to have perpetual immunity for their actions. American exceptionalism really means that we don’t think we have to follow the law that other nations follow. We do whatever the fuck we want and we threaten and bully anyone who disputes our right to do so.
Ed Brayton

22 December 2014

Let Nothing You Dismay


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hose tidings of comfort and joy keep rolling in this Yuletide. New York's finest ruin what ought to have been a solemn moment in remembrance of fallen comrades with a political display of childish petulance. In a similar tantrum North Korea seemingly has translated its objections to a film into cyberspace, and now finds itself embroiled in a cyberwar. Sixties icon Joe Cocker is no more. Fake-history purveyor David Barton threatens lawsuits against those who expose his historical errors.
I’d like to write about something joyous or at least comforting but the words stick in my fingers. There’s no joy this season, just empty promises of small comfort. I think I have a right to feel dismayed, thank you very much. Maybe I shouldn’t exercise that right, but the pickings are thin. Still, for those of you ladies and gentlemen who still can, God rest you merry, and with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace. ’Tis the season to be jolly after all.

21 December 2014

The Skeptic

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 December is the feast day of the disciple Thomas, at least on some calendars. He was one of the Twelve, allegedly selected by Jesus himself to represent the movement. So the synoptic gospels, anyway, though the various lists differ in details. Thomas is on all of them, anyway, and so was presumably one of the followers to whom the risen Jesus presented himself, as Paul relates.
Thomas died a natural death according to Heracleon, though other authorities insist he came to a bad end in some way or another. The Acts of Thomas sends him off to India in a series of more or less allegoric scenes involving Jesus selling him as a slave and him building the king a palace in heaven—stuff like that—but I think he ends up getting a spear run through him.
The fact is that most of the followers who were allegedly in Jesus’ inner circle, to whom he appeared after he rose from the dead, promptly disappear from the narrative and are never heard from again. You want to know what really happened to Nathanael or Levi or Philip? If other movements are any parallel there is no guarantee that they even remained in it. Tradition may well be silent about them because there was nothing to tell. First the guy followed the Baptist until he got beheaded, then followed Jesus until he got crucified, then followed maybe Simon Magus or somebody else until the clock ran out on that guy’s moment of fame. Or gave up the whole thing and turned to something more profitable and less likely to end badly.
The fourth gospel has probably the most memorable scene involving Thomas. It looks obvious that its author had some sort of beef with him, or with his followers. When Jesus announces his insane project of going back to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, and the other disciples point out that the Jews had been quite ready to stone him just a bit before, the author has Thomas give it a backhanded endorsement: “Let’s go too—and die with him.” (Pedro de Ribadeneyra tries to paint it up a bit, calling it “a sign of the great loue which he had towards his diuin Majesty, seing that he was willing to lay down his life for him”.)
But the fourth evangelist’s attitude towards Thomas is manifested at the end of the original gospel, when he has Thomas refuse to believe that Jesus has risen on the mere say-so of eyewitness testimony. An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence. Thomas will not believe until he sees for himself—and only when the animated corpse of Jesus appears to him does he come around to belief. (My suspicion is that the author was taking a jab at followers of Thomas who claimed that the risen Jesus had been immaterial—but I don’t insist on it.) In any case the evangelist is quite clear on one thing: his Jesus commends those who believe without evidence over those who require some basis for belief. Stark credulity is the appropriate response on hearing of Jesus’ resurrection—not a demand for confirming evidence. Thomas’s skeptical faith is the wrong response; he should have believed in the resurrection sans evidence, just because somebody told him it had happened.
This is a good attitude for those who are peddling nonsense. The Beloved Disciple’s followers no doubt found it comforting, seeing as they were being called upon for belief without evidence, the more so as the first century CE came to its termination and the original generation died off. It’s a convenient out.
But Thomas’s attitude is really the right one; belief without evidence leads people to ignore the effectiveness of vaccination, for example, or to deny that the earth really is getting warmer, no matter what the thermometers say. Likely the historical figure that lies behind the legend was as credulous as the next guy—but whatever he may have been like, his legendary counterpart is a beacon of rationality that briefly shines through the darkness of the narrative. The author may have condemned him for it—but the character served as a reminder of the virtues of the skeptic.

Here Comes the Sun


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or whatever reason, the winter solstice has always seemed to me to be the real holiday—relatively obscure, comparatively unheralded, but the one that actually mattered among the host of winterfests that swirl about these dark days of December.
Of course that always covers a certain amount of ambiguity—way back when I was still trying to figure out who drained the ocean so it could be cleaned and what the relationship of frogs to crickets was I’m sure I just accepted whatever madness was going on in society at large as the way things were, but I don’t really remember it. It seems like I’ve always known that the earth was tilted at an angle from the sun and that the direction the axis is facing determines the seasons, and that there were holidays associated with it.
Ours of course was Krissmus, and I can still recall my incredulity when my mother explained that the Kriss was really Christ and the name was a corruption of Christ-mass. It was bad enough that Santa was really my parents sneaking around when we were asleep, but on top of that the coolness of the holiday really evaporated when it turned out to be just a tawdry advertisement for some religious cult.
And the words to the carols they taught us in school—a relentless drumbeat of propaganda. Holy infant, the little Lord Jesus, remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas Day. (I liked the part about the witch, his mother Mary until my mother explained that it was which, not witch; another cool feature down the tubes.)
Some of it made sense to me—the lights reminding us of the return of the sun, the evergreen and holly wreaths symbolizing the promise of spring, and so on and so forth. And presents and fudge and nuts and all that was always welcome. But by fifth grade I refused to call it Christmas; the Encyclopedia Americana said that Isaac Newton was born on 25 December, so it was Newton’s Birthday for me, and I had an altercation with my fundamentalist teacher over my holiday drawing of a prism splitting a beam of light into a rainbow or whatever; she thought I should have portrayed the three wise men following the star to Bethlehem, a task not only against my inclinations, but far beyond my artistic ability.
In all fairness, I did enjoy her regaling us with accounts of “Christmas is Many Lands,” covering the customs of leaving shoes out for St. Nicholas, wearing a crown of candles for St. Lucia, going out trick-or-treating for Hogmanay, and so on. (I may not be recalling the details correctly.) And seeing her go ballistic when some other kid spelled Christmas with an X (Don’t you dare take the Christ out of Christmas!) was, well, unforgettable.
It was a dark wet solstice three years later (and how great the distance was between fifth and eighth grade then) when in English we stopped by Frost on the darkest evening of the year. I knew very well whose woods these were by then, but it had never occurred to me that the poem might well take place on the solstice, as one of my classmates interpreted it. God, those woods were lovely, dark, and deep…
Many miles later down that road (but only five years in real time) when I was trying to learn Greek while my fellow-students were out “marching and burning” as the late great Harlan Howard put it I heard what I took to be the great solstice song of all time, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”. For a moment I felt the ice slowly melting even if it did seem like years since it had been clear. It wouldn’t last; ahead of me lay suicidal thoughts and madness, years of depression occasionally lit by moments of sheer raw panic, but for that moment it was all right.
Here comes the sun, everybody—happy solstice!
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