30 April 2007

Understanding As Noise (by G--rge G-ld-r)

[I received a very interesting piece taking issue with my objections to the concept of belief without understanding. It seems that I am not au courant with information theory as it is presently practiced. So today’s guest Rational Ranter is Dr. G--rge G-ld-r, technoguru of universal bandwidth and the “P. T. Barnum of modern information theory.”]

Your sophis and tries amount to nothing more than an argumentum ad consequentiam informed by anti-epistemic materialist cant. Cautionary fables from the Mah Jong aside, information is archetypical and precedes its decryption. Just as the automobile, a phenomenon decried by the most eminent biologists of the nineteenth century, demonstrates empirically that the cart precedes the horse, so belief precedes understanding. An archetypical formation may be addressed by superpositional prestidigitation. Consequently misunderstanding may be avoided only by a process of noetic myopia focused exclusively on the information in question.

In this sense the medieval Bogomils were entirely correct in asserting that the meaning of scripture is only evident to the eye of faith. Attempts to decrypt information without the key of noesis simply introduce noise into the mix. The mathematical theory of misinformation shows that corruption and gibberish both increase exponentially, diagonally in a simple oblique direction. This makes all the difference.

Just as the medieval warm period establishes the preconditions for the feudal state, so the little ice age that follows creates the foundation for capitalism. In each case belief in the system precedes its implementation. Even the reductionist absurdities of Karl Marx’s diacritical materialism precede its implementation in the gas chambers of Nuremburg and the Gulag. Tides and times may come and go, but the substrate of ideas in a text remains eternal. Faith, or something like it, is the key to true interactive realization of a text. This is in no way a matter of Biblical literalism, but if the shoe fits—so be it.

[The rest of the piece involves a proposal for investment in a structure spanning the East River in New York, a project beyond my financial means at this time. sbh]

28 April 2007

Bobby "Boris" Pickett: A One Hit Wonder Passes On

I have a collection of 45s dating back to my childhood. (45s are small vinyl disks that can be decoded to play music with the appropriate mechanical device, known as a phonograph or record-player. They were the MP3s of my generation.) One of these is a thing put out by Garpax records, with a black-and-white picture-sleeve showing a monster against a background of tombstones. I don't know where or when I picked it up.

The song was something called "Monster Mash" sung by Bobby Pickett backed by the Crypt-kickers. Mr. Pickett sang, in a stunning Boris Karloff imitation, a strange piece about a mad scientist and his dancing monster. I'm sure you must have heard it; it resurfaces every Halloween like a bad penny taped to a cork in a bloodwort stew.

It's actually kind of a survivor in a way; this sort of macabre humor was once common. Spike Jones, at the end of his career, when he was trying desperately to compete with the likes of Stan Freberg and Mort Sahl, put out an entire album devoted to this sort of thing. Katie Lee was edgier, with songs like "When I Was a Little Girl" and "Group Therapy." And of course Tom Lehrer was way ahead of the curve with "A Hunting Song" and "Irish Ballad." Eventually even the Cultural Wasteland succumbed, in a somewhat sanitized way, with TV shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters. (Who can forget the exchange between Wednesday Addams and an Avon Lady?
Wednesday: Nobody uses anything like that except Uncle Fester. He uses a preservative.
Avon Lady: A preservative? Oh, to keep young?
Wednesday: No, just to keep.
Or maybe, who can remember it?)

"The Monster Mash" went right to the top of the charts, as I recall--though if I looked it up I'd probably find out that it was only #11 on the Billboard chart, or something. Still, I'm doing this from memory, and I may as well tell it my way.

It was 1962 and "The Monster Mash" went straight to the top of the charts only a couple of weeks after it was released. It was impossible to escape that Halloween. I'm thinking this was that strange Halloween, not long after the Columbus Day Storm, when trees were still lying across parts of houses, and debris was everywhere. My buddy and I felt we were too old to go out begging for candy, but we still got into costume (as a television and a wall socket, I think) to shepherd our younger brothers and sister and friends about.

It would be a decade before I heard of Bobby "Boris" Pickett again, and this time we were on the road in search of America, or maybe just a good time. As we crossed the country that summer of 1973 every station in every town seemed to be playing it. Why, I wondered. It's just because of the success of the horror film guy (now I can't remember his name--Portland's equivalent of SCTV's Count Floyd anyway), one of my fellow-travelers suggested. But that wouldn't explain why it's playing out here in Iowa, I replied. Nobody knew, and apparently nobody cared. But me. And I didn't care that much.

From all accounts Pickett took his one hit wonder status with a certain grace and style. He used to announce his performances by saying that he was going to do a medley of his hit--fair enough, I guess, though that line must have gray whiskers by now. And one hit is more than most performers get, though fewer than most musician's ambitions. And what a hit it was, sure to resurface every Halloween for years to come.

Bobby "Boris" Pickett passed away last Wednesday. A moment of silence, please.

(Once again, I am doing this without benefit of my notes, records, or library, so some of the titles above may well be wrong. Not to mention dates, persons, sequence of events, and the like. Ah, well.)

The ineffable concept of mindscum

I don't know who Shawn Holster is--apparently an artist of some kind--but he has the mindscum thing down in a way I can only envy. I would quote from this blog entry on reconnecting with his inner dickhead, except that his sidebar requests that I do that only with prior permission, which I don't have. Please note, to those who have known me awhile, this isn't like the time I described Dustin Diamond as a comic genius. I am serious. This guy is an original, and I say this as an art-despising rope-eating dirt-hugging anti-capitalist Republican money-grubber.

Also let me say many thanks to Dave Away from Home for turning me on to Shawn Holster's Monkey Eggs in his Blog troll v.4.0. The other blogs he mentions there (including mine, by the by) are also worth checking out, but Monkey Eggs' stream-of-unconsciousness rants are something else.

(WARNING: strong language, vile content, disturbing images.)

25 April 2007

Tambo and Rush: The New Minstrel Show

I am out of sorts today. Who knows why? Things continue to deteriorate here in my ex-house, I can't get hold of people, and the electric company--who has been paid in full--continues to leave pointless messages in my voice mail. And to top it all off, I am greeted when I wake up by something called "Barack the Magic Negro."

Okay, let me be clear about this. I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh. I have only listened to him when forced to by my fellow human beings, who for some reason think this guy is--what? Funny? Clever? Something, anyway. I remember once when I was stuck on jury duty and my fellow potential-jurors had the Rush on the big TV screen in the front of the room. He was babbling about something which he described as voodoo economics--Bush Sr.'s term for Reagan's version of Friedmanism--and then said the only funny thing I've ever heard from him. Of course, he said (I'm paraphrasing from memory), now I'll probably get in trouble for that for defaming one of the world's great religions. He waited for a laugh. None came, at least not from his audience. I laughed, or rather chuckled, earning a nasty glance from one of the Rush-heads present. Oh well.

Over the years he's only come to my attention otherwise when he's doing something horrific. Like cruelly making fun of Michael J. Fox for being ill. That kind of junior high crap may go over well with his audience--I don't know. They probably laugh at Beavis and Butthead too. But puerility sinks to scurrility with his latest offering. This is, believe it or not, a burlesque of "Puff the Magic Dragon" with some clown doing a bad imitation of Al Sharpton apparently criticizing Obama for not being black enough. It's a nasty flashback to the days of Rastus, Tambo, and Bones, when watching a white man in blackface do a farcical imitation of a crippled ex-slave was considered the height of humor, right up there with setting fire to a stray dog. I like to think we've progressed a little since then.

21 April 2007

Nothing is Real

Decades 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 them 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, 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.

13 April 2007

Posts I Have Enjoyed

Pharyngula -- A Godless Ramble Against the Ditherings of Theologians (27 October 2006)
Dispatches from the Culture Wars -- Worldnutdaily Flogs Dead Sternberg Horse (16 February 2007)
Questionable Authority -- The Limits of Tolerance (3 March 2007)
Effect Measure -- On the Alleged Nonexistence of Atheists (4 March 2007)
Dave Away From Home -- Joining the Blogstorm (8 April 2007)
Religion Clause -- Missouri House Approves Proposed Prayer Amendment (11 April 2007)
Questionable Authority -- An Open Letter to My Senators and Representatives (14 April 2007)

07 April 2007

Holy Saturday

When we die
Do we haunt the sky?
Do we lurk in the murk of the seas?
And what then?
Are we born again
Just to sit asking questions like these?
Spinal Tap
If your leaders tell you the Kingdom is in the sky, then the birds of the air will get there before you. If it's in the sea, then the fish will get there first. But the Kingdom is inside you.
Jesus of Nazareth
Among the strangely-named holidays of the season--Fat Tuesday, Palm Sunday, Bleeding Wednesday, Screaming Thursday and the like--comes a kind of pause. Holy Saturday falls between the excitement of Good Friday and the mystery of Easter Sunday, and is the one point in the narrative where we can say with assurance that Jesus is dead. What was he doing on this day? Was he shaking down hell for all the patriarchs and virtuous pagans and whoever else would believe in him, as the story has it? Or was he lying quietly in his tomb? Or did he meet the more common fate of the crucified--his body dumped nameless with others who shared his shameful execution?

We have one, and only one, early gospel account that claims to be by an eyewitness. This fragment turned up maybe a hundred years ago, from a medieval manuscript containing an excerpt from a lost gospel, The Gospel of Peter. (Peter is also supposedly responsible for the earliest reference to the harrowing of hell in a letter that made it into the New Testament itself, after years of struggle.) And what does Peter say happened? Well, it seems that the Judean authorities posted guards at the tomb, and while they watched a voice shouted from above and a bright light appeared from the sky, while two men calmly walked into the tomb, the rock blocking the entrance rolling away by itself. The guards promptly woke up their centurion and the elders, who were keeping watch nearby, according to the text. (Peter shows he has a keen sense of the absurd here.) While all of them are watching, an interesting procession comes forth from the tomb--the two men who had come down from the sky, another man, and a cross. The first two men were now so tall that their heads just brushed the sky itself, while the third man is even taller--his head is higher than the sky. A voice overhead asks, "Have you spoken with those who are asleep?" The cross takes it upon itself to answer this question in the affirmative. At this point the witnesses debate among themselves whether to tell Pilate or not, and decide that they should. While still another guy comes down from the sky and into the tomb, the guards, centurion, and elders all go and call upon Pilate. Pilate takes the news rather well, all things considered. "Well, it was your idea to execute the guy, not mine," he observes to the elders, and then orders everybody to say nothing to anybody about the whole affair.

Which, of course, brings up the obvious question, how did Peter know about it. Was he a direct witness to the supernatural goings-on? Well, not really. "But we, the Lord's twelve disciples, cried and felt sad. Each of us, feeling bad about what had happened, went home." We may suppose, I imagine, that one of the witnesses told Peter about the strange events in spite of Pilate's order. (I don't suppose it was at all likely that Pilate would be Peter's source.) But Peter doesn't tell us, at least not in the extant text of the fragment.

Of course modern scholars don't believe that Peter wrote this gospel any more than they believe that he wrote the two letters or the "preaching" put out in his name. (And if I'm any judge of style we're looking at three or four different authors here at least. Still Peter must have been a busy man, what with opposing Simon Magus and being the cornerstone of the church and all, and maybe he just hired scribes to write his gospel and letters and preaching and so on...) But this is the only available account that claims to have been written by somebody who was there, and that gives a picture of where the information may have come from. In fact, as far as I can tell, it is the closest thing we have of an account of the resurrection. It certainly gives the impression that there were some pretty strange goings-on that Saturday night in Jerusalem.

What about the other gospels? Thomas never tells us anything about the resurrection as such; Mark ends with the discovery that Jesus' tomb is empty. For the rest--John, Matthew, that strange piece from an unknown gospel tacked onto the end of Mark, and so on--they skip the resurrection altogether and get straight on to the various appearances of the Lord, whose animated corpse has returned zombie-like from the dead. "Handle me and see," it said, "that I am not a bodiless demon." At least one of the disciples took it up on the deal and checked to see that the corpse itself was in fact present, and that this wasn't some bizarre dream. Even the wounds were still fresh. It's a grisly picture, and I personally have never felt comfortable reading about the situation until the reanimated body finally flies off into the sky. The Holy Ghost may be a bit spooky, what with the snake-handling and talking in tongues and all--but it's downright friendly compared to zombie-Jesus.

But all's quiet on Holy Saturday. We probably needed a break. I know I did.

06 April 2007

Understanding is a Virtue Hard to Come By

When I was a child I had a 45 player in a red case my father built for me. The record-player died at some point, and my father gave me an FM receiver to replace it. Now in those days FM was unheard of, a sort of cultural wasteland inhabited by religious fanatics, right-wing politicians, and aficionados of obscure music. My station--the one I listened to--played "classical" music. Symphonies, operas, and sometimes jazz. My favorite program was a request show that ran every weeknight from midnight to six in the morning and was called something like "Music out of the Night." "It's midnight here in the City of Roses and lights are going out one by one as a busy populace lays aside the cares of the day and welcomes the stillness of the night." Ken Nordine's Word Jazz, Tchaikovsky's Seventh Symphony, electronica from the Columbia-Princeton synthesizer project, Bach played as written on the instruments the music was actually composed for. Amazing stuff. All kinds of music.

While KPFM was wall-to-wall music most of the time, Sunday was the exception. In the morning came some sort of horrible religious program, or rather several of them in a row, and at ten at night it went off the air for routine maintenance, something I was very familiar with as my father did the same thing for another station. That's when I started tuning across the dial looking for whatever was on.

There were only two FM stations on those bleak Sunday nights, and both were religious. I ended up listening to all sorts of crazy people. One of them was Billy Graham, whose program sent me into hysterical laughter, especially his ritualistic ending, "May the Lord bless you--real good." The fake folksiness of that fatuity fascinated me, as did Garner Ted Armstrong's determined denial of the real world. But mostly I listened to evangelists more obscure and less coherent than these characters.

One night that sticks in my mind--a Sunday night I assume, though at this point anything is possible, memory being what it is--I was listening to this one character on the radio. I don't remember his name, or the name of his show, or his denomination, or much of anything else about him of that sort. He had a kind of Prairie Home Companion feel about him that I enjoyed, often telling stories of this strange backwoods place he'd grown up in, I think in the mountains of Kentucky. Whatever the name of the town was it appeared to have been inhabited entirely by quaint colorful icons of Americana, all of whom read the Bible and played checkers at the local store. Or something like that.

Anyway, it seems that they used to have Bible discussions around the checkerboard, in which particular passages would be thrown out for general comment. There was one fellow there, an old pastor, who sat in the shadows listening, but never contributing. Everybody else was voluble in his opinion, expressing himself at great length and supporting his claims with other passages from scripture, and no doubt those quaint country metaphors we've come to expect from backwoodsy places. On one occasion the discussion became quite heated. Opinions were flying back and forth like barn swallows on a cold October morning. Finally one guy turned to the old pastor and asked him, "Sir, how do you understand this passage?" The old pastor slowly drew himself up to his full height and then said, "Son, I don't understand the Bible. I believe it."

That was it. That was the punchline of this particular story. We should be like the old pastor, believing the Bible without understanding it. In striving to understand something, it seems, we inevitably twist and bend the text to our own preconceptions. Only by avoiding the pitfall of understanding scripture could we embrace its truth and really believe it.

Now this guy may have been making some profound theological point, or expounding a bold paradox, or whatever. I don't know. What I got out of it was more like These radio evangelists have all got a screw or two loose. And some more than others.

Belief without understanding. Yes, "The more people know about what is happening," observed Chinese sage Lao Tse, "the harder it is to control them." Of course it figures that Lao Tse felt the government's job was to keep the people in the dark and feed them bullshit. Ruling class propaganda. Wouldn't the pastor's job be so much simpler if only people didn't question him about all this old gibberish written, as the Reverend Me used to say, by a bunch of babbling barbarians two or three thousand years ago. Believe the bible, stay in school, respect your teachers, even though they be turkeys. Know what to kiss, and when. Remember that two wrongs don't make a right, but three do. What I tell you three times is true.

Okay, I may be veering a bit here, but the question jumps out at me--how in hell can you believe something you don't understand? First comes understanding, and only then can you know whether something is believable or not. Right?

Or maybe not. When you're trying to believe the impossible, maybe understanding does get in the way of belief. Like the White Queen says, it takes practice. If you can believe six impossible things before breakfast, then who knows what you can manage to believe after lunch. It's the perfect training for a nation of dupes; though maybe not so great for a nation of informed citizens in a democracy.
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