Sunday, January 17, 2016

Why the Christian Head Covering Movement is Wrong

I’ve been coming more and more across videos like this.

They advocate restoring the New Testament cultural practice of head covering.  The fact that this whole discussion is even necessary is probably evidence that most theologians and pastors don’t really take their lip service to interpret the Bible in its context seriously or have even been trained by their seminary to know what that would look like.  I don’t care what Wayne Grudem’s Systematic says or what interpretation some sage pastor thinks God laid on his heart.  You actually need to consult linguistic databases and Second Temple Jewish literature to know what's going on here.

Frankly, we know why women were expected to cover their hair in the first century.  Hair was scientifically considered an erotic organ.  We have medical texts which explicitly explain the mechanics of this.  The language of these texts highly corresponds with Paul’s language.  The throwaway, “because of the angels” line fits like a glove with Second-Temple literature on this interpretation (the New Testament authors took hyper-supernatural traditions like Enoch a lot more seriously than we do), and it perfectly explains why Paul thought nature dictated women ought to have long hair and men short hair.  Troy Martin’s article in the Journal of Biblical Literature is a good place to get acquainted with the context I’m talking about. “Paul’s Argument from the veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering.” JBL 123/1, (2004), 75-84. (Thanks to Michael Heiser for making it available online.)

But why would God allow Paul to defend bad science?

Imagine you are an ancient Corinthian.  You and all your pagan neighbors in the Las Vegas of the ancient world think that female hair is literally an extension of genitalia (thanks Aristotle)—that there is a one-to-one correspondence with hair length and feminine fecundity in your culture’s science.   Because of this belief, your educated culture has wisely instituted head coverings for women as an expression of sexual modesty.

Imagine then, some guy Paul comes to your hyper-sexualized culture and some new God you’ve never heard of called the Holy Spirit gives him a divine science lesson.  Paul then runs around telling his church not to care about covering the genitalia on their head because it’s bad science.  Now you have a church exposing what all their neighbors think are genitalia in the name of the Holy Spirit.

I’m sorry if those “serious exegetical studies” people read by 18th century pastors and Ken Ham books haven't equipped them to incorporate scientific condescension in their understanding of inspiration, but God didn’t care to give David a divine physiology lecture in Psalm 16:7 when he praised God for instructing his kidneys (Your translation probably hides that so here's another journal article), and he doesn’t seem to care to do so here.  If your cool theology, Reformed or whatever, forces you to take these things as mere metaphor then your theology prevents you from interpreting the Bible correctly in its context.  Your theology disables you from understanding the Bible.

What’s the take away?

In the English world, giving someone a thumbs-up is a good thing.  In some Arabic countries it is a vulgar symbol—the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger.  It would be morally ok for me to go around flaunting the symbol in one culture and not ok in the other.  Our culture attaches nothing like sexual promiscuity to displaying hair because we don’t have the complex 1st century scientific apparatus that supplied that connotation in the ancient world.  This verse can be taken then as a warning against appearing or being sexually immodest.  All this applies to hair length on the interpretation I’ve offered too.  The form may not translate to our culture but the meaning does.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Eth-Cepher: A Wacky New “Translation”

A friend of mine who just got back from an archaeological dig in Israel and is studying Semitic languages at Rutgers sent me a link to this errr…“translation” as a joke. It's by a guy named Pidgeon.
From Pidgeon's website

The Hebrew word ETH means 'divine'?

The front page of Pidgeon’s website asserts that his is the only English translation in the universe that renders the Hebrew word את. We read:

“The Hebrew word את (eth in English) means divine, and the Hebrew word ספר (cepher in English) means book; hence, the את Eth-CEPHER is the ‘Divine Book.’”

Sorry boys and girls, the Hebrew word את doesn’t get translated because it’s the Hebrew accusative marker.  It’s the most common independent word in the Hebrew language. To translate it as ‘divine’ is goofy.  Want proof?  Here ya go:

Ezekiel 4:15:
"Then he said to me, ‘See, I assign to you את cow's dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread’

If eth means ‘divine’ then cow excrement is divine in Ezekiel 4:15. In Leviticus 11:7 the את is placed before swine, and in Leviticus 15:3 Pidgeon’s claim would render a plague on the skin being inspected for leprosy divine:

“and the priest shall examine the את diseased area on the skin of his body.”

Pictographic Silliness:

Skin diseases, swine and cow droppings! Most objects in the Bible that function in the accusative can thus be translated with the adjective ‘divine’ if Pidgeon is serious about this claim.  But on what basis does he assert it?  He horoscopes the idea outta the original pictographs on which paleo-Hebrew was derived.  This method (which is so popular on the internet) is so subjective that you can literally create any new meaning you want for a Hebrew word.  You might as well break out the tarot cards and ouija board if you are going to be using this chart to interpret the “real” meanings of words in your Bible. Sorry everyone, Semitic philology is a much less sexy process.

Let me be emphatic.  You CANNOT derive meanings from the pictographic origins of Biblical Hebrew anymore than you can with words in modern English.  The Hebrew language developed independent of the Phoenician alphabet system and merely adopted it to represent the sounds of their already existing language.  The Israelites attached no significance to the ancient derivatives of their alphabet anymore than we or the Greeks did. To misunderstand this is to demonstrate a profound ignorance of how Israelite chronology and language-in-general works.

In the words of Michael Brown, who has a PhD in Semitic languages from New York University: “…we have no business attaching pictographic meanings to ancient Hebrew [anymore] than we have attaching those same pictographic meanings to the Greek alphabet or to our English alphabet.” 

Revelation was written in Hebrew?

Totally off-topic, but apparently this stands in the Holy city. My
Southern theology professor comments, "I didn't know the
temple still stood in Jerusalem."
Pidgeon also translates eth as ‘divine’ as an elaboration of the claim that Revelation was originally written in Hebrew.  What evidence does he give that Revelation was composed in Hebrew?  Well, John does give the Hebrew names of some places in the book.

I don’t know of a single New Testament scholar on earth holding a university chair who defends the idea. (Revelation is highly dependent on the Greek Septuagint.)  By the same logic, we could say that Josephus must have originally written his Antiquities in Hebrew since he transliterates it on occasion. (He was commissioned by Greek speaking gentiles.)  This argument is a hopeless mess of a non-sequitur.

All that Sacred Name stuff:

At 4-4:45 in his video he tells us when Jesus said, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me” that he was referring to the inability of the Jews to pronounce a set of vowels and consonants.  Anyone who turns to John 5 will quickly see that Jesus was not referring in that passage to the morphological reconstruction of the Hebrew name for God.  He was referring, rather, to the fact that the Jews wanted to kill him because he was claiming the authority of God.

I don’t know how far Pigeon takes this name theology.  Some messianic types can go so far that they court a different gospel with it. (I.e. they literally teach that you have to be vocalizing a certain set of sounds to really be worshiping God.) But, I want to impress on the reader that it is almost totally unimportant.  I’ve spent years taking formal college courses in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.  I’m not saying the languages aren’t important.

What I am saying is the New Testament authors didn’t even feel the need to ostentatiously transliterate the Hebrew names for God.  They simply use the word theos—the same word used to refer to the members of the Greek pantheon. When it came to Jesus, they didn’t obnoxiously spell out YAHUSHUA or anything of the sort.  They just threw down a common Hesus and called it a day.  When Jesus prayed he called God Elah in Aramaic. *gasp* sounds Islamic!

Moral of the story: don’t run around trying to be holier than the Bible, transliterating everything needlessly into Hebrew.  It can get annoying.  God cares about whether we are receiving the content the language conveys, not the arbitrary set of sounds we vocalize it in.  If you constantly interchange common Biblical names with Hebrew where English would function just as well, you aren't communicating. You're self-advertising how smart you think you are, and you're trying to be more Biblical than the Bible.

Issues of Canon:

Someone might complain if I don't mention the canon. There are serious problems, but I’m honestly not that initially concerned with people reading extra-Biblical literature.  I don’t think Enoch or Maccabees should be canonized, but I’m also annoyed that Protestants are scared of them.


Hopefully that’s enough to show anyone passing along that the Et Cepher isn’t real scholarship.  If you want a really good translation of a book like Genesis, I highly recommend Robert Alter. (He’s professor of Hebrew at Berkeley.)  It’s by far the best I have ever seen in the English language, and the clever nuances he is able to bring out of the text are a joy to read.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Isaiah's 'circle of the earth'- A bad creationist argument

Isaiah 40:22
"It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers..."

I think it would be really cool if the above verse was a supernatural scientific revelation that set Israel apart from the rest of the ancient word with respect to cosmology.  My whole life I've grown up hearing evangelicals repeat it as proof that the Bible is inspired, and a few years ago my PhD theology professor cited it to our class as a proof for the Bible's divine origin.

The physicist Jason Lisle at Answers in Genesis loves to propagate the idea

In reality, this is lazy folk apologetics and needs a spanking. There is nothing scientifically special about this passage, because we have plenty of pagan Ancient Near Eastern depictions which describe the earth as a circle.  I'm sorry if that kills people's apologetics joyride, but God doesn't need us making up stupid arguments from unchecked, sloppy assumptions to defend him.  If you're interested in that sort of thing, go join the Mormons.

Answers in Marduk:

The Babylonian map of the world depicts the earth as a round, flat disc encircled by the sea, from mythological sources far predating Isaiah.  I guess Marduk appeared to the Babylonian priesthood and informed them the earth is a circle too, Dr. Lisle?

I’ll plunder Paul H. Seely’s Westminster Theological Journalarticle (1997) for a few more examples: 
“Diodorus Siculus (II:31:7) tells us that the Babylonians told him the earth is ‘shaped like a boat and hollow.’ The boat is undoubtedly a coracle, used into modern times by natives on the Euphrates. The coracle is circular, rounded at the edges like the yolk of an egg, but, of course, hollow.”
Kramer and Lambert believe the Babylonians inherited this idea from Sumer

Egyptologist, John Wilson says the Egyptians believed the
“earth was conceived of as a flat platter with a corrugated rim. The inside bottom of the platter was the flat alluvial plain of Egypt, and the corrugated rim was the rim of mountains which were the foreign lands."
Othmar Keel, “noting that the ocean around the earth was long conceived of by the Egyptians as circular, concluded…:
'This fact suggests that in Egypt, visualization of the earth as a circular disc was from very ancient times at least an option.’ This conclusion is supported by evidence, as early as the fourteenth century BC, of circular representations of the figure of Osiris or Geb [the earth god].'”
In “the time of Rameses III (1195-1164 BC) in an inscription…reads ‘...they laid their hands upon the land as far as the Circle of the Earth.’”

In addition to these types of examples, in ancient Greece we have Homer and over half-a-dozen philosophers arguing the earth is a flat disc down until 400 BC.  “Herodotus (c. 400 BC) uniformly rendered the earth just as Homer had described it, as a disc.” He writes (4:36),
…all the map-makers—there are plenty of them--who show Ocean running like a river round a perfectly circular earth, with Asia and Europe of the same size. 


You can easily go all over the world finding these examples.  Because of the curvature of the horizon, it is very natural (if not most natural) for pre-scientific people groups to assume the earth is a disc.  If the Bible contains scientific revelations beyond the culture around it, this verse can't be used as an example.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

No, Isaiah 45:7 doesn't say God creates evil

This will be short.

Adam Lee, an atheist at pathos thinks Isaiah 45:7 shows point-blank that the Biblical God creates evil. I don’t have a theological pony in this race since the Bible says all sorts of things that embarrass the tidy theologies of modern believers, and I agree translators are often guilty of trying to protect people from their Bible. But, I’m on the other side of three years of Hebrew, and I’m going to explain why I and professional translators can't give Adam’s pitch the light of day.

I form light and create darkness
I make peace, and I create ra'

יֹוצֵר אֹור וּבֹורֵא חֹשֶׁךְ
עֹשֶׂה שָׁלֹום וּבֹורֵא רָע

Usually, that last word ra' is the common word for evil in Hebrew.  Adam cites a bunch of other uses to prove this—no problem there.  The problem is the word ra' is one of the most frequent words in the Bible and can be elastic in meaning in something of the same way the English word ‘bad’ can be.

The primary reason translators don’t buy Adam’s argument is that it destroys the structure of opposites in the poem:

Line one: I create light/I create darkness
Line two: I create shalom/I create ______.

Transport yourself back to 3rd grade context clue worksheets.  What English word should go in the blank for the poetic structure of the unit to be retained?  Think about it before reading further

If you put anything like ‘wickedness’ in the blank you fail 3rd grade.  No sticker for you!  Hit yourself with a newspaper; Bad!

The meaning of ra' here is 'anti-shalom'. Whatever shalom is, ra' here is the opposite in the same since light is the opposite of darkness.

We have good words for anti-peace in English: “calamity,” “strife”…you know, those words most translators put here.  

Actually, and this is probably the only time I will ever say this in my life, the Message translation of “I create harmonies and discords” is somewhat of a clever and borderline perceptive assertion about the nature of shalom.

The idea in this passage is that God is comprehensive in his power. He has the power to create peace and the power to dish out righteous judgement on the nations (what most of Isaiah is about--rocket science, huh).  These judgments are definitely the opposite of peace.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

How Biblical Worship is like Hearing a Good Ghost Story - Part 2

Part 1 here

Line drawings depicting various ancient Near Eastern divine beings.

A Strange Encounter

A woman approached him sheepishly after he delivered his talk in a church in Seattle. She asked if she could speak with him in private about something bizarre she had seen during the talk. Hesitantly, she reported that for half an hour she had clearly seen three angels surrounding him as he spoke--one to his left, one at his right and one of larger stature behind him.

J. P. Moreland, the professional philosopher who happened to be involved with my Biola program, reports this experience occurring to him in October of 2004.  He had flown in to speak for a weekend retreat at a noncharismatic traditional church:
"When she left, I asked four or five people, including the pastor, to tell me about the woman, and to a person they said she was probably the most spiritually mature woman in the congregation.  Still, I was skeptical of her claim, but I retained her testimony in my heart."[1]
Moreland returned the next few days back to his home in southern California and says he never mentioned this event to anyone. Fast-forward eleven months later in 2005. While praying on his bed one night over burdens in his life, Moreland asked God if He would send the three angels back, requesting that he might be shown them in order to be comforted.  It was the first time he had ever prayed such a thing.  He told no one about this prayer request, but within a few days he received the shock of his life:
"I received an e-mail (which I kept) from a philosophy graduate student named Mark who was taking a metaphysics class with me that semester.  Mark began saying that he had wanted to share something with me for a few days, but he wanted to process it with two or three other graduate students before he did. 
It turns out that a few days earlier during one of my lectures, he had seen three angels standing in the room (one on each side, a taller one behind me) for five to ten minutes before they disappeared!  I asked Mark to come to my office, and a few days later we talked further...[H]e began by saying that he would never want to say anything to me that he wasn't sure of, and he knew that the angels were next to me in the room and not in his head.  In fact, he gave me a sketch he had drawn from his angle of perception in the class, a sketch of me and the angels (which I kept)."[2]
When he was asked if Mark could have known about his previous angel encounter, Moreland responded that "there was no way this guy [Mark] could have known anything about that."[3]

Numinous Fear

If the spiritual visitors in this story managed to get any sort of emotional rise out of you, it was likely as sort of goosebumps awe.  In part 1, we saw that human beings possess a strange, dreadful awe of the Numinous.

For example, If you saw a ghost, you would feel fear and dread.  Like C. S. Lewis observed, that fear would not be grounded in natural, physical danger, since no one is primarily scared of what a ghost is going to do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost!  We also saw that this creeping flesh or Numinous fear feeling can be found in heightened expression in all religions since religion involves the worship of great spirits.

Why the Mere Existence of Numinous Fear is an Argument For the Supernatural

C. S. Lewis, himself a huge fan of Rudolf Otto, explained why this emotion is so special:
This Numinous [fear] is [not] already contained in the idea of the dangerous…[and no] perception of danger or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them.  When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.[4]
Because the feeling of creeping-flesh fear does not arise from an aversion to physical danger, it’s inexplicable within a purely mechanistic scheme how man should have ever come to possess it—that is, how we should have ever come to be capable of a fear, the object of which, cannot be an elaboration of physical reality or physical preservation.

Most materialistic accounts of numinous dread thoughtlessly attempt to smuggle awe into the idea of physical danger; they presuppose what they are claiming to explain.  Scientist presuppose that fear of gods, angels and the dead is grounded in physical preservation, but if you consult your experience you know that physical attention to your body would not be your primary concern if you had encountered such a being. In that way, it is in a totally other dimension from an encounter with a lion, your boss or a rise in prices.

Unless we are to conclude Numinous dread is a freak emotional capacity in man which has managed to develop despite having no correspondence with the facts of reality, it seems inescapable that the religious mind of man has veins drawing life from something lurking beyond the natural, and it is the very fact that you are even capable of this emotion which whispers of at least one thing engraved in us which metaphysical materialism never can satisfy by definition.

I'm taking a lighthearted jab here at philosophers like Alain de Botton.  It seems their attempts to create a "religious atheism," as clever as they may be, will always fail to satisfy at least one universal and powerful dimension of human expression.

The "Man-Creates-God-in-his-Image" Objection:

If what I have observed so far lands in the ballpark of truth then we can infer from it that there is a very common belief held about the nature and origin of religion which seems false.  Xenophanes is famous for his saying that if oxen could paint, they would depict their gods as oxen.  


Surely, it is true that man is often compelled to depict his gods with human characteristics simply because human beings are the highest expression of personality that we may look to as a reference in nature. But, in the sense that the statement implies humans created the gods, and later God, merely from a desire to project what was familiar to us, Xenophanes’s claim seems false. The gods do not emerge from the familiar but the Strange.

Probably the majority of gods in history are described, as intentionally uncanny (strange or mysterious in an unsettling way) to express this. I named examples in the last post, but it is worth considering more. In Hinduism this uncanniness is conveyed through the multiplying of heads, arms, strange colors, fascinating eyes, tongues and grafted animal parts.  Again, look at Arjuna’s encounter with the transfigured Krishna. The flavor may remind you of John's vision of Jesus in Revelation 1:14-17:

"Your great form of many mouths and eyes, oh great-armed one, of many arms, thighs and feet, of many bellies, terrible with many tusks—seeing it the worlds are shaken, and I too…seeing you my inner self is shaken, and I find no steadiness or peace…Oh Visnu,...of awful form, homage to you.” (source)

Some early explorers mistook the Meso-American gods as Indian in origin. They abound in ghastly skeletal chthonic deities, fantastically spliced animals with shadowy human visages.  The fascinating gaze of the serpent enchants heavily here and it is curiously difficult to find a culture in the world where serpents are not referenced in expressing the uncanny. 
Israelite seraph seals:  Benjamin Sommer points
out that number 273, shown with two serpents
 flanking the symbol for God, states it belonged to
Ashna in King Ahaz's court.  "It is inconceivable
that Isaiah and Ashna did not know each other."

In Egyptian religion our torch light flickers again on fantastic animal-headed deities cloaked in esoteric hieroglyphs; in Israelite religion we see the snake-bodied Seraphim and the four-headed Cherubim.  The Biblical authors usually appeal to anthropomorphic theophanies when describing visions of their God, but we are assured no man may behold His true glory and live.

Credit: מוזיאון ישראל ירושלים these 9,000 year old masks discovered in
Israel are the oldest in the world.  It is speculated they represent
spirits of the dead.
In the Ancient Near East we encounter the fish-man Dagan, the world's oldest masks--ten eerie faces exhumed from the Judean desert, the winged bull-men of Babylon and multiform deities star-sprayed in eyes.

I have read within Lafcadio Hearn’s accounts of old Japan that the Far East is no exception, but excels in pervasiveness of strangeness with its ancient gods, goblins and ghosts.

Though many citations in Greek literature would support a numinous experience, if the Greek, Norse or Roman gods were, for the most part, merely familiar projections of man, then they seem exceptions in the history of religions; but even this seems unlikely.  Otto argued that whenever the Greek gods became all too human in their familiarity belief in them waned, creating a vacuum quickly filled by the exotic deities of the East and Egypt in which Numinous strangeness was more palpable.[5]

Perhaps the domestication of the Greek pantheon was not the height of religious achievement it is classically interpreted to be, but the very indication of Greece’s waning religious vitality.

Conclusion: The Numinous and us

It appears to me this Numinous dread I have been describing is hidden from (or by) American Evangelicalism.  Gene Veith at Pathos agrees, and I strongly suspect this is obvious to others.  We have comparably little art or music, worship or interpretation which expresses it. I can even remember one of my first theology professors marking down one of my papers once for stating that the fear of God is something one ought to continue feeling post-justification.

Do you think, like the Greek pantheon, our angels are too Victorian, our demons too vestigial, our seraphim and the seventy בני האלהים (i.e. sons of God) too obscured from their Israelite origins? Do you suppose we demythologized our God too much when we were domesticating Him?


[1] This story is recounted by Moreland in his co-authored book In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God (USA: InterVarsity, 2008), 155-6.
[2] Ibid., 156.
[3] Taken from this interview with Moreland:
[4] Lewis, The Problem of Pain: How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 20.
[5] Quoted by Todd A. Gooch, The Numinous and Modernity: An Interpretation of Rudolf Otto’s Philosophy of Religion (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000), 116.

Monday, August 17, 2015

How Biblical Worship is like Hearing a Good Ghost Story - Part 1

  The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall first published
in 1936
What is the Worship-Dread Paradox?

Imagine you were a duckling raised your whole life without ever being allowed to see a body of water larger than a little drinking cup.  Imagine drinking then rolling around in the remaining teaspoons of water.  You occasionally look at your webbed feet and are struck by their strangeness. Also, you feel a deep but unknown longing for something beyond your ducky matrix.

There’s a colossal mystery of religion.  It’s not a mystery because it’s difficult to understand since most cultures and people in history have assumed it's a thing natural to humanity and self-evident.  It’s mysterious in the sense that our modern prejudices have hidden it from us, making us like the caged duck. 

The mystery is this: Certainly the Biblical authors felt love towards their God, but their experience of God was accompanied by other, seemingly contradictory emotions—terror and dread.

The Biblical Examples:

Jacob, arising from his night vision of celestial immortals calls the 'house of God' (נורא) ‘dreadful’; Moses ‘hid his face’ in fear before the ineffable desert flame; Ezekiel, at the shore of the Kebar, sees the wheels and cherubim star-sprayed with eyes and describes their height as 'frightful.'

Grab a modern translation of the Psalms and you'll see the translators themselves are often guilty of trying to protect you from the worship-dread paradox:  In Psalm 47, the translators tell us God is “awesome” or “wonderful” in his sanctuary. Awesome is an ok translation in its fossilized etymology, but not in its evolved modern connotation (expressed in such specimen phrases as, “That selfie was awesome”).  The real meaning of the term in passages like Psalm 47 is ‘terrible’ (ירא), signifying fear.

The Psalmists constantly praise God as ‘terrible’ (יהוה עליון נורא).

The paradox isn't just in those weird, Israelite-y Old Testament passages either. (Ok, so the New Testament is actually no less weird or Jewish, but I'm trying to work the "all things to all people" angle here.) John, witnessing the Lord on his throne writes, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not.’”(--That's white Evangelical approved, post-Alexander, straight up New Covenant stuff!)

The Bible Slaps Down our Expectations

Why is it that men who were giants in their affection for God did not, as our contemporary music wants them to, dance, shout, or sing “I’m H-A-P-P-Y” in God’s immediate presence? Did the author of Revelation believe the gospel? Then why was he terrified of Jesus? Why was his reaction before the enthroned Christ practically the opposite of what we would have told him it should have been? The secret to unraveling this curiosity, I believe, can be discovered by taking a field trip to a haunted house for the night, so hop on board the magic school bus.

How Ghost Stories Solve the Paradox

I'm not here to discuss a Biblical view of ghosts.  If you want that here's the best series you'll ever read on the subject by a Biblical languages expert. (Turns out it's more complicated than your Sunday school teacher made it seem.) I'm interested strictly in the feelings ghost stories give us as a thought experiment.

Imagine your spouse has died.  In keeping with the grand, odd thing that is the western mortuary tradition, everyone lowers (let's go with 'her') expensive lacquer casket into the ground and heads back to the church for potato salad. You find yourself returning home, and soon, in your bed, alone.  Waking at 2:00 AM, with the smoke of dreams hanging in your mind, you leave the room for a glass of water. 

Returning to your bedroom, slowly, you open the door. But there, in the black window you see a flicker of pale contrast. Your eyes adjusting now, it is a hanging form, with hair falling and white-washed eyes spying languidly through the glass at the bed she has joined you in for so many years.  Slowly, the misty specter pivots her wan face towards the doorway—towards you.

Now, it cannot be doubted that you loved your wife and still do, as when Odysseus tried pitifully to hug the phantasmal shade of his dead mother. But, despite whatever pleasant feelings of affection this event would spark in you, what you would most heavily feel in this moment is fear (and maybe a moistness in your knickers).  Fear, but of a very strange sort.

Imagine you had returned to the room and found a silverback gorilla on your bed waving a loaded automatic assault rifle in the air instead of the ghost. You would experience what we will call natural fear.  Natural fear is the most common sort of fear.  It is that familiar concatenation of feeling which has as its object physical harm—like hearing a snake’s rattle, the half-second before you realize you are having a car wreck, or turning on the television and seeing Donald Trump's face. 

Sorry, you had to see that. Hold on to any creeped-out
feelings. You'll need them for the dissection
in a moment. (By the way, she's behind you.)

C. S. Lewis, who I'm shamelessly plundering here, observed that if anything is certain, it is that the fear of the spirit was something distinct from natural fear. “For, no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost will [physically] do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost[!]”—a being from the non-human realm.[1]

What is Creeping-Flesh Fear?

Your “fear” of a ghost is not of the natural sort, but of the creeping-flesh sort. Eliphaz’s description in Job of this dreadful awe is quaintly familiar despite having journeyed to us across thousands of years from an alien culture in a desert tongue:
“In thoughts from the vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me, and trembling . . . a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up (תסמר שערת בשרי).”
The truly curious thing is that these two distinct emotions of natural and creeping-flesh fear are not elaborations of the other in anyway.  That this is certain, your own experience will assure you.  Imagine you had stepped into your bedroom and found ten silverback gorillas dancing wildly with loaded assault rifles on your bed. (If you wish, multiply the terror even further by imagining they're all wearing Donald Trump masks.) Would your natural fear have gained or lost a single centimeter towards inspiring the goosebumps and awe-full dread of witnessing the ghost? Rudolf Otto, the creative German thinker and early explorer of religion  expressed it this way:

The distinction between such a ‘dread’ and natural fear is not simply one of degree and intensity.  The awe or ‘dread’ may indeed be so overwhelmingly great that it seems to penetrate to the very marrow, making the man’s hair bristle and his limbs quake.  But it may also steal upon him almost unobserved as the gentlest of agitations, a mere fleeting shadow passing across his mood. It has therefore nothing to do with intensity, and no natural fear passes over into it merely by being intensified.[2]

Though, both may occasionally be excited at the same time in your mind, the two principal objects which excite the two fears repel like oil and water.  The first has as its object physical danger, the second is produced only as a reaction to the perceived haunting of someone from a spiritual address.

I'm Actually Going Somewhere with this, really

No, I'm not saying that feeling a ghost is equivalent to feeling God. I'm saying feeling God stands in relation to feeling the ghost something like the feeling of a lake stands in relation to the duck's feeling its little drinking cup.

Encountering a mere ghost-spirit is terrifying simply because it is from the non-human realm, consider then that whatever religion is, it is agreed to involve the encountering of great spirits from that realm.

I’m implying that once you have grasped the ghost you are at the fringes of the temple veil whose dark passage leads into the uncanny emotion haunting and unifying all religions.  Its object is the Numinous, that lurking of divinity which invokes a trinity of terror, mystery and fascination.

Examples of the Paradox among the Gods of Ancient Religions

Anyone who is acquainted with the world’s religions will know that the awe inspired by the Numinous extends to those worshiped spirits. The “separateness” or “otherness” of these beings is retained in the iridescence of the original etymology of the Hebrew word we translate as holy, קדוש. They are that category of beings circumscribed by the ancient Hebrew word elohim.[3]

“Do not be afraid!” is often the obligatory introduction to an angel’s appearing before a mortal, and Lewis cites the feeling in its higher expression in Malory's tale of the holy grail--Galahad’s trembling when “[mortal] flesh began to behold the spiritual things”; we encounter it plainly in Virgil’s palace of Latinus, described as, “awful (horrendum) with woods and sanctity (religione) of elder days,” and a Geek fragment tells of the earth, sea, and mountains shaking beneath the “dread eye of their Master” [4].

The Asaro Mudmen dress as forest spirits and prowl their
boarders at night. By doing this, they convince their
neighboring enemies never to invade their land.
If one is interested in anthropological curiosities, it is the type of fear which the Asaro Mudmen of New Guinea have learned to channel against their enemies, and I am also reminded in Hindu literature of Arjuna standing before the terrible transfigured Krishna. We are told Arjuna begged him to return to his common form and “was overwhelmed with wonder, and every hair was raised on end.”

Musical Examples

I know of several examples of this feeling expressed in music. I’ve clipped two here into sound bites.  The first is from an album entitled Mystery of the Yeti.  The artists who created it were Hindu influenced mystics with strong penchants for hallucinogenic drugs.  As misguided as their approach was, we shouldn't be too proud to sympathize with what they were pursuing.

In the album, they tell of a legend that the Yeti is a numinous god accessible through trance then paint a divine encounter with the being through sound.  The second example is from the first track in Shai Linne’s album The Attributes of God.  After being read one of Moses’s encounters with God, one drifts to imagining the desert and a foreboding holy presence:

(If you know of other examples of the Numinous in music please share them in the comments.)


So, we have a distinct and unique category of feeling that corresponds with the supernatural.  This feeling is something different from natural fear and appears in most ancient religions and especially the Bible.  One might say that the world's religions are attempts to interface with this emotion in its higher form.

This is just where the fun begins.  In part 2 we'll see why the mere existence of this feeling is a powerful philosophical argument that the divine exists.  We will respond to the mainstream naturalistic explanation of religion and asks where the heck this emotion has gone within contemporary Evangelicalism(!).  If weather permits we may even share an angel story or two and saunter around in some Mayan temples.

[1] The Problem of Pain: How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 17.
[2] The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 16
[3] Contrary to what is often said, the word elohim did not just refer to a god in Biblical literature.  There are five beings which are called Elohim in scripture: angels, demons, the disembodied human dead, the 70 sons of God and YHWH, the God of Israel.  Dr. Heiser has pointed out that what all these beings share in common is that they belong to the non-human realm.  An Elohim then is simply any being which has a spiritual address.
[4] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 18-19.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How Fact and Opinion Worksheets Corrupt Children: Plato Flunks Common Core

I'm uncaging the philosopher in me to let him prance around a bit.  I promise to tranq him in the neck and shove him back in his cage to return to the serious business of writing on something terribly importantly serious like Babylonian entrail extispicy for you dismal theology and history majors that usually read this blog.

What are “Fact and Opinion” worksheets?
If Plato, Socrates or Aristotle took these tests, they'd flunk. De facto, they’re epistemological catechisms enforced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core. They usually teach a street variety of positivism, a philosophy declared dead by philosophers since the late 1970s.  

What’s positivism?
The drill sheets affirm positivism to the extent that they assume the self-refuting claim that only those things accessible to mathematics and the five senses (i.e. science) can be known.  I say this is self-refuting because such a claim cannot itself be verified by the five senses or mathematics. You will never meet a living professional philosopher who holds the view.

A. J. Ayer, who I’m informed was the Ivan Drago of positivism, reflected after its funeral, "I suppose the most important [defect]...was that nearly all of it was false." And, amusingly, if sociologists like the Jewish-German Edmund Husserl in his Crisis of European Sciences are correct, the philosophy, particularly an extreme form called scientism, happened to coincide with a certain early 1940s German political movement (bit more on that towards the end).

Ok, I’ll humor your dystopian sci-fi plot since you contributed the word extispicy to my vocabulary, but how exactly do these worksheets plunge a soul sucking iron proboscis into the minds of our children?

Students are given worksheets rowed with statements and are asked if those statements are matters of fact or opinion.  A top website, from which I will be drawing my examples, clarifies:
“…I teach students that a fact is any statement that can be proven: ‘there are 10,000 feet in a mile.’ Even though this is incorrect, I teach students that this is still a fact…define a fact as any statement that can be proven true or false…”
In other words, the truth content of the following examples is irrelevant.  Following are categories that educators are teaching yield no knowledge in any way constituting proof or fact—namely, art, human purpose, morality and beauty. (Basically, everything that really matters.)


OPINION: “Popular music today is not as good as it was in the past.”

The answer key informs us sentences of this nature, regardless of truth content, belong to the realm of opinion—that some music cannot in fact be deemed better that other music or, if we were to cite other examples like “The huger games will be a great movie,” that the quality of all art is subjective opinion.  Have the authors really ever considered what this means?

You may not have a personal taste for a band like the Bloodhound Gang and such immortal hit lyrics as “You and me baby ain’t noth’ but mammals So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” but according to this view, one cannot dare assert the lyrics of Keats, Homer or Solomon are in any objective (read: real) sense better than these.  Since music cannot be put in a beaker, you cannot assert the knuckle-dragging superstition that the soaring eternal stillness of John Tavner’s Funeral Canticle is in any real sense better in its aesthetics and artistic content than the stochastic, vomiting of Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrete.

My mind drifts to an account of Rudolf Otto during a stay in Morocco:

It is Sabbath.  You find yourself in a grimy small apartment within the ancient city, sacred night falling.  In the street outside you hear the lifting of uncanny, ancient tongues, cantillating in style resembling Islamic chant.  The voices heave and soar, weaving into a pulsing chaos.  It is impossible to distinguish individual words.  Building, like the desperation of Tiamat writhing in her final moments.  Then, in a supernova of terror, the babble crashes into explosive unity: “Qadosh! Qadosh! Qadosh! Adonai ztevaot; melo col ha’arezt kevodo!” (Holy! Holy! Holy! Is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!)

Immediately, you are obliterated into nothing.  If all the mountains of the earth were to consume you, they could not hide your feeling of nakedness, and your terror is not of the common iron-blood sort.  No, it is that rare feeling of creeping flesh that most of us primarily will know from hearing a good ghost story. In this moment your mind holds communion of understanding with those who speak of the gods haunting these antique desert lands, and you have understood Isaiah who cried out “Woe to me! I am undone!”

Thanks for that mawkish theological reverie Ben, but how exactly can a thing like music be objective?

I agree there is room for subjectivity to art, but truth is objective, and does not music aim to teach truth to our guts and chests?  If this is the case for even some music then there must be music that conveys truth accurately and some that does so poorly or lies about truth all together. To this extent, the quality of music and other art is objective.

If it is true all people listen to music from some desire to become unified with the things the music is about, and if music is philosophy felt, and philosophy the pursuit of success—the department of education would have us be unified with all things indiscriminately, since success also is blacklisted as an epistemological phantasm.

OPINION: “The more money someone has the more successful they are.”

We are informed judgments of success like this cannot be proven true or false.  Other examples are easy to find.  The American Library Association tells us the statement, “People should be able to watch as much TV as they want,” is only opinion. But then, this demands that there is no provable chief purpose or end to man by which the actions of his life may be compared in order to call one life objectively more successful or better lived than another.

I work at an airport.  Once my coworker who has five children made the mistake of mentioning to a cargo pilot that she has lots of kids.  The pilot responded by telling her, “That was a stupid choice.  I chose not to have kids, and now I’m a millionaire.” What would you say to this man?  The authors of these worksheets could not take an opinion in the matter.  If they did, their own drill sheets would cry out against them.  They can offer no proof he is less or more successful for aiming his life at acquiring comfort and toys rather than laboring over children because success for them is a standard we each must create subjectively.

Not only does this doctrine declare war against all religions (since religions exist to inform us what truly successful living is), will not the educational ouroboros turn and devour itself?  Why do we send children to school or have them read about Harriet Tubman if there is not some objective standard of greatness we believe they are obligated to strive for? Why should youth steeped in Latin be deemed more successful than youth steeped in Family Guy reruns? (I assure you the latter will be more sociable.) If the aim of government is to promote a successful society, what will become of the society which repudiates the possibility of knowing facts about what success is?


OPINION: “Drug dealers belong in prison.”
OPINION: “Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.”
OPINION: “It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism”

Dr. McBrayer has already spanked these worksheet authors here for teaching children there are no moral facts.  I fear it’s condescending to the reader’s intelligence to elaborate what happens when a nation accepts the idea that there are no knowable laws above men’s laws. It is no coincidence that the Nazis appealed to legal positivism (specifically John Austin’s Command Theory) throughout the Nuremberg trials.  If there exists no universal moral law above men’s laws by which to compare men’s laws then there is no such thing as just law or unjust law, and law can never be said to have improved.  There is only the capricious Athenian mob ladling hemlock-punch into dixy cups for the MLKs, Antigones and Nelson Mandelas it doesn’t like.


OPINION: “The Hudson River is the most beautiful river in New York.”(source)
OPINION: “The ugliest sea creature is the manatee”
OPINION: “Popular music today is not as good as it was in the past.”
OPINION: “The most beautiful state…[is] Missouri.”(source)

“In my young days,” confessed one Sung critic, “I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgment matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.”[1] 

Until modern times, most men treated beauty as if it were something objective.  When I say “objective” I mean that beauty was, for them, located outside of the mind in reality.  It was possible for our emotional reactions to be proper or improper when beholding beauty, and it was possible for us to be right or wrong about what was beautiful [2].  Plato and Plotinus believed beauty existed in the realm of the Forms; a thing was beautiful to the degree that it mimicked this ultimate and perfect standard. Augustine asks whether “things are beautiful because they give pleasure, or give pleasure because they are beautiful.”  He argues the second to be true [3]. For him beauty was ontologically grounded in God: “This is the unchangeable truth which is the law of all the arts…"[4]

On this view of reality, beauty was a target at which we aimed.  We could make bad shots and good shots because the bull’s-eye was the standard.  It is this understanding of beauty that drove Polykleitos to sculpt his ‘Canon’ of the ideal masculine form, and seems the impetus of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man [5]. It was the reason Coleridge could agree with a tourist who called a waterfall sublime while being upset with the other who misidentified it as something closer to “pretty,"[6] and it is the reason I once witnessed a boy spanked by his parents for looking out at the Grand Canyon at sunset and retorting, “It’s just a big stupid hole in the ground!”  Much of our philosophically impoverished education system will have none of this.  It largely trains children to parrot their catechism, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Lewis, who indicted the educators of his day for also teaching beauty is relative, also believed it is the very subtlety of these sorts of exercises which are dangerous:
“The very power of [textbook authors] depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.  It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.”
Ah, invoking a guy who wrote overrated unicorn books.  Why are you throwing a tantrum over the idea beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

When I say “This sequoia forest is beautiful” I am not merely saying something about my subjective emotional state. In fact, the creation of my subjective emotional state itself is founded in my belief that the sequoia forest really is beautiful.  But the Common Core’s metaphysic teaches us the object our emotional state is grounded in is a delusion.  It is as when you believe a ghost is in the room with you and so, it produces the appropriate emotion of terror.  Once you have investigated to discover your belief in the ghost was a delusion, nothing demands your reaction of fear.  You cannot remove the heart and expect blood to keep pumping.  The forest really is not beautiful, and so, when I feel a thing is beautiful that feeling does not correspond with reality; the feeling is a crock! It has lied about what is there in reality.  We have a word for that which only exist “in the eye of the beholder” but not objectively in reality: Hallucination.

Conclusion (from a guy who hates writing conclusions):

These worksheets are, of course, gnomic of a larger problem: Our society, and so, our educational system, largely believes and propagates the idea there is no world beyond Plato’s cave. If art, human purpose, morality and beauty are matters of the heart, then society maniacally stands over us chanting “Kali ma! Kali ma!” as she rummages around in our chest cavity.  But your classroom doesn’t need to be a 1980s-Hollywood human sacrifice scene.  With just a toothpick of philosophy even your children can vanquish the majority of the world’s armies of lobotomized empiricist zombies and their slings and arrows of stupid party lines about opinions being armpits everyone is entitled to and beauty being a delusion in the eye of the beholder.

But most importantly…..

*pulls dart out of neck*


[1] Quoted by Kakuzo Okakura, “Art Appreciation” in The Book of Tea.
[2] See Lewis, The Abolition of Man: or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 25.  See also, Crispin Sartwell, “Beauty.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014), [on-line], accessed 7 April 2014,

[3] Augustine, Earlier Writings, ed. J.H. Burleigh (New York: WJK Publishing, 1953), 255.
[4] Ibid., 254.
[5] Note on Vitruvian and canon sculpture
[6] This story is preserved originally in Dorothy Wordsworth, Recollection of a Tour Made in Scotland A.D. 1803. ed. J. C. Shairp, (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1874), 37.  My interpretation (and translation of the original term “beautiful” to “pretty” for clarification derives from Lewis, Ibid., 14ff.