Is anti-abortion biblical?

bibleNot directly, no. But it arguably aligns well with biblical beliefs.

Chris Heard, a rather strong anti-abortionist, sums it up like this:

“Let me be completely clear and honest: I despise abortion. I think that a biblically-informed valuation of human life leads one in that direction. But I also object to bad exegesis. There is no biblical proof-text against abortion. Deuteronomy 30:19 (“choose life”) has nothing to do with abortion; it has to do with being party to God’s covenant with Israel. Psalm 139:13-18 is less relevant to the issue than most people think; a careful reading of that psalm reveals that the “mother” in whose “womb” the psalmist was known by God is Mother Earth (notice the parallelism between “my mother’s womb” and “the depths of the earth” in the inclusio of vv. 13-15). Exodus 21 is very difficult, but it certainly does not speak directly to abortion; at most, it relates to an accidentally induced miscarriage, though it may refer to a premature birth. That interpretive decision is crucial, and I’m not sure how to resolve it. As far as I can tell, the only biblical passage that I know of that directly mentions a practice like we would think of as abortion curses a man who did not practice it on the fetal Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18).”

Indeed, in the Jeremiah passage the prophet curses the day he was born and laments the fact that he was not aborted — hardly of help to the anti-abortionist cause.

Heard does believe that a biblical case can be made for anti-abortion, but that it would have to be a “cumulative theological case” rather than a direct case based on proof texts. I think he’s probably right (for the record, I’m as pro-choice as they come), and history speaks for itself. The Jews and Christians of antiquity were known for despising infanticide and abortion.

In fact, in the book I recently reviewed, Mohammaed & Charlemagne, Emmet Scott revisits the historical claim that Constantine adopted Christianity, at least in part, to halt the population decline in the Roman empire. As early as the end of the first century, people like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger complained about the problem of childlessness and the common view of children as a burden; baby girls were especially unwanted and discarded. The only groups in the empire that were increasing by normal demographic process were the Christians and the Jews (in no small part because they extended the sanctity of life to children, infants, and the unborn), and Constantine may have been trying to capitalize on this.

Anti-abortion, in other words, is not biblical in the way that homophobia, post-tribulation eschatology, and (NT) pacifism are. It’s more biblical in the way that anti-racism or (NT) separation-of-church and state is. A convincing case can be made for it by building on related biblical ideas, but the platform doesn’t span the bible.

How D&D modules might look in the future

tombThe novel Ready Player One takes place in the year 2044, where virtual reality videogames are the everyday escape from global misery. Earth has become poverty-stricken, with a 1% billionaire class lording it over the rest of humanity, and the OASIS is the globally networked virtual reality where kids attend school online, people hook up in chat rooms, and everyone who is someone is a gamer. The OASIS basically allows people to live exciting lives as powerful avatars in another universe.

By this point in the world’s history tabletop RPGs are a thing of the past, and the main character has difficulty grasping how they even worked. Here’s how he reacts when browsing through the classic 1978 D&D module Tomb of Horrors.

Tomb of Horrors was a think booklet called a “module”. It contained detailed maps and room-by-room descriptions of an underground labyrinth infested with undead monsters. D&D players could explore the labyrinth with their characters as the dungeon master read from the module and guided them through the story it contained, describing everything they saw and encountered along the way.

As I learned more about how these early role-playing games worked, I realized that a D&D module was the equivalent of a quest in the OASIS. And D&D characters were just like avatars. In a way, these old role-playing games had been the first virtual reality simulations, created long before computers were powerful enough to do the job. In those days, if you wanted to escape to another world, you had to create it yourself, using your brain, some paper, pencils, dice, and a few rule books. This realization kind of blew my mind.

One the one hand, I look forward to virtual reality becoming more real-life (the day perhaps is not far off), but frankly, no matter how sophisticated, video reality will never hold a candle to old-fashioned tabletop RPG play. It may be more labor intensive and demand shitloads of prep work and brain power, but that’s the point: nothing beats the power of human imagination.

In the Beginning: The Best of Genesis

No, this isn’t a celebration of Invisible Touch‘s 30th anniversary. Like many Genesis fans, I jumped ship in that fateful year of 1986, when the band went commercial. This is rather a commemoration of everything the band did before. In the ’70s they made some of the best progressive rock of all time, especially in the early part of the decade under the sometimes autocratic leadership of Peter Gabriel.

So here are my personal favorites, ranked in descending order. You won’t find any songs from the last three albums (which are top-40 garbage), nor even from the first two (which are painfully amateurish). That leaves the ten albums from 1971-1983. Click on the right album-icons to hear the music.


The Battle of Epping Forest

1. The Battle of Epping Forest. 1973. That’s right, my favorite Genesis song is the absurdist tale of gang wars inspired by the rival thugs who terrorized parts of London in the sixties. Every song on Selling England by the Pound is a gem, but for some people “The Battle of Epping Forest” is a bit overwrought. Not for me. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Gabriel chewed everything he bit off and shat out a masterpiece of gonzo prog. The other band members were famously aghast at his hyperventilating narrative and they insisted on hacking and trimming, but there was no time for editing, thank the gods. It turns out he really did know what he was doing, and I never tire of listening to this overblown epic.


Turn it on Again

2. Turn it on Again. 1980. There has been endless commentary on the unusual time signature, which no one can even agree on. Is it 13/8 or a to and fro between 6/4 and 7/4? Supposedly you can’t dance to it; people try but end up in clumsy fall offs. But if the rhythmic structure is off-kilter, everyone agrees about the compulsive result. It’s a concert favorite for good reason. The Duke album is based around the character “Albert” who lives in a world of fiction, and in this song it’s the TV; he believes the actors are his real life friends. The song speaks to the way we invent ourselves in imaginary relationships with on-screen characters, while screening off our real-world friends and family. Another song I can listen to anytime.

and then there

Deep in the Motherlode

3. Deep in the Motherlode. 1978. I have more nostalgia for And Then There Were Three than any other rock album. It’s a run of glassy melodies and rhythms, suffused with themes of the American western, and the first Genesis album I bought. “Deep in the Motherlode” was an instant favorite, describing a guy who follows his family’s advice to “go west young man” and chase the Nevada gold rush. It blends progressive and pop, with distorted guitar, bass guitar and bass pedal combos, even guitar synth, with a great synthesizer segment. I can’t believe the band never performed it after the 1980 tour. It’s a song that has faded into obscurity like others on this album, which is way underrated by critics and even by hardcore Genesis fans.


Dancing with the Moonlit Knight

4. Dancing with the Moonlit Knight. 1973. Many consider this the best song from the band’s best album. It’s usually interpreted as an elegy for a lost England, or a response to the economic wreck of the ’70s, especially the massive unemployment. The Labour Party had adopted a hard left agenda, and Peter Gabriel insisted the album be titled Selling England by the Pound, the reference to that party’s slogan at the time. It’s a mistake, however, to think of this as a protest album. Unlike overtly political bands like U2, Genesis never preached like SJW’s. Here they tap into the effects of the British economy on the daily lives of Englishmen and dress it up in prog legend. It starts on notes of sheer beauty and revs up thunderously.



5. Mama. 1983. We didn’t know it back then, but the eponymous album was forcing us to take a blistering look back and an ugly look forward. Side One was the last gasp of all that was ever excellent about Genesis. Side Two announced what fans could expect from now on: top-40 garbage. Really, you could throw most of the side-two songs on Invisible Touch: “Illegal Alien” (the “Invisible Touch” of this album), “Taking it All Too Hard” (“Throwing it all Away”), “Just a Job to Do” (“Land of Confusion”), etc. But the first side was a mini-masterpiece. “Mama” is still a powerhouse, opening on menacing keys and escalating incredible tension before the drums finally break in and release the pent up fury. It’s about a guy with a mother complex for a prostitute. I linked to the live version from ’84, which is even better than the studio.


The Fountain of Salmacis

6. The Fountain of Salmacis. 1971. I have a peculiar relationship with this one. It seems somehow sentient — that the music is working against the band’s intentions with the music, or pushing out on its own terms. That’s the feeling I had when I first heard it dozing in a half-waking state on my couch, and it’s the way I’ve heard it ever since. It’s the best final track on any Genesis album (yes, even better than “Supper’s Ready”, though it’s admittedly close), and has fun with Greek mythology. The story is about Hermaphroditus who was seduced by the nymph Salmacis, drank her water and became fused with her. (Which of course is where “hermaphrodite” comes from.) This song is a mindworm (quite different from a catchy earworm) that stays in my head for a long time.


Supper’s Ready

7. Supper’s Ready. 1972. I can name three songs of over 20 minute length that had lasting impact on me: Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, Rush’s “2112”, and this apocalyptic classic. Peter Gabriel called “Supper’s Ready” a personal journey through the pages of the Book of Revelation, and it’s one hell of a trip. It starts with a couple about to have dinner, the wife is suddenly possessed and black-robed men descend. Things get crazier until the Apocalypse of John is in full progress — the seven trumpeters, the earth disgorging obscenities, everything. This is what an epic song should aspire to, with a theme ambitious enough to match the music. I still get chills listening to Gabriel bellowing for the New Jerusalem and the angel summoning birds to the great supper of God.



8. Cul-de-Sac. 1980. One of those hidden album gems that for whatever reason gets underplayed. Think “Ultraviolet” from U2’s Achtung Baby. Both songs are incredibly catchy but not in a commercial way. Both were eclipsed by the album’s more arresting points, in this case the six-song Duke suite which monopolized concert time. “Cul-de-Sac” is also sandwiched by two ballads, which aren’t nearly as strong but do have a way of silencing the song. It’s a parable about extinction and the need to evolve. Face-value, it’s about dinosaurs (“You know you’re on the way out/It’s just a matter of time/You thought you’d rule the world forever”/etc.), but really about the “dinosaur” prog bands like Genesis who might resist changing trends. You can almost hear this song as a warning to fans that Duke would be the band’s last prog album.


The Colony of Slippermen

9. The Lamia – The Colony of Slippermen. 1974. I keep hoping for a musical genius to write a book about The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Two years ago The New Yorker did a pretty good write up, calling it the The “Ulysses” of Concept Albums, but we really need an in-depth scholarly analysis of Rael’s journey through the demented purgatory that only Peter Gabriel could have imagined. The final act is the strongest and most demented. First when Rael enters the pool of the Lamias; they caress him and eat his flesh until his blood kills them. Then when he comes to the colony of the deformed Slippermen who are ruled by lust, and he avoids joining them by getting castrated by a maniacal doctor. In a memorable segment the doctor places Rael’s genitals in a tube which is then stolen by a raven. These two songs back-to-back are my favorite part of Rael’s journey, both musically and conceptually.


Dance on a Volcano

10. Dance on a Volcano. 1976. A Trick of the Tail is doomed to stand in the lamb’s shadow. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a very good album on its own right, and a solid first effort without Peter Gabriel. In the case of “Dance on a Volcano”, it’s the only group composition and clearly the album’s best, with a soundscape and measured tempo that still sounds futuristic after 40 years. It’s about taking extreme risks, and as usual one senses the band is offering a commentary on its own musical trials. In terms of sound, the song is a near microcosm of the album on whole. Just as every song on A Trick of the Tail is remarkably different, so the segments of “Dance” make surprising jumps without losing its cohesion. It’s brilliant, and a fiery way indeed of announcing a new era for the band.


The Light Dies Down on Broadway

11. The Light Dies Down on Broadway. 1974. After the unpleasant business with the Slippermen comes the title track reprise. I consider “Light” much superior to “Lamb” and it’s the understated crux of the album. Despite the fact that his brother John abandoned him twice and kept refusing to help him, Rael rescues him from drowning. Had he ignored him and escaped through the sky-light back to New York City, he would have presumably started the whole chain of events of the story over again. By saving his brother he is freed from the weirdest purgatory ever concocted — single handedly by Peter Gabriel, though this is actually the one song (out of the album’s 23) that he didn’t write. I’d never have guessed if you hadn’t told me.


Home by the Sea

12. Home by the Sea – Second Home by the Sea. 1983. Along with “Mama”, this prog throwback redeems an album that otherwise whores for the ’80s. It’s a ghost story about storytelling; a thief breaks into a haunted home by the sea and is imprisoned by ghosts who need to share stories: “Sit down, sit down/As we relive our lives in what we tell you”. Pictures come to life, etc. The keyboard efforts blanket the song in an ethereal quality that marks an appropriate end point, as I always think of it, to the band’s greatness. Whenever the second instrumental piece winds down, my heart sinks in bittersweetness. With “Home by the Sea”, the band was essentially reliving its own life before turning the page to “Illegal Alien” and the top-40 world of Invisible Touch.


Man on the Corner

13. Man on the Corner. 1981. Abacab is the definition of a just-so album. It’s not bad, but it’s not especially good either. It took a commendable stab at a synth-based approach as the band tried adapting to the ’80s, and it puts me in mind of the way Rush also turned to synths as it turned from its ’70s prog roots. Rush did it very well; Genesis less so. The songs on Abacab feel rather dry and by-the-numbers, with the single exception of this rogue track about a lonely man on the corner. The synths are effectively haunting for a change, as Phil Collins cries out for a homeless man on the street who does everything he can to get attention but fails. The song is even better live, and I linked to the New York performance.

and then there

Burning Rope

14. Undertow – Burning Rope. 1978. These tracks don’t run in sequence, but to me they’ve always seem connected and they’re damn good songs besides. “Undertow” is a plea to make the most of life, while “Burning Rope” shows the consequences of taking that advice too far. In the latter, the attempt to achieve something special (reaching for the moon) results in a distance and disharmony from others which can’t be undone. The first is a ballad — the best Genesis ballad ever — and the second is the longest piece on the album channeling prog and nervous bolts of energy. Prog was going out of fashion this late in the ’70s, but the band didn’t let go entirely as they evolved, and thank the gods for it.


The Musical Box

15. The Musical Box. 1971. Known for the tail-end climax in which Peter Gabriel shouts out, “Touch me! Touch me! Now, now, now, now, now!” But let’s back up and tell the 10-minute story in full: A girl asks her boy cousin to join her in a game of croquet. She soon gets pissed at him and knocks his head off with a croquet mallet. She rummages through his things and finds a musical box and opens it. The spirit of her dead cousin appears, and he starts to age rapidly as he lusts for her, harasses her, and sexually assaults her. The kids’ nurse finally rushes into the room, picks up the musical box and hurls it at the spirit, destroying both him and the box. This was Genesis’s first song on their first strong album, and it hasn’t lost its vitality (virility?).


The Carpet Crawlers

16. The Carpet Crawlers. 1974. One of the band’s most dreamlike songs, possibly the most atmospheric, and certainly the most distinguished. Reason being that Peter Gabriel wrote the music as well as the lyrics (music was usually written by the other band members, while Gabriel supplied the lyrics), and the music is minimalist in a way never heard before in the Gabriel years. There’s even a chorus. It’s a transitory point in the story where Rael enters a red carpeted corridor and sees people on their knees crawling towards a door at the end of the hall. This song has been so widely loved that it was remade in 1999, a bastardized version with choppy synths and cheap inflections. Stick with the original.


Behind the Lines

17. Behind the Lines – Duchess. 1980. For a long time I thought these were one song, because my homemade cassette had the tracks mislabeled. It turns out I wasn’t far off. Both were originally intended as part of a 30-minute suite, along with “Guide Vocal,” “Turn It on Again,” “Dukes Travels,” and “Dukes End.” They go well together in any case. “Behind the Lines” is about a guy so consumed by the book he’s reading that he can’t tell the difference between the story and his own reality (the TV will effect him likewise in “Turn It on Again”). “Duchess” then tells of a woman’s rise and fall from musical fame, which some have interpreted as an embarrassing metaphor for the Genesis band in the ’90s. At first she plays with concern for her artistry and doesn’t give a shit about pleasing crowds, but as fame sets in she sells out and soon “nobody calls for more.” This is a strong double feature of loneliness, isolation and failure.


A Trick of the Tail

18. A Trick of the Tail. 1976. Even on an album that seems to pride itself on dissimilar songs, the title track is especially anomalous. Which is no surprise given that it was originally written for the Foxtrot album back in ’72 and thus is a sort of homage to the mythic prog narratives the band was starting to shed at this point. It’s mournful and upbeat at the same time, and incredibly catchy, telling of a beast who leaves his kingdom and enters the human world, where he’s captured and put on display as a freak. Originally it was surely just a tale of alienation, but some have seen it as a sly parting blow at Peter Gabriel’s abrupt departure: “He left and let nobody know”. Who knows, it’s a great song in any case.


I Know What I Like

19. I Know What I Like. 1973. The only song from the early 70s that made the U.K. charts, attracting non-prog fans. It provides a bit of comic relief between two serious tracks, with lyrics derived from the album cover, about an underachieving lawnmower who ignores advice from people because he’s content with his life as it is: “I know what I like/And I like what I know”. It basically indicts the culture of careerism in favor of simple and honest living. If the man is an underachiever, he’s at least happy in his creativity. I’ve never been sure about the line, “getting better in your wardrobe”, but suspect it’s a Narnia allusion, saying that if we spent more time in artistic creativity and indulging our “wardrobe” fantasies, society would be better off for it.

and then there

Follow You Follow Me

20. Follow You Follow Me. 1978. The song that started it all for me. I heard it on Rock 101, Manchester (my refuge from top-40, back in the day), and the next day rushed out to by the album. This song actually did make the top-40; it was the band’s first world-wide hit. But it’s not commercial, and has such a groovy simplicity that makes a fitting exit point on what is for me the most nostalgic album of my lifetime. To many fans of the Peter Gabriel era, this song was perceived as the deepest treason, but that’s rubbish. The song shows the band evolving, not devolving, though the latter would certainly become true by the mid-’80s. At this point they were just trying to make themselves more accessible, especially to female audiences. It’s a haunting lullaby that hasn’t lost its magic.

Muhammad and Charlemagne

moh_and_cha_revisited“Without Muhammad, Charlemagne is inconceivable.”

Henri Pirenne wrote those words 80 years ago, against the grain of contemporary wisdom. What he meant was that without the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it would not have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire. Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world would have probably unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. It was a bold and well-argued thesis that received little support.

In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012), Emmet Scott vindicates Pirenne with a firm eye on archaeological data. He shows that the barbarian invasions and fall of Rome in the fifth century didn’t cause the Dark Age. The barbarians preserved classical civilization and the empire effectively survived under new management. The archaeological record is rather clear in this regard. There is no gradual decline in classical society from the fifth to seventh centuries, but instead a decline from the third to fifth, followed by a revival in the sixth and early seventh, which is then dramatically terminated sometime between 620 and 650. The lights went out, quite literally, with the Islamic conquests. People fled the coastline and began building hilltop castles to avoid slaughter and enslavement. The Mediterranean was no longer a highway but a frontier of piracy and plunder. The sea became a blockade, choking off trade and communication with Byzantium. Papyrus became a thing of the past, and literacy plummeted almost overnight to levels equivalent to those in pre-Roman times. By the mid-seventh century a “medieval” outlook had emerged, thanks mostly to Islam.

Even after 80 years Pirenne is resisted but usually on the basis of dated arguments that Scott critiques, and we’ll look at them right now.

The “Debunking” of Pirenne

Pirenne’s work was supposedly debunked in 1982 by the work of Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse, Mohammed, Charlemagne, & the Origins of Europe, and Scott devotes a good portion of his book to debunking them in turn. It’s not a hard task. To “prove” that Western Europe was in an economic and cultural death-spiral before the appearance of Islam, Hodges and Whitehouse relied mostly on evidence from central Italy, the one place we would expect to find societal deterioration. The whole balance of power in the Roman Empire had shifted to the east: Constantinople was founded in 324, and by the beginning of the 400s Ravenna supplanted Rome as the capital of the western empire. Rome was then sacked twice, in 410 and then 455, with the western empire dissolving in 476. With all of that — a huge drop in the Roman aristocracy, population, and general fortune — we would (rather obviously) expect a dramatic drop in the wealth of the settlements around central Italy.

9780801416156-usThat’s certainly not what happened elsewhere. Under the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in Gaul, and the Vandals in Africa, society was reviving and flourishing, especially in the sixth and early seventh centuries. The evidence shows expanding populations engaged in vigorous trade within Europe and with the eastern Mediterranean; new territories being brought into cultivation; growth of cities both old and new; clear proof of dramatic technical and scientific innovation; advanced learning and scholarship of all kinds. This was almost a renaissance, let alone a revival, and it was abruptly terminated in the early seventh century with the Islamic invasions. Hodges and Whitehouse’s debunking of Pirenne is thus discredited on a basic level. They used the exception (of central Italy) to argue a non-existent rule — and an exception we would expect to be exceptional in advance. Even the loss of Italy’s inactive population didn’t effect its overall demographic health under the Ostrogoths. By the 590s and 600s, for example, new churches were appearing all over Italy, which is usually a good gauge of vitality, since that’s where communities invest any disposable wealth. For whatever strange reasons, people have difficulty believing the Germanic invaders were capable of civilization, but they were.

In the East, Hodges and Whitehouse again blame the wrong people, this time the Persians. It’s true that the Persian War in 614 started the eastern fall, but it was the subsequent Arab Wars that brought the lasting devastation. As Scott says, there had been wars between Persians and Romans before; it was the way of Roman life for seven centuries. How is it that this particular Persian war (supposedly) led to the end of classical civilization in the east? No matter how destructive, wars are normally followed by treaties of peace, and then the recovery of economic prosperity. It always happened between the Romans and Persians, but it didn’t happen this time, and Hodges and Whitehouse have no answer as to why.

The answer is rather obvious: it was the Arabs, in the wake of the Persians, who laid the permanent waste. The religious concept of jihad was one of permanent religious war that made any kind of peace or genuine coexistence impossible. The annual obligation of jihad ensured ongoing war on Islam’s borders, while the provisions of sharia law meant that in lands taken over by Muslims, natives were provided no protection against bandits and herders who let flocks graze on and destroy the irrigated lands. Fertile areas became semi-desert, and cities became ghost towns.

So in the East…

The counter-narrative still prevails, however, that Islam saved the remnants of classical culture and through its “Golden Age” transmitted that learning to a benighted Europe. It’s true that some Arab rulers patronized universities and centers of learning, but it was only studies which had practical and utilitarian value — science and medicine. The Muslims had no use for literature, drama, painting, and narrative, and were often hostile to these. And even though science and medicine were supported, the only degree offered at an Islamic university was in religious law. Philosophy became a hobby for a select few and had no impact on daily life, which was the role of sharia in any case.

We also often hear that Jews and Christians enjoyed a protected dhimmi status in Islamic lands, but in practice they were anything but protected. Under sharia their rights were subordinate to Muslim rights, and they were often insulted, robbed, and killed with impunity. The dhimma system wasn’t one of benign taxation; it was a mafia-like extortion racket that kept Jews and Christians in humiliating servitude under degrading laws. Their protection could be revoked at a whim and often was.

While back in the West…

Pirenne had been saying that without the Islamic Caliphate, the Holy Roman Empire wouldn’t have been. Scott fleshes out Pirenne by showing that the impact of the Persian-then-Arab assaults on the Byzantine empire were so great, and the severance of western Europe from Constantinople so severe, that the Germanic kings of the west began asserting their independence in a reactive way. They started minting coins in their own image (under Clothar II, r. 613-629) and finally re-established the western empire under Charlemagne (r. 800-814) under a blooming theocracy that would come to mirror some of Islam’s worst elements. It would be the “Holy” Roman Empire whose authority no longer derived solely from its own military and economic strength (as in the time of the Caesars and Germanic kings) but increased dependence on church approval. For the first time ever, by the eleventh century, Christians began thinking in terms of holy war. The crusades were in defense against Islamic aggression to be sure (and I do think a necessary evil), but nevertheless in contradiction to the church’s one thousand year stand of religious pacifism. The culmination of “Charlemagne’s seed” came with Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216), who established the inquisitions to enforce absolute doctrinal conformity. This copied Islam’s inquisition 50 years before, to root out and torture its own apostates in Spain and North Africa.

Scott emphasizes that none of this excuses the medieval church. Everyone is responsible for their actions, and Islam can hardly be blamed on a moral level for Christian crimes against freedom of conscience. But there is causal if not moral blame, and we almost never hear of the causal connection between Islam’s inquisitions and those of the church. Until Innocent, tolerance had been the order of the day — for centuries in the Christian world. This was never true in Muslim lands, where religious dissent and apostasy was a capital offense. For Christians the use of force to enforce orthodoxy was condemned by the church fathers. Christians could be fierce in denouncing heretics, but only extremely rarely would a fanatic get violent about the matter, and when that happened the church spoke out. By the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, this had flipped 180 degrees: Catholicism now mirrored Islam in killing its own heretics.

The Appropriateness of the term “Dark Age”

Scott addresses this at some length, for the term has fallen out of fashion and for good reason. The Dark Age used to be understood as the period of the fifth to tenth centuries, and was characterized by the withering of intellectual life, with the church being the lead offender. It’s a myth that has been discarded to the extent that many historians dismiss the term “Dark Age” out of hand. Pretty much everyone now accepts that Christianity took the lead in preserving classical literature, encouraging literacy, and creating a more general humane environment. The Benedictines especially provided a network of model factories, centers for breeding livestock, halls of scholarship, and redress for social action — basically offering Europe a safety net of civilization to fend off the hordes of chaos. But who were the hordes? Many accuse the Germanic newcomers, and we’ve seen that to be wrong.

The term “Dark Age”, as Scott argues like Pirenne before him, actually is appropriate, but the period starts later and the culprits are the Arabs. Almost by definition, the Dark Age covers the 300-year stretch of barren archaeology that begins right after the Islamic invasions: the mid-seventh to mid-tenth centuries. Jihad brought the darkness, not the Germanic rulers.

Those “Missing” Centuries

This is something Scott keeps returning to, and it’s the most unnerving part of the book. Between the early seventh and mid-tenth centuries, there is almost a complete absence of archaeology in both Europe and the Islamic world. How can society have produced virtually nothing — either pottery, coins, or artifacts of any kind — for three centuries? This problem has become so acute and embarrassing that only crazy explanations are offered:

(1) Some natural or cosmic catastrophe destroyed huge portions of the populations sometime in the mid-seventh century.

The problem, as Scott points out, is that no plagues, earthquakes, floods are mentioned in any surviving documents, and (even more importantly) the archaeological record shows no layer of destructive sediment between the seventh and tenth centuries. Just the opposite: the early seventh century material lies directly underneath that of the mid-tenth, and appears to be culturally closely related to the latter. This has prompted the even more extreme theory that —

(2) The missing three centuries never existed. Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II wanted to legitimate the Ottonian kings in their claim to the imperial purple, and to live in the millennial year of 1000 AD, and so invented the Carolingian dynasty and inserted it and the years 614-911 AD into the calendar.

In other words, our history is 297 years off. Otto III really reigned in 699-705, and not 996-1002; the Norman Conquest happened in 769, rather than 1066, and the year we live in now is 1719, not 2016. While this conspiracy theory (known as the Phantom Time Hypothesis) is certainly amusing, and would admittedly resolve many historical puzzles in Europe and the Islamic world, it collapses elsewhere. The Tang Dynasty of China (618-906) receives archeological confirmation, and it’s hard in any case to imagine someone from medieval Europe convincing the Chinese to create a fake dynasty with bogus archives. It’s also rather hard to believe that attested figures like Alfred the Great never existed.

Crackpot theories, however, only force the question everyone tip-toes around: why does archaeology stop in the mid-seventh century and then suddenly resume in the mid-tenth? The only thing we can say with confidence is that the Arab conquests of the early seventh century were incredibly destructive in the regions they conquered (the Middle East, North Africa, and then Spain), and because of their stranglehold over the Mediterranean Sea cut off trade and communication with the eastern empire, plummeting Europe into a genuine Dark Age. The “Golden Age” of Islam supported by the archaeological record is a single century (between the tenth and eleventh) rather than four centuries (between the seventh and eleventh). And it was a Golden Age in terms of power and might only. It didn’t mean Islamic culture was more humane or enlightened, for it certainly wasn’t. What went on during the shadowed centuries remains a mystery.


Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited tells a story on the basis of evidence: The barbarian princes who took control of the western provinces in the fifth century were neither mindless destroyers nor ineffectual hold-outs. They adopted Roman civilization in due course and upheld the Roman institutions and customs, with the result that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the previous deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. They continued to see themselves as functionaries for the empire, and minted coins with the Byzantine emperor’s image. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, when the lights went out. After this time, western cities no longer thrived Roman-style. Luxury products imported from the east disappeared, as did literacy. The only thing which could have terminated Mediterranean trade and western culture so rapidly and thoroughly at this time was the Arab invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. And from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. It was a centuries long response that was usually more incidental than conscious, a lesson in cause and effect that prompts all sorts of interesting “what if?” questions.

Scott’s book is also a story of academic wrangling. Per the book’s subtitle, it’s the history of a controversy as much as history itself, and an unflinching look at how evidence is used, misused, or sidestepped to marshal our theories. Strongly recommend.

Free expression: what it is, and what it isn’t

free-speechWith recent discussions about free speech, it might be good to remind ourselves what it is… and what it isn’t.

What it is

In America our First Amendment give us the right to express ourselves as controversially or offensively as we want without governmental interference. It’s a right that used to be taken mostly for granted, though when I was growing up in the ’80s you had to keep an eye on those pesky conservative tight-asses who didn’t approve burning the American flag. Thankfully they lost that battle.

Today the biggest threats to free speech come from leftists who insist that some speech is too dangerous. Their hearts are in the right place, but here are the two problems with that.

1. It is precisely dangerous speech that requires protection. Speech that isn’t offensive, ridiculing, hateful, or controversial doesn’t need the protection of a First Amendment. Expression that doesn’t offend in some way isn’t free. That has always been its point against governmental censorship and tyranny. Those who object to dangerous speech or ideas are basically making the state’s case. What is dangerous to one isn’t so to another. Right-wingers might wish to silence socialist ideas, while the left would love to silence critics of Islam. Which takes me to my next point…

2. No waivers. There can’t be. We could all think of exceptions we feel passionate about, and hate speech is frequently singled out. But when you can be blackballed as a hateful bigot for, say, criticizing Islam as a uniquely toxic religion, it shows that people don’t even understand what hate speech is. Yale University revoked the courageous activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s speaking invitation when students petitioned against her “hateful” opinions; Berkeley wisely overruled petitions against Bill Maher. Students can of course petition as they please (that’s their own free speech), and private universities have every right to accept or reject these requests as they deem fit. The point is that students are becoming more and more clueless, and universities are disgraceful when they cater to these kind of demands. Practically anything is deemed hateful and bigoted these days, which is why comedians won’t perform on college campuses any more, and why the University of Chicago, commendably, released its recent statement that they, for one, will not tolerate this trend of pandering to “safe spaces” and shielding students from honest inquiry.

What it isn’t

Quite a lot, it turns out, and confusion reigns supreme here.

1. Inciting violence, harassment, child pornography, using copyright, disturbing the peace, etc. These are sometimes confused with supposed “restrictions on free speech”, but they are really different issues. The opinions and thoughts aren’t being censored in these cases, but rather how they are being directly translated into harmful action, or involve by necessity violating the rights of others.

If we consider Donald Trump, I believe that a legal case could plausibly be made against him for sometimes crossing the line when he tells people what to do at his rallies. His speech against Muslims, Mexicans, and African Americans is (arguably) being weaponized in these cases. On the other hand, Pastor Steven Anderson has repeatedly called for the execution of gay people, and is actually even more hateful against gays than Trump is against non-whites — but Anderson never crosses the line. In all his sermons and speeches, he expressly forbids vigilantism. People should obey the laws of the land even when the government is wicked (per Rom 13). Homosexuals, he insists, should be executed only by a righteous government (per Lev 18 and 20). The examples of Trump and Anderson should underscore the need to distinguish between hate speech, which itself is protected at the most toxic levels, and the potential for direct harm.

2. Private-space protection. Free speech doesn’t cover us in the private spaces of others, whether in physical places like homes, universities, and businesses, or virtual spaces like blogs and Facebook pages. I do believe that university professors, bloggers and Facebook users should emulate the standards of free speech as much as possible when moderating comments, but they shouldn’t be, and are not in fact, required to do so.

Thus the contrast: As a government employee I cannot censor any comments from the Nashua Public Library Facebook page. If a patron writes vulgar and bigoted comments, that is rightfully protected speech. But on private Facebook pages, comments like that are censored all the time. Whether or not they should be is an open and subjective question, but certainly no one can invoke “free speech” to demand being tolerated on someone’s private webpage, anymore than in a private home or university class.

3. A guarantee of respect. If you enjoy spreading hate, the government must tolerate you, but no one has to respect you. It never ceases to amaze me when the most offensive purveyors of free speech play the aggrieved when others exercise their own heaping doses of free expression to combat the offensiveness.

The bottom line

Humanitarians are correct that free speech is dangerous, but co-existing with dangerous ideas is what freedom is all about. We do not, should not, have the right to be shielded from outrage that upsets us. Libertarians are correct in this regard — there are no waivers for free speech — but this no holds-barred principle applies in a restrictive context of governmental interference.

A final word. As Americans we are lucky to live in a country that protects freedom of expression in the way that it does. It’s our most powerful right, and we should make every effort to use it responsibly. There are those who don’t, and that’s when our free speech becomes even more important — to speak out against those who abuse the privilege.

The Five “Biggest” Myths about Jesus

jesusThe Daily Beast has a fun article by Candida Moss on the five “biggest” myths of Jesus. She gets most of it right except for one.

1. Jesus wasn’t tall and white. “He was a socially and politically disenfranchised man with tanned skin who was living under the hand of an oppressive foreign government. He didn’t enjoy the privileges of white men today.”


2. Jesus wasn’t the messiah the Jews expected. “First-century Jews, most of whom were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the messiah, had a number of opinions about what that messiah would be like. Most were hoping for a military or political leader who would overthrow the Jewish authorities and become a ruler like King David.”

Basically yes. Other options included a priestly messiah, prophetic messiah, and heavenly arch-angel messiah (see John Collins’ The Scepter and the Star). In the gospels Jesus is presented as a variant combo of the prophetic and heavenly arch-angel.

(X) 3. Jesus wasn’t a pacifist. “Even if he wasn’t the political messiah people hoped for, he wasn’t a 1960s hippie either. In fact, he explicitly says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth’ (Matt 10:34). Sure, he tells Peter to put away his sword when the temple guards come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he announces ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ during the Sermon on the Mount, but his overturning of tables in the Temple during Passover week has to be read as an act of aggression. In the Gospel of John he actually uses a whip to drive people out of the Temple.”

Frankly this is silly. As presented in the sources Jesus certainly stands as a pacifist. Mt 10:34 is a blatant metaphor about severing family blood ties in favor of fictive kin, and so obvious that not even the crusading theologians of the medieval period tried using it to justify the holy wars (they got pretty creative in distorting biblical passages but didn’t bother attempting with this one). And if Jesus used a whip to drive out the money-changers, that hardly disproves he was a pacifist.

4. Jesus wasn’t that concerned about family, but was strongly opposed to divorce. “Jesus identifies his followers, rather than his biological relatives, as his family, and instructs his disciples to leave their old [families] behind and follow him. The one place Jesus is truly supportive of marriage is when it comes to divorce.”

Check. Many of us implicitly (and regardless of our religion) subscribe to the philosophy of “love your families and hate your enemies”, but Jesus was known for “love your enemies” and “hate your families” (Lk 14:26).

5. Historians know almost nothing about who Jesus was. “There have been a number of best-selling and shocking books about Jesus of Nazareth that purport to tell us who Jesus actually was. The historians writing these books purport to peel back the layers of history and deliver a biography of the real Jesus. These are entertaining, iconoclastic, and sometimes well-written reads, but they’re something of an intellectual hoax. Many of the criteria employed by scholars work with assumptions about ancient society and Jesus’ place within it, but…it is often impossible to evaluate whether Jesus’ words and deeds were plausible, embarrassing, commonplace, or radical.”

I’m afraid I have to agree. I’ve been increasingly less confident in efforts to reconstruct a reliable historical Jesus (beyond a bare-bones apocalyptic prophet). I’m glad to see William Arnal’s The Symbolic Jesus cited: “Historical portraits of Jesus don’t matter because ‘the Jesus who is important to our own day is not the Jesus of history but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discourse.'” Though I’d put it a bit differently. Historical portraits always matter, but at least we shouldn’t “need” a historical Jesus to ground any of our contemporary agendas.

Three ways to scare an audience: The Exorcist then and tonight

The TV remake of The Exorcist premieres tonight, and judging from trailers and reviews it will probably be rather unimpressive.

Stephen King has said there are three ways to scare an audience: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” The distinction between the first two levels go back to Ann Radcliffe, who defined terror in terms of a threatening potential that is unclear but present somehow, while horror crystallizes the ambiguity and brings on concrete scares. King illustrates the three levels:

(1) Terror: The gut-churning feeling of something lurking just beyond, but still unknowable. Atmospheric dread. The build up of tension. A door cracks open just a bit. The lights go out and there’s a sound behind you. Etc.

(2) Horror: The shock value of immediate dread. A door swings open and something appears (a ghost, a vampire, or hideous creature) assaulting you. Reaching out to grab something, and a fist out of nowhere grabs your arm. Etc.

(3) Revulsion: The gross-out level, or the repulsively obscene. Someone getting disemboweled. A severed head rolling down a flight of stairs. A man getting castrated and fed his genitals. The problem with this level is that it’s usually unimpressive without the supplement of at least one of the two higher levels.

The Exorcist remains the scariest film of all time because it succeeds so viscerally on all three levels. I saw it when I was 11 (about six years after its theatrical release), and nothing since has come close to matching the pulverizing effect it had on me. I suspect that tonight’s premiere will fail completely on the first level, while perhaps offering a few genuine horror shocks. Whatever it does on the basement third level will doubtfully matter.

Here is me reliving all three levels when I was 11. (Click on the images to watch the scenes.)


Regan Hypnotized

(Level 1) Terror: Regan Hypnotized. I remember thinking how stupid Regan’s mother was to let the psychiatrist do this. Talk about batting a hornet’s nest. The tension builds incredibly in the scene as Regan begins by responding timidly to the simple questions, then admits there is “someone inside her” some of the time, but she doesn’t know anything about him, and then cuts off the shrink with a firm “no” when he asks if he can speak to this entity directly. Naturally the shrink doesn’t respect her wishes and proceeds: “I am speaking to the person inside of Regan now; if you are there, you too are hypnotized and must answer all my questions.” No demon will suffer itself to be hypnotized, and when Regan slowly turns her head up to the inquisitor (the above right image), she doesn’t look timid anymore; the other doctor can barely restrain her when she (the demon) erupts in fury.


Father Merrin Dead

(Level 1) Terror: Father Merrin Dead. My young self was so terrorized at this point that if the movie didn’t end quickly I’d have probably ended up in a mental asylum. After the long horrifying ritual of the exorcism, Father Karras steps out of the bedroom to collect his wits, and probably his sanity too. When he returns, we first see an empty bed (where the hell is the demon?); then we see the exorcist-hero Father Merrin on the floor (is he dead? answer: yes); then, as Karras realizes he’s dead, the camera pans up to Regan/the demon, free of her restraints, sitting up against a bed post giggling sadistically, and we know things are about to get even worse though that hardly seems possible. (Sure enough it does, and Karras dies too.) I wouldn’t have been able to take any more after this final piece of terror. Enough is enough.


“The Sow is Mine”

(Level 2) Horror: “The Sow is Mine.” Practically any scene involving the demon qualifies as horrifying. The exorcism itself is a twenty minute roller-coaster of nonstop horror, and those would be the obvious scenes to single out, but for me the pride of place goes to the earliest possession scene in which the demon first speaks. It’s still a shocker after all these years. Regan’s face isn’t mutilated yet, but the process of her body being invaded, tortured, and thrashed about as she alternates between screaming for help and the demon interrupting her with mocking obscenities is degrading and horrifying in the extreme. When I first saw it I was so poleaxed that I stopped breathing for close to an entire minute.



(Level 2) Horror: Spider-Walk. Cut from the original and added back in the 25th anniversary edition. What makes it extra horrifying is the invasion of the downstairs “safety zone”. In the original film, after Regan urinated on the living room floor and her possession became acute, she remained confined to her bedroom upstairs. That gave us a breathing space in the scenes downstairs. I wasn’t even aware of the “famously cut” spider-walk scene when I saw the new cut released in the theater in ’98 (when I was 30), and my heart nearly burst when Regan appeared at the top of the stairs and start thundering down bent over backwards — not least because, back when I was a kid, this is actually the kind of thing I dreaded happening in one of the downstairs scenes (see the last one I describe below). My childhood trauma came flooding back to me in the spider-walk; it was that much a horrifying assault.


Puking Green

(Level 3) Revulsion: Puking Green. This scene is so disgusting that it caused viewers to throw up, but it actually frightens on all three levels. It begins with the terror of a sinister conversation between Father Karras and the demon. Up until this point the demon has only shouted trash and vile obscenities when choosing to speak, but now that Regan has been restrained it takes a conversational approach, which is a feint and guaranteed prelude to something awful. When the demon reveals things about Karras’ mother that Regan could have no knowledge of, the terror valve cranks up even more, and Karras decides to test the demon by asking it his mother’s maiden name: “What is it?” he persists, from across the bed. The demon stares back ferociously, and then by way of a “fuck you” reply projectile vomits over the priest, which is both horrifying and nauseating at once. The scene is so heart-attack inducing because it works on all three levels of fright, a rare feat in horror films these days.


“Let Jesus Fuck You!”

(Level 3) Revulsion: “Let Jesus Fuck You!” This one also blends the three levels. It follows the visit of Lieutenant Kinderman who questions Regan’s mother downstairs about the man who “fell” from her daughter’s window and died, offering the opinion that it was more likely the other way around — that the man was first killed and then pushed from her daughter’s window by someone strong and powerful. “Except,” he says, “no one was in the room except for your daughter, so how can this be?” The dawning look of understanding look on Chris MacNeil’s face is so terrifying that I remember expecting the demon to come thundering down the stairs at that very moment to kill the meddling detective. When he finally leaves, the silence in the living room is unbearable; we know the demon is going to unleash its fury over the intrusion, which it does in a horrifying display of telekinetic chaos in the bedroom, and of course, the infamous crucifix masturbation. Without the other two levels working in tandem, the bloody and vulgar masturbation scene would seem rather cheap and exploitative. It’s actually one of the most harrowing scenes in cinematic history.