David Lynch: Looking Back

David Lynch is the one responsible for showing me film’s boundless potential. It was a near conversion experience for me when I saw Blue Velvet thirty years ago, and I remember being taken aback by the controversy. It taught me that when films polarize people to the point that critics are yelling at each other, the haters are more likely the problem. I’m revisiting his work in celebration of Blue Velvet‘s 30th anniversary. To watch these films is to be inside the most unnerving dreams.

1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. 1992. 5 stars. This has a bad reputation even among Lynch fans, and I used to have my own reservations when judging it as a Twin Peaks prequel. It’s essential to get a distance from the TV show and treat it as a standalone piece, and when you do, an entirely different film emerges. The scoring is brilliant and the acting flawless. It’s Lynch’s cruelest film, more so than even Blue Velvet, containing scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. Basically Laura has processed years of rape at the hands of her father by creating a delusional mythology: the TV series implied that Leland is innocent and possessed by an evil spirit, but the film exposes that for a lie: he’s a monstrous scumbag. This is an extremely terrifying horror film (my second favorite after The Exorcist) and a character piece in contrast to the TV series’ focus on mystery and town dynamics.

Image result for mulholland drive2. Mulholland Drive. 2001. 5 stars. If Blue Velvet threw me into a new world of cinema I could barely begin to define, Mulholland Drive reinforced the magic 15 years later, at the exact moment Peter Jackson was giving magic a new name. It parades a brilliant understanding of projection in the context of frustrated wish-fulfillment. Diane is the reality, Betty the dream; the first comes last, and makes devastating sense of the second; this reinvented figure is loved by everyone, a starry-eyed Hollywood star, and she gets off great lesbo sex with the woman who in life barely returns her affections. This manner in which people from Diane’s life fill their dream-roles is a brilliant recontextualization of a go-nowhere actress drowning in criminal guilt, and it’s one of the most intimate experiences I get out of any film. I feel like I am the dual character of Diane/Betty when I watch this, though I have few commonalities with them. The best scene is the lip-synced Llorando, which precipitates the intrusion of reality at the two-thirds point, in the above image.

Related image3. Blue Velvet. 1986. 5 stars. This film was my introduction to David Lynch, back when I was transitioning from high school to college, and it was my best friend who actually warned me against it. He loved disturbing movies as much as I, but he sure didn’t like Blue Velvet; in fact he despised it as much as Roger Ebert, whose legendary TV review is still talked about today and contrasts with Entertainment Weekly‘s awarding it the 37th Best Film of all Time. I’m with EW. But what’s fascinating is that this dramatic polarization, which I experienced personally, emerged when it did: the ’80s were the worst decade for American cinema. (Seriously, how many films from 1983-1989 hold up today?) Blue Velvet seemed to oppose the faddish malaise with an insistence on aesthetic that matched its transgressive content. It takes the rot-under-the-small-town theme and injects heavy doses of sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy; yes. But around all the suffocating depravity is worked a stunning beauty, particularly in the relationship between the Kyle Maclachlan and Laura Dern characters.

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4. Eraserhead. 1977. 5 stars. If this film is about parental fear, then maybe it’s why I got a vasectomy. And I’m not surprised that Stanley Kubrick forced his actors on The Shining to watch it. Like the haunted hotel picture, Eraserhead traps you in a dreadful atmosphere where the walls keep closing in. It’s interesting how Kubrick and Lynch tend to work in opposite directions, one’s stories leading to head-trips, the other’s head-trips building to stories if you can make sense of them. I’ve even read that Eraserhead’s tadpole-baby is the antithesis of Space Odyssey’s Star-Child who smiled down on humanity’s technological progress; tadpole-baby rages against humanity, a diseased product of our industrial “progress”. What I still want to know is the Old Testament text which suddenly hit Lynch like an epiphany and cemented his vision for the film; to this day he refuses to come clean about it. My bet is on chapter 3 of Job, perhaps the most existentially spiritual book of the bible, and I can indeed see why Lynch calls Eraserhead his most spiritual film. Not only is it his most profound work, and his most unnerving, it’s also his purest tuning of the dream-consciousness style he’s known for.

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5. Lost Highway. 1997. 4 ½ stars. This one is moderately underrated, but still too much so, and I remember wanting to shoot Siskel and Ebert for giving it two thumbs down. There are shades of all the masterpieces here: the atmospheric horror of Eraserhead, the small-town suburbia (and underground sexual deviations) of Blue Velvet, and the character reinventions of Mulholland Drive. The best parts are the start and finish, the Bill Pullman parts, showing a jealous man who kills his wife and then resurfaces when his dream-identity breaks down. The German voice-overs to the porno shots are so creepy they’re terrifying — as much as the initial murder, also seen on video. When he comes full circle at the end and rings his own doorbell, announcing what he (and we) heard at the start, the cycle is set in motion again, implying that in his attempt to escape reality, he becomes permanently imprisoned in denial. That’s what the “lost highway” is, and while not exactly a masterpiece, it’s still a work of art.

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6. The Elephant Man. 1980. 3 ½ stars. With a moral structure and even sentimental thrust, The Elephant Man isn’t especially recognizable as David Lynch, but it’s a fine piece of work nonetheless. Instead of a surrealist dreamscape, this is practically a documentary. But the subject is gross enough to be out of a nightmare: John Merrick (1862-1890), who was so deformed that his parents rejected him and he became a traveling-circus freak. Also, there is some of Eraserhead to be obliquely found here, most notably in the theme of birth mutation, a horrifying concept that was clearly on Lynch’s mind at this early stage of his career. The Victorian atmosphere with smog and clanging machinery is reminiscent of Henry Spencer’s industrially polluted world. If The Elephant Man waxes melodramatic at points, it also preserves a wonderful ambiguity about Merrick’s caretakers: Bytes’ treatment of Merrick was horrible, but he arguably loved him, if in the way we love our pets. Treves’ humane approach is the one we more approve, but ultimately he’s using Merrick for his own benefit.

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7. The Straight Story. 1999. 3 stars. I suspect that Lynch danced with Disney just to show the world he could do G-rated. His family-friendly film is based on the true account of a 73-year old man who drove his, yes, tractor-style lawn mower all the way from Iowa to Wisconsin, in order to visit an ailing brother. Which means it’s a slow-paced odyssey, taking us through rural Midwest towns populated by the sort of endearing characters we see (on the surface, at least) in most of Lynch’s films. We keep waiting for the NC-17 sideshows, but The Straight Story stays out of the netherworld and dwells on tranquility — extended rests between the snail-paced road travel (the lawnmower doesn’t putt over 5 miles/hour), and scenes of vast corn fields. Think Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, with its beautifully slow camera glides over yellowish landscapes, mix in light doses of small town culture, and you’ve got The Straight Story. It’s a decent film, and a refreshing exercise for a director who usually revels in the dark and sordid, but nothing exceptional.

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8. Inland Empire. 2006. 2 stars. If Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway are underrated gems in the Lynch canon, Inland Empire is the most bloated and overrated. It basically recycles the seedy mystery plots of Blue Velvet and the identity-blurring of Mulholland Drive, but with a sense that Lynch was just throwing darts. He admitted that he wasn’t even working from a script, and it shows: unlike Mulholland Drive which balanced ambiguity and explanation perfectly, Inland Empire traces crazy-8’s non-stop. To those who respond that this is much the point, I call the critic’s competence into question. When all you really have are non-sequiturs and pseudo clues, that’s called spitballing, not artistry. I wanted to like these parallel stories of a “woman in trouble”, not least for Laura Dern’s ferocious performances, both as the actress and the damaged prostitute. And there’s no denying the aesthetic. But Lynch seems to have been intent on simply making the longest feature possible (it’s over three hours) with no substance behind the surrealism we love him for. The result is a kaleidoscope, little more.

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9. Dune. 1984. 1 star. This steaming pile of manure by rights belongs at the very bottom, but I’ll cut Lynch a sliver of slack since I think any director would have failed with Dune. (Also, I retain a special hatred for Wild at Heart — but more on that below.) Half the novel is inside people’s heads, and Herbert had such command of inner turmoil that it’s where the story’s true excitement is. Lynch tried his best with internal monologues, but they’re frankly abominable, and no one wants to watch stationary characters process thought for long periods of screen time. On top of this, the characters never come a fraction to life as they do in the book, and events whisk by criminally fast. Dune may not be Lord of the Rings, but it needed more than two hours to do it justice. But as I said, I think it was doomed regardless, which is why even the 4-hour TV mini-series years later was scarcely an improvement.

Related image10. Wild at Heart. 1990. 1 star. Some might accuse me of a jaded perspective, going into my second Lynch film expecting another Blue Velvet. I remember that summer of 1990 too well: it was a late night showing at the crummy Premiere 8 in Nashua, and only two others were in attendance, a woman to the left of me, and a guy all the way down in front as crazy as Dafoe’s Bobby Peru; he laughed like a hyena all the way through, at all the sick parts — hell, he was practically part of the show. But that lunatic made me wonder if that’s exactly what Lynch was doing as he filmed this travesty: laughing at us and just having fun. Wild at Heart is the product of a genius who’s not applying himself. And I’ve revisited it enough times to be confident of my objective distance from that loopy experience at the cinema. The dialogue is a farce (Nicholas Cage’s “this here alligator-jacket is a symbol of my individuality” is exemplary); the transgressive content gratuitous (unlike Blue Velvet’s); the Wizard-of-Oz imagery obtuse. Lynch was out to lunch on this one.

Right vs. Left Libertarians

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The Left Libertarian (“You”)

I’m often asked what makes a left-wing libertarian. In my home state of New Hampshire, most libertarians lean right, as do high-profile politicians like Ron and Rand Paul, or Gary Johnson. Some even consider a left libertarian to be an oxymoron, given the opposing values of individual freedom (the noun) and the collective good (the adjective). See how I tested (my green plot) on the political graph. That’s where a left libertarian falls in relation to other parties.

In a sentence, left-wing libertarians want personal freedoms and free market capitalism just like the right-wing variety, but will sometimes subordinate those interests to an egalitarian vision so there can be personal freedom for everyone. Left libertarians won’t always sit back laissez faire. They will push for the fixing of social wrongs if the consequences of individual freedom are deemed too costly.

I have pointed out the intersection between libertarians and librarians on certain points below, and I’m proud to work in a field that stands for these values in a day when they are eroding under assault from all quarters, but especially from the left. It makes the “left libertarian” label more ironic (not oxymoronic) than ever.

Where the right and left agree (core freedoms)

There are the “big” issues on which right- and left-libertarians are as one. They are equally opposed to (1) any infringement on free speech and expression, (2) the criminalization of drug use, (3) invasion of privacy especially by electronic surveillance, and (4) the growing police state.

(1) Free expression is the cornerstone of liberty and non-negotiable to the right and left wings. Both maintain that a governmental agency should never decide what people cannot say, see, or hear. The common objection that “free speech does not mean the freedom to offend” misunderstands free speech at its essence, as it has always has been about the capacity to offend. Without offense there is no point to free expression, and the most reformative revolutionaries throughout history could not have achieved progress. All libertarians oppose hate speech laws, as it is impossible to determine what is hateful or apply the standard objectively or consistently. People have a poor understanding of bigotry, to the extent that human rights activists (like Aayan Hirsi Ali) and progressive religious reformers (like Maajid Nawaz) have been branded as hateful, which is the equivalent of demonizing Martin Luther King Jr. Both libertarian wings insist on the basic point to free speech grounded in our integrity as human beings: that none of us has an inalienable right to be shielded from expression that hurts or upsets us, not even genuine bigotry. When people are silenced and their speech or writings criminalized, it makes societal infants of us, which is a condescending approach to humanity and the antithesis of freedom.

main(2) Both camps are opposed to criminalizing drug use because it interferes with people’s right to regulate their consciousness as they please, and ruins the lives of these nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them. This is a double-obscenity to left-wing libertarians, because the lives ruined are mostly non-whites in poverty. The right and left wings may part ways beyond the legal question. Left libertarians may advocate for government funded recovery programs to assist addicts (as in Portugal), while the right-leaning libertarians will say stop wasting taxpayer money on those who should take responsibility for themselves. (Both wings of libertarians will also support the legalization of prostitution for similar reasons.)

(3) The right and left are univocal in opposing surveillance and private data collection. It’s worth noting the significant overlap between libertarians and librarians, who believe in the sanctity of patron confidentiality. Librarians oppose ILS (computer) systems that store the borrowing history of their patrons beyond what is necessary to retrieve overdue material. In the same way, librarians are aligned with libertarians on the issue of free expression, which the American Library Association links to the issue of privacy. The ALA’s core value of intellectual freedom is defined as “the right of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely… a publicly supported library provides free, equitable, and confidential access to information for all people of its community.” Confidentiality/privacy is an integral part, as librarians see it, to intellectual freedom.

(4) As the tyranny of law gets worse, both wings speak out against executive overreach and the abuse of police power. Left-wing libertarians may single out the abuse of minorities (and join hands, for example, with the “Black Lives Matter” movement), but if that seems like disproportionate outrage, it is because the abuse of minorities is itself disproportionate. Generally speaking, the right and left wings are as one on this issue, and have taken issue with the presidential overreaches of Barack Obama, which has established a horrible precedent for Donald Trump.

Where they disagree

A classic example of where the two wings have differed is on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Right-wing libertarians opposed it for infringing on freedom of association, and to uphold states’ rights, while left-libertarians supported it for promoting racial equality — precisely so that minorities can enjoy personal freedoms as much as whites. Similarly, on the question of school busing, right libertarians opposed governmental interference, while left libertarians supported it to help minorities for the sake of their freedom.

Gun control is contested. On the one hand, the right and left wings support an individual’s right to bear arms, and thus oppose overly restrictive guns laws, for example those of New York City and California. On the other hand, left-libertarians usually support a serious measure of gun restrictions. Guns are too dangerous in the wrong hands and when access is too easy.

With the free market, left-libertarians will sometimes subordinate capitalist interests to the welfare of all impacted. They are open to reducing the power of corporations and banks (as long as the free market system can accommodate the changes), when in the cause of worker’s rights and income equality. In other words, the left-wing are willing to support legislature that makes “robber baron” capitalism more difficult, and will get behind politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whom the right libertarians believe to be threats to the capitalist way.

The abortion issue is tricky, because for some libertarians the life of the unborn takes precedence over any “freedom” cause. Ron Paul would be an example of an aggressive (right-wing) libertarian and yet a strong anti-abortionist. But many libertarians are pro-choice, though for different reasons. Right libertarians have objected to the intrusion on states’ rights to decide the legality of abortion, as well as a woman’s individual rights. For left libertarians the woman’s individual rights are most important, and also the social concern for unwanted infants who aren’t given a chance to life in a way that could be considered free.

We’re out there

This snapshot paints with a broad brush, but serves to show that a left-wing libertarian isn’t an oxymoron — even if the right-wing libertarians of my home state think I’m out to lunch! Basically, left libertarians are the heirs of classical liberalism. We cherish equality and social justice like other leftists, but not at the expense of core freedoms, and we have no use for the political correctness, obscurantism, and double-think of today’s regressive left.

Who are the Libertarians of Star Wars – the Jedi or the Sith?

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As a libertarian (the left-wing breed, not right) I’m intrigued by the politics of Star Wars. Many have noted that Star Wars is libertarian, especially the classic trilogy of episodes 4-6 (and now the spin-off Rogue One). The Rebel Alliance believe in a small limited government, and are freedom fighters against the fascist Empire. The prequel trilogy of episodes 1-3 are also libertarian in showing how that Empire came to be. Senator Palpatine (the future emperor) manufactures a war against the Trade Federation in order to scare people into giving up their freedoms. It works: the Republic hands power over to the Emperor “for their own protection” and “the common good”.

It isn’t quite that simple, however, because in the prequel trilogy it’s the Sith who come across as libertarian, and the Jedi quite the opposite. In theory, the Jedi Order use the Force to defend the weak and preserve peace in the galaxy, in line with their ethical code of self-sacrifice and service. In theory, the Sith are kraterocratic (their agenda is galactic domination), and believe that passion instead of meditative calm is the way to channel the Force — the passion of anger, fear, aggression, and hate. But in the pre-Empire days things are rather complicated. As David Houghton puts it:

“While they might be merry old samurai hippies in the original trilogy, the organized, prolific, altogether more militarized Jedi of the prequel period are a hardcore conservative faction, incredibly rigid in their doctrine, code and methods. They are ubiquitous, unchallenged, and if anything, slightly too powerful. They have restrictions on sexuality, a strict religious code, make free use of mind control for [yes] the greater good, and enforce stoicism to the point of detachment. They demand utter devotion, are run by an oligarchy, and almost entirely cut themselves off from the outside world. Sound a bit cultish? It is. The Sith, on the other hand, are staunch libertarians. They accept no oversight or control from the state, practice a self-centred philosophy, and value personal freedom over social responsibility.”

If the Jedi aren’t villains, they’re hardly better than the Sith. Mace Windu is a dogmatic hardliner, and Yoda is clueless and ineffectual. And if the Sith are malevolent, they are enlightened and superior in other ways. Libertarianism comes easy to those not in power, and is discarded by those who obtain it.

That’s why the prequels could have been great films — if George Lucas had only seen what was right in front of him. But he ignored his own groundwork and gave us unworthy Jedi heroes, cartoon Sith villains, and a complete betrayal of the character of Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker should not have been a bitter sulking teenager who was basically tricked into choosing the dark side. He was born to be the first truly “moderate” Jedi, seeking the Balance which the Jedi Order claims to seek while in truth purposing to eradicate the Sith and oppose the dark side altogether. Anakin’s turn to the dark side, by rights, should have been a mature one that we could approve. As Houghton says:

“While the hardline of the Sith is philosophically no better than the hardline of the Jedi, by that same note, it is no worse. Anakin understandably makes a very human decision, and goes for the option that looks to help his real, personal situation. It’s a move we can sympathize with, and rather beautifully, one that parallels philosophically with the Sith’s libertarian ways. All of this would make Darth Vader stronger, not weaker. [Instead, the prequels] turn the biggest, most interesting, most enigmatic bad guy in the galaxy into a sniveling, mopey teenager, blighted by angsty, adolescent grumbles and mistakes.”

Vader didn’t get the backstory he deserved because Lucas can’t tell a story; he can only serve up special effects. Had he exploited the libertarian ambiguity, blurred the lines between the Force’s light and dark sides — and hired a director who could make this all come together — the prequels, for my money, would have likely superseded the classic trilogy. It’s hard to predict how the libertarian theme will play out in the new trilogy. In The Force Awakens, the Jedi are gone, and the First Order seems to carry on the unambiguous fascism of the old Empire, even if they are technically rebels against the New Republic. With Luke back, things will surely get interesting.

Thrown into the Sea: Recovering the Exodus

horse-and-the-riderThe song about “the horse and the rider thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21) was a Sunday school favorite when I was growing up. It’s ridiculously cheesy but gave me thrills to imagine a pissed-off deity raining destruction down on slavers and despots. Even at that age I had the bloodthirsty streak that would find its outlet in horror and war genres. Today my interest in the exodus is more secular and esoteric. I have believed there is little historical basis to the biblical origin of Israel, because archaeology has nothing to show for it. But it depends on when, as much as where, you look for the evidence.

Until recently I had looked in the time of Ramesses II, as most scholars do. Let’s review the options.

Option (a): Ramesses II (c. 1250 BC)

The common view is based on Exodus 1:11 and 12:37, a literal reading of which places the exodus in the time of Egypt’s 19th dynasty under Ramessess II. Because there is zero archaeological confirmation of an exodus and military invasion of Canaan during Ramesses’ reign, the following alternative theories have been offered to explain Israelite origins in the 1250-1100 period.

  • Peaceful Infiltration. In The Settlement of the Israelites in Palestine (1925), Albrecht Alt proposed that instead of the conquest out of Egypt described in Joshua 1-11, there was a gradual influx of nomads with their flocks from the eastern deserts into the central hill country. The infiltrators searched for pasturage and eventually settled the sparsely populated areas between urban centers. In other words, the stories of Joshua 1-11 are myths.
  • Peasant Revolt. In “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine” (1962) and The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition (1973), George Mendenhall argued that the origin of Israel was neither the result of a military invasion nor peaceful settlement, but a peasant revolt. Self-identified Israelites grew out of the indigenous shepherds, peasants and farmers rebelling against their Canaanite overlords. A small group of Semitic slaves may have escaped from Egypt and provided the catalyst to all of this, which would be the kernel of truth behind the war stories of Joshua 1-11.
  • Agricultural Resettlement. In The Bible Unearthed (2001), Israel Finkelstein (with coauthor Neil Asher Silberman) maintained there was no military invasion, peaceful infiltration, or peasant revolution. Israel emerged directly from within the Canaanite society of the lowlands, when it came into conflict with the Canaanite centers of the hill country. The emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite culture, not its cause, coming mostly from within. In other words, the early Israelites were Canaanites themselves.

It’s worth noting that Alt was a pacifist, Mendenhall a hard leftist who wrote in the wake of the Cuban revolution (1953-59), and Finkelstein has gained voice in a time of increased sensitivity for modern Palestinians (=”ancient Israelites”) who are deemed to have as much claim to the land as Jews (=”Canaanites”). Which isn’t to say that biases rule out the theories, only that these readings cut against the grain of the text and carry meanings in an age where ideas about military conquests and national invasions are increasingly out of favor.

For years I accepted Mendenhall’s view. I was taught it in my Old Testament class back in 1989, and it seemed a reasonable alternative. True, I was aware of the artificiality of a “peasant Israel”, since in antiquity blood ties were everything and trumped social-class bonds. (For the latter-day Jesus to base his religious family on social kin at the expense of biology is one thing; for an entire nation to emerge on the premise of social-class kinship is quite another.) But unlike the other two theories, it at least takes the text of Joshua with some seriousness. The point is that all of these theories exist because there is literally not a shred of archaeological confirmation for an exodus or military invasion in the period of Ramesses II.

What’s surprising is how popular this option remains when the text never refers to the person of Ramesses. Exodus 1:11 refers to the city of Ramesses, in the same way that Genesis 47:11 speaks of the land of Ramesses. No biblical scholar believes that Gen 47:11 refers to the actual time of Ramesses, but when it comes to Exodus 1:11 they suddenly do. One is just as much an anachronism as the other. For clarity, the biblical writer of Genesis and Exodus used the current name of the city for the benefit of people living in his time (the seventh century BC). They would have known the location by the name of Ramesses but probably not the older name of Goshen or Avaris. It’s no different from Americans saying that Dutch colonists founded the city of New York, even though they founded it as the city of New Amsterdam (in 1625), which later became New York (in 1664).

Option (b): Thutmose III (1446 BC)

If we forget Ramesses II and take I Kings 6:1 at face value, then the exodus happened in 1446 BC — the favored theory of evangelical scholars. The Pharaoh in 1446 was Thutmose III and he was basically the Napoleon of ancient Egypt, mightier than even Ramesses II (though less of a megalomaniac), who prosecuted countless military campaigns and made Egypt into a true empire under the 18th dynasty. Historians call his reign the strongest epoch in Egypt’s history. That doesn’t sound like an era in which a prophet and his Yahweh-god brought Egypt to its knees. (Though who am I kidding: to an evangelical, the humbling of the mightiest pharaoh would resound to God’s glory all the more.)

Those who like this option tend to manufacture questionable evidence. Consider Thutmose’s campaign to destroy all images of his stepmother Hatshepsut, who had not only reigned as a female pharaoh but as his own co-regent in his youth. Most Egyptologists ascribe his crusade to sexist pride: this Napoleon king would not have wanted to be recorded for posterity as the man who ruled for an entire 20 years under the thumb of a woman. He rewrote Egyptian history to liberate his own, and to portray a smooth succession of male rulers. The evangelical scholars, however, suggest a different reason. They claim that Hatshepsut was Moses’ Egyptian stepmother — the bold young queen who supposedly drew Moses from the Nile (Exod 2:5-10). If that’s true, and she raised Moses as her own son in the royal court (Acts 7:21), then after the Reed Sea calamity, Thutmose would have returned to Egypt on a vicious crusade to erase her foul memory from every corner of Egypt and remove all possibility of her spirit ascending to the afterlife.

It’s a rather silly theory. For one, I doubt there is any historical basis to the legend of the baby Moses rescued from the Nile. No one knew or cared who Moses was when he was a baby. Like the infancy narratives of Jesus, it’s a story ascribing honor to a prophet-nobody who became somebody. Thutmose’s crusade to wipe out Hatshepsut’s images is perfectly understandable for the reason Egyptologists tell us, and is no different from other efforts in Egypt’s history to obliterate memories of objectionable pharaohs (like the heretic Akhenaten, kings with questionable lineage, etc.).

The most relevant piece for this dating option is the battle of Jericho. Evangelicals feel confident dating it to around 1400 BC — in other words, to about 40 years after the exodus (on the 1446 option) as the bible implies. In her archaeological dig in the 1950s, Kathleen Kenyon dated the destruction of Jericho to around the 1550s BC. But in his article, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence” (1990), Bryant Wood re-dated the destruction of Jericho from 1550 to 1400, primarily on the basis of pottery analysis (Kenyon also based part of her analysis on pottery, so go figure). Wood has not gained support for his view outside the wishful-thinking of evangelical circles. All the pottery experts have dismissed his claim, and later analyses in the ’90s confirmed that Jericho was destroyed during the late 1600s or 1500s, basically as Kenyon said. Which takes us to the next option.

Option (c): Dudimose (c. 1650 BC)

Either of the above two options — the skeptical (a) or the evangelical (b) — puts the exodus in the New Kingdom period (1539-1069 BC), for which there is no evidence (Wood’s protest about Jericho notwithstanding). There is however a string of evidence that spans the Middle Kingdom (2060-1649 BC) and Second Intermediate Period (1649-1539) which is widely ignored in scholarship. David Rohl is the lead proponent of this view. Among the evidence he considers, there is:

First, the archaeological record of Semitic/Asiatic populations found at Avaris (the name of the city before it became Ramesses) in the 1800s-1600s. Based on the Ramesses theory, scholars had looked for evidence of the Israelite sojourn in either the 1400s-1200s (assuming a 215-year sojourn), or the 1600s-1200s period (assuming a 430-year sojourn), and never found anything. But everything that archaeologists have unearthed at the earlier site of Avaris indicates the people came from Canaan. They were shepherds and traders who began settling in the delta around the mid-1800s.

Evangelicals who advocate the Thutmose theory can fudge here by accepting this 1800s-1600s evidence and extending it down to the 1400s, on the assumption of a 430-year sojourn. But the dig at Avaris doesn’t show Semitics/Asiatics that late, and the idea of a 430-year sojourn has always been a problematic reading of the bible. The textual evidence for a 215-year sojourn outweighs it. Most sources (Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, Josephus) are unanimous in stating that the 430 years began only with Abraham’s arrival in Canaan, with Jacob’s arrival in Egypt marking the start of a 215-year sojourn. The archaeological record supports this.

By the reign of Sobekhotep III (26th ruler of the 13th dynasty, 1755-1751), the size of the Semitic population had grown. The archaeology shows a huge expansion of Avaris and more than twenty other sites containing Canaanite pottery. Around this time also comes evidence for slavery, with graves of skeletons showing signs of malnutrition and stress, and also an increase in infant graves, from a typical 25 percent rate to 50 percent — and on top of that, an increase in the remains of females who made it into adulthood as compared to male remains. This would align with the biblical account of male infants being put to death. There are also papyrus documents of the time which show that about half the domestic and estate slaves were Semitic, and it was probably even more than half since many of the Asiatic settlers had married native Egyptians and given their children Egyptian names.

Second, the account from a third century BC Egyptian chronicler, Manetho, who describes God (in the singular) “smiting” the Egyptians in the reign of Pharaoh Tutimaos (Greek for Dudimose). God smote the Egyptians in some way, which left them powerless so that foreigners could take over Egypt without bloodshed. The only time that happened was with the Hyksos, who brought the Middle Kingdom to and end and took over Egypt in the Second Intermediate period of 1649-1539. Manetho evidently understands the exodus (in which God wiped out the Egyptian forces at the Reed Sea) to have preceded the Hyksos takeover, which would be in the reign of Dudimose (c. 1653-1649).

Some Egyptologists say there were two pharaohs by this name, Djedhetepre Dudimose and Djedneferre Dudimose (Dudimose I and Dudimose II), while others say it was the same king who changed his prenomen mid-reign. If the former is true, then the exodus pharaoh is Dudimose II. Whichever is true, the evidence from excavations at Avaris indicate that the eastern delta suffered a calamity in Dudimose’s time, and the Asiatics picked up and left. Pits were found with bodies tossed in on top of each other, many face down. They apparently died from plague, and perhaps it was this mystery plague that was turned into God’s act in the tenth plague of Egypt. Which takes us to the next piece of evidence.

Third, the 13th-century Ipuwer Papyrus, containing the incomplete literary work called The Admonitions of Ipuwer which has been difficult to date. At first it was thought to be written around 2181-2060 BC, during the First Intermediate period and the time of civil war. But in 1966 John Van Seters made a strong case for dating it to the end of the Middle Kingdom on the eve of the Hyksos takeover. Of interest are the remarkable similarities between the catastrophes described in the Admonitions and the ten plagues of the bible. The parallels are usually dismissed since a 1600s date of composition precedes the date of the exodus by centuries. But if the exodus didn’t happen in either 1250 or 1446, but around 1650, then it’s right on the nose with Ipuwer. Here are the parallels.

Ipuwer Papyrus Exodus
Plague sweeps the land. Blood is everywhere with no shortage of the dead.

Egypt has fallen to the pouring water. And he who poured water on the ground seizes the mighty in misery.

The river is blood. As you drink of it, you lose your humanity and thirst for water.

There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. (Exod 2:6)

Yahweh said, “Take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground. The water you have taken from the river will turn to blood on the dry land.” (Exod 4:9)

All the water in the Nile turned to blood. The fish in the river died and the river stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink from it. (Exod 7:20-21)

Gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire. Lower Egypt weeps.

Gone is the grain of abundance. Food supplies are running short. The nobles hunger and suffer. Upper Egypt has become a wasteland. Grain is lacking on every side. The storehouse is bare. Women say, “Oh that we had something to eat!”

All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan and are left to stray, and there is none to gather them together.

Fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field. (Exod 9:23-25)

The flax and the barley were ruined. All the livestock of the Egyptians died. The locusts covered the surface of the ground until the land was devastated. And they devoured whatever was growing in the fields and all the fruit of the trees. (Exod 9:31, 9:6, 10:15)

“The hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, and there shall be a very grievous sickness. Gather thy cattle, and all that thou hast in the field.” And he that did not fear the word of the Lord left his servants and cattle in the field. (Exod 9:3,19,21)

What can we do about it? All is ruin.

Those that had shelter are now in the dark of the storm. The whole of the delta cannot be seen.

Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “Let the people go, that they may worship Yahweh their god. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is on the brink of ruin?” (Exod 10:7)

For three days there was thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt. (Exod 10:22)

Children are dashed against the walls. The funeral shroud calls out to you before you come near. He who buries his brother in the ground is everywhere. Wailing is throughout the land mingled with lamentations.

The slave takes what he finds. What belongs to the palace has been stripped. Gold, lapis, lazuli, silver, and turquoise are strung on the necks of female slaves. See how the poor of the land have become rich while the man of property is a pauper.

At midnight the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt. And there was a great wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without its dead. The Egyptians were burying those of their own people whom Yahweh had struck down. (Exod 12:29,30, Num 33:4)

The Israelites did as Moses had told them, and they asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewellery and for clothing. Yahweh had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians that they let them have what they asked. So they plundered the Egyptians. (Exod 12:35-36)

And fourth, the destruction of Jericho, which as we saw was dated by Kenyon and her later supporters between the late 1600s and mid 1500s. If the exodus was c. 1650, then the battle of Jericho would be c. 1610, which fits the time frame. But that’s not all. Kenyon’s findings were rather amazing: (1) Jericho was apparently destroyed by an earthquake, which matches the biblical legend of the walls falling down flat (Joshua 6:20); (2) Jericho was also destroyed by a massive conflagration, leaving ash several layers thick, which supports the account of Israelites burning Jericho to the ground (Joshua 6:24); (3) cave tombs at Jericho show multiple and simultaneous burials, which Kenyon had suggested as some kind of catastrophe or plague being responsible for, and which could be the same plague that the Israelites carried from weeks before (Numbers 25:1-9); (4) abundant supplies of unused grain were found in home storage jars, which supports the biblical testimony that the siege wasn’t long at all, only seven days (Joshua 6:15); (5) there could even be evidence for Rahab’s house — in a poor part of the town Kenyon found the only excavated part of the wall that did not collapse, with houses built into the wall just like Rahab’s (Joshua 2:15). The archaeological pattern of Jericho fits the biblical stories to a tee. But it’s where scholars refuse to look — in Egypt’s 2nd Intermediate Period, not the New Kingdom of the 18th or 19th dynasties.

New Chronology: The Work of David Rohl

But it’s not that simple, because this string of evidence — for the sojourn, exodus, and conquest — creates as many problems as it solves when pushed back to the 1800s-1600s. It would mean that a lot of other biblical events (the Philistines, the period of the judges, David’s reign, the consecration of Solomon’s temple, etc.) need be pushed back too, and there is no justification for such a massive realignment of biblical chronology. On the other hand, there are good reasons to revise Egyptian chronology, and this is what scholars like David Rohl have been doing since the 1990s. In his revision, the Middle Kingdom and 2nd Intermediate Period get reassigned from the 1800s-1600s to the 1600s-1400s, which means that the sojourn, exodus, and conquest — which, per the evidence above, align with those Egyptian periods — don’t end up getting pushed so far back after all.

To list all the reasons for Rohl’s revisionist project would demand multiple blogposts, but for now here’s a significant one: the problem of equating the biblical Shishak (925 BC) with Pharaoh Shoshenk I (the first pharaoh of the 22nd dynasty). The equation was made back in the 1820s by Jean-Francois Champollion, and it has become a thrice-damned unmovable mountain in our chronology of the ancient world. They are very doubtfully the same pharaoh. The biblical Shishak conquered Judah and plundered Jerusalem (I Kings 14:25-26; II Chronicles 12:1-12). Shoshenk did not. In the 1880s, it was found that Champollion was wrong in translating the hieroglyphics in Shoshenk’s campaign relief as “Judah the Kingdom”. It actually reads “Hand of the King”, has nothing to do with Judah, and in fact the campaign relief indicates that Shoshenk avoided Judah on his military campaign in (northern) Israel. Of the fifteen fortresses strengthened by Rehoboam to resist attack from the direction of Egypt, only one (Ajalon) appears on Shoshenk’s campaign list, and it’s the one directly on the route crossing the hill country north of the Judean border. Shoshenk was going to battle the armies of Aram-Damascus, who were plundering northern Israel and encroaching on his sphere of influence — not to attack the people of Judah. But since the 1880s everyone has kept assuming that he was Shishak. Virtually all of our Egyptian chronology, and thus of the ancient world, hangs on this biblical date of 925 BC connected to the probably wrong pharaoh. (As far as the real identity of Shishak, Rohl argues that he was a king of the 19th dynasty, not the 22nd; that’s three centuries off right there.)

In Rohl’s revised chronology, historical events get adjusted by on average 2-3 centuries by a massive re-evaluation of all the data. Here’s a snapshot of his revised timeline of the Middle to New Kingdoms of Egypt, from our conventional (C) dates to his new (N) ones.

Middle Kingdom
12th dynasty: 1938-1802 (C) –> 1803-1632 (N)
13th dynasty: 1802-1649 (C) –> 1632-1439 (N)

2nd Intermediate Period
14th-17th dynasties (Hyksos and rival Thebans): 1649-1539 (C) –> 1439-1202 (N)

New Kingdom
18th dynasty: 1539-1292 (C) –> 1202-962 (N)
19th dynasty: 1292-1190 (C) –> 962-866 (N)

So the pharaoh of the oppression, whom Rohl believes to be Sobekhotep III, reigned c. 1755 in our conventional chronology, and c. 1545 in the revised chronology. Dudimose, the pharaoh of the exodus, reigned 1653-1649, which translates to 1450-1446. This means that the exodus actually did happen in 1446, as the evangelicals claim (I Kings 6:1 is correct after all), but not in the time of the New Kingdom’s 18th dynasty, rather two centuries before, at the end of the Middle Kingdom’s 13th dynasty. The conquest of Canaan moves from c. 1610 to c. 1410, which again makes the evangelicals technically right, but profoundly wrong in how they align biblical events with the rest of the world.

Conclusion

I’m not urging overnight conversions to the new chronology or the acceptance of every new dating period fixed by Rohl (of which there are hundreds). But the project does deserve to be taken seriously. In a documentary called Patterns of Evidence (2014), Israel Finkelstein is interviewed and scorns revisionist efforts, saying that the margin of error for our conventional dating is surely no more than ten years. But that’s not true. All you have to do is pick up a book written by an Egyptian specialist, for example Toby Wilkinson’s Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (2010), which in the first pages provides a timeline of all the dynasties from 2950 to 30 BC. The timeline is prefaced by a warning that the margin of error for the dates is “within a century or so” for the period of 2950-1300 BC. In other words, for at least the period we’re concerned with (prior to 1300 BC), this historian acknowledges the margin of error to be at least a century. That’s a revealing admission, and I suspect Wilkinson is low-balling the figure, considering some of the flimsy foundations on which our chronology rests. David Rohl’s shifts of two to three centuries don’t seem so radical in this light.

At the very least, I’m persuaded to abandon the peasant-revolt theory in favor of a traditional conquest. Not in a maximalist way, to be sure. The bible is full of legendary embellishment. But if I’m skeptical of the bible, I’m just as skeptical of hyper-skepticism.

Robert Spencer’s manufactured dispute with Sam Harris

spencer-harrisRobert Spencer of Jihad Watch claims that Sam Harris has “lost his nerve” and is no longer opposed to Islamic supremacism in any meaningful way. This is frankly bullshit, and Harris has responded appropriately, to which Spencer replied in turn. Read the interchange here.

Spencer is not impressed by Harris’s association with Maajid Nawaz (in the photo to the right), which is unfortunate since Nawaz is just what we need today: a Muslim believer who has been pushing for reform in the Islamic world. But the part I want to focus on is the presidential election. Spencer grounds much of his grievance in Harris’ support for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. This despite the fact that Harris (as  mentioned in his reply to Spencer) has called out Hillary for her (and Obama’s) woefully inadequate policies which enable jihad.

But it’s worse than that. Not only does Sam Harris agree more than disagree with Robert Spencer on the subject of Hillary Clinton, Robert Spencer agrees more than disagrees with Sam Harris on the subject of Donald Trump. Or at least he used to. In the past he has excoriated Trump as strongly as Harris has. This, for example, is what he said last December:

“I will never support Trump for President, even were he to knock on my door, get on one knee, and ask for my vote. I could never support a candidate who advocates kowtowing to violent intimidation and submitting to the Islamic supremacist war against the freedom of speech, as he did after the jihad attack on our event in Garland, Texas.” (Robert Spencer, Jihad Watch.)

Here’s another:

“Donald Trump shows here that he is a very, very frightening candidate: he would restrict the freedom of speech as part of some attempt to deal with the jihad threat: in other words, he would have us give up our freedom in exchange for security… Trump is just the sort of shoot-from-the-hip blowhard demagogue who could administer the coup de grace to a system of freedom that is already staggering under body blows given to it for nearly seven years by Barack Obama.” (Robert Spencer, Jihad Watch)

Please note that I’m not faulting Spencer for changing his mind and voting for Trump. Anyone can change their mind. I changed my mind. I had intended to vote third party, but in the week before the election made a Facebook call advising everyone to vote for Hillary Clinton, given how close Trump was closing in on the polls. Anyone can change their mind, and that’s fine. Again: I am not criticizing Spencer for changing his mind.

My point is rather that for someone who said only last year that he would “never support Trump for President, even were he to knock on my door, get on one knee, and ask for my vote”, and then now decides to make a big issue over Sam Harris’s decision to not vote for Donald Trump (as Spencer himself said he wouldn’t) — that’s a fucking hypocrisy way off the scales.

It’s even worse than that. Not only has Harris called out Hillary Clinton (and Obama) repeatedly for their inadequacies, he went so far as to say that he could have conceivably voted for Donald Trump, if essentially he were a single-issue voter. This is what he said in an interview on the Rubin Report:

“If I was just concerned about terrorism, and then I saw Clinton and Obama not making any sense in the aftermath of something like Orlando, and then defending that obscurantism with a sanctimonious and bullying speech [Obama’s speech, in which he refused to acknowledge Islam as the major factor which drove the Orlando shooter]… If I just had that to go on, then I could see voting for Trump.” (Sam Harris, “Liberals have made Trump possible”, (3:53-5:17))

So not only do we have (a) Robert Spencer swearing he will never vote for Trump, but then does, we have (b) Sam Harris admitting that if he screened out all other issues he weighs in assessing presidential candidates, and just focused on Islam and the problem of global jihad, he could conceivably vote for Trump. The difference is that Sam Harris (like me) isn’t a single-issue voter. Robert Spencer is.

It’s clear that Spencer has manufactured a dispute with Harris, and they are far more alike than different. It’s bad enough that we have to move mountains in order to convince leftists how wrong they are on this subject. Fabricating disagreements like this doesn’t help. Harris’ reply to Spencer is bang-on. At the same time, I commend both Robert Spencer and Sam Harris equally for debating cordially with each other. This is how discussions should proceed between the right and left.

Reading Roundup: 2016

This was a really good year for books. Read all of these if you can make time.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. If you can only make time for one book on my list, pick this one. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

marginal2. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four — yes, only four — with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. Meier shows that the dominant view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. Full review here.

moh_and_cha_revisited3. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for 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, and 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 may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. And from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. This is essential reading for understanding the genesis of medieval Christendom. Full review here.

night-comes4. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

atheist-muslim5. The Atheist Muslim, Ali Rizvi. This book is the best example I know of how to criticize religion — and with a razor when necessary — without attacking people in the process. Rizvi begins with Thomas Jefferson who launched the first U.S. international war against Islamic jihadists who were for no apparent reason attacking U.S. ships sailing into the Mediterranean. Jefferson wanted to know why, and in the words of the Muslim ambassador, they were simply doing as Muhammad commanded, that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. This was two centuries ago, long before ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the Iranian revolution, modern drone strikes — and long before any established “U.S. foreign policy”, which is not what calls forth jihadist warfare in any case. Rizvi refutes false dichotomies (with zingers like “saying that culture is the problem and not religion is like saying, ‘It’s not falling out of the airplane that kills you, it’s the ground.’”), and suggests that what makes the Qur’an so dangerous is that it combines the worldly violence of the Old Testament with the afterlife violence of the New. His chapter on free speech, and the necessity of defending even hate speech, is unassailable. This is a book that anyone can and should learn from, even if you don’t particularly identify with atheism (as I don’t). Full review here.

chaos6. Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968, James Crossley. I like the use of 1968 as a benchmark. I was born that year and it probably says something about me. Crossley calls it “the key moment of historical chaos” that triggered huge cultural shifts worldwide. Fury over Vietnam. Flower power. Hippies and drugs. And the backlash to all of this. Crossley focuses on the impact of this chaos in the U.K. and on four evolving English views of the bible: (1) the Cultural Bible of western heritage and literature, (2) the Liberal Bible of democratic thought (freedom of conscience, rights, and consensus against tyranny), (3) the Neoliberal Bible of Margaret Thatcher (individualism, free trade, the priority of the market and individual responsibility against state power for the common good and elimination of poverty), and (4) the Radical Bible of liberation theology (socialism and revolutionary transformation). It’s an excellent chronicle of how politicians and public figures use the bible, and confirms my long-standing opinion that the Judeo-Christian tradition is saturated with ideas that lend themselves to both socialistic and individualistic values in almost equal measure. Be sure to get the revised (2016) version, which improves on the 2014 with a chapter covering the past two years, especially David Cameron’s speeches upholding the Neoliberal Bible while Jeremy Corbyn’s invoke the Radical Bible. I’d love to see Crossley write a book like this focused on American politics.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). This was published in 2015 but I read it this year. If you want to know what specialists say about the crusades without reading dense tomes this is exactly the book for you. It’s easily accessible and grounded in peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord example of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, tailored for medieval knights whose profession was sinful to begin with, and they were never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, and to my surprise, many people have thanked me for recommending it. Further notes about the book here.

paul-behaving-badly8. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk?, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. For an evangelical book I have to admit it handles Paul pretty evenly. The authors apply the idea of a “trajectory hermeneutic”, where biblical principles that initially have little effect produce significant change over time. So if Paul required women to be submissive and dress appropriately in certain contexts, he also considered women to be his missionary colleagues, not to mention deaconesses, which means that his teaching was at least in a direction of liberating women. Same with slavery: in antiquity it was the natural backbone of society, with rigid lines between slaves and masters, and Paul could never have condemned the institution and be taken seriously. But he did teach that slaves and masters were brothers on equal footing in the Christian family, and because of that, masters can’t assault their slaves with impunity. Paul at least pushes in a direction of protection and liberation of slaves. On the subject of homosexuality, Paul’s trajectory is in the negative direction. In Roman culture homoerotic sex may have shamed the passive male, but it celebrated the dominant (penetrating) one. Paul condemned both active and passive roles, pushing in a direction of more restriction rather than liberation, even concluding — though the authors frankly avoid this unpleasant point — that sodomites are “worthy of death”. On whole this is a balanced treatment that helps one understand the importance of trajectory hermeneutics, and why it’s not the case that scriptures are malleable to the same degree, or in the same direction, on any issue.

assholes.jpg9. Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, Aaron James. Now that Trump has been elected, this book is more sobering than entertaining. On the one hand, it’s true that much of Trump’s success owes to American anger with the establishment, income inequality, leftists who make honest discussions (about free speech, Islam, etc.) difficult, and other things. That’s understandable; he’s an outsider to a system that has failed us. But he isn’t a competent or humane outsider. He’s an asshole, and recognized as such even by his fans. How does an ass win the presidency? “To sum up my answer,” says James, “he flashes between different asshole types, boorish one moment, self-aggrandizing the next, then bullshitting, all while managing to be very entertaining. Trump is a stunning, even likable showman. His display of the asshole arts — as schoolyard bully, or cutdown boxer — is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. The question is then why enough of us are not flatly revolted. My answer is that we — most of us — really like an ass-clown. We are drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle leaves us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes.” He’s about to plant his worthless ass in the Oval Office, so get ready for the worst next month. Full review here.

Christmas Carol Playlist (King’s College Choir)

Just to prove I’m not a complete Scrooge, here’s my ode to the holiday. Christmas carols are pretty much the only thing I like about this time of year, and there is no better choir than the King’s College of Cambridge. They’ve been celebrating their Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve since 1918 (it’s almost their 100th anniversary), and have broadcast it live on the BBC since 1954. It’s as much a concert as a worship service, practically.

Here are my favorites ranked in descending order. You can click on the images to hear the carols, but if you want to listen to them all, I don’t recommend my ranking sequence. Instead, click on my playlist at the bottom, which follows a rough order used in the King’s College services. Starting with #7 and ending with #3 is the right way to do it.

firstnoel

The First Noel

1. The First Noel. William Sandys (editor), 1833. My favorite carol has obscure origins. It probably originated in 15th-century France before being brought across the English channel by the troubadours. Sandys published it in his famous Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. Its structure is unusual, a single phrase repeated twice followed by a refrain that varies on the phrase. It was used as an instrumental in the final scene of Doubt, which isn’t a Christmas film though none the less powerful for it. The King’s College Choir (click right) does a great job.

wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas

2. Good King Wenceslas. John Mason Neale, 1853. Social justice warrior of the tenth century: a Czech king who marches through miserable weather to feed a poor peasant, helping his page along the way who nearly dies from the cold. The story is based on the historical Saint Wenceslaus I (907–935), who was considered a martyr after his death. The lyrics were written in 1853 to the tune of an obscure 13th-century song. It’s considered a Christmas carol because the story takes place on the Feast of Stephen, the day after Christmas, but a great song that I listen to all year round. This choir version (click right) isn’t the King’s College, but it is the best.

come-all-ye

O Come All Ye Faithful

3. O Come All Ye Faithful. John Francis Wade, 1751. Some say that Wade wrote the song himself, others that he stole from an anonymous Latin Hymn written by monks in the 13th century. The version we know comes from the Reverend Frederick Oakeley, who was ordained into the Church of England in 1828 and then converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. (Turning Roman seems to have been a thing for some of these carolists; see #5 for example.) I love the song to pieces, which surprises me, since the refrain, “O come let us adore him” should by rights sound oversentimental. It doesn’t. It’s one of the most moving in music history, and the King’s College choir nails it (click right).

seven-joys

The Seven Joys of Mary

4. The Seven Joys of Mary. William Sandys (editor), 1833. The earworm of Christmas carols, catchy as hell. It tells of Mary’s happiness at key moments in Jesus’ life: Jesus (1) being born, (2) curing the lame, (3) curing the blind, (4) reading the Torah in the Temple, (5) raising the dead, (6) dying on the crucifix, and (7) wearing the crown of heaven. (I’m not sure any mother would find joy in watching her son die on a crucifix, but there you have it in the sixth joy of Mary.) The tradition of Mary’s joys goes back to the 14th century, but the origin of the song is a mystery. The King’s College choir uses tenors in the first, second, and fourth joys, and baritones in the third and fifth, to great effect (click right).

see-amid

See Amid the Winter Snow

5. See Amid the Winter Snow. Edward Caswall, 1858. An obscure gem that for whatever reason the King’s College Choir never seems to perform as part of their annual festival. But they’ve recorded it in studio (click right) which is the best version of I’ve heard. It’s a haunting hymn that Caswall wrote shortly after leaving the Church of England and becoming Roman Catholic, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the short shrift it’s given in Anglican circles. The theme of snow in a Bethlehem setting is amusing, and apparently has been justified as a metaphor of purity against the sins of the world.

god-rest-you-merry-gentlemen

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

6. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. William Sandys (editor), 1833. This one resonates from the mists of the 15th century, with the earliest known printed edition dating to 1760. Much has been written on why the comma comes after “merry”, and not “ye”, but less known it that the song has nothing whatsoever to do with being happy. The word “merry” means strong or mighty, as in “Merry Old England”, and the word “rest” means to keep. So the song literally means, “God keep you mighty, gentlemen,” in reference to lamplighters and other various men who were hired to patrol the streets during the holiday. Tidings of comfort in beating down rabble rousers!

once-in-royal

Once in Royal David’s City

7. Once in Royal David’s City. Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848. For almost 100 years now (since 1919), the King’s College choir has begun its annual service with this song as the processional hymn. The first verse is always sung solo by a boy between age 9-13, the second verse by the choir, with the congregation joining in after. The choir director chooses the soloist at the very last moment — literally seconds before the song begins — in order to prevent the poor boy from losing sleep the night before, or being a bundle of nerves all morning, from the prospect of being watched live by millions of viewers on the BBC. I chose the 2012 version (click right). The kid looks completely confident to me.

o-little-town

O Little Town of Bethlehem

8. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Phillips Brooks, 1868. Brooks was a rather passionate American Episcopal priest who advocated against slavery during the Civil War. In 1865 he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he participated in a five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration, and he was so inspired by the village of Bethlehem that he wrote the poem for his church three years later. His organist added music to it, and they never dreamed the song would be remembered by anyone, let alone have the lasting impact it did. It’s one of those tunes that’s incredibly compulsive in its modesty (click right).

hark-the-herald

Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

9. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. Charles Wesley, 1739. It took four people after Wesley to tweak this song into the form we sing today, which is kind of a shame. Wesley’s original had some juicy elements, for example in referencing the Fall from Eden, with the serpent bruising the heel of humanity and Adam bruising its head. Wesley was cleverly suggesting that the serpent in a believer (sin) should be bruised (defeated) by Christ, the second Adam, who reinstates the believer as a beloved son of God. In any case, this is a famous carol for good reason, and the King’s College choir does it justice (click right).

shepherds-in-the-field-abiding

Shepherds in the Field Abiding

10. Shepherds in the Field Abiding. George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1910. This works even better as an instrumental, so I use a pipe organ version; it sounds transcendent (click right). Woodward was an Anglican priest who often fit his songs to melodies from the Renaissance, and in this case landed a jewel. Funny as I’m writing this up, an old Peace Corps friend just posted on Facebook a folk session of this song that he did with his band at a night club, which also sounded really good. Many carols are torpedoed by creativity, but this one seems made for permutations.

If you want to hear the whole list, I’ve arranged them in a suitable order: 7->1->8->9->5->4->2->6->3.