A New Day

After nearly a decade on Blogger, The Busybody has come to WordPress. Blogger has been increasingly unreliable since the Google takeover, so I’ve migrated. I’ll be keeping the old blog up, so don’t fear: if you’ve linked to my posts over the years, they will be preserved. But the old posts are now on the new blog as well, and moving forward, I will only be posting at WordPress.

This first post will serve as a looking back on some of my popular hits from the past nine years (as Sitemeter reports them), which you can revisit below and see how things look in the new template.

Classic D&D Modules Ranked
50 Films I’d Save
Ellen Page

Historical Jesus Pick List
“Paul and the Law” Pick List
Context Group Essentials
Abraham the “Father of Everyone”?
Get Thee Behind Me, Subjective Genitive
Treachery at Antioch
Q, Thomas, and Killjoy Scholarship
The Fools Who Believe in Secret Mark

Phil Robertson is like a Jihadist: He Knows His Scriptures

It should go without saying that Phil Robertson is a public embarrassment, but it’s also important to keep our facts straight. As Jason Staples does in his recent blogpost, which is worth citing at length:

“The quote on the left [see image to the right] is not Robertson’s at all. It is a quotation of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. Remarkably, two of the three quotes attributed to Robertson… are not Robertson’s words at all but rather direct quotes from the New Testament (the other coming from Rom 1:24–32).

“It’s also worth noting that Pope Francis presumably agrees with these quotes from the apostle Paul, which have long guided Catholic tradition in this area; he has simply changed the rhetoric surrounding the issue to emphasize that the Church does not and (at least in terms of doctrine) has never reduced people to behavior or desires, emphasizing that a person is more than his/her sexual preferences or choices. Robertson, of course, said much the same thing, though far less eloquently than the philosophically-trained Pope, in his GQ interview.

“How exactly the Pope interprets these passages [emphasis mine] is unclear, and that’s the discussion that would be more valuable here. Instead of ripping Robertson for quoting these passages, the more worthwhile discussion concerns Robertson’s interpretation and application of these passages in the modern day. But instead, numerous media outlets have irresponsibly misattributed these quotations with the presumed aim of demonizing Robertson without such a discussion. The way many have latched onto Pope Francis’ rhetorically attractive but still firmly traditional quotations without acknowledging that he continues to uphold traditional church teaching (the ‘only’ in the above quote [to the right] is quite significant) is similarly problematic.”

This is well put, and is the same problem we’ve seen repeatedly when post-9/11 critics quote the Qur’an and are then accused of misrepresenting the Qur’an. It happens all the time to Robert Spencer when he quotes militant passages preaching hate and warfare against non-Muslims, and when he furthermore points out that there is currently no mainstream sect of Islam or school of Islamic jurisprudence that has officially re-interpreted or spiritualized these passages. (All four schools of Islamic jurisprudence still teach that the Muslim community should wage war against unbelievers and subjugate them under its rule.) Of course, there are millions of Muslims who ignore this and choose to co-exist peacefully with others; but that doesn’t change what the Qur’an actually teaches and what mainstream Islam continues to uphold. As an analogy, the Catholic Church continues to affirm the intrinsic immorality of contraceptives, even if many Catholics ignore the teaching.

The point is that Phil Robertson is not “misrepresenting Christianity”. He is citing Paul verbatim. Now, one might argue that he is taking Paul’s statements out of context, but frankly I don’t even think that’s the case, because Paul’s indictments largely transcend his sitz im leben. Scholars tell us he was swiping temple prostitution (pederasty) as part of his attack in Rom 1:24-32 and I Cor 6:9-10, and while that’s undoubtedly true, it’s not the whole story. The apostle hated male homosexuality across the board. The flip-side, however, is worth noting: like the rest of the bible, Paul is silent on the subject of female homosexuality if Rom 1:26 points to alternative heterosexual behavior instead of lesbianism. This isn’t surprising: as the product of an honor-shame macho culture, he was (certainly) homophobic about male homo-eroticism, and (possibly) indifferent to female homo-eroticism.

I admire Paul greatly as an historical figure and early Christian thinker, but I consider his views on (male) homosexuality to be obsolete — as obsolete as his instruction for women in the church. I take for granted there is nothing remotely immoral or wrong about homosexual behavior between two consenting adults. Jason Staples probably thinks differently. But where we agree is on how issues like this should be assessed. If someone is unambiguously upholding Paul’s position, that should be acknowledged instead of implying that he’s fabricating his own bigotry; if someone more admirable (like Pope Francis, whom I do have much respect for) is more delicately upholding Paul’s position, that too should be called out for what it is. When Islamic radicals cite the necessity of the jihad, they are doing justice to their Qur’an, and it’s not “Islamophobic” to point this out. It is not hateful to point out hateful passages or homophobic ones. If we’re going to confront problems like holy wars and homophobia, we need to do so honestly, and the honesty begins by acknowledging that problems like these are often embedded in the scripture of one’s religion. They won’t go away by pretending that they’re overblown, misunderstood, or even invented by fringe fanatics or bigots.

The Five

I can’t remember the last time I read a novel like The Five.

If you like suspense, horror, and rock music, then this book is tailor made for you.

And for my money, it’s Robert McCammon’s best book since Boy’s Life.

McCammon’s horror novels of the ’80s were great: he gave us Amazon women who slaughtered men by night in a remote Pennsylvania village; city-slicking vampires running over Los Angeles; the descendents of Poe’s Usher family; a Russian werewolf infiltrating Nazi Germany. But in the ’90s he broke the mold. First with Boy’s Life, a coming of age story so literary it deserved Cliff Notes, and still does. (Think The Adventures of Tom Sawyer meets The Prince of Tides meets the author’s unique elements.) Then with Gone South, a throttling page-turner about a man on the run from a tragic mistake, yet moving toward a weird redemption without knowing it. Like these latter efforts, The Five resists genre-labeling and contains moments transcendent enough to read like classic literature.

So what’s it about? A dirt-poor indie rock band (called The Five, three men and two women), drive around in a van and play gigs across the southwestern U.S., chasing dreams of success. They finally get exactly that, but at a nasty price when a crazy ex-Marine sniper starts picking them off for comments made by the lead singer about soldiers in Iraq. Suddenly the band’s concerts swell in proportion to the media vultures, and with the fame comes devastation. It’s a nail-biter punctuated with slow pauses and soul-searching, both parts just as hard to put down.

The narrative is saturated with the author’s love for rock n roll. It’s no mean feat to make a reader “hear” music off the page, yet that’s what I was doing — crafting my own mental jams and drawing on textures from favorite bands. (You’ll make your own associations, but I imagined The Five as sounding grungy like The Smashing Pumpkins and searing like The Walkmen.) This was especially true for the signature song written by all of the band members instead of the usual two: it takes on a curious life throughout the story, as it’s born of harrowing events and each band member finds his or her muse at the oddest, eeriest moments.

There’s even some of the supernatural in The Five: it appears unexpectedly and with enough subtlety that you’re never quite sure if there is something ghostly or psychological going on. But for all its terrors, The Five is ultimately about the enduring power of music and the feverish creativity of artists. It’s a brilliant story, and one I’ll be reading again at some point.

The Walkmen: A Playlist

It’s interesting to follow debates about The Walkmen. I say the band’s later albums (You & Me, Lisbon, Heaven) are superior to the early ones (Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, Bows + Arrows, A Hundred Miles Off). Those who believe oppositely won’t be fond this playlist, but for better or worse, they are my Walkmen picks, meant to be played in order. Naturally, “The Rat” caps it off — usually the last song played at concerts — and I kick it off with “In the New Year”, which is not only my favorite Walkmen song but one of my favorite songs of all time.

1. In the New Year. You & Me, 2008.
2. Juveniles. Lisbon, 2010.
3. Louisiana. A Hundred Miles Off, 2006.
4. Line by Line. Heaven, 2012.
5. Song for Leigh. Heaven, 2012.
6. Nightingales. Heaven, 2012.
7. Heaven. Heaven, 2012.
8. Red Moon. You & Me, 2008.
9. Stranded (Live). Lisbon, 2010.
10. The Rat (Live). Bows + Arrows, 2004.

Walder Frey = Aragorn

In his recent interview about the Red Wedding, George Martin explains the medieval laws of hospitality which decreed that host and guest were not allowed to harm each other even if they were the worst enemies. This is what makes Walder Frey’s treachery beyond the pale: he offered Robb Stark the sacred peace of table-fellowship, and then had him slain under his roof as they feasted and danced. The Red Wedding has become legendary in the fantasy community, and the TV series did it full justice last Sunday. You can watch it here:

I started wondering about characters from other fantasies who are treacherous in the way of Walder Frey. The closest analogy I could come up with is a bit of a shocker: Aragorn, from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation. Aragorn’s beheading of the Mouth of Sauron is an outrageous act of murder that makes him a war criminal. The Mouth was an ambassador, under the equivalent of a flag of truce when negotiating with the enemy, and obviously had diplomatic immunity. As he says in Tolkien’s Return of the King, “I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed.” Gandalf agrees, replying that “you have naught to fear from us until your errand is done”. The Gandalf and Aragorn of Tolkien’s classic uphold the rules of diplomatic immunity; the Mouth of Sauron is under no physical danger from them, or from anyone in the Host of the West, during negotiations, even as the Mouth gloats over Frodo’s torture and the Ring being on its way to Sauron. Only when their meeting is over, and he retreats back through the Black Gate, does battle begin.

In Jackson’s film, however, Aragorn reacts like a dishonorable barbarian who in a fit of rage decapitates the Mouth. Watch here:

The purists were right that Tolkien would have been appalled. This Aragorn stoops to a level that’s obscene by even Jackson’s standards. Don’t get me wrong: unlike the purists, I applaud the move, as I like protagonists who are deeply flawed, and Tolkien’s were never flawed enough. I like the war-criminal Aragorn in the same way I like the “Clockwork Orange” Faramir whose rangers sadistically beat the daylights out of Gollum at the Forbidden Pool; it’s excellent drama. What Jackson’s Aragorn did was clearly wrong, but it makes him more interesting than Tolkien’s hero.

So there you have it. The film version of Aragorn is the closest fantasy analog to Walder Frey. Both did the unthinkable by murdering those under sacred immunity rights. The obvious objection to my analogy is that the people murdered by Walder Frey were decent and likeable, whereas the Mouth of Sauron was anything but, but that’s not the point. The fact that we identify with Aragorn’s pain and rage over Frodo doesn’t affect the conclusion here. Anger and helplessness are no excuse for murdering ambassadors at a negotiations meeting. (Jackson’s) Aragorn is just as treacherous as Walder Frey.

Imagine eating like this

From George Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, pp 26-28 condensed:

“They began with a broth of crab and monkfish, and cold egg lime soup as well. Then came quails in honey, a saddle of lamb, goose livers drowned in wine, buttered parsnips, and suckling pig. Tyrion had never eaten so well, even at court. Next came mushrooms kissed with garlic and bathed in butter, a heron stuffed with figs, veal cutlets blanched with almond milk, creamed herring, candied onions, foul-smelling cheeses, plates of snails and sweetbreads, and a black swan in her plumage.”

A black swan in her plumage? I’d be in cardiac arrest before that point.

The Mission UK: The Top 10

Remember that gothic rock band from the ’80s, who lost their talent in the ’90s, and believe it or not are still cranking out the latter-day tripe? Well, I’m sticking with the golden oldies. Here are their ten best songs from the early days, ranked in descending order.

1. Beyond the Pale. 1988. Beyond censure. The band’s best song.

2. Garden of Delight (Hereafter Version). 1986. This haunting version completely buries the original.

3. Wasteland. 1986. The band’s most emblematic song, and the one that got me hooked.

4. Dance on Glass. 1986. Gothic to the core, evoking brutal fairy tales.

5. Tower of Strength. 1988. The band’s most popular and compulsive song.

6. Grapes of Wrath. 1990. It sounds like a national anthem, and damn if it still doesn’t give me chills.

7. Sacrilege. 1986. “Toss and turn on a cross to burn.” I played this so much in college it was ridiculous.

8. Severina. 1986. A gift from the gods.

9. Kingdom Come. 1988. A catchy, thundering ode to eschatology.

10. Hands Across the Ocean (Palmer Version). 1990. A real earworm, and better than the grating popular version.

The Hobbit: An Overextended Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was definitely too long and perhaps too ambitious, but then I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece. It’s barely a fresh tomato (65%) as opposed to the gourmet ratings of each of the Lord of the Rings films (92%, 96%, 94%), and while I often cut against critical consensus, the reviews in this case are a pretty reliable gauge. The film is bloated like King Kong and proof that Peter Jackson needs an editor. Yet there’s a lot I liked about it, most of which doesn’t even come from the book, which makes my feelings paradoxical; I’m complaining about an oversized length while commending material that by rights has no place in the story.

My favorite is Radagast the Brown, and he fits perfectly in a plot involving the Necromancer of Dol Guldur. Tolkien’s story had no room for this menace. The Hobbit was written for children, and it certainly never explained why Gandalf abandoned Bilbo and the dwarves once they hit Mirkwood Forest. You have to read Lord of the Rings to learn what his “pressing business” was in the southern neck of the woods. Jackson isn’t sidestepping that business, in fact, he’s making Sauron the villain as much as Smaug — an ambitious project, to be sure, one that dramatically divides our interest, and it could turn out a mess. But meanwhile I love Radagast, who keeps a watch on the Hill of Sorcery, where the Necromancer (= Sauron) rolls out his poison against the forest.

Purists, to be sure, are already howling over the way Radagast is so “disrespectfully” portrayed. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he is dismissed as a crank only through the scorn of Saruman, while Jackson goes out of his way to make him a half-baked lunatic who lets birds nest in his hair and shit down his beard. This last gratifies me immensely, and I can’t see what the fuss is about. (Perhaps being a purist entails not only a fundamentalist worship of the text, but also an unyielding disdain for anything vulgar like feces.) I adore everything about Jackson’s Radagast. We’re introduced to him as he tends to a dying hedgehog while his house is attacked by giant spiders; he remains tenderly focused on the hedgehog to its last gasp. Later he rescues Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves from a warg attack, by running tails around the beasts with a (yes) rabbit-pulled sleigh. This sleigh has already become famous, and is admittedly quite silly, but only in the same appropriately silly way that hobbits dance to frivolous songs on barroom tables.

My second favorite part is that which is actually most faithful to the book: the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum. I retain a special fondness for the Rankin & Bass animated treatment of this scene, so it’s saying something that I think Jackson’s is just as good. He delivers the exact same riddles from Tolkien’s story, and a flawless depiction of Gollum’s schizophrenia — his hate and desperation mixed with loneliness and a craving of the company of his own kind. It’s the heart of Unexpected Journey and carries a tense introspective thrust that resonates across future decades.

The final scene of this episode even outdoes the riddle contest, in spotlighting the “pity of Bilbo” which will of course become the basis for Gandalf’s sermon to Frodo. Greg Wright summarizes the lesson nicely:

“The important point is not entirely that Bilbo finds room in his heart for mercy, motivated by pity. It’s that, through that merciful act, the larger Providential arc of Divine movement is worked out. Neither Bilbo, nor Frodo, nor even Gandalf, Elrond, or Galadriel, are powerful enough to save Middle-earth from great Evil. Evil will ultimately destroy itself through its own evil impulses, and Gollum is the agent of that demise — in spite of the best intentions of others.”

Bilbo’s pity, here and now in The Hobbit, is what saves Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings — not Frodo (who will be a foreordained failure, unable to resist the Ring when it matters most), nor Gandalf (who can only aid the Free Peoples per his charge), and certainly not Aragorn (who will rule as a mere reminder of man’s past glory and not a promise of any future glory). Bilbo’s compassion makes possible what no member of the Fellowship can accomplish, and Jackson foreshadows the euchatastrophe beautifully. Gollum’s tortured look is heartbreaking, and carries none of the cheesy melodrama that mars some the interactions between, say, Bilbo and Thorin.

There’s more that I enjoyed in Unexpected Journey, but Radagast and Gollum stole the show. The Southern Mirkwood plot involves the White Council (Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Ganalf) meeting at Rivendell, another delight for Tolkien fans, even if centuries of Necromancer history are outrageously condensed into a single year. I also liked the prologue of Smaug laying waste to Erebor; we don’t get to see the dragon yet, and this somehow made the fire attack even more terrifying. What I didn’t like was all the self-indulgent air front-loading the story in the Shire. The return of Frodo left me nonplussed (and Elijah Wood is looking too old now), and it took too long for the dwarves to assemble in Bag End, sing songs, gorge themselves, and get Bilbo to sign their bloody contract. Mind you, I love Bag End and am not averse to lingering in the Shire per se. In the extended version of Fellowship of the Ring I savored every moment of the 40-minute first act, as none of it dragged, even when doing little more than fleshing out character moments. The theatrical Hobbit, by contrast, gives us a 45-minute Shire episode which feels twice the length it needed to be — a hyper-extended version that wouldn’t even be warranted on DVD.

Then there is Goblin Town. If Bag End made me yawn with its vacuousness, Goblin Town bored me twice as much with its ridiculous excesses. Jackson’s Spielberg-sickness has plainly gotten the better of him since King Kong. Granted there’s always some suspension of disbelief required in fantasy blockbusters, but once dwarves are leaping over crumbling bridges like Olympic athletes, and falling down chasms with hardly a scratch, suspension of disbelief is a non-sequitur. It’s the same as Ann Darrow plummeting through hundreds of feet of tree branches while doing impossible trapeze artistry, or King Kong whipping her to and fro enough times to snap her body like a twig; or like Indiana Jones bailing out of a plane with a goddamn river raft. It’s adolescent fanboy nonsense that recognizes no laws of physics whatsoever, and makes acrobatic superheroes by sheer wish-fulfillment.

And that’s not all. The Goblin-King himself is a major offense, resembling Jabba the Hut and speaking like a toad out of a lame Tim Burton film. Ironically, the other orc baddie, Azog, is impressively fearsome, and he doesn’t even belong in the story; in the Tolkien canon he was killed by dwarves over a century ago. But in Jackson’s revisionism Azog only appeared to die at the Battle of Azanulbizar, so he can now resurface and wreak vengeance on Thorin. I enjoyed this invented storyline far more than the “legitimate” Goblin-Town drama, and I’m sure purists will hate me for approving Jackson’s liberties.

Those who complain that Jackson has made The Hobbit too much like Lord of the Rings miss the point. The Dol Guldur plot involves the Lord of the Rings and is the other half of the story I always wanted to see. (Then too I have fond if brutal gaming memories of Southern Mirkwood.) In the grand scheme of things, the White Council’s strike against the Necromancer is more epic than the dwarves’ against Smaug. The question is whether or not Jackson bit off more than he can chew and can make these two threads mesh well. The next two films will tell. This one is really an over-extended journey, a bloated stage-setter, that simultaneously engages and divides our interest.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Herschel Shanks and Harvard’s "Cowardice"

I’m not the biggest fan of Herschel Shanks, and his take on the “Jesus’ Wife” controversy doesn’t surprise me. He writes:

“What is wrong…is for the Harvard Theological Review to suspend publication because of the dispute about authenticity. Dispute is the life of scholarship. It is to be welcomed, not fled from. When a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, backed up by two experts from Princeton and NYU who declare the text to be authentic, presents the case—and tentatively at that—that should be enough for HTR to publish King’s article, not to cowardly suspend its decision to publish. Instead, HTR has cringed because there will now be a dispute as to authenticity. This is shameful.”

No, Herschel. When a text has enough tell-tale signs of being fake, it is academically responsible to hold off; it is proper and prudent to err on the side of skepticism. If you’re wrong that way, then fine, it costs nothing. But if it turns out you’ve entertained seriously what’s indeed a fraud — no matter what qualifiers and disclaimers you’ve piled on — then you’ve not only wasted time and labor, you’ve been played a fool. People like Shanks need to read Harold Love; the punishment he calls for may be tongue-in-cheek, but the implications about academic credulity serious:

“Faking is the cancer of scholarship. The appropriate punishment for fakers should be public execution, with a last-minute interruption when a reprieve is brought to the gallows, only to be disregarded when it is discovered to be a fake. Likewise there is nothing amusing in the fact that a fellow scholar may have been misled by a fake: it is a sign of incompetence and dereliction in the individual concerned.” (Attributing Authorship, pp 192-193)

Lest I be misconstrued, I’m not implying that Karen King is a bad scholar (see also Mark Goodacre), and it goes (I hope) without saying that she deserves no associations with a crank like Simcha Jacobovici. But in light of everything, Harvard’s holding off her publication is simply the prudent move.

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

Since the Tuesday news release, it didn’t take long for at least one eminent scholar to show that the papyrus fragment alluding to a “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” may well be a fake. Mark Goodacre provided sound coverage on the issue Wednesday and Thursday; on Friday he posted the link to Francis Watson’s article. It shows that most of the phrases on the fragment are taken directly from the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas, in a collage technique that would be expected of a modern forger with a limited understanding of Coptic.

No less important is the point about Zeitgeist made by Jim Davila:

“This fragment is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel. To my mind that weighs heavily against its authenticity. Of course I hope I’m wrong and that it is genuine, and that is certainly a possibility, but this is equivalent to winning big in the lottery and that should make us nervous. It is too perfect. As Larry Schiffman put it, ‘The most exciting things are the things most likely to be forged.'”

Indeed, it’s starting to look like a repeat of Secret Mark’s homoerotic Jesus in the ’50s. Now we have a miniscule fragment that so happens to preserve words that play into contemporary feelings about Jesus being married, Mary Magdalene, and his family.

And speaking of Secret Mark, Stephen Carlson weighs in on the Boston Globe’s naive assertion that it’s hard to imagine who could have faked the papyrus fragment — which as we’ve just seen isn’t true at all, but underscores the problem which kept Morton Smith clean in the eyes of many for decades.

“The problem with many academics on the topic of forgery is frankly that they are too honest and find it difficult to place themselves in a forger’s shoes — unless they have specifically studied the topic.”

I’ve stated repeatedly that it’s no accident Morton Smith was exposed by two critics outside the biblical studies guild, a lawyer and a musicologist (the attorney, of course, has since become Dr. Carlson). Forgery is a wider phenomenon than many realize, and the presumption of integrity an understated pitfall in approaching the issue.

UPDATE: Not only does it look like the forger cribbed from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, he/she seems to have copied a typo from Mike Grondin’s interlinear, which is freely available on the web. (Good detective work, Andrew Bernhard.)