Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Well, how did I get here?"

(Image from Wikipedia)

Midway through my Berkeley years, I encountered the 'Deutsch Elm Disease.' She was a young German scholar with a surname that sounded like "elm" who had completed her graduate studies at Cambridge or Oxford, if I recall -- so let's call it Oxbridge -- and was teaching the History of Christianity for the Religious Studies Department with a half-position in History.

As a textbook, she used Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, of all books! She would sometimes sit in front of class and -- eyes fixed upon that text -- read aloud passages from Russell's 'learned' views on such things as Gnosticism or the Arian heresy. Other times, she would 'lecture' on the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, drawing superficial distinctions or making strained analogies.

Once, she was uttering something about the apostle Peter and noted that he was also called "Kēphas," which she explained was short for the Greek term "kephalē," meaning "head" and thereby implying, she explained, that Peter was "head" of the Church.

Astonished at such ignorance from a Berkeley professor, I raised my hand and informed her that "Kēphas" was Aramaic, not Greek, and that it meant not "head" but "rock," i.e., "petra," and was thus a wordplay between the Aramaic "Kēphas" and the Greek "Petros", i.e., "Peter," and therefore implied that Peter signified the rock of faith upon which the church was to be built.

The 'Deutsch Elm Disease' grudgingly expressed something that resembled 'thanks' . . . but then went on to offer the same false etymology a week or two later in a course on the New Testament. Speechless at such incompetence, I said nothing that time. But other times, I raised more points and asked more questions, ever politely I thought, though she grew ever more annoyed. After one such question, she confronted me at the end of the class as I was about to step out the door:
"You are 'Jeff Hodges'?" she demanded.

"Yes," I replied.

"You will come to my office!"
That didn't set right by me. At the age of 32, I wasn't about to let myself be ordered to anybody's office. We had an argument, and I informed her that if I wasn't cowed by the crack dealers gunning down their rivals in front of my place on Alcatraz Avenue, then I wasn't about to be intimidated by the likes of her.
"I'm not coming to your office," I said. And I didn't.
But I found myself thinking, "If someone as incompetent as this 'Deutsch Elm Disease' can obtain a tenure-track position at U.C. Berkeley, then I will surely encounter no obstacles on my path to academic success.

How wrong I was . . .

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At 11:24 AM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

Major religions (cults) have us believing that one man and one woman populated the entire earth, so I still don't know "I" got here, especially as the ethnic/race range of my fellow brothers and sisters is so varied and to this day bigotry and racism are rampant, and I won't even get into the incest part of everyone in the world being descended from only one pair of parents.

It’s amazing that so many of us are sheep and never really questioned the answers behind it, or maybe it would shatter our core beliefs that we are actually less civilized than all the other animals on the planet. I know I don’t see dolphins murdering and killing their fellow brothers the way that the human animal does. Maybe ignorance is really bliss.

At 12:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John, you don't feel strongly about this, do you?

But I don't think that the good professor was a believer in any particular religion, merely that she was ignorant of what she was supposed to know well enough to teach expertly on.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:41 PM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

I've been reading a lot of history lately about genocides through the ages (mostly in the name of religion or with their consent), then I saw a History channel documentary about how the major religions try to, and then fail, to adequately explain how we "all" came about via one man and woman, but how all of us are supposed to take these "holy" books as gospel.

At 1:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Genocidal policies are not limited to religion. I'd see genocides more as an extension of extremist ideologies generally since we need to account for the Nazi genocide against the Jews, the Pol Pot genocide against the Cambodians, the Stalinist genocide the Ukrainians, and other secular genocides. There are also tribes wiping out other tribes, which has probably happened a lot throughout history and wouldn't be specifically religiously based.

But I agree that religion has often been very effective as motive force behind genocides.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:38 PM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

It's hard to comprehend that if we really are descended from just two people, that the current state of the world (and past states) is the way it is.

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Families can be awfully divided. I suppose that this is what the story of Cain and Abel was intended to represent.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:37 PM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

Didn't that come from one of the gods loving one of his creations more than the other, and then denying that brother a beautiful sister to carry on the family name like his brother was given?

I just don't understand how religious texts can be taken as truth when anyone with half a brain knows that people don't live for several hundred years and we all can't possibly be descended from Adam and Eve. Some of these enlightened beings even believe that the planet is only 10,000 years old. I wonder if they've gotten the e-mail that it's no longer flat or the center of the universe.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The universe, and planet, look pretty old to me.

But in wondering how we got to this discussion, I realized that my quote from The Talking Heads might have been misconstrued.

I wasn't raising an existential question. Rather, I was asking myself how I arrived at this point in my 'career' when various incompetents have succeeded. Upon reflection, I blame my tendency to say what I think, though discretion would often have been the better part of valor.

I could cite various other instances, but won't . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:05 PM, Blogger John B said...

A lot of scholars made a great career off of one good book, followed by a lot of very bad scholarship. And a lot of professors end up teaching courses outside of their real expertise. Did you ever check to see what she published?

At 6:09 PM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

I took the title of your post literally, and I doubt I will ever uncover a decent rendering of why “I” am here, but you helped me break my writer’s block on a project I am working on about “where we may be from.” Thanks.

At 6:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B . . . guess that I'd better call folks by their 'full' names.

Anyway, yeah, I checked today, out of curiosity. She seems to have published a number of things over the years. I infer that she has been competent in her field, which seems to have been Latin sources -- certainly not Greek or Aramaic!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John from Daejeon, glad to have been of inadvertent assistance. Martin Jay used to call that "creative misunderstanding."

Anyway, click on the "Once in a Lifetime" link and enjoy The Talking Heads.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Daddburngummit, I was on the verge of self-realization and then you directed me to click on the link to Talking Heads.

This is the doggonedist online course I've ever taken. Perfesser Jeff? Will you contact the Derpertment Head at the University of Mountain Home and explain I'm trying?

Trying really herd?


At 9:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Must be that old 'herd' mentality, JK.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:21 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Michel Tournier has an interesting thing (or two) to say about Cane and Able in his novel _The Ogre_. His point is something along these lines: the city folk (made possible by farmers, sod-busters, and represented by Cain) wiped out the shepherds and the herders represented by Abel--the latter being pastoral, poetic and civil; the former, the city dwellers, being the source of all our woe.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

BTW, discretion _is_ the better part of valor (or so my father told me, oh, a thousand times), but I don't think you can with any accuracy attribute career difficulties to a specific incident. I rather think they have a mind reading device (perhaps developed by a German scientist captured at the end of the war) and, even if you do manage to remain discreet, they use this technology routinely to identify amongst the PhD candidates the various dissenters, schismatics, sectarians, Gnostics, Pelagians, Socinians, etc.

Yes, that's it. At the end of the day it doesn't matter how well-behaved or docile you are. They use this mind scanner, and _that's_ how they award the jobs.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I'm a country boy turned city slicker, so my inner Cain must have throttled my inner Abel.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for telling me of this device. Now I am truly paranoid . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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