Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Return to "The Mission Field..."

House Church in Iran?
The data is a bit fuzzy . . .
(Image from Christian World News)

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog entry titled "The Mission Field" and asked about the statistics that one sometimes hears concerning Muslim-background converts to Christianity. A couple of interesting articles published last week in Christianity Today provide a bit of information on this issue, though not much hard data.

Christopher Lewis, "It's Primetime in Iran," Christianity Today (September 24, 2008), describes the scene in a television studio that beams a Christian message from Pastor Hormoz Shariat to Iranian believers in Christ:
The TV studio hums just a few feet from his church office in northern California, but pastor Hormoz Shariat is still a last-minute arrival to his own show. Behind the scenes are teams of phone counselors and hip young producers.

Waiting behind an Islamic veil 7,000 miles away is an exploding house-church movement in Iran, whose compatriots eavesdrop on the illegal satellite programs produced daily by Pastor Shariat's Iranian Christian Church (ICC).
Lewis doesn't explain here why he refers to the "house-church movement in Iran" as "exploding," but in a separate article, "Looking for Home," Christianity Today (September 24, 2008), he cites information from Abe Ghaffari of Iranian Christians International, so I can see what he meant by the remark:
Missiologists say Persians have never identified as strongly with Islam as their Arab Muslim conquerors. While some studies estimate 500,000 to 1 million Iranian Muslim-background believers worldwide, Ghaffari counts fewer than 300,000 -- most of them isolated "secret believers." But even Ghaffari is stunned by how Iran's house-church movement of 50,000 has doubled in the last five years. "This is historic," he says.
Ghaffari sounds somewhat trustworthy since he downplays the total numbers of Iranian converts from Islam to Christianity, but I nevertheless wonder how one 'counts' "secret believers." Presumably, one would need to count these, or a representative sample, to back up claims of a "doubling of the Iranian house-church movement in 5 years" -- which sounds impressive but is ambiguous between meaning from 25,000 to 50,000 and meaning from 50,000 to 100,000. Initially, I took the claim to mean the latter, but I now think that it must mean the former.

However, I am not sure, for in my "Mission Field" post, I noted that Golnaz Esfandiari, "A Look At Iran's Christian Minority" (Payvand's Iran News . . . 2004), quotes the Iranian Protestant Issa Dibaj on the number of Muslim-background Christians in Iran:
"There is another Christian minority that people know little about, these are Iranians who are born as Muslims and then later become Christians," Dibaj said. "Their number is growing day by day. [There] may be around 100,000 [of them], but no one really knows the exact number."
The number 100,000 might sound as if it would support Ghaffari as meaning that the house-church movement has exploded from 50,000 to 100,000, but Dibaj's estimate was four years ago would therefore not support Ghaffari's round number if 100,000 is meant. Unclear, however, is whether or not Dibaj was referring to a house-church movement at all. And what does Ghaffari mean by his numbers anyway -- individual believers or house churches?

Whatever the figures, they pale beside Iran's mostly Muslim population of about 70 million. The house-church movement might be 'exploding,' but to my ears, it still sounds more like a firecracker than a bundle of dynamite.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

"Dirty Rice Cake!"

Misarang Custard
"It's bad!"
(Image from Korea Beat)

This box bears the following promise of a tasty treat:
부드러운 쌀과자 속에 카스타드 크이 듬뿍

Boo-du-ruh-oon ssal-gwah-jah sok-ae kah-su-tah-du ku-reehm-ee dum-bbook
Translated, this says:
"Richly filled with custard cream in a soft rice cake."
But a Korea Herald article by Cho Ji-hyun, "Tainted Chinese goods taken off shelves," which warns of melamine traces found in "Misarang Custard," presents a photo of a person's hand holding up a packet of the "Chinese-made rice soft cakes," and if you look closely at the photo on that website, you'll see that the thumb obscures the , leaving this:
드러운 쌀과자 속에 카스타드 크림이 듬뿍

du-ruh-oon ssal-gwah-jah sok-ae kah-su-tah-du ku-reehm-ee dum-bbook
My young son noticed this, laughed, and showed his older sister, who also laughed. Why? Because the first 'word', "드러운" (du-ruh-oon), sounds almost exactly like the word "더러운" (duh-ruh-oon), which would result in this:
더러운 쌀과자 속에 카스타드 크림이 듬뿍

duh-ruh-oon ssal-gwah-jah sok-ae kah-su-tah-du ku-reehm-ee dum-bbook
Translated, this new sentence warns the prospective customer:
Richly filled with custard cream in a dirty rice cake.
At last, truth in advertising!

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Milton Bash(ing) Continues...

Einstein in an Irreverent Moment
Reminiscent of Milton?
(Image from Wikipedia)

I mentioned yesterday that some scholars on the Milton List were angered by Charles McGrath's article in the New York Times: "Milton Regained: A Helluva Party" (September 25, 2008). Some objected to the Arthur Kirmss sculpture, The Testament of the Poet, for depicting Milton with his tongue sticking out. I was merely puzzled by this aspect of the sculpture until Terrance Lindall sent me the artist's own explanation:
In The Testament of the Poet, Milton’s tongue is outstretched in a gesture of humility derived from a traditional Tibetan bestowal of greetings to strangers. For the artist, this is an unforgettable gesture of humble testimony to one's own frail humanity. In this way, the work demonstrates the great poet’s vulnerability that he "extends" to us, so all may see the words directly upon the poet's tongue. What is composed and engraved there reveals the sculptor's apotheosis of Milton: "In nature's halls those who wait will reach the sky and rise up to the mountain where they will see the river burst forth from the rock." For Milton, "They also serve who only stand and wait." This waiting is the long pause before the burst of inspiration.
The artist's wife, Ellen Brody-Kirmss, posted this explanation on the Milton List for other scholars to read. Some scholars thought the artist's Tibetan allusion overly obscure, so the art expert Stan Parchin posted his view on the matter, claiming that art is also intended to teach us something new. James Rovira maintained his objection that the allusion was too obscure, but Feisal Mohamed argured that Milton scholars in particular shouldn't object to obscurity in works of art. I posted a response:
In defense of the Tibetan allusion in the Milton sculpture by Arthur Kirmss, Stan Parchin wrote:
"You know, Arthur's Tibetan articulation of Milton's tongue is PURE ARTHUR. I didn't know that, too. Isn't that the whole point? To teach the viewer something s/he didn't know?"
Jim Rovira replied:
"I'm not sure that visual symbols work that way. It seems to me that icons only work as a visual language capable of teaching if the viewers share enough context to immediately understand the symbols."
Jim, you're correct that most of us probably missed the Tibetan allusion. I missed it -- and instead found myself reminded of that iconic photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out. I wonder if Kirmss had this in mind as well. Also occurring to me was an image of a Maori warrior sticking his tongue out. Was Kirmss also thinking of this sort of thing? Be that as it may, I find myself again agreeing with Feisal:
"It seems odd that readers of Milton would object to an obscure allusion, and to its reference to a non-Western culture. Among its many ambitions, Paradise Lost aspires to be the first epic that is truly global in scope."
We can't really fault an artist for being obscure, especially since those of us who love and study Milton's writings also probably enjoy the layers of meaning, many of these obscure until we shine a light upon them.

For instance, I was unaware of the possibility that Milton's 'apple' was really a peach until Robert Appelbaum drew my attention to it last summer on this very list. If Robert is right, then Milton's allusion in PL 9.851 to a fruit that "downie smil'd" was truly obscure for about 300 years . . . until Robert noticed it.

So let's not peach artists for being obscure.
I hope that I'm also not impeached for my views. I suppose that I'll soon find out, but for the time being, I'll take vicarious enjoyment in the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center's "Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball," a great Milton bash that ought to be in progress just about now.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

For my New York Readers, a Milton Bash!

Arthur Kirmss, John Milton
(Photo: Michelle V. Agins, for New York Times)

For my New York readers, I'm providing this last-minute reminder of Saturday's Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball, which opens the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center's celebration of John Milton's 400th birthday, a non-puritanical party for a 'Puritan' poet:

135 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 486-6012

Celebrating John Milton's 400th Birthday

The unrivaled arts festival honoring Milton's birthday and Paradise Lost, the greatest poem in the English language.

Bridging classic literature and contemporary fine art, performing arts and poetry reading.
September 27th -- November 2nd, 2008

Saturday, September 27th, 8pm to midnite

General admission is $40
Students with ID are $20
65 years old and above are $20
Children under 13 years of age are FREE, but must be accompanied by parent or guardian.
The evening is rated for the general public
To order tickets email us at milton@wahcenter.net
Some tickets reserved for sale at the door

This should be a lot of fun since the surrealist artist and art director Terrance Lindall has organized it, and because there's nothing like a bit of controversy to spice things up, go read Charles McGrath's article in the New York Times: "Milton Regained: A Helluva Party" (September 25, 2008), which says of Milton:
It's hard to know what he would have made of the Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball that the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in Brooklyn is holding on Saturday evening. His father was a composer, and Milton wrote and played music himself, but as a Puritan he probably took a dim view of dancing. His idea of an evening was a supper of "olives or some light thing," a pipe and a glass of water. Nor, despite his fond depiction of marital love in "Paradise Lost," was Milton much of a ladies' man. His first wife found him so sullen and gloomy that she left him for three years. His second and third wives he turned into drudges and amanuenses. Samuel Johnson said of Milton that "there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females."
"What controversy?" you ask. Well, one scholar at the Milton List who liked neither the article nor the reported exhibit composed this letter to the New York Times:
I read with disgust Charles McGrath's flippant and irreverent mis-characterization of John Milton, which is as inaccurate and irresponsible as it is derogatory.

To begin with: any expert on the seventeenth century ought to know at a glance that the "sculpture of John Milton by Arthur Kimiss" shown below is in fact a sculpture of the head of Charles I -- or does Mr. McGrath think Milton wore a crown, in addition to taking "a dim view of dancing," harboring his "Turkish contempt of females," using his wives -- much less his daughters -- as "drudges and amanuenses" -- and the other claptrap he ignorantly reports?

It doesn't sound to me as if any of this -- his article or the exhibit it describes -- was "put together lovingly." I'd suggest that Mr. McGrath take the good advice of a character who is apparently closer to his reading level: Disney's Thumper. "If ya can't say nuthin' nice -- don't say nuthin' at all."
This prompted a tongue-in-cheek response from Terrance Lindall in an email circular sent out to the "Artists, Committee and Friends" associated with the WAH Center's big Milton bash:
The Milton professors are gathering an email campaign against the "Milton defamation!" The WAH Center will place bulletproof glass around Arthur Kirmss sculpture to defend his masterpiece "The Testament of the Poet" from irate students or Milton followers.
Back on the Milton List, I responded to the angered scholar:
[W]e ought not take this article's 'misinformation' so seriously. McGrath's is not an unreasonable reading of Milton, albeit based on partial evidence. I agree that he doesn't do Milton justice, and I don't think that Milton had a 'Turkish' contempt for women, but a man as polemical as Milton might easily be disliked and misunderstood -- though I suspect that McGrath was aiming for ironic humor, not dark defamation, in his description of our favorite poet.

Perhaps we should use this teachable moment to present other views on Milton. That seems, in part, what the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center intends with its exhibition -- and McGrath, in his ironic bemusement at some of the artworks, conveys that intention well enough.
Full disclosure: I am on the WAH Center's Paradise Lost Committee and have been quoted on the birthday bash's webpage:
"Appropriately for his background in art and philosophy, Lindall seems especially interested in using art to express ideas, which makes his work particularly intriguing for Milton scholars, for he has painted a number of works depicting scenes in Paradise Lost" -- Horace Jeffery Hodges, Assistant Professor in Kyung Hee University's Dept. of English Language and Literature
I'm no longer at Kyung Hee, of course -- Ewha University now being this Gypsy's home.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Coping as Expats in Korea

Writer Gord Sellar with Saxophone
(Image from gordsellar.com)

I've not written any recent columns for the Korea Herald's Expat Living section, but I read it regularly, for interesting and informative articles continue to appear on its pages.

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this past week, three long, fascinating articles on expat-Korean relations were published. Tuesday's article, "Why do expats here complain so much?", was written by T.K. Park, a naturalized "Korean-American who has lived in the United States for the last 11 years" and who writes and edits the blog Ask a Korean. I do not know Mr. Park personally, but his article is insightful and worth reading for a Korean perspective. Park was followed on Wednesday by Robert Ouwehand, who wrote "Why do Koreans get so defensive?" as a thoughtful response from the perspective of an expat. Ouwehand writes and edits the blog Roboseyo, and I know him from online contacts -- we've at times commented on each other's blogs. Both Park and Ouwehand had first entered into dialogue over the issue of expat-Korean relations through their blogs, and I'd read parts of their respective articles online.

Yesterday, Gord Sellar entered the dialogue. Apparently, Gord had also originally printed some or all of his article, "Fending off discontentment," online at his blog, Gord Sellar, but I missed it there due to my lamentable inadvertence. I know Gord personally, having met with him several times for meals and drinks, and he's a very interesting Canadian who has published science fiction stories in such magazines as Asimov's (e.g., "Dhuluma No More") and Nature (i.e., "Junk") -- yes, that science weekly Nature. Gord lectures on culture and literature at a university here in South Korea, where he has lived since 2002.

I was thus very interested to read his perspective on expats in Korea. One passage especially intrigued me:
The expats I know who've adjusted here best are those who have some kind of, well, I don't want to use the word "hobby" again, so I'll say, "interface" with Korea. They interface by engaging with the place they live in some creative, responsive, energetic way. Some I've known in the past made documentary films or created art. Some produce zines exploring the local culture. Others do pop culture analysis, or perform independent research. A few take on academic studies, or work as translators, or live lives of scholarly inquiry in an apparently idyllic familial home.
I'll have to ask Gord to be sure, but I think that the line "or live lives of scholarly inquiry in an apparently idyllic familial home" refers to me . . . or at least includes me, and perhaps also Charles La Shure, of Liminality.

At any rate, the line captures how I've adjusted to living as an expat in a world very different from the one that I grew up in. Compared to many expats, I've got an easy life -- lecturing in a good university on subjects that I have interest and even expertise in, publishing two or three scholarly articles each year for local or international journals, being married to a lovely Korean woman who can deal with the practicalities of life in Korea, and helping my wife raise two beautiful children who usually bring us much joy but always make life more interesting.

And I've got my blog . . .

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

"comes the money punishment possibility"

James Joyce on the Ponterosso Bridge in Trieste
"when it meets the foreigner from the road"
(Image from Wikipedia)

At times, my students leave me baffled in the labyrinth of their wandering literary skills:
By the way recently from the world-wide various nations numerous people is pushed into in Korea and entirely the multi racial culture that is unfamiliar is formed. It accomplishes a rapid development and to Korea which is a country which now lives in opulence comes the money punishment possibility it is quickly and a dream to hold until the industrial trainee who comes in and the illegal employment sleeping field continuously it is coming in flocks. Yes from the day when it meets the foreigner from the road was already generalized.
Was the student channeling James Joyce?
Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passen-core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.
Then again wakes a useless odyssey? Oh, through the "sleeping field continuously it is coming in flocks," and there awaits my student an illustrious literary future.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Echoes of change in the Arab world . . .

Father Zakaria
(Image from Zakaria's Site)

Since I don't know Arabic, my information about the Arab world comes to me already filtered, which is a reason for concern, of course -- am I being misled, misinformed, misdirected, mystificated? -- but we all depend upon filters for most of what we know, so we have to learn to deal with that by finding more than one filter.

I therefore rely not only upon MEMRI but upon a diversity of sources, even the mainstream media. Some time ago, I learned -- through the mainstream media -- of the Copt Raymond Ibrahim, who is fluent in both Arabic and English and has edited The Al Qaeda Reader (August 2007), a book that I really ought to read since it "gathers together the essential texts and documents that trace the origin, history, and evolution of the ideas of al-Qaeda founders Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden," or so the product description at Amazon states, and I suppose that it does attempt to do this since it is a "collection of the key texts of the al-Qaeda movement."

Mr. Ibrahim also writes for the National Review Online, which may be the mainstream source where I first read of him, and offers yet another window into the Arab world through his expertise in Arabic. In March of this year, he offered on NRO a view of "Islam's 'Public Enemy #1' Coptic priest Zakaria Botros fights fire with fire." I read it at the time and forgot about it, but it has recently again come to my attention. The "public enemy" stuff might sound over the top, but that's simply a designation being reported by Ibrahim:
Though he is little known in the West, Coptic priest Zakaria Botros -- named Islam's "Public Enemy #1" by the Arabic newspaper, al-Insan al-Jadid -- has been making waves in the Islamic world. Along with fellow missionaries -- mostly Muslim converts -- he appears frequently on the Arabic channel al-Hayat (i.e., "Life TV"). There, he addresses controversial topics of theological significance -- free from the censorship imposed by Islamic authorities or self-imposed through fear of the zealous mobs who fulminated against the infamous cartoons of Mohammed. Botros's excurses on little-known but embarrassing aspects of Islamic law and tradition have become a thorn in the side of Islamic leaders throughout the Middle East.
This is the sort of fascinating development in the Muslim Arab world that those of us ignorant of Arabic miss out on. Outside our ken lies an entire world where people debate issues that most of us know little to nothing about. For instance:
The most dramatic example of [Muslims debating issues raised by Botros] . . . occurred on another famous show on the international station, Iqra. The host, Basma -- a conservative Muslim woman in full hijab -- asked two prominent ulema, including Sheikh Gamal Qutb, one-time grand mufti of al-Azhar University, to explain the legality of the Koranic verse (4:24) that permits men to freely copulate with captive women. She repeatedly asked: "According to sharia, is slave-sex still applicable?" The two ulema would give no clear answer -- dissembling here, going off on tangents there. Basma remained adamant: Muslim youth were confused, and needed a response, since "there is a certain channel and a certain man who has discussed this issue over twenty times and has received no response from you."

The flustered Sheikh Qutb roared, "low-life people like that must be totally ignored!" and stormed off the set. He later returned, but refused to admit that Islam indeed permits sex-slaves, spending his time attacking Botros instead. When Basma said "Ninety percent of Muslims, including myself, do not understand the issue of concubinage in Islam and are having a hard time swallowing it," the sheikh responded, "You don’t need to understand." As for Muslims who watch and are influenced by Botros, he barked, "Too bad for them! If my son is sick and chooses to visit a mechanic, not a doctor -- that's his problem!"
That sort of debate must be fascinating in the Middle East, where speech is not quite so free as we're used to hearing in the West. What are the results of such free speech? Ibrahim 'reports' that many Muslims are abandoning Islam for Christianity:
The result? Mass conversions to Christianity -- if clandestine ones. The very public conversion of high-profile Italian journalist Magdi Allam -- who was baptized by Pope Benedict in Rome on Saturday -- is only the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, Islamic cleric Ahmad al-Qatani stated on al-Jazeera TV a while back that some six million Muslims convert to Christianity annually, many of them persuaded by Botros's public ministry. More recently, al-Jazeera noted Life TV's "unprecedented evangelical raid" on the Muslim world.
The Islamic cleric's warning about "six million Muslims" converting annually to Christianity sounds to me like a figure plucked from the air. If the conversions are "clandestine," how would we know that there are "mass conversions"? How would we know that Magdi Allam's conversion is "only the tip of the iceberg"? This is a point where I grow skeptical about some of the information that I'm receiving through my filter.

Whatever the truth on that matter, we at least hear an echo of things that the Muslim Arab world is talking about, and we see that debate is going on there in a world that is rapidly changing -- and changing in unexpected ways different even than those articulated in the debates over the Coptic priest Zakaria Botros. For a fascinating look at some of these other changes, read Robert Slackman's recent article for the International Herald Tribune, "Young and Arab in land of mosques and bars" (September 22, 2008).

Young Arabs at Exclusive Bar in Dubai
(Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times)

Islamism ain't the only game in town.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Korea Herald: "Foreign terrorists active in Korea: NIS report"

Near Itaewon Subway Station
Seoul, South Korea
(Image from Wikipedia)

I've just recently read an alarming report by journalist Song Sang-ho, who drew on information relayed from Korea's National Intelligence Service for his article in yesterday's Korea Herald: "Foreign terrorists active in Korea: NIS report" (September 22, 2008). The link leads to a Daum portal site because the Korea Herald's website is set up to prevent linking, but the articles are identical.

Yes, that's right, the Herald doesn't seem to want people reading its online newspaper, and that's certainly unfortunate in this case, for this is very serious material, as "more than 70 foreign terror suspects have been captured in Korea in the last five years." According to the report, "the National Intelligence Service began an antiterrorism crackdown in 2003, which has led to the capture of 74 people in 19 cases with ties to international terrorist networks."

This crackdown began in 2003 because the Korean government realized that in sending its troops to Iraq as part of the coalition, it would be setting itself up as a target for Islamist terrorist attacks within Korea.

The terrorist networks discovered include members of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Jemaah Islamiah. There's also this:
In February last year, 10 members of Hawala, a huge network of money brokers primarily located in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, were captured for illegal foreign currency transactions.
That might be a bit misleading, for "hawala" is not a proper noun and therefore not the name of an organization. It's a method, rooted in Islamic law, of transferring money to distant locations. A hawala broker in one place accepts money from a local client and contacts a second hawala broker in another place, asking that second broker to dispose of the money as the client has directed. Both brokers receive a small fee, and the debt between them is settled later. No promissory notes are exchanged between the brokers, so the transaction operates on the honor system and thus does not require formal law for enforcement. No records are kept aside from the tallies each hawala broker jots down or remembers.

We need little imagination to understand how this sort of system might prove useful for funding terrorist groups.

How did these terrorist networks establish themselves here in South Korea? The article does not state, explicitly, but the answer is obvious. These networks have formed within the foreign worker community, many of whom are Muslim and come from places as distant from each other as Pakistan and Indonesia. I mention these two countries because the information helps us understand the presence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, on the one hand, and Jemaah Islamiah, on the other. The former are based in Pakistan and the latter in Indonesia.

I suspected this back in 2003 and advised a church near Osan Air Base in Songtan not to include any of its American members on outreach programs directed to Muslims in South Korea. I pointed out that many of the Americans in that church had military connections -- either as soldiers or as contractors -- and that since the US was currently fighting Islamist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, then sending such Americans on mission work among the Muslim community in Korea might not be such a good idea. I suggested that the work be handled solely by Koreans.

Whether I was providing wise counsel, I don't know, but according to the report:
The networks, including al-Qaida, are alleged to have whipped up anti-American sentiment, sought to gather intelligence on U.S. forces stationed here, and smuggled illicit drugs to bankroll their terrorist activities.
This incitement of anti-American sentiment has probably taken place only among Muslims within the migrant-worker community here in Korea, but I would not be surprised to learn of links to Koreans on the hardcore left, nor would I be surprised to learn of connections with North Korean spies. North Korea has links to radical Islamists in Pakistan, for the North was part of the international network set up by Abdul Qadeer Khan to exchange materials and information for establishing nuclear weapons programs.

Perhaps the Islamists here are merely using South Korea "as a safe haven for terrorists' money laundering," as the article suggests, but if they're also here to "gather intelligence on U.S. forces stationed" in Korea, then they might be planning more than just distant terrorist acts -- something that I've previously speculated about -- and they wouldn't have to look far for a target, for America's Yongsan Garrison borders on Itaewon, where many migrant workers live.

National Assembly representative Won Hye-young, who serves on the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee, openly warns about terrorist attacks in Korea:
"Given the Korea-U.S. alliance and our status in the international community, the possibility of terrorist attacks here in Korea is higher than at any other times."
South Korea, therefore, ought to keep the pressure on these groups -- and from this report's information, I gather that Korea is doing so.

On a more personal note, I guess that I ought to take precautions myself since I often blog about Islamism in ways that Islamists might not appreciate . . . and some of these Islamists are living not so very far away.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

And make me your Secretary of Education . . .

McCain locating a man of the people...
(Image from Mike Luckovich)

I can't say that I care for all of Luckovich's satire, but this political cartoon made me laugh out loud. Chiastically speaking, I'm not one of Sarah Palin's detractors, but I don't think that she's qualified to take over as president for McCain if the need should arise. David Brooks put it well:
Sarah Palin has many virtues. If you wanted someone to destroy a corrupt establishment, she'd be your woman. But the constructive act of governance is another matter. She has not been engaged in national issues, does not have a repertoire of historic patterns and, like President Bush, she seems to compensate for her lack of experience with brashness and excessive decisiveness.
As Brooks says, "Experience matters" (International Herald Tribune, September 16, 2008). One might also want to check out Charles Krauthammer's article, "Palin's Problem" (Washington Post, September 5, 2008), for he makes a similar case that Palin lacks experience, which undermines McCain's strategy agains Obama:
McCain's strategy: Make this a referendum on Obama, surely the least experienced, least qualified, least prepared presidential nominee in living memory.

Palin fatally undermines this entire line of attack. This is through no fault of her own. It is simply a function of her rookie status. The vice president's only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment's notice. Palin is not ready. Nor is Obama. But with Palin, the case against Obama evaporates.
My sense is that Palin gave McCain a boost in the polls, but some of that will fade, perhaps for the reason given by George Will in his recent article, "McCain's Closing Argument" (Washington Post, September 18, 2008):
Palin is as bracing as an Arctic breeze and delightfully elicits the condescension of liberals whose enthusiasm for everyday middle-class Americans cannot survive an encounter with one. But the country's romance with her will, as romances do, cool somewhat, and even before November some new fad might distract a nation that loves "American Idol" for the metronomic regularity with which it discovers genius in persons hitherto unsuspected of it.
But should this romance fail to fade, we'd better hope that Palin is gifted in accumulating years of experience faster than anyone we've ever known.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

In the wake of the Pope's Regensburg remarks...

Journal of Aspen Institute

Over at Chiesa, but drawing upon the journal of the Aspen Institute in Italy, Sandro Magister offers an interesting article, "The Surprising Geopolitics of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope," that describes how the pope "has left his mark on international politics . . . . with Islam."

Magister directs our attention to the pope's Regensburg address, and since I played a small but, I hope, constructive role in the controversy raised by the pope's remarks on Islam and violence, I'd like to quote four passages from this part of Magister's article:
[T]he first action of Benedict XVI that made a worldwide impact was the long and substantial lecture that he gave at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006. He literally shook the world, for both the right reasons on the wrong ones. That lecture explained the new pope's view of the Church and of the West and his plans for them, including relations with Islam.

According to the canons of geopolitical realism, Benedict XVI should never have delivered that lecture in its entirety. He should have had it reviewed and purged beforehand by the diplomatic experts, something that he intentionally declined to do. And a number of people in the Vatican curia criticized him for this.

And yet, two years later, the facts tell a different story. Despite the alarm of the Cassandras, a dialogue emerged between the Catholic Church and Islam that had never existed before Regensburg, and had even seemed impossible. This dialogue is not only intellectual -- represented, for example, by the initiatives following the "letter of the 138 Muslim scholars" -- but also political. The political dimension advanced considerably after the audience at the Vatican on November 6, 2007 -- the first of its kind in history -- between the pope and the king of Saudi Arabia.

Even after Regensburg, one aspect that distinguishes the relationship with the Muslim world inaugurated by Benedict XVI is its apparent imprudence. Pope Ratzinger is not afraid of alternating gestures of openness -- one thinks of his silent prayer in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul -- with actions at odds with diplomatic caution. He had no qualms about granting an audience to Oriana Fallaci, one of the most committed critics of Islam, which she believes to be violent by nature. At the Easter vigil at St. Peter's in 2008, he baptized Magdi Allam, a convert from Islam and a radical critic of his religion of origin. But what is most astonishing is the heart of Benedict XVI's reasoning. The pope is asking Islam to undertake the same kind of demanding self-renewal that the Catholic Church carried out over the span of two centuries, beginning at the time of the Enlightenment.
In case anyone has forgotten, here is what the pope was 'officially' reported to have said in Regensberg concerning Islam and violence, and note the red font showing that he distanced himself from the words that he attributes to the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425):
Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.
Despite the pope's careful words, and in a context within which he also deplored the church's own use of violence in its past, he was harshly criticized immediately after his talk, and Islamist radicals incited Muslims to violent riots in various parts of the world to protest the pope's words.

But as I pointed out at the time, the pope's words were not only careful in the English translation, they were even more careful in the original German, and I provided my own translation:
Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with an astonishing brusqueness, for us an astounding brusqueness, bluntly on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so very forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.
The pope continued to receive much criticism, of course, for the first but erroneous English translation of his words was so widely reported that the later, corrected version went largely unnoticed. Some people must have noticed, however, for my blog entry on this issue received a couple thousand hits within a few minutes after Ramesh Ponnuru linked to it in The National Review Online.

But let me return to Magister's article and quote a passage demonstrating that despite a careful distancing from the Byzantine emperor's words, the pope holds that Islam really does have a problem with violence because it has too radically separated faith from reason in the aftermath of its rejection of the philosopher Averroes (though he didn't explicitly state this in his Regensburg address):
Two thirds of the lecture in Regensburg is dedicated to criticizing the periods in which Christianity dangerously separated itself from its rational foundations [as I also noted]. And the pope is proposing that Islam do the same thing: that it interweave faith and reason, the only way to shelter it from violence. The difficulty of this enterprise -- recognized as arduous but necessary even by leading Muslim thinkers like Mohammed Arkoun -- lies in the fact that in the history of Islamic thought, any fruitful relationship between faith and reason practically ceased with the death of the philosopher Averroes in 1198. After this, Islam has been characterized by the separation between faith and "reasonableness" about which the pope cautioned all, Muslims and Christians, in the most memorable passages of his lecture in Regensburg.
Magister's point is that these things need to be said and that the pope has opened dialogue on this issue by saying them. I think that this is correct. The best response to Islamist threats to free speech is more speech. Personally, I don't like controversy, and I also prefer not to insult anybody, but the perception of insult is subjective, so we have no control over how others might 'feel' in response to what we say. An Iranian student told me a couple of weeks ago that the widespread criticism of Islam by non-Muslims has been good because the clerics in Iran have given up on trying to threaten violence against 'infidel' critics, and even Muslims can now discuss things openly that would have been taboo just a few years ago.

The pope, it seems, has contributed to this new state of affairs.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

The Korea Times: "Soaking Up Sun in Mt. Seorak"

Photo by Sun-Ae Hwang
(Image from The Korea Times)

I've already reported in this blog on the vacation trip with my family to Soraksan Nature Reserve, but I'm reporting again today because the Korea Times asked me to rewrite that piece for its Arts & Living section.

Originally, I had titled my article "Soaking Up Sun in Seoraksan" because I liked the wordplay, but an editor must have preferred "Soaking Up Sun in Mt. Seoraksan" because that's what appears:
Soaking Up Sun in Mt. Seorak

By Horace Jeffery Hodges
Contributing writer
After a wonderful trip with my family two years ago to rugged, volcanic Ulleung Island, I told friends that I had found South Korea's most beautiful vacation spot, but a recent family excursion to Mt. Seorak Nature Reserve on South Korea's northeast coast has persuaded me otherwise. Despite our brief visit -- three nights and four days -- we had just enough time for a half-day's strenuous hike in the natural reserve and a full day's indolent recovery in a nearby health spa.

Since ours was a family trip with two preteen children, my wife and I elected to hike the approximately 3.6-kilometer trail from the reserve's main entrance on the east to Geumgang Cave high up on the rocky face of Janggunbong Peak, one of the easier trails. Even though it skirts a rushing mountain stream, it maintains a relatively gentle slope until reaching the base of Janggunbong around the end of the third kilometer, where it immediately turns arduous as it heads up a very steep incline for about half a kilometer.

That part of the hike, although hard, does have its advantages. One vantage point came with a stunning view of a mountain valley far below. We were by this time quite far up on our elevated hike to Geumgang Cave, where the famous seventh-century Buddhist monk Wonhyo stayed alone to meditate upon the Four Noble Truths of suffering. This man was not only an adept in the practice of Buddhist meditation but also a great Buddhist scholar.

He is popularly remembered, however, for the story that relates his startling moment of enlightenment, which also occurred in a cave, though not the one toward which we were ascending. Caught at night in a drenching rainstorm during a journey to China, Ven. Wonhyo took shelter in a nearby grotto, where he found what he took to be a gourd filled with fresh water from which he drank to quench his thirst. Daybreak, however, revealed the convenient "gourd'' to be a human skull and the "fresh'' water to be repellently foul. At this moment, he experienced enlightenment, utterly convinced that all existence is nothing but consciousness, for his own conscious mind had transformed brackish water from a skull into fresh water from a gourd.

Perhaps Ven. Wonhyo also reached Geumgang Cave through the power of his mind. How he might otherwise have managed it would have required quite a feat of rock climbing, for the cave opens onto the face of a sheer rock cliff that we could scale only by carefully ascending the long, steep, metal stairs bolted onto the mountain's rocky face. The effect is yet more impressive in reality, when one is literally staring down what looks like a nearly vertical drop, though the precipitous steps are not quite a ladder. They gave me that impression as I was clinging to them tightly to steady myself.

Despite the exhilarating climb up that long series of steps, we reached Ven. Wonhyo's mountain cave safely and rested there for about half an hour, looking at the three Buddha statues in the back area of the grotto, gazing out upon the valley and surrounding peaks, and even quaffing a refreshing, earth-smelling drink called "chikjeup'' (arrowroot juice). I doubt that any of those roots were found upon that mountain cliff that keeps Geumgang Cave so recalcitrantly accessible, but already impressive enough was the fact that a vendor had lugged such homemade refreshment up the entire way we had come and was standing there to greet us with smiles as we entered.

We also encountered in that sacred grotto a Spaniard. His name was Alex, from the Spanish Basque region. He worked as an amateur filmmaker, and he was traveling alone in Korea, getting by despite limited English skills not only on the part of the Koreans whom he encountered but on his own part, too. Koreans were treating him very well, he reported, and I agreed with him that Koreans are generally very friendly and helpful despite language barriers. We also found ourselves sharing the opinion that the view from Geumgang Cave was simply stunning. My newfound friend Alex left the cave before my family and I did, and I later regretted that I had not taken his photo, for he was only the second Spanish Basque whom I have ever met, and I never would have expected to encounter one within a Buddhist grotto situated high up on the sheer face of a remote mountain in South Korea.

Soon after his exit came the time for us to also leave Ven. Wonhyo's cave and brave the trip down the mountainside. After all, we had to get back to our hotel in Sokcho, spruce up to enjoy a fresh seafood dinner on the coast, and make ourselves ready for that spa relief scheduled to begin the very next morning, an entire, languorous day planned for soothing sore muscles in variously flavored hot tubs.

The writer is currently employed full-time at Ewha Womans University, teaching courses on essay composition, research papers, and cultural issues. He obtained a doctorate in history of science at U.C. Berkeley. He can be contacted at his blog.
Other than that aforementioned alteration in the title, most of the editing is acceptable, even quite professional. Take the monk Wonhyo. The term "Ven." (meaning "Venerable") was added to the monk's name, precisely as the term "Rev." (for "Reverend") would be added to a minister's name, and I especially liked that bit of editing.

That's all for today, folks. I've got a tough schedule every Friday -- teaching from 8:00 a.m. until 6:40 p.m., with a break from 12:15 until 2:00 and another from 4:30 to 5:00 -- so I'd best prepare my lessons and myself.

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Secrets and 'Oozies'

The Rod of Aaron
"a rather odd rod"
From the Sarajevo Haggadah
(Image from Wikipedia)

When I was doing postdoctoral work in religion at Hebrew university in Jerusalem about ten years ago, I encountered an unexpected title while searching through journal articles on Moses, Aaron, and Miriam:
"The Rod of Aaron in the Garden of Miriam"
I didn't check to make sure, but I rather doubt that the article was about what it sounded like it was about.

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago as I was checking some book titles that my wife had translated from Korean. These were supposedly of 'self-help' books for girls in their early teens, but the first one raised my eyebrows a bit:
Secrets of Girls with Many Friends
I remember girls with many 'friends' from my own teenage years. They were popular, but there was no secret about it . . . not in the locker rooms, anyway. I brushed aside that memory and checked the next title:
Secrets Diary of Curious Girls
This was beginning to arouse my own curiosity. The climax came with this title:
Heart-Beating Secrets of Girls in Puberty
At this point, I looked up from my computer and asked my wife:
"Sun-Ae, what are these books really about?"


"Well," I explained, "they sound like pornography."
She looked surprised, so I read them aloud, affecting an exaggeratedly prurient tone, and she began to laugh. Apparently, these titles sound perfectly innocuous in Korean, and she hadn't even noticed their sexual connotations in English.

We left Secrets of Girls with Many Friends unchanged since a salacious reading had perhaps been the product of my own dirty mind, but the other two got rewritten. The title Secrets Diary of Curious Girls became Girls' Secrets for Better Health and Appearance, and the title
Heart-Beating Secrets of Girls in Puberty became What Girls Should Know about their Bodies and their Feelings during Puberty. That latter title change sounds rather pedestrian, I realize, but it better fits the book's content.

For some reason, though perhaps this is a non sequitor, I'm reminded of a news report that I read about twenty years ago. Some would-be robber wearing a big coat had entered a bank, approached the teller, and handed her a note, apparently with the intent of warning her that he was carrying an Uzi submachine gun. The note read:
"Give me the money. I've got an oozy under my coat."
The teller glanced at the floor, saw that nothing appeared to be leaking, inferred that this was an issue of the man's spelling rather than his spilling, and handed over the money.

But that could have been a very sticky situation, so let's take care always to use the right word, whether translating titles of books or robbing money from banks.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008


(Image from Der Spiegel)

The New Testament scholar Jim West has called attention on Cross-Talk List to this archaeological 'find' -- discovered in the harbor seabed of Alexandria, Egypt by the German diver and treasure hunter Franck Goddio -- which bears the words DIA CHRESTOU OGOISTAIS. Jim also blogs briefly on this cup and links to Wieland Willker for the image. I'll not link directly to Wieland's copy of the image, because of an intrusive pop-up there, but will link instead to the original at Der Spiegel.

This 'find' apparently has some people excited because they think that the words refer to Christ. Wieland seems to take this 'find' seriously:
Franck Goddio found this cup on the ground of the harbor of Alexandria in May this year. It has a diameter of about 9 cm and weighs 200g. According to their report, it was found in layer 2 of the stratigraphy, which means that it is from the first half of the first century!

The epigraph André Bernand from Paris thinks that the biblical Messiah is meant. He considers the cup as some kind of witch’s cauldron which belonged to a fortune teller who was basing his authority on Jesus. The text means "Magician through Christ".
Wieland is here referring to André Bernand's speculation as reported in Der Spiegel. Bernand might be thinking of the sort of practice reported in Acts 19:13-14:
Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth. And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so.
This passage in Acts implies that some non-Christians sought to use the name "Jesus" as part of a magical formula to exorcise evil spirits, though the incantation doesn't seem to have worked very well in this case, as verses 15 and 16 go on to report:
And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
Be that as it may, my main point is that an attempt at a magical use of the name "Jesus" -- and therefore also of the title "Christos" -- is entirely possible in principle.

Antonio Lombatti, however, who maintains the website Pseudoscienze cristiane antiche e medievali, (Ancient and Medieval Christian Pseudoscience), expresses deep skepticism about this particular cup:
You don't need a microscopical analysis of that inscription: of course, it cannot be so neat if the object was found under the sea. Moreover, I also find the carving of the Greek letters to be quite unusual -- I mean, too perfect -- for a text on a 2,000 year-old cup.
Jim West agrees that the inscription is a fake, and I concur that the inscription looks awfully clear for being on an object supposedly under water for 2000 years, but I'm no expert.

Yet . . . I do wonder why the inscription reads "DIA CHRESTOU OGOISTAIS" rather than "DIA CHRISTOU OGOISTAIS." The word "chrestou" is the genitive singular form of "chrestos," which is an adjective meaning "good," and therefore not the title "Christos," which is what one would expect if this referred to Christ. Why would a forger choose to inscribe the word "good" rather than "Christ"? Was the supposed forger so inept?

The German article in Der Spiegel notes that "chrestos" was actually used rather often as a Greek name:
"Chrestos war in Griechenland ein gebräuchlicher männlicher Vorname", erklärt der Historiker Manfred Clauss aus Frankfurt am Main, "das muss nichts mit Jesus zu tun haben."
Translated, this says:
"Chrestos was commonly a man's given name in Greece," explains the historian Manfred Clauss of Frankfurt am Main. "That need not have anything to do with Jesus."
This is correct, but I do recall, from my time studying with New Testament Professor Otto Betz in Tübingen, that "Christos" and "chrestos" were sometimes interchanged as a wordplay since "Christ" was "good." Perhaps the putative forger was not inept but clever?

To be clear, however, let me emphasize that I am also skeptical about this inscription, and for the reason given by Antonio Lombatti. The letters simply look much too distinct to be nearly 2000 years old.

But what in the world does ogoistais actually mean? If this is a forgery, it's a very odd one.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

En-Uk Sequoya Hwang on Paradise Lost, Book One

Gustave Doré, Satan and Beelzebub
Arising from the Fiery Lake

I am slowly plowing through John Milton's Paradise Lost with my two children.

Sa-Rah and I started first, about two or three years ago, and have reached Book Four, but En-Uk and I began only last year, so we're still in Book One.

En-Uk, who is halfway through the third grade (the Korean school year starts in March) has been suitably impressed to write a synopsis of what he's read so far in Book One:
Paradise Lost

The angels that are thrown to the fire of the lake.

They think they can get revenge for the great one. But the great one still can't beat the greater one even though he lives in the fire lake. He is so strong that he can pick up 1,000,000 tons with one finger.
By "the great one," En-Uk is referring to Book One's figure of Satan, who is initially depicted by Milton as really big and powerful. I gather that's why En-Uk imagines that Satan can pick up one million tons with a single finger. But even though Satan 'lives' in the fiery lake -- an impressive image for En-Uk, it seems -- he still cannot defeat "the greater one," namely, "God."

That's a fairly decent, if yet incomplete synopsis for a third grader who despite being bilingual knows Korean a lot better than he knows English. Presumably, the synopsis will remain incomplete until En-Uk finishes Book One . . . sometime next year.

Incidentally, this wasn't a specific home-schooling assignment, but just something that En-Uk chose for himself to write on.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin and the Jewish Question

David Brickner
Head of Jews for Jesus
(Image from Jews for Jesus Blog)

Yesterday's blog entry discussed the controversy over Governor Palin's remarks on the Iraq War, and for those remarks, I don't think that she can be seriously faulted, not any more so than Lincoln for making similar remarks during wartime, for neither she nor Lincoln claimed to know God's will.

The other controversy recently swirling about Palin is not directly about her but about David Brickner, leader of the organization Jews for Jesus, because of some remarks that he made while visiting her home church in Wasilla, Alaska. Brickner has helpfully posted the message that he gave that day: "The Jerusalem Dilemma," Wasilla Bible Church, August 17, 2008 by David Brickner

By dilemma, Brickner explains that although Jerusalem means "City of Peace," the irony is that it has no peace:
[This is] the Jerusalem Dilemma. Here is this city that represents a people, that represents a move of God; the name itself -- Ir Shalom -- means 'City of Peace.' And yet, what irony that there has been no peace, and there is no peace in the city of peace.
I think that Brickner is misusing the word "dilemma" to mean "irony," but perhaps I've misunderstood him. More importantly for our understanding of Brickner's talk in Palin's Wasilla church is this point:
Israel is an example of what all humanity has been saying to God since the beginning of time, shaking its fists at the heavens and saying, "You'll not rule over us."

And so all of the controversy that we see swirling in Jerusalem is really a mirror that the world looks in to see the controversy within. The Jerusalem Dilemma is the Wasilla Dilemma; it's the dilemma of the human heart.
I take it that Brickner is using Jerusalem, and therefore also Israel, as a symbol for all of 'rebellious' mankind, so we ought to keep this in mind as we come to his controversial words about "judgment":
But what we see in Israel, the conflict that is spilled out throughout the Middle East, really which is all about Jerusalem, is an ongoing reflection of the fact that there is judgment. There is judgment that is going on in the land, and that's the other part of this Jerusalem Dilemma. When Jesus was standing in that temple, He spoke that that judgment was coming, that there's a reality to the judgment of unbelief. He said "I long to gather you, but . . ." what? "You were unwilling." God never forces His way on human beings. And so because Jerusalem was unwilling to receive His grace, judgment was coming. He says, "Look, your house has left you desolate!" What did He mean by that? Remember where He is. He's standing in the temple there in Jerusalem, the place where God had promised, through Moses,
"There I will meet with you, there I will hear your prayers, and there I will forgive your sin."
And now Jesus in that temple, just before going to the cross, says, 'From now on this place is desolate.' And Jesus' words have echoed down through the centuries. Not a generation after He uttered this promise, Titus and his Roman legions marched into that city and destroyed both the city and the temple. And from that day until this very present there has been no temple, and there is therefore no sacrifice in Judaism. Only we could sacrifice in . . . the only place was in the temple. And therefore there has been, and there is today, no confidence of atonement, no confidence of forgiveness. If you were to stand outside of a synagogue on the day of atonement and ask those leaving the service, "Did God hear your prayers? Were your sins forgiven on this most holy of all days?" the answer would be, "I hope. I hope, but who can know?" Who indeed but those of us who have come under the wings of the Almighty, who've entered into that place of grace where forgiveness is assured for the dilemma of human life. Judgment is very real and we see it played out on the pages of the newspapers and on the television. It's very real.

When Isaac [i.e., David Brickner's son] was in Jerusalem he was there to witness some of that judgment, some of that conflict, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment -- you can't miss it. And Jesus talks about it, but He didn't leave us there. There's a promise of a return from this judgment. Jesus concludes His message there in the temple by saying this -- 'I tell you, you will not see Me again, you will not experience what I have come to bring, this place of grace which I have and will soon establish . . . you will not see Me again until you say, until you’re able with conviction to articulate, these words: "Baruch hab-ba bashem Adonai -- 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord."' Once again quoting again from a Psalm, this time Psalm 118:
The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief . . . the chief corner stone. And this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Well, what are we to make of this? Is it antisemitic? Brickner himself is ethnically Jewish, but some Jewish converts to Christianity throughout history have turned against their own people in a hatred that is perhaps self-hatred. From my reading of Brickner's words here and elsewhere, I don't clearly sense hatred. We should also keep in mind that Brickner is using Jerusalem and Israel as symbols for all of humanity's relation to God. God offers either forgiveness or judgment, and each individual chooses one or the other. That's pretty standard evangelical language. But the example is problematic, and raises some troubling questions:
When Isaac was in Jerusalem he was there to witness some of that judgment, some of that conflict, when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people. Judgment -- you can't miss it.
In the context, since Brickner had first discussed the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. as judgment on the Jews for their rejection of Jesus's offer of God's message, this also would seem to be offered as an example of God's judgment upon the nation of Israel. That would be problematic, for it would imply that the Jewish-Muslim conflict as a whole is God's judgment on the Jewish people. Would this mean that the American-Islamist conflict is God's judgment on America? That 9/11 was God's judgment on America?

Or was Brickner offering the bulldozer example as an instance of God's judgment upon specific individuals? That would also be problematic.

Brickner would have done better to place the bulldozer story in the context of the Christian belief in the fallenness of the world rather than using it as an example of God's judgment on unbelief.

Brickner has gotten a lot of criticism for his remarks, and I must say that I think the criticism appropriate. Apparently, Brickner himself sees the some validity in the criticism, for he has posted a response:
The notion that the terrorist, bulldozer attack in Jerusalem this summer was God’s judgment on Israel for not believing in Jesus, is absolutely not what I believe. In retrospect, I can see how my rhetoric might be misunderstood and I truly regret that.

Of course I never expected the kind of magnifying glass scrutiny on a message where I was speaking extemporaneously. Let me be clear. I don't believe that any one event whether a terrorist attack or a natural disaster is a specific fulfillment of or manifestation of a Biblical prediction of judgment. I don't believe that the newspaper should be used to interpret the Bible. The Bible interprets the Bible.

I love my Jewish people and the land of Israel. I stand with and support her against all efforts to harm her or her people in any way. Please feel free to read my further explanations, in my Realtime article and in the interviews I did with Christianity Today and NBC.
I'll leave the reading and analysis of those links to others, but we should keep in mind that the controversy is David Brickner's controversy based upon David Brickner's words.

On the other hand, Governor Palin is reported to have been present during Brickner's presentation, so a question about her opinion concerning his words is a fair one. I haven't actually seen a direct, explicit statement by Palin on this issue, but I did find an article by Ben Harris, "McCain team: Palin rejects views of church's Jews for Jesus speaker," The Jewish Journal (September 3, 2008), which states this:
Vice presidential pick Sarah Palin says she doesn't share the views of a Jews for Jesus leader who in a speech at her church suggested that violence against Israelis resulted from God's judgment against Jews who have failed to embrace Jesus.
In particular, Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, announced:
"Governor Palin does not share the views he expressed, and she and her family would not have been sitting in the pews of this church for the last seven years if his remarks were even remotely typical."
Although I'd prefer to hear Palin's own words, I don't see this controversy about Brickner's words having much traction in generating controversy about Palin.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Sarah Palin on God's Plan

Charlie Gibson Interview of Sarah Palin
(Image from The Mark Levin Show)

Recently, much of the media has been all over Sarah Palin concerning her remarks to Charlie Gibson about God's will. I haven't watched the Gibson interview, but I've looked at the entire transcript on a website called The Mark Levin Show:
GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." Are we fighting a holy war?

PALIN: You know, I don’t know if that was my exact quote.

GIBSON: Exact words.
I often hear evangelicals claiming God's will for just about everything, but they usually make a distinction between God's perfect will and God's permissive will. This gets us into some very abstruse and difficult theology concerning divine foreknowledge and human freedom, but roughly speaking, these two distinguish between what God wills and what God permits. The words 'quoted' by Gibson would imply that Palin believes that America's role in the Iraq War is God's perfect will.

But Palin responds in a way that recasts what Gibson 'quoted':
PALIN: But the reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln’s words when he said -- first, he suggested never presume to know what God's will is, and I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God’s words.

But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that's a repeat in my comments, was let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God's side.

That's what that comment was all about, Charlie. And I do believe, though, that this war against extreme Islamic terrorists is the right thing. It's an unfortunate thing, because war is hell and I hate war, and, Charlie, today is the day that I send my first born, my son, my teenage son overseas with his Stryker brigade, 4,000 other wonderful American men and women, to fight for our country, for democracy, for our freedoms.

Charlie, those are freedoms that too many of us just take for granted. I hate war and I want to see war ended. We end war when we see victory, and we do see victory in sight in Iraq.
I'm no Lincoln expert, but I've previously read Lincoln's words on God's will, and Palin's recasting of what Gibson 'quoted' as her own words would suggest that like Lincoln, she was not claiming to know God's perfect will. I suppose that we ought to refresh our memories on exactly what Lincoln said, and one can find a lot of Lincoln 'quotes' online, but the internet is not the most trustworthy forum, so let's be careful.

Bruce Ledewitz of the blog Hallowed Secularism, professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law and author of a couple of books on religion and politics (American Religious Democracy: Coming to Terms with the End of Secular Politics and Hallowed Secularism: Theory, Belief, and Practice), would seem to know what he's talking about, and he quotes Lincoln as saying:
Let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God's side.
Is that what Palin meant? Gibson was doubtful:
GIBSON: I take your point about Lincoln’s words, but you went on and said, "There is a plan and it is God's plan."

PALIN: I believe that there is a plan for this world and that plan for this world is for good. I believe that there is great hope and great potential for every country to be able to live and be protected with inalienable rights that I believe are God-given, Charlie, and I believe that those are the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That, in my world view, is a grand -- the grand plan.
Here Palin's remarks veer somewhat off from the main point and into American 'civil religion' -- as Robert Bellah called it -- for they unwittingly delve into Thomas Jefferson's theological views, which differed from Lincoln's. Palin would have done better at this point to recall her actual words, for these place her views in a different context, as I learned from an unexpected source, AntiWar.Blog, in an entry titled "'Palin: Pray That' Our Leaders Are Sending Our Troops to Iraq 'On a Task From God,'" which quotes Palin referring to her son's imminent deployment in Iraq:
"He's going to be deployed in September to Iraq. Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God, that's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan and that it is God's plan."
The blog entry helpfully provides a video, and this quote above comes from about 6 minutes into the video. I've listened to the quoted words (slightly correcting the quote as given), and Palin's remarks show that Gibson misinterpreted her meaning. Here's her point:
"Pray . . . that our leaders, our national leaders are sending . . . [our military men and women] out on a task that is from God."
Moreover, she clarifies her point:
"[T]hat's what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan and that it is God's plan."
In short, she's saying that her church should pray to make sure that the United States has a plan and that America's plan in Iraq is consistent with God's plan. That sounds enough like Lincoln's point to confirm Palin's insistence that she was simply echoing Lincoln.

Gibson avers that he has quoted Palin's exact words: "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." Technically speaking, those aren't her exact words, but more significantly, the 'quote' is so wrenched from its context that it has her stating the opposite of what she actually said -- and the same misinterpretation occurs with Gibson's other 'quote' from Palin, namely, that "There is a plan and it is God's plan."

In short, Palin didn't say that the US plan in Iraq is clearly God's plan; she said that her church should pray that the US plan be God's plan.

Gibson -- perhaps too intent on coming up with a 'gotcha' quote -- did a sloppy job as a journalist.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Zohar on the rope tied to the high priest's ankle

Title Page of First Edition of the Zohar
Mantua, 1558
Library of Congress
(Image from Wikipedia)

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, I decided to find The Zohar online and post the actual passage stating the fabled practice of tying a rope to the priest's ankle.

I found the passage even though the numbering in the online version was different from that given by Arden on the Ioudaios List (but this could be a different edition): The Zohar: Volume 15, Acharei Mot, Section 32, Number 198:
198. Afterwards, he [i.e., the high priest] washes his body and sanctifies his hands to enter into another holy service. Then he aims to enter another most holy, lofty place; NAMELY, THE HOLY OF HOLIES. Three rows surround THE HIGH PRIEST -- his colleague priests, Levite and the rest of the people. THEY REPRESENT THE THREE COLUMNS, PRIEST AND LEVITE REPRESENT RIGHT AND LEFT AND YISRAEL REPRESENT THE SECRET OF THE CENTRAL COLUMN. They raise their hands towards him in prayer. A knot OF ROPE of gold hangs from his leg, FROM FEAR PERHAPS HE WOULD DIE IN THE HOLY OF HOLIES, AND THEY WOULD NEED TO PULL HIM OUT WITH THIS ROPE.
The original text is in Aramaic and can be seen online at the link. The translation -- as one will have noted -- presents some phrases and clauses in upper-case letters. I presume that the translators think that these serve as commentary upon the phrases and clauses written in lower-case letters. The Aramaic, of course, makes no such distinction between upper and lower case.

I know very little about The Zohar, but the passage above would purport to describe part of the high priest's actions on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a day for the ritual forgiveness of the sins of the Israelites, which can be read about in Leviticus 16. The above passage seems connected with the washing of the high priest's body mentioned in verse 4 of Leviticus but has a lot more detail added, presumably from other sources.

The website for the online version of The Zohar makes some extravagant claims for the origins of such details:
Zohar is a Hebrew word that means splendor. In its simplest form, the Zohar is a commentary on the Bible, structured as conversations among a group of friends, scholars, and spiritual masters. Although the wisdom available in its pages is older than Creation itself, the text of the Zohar was composed approximately 2000 years ago. It was then that the great Kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai revealed the Zohar to his student, Rabbi Abba who transcribed it in the ancient language of Aramaic. In the centuries that followed, the Zohar was often suppressed by religious and secular authorities who feared its power to transform the lives of those who gained access to the sacred writings. The sages of Kabbalah, too, realized that the Zohar must wait until humankind was ready to receive it.
Scholars such as Gershom Scholem, however, hold less extravagant views:
[T]he Zohar with its various strata was without doubt composed in the years that immediately preceded its publication, since it is impossible to uncover any section that was written before 1270. (Gershom Scholem, "Zohar," Encyclopaedia Judaica)
Scholem analyzes The Zohar carefully and argues that it was composed "by the Spanish kabbalist Moses b. Shem Tov de Leon, who died in 1305."

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