Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Wall Street Journal Wages Class Warfare

From today's Wall Street Journal: "We've never fretted over budget deficits, at least if they finance tax cuts to promote growth or spending to win a war."

Isn't that special? As long as the rich get richer while the middle class falls behind and does the dying in the wars, deficits are just fine and dandy. But a deficit that doesn't serve the interests of the rich? Whoa Nelly!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Republican Tourette's

There is a wonderful South Park episode in which Eric Cartman pretends to have Tourette's syndrome so that he can blurt out any insult or profanity that comes into his head without getting in trouble. Unfortunately, he loses the ability to filter his thoughts at all and finds himself blurting out embarrassing secrets about himself including his bed wetting and his crush on a classmate.

I think many conservatives have lost the ability to filter their thoughts. The other day I saw a gun rights advocate on Chris Matthews calmly saying that he had no problem with law abiding citizens bringing guns to presidential appearances or onto airplanes. I wasn't shocked by the fact that he believed it, but I was surprised that he would say such things in the proverbial mainstream media because there is nothing to gain by it. The hardcore gun nuts already support him and he scares the hell out of everyone else.

I think this is what comes from watching too much Glen Beck.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mark Haines: CNBC Hero of the Day 8/19/09

I've got to give credit where credit is due. My nephew was right. Although I have called him a jerk in the past, Mark Haines has shown himself willing to play the crusty old curmudgeon from both sides of the aisle in the past few days in the debate over health care reform. Today he took on the Harvard Professor Martin Feldstein who wrote an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal titled "ObamaCare Is All About Rationing." The Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Ronald Reagan did not get the warm embrace that members of that administration have come to expect on CNBC with Haines repeatedly pointing out "Your argument is a very easy one to make by someone who has money."

The best part was when Feldstein tried to make a boogeyman out of cost-effectiveness research.

Feldstein: What do you think the cost-effectiveness research is for?

Haines: For the government to decide what it thinks the money is best spent on.

Feldstein: That's right. That's right.

Haines: That's simply rational sir. That's simply rational to make the decision based on what history has shown is the effectiveness of a therapy.

Feldstein: Yes, but you and I may have a different tastes. On whether I want to get a different test.

Haines: But if you have the money, you will still be able to get that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Did Mark Think Jesus Was God?

It often happens that when a Christian apologist cites some scholarly tome and I track down the book to read it, I find that it undermines the apologist’s position as much as it supports it. I was recently debating the question of whether the Gospel of Mark presents a different and lesser view of Christ’s divinity than the Gospel of John with Nick Norelli on his blog Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth. Nick cited Darrell Bock’s, Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge Against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65 as support for his position and urged me to read it. I normally view reading recommendations to be attempts to weasel out of an argument that isn’t going well. (I do this because when I have done the reading, I have found the person who did the recommending unprepared to discuss it.) However, I have always found Nick to be a pretty straight shooter so I requested Bock’s book through inter-library loan.

After looking through Bock's book, I think it provides support for the argument that the author of Mark did not think that Jesus was God. Bock shows that first century Jews believed that God, in his infinite wisdom, had in the past and would in the future exalt certain unique human beings thereby granting them authority to execute certain divine functions on His behalf and allowing them to sit in his presence. These individuals nonetheless remained human beings subordinate to and distinct from God. Mark's Jesus makes sense as an exalted human whose relationship with God was one of agency rather than equality. There seems to be no reason to read between the lines to find some divine Jesus when a human Jesus fits Mark's cultural context.

As the title indicates, Bock’s book is focused on thirteen verses from the Gospel of Mark:
They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders and teachers of the law came together. Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire. The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.' "Yet even then their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?" But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.
Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." The high priest tore his clothes. "Why do we need any more witnesses?" he asked. "You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?" They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, "Prophesy!" And the guards took him and beat him.
Mark 14:53-65. 1 Bock examines how Jesus’ claim fit into first century Jewish understanding and why the priests considered it blasphemous.

It should be noted that Bock’s book does not seek to compare Mark’s Christology to John’s or Paul’s or anyone else’s. It would not surprise me if he does it elsewhere, but Blasphemy and Exaltation is directed towards responding to arguments from more liberal scholars that the passage in Mark is ahistorical. Bock does this by thoroughly examining the first century Jewish literature concerning blasphemy and exaltation and showing that the priests’ conclusion that Jesus had committed blasphemy was consistent with the understanding that prevailed at that time. In his discussion with me, Nick used Bock’s work to argue that the Gospel of Mark expresses Christ’s deity just as clearly as the Gospel of John does, but it is not an argument that Bock addresses in the book.

Although Bock’s writing is geared towards other biblical scholars and hence often over my head sometimes (particularly when he quotes German scholars in German), he does provide an accessible summary of his argument at the end of the book:
Jesus’ blasphemy operated at two levels. 1) There was a claim to possess comprehensive authority from the side of God. Though Judaism might contemplate such a position for a few, the teacher from Galilee was not among the luminaries for whom such a role might be considered. As a result, his remark would have been seen as a self-claim that was an affront to God’s presence. 2) He also attacked the leadership, by implicitly claiming to be their future judge (or by claiming a vindication by him). This would be seen as a violation of Exod. 22:27, where God’s leaders are not to be cursed. A claim that their authority was non-existent and that they would be accounted among the wicked is a total rejection of their authority. To the leadership, this was an affront to God as they were in their own view, God’s established chosen leadership.
Blasphemy and Exaltation p. 236.

What I found most intriguing was Bock’s discussion of the exalted human figures that are found in early Jewish literature outside the Bible. For example, Enoch only makes a fleeting appearance in Genesis 5 as the father of Methuseleh, but there was apparently a large body of non-canonical literature on him. In it he is the angelic Metatron at one point and the Son of Man dispensing judgment from a heavenly throne at another. Other exalted humans include Adam, Abel, Moses, Elijah, and the future Messiah. According to Bock, there was “a wide variety of views about who gets into God’s presence." There also seem to be a variety of activities that these figures undertook while in a state of exaltation. Nevertheless, each individual was selected for exaltation by God, each one's power and authority was delegated by God, and each remained subordinate to God.

When apologists argue that Mark understood Jesus to be God, they typically point to Jesus doing "God-like" things like forgiving sins. However, Mark understood that God could and did delegate the performance of "God-like" functions to certain unique humans when it suited him to do so. When challenged for forgiving sins, Jesus specifically noted that he has the "authority" to do so. Mark 2:10. Isn't it more reasonable to think that Mark was telling a story with in the context of first century Judaism rather than rethinking its concept of monotheism?

Bock argues that the priests considered Jesus' claim blasphemous because it was a self-claim2 and it does seem logical that the exaltation itself would be one prerogative that God would never delegate. However, the fact that the priests thought Jesus was usurping a divine prerogative doesn't mean that Mark thought so. The priests were mistaken on this point and Mark knew they were mistaken because Mark knew that God had revealed himself as the source of Jesus' status at both his baptism and his transfiguration.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says things about himself that go beyond what even an exalted human being might have been able to claim within the context of first century Judaism, e.g., "he who sees me sees the Father" and "I and the Father are one." His opponents understand that Jesus is claiming to be God. In Mark, on the other hand, Jesus claims the status and authority that God has been known to confer on exalted humans. According to Bock, this is how the Jewish priests understood his claims.

If you understand contemporary idioms, you don't think that someone who says "I am so hungry I could eat a horse" is actually communicating an intent to consume an entire equine. By the same token, if Bock is correct about first century Judaism, there doesn't seem to be any reason to attribute to Mark an understanding of Jesus as God incarnate rather than as an exalted human.

1 The passage has parallels in Luke and Matthew, but apologists will almost always cite Mark in support of the claim that the Synoptic gospels reflect the same view of Christ’s divinity as the Gospel of John. This is because Mark reports that Jesus unambiguously answered “I am” when the priests asked him whether he was the Messiah. Depending on the translation you read, Jesus seems to be tap dancing around the question in Luke and John.

From the King James Version:
Art thou the Christ? tell us. And he said unto them, If I tell you, ye will not believe: And if I also ask you, ye will not answer me, nor let me go. Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the power of God. Then said they all, Art thou then the Son of God? And he said unto them, Ye say that I am.
Luke 22:67-70.
But Jesus held his peace, And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
Matthew 22:63-64.

2 Bock also acknowledges the possibility that Jesus wasn’t talking about himself when he spoke of the priests seeing “the Son of Man coming on the clouds,” but was instead referring some future messenger from God who would judge the priests and vindicate Jesus. Blasphemy and Exaltation p. 225-28. Apparently, the phrase “son of man” was a circumlocution in Aramaic that meant something along the lines of “yours truly.” Although Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as “the son of man” in Mark, he may not have been claiming the title of the figure from Daniel’s prophecy in most of those cases. In other words, when Jesus said “the son of man has nowhere to rest his head,” all he meant was “yours truly has nowhere to rest his head.” Therefore, when he refers to Daniel’s “Son of Man” in the third person when responding to the priests, he may actually have been referring to some third person.

Bock considers this to be the less likely reading, however, if it is correct then the charge of blasphemy rested only on the insult to God’s priests rather than on the insult combined with Jesus’ claim about himself.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fantasy and Reality

I always found “the world changed on 911” to be one of the most disingenuous catchphrases spawned by the Bush administration. The fact is that the world did not change. What happened was America’s ignorance about what was really going on in the world was exposed. However, that would have been an inconvenient narrative because it would have required us to examine the source or our misunderstanding and to find ways to correct it. By simply declaring that the world had changed, the administration absolved itself of any responsibility for past failures and left itself free to improvise entirely new approaches based on ideology while rejecting established principles as irrelevant to the “changed” circumstances.

I have the same reaction to the right wingers who complain that “this isn’t the America that I grew up in.” It is nothing more than an emotional appeal calculated to avoid a reasoned discussion of what America is really like and what sort of rational steps we can take to make it better for as many people as possible. The America in which anyone grew up is nothing more than what a child understood America to be.

It is no surprise that the same fools who fell for the idea that the world was different on 9/10/01 also believe that there was a different America when they grew up. The same inability to acknowledge reality is what causes them to believe in death panels and birther conspiracies.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Who Is Terrifying Who?

In today's Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan puts the blame for the rancor of the health care debate squarely on the back of Barack Obama in a column titled 'You Are Terrifying Us.'
The passions of the protesters, on the other hand, are not a surprise. They hired a man to represent them in Washington. They give him a big office, a huge staff and the power to tell people what to do. They give him a car and a driver, sometimes a security detail, and a special pin showing he’s a congressman. And all they ask in return is that he see to their interests and not terrify them too much. Really, that’s all people ask. Expectations are very low. What the protesters are saying is, “You are terrifying us.”
Obama is terrifying them? What about the Republicans on the floor of Congress railing about the old people who are going to be killed by health care reform? What about Sarah Palin's screed about "Obama's 'death panel'" that would kill little Trig? What about Rush Limbaugh calling Obama a Nazi and Glenn Beck calling him a racist and fascist? What about the Republicans' uninterrupted fear-based campaigns of the last forty years? What unadulterated crap!

Noonan has the gall to accuse the Democrats of being "crude and aggressive" and of damaging "political civility." She says they are being "unnecessarily and unhelpfully divisive and provocative." Glenn Beck makes jokes about poisoning Nancy Pelosi, but it is the Democrats who are "mocking and menacing concerned citizens." Noonan says the Democrats "should be attempting to persuade," but that can be difficult when organized wingnuts are shouting them down.

Noonan correctly asserts that "[f]or normal people, it's not all about Barack Obama," but many, although not all, of the protesters are not normal people. They are not the people who "hired" Obama to represent them in Washington. They are the birthers who still believe that Obama is a Muslim who pals around with terrorists. They are that wing of the Republican party that is dominated by the southerners who abandoned the Democrats after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. They are the ones who according to Kathleen Parker "have seceded from sanity."

Last fall, Noonan was sufficiently (and justifiably) terrified by the prospect of Sarah Palin wallowing in her ignorance within a heartbeat of the Oval Office that she decried the nastiness of the Republican presidential campaign. Now that that danger has passed, she is happy to play on the fears of the most backward elements of her party in order to defeat a policy that she does not favor. Like her hero Ronald Reagan, she does so under the guise of promoting civility, but it is nonetheless the same politics of resentment that the Republicans have relied on for four decades.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Are You Really Insured?

The way things really are:
The point of insurance is to protect you against unlikely but damaging events. . . .

If, like most people, your health coverage is through your employer or your spouse’s employer, that is not what you have. At some point in the future, you will get sick and need expensive health care. What are some of the things that could happen between now and then?
  • Your company could drop its health plan. . . .
  • You could lose your job. . . .
  • You could voluntarily leave your job, for example because you have to move to take care of an elderly relative. . . .
  • You could get divorced from the spouse you depend on for health coverage. . . .
For all of these reasons, you can’t count on your health insurer being there when you need it. That’s not insurance; that’s employer-subsidized health care for the duration of your employment.
You Do Not Have Health Insurance, from The Baseline Scenario.

Laffer is Full of Crap

In today's Wall Street Journal, the apostle of the supply side economics that produced ballooning deficits and the destruction of American manufacturing, Arthur Laffer, pumps for an equally asinine and ideological solution to the health care crisis. He begins with a mindlessly happy diagnosis of the current system that comes from looking at the world through the rose colored glasses of the wealthy:
Many Americans agree: 55% of respondents to a recent CNN poll think the U.S. health-care system needs a great deal of reform. Yet 70% of Americans are satisfied with their current health-care arrangements, and for good reason—they work.
No, you dumbass, 70% of Americans are satisfied with their current health-care arrangements because they aren't sick. Almost any system works fine for them.

Laffer goes on to offer a prescription for the problem that is calculated to bring joy to the heart of every insurance company executive:
A patient-centered health-care reform begins with individual ownership of insurance policies and leverages Health Savings Accounts, a low-premium, high-deductible alternative to traditional insurance that includes a tax-advantaged savings account.
Individual ownership of insurance policies???!!! Of course! If only we can increase the ability of insurers to cherry pick the healthy and deny coverage when someone gets sick, everything will work out just fine.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Another Reason We Need Health Care Reform

By every measure of small business employment, the United States has among the world’s smallest small-business sectors (as a proportion of total national employment). The lower taxes, less stringent regulations, and freer labor markets in the United States, it appears, have not yielded greater small-business employment here than elsewhere.
An International Comparison of Small Business Employment by John Schmitt and Nathan Lane from The Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mendacity of Conservatives

Old people will not be worse off under nationalized health care.

Old people already have nationalized health care. It's called Medicare. They like it.

It is conservatives who don't want government paying for health care. They are the ones who would leave old people up the creek without a paddle.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Apologists Say the Darndest Things

I was recently discussing the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea with a Christian apologist and I was challenged with a typical argument:
Why in the world would the Gospel writers lie about who buried Jesus, especially since early Christians would have been shocked that one of the Sanhedrin buried him. They were the very group that had Jesus executed! It also makes the disciples of Jesus look very bad to have had someone else bury Jesus instead of them. Why would they report this if it weren't true?
My initial response is that Mark needed to explain how Jesus got buried in the first place. The usual Roman practice was to leave the bodies of crucified criminals on the cross to rot as a warning to other potential troublemakers. In order to get the Romans to allow Jesus’ body to be buried, the request would have to come from someone with some influence in the community. Therefore, Mark has one of the Jewish priests, albeit a pious one, make the request. “Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body.” Mark 15:43.

My second response is that the other three gospel writers seem to be distressed by the very things that bothered the apologist. For example, Luke is careful to absolve Joseph of any responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion: “Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God.” Luke 23:50-51.

Matthew and John, on the other hand, apparently agreed that a disciple should have buried Jesus. Matthew makes Joseph a rich disciple: “As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.” Matthew 27:57-58. John makes Joseph a secret disciple: "Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away." John 19:38.

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that Matthew, Luke, and John have changed Mark’s story in exactly the way that my apologist friend thinks a liar would. Given that, is there any reason to think that Mark wouldn't be perfectly willing to change the stories as well?

Take Back the Beep

I urge everyone to read David Pogue Take Back the Beep and Take Back the Beep, Part II on his New York Times blog. Pogue is urging readers to contact their cell phone carriers to get rid of those annoying messages that occur before a caller is allowed to leave a message on someone's voice mail, i.e., "To page this person, press 5. When you have finished recording, you may hang up. To leave a callback number, press 1.” Like anyone needs to be told that they are allowed to hang up after they leave a message. These fifteen second messages are there to make money for the cell phone companies by forcing customers to waste minutes.