Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rand and Paul

By request of our gentle readers, we briefly opine on the influence of the creepy Ayn Rand on GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan. For those expecting us to provide links for further background, a common practice of ours, we offer our apologies. We think that this topic deserves the attention requested but not so much as to embroil us in research that others can carry out for themselves.

For those hiding from awful literature, we provide the reminder that Ayn Rand was the celebrated author of such unreadable propagandistic novels as Atlas Shrugged. Purveyor of something called "objectivism," which she styled a philosophy, Rand excited many in the past and continues to excite many in the present with the idea that the pursuit of profit is for the public good, that the heroes of modern life are its successful, selfish entrepreneurs.

Paul Ryan, it is widely reported, got turned on to free-market economics by reading Rand as an adolescent. Through Rand, Ryan got the notion that the world might be a better, not worse, place for the pursuit of profit, something that the young and idealistic sometimes have to be forced to consider, it seems.

Of course, Rand's "philosophy" goes well beyond the "invisible hand" of Adam Smith and other observers of economics. It is allegedly scornful of religion, altruism, and weakness, arguably a severe variety of social Darwinism. Naturally, people who hear that a leading pol was ever a fan of Rand will wonder how far that fanaticism extends.

Is Paul Ryan a secret disciple of Rand, sending endless votes to the Modern Library to get Rand's books rated as highly as the esteemed L. Ron Hubbard, that other entrepreneurial demagogue of nonliterary dreck? Does his budget agenda hide a more sinister agenda to revolutionize our Republic according to Rand's dystopic vision?

Well, no.

Ryan has been widely heard explaining his youthful enthusiasm for Rand as just that: youthful enthusiasm. After a short while, he had read and thought widely enough to see the weaknesses in Rand's so-called objectivism, rejecting what didn't make sense.

But Rand opened his eyes to something he hadn't considered. So he regards the discovery as monumental in his experience, still holding some affection for the author who had such a profound, if now sharply limited, influence on him.

More obviously, Paul Ryan is a devout, thoughtful, well informed Roman Catholic. His positions as a Catholic may be controversial with some Catholics, including many bishops, who prefer, as Ryan has put it, to see the preferential option for the poor as a preferential option for big government. Be that as it may--a very important intra-Catholic debate over the last couple of generations--Ryan has demonstrated clearly enough that his Catholic faith trumps his youthful devotion to Rand.

And so a SWNIDish parallel. We discovered the wonders of jazz in the 1970s, initially in large part through the recordings of Chick Corea and his various sidemen who wrote, recorded and performed as Return to Forever. Theirs was a fusion of jazz with rock. In retrospect, we still have affection for that music, though realizing now that only some of the band's recordings were really worthy of our attention. Moreover, we now greatly prefer to listen to American improvised music performed on more traditional instruments and drawing more directly from the grammar of jazz established over the genre's history.

Now, back in the day and even until now, every recording by Chick Corea and his sidemen includes a dedication to L. Ron Hubbard. Yes, the eminent composer and keyboardist is a Scientologist who prefers to play with others of the same persuasion.

We are not and have never been a Scientologist. We've never been interested in any aspect of Scientology or its founder. We denounce and repudiate Scientology and all its allies. We flatulate in its general direction. But we still remember Return to Forever fondly.

Paul Ryan could say roughly the same about objectivism, except that he was for a time directly interested.

Nothing to see here people. Just keep moving to November 6. Thank you.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Generational Contrasts

Helen Gurley Brown, whose acute public-mindedness led her to become the authoress of Sex and the Single Girl and the editor who turned Cosmopolitan from a sophisticated general-interest magazine to a sex-obsessed supermarket checkout fixture, has died.

At the age of 90.

Her death is sad as all deaths are sad. For SWNID her age is arresting.

That's one year younger than SWNID's mother. Ms. Brown and our beloved mother are very much members of the same generation.

Ms. Brown gave American women permission to be successful and slutty at the same time.

SWNID's mother was married to the same man for 70.5 years. She has discovered that her purpose in aged widowhood is to counsel the nursing staff who cares for her to eschew sexual promiscuity and find God through Jesus Christ. More than one has responded by giving up her baby-daddy and getting herself and her kids to church. Really.

These two women, born about a year apart just as the 20s began to roar, each remarkable in her own way, responded very differently to the opportunities and pressures of modernity.

We prefer the legacy left by one of them.

Let this be a warning to all those who pronounce about what this or that generation is going to do. Choices are made and lives are lived by individuals. Choose well, and live well, gentle readers.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage and the Biblical Christian

We've seen more than enough of the same-sex marriage discussion to last us an eternal lifetime. But some voices are persistent enough, raising sufficient questions for the faithful and curious, that we are compelled, from our lofty position as an Authentic Biblical Scholar (PhD and all that) to offer some response.

Those persistent voices are succinctly represented  in a snarky, condescending (rather like this blog) Facebook-posted flow chart found (by those with Facebook accounts) here. The notions therein contained are for some persuasive enough to prompt questions of trusted experts like SWNID. We figure it'll be more helpful for others and easier for us if we provide a succinct, pointed response and enshrine it here for posterity's future reference.

So, point by point:

  • "Jesus never uttered a word about same-sex relationships." This is false. The word is porneia, used by Jesus in Matthew 5:32; 15:19 (parallel at Mark 7:21); 19:9. In conventional usage of Hellenistic Greek among Jews of Jesus' day, porneia referred to all sexual activity outside of marriage, and marriage was between members of the opposite sex, of course. If Jesus meant to exclude same-sex relationships from his condemnation of porneia, he did not say as much.
  • "The OT also says that it's sinful to eat shellfish, to wear clothing woven with different fabrics, and to eat pork." True but hardly relevant. The Mosaic books imply a difference between those things that have always been unlawful for all people and those things that become unlawful for Israel when Israel receives the Mosaic law at Sinai. Later Jewish scholars distinguished these as the Noachic commands (those given to all humanity) and the Mosaic commands (those given to all Israel). The notion of sexual sin is based on the creation of man and woman in Eden. It is therefore fundamentally different from the various symbols of separation (diet, clothing, calendar) that constitute what was distinctive to Israel. This notion is part of the Christian interpretation of the Mosaic law as well, as enshrined in Jesus' teaching and the New Testament letters. In the New Testament, the Mosaic law's distinctives for Israel do not bind the follower of Christ, especially the Gentile follower of Christ. But those laws that express what has always been right and wrong do very much apply. So Jesus can at once make a statement understood later by his followers to pronounce all foods clean (Mark 7:18-19) and follow it immediately with a statement affirming that sexual immorality, which for Jesus included same-sex relations, is evil (Mark 7:21).
  • "The original language of the NT actually refers to male prostitution, molestation, or promiscuity, not committed same-sex relationships." Questionable and ultimately irrelevant. Many instances of same-sex relations in the Graeco-Roman world were acts of prostitution or pederasty (an older, more powerful male taking sexual advantage of a younger, less powerful male). And doubtless promiscuity was present as well. So to say that the language of the NT refers to such is simply to say that such acts were common and so were what the language of the NT would commonly refer to. However, here we must proceed thoughtfully. First, were there no "committed same-sex relationships" in the Graeco-Roman world? Would Paul and others not have known of men who lived together for many years and were sexually active together? In the cosmopolitan world of the first-century Mediterranean, we doubt as much. Second, there is a significant difference between the referent of a word and its sense. The "sense" is the meaning of the word, its definition, as it were. The "referent" is the thing in the world to which it refers. So "table" has a sense: piece of furniture with legs and a flat surface on top, on which objects can be placed, but in any usage "table" will refer to a particular table. Now, it is true that most tables one sees in the United States presently are either wooden or made to look like they are wooden. Would it be fair, therefore, to say that in our time someone who speaks of a table thereby refers to something that at least appears wooden? Obviously not. So if someone wanted to communicate, "Tables are evil because of their woodenness," that person would have to say more than "Tables are evil." So it is with the language of same-sex relations in Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9. These statements in their historical context would refer mostly to exploitative or promiscuous acts. But it is not the exploitation or promiscuity which is the focus of the terms used. Rather, it is the acts themselves. And those statements are made without qualification to make the reader understand that exploitation or such is the real problem. In sum, the nontraditional reading quoted at the head of this point is a case of special pleading that confuses the referent and sense of words.
  • "Paul may have spoken against homosexuality, but he also said that women should be silent and never assume authority over a man." True and irrelevant. The point here is to suggest that no one really follows what the Bible says anyway, especially Paul's bits, so why do so in this instance? One can make a strong case that Paul's teaching about women in context is not nearly as severe as this out-of-context citation makes it seem to be, and that thoughtful Christians have at least sometimes followed and applied Paul's teaching with variations for culture without either oppressing women or obliterating genuine differences between the sexes. Such is not so easily done with texts like Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9, where Paul's language assumes the prior understanding that same-sex activity is wrong.
  • "[The creation of man and woman in the garden with the command to multiply] was when the earth wasn't populated. There are now 6.79 billion people. Breeding clearly isn't an issue anymore." The implication is that the command to heterosexual marriage is solely for procreation. But Jesus sees more than that. Jesus cited Genesis 2:24 to express the idea that divorce is not a fulfillment of God's will. Given the very real truth that divorced and remarried people generally remain as fertile after remarriage as they were before divorce, Jesus' implication would be irrelevant were heterosexual marriage just for filling up the earth.
  • "The Bible also defines marriage as one-man-many-women, one-man-many-wives-and-many-concubines, a rapist and his victim, and conquering soldier and prisoner of war." False, at least if by "define" we mean "approve." Does the Bible portray all these things? Yes. Does the Mosaic law regulate these things? Yes. Does that imply that the Bible approves of them? No, of course not. All polygamy in the Bible falls after the foundational narrative of Eden with its statement about monogamy in Genesis 2:24. Every story of polygamy shows the bad end to which such arrangements come. The Mosaic law deals with polygamy as it does with other deeply embedded elements of Ancient Near Eastern culture that run counter to morality based on creation: by regulating the practice so as to ameliorate its worst effects and discourage its practice. So Moses tells the polygamist that he must treat each wife exactly the same, while telling stories of the bad ends of polygamy. What does the thoughtful reader do? Take only one wife. Those who don't repeat the stories with bad ends. By the way, Israel's soldiers were specifically forbidden to take spoils during the conquest, including foreign brides taken as spoils.
If you've made it this far or just skipped this far, the problem with all such discussions as these is the failure to consider or acknowledge that there is a consistent, biblical notion of sexual morality, tied to creation. That man and women are both different and correspond is celebrated by the Bible as the expression of God's purpose and the foundation of human society. Reading the Bible to this outcome is not a tendentious misreading: it is the consensus of Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout the Bible's history.

It is the pervasive assumption that heterosexual monogamy is God's creation design that underlies biblical teaching about sex and marriage. This assumption is what makes it possible for the NT writers simply to make brief statements of condemnation without explanation. They address people who quite simply have come to assume that creation of two different, corresponding sexes means something about the act of sex.

Advocates of same-sex marriage would be more honest if they simply admitted that they have chosen to reject what the Bible teaches. The approach we've noted, while doubtless sincerely believed by some, constitutes ad hoc special pleading that ultimately works by confusing the less-informed faithful about the real boundaries of their faith system.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

What Government Investment Gets You

The Washington Examiner reports the shocking but unsurprising news that Amtrak, our Republic's "investment" in "green transportation" in the form of 19th-century rail technology, has lost $833 million over the last decade in the sale of food on its trains.

For perspective, note from the brief article that:

  • the cost of a cheeseburger and Pepsi for a passenger is about $11.50
  • the cost of the same to the taxpayer is nearly $20
  • [the cost of the same at Five Guys* is about $8, and it's Coke instead of Pepsi, not to mention a fantastic cheeseburger, for a better overall experience]
  • the loss in Amtrak food services per Amtrak food service employee is just shy of $70k per employee for last year alone
  • last year's losses were less than previous years
  • the food service is bound by law not to lose money
Remember this when you're asked this fall to vote for the President who will "invest in our country's future" and not for the fellow who spent most of his adult life making profitable investments and turning around insolvent operations.

We won't even mention "high speed rail" and all that.

*The president of Five Guys refuses to articulate his position on the polyandrous same-sex marriages that the company's name seems to support.