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May182014

Book Reviews: The Jefferson Bible, The Sense of an Ending, The Great Courses

The Faith of Our Fathers

Review of  The Jefferson Bible

By Casey Dorman

 

An unending debate between some on the American right and others on the American left concerns whether or not our country was founded upon “Christian principles.” Central to this debate for some is the question of the extent to which our so-called “founding fathers” embraced the Christian religion. An important question, at least in terms of this debate (the importance of which itself can be questioned), is whether or not the founding fathers derived their ideas primarily from their personal Christian theologies. A examination of the writings by and about such historic figures as Franklin, Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson might give us some clues as to the answer  to this question.

Brooke Allen has done an admirable, although not necessarily even-handed, job of examining the lives and writings of the founding fathers in pursuit of the answer to the question about  each of their religions and its role in determining their views of the principles they wished to have govern the United States. Her 2006 book, Moral Minority, delves into the views of each of the six afore-mentioned patriots. Her conclusion was that all six of them were, to varying degrees, deists and not Christians—believers in a higher power which may have created the universe, but not believers in an anthropomorphic  god nor in Jesus as his son. Their philosophy, which was instantiated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, was not only heavily influenced by enlightenment thinking, particularly John Locke, but, in most cases it specifically excluded god as having anything to do with the conduct of government. The failure to include any reference to Jesus Christ in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution and no references even to God in the latter was not because they took the Christian basis for these documents for granted, but because they specifically did not want any religious dogma to have a role in the governing of the new nation. Most of them, like Thomas Jefferson, went so far as to say that whatsoever a person’s religion, even if it was no belief in god at all, it should have no bearing on that person’s legitimate right not only to participate in government as a citizen, but to guide that government as an elected officer.

But what of these men’s private beliefs? Allen and many others have gone into this topic at length. Some of the early patriots, such as Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine,  made no secret of their lack of religious faith, which included at most a deistic philosophy and perhaps atheism. Most of the others, such as Benjamin Franklin, were severely critical of the Christian religion, but gave at least lip service and probably their real belief to a vague, deistic presence, which they referred to in the least specific terms, such as “providence.” Thomas Jefferson was forthright in his homage to Jesus as an exemplar of "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” But he did not regard Jesus as divine, nor as having produced miracles, including being born from a virgin and being resurrected after death.

Jefferson was so sincere in his desire to rid the teachings of Jesus from the trappings of divinity and miracles, that he took a razor and cut out parts of the first four books of the New Testament, leaving out the miracles and signs of divinity, and pasted them into a new book. In fact he did this four times, pasting English, Greek, Latin and French, side by side in his own version of the book. The first version of this book, which he constructed in 1804, was titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrassed [uncomplicated] with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions. The title implies that the book, which was never published, was merely a simplification of the New Testament, meant for unlettered Indians, who would have been confused by discussion of Jesus’ divinity or of miracles (Benjamin Franklin’s brief article, Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America, pokes fun at the missionaries who ridiculed  Indian spiritual stories as being “fable, fiction and falsehood,” while expecting the Indians to take their own stories of Jesus seriously). Modern Christians and conservative pundits have fastened upon Jefferson’s lengthy title to suggest that he really did believe in Jesus’ divinity, but was just “dumbing down” the Bible stories for the sake of the Indians. However, when Jefferson revised his Bible fifteen years later, he also revised its title to be The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, with no mention of Indians. He was reported to have read his self-constructed Bible every night before retiring.

So what does Jefferson’s Bible contain and what did he leave out? The “Jefferson Bible” is a very slim volume when reprinted as a modern paperback. It consists of seventeen chapters, containing excerpts from Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, often jumping from one book to another, sometimes in mid-story, pasted together to avoid repetition and to maintain a coherent narrative. There is no commentary or non-biblical content in the book. Jefferson did not reference any of the passages  to their biblical sources—a fact which makes verifying each of them tedious, given the many parallel passages among the telling and retelling of Jesus’ story in the four New Testament books. His Bible begins with the simple statement of Jesus’ birth, including the trip to Bethlehem to pay taxes, the birth in the manger and then the circumcision at eight days of age. There is no mention of Mary being a virgin, of a visitation from an angel, none of the Christmas pageant characters such as shepherds from the fields or wise men, no star in the sky, etc. The story then jumps to Jesus being 12 years old and preaching in the synagogue, leaving out some phrases such as Jesus saying he is “about my father’s business” (Luke 2:49), which might either signify Jesus’ divinity or his fulfillment of prophesy.

John the Baptist is included in Jefferson’s pasted together story, including his baptism of Jesus and his own beheading, but John’s prophesies about Jesus and his words about someone “mightier than I” (Mark 1:7) coming after him are omitted, as are all other references to God speaking to Jesus, the detailing of Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, Jesus’ conversation with the devil, as well as every instance of Jesus performing a healing or a miracle. Virtually all of Jesus’ examples of breaking the Jewish laws in order to be more fair or compassionate are cited in Jefferson’s story, as are some of Jesus’ greatest sermons, such as his “sermon on the mount” in the book of Mathew, in which he recites the beatitudes and amplifies the meaning of the ten commandments.

Many of the well-known sayings of Jesus are found in Jefferson’s text, such as “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), his reference to the “lilies of the field” (Matt. 6:28), the house “built on a rock” (Matt. 7:24), etc. Also  included are some of the famous stories, such as the woman washing Jesus’ feet, his saving of the adulteress about to be stoned to death, and a great many of the parables. The final chapters of Jefferson’s book jump from one biblical source to another, but quote extended passages, such as nearly all of Mathew 26 in its account of the last supper (leaving out the passages 26-28  that are the basis for communion, i.e. “Take, eat; this is my body,” and “Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed   for the remission of sins” ). The story of Jesus’ capture and trial and crucifixion is pieced together from a dizzying alternation between sources and excludes Jesus’ claim of divinity in Mark 14, in his answer to the priests’ question, “art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” with the answer,” I am, and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in  the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14: 61-62). The final two passages from the book , the first from John and the second from Mathew, are completely devoid of even a hint of Jesus’ resurrection.

“There laid they Jesus”

“And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre and departed.”

Despite some claims to the contrary, Jefferson’s book is not devoid of some hints that Jesus might be divine. He includes Jesus referring  to the “Son of Man” on several occasions, although in most cases, it is not clear from the biblical text if Jesus is referring to himself  or to someone else, and the interpretation of the phrase is murky, anyway. Jefferson does include the passage, “for the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10), which is said in a context  that implies that Jesus is referring to himself, although the passage does not strongly imply the divinity of the “Son of Man.”  Perhaps just as puzzling is the fact that Jefferson tells the story of the Passover supper, the capture in Gethsemane garden, the trial of Jesus and the crucifixion, in great detail covering several of his last chapters. Almost none of this part of Jesus’ story in the Bible contains any moral lessons or pronouncements. Was Jefferson so diligent about telling this part of the story because he wanted to make the narrative complete, right up to the end, or did he include these parts out of reverence for Jesus?  The answer is not clear.

Almost inexplicably, Jefferson also included some seemingly irrelevant details from the New Testament, such as Jesus writing an unknown something on the ground as he was talking to the men who were about to stone the adulteress (John 8:6-8). He also includes two passages referring to a young man in a “linen cloth” who pursues Jesus’ captors after the disciples have fled and who has the cloth taken from him, forcing him to run away naked (Mark14: 51-52). These details, which appear to serve no function in the Bible, are a mystery in terms of why Jefferson would keep them in his carefully considered collection of excerpts.

It is abundantly clear that Jefferson’s aim, in constructing his bible, was to remove the miraculous and the divine (and the repetitive) components of the story of Jesus found in the New Testament. He did an admirable job. There are not even any hints that Jesus possessed extraordinary powers beyond those of other humans. There are the merest hints that Jesus considered himself divine, mostly related to his ambiguous use of the ambiguous term, “Son of Man.”  The virgin birth and the resurrection are simply left out of the story. None of Jesus’ moral teachings is left out.

Jefferson seemed mostly to be interested in constructing a book of Jesus’ moral teachings, which fits with his well-known adulation for Jesus as a great moral teacher. The testimonies from his children that he read the book nearly every night, indicate that he used the book for his own edification. The real question that is relevant to the larger issue of whether Jefferson himself was an atheist or deist, as opposed to a believing Christian, hinges upon why he left out the parts of the Bible that show Jesus performing miracles or  which imply his divinity. This will probably continue to be debated.

 

 

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Reviewed by Noel Mawer

 

Although Julian Barnes’ 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending seems to be intended as a member of the class “literary fiction” (it did win the Man Booker prize, after all), it also slips handily into the Agatha Christie genre “locked room whodunit.”

When Agatha Christie employed a first-person narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, she clearly did it to entrap the reader. As we have no authorial voice to tell us what really happened, we are at the mercy of a narrator who is not only a character in the story but also may, deliberately or unwittingly, mislead us. Christie’s narrator is the former: he tells us what he wants us to know and we are misled up to the very end and the inevitable (this is Agatha Christie) unmasking.

Julian Barnes falls into the second category. The narrator himself is deluded and so tells us only what he believes to be true. Until the ending (?), the title would lead us to believe that it is the ending, we are led down the garden path with the narrator and at the end we either know or don’t know what he knows or thinks he knows.

If this is some sort of post-modernism, well, my take is rather a traditional enough novel, reminiscent of Henry James, who achieves a similar effect by limiting the author’s omniscience to the mind of the narrator. (Point of view is a fraught question in the literary world, with authors trying to reveal or obscure the “truth” and ponder the question of whether it’s “dishonest” for a narrator to deliberately mislead the reader about what is, after all, a fabrication.)

Surely we are long past Samuel Richardson and the epistolary novel constructed as a series of letters to increase its believability. Alice Walker, in The Color Purple, turned the form into a cloying “Dear God.”

And so our protagonist sets out to find what really happened forty years before. In the present he meditates on the vagaries of time and memory, which, I suppose, could be taken more seriously if he weren’t such a self-deluding person.

The story begins with Tony Webster, the narrator, receiving a bequest from the recently deceased mother of his lover of forty years ago. His attempts to understand why this happened motivate his search that will reveal … something. Tony had, after all, only met this mother once, on one weekend visit to her family, the details of which he remembers quite clearly, as well as the questions they raised at the time.

As Tony discovers more about the events of that weekend, he reinterprets them as does the reader. Tony’s reconstructions of these and other events in the past are the subject of intense examination. We get to draw our own conclusions about Tony and the rest of the cast, and, as Tony tries to recall his life, we may see him as self-deluding while the reader’s narrative runs parallel to his and leads us to believe that it was, indeed, Tony who killed Roger Ackroyd. But nothing so melodramatic as murder occurs, though the reader might suppose such.

Tony not only kills no one; he actually doesn’t do much that merits the reader’s attention or concern. And Tony thinks so too. But the novel is a fairly intricate puzzle, its mysteries rather excessively compounded by the behavior of the former girlfriend, who sees the obtuseness of the narrator, and seems deliberately to exploit it.

The author, and many readers, may think the book is about time and memory. But Tony isn’t interesting or profound enough to really have much to say on these subjects. To me, this works best as a puzzle mystery, one that is unresolved at its conclusion. This locked room seems as if it will remain for Tony, but to the reader it may keep revealing new facets for some time after she has closed the book. A sad tale about a sad man who never, despite his efforts, was able to look into himself or into the people around him.

 

The Great Courses: Are They Really?

By Noel Mawer

 

I recently encountered an item in my local newspaper about the discovery in Spain of a bone believed to be a specimen of homo erectus (a precursor to our species, homo sapiens) and to be 400,000 years old. If you’ve been following the quest for human origins you will note that this is about 300,000 years older than other pre-human species and not in the right place—the accepted theory is that humans originated in Africa and migrated to Europe and Asia 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.

This is the kind of discovery that causes wholesale rethinking by archaeologists and anthropologists. Early in 2013, eastern European scientists announced the finding of a 1.8 million-year-old in Georgia (the European one), a skull which they believed to be “pre-human” (again, homo erectus). If E.O. Wilson, the sociobiologist, is correct in assuming that language was necessary for mass migrations, and, as many linguists think, language dates back only 100-150 thousand years, there are a lot of blanks to fill in.

So what do these facts and speculations have to base their conclusions on? A few fortuitously preserved bones (where will your bones be in 400,000 years?) and the sciences of carbon dating and DNA retrieval and analysis. These are apparently reliable tools, but the scientists who use them are not claiming absolute certainty. They may espouse theories, but they temper them with elaborate cautions.

Take, for one example, the archaeologist Brian Fagan, author of many books and of Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations, a 2003 contribution to the “Great Courses” series of lectures on various topics. (You may have seen the ads in a magazine or received a mailer about them.) The lectures are produced by what was originally called The Teaching Company. More recently the prices of Great Courses have been reduced significantly and the company has engaged in aggressive marketing. I find their pitch irresistible and have completed eight courses while ordering several more. In this review, I will deal with courses in science.

And this brings us back to Brian Fagan. Professor Fagan, as a good scientist should, qualifies all theoretical assertions not only by citing the evidence but by giving competing interpretations. He does these things in a most engaging manner: this Cambridge-educated gentleman always wears an ascot and peppers his speech with Britishisms and archaisms. The past tense of “eat” is pronounced “et” (though spelled “ate”); “di” is pronounced as “j,” as in “immejiate.” And the lectures (36 of them) are models for undergraduate teaching—accessible to the neophyte, yet sufficiently complex for the advanced student. Professor Fagan begins each lecture by outlining what he will say, then says it, and ends by summarizing what he has said. These lectures are uniformly clear and informative, with the occasional dramatic flourish (think Patrick Stewart speaking always in complete sentences). Like all the Great Courses, this one comes with a booklet containing outlines of each lecture, bibliography, and extensive and useful glossary.

I mentioned Fagan’s scientific method—presenting the evidence and then describing the theories that have been posited by scientists in the field, because I have found other scientists in these courses who take what seems to me to be a much less rigorous approach. “Science” is one of those terms like “love” or “closure” that mean all things to all people. Few would quibble with chemists in their classification of elements. The elements are, after all, accessible phenomena, and the scientists who work with them agree about their properties.

The problems arise with scientists that rely on very little evidence (like archaeologists), but Fagan’s approach, presenting the conflicting theories, addresses the problem. However, let’s take the sciences (mostly labeled “social” or “behavioral”) that rely on the various assertions of various authorities: anthropology, sociology, linguistics. I won’t even mention library science, creation science, Christian Science. Which leads us to the next Great Course: “Linguistics, the Science of Language.” Like the other social/behavioral sciences mentioned, the “facts” upon which theories are constructed are a body of observations which often cannot be verified. And this leads to these disciplines being perpetually mired in strife over what theories would come out of “evidence” that may lead observers to various conclusions.

But Fagan has it easy. Those old bones and rocks on which archaeology is based have a limited scope for interpretation. In most cases, the scientists can agree on a great deal, such as the age of the fossils, thanks to carbon dating.

To return to linguistics, what the specialists seem to be doing is attempting to base their theories on the first uses of language. Such theories as “universal grammar” are based on languages which no longer exist. Yet that theory has captured the imagination of linguists since the 1950’s. But if the proper study of mankind is man, the proper study of linguistics is language. And here’s the rub: the few extant artifacts of prehistoric people are, as “prehistoric” would imply, completely lacking in language. Yet linguists base their theories on their “reconstruction” of these non-existent languages, which most scientists agree were spoken before writing by at least a hundred thousand years. Archaeological finds have confirmed that human animals had the necessary biological organs for speech, but left nothing written, presumably because writing had yet to be invented.

Linguists can take the languages that exist today and try to reconstruct what their original versions might have been. But the uncountable number of changes that occur even now in languages make this method of searching for a source more wishful than scientific. Our very own language, which stemmed from Anglo-Saxon (usually called Old English), was the written language used only 1,500 years ago, yet to present-day English speakers, it is incomprehensible, in effect a foreign language. And when languages have no written form to provide some sort of uniformity and stability, they change with stunning rapidity. (This has been observed in recent times in preliterate cultures).

So how do linguists create the “science of language”? For the answer, we turn to Professor John McWhorter’s “Great Course.” Much of the course is devoted to lists of details about extant languages and their relationship to one another. But then, when McWhorter gets to theories of language origin and grammar, we are led into the realm of unsubstantiated speculation. McWhorter explicitly bases his theories on those described by Steven Pinker in his 1994 work The Language Instinct, which assumes that there are such things as universal human nature and an “instinct for language.”

It has been for some time an accepted tenet of social and behavioral sciences that “instinct” is, to quote E.O. Wilson, “[b]ehavior that is highly stereotyped, more complex than the simplest reflexes—usually directed at particular objects in the environment. Learning may or may not be involved in the development of instinctive behavior; the important point is that the behavior develops toward a narrow, predictable end product.” Like mating behavior in many species, and like the songs of birds, which seem to be the same from place to place and over time, many of these are learned: parents teach their offspring, and they always teach them exactly what they and all their fellows learned.

Obviously, Pinker is thinking of some other meaning for “instinct.” First: “Learning is not an alternative to innateness; without our innate mechanisms to do the learning, it could not happen at all.” So far, no problem. But then: “mental language mechanisms must have a complex design, with many interacting parts.” So human experience may become part of the human’s culture, “just as there is a universal design to the computations of grammar, there is a universal design to the rest of the human mind.” The brain contains “different modules each keyed to the peculiar logic and laws of one domain.”

This is the theory of learning and mind that McWhorter espouses. However, not every linguist agrees. David J. Buller in his 2005 Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature devotes the entire (500 page) volume to demonstrating that the mechanisms that Pinker et al point to in explaining language are “ deeply antithetical to a truly evolutionary view of our species,” because this view seems to suggest  the long-discredited Lamarckian theory that acquired characteristics are heritable. Those “modules,” I would suggest, come from the same bag of tricks that some cosmologists have used to posit “superstrings” as the ultimate reality. But here’s my point: McWhorter, unlike Brian Fagan and others, chooses to espouse an unsubstantiated theory to “explain” the mysteries of language. Unlike Fagan and others practicing inductive reasoning, McWhorter simply asserts but doesn’t explain and certainly makes no attempt to consider alternative theories.

Thus I conclude that McWhorter’s “Great Course” is full of interesting tidbits but lacks the methodology that science demands, to make linguistics truly a science.

The third “Great Course” I explored is, again, labeled “science.” That course, “Chaos,” is taught by Steven Strogatz , professor of mechanics and mathematics at Cornell. Professor Strogatz defines chaos, as, colloquially, confusion; but “scientifically,” as “seemingly random, unpredictable behavior in a system that is nevertheless governed by deterministic laws.” It is predictable in the short run (because of determinism), but, therefore, unstable in the long run because of sensitivity to material conditions.

The problem leaps off the page: is he saying that if we know all the elements involved, anything would be predictable? I have heard this about weather prediction. But chaos theory seems to suggest that this applies to all of science and means that all conclusions are tentative.

Professor Strogatz’s admirably clear explanations depend on such entities as “state space” and “strange attractor.” To me, this seems to venture into the realm of “human nature” and “language instinct.” Chaos theory may ultimately be another case of a “theory of everything”—the chimerical siren song that seems to lure scientists in many different disciplines.

In summary: The Great Courses I have sampled are genuinely college level material, often but not always presented engagingly. The supporting written material is uniformly useful. I intend to pursue more of these offerings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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