Coffee without Scipio

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

Women’s Studies

Scipio has been nursing a cold for a week and I have been sitting by myself at Mathilde’s. I tried to persuade him to come out today and have some tea, but he says the tea they serve in the shop is actually produced by slave labour in Burma and every-time you drink it you dig another grave. I don’t want that on my conscience, so I stick to espresso.

3 o’clock just isn’t the same without him. The new barista, Erin, is the third in four months and Scipio hasn’t met her. She’s a Women’s Studies and Postmodern Culture major at the college, with a minor in Independent Studies.


We were talking about that this afternoon.

“How do you minor in independent studies,” I asked cautiously. But she felt the challenge.

“What do you mean by that,” she said, turning that into Th-a-t.

“I mean…

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Proving What?

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

The Revd Thomas Bayes

The Revd Thomas Bayes, 1701-1761

The current discussion among Jesus-deniers and mythicists over whether probability in the form of Bayes’s Rule can be used in historical research is more than a little amusing.

The current fad is largely the work of atheist blogger and debater Richard Carrier who despite having a PhD in ancient history likes to tout himself as a kind of natural science cum mathematics cum whachagot expert.

Carrier’s ingenuity is on full display in a recent book published by Prometheus (Buffalo, NY) in which he makes the claim that Bayes Theorem–a formula sometimes used by statisticians  when dealing with conditional probabilities– can be used to establish probability for events in the past.  That would make it useful for answering questions about whether x happened or did not happen, and for Carrier’s fans, the biggest x they would like to see answered (he claims ) is Did Jesus exist or…

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Dumb America and Smart Islam


A repeat but one that needs repeating

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

There is a common western–or perhaps typically western–misperception that the Islamic world is lost in a theological fantasy that does not permit it to exit the 12th century into the 21st.

When I wrote the introduction to Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim (which oddly, for its brief compass, received almost as much attention as the book itself) I tried to explain to non-historians why Islamic history is, so to speak,  backwards: a golden age only a few centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632 that corresponded to the Christian “dark ages,” followed by a dark age of religious protectionism and dynastic quarrelling that corresponded to the European renaissance.  It’s an irony, of course, that religions thought to have so much in common did not run parallel tracks in terms of doctrinal development and intellectual achievement; but it is a fact that after the Renaissance  religious authority in the West…

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Love in Transoxiana

The first thing to know is that Transoxiana (Transoxania) is a western fiction: The name stuck in Western consciousness because of the exploits of Alexander the Great, who extended Greek culture into the region with his conquests of the 4th century BC. Transoxiana was the far north-eastern point of Hellenistic culture until the Arab invasion. During the Sassanid Empire (>7th century CE) it was often called Sogdiana, a provincial name taken from the Achaemenid Empire, and used to distinguish it from nearby Bactria. These now sound like names out of mythology. Perhaps they are, partly. But their purchase on the land, the culture, the people, and the cities is permanent.

Once upon a time this was a center of Arabic learning—in the so-called Sassanid period—due to the immense wealth the region derived from the silk road. The Arabs knew it simply as the “land beyond the river” (Ma wara’un-Nahr ) and its two great cities—Samarkand and Bukhara–attracted large numbers of well-off and educated Iranians to the area. (Their descendants are easy to spot. They are fair, often have startling blue eyes) Later still, between the 8th and 14th century Transoxiana flourished under successive Arab dynasties and then under the rule of Genghis Khan and his successors.


But that is history, mixed with mythology and characterized by loose geographical borders and the migratory patterns of mountain people who clung to their nomadic ways and cultures, away from the meccas of central Asian civilization. The later history of this area is a history of consolidation under the protective wing of Mother Russia, under the Czars, and under the Soviet Regime. East Europeans, Germans, and thousands of Russians entered or were enticed to the area creating an ethnic mix unlike anything you are likely to encounter anywhere else on earth.

When you leave China—which, recall, is essentially a one- family country since the end of Mongol rule—the Han of the Middle Kingdom–you leave the pleasant ennui of a pattern of physical and facial features that evolves from three thousand years of family business. Westerners are often accused of a kind of racial blindness when they say All Chinese look alike. Obviously this is not true at one level—especially if you are Chinese. Your uncle Harry looks different from your father, after all. But the fact is, one will never feel so foreign as one does in China, especially in a country that celebrates its cultural sameness in much the same way that mono-cultures have throughout history. “God made everyone different,” a Facebook poster says. “He got tired by the time he came to China.”

But to cross the border from far western China into Kyrgyzstan is to cross from mysterious Asia to a mystical Indo European world where Asian features, raven hair, dark eyes, high cheekbones and a severe intelligence blend with pale skin, auburn hair and blue eyes at every corner, in every shop and restaurant. If you know the fascinating history of the Silk Road, the trading route that traversed the mountain ranges and valleys of central Asia into China, you can easily imagine camels and horses and elephants along the way. Even in the 4th century BCE Alexander lost soldiers to the allure of the area, and began a long history of people toppling into the patchwork of khanates and kingdoms that would emerge as the modern nations of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. –stan, incidentally (meaning the place where one stays) has the same Indo European root, Persian *sta-, as its distant Germanic cousin, English (stand).

What ties everyone together here is language, which in Bishkek (and Kyrgyzstan, more generally) is Russian. Russian is spoken by everyone, all the time, as the principal means of communication. Following the pattern of many nations, the local language, a Turkic language, Kyrgyz is spoken by the rural population and by others, usually at home, who see it as an import symbol of national identity and independence. If you want to buy a shirt, or a hamburger, or a shot of vodka, or a massage, however, you will need to know Russian.

Which is okay, because after German I like Russian best. My taxicab Chinese and my reach-for-the-dictionary-Arabic have gotten me by. But Russian is a language worth knowing. It has more grammar than, well, a Russian bazaar has sausage. It has all the intricacy a linguist could desire: complex verbs, gendered nouns, weird plurals, case endings, idioms that seem to rise out of the sinew into the consciousness as easily as steam pours off water. Russian is a good language for pot-bellied bureaucrats with square jaws and also for slim, throaty beauties named Natalya. After French it is the best first language to speak if you want to speak sexy English or just sound like a person who needs to be taken seriously. I don’t think you can refuse someone with a Russian accent anything.


Bishkek, which used to be Frunze, is the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, which used to be the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic, and an integral part of the Soviet Union, which is now the Russian Federation, sort of. After year five, Russian-speaking children in schools were given the choice of learning German or English, at least in city schools, and many chose English. Unlike China where even university students are immune to the dulcets of English and the general population totally unaware that their Han dialect isn’t universally apprehended, a lot of people in the central Asian capitals speak a little English. Some speak it well. I’m told there used to be a sizable German population in the city—now nowhere to be found, as a group, but their legacy is that a lot of Kyrgyz people know a little German as well.

Bishkek was once the greenest capital in central Asia and of all the former soviet republics. Taxi drivers will now wag their heads sadly and say, No. Not anymore. Now it’s (take your choice) Almaty (the capital of Kazakhstan) or Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan.

But Bishkek is undeniably special: it is very green. The streets drip with leafy trees, the city is dotted with parks and flowers are planted in every crevice. Behind this vernal cover there are interesting shops filled with clothes, fabrics, toys, books, and food. Bishkek has no tall buildings, unlike its competitors in the larger neighboring states. It is queenly and quiet and clean. The sidewalks are a jagged mess of original cement and decades of patches, but it gives them a kind of durability, as long as you’re not on your way home from a local watering hole at 1 AM and balance-challenged on your journey.


I fell in love with the city at first sight, and now every day I can hardly wait to get out into it.

Unlike east Asian cities, it has no obvious love for glitz or modernity. Unlike the soviet days, it seems full of plenty: produce and merchandise spill out onto sidewalks. There are no shortages, no sad faces, no empty stores—or not many. Compared to American cities I’ve seen in the last year, where whole malls are a spread of dead retail space, Bishkek is alive and happy. It’s packed with vegetables and fruit—and what fruit—enough for everyone to have a watermelon every day and the largest and most succulent white melon (not cantaloupe, which I hate) I have seen anywhere. I am not a melon fan, but I am being converted to the taste.

Whereas China counts success by the number of mobile phone stores that can be squashed into a city block, Bishkek is inadvertently varied, understated, sophisticated and eclectic: you can probably find what you want here, not always easily or at first shot, but the fun is in the looking and sometimes finding what you don’t want. I’ve bought sausage at Osh Bazaar, a lampshade at an IKEA rip off store that calls itself IKEA and uses its bags, done my grocery shopping at a Turkish market called Beta, and my electronics browsing at the old Soviet megastore called TSUM. I have stumbled into clean, modern dental offices by accident to pay my rent, and rented satellite (sputnik) TV that (notwithstanding occasional power outages) gets me 120 stations, 20 in English. Nineteen if I discount CNN, which truth to tell uses some other language that sounds like English but makes no sense.

There is something very French about Bishkek, but I keep shoving the analogy to the back of my analogy pile. It reminds me of the French (Catholic) sector of Beirut, (Ashrafieh) الأشرفية where I used to get coffee and pastries when I felt like making the slog over from Hamra where I lived. Bishkek is like that: a curity of cafes and bread and tea and delicious things, punctuated by interesting whisky (read: vodka) bars and restaurants of every conceivable taste and provenance.


I came here for a reason: the attraction was the American University of Central Asia, which in its brief twenty years has established itself as the premier university in central Asia, the only one of real quality, and one of the best examples of the American liberal arts tradition overseas.

AUCA has a student body of about 1500, students from all the ‘stans’ working—entirely in English– towards degrees in the classical subjects areas in alliance with Bard College, a potted ivy league liberal arts institution in New York State, about four hours away from my home in Ithaca.

I came with some reservations. To be cynical, the term “American” appended to the word “university” has become devalued by overuse. The original two—the American University of Cairo (1919) and the redoubtable American University of Beirut (1866) were founded as bold democratic experiments that clung tightly to the founding principles of liberal education, then sadly lacking in the Middle East.

The British had built schools and even organized a few external degree programmes with the University of London in their colonies, especially in Africa and India. Much later, just at the edge of the independence era after World War II, they created British-style universities in Africa. But as time would prove, these universities were almost unsustainable without injections of money and European “missionary” faculty, and only a few today have any reputable programmes. (I speak as a recurrent missionary faculty type.)
But the two original American universities grew and prospered and became real beacons of learning for the sons and daughters of the wealthy and well-educated classes of the region. Over the course of time they developed significant programs in medicine, law, the sciences and business. AUB, for instance, carried out a vigorous program to create a Palestinian intelligentsia who then went on to successful careers in academia and business. Their success was so great, in fact, that in the 1990s new “American” universities sprung up in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Sharjah, and even Afghanistan and Iraq (Sulaimani). Some were funded by petrodollars but almost all were academically weak, their relevance and connection to the prototypes a simple matter of name-as-cash-value rather than vision.

The American University of Central Asia followed a completely different course: it grew organically from a kind of educational liberalization movement in Kyrgyzstan itself, a rebellion against soviet-style lockstep, lockjaw education. In 1991, as independence swept across Central Asian countries, the region advanced deliberately into a fast-changing world of free markets and democracy. This wave of change spurred new ideas in the educational system resulting in the establishment of the Kyrgyz-American School within the Kyrgyz State National University in Bishkek in 1993. The “school” experienced such dramatic growth over the next four years that it could no longer remain a dependent school within KSNU. In 1997, by a decree of the president of Kyrgyzstan, KAS became the American University in Kyrgyzstan and an independent international board was established as the governing body. The university was helped to achieve its goals by the Open Society Foundation of George Soros along with recurrent grants from USAID –the United States Agency for Industrial Development– which among its many unsung achievements helped to create the Lahore University of Management Studies (LUMS) in Pakistan, one of South Asia’s most distinguished universities.

The American University became the American University of Central Asia by default: guided by a pioneering faculty and visionary leaders, students from thirty countries, most but not all from the Central Asia region, enrolled to study for degrees. The reputation grew. When I was at JFK Airport a month ago, a woman returning to Istanbul asked me where I was headed. To Bishkek, I said. Are you at AUCA?, she asked. It struck me as surprising. Yes, I said. Going to teach there. Excellent place she said. I smiled nervously.
But in this small university tucked away in the gray-brown former headquarters building of the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz Republic (1938), the halls are filled with languages, and energy, and beauty and hope: the opening ceremonies awash in colorful displays of national dress and tradition and music. Students can study Russian Art History under the tutelage of the distinguished scholar, poet and translator Andrew Wachtel (who happens also to be the University president) or international politics at the region’s leading policy research organization the Tian Shan Centre.  Or do prehistoric archaeology in Naryn –or Islamic Civilization with R. Joseph Hoffmann. It is my favourite course. I love to teach it. I am privileged to teach it, especially here where one Tamburlaine rampaged and shouted, according to Marlowe, “Is it not passing fair to be a king and ride in triumph through Persepolis.”


Excuse the Wow. The place is not for everyone: Especially not for people who see the progress of culture as the next tall building, the next long bridge with the most LED lights. That is an entirely different Wow. It is the Dubai Wow, the Hong Kong Wow. The Bishkek Wow comes from the heart. It comes from the love of green places, the pursuit of excellence, and the splendid variety of humanity.

So as to AUCA and what it has to offer this complex place–I suppose when it comes down to it, the beauty of the American system is the beauty of the menu at a good diner: So much is on offer that it gets your tummy rumbling and your mouth watering. At least that is what it’s like here, in beautiful Bishkek, at AUCA.

A happy start to the new academic year to everyone who joins with me in the struggle to keep at bay the powers of darkness!

PS: I Love Omnia.

Are the Synoptic Gospels Copy Exercises? Jesus and Anacreon

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

The never-ending story in New Testament studies is first, how the gospels came to be written down (and where, and when) and how they “relate” to each other. The long-suffering faithful have for centuries–since the process of vernacular Bible translation in the sixteenth century got its legs–been encouraged to believe that the canonical order Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is also a chronological order.

The belief is somewhat flimsily supported in fairly early references by writers like Papias, whose reputation as a scholar was already challenged by the man who recorded his words, the fourth century writer Eusebius, and the heresy-fighting bishop, Irenaeus–the real father of giving names and legends to the gospels.

Students studying for divinity and graduate degrees across Europe and North America have learned for more than a century that the matter of who-wrote-what-first is endlessly fascinating. The average opinion in the most prestigious and hyperactive research…

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The Final Form of Islam?

The days of explaining away religious violence in Islam as the inevitable result of Western actions and attitudes towards Islam are over.

For two decades—ever since the two fatwas issued by Osama bin Laden against America in 1996 and 1998–there has been a populist movement within Islam, mainly (but not only) young, highly ideological, widespread beyond the Arab world, and fed by social media. September 11, 2001, was the first salvo and first success of this movement.

It was, as they say, a paradigmatic moment which radicals ignorantly believed did irreparable damage to the Western psyche. Radicalized Muslims now crave a second moment and will do nearly anything to make it happen. Like their predecessors who engineered the use of passenger jets as bombs, they believe in their own martyrdom and subscribe to a peculiar (but by no means insignificant) strain of Islamic thought that regards the taking of the lives of other Muslims and unbelievers as warranted by the higher aims of their faith.

The Islamic State cannot be defeated on the battlefield because there is no conventional battlefield. It cannot be exterminated, capitulated or controlled by “the West”. It will not listen to reason because it does not consider reason the arbiter of its actions. It is deadly and, to overuse the word that is now normally used to describe it, malignant.

Simply put, there is no cure for this kind of Islam but Islam itself because its purposes are not extrinsic to the body of belief and believers.  They are part of that body. It is one of several possible genetic developments that will determine the final form of Islam.

All religions develop these “final forms,” equivalent to a kind of cultural dormancy.  Some like the Roman mystery religions survived in this form for less than a thousand years; others, like gnosticism, for a much briefer period, due probably to their social practices and limited appeal. We are witnessing formal changes in Catholicism, Judaism and liberal Protestantism, which have been changing within a cultural cauldron for about five hundred years to achieve their present forms.

We are also witnessing some very interesting but distressing signs in Islam which unmistakably point to the possibility of regression and disintegration. I consider the possibility of Islamic disintegration (similar to what happened to dozens of religions over the millennia) a likely outcome unless something is done to right the course.

As Peter Berger and H. Richard Niebuhr–one a sociologist, the other a theologian–argued a half century ago, religions, even if they do not accommodate prevailing cultural patterns must adapt to them at least to the extent they provide constructive critique and counter-values. That, in effect, explains the successful adaptations of Catholicism and some protestant sects. Islam, on the other hand, has chosen a more belligerent and exclusive position which can only result in its eventual loss of influence and, eventually, its disintegration.

In fact there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the violence we are witnessing is part of that process, as thousands of educated and  promising members leave Islam and the tides of modernity leave the faith to those least able to deal with change and reinterpretation.

Westerners should recognize that that there have been equivalent rejectionist movements in other book religions, but we have to go back a long time to locate them. The assassins and sicarii and Kanna’im of first century Judaism and the followers of bar Kochba in the second, represented murderous threats to Romans stationed in Palestine (there may be an echo in John 18.10).

Sectors of the Anabaptist movement rejected secular authority and tried to establish a theocracy in Münster in the 16th century. These distant historical cases –which are not perfect analogues anyway—were settled by force: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (and its cordoning off in 135 CE) and the slaughter of Anabaptists by German armies in 1536. In both cases, eradication depended on military force and a circumscribed enemy willing to stand and fight.

But we are not living in the first or sixteenth century. And the influence and appeal of the Islamic State is much broader than the threats posed by militant Jews and early protestant extremists.

For one thing, its appeal is in an expansive vision of Islam that, it is asserted, corresponds to Muhammad’s plan for the religion. Never mind that the Prophet never left the Arabian peninsula or had much information about the wider world that the Muslim religion would come to dominate, or could have imagined in his wildest dreams the discovery of a new world some 700 years after his death—or that men would one day set foot on a moon that his followers believed he was able to split in half.

In the West, we tend to call this “jihadism” (or more generally Islamism), but in the mind of its advocates–its members and it cheerleaders—it is much more than that.

And here there is no analogy to be sought in any other religion. Judaism was a restrictive and (famously, even to the Romans) unfriendly faith that wanted nothing from its neighbors but to be left alone, and a commission for using Jerusalem as a trading outpost.

During the era historians call “Christendom”—the Middle Ages and early Renaissance—Christianity pursued an aggressive agenda of maintaining its interests but fell apart in the Reformation into squabbling religious and then economic and political fiefdoms that gave rise, finally, to nation states and the triumph of secular authority (the magistrate) over church power (the clerisy). The Christian religion was dis-empowered politically (sooner some places than others) from the seventeenth century onward, such that references to (eleventh century) Crusades in Islamic rhetoric are references to events most Christians know nothing about and draw no conclusions from. Wars that Muslims still regard as inconclusive or preliminary are totally missing from the memory bank of the modern educated Westerner: there is simply no meme there.

But jihadist Islam is not directly about Christianity as Christianity. It is about values which it mistakenly and often sloppily attributes to Christianity, the decadent West, imperial America, modern culture, and everything it thinks stands in contradiction to the Prophet’s teaching. Like bin Laden’s fatwas, it can use allusions to the Crusades to indicate it thinks there is “unfinished business” between Islam and the “Christian west”. But it has failed to notice that the west is no longer Christian; that there are Muslims living happily and peacefully in Britain, Germany, America and France, and that their war against modern ideas, innovations and convenience is not a war against sin and Satan but a war against living, thriving, changing culture.

The fact that the Islamic State is based on ignorance, fantasy and fallacy, however, does not lessen its danger. We have lots of examples of movements based on false premises that have succeeded in doing enormous damage to whole populations. In fact, it is difficult to point to a single genocidal movement in the history of the human race that was not based on the idea that the perpetrators were merely cleaning things up and making things right for the elect—the true believers; the racially superior; the pure ones.

What makes some purification groups more dangerous than others is that some are isolationist and some are not. Nazism was largely secular and pan-European. It was joined to the East by Japanese allies who had a similar ideal of Asian racial superiority which it wanted to superimpose on China and the Pacific islands. Both were expansionist and violent.

Many religious groups, ranging from Hellenistic (post second century CE) Judaism to modern Hutterites and cults like the Jonestown Adventists have been isolationist, though not all (witness modern political Israel) have been pacifist. Pacifism itself is often a strategy rather than an altruistic position towards war: some religious groups simply did not have the numbers or the power to wage a fight against a majority religious culture regardless how certain they were of their religious purity and correctness. Dozens of minority quasi-Islamic sects survived in this way, ranging from Iraqi Mandaens to Levantine Druze. Indeed, in the Islamic world, this is why Jewish and Christian minorities enjoyed certain rights according to the law of Dhimma in return for jizyah, the payment of a higher tax. The Islamic State has cast this ancient practice aside in favour of forced conversions and the murder of “dissenting” Muslims, preferring the raw interpretations of select jihadist verses to the settled practices of later Islamic states. However this position stands in stark contrast to the Islamic mainstream prohibition of imposing Islam in general or any particular form of Islam by compulsion or force.

ISIS, as a movement, is driven by a craven belief in the superiority of Islam to other religions combined with a xenophobic belief in the sub-humanity of the adherents of other religions. That belief, if it were isolated, might be harmless enough. But as an expansionist belief, tied to the idea of the Ummah or worldwide Islamic community, it is lethal. We can point to very few social movements with the possible exception of Stalinist-style Soviet Communism that have pursued their ends with such systematic violence. Like most totalitarian movements it has delusions of grandeur based on the exclusive authority of a single, infallible source which is itself above interpretation. Unlike Iranian Shi’ism, which is heavily invested in the authority of supreme religious teachers, It has no special need for religious opinion or experts except the ones its leaders choose to hear—all of them on the payroll of the “caliph” himself.

It is highly romanticized, in thinking of itself as the restoration of a pure and undivided Islamic oikoumene that did not exist even in the lifetime of the Prophet, nor of his successors. It depends on the illiteracy of its members and the prudential capitulation of less radical but sympathetic Sunni hangers-on, in Syria and now in Iraq. It cherry picks and reduces the verses of the Qur’an to a select few that serve as its official philosophy. And finally, like religious armies throughout time, it justifies even the most gruesome forms of violence by saying that the vengeance of armies and the hand of the executioner is guided by the will and wrath of Allah.

This monstrous development is what we are facing following the blunders of George W. Bush after 9-11 in Iraq and the ensuing Arab winter. –Entirely missing the point that Bashir Assad, Hosni Mubarak and Saddam Hussein—however flawed, however wicked—were all that stood between ordinary Muslims and greater evils, now pouring in to fill the empty tanks.

The United States naively but assertively sided with every revolutionary ‘pro- democracy’ movement, as though the choices were as simple as between Colonial militias and British soldiers in 1776, then stepped back and wrung its hands when the “democracies” that emerged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya–were not modern constitutional democracies at all. It is no wonder that the insipid form, the odious form, the platitudinous form of American democracy is risible to God-obsessed religious warriors who have a much narrower definition of what government is all about.

The United States and its reluctant allies are now faced with performing their humiliating penance in front of a newly invigorated Iran, which could have provided wisdom, and Syria, which knew what was going on when the United States continued to call for the ouster of Bashir and while the vulcan members of Congress, the Lindsay-McCain tag team loudest of all, called for “arming the militants.” We now have at least a “suggestion” of what that policy would have meant if Mr Obama had followed through with the advice he got.

There is only one way to challenge the Islamic State and that is to challenge Islam. I have written here that the greatest single problem with modern Islam is its illiteracy: the fact that millions of smart Muslims are prepared to listen to ignorant and sometimes violent men, sometimes even to fight for them. To me, this is the inexplicable aspect of Islam—a dark hole in its spirit. Catholicism and, historically, Judaism have produced learned teachers and clergy (the word originally met someone who could read) who guided the much less learned laity. But in Islam, mathematicians, lawyers, poets and university postgraduate students are expected to heed the warnings and superstitions of illiterate imams who have never studied any book but the Qur’an and know no intellectual tradition except their own.

Islam needs its own reformation. It needs the sort of enlightenment that some of its earlier thinkers—men like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd—provided, before the caliphs swamped its intellectual tradition with dross and piety. Unfortunately, the current situation does not seem ripe to produce such a process. To the extent there are no significant university or research centers in the Islamic world, Islam itself is the reason.

Most of all, it needs what it does not have: an authority structure that can speak clearly and loudly when groups like ISIS threaten to demean and undermine the faith. Islam needs imams and teachers who can say without fear or injury that ISIS is corrupt: that there is no place in the religion for it–not in any of the schools of interpretation, not in its traditions, not in the hadith, and not in the holy book itself. It is the surest sign of the chaos that Islamic theology has become that men with no principled view of the faith can intimidate scholars by calling their interpretations heresy and when university lecturers in Islamic studies have to confront students corrupted by the last militant blog warning them about the heresies of their teachers.

I speak from experience: I have known such students. I have taught such students. I have watched them cower under the “authority” of Islamic chaplains of Quranic studies and Fiqh. I have been warned not to say anything to upset the “guys with beards” and having paid no attention to the warning I have managed to survive two death threats–one a close call in the final stages of planning my abduction.

Instead of permitting the leaders of ISIS to label everyone else a heretic, where are the authoritative voices of Muslim leaders that declare for everyone to hear that the era of the caliphs is over. That Islam is a faith, an expression of a belief in God and his sovereignty, and in the prophet who ended the brutality of the tribes and who called Allah compassionate and merciful: “Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.”(Qur’an, 5:32). It is not necessary to mouth the trope “Islam means peace” when almost no one looking on is convinced by the statement. It would be enough for Islam to stand for learning: for discovery, and literature and scientific progress and justice as it is defined in modern contexts, not in medieval jurisprudence.

Until these voices are heard, or until they can be developed, ISIS is winning and Islam capitulates in its winning.


Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

December 10, 2011

All said and done I had rather spend my time discussing what I believe than what I don’t. My plight is a common one for cynics. It is much easier to deny than to affirm, and especially easy to deny what other people affirm.

In such straits, I usually turn to poetry. I used to write it, and then was convinced by many well-wishers to give it up before one accidentally got published and set the literary arts back several hundred years.

The last poem I wrote was an epitaph for Antony Flew which is hidden away at New Oxonian somewhere and may be marked private. As I don’t have access to New Oxonian here in China, I’m not sure. But in any case it wasn’t about the old, confused Flew but the young tousle-aired Flew who could quote modern philosophy and Horace as though they lived…

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-Ism and Isn’t: The Introspective Conscience of the West

I’m not sure when I first heard the word multi-culturalism, but I am pretty sure that it has been around for almost half my life. So have the words pluralism, globalism, inclusivism, and Eurocentrism, along, of course, with lesser -isms that define the way we are supposed to look at the world. Some of these are of almost exclusively academic–which is to say almost no interest—postmodernism, for example; some with political-social and theological valence: racism, sexism, speciesism, denialism, creationism. I am losing track.

The main thing to remember is that -ism words can mean good things, bad things or just things depending on what noun (or adjective) they are attached to. Capitalism and communism are economic things, gradually giving way to an unpredictable monster called consumerism. Racism and sexism and Eurocentrism are bad things. Pluralism and inclusivism are good things. Multiculturalism and globalism are things. Postmodernism may be a good thing or a bad thing or just a thing, and if you take it seriously it doesn’t matter which it is.


I am pushing for a new term to describe gun-lovers, hoplotism (from the Greek for weapon), but then we would need a word to describe the people who oppose them—and we already have that: citizens.

About seven years ago a student of mine at Wells College, an ardent proponent of Native American land claims in Onondaga, New York (near Syracuse and Ithaca), wrote the following sentence. “I am a squatter on the land of the Onondaga people, a citizen of a multicultural, pluralistic society that has denied them their rights, their traditions and their sacred ground because of our shameful insistence on Eurocentrism.” It’s a poor sentence: what she really means is that the European settlers, mainly British and French, grabbed land from the Seneca, Mohawk and Iroquois people and that the colonists, reinvented as citizen landowners, mindful that the Onondaga people sided with the British during the Revolution, did not treat them well after Independence. It’s also true that the Indian nations grabbed land from each other, and false that the Europeans “introduced” war and squabbling to the indigenous peoples.

Anyway, what bothers me about this kind of thinking and writing is not just that it is C+ work but that its author probably thinks it is solid A-quality stuff because the sentiments it expresses are generally agreed to be accurate, or, what is more important, politically altruistic. It is part of what the postmodern klatch that dominates conversation in our universities calls “narrative” and we all know that all narratives are relatively true, relative, that is, to who is speaking. That being the case, can I put my red pen back in the drawer and have a drink?
But there is actually something more worrying about the loose-use of the -isms to build up or destroy (or preclude) argument.

I used to laugh when students challenged me on a point by saying, “Whoa—that is so Eurocentric,” because, after all, the whole direction of modern western intellectual culture has been to get us to recognize that particular sin, along with androcentrism and heterosexism.

I considered myself redeemed—twice born, washed in the flood of Foucault & Co. I felt this way until one day I asked a sluggish third year seminar class, “What do you mean by that? What does Eurocentrism mean?” Perhaps it was my edginess that caused the sudden silence to fall over the usually happy group. But I think it was something deeper, more deeply troubling. I don’t think they knew what they meant. They had been told that when they weren’t sure what to blame for some indeterminate injustice to blame Eurocentrism, just as the world over the last sixty years has learned the philippic Blame America—which, to be honest, it sometimes needs to do. I once suggested that insurance companies change the phrase ‘acts of God’ to ‘acts of America’ to describe lightening, flood, earthquake and storm. No one replied to my suggestion.

I am becoming worried that the code and shortcuts we use are enemies of critical thinking—a term much abused in its own right, especially in the academy—rather than tools to be used in the careful analysis of ideas. Where in our lexicon are words like Sinocentric, Afrocentric, iconoclasticentric (objecting to the Eurocentrism of the western canon), homocentric, and gynocentric? Nobody seriously suggests that these words be added to an already overstocked stew. Because even a moment’s reflection will tell us that a lot of the ‘discourse’ that people have been labeling ‘political correctness’ for at least a decade (trendy word warning!) privileges the critique over solutions to the problem and often doesn’t acknowledge the existence of a well-reasoned opposing viewpoint. -Isms have always been about the insiders; flail and squirm as you like, it is difficult to escape their incisive cultural power.

It well may be that a critique of the critique is unnecessary and that the mere mention of words like ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘Eurocentrism’ suggests the need to change attitudes, awareness, agendas, and political reality. What’s past isn’t prologue: it’s wrong. ‘Reality’ is a good choice of words because so many -isms evoke the notion that there are certain things we need to wake up to, that half of any population at any given time is asleep whilst the really attentive and politically engaged are wide awake. And however correct the asseveration of an -ism may be when applied to anything, it is not mathematical correctness. Surely (human beings being the imperfect creatures we are) there are degrees of racism, sexism, and Eurocentrism?

But that is not exactly my point. My point is that our students are learning that these words have a withering, non-negotiable, self-evidential truth-value. And that is the death of thinking. It is the opposite of critical thinking.

I want them to see more and sloganeer less: to think not just about what they are saying but what other people, untouched by the native (naïve?) liberalism of the Western university are saying. Their commitment to oversimplification is such that they actually believe that the country that introduced the –isms to world attention and discussion is alone and unique (and singularly guilty) in perpetuating the bad -isms that make the good -isms necessary.

The list I’ve just given is long, so let me just focus on my student’s use of the word “multiculturalism” and its next of kin, “pluralism” and her theory that she is an intruder who needs to apologize for the sins of her fathers and mothers, or change her name to Crying River.

I have spent the last three years in China. Despite its insecurity as a bumbling, aggressive giant trying to behave like a friendly bear, China is not a pluralistic country. Its population is 95% mono-ethnic, and so too (despite what you may have learned) is its language. Mandarin (standard Chinese or Pǔtōnghuà) is spoken by 93% of the people (the Han) and only about 6% of the population belong to one of the 57 recognized ethnic minorities who inhabit the country. This makes China, along with its neighbor Japan, one of the least pluralistic or “multicultural” nations on earth. Only the principates of the Middle East can claim to be more incestuously and genetically cohesive, and we know how they treat الأجانب –outsiders.

Where I am located, I seldom see another European face. I am gawked at, pointed at, jostled (deliberately) and occasionally laughed at by swarthy workers (yes there is still that class in China, and they are a very significant part of the population) and sometimes even groups inside the university gates (where I am also treated kindly and generously). The reaction of the ordinary folk is so obvious that it does not bother me at all. I have come to take it as a compliment. Somewhere in the recesses of my Teutonic brain I probably think racialist thoughts: words like wog, chink and gook flash across my mind. They are probably saying (to be overheard) yángguǐzi (洋鬼子), which has about the same emotional lode as “nigger”, but it is easy to ignore and to smile back at them, which they find incredibly stupid of me. Being an American I am naturally interested in the psychological roots of their reaction—what phobia through yonder visage breaks?—but I know that there are parts of the psyche of the Middle Kingdom that will be forever inscrutable to me. Last year I was astonished on a May Day outing to see the same sort of people ridiculing monkeys at the Beijing Zoo and throwing used cardboard cups at polar bears.

Why do I mention this? Because the West—Europe, its colonies and its modern offspring, like America–is so obsessed with doing penance for its checkered and beastly history that it has forgotten two very important points: First, it created modernity. That is no small feat. Most of what we call science, democracy, and cultural progress comes from the West. To put this negatively, it did not come from the East, or South Asia, nor from Africa and there are perfectly good historical reasons for why this is true. Some of these reasons are tied to isolation. Some are linked to religion. Few however have anything to do with colonialism: which is to say, colonialism did not cause isolation and backwardness to happen, it exploited it. It profited from it. It was not fair race. It was not even a race.

I am not impugning the contributions of these distaff geographical regions and societies to the history of humankind, century’s yore. It is the first response of multicultural zealots to say, What about –the printing press, paper, gunpowder, surgery, and a litany of other achievements. No one wants to forget these contributions, and we should always keep them in grateful view, whether or not they influenced western technology or not. But just for the record: China did not invent the printing press and the circumference of the earth and the theory of evolution are not in the Qur’an. Let’s get that straight.

What I am saying is that the West created modernity. One of the reasons we may be forgiven for being Eurocentric is that we have been the caretakers of modernity for a long time, and even created post-modernity to castigate ourselves for inventing it.

And the West did this by developing what Krister Stendahl, a former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, called “the introspective conscience of the west.”

Technology followed the opening of the mind to the world and the world to the mind, and this seems to have happened in the period we call the renaissance and the “age of discovery.” It was an intellectual, geographical, religious, and social revolution that did not happen anywhere else, finalized in the rejection of monarchial and biblical authority and the political revolutions, oft-admired but never successfully duplicated, in France and America. I am not sure that it could have happened anywhere else, because like all unique things it did not happen anywhere else and the conditions were not ripe for it having happened anywhere else. Even in Europe, outside England, its happening was almost sacrificed to the gods of pagan antiquity, especially Teutonic ones, and their hatreds. But her children saved her from her past.
I am going to be blunt and outrageous: most of the world does not have this introspective conscience. China does not have it. Japan does not have it. India does not have it. Africa does not have it. The Middle East and the Islamic world do not have it.

Hold fire, Ye soldiers of Multicultural Rectitude: I am not saying these cultures don’t have traditions of learning and wisdom and spiritual insight. I am saying that there is something they did not have. The West has it because its history is the history of how this conscience and its institutions developed, in a self-critical way from tribe, to kingdom, to nation-state, to democratic nations, and from the rule of divinely anointed hereditary kings and princely bishops to elected, secular authority.

Put flatly, it means that most of the world outside the West did not generate the critical interchanges that led finally to old Europe becoming modern Europe, a growing process that (as we all know) was not characterized by peace, love and understanding but by bloody battles and heated philosophical discussions and fierce political rivalries leading not to religious hegemony (like the Ottoman Empire) or a political crackdown (like Communist-style nationalism) but to freedom of conscience and action. Indeed Stendahl sees this as being foreshadowed in the missionary journeys of Paul the apostle who forged alliances between Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, the first ecumenical movement, a pre-global globalism, that was then gradually secularized through the progress of Christianity and it civilizing power to become the synthesis that we call the West.

Something like Stendahl’s thesis was reiterated by none other than Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, reminding Europe of its debts to Christianity, a reminder that was so nuanced (or seemed so wrong) that most people took hardly any notice at all.

But regardless of whether Stendhal and Benedict were right, I am sure that only Europe, itself evolved from tribal confederations, linguistic confusion, and two millennia of ideological and religious contests, made it happen. We can argue endlessly over debts, but not over proceeds.

Someone asked me recently why America achieved so much more in the short 250 years of its existence than Europe had achieved in the previous 2000 years and China in the previous ‘5000’ [sic]. The answer is simple: By the time America happened, all the preliminary work had been done. It was a new country—not a new civilization. It began with the printing press, books, ships, telescopes, even, thanks to itinerant refugees from Cambridge, a college–and the accumulated wisdom of Europe; it didn’t need to invent it.

It did lack one thing Europe had, which made it easier for progress to be made: It had no fealty to the past.

But it is also true that while other countries throw around the mantra of multiculturalism, America in terms of size, diversity complexity and ethnicity is the most pluralistic country on the planet. Media attention to its racists, yahoos and bigots sometimes tempts its critics to think that modern America is a lot like 1950’s South Africa; but no one who really knows the country thinks this. It’s just that the media is part of the process of contrition that the country uses to acknowledge the perdurance of its sins.

Compared even to multicultural Britain, the master of the post-colonial sweepstakes in terms of its rule of very un-European places, only about 10% of Britons identify as “non-white”. In America, the number who officially identify as white is now a scant 63%. And the number of Americans who speak Spanish as their first language has risen to 50,000,000 in a country of 313,000,000 people. If questions like immigration, colour, and (even) the fate of native Americans seem large and sloppily handled to the rest of the world, it is because the rest of the world is not as multicultural as America. I cannot tell you how many of my foreign chums who pride themselves on their anti-American credentials are flabbergasted by the ‘phenomenon’ of Barack Obama and look merely confused when I say he must be a pawn of the Republicans. America is, after all, an inside joke.

China is not multicultural. It is not interested in becoming multicultural. It is happy that the West beats its chest for the mistakes of ‘Eurocentrism’, just as the Middle East about ten years ago was rapturous over Edward Said’s theory, in Orientalism, of The Other, a catchy thesis that completely ignored the otherization and demonization of the West by Arab and Asian elites in general. –That is, until they need to go shopping.

The East does not want the West’s defeat: it wants its own success. China wants the victory of the Han people over a stumbling and fumbling confederacy of western powers. Its history tells us that such differences create weakness and that weaknesses can be exploited for gain–indeed, the whole modern history of China has been based on the dominance of unity and sameness. It does this through propaganda, censorship, a tightly controlled entertainment media and a constipated and illiberal university system; through promoting itself as the ‘soft power’ country, the country you can love and trust, and whose Destiny (China’s real god, a Hegelian-Marxist idol with stone feet set deep in its history) is to rule the world benevolently.

Because the Middle East and its minions are tied to a religious mandate, the West is a cultural problem. As events of the last fifteen years have shown, the Islamic world does want the cultural defeat of the West as a means of confirming their teleology—their view of history as being in the hands of God. It cannot do this (as China can) economically. It cannot do it philosophically or apologetically (the West is where all the Christians are, or what remains of them). So they are reduced to the patterns of violence we call terrorism. Moreover, the contemporary Islamic world, despite its piety and zealotries, has more in common with the West than with Asia and a long history of conflict, especially with China.

We may well live to see the defeat of the West happen, in economic terms. But if so, this will not represent the triumph of multiculturalism; it will be the triumph of a myopic, self-interested and determined mono-culture over the West. It will be the West emplacing in power, through its penance towards the sins of the past, a part of the world which feels little remorse about anything. And like the Germany of 1929 is determined to recover from its ‘century of [European] humiliation’.

The East does not necessarily want violence, and China, for example, eschews it and in view of its patchy history in fighting foreign powers probably fears it. Violence, as in war, is always unpredictable and the aftermath of modern wars is hard to assess—viz. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Modern Europe seems to have lost its appetite for war. China (as China) has never won one. Nor really has the Islamic world since the fall of Constantinople in 1452. Only the United States seems to retain something of the Old World love of burning powder and the rockets’ red glare.

What the East wants is the end of the West as the center of gravity, economy and culture. And what they cannot understand, and regard as ignorant, is that sometimes the West wants it too, wants it for catharsis, cleansing, restoration. Freedom of expression means freedom of critique, and the West’s vaunted openness and almost pathological willingness to dissect itself in public—especially America—is usually mistaken for foolishness, weakness, and a public declaration of inferiority.

Our students need to know this, too. The West has learned from Paul the apostle to the gentiles—the West–no less that we are all sinners looking for redemption. There are a thousand variations on this theme, most of them since the Renaissance secular. In the old calculus, this redemption came from God, who stood before and above the nations with his scale. But in the post-Christian and secular world, there are only nations, and their scales are not weighted towards justice.

But this is not a broadside against monocultures. We have to be honest, that some nations and states are still homogeneous. Their ties are family ties often reinforced by the strong bonds of religion and language. For those who have not traveled, the West, especially America and Britain, is not in the old sense a land of opportunity (or hope and glory) but a concept that overshadows these traditional patriotic, ethnic and religious ties.

The mysterious East reacts to the otherness of America with a mixture of grudging admiration, petulance, suspicion–and safeguards in the form of critical media, internet and social media censorship, sometimes outright hostility—like the Filipinos exercising their right to throw eggs at Mr Obama (at a safe remove) a few days ago, a right which would be denied these protesters but for their having been hatched in a Pacific nursery of American democracy. Chinese cameras were quick to record and broadcast the incident, which would have been strictly and vigorously prevented in Beijing. I want my students to understand why, not just to side with or against the egg-throwers. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini and Mao tse Dng were never pelted with eggs, at least not when they were in charge.

Our students must learn the sins of the past. After all, it is what we, the sons and daughters of Europe, did to slaves, and Jews, and aboriginal people and Serbs and Turks that helped to shape this introspective conscience in Europe and much of central Asia, especially Russia. I will not make the obvious point that our habit of confession and remorse goes back much further than that, to the crucifixion, or to Paul’s “The good I would do, I do not do; but the evil that I would not do—that is what I do.”

But we also need to teach them that We Are Not Rousseau. The cult of the untouched, noble, unaffected, anti-social savage was a myth of grand proportions and should have stayed confined to the 18th century. Even Shakespeare seems to have known better (over a hundred years earlier) when the west didn’t know much about the native peoples of the New World: Caliban is not noble; he is jealous and vicious. But he is a mixture of who he is by nature and what his master has made him. We all are.

Our students must discover, however, that their own introspection and remorse is not enough in the real world, in the world of ideas and action. Their responsibility is more complex. Vast numbers of people on earth do not value the ideals of pluralism, inclusivism, multiculturalism. Even refugees from North Africa who risk life and limb on rafts to get to the coast of Spain have no idea what they are getting into, and (as the European states are finding more and more) neither do the escapees and wannabes of Pakistan, the ‘burger’ who occupy the inner cities of ‘Mancusistan’ (Manchester, UK) and Waltham Forest (North London), where Muslim patrols try to enforce Sharia on the locals. They wanted out, but they are not sure about being in. Is it ‘Eurocentric’ to say that they seem to be missing some crucial existential point?

Vast numbers from these monocultures of language, ethnicity or religion regard western values as sexy and exciting, desirable and dangerous. They ‘want’ it but they are afraid they will go to hell if they take it. That in part is what 9-11 was all about—an attack on the secular icons of western society, as poignant in its way as the burning of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by Roman pagans would have been in the year 70 AD. The ruling elite of China have no such compunction: they simply want it because they are convinced that Sina Magna crouches towards Beijing to be born.

Which is to say that to teach students slogans without teaching them how we came to value these words and what historical events shaped our particular consciousness of the world is a poor way to teach human values. If the West is at all special—let’s avoid the word ‘exceptional’—it is because it has succeeded more or less, and from time to time, in providing a general critique of its sins.

It has done this by developing a tradition of tolerance for good ideas. It’s done this by insisting that in the contest between personal freedom and the unquestioned domination of the state, it is best to err on the side of personal freedom—especially in matters of free speech, which is always preferable to revolution and war. It has done this in permitting religion to develop without interference while insisting that the work of government has to be kept separate from religious control, even in questions of morality. In multiple ways, the values of tolerance, freedom, and the ‘spirit’ of reason have permitted a unique kind of democracy to flourish in the West while permitting the western democracies to pursue their visions in different and sometimes conflicting ways.

Our students have to get beyond the critique of colonialism and Eurocentrism to a fuller understanding of the complete narrative—which has to be read before it can be critiqued or dismissed. And I am sorry to say that to be ignorant of the classics and the so-called western ‘canon’ is to avoid this responsibility—an unthinkable intellectual crime in China, Japan, or the Islamic world in terms of their own canons sand culture. They need to understand that their right of dissent, free inquiry and free expression, does not arise from the monocultural thinking of Said’s Other, the mystical monotonous East. It comes from the uniquely Western values that make it possible for them to say both passionately critical things and profoundly silly things without worrying about the consequences.

God is Dead, Alleluia, Alleluia

Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. Today that seems odd and perhaps even unfamiliar to many Christians since in commercial terms it is a total failure. When I was a kid, some people sent Easter cards, but now that people don’t even send Christmas cards anymore—at least not many—Easter has been reduced to what it was in the beginning, a religious celebration.

Christianity began with Easter, or rather with belief in the resurrection: that’s why it is so central. The whole liturgical calendar vibrates to a forty-day preparation called Lent and a fifty day post-Easter period called Eastertide between Easter Sunday and the feast of Pentecost–which nobody pays much attention to outside the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

But start it did, with the news that Jesus rose from the dead, overcoming his human enemies on the one hand—conspiratorial Jews and corrupt Romans—and on the other (at a theological stretch) the powers of sin and darkness that brought death into the world and ensured the devil’s grip on humanity.

The gospels don’t say or promise any of this; the demi-apostle Paul does. But then, without Paul’s first century Easter Sale (Big Savings?) Christianity would have died out in a generation.

For about 1700 years, more or less, most Christians believed that Jesus rose physically from the dead–and so would they. More specifically, they would have learned to say that because Jesus rose from the dead, so could they (1 Cor. 15.13).

But by the eighteenth century, a number of theologians began to follow the lead of certain German philosophers and decided that it probably didn’t happen. There were three reasons. The invariability of nature’s laws, used to prove God, can’t be selectively overridden to prove doctrine (Spinoza), and more pragmatically, no one has ever seen a resurrection (Hume), and finally, the texts themselves seemed sketchy, contradictory, even legendary (Semler). Science, archaeology, and literary studies did their bit to fill in the information needed to show how the world did come about; that it was much older than the Bible made it; that many of the stories thought to be revealed were crude, analogous to other stories, and full of impossibilities and contradictions; that the worldview of scripture was a picture of its distant time and was destined to get more and more implausible as time marched on, as it has.

In the end, Christian theology was left not so much with an empty tomb but an empty story and millions of believers who clung to literal acceptance of the original Easter faith, and a hope for their own immortality. It was left as well with thousands of under-educated priests and pastors who believed it right along with them or kept very quiet if they didn’t. During the same period, an educated elite (including a church and theological elite) became increasingly skeptical that the Bible was anything but a tissue of myth and bad history. This elite focused especially on two ‘pivotal’ myths: the story of creation and the story of the resurrection—thematic bookends that, if discredited would eo ipso discredit everything in between—or most of it.

The response of Christian theology (whose theology? which theology?) was confused. It ranged from joyous to cautious to reactionary. In Tuebingen. Marburg and Heidelberg students laughed when their professors read the resurrection stories to them in jeering falsettos.

Deconstruction began then. In the British universities junior lecturers, in contact with Continental theology, politely accepted the German verdict and then reverently accepted their Church’s official rejection of it (F.D.A. Major, at Oxford, could still be tried for heresy for denying the bodily resurrection in the twentieth century); in New England, the Transcendentalists and Unitarians at Harvard went further by asking for the doctrine of the church to be rewritten along pantheistic lines, while in the conservative sectors of the former southern colonies and in bleak Scotland back on the Isles, a new form of apologetics (which by 1911 would be known as ‘fundamentalism’) was fashioned to reject the newfangled nonsense and get back to Scripture truth.

The fruit of this confusion gave us liberal theology, mainstream Christianity, and extreme protestant pieties of various shades and intensities. Liberal theology gave us a resurrection that never happened but a resurrection story that does—somehow—mean just the same thing. Mainstream Christianity gave us the laissez faire option of believing what we want to believe, only not too loudly, and with the approval of conscience. And the evangelicals gave us the defensive wars against science and reason that, unfortunately, infect our public discourse, ethical decisions, and educational planning to this day—largely if not exclusively in the United States. The last of these fruits should be sufficient proof of the danger of believing something that should no longer be believed in a literal way, since if it is true that good boys go to heaven, and heaven is our home, what is the point of peace on earth, learning science, or taking care of the planet?

In this din, scholarship can scarcely matter. The human being is a hopeful believing animal—something St Paul knew in the 1st century and P. T. Barnum in the nineteenth, and every snake-oil-selling evangelist of the twentieth. Christianity as a middlin Pilgrim has traveled the road from literalism to myth to a post-Christian world in which myth no longer has the power to transfix and transform. Science, whatever else it is, is radically anti-mythical in its processes, though it sometimes speaks as though knowledge and discovery have something like the power—the fascination–that myth once exercised towards the human imagination and human will. But whatever else science knows it knows that nature abhors a resurrection.

For most people choosing a favourite religious holiday is a simple business now. Christmas—even if the circumstances of Jesus conception are tied up in mythology—a sky god impregnating an earth virgin—the actual birth and most of the life of Jesus doesn’t require imagination, or doesn’t require an excursion into the ‘supernatural’ as atheists like to call the imagination. It is impossible to celebrate the virginal conception of Jesus, and no feast day is given to it (nota bene: the Immaculate Conception celebrates Mary’s conception). But it is not hard to commemorate with love and feeling the birth of poor child, cut off from family by rumours and gossip, endangered by the jealousy of rich men, who has to be born in a shabby animal crèche and laid in a feeding trough. Even if it didn’t happen that way—or at all—it is a good story.

The Easter story, on the contrary, is drenched in human tears, wrapped in deceit and formulated without passion and conviction. It does not seem to be believed even by its writers. It is a story spread by peasants and told to salve the disappointment of a messianic cult that believed their day had come when it hadn’t. By the time it gets written into the gospels, all that remains is that the tellers of the tale were women, mainly, and that for some reason (as they told it) Jesus did not choose to appear to many people except his followers and a couple of paradigmatic doubters (Luke 24.13f). By the time Paul re-writes it, it five hundred people ‘at one time’, and even (later) Paul himself see the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15.6-7).

The canonical life of the miraculously-appearing post-Resurrection Jesus ends with that story, just as it begins with the empty tomb, and might have ended there except for the literary designs of the gospel writers and their later editors.

Wrapped in deceit? Well, maybe that is saying too much. People who spread rumours may not wish to deceive anyone. They are just repeating what they heard. The notion that the spread of the resurrection story is an example of mass hysteria is a tired but well-established genre in rationalist gospel criticism. But it probably isn’t a good example. It is merely a literary outcropping of human nature: our desire to impress and entertain and console sometimes trumps our need to refrain from exaggeration. But the conflicting details and inconsistencies of the gospel accounts are most easily explained as individual writers trying to bring unruly traditions (stories) under control without being able to consult a master template. There probably never was one. Just the women.

Once Paul began to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus as a play in two acts, the second being a caravan to heaven for all that believeth, it was impossible to recreate the circumstances under which the resurrection story came about. The original conditions had disappeared and even Paul seems ignorant of or deliberately silent about them. The new situation is that people were flocking to Christianity because it had become a salvation drama—a cult of believers–based loosely on a rumor of poorly remembered details from (perhaps) twenty years before. Paul does not waste time repeating those rumours. He has his own details.

The resurrection story is not a good story. It is an afterthought, an appendix; in dramatic terms, an anticlimax. Even as a kid I always preferred Good Friday in Holy Week, because I understood that this is something that happens to us all. Good Friday is solemn; Easter seemed contrived. Besides, whatever its sources and analogues, the Passion is a powerfully written tale. The Easter Story is vacant of emotion and conviction as it is told in the Gospels. An empty tomb; some frightened women; an appearance here, there, now you see him, now you don’t. It is better in symbolic and liturgical form; but as a narrative it simply reflects the defensive and apologetic reasons for its composition. But not the story of the Passion: Good Friday is a superb story.

I do not think Easter symbolizes anything: not new hope, new beginnings, the importance of starting over—none of that. In fact, in almost all historical religions, that is what the New Year celebration is all about, a holiday that Christianity more or less unsuccessfully tried to relocate to Pentecost.

Easter without belief in a resurrection, as Paul importantly wagers, is nothing: it is a vain, futile and useless holiday. For those people who still celebrate it, hide eggs, go to Church, buy new clothes (does anyone?) and eat ham (as my family always did), I wish you nothing but the best.

But the ancient proclamation, Resurrexit, Resurrexit sicut dixit ALLELUIA, belongs to another century, not even the last one, and not to ours.


Having written the body of this little essay, it occurred to me that I should say something about the trend in atheist and conservative Christian circles to debate “the resurrection of Jesus” in public.

Almost everyone with any reputation in this area has had a try. Even I have had more than my share of invitations to speak “against” the resurrection, and I have always refused to do it. Why? There are three reasons:

First, because the discussion is over and has been over for many Christians for two generations or longer. Debating the resurrection of Jesus is neither a debate about history nor about the Bible. It is an intellectual sideshow on the fringes of knowledge that tries to answer questions that no serious scholars are asking any longer.

Second, such debates normally (having forced myself to stay awake through several, both live and on video) are displays of ignorance butting its head against ignorance—skeptics who have just learned that the resurrection tales are inconsistent, against apologists who say the inconsistencies can be explained. Assuming our cognitive domain has limited capacity there is no room in it for that.

And finally this: what I have argued here is that the story of Easter is no longer of any importance. But that does not mean is has never been without importance. Lots of stories in human history have come and gone; we happen to be living through the passing of one. It will die by attrition not by debate. It ceases to hold our imagination—no one will fire a bullet to kill it with a perfect, fallacy free argument. I am for letting history take its life and extract its meaning because history knows how to kill things. Otherwise, like Orwell firing aimlessly at the elephant with the wrong weapon, we simply become part of a sickening spectacle that increases the mammoth’s agonizing suffering as it dies.


Last week, in defense of voter access, President Obama mentioned that 60% of Americans don’t have passports. He said this to underscore the need to allow citizens to vote without the need to produce an extraordinary form of identification, normally only bestowed on those who travel abroad.

His next statement was a cheap shot: Some people, he said, don’t have passports because they can’t afford to travel overseas, and they can’t use those for ID. Just because someone doesn’t travel overseas, he said, isn’t a reason for them not to vote in their own country. Something like that.

I get it: He was addressing the American Action Committee which is filled with people who probably don’t do much foreign travel. But a lot of us who travel and in fact live overseas vote for Mr Obama because we think, or thought, he got it.

This is world of global interdependence. That doesn’t mean cooperation; it means suspicion and danger. It is a world where 75% of American high school students can’t point to Afghanistan on a map and aren’t sure whether Alaska is attached to North America or is an island. A world where America expects to be acknowledged as the super-leader of a world its inhabitants know less and less about. A world where 63,000,000 American citizens speak Spanish as their first language, but where its dwindling white majority want to deny access to “foreigners’ (sorry, aliens) from neighboring countries because they come from the wrong places—and know that if they try to come legally, they will be refused. That they are coming back to land that belonged to their ancestors before the European settlers and their descendants drove them away is not to be mentioned.

Before Mr Obama takes cheap shots at passport holders as an example of the elite, he should remember what Europeans, Asians and people in the Middle East think of America. It is true that for a very brief period after 1945 America was the most popular (and prosperous) country in the world. A reluctant entrant into the war, it emerged a victor and proceeded with the advice of its paranoid European allies to divide the world into spheres of influence. Those ‘spheres’ have shifted over the last 65 years: a soviet empire has tumbled, but wants to be big again. An impoverished China had emerged from the rubble of the war and its revolution to become the biggest shopping and trading nation on earth and will soon outclass the US economically. War torn Europe is now a credible alliance of squabbling partners, not likely to erupt in war anytime soon. The Islamic world has moved beyond the post-colonial mandates that once kept it relatively quiet into a loud and preposterous mob ruled by princes who behead and call it law and wild men who behead while America calls it terrorism. Then there is Africa. And, of course, South America.

In this messy world, America is not the worst of the players by any means. In its clumsy (but what they see as their quiet and methodical way based on ‘5000 years of glorious civilization’) China waits for its moment to be the world’s largest economy and builds up its military and export product base to pull even, and then ahead of the United States. It thinks its currency has the potential to be the world currency. Stalwarts are sure that the Chinese language will one day replace English as a global language. It applauds Russia’s tough stance on Crimea because it would like to take tough stance on the disputed islands against Japan and towards Taiwan. It does this with messianic fervor, ignoring even the respiratory health of its citizens to create a new vision of Magnificent China. Most Chinese believe in it, young and old. I cannot imagine, for example, the Tiananmen protests of 1989 happening in 2014, even though in many ways restrictions on individual freedoms and rights have tightened considerably since then.

It’s a world that finds it ridiculously easy to see America in the frames its free press makes possible: overweight, obsessed with visible success, glitz, and money, politically crippled and owned by corporate interests at the wealthiest levels, obsessed by guns and Bibles (as once a certain Barack Obama bravely intoned and was walloped for saying) at the other end of the scale.

That America, which still leads the world by a dazzling margin in producing the best scholarship, medical research, technical innovation, Nobel prize winners, popular music, and drama and film, is a source of constant fascination for the rest of the world. Because—as everyone knows—the End of America has been a popular apocalyptic genre in world polemic since the French invented it in the nineteenth century. It used to be, in Europe anyway, a requirement for being a card carrying intellectual. America used to be just the dead horse that wouldn’t lie down. Now it is the dead horse that everyone wishes would lie down.

But all of this is symptomatic. What is causal is a generation (and I don’t mean kids under 25) that really doesn’t give a fuck about the rest of the world. Their isolation is not that of their great grandparents who could remind their sons to stay out of European wars because they had come from Europe and they didn’t want to get dirty there again. German-American mothers who didn’t want their boys sent to the Front in 1916. Jewish-American fathers who didn’t want their sons to go to France in 1943. American isolation was based on the idea of a self-sufficient continent that wanted tranquility because its social memory had been shaped by the memory of social injustice and war in the old world, not realizing that those memories, like demons, would also haunt the destiny of the new. Unlike China, prosperity and success happened to America because of circumstance and an unusual number of inventive and ambitious young men. There was no five year plan to keep the GDP at 10 percent.

No, this new isolation is the isolation of the self-satisfied. It’s a world where people can forget about geography, languages (they already speak the right one), ideas, beliefs, and other people’s values. They can get what they want online at Amazon, or at Walmart, or eBay—whatever. They don’t need to leave home except, perhaps, for a new job in a new place where the perks will be better and the shopping will be at least as good. They don’t see healthcare as an issue because they’ve got theirs. They don’t see guns as an issue because they either don’t need one or they have one, but just one, and they have a permit for it. Those massacres? Crazy people, and me and my friends are not crazy. Travel? Expensive. Need a new car. Maybe a new house.

And then there are those who may not feel that way at all: who would love to travel but can’t make their mortgage payment, are trying to buy four news tires for the car, and can’t afford to send their kid to college or buy health insurance. I feel sorriest for them because they wake up every day and go to their jobs, try to be brave, pretend that they have a voice, that voting matters, that things will get better if they just hang on. Barack Obama’s primary appeal in 2008 was to this enormous sub-middle class struggling to avoid poverty and keep their chins up.

It is no wonder that in a country whose inhabitants seem to be obsessed with electronic toys, bacon and their front lawn, the rest of the world sort of disappears—unless it happens to be a case of Americans being kidnapped in the hinterland of Afghanistan or plunging to the depths of the ocean in a plane off the coast of Australia. Naively, America has always wanted the world to love it for services rendered—in the same way a high school football star expects his home town crowd to love him for a surprise touchdown he scored twenty years back and ignore the drug dealing he pursued later in life. Americas’s problem is that expects—no, thinks it has a right to expect—the world to be ever grateful for its vigilance in the name of freedom and democracy. But in the real world, place names like Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have come to symbolize something else—something sinister in the rest-of-the world’s imagination. No amount of spin will change it. No amount of revision will turn those wars into blows for freedom and democracy. America has not prepared itself to live in a world where it has begun to seem old and Europe and China, and now even Russia, seem to be new.

It is still playing the Cold War drama as the only player on stage; but the rest of the cast has moved on to new roles, a new playscript.

It does amaze me how bad America is at controlling its image compared to (again) China, which has entered a capitalist paradise and still manages to pay tribute to the Leader who killed and displaced thousands on thousands of Chinese, eviscerated its university system, and destroyed almost one half its cultural patrimony in his own Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward in the 1970’s. I say this knowing that many Chinese do not even know this happened, and many who know about it think it is a lie concocted in the West.

America can be proud that the criticisms I have collected here are sins that are well known because freedom of speech, press and inquiry tell us these things happened.

And yet they happened. In my own opinion, George W. Bush should have been impeached because they happened, Dick Cheney should have been arrested and sent to the Hague because they happened. They did not happen like Viet Nam happened, on the back of a slippery slope of involvement caused by French abandonment of Indochina. They happened because elected officials lied to get the country into a war that has lasted a decade–wars in countries that high schoolers can’t identify on a map. And while the most impotent parliament on earth, the United States Congress, tries to find out what ‘went wrong’ at the American consulate in Benghazi, no one officially is asking, What went wrong in Iraq? 4,486 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2012, that’s what went wrong; 174,000 civilians. The President of the United States, if you recall, imposed a press blackout on filming coffins being loaded onto planes. And an anesthetized American people watched Desperate Housewives and Survivor for a decade while this was happening. That is what went wrong.

Which brings me back to world knowledge.

A passport a physical thing, but at a very small level it might betoken curiosity about this big, bad complicated, dangerous world. Used well, it’s a ticket to a kind of education you can never get in a classroom. It’s certainly no disgrace not to have one if you can’t afford to travel. But it is pandering to say that people who have one have a jaded view of America, caused by our addiction to vacations on the Cote d’Or and Monaco. Never been there. My view of America, on the other hand, is a much clearer vision than the vision of someone who never sees it from the outside and mistakes the view inside the bowl for the whole of reality.

Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, reared in Indonesia and the son of a Kenyan father and an anthropologist mother is the last person I would have expected to be disingenuous about the need to know the world, the world that once liked him more than any US president since JFK and wished him well.