Monday, December 27, 2010

Is Jesus just a fictional character?

James Hannam:
The thesis that Jesus never existed has hovered around the fringes of research into the New Testament for at least a century but it has never been accepted as a mainstream theory. This is for good reason. It is simply a bad hypothesis based on arguments from silence, special pleading, and an awful lot of wishful thinking. It is ironic that certain atheists will buy into this idea and leave all their pretensions of critical thinking behind.

A huge amount has been written on the internet and elsewhere about the "Christ Myth." The only in-depth refutation in print is Shattering the Christ Myth (2008), which goes into great detail. However, some academic historians have taken the time to rubbish the idea that Jesus never existed and a few other books on the subject have appeared over the years.

In this four-part series, it is not my intention to study the minutiae of the various arguments. Instead, I will focus on three central contentions often advanced in discussions about Jesus. These are 1) the lack of secular references, which I cover in this installment; 2) the alleged similarities to paganism, which I deal with next; and 3) the silence of St. Paul. Finally, in the fourth part, I will bring all these arguments together to show how ideas similar to those that deny Jesus' existence can be used on practically any ancient historical figure. With this in mind I set out to "prove" that Hannibal never existed.
Part one is here, part two is here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What sort of star did the wise men follow?

A fascinating analysis of just what was the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem is given at I talked about this in the service this morning. I urge you to read the whole thing at the site, but here is my summary.

After Jesus was born, wise men, or Magi, from the east made their way to Judea. Being astronomers, they had read the stars and concluded that a new king had been born to the Jews. This is related in Matthew chapter 2.

No historian today claims that there nothing happened in the sky that corresponds to what the wise men saw. Just what it was has been a scientific quest for about 400 years, since Johannes Kepler developed the first mathematical description of how the heavens worked. Kepler, whose equations are still used by NASA and astronomers around the world, himself spent may laborious hours trying to calculate the position of the planets and stars above the ancient Near East in the year of Jesus’ presumed birth, 6 BC. But he found nothing.

Since Kepler, many others have suggested that the star Matthew describes might have been a comet or a supernova, but there are no records of such events at this time anywhere in the ancient world, especially in China, whose astronomers were detailed and meticulous record keepers.

Jesus was presumed to have been born in 6 BC based on a book by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, whose book, Antiquities, says that Herod died in 4 BC. Since clearly Jesus was born in the time of Herod, Jesus had to have been born before 4 BC, a year or two before.

But in fact, Herod did not die until 1 BC. This date is in fact what Josephus wrote, and is stated in manuscripts of his book relate dated earlier than 1544. It was in 1544 that Antiquities was first set to the printing press. In that first edition, the typesetter erroneously set the wrong year of Herod’s birth, and this edition became the standard from which all subsequent editions were made, including the one Kepler used.

Computers today solve Kepler’s equations in a snap. And what astronomers now know is that in September, 3 BC, the planet Jupiter came into conjunction with the star Regulus. That is, when viewed from the earth, Jupiter and Regulus appeared to touch or come very close together.

Jupiter is the largest planet. The ancients called it the king of planets. Regulus was called by the Romans, Rex, Latin for king. In Persian its name was Sharu, which also meant king. To an ancient astronomer, for the king of planets and the king of stars to come together would have been weighted with portents. But Jupiter and Regulus did this not merely once, but three times over the course of the next year.

After appearing to touch Regulus, Jupiter’s path moved beyond. But after a few months, earth caught up with and passed Jupiter in its orbit. Jupiter then appeared to move backwards in the sky. This movement is called retrograde. All planets’ paths retrograde when seen from earth, that’s why they are called planets, which is Greek for “wanderer.” So Jupiter went back and touched Regulus again. Then the earth moved on and by September of 2 BC, Jupiter had retrograded once more and had touched Regulus a third time.

To astronomers as skilled as those of Babylonia heritage and learning, which the wise men almost certainly were, this three-time conjunction of the king of planets with the king of stars would have started them packing. But why did they decide that the Jews had anything to do with it?

All three conjunctions took place within the backdrop of the constellation Leo, the lion. The lion is the symbol of the Jewish tribe of Judah, which takes it name from a son of Jacob named Judah. In Genesis chapter 49, Jacob gives his son, Judah, the lion as his symbol and then dictates that only Judah’s descendants shall provide the rulers for subsequent generations. King David was a member of the tribe of Judah and so was Jesus’ father, Joseph, according to Matthew chapter one.

The wise men were obviously conversant with the relationship of lions with the tribe of Judah and Judah’s parentage of all the kings of Israel. The wise men may well have been (though probably weren't) Jews themselves, since a thriving Jewish colony remained in Iraq until a generation ago even though the Jews’ captivity in Babylon was ended in 538 BC. The kingly conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus within the constellation of the lion were all the wise men needed to start heading toward the Roman province of Judea, which we know as Israel.

But what they did not know was just where the new king was to be born. So they stopped at the palace of the Roman vassal, King Herod, to inquire. Herod’s counselors quoted a prophecy from Micah that said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

At Herod’s deceitful urging, the wise men went to Bethlehem, only five miles from Jerusalem. In the sky, Jupiter had just begun a third retrograde, this one, however, not to be followed by a conjunction. The thing about planetary retrogrades is this: just as a planet appears to reverse direction, it seems to stand still in the sky.

Here is what computers using Kepler’s equations show. Jupiter’s full stop for this retrograde took place on December 25, 2 BC. If you had been in Jerusalem on that evening, you would have seen the kingly planet Jupiter motionless in the sky almost due south, directly above Bethlehem.

Why is Christmas on Dec. 25?

The urban legend that many Christians think is true is that early Christians appropriated the pagan, Roman Feast Of Saturnalia of Dec. 25 and converted it into the Christian holy day.

Nope. Saturnalia was not established by the Roman emperor until AD 274, when the date of Jesus' birth had already been set (though not widely celebrated) for three-quarter century.

It is the Western church that celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25. The Eastern church does so on Jan. 6, the date of Epiphany in the West. But curiously, the reason the West celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25 is the same reason the East does so on Jan. 6.

And that reason is (most likely) actually the dating of Easter, not Saturnalia.

Read it all here: "How December 25 Became Christmas," by Andrew McGowan.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jesus' other father

He was faced with a detestable duty. He was a man of compassion, even of tenderness. But he was also a man honor, of a stern code. His obedience to the Law was unwavering. The moment he learned that his fiancé was pregnant he knew that it was the end. The end, certainly, of their engagement, and perhaps even the end of her life.

It was two millennia ago in the Roman-occupied land of Judea. The man was named Joseph. His fiancé was Mary. She was going to have a baby and it sure wasn't his. Compassion, honor and duty dueled within Joseph.

He could not pretend there was no problem. She had obviously betrayed him. The whole town of Nazareth was watching.

Finally, Joseph decided Mary would have to pay the price for infidelity as his honor and the Law required, but on terms formed by Joseph's compassion. He would break his engagement to her and send her away without fanfare, leaving her to fend for herself. It would clear the slate, restore his honor and was least hurtful to the young woman.

What the outcome would have been by Joseph’s plan we don’t know, because God revealed to him what was really going on, and Joseph changed his mind.

Joseph dreamed of an angel, who informed Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was of the Holy Spirit. The angel gave Joseph instructions: take Mary home as his wife and adopt Mary’s child as his own, giving him the name Jesus, a common and undistinguished name then, meaning,“God helps.”

These things came to pass. In Joseph’s day, when a Jewish man gave a name to the child born to his wife, it confirmed the child as his own. Maybe others knew that Joseph was not the baby’s natural father, maybe they didn’t. It didn’t matter. When Joseph named the baby Jesus, he was also giving to Jesus his own identity, his own lineage. That is why Jesus could truly be said to be of the line of David, because Joseph was of David’s line and Joseph adopted Jesus as his own son. “This child belongs to me, this child is my child, ” is what Joseph proclaimed when he named the child Jesus.

In the Gospels, Joseph is treated somewhat cursorily. Mary gets a lot more play. Joseph never speaks. Joseph hears, Joseph dreams, Joseph acts and Joseph obeys, but not even one syllable he ever uttered is related. Mary is the one with the speaking part. Her role is the most sought after in Christmas pageants.

Another pastor told me of one afternoon before the annual Christmas program, when a mother phoned the church office to say that her son, who was to play Joseph in the children's play, was sick and wouldn't be able to be there. “It's too late now to get another Joseph,” the director of the play said. “We'll just have to write him out of the script.” And they did. Joseph is easy to overlook and leave out.

In 1993, my wife played Mary in the Christmas pageant at our church. She got the part really because they needed our newborn daughter play the baby Jesus, there being no other small infant in the congregation. Mom and baby, Mary and Jesus, were a package deal, couldn’t get one without the other. But any guy off the street could have played Joseph. In fact, the pastor asked me, “Don, did you want to play Joseph or should we get a man from the choir to play him?” I said I would, but talk about feeling like a fifth wheel ... .

But more is going on with Joseph than is first apparent. A recurring theme of St. Paul is that Jesus' followers are adopted by God and made children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ. This should make us reconsider the significance of where Joseph fits in with God’s work. Joseph’s adoption of Jesus is highly significant.

What if Joseph had said no to the angel and had sent Mary away anyway. Can we imagine Jesus growing up in the home of an unwed, single mother, both Mary and Jesus outcast from society? How would Jesus have conceived of God as his heavenly Father if Joseph had never taken on the role of Jesus’ earthly father? It took courage for Joseph to claim Jesus as his own.

Before God adopts us into the family of Christ, God sent his son to be adopted by Joseph into the family of humankind. Joseph affirmed on behalf of all humanity that God belongs with us, "God with us."

Joseph adopted the Son of God as the child of humankind, and through Christ God adopts human beings as children of God. There seems to be a symmetry of salvation and relationship at work. We see in Joseph’s story that we and God belong to each other in the one whom Joseph named Jesus, “God helps.”

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bethlehem Today: Hamas Central

I am 55 years old. When I was born, Christians in Bethlehem numbered almost 90 percent of the people living there. Now it is less than 10 percent and falling. Christians in Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank are ruthlessly oppressed by Islamists. Most Westerners are unaware that Hamas controls the town, with the Palestinian Authority of little influence. During the week I traveled there in autumn of 2007, 100 Christian families were physically kicked out of their houses by Muslim Palestinians while the PA police literally stood by and watched. I did not see it. I learned it from non-Israeli Westerners living in Jerusalem, one of whom I spoke with having personally assisted some of the families in their new refugee status.

Hamas might (or might not) intend to leave just enough Christians in Bethlehem to make sure the thriving tourism business of Western Christians stays profitable. By New Year's, almost 1.5 million tourists will have visited Bethlehem this year, a record. They bring an enormous monetary inflow into the West Bank. More Eastern European and Near East Christian pilgrims visit than Americans, but Americans are very numerous and tend to spend more money each. The gift shops are clean and well stocked (I bought my home's Nativity set in one) and are operated by Christian Palestinians, but they own the businesses in name only. They stay in business only by the forbearance of the PA, who taxes them heavily. Any Christian business operator and all Christian tour guides must be politically vetted by Hamas PA in order to operate. These Christians will unfailingly assure you that relationships among Christians and Muslims in the West Bank are simply superb. And then they will quickly move on to another topic.

The Israeli security fence, erected because of the Second Intifada's bombing campaign against Israel, separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Traversing means passing through a military-grade checkpoint. Driving from Israeli-controlled Jerusalem into Hamas-controlled Bethlehem was unencumbered. Vehicles pretty much breezed right through. The Palestinians have no fear of Israeli suicide bombers coming to devastate their buses or restaurants. After all, there are no Israeli suicide bombers.

I took the photo above from the Palestinian side of the checkpoint. As the backed-up traffic shows, there is no breezing through from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Vehicles and pedestrians are inspected. Tour buses generally get through pretty quickly since not even Hamas is dumb enough (well, yet) to try to plant a bomb or terrorist aboard one, which would end tourists and pilgrim coming to the West Bank, a far too expensive outcome for them to accept.

Near the checkpoint proper there are instructions in Hebrew, Arabic and English. All street sings in Israel are in those three languages.

The Palestinians put up propaganda on their side of the security fence.

Another example:

The Israelis put up propaganda on their side, too, but of a definitely peaceful sort:

I found the mural ironic, since whatever they Israelis and Palestinians have, "love and peace" ain't it, on either side.

Most of the entire West Bank is enclosed by a security fence, about 700 kilometers. About six percent of the distance is a wall rather than a fence because of the density of the buildings present. The fence generally follows the "Green Line," but the Green Line is ill defined in some places. The Green Line, btw, is the ceasefire line agreed to in 1949, at the close of Irael's war for independence. It is not actually a border of any kind. It is called the Green Line because it was drawn on the negotiators' map with a green pencil. Really.

This shot of the security wall was taken near the unused Jerusalem airport. Rock throwers shut the airport down some years ago. They threw rocks over the wall above at airliners landing or just onto the runway, the horizontal, flat gray feature just below the wall. Any pilot who may be reading can imagine how eager airline pilots were to land on runways covered in rocks.

Despite the international controversy about the fence/wall, it would be very hard to find an Israeli of any political stripe who would call for its removal. The fence was erected by a government very reluctant to do so, and was opposed by both Labor and Likud. But the bombings of the Second Intifada, begun in 2000, became so severe that the people demanded the barrier go up. Since it went up, terrorist violence inside Israel has fallen by 80-95 percent, depending the on the region of the country.

The barrier has made life harder for the Palestinians, who complain that it has degraded their quality of life. The typical Israeli responds, "Our lives come before your quality of life." Hard to argue with that.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist, said the barrier should be named the "Yasser Arafat Memorial Wall."

But back to Bethlehem. During the 4th century Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. His mother, Queen Helena, traveled across the Holy Land and managed to identify many of the precise locations of significance in Jesus' life. ("Why yes, your Highness, you're right: this is the place where Jesus fed the multitude!") One of those places was the birthplace of Jesus. Since that day, Christian shrines have been been successively erected atop it and other identified sites. Most of the present Church of the Nativity dates from the Crusades. This is the interior of the Crusader section.

The traditional birth site of Jesus is well below this level, the site of a (presumed) small cave in the rocky hillside.

During my time here, a large group of Eastern-church pilgrims came through. They were clearly overwhelmed with emotion. Most of them knelt on both knees and kissed the star embedded in the floor and left to the left, crying. I confess to have been stricken emotionally at two sites I visited, but this was not one of them (neither was the Church of the Resurrection).

Bethlehem is in economic boom times now, but Islam is overwhelmingly powerful there, with Hamas' brand on the rise. Hamas' candidates in fact won a majority of municipal elections in Bethlehem. Since 1995, only Christians are permitted to be the town's mayor, but present Mayor Victor Batarseh was hand-picked for the office by Hamas. Batarseh previously was known for his atheism, militant Marxism and very active membership in the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP assassinated Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in Jerusalem in 2002. Bartarseh has since held that the assassination “was legitimate retaliation for Israeli state terror.”

Occupying the majority of city council seats and with Batarseh as mayor, Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, is in iron control of the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. His followers there subsist at leave of the Islamists or, if they are able or compelled, move out of the West Bank. It is too dangerous to remain, just as it was for Jesus 2,000 years ago.

Related: "Bethlehem belongs to Hamas," in Israel Today.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Belief in nothing, or no thing?

Paul Wallace at Religion Dispatches uncovers the fundamentalism of New Atheism, personified by the truly elementary atheism of Richard Dawkins, who for some reason is taken seriously by pop culture as a serious thinker.

Wallace cites Denys Turner, a professor of theology at Yale:
“Atheists reject too little,” Turner writes, “This is why their atheisms lack theological interest. The routine principled atheist has but tinkered with religion.” This statement, with which I agree, will be unpacked in the remainder of this essay. In order to speak more specifically about this, I decided to investigate a single atheist’s stated beliefs. Since I have a few Richard Dawkins books on my living room shelf, and because his point of view is known to many, I decided on him....

In The God Delusion, Dawkins presents his central argument against the existence of God in the fourth chapter. His thinking goes something like this: The universe is a complex thing. Therefore the God of the Christians, who, Christians say, made the universe, must be at least as complex as the universe God made. Therefore we are left with an even bigger problem than before: Who made this ultra-complex God? A hyper-complex megaGod? It makes plain sense, according to Occam’s razor, to stop before we get to the first God. The complex universe is enough. Ergo, in all likelihood, God does not exist.

This argument, which boils down to Well, who made God, then?, assumes that God is a thing like any other thing. It assumes that God must exist in the same way the moon exists, in the same way Dawkins himself exists. As Terry Eagleton wrote in his now-infamous review of The God Delusion, Dawkins seems to think that God is “a celestial super-object or divine UFO,” a creature like other creatures, only bigger and smarter: a kind of uberthing, but a thing nonetheless.

If God is a thing like any other thing, then his argument is really good: Any thing-making machine, which is itself a thing like any other thing, must be at least as complex as the thing it makes. In the case of God, the problem is worse, because of the standard Christian claim that God not only created the universe, but sustains it as well. So, if God is a thing like other things then Dawkins’ point is well made.

But nowhere does Dawkins get outside of himself and ask, Is my assumption that God is a thing like any other thing really necessary? On what is this assumption grounded? Where did it come from?

The problem is that God is not a thing. One problem for New Atheists is that they have literally never proceeded past an understanding of God that is more mature than childlike. Their so-called atheism is literally childish.

Another problem for New Atheists is not so much that they reject certain attributes of God, but that...
Most atheists reject far too little. They only have to be one kind of atheist: The atheist who stands against some kind of ridiculous super-object in the sky, who stands against a child’s theology. Christians, who, like Jews, are commanded to have no gods before God, do not have the luxury of disbelieving in so few things. In Turner’s words, "In order to deny every kind of idolatry possible, a Christian must be every kind of atheist possible." We are required to have faith in no thing at all; only then will our faith have any chance of finding its true home in God.
We can and should have faith in no thing while making sure not to believe in nothing.

Instant MBA - or lesson therefrom

"INSTANT MBA: Find Out What Employees Are Good At And Assign Tasks Accordingly."
Today's lesson comes from Geoff Vuleta, C.E.O. of Fahrenheit 212, an innovation consulting firm in Manhattan:

"I try to uncover what people are really good at doing and then give them a [snip] of a lot of that to do. I really, truly believe in that.

I am the sort of person who’s never really believed in obsessing over trying to get people to do things that they are no good at anyway."
What are you good at? Are you doing a lot of it? One of the most damaging things to individual productivity is trying to take care of many different things. Remember the saying about the hedgehog: "The hedgehog knows how to do only one thing, but he does it extremely well."

Christian discipleship's full flower is found in exactly the principle that Mr. Vuleta explained. While there are general obligations of discipleship that rest upon all those who want to follow Christ, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that, to borrow Paul's analogy, some of us in the body of Christ are eyes, others are hands, some are feet. None do everything the body needs, but all are necessary.

What are you good at in Christian discipleship? Unless we follow the Bible's teaching of how to discover it, we won't. The central key is to discover your spiritual gifts. You can even do this online now at the UMC's web site page:

Spiritual gifts are:

* Christian vocations given by the Holy Spirit to believers to shape and form their living as disciples of Jesus Christ

* Vocational capabilities that may be, but are not necessarily, related to skills, abilities or knowledge a believer already has

* The decision of our Lord in which person receives which gift - the Spirit knows us better than we do!

* Incredibly liberating and spiritually rewarding - they are the primary means by which we find our place in the Kingdom of God!

Remember: God does not call the qualified, God qualifies the called. How is God trying to "qualify" you? Through the spiritual gifts. Find out what you gifted for and do a lot of it!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

But it wasn't "incest" incest!

There is a straight line to be drawn from July, 1961 to the arrest of Columbia University Professor David Epstein this month for charges of an incestuous affair with his own daughter.

The daughter, we are told, was 20 when the alleged affair began. The 1961 connection is not with the deed, but with the nature of how some people are dismissing the allegations as trivial.

A commenter on Columbia's newspaper site wrote, "Wait, why is consensual incest a crime? It might not be appealing to everyone, but if they're adults and they consent, who cares what they do?"

A commenter at Huffington Post wrote that a "four year prison sentence is extreme -- considering they are both consenting adults."

Salon writer Tracy Clark-Flory observed that there "are no allegations" that the daughter didn't give consent. "It isn't a clear-cut case of child abuse," Tracy wrote.

Whoopi Goldberg defended Roman Polanski's rape of a minor girl by claiming, "It wasn't rape rape." So I guess that this wasn't incest incest. Or something. That mere consent should determine the legality of a sexual act is a direct outgrowth of July 1961.

It was then that Enovid was first marketed as an oral contraceptive. From then on, it was known simply as The Pill. The Pill was the first contraceptive both to approach 100 percent effectiveness and to be entirely under control of women. We are only beginning to see the enormous changes that have been wrought by its invention and widespread use.

Of course pregnancies occurred prior to marriage before The Pill, but compared to today very few births did. Weddings "back in the day" legitimated the sexual union of a particular man and woman under the guidance of the greater community. In granting this license, society also promised structures beneficial to children arising from the marriage and ensuring their well-being.

Society's stake in marriage as an institution is the perpetuation of the society itself, a matter of much greater than merely private concern. Yet society cannot compel men and women to bring forth their replacements. Because of The Pill, the causal relationships between sex, pregnancy and marriage have been severed in a fundamental way. Since 1961, the marriage rate has plummeted while cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed. (Almost every couple of the dozens of weddings I have officiated were already openly cohabiting.)

Today, weddings are much more symbolic than substantive, having become for most couples mainly a shortcut way to make the legal compact regarding property rights, inheritance and certain other regulatory benefits. But what weddings do not do any more is give to a man and a woman society's permission to have sex and procreate.

A direct outcome of these changes was greater acceptance of homosexuality followed by the move toward homosexual "marriage." Because The Pill enabled men and women to have sex without sex's usual result of pregnancy, the arguments against homosexual consanguinity began to wilt. If unrelated men and women can decide on their own whether to have sex outside society's interests or control, why can't gays? This is exactly the reasoning of the Supreme Court's 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, which struck down state laws against sodomy. As R.S. McCain explained,
Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion described "an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex." The court overturned its own precedent in the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick case. In Bowers, which had upheld Georgia's anti-sodomy law, then-Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that there had been laws against homosexual behavior "throughout the history of Western civilization" and that such laws were "firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards." In Lawrence, Kennedy cited that statement by Burger and rejected it as dubious, contending that the Bowers precedent "demeans the lives of homosexual persons."

And so seven years later the question is seriously asked: if both unrelated straights and gays can on their own decide about sex, why not an adult father and adult daughter? Genetic danger? That answer's been laughable since, well, July 1961.

How Prof. Epsteins' case will resolve legally I won't predict. Under New York's law, consent is irrelevant. The act itself is illegal. But I will predict that if it goes to trial his defense will rest strongly on Lawrence v. Texas, claiming that incest's prohibition is based on religious texts and traditions of precisely the sort that the Supreme Court set aside in 2003. While this might not prevail in state court, who can deny that it might prevail in a federal appeal?

As a society we are coming to believe in nothing except our own personal autonomy. The problem (that is, if we can still assume there really is a problem) is simply one of preference: "Incest," wrote that Columbia commenter, "might not be appealing to everyone." The standard is only what one likes or not. Therefore we may decide for ourselves what is morally right or wrong, and in nothing more so than sexual conduct. So the fracturing of America continues.

Endnote: The Pill did not alone engender the changes in socio-sexual mores of the last 50 years. There were two other lethal arrows into the heart of traditional marriage. One was socio-commercial feminism, which encouraged women on the one hand to postpone or pass up marriage and childbearing in order to have careers outside the home, and on the other hand to be as sexually active as they imagined men to be.

The other arrow was the rise to pre-eminence in academia of post-liberal Christian theology and Bible scholarship, which has intentionally sought to free society from the Bible rather than help lead it to follow it. Massive numbers of papers and books have been written since the mid-twentieth century attempting to show that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are patriarchal, oppressive documents that tell less the story of humanity's struggle with the divine, than they record proto-Marxist class and gender struggles of power, exploitation and domination. So today, anyone who expects a biblically-based argument for certain sexual mores to be taken seriously is living in dreamland.

(Some of this essay is drawn from an op-ed I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2004, which you may read here.)

Update: "Switzerland considers repealing incest laws." I'm glad I don't try to write humor; it's almost impossible to write satire now because real life outdistances the imagination.

The upper house of the Swiss parliament has drafted a law decriminalising sex between consenting family members which must now be considered by the government. ...

Daniel Vischer, a Green party MP, said he saw nothing wrong with two consenting adults having sex, even if they were related.

"Incest is a difficult moral question, but not one that is answered by penal law," he said.

And just how "difficult," really, can it be? One wonders whether Daniel Vischer has a little secret.

Update: Well, that didn't take long: Epstein's lawyer, Matthew Galluzzo, told ABC News,
"Academically, we are obviously all morally opposed to incest and rightfully so," he told "At the same time, there is an argument to be made in the Swiss case to let go what goes on privately in bedrooms."

"It's OK for homosexuals to do whatever they want in their own home," he said. "How is this so different? We have to figure out why some behavior is tolerated and some is not."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ditch the Fed? Not so fast!

True or false: the United States did not have a central bank before 1913, the year the Federal Reserve system was established.

Answer to follow. First, there are growing numbers of voices these days urging either to dis-establish the Fed or to revise its charter (which would not be the first time). Gerald O'Driscoll, writing in the Wall Street Journal, belongs in the former camp. He points out that that the Fed's financial record since 1913 has been far from admirable. Wartime inflation followed almost immediately, then a depression in the early 1920s. The rest of the decade's prosperity is credited to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (and rightly so, I believe), but the Fed's performance during the Great Depression was simply disastrous. Since then, the Fed has hardly covered itself in glory since its charter is to provide price stability and full employment. These are "dueling mandates," say some economists, that set the Fed up to fail one or the other (such as nowadays).

But before we return to the halcyon days before the Fed, let's remember that they were the years of the "Panics" - of 1873-1879, 1893-1897, of 1907. And in fact, the US did have a central bank before 1913. His name was J.P. Morgan.

A severe depression that began in 1893 resulted in a run on gold until the Treasury could not redeem more gold because of statutory limits on reserve holdings. In 1895, Morgan loaned the Treasury Dept. $65 million in gold to stabilize the supply and the dollar, which was at the time linked to both gold and silver.

Another crisis, the Panic of 1907, was caused by a collapse of the stock market when the country was already in a recession. Brokerages and banks found their capitalization, based on the values of stock they held, to be worthless. Faced with impending bankruptcy of the nation's large banks and trusts, Morgan coordinated a plan among New York's bankers and the Treasury department to deposit tens of millions of dollars into still-healthy banks (letting the insolvent ones go under). Morgan and John D. Rockefeller put up many millions of their own money. They also set controls of the money supply among banks, solidified lines of credit and bought out stocks that were sharply falling in price. In other words, a TARP.

Morgan owned U.S. Steel. Before the Panic ended, he had taken over his chief competitor. He sailed right around the antitrust issues by getting President Theodore Roosevelt to guarantee immunity. Morgan bought the company, which saved the brokerage firm Moore and Schley from going under - had it done so, brokerages would have fallen like dominoes across all Wall Street. The Panic then ended almost immediately.

Although Morgan had saved the country from a sure and serious depression, the whole affair repelled Progressives. (Roosevelt, who had at least skirted with collusion to break the law, was himself the leading Progressive of the day).

Movement to create a federal central bank began almost right away, based on making sure that the US financial system would not again be subject to the power of an individual and all the under-the-table dealing that had gone on. Moreover, Morgan was already elderly in 1907 by standards of the day. Members of government realized neither he nor someone both as astute and wealthy as he was likely to be around the next time there was a crisis.

Coincidentally, Morgan died the same year the Fed was created, 1913.

None of this is to toot the Fed's horn or defend it. It is only to show that saying the US didn't have a central bank until 1913 is simply in error. We just didn't have a federal central bank until then.

(The Second Bank of the United States, a private bank whose cozy charter with the federal government expired in 1836, had been something of a hybrid between what Morgan did and what the Fed does now. But its history was not part of the move to establish the Fed.)