an obession with first principles

Wendell Berry

Posted: Wednesday Apr 18th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, History, Power | View Comments

We are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period of the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable. And these abominations are not balanced or compensated or atoned for by the list, endlessly reiterated, of our scientific achievements. Some people are moved, now and again, to deplore one abomination or another. Others–and Hayden Carruth is one–deplore the whole list and its causes. Must protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvements and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protestors who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depends on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.
On Difficult Hope by Wendell Berry, a reflection on Hayden Carruth’s poem “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam”

Colbert the Modern Cervantes

Posted: Sunday Sep 25th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, Dialogue, History | View Comments

As Cervantes realized in the context of the newly born mass culture of the Catholic, imperial, Spanish state, irony expertly wielded is the best defense against the manipulation of truth by the media. Its effect was and still is to remind its audience that we are all active participants in the creation and support of a fictional world that is always in danger of being sold to us as reality.
‘Quixote,’ Colbert and the Reality of Fiction

Never forget to pay attention to which reality you are being sold

Brothers Karamazov

Posted: Saturday Jan 8th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: History, Philosophising, The Christian Life | View Comments

“Remember, young man, unceasingly,” Father Paissy began, without preface, “that the science of this world, which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analyzed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. After this cruel analysis the learned of this world have nothing left of all that was sacred of old. But they have only analyzed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvelous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ of old. When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque. Remember this especially, young man, since you are being sent into the world by your departing elder. Maybe, remembering this great day, you will not forget my words, uttered from the heart for your guidance, seeing you are young, and the temptations of the world are great and beyond your strength to endure. Well, now go, my orphan.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Deserving and Entitled in Our Time

Posted: Monday Nov 22nd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: History, Philosophising | View Comments

I really am coming to a conclusion about why people act entitled and deserving of only good things. Of course, certain people have always had this point of view. In our time, however, it has become almost endemic especially of the younger generation.

I believe this is because of some of the things I had to read in undergrad, specifically the “end of history”/”end of war” (e.g. Fukuyama) material. The notion that all suffering and problems have ended with the advent of western democracy fueled by capitalism is a propaganda we have embraced and repeated. The practical cynicism of previous generations is gone. We are cynical about plenty of things – but that appears to just be the flotsam running on the surface. The undercurrent is a deep expectancy that if all the people could just stop doing the things we find cynical on the surface, it would all be perfect and the end of history would really be upon us. The practical cynicism of previous generations understood that the systems of the world were fundamentally incongruous, or worse broken, and only good will and effort could repair that.

Preaching to the choir this end of history message, in my opinion, radically changed the outlook of the choir. And a deep understanding of the structures of society was lost.

On the Minimalist

Posted: Sunday Sep 12th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Historical Method, History | View Comments

Jim West offers a well written guide to what minimalism means. Of course in his case this is a faithful minimalist – one that believes in the Scriptures. Most minimalists approach the text with Jim’s argument and therefore conclude “There is no reason then to believe on the Scripture.” This is a a bait and switch as all the early Church (and Jim) both declare to rest on eternal truth not specific historicity (at least on the claims and method of history as such).

In general the writers of what is now Scripture did not take as priority the historicity of their recounting.

In this regard, most redactional emendation can be seen as an adoption of miminalist literary technique, be it inner-biblical exegesis, midrashic interpretation, or targumic reconciliation – all of these are examples of minimalist attempts to rewrite or properly explain history.

I think Jim’s love of theology should cause him to rethink his hate for the good Bishop NT Wright, as JR Daniel Kirk writes:

[Speaking of Jesus and the Victory of God] The book is, as I read it, a very helpful, historically rooted theology of the Synoptic Gospels.

That is to say, Wright writes as a theologian with an eye to the purported story as the gospels (and other literature of the time period) tell it. If we cannot, as Jim says, actually know what happened we can take at value the theology of all the sources present, yes? And Wright’s work, to my mind, does just that. It takes each of the trajectories of the the sources we have and analyzes them all to synthesize a theology grounded in a rather Orthodox Christian tradition. (Even if that tradition is different than both Protestants and Catholics in general).

I see what Wright has done (that is to treat the material sympathetically with an eye to understand what the final composed piece is communicating) is not much different than other fields, as Kirk again tells:

And if so, then that brings up the question of how different Luke is from ancient historians. If it is a matter of quantity of God- (or other propaganda-) overlay rather than quality of historiography, it seems that what we “know” from the Gospels might be not so different from anything else we might “know” about the ancient world. It’s an honest question (not merely rhetorical): how much more against the grain to we have to read the Gospels to get at “what really happened” than we’d have to read against the grain of Herodotus, Plutarch, or Julius Caesar?

Jim I think this is just another one of your “We must prove Christianity wrong.” Because there is obviously nothing wrong with believing that Julius Caesar was betrayed by Marc Antony, but there is certainly something wrong with believing that Jesus Christ existed, let alone was crucified and perhaps even raised from the dead by God.

All history is propaganda. There is no “objectivity” other than their dilemma. So much for history.

History and Meaning

Posted: Wednesday Sep 1st | Author: JohnO | Filed under: History, The Christian Life | View Comments

Hurtado’s article comes down to this fundamental point:

First, the shared premiss is a fallacy. There is nothing in principle that requires divine revelation to be unconditioned by history, and nothing that disqualifies historically-conditioned texts from serving as Scriptures. Indeed, one would think that Christians would readily affirm that any true divine revelation must be historically conditioned. The biblical witness is that the biblical deity has acted within history, not apart from it. So, how could there be a divine word/revelation/action that was not conditioned by the historical circumstances in which it came?

Recognizing the fallacy entirely breaks the hermeneutic of both faiths (liberal and conservative), in addition to breaking the critical-historic critique that conditioned texts are in error entirely and untrustworthy. In reality, all these hermeneutics are far too simplistic to do justice to the text, to history, or to humanity itself.

When we recognize that our entire world, even in the present day where some things are verifiable (while many – and the most important – are not), are entirely based upon the stories about things that occur in “history” and their meaning we can finally come to the basics of a hermeneutic. Then the choice of faith actually becomes a choice. Less “what must I believe”, more “what am I driven to believe”? And that never stops. Then you have finally reached a truly “living word” which all the fundamentalists claim their deadened and weak understanding already possesses. They don’t understand you cannot possess life, nor God. Life and God possess you.

Really Texas? What Gives?

Posted: Saturday May 29th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: History, In the News | View Comments

Studying theology, and therefore history, I understand the necessary, importance, and motivations behind revisionist history. But this is just too far.


There are seven members of the conservative bloc on the board, but they are often joined by one of the other three Republicans on crucial votes. There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

Making policy decisions without consulting experts, or promoting yourself as an expert without any credentials whatsoever makes you a dilettante. I’m a little scared of turning into Jim West here, but what gives? I’m utterly amazed that anyone can read history the way they are attempting to.

Revisionist history can be held in respect when the overall society agrees with a general way of interpreting the historical data based on their ideology. The ideology, at the same time, recognizes that it purposefully glosses over specific points in order to create a polished and complete narrative. That is not what is happening here. This is willful disdain for the general and accepted interpretation of history. It would be one thing to say: “I don’t agree with the current interpretation and here is my evidence.” It is quite another to rewrite the books with your ideology with zero evidence. I expect, quite quickly, for this to get shot down (or disregarded) because it can never conform to the accepted interpretation. Nor does it have any explanatory power whatsoever to go beyond the current accepted interpretation.

To give a historical and theological dimension to this: there is no question that exilic editors created revisionist history about the golden years which preceded them. There is no question that Luke-Acts portrays Christianity in an acceptable light to the Roman Empire – despite it’s formative leader Jesus being crucified as a political insurrectionist. What none of these writers did, however, was act in a position of power to remove items from written history [i.e. not removing them in their "curriculum": their collected literary works later received as Scripture]. What these writers did do was offer new evidence and new rhetorical interpretations of older evidence.

I don’t imagine that Texas will actually affect other curriculums or the textbooks that would affect other curriculums (the articles worry, but are split over the possibility). For a long time I have looked with shame at the educational system I’ve been, and continue to be, a part of. At the graduate level, I can finally say, that the education system has a chance to make a huge difference. Sadly, not many people get that far because of the failures in the system well before this level. I feel very, very fortunate and thankful to be able to receive and use all these various tools to look at the world, and myself in the world, in such a more nuanced and powerful way.

Nothing New Under the Sun with Foucault

Posted: Friday Feb 19th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, History, Philosophising, Power | View Comments


For NT we’ve been reading some of Glancy’s Slavery in Early Christianity along with Howard Thurman’s Disinherited. You might imagine, and you’d be correct, that this produces a good platform for discussing the topic. I have to admit the topic of slavery does not stir me, yet I have a lot of thoughts about it. For one, I am surprised by those who fall into the trap by thinking that our society has transcended the injustices present in ancient slavery. And that statement is going to need some qualification.

In the ancient world slavery was not racial. In our country’s history it unfortunately was and its emanations are still being worked out today. The institution of slavery itself is over. Yet slavery in the ancient world was merely the solution to a number of systematic problems; the system being worked on was the social, cultural, and economic order of the entire empire (be it Persia, Greece, Rome, or what-have-you). What were these problems? How to check power holders without destroying them? Power-vacuums are bad, see Middle East wars over the last twenty years. You would punish or imprison the slave, the master lost those abilities and service. Another problem, how to protect myself from consequences? Have the slaves do it, they take the fall.

My point is this: all these social contracts still exist today. Sure they might under different names and slightly different structures. Yet the same de-humanizing effects occur in the name of power. If you don’t think limited liability, shareholders, boards, NDA contracts, negotiating tactics, and employer-pressuring are all contemporary “solutions” to the same eternal problems, what do you think they are? I swear Foucault got something right – ok I think he was close. Really close. Let’s not bash on Paul “Why couldn’t he just see the light and fight against slavery?” Let’s not proclaim that our time is inherently better than his. If you want to do one better than St. Paul see our situation for what it is and fight that dehumanization.

Education, Ignorance

Posted: Wednesday Feb 17th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, History | View Comments

This is why I love history. As time goes on I am more and more convinced of two facts. First, our world is entirely formed and constructed in narratives – overlapping, contradictory, and non-linear to be sure, but narratives nonetheless. Second the power inherent in such a narrative is seized upon by revisionists and the origin is hid from view. For sometime now I hated Dewey for the education system he brought in; moving away from the formation of a culturally literate individual. It is a result of the present education system that I am not as literate as I ought to be (I’m working on it, Masters in a humanities field, thank you very much). I could cite some evidence as early as St. Augustine (thank you Bruce Bubacz) pointing to what is now know as revisionist history.

Noam doing some history shows that all our contemporary concepts of democracy, liberalism, even a free market and education are hopelessly untethered from their origins. When you wonder why the next generation doesn’t know anything about anything, remember it is because the purpose of mass education is to create obedient people that can follow simple rules.

Recent Thoughts

Posted: Monday Nov 2nd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Contemporary Church, Dialogue, History | View Comments

Lately I’ve been reading a bit of Luther, and plenty of well written articles about conversations between Catholics and Protestants. Yea, it is quite a bit to read.

To be sure, both approaches to ecclesiology and Scripture aren’t congruent with one another. Coming from a theological ghetto, this is a compass by which I may judge the night sky that is Christendom. Cross’s comments concerning the liturgy match my own thoughts. It is almost scary. I find much of the Anglo-Catholic praxis, ecclesiology, and liturgy persuasive. That said, I still have reservations I am working through.

My largest reservation is, what I perceive to be, a massive redefinition of power by Jesus in his passion and crucifixion. That said, the papacy throughout history has seemed to work according to the ways of the worldly institutions. I am supremely impressed with Rowan William’s refusal to wield any power he might have as a worldly leader might. I will be the first to agree that most leaders will abuse power, and that is a shame and should be resisted. However, it is another thing to create such an inappropriate power through canon law.

Secondly, I have no way to determine what the line between an acceptable and unacceptable accretion is. There doesn’t appear to be a defining line within Catholicism either. It appears to an outsider that whatever opinion gains sway in the magisterium will become canon law. Were these new opinions (it doesn’t appear that much new in the way of law or councils has occurred) considered in terms of ecclesiastical unity? It doesn’t appear so to an outsider. Protestantism, perhaps narrowly, has defined that line. Anglican’s seem to hold to two principles regarding the question of orthodox; “always, everywhere, everyone”, and “all may, none must, some should”. That puts both questions of additions to the definition of orthodox belief, and giving ecumenical thought on the table. Though it does not solve them conclusively – and even that might be a good thing. And I am aware that the first principle was first uttered against Augustine’s theology.

Still working on all this. It is fun, and tough.