Thursday, November 10, 2005

Nice People

I intent to write an article in praise of nice people. But the reader may wish to know first who are the people that I consider nice. To get at their essential quality may perhaps be a little difficult, so I will begin by enumerating certain types who come under the heading. Maiden aunts are invariably nice, especially, of course, when they are rich; ministers of religion are nice, except those rare cases in which they elope to South Africa with a member of the choir after pretending to commit suicide. Young girls, I regret to say, are seldom nice nowadays. When I was young most of them were quite nice -- that is to say, they shared their mother's opinions, not only about topics, but what is more remarkable, about individuals, even young men; they said, "Yes, Mamma," and, "No, Mamma" at the appropriate moments; they loved their father because it was their duty to do so, and their mother because she preserved them from the slightest hint of wrongdoing. When they became engaged to be married they fell in love with decorous moderation; being married, they recognized it as a duty to love their husbands but gave other women to understand that it was a duty they performed with great difficulty. They behaved nicely to their parents-in-law, while making it clear that any less dutiful person would not have done so; they did not speak spitefully about other women but pursed up their lips in such a way as to let it be seen what they might have said but for their angelic charitableness. This type is what is called a pure and noble woman. The type, alas, now hardly exists except among the old.

Mercifully the survivors still have great power: they control education, where they endeavor, not without success, to preserve a Victorian standard of hypocrisy; they control legislation on what are called "moral issues", and have thereby created and endowed the great profession of bootlegging; they ensure that the young men who write for the newspapers shall express the opinions of the nice old ladies rather than their own, thereby enlarging the scope of the young men's style and the variety of their psychological imagination. They keep alive innumerable pleasures which otherwise would be quickly ended by a surfeit; for example, the pleasure of hearing bad language on a stage, or of seeing there a slightly larger amount of bare skin than is customary. Above all, they keep alive the pleasures of the hunt. In a homogeneous country population, such as that of the English shire, people are condemmed to hunt foxes; this is expensive and sometimes even dangerous. Moreover, the fox cannot explain very clearly how much he dislikes being hunted. In all these respects the hunting of human beings is better sport, but, if it were not for the nice people, it would be difficult to hunt human beings with a good conscience. Those whom the nice people condemn are fair game; at their call of "Tallyho" the hunt assembles, and the victim is pursued to prison or death. It is especially good sport when the victim is a woman, since it gratifies the jealousy of the women and the sadism of the men. I know at this moment a foreign woman living in England, in happy though extra-legal union with a man whom she loves and who loves her; unfortunately, her political opinions are not so conservative as could be wished, though they are merely opinions, about which she does nothing. The nice people, however, have used this excuse to set Scotland Yard upon their scent, and she is to be sent back to her native country to strave. In England, as in America, the foreigner is a morally degrading influence, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to the police for the care which they take to see that only exceptionally virtuous foreigners are allowed to reside among us.

It must not be supposed that all nice people are women, though, of course, it is much commoner for a woman to be nice than for a man. Apart from ministers of religion, there are many other nice men. For example: those who have made large fortunes and have now retired from business to spend their fortunes on charity; magistrates are also almost invariably nice men. It cannot, however, be said that all supporters of law and order are nice men. When I was young, I remember hearing it advanced by a nice woman, as an argument against capital punishment, that the hangman could hardly be a nice man. I have never known any hangmen personally, so I have not been able to test this argument empirically. I knew a lady, however, who met the hangman in the train without knowing who he was, and when she offered him a rug, the weather being cold, he said, "Ah, Madam, you wouldn't do that if you knew who I am," which seems to show that he was a nice man after all. This, however, must have been exceptional. The hangman in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, who is emphatically not a nice man, is probably more typical.

I do not think, however, that we ought to agree with the nice woman I quoted a moment ago in condemming capital punishment merely because the hangman is not likely to be nice. To be a nice person, it is necessary to be protected from crude contact with reality, and those who do the protecting cannot be expected to share the niceness that they preserve. Imagine, for example, a wreck on a liner which is transporting a number of colored laborers; the first-class female passengeres, all of whom are presumably nice women, will be saved first; but in order that this may happen, there must be men who keep the colored laborers from swamping the boat, and it is unlikely that these men will be able to succeed by nice methods. The women who have been saved, as soon as they are safe, will begin to feel sorry for the poor laborers who were drowned, but their tender hearts are rendered possible only by the rough men who defended them.

In general, nice people leave the policing of the world to hirelings because they feel the work to be not such as a person who is nice would wish to undertake. There is, however, one department which they do not delegate -- namely, the department of backbiting and scandal. People can be placed in a hierarchy of niceness by the power of their tongues. If A talks against B, and B talks against A, it will generally be agreed by the society in which they live that one of them is exercising a public duty, while the other is actuated by spite; the one who is exercising the public duty is the one who is the nicer of the two. Thus, for example, a headmistress in a school is nicer than an assistant mistress, but a lady who is on the school board is nicer than either. Well-directed tittle-tattle may easily cause its victim to lose his or her livelihood, and even when this extreme result is not achieved, it may turn a person into a pariah. It is, therefore, a great force for good, and we ought to be thankful that it is the nice people who wield it.

The chief characteristics of nice people is the laudable practice of improvement upon reality. God made the world, but nice people feel that they could have done the job better. There are many things in the Divine handiwork which, while it would be blasphemous to wish them otherwise, it would be by no means nice to mention. Divines have held that if our first parents had not eaten the apple the human race would have been replenished by some innocent mode of vegetation, as Gibbon calls it. The Divine plan in this respect is certainly mysterious. It is all very well to regard it, as the aforesaid divines do, in the light of a punishment of sin, but the trouble with this view is that while it may be a punishment for the nice people, the others, alas, find it quite pleasant. It would seem, therefore, as if the punishment had been made to fall in the wrong quarter. One of the main purposes of the nice people is to redress no doubt this unintended injustice. They endeavor to secure that the biologically ordained mode of vegetation shall be practiced either furtively or frigidly, and that those who practice it furtively shall, when found out, be in the power of the nice people, owing to the damage that may be done to them by scandal. They endeavor to ensure also that as little as possible shall be known on the subjectin a decent way; they try to get the censor to forbid books and plays which represent the matter otherwise than as an occasion for sniggering nastiness; in this they are successful wherever and in so far as they control the laws and the police. It is not known why the Lord made the human body as he did, since one must suppose that omnipotence could have made it such as would not have shocked the nice people. Perhaps, however, there was a good reason. There has been in England, ever since the rise of the textile industry in Lancashire, a close alliance between missionaries and the cotton trade, for missionaries teach the savages to cover up the human body and thereby increase the demand for cotton goods. If there had been nothing shameful about the human body, the textile trade would have lost this source of profit. This instance shows that we need never be afraid lest the spread of virtue should diminish our profits.

Whoever invented the phrase "the naked truth" had perceived an important connection. Nakedness is shocking to all right-minded people, and so is truth. It metters little with what department you are connected; you will soon find that rtuth is such as nice people will not admit into their consciousness. Whenever it has been my ill fortune to be present in court during the hearing of a case about which I had some first-hand knowledge, I have been struck by the fact that no crude truth is allowed to penetrate within those august portals. The truth that gets into a law court is not the naked truth but the truth in court dress, with all its less decent portions concealed. I do not say that this applies to the trial of straightforward crimes, such as murder or theft, but it applies to all those into which an element of prejudice enters, such as political trials, or trials for obscenity. I believe that in this respect England is worse than America, for England has brought to perfection the almost invisible and half-conscious control of everything unpleasant by means of feelings of decency. If you wish to mention in a law court any unassimilable fact, you will find that it is contrary to the laws of evidence to do so, and that not only the judge and the opposing counsel but also cousel on your side will prevent the said fact from coming out.

The same sort of reality pervades politics, owing to the feelings of nice people. If you attempt to persuade any nice person that a politician of his own party is an ordinary mortal no better than the mass of mankind, he will indignantly repudiate the suggestion. Consequently it is necessary to politicians to appear immaculate. At most times the politicians of all parties tacitly combine to prevent anything damaging to the profession from getting known, for difference of party usually does less to divide politicians than identity of profession does to unite them. In this way the nice people are able to preserve their fancy picture of the nation's great men, and school children can be made to believe that eminence is to be achieved only by the highest virtue. There are, it is true, exceptional times when politics become really bitter, and at all times there are politicians who are not considered sufficiently respectable to belong to the informal trade-union. Parnell, for example, was first unsuccessfully accused of co-operation with murderers and then successfully convicted of an offense against morality, such as, of course, none of his accusers would have dreamed of committing. In our own day Communists in Europe and extreme Radicals and labor agitators in America are outside the pale; no large body of nice people admires them, and if the offend against the conventional code they can expect no mercy. In this way the immovable moral convictions of nice people become linked with the defense of property, and thus once more prove their inestimable worth.

Nice people very properly suspect pleasure wherever they see it. They know that he who increaseth wisdom increaseth sorrow, and they infer that he that increaseth sorrow increaseth wisdom. They therefore feel that in spreading sorrow they are spreading wisdom; since wisdom is more precious than rubies, they are justified in feeling that they are conferring a great benefit in so doing. They will, for example, make a public playground for children in order to persuade themselves that they are philanthropic and then impose so many regulations upon its use that no child can be as happy there as in the streets. They will do their best to prevent playgrounds, theaters, etc., from being open on a Sunday, because that is the day when they might be enjoyed. Young women in their employment are prevented so far as possible from talking with young men. The nicest people I have known carried this attitude into the bosom of the family and made their children play only instructive games. This degree of niceness, however, I regret to say, is becoming less common than it was. In the old days children were taught that

One stroke of His almighty rod
Can send young sinners quick to Hell,
and it was understood that this was likely to happen if children became boisterous or indulged in any activity such as was not calculated to fit them for the ministry. The education based upon this point of view is set forth in The Fairchild Family, an invaluable work on how to produce nice people. I know few parents, however, in the present day who live up to this standard. It has become sadly common to wish children to enjoy themselves, and it is to be feared that those who have been educated on these lax principles will not display adequate horror of pleasure when they grow up.

The day of nice poeple, I fear, is nearly over; two things are killing it. The first is the belief that there is no harm in being happy, provided no one else is the worse for it; the second is the dislike of humbug, a dislike which is quite as much æsthetic as moral. Both these results were encouraged by the War, when the nice people in all countries were securely in control, and in the name of the highest morality induced the young people to slaughter one another. When it was all over the survivors began to wonder whether lies and misery inspired by hatred constituted the highest virtue. I am afraid it may be some time before they can again be induced to accept this fundamental doctrine of every lofty ethic.

The essence of nice people is that they hate life as manifested in tendencies to co-operation, and in the boisterousness of children, and above all in sex, with the thought of which they are obsessed. In a word, nice people are those who have nasty minds.


Bertrand Russell
1931


Monday, October 10, 2005

Rhetoric

I assume that we are talking about saving a few good men from suicide and a few others from becoming cops or firemen. I have in mind those who commit suicide out of disgust, because they find that others own too large a share of them.

To them one should say: at least let the minority within you have the right to speak. Be poets. They will answer: but it is especially there, it is always there that I feel others within me, when I try to express myself, I am unable to do so. Words are ready-made and express themselves: they do not express me. Once again, I find myself suffocating.

At that moment, teaching the art of resisting words becomes useful, the art of saying only what one wants to say, the art of doing them violence, of forcing them to submit. In short, it is a matter of public safety to found a rhetoric, or rather, to teach everyone to found his own rhetoric.

This saves those few, those rare individuals who must be saved: those who are aware, and who are troubled and disgusted by the others within them.

Those individuals who make the mind progress, and who are, strictly speaking, capable of changing the reality of things.

Francis Ponge
trans. Serge Gavronsky

From theRandom House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

two by fire . . .

I am dying
because you have not
died for me
and the world
still loves you

I write this because I know
that your kisses are born blind
on the songs that touch you

I don't want a purpose
in your life
I want to be the last among
your thoughts
The way you listen to New York City
when you fall asleep

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

There are no traitors among women
even the mother does not tell the son
they do not wish us well

She cannot be tamed by conversation
Absence is the only weapon
against the arsenal of her body

She reserves a special contempt
for the slaves of beauty
She lets them watch her die

Forgive me, partisans,
I only sing this for the ones
who do not care who wins the war

Leonard Cohen
The Energy of Slaves

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Goethe's recipe . . .

Nine requisites for contented living:
Health enough to make work a pleasure.
Wealth enough to support your needs.
Strength to battle with difficulties and overcome them.
Grace enough to confess your sins and forsake them.
Patience enough to toil until some good is accomplished.
Charity enough to see some good in your neighbor.
Love enough to move you to be useful and helpful to others.
Faith enough to make real the things of God.
Hope enough to remove all anxious fears concerning the future.

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sunday, July 24, 2005

deja vu?

There are, indeed, many among us who find justification of the present war in the plea that its motive is to give independence to the people of Cuba, long burdened by the oppresive and corrupt rule of Spain, and especially to relieve the multitudes deprived of their homes and of means of subsistence by the cruel policy of the general who exercised for a time a practical dictatorship over the island. The plea so far as it is genuine deserves the respect due to every humane sentiment. But independence secured for Cuba by forcible overthrow of the Spanish rule means either practical anarchy or the substitution of the United States for that of Spain. Either alternative might well give us pause. And as for the relief of suffering, surely, it is a strange procedure to begin by inflicting worse suffering still. It is fighting the devil with his own arms. That the ends justify the means is a dangerous doctrine, and no wise man will adivse doing evil for the sake of an uncertain good. But the plea that the better government of Cuba and the relief of the reconcentrados could only be secured by war is the plea of either ignorance or of hypocrisy.

But the war is declared; and on all hands we hear the cry that he is no patriot who fails to shout for it, and to urge the youth of the country to enlist, and to rejoice that they are called to the service of their native land. The sober cousels that were appropriate before the war was entered upon must give way to blind enthusiasm, and the voice of condemnation must be silenced by the thunders of the guns and the hurrahs of the crowd. Stop! A declaration of war does not change the moral law. (blogger's emphasis) 'The Ten Commandments will not budge' at a joint resolve of Congress. Was James Russell Lowe aught but a good patriot when during the Mexican war he sent the stinging shafts of his matchless satire at the heart of the monstruous iniquity, or when, years afterward, he declared that he thought at the time and that he still thought that the Mexican war was a national crime? Did John Bright ever render greater service to his country than when, during the Crimean war, he denounced the administration which had plunged England into it, and employed magnificent power of earnest and incisive speech in the endeavor to repress the evil spirit which it evoked in the heart of the nation? No! The voice of protest, of warning, of appeal is never more needed than when the clamor of fife and drum, echoed by the press and too often by the pulpit, is bidding all men fall and keep step and obey in silence the tyrannous word of command. Then, more than ever, is the duty of the good citizen not to be silent and spite of obloquy, misrepresentation and abuse, to insist on being heard, and with sober counsel to maintain the everlasting validity of the principles of the moral law.

So confused are men by false teaching in regard to national honor and the duty of the citizen that it is easy to fall into the error of holding a declaration of war, however brought about, as a sacred decision of the national will, and to fancy that call to arms from the Administration has the force of a call from the lips of the country, from the America to whom all her sons are ready to pay the full measure of devotion. This is indeed a natural and for many a youth, not a discreditable error. But if the nominal, though authorized, representatives of the country have brought us into a war that might and should have been avoided, and which consequently is an unrighteous war, then, so long as the safety of the state is not at risk (blogger's note . . . . spurious claims to self defense against imagined stockpiled munitions, anyone?), the duty of a good citizen is plain. He is to help to provide the Administration responsible for the conduct of the war with every means that may serve to bring it to the speediest end. He is to do this alike so that the immediate evils of the war be as brief and as few as possible, and also that its miserable train of after evils may be diminished and the vicious passions excited by it be the sooner allayed. Men, money, must be abundantly supplied. But, must he himself enlist or quicken the ardent youth to enter service in such a cause? The need is not yet. The country is in no peril. There is always in a vast population like ours an immense, a sufficient supply of material of a fighting order, often of a heroic courage, ready and eager for the excitement of battle, filled with the old notion that patriotism is best expressed in readiness to fight for our country, be she right or wrong. Better the paying of bounties to such men to fill the ranks than they should be filled by those whose higher duty is to fit themselves to the service of their country in the patriotic labors of peace. We mourn the deaths of our noble youth fallen in the cause of their country when she stands for the right; but we may mourn with a deeper sadness for those who have fallen in a cause which their generous hearts mistook for one worthy of the last sacrifice.


Charles Elliot Norton
1898


In the above essay, substitute the word "Iraq" for the word "Cuba" and the name "Saddam Hussein" for the word "Spain" and it becomes eeriely clear how little we've learned the lessons of history. Over a hundred years have passed since this was written and we are still behaving like amoral scoundrels . . . of course with the added irony that the administration involved has taken the position of insisting that it is they who have the moral higer ground. (don't you just love sophistry?). Shame on them. Not even Jesus was sacred to them in their desire to go after Iraq; they waved his name like a filthy flag to rally people to their wicked cause (and during the last campaign to secure four more years of their villainous greed), used it like a bugle call. Shame on them for pushing this war on us and shame on us for taking it like docile idiots. For transforming a great republic into a rogue state with imperial delusions.

It seems to me a really bad idea to go into the empire business without having one's heart into it. That seems to me the main difference with this empire; it's one that we don't even want to admit having or even to want to have. It's like a bizarre grotesque.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

art for the layman . . .

On one of my many rummagings through thrift stores and suchlike, I came upon an old dilapidated tome called simply The Arts. There's a certain intrinsic weight, a gravity, that an old thick volume like this has. Published in New York in 1937, its pages have changed color, taking on the inevitable grey-yellow tint of time. It even smells like an old forgotten artifact! The author was a Dutch gentleman who was born in 1885. On the page before an elegant frontispiece, more or less as a kind of explanatory note or a declaration of intent, he writes:

This book was written and illustrated by
Hendrik Willem Van Loon
to give the general reader
(who perhaps had always considered
this a rather remote subject)
a better understanding and a greater appreciation
of everything that has been done within the
realm of painting and architecture and
music and sculpture and the theater
and most of the so-called minor
arts from the beginning of
time until the moment we
come so close to them that
we begin to lose our perspective.


I just love the florid language he employs throughout this didactic treatise on the history of the arts. His archaic phrasings are vestiges, I'm sure,of some long-gone-by victorian elsewhere. I also love that it's a book that comes with instructions on how to use it! (charming).

633 pages later . . . he attaches to this ambitious opus a closing essay which I think nicely touches on the significance which we bestow upon the phenomenon of art and its influence on our lives. It moved me enough to decide to transcribe it so that I may share it with others online.
peace
ó


an afterthought


On How to Use this Book


I did not write this book to give you a lot of facts, for the facts I mention have all of them been known for quite a long time and they are to be found in any volume devoted to architecture or painting or music. I merely gathered them together because I thought that would be the best way to give the reader a feeling for the "universality" that underlies all of the arts. Neither did I write these pages to air a few of my own esthetic theories and hobbies. Some of these have, of course, crept in, but try and keep them out in a discussion of anything as completely personal as a philosophical contemplation of the arts!

Then why did I take the trouble to write this vast tract and why did I want you to read it?

Merely to invite you to join us and by "us" I mean all those who feel that we can occasionally do without dinner or breakfast, but that life without a few extra dishes of music or painting is hardly worthwhile.

Now that sort of statement (like all more or less rhetorical utterances) is apt to be most beautifully distorted and misunderstood. For it comes very close to that terrible old slogan of "art for art's sake," which has ruined more careers than I care to think of. The last thing I want to do, is to take you away from a comfortable and decent mode of making a living and then turn you loose upon a cold and indifferent world, to spend the rest of your days as disgruntled and indifferent pseudo artists, spending miserable days and nights in an uncomfortable old attic, subsisting on stale spaghetti and contemplating the glorious revolution that will at last bring you recognition. The revolution may come, but it will hardly bring you the recognition you so eagerly desire. On the contrary, it is more likely to put a pickax in your hands and to tell you to make yourself useful digging sewers for the benefit of your less fortunate neighbors. Of course, should you really have been touched by the divine fire and should the good Lord in His wisdom have chosen you among His anointed few, then the urge to create will be so strong that nothing between Heaven and Hell can stop you. In that case, the cold attic and the stale spaghetti are of no consequence. You will take them in your stride, for you are kept warm by the fire that is burning inside your heart and a crust of bread, devoured before your easel, will taste better than all the delicacies of old Raymond Orteig's most excellent cuisine. That, however, is a matter you will have to decide for yourself and I carefully refrain from all advice.

But there is a sort of compromise and since all of life is bound to end in a compromise, I want to draw your attention to the way in which you can bring yourself much closer to the delightful garden of the Muses (and it is indeed a most delectable garden) than you had ever thought possible before this matter was brought to your attention.

There must be something you like to do and can do. You may like to draw or to sing or to play the piano or go in for dramatics. Is there any reason why you shouldn't do so if it adds to the fun of being alive? I don't know of any.

Provided that you realize your own limitations. We live, unfortunately, in a country of competition and publicity. I have known perfectly good, average tennis or golf players who could have derived great pleasure from playing a reasonably good game, but they were unhappy all their livelong days because they could not play their games as well as Bill Tilden or Walter Hagen. I don't know Hagen but I do know Tilden and he would be the last person in the world to encourage you in such a belief. He would tell you to go out and get the exercise and do as well as you could and not worry when you have to accept the brutal fact that that rather unpleasant Jones girl next door can beat you every time you give her a chance. He might even suggest that you would learn more from getting beaten, playing against a really good player, than by being victorious against a weaker competitor and coming home with a perfect score.

Now the arts and sport have a great deal in common. I shall never forget one evening in my own home when Ty Cobb and Knute Rockne got engaged in a discussion on some obscure point in the noble craft of base sliding and the two of them, in their eagerness to prove that they were right, went through a sort of slow-motion demonstration of their respective schools of sliding and the show they put on was as good as the best Russian ballet I have ever seen. And I am sure that I never quite understood the real beauty of greek sculpture until I saw the Babe knock out a home run in the last inning of a very important game. George may not be particularly interested in the Elgin Marbles (he may even think that they are something he used to play with as a boy) but he came as close to being a living reincarnation of some of the best work of classical Greece as anything that was ever brought to my attention. Perhaps the diving boys in the harbor of Honolulu were his nearest competitors for such high honors. I am not quite sure but then it really does not matter, for the point I want to make is this: you need not be as good as the best professional in any of the arts to be still a very decent artist in your own right, just as you need not be an automobile racer to get a lot of fun out of the old flivver. But you can and will lead an infinitely happier and fuller existence if you adopt one of the arts as your stepchild and you will be surprised how far you can get by devoting a few of your leisure moments to the practice of whatever art you have chosen, whether it be photography or cooking or painting or etching or making stage models.

Of course, keep this fact firmly in mind -- in the arts (just as in nature) there are no short-cuts. Success is not a matter of inspiration but a matter of patience and more patience and then still more patience. Without inspiration, you may never be able to scale the greatest heights, but all the inspiration in this entire inspired universe will not do you any good without a vast amount of very hard work and slow painstaking and conscientious work, at that.

So much for the general theory and now for a few practical hints. In the first place, do not think it necessary to specialize. All the arts (as you must have learned from this book) have but one single purpose, to contribute to the art of living and therefore they are closely related to each other and support each other and help each other out, like the members of a well-balanced family. You will be a much better draftsman for knowing something about the structure of a symphony. At the age of fifty-five I still patiently play my part in an orchestra. It takes a lot of time but it is the most practical way for me to learn a great deal about the structure of some music with which I am not yet familiar, and that again helps me in understanding how I should draw my pictures.

For years I have had my etching press, just a small one but good enough for my own simple needs. I don't expect to become a professional etcher. I shall never sell any of the products of my press. But my own struggles with copperplates and with acids and with different ink mixtures make it possible for me to realize infinitely better than I could ever hope to do in any other way just what the most successful etchers of the past have tried to accomplish.

The same holds true for a personal and intimate study of the works of the great masters of the past. I do not mean in a merely imitative manner. You may have seen the copyists in our museums painting away at their pitiful daubs, and you may well have asked yourself, "What is the use of all this wasted effort? These poor devils had better go out and milk a cow or do something a little more useful.!"

Again I agree, but that is not what I meant by "studying the masters of the past." You should do this merely for your own entertainment and instruction. Once you taken the trouble to copy in your own way some drawing by Dürer or to dissect a painting of some very complicated artist like El Greco, you will (for the moment at least) creep into the skin of those incredibly competent craftsmen and then you may at last begin to suspect something of what was in their minds when they themselves struggled with the unwilling material and the awkwardness of the human hand.

You will tell me that you cannot do this because art books are very expensive and you cannot afford them. Who said that you should buy those twenty- and thirty-dollar volumes which look so tempting in the windows of our bookstores? You can get catalogues in museums for nothing, or next to nothing. A good picture postal card is often quite as instructive as an expensive reproduction.

The same holds good for music. Our modern phonographs are about as perfect as anything mechanical can ever hope to be. Save those dollars which you would otherwise spend on something that is not really very important (you will be surprised how much cash you waste everyday on useless gadgets) and start a record collection of your own. And listen to them too, for if you want to be a good amateur musician , you should be thoroughly familiar with everything the great composers of the past have written, just as you should know a few of the gambits of Marshall or Capablanca, if you are a devotee of chess. Knowing their gambits won't, of course, make you a Marshall or a Capablanca, but they will make it possible for you to play a much better game than you had ever done before.

And now another practical hint. If you have taken one of the arts as your hobby, it is not enough to practice it once in a while, on alternate Saturdays and Sundays in Lent. You should make your hobby your steady companion as if it were a pet dog.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by this rather cryptic statement.

Somewhere in this book there is a picture of the old Brooklyn Bridge, proving that in its own way it is quite as beautiful as the Taj Mahal. You may never see the Taj Mahal but you probably catch a glimpse of the Brooklyn Bridge (or some other bridge or building) every morning you go to your office. In those days when I worked downtown in New York I always traveled by the elevated. During a short twenty-minute trip I saw enough sights to provide me with ideas for pictures for at least an entire fortnight. I did not have the time to draw them in detail (no more than you) but this was no labor lost, for something remained behind all those many impressions and something that I could use afterwards in any number of ways.

I realize that all this is not easy to do. As a nation we are rather self-conscious when it comes to any of the arts and I know businessmen who carefully hide their love for music or for some form of literature for fear that their neighbors will laugh at them. We simply shall have to get over that feeling or we shall never get anywhere at all.

You may not want to be a martyr for the good cause but if, for example, you are interested in drawing, do as I have always done. Carry a few small cards in your pocket and when nobody's looking, make a short pictorial note of what you have just seen. Those notes will never find their way to a museum, to be exposed next to the sketches which poor Rembrandt drew on the backs of his unpaid bills, but they will teach you an amazing amount of detail and will sharpen your powers of observationto a point you had never deemed possible.

And when you have a chance, experiment with all sorts of media, for every new approach (oil, pastel, ink) makes you familiar with an entirely different technique and it is really like visiting so many foreign countries. Don't be afraid of the expense. No need of buying yourself one of those sixty-dollar contraptions filled with all the colors of the rainbow and with brushes at a dollar per. You will be astonished how much you can do with the little box of pencils which your small son discarded as one of his less welcome Christmas presents (he really wanted a flying machine, just as next year he will want those pencils!), and water-color boxes, sufficient for your needs and within the reach of your purse, can be had in any toy store.

As for the amateur musicians, if possible they should practice every day with the same regularity with which they take their morning's exercices. Once they get into the habit (if only for fifteen minutes a day) those minutes will soon grow into hours. The piano is the handiest of all instruments because it gives you the best chance to study orchestral compositions. But the piano is not the only instrument in the world.

For example, should you be an amateur fiddler, you will discover that there is a lot of fun in nosing around in the hock shops. Some day you may really find something really good. The chances are about one to ten thousand, but these are less than the chances you take when you put your money on a ticket in the Irish sweepstakes, so why not try?

I must not make this chapter any longer than I can help but I am sure you are beginning to realize what I am driving at. When it comes to the details of such a "plan of campaign" I cannot really be of any help to you or give you any definite advice. There are two thousand million people in this world and there are , therefore, two thousand million different tastes. You will have to decide what you want to do for and by yourself but whether you go in for making ship models or writing songs or spending your summer vacation painting the rocks of Maine or laying out a small suburban garden, enlist right away among the humble followers of the Muses. They are very exacting teachers. But they are the most satisfactory of friends, for in return for your devotion and loyalty they will ocassionally let you stroll into their own private garden and then you will catch a glimpse of a world of such beauty and such perfection that those few moments will most fully compensate you for any pains you may have taken to become one of the elect who have come to understand the true meaning of life at its best.



Lucas Point,
Old Greenwich, Conn.
May 8, 1937

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

oh, yes

there are worse things than
being alone
but it often takes decades
to realize this
and most often
when you do
it's too late
and there's nothing worse
than
too late.

a Charles Bukowski poem

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Dalí top ten . . .

Ten rules for him who wishes to be a painter
  1. Painter, it is better to be rich than poor; so learn how to make gold and precious stones come out of your brush.
  2. Don't be afraid of perfection: you'll never attain it!
  3. Begin by learning to draw and paint like the old masters. After that, you can do as you like; everyone will respect you.
  4. Don't throw to the dogs either your eye or your hand or your brain, for you will need them all if you are to be a painter.
  5. If you are one of those who believe that modern art has surpassed Vermeer and Raphael, don't read this book, just go right on in your blissful idiocy.
  6. Don't vomit on your picture, because it is the picture which can vomit on you after you are dead.
  7. No lazy masterpieces!
  8. Painter, paint!
  9. Painter, don't drink alcohol, and chew hashish only five times in your life.
  10. If painting doesn't love you, all your love for her will be unavailing.

from 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship by Salvador Dalí
1948

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

. . . the sound of music


How technology has transformed the sound of music.

. . . . . . . The principal irony of phonograph history is that the machine was not invented with music in mind. Edison conceived of his cylinder as a tool for business communication: it would replace the costly, imperfect practice of stenography, and would have the added virtue of preserving in perpetuity the voices of the deceased. In an 1878 essay, Edison (or his ghostwriter) proclaimed portentously that his invention would “annihilate time and space, and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man.” Annihilation is, of course, an ambiguous figure of speech. Recording broke down barriers between cultures, but it also placed more archaic musical forms in danger of extinction. In the early years of the century, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Percy Grainger used phonographs to preserve the voices of elderly folksingers whose timeless ways were being stamped out by the advance of modern life. And what was helping to stamp them out? The phonograph, with its international hit tunes and standardized popular dances. . . . . .

. . . . . . With the arrival of magnetic tape, the relationship between performer and medium became ever more complex. German engineers perfected the magnetic tape recorder, or Magnetophon, during the Second World War. Late one night, an audio expert turned serviceman named Jack Mullin was monitoring German radio when he noticed that an overnight orchestral broadcast was astonishingly clear: it sounded “live,” yet not even at Hitler’s whim could the orchestra have been playing Bruckner in the middle of the night. After the war was over, Mullin tracked down a Magnetophon and brought it to America. He demonstrated it to Bing Crosby, who used it to tape his broadcasts in advance. Crosby was a pioneer of perhaps the most famous of all technological effects, the croon. Magnetic tape meant that Bing could practically whisper into the microphone and still be heard across America; a marked drop-off in surface noise meant that vocal murmurs could register as vividly as Louis Armstrong’s pealing trumpet.

Magnetic tape also meant that performers could invent their own reality in the studio. Errors could be corrected by splicing together bits of different takes. In the sixties, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, following in the wake of electronic compositions by Cage and Stockhausen, began constructing intricate studio soundscapes that they never could have replicated onstage; even Glenn Gould would have had trouble executing the mechanically accelerated keyboard solo in “In My Life.” The great rock debate about authenticity began. Were the Beatles pushing the art forward by reinventing it in the studio? Or were they losing touch with the earthy intelligence of folk, blues, and rock traditions? Bob Dylan stood at a craggy opposite extreme, turning out records in a few days’ time and avoiding any vocal overdubs until “Blood on the Tracks,” the fourteenth record of his career. Yet frills-free, “lo-fi” recording has no special claim on musical truth; indeed, it easily becomes another phonograph effect, the effect of no effect. Even Dylan cannot escape the fictions of the medium, as he well knows: “I’m gazing out the window / Of the St. James Hotel / And I know no one can sing the blues / Like Blind Willie McTell.”

In the nineteen-eighties, as Dutch and Japanese engineers introduced digital recording in the CD format, the saga of the phonograph experienced a final twist. Katz, in the last chapters of his book, delights in following the winding path from Germany in the nineteen-twenties to the South Bronx in the nineteen-seventies, where the turntable became an instrument once again. D.j.s like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash used turntables to create a hurtling collage of phonograph effects—loops, breaks, beats, scratches. The silently observing machine was shoved into the middle of the party. It was assumed at first that this recording-driven music could never be recorded itself: the art of the d.j. was all about fast moves over long duration, stamina and virtuosity combined. As Jeff Chang notes in his new book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” (St. Martin’s; $27.95), serious young d.j.s like Chuck D, on Long Island, laughed when a resourceful record company put out a rap novelty single called “Rapper’s Delight.” How could a single record do justice to those endless parties in the Bronx where, in a multimedia rage of beats, tunes, raps, dances, and spray-painted images, kids managed to forget for a while that their neighborhood had become a smoldering ruin? The record labels found a way, of course, and a monster industry was born. Nowadays, hip-hop fans are apt to claim that live shows are dead experiences, messy reënactments of pristine studio creations.

Recording has the unsettling power to transform any kind of music, no matter how unruly or how sublime, into a collectible object, which becomes décor for the lonely modern soul. It thrives on the buzz of the new, but it also breeds nostalgia, a state of melancholy remembrance and, with that, indifference to the present; you can start to feel nostalgic for the opening riff of a new favorite song even before you reach the end. Thomas Mann described the phonograph’s ambiguous enchantments in the “Fullness of Harmony” chapter of “The Magic Mountain,” published in 1924. When a deluxe gramophone arrives at the Berghof sanitarium, it sends mixed messages to the young man who operates it. At times it sings “a new word of love” (shades of Robert Johnson’s “Phonograph Blues”), at times it exudes “sympathy for death.” At the end of the novel, the hero goes marching toward an inferno of trench warfare, obliviously chanting the Schubert tune that the gramophone taught him. These days, he’d be rapping. . . . . .

. . . . . In 1964, Glenn Gould made a famous decision to renounce live performance. In an essay published two years later, “The Prospects of Recording,” he predicted that the concert would eventually die out, to be replaced by a purely electronic music culture. He may still be proved right. For now, live performance clings to life, and, in tandem, the classical-music tradition that could hardly exist without it. As the years go by, Gould’s line of argument, which served to explain his decision to abandon the concert stage, seems ever more misguided and dangerous. Gould praised recordings for their vast archival possibilities, for their ability to supply on demand a bassoon sonata by Hindemith or a motet by Buxtehude. He gloried in the extraordinary interpretive control that studio conditions allowed him. He took it for granted that the taste for Buxtehude motets or for surprising new approaches to Bach could survive the death of the concert—that somehow new electronic avenues could be found to spread the word about old and unusual music. Gould’s thesis is annulled by cold statistics: classical-record sales have plunged, while concert attendance is anxiously holding steady. Ironically, Gould himself remains, posthumously, one of the last blockbuster classical recording artists: Sony Classical’s recent rerelease of his two interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations sold two hundred thousand copies. That’s surely not what Gould had in mind for the future of the medium.

A few months after Gould published his essay, the Beatles, in a presumably unrelated development, played their last live show, in San Francisco. They spent the rest of their short career working in the recording studio. They proved, as did Gould, that the studio breeds startlingly original ideas; they also proved, as did Gould, that it breeds a certain kind of madness. I’ll take “Rubber Soul” over “Sgt. Pepper’s,” and Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs over his 1981 version, because the first recording in each pair is the more robust, the more generous, the more casually sublime. The fact that the Beatles broke up three years after they disappeared into the studio, and the fact that Gould died in strange psychic shape at the age of fifty, may tell us all we need to know about the seductions and sorrows of the art of recording.

from The New Yorker
Issue of 2005-06-06
THE RECORD EFFECT
by Alex Ross

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

a quickening . . .


Martha Graham performing some of her own work at Mili Studio

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening
that is translated into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time,
this expression is unique.

If you block it,
it will never exist through any other medium
and be lost.
The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is;
nor how valuable it is;
nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly,
to keep the channel open.

You do not have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly
to the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open.
No artist is pleased.
There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction;
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes us more alive than the others.

Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille

Sunday, May 29, 2005

apologetics: ¿a polemic?

In 1998, a debate on the resurrection was held in Chicago between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, moderated by William F. Buckley. It was published some time later by Baker Books Press and the resulting volume contained some appendixes, responses to the debate from a few distinguished scholars in the field. The following is one of those appendixes (chapter 7, titled What Do Stories About Resurrection(s) Prove?). It is in my opinion a very well constructed and thought out response from Robert J. Miller. While the debate itself was interesting enough, this essay is the real gem in the book, getting right down to the heart of the function of apologetics in general.

The debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan is about the historical accuracy of the resurrection stories in the Gospels. Craig maintains that these stories are evidence that the resurrection is literally true (that is, that Jesus' corpse came back to life and left the tomb). Crossan believes in Jesus' resurrection, but believes that the Gospel stories do not provide evidence that the resurrection is historically true in the literal sense.

I agree with Crossan. However, instead of responding directly to Craig's argument, I will step back from it and analyze its format, message, and audience. I take this approach because Craig's message about the resurrection and the way he communicates it to his audience are similar in some very important ways to the message of the Gospels and the way they convey it to their audience. Understanding Craig's method and message can thus clarify our understanding of the meaning of the resurrection stories in the Gospels.

In the first part of my essay I analyze Craig's attempt to persuade us that Jesus' resurrection is a historical fact. I pay special attention to how and for whom this kind of persuasion works. Then I will use these insights to analyze the resurrection stories in the Gospel of Matthew. My aim is to discern what Matthew thought he was doing in telling these stories in just the way he did and how his audience understood them.

Apologetics and Outsiders

Craig's central thesis is that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a fact that can be demonstrated by historical evidence and sound reasoning. According to Craig, we don't really need faith to affirm the resurrection; we need only think clearly and objectively about the evidence and draw unbiased conclusions. Craig's argument is an apology for Jesus' resurrection. The term apology here has nothing to do with saying that one is sorry. In the sense the term has here, an apology is a rational defense for a certain belief. In general, an apology for the resurrection is an argument that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, though Craig's apology goes beyond this. He not only argues that belief in the resurrection is a rational option, he argues that it is the only reasonable option, and thus it would be irrational not to believe in it.

Craig presents his apology in a debate with Crossan, which is confusing since Crossan also believes in the resurrection. Two people cannot debate an issue on which they agree. Craig's argument appears to be designed for a debate with someone other than Crossan, someone who does not believe in the resurrection. 1 That is how apologies in general seem to work: they seem to be addressed to outsiders (those who do not share the belief being defended). They look like attempts to persuade others to change their minds and adopt new beliefs. But is this understanding accurate? Are apologies really meant for outsiders? This is an extremely important question. The way we anwer it determines how we approach the whole issue of the historical accuracy of the Gospel stories.

For whom are apologies really intended? In this case, the Craig-Crossan debate took place at Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. What percentage of that audience was non-Christian? How many of the listeners were outsiders in the sense that they did not share the belief that Craig defended? And what percentage of the readers of this book published by Baker Book House will be non-Christian? The answer to all these questions is the same: very, very few, if any at all.

In the few cases when outsiders do read or listen to apologies, they seldom take them seriously (i.e., in the spirit in which they present themselves). Outsiders approach apologies with caution, for the simple reason that apologies ask them to change their beliefs. Most outsiders assume that apologies are greatly biased, that they tell only one side of the story. Outsiders read apologies more often out of curiosity or out of a desire to figure out how to refute them than out of a willingness to give up their own beliefs. 2 (You can check this by asking whether in reading literature from the Hare Krishna movement you would seriously open your heart and mind to the possibility that Krishna is the Supreme Lord of the Universe.)

An Apology for Islam

We can get a feel for how outsiders regard apologetics by briefly considering an apology for a religion other than Christianity. Islam is an interesting case for Christians to consider because both Christians and Muslims believe that their religions originated through the direct intervention of God, through a divine miracle that is unparalleled and unsurpassable. Both believe that God had intervened at various times in the past to reveal his will for humanity, but that those revelations were provisional and incomplete. Both Christians and Muslims believe that God finally intervened with a perfect revelation that gives us everything we need to know to do his will and find salvation. For Christians, this miracle of perfect revelation is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For Muslims, this miracle is the Qur'an revealed through the prophet Muhammad.

Muslim apologists maintain that unbiased consideration of the evidence confirms the belief that Islam was established by God through the miracle of the Qur'an. Although this miracle was not in itself public (there was nothing to see), reason can nonetheless confirm it by assesing its effects. That is, the divine origin of the Qur'an is the only rational explanation for a number of otherwise inexplicable realities.

First, the Qur'an is completely inerrant. It contains no contradictions and no errors of any kind, not even scientific ones. In fact, some of its descriptions of natural phenomena are consistent with scientific discoveries made centuries after Muhammad.

Second, the Qur'an is unsurpassed in the beauty of its poetry and the grandeur of its language (which can be fully appreciated only in Arabic). The Qur'an even challenges those who do not believe in its divine origin to create a chapter, or even one verse, that compares with it. The Qur'an is a literary masterpiece, yet Muhammad was uneducated and illiterate.

Third, the Qur'an has great spiritual power. It had a profound effect on those who first heard it, moving them deeply and leading many to immediately convert to Islam.

Fourth, the Qur'an's sublime monotheism and its elevated moral teaching were far ahead of the time and place of its earthly origin. Seveth-century Arabia was a place of deeply rooted polytheism and of rampant violence, widespread vice, and harsh social oppresion. The Qur'an's uncompromising monotheism and its demand for social justice and strict personal morality were utterly foreign to its environment.

Finally, Muhammed never wavered in his claim that the Qur'an was from God and not from him. This claim reflects his sincere belief, for Muhammad was neither a liar nor a megalomaniac nor delusional. He was famous for his honesty; even his enemies admired his integrity. far from being a megalomaniac, his lifestyle was modest and unassuming, and he drew a strict distinction between the times he was relaying revelation and the times he was expressing his own thoughts. Neither was Muhammad delusional. His enormous successes as a social reformer and as a political and military leader amply demonstrate his keen grasp of reality.

Further evidence for the divine origin of Islam is the speed at which it grew in a time and place that were hostile to it. Nothing in the culture of seventh-century Arabia favored Islam's monotheism or its elevated and demanding morality. In fact, there were powerful religious, economic, social, and political forces arrayed against it. Muhammad's first followers in Mecca were cruelly persecuted, and his fledgling community in Medina was attacked by vastly superior military forces. Islam not only survived, but spread so rapidly that by the time of Muhammad's death just two years after his return to Mecca, virtually all of Arabia had embraced Islam.

Please bear in mind that all this is merely the rough sketch of an apology for Islam. A muslim scholar of Islam (which I am not) could present these ideas and others with much more force and eloquence. Yet even if this apology were laid out with far greater skill than I can manage, how convincing do you think it would be to Christians? How many Christians would it convince that Islam is the religion God intends for all humanity? How seriously does it make you question your beliefs?

Muslim apologists maintain that the Qur'an would not be so inerrant, profound, beautiful, and compelling if God were not its author, and that Islam would not have been accepted by so many so quickly unless it were divinely guided. Muslims find this line of argument utterly convincing. Non-Muslims, however, will not be persuaded, even if they do not know how to explain the admirable qualities of the Qur'an or the impressive growth of early Islam. They will assume that even if they themselves do not know how to refute the apology, there are experts who do. Similarly, many readers of this book are confident that even if they personally cannot answer Crossan's arguments, surely someone like Craig can.

Outsiders seldom read apologies and seldom take them seriously when they do. As for the few non-Christians who do read an apology like Craig's and do give it serious consideration, how many are actually persuaded by it? Again the answer is very, very few, if any at all.3

Looking at the Resurrection from the Outside

Having considered how an apology for some other religion looks to us (for the sake of the argument I am assuming that my readers are Christian), we can round out the process with a "thought experiment." Imagine that you are not a Christian, but that you've come across Craig's apology for the literal historicity of Jesus' resurrection. For whetever reason, you take it seriously and decide to make a careful study of the relevant Gospel stories. As you read the stories about the empty tomb and the appearances, you notice again and again how different they are from Gospel to Gospel. So you construct charts that lay out the similarities and differences.

figure 1
Empty Tomb Stories

MarkMatthewLukeJohn
Timesunrisebefore dawndaybreakstill dark
Persons involvedMary Magdalene,
Mary James' mother,
Salome
Mary Magdalene,
the other Mary
Mary Magdalene,
Mary James' mother,
Joanna, other women
Mary Magdalene
Position of stonestone already moved awaystone rolled away by an angel during an earthquakestone already rolled awaystone already rolled away
Guardsnoyesnono
Figures at the tomba young man sitting inside the tomban angel sitting on the stone outside the tombno one at first, then two mentwo angels sitting inside the tomb
Message"Tell the disciples to go to Galilee""Tell the disciples to go to Galilee""Remember that Jesus told you all this would happen"
Reactionfearfear and great joy
Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, but recognizes him when he says her name
Responsethe women tell no onethe women tell other disciplesthe women tell the apostles (Peter comes to the tomb and sees the linen wrappings)Mary tells the other disciples


figure 2
Easter Appearance Stories

Matt.
28:9-10
Luke
24:13-33
Luke
24:34
Luke
24:36-51
John
20:19-23
Persons involvedthe women who came to the tomb
two disciples
Simonthe Eleven and others
disciples
Placebetween the tomb and hideouton the road to Emmaus?a room in Jerusalem
a room in Jerusalem
Reactionworshipnon-
recognition
?fear; they mistake Jesus for a ghost; "they believe for joy"
gladness
Confirmation

?Jesus invites them to touch him; he eats fish
Jesus shows them his hands and side
Message"Tell the disciples to go to Galilee"
(Jesus interprets scripture)?
(Jesus interprets scripture and commissions them to preach repentance and forgiveness in his name)
(conferral of the Holy Spirit and authority to forgive and retain sins)
Conclusion
they recognize him as he breaks bread; he vanishes; they return to Jerusalem?Jesus leads them to Bethany and ascends into heaven (end of Gospel)


figure 3
Post-Easter Appearance Stories

Matt. 28:16-20
John 20:26-29
John 21
Acts 1:1-11
Time?
one week later
some time later
over a forty day period
Persons involvedthe Elevendisciples
(including Thomas)
seven disciplesthe apostles
Placea mountain in Galilee
a room in Jerusalem
the Sea of Tiberias
Jerusalem
Reactionsome worship him; some don't

recognition
Confirmation
Jesus invites Thomas to touch him


Messagethe Great Commission
blessing on those who believe without seeing
"feed my lambs (to Peter)"; discussion of the fate of the beloved disciple

Conclusion(end of Gospel)
(end of Gospel)Jesus ascends into heaven


It is natural for outsiders to focus on differences and the historical problems they create. But what about insiders? Do they grow skeptical when they reflect on all the differences among the resurrection stories? A few might begin to have some doubts, but the vast majority of insiders are not bothered by the disparities. Insiders seldom notice them; if they do, they do not regard them as real inconsistencies. In fact, some apologists even flip these differences over to increase insiders' confidence in the historical reliability of the stories. They do this by arguing that, even with all the disparities, the versions all still agree that some followers of Jesus found his tomb empty.

The point I want to make is that while insiders and outsiders may read the same stories, they will use very different standards in evaluating their historical reliability. Imagine that another religion had a story of how God had worked mighty miracles that demonstrated the truth of that religion. Imagine also that there were several versions of this story and that these versions had numerous discrepancies, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Wouldn't you, a Christian and thus an outsider to this religion, point to those disparities as evidence for the unreliability of the stories? People are naturally more charitably inclined to their own stories than they are to those of outsiders.

To consider a specific example, how many non-Mormons take seriously the story about Joseph Smith discovering the golden tablets that contained the Book of Mormon and deciphering them with spectacles made of stone? Non-Mormons find this story unbelievable if not mildly amusing. But most Mormons find it easy to believe, and those few with doubts can overcome them by strengthening their faith through prayer. Why should non-Mormons find the story hard to believe? After all, it is no more implausible than dozens of stories in the Bible (for example, Jonah and the whale) that many Christians believe with no difficulty at all. The difference has very little to do with the stories themselves and a great deal to do with whether one approaches them as an insider or an outsider. To put it a bit crudely perhaps, stories about our miracles are easy to believe because they're true; stories about their miracles are easy to dismiss because they are far-fetched and fictitious.

Why Doesn't Apologetics Succeed

Why is it that very few, if any, outsiders will be persuaded by Craig's apology? From the way he presents it, we get the impression the he thinks that nobody who is informed, rational, and sincere could disagree with it. So why doesn't it work? There are really only two alternatives: the apology fails to convince either because it is unpersuasive, or because outsiders miss the truth, usually by reasoning incorrectly and drawing the wrong conclusion, or by seeing the truth but not accepting it. In other words, there is a defect either in the apology or in the "apologee," and, since few apologists present an argument they believe is defective, they are more or less forced to blame the apologee for failing to see, or to admit, the truth. 4

The problem with blaming the apologee is that not only is that self-serving, it is also gratuitous. What evidence is there that the apologee is not smart enough to follow the apologist's reasoning, or not sincere enough to want to know the truth, or not honest enough to admit it? The only answer the apologist gives is that if the apologee were really rational and well intentioned, he would agree with the apologist. Needless to say, most people are not impressed by this line of reasoning.

I used to think this way myself when I was a fervent believer in the power of apologetics. I was a philosophy major at a Catholic college. I was utterly convinced not only that Christianity was the one true religion that God intended for all humanity, but also that the Catholic Church was the one true church that Christ intended for all Christians. From my study of Thomas Aquinas and modern Christian apologists, I clearly saw that the central truths of Christianity (and of catholicism) could be grasped by reason if only one was sincerely seeking God's truth, was humble enough to accept it, and took the time to inform oneself and follow the arguments.

All of this made perfect sense to me, and none of my teachers or fellow students (all of whom were catholics) gave me any reason to question it. I tried out various apologetic arguments on my like-minded friends, who found them quite convincing. Occasionally they suggested improvements in my arguments, but none of us doubted the effectiveness of apologetics. The only real puzzle in my mind was this: since the truths of Christianity and Catholicism are so evident, why are they not more universally recognized? I concluded that those outside my religion or my church just did not know or did not understand these apologetic arguments, or that they were not completely sincere about seeking the truth. It amazes me now that I believed this without any feelings of superiority or smugness. I was sincerely grateful to God for the blessing of having been raised in the Christian religion and the one true church, and I prayed for the wisdom and the courage to be able to help others to see the truth as clearly as I did.

This mind-set held together until I went to graduate school at secular universities and got to know people who had different religions. For the first time in my life, I got to know people who took other religions as seriously as I took mine. I knew these people were well educated and highly rational, and I could tell from our conversations that they were sincere. A few were people of great goodness and spiritual depth. Yet none of them was persuaded by my apologetics. It took several years, but gradually I accepted the fact that informed, intelligent, sincere, and spiritual people are almost never persuaded by apologetics to change their core beliefs. Looking back, I can now see that a big reason for this is that most apologists use assumptions that only insiders take for granted. It is usually only from an outsider's perspective that one can see how problematic these assumptions really are.

In summary, apologies almost never reach outsiders. When they do, they are almost never taken seriously; when they are, they are almost never persuasive. So if the purpose of apologetics is to convince outsiders to adopt new beliefs, then apologetics are almost always abject failures. They fail, not because their authors are inept (like Craig, many of them are intelligent and capable writers), but because it is practically impossible to argue people into giving up their religious beliefs and adopting new ones.

However, there is another, more promising way to evaluate the apologetic genre. We can determine its audience, not by whom it seems to be aimed at, but by who actually reads it. And we can determine its purpose, not by what the author seems to intend, but by how it actually functions. If we proceed like this, we reach two important findings: (1) the audience for an apology is insiders; (2) its function is to support what the audience already believes.

This is nothing new to apologists, who know full well that their audiences are insiders. (Why else would Craig speak at Moody Memorial Church or write for Baker Book House?) So why do apologists write as though they were addressing outsiders? They do that, not because they are mistaken about their audience, but because that is the convention of the apologetic genre. An apt comparison is the genre of the open letter. An open letter may begin, "To the President of the United States," but both author and readers understand that the real audience is the general public. Readers don't think they are reading the president's mail. Everyone knows the difference between an open letter and a personal letter that is leaked to the press. The general public knows the letter is intended for them, even though it is addressed to the president. Every genre has its own conventions. Authors of fables write about talking animals because that is how fables go, not because anyone thinks that animals really talk.

Aquaintance with the conventions of apologetics makes a difference because it helps us understand what Craig's writing is really about. Since it is meant for insiders, even though it seems to be addressed to outsiders, we have to distinguish its message (that is, its message to its real audience) from its content. It's content is an argument aimed at convincing outsiders that they should believe in the resurrection literally because that is the rational thing to do; indeed, to do otherwise would be irrational. But the message to the real audience is that their belief in Jesus is far more than wishful thinking; it is founded on solid evidence and can be defended by someone with impressive academic credentials against an eloquent detractor. (There is, then, a mismatch in the Crossan-Craig debate. Crossan does not deny the resurrection, though he does deny that the Gospel stories about it are literally true - a position Craig ridicules as "Peter Pan theology.")

The Audience of the Gospels

It should now be clear that in order to understand what a text is really about, we need to take into account who its audience is and how it functions for that audience. Only after we figure out these elements can we make an informed judgment about what the message of the text is. Let's look, as an example, at the resurrection stories in the Gospels.5 Who is the audience for these stories? What did their authors think they were doing in writing what they did? And how did these stories function for their audience?

Craig treats the Gospel stories as literal accounts of what really happened. For him these are stories about how faith in the resurrection got started: the earliest Christians believed that Jesus was raised because some of them had actually seen him in his physical body after his death. Craig argues that if people today properly understand these stories, they will conclude that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and from this they will conclude that Jesus is God. Craig folds these Gospel stories into his own argument, which seems aimed at outsiders but is actually for believers. Craig's argument thus appears to be intended to induce faith, but it actually functions to confirm the faith of those who already believe.

We need to ask: Who is the audience of the Gospels? For whom did the Evangelists write? The answer is clear: the Gospels were written for Christians. They presuppose that their audiences already believe in Jesus. Although a few outsiders may read the Gospels, it is most unlikely that any of them will come to believe in Jesus by reading that text. That is especially so in the case of the resurrection stories. How likely is it that a Jew or a pagan would read one of these stories and then conclude that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead and that therefore he is God? No, the resurrection stories presume a friendly audience, people who already believe that Jesus has risen. The stories presuppose and build on that belief in order to teach about the meaning of Jesus' resurrection and its implications for the Christian life.

The Resurrection of the Righteous Jews

To get specific about what the Evangelists are trying to communicate in the resurrection stories, we need to focus on one specific Gospel as an example. Any one will do, but Matthew is especially appropriate because some features unique to this Gospel give us strong clues as to its author's intentions.

A fascinating peculiarity of Matthew is that he tells of other resurrections in addition to Jesus'. According to Matthew, many righteous Jews were raised from the dead along with Jesus. At the very moment that Jesus died,

the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many (Matt.27:51-53 NSRV)

What should we make of this strange story? Did it really happen? And what does it mean?

We need to take a close look at this brief account because it can tell us a great deal about what Matthew thought he was writing and what his audience thought they were reading. The first question we have to tackle is whether the story is historical.

To put it bluntly, there is no good reason to think that this event really happened. For it is mentioned nowhere else - not in another Gospel, not in any other Christian writing, not in the writings of Josephus (a well-informed and meticulous Jewish historian of the time). In most cases it is invalid to conclude that an event did not happen because it is mentioned in only one source -- after all, lots of things occur that are not recorded even once. But this story is a very special exception because it narrates what by any measure has to be the most amazing event of all time: large numbers of dead people coming to life and appearing to large numbers of witnesses. It is inconceivable that an event so sensational and of such magnitude would not be noticed by the historians of the day. It's especially inconceivable that no other Christian source would mention it.6 The people who had left their tombs on Easter would have been hugely famous among Christians. A few lucky disciples could claim to have seen the risen Jesus, but these people were even more privileged: they had been raised from the dead along with Jesus. Yet their story left no trace anywhere outside these three short verses in Matthew.

Unless one is committed to belief in the literal historicity of every passage in the Bible, there is no basis for taking Matthew 27:51-53 to be the report of an actual event. Does this mean that Matthew was misinformed or that he was lying? Not at all. Matthew never intended this account to be taken literally. He assumed that his audience would take it symbolically and understand its message accordingly.

What is that message? Two features of this brief narrative furnish clues that would have been clear to Matthew's readers: the earthquake and the way that Matthew characterizes those who rise. Both features told Matthew's readers that the death/resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in salvation history, the event that ushers in the time time of the fulfilment of God's plans for humanity. This account has the same message as do twelve others in which Matthew interrupts the Gospel narrative to tell the readers that a certain event fulfils what was foretold by the prophets - that God's promises to Israel are coming true in Jesus, that Jesus (in his birth, life, death, and resurrection) is the culmination of Israel's hopes and of God's plans for his people.

One feature in 27:51-53 that conveys Matthew's message is how he describes those who are raised from the dead: he calles them "holy ones" or "saints" (hagioi in Greek). This designation is important because early Christians and most Jews believed that those who had lived in obedience to God's will would be raised from the dead on the Last Day. Matthew 27:51-53 thus sends the message that Jesus' death and resurrection were the beginning of the End, the apocalyptic turning point in salvation history. 7

The earthquake is the other feature that conveys Matthew's message. Earthquakes are one of the disasters that prophetic and apocalyptic writings associate with the arrival of the End. These cataclysmic events are used to symbolize the enormous importance and consequences of God's intervention in our history. (We still use this imagery in much the same way today when we speak of an "earth-shaking" event. Everyone knows we we are not referring to a literal earthquake.) Matthew's mention of an earthquake also helps him explain how the tombs were opened. He uses this symbol again at the scene on Easter morning (28:2), even though he does not need it to explain how Jesus' tomb was opened. As Matthew tells it, an angel rolled away the stone, but Matthew adds the earthquake nonetheless, thereby linking Jesus' resurrection with those in 27:51-53. Jesus' tomb was already empty, so the earthquake was doubly unnecessary here. Its sole function in 28:2 is as an apocalyptic symbol.

Biblical authors intentionally used disasters like earthquakes as symbols. This can be seen clearly in Acts 2, where Luke tells the story of the first Pentecost. People are amazed that they each hear the apostles' preaching in their own language (Acts 2:5-12). Peter explains that what is happening is fulfilling the prophecy of Joel. Peter then quotes a long passage from Joel, part of which reads: "I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day" (Acts 2:19-20 NRSV, quoting Joel 2:30-31). Note that Peter claims that Joel's prophecy is being fulfilled in the events of Pentecost, not that it will be fulfilled at some future date. Obviously, Peter was not asserting that the moon was literally turning into blood as he spoke, or that the sun was being darkened by actual smoke. Peter assumed that his audience would understand these apocalyptic descriptions symbolically, and Luke expects his readers to do so as well.

Historians have no real choice but to conclude that the resurrections mentioned in Matthew 27:51-53 did not really happen. Of course, there are some Christians who reason that since everything in the Bible is historically true, this story must be historically true as well. Laypersons are free to believe anything they want, but historians are not free to claim that something happened simply because they want it to be so - just as juries are not free to reach any verdict they want. Historians and juries must be guided by evidence. And in this case there is no objective evidence for the historicity of the event. Except for those already committed to literalism, very, very few biblical scholars would argue that Matthew 27:51-53 is historical. (It would be interesting to learn Craig's position on this and his reasons for it.)

To sum up, we can reach the same conclusion on the historicity of Matthew 27:51-53 from two directions. On the one hand, we have no objective basis for claiming that the event really happened. On the other hand, we have strong clues from the way Matthew writes the story that he never intended it to be taken literally.

What Did Matthew Think He Was Writing?

If Matthew can create historical fiction like the resurrection of the righteous Jews, what does that mean for the other stories in his Gospel? Perhaps Matthew 27:51-53 is an anomaly, a passage where Matthew proceeds in a way totally unlike the way he writes in the rest of his Gospel. If so, it can tell us nothing about the Evangelists' overall perspective on the kind of truth they intended to communicate. But since there is no good reason to regard Matthew as an anomaly, we have to assume that it can help us understand Matthew's (and other Evangelists') perspective on the historical value of the stories in the Gospel.

To gauge how Matthew regarded the historicity of the events he narrates, we have to keep in mind that Matthew relies on Mark as one of his sources. Sometimes he virtually copies from Mark, sometimes he paraphrases. Sometimes he abbreviates Mark's narrative, deleting nonessential detail while retaining the substance of the story. At other times, though, Matthew deliberately alters Mark. He does not simply reword the account, but he changes its content in such a way as to alter Mark's meaning - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot; sometimes subtly, sometimes obviously.

An unusually clear clear example is the way in which Matthew 20:20-23 alters Mark 10:35-40. Mark tells of Jesus teaching his disciples that he will be put to death in Jerusalem (Mark 10:33-34). James and John the approach Jesus with the request that he grant them the places of highest honor when he comes into his glory. Because they had just heard Jesus' prediction of his passion, their request appears incredibly crass and shows that James and John totally failed to grasp the meaning of Jesus' teaching. When Matthew tells this story, he has the mother of James and John make the brazen request on behalf of her sons (Matt. 20:20). Why did Matthew make this change? Did he think that Mark was historically wrong at this point and that he had the real story of what had actually happened? There is not the slightest indication that Matthew made this change to set the record straight. Mark has a number of other scenes in which the disciples act stupidly or selfishly, and each time Matthew alters the scene in such a way that the disciples act wisely and behave as role models for Christians (cf., e.g., the disciples' response to Jesus in Mark 6:51-52 and in Matt. 14:32-33). In the present scene Matthew's small but significant modification enables him to retain the valuable lesson the scene teaches but without besmirching the reputaion of the two famous apostles.

There are dozens and dozens of places where Matthew alters Mark. Careful analysis of these changes (a process called redaction criticism) helps us to understand the messages Matthew is communicating through his distinctive version of the words and deeds of Jesus. These changes show beyond the shadow of a doubt that Matthew felt free to change Mark's story when he did not agree with some aspect of its message. These changes show either that Matthew did not regard Mark's Gospel as a literal report of actual events or that he did not care one way or the other. For Matthew (and, by extrapolation, all the Evangelists), facts were far less important than the meanings the expressed. After all, the facts could be changed to enhance the message.

Turning to the Easter stories, we can see how Matthew has altered Mark's version of the scene at the empty tomb. Two women (not three, as in Mark) go to see the tomb (not to annoint the body) before sunrise (not after). As they arrive, there is an earthquake, during which and angel rolls away the stone, terrifying the guards. (In Mark the women find the stone already rolled away when they arrive; Mark mentions neither an earthquake, nor an angel, nor guards.) Matthew's angel speaks to the women from outside the tomb; in Mark a young man speaks to them after they step inside. The scene in Matthew concludes when the women, instead of fleeing in fear and telling no one (as in Mark), depart in fear and great joy" and tell the disciples.

Matthew does not think mark was misinformed. He is not setting the record straight. It is not a question of whether Matthewis right and Mark is wrong or vice versa. Matthew obviously does not think that Mark gave a literal report of an actual event, and there's no good reason for us to think that Matthew considered his own version to be a literal report either.

Matthew did not write his own account to prove that Jesus' resurrection is a fact of history. Did Matthew believe that there was a historical kernel to his story that was literally true - that Jesus had in fact been buried, that people knew where, and that some women had discovered the tomb to be empty? We really don't know, and there is no way of telling from the Gospel he wrote some fifty years after Jesus' death. All we know is that Matthew inherited this story from Mark and felt free to alter it considerably in order to proclaim his faith in Jesus' resurrection. And that, it seems to me, is the key: faith. The Evangelists are interested in faith far more than in facts. We also know that they felt free to invent "facts" by creating stories out of whole cloth if this would enhance their proclamation of faith.

Can Fiction Express Truth?

Our consideration of the story about the earthquake and the rising of the Jewish saints in Matthew 27:51-53 leads to the conclusion that it is not the report of an actual event, that Matthew did not intend it to be, and that his ancient audience understood that. So is the story false? That depends on the precise meaning of the question. If it means, "Is the story a fiction, a narrative of an event that did not in fact happen?" the answer is "Yes, it is false." But if the question means, "Is what the author intends to communicate false?" then we have to ask a more basic question: Is Matthew's message false simply because the story he used to convey it is not historical? Matthew's meaning is that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the turning point in savation history, God's decisive intervention in human affairs. Are we guilty of what Craig derisively calls Peter Pan theology if we profess the truth of Matthew's message and acknowledge that Matthew 27:52-53 is not historical?

Well, millions of Christians believe Matthew's message without actually knowing the story of Matthew 27:51-53. (In my long experience as a Bible teacher, many Christians are surprised when they encounter this story. Even those well acquainted with the Bible say thing like, "I don't remember reading this before.") This was all the more so in the first century, when very few Christians had access to Matthew's Gospel. Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the other New testament authors surely agreed with Matthew that Jesus' death and resurrection were God's decisive act in salvation history, even though nothing indicates that they knew the story related in Matthew 27:51-53.

Another way of getting at the issue is to ask, Which came first, the story or the belief in its message? Does Matthew's story provide the basis for the belief that Jesus' death and resurrection are the dicisive event in salvation history, or does the story express this belief? In other words, what caused what? Did the story give rise to the belief, or did the belief give rise to the story? In light of our historical considerations, the answer is clear: the story presumes and expresses the belief in its message. Matthew (or someone in his tradition) created the story to express faith in the supreme spiritual importance of Jesus' death and resurrection. The story is addressed to an audience that believes in Jesus and so understands and believes its message.

Considering the matter from another direction also shows that the story presupposed, rather than gave rise to, faith in Jesus. At the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Jesus was a very controversial figure. Most Jews rejected the claim that he was the Messiah, a few accepted it (i.e., the Christian Jews, or Jewish Christians - either label will do), but nobody was neutral about Jesus. How could one be? There is no middle ground. It is inconceivable that a serious Jew could have said, "Maybe Jesus is the Messiah, and maybe he isn't; either way is all right with me." Because of the polarized religious situation, Jews who were not followers of Jesus were hostile toward what they thought he stood for and toward his disciples, whose movement posed a threat to Judaism. Now what are the realistic chances that someone like this would read or hear the story in Matthew 27:51-53 and as a result conclude that Jesus must have been the one through whom God had decisively intervened in human history? The odds of that happening are even lower than the ods that any reader will be converted to Islam by reading the Muslim apologetic that I so clumsily outlined above. 8 Mathew's story would simply not persuade outsiders. They would understand its message, but they would reject it on the spot because they would have no prior belief in Jesus. In fact, Matthew 28:11-15 explains why many of those who knew Jesus' tomb was empty did not believe in his resurrection.

What Does an Empty Tomb Prove?

Try to see the situation from a Jewish perspective. Matthew 28:11-15 reflects Matthew's bitter animosity toward the Jewish leaders, to who he here imputes corrupt and deceitful motives. But if we step back from Matthew's extremely one-sided perspective, we realize that all that most Jews knew was that followers of Jesus claimed that he had risen from the dead. To get some idea of how this must have sounded to Jews of the time, imagine our response to reports bu some members of a cult that their recently deceased leader (whom they had buried) had risen. Their reports that his grave was empty would hardly persuade many. Even if it was confirmed that the grave where they claim he was buried was empty, what would that prove? Nothing. We would conclude either that they had removed the body or that he was never buried there in the first place. Suppose they told stories of seeing angels at the empty grave or of the grave being opened by an earthquake. Suppose that they claimed that our leaders were involved in a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the resurrection of their master. Suppose they told of having seen him alive, of having spoken and eaten with him. And (though I can't imagine how this would come about in our society) suppose that some of these witnesses were willing to die for their belief in their leader.

What would we make of such people and their belief in their messiah? Probably something similar to what ancient people made of the earliest Christians. (As a thought experiment, ask yourself what it would take to convince you that this cult leader had truly risen from the dead.)

Empty tombs don't prove anything, except to insiders. Nor do reports of appearances of risen leaders. In the Gospels the risen Jesus appears only to those who already believe in him. Those who see him after his resurrection are those who followed him during his lifetime. John's Gospel originally ended with a blessing for those who believe in Jesus without needing to see him firsthand. 9 The implication was that it took little faith to believe when one had actually seen the risen Lord. Matthew, however, does not agree. At the very end of Matthew's Gospel is a fascinating and unexpected statement. He reports that even some of the apostles who saw the risen Jesus in person had their doubts. Just before Jesus sent forth the Eleven with the Great Commission, they prostrated themselves before Jesus, "but some doubted" (Matt. 28:17). This Gospel thus closes with a cryptic admission that even some of these ultimate insiders were not convinced by a face-to-face encounter with the risen Lord. Matthew's abrupt comment comes as a complete surpise, and its precise meaning is puzzling. But this much at least is clear: Whatever else the Gospels may teach about the resurrection, faith in the risen Jesus requires more than stories about him - no matter how convincing these stories may be to insiders.


Robert J. Miller is associate professor or religion and philosophy at Midway College in Midway, Kentucky.