Monthly Archives: September 2010

City of Enoch

I’ve been reading Richard Lyman Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, which I bought some four or five years ago but hadn’t gotten around to until now, and was surprised to find this in a section on Smith’s revision of the Bible:

In redoing the early chapters of Genesis, . . . Joseph wove Christian doctrine into the text without altering the basic story. But with the appearance of Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam, the text expanded far beyond the biblical version. In Genesis, Enoch is summed up in 5 verses; in Joseph Smith’s revision, Enoch’s story extends to 110 verses.

Bible readers had always been curious about Enoch and the city transported into heaven. Joseph’s expansion appeared when a vast apocryphal literature on Enoch was first being rediscovered. . . . Up until that time, modern biblical commentators on Enoch had been restricted to the five verses in Genesis and the three in the New Testament that speak of Enoch’s genealogy, prophecy of judgment, and ascent into heaven without dying. (p. 138)

Bushman has obviously done his homework and is in a position know precisely what the Bible does and doesn’t say about Enoch — and yet he still somehow misses the fact that Bible readers had clearly not “always been curious about Enoch and the city transported into heaven,” because no such story existed until Joseph Smith invented it in 1830. Nothing in the Bible — nor in any of the apocryphal Enoch literature, for that matter — says anything about a city’s ascending into heaven with Enoch. Far from being a statesman or city-builder, the Enoch of pre-Mormon tradition is a solitary visionary, communing with angels, walking with God, and spending less and less time in the human world until he finally vanishes from it altogether. But so central is the holy city to the Mormon version of the Enoch story — Enoch without his city is like Samson without his jawbone or Christ without his cross –that a Mormon writer like Bushman simply assumes it (no pun intended). Just as the brain will “fill in” a blind spot with what it expects to see, Bushman can make a comprehensive catalog of what little the Bible has to say about Enoch without seeing the absence of Zion. It’s the same psychological mechanism that prevents most Genesis readers from noticing anything odd about the firmament.

That said, there is a City of Enoch in the Bible — but it’s named after a different Enoch, Cain’s son rather than Jared’s.

And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch. (Gen 4:17)

One might think that Joseph Smith’s story comes from conflating the two Enochs — the one who had a city and the one who ascended to heaven — but that seems not to be the case. Smith’s version of Genesis, like the original, includes two distinct Enochs and (unlike the original) two distinct cities. But while he apparently didn’t confuse one Enoch with the other, I think Smith probably was influenced by the fact that they had the same name, and that the Cainite City of Enoch gave him the idea for the Sethite Enoch’s Zion. The influence of names can also be seen in Smith’s other work: The Book of Mormon’s Enos is not the biblical Enos, but his story seems to be a riff on “then began men to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen 4:26); King Noah is not the biblical Noah, but both are wine-bibbers and planters of vineyards (see Gen 9:20-21, Mosiah 11:15). Perhaps the most extreme example of this is 2 Nephi 3, which ties a bunch of different people named Joseph together as Lehi tells his son Joseph how the patriarch Joseph prophesied the coming of a future Joseph who would be named after his father, Joseph. So closely did Joseph Smith associate himself with Joseph of Egypt that J. J. Dewey has proposed, with a surprising degree of plausibility, that Smith actually saw himself as the reincarnation of the biblical patriarch.

It’s also just possible that Smith was on to something in ascribing one Enoch’s characteristics to the other. While it is true that Genesis, as it has come down to us, presents the son of Cain and the son of Jared as two different people, it would be an oversimplification to say that the one has nothing to do with the other or that their shared name is just a coincidence. There are many suspicious parallels between the Cainite and Sethite genealogies:

Aside from Enoch swapping places with Mehujael/Mahalaleel, the two lineages are exactly parallel. (Adam maps to Enos because, despite their phonetic dissimilarity, the two names have the same meaning, “man,” in Hebrew.) The most obvious explanation for this is that the two genealogies are cognates, variant forms of one original tradition, which would mean that the two Enochs who appear in the Bible might be different versions of the same legendary figure — a figure who may originally, like Smith’s Enoch, have both founded a city and ascended (with it?) into heaven.

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Goat-killing American Jedi

In the whole history of film, roughly how many movies do you think have been made which feature a former Special Forces operator who repeatedly refers to himself as a Jedi Warrior, boasts about his amazing powers of situational awareness and, in a pivotal scene in the film, kills a goat? And what are the chances that, having chosen two DVDs more or less at random from the video rental place, I would end up watching both of them on the same weekend?

In The Men Who Stare at Goats, George Clooney plays a “psychic spy” named Lyn Cassady, who introduces himself to Ewan McGregor’s character this way:

Lyn: Let me ask you something. What color were the chairs in the hotel bar? You were in there for hours. What color were the chairs?

Bob: Green.

Lyn: Beige. How many lights are there in this room? A Super Soldier wouldn’t have to look. He would just know.

Bob: A Super Soldier?

Lyn: A Jedi Warrior. He would know where all the lights were. He could walk through a room and he could tell you how many power outlets there were. People are walking around with their eyes closed. At Level One, we were trained to instantly absorb all details.

Bob: What’s, uh, what’s a Jedi Warrior?

Lyn: You’re looking at one.

Bob: You’re a Jedi Warrior?

Lyn: That’s correct.

Bob: I don’t… I don’t know what that means.

Lyn: I’m Sergeant First Class Lyn Cassady, Special Forces, retired. In the eighties, I was trained at Fort Bragg under a secret initiative codenamed “Project Jedi.” The objective of the project was to create Super Soldiers.

As part of his Jedi training, Lyn was supposed to try to kill a goat just by looking at it — which he did.

Lyn: Hooper and Holtz wanted me to do an experiment. They wanted me to stop the heart of a goat. What had the goat ever done to me? It was completely against the way of the Jedi. I was just gonna pretend to try, so that they can see it wouldn’t work and they can forget about it. Then, as I sat there I felt this pulse inside me. I couldn’t stop it. Maybe deep down inside, some dark part of me wanted to see if I could do it? . . . That was it. I’d used my powers for evil and it’s as if I brought a curse on us all. It’s like that poem where the guy kills the seagull and they make him wear it around his neck. Every night I would dream about that goat, it’s mouth opening and closing without making a sound.

Bob: The silence of the goats.

Lyn: I finished my tour and I quit. I walked out. I never went back.

Vn has never seen any of the Star Wars movies, so after the movie I had to explain to her what a Jedi was. So it was pretty weird when, the next day, we were watching a completely unrelated movie and the Jedi Warriors turned up again. This time it was A Perfect Getaway, in a dialogue between Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Cliff (Steve Zahn):

Cliff: So, you were, like, Special Ops. What were you? Seals? Rangers?

Nick: Officially, I’m only allowed to say that I’ve been a sworn officer participating in a tactical phase of certain missions that would make most men want to crawl up and hide inside their own assholes.

Cliff: And unofficially?

Nick: I’m a goddamn American Jedi.

Later, Nick and Cliff are looking out into the jungle, having heard some sounds.

Nick: Probably just a goat. There’s a lot of them in these valleys.

Cliff: I haven’t seen any goats.

Nick: I don’t expect you would, Cliff. Your situational awareness kind of sucks. That’s not a knock. You’re a screenwriter. I’m a Jedi. That’s just different paths we chose.

* * *

Cliff: Just so I know whether or not to be offended, define “situational awareness.”

Nick: What’s the first thing you do when you step onto a plane? Maybe you have a sip of that fine champagne? You do fly in first class, right?

Cliff: I put away my shit, like everyone else.

Nick: Well, when I board a plane, making my way back to the cheap seats, I clock every door. I pace off the distance between those exits and my seat. That plane loses power on takeoff, I can make egress in the dark, totally blind. If the aisle crowds up, I’m going to climb over the back of 36D, guy with that shiny-ass toupee, make the over-the-wing exit. And I know the handle swings down, not up. And I know the door swings in, not out. And I know all that inside of 30 seconds, before they even pop the cork for you up there in Hollywood class.

Some time later, Nick disappears in the jungle for a while and comes back, to everyone’s surprise, carrying a huge goat which he shot, which he and his girlfriend proceed to butcher as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. Cliff, who had had his doubts about traveling with Nick before, decides that with the goat “these two have graduated to the officially crazy category” and that he needs to get away from them.

So, two movies with nothing in common — except the whole super-observant goat-killing Special Forces “Jedi” thing. A Perfect Getaway was released on August 7, 2009; The Men Who Stare at Goats just three months later, on November 6 — too close together for the one to have been a deliberate homage to the other. Was there just something in the air, or what?

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On Auster, Dante, and being an atheist conservative

I’ve been reading old articles on Lawrence Auster’s blog View from the Right and came across his review of the then-new blog Secular Right, in which he pretty much denies that “secular right” is even a coherent concept. Here are some key excerpts (italics are Auster’s; boldface and ellipses are mine):

The problem is in the very notion of a “secular right,” of a publicly and actively atheist conservatism. These are contradictions in terms. . . . It’s one thing for people privately not to believe in God, but still maintain adherence to the common loyalties we have as Americans. But if you publicly deny and attack and thus try to make other people disbelieve the specific supernatural claims on which our form of government is based, such as that our fundamental human rights to liberty and self-government come from our being created by God in his image, such as that man is a flawed and fallen being and therefore the powers of human government must be carefully restrained, I don’t see how you can call yourself a conservative or a person of the right, at least in the American context.

By definition, an outspoken public stance against religion and the existence of God is incompatible with conservatism. People taking such a stance may have conservative positions on this or that issue, but I don’t think they have the right to call themselves conservatives. . . . A conservative by definition is a person who respects, or at the very least defers to and doesn’t publicly attack, the fundamental principles and beliefs of his society.

Auster goes on to say that the people behind Secular Right (John Derbyshire, Heather Mac Donald, and Razib Khan) are not only unconservative but, by virtue of being outspoken atheists, are actually hostile to Western civilization itself.

These people are saying that America and the whole world would be better off if the whole human race stopped believing in God and if religion ceased to exist. They’re not just saying that religion intrudes in areas where it doesn’t belong or that religion sometimes leads astray and that man’s reason may a better guide in some areas than religion. They’re saying that wherever religion and belief in God exist, the world is worse than it would be than if it were guided by pure, godless reason.

. . . [t]hey are indicating their hostility to the entire Western tradition of Reason and Revelation. They don’t accept the Revelation part, and everything in our thousands-year-long history that is of religion, that makes reference to God or gods, that is not of materialist, scientific reason, they will, if it comes within their ken, put down, devalue, and discard. Whether it’s the Iliad (in which the heroic ideal is to become for brief moments like a god), or the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome (completely based in religion), of the plays of Aeschylus (inconceivable without the religion sense), or the Parthenon (a temple to Athena); . . . or the Hebrew Bible, or our entire moral and social system that comes from the Hebrew Bible, . . . or whether it’s the teachings and personality of Jesus Christ, . . . or whether it’s the establishment of the Christian Church in Rome, or the Christianization and re-civilization of Europe by the Roman Church after the barbarian conquests and the fall of the western Roman empire, or whether it’s the Frankish kingdom’s defeat of the Muslim invasion of France, which would not have happened if the Franks weren’t Catholics defending Catholic Europe from Islam . . . .

I could go on for thousands of words, but I think the point has been sufficiently made. Our history, our civilization, the BEST that we have been, is intertwined with God, gods, and religion at every point. Yet the village atheists of Secular Right would dispense with it all, and they want the rest of us to dispense with it as well, because in their wisdom they know that secular reason could have done a better job of it than religion — these intellectual adolescents who think they know everything but know nothing.

So it’s not just that they have no right to call themselves conservatives. It’s that they are hostile to that which makes up our historic civilization, the Christian West, as well as to the specifically religious dimension of the American Founding, without which there would be no rights as we understand them, and no limited government as we understand it.

According to Auster, to be an atheist — or at least to be openly atheistic — is to be hostile to the entire Western tradition. Because the West has always been based on religion in one form or another, anyone who is against religion is against the West. But in fact “the” Western tradition comprises a succession of mutually incompatible movements — Classical religion and philosophy, Catholicism, Protestantism, the Enlightenment — each of which was more or less openly hostile to its predecessors. To the extent that Greco-Roman culture was “completely based in religion,” it was a religion which Christians saw as completely incorrect. The Parthenon is, to Christians no less than to atheists, a temple to a false god — a being which does not actually exist and ought never to have been worshiped. If atheists often feel that “the whole world would be better off if the whole human race stopped believing in God and if religion ceased to exist,” serious Christians tend to feel the same way about paganism and idolatry.

The pagans of Greece and Rome perceived Christianity as a direct attack on their beliefs, culture, and civilization, a situation dramatized in the “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” episode in Acts 19. The evangelist mostly plays the confrontation for laughs — Demetrius is a self-interested silversmith whose main concern is protecting his own job as a manufacturer of idols, and the crowd he raises are a confused rabble, most of whom “knew not wherefore they were come together” — but history has nevertheless vindicated them. “This Paul,” says Demetrius, “hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands: so that . . . the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth.” And, well, didn’t that happen? In hindsight, we can see that Demetrius was right, and that the seemingly reasonable townclerk (“ye ought to be quiet . . . these men . . . are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess”) had gravely underestimated the existential threat Christianity posed to Diana, to her temple, and indeed to “all Asia and the world.”

And yet Christianity didn’t destroy Western civilization; it became Western civilization. Despite the fact that Christianity is by definition hostile to paganism, it still managed to assimilate and perpetuate much of Classical civilization and to define itself within a broader Western tradition. Augustine, Thomas, and Descartes were the heirs of Plato and Aristotle. The legacy of Virgil and Homer lived on in Dante and Milton. Despite the inherent incompatibility of paganism and Christianity, of Catholicism and Protestantism, there really is such a thing as what Auster elsewhere calls “the Classical-Christian tradition” — e pluribus unum. I would add that the Enlightenment also belongs to that same tradition, and that there is no obvious reason why out-and-out atheism might not also be included. For the would-be atheist conservative — or, if “conservative” is too strong a word, for the atheist who is in awe of the Western tradition and wishes to perpetuate it, but who wishes also to be loyal to the truth as he understands it, including the truth that there don’t actually seem to be any such things as gods — for such a person, the Christians of antiquity and of the Middle Ages provide an invaluable example of how to honor, appropriate, and continue a great tradition whilst at the same time unflinchingly opposing some of the core beliefs on which that tradition is based.

A particular source of inspiration for me is the fourth canto of the Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil visit the First Circle of Hell, to which are consigned good and honorable men who, not being Christians, are nevertheless damned because “they lacked baptism” and “did not worship God in fitting ways.” For the most part they represent the great men of pre-Christian antiquity, though some medieval Muslims (Averroes, Avicenna, Saladin) are also among them. Being serious about his religion, Dante never flinches from the harsh judgment it demands: that, Christianity being the Truth, non-Christians are, at bottom, wrong — ignorant, superstitious, damned. “Though they have merits, that’s not enough.” However wise and good they may have been in some ways, they were in the end — even Aristotle, “the master of the men who know” — simply wrong about that which mattered most. And so Virgil, as he prepares to lead Dante into the presence of such intellectual giants as Thales and Democritus, Plato and Socrates, Homer and Horace, says simply, “Let us descend into the blind world now.”

But Dante is no Vizzini (“Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.”), and despite his principled rejection of some of these men’s most fundamental beliefs, he approaches them not with contemptuous dismissal but with awe. “Great-hearted souls were shown to me,” he says of those he meets in the First Circle, “and I still glory in my having witnessed them.” And when he is invited to take his place among the great (damned) poets of the past — Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil — Dante’s attitude is an appropriate mixture of pride and humility. “And even greater honor then was mine,” he writes, “for they invited me to join their ranks — I was the sixth among such intellects. So did we move along [together] toward the light.” There is in Dante’s attitude none of the wishy-washy “all religions are true” universalism, nor of the “formerly all the world was insane” cockiness, which characterize so much of today’s philosophical and religious discussion. And, despite his categorical rejection of paganism, he nevertheless aspires to be worthy of the great pagans’ company, to continue the tradition they began, to “move along” with them “toward the light.”

In my own reading of the great Christian literature of the past (and, very occasionally, of the present), the words of Inferno IV often come back to me. Opening up a volume of Augustine, of Traherne, of Dante himself, I think, “Let us descend into the blind world now.” These men were, in my judgment, simply wrong about some very important things, including, most fundamentally, the existence of God — but they were giants, masters of the men who know, spiriti magni, and it would be an honor to be worthy to join their ranks — not as a Christian, any more than it was as a pagan that Dante joined Homer and Virgil, but as part of a tradition larger and grander than any one creed — and move along toward the light.

Besides Dante, another useful model for how, as an atheist, to relate to religion is provided by St. Augustine and the metaphorical spolia Aegyptiorum he calls for in De doctrina christiana:

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,—we must take and turn to a Christian use.

Augustine’s approach is less humane, less graceful than Dante’s — he speaks in terms of plundering the paynims rather than of learning from the masters and “separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship” of those whom Dante was honored to join — and is in this way perhaps closer in spirit to many a modern atheist. But underneath the hostility lies the same call to move beyond the mere écrasement de l’infâme, to learn all that can be learned even from the “blind world,” to take in all truth everywhere with what David B. Hart, in his own description of the Christian spolia (qv), called “a kind of omnivorous glee.”

What makes this omnivorous glee possible? The overriding concern with truth as such, over and above any cultural loyalties, which has — if not always then at least impressively often — been a hallmark of the West. Contra Auster, I would say that to put the Western tradition above truth itself, to refrain from publicly attacking your society’s false beliefs simply because they are those of your society — to subject even philosophy to the standard “my country, right or wrong” — is to go a whoring after idols and, paradoxically, to betray the Western tradition.

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Christopher Hitchens totally looks like Martin Luther

They’re not entirely dissimilar psychologically, either.

Christopher Hitchens Totally Looks Like Martin Luther

More lookalikes I’ve found.

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