Mike’s Prattle


Archive for July, 2008

One of the funniest political articles I’ve ever read

Posted by Mike on July 30, 2008



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Rare political thoughts on the election race

Posted by Mike on July 24, 2008

Looking at these poll results, during (or just after) a day where Barack Obama gives a huge speech in Berlin, where McCain is complaining about the media’s bias towards Obama and the general feeling that the Republican party is in trouble this year (from both sides), I’m seeing a completely different pattern. While polls, especially this close, don’t really matter until we get closer to election day, the idea that Obama could be having such an excellent week, yet still slipping in the polls (a little), well shouldn’t that actually be more of a concern to Democrats? The Republicans aren’t anywhere near out of striking distance at this point.

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Elaine Pagels – The Gnostic Paul

Posted by Mike on July 11, 2008

I’ve read a couple of Nag Hammadi scholar Elaine Pagel’s works before, her classic “The Gnostic Gospels” and the later “The Origin of Satan.” Despite the years that have gone by since these were written, the debate still rages around the origins of Christianity. Bruce Chilton’s recent reevaluation of “The Gnostic Gospels” shows a partial refutation of the work, much of which I can’t imagine Pagels disagreeing with, given the work was written over 30 years ago. In “The Gnostic Paul” Pagels even discusses the idea that the debate over the orthodox and various Gnostic exegeses of the Pauline letters often seems to reinterpret first century ideas via the theological issues of the second century. Very few of the issues and ideas in “The Gnostic Gospels” that Chilton incisively criticizes are relevant to “The Gnostic Paul.”

Generally speaking and before the Nag Hammadi discoveries, much of what we knew about the Gnostics comes from the early Church writers like Origen and Tertullian who were dedicated to stamping out heresy. With the popularity of “The Da Vinci Code” this is an argument that seems even more heated than usual, and Chilton gets this when he says:

“Ms. Pagels is too wise to pretend that the Gnosticism of the historical sources supports the Neo-Gnostic fashions of our time that have thrived in New Age circles. Yet in “The Gnostic Gospels,” she does compare the texts to what existentialists, feminists, and environmentalists have to say. Her habit might be seen as part of the historian’s function, to use today’s language to help explain yesterday’s events and movements. But by impact if not by intent, her book has promoted the view that Gnosticism is a liberal version of Christianity, when in fact liberalism and Gnosticism are radically different phenomena.”

While it’s problematic interpreting the original Pauline letters by second and third century issues, it’s even more so when trying to understand what happened in the first century through the lenses of “The Da Vinci Code” and the idea that Gnosticism is the inverse of orthodoxy. In fact it still seems like the debate seems to exist to disprove orthodoxy, which to my mind confuses what’s a much more complex situation, the idea that there were numerous Christian groups in the second and third centuries all of which developed different, diverging theologies. Even the New Testament makes this clear, that there were groups around Peter and Paul. The Valentinians felt that there were strong disagreements between these two groups, where the orthodox, particularly via Acts, claims the disagreements were generally reconciled.

Pagels’ “The Gnostic Paul” presents what is basically theoretical (if often substantiated by other extracanonical scriptures) Valentinian exegeses on the letters that are generally considered to be written by Paul and were prized as the pivotal scriptures the Valentinians used to support their positions. The most fascinating part of this is the translation of these Pauline letters so that the Gnostic terminology remains. The word fulfillment is the original “pleroma.” The debate between the Hebrew and the Gentile is seen as an intiated metaphor discussing the psychic and the pneumatic, the soul and the spirit, the exoteric and the esoteric.

In many ways this idea of an outer church and an inner church has replayed itself over and over again through the ages. Take for example, Karl von Eckhartshausen’s “The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary,” a classic work of the “Inner Christianity” that was an inspiration for the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley. The idea that many are called (the psychics) but few are chosen (the pneumatics) was very much in play with the Rosicrucian documents, particularly the idea that there is a hidden meaning to the scriptures that only an enlightened group fully understood. These are powerful ideas but fairly typical of a religious response versus its detractors, no matter whether a person is orthodox or not, there’s the dominating idea that those who disagree with their beliefs are not enlightened, elect, spiritual or what have you. You can hear “you just don’t get it” all through religious history.

It’s probably quite tempting for those with anti-orthodox views to see books like this as a refutation of these views, but I’ve never read any good scholarship that doesn’t make it clear that this is not what the work is about. It’s extremely unclear from an unbiased view point to have any bearing whatsoever on which one of these young Christian groups was the “correct” one, and such a question really has no merit in these studies, after all it’s a religious and not scientific question.

But in an age where evangelism/fundamentalism via Calvinism and pre-dispensationalism is one of the most dominant modes of Christian thought, the idea of a hidden Gnostic christianity seems to be attractive (as does the idea of Mary Magdalene bringing “the Secret Gospel” to Europe), even if the idea that there was one Gnosis is at least an historical fallacy. I found that “The Gnostic Paul,” despite what is primarily the exegesis of the Valentinians and those they strongly influenced, was aware of this multiplicity of belief.

The prose I found to be quite difficult, which is something I was aware of in all the Pagels books I’ve read, particularly in that in moving from Romans to Ephesians to Hebrews, we’re continually reintroduced to the same ideas, supposedly delivered in varying metaphors that mean something a lot different to orthodoxy. Particularly when discussing Paul’s exhortation that women submit to men, the Valentinian exegesis implies it’s an initiated metaphor for the psychics/Hebrews/those under the influence of the demiurge submitting to the elect, pneumatic and initiated inner group. In fact this was the crux of the arguments the orthodox fathers had against the heretics, that by establishing an inner group within Christian groups, it naturally spread discord among the young groups, fomenting jealousy and infighting. Although it must be said, enough of this exists in orthodoxy through the ages, that forcing the Gnostics underground made little difference.

Essentially, Pagels makes a powerful case for a new interpretation of Pauline literature while not attempting at all to unseat the orthodox interpretation. Instead the implication is that there is indeed Gnostic terminology in the Pauline letters, whether Paul was speaking as one or about one. At the very least the book is successful in theorizing how at least one non-orthodox group of Christians may have seen things. Along with the work of Bart Ehrman and others, it helps add a piece of the puzzle to the emerging first century controversy over the origins of Christianity.

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Kirby McCauley ed. – Frights, John Varley “The Phantom of Kansas,” “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank,” “Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance,” “Bagatelle, “The Funhouse Effect,” C. L. Grant – The Hour of the Oxrun Dead, Joseph S. Lisiewski – Kabbalistic Cycles and the Mastery of Life

Posted by Mike on July 7, 2008

Been a long time since I did a “recent reading” report, enough that I’ve managed to forget the essentials of most of what’s in the title. For most of the first half of 2008, I’ve managed to find little time to read thanks to life and blog(s), but I’ve been increasingly getting in the mood of late and have managed to get some things read over a couple long weekends.

It’s been so long since I read McCauley’s Frights collection that I barely remember most of it, which probably reflects my opinion to some extent. I vaguely remember the Russell Kirk story about a drifter in an abandoned town and I can’t at all forget about Ramsey Campbell’s “The Companion,” especially the creepy last lines, a story about a man in an abandoned carnival ground. I think to some extent I got less frights out of this than weird tales with a twist, which may be why I don’t remember it much. The short short by Gahan Wilson I was pretty sure I’d read before about what was done with a dead man’s corpse whose original owner wanted it preserved to continue travelling – definitely a delight.

The several John Varley stories cross both “The Persistence of Vision” and “The Barbie Murders” and are chronologically the several stories in the Eight Worlds future history leading up to his first novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline. I’m enjoying this series quite a bit and really like how despite the same future history, every story seems to be radically different and always dealing with the human effects of future technlogy. Particularly “Bagatelle” with the human/cyborg bomb being talked out of detonating and the man on a vacation around the Sun who starts to see the whole thing going south like in a pulp novel in “The Funhouse Effect.” Each new entry just adds more to the whole series and I’m quite looking forward to Ophiuchi. It’s quite a bit of fun for me to check these out as I used to really like Varley when I was a kid, mostly based on the Titan trilogy, most of these stories I never read around the time.

Charles L. Grant’s Oxrun Dead is the first in the series of that milieu and it seems like the first three are hybrids between horror and romance, and as such seemed kind of dull and probably not at all where the series ends up. It seems like it was created on the tail of the wave that gave cinemagoers “Rosemary’s Baby,” in this case a town whose secret societies have deep, dark secrets. I barely remember how it ended, especially as I finished it a couple months ago or so, but seem to remember thinking it had some mystery elements too.

Lisiewski’s Kabbalastic Cycles kind of bothers me for a couple of reasons. First and foremost the author seems like one of those Amazon heavy hitters who leaves reviews on his own books (or at the other end of the pole has acolytes who might as well be clones), which is a major turn off in my book, in fact had I known this was going on I’d never have bought it. Second, he’s got it so bad for “new agers” that it becomes a distraction during the text, an obsession you’d not expect an adept to be so focused on. Third, he’s often recommended by Mark Stavish, whose work I do like a great deal, a fact that balanced out the other two negatives for me. Overall the book attempts to modernize Agrippa’s cycle of planetary hours by way of the Kaballah and the tarot, putting it all into a system with (apparent) practical use. Basically you find out sunrise and sunset, split that time into 12 periods each ruled by a different planet and go onto chart future plans by acting under certain planetary influences. A planet rules a particular day and a particular hour and a system is divised that turns them into a particular kabbalastic path, under which conditions vary for a particular action.

It’s true, the book, in order to truly evince its worth needs to be worked from considerably, but there were a number of theories and outlooks in the book that reduced my confidence to an extent that I ended up being on the fence in terms of whether I wanted to give it a try or not. So in terms of this, I’d have to grade it or me an incomplete, as I wasn’t particularly motivated to take it any farther as it’s a system in and of itself and reminds me an awful lot of charting transits in astrology and the like, which I tend to find a waste of time.

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