theological musings

April 26, 2010

i suppose before i start, i should qualify the following remarks with a bit of autobiographical framing:

i am religious, yes.  jewish to be exact.  however, my type of jewish is an odd duck to hunt and then mount.  it’s rigorous, but it’s leftist.  it prefers the ecstatic fervor of the hasidim, but (and!) it is radically egalitarian.  it is clearly un-orthodox.  you might even call it heterodox.

so, this brings me to my musings.

the one thing that bugs me the most about the theological debate as it stands is the pathological obsession with biblical inerrancy.  first of all, the idea of the bible as lynchpin of faith is a distinctly protestant notion.   it is clear to anyone with the barest understandings of interpretive history that there is not really any such thing as “biblical literalism.”

even the debate surrounding this principle has ceded ground from the outset to this ridiculous position.  to be forced to represent yourself as “not believing in a literal interpretation of the bible” already positions you as a weak-tea version of the true religionist who has enough strength in his convictions to override modern lily-livered qualms and put the whole world in G?d’s hands.


the jewish (and catholic and muslim and even protestant) traditions have a long and rich history of biblical interpretation.  but not only that.  there are whole scores of religious literatures which make reference to the bible and are grounded in it, but serve their own function as well.  in fact, the study of the bible in the world of the yeshiva (advanced jewish study academy) has relegated the bible to a distant fourth behind the talmud, jewish law, and ethical texts.  the bible is present, of course, but it functions more as the ground whence texts bloom than the dominant focus.

now, all that being said, i want to acknowledge the feeling of needing perfection.  the books of psalms tells us, “the Torah of the Lord is perfect.” (Ps 19:7).   i want to propose a radically difference understanding of perfection.  from plato on down, we have felt compelled to understand perfection as implying stasis, wholeness.  i want to suggest a more fluid understanding of perfection.  it is an organic perfection, one emerging from the amazing adaptations happening around us all the time.  michael jordan was perfect in that game, because he was able to provide what was needed at the time.  the clash was perfect because they were able to create the most wonderful friction.

the Torah is perfect because it is able to provide us with what we need in every time.  the bible is perfect because it will never stop being an incredible textual resource and framework.

we must loose ourselves of this silly notion of “biblical faith.”  all faith is “biblical” in some way.  we are always conditioned by the externalities that help form us into the people we become.  our bible hums around us at all times.


Following the lead of the good rabbi doktor, I present to you a piece previously written –

Odd Things About Smiling

I am in my bathroom at home, the one I share with my brother.  Before me, spread out like an altar, lies my sink and counter space.  The surfaces are white, and I think Formica, the type, which makes it so you can never quite clean off all the little beard hairs, which drives your latent OCD nuts.  Beneath the sink and beside the drawers is a small cabinet, one used to keeping things we no longer use.  In it, lie scattered, impractical cups from my childhood.  They have holes on the side and the bottom and a spout, and they all have faces.

I am in the bath, and I am six years old.  I do my best to palpate the shampoo into my improbable hair, and my father brings the cup to the side of the tub.  As soon as he fills the yellow cup with slightly-too-hot water, it descends in streams through the bottom holes of the vessel.  They continue to descend, in rivulets down my face, carrying away the lovingly applied shampoo from my head and hair.  The commercials tell you that it is ok to laugh and giggle and open your eyes wide to the miracle of cranial laundering.  But they lie.  Even when the “safe” shampoo gets in your eyes, it stings.  My father brings the green cup to the side of the tub, the one with a hole where his mouth should be.  As soon as it fills with water, the clear liquid flows in a constant, giving stream.  My eyes sting and tear, but I persist in smiling nonetheless, marveling at its pure gift.

Above the sink and counters and beside my memories is the mirror. Read the rest of this entry »

A Modest Proposal

February 3, 2010

America, its been good. You’ve had a good run. You’ve spread some democracy, ended some world wars, and invented consumerism. But I think that it is time to throw in the towel. Yes, I realize we are still at the height of our power; the 90 and early 00s will probably be thought of as the zenith of American power; an untrammeled moment of imperial might, unprecedented power, and utter stupidity. But this is precisely reason to bow out now. For already the music is playing. Do we really want to do the whole decline and fall thing?

Is it really worth it to go on like the Western Roman Empire, only to be battered down by heaping crowds of Goths (probably, in our case rising sea levels, ridic desertification, and loads of cheap, shoddy Chinese products)? Or will we go on in the way of the Eastern Romans, sadly transforming into sad parodies of ourselves, our institutions keeping their names, but becoming little more than keywords we hold for nostalgic value? Do we really want our princeps to become a βασιλευς? I think not. Read the rest of this entry »

Where the Races Stand

December 1, 2008

When it comes to choosing words of the year, two groups tower over everyone else: The American Dialect Society and the Webster’s New World Dictionary. The first group, a great mix of populism and elitism (how of the people can you really be, Grant Barrett, when you leave comments on Yesterday’s Salad?), always seems to select a word that people actually use yet still has that unmistakable sense of freshness, i.e. subprime (2007), plutoed (2006), truthiness (2005), and metrosexual (2002).

The Webster’s New World Dictionary, on the other hand, caters to a bunch of obscurantist techno-centrists who are determined to govern from the left. Last year’s word of the year, “grass station,” was so memorably bad, I couldn’t resist becoming a kind of threnodist (one who writes a song of lamentation), and challenged their standing in even selecting a word:

After all, what does “New World” college dictionary mean? Whence “New World?” The phrase presupposes at the very least one of, but possibly several, terrible things. One need not be a post-Colonial critic to see that the phrase is overly Eurocentric, the “New World” existing only in opposition to the old. That this continues after Mel Gibson has taught us that there was indeed a world here at the same time there was one there, is simply unconscionable. There can be no “New World” because the phrase can easily be destabilized, fall to the forces of cultural relativism. The other major culprit is the Hegelian system of Dialectics. But with the end of History no more, have we really entered into a New World?

This is, of course, to say nothing of the overtones of fascism and totalitarianism that abound in the name; “New World” being remarkably close to New World Order [On that note, another objection: Joy Division was superior]. Or perhaps it is a question of Messianism, with its new world of a kingdom on Earth. Or the world could refer to economic development, with the “New World” relating somehow to the transition from the 3rd world to the 1st. When all is said and done, the phrase “New World” is so indefinite as to render their very project, their very essence, null and void. more

That said, their choice this year is surprisingly unaweful: overshare. While spellcheck doesn’t think this is a word, we all intuitively understand what it means and understand how to use it. Since their other finalists were preposterously awful (leisure sickness, selective ignorance, cyberchondriac, and youthanasia), it remains to be seen whether this turn to the sensical is a nonce choice or a new editorial guidline.

No, this year the “best” selection was the New Oxford American dictionary’s choice: hypermiling. Like “grass station,” hypermiling is a social policy, and one decidedly outside the mainstream. The announcement mentions the hullabaloo over Obama’s suggestion that we keep our tires at the optimal air level; can you imagine the outcry if he had suggested we hypermile?

That none of this ‘matters’ is true. Then again, consider this list of words of the year from 1904-2004. It’s difficult to imagine a world without these words and concepts–most of the time. For every 4 or 5 “ad-libs” there’s a “hot-desking,” allocating desks on a temporary or revolving basis, a word out of place in a blackberried world.

Right now, the top contender for Word of the Year is Merriam-Webster’s “bailout.” While it appears shockingly conservative, consider that the word “bail-out” was considered rare until this year. Unfortunately for politicians, bailout appears to have two semi-contradictory meanings, and it remains to be seen which one the government will accomplish:

1) From bail, v4, to lade out, throw water out of the boat. So, the process of saving the boat by bailing out the water

2) (of an airman) to make an emergency parachute jump. So, a bailout: jumping out of a plane in an emergency.

Both seem oddly appropriate for our current crisis.

Well, you will, but you won’t get the main page, and the results aren’t quite as satisfying as a nice google search. To be honest, I didn’t even know that Alta Vista still existed. So does Dogpile. I assumed everyone just used google, excepting the few people who use yahoo because they have a yahoo mail account and the few who use Microsoft under the whole “it’s so uncool it’s cool” paradigm. These are like the people who went to Starbucks five or six months ago. Now it seems that Starbucks is turning the corner and became genuinely cool again once it announced its financial troubles. Watch, it’ll happen with Newspapers too.

I got to thinking about this the other day when The Streets “Let’s Push Things Forward” came on in my itunes. I’ve always liked the song, but now I’ve decided it’s because of the “You Won’t Find Us on Alta Vista/Cult Classic not Best Seller” couplet. This is 100% revisionist. I used to like it for the “Around here we say birds, not bitches” line because I’m interested in vocabulary and cultural relativism. But now I like it for the way it defines the feel of the early 2000s. The key to the Alta Vista line is that it was already a year to two years uncool by the time the song came out, but it had once been supremely cool. Those were the wet and wild, rough and tumble pre-wikipedia years where searching for factual information online was like combing the desert in Spaceballs. Things were changing technology wise, but at a normal speed, one that you could live.

It’s weird to think of it, but these websites are like ghost towns, spaces we inhabited and now venture into no longer. There’s no practical–nor impractical–antiquarian value to using Alta Vista. It just reminds you how imprecise the internet once was. It wasn’t a more elegant time, like the age of letters, just a different sort of time. I can’t wait for a period piece that takes place in 2001-2002 (a nice comedy of manners), or even a movie like “The Wackness.” I’m sure there was a look to the early aughts, but I don’t know what it is until someone shows it to me, much like what happened with the nineties. I remember thinking at the time that I lived in a style free era, unlike the 1980s, with the exception of the grunge bubble. I was irrationally exuberant, yes.

So, farewell Alta Vista, you barely friendster you! Alta Vista? I hardly know her!

On Liking

August 26, 2008

I noticed something rather strange while I was poking around metacritic the other day. This is from their methodology:

Q: I read Manohla Dargis’ review of [MOVIE NAME] and I swear it sounded like a 9… why did you guys say she gave it an 8?

Our staff must assign a numeric score, from 0-100, to each review that is not already scored by the critic. Naturally, there is some discretion involved here, and there will be times when you disagree with the score we assigned. However, our staffers have read a lot of reviews–and we mean a lot–and thus through experience are able to maintain consistency both from film to film and from reviewer to reviewer. When you read over 200 reviews from Manohla Dargis, you begin to develop a decent idea about when she’s indicating a 90 and when she’s indicating an 80.

Fine. But then:

Q: Hey, I AM Manohla Dargis, and you said I gave the movie an 80, when really I gave it a 90. What gives?

A: …This does happen from time to time, and many of the critics included on this site (such as Ms. Dargis) do indeed check their reviews (as well as those of their colleagues) on

I’m not going to spend this post talking about the intricacies of Ms. Dargis’ reviews. Dargis has been called something of a contrarian and lambasted for her bizarre reviews. Ok, an example. Gawker considered her review of “How to Eat Fried Worms” part of a “post-modern contest” writing that “if you can wend your way through the convoluted structure she erects in today’s review…consider yourself granted an honorary M.F.A. in comparative literature.”

I’ll focus instead on the content of the review. First there is the use of the phrase “plangent realism.” Plangent is a nice word, meaning “having an expressive and especially plaintive quality,” but totally out of place in a review of a children’s/young adult movie. After all, the intended audience of the film might want to know if the movie’s any good. Even more surreal is her claim as to the movie’s message.

Directed by Bob Dolman, who also wrote the fine adaptation, “How to Eat Fried Worms” is an easygoing entertainment in which a sensible message about growing up also rationalizes the abuse of power. However lightly played, this is, after all, a film in which children learn to stand up for themselves, and for one another, by killing animals.

Gawker’s right to question the sentence structure; just think about how many ideas are placed in the first sentence before we get to the “abuse of power” claim. The claim itself is so bizarre that it needs no comment.

With reviews like this, it’s easy to understand how scoring can be difficult. I like to emphasize meaning and the “aboutness” in my reviews, which sometimes means focusing on particular well done moments and interesting aspects of the movie rather than evaluating all its virtues and defects. It’s not hard to write like you love something, or write like you hate something, for that matter, when you actually liked it or found it ok. Extremes lend themselves to easier prose.

One last note: I think it’s great that metacritic has people who research particular reviewers in order to decode their intended meanings, almost as if film criticism were samizdat. I’m glad someone’s out there coming up with jobs for humanities phds.