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What Is the Meaning of Sacred Texts?

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Truthfully, the way Karen Armstrong explains it, sacred texts seem more or less a variety of tarot cards, rich in suggestions, open to interpretation, to be read in the light of the current situation and context, with many possible meanings. And perhaps that is indeed the proper approach, akin to the way one approaches serious music: not for specific detailed meaning but for an experience and an openness of understanding.

Nicholas Kristof writes in the NY Times:

THE LOST ART OF SCRIPTURE
Rescuing the Sacred Texts
By Karen Armstrong

In the Bible, St. Paul declares: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Scholars suspect that this was actually written by some grump other than St. Paul, but such sexist passages are sometimes used by conservative Christians to justify the subjugation of women — and by secular liberals to portray the Bible as outdated and misogynistic.

Or take militant passages from the Quran like this one: “Kill them wherever you encounter them.” Early Muslims considered this obsolete because it applied narrowly to enemies in a particular conflict; more recently, Muslim extremists have interpreted such passages to justify murder, while Islamophobes cite them to excuse religious bigotry.

Similar points can be made of many Scriptures from around the world. Both secular liberals and fundamentalists see Scripture as words to be taken literally, the former to ridicule and the latter to embrace. Karen Armstrong wades into these debates and says that both sides are wrong.

“Too many believers and nonbelievers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner that is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality,” Armstrong writes. “Because its creation myths do not concur with recent scientific discoveries, militant atheists have condemned the Bible as a pack of lies, while Christian fundamentalists have developed a ‘Creation science’ claiming that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound….Not surprisingly, all this has given Scripture a bad name.”

A British writer and former nun, Armstrong argues in her magisterial new book, “The Lost Art of Scripture,” that Scripture shouldn’t be interpreted literally or rigidly from a pulpit or in a library. She argues that Scripture is flexible, evolving, contextual and more like performance art than a book.

“Our English word ‘Scripture’ implies a written text, but most Scriptures began as texts that were composed and transmitted orally,” she writes. “Indeed, in some traditions, the sound of the inspired words would always be more important than their semantic meaning. Scripture was usually sung, chanted or declaimed in a way that separated it from mundane speech, so that words — a product of the brain’s left hemisphere — were fused with the more indefinable emotions of the right.”

With the rise of literacy and science, Scriptures were printed and scrutinized, then examined as if they were historical documents. Believers and skeptics alike came to read Scripture as if they were poring over Thucydides or Plutarch.

I’ve adopted that approach myself. Among the Gospels, I’ve put the most weight on the Gospel of Mark, because it was the first written, and have skeptically pestered pastors about why Mark doesn’t mention the Virgin Birth or describe the Resurrection. Strange things to leave out. I’ve also been puzzled that the Bible can have multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, or provide conflicting accounts of how Judas died or on which night the Last Supper occurred.

Armstrong argues that this approach misunderstands how Scripture works. It’s like complaining about Shakespeare bending history, or protesting that a great song isn’t factual. That resonates. Anyone who has been to a Catholic Mass or a Pentecostal service, or experienced the recitation of the Quran or a Tibetan Buddhist chant, knows that they couldn’t fully be captured by a transcript any more than a song can be by its lyrics. I still don’t understand Don McLean’s classic song “American Pie,” but it moves me every time I hear it. Music doesn’t need to be factually accurate to be true.

“Because it does not conform to modern scientific and historical norms, many people dismiss Scripture as incredible and patently ‘untrue,’ but they do not apply the same criteria to a novel, which yields profound and valuable insights by means of fiction,” Armstrong writes. “A work of art, be it a novel, a poem or a Scripture, must be read according to the laws of its genre.”

Partly because Scriptures are revered, they are often regarded today as fossilized, the last word for all eternity. But historically, they were regularly repurposed to provide comfort or insight for new challenges. During the Babylonian Exile, the “editors” of the Hebrew Bible dramatically shaped previous Scripture to make sense of their own turmoil. Abraham, who Armstrong says was originally a southern Israeli hero with only a minor role in northern lore, assumed far greater importance because his story resonated: He had been commanded by God to leave his home, suffered exile and was richly rewarded in turn. The exiles also appear to have added details on the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, which paralleled their own trauma in Babylon.

Some Muslims applauded a similar process of seeking new meaning from old Scripture. “The Quran is perpetually new,” argued Muid ad-Din Ibn al-Arabi, who died in 1240. He went so far as to add that anyone who recited a verse in the same way twice had not understood it correctly.

The subtitle of this book is “Rescuing the Sacred Texts,” and Armstrong’s effort reminds me of Kant trying to save religion by arguing that God is beyond reason and therefore cannot be rationally proved. Not all believers welcomed Kant’s intervention; likewise, traditionalists will resent Armstrong’s “rescue.”

Armstrong has won respect for her scholarly and thoughtful treatment of faith in books such as “A History of God,” “The Case for God” and “Fields of Blood.” Her latest work builds on these, partly by exploring common threads across different religious traditions, and it’s an encyclopedic undertaking. Armstrong guides us not only through the history of Judeo-Christian and Islamic Scripture, but also through Hindu and Sikh texts and Buddhist and Chinese philosophies. She uses “Scripture” loosely, encompassing ancient Greek plays as well as Confucian and Taoist texts that are more about how to live a good life than about God in a Western sense. That’s partly because Armstrong perceives the God of Scripture not as a white-bearded old man on a cloud but as an ineffable, indescribable, unknowable transcendence. We encounter the transcendent, she says, in music, poetry, sex, love, nature — and religion. In effect, Armstrong has written a highly rational tribute to the murky wingman of our lives that exists beyond what is material and rational.

A common feature of Scripture, as she sees it, is . . .

Continue reading.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2019 at 8:18 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Religion

Here’s How Corporate America Took Over America

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Kevin Drump posts at Mother Jones:

Have American businesses become more concentrated over the past 30 years? Anecdotally, it seems like the answer is yes. The Big 8 accounting firms are now the Big 4. There are only four cell phone companies, soon to be three. Four airlines control 80 percent of the American market. The car industry consolidated into the Big Three decades ago. Four companies control two-thirds of the cloud computing market.

But in spite of this anecdotal feeling, it’s an undecided question among economists about whether American businesses are really a lot more concentrated than they used to be. Anyone can pick a few examples of industries that have consolidated, but what happens when you look rigorously at the business community overall?

We’re not going to solve this question today, though in general I’ve been more persuaded by the researchers who say that consolidation has, in fact, happened, and the result has been increasingly monopolistic behavior among US corporations.

One of those researchers is French transplant Thomas Philippon, who is introduced to us today in the New York Times by David Leonhardt. Philippon’s research has convinced him that we have indeed gone through an era of considerable consolidation, and it’s mainly due to weak enforcement of antitrust laws. In Europe, which has much stronger antitrust enforcement than we do, Philippon reports that the top firms have increased their market share far less than American firms. As a result, prices charged to consumers have also increased far less than in America. Here is Philippon’s conclusion about how this has affected American workers:

The consolidation of corporate America has become severe enough to have macroeconomic effects. Profits have surged, and wages have stagnated. Investment in new factories and products has also stagnated, because many companies don’t need to innovate to keep profits high. Philippon estimates that the new era of oligopoly costs the typical American household more than $5,000 a year.

I find that $5,000 number quite easy to believe. In fact, it seems a little low to me. But how did it happen? Even with weak antitrust enforcement (thanks Robert Bork!), how do companies get away with raising prices and cutting pay? They still have some competition, after all. The answer to that, I think, is the long Republican war against unions:

The destruction of the American working class is a two-part story. First, it was necessary to get rid of unions. As long as they were around, they’d demand a fair share of profits for workers no matter what the competition landscape looked like. That war lasted from about 1947 to 1981. When Ronald Reagan broke the air-traffic controllers union it was the final straw. Unions had already been decimated both by Republican laws and by Republican-led-efforts to train companies in how to resist unionization. Democrats never had the will to fight back hard enough, and after Reagan they never had the power. Republicans won their war against unions decisively.

It was only then, with unions effectively out of the way, that corporations could start consolidating and taking an ever bigger share of profits for top executives and shareholders, leaving workers with stagnating wages and grinding working conditions. No union, for example, would accept the practice of “clopening,” where an employee is required to close up a store at night and then turn right around and open in the morning. Nor would they accept the ever-more-common practice of expecting workers to be on call at all times, never knowing for sure what their work schedule will be. As much as low pay, these are the kinds of things that make work such a burden for the working class these days.

So this is the story. Spend three or four decades wiping out the power of labor unions, and then you can spend the next three or four decades turning the United States into a plutocracy with no one to effectively fight you about it.

And you have to give Republicans credit: Not only did they cobble together this plan and execute it brilliantly, they’ve managed even . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2019 at 11:06 am

The Diet That Might Cure Depression

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From March 2018, Olga Khazan writes in the Atlantic:

At the turn of the 20th century, prominent physicians who were trying to understand where mental illness comes from seized on a new theory: autointoxication. Intestinal microbes, these doctors suggested, are actually dangerous to their human hosts. They have a way of inducing “fatigue, melancholia, and the neuroses,” as a historical article in the journal Gut Pathogens recounts.

“The control of man’s diet is readily accomplished, but mastery over his intestinal bacterial flora is not,” wrote a doctor named Bond Stow in the Medical Record Journal of Medicine and Surgery in 1914. “The innumerable examples of autointoxication that one sees in his daily walks in life is proof thereof … malaise, total lack of ambition so that every effort in life is a burden, mental depression often bordering upon melancholia.”

Stow went on to say that “a battle royal must be fought” with these intestinal germs.

Another physician, Daniel R. Brower of Rush Medical College, suspected that the increasing rates of melancholia—depression—in Western society might be the result of changing dietary habits and the resulting toxins dwelling in the gut.

Of course, like most medical ideas at the time, this one was not quite right. (And the proposed cures—removing part of the colon or eating rotten meat—seem worse than the disease.) Your gut doesn’t contain “toxins” that are poisonous so much as it hosts a diverse colony of bacteria called the “microbiome.” But these doctors were right about one thing: What we eat does affect how we feel, and gut microbes likely play a role.

A poor diet is a leading risk factor for early death, responsible for one in five deaths globally. Depression, meanwhile, is the leading cause of disability worldwide. A relatively new line of research suggests the two might be related: An unhealthy diet might make us depressed, and depression, in turn, makes us feel even sicker.

In a recently released abstract, researchers studying 964 elderly participants over six and a half years found those who followed the dash diet, which emphasizes whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, had lower rates of depression, while those who ate a traditional Western diet were more prone to depression. The participants were asked how often they ate various foods, and they were screened for depression annually using a questionnaire.

“I think we need to view food as medicine,” Laurel J. Cherian, an assistant professor of vascular neurology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and the study’s lead author, told me. “Medications to treat depression are wonderful, but for many people, it’s going to be a combination of things.”

The research will be presented at the upcoming meeting of the American Academy of Neurology. The study has not been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal, but other researchers have found similar antidepression benefits from the dash diet, which was developed by the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Past research has found that following the DASH diet was associated with reduced depression in adolescent girls and with less physician-diagnosed depression among thousands of Spaniards. The results in teens suggest that diet could be a way to stave off some mental disorders entirely, since half of all mental illnesses start in the teen years.

John Cryan, an expert in the gut-brain connection at University College Cork in Ireland, said he’s enthusiastic about this field, but there are a few cautionary notes about this study in particular. It’s an observational study, for example, and it studied a very old population. “Geriatric depression is a different beast,” he says.

Of course, rich people tend to be happier and can afford to eat better. Cherian’s study did not control for socioeconomic status. But overall, the evidence suggests diet improves depression symptoms even when controlling for factors like income or education, says Felice Jacka, a professor of nutritional psychiatry at Australia’s Deakin University.

Jacka found in 2010 that women who ate a diet high in produce, meat, fish, and whole grains had lower odds of major depression and anxiety than others. Since then, a meta-analysis of 21 studies found that “a dietary pattern characterized by high intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy and antioxidants and low intakes of animal foods was apparently associated with a decreased risk of depression.”

In fact, Jacka told me that at this point, the connection between diet and depression is so well-established that more studies like Cherian’s aren’t really necessary. “Given how many observational studies there are already published, the field does not really need more of these,” she said. “What it needs now are interventions that show that if you improve diet, you also improve depression.” Jacka found in a small study last year that depressed people were more likely to see improvements in their mood if they were given dietary advice over a three-month period, rather than just social support. She says such interventions are cost-effective, to boot. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2019 at 10:42 am

The Great War disillusioned and decimated a generation

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Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen – born March 18, 1893; killed November 7, 1918
(4 days before the Armistice)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 November 2019 at 12:36 pm

Posted in Army, Art, Daily life, Military

“I Will Never Let Boeing Forget Her”

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Alec MacGillis reports in ProPublica:

Samya Stumo liked to ride pigs. This was on her family’s farm, in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Caring for the pigs was one of her chores, so she would hop on an old, dilapidated Army jeep and drive a water tank to the sty, where she would fill the troughs and take a ride. She was 9 years old.

Samya had always been precocious. She started playing cello when she was 3, the year before her younger brother, Nels, became ill with cancer. When her mother, Nadia Milleron, returned from the hospital one day, Samya told her that she had learned to read.

Nels died, at the age of 2, shortly after Nadia had another son. The loss played a role in Samya’s eventual choice of studies: public health. So did the strain of activism in her family. Her mother’s uncle is Ralph Nader, the transportation-safety crusader turned progressive advocate and third-party presidential candidate. Her father, Michael Stumo, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, made frequent trips to Washington to lobby for small manufacturers and family farmers.

For Samya and her two surviving brothers, the family ethic was clear: seek justice for the disadvantaged, even if it means challenging authority. Samya could carry this to comic extremes. On a camping trip, she mounted a tree stump and inveighed against the family’s patriarchal dynamics, while everyone else, suppressing laughter, hurried to set up before dark.

In 2015, Samya graduated from the University of Massachusetts and won a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in global public health at the University of Copenhagen. Afterward, when she was 24, she got a job with ThinkWell, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., which works to expand health coverage in developing nations. ThinkWell sent her to East Africa to open offices there. The night before she left, earlier this year, she had dinner with Ralph Nader and his sister Claire.

During a stopover in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Samya texted her family to say that she would arrive in Nairobi in a few hours. Then she boarded Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. She sat in Row 16, beside a Somali-American trucker from Minnesota. There were 149 passengers, from 35 countries, and eight crew members.

The plane, a Boeing 737 MAX 8, took off at 8:38 a.m. on March 10. A minute and a half later, it began to pitch downward. A sensor on the nose had malfunctioned, triggering an automated control system. The cockpit filled with a confusing array of audio and visual warnings. The pilots tried to counter the downward movement, but the automated system overrode them. Six minutes after takeoff, the plane dived into the earth at 575 miles per hour, carving out a crater 32 feet deep and 131 feet long, and killing everyone on board.

That day, Stumo, Milleron and their younger son, Torleif, flew to Addis Ababa. The crater had been cordoned off, but Milleron and Tor rushed past the barrier. “It was mostly dirt,” Stumo said later. “Where’s the plane? Where’s the pieces? This plane had just buried itself right straight into the ground vertically and just disintegrated.”

This was the second crash of a 737 MAX in five months, after a Lion Air jet plunged into the Java Sea in late October 2018. Investigators quickly focused on the automated system that had pushed down both jets, a feature new to this model of the 737. But a counternarrative gained force, too: that the crashes were, above all, the fault of insufficiently trained foreign pilots. “Procedures were not completely followed,” Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Mui­lenburg, said at a contentious news conference in April.

It has been more than a decade since a commercial airline crash in the United States resulted in fatalities, but airplane disasters are an unwelcome reminder of the inherent risk of flying. Some 2.7 million people fly on U.S. airlines every day; we’d rather not think about the brazenness of launching ourselves thousands of miles in a fragile tube, 30,000 feet above the earth. The appeal of blaming foreign pilots is easy to see. For the past eight months, however, the Stumo family has dedicated itself to demonstrating a scarier reality: that Boeing, the pride of American manufacturing, prioritized financial gain over safety, with the federal government as a collaborator.

Since the crash, the family members have made more than a dozen trips to Washington — a routine they expect to continue: They recently found an apartment in town. They have met separately with two dozen members of Congress, and with the heads of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, and testified before a House committee. They were the first American family to sue Boeing, accusing the company of gross negligence and recklessness. They have sought out whistle-blowers and filed Freedom of Information requests. They got a meeting for themselves and 11 other victims’ families with Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation. Afterward, they held a large vigil outside the department’s headquarters. When the vigil broke up, I talked with Gregory Travis, a software engineer and pilot who has written extensively about the crashes. “Every past crash that I can think of was an accident, in that there was something that wasn’t really reasonably foreseeable,” Travis told me. “This was entirely different, and I don’t think anyone understands that. This was a collision of deregulation and Wall Street, and the tragic thing is that it was tragic. It was inevitable.”


I met the Stumos in 1996, in Winsted, a former mill town of 8,000 people in northwest Connecticut. After emigrating from Lebanon in the 1920s, Milleron’s grandfather opened a restaurant there. Her grandmother, Ralph Nader’s mother, lived in the town until her death, in 2006, at 99. Nader still visits from Washington, and his family funds two activists to monitor local affairs and bend them in a progressive direction.

Milleron and Stumo met in law school, at the University of Iowa, and afterward settled in Winsted, moving into a house on Hillside Avenue and starting a family. First Adnaan, then Samya, then Nels. They began attending an Orthodox Christian church in a nearby town. Nadia worked part time, as a court-appointed lawyer. Michael commuted 25 miles to a Hartford law firm, and joined the Winsted school board.

I came to Winsted for my first job, at the Winsted Journal, a weekly paper. At the first school board meeting I covered, Michael arrived late from Hartford. He was wearing a suit that hung loosely on his lanky 6-foot-1-inch frame. He carried a briefcase. He was only 29, but he looked every bit the engaged citizen and responsible father.

Michael and I met a few times at a gloomy bar on Main Street, where he offered a wry perspective on Winsted politics and the plight of small-town America. He invited me over for breakfast. I remember warm sunlight, pancakes, small kids and being impressed by Nadia, a tall woman with long, dark hair and an intently appraising gaze.

I was soon gone from Winsted, to a daily paper near Hartford. In 1999, after the birth of Tor and the death of Nels, the Stumo family bought a ramshackle 18th-century house on a farm, over the Massachusetts line. It had been owned by sheep farmers who published a magazine called The Shepherd; old issues were strewn about the house, and manure was piled 4 feet high in the barn. Michael worked for months cleaning the house and clearing out the barn with a tractor.

A year later, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 November 2019 at 10:40 am

Best cooked turkey: Spatchcock a fresh (never-frozen) turkey

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The skin of a turkey that’s not been frozen is much better than the (somewhat rubbery) skin of a bird that’s once been frozen. And spatchcocking the turkey ensures even cooking and easy carving.

Let me also point out using mayonnaise as a marinade — or coating the turkey with mayo before putting it into the oven.

Update: I’ve been told in a comment on Quora from Amanda Rene Fisher that spatchcocking doesn’t work all that well on large turkeys. It was suggested that if the bird is 16 pounds or more, just break it down and roast it rather than trying to spatchcock it. She adds, “spatchcocking is BRILLIANT for birds up to 14–15 pounds- especially if you put it over the dressing/stuffing! That was our “gateway drug” to getting a bigger one, and totally breaking it down and proceeding from there.”

Written by LeisureGuy

11 November 2019 at 10:18 am

A wonderful shave, and Bay Rum at that, with Above the Tie’s S1

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I love a great shave and this morning my face is totally smooth, soft, and fragrant, thanks to the guys in the photo.

Simpson’s Chubby 1 Best made a terrific lather from Phoenix Artisan’s Bay Rum, and I suspect some of the softness I feel in my skin is from the soap’s skin-friendly ingredients. Above the Tie’s S1 slant is a superb razor, here mounted on a UFO handle. Three passes were each enjoyable, and after a final rinse and dry, a good splash of Dominica Bay Rum finished the shave.

The week is off to an excellent start. And I figured out where I got the wonderful Ambercup squash I bought on impulse, and today I’m going to get another.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 November 2019 at 8:26 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

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