Sunday, August 31, 2008

Scripture in context

I was reading a message board post post a few days ago about marital rape. I think the poster was trolling the board and he certainly got a reaction. The original poster claimed that a man could not rape his wife because God requires a wife to submit to her husband. Surprisingly, a significant portion of the board agreed with this sentiment. Someone far down the thread pointed out that the Talmud requires a man to have sex with his wife essentially whenever she wants (subject to exceptions for manual laborers) and places no such requirements on women. If a man failed to meet these requirement, his wife could divorce him without his consent. The poster argued that all statements about marriage should be read in the context of these rules because they would have been well known at the time the new testament was written.

That sort of conception of marriage is quite foreign to Americans. Although people claim that wives should be submissive because the bible requires it, I wonder if people didn't form the belief first and then find scriptures to justify it.

I don't think it necessarily takes 2000 years for the history to fade from people's minds. Today, everyone knows that in the early years of the United States our leaders were good Christians even though the seven presidents after Washington all had Unitarian or deist beliefs. The Christian right wants to be part of a Christian nation so badly that they don't want to think about the fact that the country went through a period of religious doubt in the early years. The Book of Mormon was published in this period as 'another testament of Jesus Christ.'

That never made any sense to me. I rarely met anyone who joined the LDS church who didn't have some vague belief or familiarity with the bible already. Apparently the lds church did attract lots of doubters in the early days. At the time of Joseph Smith, many people thought that the indians disproved the creation story in genesis because the indians could not have been created separately in the new world because they would have been wiped out by the flood. They couldn't have been descended from Adam either because there was no way for any descendants of Adam to get to the new world.
This inconsistency between the bible story and the fact that indians lived in the americas before europeans came apparently caused a significant bit of doubt about the accuracy of the bible. Scholars were heatedly debating how to resolve the inconsistency, but the problem seemed unresolvable. The book of mormon was released as this debate was occurring and provided a reasonable story that explained why the indians existed and how they descended from Adam.

Since that time, Americans have stopped worrying as much about how the indians were created. Maybe that is because they're vanishing. Or maybe less attention is payed to the origin of the indians because evolution threatens the creation story more directly.

While the historical context of scripture is critical to understanding it, context is hard to find because the easiest source of context for scripture is other scripture. The scriptures often combine information about the beliefs of the jewish people with an indication of which beliefs were correct. For example, the new testament often comments on the beliefs of the different schools of thought. This commentary is the most accessible information about the beliefs of each school. While the commentary is accurate, it doesn't give much context about how similar each school is to the traditional beliefs of the jewish people. This is especially true of important topics like the nature of the afterlife and the attributes of the messiah. Some day I would like to read a book on traditional jewish interpretation of Messianic prophecy.

Friday, August 15, 2008

New Toothbrush

I know it seems silly to blog about a toothbrush, but it is the best thing i've bought in a long time. On my trip to the dentist on Monday, I noticed that they were selling an electric toothbrush at a substantial discount. I've not been happy with how clean I can keep my teeth with a regular toothbrush so I bought it. The brush is wide enough that all I have to do is slowly slide it across my teeth. The brush has some little rubber bristles that slide into the cracks between the teeth and pull out plaque and food particles. When I'm done my teeth feel like I just stepped out of the dentist's chair. It even properly cleans behind my wisdom teeth. The brush cleans between my teeth so well that I can floss without looking to make sure that the floss removes stuff stuck between my teeth. With the new toothbrush, I can brush and floss in about 4 minutes instead of about 8 before. For anyone interested, the toothbrush is available here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

No petitioning during the Olympics

Al Jazeera has an interesting report on people attempting to petition the Chinese central government to intervene in disputes involving local government. Traditionally, people could petition the emperor for assistance in cases where the local officials had failed to take proper action or acted unjustly. Apparently the local governments have quotas for how many petitioners may come from their province during important events. The provincial officials are responsible for discouraging petitioners from exercising their legal right. Since the Olympics are so important to China, the government recently tore down the motels where these petitioners usually stayed and has started arresting petitioners in order to improve their image during the Olympics.

A funeral and a reunion

I guess its time for me to stop posting excessively long replies to justin's blog.

Sometimes life has strange coincidences. Denise's grandfather just died on the 4th and was buried on Saturday. I didn't really know him. Whenever I visited I felt a bit awkward because he had a bad relationship with Denise's father. Since he died we have learned a bit more about him and I think that I understand him a bit more than I did when he was alive.

He served in the Korean War, but he wouldn't talk about the experience. He drank a lot after he came back from the war and he had a temper, but he was fiercely protective of his grandchildren. In the week before he died, he told his home health aide that he killed women and children when he was in Korea. Although it hasn't been widely reported, the US had a policy of shooting refugees during the war under the assumption that fighters were escaping by disguising themselves as refugees. The experience was obviously very traumatic for him, but also one that he felt needed to be kept secret. I can't imagine what it must feel like to have killed children. Knowing what he experienced, his alcoholism makes much more sense. I feel sad that I didn't get to know him better while he was alive. I feel ashamed for having judged him too harshly.

His funeral brought together a lot of family members. I spent most of last week with Denise's grandmother and Aunt Sylvia. Being around them is quite different than being with our family. Although we don't have very much in common, I feel very much at home around them. They are very relaxed, warm, and friendly. They don't really have many expectations about who I should be. They just accept me as I am. We had a lot of time to talk and share time together without having to "do" anything.

Since the funeral was so soon after the recent family reunion, I couldn't help comparing my two families. I felt like the reunion very structured both in terms of time and theological narrative. I felt like we were so busy being together that we didn't really have time for togetherness. I went home feeling like I wanted to spend time with my siblings, yet I had just spent a week with them.

I also felt like the experience of family that we had was distinctly defined by a theological narative of family. While the church is supposed to augment family, in my experience in our family it seems to have formalized family and absorbed the family. In our family, family seems to be defined by church events, morning and evening prayers, and Family Home Evening. We didn't really spend much time together when it wasn't FHE. In fact we often moved FHE from Monday to some other day because we couldn't all be there on Monday. If we were going to do something together on Saturday, that often counted as FHE. I'm not against religion, but it sometimes feels like we need to have an opening prayer to hang out and play a board game.

For most of us this kind of family structure isn't a problem, but I don't feel like I fit into the narrative. Of course I'm welcome to be part of the narrative, but I don't really want to be. This doesn't mean that I don't value family. I don't really talk about these things, and I usually feel like I'm not supposed to. I don't feel like I'm the only one. If Brianna marries Tim, I don't think that their lives will really fit well into the family narrative either. We are nearly half the siblings, but when the family gets together it seems like the need to pass on the religion and narrative to the next generation outweighs the need to include us. We, after all, are excluding ourselves. On the other hand, you have to love the family you have and not the one that you wish you had. I'm not sure how that is supposed to work, but I'm pretty sure that it isn't.

Often I feel like I have nothing to say when we are all together. There are so many things that I feel like I'm not supposed to say, that finding anything to talk about becomes a challenging mental game. It seems that movies, music, politics, religion, and philosophy are all generally off limits. They all lead back to religion somehow. Basically I shouldn't talk about anything that matters to me. I guess I could talk about what my kids did last week if I had any.

As I get older, I am becoming less worried about fitting in with others expectations and more concerned with being authentically myself. Being around my family makes me feel less authentic than anything else. When we come together we all self censor ourselves to fit into family expectations. We are all quite different, but we seem all the same when we are together. I personally want to know my siblings, and not just the parts of them that fit the expectations. I'm not sure how long it will take to get there, but I hope it isn't 20 years.