Monthly Archives: February 2019

The Witches

In the dark, cold winter of 1692 several young girls inexplicably began to manifest strange behaviours: spasms, cries of pain, loss of sight, strange visions, at times they became unmanageable, even belligerent. Disobeying parents and telling off the pastor in the church was unthinkable for an 8-year-old puritan girl of that era, but it this strange season it happened with disturbing regularity. What both tortured and emboldened these girls? Three possible answers lay before the troubled town of Salem. The girls were experiencing a physical malady, they were demon-possessed, or tortured by witches. Doctors came, and physical explanations were quickly ruled out. The nature of the girl’s ailments could only be diabolical. Leading questions were asked, the girls began to name names, and the witch hunt was on. In 9 months 14 women, five men and two dogs were all executed for being witches. During that frenzied nine months, many people opted to become bewitched to save their skins as the number of bewitched individuals increased so to did the number of accusations. The jails overflowed. Finally, the witch storm blew itself out, the sheriff quit, witch hunting was too exhausting. The governor’s wife was accused, and he wasn’t about to let her be prosecuted, and the desperate appeals of innocence from those who hung for their alleged crimes began to weigh on the collective conscience. Today everyone agrees that this was a gross miscarriage of justice. What can be learned? 

  • Defying authority was the bigger problem: The chief justice Stoughton and several of his judges were convinced already before the trials began that witchcraft was the problem. They were only interested in guilty verdicts. To declare one’s innocence was to challenge authority and ensure their wrath, that is what got you killed. 18 out of the 19 people of those executed maintained their innocence. It was only the ones who acknowledged their guilt in agreement with the judges that ultimately went free. This is how the whole fiasco managed to balloon so much. It didn’t take long to figure out that chances of survival increased with a confession, so people started admitted to the most inane stories of witchcraft one could imagine. In the interest of survival, they freely named names of others they suspected of being witches. When the trial ended, there were over 60 “guilty” witches stacked up like cordwood in the tiny prison. They all went free. 
  •     There was one accused witch, a 71 one-year-old man name Giles Corey, who defied the court by refusing to say the words “By God and country” at the beginning of his hearing. Without saying these words, the trial could not proceed. This stubborn refusal upended the proceedings and infuriated the judges. They found a way around the impasse, by digging up a medieval law for what to do with someone who refused to plead, as Corey had done. Turns out “pressing” was the legal way to get the indigent Corey to say the words “By God and country” and thus to be able to move forward with the trial. Pressing involves lying the victim on the ground, covering him with a board and putting increasingly heavy stones on the board until he either says the magic words that would allow the proceedings to continue or he dies. Corey was indignant to the end, having lots of choice words for his persecutors none of which resembled the words “By God and country.” 
  • “Justice” was more interested in having someone to blame: Life was hard in 1692. It was no picnic to live on the frontiers of Massachusetts. Sometimes people try to make sense of things by blaming others for their misfortunes. Witches must be why all the Indian attacks are happening, why I can’t solve the land dispute with my neighbour, why my child died etc. If we do away with the witches we do away with our problems was the conventional wisdom. It also helped to ease the conscience if own blamed people less desirable. With only a few exceptions the community purged itself of its nastiest people. 
  • There was a catastrophic failure in understanding what constitutes legitimate evidence: The primary flaw was in the acceptance of spectral evidence. The accused could press charges against someone if they felt that person’s ghost had harassed them. There was no way to defend against such charges. Chief Justice Stoughton had no reservations about spectral evidence, though increasing numbers of people did. Other inferior quality evidence used to damn a person was the discovery of slightly raised discolouration on an accused person’s body. These “Devils teats” were a clear sign of guilt. The “touch test” was another abysmal means of establishing guilt. 
  • The rule of law appears to be a bit of a joke.  Rebecca Nurse’s story is the saddest one of all. She was happily married to Francis for over 50 years, eight kids, many grandkids and great grandkids. She was named as a witch and accused based on spectral evidence. People could believe others were witches but not Rebecca. The trial was contentious, but the jury declared her “not guilty.” The judge was very unhappy with the verdict and told them to reconsider. During all the tumult of celebration on one side and disgust on the other, the judge ordered another accused witch to come in. Rebecca was surprised to see her prison mate at her trial and wondered allowed something to the effect of “what another one of us was doing here.” The jury under incredible pressure by the judge, asked Rebecca what she meant by “us.” was this the admission of guilt that the judge wanted? By using the pronoun “us” was she implicating herself as a witch? Rebecca then over 70 years old and nearly deaf did not hear the juries question so did not answer. The Jury took her silence as an admission of guilt and overturned their verdict. Phips, the governor, didn’t like the guilty verdict, so he reversed it again, Nurse was free, but only for a short while. When Phips left the colony, he appointed Stoughton as governor in his absence. Stoughton, the chief justice of the witch trials used his additional power as governor to secure the guilty verdict he wanted for Rebecca Nurse. 
  • Too many logical potholes and too many muzzled mouths.  One observer noted that If the witches were so convinced on their innocence why would they choose the courtroom to bewitch their victims? (The girls regularly disrupted court proceedings with outbursts)  This visible logical pothole was ignored, along with stories that consistently contradicted each other. There are dozens of questions that if asked would have assuredly unravelled the prosecution, but there was no one able or willing to ask them. Unfortunately, at that time in history, defence lawyers were not invented yet and the accused by, and large were scared out of their minds. Most people were scared out of their minds, to object to the hunt often resulted in finding oneself accused of witchcraft. 
  • I would do anything for love. Something ailed the original girls to be sure, but one factor that helped them carry on in their state of distress was love. Most of these girls received frighteningly little attention, and now all of a sudden the entire town was concerned for their safety and well-being. Never before in the history of Puritan New England had little children received such affection and care. Why stop it? For many of these girls they were only too happy to play their roles with distinction, the pay they received in affection was worth it.  

    In the end, the blame should go on Stoughton the chief justice. He, in my opinion, did everything wrong. He assumed guilt, had little patience for objections, badgered the accused, forced convictions, ignored good evidence, accepted terrible evidence, and condemned the innocent without a hint of remorse or even sober second thought. He failed to listen to a growing chorus of clergy and other learned men who warned him of clear points of concern in the whole debacle. Even though the entire affair was admitted to be a terrible mistake within decades of the events, Stoughton remained untouched for his gross negligence in the whole incident. That is a shame.

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The Gulag Archipelago

This book is why Jordon Peterson is so intense.

The Gulag Archipelago is an incredibly intimidating 3 volume set written by a wounded man on a mission to set the record straight. On its many, many, many, pages you will find a seemingly never-ending story of heartbreak, trauma, despair, and injustice. My review only covers volume 1 of Solzhenitsyn’s written war on communism. Seventeen years of the author’s life were spent in the communist labour camp system known as the GULAG. He does his best to uncover what must surely be the worst story of human suffering in the history of humanity. How can it not be, when some 50 million people lost their lives? Experts say Solzhenitsyn’s book was the key that spelled the beginning of the end for communism.  

Woman of Faith or Prostitute? — Solzhenitsyn says that Women were the more stubborn of the sexes to give up their faith, so waves and waves of them went to the GULAG. What was their crime? They were teaching the Christian faith to their children. Life in prison was not an unreasonable sentence for such wickedness. If you were convicted as a prostitute, however, the verdict was only three years, and you were freely able to ply your trade with the administrators. Returning home with suitcases full of payments after the time was up. As for the religious women, well, they were never heard from again. 

Clap until you drop — The insane story of a communist party meeting in a small city where Stalin’s name was announced. The unyielding expectation for all in attendance was wildly enthusiastic clapping. As the clapping goes on and on, who would dare to stop? Finally after over an hour of clapping an exhausted official stops and sits down. He is arrested for anti-soviet sentiment and given ten years in the GULAG! 

How Communism works: 

  • Terror as the primary mechanism for control — Lenin said in one of his final letters that “terror is necessary to bring about our ways” and to “spread terror as broadly as possible.” 
  • There is no such thing as the sacredness of human life in this system.
  • Loyalty to party over truth. — Lying is not wrong, especially if it helps to prop up the party. Propaganda is the truth. 

Russian Sailors, you better lie or else! A Russian ship ran aground on Swedish territory during the war. The Communist sailors sat out the war experiencing the freedom and plenty that neutral Sweden had to offer. At the end of the war, they went back to Russia, in private conversations with friends they admitted that Sweden was a better place to live than Russia. Their comments were discovered, and they were all given 10-year labour camp sentences for “Anti-Soviet Sentiment.” The Swedish press somehow heard about it, and they created an international news story, condemning the harsh prison sentences of the sailors. Russia denied that the sailors were in prison and set a date for foreign reporters to come and interview the sailors themselves.

Meanwhile, they pulled the sailors from the prison camps, fattened them up, and coached the crew to tell the foreign reporters that they were free, happy, well travelled, and well fed. They must communicate that the USSR was the best country in the world to live. Naturally, if they didn’t comply they would all be killed. The sailors lied to live; the Western world was convinced, the reporters issued an apology and left the Soviet Union. Whereupon the sailors were immediately sent back to their prison camps!

Easy ways to get a prison sentence

  • Date a foreigner 
  • Say a positive thing about Western democracy
  • Have praise for any technology that was not built or invented in Russia
  • Write a letter to a friend that had anything other than a gleefully excited tone about the government. 
  • Stumble across a Soviet official who wanted something of yours

Confess — Confessions were all that mattered in this justice system. Whatever means necessary to obtain a conviction was fine. Evidence was not required. The powers that be didn’t hide this either. The philosophy that underpinned this wretched system was the conviction that absolute truth was unknowable anyway.

I’ll take the Gestapo over the KGB — Could anyone be worse than the Gestapo? Solzhenitsyn says yes, at least they were remotely interested in the truth; the Russian secret police were just interested in quotas. He shares the story of a Polish guy who was interrogated by the Gestapo on suspicion of being Anti-Nazi when they could find no evidence they let him go. When the Russians came, he was arrested on suspicion of being Anti-Soviet. There was only torture and a long train ride to the GULAG, they didn’t care about the truth. 

Russia the worst country ever to fight for under the Communists 

  • Incompetent in battle — Solzhenitsyn cites numerous examples. 
  • Forsakes troops when captured — to be caught alive was a treasonous offence to mother Russia, so while other countries worked tirelessly to supply their prisoners with food and care packages, the Soviets vilified them and let them rot in enemy prisons.
  • No Hero’s welcome for you —  Almost all Russian POW’s that returned to the USSR at the end of the war were sent straight to the GULAG. 

Thanks a lot, England! — Hundreds of thousands of Anti-Soviet partisans were ready to fight to the death against Stalin at the conclusion of WW 2. England negotiated a bunch of post-war deals with the Communist dictator, the most damning of which was the agreement to help disarm anti-soviet forces. The English used their anti-soviet reputation to lure all the partisan leaders into a special secret meeting. After the English managed to get all the various leaders together in one city, they turned them over to the Soviets. With all the leaders in Soviet hands, the battle was over before it started. The Soviets purged out of existence anyone even remotely connected to these partisans. The body count for this English betrayal was exceedingly high. Solzhenitsyn, understandably, had no great affection for Churchill. 

Blame the Church  —  It’s 1920 and Russia is starving. Fieldworkers have been off fighting wars, and they have little incentive to work the fields upon return because the government takes everything anyway. The Communists tell the church to feed the poor, isn’t that the churches “job” after all? The church agrees to sell off all its /Icons/gold etc. to stop the famine. The Soviets tell the church to give them the money, and they will make sure the people get fed with it. The Church hesitates, they will feed the poor, but they don’t trust the government, they want to run the program themselves. The Soviets seize upon the hesitation as an opportunity to slander the church. A vicious defamation campaign ensues, and all the church leaders are arrested and slaughtered for their “lack of compassion” upon the poor starving peasants. Lies, terror, and violence is the M.O. of communism. 

    It’s easy to see why someone like Jordan Peterson after spending so much time studying Solzhenitsyn and the great failed experiment of communist Russia puts such a premium on telling the truth. Truth can only flourish where free speech is permitted. For Peterson, the price is just too high anytime the truth gets bent or it’s pursuit prevented, even if the reasons are for “the greater social good”  After reading this book, it is impossible for me not to agree. 

The New Testament

A Translation with a truckload of controversial conclusions!

David Bentley Hart has “a perverse aversion to common phrases” and comes wearing the cloak of Eastern Orthodoxy, so his translation is not at all like any other I’ve ever read. His footnotes explaining his translation choices are fiery, bulldoggish, and controversial. Is he a heretic? Is he a theological liberal? Is he just a blowhard with a few axes to grind? Is he right? One thing is sure, Hart is a provocateur of deeper thought for all who engage in his writings.

Most English Translations Lousy: Hart believes that all standard English translations of the Bible make essential concepts of the New Testament largely “impenetrable.” The truth that the original authors intended becomes “hidden” and “perilously hazy.” The reason he gives is that the work is done by committee. Collaboration according to Hart is a terrible idea for translation work because it becomes “ineluctably mired in the anodyne blandness and imprecision of ‘diplomatic’ accord.” Hart believes a straight shooter is needed who don’t give a damn about great traditions and what others might think, but who will only deliver the goods on what the New Testament actually says, evidently Hart is that man. So with that rather humble start off we go.

Hart smells of Universalism: Romans 5:18 is the clincher for him. He says in his comments on the verse “Christ’s act of righteousness brings righteousness and life to absolutely everyone. Whether intentional or not, the plain meaning of the verse is that of universal condemnations annulled by universal salvation.”

Let the fire burn out: Hart argues “There are only three verses that seem to threaten eternal punishment for the wicked (though, in fact, none of them actually does)” And then he attacks the veracity of what he refers to as “the God of love’s perpetual torture chamber” with astonishing ferocity. Clearly, he doesn’t want eternal hell to be true, and he has prepared an entire armoury of reasons to support its rejection. The Greek word for age, from which spin off all the English translations for eternal and everlasting is genuinely ambiguous. In fact, Hart claims that the word “never clearly means eternal or everlasting in any incontrovertible sense.” Also “Gehenna” never meant hell as it has come to be known in English. First century Judaism in spite of its various differences were unanimous that any concept of hell was for ultimate purification. Metaphor was the idiom of the day, squeezing any literal interpretations from the dramatic language surrounding the dark side of the afterlife is to Hart the longest of reaches. Hart piles into his arguments church father after church father, 20 in all I believe, who rejected the idea that hell was a “literal kingdom of ingenious eternal tortures ruled by Satan” Paul doesn’t talk about it, nor do any early confessional texts, nor does the 4th gospel, or the pastoral epistles. Once Hart has dumped his historical truckload of evidence upon us he lets us know that “the very concept of eternal hell is nearly as historically suspect as it is morally unintelligible.” If we missed the boat so badly on this where did we go wrong? The culprit is “Latin-speaking” Augustine he tells us. Hart is Eastern Orthodox so it’s fitting that he would blame the Western church. But is he right? I hope so, who wouldn’t wish it?

Hart is no fan of complementarianism: He mentions that “Junia” the apostle referred to in Romans 16 is most certainly a woman. No one in the patristic period denied this and “there is no instance anywhere in the vast literary remains of antiquity in either Latin or Greek where the name is masculine. John Chrysostom, for instance, opined that she must have been a woman of superlative wisdom since Paul accords her the title Apostle.” It wasn’t until 1243 that Giles of Rome (who probably knew no Greek) began to argue that Junia must be a man. Then Hart looks to take a swipe at complementarianism by his following statement “the argument remains popular to this day among those eager to make the church safe for misogyny, however it can safely be dismissed as nonsense.”

Dodging the obvious: In 1 Cor 6:9 he is super careful not to use the word, homosexual. Even though the literal meaning of the terms are “effeminate male partner” and “men who bed men.” Instead, he opts for the term “feckless sensualists” and “men who couple with catamites.” He refuses the word homosexual because in that day there would have been no concept of homoerotic sexual identity like there is today. Hart is confident that the specific sin Paul had in mind was a masters exploitation of young male slaves and so he leaves it at that. Any modern day application should not in his estimation be included in the translation. He draws the same conclusions in 1 Timothy 1:10. Fair enough, although, one wonders if Harts careful tip-toeing is a result of modern cultural pressure as much as it is cautious exegesis.

Don’t Worship the Bible! Evangelical and Fundamentalist efforts to shore up confidence in a reliable Bible by making strong statements to its inerrancy don’t impress Hart at all.

All Christians believe that the New Testament is divinely inspired; but any coherent account of what this means must involve an acknowledgement that God speaks through human beings, in all their historical cultural and personal contingency. For those, however, who not only believe that scripture is inspired, but who are also deeply committed to “literalist, “inerrantist” or “dictational” understandings of inspiration, all the words of the Bible must be understood as direct locutions of God, passing through their human authors like sunlight through the clearest glass, and the canon of the New Testament — even though it took a few centuries to concreace into its present form, and has never really existed as anything but a shimmering cloud of countless variants — must be understood as a flawlessly immediate communication, in its every historical and lexical detail, of the teaching of the Holy Spirit and of the faith of the apostolic church. That has never been the only or even the dominant, Christian understanding of Scriptural inspiration. Many modern Christians, in fact, might be quite surprised at the speculative boldness and critical diffidence with which some of the greatest exegetes of Christian late antiquity and the Middle ages approached the Bible. Hart concludes his thoughts on inspiration lamenting the fact that “with the rise of the fundamentalist movement of the twentieth century (in-errantist views) have spread far and wide especially in their acute and virulent forms.

The Bible has issues: He has no care or fear in talking about textual variants, what belongs, what doesn’t belong, what’s a mistake, what isn’t a mistake. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to address some elephants that have long been standing quietly in the room, on the other hand, it’s a bit unnerving for one who grew up in a tradition of boot stepping allegiance to the Bibles inherency. After reading Hart, if he is to be believed, a strict “inerrantist” position is no longer possible.

Let the women be silent verse doesn’t even belong. This passage according to Hart doesn’t belong at all. It’s a late dated interpolation. Internally it breaks the flow of the text and contradicts chapter 11 in which women clearly are encouraged not to be silent in the church. It also contradicts Paul’s radically egalitarian point of view in places like Galatians 3:28. Externally a good number of ancient texts have the paragraph in different spots, one even footnotes it at the bottom of a page. Most scholars have now concluded the passage to be spurious. — It would have been nice to get that one right. This little paragraph screwed up church history big time!

Faithfulness is better than faith: In many places he changes the term often translated “faith” to “faithfulness” Hart is no fan of the protestant Reformation. He refers to the reformers and their offspring as “demonstrably wrong” in their understanding of Paul’s views on salvation. Paul taught that we are not justified by the works of the law (circumcision, kosher laws etc.), but we are justified only by “a faithfulness that necessarily entails works of love — good deeds— in respect of which one will be judged and either rewarded or purged.” The notion that justification is merely a formal or forensic imputation of righteousness rather than a real corrective transformation is a meaning that simply doesn’t exist in the history of the word. Salvation is a process far more than it is a declaration.

Jewish/Greek/Roman Mythology — Hart enlightens us on how the New Testament interacts with the mythologies of the day. One example is the Jewish tradition which held that God deputized angels to give out the law to the Jewish people, the only problem with this plan is that the Angels didn’t always deliver God’s instructions correctly! Therefore any law spoken through the angels is not equal to or as final as the word spoken directly by the Lord. You can imagine the debates already in ancient Judaism as to the source of some particular laws over others.

The belief that we are guilty by birth is a mistake. Romans 5:10 is “one of the most consequential mistranslations in Christian History” — What happened? The two little greek words ἐφ’ ᾧ in the Western tradition were translated into Latin to mean that death comes to us “because” we are sinners. Creating the Western theological position of original guilt. The idea that in some sense all human beings had sinned in Adam, and that therefore everyone is born already damnably guilty in the eyes of God. The Eastern tradition which had a better understanding of Greek drew no such conclusions. Humanity has not inherited a condition of criminal culpability at birth, rather, humanity has been exposed to the contagion of sin and the disease of death. The point of Romans is that Jesus reverses the disease of death by introducing eternal life in him. Death doesn’t come because we are sinners, death and sin have infected our planet, and we are caught up in the mess is the idea.

Don’t take the Bible so literally, the apostle Paul didn’t! — His translation and comments on I Cor 10:11 — Now these things happened to them figuratively, and were written for the purpose of our admonition… As should be obvious, Paul frequently allegorizes Hebrew scripture; the “spiritual reading” of scripture typical of the Church Fathers of the early centuries was not their invention, nor just something borrowed from pagan culture, but was already a widely accepted hermeneutical practice among Jewish scholars. So it is not anachronistic to read Paul here as saying that the stories he is repeating are not accurate historical accounts of actual events, but allegorical tales composed for the edification of readers. Hart is angling for a less historically rigid Bible.

Revelation is history. The beast of Revelation is almost certainly Nero Hart says. Evidently, Nero had become a legend in the 1st century, and many had thought that his apparent suicide in 68 a.d. was a fake and that he would return. So much of Revelation according to Hart was more about current events than future events.

Penal substitutionary atonement is not a Biblical idea. As Christianity spread out through other cultures and languages words like ransom and redemption began to broaden in meaning:

Some Christians came to imagine that the word referred to a ransom paid to God the Father by the Son, to appease God’s righteous wrath, or to repair his injured dignity, or to yield tribute to the awful majesty of his sovereignty. That idea is entirely alien to the way the word is used in the New Testament; there is no suggestion there that, in Christ God pays God off, or God rescues us from God; instead the work of salvation is depicted as a single, unified act of rescue, whereby God the Father, through the Son, redeems his children from the slavery into which they have been sold.