2020-09-21

The Free Press Gave America Trump — ?

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by Neil Godfrey

An insider’s view of the first Trump campaign (from Michael Cohen’s Disloyal)

“What about self-funding the campaign,” Trump said to me one afternoon.

I knew there was no way he was going to spend his own money on politics. He was far too cheap, to begin with, and he was far less liquid than was understood by outsiders, but he appeared to be seriously contemplating the idea.

“I don’t want to take money from a super PAC,” Trump said. “A billionaire can’t ask people for five bucks. Maybe I’ll self-fund the primary but do it cheap. I don’t need to spend a lot of money because we’ll get all the free press we want.

Please pause over that final sentence and read it again. And again. And again. Because if you want to understand how Donald J. Trump became president, you have to grasp the essential fact that by far the most important element wasn’t nationalism, or populism, or racism, or religion, or the rise of white supremacy, or strongman authoritarianism. It wasn’t Russia, or lying, or James Comey, though all of those forces were hugely influential. It wasn’t Hillary Clinton, though heaven knows she did all she could to lose the election.

No. The biggest influence by far—by a country mile—was the media. Donald Trump’s presidency is a product of the free press. Not free as in freedom of expression, I mean free as unpaid for. Rallies broadcast live, tweets, press conferences, idiotic interviews, 24-7 wall-to-wall coverage, all without spending a penny. The free press gave America Trump. Right, left, moderate, tabloid, broadsheet, television, radio, Internet, Facebook—that is who elected Trump and might well elect him again.

The underlying reasons were both obvious and hard to discern, and it continues to amaze me that this phenomenon isn’t a central part of the conversation about the current plight of the United States of America.

Start with the proposition that Trump was great for ratings. If you’re a right-wing AM radio commentator, or a lefty Brooklyn political podcaster, you were making bank talking about Trump. It’s like a car crash, with people unable to avert their gaze. The Boss knew this and he knew how to exploit the greed and venality of journalists because he was (and is) an expert on the subjects. But there was something deeper and more primal in the way the media obsessed over Trump, as I did. Trump was a great story. He was chaos all the time. By five a.m. every day, he’d created the news cycle with his stubby fingers sending out bile-flecked tweets attacking anyone or everyone. In this way, as in so many others, he was the absolute opposite of Obama. Instead of No Drama, it was Drama All the Time.

The thing that astounded me, and still does to this day, was that the media didn’t see that they were being played for suckers. They didn’t realize the damage they were inflicting on the country by following Trump around like supplicants. What Trump did was transparent, once you identified it, and this remained a central fact of the campaign. If interest in Trump was waning, even just a little bit, he’d yank the chain of the media with an insult or racist slur or reactionary outrage—and there would be CNN and the Times and Fox News dutifully eating out of his hands. Like so much about Trump, if it weren’t tragic, you’d laugh—or cry.

(Bolded highlighting is mine)

But one still has to factor in the people who actually love the car crash and see in it a promise that the “system” itself will be blown up to the benefit of the “ordinary folks”.


2020-09-19

Essential Reading for Trump Supporters

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by Neil Godfrey

When I was a dedicated member of Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God cult I was aware of the existence of “dissident” literature that had led a few fellow members to “fall away” into the clutches of Satan. I had no desire to seek it out and read it because I “knew” it would be full of lies; or if some of it did have nuggets of truth those pieces would be distorted or irrelevant. How could “truth” be irrelevant? Easy: I “knew” Herbert Armstrong was not a perfect saint and that whatever sins he had committed were covered by God’s mercy and the only important thing was that he was now doing “God’s work”. The only time I began to open my mind to at least reading some of that literature was after I had allowed some doubts about the church enter my mind. Even then, I found myself reacting with anger against some of what I had read. The criticisms showed no mercy to my lingering feelings of loyalty to the church that had been the centre and love of my life for so many years so for a while I hated it for the sheer brutality of its truth-telling. So the following reading list is for those Trump loyalists who have allowed niggling questions to enter their thoughts on occasions. Others will simply ignore it or dismiss the works as lies or “irrelevant truths” without bothering to seriously check them out.

I was inspired to post this list after skimming Steven Hassan’s The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control. Many ex-cultists will recognize the name Hassan as the author of Combatting Cult Mind Control. Hassan’s personal cult experience was with the Moonies but his analysis demonstrates the common elements involved in a wide ranging spectrum of religious cults. Hassan writes in The Cult of Trump,

Cult members believe that they are completely in control of their own thoughts, feelings, and actions. That’s true of most, if not all, of us—we believe that we are in possession of our faculties, that we make our own decisions and choose our own path. Yet, as we have seen, we are all continually being influenced by our parents, friends, bosses, colleagues, government, and the media, both traditional and online. We all have an illusion of control. It’s part of being human. This raises the question: how would any of us—Trump supporters or critics—know if we were being unduly influenced? Here is a five-step formula for answering that question, one that requires an investment of time and energy, but that is quite powerful. I have geared this five-step experiment to a Trump supporter but anyone could benefit from it, no matter their political affiliation or group involvement.”

I don’t think it’s quite that simple, though I’d like to be wrong on that point. Hassan’s first point of advice is for anyone to “take a break from your situation — disconnect from all sources of influence that could reinforce your current point of view.” Easy said. But that’s another discussion entirely. The next points get to the “essential reading”.

Educate yourself: Read about social psychology, in particular mind control, and the models created by Robert Jay Lifton, Margaret Singer, along with my BITE model. Educate yourself about social influence techniques, propaganda, and logical fallacies. Libraries are great places. Hopefully this book has given you a good start. You also might contact responsible, ethical mental health professionals to help you.

Certainly, my mind began to open as never before when I heard a psychologist explain cult thinking in a radio interview. I have since explored all forms and ways in which individuals and groups are attracted to “radical” ideas and commitments that are deemed by many to be hostile and harmful to both the individual and the wider society. There are significant overlaps between political and religious “radicalization” as I’ve discussed (from the professional literature) here several times.

But to get to the point of this post: Hassan’s next item —

Listen to critics and former believers: Seek out highly respected, credentialed, or experienced experts who hold views that differ from your own. Look for verifiable facts. The Mueller Report, though a daunting 448 pages long, is an important read, especially since Trump and Barr have stated their biased conclusions. Robert Mueller gave a brief but definitive statement before resigning from the Department of Justice, which is worth listening to or reading. If you are a Trump supporter and think Trump is a great leader, or even God-chosen, seek out the views of critics and evaluate dispassionately what they have to say. Listen to your inner voice as well as your conscience. When you hear trigger words like “fake news,” “deep state,” or “radical Democrats,” adopt a neutral attitude and use your critical abilities to sort through sources, check credentials, and look for supporting factual evidence. Ask probing questions like “Why is that?” or “Is that plausible?” Listen to what others have to say and reach your own conclusions based on research and evidence. Read books, newspapers, blogs, and magazines that run the gamut of political orientation, remembering always that facts do matter. When a leader or group makes extraordinary claims, demand extraordinary proof. The burden of proof is always on the leader or group to prove their claims. It’s not on us to disprove them. If Trump claims that he knows more than anyone else on a subject, fact-check his assertions. I have quoted several resources in this book including books written by David Cay Johnston, Bob Woodward, Malcolm Nance, and James Comey, to name just a few.

Let’s itemize the “essential reading” in that paragraph a little more directly by adding links to the titles. (There are other sources that copyright does not permit me to make public. Private correspondence might be more appropriate for some of those.) Continue reading “Essential Reading for Trump Supporters”


2020-09-14

The Indefinite Interpretability of the Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

How is it possible that a collection of texts from ancient and alien cultures has personal relevance for millions of believers today? Once again I find the research of Brian Malley in How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism provides meaningful answers.

I’ll start with his four-fold model of what is actually happening when evangelicals or fundamentalists “interpret the Bible”.

        1. The first point is that evangelicals are “inheritors of an interpretative tradition”, meaning that they have inherited a tradition that tells them that their beliefs are Bible-based. They inherit a set of beliefs along with the additional claim that those beliefs are derived from the Bible. The tradition presents the Bible as a book to be studied, “but the goal of that hermeneutic activity is not so much to establish the meaning of the text  as to establish transitivity between text and beliefs.” The tradition stresses the fact of a connection between doctrines and the Bible rather than particular connections. “Thus a great deal of ‘what the Bible says’ may be transmitted quite apart from actual exegesis.” Example: the Bible says both that all things are possible for God and that God cannot do certain things. Without direct exegesis of the texts it is permissible for the evangelical to believe that the Bible says X on the assumption that some verse can be made to support X even if the verse is not contextually relevant to the belief in X.
          .

          And this raises a critical point: the goal of evangelicals’ hermeneutic activity is to establish transitivity between the text and the reader’s understanding. This is not necessarily identical with interpretation in the normal sense of the term. The means of transitivity is indeed sometimes what might be called the texts meaning: I Timothy 1:17 describes God as “immortal” and was used as evidence that “God cannot die”—a definition of “immortal” and thus a semantic representation of the text. But sometimes the object of reading is not what would normally be called the meaning of the text at all. Titus 1:2 (together with Hebrews 6:18) was offered as evidence that “God cannot lie.” But “God cannot lie” is not a semantic representation of Titus 1:2. That God cannot lie is presupposed in this text, and therefore regarded as part of the meaning of the text, but it is not the meaning of the text, and any translation that replaced this verse with “God cannot lie” would be regarded as an inadequate translation. “God cannot lie” is not the meaning of the verse in the normal, semantic-equivalence sense of the term. It is an interpretation only in the weaker, broader sense that its justification or warrant—the evidence for it—is drawn from the Bible. Participants in the discussion were picking out Bible passages relevant to the question, “what can God not do?” but not necessarily about that question. The texts they cited stood in an evidential relation to the proposition “not all things are possible with God” without this statement capturing the meaning of any particular passage. (p. 84)

        2. There is no “hermeneutic tradition” that is passed on; there is no particular way of reading and interpreting the Bible that is part of the tradition. Evangelicals may claim to read the Bible literally but a closer inspection shows that there is no consistency in practices that they avow to be literal readings. Consequence: “in each generation, the interpretive tradition mobilizes hermeneutic imaginations anew.” Believers are free to find new readings that they can interpret as supports for a church’s teaching.
          .
        3. What drives evangelical Bible reading is “a search for relevance” — in much the same way any other communication is. In this search readers are free to move “beyond the text as given”. Dual contexts are recognized: the historical one of the original composition of the text on the one hand and the message God wants to convey to the reader today on the other. See the above quotation on the question of God . A believer undertaking a personal Bible study may read a story and to make it relevant for a situation in his or her life will impute motivations, inferences, storylines that are not in the text, and omit from the text certain details that rob the story of personal relevance to the reader. “Part of the genius of a good preacher is to figure out a way to mine new insight from a seemingly mundane passage.” Belief traditions make interpretations of the Bible quite unlike the interpretations of other texts.
          .
          Some ways of going beyond the text as given: Continue reading “The Indefinite Interpretability of the Bible”

2020-09-13

How Believers Rationalise Biblical Authority

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is from How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism by Brian Malley.

Now it is a curious situation when an unclear idea has clear consequences. — Malley, 136

Evangelicals (or fundamentalists) believe that the Bible is authoritative and declare that the reason it is authoritative is that it is the “word of God” or “inspired by God”.

Uncertainty about the idea of inspiration

However, as Malley demonstrates, the same believers in biblical authority do not know exactly how inspiration worked. Evangelicals uniformly believe in the doctrine of biblical inspiration but disagree about the meaning of inspiration: Is the Bible inerrant in all matters or only in spiritual matters? When asked, evangelicals are “quite vague about the process” of inspiration.

That the Bible is inspired is generally found in statements of faith but it is rarely discussed in Bible studies or sermons. When asked about the meaning or process of inspiration, believers will respond with phrases like the Bible’s authors were “mentally stimulated through a spiritual force”, that God had the writers “attuned” or that “God guided their thoughts” or “impressed their minds.”

When I pressed for further details, most informants said that they did not know. I eventually thought to ask a few informants whether it bothered them that they did not know, and, as one man told me, “Not really. I mean, I probably should find out, just so I would know what to tell people, but I’m not worried about it.”

It is important to note that my informants’ responses were quite variable in their wording. Apart from those few who used the words θεόπνευστος and “God-breathed,” they did not seem to be drawing their answers from any common source. And indeed this may be the case because, although there are frequent allusions to the doctrine of inspiration at Creekside Baptist, I never heard it explicitly discussed. (p. 134)

On the concept of Plenary Inspiration, the teaching that the whole of the Bible is inspired, most of Malley’s interviewees declared that the entire Bible is God-inspired. There was less agreement on whether the Bible was the only book inspired by God.

. . . some thought that there were degrees of inspiration, and that other texts might be inspired, but less so than the Bible; some thought that there were kinds of inspiration, and in this way differentiated between biblical and other inspired texts. All informants, however, agreed that the Bible is inspired differently than any other text. One of the most interesting notions came from a man who, in addition to differentiating the Bible with respect to extent of inspiration, also said, “Other texts might be inspired, but we know the Bible is inspired.”

Most fundamentalist and evangelical theologians will say that they believe in Verbal Inspiration, that the very words in the Bible are inspired. Most of those Malley surveyed ticked their agreement with the statement that “The words of the Bible are inspired.” Yet . . .

. . . in interviews, few of my informants expressed strong views on this, and several said that it did not make any practical difference whether the words or the ideas were inspired.

When pressed, some respondents were found to say that the original autographs were inspired but over time errors have crept in through translations and copying. They will insist that the details are unimportant and that despite some limited corruption the main ideas inspired by God have been preserved.

Certainty about the authority of the Bible

When informants said that they did not know exactly how inspiration worked, I followed up with questions about the implications of the doctrine: Does it entail that God is the author of the Bible? Does it entail that the Bible is true? Does it entail that the Bible is authoritative? Each of these questions received an unhesitating, confident yes from all interviewees. Whatever uncertainty they had about the nature of inspiration did not extend to its implications. (p. 136)

Evangelicals will say (Malley empirically demonstrates that they do) that because the Bible is inspired by God it is therefore authoritative. The doctrine of biblical authority is said to be “a consequence of its divine inspiration.”

The doctrine of inspiration is indeed often invoked as a justification and explanation of the authority that evangelicals attribute to the Bible.

Inspiration as rationalization

Here is the interesting observation of Malley: Continue reading “How Believers Rationalise Biblical Authority”


Revised Edition of The Christ Conspiracy

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by Neil Godfrey

Robert M. Price has edited The Christ Conspiracy by D.M. Murdock (a.k.a Acharya S) and this revised edition has now (2020) been published. The new revised edition opens with an editorial preface by Price; this is largely a slightly modified version of the points he made in Robert M. Price: What I think of Acharya S/D.M. Murdock. To give you some idea of what to expect in the new revised edition, his third and fourth paragraphs have been rewritten as:

I disliked what I deemed the militantly anti-Christian tone of the book and considered it a sign of adolescent, village atheist behavior (not that my own writings are always without it!). Now I think such things are utterly beside the point. It is the content that matters. I neither chafe at the reverent piety of biblical critics like Joachim Jeremias nor bristle at the sarcasm of atheist polymath Frank Zindler. Besides, she soon put such understandable rage behind her.

There were a number of issues she mentioned in a kind of too-encyclopedic survey approach, speculations about the Masons, ancient civilizations (à la Colin Wilson, whom I also knew and much respected), and the like. I still think these matters did not belong in the same book with her Christ myth arguments. They are entirely unrelated questions, and I have no expertise at all in evaluating them. Still don’t. I should have ignored them in my review. All such issues are absent from her subsequent, much more tightly focused books such as Suns of God and Christ in Egypt. And now they are conspicuous by their absence from the pages of this new version of The Christ Conspiracy.

 


2020-09-12

Obama, the Tea Party, and Assaults on American Democracy

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by Neil Godfrey

Concluding an overview of Peter Kivisto’s discussion of “institutional openings to authoritarianism” in the USA. See Kivisto for the complete series. (Images, bolding, formatting, other sources are my additions.) The takeaway for me in Kivisto’s discussion is the pivotal role racism has played in enabling the presidency of Donald Trump. Little did I suspect that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s would lead what we see today in the political landscape. For another relevant perspective on Obama’s terms in office see the posts on Nancy Fraser’s From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump – and Beyond. .

The 2008 historic election of Barack Obama set in motion a reaction that was intense, uncivil, and unrelenting. . . . .

. . . . Republican Representative Joe Wilson upended congressional decorum by shouting that Obama was a liar while the President was giving a speech to a joint session of Congress. . . . 

.. . . . The Republican leader in the Senate quickly promised that the one objective of Senate Republicans would be to insure that Obama would not be re-elected, and to that end rejected bipartisanship at every turn. The right-wing media savaged him relentlessly, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported disturbing increases in the size and activities of right-wing hate groups, and funds from right-wing plutocrats flowed freely to mobilize the grassroots. . . . 

.

Obama had been exceedingly careful — too careful for many of his supporters’ tastes — in addressing issues about race. Moreover, he had to simultaneously confront two crises, the first being the blowback caused by the disastrous Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq and the second being the global financial crisis that began in 2007. Much of his agenda reflected both the need to respond carefully to these inherited problems, but beyond that he pressed what was essentially a pragmatic center-left set of proposals. His one major ambitious plan called for building on the New Deal and Great Society programs in addressing the fact that the United States was the only wealthy liberal democracy in the world that did not treat health care as a universal entitlement. He sought to expand health care coverage, reduce costs, and implement best practices that would make for a more efficient and effective health delivery system. And in so doing, rather than pressing for a single-payer system akin to Canada’s or expanding Medicare to cover all Americans, he hoped for a plan that would elicit bipartisan support. To that end, the plan he proposed bore a family resemblance to one developed by a conservative think tank in the 1990s and a plan that Mitt Romney created in Massachusetts during his tenure as governor. Obstructionism would make bipartisanship impossible, and thus the Affordable Care Act was passed without a single Republican vote in either chamber of Congress.

In this context, the Tea Party came to represent the crystallization of citizen opposition to Obama. The intensity of their vehement hostility to Obama can be understood by the fact that as right-wing populists, their enemies were twofold:

    • elites — governmental and academic, but not business
    • — and the congeries of “Others,” including blacks, immigrants, Muslims, and freeloaders. . . . 
. . . . Obama signified, was the very embodiment of, both enemies . . . .

. . . . He was the black usurper, his white mother in the end being irrelevant to this particular trope. He was the noncitizen, born in Kenya. He was the closet Muslim. At the same time, the Harvard Law graduate and part-time professor at the University of Chicago was a member of the elite liberal intelligentsia. Those who identified as strong Tea Party supporters, amounting to perhaps one-fifth of the electorate, were vocally unwilling to see Obama as a legitimate President.

Much discussion ensued about the precise character of the Tea Party. Was it a genuine grassroots movement or was it of the Astroturf variety, the product of the Koch brothers and other right-wing plutocrats? In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson see it as both, observing that “one of the most important consequences of the widespread Tea Party agitations unleashed from the start of Obama’s presidency was the populist boost given to professionally run and opulently funded right-wing advocacy organizations devoted to pushing ultra-free-market policies.” These include FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the Tea Party Express, and Americans for Prosperity. The last of these is the creation of the Koch brothers, a nonprofit political advocacy organization. Its funders have spent millions pushing to privatize Social Security, voucherize Medicare and Medicaid, slash taxes, roll back environmental laws, and crush labor unions. For example, the organization shaped Governor Scott Walker’s assault on public sector unions in Wisconsin and has been a central player in shaping Rep. Paul Ryan’s agenda to roll back the welfare state. As oversight organizations promoting transparency have repeatedly pointed out, these operations are prime examples of the impact of dark money from wealthy right-wing donors who are able to keep their identities anonymous while spending freely to influence public policy.

Continue reading “Obama, the Tea Party, and Assaults on American Democracy”


2020-09-10

The Day the Evangelicals First Met Donald Trump

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by Neil Godfrey

SO HOW DID the amoral Trump come to be beloved by evangelical voters, a question that remains one of the abiding mysteries to this day? Begin with the premise that Donald Trump hadn’t darkened the door of a church or chapel since the age of seven, as he would openly admit in his past incarnation. Places of religious worship held absolutely no interest to him, and he possessed precisely zero personal piety in his life—but he knew the power of religion, and that was a language he could speak.

I lived in Trump Park Avenue and one of my neighbors was an evangelical pastor named Paula White. She had known Trump for more than a decade, after he’d seen her show on TV and he’d invited her to come to Atlantic City to give him private bible studies, her version of prosperity gospel the only conceivable version of Christianity that could appeal to Trump. Self-interested, consumed by the lust for worldly wealth and rewards, with two divorces, one bankruptcy, and a Senate financial investigation—she was a preacher after Trump’s heart. The fact that she was beautiful and blonde didn’t hurt, either.

As part of the division of labor in the campaign, I was assigned to lead the outreach to faith communities on behalf of Trump, mostly because having Roger Stone attempt to make those connections would be a farce. It was at this time that Paula White called me and said that she wanted to put together a group of evangelical leaders to meet with Trump to discuss his potential candidacy and the spiritual and political dimensions of his campaign. The idea was for Trump to solicit their support, so I readily agreed to help put the session together. More than fifty religious leaders came to Trump Tower to meet the Boss in a conference room on the 25th floor. Some of the most famous evangelicals in the country were there, like Jerry Falwell Jr., Pastor Darrell Scott, and Dr. Creflo Dollar, an Atlanta preacher who would later be charged with choking his daughter and ridiculed for soliciting contributions from his parishioners so he could
purchase a $65 million Falcon 7X private jet to “safely and swiftly share the Good News of the Gospel worldwide.”

As an organizer, I went to watch the proceedings, and what I saw was amazing, to put it mildly. Sitting around the long conference room table, the group started to discuss Trump’s three marriages, his views on abortion, homosexuality, family values, America’s role in the world, and God’s place in the Boss’s heart. As a little kid, Trump’s family had attended Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, where he listened to the sermons of Norman Vincent Peale. The Protestant preacher was the author of The Power of Positive Thinking and an early radio and television star, sermonizing about the materialistic advantages of American conservative religion, making him a hero to the folks meeting with Trump as a pioneer in blending or conflating wealth and Jesus in a way that somehow found the Son of God was all about the bling.

Trump milked the Norman Peale connection like a dairy farmer at dawn, not letting one drop spill. Peale’s version of God’s word revolved around tall tales he told that were completely unverifiable and calling for the banishment of thoughts or emotions that were negative, which must have penetrated young Donny Trump’s consciousness as a boy. Trump always lived in the present tense. He never looked backwards, except in anger or to blame others, which was part of Peale’s appeal to his followers. When Trump was sitting in the pews as a boy, Peale was one of the most famous pastors in the world, which had to impress the kid, but it was likely the cultlike egomania that he urged Christians to follow that seemed to have penetrated the little Donny’s impressionable brain, no doubt reinforced by his taskmaster father and hyper-ambitious mother.

As the evangelicals inhaled Trump’s Norman Peale horse shit, they solemnly asked to approach him to “lay hands” on him. I watched with bated breath. Trump was a massive germophobe, as I’ve noted, so the idea of dozens of sets of hands touching his clothing and skin would appall him, I knew. But even this didn’t faze the Boss: he closed his eyes, faking piety, and gave the appearance of feeling God’s presence as the assembled group called for guidance in determining the fate and fortune of Donald Trump, America, and the message of Jesus Christ.

If you knew Trump, as I did, the vulgarian salivating over beauty contestants or mocking Roger Stone’s propensity for desiring the male sexual organ in his mouth, as he would say less politely, you would have a hard time keeping a straight face at the sight of him affecting the serious and pious mien of a man of faith. I know I could hardly believe the performance, or the fact that these folks were buying it.

Watching Trump, I could see that he knew exactly how to appeal to the evangelicals’ desires and vanities—who they wanted him to be, not who he really was. Everything he was telling them about himself was absolutely untrue. He was pro-abortion; he told me that Planned Parenthood was the way poor people paid for contraception. He didn’t care about religion. Homosexuals, divorce, the break-up of the nuclear family—he’d say whatever they wanted to hear, and they’d hear what they wanted to hear. This was the moment, for me: the split second when I knew Trump would be president one day. It was an intuition, but it was also based on the intangibles. Trump’s answers to their questions were compassionate, thoughtful, Godly, in a way that I knew in no way reflected his beliefs or way of seeing life. He could lie directly to the faces of some of the most powerful religious leaders in the country and they believed him—or decided to believe him, a distinction with a real difference. Trump was imperfect, they knew, with his multiple marriages and carefully cultivated reputation as a womanizer. But he knew what they really cared about—the core, core, core beliefs. Anti-abortion laws, Supreme Court justices, opposition to gay marriage and civil rights, and the cultural war-like rhetoric aimed at godless liberals. That was Trump’s rat-like cunning, and it was a talent I knew then that he would ride all the way to the White House.

The prayer over, Trump opened his eyes as if he had indeed been in deep meditation and conversation with God.

“What do you think about me running for president?” Trump asked Pastor White in a reverent tone.

There was a silence in the room, as bowed heads were raised and eyes opened. This was no longer a question about the ambitions of a billionaire celebrity—it was about the soul of the nation; the Almighty was being summoned to guide the faithful. Paula White was very serious as she talked in a low voice, addressing the assembled in a passionate but measured way, Trump listening with yet more fake piety.

“I don’t think the time is right,” she replied, slowly.

“I don’t either,” Trump said, also slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully.

Cohen, Michael. 2020. Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump. New York: Skyhorse.

Some interesting visuals in this clip:


2020-09-08

God’s Strongman

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is an observation from another author on the theme of the previous post, the historical pathway taken by the Christian right prepared them to respond to his call to follow him:

The facile explanation for this apparently improbable union between the proponents of “faith,” “values,” and “family” and the profoundly impious real estate huckster and serial philanderer is that the Christian right hypocritically sacrificed its principles in exchange for raw political power. But this purely transactional explanation for the Trump-evangelical merger elides the deeper bond between Trump and his devoted flock. Although Trump is illiterate in evangelicals’ lexicon and spent his adult life flagrantly contravening their sexual mores, his evangelical supporters are nonetheless starstruck. He may not be one of them, but they idolize how he loudly and fearlessly articulates their shared grievances—that alien anti-Christian, anti-American ideologies have taken over the government, judiciary, media, education, and even popular culture and forced edicts upon a besieged white Christian majority, cowing them into submission by invoking “political correctness” that aims to censor, silence, and oppress them.

The Trump-evangelical relationship represents an intense meeting of the minds, decades in the making, on the notion that America lies in ruins after the sweep of historic changes since the mid-twentieth century, promising nondiscrimination and equal rights for those who had been historically disenfranchised—women, racial minorities, immigrants, refugees, and LGBTQ people—eroded the dominance of conservative white Christianity in American public life. Trump apparently has not cracked the binding on the Bible he waves in the air while speaking to evangelical audiences, but he fluently speaks the language of conservative white Christian backlash against the expansion of rights for previously disenfranchised and marginalized Americans. Trump not only gives voice to the Christian right’s perceived loss of religious dominance; he pounds away at grievances over white people losing ground to black and brown people and immigrants, of men losing ground to women, of “originalist” judges under the sway of liberal intruders demanding “special” rights. Trump reassures white evangelical voters that he will restore the America they believe has been lost—the “Christian nation” that God intended America to be, governed by what they claim is “biblical law” or a “Christian worldview.”

The evangelical adoration for Trump is rooted in far more than his willingness to keep a coveted list of campaign promises, like appointing anti-abortion judges or expanding religious exemptions for conservative Christians, such as bakers who refuse to make a cake for a gay wedding. Trump inspires this high regard because he is eager to use strongman tactics in order to carry out those promises. For decades, the Christian right has successfully used the mechanisms of democracy, such as voter registration and mobilization, citizen lobbying, and energetic recruitment of religious candidates to run for office, to advance its agenda. In these efforts, conservative evangelicals are driven not by a commitment to liberal democracy but rather by a politicized theology demanding that they seize control of government to protect it from the demonic influences of liberalism and secularism. Previous presidents pandered to evangelicals, but Donald Trump constitutes the culmination of a movement that has for decades searched for a leader willing to join forces in this battle without cowering to shifting political winds. In Trump, the Christian right sees more than a politician who delivers on promises; they see a savior from the excesses of liberalism.

And for their purposes, Donald Trump arrived on the political scene not a moment too soon. He burst in at a critical moment, when top Christian right leaders were becoming painfully aware they were losing their demographic supremacy. In 2006, white evangelicals made up 23 percent of U.S. adults, a formidable segment of the population. A short decade later that number had dropped to 17 percent, owing to rising proportions of nonwhites and people unaffiliated with religion. But because white evangelicals are uniquely politicized and highly mobilized to vote, they can exert an outsize influence on our elections and political culture if they unify around a candidate or cause. In the 2016 election, white evangelicals made up 26 percent of voters and fully one-third of Republican voters. Eighty-one percent of those people voted for Donald Trump.

Although their overall numbers are dropping, Trump’s presidency has given white evangelicals new life as the most influential political demographic in America. In office, he has been beyond solicitous to the Christian right leaders who support him. He has given them the political appointees and judges to implement their political agenda, delivering in ways that even they likely never imagined. As the veteran operative Ralph Reed, now head of the advocacy group Faith and Freedom Coalition, proudly told his annual conference in June 2019, “there are more Christians serving in the Cabinet, serving on the White House staff, in the subcabinet,” than under “all previous presidents combined.” When a decision needs to be made in the Trump White House, Reed went on, “the people who are writing memos and in the meeting advising the president are on our side, more than ever before.”

Posner, Sarah. 2020. Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump. New York: Random House.


2020-09-07

The Historical Road Leading Fundamentalist Christians to Trump

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by Neil Godfrey

This post follows on from Historical Background to President Trump – the Republican Party’s Shift . . .

Enter the Christian Right

The Christian right . . .

. . . was the term widely used during the 1980s to describe a religious social movement, while today the operative term in both self-presentation and in most media coverage is evangelical. The former carries with it a more overtly political dimension and a specific historical context, while the latter is a fuzzier term. For that reason, I prefer the term fundamentalist in characterizing movement leaders and organizations. It can be a term of disparagement, but in fact has greater analytic rigor, thus making it a more serviceable tool for analyzing this segment of American Christianity. (Kivisto, 92)

Fundamentalism

Images from The Public “I”

By the term fundamentalist Kivisto is referring to movements that grew out of those who in the 1920s named themselves “fundamentalists” and who identified their ideas with The Fundamentals (biblical inerrancy, miracles, etc) essays published and funded by Southern Californian oil millionaire Lyman Stewart. The Fundamentals identified a good many enemies of “truth”:

  • socialism
  • feminism
  • Darwinism
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Mormonism
  • modern spiritualism
  • humanistic psychology
  • the Social Gospel
  • and theological liberalism

Very often fundamentalists felt obliged to enforce their views on society through political and legal action. Recall the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925.

Martin Marty, who led a major American Academy of Arts and Sciences project on fundamentalism, offered a succinct account of what fundamentalism is and what it is not:

  • “it is not the same thing as conservatism, traditionalism, classicism, or orthodoxy, though fundamentalists associate themselves with such concepts.”
  • “most fundamentalists do not conceive of themselves as being antiscientific or antirational on their own terms. . . But most fundamentalist movements dedicate themselves to representing alternative and, in their eyes, ‘proper’ science and reason.”
  • “fundamentalists are seldom opposed to technology as such, or to many of its specific artifacts. Technology, one might say, helped make fundamentalism possible.”
  • fundamentalists are not always poor, uneducated people who rationalize their hopeless lower-class circumstances through a religious movement. “Deprivation theories” are among the more discredited explanation today in respect to Fundamentalism. Indeed, many such movements prospered in America as old religious conservative groups moved into the middle class, and it is among the university-educated and professionally mobile Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and others that fundamentalism grows.”
We never see the term fundamentalism applied to movements which are not absolutist. The enemies of fundamentalisms everywhere are relativism, pluralism, ambiguity. (Marty p. 21)

In identifying the core components of fundamentalism, Marty begins by stating that it “is always reactive, reactionary,” forever responding to “perceived challenges and threats” posed by a “force, tendency, or enemy” that is “eroding, corroding, or endangering one’s movement and what it holds dear.” As such, fundamentalism is about defining boundaries, and defining them in bright, not blurred, terms: the world is us against them, with them being a sometimes shifting target. This means, Marty continues, that fundamentalism “is always an exclusive or separatist movement” predicated on beliefs that are defined in absolutist, black-and-white terms. It is for that reason that fundamentalists are dismissive of interfaith or ecumenical understanding and dialogue, opting instead for an oppositional stance against anyone who does not share their worldview. Marty concludes that fundamentalists are inherently absolutist, and, “With absolutism comes authoritativeness or authoritarianism” (Marty, 1988, pp. 20—21). (Kivisto, 93f)

Sociologist Martin Riesebrodt points out that fundamentalists, in their rejection of the world, either elect to withdraw from it or to control it. The latter option often means they seek to impose their beliefs and practices on the world through political activity of various kinds.

The strain of world mastering fundamentalists engaging in American politics since the middle of the past century includes such now largely forgotten figures as Carl McIntyre, a dissident Presbyterian and fervent anti-communist crusader — engaged as he saw it in a civilization struggle between the Christian West and the atheistic core of Soviet communism. He was hostile to anyone seen as fellow travelers, which included groups such as the ecumenically oriented National Council of Churches, making his views known to a radio audience via his “The 20th Century Reformation Hour.” He and like-minded fundamentalists represent the precursors to the contemporary Christian right. (Kivisto, 94)

1970s Movement Mobilization and Christian Nationalism

If the Southern strategy pushed the Republican Party into the camp of white nationalists, the Christian right’s self-understanding is shaped by an ideology of Christian nationalism.

The two most well known leaders were Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Both evangelized extensively through mass media. Robertson created Regent University and the American Center for Law and Justice, “which aimed to shape legislative agendas and fight judicial battles”. Falwell founding Liberty University in 1971 and Moral Majority in 1979.

Certain issues have been constant ever since the 1970s:

  • attempts to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion
  • challenges to the separation of church and state by pressing for school prayer and abstinence-only sex education

Underpinning all of the particular issues preoccupying the Christian right is the conviction that the United States is a Christian nation and that, as the name of Falwell’s organization indicates, the movement represents the beliefs of a majority of the citizenry. At the same time, the Christian right sees itself as under assault from enemies who threaten the cultural integrity of the nation. If the Southern strategy pushed the Republican Party into the camp of white nationalists, the Christian right’s self-understanding is shaped by an ideology of Christian nationalism. (Kivisto, 95)

These “world mastering fundamentalists” set themselves against “liberals, Hollywood, the media, the American Civil Liberties Union, and often, academics”, those they deem to be “enemies” who, because they are “hostile to religion and . . . are antipopulist” are therefore “fundamentally un-American“. [Compare the post on Americanism as an ideology and the treason of “un-Americanism”.] With such an outlook they (the fundamentalists) “reveal their anti-pluralist and thus intrinsically anti-democratic view of politics” (Rhys Williams). Continue reading “The Historical Road Leading Fundamentalist Christians to Trump”


2020-09-06

Historical Background to President Trump – the Republican Party’s Shift

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by Neil Godfrey

Peter Kivisto

This post begins a bare-bones outline of a few key historical developments that have brought us to where we are now. Anyone with a deep knowledge of U.S. history will find my treatment very basic indeed. I am using as a convenient source a book that sets out a basic overview of selected background developments that led to Trump’s ascendancy, Peter Kivisto‘s The Trump Phenomenon: How the Politics of Populism Won in 2016. (You can read the book online at Scribd. A couple of reviews will give you some idea of what others have seen as its strengths and weaknesses.) I am only selecting a few areas of Kivisto’s discussion in these posts. Developments in the media and political propaganda are most significant but I want deeper preparation before posting on that side of things. A related blog series is Fraser: From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump; also, America’s Radical Right in Context (Lipset Revisited). I have added hyperlinks copiously for the benefit of anyone (like me) who uses these sorts of outlines as springboards for further reading.

. . .

From World War 2 to the 1960s the two major political parties were both centrist:

DEMOCRATIC PARTY : Center-Left
a coalition of . . .
REPUBLICAN PARTY : Center-Right
a coalition of . . .
labour unions big business and traditional main street conservatives
leftists who had moved toward the political center from the New Deal forward fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and social liberals
Southern conservatives — the Dixiecrats a core of right-wing radicals, during the 1950s associated in particular with the John Birch Society, a virulently anti-communist organization that operated with secret cells and abounding in conspiracy theories about communist penetration of the federal government and other institutions.

On the John Birch Society:

Fred Koch

One of the founding members of the Society was Fred Koch, the founder of Koch Industries and the father of Charles and David. Party leaders saw these extremists as a threat to conservatism and undertook campaigns to contain rather than encourage them. Efforts were made, for example by William F. Buckley, to keep the Society’s members in particular and the extremist right in general out of influential roles in the party. However, over the course of several decades, as the success of the brothers Koch attests, the radical right has succeeded in reshaping the party and moving it far from its nineteenth-century roots. The turning point in the party’s remake began in the wake of the tumultuous 1960s — an era in which the combined impact of

the civil rights movement,

growing opposition to the Vietnam War,

and the counterculture

set the stage for what has played out for over a half-century later.

As Jane Mayer has chronicled in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right on the funding sources of the radical right, the Koch brothers are an important component of a much larger group of donors, including prominent family names like Bradley, Olin, and Scaife. Their collective attempt to reshape American conservatism into something considerably more reactionary was immeasurably aided by Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision opening the floodgates for “dark money” campaign funding.

(Kivisto, 88)

From Johnson’s Great Society to White Nationalism

Both passed with bipartisan support. (Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the legislation was advanced by the Democrat President Lyndon Johnson.) But in each case the Republican Party marshalled a larger percentage of its members in support of each bill than the Democrats did.

Why was there less support for these bills among Democrats? Answer: the Dixiecrat faction in the Democratic Party.

Compare the reactions to the Social Security Amendments Act (1965):

    • Republicans opposed it because they saw it as “creeping socialism”
    • A minority of Democrats also opposed it even though they had supported the idea of social security legislation in the 1930s — then such legislation was deemed of benefit to “their white constituents”.

Despite Republican support for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Johnson saw the writing on the wall: the Democratic coalition was about to unravel as the South, a once solidly Democratic region, was about to exit the party. Bill Moyers, then an aide to Johnson, reported that the President told him, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a very long time to come” (Moyers, 2004, p. 167).

The unravelling followed. Southern Democrats defected to the Republicans. Republican Richard Nixon implemented the “Southern strategy“:

For its part, the Republican Party opened its arms, with Richard Nixon implementing his “Southern strategy.” In researching a biography of Nixon, John A. Farrell discovered a document in which Nixon, during the 1968 presidential campaign, promised these new arrivals to the party that he “would retreat on civil rights and ‘lay off pro-Negro crap’ if elected” (2017, p. 9).

From Politico

The Republican Party of Lincoln was also sliding into another place:

At the same time, liberal and moderate Republicans elsewhere in the country were confronted with challenges from the right by opponents who were hostile to their centrism and their commitment to civil rights. Thus began what Purdum describes as “the long process by which the Party of Lincoln became the party of white backlash, especially |but not only] in the South” (2014b, p. 3).

Republican strategist Kevin Phillips foresaw the outcome clearly:

    • Blacks, given the right to vote by the Democratic Party, naturally supported the Democratic Party
    • Southern whites responded by flocking to the Republican Party

Also, the shift of the once Democratic South to a solid Republican base was secured . . .

    • As blacks continued to migrate to Northern states . . .
    • . . . Northern whites would migrate south, establishing a strong Republican base in the south.

Into the 1970s . . .

The 1970s set the stage for the final destruction of a center-right conservative party and the solidification of a reactionary one — a party in which people associated with the former were increasingly condemned by those in the latter camp as being Republicans in Name Only (Kabaservice, 2012).

Into the 1980s . . . 

The rise of Ronald Reagan to national prominence . . . in 1980 further signaled this rightward shift. Thus, Reagan launched his 1980 post-convention campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the brutal murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. Far from being there to memorialize their martyrdom, he was there to inform whites that he was on their side, using the coded language of states’ rights. The person who arranged this visit was Republican operative Paul Manafort, who would serve the Trump campaign until his Russian connections made it too problematic for him to continue in that role. His place in Republican politics from Reagan to Trump reflects a white nativism that has, arguably, defined the party ever since the implementation of the Southern strategy. It led to recurrently stoking racial fears and antagonisms, as with Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton (a convicted murderer who went on a crime spree while on furlough) television advertisements on behalf of his boss, George H. W. Bush. (Kivisto, 91f)

The bodies of slain civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner lie in an earthen dam June, 1964 just southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi. — The Intercept

The next two historical waves are the emergence of the Christian Right and then the reaction to Barack Obama’s election. Those developments will be discussed next.


Kivisto, Peter. 2017. The Trump Phenomenon: How the Politics of Populism Won in 2016. Bingley, UK: Emerald.



2020-09-01

The Shape of the New World Dawning?

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by Neil Godfrey

American readers closer to the mises en scène will be able to help this outsider more clearly focus his observations.

From here in Australia I see

    • a President of the U.S. who speaks out against one side involved in violent clashes there, and speaks defensively on behalf of the others involved and who are his supporters;
    • a President of the U.S. who blurs into one violent image both peaceful and violent protests (those whom his own supporters oppose) as if they were all one and the same and all violent and destructive;
    • a President who focuses almost to the exclusion of all else the violence and destruction of one side without at any time addressing the issues, the complaints, the causes both immediate and long-term, that has led to the protests in the first place;
    • following from the point above, a President who frames all the protests (all of them being portrayed as violent) as a “law and order” issue, that is, as nothing more than a situation that needs to be crushed by force.

Is the above a fair synopsis?

Oh, and one other thing that keeps bugging me. An Australian Prime Minister who happens to be a Pentecostal fundamentalist and a bit of a narcissist (Australian style) and comes across as a pet puppy keen to make a good impression for his master so has dutifully acted on his master’s wishes and called on an investigation into a prejudged assessment of China’s criminal negligence with respect to the coronavirus. That’s all fine except that China is now powerful enough to throw around the sort of bully beef we expect the U.S. to apply to disobedient small-fry. Now Australia is subject to early trade sanctions and other disincentives (putting a squeeze on our hitherto lucrative Chinese student intake into our universities) from its largest trading partner as well as “arbitrary” detention of its citizens who happen to be in Chinese territory. Nice one — that sort of thing is supposed to happen to “them”, not to “us”. I still envy New Zealand for maintaining a degree of independence that seems far too rare in modern Australian history.

Posts on Vridar have been somewhat patchy in regularity lately with extended family business taking over priorities at the moment, but the above thoughts have been playing on my mind. So here they are.


2020-08-30

conclusion … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The previous posts in this series:

This post concludes my overview of the festschrift to Thomas L. Thompson on his 80th birthday. I hope to post soon a link to a single PDF file of all of these posts. Over the coming months, from time to time, I would further like to cover some of the essays in more detail. The book is expensive and I do appreciate all involved in enabling me to receive a review copy. Hopefully, a less expensive paperback or e-version will be available before long, but till then and for those who are not as financial as they would like to be don’t forget your state and local libraries since most of them will be able to assist you with an interlibrary loan service. So with thanks to those who put this volume together and contributed to it, and to Thomas L. Thompson whose scholarship has been so influential in biblical studies (and of course on me among so many others), here is the final post in my overview discussion of Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.

. . .

Lisbeth Fried’s essay, “Can the Book of Nehemiah Be Used as an Historical Source, and If So, of What?“, builds on Thomas Thompson’s emphasis on “the importance of looking beyond the situation in which the biblical story is set to the situation in which the book may have been written” (p. 210).

Following in that path, we recognize that while the biblical book Ezra-Nehemiah is set in the Persian period, it was written over a long period of time. Much of it is definitely Hellenistic (Fried 2015a: 4-5; Finkelstein 2018); some of it may be Persian, however, and may be used as an historical source if used cautiously and if confirmed by corroborating documents. I test this hypothesis by examining the portrayal of Nehemiah as the Persian governor of Judea during the reign of Artaxerxes I. Is Nehemiah’s portrayal historical, i.e., does his portrayal match what we know in general about provincial governors under Achaemenid rule? (p. 210)

Fried leads readers through a step by step comparison of Nehemiah’s actions with those that Persian inscriptions inform us were typical of the actions and responsibilities of Persian governors: jurisdiction over the temple and its operations, control of temple funds (temples functioned as collection centres for the Persian empire), religious practices of the priests and people, and control over marriages in order to safeguard against the emergence of alliances that might threaten the security of those appointed to administer state power. So though a late composition the book of Nehemiah appears to be consistent practices of Persian governors from Egypt to Asia Minor.

In Ehud Ben Zvi’s “Chronicles’ Reshaping of Memories of Ancestors Populating Genesis” we encounter many instances where the books of Chronicles rewrite events found in Genesis and how we might expect the literati of the day to have been influenced in their perceptions of those events in the more culturally significant book of Genesis.

Reading Chronicles and identifying with the message conveyed by the Chronicler2 led, inter alia, to processes of drawing attention to or away from some events, characters or some of their features, and led to a reshaping and re-signifying of implicit or explicit mnemonic narratives. (p. 225)

Details that on the surface look rather pointless to the lay reader take on fascinating meaning as Zvi takes us through several of those “little details”: Why does Genesis generally speak of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” while Chronicles of “Abraham, Isaac and Israel”? Why in Genesis do we follow the adventures of Esau and Jacob while in Chronicles it is Esau and Israel? Do we detect here a subtle attempt to snatch from the Samaritans in the north the identity of Israel for the Judeans in the south? Compare also Abraham’s wife Keturah in Genesis; why in Chronicles is she called a concubine-wife? and why in Genesis do we read that she bore “to Abraham” children but in Chronicles she simply “bore children”? Why are the Genesis and Chronicles narratives about Er so different? Is there significance in the different ways “Adam” is introduced at the beginning of each book? Why does Chronicles find it necessary to merely set out a list of unadorned patriarchal names whereas Genesis introduced some anecdote on the significance of some of those names? Why does the Chronicler think it appropriate to make no mention at all of the Garden of Eden or Flood stories while rewriting other episodes in Genesis? And so on and so on. I found it a most interesting journey of discovery.

The penultimate chapter is by another scholar who has appeared before on Vridar, Philippe Wajdenbaum. Some readers of Vridar will be reminded of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis that Greek authors inspired the books of the Bible when they read Wajdenbaum’s “The Book of Proverbs and Hesiod’s Works and Days“. Debt to Thompson is once again acknowledged in this context:

T. L. Thompson (1992, 1999, 2001) and N. P. Lemche (2001 [1993]) have raised the possibility that the Hebrew Bible was produced in the Hellenistic era. There is no physical evidence for the Hebrew Bible before the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the spread of Hellenism in the Levant after Alexander’s conquest provides the best context for its creation. Thompson’s vision has elicited a paradigm shift in biblical studies, inspiring several scholars to posit a direct influence upon the redaction of several Hebrew Bible books of such Greek classical authors as Homer (Brodie 2001: 447-94; Louden 2011: 324; Kupitz 2014), Herodotus (Nielsen 1997; Wesselius 2002) and Plato (Wajdenbaum 2011; Gmirkin 2017). (p. 248)

Some Hesiod passages:

    • He does mischief to himself who does mischief to another, and evil planned harms the plotter most.
    • The idle man who waits on empty hope, lacking a livelihood, lays to heart mischief-making.
    • For a man wins nothing better than a good wife, and, again, nothing worse than a bad one.

There are “similarities of vocabulary between Hesiod and the Septuagint text of Proverbs . . . even though the latter greatly differs from the original Hebrew” so one might well suspect that the translators had been familiar with Hesiod’s Greek poem. Yet Wajdenbaum goes further and argues that “the original Hebrew text itself may have been influenced by Hesiod.” Wajdenbaum lists very many possibilities and acknowledges similar observations other scholars have made concerning Proverbs and Greek moralistic works (including Aesop and Aristotle).

Not only Proverbs but the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are also brought into the discussion as well as other Greek poets such as Theognis.

The final essay is “The Villain ‘Samaritan’: The Sāmirī as the Other Moses in Qur’anic Exegesis” by Joshua Sabi — the second chapter taking a look at the Qur’an. Sabi’s discussion is probably the most technical of all in this volume and not the easiest of reads for those not yet initiated into the highly abstract conceptual terminology. It is worth engaging with, however, in order to see a control instance of how a religious text both challenged and rewrote earlier scriptures. Such a case study potentially deepens any discussion of the changes in Jewish-Christian scriptures that most of us are more familiar with. How does one understand the literary creation of a new figure (in this case the Sāmirī) as a rival counterpart to Moses (at the time of the golden calf apostasy) and ancestor of the Samaritans?

Muslim exegetes have been – and still are – obsessed with the historicity of the figure of the Sāmirī. . . .

The novelty in Islamic Qur’anic exegesis is not how these biographical accounts came about, but how the identities are constructed and construed literarily. In the minds of the exegete the ambiguity of theSāmirī figure’s Qur’anic identity left him with no option but to venture into the realm of mythologized understanding of history according to which the Qur’an is both the eternal word of God and his message of salvation to mankind. The invention of such a figure with all the theological elements of iconoclastic theology‘ and literary anatomy of mythology was construed as history. Exegetes had to invent another Moses whose biography is a mimicry of the biblical and Qur’anic Moses. In their trying to solve the ambiguity of the Sāmirī’s story and his culpability, exegetes failed to see the Qur’an’s restorative approach to Scriptures as well as to humans’ fragile relations to God.(pp. 271-72)


Niesiolowski-Spanò, Lukasz, and Emanuel Pfoh, eds. 2020. Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.



2020-08-28

part 3 … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

Earlier posts in this series: 25th August 2020 and 27th August 2020.

Thomas Thompson . . . is a pioneer in questioning more or less weak historical reconstructions done by Old Testament scholars, reconstructions that were mainly based on biblical texts and only sometimes supported by a few arbitrarily selected extra-biblical data. I still remember how his Tübinger Dissertation on the historicity of the patriarchal narratives struck like a bomb in Heidelberg during the preparation stage of the second volume of Westermann’s commentary on Genesis. 

Then,

Later on Thompson extended and radicalized his historical scepticism concerning the Hebrew Bible. According to him, all the texts from Genesis to 2 Kings constitute a ‘mythic past’ composed by redactors of the Persian and Hellenistic periods from many traditions. They show no historiographical interest but are intended to construct a Judean or Samarian identity and to enfold a theological and philosophical worldview. — Rainer Albertz

. . .

We come now to the third section of Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity and the one that is of special interest to me . . . .

Part 3. Biblical Narratives

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The opening essay is by another scholar also of the University of Copenhagen whose work has been discussed before on Vridar, Ingrid Hjelm: “The Food of Life and the Food of Death in Texts from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East“. Hjelm interprets Genesis 1-3 intertextually with the Mesopotamian myth of Adapa, the book of Proverb’s discourse on Wisdom and Folly, and 1 Samuel’s narrative of Nabal and Abigail, finally extending even to thoughts on the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament.

I have a special interest in the Adapa myth as is surely evident from having posted fifteen times on it so far. It is about a pre-Flood mortal, Adapa, who is given perfect wisdom by the god Ea but not eternal life. Adapa offends the gods and is called to give account. The god Ea, who gave him wisdom, deceives him so that he unwittingly rejects the gift of eternal life offered by a higher deity, Anu. The details are quite different but the motifs are the same as we read in Genesis: a mortal being deceived by a divine agent, becoming wise but losing eternal life, the “sin” and a curse. There is surely some connection but exactly what that is is not immediately clear. Hjelm explores the questions common to both myths. The temple of the gods in the Adapa myth is replaced by the divinity’s garden in Genesis. Hjelm points out that Thompson himself has noted that the woman already “knows the good” before she eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that insight changes the way we read the story. Yet God has already planted the tree of life in the same garden, so why is it that God appeared from the outset (before “the fall”) to turn the attention of Adam and Eve from that tree? Asking such questions brings us even closer to the character of the interplay between the gods and Adapa in the Mesopotamian myth.

The second part of the essay is another fascinating examination of Wisdom and Folly in Proverbs vis à vis Abigail and Nabal (meaning “Folly”) in 1 Samuel 25, with once more the motif of eating specially prepared food. A snippet of the discussion:

In a comparative analysis of the goddesses Athirat, Qudshu, Tannit, Anat and Astarte in texts from the ancient Near East, inscriptions mentioning Asherah (and Yahweh) from Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud and Old Testament texts, Broberg finds so much similarity in the symbol of Ashera’s linking of trees, snakes, fertility and woman that it is plausible that McKinlay’s ‘agents of God’ hide an Ashera goddess (Broberg 2014: 50-64).19 The use of the plural forms in Gen. l:26’s and 3:22’s ‘let us’ and ‘like us’ functions as an inclusio around this hidden goddess (Broberg 2014: 64), who is present at the creation as god’s wife, but in the course of the narrative is transformed to become Adam’s wife as the ‘mother of all living’ (Gen. 3:20; Broberg 2014: 59; cf. also Wallace 1985: 158). A similar transformation takes place when Abigail as David’s wife ‘is moved into the ranks of the many wives’ (McKinlay 2014 [sic – 1999?]: 82).

If, as argued by Broberg (2014: 61), Genesis 2-4’s woman/Eve narratives contain a conscious dethronement of Asherah similar to the anti-Asherah bashing the in the books of Kings (e.g. 1 Kgs 18:19; 2 Kgs 21:7; 23:4-7), it is likely that Proverbs 1-9 and 1 Samuel 25 are written as contrasting narratives, aiming at transferring Asherah’s positive traits as mother of all living onto the female figure. As heir of the life-sustaining qualifications of the fertility goddess, the wise woman secures the good life and holds death in check. (pp. 171f. Broberg 2014 = a Masters thesis at University of Copenhagen. My highlighting in all quotations.)

Where does the Lord’s Supper enter this picture?

The study of ancient myths may also add to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a radical transformation of drinking from the ṣarṣaru cup of Isthar in Near Eastern covenant ideologies’ confirmation and remembrance of the covenant. (p. 173)

The artist’s imagination has reduced the gates to a far more manageable size than in the original narrative unless we are to imagine Samson here, as later rabbis did, as a monstrously large giant. Wikimedia Commons

But let’s move on. The next chapter pulls out for attention one of those very odd passages in Biblical narratives that seem to have no real connection with the surrounding text and seem to add nothing at all to the plot and appears to be nothing more than an outlandishly tall tale. It’s one of those “why did the author write that?” scenarios: “A Gate in Gaza: An Essay on the Reception of Tall Tales” by Jack M. Sasson.

Judges 16: 1 One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her. 2 The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.” 3 But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.

Sasson asks how such a story was understood by its ancient audience. We have no motif for Samson’s visit to Gaza; the feat defies credibility even for a strong-man (given the size of city gates later rabbis deduced Samson’s shoulders spanned dozens of cubits; add to the weight and size we have a steep climb and journey of tens of kilometres). Why do Bible authors sometimes resort to what surely must have been acknowledged to be obvious fictions?

. . . the exaggerations are themselves the focus of the story, giving them a ‘fictionality’ that encourages transposal into other forms of comprehension, such as a parable or a paradigm. In such accounts, narrators tend to sharpen implausibility by multiplying clues, their main intent being to promote the didactic via the entertaining. In antiquity, any Samson reader acquainted with fortified cities would know that city gates, not least because of their size, bulk and weight, were not transportable on the back of any one individual, however mighty. . . .

Elsewhere in Scripture, narrators also use diverse tactics to alert perceptive readers or audiences on the fictionality of what lies before them by assigning moralistic or whimsical names to characters that no parents would wish on their children. Such a tactic is obvious in Genesis 14 with its series of the named kings of Sodom (Bera, ‘In Evil’), Gomorrah (Birsha,‘In Wickedness’) and one of their allies (Bela, ‘Swallower’, likely king of Zoar). (pp. 184f)

Continue reading “part 3 … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


2020-08-27

continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The first part of this review is at https://vridar.org/2020/08/25/biblical-narratives-archaeology-historicity-essays-in-honour-of-thomas-l-thompson/

. . .

Continuing the section Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology . . . 

Jesper Høgenhaven’s chapter explores evidence in the Qumran texts for how Second Temple Judeans thought about the Biblical writings. We can be puzzled by the way biblical passages were joined to one another to create new texts (Thomas Thompson, Høgenhaven informs us, spoke of a ‘Copenhagen Lego hypothesis’ with regard to 4Q175). An early quotation in the essay jumped out at me since it addresses the basic method of gospel interpretation by Maurice Mergui and Nanine Charbonnel whose books I have been discussing on this blog. (I will be returning to them both in coming months.)

The late Philip R. Davies made the following pointed remark on scholars striving to collect the elements necessary for writing a ‘sectarian history’ based on Qumran scriptural commentaries (pesharim):

The first direction in exegesis of the pesharim must always be towards their midrashic function, for until we understand how these commentaries work – and that means as midrashim – we have no warrant to plunder them for historical data, especially given that (a) no continuous tradition can be established as lying behind them and (b) where they do contain – as we know that they do (I think in particular of 4QpNah) – some historical information, any kind of plausible analogy we could invoke would warn us that it will be mixed up with invention, will be distorted, garbled and anachronistic. (Davies 1989: 27-8)

(pp. 101f. The Davies 1989 link is to the Open Access book at Project Muse)

Amen. I recall Liverani’s observation about lazy historians running with a narrative that looks like history without too much second thought. Investigating the genre of a source ought to be the first priority of any historical inquiry.

So Høgenhaven surveys the way Israel’s past is utilized in various Qumran texts. He concludes that there is little conceptual difference between myths of ancient times and recent historical experiences. Metaphor and history are blurred in a way that it is not always obvious to modern readers which is which. Stories are rewritten, reinterpreted, rationalized, expanded, and commented upon as their functions vary over time. History is salvation history (“or ‘perdition history’), and along with its dualistic motifs, discerning what texts meant to readers at any particular time can be a challenge. Høgenhaven’s concluding reference to “renewed and repentant ‘Israel’ or the faithful and obedient remnant of Israel” as a stock identifying motif for the creators of the texts and their audiences links up with a dominant theme in Thompson’s The Mythic Past.

2 heads: John Hyrcanus II and John the Baptist

Next essay is by Gregory L. Doudna, another scholar some of whose work (especially on Qumran and the DSS) has been addressed here. This time Doudna takes on the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. After having read a variety of cases for the passage being an interpolation by a Mandean or Christian hand and other suggestions that the passage is definitely Josephan but straining at ways to reconcile Josephus’s chronology with Jesus, I learn now that there is yet another possible explanation for the various curiosities raised by the account. I admit I approached this chapter with some scepticism but by the time I had finished had to concede that I think Doudna makes a very good case that Josephus’s John the Baptist report is “a chronologically dislocated story of the death of Hyrcanus II”:

In the same way [as another apparently dislocated account], Josephus’s John the Baptist story reads as a doublet or different version of Hyrcanus II chronologically dislocated to the time of the wrong Herod. In this case Josephus did not place the two versions of the death of Hyrcanus II close together in the same time setting as in some of the other cases of doublets. If Josephus had done that, the doublet in this case would have been recognized before now. Instead, Josephus mistakenly attached one of the traditions of the death of Hyrcanus II to the wrong Herod, just as he separately mistakenly attached documents to the wrong Hyrcanus. (p. 132)

I hope to discuss Doudna’s chapter in more detail in a future post.

The next chapter by Jim West is a “re-evaluation” of

the book by Thomas Thompson titled The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David and discusses the appropriateness of his methodology, the correctness of his interpretation, and the continuing importance of his contribution on the topic of the historical Jesus. (p. 138)

West laments the lack of more general scholarly interest in The Messiah Myth given that it has, he claims, been taken up by

an army of ‘Jesus Mythicists’ who latched onto Thompson’s work as support for their view that Jesus actually never existed and who were bolstered by Thompson’s book. (p. 139)

Continue reading “continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”