2020-11-25

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith

Over the summer and autumn of 2020, I’ve been catching up and rereading several important books on the New Testament, especially those that have approached their subjects from a sociological standpoint. Those works led me to others (sometimes the bibliography is more worthwhile than the book itself), and so on.

I remember reading Jonathan Z. Smith and noticing what he had actually written did not correspond well with what Robert M. Price had told us he wrote. Price has continued to insist for many years that Smith didn’t understand Weberian ideal types and that if an instance of a type did not conform exactly to the type, then we had to discard the instance.

Yet, in Drudgery Divine we observe in Smith’s writing an honest effort to categorize unique events within frameworks of classification. In fact, he pushed against “uniqueness” as a modern concept, too often used as an excuse to mystify, a lazy justification not to compare, for example, one event with another.

Let us be clear at the outset. There is a quite ordinary sense in which the term ‘unique’ may be applied in disciplinary contexts. When the historian speaks of unique events, the taxonomist of the unique differentium that allows the classification of this or that plant or animal species, the geographer of the unique physiognomy of a particular place, or the linguist of each human utterance as unique, he or she is asserting a reciprocal notion which confers no special status, nor does it deny–indeed, it demands–enterprises of classification and interpretation. A is unique with respect to B, in this sense, requires the assertion that B is, likewise, unique with respect to A, and so forth. In such formulations ‘uniqueness’ is generic and commonplace rather than being some odd point of pride. In my language, I would prefer, in such instances, the term ‘individual’, which permits the affirmation of difference while insisting on the notion of belonging to a class. [pp. 36-37, emphasis mine]

He tackled the subject of categorization and classification in greater depth in his 1982 work, Imagining Religion. When trying to explain what a religion is and how one particular religion fits within a framework of categorization, we often stumble on the problem of necessary and sufficient criteria. He wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)”


2020-10-24

Is This Any Way to Elect a President? The Electoral College and Minority Rule

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by Tim Widowfield

It is happening again. A curtain of dread hangs over the United States. Will we have yet another election in which millions of votes by American citizens go for naught simply because they live in the wrong states? Or will Joe Biden manage to win by a big enough margin to overcome structural deficits in swing states like Florida and Ohio?

And for heaven’s sake, how did we end up with such a bizarre system in the first place? On the right side of the political spectrum, an unending stream of purple punditry with its requisite wailing and garment-rending would lead one to believe that both the Senate and the Electoral College arose solely from the Founders’ belief in republicanism. The brain trust assures us that we have “a republic, not a democracy,” and (gasp!) if we degenerate into a democracy, all hell will break loose.

Roll the Bones

To do away with either or both of these institutions, they intone, is a bridge too far. A 2019 column by Sumantra Maitra at The Federalist is an excellent case in point.

After crossing the river, Caesar famously said Alea Eacta Est [sic], or the die is cast. Thus crossing the Rubicon is now considered a revolutionary act that aims to destroy the status quo, structure, and balance, from which there’s no return. The only way forward is through chaos.

The current Democratic presidential frontrunners, with their war cries of Electoral College abolition and reduction of the voting age, signify another crossing the Rubicon moment. That’s because without the Senate, and without the Electoral College, there would be no states in the United States of America. Essentially, there would be no republic anymore. And if history is a good teacher, every time there was direct democracy, it has led to a Caesar—or worse.

I refer to this essay as a nearly perfect example, not only because it typifies modern bombastic, pseudointellectual conservatism, with its requisite citations of irrelevant historical precedents (while in this case, hilariously misspelling alea jacta est), but also because it consistently fails to define its own terms. To evaluate whether the removal of the Electoral College would destroy the republic and somehow create, as Maitra warns, a “direct democracy,” we would need to understand what the founders meant by a “republic.”

In fact, while many conservatives in the U.S. will gladly tell you at every opportunity that we have a republic and not a democracy, they rarely will tell you what that means. They will, of course, imply that a republic is better and will sternly warn you that democracy is nothing but “mob rule.” But what are the characteristics of a republic? What are its fundamental principles? Continue reading “Is This Any Way to Elect a President? The Electoral College and Minority Rule”


2020-08-25

Cultural Context and Confirmation Bias: Why We Loved Edward T. Hall

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by Tim Widowfield

At some point in the not-too-distant future (we hope), you’ll be able to buy a new book, an anthology of papers related to Jesus mythicism. In it, you’ll find essays from the usual suspects, including Neil and me.

While neither of us would characterize himself as a mythicist (I still think of myself as an agnostic on the matter), we still hold that it’s a viable option that needs more research. Further, we’ve both been fairly outspoken on the poor scholarship and bad faith continually demonstrated by many anti-mythicists. Good theologians often make poor historians.

My paper is entitled: “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey.” Just to whet your appetite, here’s a small excerpt.


I would call your attention to perhaps the most common error in NT studies: confirmation bias. Our minds are wired to seek data that proves our arguments, which helps explain why Casey and many other scholars have discovered concepts like high-context culture, but have not followed through with due diligence.

If they had, they would have discovered that modern scholars have called Hall’s framework into question, and for good reason. It turns out that despite widespread approval from armchair sociologists, business gurus, and human resource directors, we lack the sort of research that definitively shows Hall was correct. A closer examination shows that he often relied on intuition and anecdotal evidence. In his writings, he neither described nor mentioned his methodology. Peter Cardon writes:   Continue reading “Cultural Context and Confirmation Bias: Why We Loved Edward T. Hall”


2020-07-04

The Darkest Side of White Supremacy: The Hanging of Martin Robinson

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by Tim Widowfield

By the time Union troops had begun to make deeper incursions into the western frontier of the Confederacy, well before they cut the South in two by taking command of the Mississippi, the acting abilities of captured rebels had gained legendary status. They lied about enemy strength, location, troop movements, and command structure. They told fabulous tales of starving and discouraged comrades and said they’d rather lose their liberty among the bluecoats than die like dogs in the muddy trenches.

Their ability to recount such stories, which tugged at the heartstrings, did not seem to upset the Northern troops. Instead, they marveled and often laughed at their resourceful Confederate cousins, slapping a thigh and shouting, “Oh, that Johnny Reb!”

It was all part of the game. White soldiers generally forgave other white soldiers. Why, after all, blame a good person for resorting to subterfuge when their lives and homes were in danger? American culture, since whites first began to settle the discovered territories of Massachusetts and Virginia, tacitly accepted the fact that white people are mostly good. As proof, we may point to the gift of white civilization, which we bestow upon all who fall beneath our gentle heel. And there’s more.

A hanging tree

If you search the web today, you can, for example, learn much from conservative thinkers who trumpet the good fortune of slaves who were taken from Africa to live in the greatest country on Earth. How else would they have been led to Christianity? Surely, white apologists tell us, masters would not abuse their valuable property. It just stands to reason. And can you imagine all the bountiful food and fresh air? They were clearly better off. Such attitudes lie at the root of white complaints about the ingratitude of inferior people.

As you might suspect, the playful disinformation game was strictly a whites-only affair. You should understand that white superiority wasn’t (and isn’t) based on the idea that whites score higher than anyone else on the intelligence tests they have written. A careless reader who skims the surface of caucasian apologia might think we reached the top of the pecking order thanks to our brainpower.

But intelligence plays only a minor role here. The manly virtues of strength, courage, righteousness, trustworthiness, and honor mark the true nature of the white gentleman. Here we find the foundations of the benefit of the doubt we still extend exclusively to whites. When the gentleman resorts to violence to defend his property or his supposed honor, we presume he must have had good reason. When a white man brandishes a weapon, we must do our utmost to hear him out and talk him down.

White superiority is chiefly about moral superiority, not intellectual superiority. After all, the inferior person may frequently demonstrate shrewdness, using innate intelligence for dark purposes. Presumption of innocence does not apply here. Heaven help the sly person of color who outsmarts the morally superior white man.

Heaven did not help Martin Robinson, an African American guide, hanged on March 1, 1864. I first encountered this sad tale while reading the second volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. You can find a somewhat fuller account in Historic Records of the Fifth New York Cavalry, a day-to-day chronicle of the regiment by the good Reverend Louis N. Boudrye. Continue reading “The Darkest Side of White Supremacy: The Hanging of Martin Robinson”


2020-06-19

Notice: Site Maintenance

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by Tim Widowfield

Hi, everyone. I just wanted our readers to know that we’re going to make the transition to a different WordPress theme today. You may see some odd behavior from time to time as we adjust the new theme to have a similar look and feel to the old theme.

If all goes well, you will finally see a much better, more readable mobile version of Vridar. (Our old version was not mobile-friendly at all, and we apologize for that.)

Thanks for your patience, and thank you for reading Vridar.

–Tim


2020-04-12

Symmetry in the Legends Surrounding Jesus’ Birth and Death

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by Tim Widowfield

[Note: I’m offering the following as a diversion to get our minds off this terrible timeline. –taw]

William Blake, (1757-1827), The Resurrection, c. 1805

A few years back, I published a post concerning the date of Jesus’ birth (Why Is Christmas on the 25th of December?), in which we briefly touched on the idea of symmetry between Jesus’ birth and death. I quoted Augustine, who noted the belief, current at the time, that Christ’s conception occurred on March 25.

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5)

Over time, I’ve become convinced that we can gain more insight into the history of the legends applied to Jesus by examining the symmetry between the incarnation and death legends. Here are a few points to mull over. Continue reading “Symmetry in the Legends Surrounding Jesus’ Birth and Death”


2020-01-15

Your Comments and Our Spam Problem

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by Tim Widowfield

Please accept our sincere apologies if any of your comments aren’t posted to the blog immediately. Recently, we have been weathering a spam tsunami, and our current settings may be triggering some false positives. As we work things out, you could experience delays.

If a significant amount of time goes by, and you still haven’t seen your comment appear, drop us a line via email or ping us on Facebook.

  • Neil: neilgodfrey1 [AT] gmail [DOT] com
  • Tim: widowfield [AT] gmail [DOT] com
  • https://www.facebook.com/vridar/

As always, thanks for reading Vridar. We always appreciate your input and your support.


2019-12-25

Memory and History: Christmas Football in No Man’s Land

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by Tim Widowfield

We tend to forget that before the First World War broke out, pundits of all stripes debated as to whether workers in European nations would actually fight. That is, would they align themselves to their nations or to their class? In the end, the socialists decisively lost that argument, with the overwhelming majority of workers marching to the frontlines, dying in unheard-of numbers in a futile struggle.

Culture, language, religion, and the land itself bound workers to the nation-state, whether or not the existing governments protected their interests. The common bond of labor meant little in comparison to the granfalloon of the state.

Still, one can hardly blame the intelligentsia, the ruling classes, the capitalists, the bankers, and others for doubting whether the lower classes would fight. After all, the upper classes of Europe and America had enjoyed a long tradition of camaraderie and mutual understanding. The Tsar of Russia had much more in common — culturally, economically, and politically — with a factory owner in Paris than with some faceless peasant breaking his back in Ukraine.

One can easily understand the French workers’ response in 1914 since the very survival of France was at stake. But what of the British? Would they fight for “the integrity of Belgium”? In short order it became clear: They would fight and die in the trenches alongside the French.

From the start, the fighting was furious and deadly, with casualty rates unknown in previous wars, including the American Civil War, which had hinted at the coming horrors of mechanized, industrialized warfare. So when the nations in the Western Front agreed to a Christmas truce, the combatants on the ground appreciated the time figuratively to lick their wounds.

Neither side, apparently, had expected what happened next. Continue reading “Memory and History: Christmas Football in No Man’s Land”


2019-12-14

A “Be Best” Dimmerick

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by Tim Widowfield

Melania said, “It’s mind-numbing,
This incessant media drumming.
I’ve explained it all fully.
Barron must not be bullied,
But that bitch, Greta, she had it coming.”


2019-12-11

Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies

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by Tim Widowfield

The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.

–Harry S. Truman

You have to start somewhere. That’s a distinct problem. How do we go about learning a subject as vast as biblical studies or biblical history? We could dive right in with some of the classics of text and form criticism, but we probably won’t fully understand them, because we don’t have the proper foundations.

Some of you may have taken survey courses at university in world history or American (or whatever your native country might happen to be) history. These courses tend to serve two purposes. First, they provide a means for students majoring in other studies to have some sort of foundation in “how we got here.” Second, they serve as a jumping-off point for those of us who continue on to our degrees in history.

Learning and unlearning

Every historian (amateur and professional) in America knows or at least should know our dirty little secret: that freshman history students face a serious disadvantage, because they must unlearn most of what they learned in high school. They must clear away the happy, feel-good history in which we are always the good guys and everything turns out well in the end. Imagine, for a moment, that you had learned medieval alchemy in high school only to discover in Chemistry 101 at your university that you don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Survey courses in biblical studies or NT studies in some universities purport to do the same sort of thing. That is, they expose students to another way of thinking about the Bible other than what they learned in Sunday School. I took such a class in 1978 at Ohio University, and in many ways, I would consider it a positive experience. However, I would later discover that much of what I had accepted as bedrock could not stand up to stronger scrutiny.

I admit that my work in history in the mid-1980s at the University of Maryland should have alerted me to the obvious problems with biblical studies. However, it took the work of the so-called minimalists to push me in the right direction. I stumbled onto Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past completely by accident while wandering around a Barnes and Noble somewhere in Atlanta. (My job took me on frequent road trips back in the ’90s and the aughts.) The book (in hardback) apparently had not sold well, and they marked it down significantly. Lucky me.

Reading and rereading

Philip Davies (1945-2018)

Thompson asked questions I had never considered. It soon became clear that I had never asked these sorts of questions, because I had been properly trained not to. Beyond that, American education generally favors the notion of “moderation” as a virtue in and of itself. Surely only an extremist would question the historicity of Moses or Solomon. And extremism in the pursuit of anything is a vice. Surely.

Despite my proper training, one simple question — “How do we know?” — began to gnaw at me, the way a steady drip wears away stone. For me, Thompson more than anyone else gave me permission (so to speak) to ask even more dangerous questions. However, it took me longer to get up to speed with Philip R. Davies. (See Neil’s tribute to the late, great scholar here.)

For example, I had started In Search of Ancient Israel but never finished it until this past summer. Longtime Vridar readers will recall that Davies, and especially this book had a huge impact on Neil. You can find much more detail about this work over at the vridar.info site. For more related posts here on vridar.org, follow the tags above. (Below, I’ll be referring to the second edition of this work.) Continue reading “Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies”


2019-10-28

What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Note: I wrote this post a few years back and left it lying in the draft pile, unable to come up with a satisfactory conclusion until earlier this year. Our forecast calls for snow tomorrow (something those of us who live in RVs would rather not see), so a post about precipitation and weather prediction might be apt. –TAW

yellow, Umbrella, bad weather
Yellow umbrella in bad weather (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[This post begins our hard look at Chapter 6, “The Hard Stuff” in Carrier’s Proving History. — specifically, the section entitled “Bayesianism as Epistemic Frequentism.”]

In the 1980s, the history department building on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus had famous quotations painted on its hallway walls. Perhaps they still do.

The only quote I can actually still remember is this one:

“The American people never carry an umbrella. They prepare to walk in eternal sunshine.” — Alfred E. Smith

I used to enjoy lying to myself and say, “That’s me!” But the real reason I never carry an umbrella is not that I’m a naive Yankee optimist, but rather because I know if I do, I will leave it somewhere. In this universe, there are umbrella receivers and umbrella donors. I am a donor.

Eternal sunshine

So to be honest, the reason I check the weather report is to see if I should take a jacket. I’ve donated far fewer jackets to the universe than umbrellas. But then the question becomes, what does it actually mean when a weather forecaster says we have a 20% chance of rain in our area this afternoon? And what are we supposed to think or do when we hear that?

Ideally, when an expert shares his or her evaluation of the evidence, we ought to be able to apply it to the situation at hand without much effort. But what about here? What is our risk of getting rained on? In Proving History, Richard Carrier writes:

When weathermen tell us there is a 20% chance of rain during the coming daylight hours, they mean either that it will rain over one-fifth of the region for which the prediction was made (i.e., if that region contains a thousand acres, rain will fall on a total of two hundred of those acres before nightfall) or that when comparing all past days for which the same meteorological indicators were present as are present for this current day we would find that rain occurred on one out of five of those days (i.e., if we find one hundred such days in the record books, twenty of them were days on which it rained). (Carrier 2012, p. 197)

These sound like two plausible explanations. The first sounds pretty “sciency,” while the second reminds us of the frequentist definition of probability, namely “the number of desired outcomes over the total number of events.” They’re certainly plausible, but do they have anything to do with what real weather forecasters do?

Recently, I came across an article on this subject by a meteorologist in Jacksonville, Florida, written back in 2013. He even happened to use the same percentage. In “What does 20% chance of rain really mean?” Blake Matthews writes: Continue reading “What’s the Difference Between Frequentism and Bayesianism? (Part 3)”


2019-10-14

Testing the Water — Dimmericks

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by Tim Widowfield

Longtime readers of Vridar may recall my “Bad Five-Line Poems.” As you know, a true limerick is not simply a poem that follows the form AABBA; it must also be dirty. Since a “clean limerick” is an oxymoron, we must call them something else.

I’ve been writing politically charged bad five-line poems on Facebook for a few years now, using the term “#Dimmerick.” (My wife often calls me “Dim,” and not without reason. Several old friends from my enlisted days still sometimes call me Dimmy or Dimmer.)

At any rate, for various reasons, I now believe that Facebook is a terrible place to post original content. I’m going to try them out here. And if I can find the inspiration, I’ll try to make them a regular feature.

Continue reading “Testing the Water — Dimmericks”


2019-09-09

Nuclear Power: What’s Behind the Latest Propaganda Blitz?

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by Tim Widowfield

Hardly a day goes by without somebody on social media sternly reminding me that we desperately need nuclear power in order to fight climate change. I’m always tempted to respond that I agree, but only if they happen to have a time machine — because, if you really wanted to fight climate change and stop runaway global warming with nukes you should have started building 20 years ago. We’re too late.

Of course, I don’t actually bother responding, since one cannot dissuade a true believer. And one can only stomach so many lectures about the incredible safety record of nuclear power. The safety argument comes to the fore, because so many people think atomic energy isn’t safe. They’re wrong, but the underlying argument is only so much theater.

Large numbers of people would like to stop fracking, and they have plenty of good reasons for it. Fracking causes earthquakes and contaminates groundwater. It wastes huge amounts of fresh water. Its continued use makes petroleum less expensive, which encourages the use of carbon-generating gasoline and diesel fuel.

It’s dangerous. Yet, despite all of the protests and no matter how many videos we see with people setting their tap water on fire, fracking continues.

The same goes for coal-fired power plants. Ditto for pipelines. Nobody wants coal burning in their backyards. So, naturally, we build them in poor areas. We run the pipelines through Native American burial grounds so as not to disturb nice, clean white people in the suburbs.

Nuclear Boondoggle in SC (ieee.org)

The myth that nuclear power’s decline in the US came about because of the fears of an irrational public continues to persist. However, if the “bewildered herd” had any real influence, fracking would certainly cease. And truth be told, the only reason coal is finally dying has everything to do with economics.

Two recent news stories will serve to demonstrate what’s really going on. First, I would direct your attention to these news items: “U.S. Nuclear Comeback Stalls as Two Reactors Are Abandoned” (NYT) and “A Dissenter’s Tale of South Carolina’s Nuclear Project Fiasco” (ENR). The short story is that the South Carolina nuclear project at Jenkinsville failed to make it to the halfway point of construction. This failure drove Westinghouse into bankruptcy. And finally, consumers had to pay for most of it, since in our country, profits are private and losses are public.

Here is the key point: Continue reading “Nuclear Power: What’s Behind the Latest Propaganda Blitz?”


Vridar Maintenance

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by Tim Widowfield

You may have noticed that Vridar has been down from time to time recently. We have some technical issues that I’m going to try to address today. As a result, we may be offline for significant periods.

By the way, thanks to all the Vridarians who have donated to the cause. You have no idea how much it has helped. Thank you!

–Tim


Updated at 17:50 GMT

We have successfully upgraded our server. Thanks to your donations, we were able to add RAM. If we’re lucky, our MySQL instance will behave and stop crashing.