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movie review – shadowless sword

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Pour qu’une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.

Gustave Flaubert

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The altogether too irreproachable So-Ha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve done a couple of movie reviews in the past, and I think I might do them more regularly in the future, just to give some play to my more creative writing side.

The Korean film Shadowless Sword (filmed in China) begins with warfare and a fighting heroine Mae Young-Ok, who unlike La Pucelle in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, doesn’t need voices from heaven or magical powers to help her. This is a modern (2005) movie, though set in the tenth century (presumably the Christian dating is for we westerners’ benefit), and so the heroines are tough, highly skilled sword-fighters with flawless grace, spotless costumes and peerless beauty, which of course I’m all in favour of. Korean women can do anything!

At the outset, we’re told that the old Korean land of Balhae fell to the Georan, a northern tribe, in 926. The Georans renamed the area, but the vanquished people regrouped and fought to recover their homeland. Again, not unlike the situation in La Pucelle’s France in the fifteenth century… And a quick check of Korean history tells me this isn’t MiddleEarth make-beliieve. Balhae, which indeed came to an end in 926, was an empire that covered northern Korea and southern Manchuria for some 300 years. Not that this film’s director, Young-jun Kim, intends to be any more historically accurate than Shakespeare. Billed on SBS as a martial arts film (but it isn’t really, it’s a historical fantasy), Shadowless Sword takes as many liberties with the basic laws of physics, not to mention credibility, as it does with history. Swashbucklers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, disappear in a puff of chemicals, and swat enemy combatants like flies in battle scenes that would leave poor old Richard III scratching his hump in wild surmise. All of which I happily forgive in view of the film’s real heroine, the inscrutable Yeon So-Ha….

In the opening scene, Balhae’s capital Sanggyeong is raided by the Eastern Georan ‘Killer Blade Army’ under their leaders Gun Hwa-Pyung and Mae Young-Ok, and the crown prince is killed. The Balhaens, if that’s what they call themselves, are in crisis, and need to find a new leader, preferably of royal blood, to carry on the fight. This is a problem, as the Killer Blade Army seem intent on murdering every last member of the royal family, but there’s one possibly promising candidate, an exiled prince named Jeong-hyun. Balhae’s PM (probably not elected) sends the nation’s premier swordswoman, the aforementioned So-Ha, to seek out the prince and offer him the kingdom. So-Ha is of course totally stunning as well as prodigiously disciplined and effortlessly talented – probably better suited to recapture the greatness of the dynasty than any male… but her role is to serve.

She finds the quondam prince in a far-flung backwater, trading in the black market under the name of Sosam. When she makes enquiries about his real name, he tries to bump her off via his gang of thugs, which sets up the next scene of choreographed mayhem, this time played half for laughs. So-Ha then confronts Jeonghyun with the situation, that he must take up the role of king. The somewhat embittered Jeonghyun is unimpressed – considering that his motto now is ‘survive no matter what’, why would he take up the apparently lost cause of the Balhaeans? With that answer, he disappears in a burst of fire and smoke, as you do. But he’s not out of trouble, as his beaten-up gang has discovered his identity, and, at the same time, the Killer Blade Army have arrived in the region to dispose of the last remaining royal. Of course So-Ha arrives in time to rescue the prince, whereupon Mae Young-Ok arrives to kill him off. Appropriately, as the bad guy, she’s just slightly less beautiful than So-Ha. They exchange pleasantries – ‘great to meet you at last, I’ve heard so much about you..’ Then there are some attempted negotiations – ‘hand over the prince and nobody else’ll get killed’. The gang leader, a comic character, tries to team up with Mae Young-Ok and the KBA, in the hope of profit, but is slaughtered for his pains, to impress upon us the ruthlessness of the bad guys. In the ensuing violence So-Ha urges Jeonghyun to make a getaway, thus further binding him to her. There follows a lengthy chase over rooftops in the dark with the usual flying and acrobatics and swordplay, but of course they escape, and their relationship, still shaky and suspicious, starts to develop. They retire to a tavern, where the worldly Jeonghyun tempts our squeaky-clean heroine with alcohol and food, to no avail of course, she’s has no such material needs. In fact, this is one of the more interesting scenes, which takes it beyond a mere ‘martial arts’ movie (in fact it is described as belonging to the broad genre of wuxia, which literally means ‘martial arts hero’, a category that So-Ha fits squarely into, a category that includes popular literature, opera, TV and video games).

A group of uniformly clad individuals enter the tavern – their slightly outlandish outfits broadly represent the Georan style in the movie. Jeonghuyn recognises them as another of the ‘gangs’, who are are out for trouble because their leader has been killed. So-Ha, not much interested, suggests they move on, as they’re in constant danger. Our princeling, feeling trapped by this stranger who’s trying to force him into kingship, stands on his dignity, saying that nobody can tell him when to stay or go, and in an access of frustration, he hurls his cup at the gang sitting nearby. They react in the usual low-key but totally ominous fashion of martial-arts types, standing up and asking what might be the matter. Jeonghuyn, apparently improvising, says that his boss, indicating So-Ha, wants to ask if their leader died due to sexual over-indulgence. This of course leads to a confrontation, but before things escalate, a female figure, the former leader’s daughter, floats down from the ceiling, demanding to know what’s going on (I like how these female figures are given such prominence in what is clearly a patriarchal ancient society, a modern twist designed to appeal to both sexes). One of the gang members tells her what So-Ha is alleged to have said, whereupon she shoots the (male) messenger, a reminder of the arbitrariness of ‘justice’ in this world. The daughter, or spirit, than asks So-Ha to repeat what she ‘said’, whereupon the two women retire to the forest, not in the ‘let’s step outside and settle this man-to-man’ fashion of your Rambo type, but to sort things out rationally and truthfully. The spirit-daughter is made aware that it’s Jeonghuyn who’s causing trouble, but that he’s to be forgiven as he’s potentially the saviour of the kingdom. Alternatively, So-Ha may have told her a cock-and-bull tale… In any case the scene reverses old values: the male is infantile, the women are wise, and their cool heads must prevail.

Meanwhile, the KBA leader, Gun, is being castigated by the Georan leadership for not having captured Jeonghuyn or dealt with So-Ha. They’re also annoyed with Gun for his nasty habit of killing off the royal princes, when they want to bring them onside, to bring peace to the country. Gun, though, is driven by family and tribal revenge, as we see through a flashback of his father being tortured and killed before his eyes, and through his regular remarks about family honour counting for everything – the usual primitivist prescription. ‘If you want to achieve something big, you need to control your vengeful spirit,’ the royal courtier tells Gun, in one of the film’s most resonant lines.

Mae Young-Ok is in hot pursuit of our heroes, who are moving from resting place to resting place, all the while talking and arguing about evil spirits and the role of the sword in everyday life, with Jeonghuyn sometimes lashing out at the demands being made on him. While passing through a market town he makes a break for it, but is caught by one of the KBA leaders, at the same time that Mae Young-Ok catches up with So-Ha. There follows the obligatory martial arts scenes, with swordplay and magic and comedy. So-Ha bests Mae Young-Ok, who lives to fight another day, while Jeonghuyn comprehensively slaughters his adversary – another milestone on the road to kingship. The pair reunite and flee, chased by the KBA. Just before they’re caught, they jump in the lake, which leads to underwater swordfighting, which starts to make me wonder if this is all based on real events. At one point Jeonghuyn looks like drowning, but trusty magical So-Han gives him the kiss of life. They eventually escape through the sewers or something, where they have another heart-to-heart about kingship, duty and destiny, rudely interrupted by the magical arrival of Gun. More unbelievable swordplay ensues, with no conclusion – the good guys make their escape, with Jeonghuyn wounded in the back, and Gun is left looking murderous and steadfast.

In the next scene, the two bad guys contemplate their failure, and Mae Young-Ok is given one last chance to kill So-Ha. Meanwhile, So-Ha tends Jeonghuyn’s wound, the second serious wound in the back he’s suffered. Jeonghuyn makes light of it, but So-Ha reminds him of his youth, before his exile, when he fought bravely for the dynasty. Then we have flashback of the battle in which he received his first wound, and where, as So-Ha reminds him, he received the title of ‘General Splendour’ and the acclaim of the people. Clearly So-Ha knows more than one might expect, and all the while she’s trying to push towards acceptance of his destiny. Her faith in him, of course, comes with a degree of sexual tension.

Once Jeonghuyn has sufficiently recovered they travel on through the countryside disguised as Georans. They witness the suffering of the people and the brutality of the Georan overlords, all intended to sway Jeonghuyn to the side of righteousness. At the next resting-place, he starts practising his swordsmanship; he’s falling under the spell of the shadowless sword, apparently. Shortly after this, at a stream where Jeonghuyn catches fish, they’re ambushed by Mae Young Ok and her band. In spite of being sitting ducks, Mae Young-Ok’s gang misses them with their arrows – incredibly incompetent for a super-warrior. So we have another chase, with magical flights through the trees, and another inconclusive clash of the two woman-warriors. Somehow the good guys fight off the bad guys, but So-Ha has been struck by an envenomed dart, and she begins to weaken. This is the occasion for another piece of moralising, as So-Ha insists that she be left behind, for Jeonghuyn must continue onto his destiny. Jeonghuyn though, argues that if it is a kingly duty to leave his man behind to die, while preserving himself, then he wants nothing to do with kingly duties. So-Ha relents and allows herself to assisted.

They arrive at the home of a man So-Ha calls her uncle, who greets Jeonghuyn as a royal prince. So-Ha collapses, the venom is discovered, and she’s given no chance of recovery.

In the next scene we’re at Georan HQ, where they’re concerned that So-Ha’s uncle is raising an army against them. Gun’s men, the Killer Blade Army, having failed in their task, are to be replaced by the Golden Bow Army. Gun and Mae Young-Ok are pretty unhappy about this, but the Georan PM is adamant. However, he forces Mae Young-Ok to sleep with him, making vague promises to give her another chance. Gun, seeing this, remembers the promise that he made to his faithful warrior-servant, that once all the royal children were killed, they would create their own dynasty together. He’s not a happy chappie.

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women warriors

 

So now it is Jeonghuyn’s turn to watch over So-Ha, who miraculously recovers. Gun kills the Georan PM, while Jeonghuyn recognises So-Ha’s uncle as the commander from the battle of his youth, who tended his wound. So-Ha rises from her sick-bed, recognising that Jeonghuyn is in danger, but Gun arrives to confront her. Her uncle, though, intervenes, and begins a fight with Gun which you know he’s going to lose. Meanwhile the KBA, or is it the GBA, attacks Jeonghuyn while he’s visiting his mother’s grave, but S0-Ha rescues him. Returning to camp, they’re attacked again, this time by Mae Young-Ok, who assures So-Ha that if she overuses her energy now, her arteries will become twisted and she will die. So much for ancient Chinese medicine. Anyway, after more inconclusive balletic battling, along comes Gun to save the day. It’s the moment of truth, at long fucking last. Gun squares off against So-Ha, informing her that he’s disposed of her uncle. He promises to do the same with Jeonghuyn, telling her that she can win only with a decisive killing blow. Can your sword kill? he taunts her. She responds with one of the film’s tropes – the sword is not for killing but for protecting valuable things. With that they commence their final whirligig battle, which ends when Mae Young-Ok tries to intervene and is run through by So-Ha. So-Ha stops, stunned, and Gun takes the opportunity to run Mae Young-Ok through in the opposite direction, in the process delivering what will be the mortal blow to So-Ha. This of course further emphasises Gun’s black nature, and Mae Young-Ok gives a ‘ya shouldna oughta done that, boss’ look to Gun before dropping dead.

Meanwhile Jeonghuyn comes to the party. He’s been on the periphery of things, but rushes up to tend to So-Ha. ‘Nothing can stand in my way,’ says Gun, ‘now watch me slice up this little princeling’. Jeonghuyn notices Gun’s sword, which he took from the crown prince when he killed him. Gun conveniently tells him that two identical swords were given to two princes. This brings on a flashback. He remembers when, as a youth, he taught an orphan girl (yes, the young So-Han) to fight with this sword, telling her it wasn’t for fighting but for protecting valuable things. So he takes up So-Ha’s sword and prepares to fight Gun to the death. Needless to say, he wins, being able to control the ‘internal injury’ (you’d have to see it, and you still wouldn’t believe it).

Returning to So-Ha, who’s still on her feet, brave warrior that she is, Jeonghuyn becomes emotional – ‘if it weren’t for you…’, and So-Ha responds ‘you have been the meaning of my life for the past 14 years’, and suddenly legions of armed men emerge from the bushes, not to fight but to pledge allegiance to their new king. Then suddenly they come under attack – signifying that there will be bloodshed in the kingdom for some time to come. Yet somehow, through the magic of film, our two good guys find themselves alone, which allows for a truly touching death scene, with tears dribbling down. So So-Ha will not become the power behind the throne, except in spirit. Jeonghuyn is now alone. We next see him leading his troops into battle, no longer resembling a Chinese Mick Jagger, and giving a stirring speech à la Elizabeth I or Churchill (sorry about the western references)….

So that’s Shadowless Sword, a marginally superior wuxia movie, I suspect, though I’m no expert – with an impossibly virtuous heroine, which does have a romantic appeal even to an old cynic like me. In some ways it takes me back to my own dreamy childhood, when, bedridden with the mumps, I spent my time reading a prose version of Edmund Spenser’s Tales from the Faerie Queane, and fell in love with the fair Britomartis, who donned armour to rescue her father from the wicked clutches of some black knight or other, in a world of dungeons, dragons and ugly old witches disguised as fair young maidens. Funny how vivid those childhood memories can be. Though no doubt distorted and inaccurate. What I liked too about the movie was the suppressed, or unexpressed sexuality of it all. So-Ha’s competence and unflappability made her sexy, not her dress, her walk, or anything ‘feminine’ about her. That again, took me back to Britomartis and Shakespeare’s Rosalind and other insouciant androgynes. There are certain types, it seems to me, that transcend culture, and I really love that.

Written by stewart henderson

December 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm

the good friday myth – death in the afternoon?

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I actually don’t mind a day off from pubs, restaurants, shops and, of course, work, on one day of the year – holidays, days of chillaxin every now and then are well worth having – the ancient Romans loved em I hear – but to commemorate the putative crucifixion of someone who, as the incomprehensible narrative goes – died for our sins, or that we might be set free or have eternal grace, because he was a god or the son thereof but at the same time a human being or a symbol of all the sufferings of humanity and so on and on, well I get a little resentful of having that sort of shite imposed on me. So I’m just wondering, as this country’s Christian religiosity diminishes day by day, how much longer the good Friday saga will last. At least this morning’s ABC news breakfast program was much more about easter eggs than crosses, though it did feature a kindly Father Bob, a Catholic apparently, and a tireless worker amongst the poor Of Melbourne. In recent years he’s become something of a media celebrity, especially on radio. In the breakfast program interview, which I admit to only half listening to, he heaped praise on the new pope and then presented a somewhat incoherent metaphysics of faith. Well, long may he continue in his good work.

Easter has been with us for quite a while, but not, of course, from the day of crucifixion. However, though the gospels are more or less completely unreliable as history, they’re a little more date-conscious, or at least time-of-year conscious, in respect of Jesus’s death than they are with respect to his birth.  Jesus’s birthday could’ve been celebrated at any time, so vague and contradictory are the two gospel stories of that event. The one possible seasonal reference was to shepherds watching their flocks at night at the time (Luke 2:8), which would count as evidence against a December birth in the northern hemisphere. The mention of a census conducted at the time, which required people to move to their birthplaces (but this story is almost certainly false, there’s no evidence of any Roman census ever requiring such movement), also argues against a winter birth. You just wouldn’t ask people to move around en masse in the depths of winter in those pre-electric, pre-public transport times.

In any case, the date at which December 25 was fixed as Christmas is unclear, and there were many competing dates in the early years (and dating methods in any case were various and messy). In fact some early Christian thinkers, such as Origen, rejected the very idea of celebrating Jesus’s birthday, claiming that birthday celebration was a nasty pagan practice. So, long live that one.  Jehovah’s Witnesses today, by the way, refuse to celebrate Christmas presumably for the same reason as Origen, but who knows, and who cares?

But let’s return to Easter, whose events were much more significant to early Christianity. As it happens, the gospels give two slightly different accounts upon which to base the dating. John 19 presents the decision to crucify Jesus as having been made at ‘the preparation of the passover’, which might be the eve, though it also says, ‘about the sixth hour’. Sixth hour from what, midnight? Some translations change ‘sixth hour’ to ‘noon’, suggesting that it’s the sixth hour from dawn – in any case before the paschal or passover lamb is slaughtered, which had to be between 3pm and 5pm according to ancient Judaic law. This gives time for Jesus to be taken off to Golgotha and ‘sacrificed’ in the afternoon. The lamb had to be eaten by midnight on the same day (Nisan 14, according to the Hebrew calendar). The synoptic gospels on the other hand present the death as occurring on Nisan 15, with the Last Supper being in fact the Passover meal, and a huge amount of scholarly ink has been wasted in reconciling every mention of the hour in each of these texts.

To me, as a thorough-going sceptic, it seems bleeding obvious that Jesus’s death was written by these gospellers as occurring at Passover, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar (though another piece of nonsense, as it celebrates an event that is entirely mythical – the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, and their subsequent slaughter of the earlier inhabitants of the ‘promised land’). New religions are generally keen to take over the most important dates of a religion they’re keen to supersede, and that is surely why  Jesus is made to refer to himself as ‘the lamb of god’ (John 1:29, 1:36), sacrificed for a very different purpose than the paschal lamb. It’s significant that this description is in John, because the chronology in that gospel fits perfectly with Jesus being killed at the same time that the lamb is killed. John, the later gospel, ‘got it right’ improving on the synoptics who merely tried to hijack the passover meal for the purposes of the last supper, an occasion which could never be as important as the actual crucifixion. In other words the dating and timing of Good Friday was all about symbolism, not about truth. Of course there’s no evidence, outside of the gospels, that Jesus was crucified at all, let alone that he just happened to be crucified at the most important time of year for the Jews, against whom the new sect wished to assert themselves – most unpleasantly by describing them as killing their hero (John 19:14-16, Mark 15:9-15, Matthew 27:21-26, Luke 23:20-25). Matthew drives it home: ‘All the people answered, His blood is on us and our children!’ (Matt 27:25).

So it’s worth remembering this on Good Friday. It’s dating was, from the start, designed to stick it to the Jews, and to stake Christianity’s claim as a rival religion, and of course the Good Friday story, recounted in each of the gospels, marks the beginning of two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism.

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2013 at 9:09 pm

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 8, the divinity and resurrection of Jesus

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Ah am the greatest - Ah whopped those guys in the temple, and they's tried to whop me, but ah ain't-a whopped, coz you see ah's as white as a white-man, an ah am so purty, lookit me, ah am the greatest

Ah am the greatest – Ah whopped those guys in the temple, and they’s tried-a whop me, but ah ain’t-a whopped, coz you see ah’s as white as a white-man, an ah am so purty, lookit me, ah am the greatest…

I’ve decided to run the last two of Dr Craig’s arguments together, as they’re by far the weakest – which is saying something. In fact, his eighth or last ‘argument’ isn’t really an argument at all, as he more or less admits, as it constitutes anecdotal claims for a personal relationship with a supernatural being. I note, by the way, that Dr Craig eschews the use of the term ‘supernatural’, instead preferring ‘non-material’, or ‘transcendent’, but they’re essentially synonymous terms for beings for which there is no material evidence. As for these personal relationships, I have nothing to say about them, except that I find them unpersuasive, and easily explicable in psychological terms. I don’t doubt the sincerity of people who believe they have a relationship with a god, but we should all know by now about the enormous human capacity for self-deception.

Dr Craig’s seventh argument, which he apparently sets much store by, is really the one that I find the most completely beyond redemption, to use a religious term. This is the claim, of course, that there is overwhelming evidence that Jesus came to life after he died. And he supports his claim solely with fallacious ‘arguments from authority’, in his case numerous authorities. Every historian worthy of the name, according to him, is in substantial agreement that Jesus had a a godly authority, and that he rose from the dead. The highly respected scholar N T Wright wrote an 800 page book in which he concluded that Jesus’s resurrection was as empirically established as the existence of Caesar Augustus, etc etc.

This is absolute nonsense. Nonsense. Now, I’ve been told that you have to hone your debating skills when confronting Dr Craig on this subject because he really knows his New Testament. Well, with respect, I think that also is nonsense. The question whether a human being can rise from the dead or not is not a New Testament question, it’s a question about human physiology. Now there are cases where people have been revived after being pronounced clinically dead, but such cases simply cause us to revise our concept of ‘clinical death’, which is not an exact concept. In any case, these are ‘operating table’ examples, not cases in which people have been dead for days with rigor mortis having set in, decomposition, etc. In such cases, return to life is not a possibility.

Of course, Dr Craig has an easy solution to that problem – Jesus wasn’t a man, he was a god, or the son of a god, or a god in human form, or an aspect of a triune god, or whatever. He was immortal. In which case, with the flick of a switch, it’s all possible. But note what this is arguing. What Dr Craig is really saying, is that all these historians are agreed that Jesus was a god. Every reputable scholar agrees that Jesus is a god. Our highly respected author, of the 800 page book, has established that it’s as certain Jesus was a god, as that Augustus Caesar was an emperor, or that Plato was a philosopher. What nonsense, if I may use a euphemism.

Let me look at Dr Craig’s carefully-worded presentation on this. He says, and I quote, ‘historians have reached something of a consensus’, end quote, about Jesus’s godliness. He later goes on to talk about the facts of the resurrection, and I quote, ‘recognised by the majority of historians’. And further on he claims that naturalistic claims against the resurrection ‘have’ and I quote, ‘been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship’.  Well, end of story. Well, hardly. As an avid consumer of history myself, particularly western social and political history, it has become pretty screamingly obvious to me that historians are overwhelmingly a secular lot. I haven’t taken a poll, but I’d guess, say 80% of them would not identify as Christians. And of course the vast majority of them have no interest whatsoever in the resurrection. New Testament historians and scholars, however – and they represent a tiny, tiny subset of all historians – are much more likely to be Christians. I mean, whadyareckon? I haven’t taken a poll, either, of the number of NT scholars who are Christian, but I can say this, I wouldn’t be a New Testament scholar no matter what you paid me. To me, as a non-believer, it would be like being forced to pick up sticks and move to Jerusalem to live for the rest of my life. Surrounded by religious crazies of every stripe, screaming out their self-righteousness at every opportunity. To me it would be hell on earth.

So I take my hat off to the secular New Testament scholars who persist in the face of such adverse conditions. They have more courage and tenacity than I could muster. And Dr Craig mentions the eminent British scholar, N T Wright, he of the 800 page book that proves beyond doubt that Jesus came back to life and was therefore truly a god. However, Dr Craig doesn’t mention that Wright is also an Anglican bishop. Oversight? Of course not. Let me point out again that every word in Dr Craig’s presentation is carefully considered, and that includes the words he has left out as well as those he has put in. There are no inadvertent errors in this presentation. Is he being disingenuous in his presentation? Most certainly. Is he being dishonest? You can be the judge. I will say again though, that Dr Craig is fanatically obsessed with his cause, and any means, to him, would be justified by the end of winning the argument, and promoting his message.

Dr Craig’s argument, then, relies on authorities who are already convinced that Jesus is a deity, a claim I find too implausible to be even worth investigating, but presumably it might be made more plausible if we had other evidence of Jesus’s superhuman perfection, evidence that might make him seem worthy of the miracle of resurrection. And the only evidence we have of Jesus comes from the so-called gospels. Now, as I say, I’m no New Testament scholar, but I have read the gospels several times, and I even went so far as to make an informal assessment of Jesus’s character based on close study of his statements and remarks in those four books. I have to say, I’ve never found Jesus to be a particularly remarkable, or even entirely coherent, person on the basis of those texts. If you take away the paranormal events – miracles, raising from the dead, a virgin birth and a resurrection, you get a fairly normal guy, who loses his temper, acts selfishly, behaves arrogantly, gets cold feet, and makes various often contradictory pronouncements on moral issues. But one thing that really struck me about the guy was his so-called family values. It strikes me as really weird that the conservative Christian movement in the USA, which is so huge, is obsessed with family values, meaning of course the nuclear, heterosexual family. Because Jesus turned his back on his family, and made no attempt to create a new one in adulthood.  He died, assuming he was crucified, in his mid-thirties, perhaps even as old as forty – we don’t know his date of birth, and the birth stories are clearly unreliable. It would’ve been quite unusual to remain unmarried at that age. Okay, so he was a deity, how could he get married and have children like mere mortals. And yet, his remarks about family are quite troubling. I won’t go into all of them, as they’ve been dealt with by many analysts, but for those interested and unaware, the troubling verses include Matthew 10:35-37, 23:9, Mark 13:12, Luke 12:49-54, 14:26, 21:16-17, and John 2:3-4. These include general statements against the family and specific statements he directs against his own family members, particularly his mother. But I’ll dwell here on one of the more chilling of Jesus’s pronouncements, in Matthew 8:21-22.

Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.’

Now, in our society, the death of a parent is a serious matter, and we allow people space and time to deal with that. It’s pretty well sacrosanct in our society and in other societies. It’s not unreasonable to assume that in patriarchal ancient Palestine, the death of a father was about as big a deal as you could get. So, to tell someone who’s father has just died that they should forget the funeral and ‘follow the leader’, that they should ‘let the dead bury their dead’ which basically means, ‘let the dead rot’, is about as grossly insulting and insensitive a remark as you can make. It’s jaw-dropping, in fact, in its callousness, though it’s not inconsistent with many of the remarks Jesus makes about family.  I think if we were ever to get an exclusive interview with Jesus’s mum about the great man’s reputation, she’d be very likely to say, ‘well, he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy’.

So, I don’t hold much store in this flawed and thoroughly human individual being a god in disguise, and worthy of the resurrection Dr Craig so desperately wants to believe in.

So ends my response to all of Dr Craig’s arguments. Next I want to present some important concluding remarks.

Written by stewart henderson

March 24, 2013 at 11:17 pm

Melvyn Bragg makes an arse of himself on Australian TV

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What do I know of Melvyn Bragg? That he’s a writer who writes popular tomes about history and historical novels and such. I’ve not read any of them myself, but I did catch one or two episodes of a doco series he presented, on the history of the English language methinks. So he struck me as a probably good sort, all for booklearnin and history and all that good guff. The fact that he was a lord hardly met with my approval, but maybe he just couldn’t help it.

So I wasn’t prepared to be peeved or put out when he cropped up on ABC-TV’s ‘Lateline’ the other night. As a taster for an interview to appear later on in the show, we were treated up front to Lord Bragg [I think I’ll designate him thus, as a nice distancing device] lecturing us about the historical wrongitude of modern atheists’ treatment of Christianity. It was rather infuriatingly discombobulating, and I really wondered whether I would have the stomach for the whole meal to be served later.

Now I’ll keep strictly to Lord Bragg’s actual words here, off the cuff though they may have been, because I don’t want to be accused of fibbing, twisting, stretching or otherwise dissembling or dissimulating. Here’s a taster of the taster – he’s talking about the 400th anniversary of the King James bible, which has prompted him to write a history of it:

What has happened since its publication? Well, the secularisation of society, getting less and less religious, and then the atheists getting the megaphone – if people want to be atheists, that’s fine, it’s a perfectly respectable position, but this business of hammering religions, particularly Christianity, was not only not fair, it was wrong, it was profoundly wrong, and if you get your history wrong you’re in terrible trouble. As all countries know, when they conceal their history, when they get it wrong, it catches up with them’.

My lord, thought I, what are you talking about? A proliferation of atheists hammering religious people with megaphones due to having grabbed the wrong end of the historical stick? I couldn’t quite grasp it myself. Here was me thinking that the recent upsurge in critique of religion from a growing and thriving atheist population, notable for its diversity, its intelligence, its hard-won confidence and assertiveness, was based on annoyance with present-day religious practice in certain parts of the world. The patriarchal attitudes of some sects and denominations, the negative attitude to the findings of science, evolution in particular, the oppression of women, homosexuals, heretics, infidels and scientists, the exploitation and indoctrination of children, the dogmatic certitude and intolerance that comes with some religious beliefs, these have seemed legitimate targets for atheists and sceptics whose main aim and hope is to liberate minds and encourage more critical thinking. All this has very little to do with history, and why Lord Bragg suddenly brings this subject up is a mystery, which might be explained if we listen to the full interview. It might also help us to find out who, exactly, is getting things wrong, if anyone.

Lord Bragg, in his interview, rejects belief in a personal god, in the resurrection and the trinity and so forth, but professes to a ‘tribal loyalty’ to Christianity. This tribal loyalty leads him, I think, to a confused and tendentious defence of the King James Bible, a book which few atheists are concerned to attack, and certainly not on literary grounds. Bragg has written a book about the book, and I can only hope it’s better, and far more nuanced, than his defence of the KJB here. He makes three points about the book’s great value, and here’s the first one:

… the KJ Bible gave, to the English speaking world, the basis of its language… Helen Garner,  authors all over the place, the basis of its language, all the idioms, more than Shakespeare, and so on, the turns of phrase, the stories and so on.

Now, while there is no doubt that the KJB contributed greatly to the English language, it most definitely didn’t form the basis of it. Like many languages, English grew and developed over centuries, and we can map that growth through the writings of Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare and others. The great flowering of Elizabethan literature had passed its zenith when the KJB was published, and in any case the terms and phrases of the KJB translators didn’t spring from nowhere, they came from the diachronically and synchronically rich spoken language community they inhabited. What we have here from Lord Bragg is a near-absolutist claim which is historically inept and more than a bit silly, all presumably for the purpose of rescuing the book from those who are trying to ‘erase its power’.  The trouble is, the erasure of the book’s power can’t be blamed on ‘new atheists’, it’s a product of the gradual diminution of religious power in the west, as well as, from a literary perspective, the endless renovation of language since the KJB’s publication.

But this is far from being the worst of Lord Bragg’s exaggerations and errors. His next point is, to me, a travesty of history:

More important than that, it was the instrument by which the greatest abomination of mankind, ever since we’ve known anything about civilisation, was abolished, and that’s slavery. Every civilization we know about has slavery, every one. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, through the Bible, slavery was abolished; through the Wilberforce faction in Britain, through similar factions in America, using the example of Britain, and through African slaves themselves who were converted to Christianity, who used the KJ Bible as a liberation ideology, that God had said to Moses to go to Pharoah, ‘let my people go’, and he did, and he took them out of slavery, you remember. Moses was the apotheosis of the liberator, right up to Martin Luther King jr, and that led to the abol.. now you read now , it’s all to do with the Enlightenment, it’s all to do with… no it isn’t [Lord Bragg’s emphasis]. It wouldn’t have happened if people had not used that book and the power still in that book, the influence that book still had among most people in the English speaking world in the eighteenth century.

This argument isn’t new to me, but I’m happy to revisit it. What is missing here, and what seems to be missing in all of Lord Bragg’s ‘analyses’ is any really deep or rich context. Why did talk of the abolition of slavery first appear in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Christianity had been around, and practiced by the whole of the western world, for a millenium and a half before that? Nothing to do with the Enlightenment, according to Lord Bragg. Nothing to do with liberté, egalité, fraternité. What utter tosh. It was all to do with a catch-phrase from the archetypal liberator, Moses, and other minings from the Bible.

Of course, Lord Bragg fails to point out that, only a couple of centuries before the Bible was used as ‘liberation theology’ by African Americans and their supporters, the same book’s ‘promised land’ narrative was used by Spanish Catholic apologists to vindicate and to actively promote the wholesale slaughter of Aztecs, Incas and other native American inhabitants in the most complete and successful genocide in the history of humanity. Those who didn’t die in battle or through disease were enslaved and worked to death, in their millions. The same rhetoric was used by English puritans in the 17th and 18th centuries to decimate the Iroquois, the Shawnee and other inferior peoples who didn’t cultivate the land the way God intended, or otherwise share their beliefs and practices [it should be remembered that the archetypal liberator in the Bible finally led his people to the promised land where they proceeded to slaughter every man woman and child in the region, with the benign approval and occasional enthusiastic participation of their god]. So what happened between the promised land ideas of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the new abolitionist ideas of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? The Enlightenment? Surely not.

Our Lord seems to be making the elementary mistake of thinking that because Wilberforce, and well before him Granville Sharp, were committed Christians who peppered their abolitionist speeches with Biblical quotations, this means that somehow the influence of the good book brought about the abolition of slavery. Using the same argument you would have to accept that the same good book’s influence brought about the wholesale destruction of the native American civilizations, the Irish massacres of the seventeenth century, the horribly bloody Thirty Year War in Europe, and the English Civil War of the same period – all of which were accompanied by shovelfuls of Biblical rhetoric.

But our Lord goes further than this by claiming that abolition ‘wouldn’t have happened’ if not for the impact of the KJB. That is, presumably slavery would still be mainstream practice today had that version of the Bible not been published. I won’t comment further than to say that it’s quite a claim for a historian to make, and I very much doubt that any other historian of the English-speaking peoples would be prepared to make it. Few of them would even find it coherent.

But let’s continue with the Lord’s interview:

The other great development over the last four hundred years is modern democracy – I’m not talking about Athenian democracy, I’m talking about modern democracy. That you could argue, and I would argue, was forged in the middle of the seventeenth century, the British civil wars, the bloodiest wars we’ve ever had including the first world war, in an attempt to get rid of a divinely appointed king; everybody thought this man was divinely appointed, King Charles 1, it was thought, we have to imagine what was then, just like most kings, Augustus of Rome thought he was divinely appointed, the Aztec king, they all thought they were divinely appointed, Stalin thought … no that’s different… anyway, they like to think they’re divinely appointed. And they used the bible to get rid of him, in arguments in the great hall where they tried him. He had a jury – never happened before to any great king, a jury, tried, and by common law, found guilty, executed, that sent ripples around the world, the Putney debates a few years later, the American diaspora which were literate British, Scots, Presbyterians, they were people of the book, they saw it as an opportunity, democracy began from there, spurred and then developed from the Bible.

What we have here of course is the same problem. The Bible responsible for modern democracy? It’s completely absurd.  There are no templates  for democratic processes, modern, Athenian or anything in between, in the Bible. To understand the gradual emergence of democratic systems, however partial, in Britain, Europe and ‘the New World’ you have to look thoroughly and in detail at the myriad social pressures that led to the rejection of hereditary rule and the enfranchisement of a growing sector of the social mass. The Bible was a book written over a period of 1000 years, by scores of authors of varying quality and varying perspectives, but none of them had a democratic perspective because democracy wouldn’t have been a coherent concept to any of them. However, the Bible was a monumentally important book in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, just as it was in the fifteenth and sixteenth, because throughout this whole period everyone was a Christian. Look at the primary sources from the period of the British civil war and you’ll find every activist, from the most committed parliamentarian to the most committed absolute monarchist, quoting the Bible ad nauseum, and invoking its god for their cause. The same goes for the abolitionists and the slave traders. After all, before the American Civil War, the most prominent and determined slave-owners and slave-traders came from the Bible-belting South, a region which is still more Christian, and more racist, than the rest of the US. The Bible has something for everyone, from the most extreme left to the most extreme right, all that’s required is good cherry-picking, massaging and ‘interpretive’ skills.

Let’s continue, though, with this travesty:

These two things at least, and the language, three things, made me think that, well, I think this needs to be re-examined, it needs to be put back in history, it needs to be reconsidered apart from the fact that it was the greatest empowerer of women in the nineteenth century, apart from its influence on science, apart from its influence, bad and good on sex and so on, so that’s what I wanted to write about.

The King James Bible has not, of course, been taken out of history, but the secularisation of western society over the past hundred years or so [leaving aside parts of the USA], has certainly reduced its influence, and its claim to be the Good Book. The Bible has had virtually no positive influence on science. The fact that such great scientific pioneers as Kepler, Galileo and Newton were Christians is unsurprising. So were all the intellectuals of their time. But I’ll discuss Christianity and science later, and turn instead to our Lord’s claim that the Bible was the greatest empowerer of women in the nineteenth century.

Throughout the nineteenth century, in mainstream and intellectual society in the west, the Bible was still regarded as ‘The Good Book’, in a somewhat taken-for-granted moral sense. As such, the early feminists, determined to be considered ‘good’ themselves, would have been keen to use this fundamental text as a tool to promote their cause. Not that this would’ve been particularly conscious. Many of these feminists, but certainly not all, would’ve been Christians themselves, and in any case, few would’ve questioned the moral value of the book in the way that intellectuals routinely do today. Now the fact is that there are slim pickings in the Bible for feminists. That whole 1000-year period which produced the Bible was profoundly patriarchal, and most of its authors exhibited misogyny to varying degrees. What the feminists were able to do was transform a character like Eve, the traditional temptress and cause of man’s downfall, into an independent, irrepressible knowledge-seeker, because post-Enlightenment society placed a greater value on independence of thought and the pursuit of knowledge than had previously been the case. So the Bible didn’t empower nineteenth century women at all; instead, the prevailing zeitgeist empowered women to challenge traditional treatments of women by reinterpreting traditional texts, of which the Bible was, unsurprisingly, first and foremost.

Next, the discussion turns to the modern atheist movement. Lateline’s Emma Alberici is the interviewer:

You’ve complained about the animus and ignorance of the atheist arguments.

Yeah.

But the argument’s clear isn’t it, they just don’t believe.

Oh but you’ve got it wrong… okay let me say that again, I don’t want to say that…

Oh no that’s all right…

Oh no I’ve complained about the animus and ignorance of arguments particularly of Richard dawkins. They don’t believe, that’s neither here nor there. My book is for people who don’t believe, for people who are anti-religion, for all religions or none, I’m talking about history.

Well what’s the ignorance you’re talking about?

I just want to get something clear, atheists, atheists, I share a lot of the views of atheists, though I think they put too much reliance on reason, I don’t think reason is as important as they think it is, they ought to read David Hume about sensations, which grow to form reason, but put that to one side, my argument against atheists is 2 things; first of all, christianity, and hinduism and buddhism and… these are bodies of knowledge. First and foremost they are bodies of knowledge. Now people believed them, or they didn’t believe them, these bodies of knowledge are to be respected, because they were the best that people could manage in times before ours, they didn’t have the technologies we… but inside those bodies of knowledge they made worlds, like the aborigines did with their dream songs, they answered the basic questions that mankind’s been trying to answer since we started to have mankind, where do we come from, where do we go, why does the sun rise, why does it go down, why are people born dead, and so on and so forth. They were trying to do the same thing, these bodies of knowledge, and inside the christian body of knowledge, inside the King James Bible, there were all sorts of parables, proverbs,wisdoms, atrocities, histories, eroticism, which made it a powerful book as a body of knowledge, so [to] attack and to wipe off an entire body of knowledge seems to me to be completely irresponsible.

Unfortunately, none of this really addresses the ignorance, nor the animus, that our Lord perceives Richard Dawkins to possess. In fact he immediately swerves away from Dawkins to atheists in general, as in ‘they ought to read David Hume about sensations’. I would agree that some atheists place too much emphasis on reason. However, some don’t. Some have read Hume and written books about him, other atheists have never heard of him. I would say that most of the best ‘new atheists’ are well aware of Humean philosophy, or have gone well beyond him [think of Damasio’s work on the emotions, for example].

As to the Lord’s assertion that the major religions are first and foremost bodies of knowledge, he would have an argument on his hands there with most modern epistemologists. A central tenet of much epistemological thinking since the Enlightenment has been some form of evidentialism: roughly, that beliefs are justified insofar as they are proportionate to evidence. Now, we can argue endlessly, and humans already have, about whether this is the best way of understanding knowledge, and about what constitutes evidence, but there’s no doubt that the sort of knowledge that Lucretius was groping towards over 2000 years ago in On the Nature of the Universe [a work I’ve just finished reading], with its mixture of ingenious theorising, astute observation, and reworking of the ideas of such earlier thinkers as Epicurus, Democritus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Aristotle, is very different from the beliefs of those he repudiated – those who saw everywhere supernatural interference in the natural world. Lucretius and others were trying to answer the same sorts of big questions that science is nowadays dedicated to. His answers have of course been superseded – or, in respect of his [or Democritus’] atomic theory, taken many steps further – but his methods of observation, speculation and analytical imagination are still central to modern science, and are largely absent from religious belief. In any case modern atheists – and again they’re too diverse a bunch to coherently generalize about, but I’ll try – are not interested in trashing religion’s place in history, they’re much more interested in present concerns, such as the threat to our best understanding of the world that comes from creationists, god-hates-faggists, African witch-hunters, condom-condemners and so forth. Entire bodies of knowledge have been wiped off, not by atheists but by human scientific progress. The Bible, whichever version you choose, with all its parables and proverbs and wisdom  and atrocities and bizzareries, will stand or fall by virtue of its relevance to a changing world, and peoples’ particular positions and stances within that world. Good luck to it.

Lord Bragg goes on, and this is the last, long passage I’ll look at:

Secondly, to actually say that this religion caused terrible things to happen is a calumny, it’s not true, men caused terrible things to happen, men lusting for power caused terrible things to happen..

But often in the name of religion

In the name of anything. I agree with you. In the name of religion. In the name of anything they can get their hands on, in the name of ideology, in the name of magic, anything, or just in the name of killing people because they wanna k…. there’s nothing religious about Genghis Khan, twenty million people were killed in the Middle Ages, that was a lot of people in the Middle Ages. In eighth century China it’s estimated that one sixth of their population was wiped out by wars going on there, there’s nothing religious about that. Pol Pot I don’t think was particularly religious, I don’t think Mao was either, so it isn’t just religion, leaders always want extra reasons to do what they’re doing, what they basically want to have is power, and the way they’ll get power is by killing other people or controlling other people. If they can have around them the auriole of really ‘I am sent by God, and this is God..’, then so much the better, but I don’t think that says anything about religion, religion remains a neutral body of knowledge to be abused and used, and the mistake the atheists make is to think that religion is the cause, it isn’t, it’s something that’s brought in. Ignorance and animus is… well I’ve talked to you a bit about slavery, Dawkins says at once stage, well, look how it can be used to console, the Christian religion, the bosses on the plantation said, look, you be Christians and you’ll have eternal life so keep on working and that’ll be ok…, calmed them down and kept them going, and so on. It didn’t. You see, what happened to slaves is that they took hold of it and turned it into liberation theology… He was just completely ignorant, he didn’t do his research, and the animus is hard to understand. Why he wants to attack this – a man who’s heir to a great body of scientific knowledge, why he wants to attack this other body of knowledge which nurtured the greatest scientists of all time. Galileo was a serious Christian, so was Kepler, so was Isaac Newton, people who dwarf Dawkins, why he wants to do that, it’s his own little agenda, which is a shame.

Much of the foregoing is, I think, about misrepresentation and straw men. Lumping all atheists, or even all ‘new atheists’, together [‘the mistake the atheists make is x’], is inevitably simplistic, and will inevitably fail. Most modern historians are in fact atheists, as are most of the best modern scientists and philosophers, and they generally don’t have such a shallow perspective as to blame historical atrocities, etc, on religion. The paraphrasing of Dawkins on slavery and the consolations of religion are ripped from whatever context they come from, but there should be no disagreement that religion has often been used, and will in the future be used, to console people for the plight they find themselves in. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be used at the same time as a tool for fighting or challenging oppressors. It isn’t a matter of not doing research. As to the hoary old claim that the sixteenth and seventeenth century pioneers of modern science were largely Christian and that they therefore owed their scientific breakthroughs to Christianity, the doubtfulness of this claim can surely be raised on historical grounds. Compare the philosophico-scientific enquiries of, say, Aristotle, in the 4th century BCE, in the context of a ‘pagan’ religion far less inimical to such enquiries, with the philosophical enquiries of Augustine of Hippo several centuries later, in the context of a very different religion, one whose central mythos frowned on the pursuit of knowledge. Augustine’s enquiries are constantly interrupted by claims of ‘unworthiness’ and undue arrogance before an Almighty Being before whom one should regularly prostrate oneself, rather than presume to question and thus possibly undermine. It’s a mode of thinking largely foreign to the Graeco-Roman world, and it helps explain a thousand years of limited and stifled scientific progress. The great scientific rebirth of the seventeenth century owes little indeed to Christianity, and was achieved in religion’s spite, regardless of the mixed views of the individuals responsible.

In conclusion, I can only repeat Lord Bragg’s words – if you get your history wrong, you’re in terrible trouble. Unless our Lord actually provides in his works a history more nuanced and more carefully researched than what he provides in this interview, he’s in deep doo-doo, methinks. But history, which has many many other practitioners more able than him, based on this performance, has nothing to worry about.

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2012 at 9:11 am