Sunday, October 23, 2016

Goodwill Takes on God's Will -- Late August 2016

Aunt Connie's Home--Before
The crew of NOSHA volunteers who made the trip to Denham Springs to assist in the cleanup from the flooding that swamped nearly 90 percent of the homes in the area traveled in separate cars—with the exception of Dave and Joyce Thomas, who shared their ride. Joining in on the project with the Thomases were Eve Ortiz, Kathleen Branley, Jennifer Porter, Glenn Pearl, Marty Bankson, and Cecelia (a young woman referred by previously committed Adam Kay). Most used  smartphone GPS  to guide them into the subdivision and onto the street where the project was, but most  all had to park and locate a mailbox along the street to find the house number if they didn’t recognize anyone working outside. The mailboxes were buried along the curb’s edge in the heaps of soggy mattresses, broken dining furniture, stacks of wadded clothes, and rolls of ragged-edged carpeting. A small hill of ruined doors, millwork, cabinetry and sinks and fridges would continue filling the front yard from the street back toward the house as the day passed.

Eve Ortiz sampling jambalaya, surveys the progress
The Thomases' acquaintance Paul was coordinating the work. Paul calls Connie Donovan “Aunt Connie”—though their actual relationship may have been less direct. Connie is a 63-year old widow, living alone, and is still working. She was one of the fortunate few who had flood insurance, if “fortunate” is indeed even fit in the description of a  500-year flood.

Many of the modest houses in this neighborhood were built on piers and were elevated about three feet above the ground, but the neighborhood  got  6-7 feet of floodwater from the overflowing Amite River just to the west of it. The math of that equation added up to more than three feet of water in the house . Every house in the subdivision and many more subdivisions like it went under, along with most of the business along the main thoroughfares.

Paul got the crew quick-schooled and started at the basics of house gutting: taking the door and baseboard trim off with hammers and pry bars, removing the electrical switch and receptacle plates, then pulling the soggy sheetrock from the wall studs at the seam four feet above the floor. Then the crumbling and saturated mess had to be shoveled and wheelbarrowed out of the house down the front porch steps, adding more to the misery of the front yard. Bathroom vanity cabinets, toilets, kitchen cabinets, pots, pans, dishes and foodstuffs in the pantry all had to go. Two mice were sent scampering  when their space inside a wall was uncovered.
Big Fans Matter

The feeling of overwhelming loss never seems to be strong enough to keep the victims from finding something—anything—left in the wreckage that was salvageable, something to cling to; and those things become special and dear. Aunt Connie had set up a makeshift table in the front yard near the driveway, where she placed and cleaned and dried some things she found. Maybe a crystal dish; maybe a child’s trophy from a past school competition, or a stuffed panda that had been placed on a high shelf: things once mundane and overlooked now became priceless survivors. A pop-up summer shower was about to spoil what the floodwaters missed as she fussed over them, but we managed to get some scraps of plastic sheeting and a tarp over them before the hardest rain fell.

About midday someone delivered some go-boxes of jambalaya; so those that didn’t pack a lunch didn’t go hungry. And there was plenty of water for hydrating, but Cecelia had an overheating episode anyway. She later seemed confident that she had recovered to point of being  able to get to her car and drive back to New Orleans. The heat and humidity was reminiscent of the hot tropical conditions that smothered New Orleans after Katrina. Joyce and Dave’s experience in the Katrina disaster was evident as they breezed through the day’s work like small potatoes, as if pantomiming “¡No problema!”.

Paul (left) and  NOSHA Volunteers (missing: Glenn Pearl)
This volunteer effort was the most labor-intensive the NOSHA Social Aid and Pleasure Club has experienced; a true test of physical stamina and heat tolerance. But it may be remembered also as most edifying when thinking of Aunt Connie’s words of appreciation and thanks to each of us; and when reflecting on her little makeshift table, and the keepsakes that took on a new and special meaning for her—and for us.

~Marty Bankson

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity

Readers interested in the early development of the Christian religion will enjoy Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by biblical scholar James D. Tabor. The book focuses on the first 30 to 40 years of the Christian movement, a period that is poorly documented and poorly understood.

Much of Tabor’s assessment falls well within the mainstream of scholarly opinion. Jesus of Nazareth was a real, historical person, although the romanticization of his life story makes it difficult for us to know anything about him. He was an observant Jew of the first century CE, who taught a particular interpretation of Judaism that was somewhat unique, but nevertheless within the known range of varied Jewish opinions of the time. He taught that an end of ordinary history was near at hand. He claimed, or others claimed about him, that he was the earthly Messiah, a political and military leader who would unify the Jewish people and guide them to independence and godliness. After Jesus was executed, his closest followers, including Peter and James, continued his teachings, which became one of the varieties of Judaism that existed side-by-side with others among the Jewish synagogues and communities already scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

The apostle Paul, too, was a real, historical figure. We know only a little more about him than about Jesus, but it is clear that his letters, forming a significant portion of the New Testament, have been hugely influential on the development of Christian doctrine. Tabor, like many scholars, takes Paul at his word when he tells us he never met the earthly Jesus. Paul also claims not to have learned Christianity from Jesus’ human disciples, but from the risen, spiritual Jesus, by means of divine visions. We know from his letters that Paul took Christian teachings to "gentiles," meaning to non-Jewish Greeks and Romans, while Peter and James focused more on people who already identified as Jewish. We also know that Paul sometimes had disagreements with Peter and James. Paul asserted that Greeks and Romans could become Christians without adhering to Jewish law, while the followers of Peter and James were more likely to keep kosher and abide by most or all of the other details of the Law of Moses. The exact degree of difference between these early schools of Christian thought is uncertain, though, because the more Jewish form of Christianity faded out over time and left little documentary evidence. The many varieties of Christianity extant today are all descendants of Paul’s more gentile Christianity.

 Parts of Tabor’s analysis emphasize a much greater difference between gentile Christianity and Jewish Christianity than many biblical scholars would be willing to support. Here one must acknowledge that the documentary evidence is quite thin, and that some of Tabor’s positions, though feasible, may be based more on reading between the lines of scripture than on what the documents plainly say. In Tabor’s view, Paul actually saw his own understanding of Christianity as superior to that of Peter and James because Paul had direct communication with the heavenly Jesus. The writers of the four gospels of the New Testament were influenced by Paul and Paul’s followers, and thus understated the starkness of the difference between Paul’s gentile Christianity and the more Jewish form of Christianity taught by Peter and James, and presumably by the earthly Jesus. Paul saw in the death and resurrection of Jesus a pattern that he felt was about to be applied to all humans who were worthy. The righteous were soon to be converted from flesh and blood into beings of spirit, beings who had bodies, but bodies that were  glorified and incorruptible. These would be part of the new Kingdom of God. Paul expected the heavenly Jesus to return to earth at any moment to usher in this next phase of history.

Barring the unexpected discovery of some unknown and indisputable manuscripts from the first century, it is unlikely that Tabor’s more unusual claims will ever be broadly accepted or firmly disproved. Rather, they will remain one of the many and often conflicting interpretations that well informed scholars can develop from the limited evidence that is available.

Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by James D. Tabor. Simon & Schuster (2013). ISBN: 978-1439123324.

 ~Jim Dugan

Monday, July 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts

The literature, both scholarly and fanciful, on the European witchcraze is voluminous and of uneven quality. It was a pleasure, then, to find a work of scholarly quality that stands out for its unusual perspective. Historian Anne Llewellyn Barstow has studied the phenomenon from a much need feminist perspective in Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts.

There is far less here, than in many other studies of the same phenomenon, about religion and beliefs about witchcraft, and a lot more about the roles of women and men, and changes in the social and economic structures of Europe during the worst years of the witchcraze (1550-1750). Barstow sets the number of persons executed for witchcraft during that time at roughly 100,000, a lower figure than some other historians, and admittedly an estimate from incomplete sources. This does not mean she casts the witchcraze in a more positive light than others. In fact, she shows that a very large percentage of the accused and executed were women, and is careful to demonstrate the cloud of fear under which European women lived for those centuries, the nearly absolute lack of fairness or objectivity toward the accused, and the sexual sadism of the processes of interrogation and execution.

Why that time and that place? Barstow takes a multifactorial view. The roles and opportunities for European women had been narrowing for centuries (and would continue to narrow until well into the 19th century). The early rumblings of Capitalism were actually increasing the gap between rich and poor, and women who owned property but had no male protectors became especially vulnerable. Two religious movements, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, generated a drive toward orthodoxy that included formal control of sexual expression as well as of religious doctrine. Increasingly centralized religious and governmental power meant more intervention by authorities into local and private interactions. Witchcraft came to be seen as not merely heresy, but as a crime against the state.

In a brief but fascinating analysis, Barstow points out that the era of the witchcraze corresponds roughly with the age during which Europeans enslaved Africans. This is no coincidence. Barstow writes (pp. 159-160):

“We need to see the similarities between all women in a patriarchal system and all persons in an unfree status . . . . free women and slaves of both sexes fell into many of the same categories in the eyes of early modern European men. Neither had control over what they produced, other than in exceptional circumstances, and their labor could be coerced. Both were seen by the law as children, as fictive minors who could be represented in court only by their masters/husbands. Both could legally be beaten, debased, and humiliated. When mistreated, both were impotent to gain help from others within their group, nor usually could their families help them.”

For readers interested in what early modern Europeans thought witches actually did and why, Kramer’s (ca. 1486) inquisitorial handbook Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer against Witches) is indispensable. A similar insider’s view of the Salem witch hunts can be found in Cotton Mather’s (ca. 1692) On Witchcraft. But the Malleus and On Witchcraft are products of their respective times and places, making no attempt to place paranoia about witchcraft in a social and historical context. Anne Barstow’s Witchcraze helps make sense of the nonsense.

Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, by Anne Llewellyn Barstow (1994). Pandora/HarperCollins; ISBN 0-06-2500049-X.

~Jim Dugan

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?

In Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, archaeologist William Dever grapples with the disconnect between biblical texts and the material remains of the ancient cultures of Canaan. Dever’s perspective is scholarly, based on a knowledge both of the contents of Hebrew scripture -- what Christians call the Old Testament -- and of what digging in the dirt can still turn up from biblical times.
Dever’s book focuses mainly on the origins of the Israelites, the Children of Israel who, according to the Bible, were enslaved in Egypt, escaped by divine intervention, and conquered the lands of the Canaanites in and around what we would call Israel today. Biblical lore emphasizes the distinctness of the Israelites, separating them ethnically and religiously from the peoples of both Egypt and Canaan. Scholars have long realized that the lines of descent must be much blurrier than the Bible seems to say. The Hebrew language is close kin of the languages of Canaan, and contact between Canaanites and Egyptians was frequent and prolonged.


Experts disagree with one another on many details, yet there is a mainstream consensus about the broad strokes. Dever’s opinions fall well within that consensus. The book of Exodus, describing the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and the book of Joshua, describing the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan, are literature, not history. The plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians were meant to emphasize the miraculous, and attempts to find scientific explanations for them are a waste of time. The desert ecology of the Sinai peninsula, in which over a million Israelites supposedly wandered for 40 years, simply could not have sustained a sizeable population for any length of time, nor is there any archaeological evidence that such a population ever lived there. Cities of Canaan fell, but at different times and by different means rather than all at once. There is evidence of a rapid population increase right around the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age (broadly circa 1200 BCE), but there is no evidence of a sharp cultural break. In fact, what can be unearthed seems to emphasize the cultural continuity of the later population with its predecessors. The Israelites seem to be insiders, an integrated part of the milieu of western Semitic peoples, cousins of Moabites and Phoenicians, rather than foreign invaders.

Readers interested in biblical archaeology will find the book illuminating. It is especially useful for its survey of the various attempts by archaeologists to synthesize an understanding out of difficult and sometimes conflicting sources of information. Less archaeologically minded readers will want to skim over such details, paying more attention to the last two chapters, where Dever summarizes his own perspective.

As archaeologists sometimes do, Dever here criticizes some of his colleagues. He is especially critical of Israel Finkelstein who, with Neil Silberman, wrote The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Free Press, 2001). I have elsewhere reviewed The Bible Unearthed, and although there are differences in detail, the books agree about more than their author’s might care to admit. Both are worth reading.

Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did they Come From? by William G. Dever. Erdmans Publishing (2003). ISBN: 0-8028-0975-8. 

~Jim Dugan

Friday, July 1, 2016

Reporting from Washington, DC: The Reason Rally 2016!

Main stage photo by Douglas Parfait
Four years ago, Reason Rally 2012 was promoted as the “largest secular event in world history,” a Woodstock for atheists and skeptics. Organized and produced by David Silverman, President of American Atheists, Inc., it was a momentous coming out party for 30,000 nonbelievers on the Mall in Washington, D.C. A long lineup of speakers from the scientific and entertainment fields were the main event.

Reason Rally 2016, held last month again in Washington, “had a greater variety of activities over the weekend, which reflects the happy fact that the secular movement has progressed beyond the need to merely show we exist,” said Beth Deitch, one of several NOSHA members from New Orleans who went. “The number of groups was so much larger than four years before. So many demographics and perspectives were represented.”


William Gautreaux & Beth Deitch
To be sure, over 30 groups were represented—from FFRF to Secular Media Network to Mythicists Milwaukee to Lady Parts Justice—almost all of them tabling in tents set up along the outer edge of the mall. The organizers set a decidedly more political slant to the speaking subjects and activities this year, probably in part due to it being an election year, and partly because so much legislative wrangling and a plethora of court opinions have been handed down over the last year. LGBTQ and other social justice issues were a recurring theme.

“The Reason Rally is absolutely a political event,” said executive director Lyz Liddell. "That's the reason we're holding this in an election year. We want to see reason taking precedence over religious-driven ideology.”

Traveling with Deitch was fellow NOSHA board member, William Gautreaux. NOSHA member John and Donna Williams and John’s sister, Darlene Reaves were in the crowd while also visiting their daughter during their trip to the city. Douglas and Yvette Parfait of Slidell came, said Doug, with one purpose: “I didn't go this time to listen to speakers, and I didn’t. Not one. I went to mingle, to find as many people I've only known on Facebook as I could.” Taking pictures was another thing he managed to do, and do quite well—thanks to him for the photos included in this story.

THE VENUE. THE CROWD. A noticeably lower turnout from the 2012 event has been the topic of discussion for just about everyone associated with the event. Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist blogger, came up with several reasons for the low turnout, including: the late cancellation of Johnny Depp and Richard Dawkins; the novelty had worn off; it took place in the summer; etc., etc. A few observations, estimates, and a few explanations by our NOLA contingent:

Douglas P.  - “In 2012, the number was 30K-ish, I haven't heard of any official estimate for 2016, however I would say 4K (but that's just my estimation). The white chairs in front of the stage were VIP seating, and those chairs were never filled, sparse as well. I found that a little embarrassing.”

Beth D.  - “I do think the physical layout of the event made the crowd look somewhat smaller than it actually was. The stage was in front of the Lincoln Memorial, with the space in front of the stage taken up by the VIP seating. We had VIP seats, which was nice, for sure, but it kept the bulk of the crowd from being close to the stage -- behind the chairs was the reflecting pool, so the crowd had to be split off on either side of the pool were still around 10,000 atheists gathered in one place for RR2016, which was exhilarating! I believe that growth may have contributed to the lower attendance in 2016 than in 2012: There are now atheist conventions and events and communities all over the country, all throughout the year….”

John W. - “I haven’t seen an official after-the-fact estimate of the turnout, but I’m guessing it didn’t reach the 30+K that was projected. [George] Whitfield was routinely delivering numbers like this throughout the colonies over 270 years ago, during the Great Awakening [the original American religious revival event], before there were planes or cars. So, for me the turnout was disappointing…We sat under a tree, in the shade, near the spot where, in the movie, Jenny spilled into the Reflecting Pool yelling for Forrest [Gump]. A few ducks with ducklings swam in the green water of the pond, shoveling algae up with their bills like a BP oil skimmer. A large egret flew overhead several times, and on each occasion was promptly mobbed by two crows. One of us sat in doggy doo. My impression is that D.C. is behind the times when it comes to curbing your dog. We even ran across it on our way out, in the airport, on the terminal floor.”

OBSERVATIONS IN THE PSEUDO-TRANSGENDER BATHROOMS. Public restrooms: almost every anti-theocrat and social justice advocate’s favorite issue this spring; and the management at the hotel where (ironically) the comedy program was presented was happy to accommodate; transforming, with a quick paper-over, the usually gender-specific WCs into New Age community toities.

Beth D. - “Friday night we went to a Reason Rally comedy show, which was so much fun! The emcee for the show was David Smalley, who is the host of the Dogma Debate radio show/podcast, and founder/president of the Secular Media Group. He has been a strong ally for trans people in this ridiculous focus on their right to pee in peace. So I was not at all surprised to find that the signs for the restrooms at the show venue had been covered with new paper signs reading “gender-neutral restroom.” And guess what? Not one person fainted away, or was overcome with a sudden desire to sexually assault someone! However, one of the comedians did comment on one behavioral change he noticed: with women being around, ALL of the men were actually washing their hands! William leaned over to me and said ‘yeah, that's not usually the case.’”

John W. - “We all attended the Friday night comedy show. The comics were Leighann Lord, Ian Harris, and Keith Jensen, and they were all very funny, as good as any New York comedy show I’ve been to. After the comedy show, off of the hotel’s lobby, I used my first gender-neutral public toilet. I’m not sure it was sanctioned by the hotel. There were several women waiting for stalls in the bathroom; and I’ve never seen men belly-up so close to the urinals, which is actually a good thing. The guys also all washed their hands when they left, just like one of the comics had just joked about. There is a lot of truth in good comedy.”

ON THE PROSELYTIZERS. No gathering of heretics, secular activists, or misguided souls debauching on Bourbon Street escapes their notice and compulsion to share God’s word. No one expected a reversal of this trend at the Reason Rally.
Lawrence Krauss and Yvette Parfait, all smiles!

Beth D. - “There were a few bothersome protesters and proselytizers about, but the occasional individual ranter was easy to ignore, and any protesting groups were small and on the periphery. (I know Ray Comfort had wished to bring a large contingent of harassers, but was informed that any sizable protest would require a permit and a designated location).”

William G. - “The Christian protesters were not allowed to organize within our rally to harass us, but they were sometimes alone or in groups of two or three within the rally proselytizing. Of course, we completely ignored them.

However, there was one guy handing out little cards with the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), symbol on them. It has a dark blue background with a yellow equal sign. Since I was a volunteer with HRC for 10 years, I wanted to support them, so Beth and I each took a card. We flipped the card over, and there were Bible verses denouncing gay people. We went to give the cards back to the guy and told him that this was dishonest and intentionally deceptive. I asked him why Christians needed to use lies and deception to get people to listen to their message. He did not have an answer. It's just like when Christians go into schools and bribe kids with pizza and other kinds of treats in exchange for listening to the Christian message.”

John W. - “…A little further down, at 17th and Constitution, my sister and I ran into an aggressive preacher with a bullhorn. I promised myself that I wouldn’t engage him, but again, like many times before,I did anyway. In an amplified voice he told us that we were going to live in Hell for eternity. We said we would be amongst friends and started dancing like it was Mardi Gras. With this he became unhinged. As we danced away the bullhorn quoted bible verses and called us fools. We were fools for reason.”


Many thanks to everyone who contributed by sharing your observations, thoughts, and photos; and your permission to edit them as needed.
~Marty Bankson

Friday, May 27, 2016

Signs, Trans, and the Times

Another post by NOSHA Board Member and Humanist Advocate writer Marty Bankson to his blog Bricolage.

Here is the opening excerpt:

I just became familiar with the journal First Things. The same people that published it have a Facebook page by the same name. I ended up on their mailing list and got a steeply discounted offer to subscribe. The mailer introducing the publication said First Things “is the home of today’s greatest religious thinkers and writers…with…lively ideas, debate, and commentary by noted…scholars and public intellectuals.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

God Took Care of Us!

    A NOSHA member passed along this cartoon from a former New Orleans resident, Ralph Scheeler, who was a kindred spirit as you can see from the punchline :

"We lost the house, the barn, the livestock and the farm equipment. Our two kids are still in the I.C.U. My wife has permanent brain damage and I have internal organ damage. 
But! God took care of us! We're still alive!"

    Ralph Scheeler and his wife, Annette, moved from New Orleans to Oregon in 2005 after the lost their home in Hurricane Katrina. He has continued his artistic work in Beaverton with his contributions to the Beaverton Resource Guide. His characters have become part of the community. You can read more here.

    We're delighted that he thought of us and wanted to share some of his recent work with his friends in New Orleans. We're certain that will hear this same tired line over and over again as we experience future storms here in the South. Anytime the inspiration strikes, we'll look forward to his secular take on life.