Religion Today

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Arab Freedom and Attitudes toward Israel

The events over the last two months in Tunisia and Egypt, and now in Arab countries stretching from Bahrain to Libya, have reminded us that these nations were/are ruled by dictators at odds with the people. These strong men used a variety of techniques to keep citizens under control, from brutal police tactics and suppression of free speech and the media to providing cheap gasoline and sometimes even free food.

Propaganda has played an important role in diverting the Arab populace's attention from their circumstances. Perhaps the most successful and widespread propaganda ploy has been to cite what the Muslim world sees as the unjust Israeli occupation of Palestine. The decades-old struggle between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs over the control of the same land has usually been a surefire way to align the people with their government, at least on this one topic.

As part of this, conspiracy theories involving Israeli spies and agitators are widespread and the mythology of Israel's power and abilities holds so strong that even the most ludicrous rumors gain currency. The repeated blame placed on "foreign activists" (i.e., Israel) by the Arab governments whose people are protesting their rule is just one example of the ease for which the Jewish nation can be blamed for any problem.

Government oppression is just one of many causes of the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt. Another was the large number of young people for whom there were no jobs. The governments attempted to blame both of these serious, systemic problems on Israel. It is to the protestors' credit that they saw this propaganda for what it was, i.e., empty propaganda, and went ahead to hold their governments responsible for the situation.

So does this newfound perspective mean that there will be less anti-Israel rhetoric in these newly liberated Arab countries? Probably not. What will change is the reason for that rhetoric. Instead of governments attacking Israel to shift attention from themselves, it will be different groups of people using anti-Israel slogans to bring followers to their own positions.

Let me put it this way. If dictatorships stifle debate and promote only their own position, then democracies encourage debate and invite everyone to let their views be heard. If there is too much debate, then there is no national unity and chaos ensues.

This is where political and religious parties get involved. They work to persuade people that their platform is correct and that people should join and promote their party. If lots of people join a party, then a unified position arises and the cacophony of too many voices begins to subside. Ultimately, the chaos of everyone having their own views transforms into most people following a limited number of party positions.

How does a party, whether religious or political, persuade people to join? Perhaps the ideal is that everyone takes a rational approach to determining their position, thinking through each party's platform and then making a reasoned choice. The reality is quite different. Parties use any strategy that works to bring in members. In the United States, one political ploy accuses the nation's Christian president of being a Muslim, that is, of belonging to a "foreign" religion. About a quarter of Americans think this is true, according to a recent poll. If the rhetoric works, use it! Even in a seasoned democracy like our own, that is an example of political debate.

So in new democracies such as Tunisia and Egypt, you can be sure that anti-Israel rhetoric will still be widely used, because it works. It will be put to the purpose of attracting people to political parties rather than distracting them from the lack of jobs or from state oppression, but it will still be there. To follow the democratic developments in these nations, we need to understand why it is used, rather than stop at noticing that it is used.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Are we ready to meet an Alien Culture?

Earlier this month, NASA announced that it had discovered 54 Earth-like planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way. These exoplanets, as they are called, were discovered by the Kepler Satellite and are approximately the size of Earth. More importantly, they orbit their sun at a distance where the temperatures are moderate enough for liquid water. Water, of course, is a key building-block of life.

No, we have not discovered aliens. But, if there are any, scientists have just found where they might be hanging out. In the inimitable fashion of American journalism, many news outlets suggested this brought us a step closer to finding alien life forms. (A step closer to something we don't even know exists!).

One of the most interesting of these solar systems, called KOI 157, contains not just one but five planets in its habitable zone. This increases the odds that life might be found there.

KOI 157 is also 2,000 light years away. There is lots of time to prepare for making contact with the aliens. That's good, because we are not ready.

In our public imagination, we tend to see aliens in the singular. That makes it easy to identify their intentions. In "E.T.," we met a little nice guy who threatened no one and just wanted to go home. In "Men in Black," we met individual aliens, all of whom had criminal tendencies; the only question lay in when they would break a law, or eat someone.

American film and television frequently depict hordes of aliens, but interestingly, most hordes come in the singular. The classic "War of the Worlds" told the story of an invading alien army. There was just one army, carrying out its one goal of invasion. Films as different as "Independence Day" and "Cocoon" simply repeat the theme of one set of aliens with only one purpose. And don't forget "Star Trek," which gave us the Borg, many beings controlled by one mind, or the one goal of the Daleks from the British "Dr. Who" (Exterminate! Exterminate!).

"Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" brought some complexity to the portrayal of aliens. Not only did it follow the earlier "Star Trek" with multiple species such as Klingons, Vulcans, and Romulans, but its ongoing interaction with them revealed elements of alien social structure, governance and individual personality quirks.
But there is a difference between calmly watching a fictional TV show about aliens and meeting and interacting with an actual alien society. The latter would not be viewed calmly or rationally but through the lens of jangling emotions. Those emotions would quickly reduce the alien society's complexity to something singular, simple, and probably misleading. One quick way that would take place is through our attitudes toward their religion, whatever that might be.

To illustrate my point, think about how America views foreign societies, which are human, not alien. The American media began reporting the Egyptian revolution by emphasizing the variety of people involved: young and old, poor and middle class, educated and non-educated, etc. Then the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamicist organization, became involved. Suddenly, the story became Mubarak the dictator vs. the religious fanatics. The people's will and actions suddenly were seen as misguided, for as pundits argued, it would only lead to a religious dictatorship worse than Mubarak's.

If we are going to be ready to meet alien cultures, then we must become consistently more sophisticated about how we understand human ones. We must attempt to understand their complexity and not grow fearful when religious organizations get involved and attempt to improve their own society.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

God’s Slaves or God’s Butlers?

In February, NewSouth Editions will release a new version of Mark Twain’s classic book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In it, the editor Alan Gribben changed the word “nigger” to the term “slave” every time it appeared (more than 200 occurrences). As someone who regularly teaches this book, he was tired have having the presence of this objectionable word interfere with students’ trying to understand the book’s literary character and social critiques.

Not surprisingly, this bowdlerized edition has already angered literature teachers, alarmed historians, and even excited legislators who treasure the book. Professor Gribben has been accused of changing the past and of altering the words of a master writer like Twain. It is true that the N-word has resulted in the banning of “Huckleberry Finn” from many school and town libraries, and that the word’s removal comprises an attempt to get this important work back into those public collections, but changing words has struck many as violating the integrity of Twain’s literary creation.

Sanitizing books is nothing new; people have done it for centuries. In fact, the term “bowdlerize” comes from Thomas Bowdler who took out the racy bits from Shakespeare more than 200 years ago.

The Bible has not escaped such tampering. Nearly every translation over the centuries—from the earliest Greek, Latin and Aramaic renderings to the most recent translations—have altered something their translators’ found offensive.

In light of the changes to “Huckleberry Finn,” it is interesting to note that one word that English Bible translations have always had trouble with is “slave.” Since the King James translation appeared in 1611, it has been common practice to replace “slave” with “servant.” Nearly every occurrence of “servant” in Old Testament translations and most appearances of it in the New Testament are rendering the Hebrew or Greek word for “slave.”

The defense of this approach is like that just mentioned, namely, the use of “slave” jars with our modern sensibilities. Here are some examples:

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all called “slaves of God.” For Moses, it becomes a common epithet, “Moses, the slave of God.” The same applies to King David, who both refers to himself as a slave before the Lord and after his death is referred to as “David, the slave of God.” In the New Testament, both the Apostle Paul and Titus both refer to themselves as a “slave of God.”

To be sure, the word “slave” in these expressions is jarring. That is why English translations render all of these as “servant of God.” Rather than being God’s slave, then, the notion is more like being God’s “butler.”

When the underlying Hebrew or Greek is not the actual word for slave, it is usually a related term, “boy!” Language that infantilizes slaves is common in most slave-holding societies. Masters think nothing of using it to address a 60-year-old male slave.

Even before Jesus’ birth, the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint was already uncomfortable with the Bible’s frequent use of “slave.” Rather than call David and Moses slaves, it drew upon the child terminology. This resulted in phrases like, “David, boy of God” and “Moses, God’s boy.”

Of course, these biblical passages use slave language in a metaphorical sense. The aim is to show Abraham’s or Jacob’s close relationship with God, not to say that they are property. For Moses and David in particular, the phrase “slave of God” forms an honorific, a title that signifies their special relationship to God; it was a relationship that few other people could claim.

So what do you think? Have the English translators of the Bible done modern Christianity a favor by rendering “slave” as “servant” Or should they have translated the word exactly? Is it easier to explain Moses as a servant of God, or to first explain what it means to be a slave and then to explain how the metaphor of being God’s slave is actually an honorable position?