31 January 2011

More Sunday School goodness

Last week, approximately a month too late, we finally had our Gospel Doctrine class on the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2; Luke 2).  I decided to pick up the story a little earlier and discuss Matthew's genealogy of Jesus (actually Joseph) in Matthew 1.  We discussed a number of issues related to this genealogy, and I wanted to end by discussing the women listed in that genealogy.  Women were not typically listed in Hebrew genealogies (see the Old Testament), so this makes Matthew's exceptional in that regard.  Matthew's genealogy lists four women (five if you count Mary)- Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.  On first glance, not a terribly auspicious group.  Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law Judah,  Rahab was a prostitute who betrayed her own city of Jericho (to the benefit of the Israelites), and Bathsheba was an adulteress for whom David slew Uriah the Hittite, which leaves Ruth, who went by night and after uncovering his "feet," slept beside a strange man.  I remarked to the class that this was a group of "scandalous" women, and apparently, as a whole, not one dedicated to our contemporary ideals of modesty or chastity.  A member of the class took serious issue with my depiction of Ruth as being like the other "scandalous" women.  Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that, even if pure and virtuous, Ruth is "scandalous" by her inclusion in the lineage of David (and later Jesus), even though she was a "Moabitess," a non-Israelite by birth.  Moreover, as pointed out in a footnote to the NRSV, in ancient Hebrew literature, sometimes a "foot" is not just a foot.  I'll keep this PG-13 by not making that point more explicit.  Whether Ruth was or was not a virtuous woman is really completely beside the point I am trying to make, and was beside the larger point that I was making in discussing the inclusion of these women in Jesus' genealogy.

The distressing tendency of female Biblical figures to fall into the Madonna/whore dichotomy (and disproportionately on the latter side of the division) is well known, and its too disturbing to elaborate on here. My purpose is to point out that we have an inability to appreciate and find meaning in the stories and lives of characters in the scriptures, unless they can be simply categorized as a paragon of virtue or a cautionary tale.  Ruth, in the LDS Church, has been cast in the virtuous role, and there is a cultural blind spot to those parts of her tale that do not seem to conform with this preconceived notion.  There are likewise figures on the other side, whose virtues are too easily ignored because of the role in which they are cast.  We ought to have greater appreciation for the fact that these facile categories obscure more about human nature than their elucidate, particularly given that the space between triumphant virtue and abject moral failure is one that most of us occupy every day of our lives.

17 January 2011

The Pre-Reformation Spirit of Correlation

I just finished Diarmaid MacCulloch's excellent book The Reformation: A History.  It's dense and long, but I highly recommend it as a one-volume history of the whole sweep of that period (see the link to Amazon in my left sidebar).  There was a particular part of the story of the Reformation that stuck out to me as it relates to an experience I recently had teaching Sunday School in our ward.

Prior to and during the period of the Reformation (if not also after), the Roman Catholic Church vigorously suppressed the reading of the Bible in the vernacular languages of Europe by its laity.  Pope Paul V, in 1606, said "Do you not know that so much reading of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?"  In Italy, those wishing to read such a Bible had to obtain the permission of their local bishop.  Given that access to the Bible was a support, if not a direct impetus, to the evangelism of Protestant and Reformed movements, the Catholic Church's concern has the benefit of having been practically prophetic.  In response to a priest who warned him against publishing scriptures for the common man, William Tyndale said "before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!"  (This quote was cited by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in the April 2010 General Conference, and has been cited in numerous other conference talks and Church publications, primarily because of its appeal as a kind of ironic quasi-prophecy regarding Joseph Smith).  Particularly given the generally poor state of education among priests at the time, this prediction has unquestionably come true in our own age.

Now to my experience.  I have been teaching Gospel Doctrine in our ward for the past 14 months or so.  As part of the first lesson of this year's New Testament curriculum, which has the purpose of introducing the New Testament and trying to get class members motivated to read and keep up with each week's lessons, I prepared a short handout.  The handout contained a list of extracurricular resources, including alternative translations of the Bible, textbooks, recorded lectures, and study aids, that class members could use as part of their personal study.  In explaining the handout, I emphasized at least twice that the handout was in no sense a syllabus for the class and that these resources were purely for personal use as an enrichment to one's own study of the scriptures.  I made such a handout because I have generally found that Church members are interested in knowing more about the scriptures, but do not know where to find good material.  I tried to be judicious in creating that list of resources, and chose materials that could be appreciated by non-academics, and that generally reflected whatever scholarly consensus exists regarding the New Testament.  As a corollary to this point, with one exception, I did not list materials either published by the Church or by Deseret Book, solely since I assume that most members are familiar with the range of materials available from those sources.  At first, there appeared to be no problem.  However, immediately following the end of that class, I was pulled aside by the Sunday School President who informed me, citing and pointing to a copy of the Church Handbook of Instructions, that we were to only teach from Church-published or -approved materials, and that he would issue such a clarification to the class the following Sunday.

It may not be readily apparent what this experience has to do with the Reformation, so let me explain-- I see a similar idea at work in both.  The goal is to achieve total message control.  There is no way that the Correlation Committee (the primary drivers behind the emphasis of "only-use-Church-approved-materials") could ban the use of the scriptures by regular members of the LDS Church, even if they wanted to (which I am not arguing that they do).  It is one thing to pull such a feat off in the nascent age of mass printing; it is quite another to do it in the age of the Internet.  But the Bible, like any text, does not speak for itself.  It must be interpreted.  Controlling the interpretation of the text is just as good as controlling the dissemination of the text itself.  For Reformation-era Catholics, removing the possibility of direct access to the Bible was a means of preventing the rise of a diversity of opinions or interpretations regarding the meaning of Scripture, or under a still more sinister interpretation of events, to prevent the laity from realizing the weaknesses or errors of their teaching.  Modern Mormons are, by contrast, allowed (even strongly encouraged) to read frequently from a personal copy of the scriptures.  Nevertheless, there are strong social and institutional norms that pull one's gaze away from "outside" resources and toward Correlation's One True Interpretation of the Scriptures (TM). Not least among these norms is an explicit prohibition on using non-approved materials in lessons, which is published not only in the CHI but in every manual produced by Correlation.  That the list of approved materials is extremely short and is entirely populated by products of Correlation can render the system a perfect echo chamber.  However, my experience emphasized not just the norm that the teachers were not to use or cite from non-approved resources in lessons (I made it clear that I did not), but that regular class members should not be given suggestions as to resources that they could, in their own discretion, choose to utilize as part of their personal scripture study.  This is total message control, not just in the chapel, but in the home, just the way the pre-Reformation Catholic hierarchy liked it.

I wish that, as a people, we were trusted more.  I wish that there was less fear about what was "non-approved sources" and less simple trust in the contents of the approved ones.  I wish that this incident did not feel like a compromise of my personal integrity.  Mostly, I wish that questions, disagreements, and doubts could be faced with boldness and hard-won knowledge, instead of shame and fear.

02 January 2011

Recalculating Eisenhower

In April 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech entitled "The Chance for Peace" before a group of journalists and newspaper editors.  In that speech, he said the following: 

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road. the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
Coming across this quotation several days ago, and thinking back to my previous post on the federal budget, I wondered how Ike's comparisons would hold up in 2010.  As I alluded to in that post, American defense spending sums to more than half of all the defense spending worldwide.  That means that the United States alone spends more on its defense and military than all the other nations of the world...combined.  Let's take a look at the numbers:

  • "One modern heavy bomber"- Northrup Grumman B-2 Spirit (the "stealth bomber")- total program cost (avg./aircraft) - $2.87 billion in 2010 dollars.
  • "Modern brick school"- average cost to build a high school in 2008- ~$20 million.  Furnishing and staffing the school would cost about half this again, so we'll work with a figure of $30 million.  That works out to 95.67 modern high schools for each stealth bomber, of which the United States has 20 in active service.  That works out to nearly 2,000 brand new schools merely for those bombers currently in active service.
  • "Electric power plants"- recent estimates from different parts of the country put the cost of a new coal power plant generating sufficient energy to power 150,000 homes would cost $1 billion.  So instead of 120,000 homes in Ike's day, two modern coal plants would power over 300,000 (per plane).  It should be said that nuclear plants cost considerably more, equivalent to 3 or 4 such bombers.
  • "Fully equipped hospitals"- a recently constructed modern hospital in Waco, Texas cost approximately $32 million to build.  Staffing and equipping a modern hospital obviously costs a great deal more than the school, but even assuming a total cost of $100 million, a single B-2 bomber would buy nearly 30 such hospitals.
  • "Concrete highway"- to build a six-lane Interstate freeway costs between $7-$12 million per mile (less extensive roads can cost less than $1 million per mile in some states).  Even taking the high estimate, you could build almost 240 miles of interstate highway.  Perhaps more importantly, the average cost to construct a mile of light rail in the United states is $35 million.  That's 80 miles of light rail, or the length of my daily commute to and from Houston twice over.
  • "Fighter plane"- the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs approximately $89 million.
  • "Bushels of wheat"- worldwide, wheat prices are about $6 per bushel.  That works out to about $3 million for Eisenhower's half million bushels.  For $6, that gets us about 500 million bushels of wheat.  To make this a more useful figure, for each F-35, of which the military plans to buy more than 2,000, we could buy every man, woman, and child in America one and a half Big Mac extra value meals.
  • "Destroyer"- each of the Navy's new Zumwalt-class destroyers is estimated to cost about $3.3 billion.
  • "New home"- For the price of the average new home sold in the United States in October 2010 (cost $248,000), that means we could build over 13,000 such new homes.  For an average family, that means housing nearly 40,000 people, a fivefold increase from Eisenhower's day.

Obviously, none of the above makes the United States' amount of military spending self-evidently excessive, nor establishes that the alternative expenditure is more worthwhile.  But, as President Eisenhower pointed out,  every penny that we dedicate to building something for the military could have been spent in other ways.   Over the next few years as we hear the inevitable back-and-forth of deficit reduction, I expect that we will hear the words "non-defense discretionary spending."  The implicit assertion behind this concept is that we spend Monopoly money on the military, but real dollars on everything else.  Nobody actually believes that, but it is not until we attempt to lay out the opportunity costs of all those planes, ships, and guns, that it becomes more clear what a "theft" it represents.