Monday, May 10, 2010

The Union’s Dark Side; Culture and the Bible; Ecology; Cutting Corners; Destiny; Philonic Midrash; Lena Horne

1. Samuel C. Hyde, Jr., Pistols and Politics: The Dilemma of Democracy in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes, 1810-1899, page 112:

Hoping to exploit the demoralized condition of the local residents and the few Confederate troops in the area, the Federals moved rapidly to apply irresistible pressure on the Florida parishes…During the summer of 1862, [Union General Thomas] Williams launched a series of probing raids into the interior to test Confederate strength and to intimidate the population…The raiders failed in their effort to capture any Confederate forces, but they did lay waste several plantations belonging to prominent Confederate sympathizers. At each plantation all buildings and fences, excepting the slave quarters, were burned, the livestalk stolen, and ornamental trees cut down. The commanding officer reported on the success of his endeavor: “I burnt every building on the estate of these once beautiful plantations, except such as were required to cover the negroes left behind…In fact I left nothing but the blackened chimneys as a monument to the folly and villainy of its guerrilla owner.”

Shows and movies that cover the Civil War tend to sympathize with the North, for slavery existed in the South, and slavery is considered to be wrong. But, interestingly, these shows and movies are also honest about the brutality that Union soldiers inflicted on the South. Mary Ingalls did a paper on this in the episode of Little House on the Prairie, the one with Frank and Jesse James, who gave Mary the Confederate side of the story. In Alex Haley’s Queen, granted, the slaves are rejoicing when the Union forces are coming, for they believe that their time of liberation is nigh. But the Union forces burn the plantation, and one Union soldier tries to force Queen to kiss him, and kills Queen’s grandfather when he tries to stop him. Glory depicts Union forces wrecking havoc on a Southern town.

Why do these shows and movies do this? There are movies, such as the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which depict the Union soldiers as noble and benevolent liberators. But why don’t many movies on the Civil War go this route? Or, more accurately, these movies may present the Union soldiers as champions of the slaves (though Glory highlights notorious exceptions), but they acknowledge that the Union was far from saintly, for it could be heartless and self-serving. Are these movies trying to be balanced, or seeking to appease their Southern viewers, or conveying the message that war is hell, for all involved?

2. Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, page 50:

Secretary General:…You say Smith understands English.

Nelson: Well, yes and no, Your Excellency. He knows quite a number of words, but, as Mahmoud says, he doesn’t have any cultural context to hang the words on. It can be rather confusing.

As I read this, I wondered how we can understand the Bible, which is in different languages and comes from cultures that are unlike ours. We’re not in these cultures—or, let me say, we in the West are not. Africans, Native-Americans, Arabs, some Jews, and others may understand the Bible better than Westerners do, for they overlap culturally with the environments that produced the Bible (in terms of their emphasis on community, or their tribalism, or other factors). My impression is, however, that people in the West don’t need to understand the customs of biblical times to follow the stories in the Bible—at least on a certain level, for Westerners are familiar with stories—with characters, plots, etc. In some cases, a knowledge of culture may help them out, or provide them with a deeper understanding of the Bible. I think of the Sermon on the Mount, which appears more reasonable when we understand the culture behind it (see Michael Westmoreland-White’s A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount II).

3. Erhard Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part I with an Introduction to Cultic Poetry, page 155:

[In Psalm 36, i]n a striking ecological confession, God “helps man and beast” (v. 7c).

This isn’t overly surprising, since God preserved the animals on the ark. Speaking of ecology, see Michael Westmoreland-White’s post, Of Oil, Eschatology and Creation Care.

4. Richard Sarason, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Agriculture: A Study of Tractate Demai, page 161:

An [am ha-aretz] agent who is given general instructions to purchase produce from someone who is deemed trustworthy with regard to tithing is not believed, since to begin with we do not trust him, and we have no way of verifying his statement…But if we instruct him to purchase produce from a specific person, he is believed. Since he knows that we can now contact that person to verify his statement, he will be careful to follow our instructions…

I guess this is saying that, if a meticulously observant Jew sends a lax Jew to purchase tithed produce, the meticulous one should tell the lax one to buy it from a specific person, so that the meticulous person can contact the seller to see if it’s tithed. Or at least the threat of contacting the seller would frighten the lax Jew to buy tithed produce. If the lax Jew is simply told to go to the market and buy some tithed produce, however, there’s no accountability. The lax Jew could simply buy any produce—even when it’s untithed—and say that it’s tithed, and there’s no way of knowing if he’s telling the truth. Maybe he wanted to get the task over with as soon as possible, so he didn’t worry about whether it was tithed or not.

Here, the Mishnah has a “guilty until proven innocent” approach to the lax Jew, the am ha-aretz. At other times, however, it assumes that the am ha-aretz wouldn’t deliberately cause his observant brother to stumble. Maybe not, but there are times when people want to save time, get things done quickly, and cut corners. For the Mishnah, that should be factored into the equation.

5. Baruch Levine, Numbers 1-20, page 64:

Still another theme of note in the JE materials is the notion that God had prepared the Israelites for their future life in the Promised Land; that they brought their way of life with them.

I don’t entirely understand what this means. Is this saying that the Israelites were shepherds and herders in the wilderness, and that prepared them to be such in the Promised Land? Is it saying that God humbled the Israelites in the wilderness so that they’d remember where they came from in the Promised Land, rather than becoming spiritually proud?

This quote reminds me of an episode of the Dead Zone that I watched recently: “Destiny”. Johnny Smith (played by Anthony Michael Hall) experienced an intensification of his latent psychic powers after he was in a coma for a few years. His guardian, Rev. Gene Purdy (played by David Ogden Stiers), asks Johnny is he ever sees visions of ordinary things, such as people taking a nap or mowing the lawn. Johnny replies “no”; rather, Johnny sees visions about events in the future that can help him to save people’s lives. Rev. Purdy concludes that Johnny has a special mission from God, or fate, or whatever, for which Johnny has been prepared all of his life.

That’s an interesting thought. Are we being prepared for a mission? Are we learning compassion so that we can perform responsibilities in a morally conscious manner? If so, what would we say about the people who died before they got to perform any great mission? Or maybe their ordinary life of compassion was great, in its own way.

6. I read the Encyclopedia Judaica article on “Midrash”. It tied Jewish midrash to Hellenistic exegesis of Homer, which I know a little bit about from my studies for my Greco-Roman Judaism comp. Essentially, there were exegetes who viewed Homer as allegorical for the spiritual life. They were like Philo, who did this with the Torah. But was Philo a practitioner of midrash? I usually don’t hear his hermeneutical approach classified as such. Is there a difference between midrash and allegory? Or is allegory a sub-species of midrash, which could possibly be defined as any approach to the biblical text that seeks to uncover hidden meaning underneath its literal surface?

7. Lena Horne has passed away. I know Lena Horne from three places. First and second, she played herself on The Cosby Show and Sanford and Son. Second, in Roots: The Next Generation, Alex Haley’s girlfriend laments that white society considers Lena Horne to be an attractive African-American woman because she has lighter skin—she looks white.

The AP article about Lena Horne was interesting: Barrier-breaking jazz star Lena Horne dies at 92 – Yahoo! News. Apparently, she herself was deeply disturbed by the existence of racial discrimination in the United States. I especially appreciated the last line of the article: “I wouldn’t trade my life for anything,” she said, “because being black made me understand.” Her experience as an African-American woman taught her to empathize with people in society who were victims of suffering and injustice, and she also learned to enjoy life rather than become consumed with bitterness.

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