April 28, 2019

About that [SPOILER] at the end of Avengers: Endgame

 I’m going to indulge in a little pop fiction today, because it’s right up my alley in multiple ways. In particular, it's an interesting exercise in the logic and principles of world building within hypothetical scenarios. We must "read the novel as if it were true."

 ***WARNING: Major SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame appear below.***

 There’s one question lots of people are asking about this amazing movie. How does Steve Rogers get back to that bench by the lake? There are two possible explanations, and they are both problematic.

 If Steve grew old naturally in the prime reality (the MCU timeline as we know it through all 22 movies), he must have lived a long life without changing anything. That would logically imply old Steve has always been hiding in Peggy’s life, which probably complicates some details from Winter Soldier and the Agent Carter TV show, but a bigger problem is pointed out by Meg Downey on the Gamestop website: Steve has never been the kind of person who could sit by and let bad things happen, and even if we suppose that he changes that m.o. for the sake of his love life, it’s horrifying to imagine that peacefully aging Steve spent decades ignoring all the ways his future knowledge could have prevented vast quantities of human suffering. Thus, explanation number one is a clever in respecting the time travel rules but this is simply not a desirable scenario to consider. In Downey’s perhaps not too strong words, it ruins the film.

 Option two makes more sense from the perspective of Steve’s character but creates a gaping plot hole. If Steve and Peggy’s past life changed anything at all about the MCU timeline then old Steve would wind up growing old in the alternate reality his actions created. It’s tremendous to think of Steve and Peggy working together to rescue Bucky, keep Hydra out of Shield, keep the tesseract out of the wrong hands, prevent the Chitauri from coming to earth, and potentially so much more… but then how does old Steve make his way to that bench by the lake? How could Steve Rogers “jump” (without using the quantum suit) back into the present timeline, and why would he do so at all?

 One efficient way to suggest solutions for problems like this is by letting one question answer another. Oh, yes. There’s a more perplexing question that nobody seems to be asking.

 How was Steve able to return the stones to their places? Yes, I know Banner seems to think he can do it. Yes, we should they made a plan together before Steve went back in time. Yes, I know Steve tells Sam, on that bench, “I put the stones back.” Still, there is one major unspoken problem in all this.

 The reason Steve shouldn’t have been able to accomplish his mission is because the objects he took with him in that briefcase were six colored gems. He did not have the cube. He did not have the scepter. He did not have the orb. We know *THOSE* are the objects, originally housing the gems, which Rogers is supposed to put back. Maybe Steve and Bruce thought about this in advance, but how did they intend to deal with it? We are not told. How is Steve supposed to manufacture those objects and put the stones back inside them once he gets back to those alternate timelines? Thus, we have two problems. How did old Steve get from his married future in some alternate reality to the lakeside? How did Steve manufacture the objects he needed, once he went back in time? I suggest the solution to both problems could be Tilda Swinton.

This universe is only one of an infinite number. Worlds
without end... [a] vast multiverse." -- Dr. Strange (2016)

 Suppose Hulk sent Rogers first to the Sanctum Sanctorum in 2012. He returns the time stone and asks the Ancient One for her help in returning the other five stones to their places. (Alternatively, perhaps the two of them decide the other stones can be put elsewhere for safe keeping, as long as they go back to exist in their own proper realities. Either way, the rest of this scenario is the same.) The Ancient One might also hold onto Mjolnir until 2014, at which point it can fly across the universe into Thor’s hand, moments after its past self disappears with pudgy future Thor. Finally, having finished his business from 2023, Rogers uses his stash of Pym particles to enact his own secret plan.

 Going back to 1945, Steve finds Peggy and begins an incredible new lifetime, creating a glorious new alternate timeline and enjoying that reality until Peggy dies of old age in 2016. Bereft without Peggy, elderly Steve returns to Greenwich Village and asks the Ancient One to transport him to the prime MCU timeline he departed from so many decades earlier. Although this is not the same Ancient One he met in the alternate 2012, this Ancient One is equally well aware of multiple realities. She inquires further, somehow locates the prime timeline, and agrees to help.

 At this point, if not sooner, Steve will have one more thing to do. He flies to the arctic, wakes up his frozen younger self, gives him the quantum suit and the Pym particles and sends him back in time to have another fresh start in 1945. However, he keeps the shield so he can give it to Sam. With this last loose thread tied up, Steve returns to New York where the Ancient One transports him and his original shield into prime 2023.

 Voila! Old Steve lived a long life in an alternate timeline and still got back to the lakeside.

 Assuming Steve didn't lie to Sam, by the lake, I really like this solution. But you tell me. If the Ancient One didn't help him recreate the cube, the scepter, and the orb, then who did? And if she did help him do those things, and we know she outlived Peggy by a few months or a year, then it makes sense to me that when Steve wanted to exit this timeline he would naturally think back to the point of his entry.

 At any rate, that’s my fan theory. It’s a more satisfying scenario to me. Avengers fans, imagine something different if you wish.

 Let me also say THANK YOU right now to Kevin Feige, Joe and Anthony Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for all their amazing storytelling efforts. If you guys like this fan theory, I'll accept my "No Prize" anytime... or in any timeline!


April 22, 2019

Progress & Frustration

Hello, faithful readers. This month's post is just a quick story and an old joke, with brief reflections on both.

My Athenian tour guide, Costas Tsevas, told me (in 2001) that he'd come across a greek word somewhere in Aristotle which meant "I organize a vote by the raising of hands." Furthermore, Costas claimed, this was the same word used in Acts when Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in Galatia. As a house church advocate, and vigorously so at that time, I became very excited upon hearing this story but I didn't quite know what to do next. Did Costas try to verify his own reading? Did he investigate further? Was he planning to write or publish somehow? His friendly and amused reply was no, no, and no. Still delighted but slightly exasperated, I exclaimed, "If you're right, then this is a big deal. Why didn't you tell somebody?" Costas answered, laughing, "Nobody asked!"

This memory comes to mind at times whenever I feel down about the colossal indifference I have often received from various New Testament scholars. In particular, the struggle to work on my Master's thesis brings this story to mind. Why am I torturing myself to climb up to this level? Why couldn't I have been humble, content, and bemused like Costas? I've had some inquiries and some encouragement in recent years, but way back when I started engaging with bibliobloggers (in 2008), it was utterly true that nobody had asked. Still, I persist. But there are times I doubt that I should.

The second story is an old joke I enjoy. Three people were staying at a hotel one night--a sales executive, an engineer, and a mathematician--when each one woke up to discover their garbage can was on fire. In their own rooms, they each had a different experience: (1) The sales exec woke up, saw the fire, panicked, threw the empty ice bucket at the fire, filled it and threw it again a few times, eventually put out the fire by making a large sloppy mess, decided that's what housekeeping is for, and then went back to sleep. (2) The engineer woke up, saw the fire, jumped up smartly, sat down with a pencil and paper, calculated the exact amount of water needed to put out the fire, took the ice bucket to the sink, carefully measured the exact level of water, calmly poured the water, put out the fire, made no mess, and then went back to sleep. (3) The mathematician woke up, saw the fire, jumped up smartly, sat down with a pencil and paper, calculated the exact amount of water needed to put out the fire, and THEN, having determined that a solution DID exist, the mathematician promptly went back to sleep.

This joke comes to mind because I can be like the mathematician. There have been many points on this journey where I realized how much of my quest was being driven by my own curiosity. I have cut long passages from my drafts which illustrate little more than my own need to work through those ideas, remembering the scholar who said chunks of our work can be nothing but personal therapy. Vonnegut's "Tiger got to hunt" comes to mind also. I always knew this long-term quest of mine was at least partly driven by personal need, but I am surprised at how much I am struggling to follow through with all this formal writing now that I, myself, am pretty well satisfied that I understand what is actually going on. Having determined that a solution DOES exist, a part of me would like to get back to what I had been doing previously.

Here's a third story. This one is most personal.

A third reason I may be struggling is American politics. I remain shell-shocked by the 81% of 11/9/16. Although I was only evangelical for half of my college years, the house church movement I joined was largely in reaction to evangelical church problems, and it was our shared desire to influence those devout bible readers (to introduce them to vigorous levels of historical context in reading the New Testament) which sparked and fueled my chronological projects in the first place. I have always admired people who are willing to believe whatever christian scripture says, and it's fair to say my chief critique was (and still is) that believers should read scripture more intelligently. BUT I MUST SAY the scandalous support for our current POTUS has brought home to me just how deeply and profoundly the authoritarian movement is anti-intellectual by design. By design. By design.

There seems to be little point in presenting contextual arguments about how to read scripture with any groups of people whose leaders are SO HEAVILY predetermined to enforce dogma with whatever justifications are convenient. Okay, it's not like that whole concept was a revelation. Obviously, I'd seen that lots of times before 2016. What has shaken me so deeply is the extremity of justification, the intensity of blindness, the sheer willfulness of the ignorance. Most shocking perhaps was the number of my fellow former Edwardians who have fallen for POTUS45's authoritarian baloney. One of many things that drew me to Gene Edwards was the intelligence of his analysis. I am deeply disappointed to realize how many of our brethren were (evidently) drawn to his style of confident declaration (which I saw as an allowable defect, until my history project grew serious enough to make dogma unnecessary). My only other sad complaint about the old gang is our high divorce rate; the all-in ecclesial experiment was rough on family life, but I never dreamed so many couples would go bust. I still love the old man and I'll still defend him on many points to this day because most of those who complain about Gene have profoundly misunderstood him. Still, the crowd one draws is revealing. Apparently, our movement was more authoritarian than I ever supposed. Oh well, nobody's perfect.

Enough digression. Here is the one point of all these three stories.

These days, I struggle to continue believing that contextual reading of scripture will ever make much of an impact on the way Christians approach God and do church. Maybe it will for a few. Maybe it was never going to for most. The most I can muster, some days, is a stubborn hope that persisting in my past belief is a worthy endeavor. Maybe I'm just in a down swing. Maybe the long term results will prove that my earliest hopes were well founded. Maybe so. I hope so. I just don't feel it that much anymore.

Deep down, I still care just as much. I'm just not sure whether I'm doing anyone any good.

In this regard, it may be fortunate that I shifted gears, around 2009, in deciding my primary mission field would be communicating with NT scholars, rather than devout bible readers. None of them asked, but I do know that I have seen a problem and I do know that I have found a solution. Therefore, I believe I will most likely persist in trying to upgrade and publish my work, out of sheer stubbornness if not passion or duty. 

Hopefully, a future time is coming when more people will care.

If I can get through this bear of a thesis, I may return to caring more myself.

Good Lord, Academia is difficult.

Anon, then...

March 12, 2019

Historians Imagine Scenarios

Today I just want to quote the first paragraph of James McGrath's brilliant post today about fiction and non-fiction. James' personal testimony about this means more than any words I could add in appreciation, and I look forward to hearing more from James about his efforts in this area.
What an odd path my academic life has followed. They say truth is stranger than fiction. I pursued study of the Bible bringing with me naïve assumptions about its historicity. Study challenged those assumptions. I then undertook research and then taught and continued researching the Bible using methods of historical critical analysis. Teaching gave me the opportunity to branch out into areas like the study of science fiction, which led me to write science fiction. That has led me to try writing historical fiction. And that is proving surprisingly relevant to the work I do about history, in all sorts of ways. I have begun revisiting ideas, hunches, and hypotheses about the history behind the Bible, discovering that the effort to turn those possibilities into stories, with plausible character motives and events, is providing a more rigorous testing thereof than any other critical analysis I had subjected them to.
These words are thrilling, and I am so deeply intrigued. The rest of James' fascinating post meanders a bit through various aspects of fiction, non-fiction, and psychology, and I recommend checking out all of his links, but my own primary interest remains fixed on these challenging dynamics of integrating critical judgment and historical imagination.

My own explorations about these subjects will post here as they continue to develop, but of course there are different ways to combine these ingredients. I dearly hope we can expect hear more about how James continues his own "rigorous testing" in future postings at Religion Prof.


January 20, 2019

Pluralism is Grace, Elitism requires Efficiency

The reason I am a religious conservative and a social progressive is because I believe both in private discipline and civic grace. I believe Jesus lived a perfect life while his neighbors did not, and the reason they all didn't hate him (Luke 2:52) is because he was gracious. Therefore, just like 29 year old Jesus in Nazareth, we need to live and let live. Politically, that means Christians must embrace pluralism. In a deep way, this comes down to what Christians ourselves are called to do and be. If we cannot be gracious, then we are neither holy nor worshipful. Unfortunately, too many conservatives still confuse pluralism with liberalism or relativism or compromise. For me, pluralism is none of those things. From the classical christian perspective, pluralism is grace.

In about the year 53 CE, a guild of silversmiths wanted to run Paul out of Ephesus, but Paul could not have imagined retaliating in kind. Today, largely because Christian Europe spent some centuries abusing its political power, western civilization is trending back towards what it was. Personally, I am hopeful about this developing trend. Ours is the faith of a carpenter, of a tent-maker, of a pregnant teenager, of an exiled refugee. Christianity has suffered most because of wealth and popularity. I don't know if God agrees with me that it would be better for Christianity if we could have fewer Christians, but I do believe God prefers that we not romanticize persecution. Big or small, the future I see for Christianity involves mutual toleration. In my opinion, the best way to preserve religious freedom is by embracing a broader package of civil rights and social equality.

To my mind, the obviousness of that strategy reveals the ugliness of those who cannot see it, or perhaps simply refuse to embrace it. One common critique of the religious right in America is that they do not fear losing freedom, but what they truly fear is losing control. Perhaps I might say more accurately that what conservative Americans fear is being controlled. Perhaps some fear losing freedom precisely because they have tried so hard to deny freedoms to others. Perhaps some fear control precisely because they have worked so hard to control others. Because it's what they do unto others, they fear it will be done unto them.

The preacher who fears he'll be unable to buy or sell christian products is the preacher who forbade his people from buying secular products. The preacher who fears christian media will be banned is the preacher who forbade his people from watching secular media. The preacher who fears Hollywood will turn his kid gay is the preacher who believes he has the power to turn his kid straight. The preacher who fears the government will tell him what to preach is the preacher who uses that tax-exempt pulpit to tell his people how to vote. By the way, yes, those fearful "he" preachers are predominantly dudes. Regarding the general dynamic of that manly ungraciousness, please draw your own conclusions.

At the very least, the christian religion should give up trying to govern unbelievers. Beyond being bad for America but it's been spiritually deadly for the church. And that, in a nutshell, is the message I would like to send to all my fellow religious conservatives.


Changing topics, now, my chief concern for the future of left-wing politics in America is the question of elitism and efficiency. Across all forms of governments, in the history of this world, a few constants have always ruled the dynamic. The first constant is scarcity. The second is elitism. We do a much better job of mitigating the one than the other.

Elitism requires efficiency. You can't hoard wealth without protecting yourself from the rabble. Aside from monopolizing resources, elites have always enjoyed the protection of controlling political systems. In ancient Athens, by a mixture of accident and design, an estimated 80% of the population lived in some form of permanent servitude. The norm for a long time in much of the world was outright ("mass chattel") slavery, and European feudalism merely gave way to a more sophisticated system of inherited privilege. Although our post-industrial economics offers more upward mobility and our political revolutions more frequently removes social stars from the economic firmament, there are still systems in place to protect the one percent collectively, however much its membership may revolve.

To understand this efficiency today, let's start with Lyndon Johnson's famous remark about controlling the lowest white man by giving him someone to look down upon. That's one system of control that's hierarchically very efficient. By the way, I was raised in the well-to-do south. Racism is real and raw and ugly and ignorant and mean in the lower classes, but in the upper classes a large part of racism is just elitism made more efficient. Tokenism isn't just a clever dodge, it's a genuine acceptance filtered through stringent requirements. The wealthy white folks let a few non-whites into their club not to prove they aren't racist but to prove that their way of doing things is powerful enough to raise up anyone (as long as the blessed new blood proves to be advantageous and remembers to pay proper fealty). It's only the poor whites who need to cuss and damn and threaten whole races of people; the wealthy folks just pass zoning restrictions. Racial elitism requires surreptitious efficiencies.

Efficiency is the same reason authoritarian preachers depend upon patriarchy. Establish that the men can rule over their wives, who in turn let the women rule over their children, and thereby the preacher constructs a social hierarchy with himself at the top. But if it wasn't for that system--if everybody didn't get to be in charge of somebody else--the people would never let the preacher have so much power and control over them all. Of course, what we can still see in those shrinking authoritarian tribes is what we used to see decades ago in much of American life. When all the white folks in America feared the religious disapproval of their local reverends (who in turn answered on some level to the civic government that subsidized clerical salaries by allowing their tax breaks), that entire system itself was dependent on patriarchy. Religious elitism required patriarchal efficiencies.

What worries me now is wondering what might come next. Personally, I can boldly imagine we might somehow convince lots of white evangelical preacher dudes to quit using Calvinism and other traditional doctrines as an excuse for white supremacy and patriarchy. That's a long way off but I can imagine it happening. What I can't imagine is that CNN and the New York Times could ever maintain operating revenues (in the current political climate) without occasionally featuring the false equivalence of their "both siderism" to maximize page views. With the near-total death of mass marketing, there are few if any niche-level efficiencies remaining which are still so broad as sexism and racism. It's pure economics. For CNN and the NYT, media both-siderism is a brand choice, a way to stand above the more obviously biased outlets (which remain less profitable, for now). Media elitism requires marketing efficiencies.

Likewise, the rise of anti-immigrant fervor in Europe isn't just a strange side-effect of neo-liberalism; it's a leverageable efficiency which is still available to unscrupulous opportunists on a broad-enough scale to be useful politically. Eventually, albeit gradually, the information age might educate enough people about the truth of well-behaved immigrants at least well enough to save us from this particular leverage. What the information age cannot do, however, is affect the dynamic by which ambitious politicians  who wish to join their national elite always recognize their own need to leverage some degree of political efficiency.

In short, I'm wondering what kinds of efficiencies might be leveraged in our future.

Today's "brave new world" creates new elites more frequently, but the new system still needs protections for elitism itself, and on some level those protections require efficiency. Right now, Americans are still in transition, as we have been for the past sixty to eighty years. The current white house occupant still maintains northward of 30% approval rates even after two years of non-stop scandals generating legitimate outrage. Forget him, though. Focus on that percentage.

I remain personally committed to reducing racism and sexism--now more than ever--but even if we can end those dynamics completely, the socio-political dynamic will still offer relative efficiencies. On this point, I fear that some fears of the religious hardliners may not be unfounded. Although I cannot yet foresee the U.S. experiencing governmentally sanctioned persecution of christian believers, our slide towards unpopularity will soon give us a minority status that will eventually turn animosity against us into actionable leverage. Elitism requires efficiency. As George Orwell said, some animals are always going to be more equal than others. Still, with all my heart, I would rather face persecution myself than support the persecution of others. This is my faith, to endeavor to live like Jesus Christ, and my Lord did not try to take over Judea. Instead, to fulfill God's desires, Jesus denied his own desires and turned his face toward death on a cross.

On this point, some of my friends who are liberal-christians (I say again, I remain committed to conservative orthodoxy), may put their hope in the rise of the Religious Left, and indeed social tribes in those circles may withstand future political leverage. They may even wind up serving those who take power in the future liberal governments, but I must let them contemplate building their own bridge over that River Kwai. What I would like to suggest to my left-leaning christian associates is merely the following.

Social progress does not depend on sweet religious kindness. Social progress depends on economic progress. Since the first Sufferagettes (organizing in post-Victorian urban areas) women [okay, white women] have gained political power in lock step with their own economic advancement with social status following behind. Racial progress lags far behind women's progress, with a few powerful exceptions, but the same general principle holds true. For the past hundred years or so, technology and education have been gradually shifting our paradigm from scarcity to abundance. It is operating in seasons of relative abundance that allows marginalized groups to organize for political power. It is operating in these several decades of global stability and abundance that has allowed western culture the luxury of breaking up the old norms and expectations. Without the fear of suffering scarcity, the poor and middle classes have less need to embrace conformity. We haven't suddenly grown enlightened in America. We've just gotten too rich to care what anyone thinks anymore.

The old world maintained stability with armies and walls but our new world of relative abundance has allowed us to entertain notions like world peace and open borders within plausible contexts. It's wonderful, albeit historically bizarre, but it may be sustainable. Obviously, bad things still happen, and utopia gets sidetracked every day, although trends remain hopeful. Some type of elitism will always be with us, and will sometimes be manageable, but all kinds of elitism require some type of efficiency.

History should assure us, at least, that if economic progress disintegrates, social progress will probably devolve accordingly, however gradually and sporadically. Before some such future occurs... if we first manage to end patriarchy... if we first manage to end white supremacy... I cannot begin to imagine what new percentages would shake out... or what kinds of leveraged efficiencies the new social disintegration would suggest to that era's political opportunists.

With all intellectual humility, I can only suggest that Christian believers are one of many options. Some groups will face threats of persecution. Others may not. None of those options should be preferable to anyone.

But elitism requires efficiency.


In lieu of that true nightmare scenario, may I humbly suggest once again that civic tolerance and political pluralism are the far better way to proceed.

Anyway, to my view, it's the proper christian choice. 

Pluralism is grace...

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