Monday, February 28, 2011

No Posts for A Couple of Weeks

I'm going to be in transit for the next couple of weeks as I redeploy to the US which means I won't likely have much access to the internet so there probably won't be any posts until mid March. Thanks to all of you who have been taking the time to read this blog. I promise to post as soon as I am able.  

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Myth of Afghan Invincibility

Not too long ago during some significant downtime for the platoon I indulged in a Rambo movie marathon which of course included Rambo III whose events in the movie occur during the latter end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is easily the worst in the franchise (Rambo II remains my favorite even with its over the top, cartoonesque action sequences) for a number of cinematic reasons, but my principal problem with the film has to do with its simplistic portrayal of the Afghan people. Stallone's film falters for me because it engages in a gross romanticisation of the Afghans (the movie is in fact dedicated to them) by presenting them as a monolithic group of people who desire nothing more than to be left alone and to be free; honorable warriors who can do no wrong and who've never been defeated in war. It's this last emphasis on Afghan invincibility that I find particularly irksome and problematic historically. 

However, this isn't a myth that's sui generis to Rambo III; rather it's a widespread belief held by the public and policy makers alike that has persisted since at least the 1980s and has been neatly packaged in such references to Afghanistan in popular thought as "the graveyard of empires". The narrative of the myth goes something like this: Alexander the Great had great difficulty in conquering this region as did the Muslims and Mongols; the British were defeated several times by the Afghans; the Soviets with its huge technological advantage were beaten by the Afghans by nothing more than WWI enfield rifles; and the United States is now finding that it too cannot conquer this country or its people. Now just to be clear I in no way wish to disparage the unique fighting ability of these people for they have indeed proven themselves on the battlefield repeatedly. Nevertheless, this notion that they have never been conquered or defeated is a myth and one that needs demolishing. 

Unfortunately, there is a difficulty in attempting to survey a military history of Afghanistan because of the problem in pinpointing precisely when one can properly speak of a group of people called Afghans (even today this is problematic because you have a cluster of ethnic groups living in Afghanistan such as Pashtoons, Tajiks, Nuristanis, Uzbeks, et al.) because of its history of heavily mixed ethnic groups, tribal affiliations, and fluctuating borders. In addition, what we think of today as the political entity of Afghanistan didn't come into existence until the mid 19th century and even then its borders were essentially determined by British and Russian interests during their "Great Game" in Central Asia and not according to what would have been best demographically and/or geographically.

But for simplicity's sake let us assume that the Afghan people are those who have generally occupied the region that today encompasses the borders of modern Afghanistan since time immemorial. Given this condition an accurate military history of this region would run as follows:

1.) From what historians and archaeologists have been able to determine the region of modern day Afghanistan first came under subjugation during the conquests of Darius I and the Persian Empire circa 500 BCE.

2.) Alexander the Great defeated the Persian empire and subsequently, though with some difficulty, conquered this vast region c. 330 BCE. Upon his death the Macedonian empire split among several rulers, and Seleucus, a former Macedonian officer under Alexander, took it upon himself to govern the region that encompasses modern day Iran and Afghanistan. 

3.) The Mauryan Empire (an ancient Indian empire) under Chandragupta defeated the remnants of Seleucus' dynasty and conquered most of Afghanistan in roughly 200 BCE.

4.) Sometime in the late 1st century BCE the Scythians, a Steppe peoples, migrated into Afghanistan and subdued the various tribal groups there.  

5.) The Parthians, as part of their war with the remnants of the Seleucid dynasty, invaded and conquered Afghanistan (and India) and effectively maintained control of the region well into Late Antiquity. (Technically, it was the Indo-Parthians who ruled during this period, but historians consider them to be at least nominally a part of the larger Parthian empire.)

6.) Just prior to the middle ages another group from the Steppes, the White Huns, rolled into India and Afghanistan until a Hindu coalition pushed them out in 528 CE.

7.) In 642 CE the Arabs extended their conquest of the Middle East to Asia by subduing Afghanistan as well as introducing Islam to the area for the first time. For the next several hundred years rule of Afghanistan would vacillate between various Muslim and tribal leaders.

8.) In the 13th century the Mongols led by Genghis Khan invaded and conquered all of Central Asia and more. Khan and subsequent Mongol rulers maintained control of this region by a policy of depopulation. 

9.) Following the collapse of the reigns of Tamerlane (or Timur) and then Babur, Afghanistan divided into three major areas; the Khanate of Bukhara ruled in the north, the Sunni Mughals in the east, and the Shi'a Safavids in the west from the 16th to the 18th century. 

10.) Nadir Shah of the Ashfarid dynasty took advantage of the anarchy then enveloping Persia and successfully raised a military to defeat the Persians. He then marched his army into Afghanistan (and what was left of the Mughal empire in India) and defeated and deposed their rulers. But before he could consolidate his control over the region, he was assassinated in 1738 and following a loya jirga the soldier Ahmad Khan was elected to replace him. Ahmad Khan then moved quickly to complete the conquest of the Mughal empire (which at the time consisted of modern day India and Pakistan) and thereby established the Durrani Empire in 1747. (Most historians acknowledge the founding of the Durrani Empire as the birth of modern Afghanistan.) 

11.) Dost Mohammad became emir of Afghanistan in 1836 and due to fear of Russian encroachment into Central Asia made overtures to the British. But diplomatic missteps between the two resulted in the First Anglo-Afghan war in which though they were initially successful in deposing Dost Mohammad, the British suffered humiliation by being pushed out and ultimately slaughtered by a fierce Afghan insurgency. But the British successfully retaliated, taking back the major cities of Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar. However, a change in British government resulted in the withdrawal of the British Indian army from Afghanistan.

12.) In 1878 the then ruler of Afghanistan Sher Ali Khan (somewhat unwillingly) accepted a Russian envoy to Kabul but rebuffed a similar British diplomatic mission that eventually resulted in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. But this time the British were overwhelmingly successful in both their military and geopolitical aims and though eventually deciding to withdraw its troops they continued to maintain control over Afghan foreign policy.

13.) Though initially neutral during WWI the Afghans eventually rose up against British rule that led to the Third Anglo-Afghan War. And though Britain successfully crushed the revolt, its war fatigue caused them to agree, through the Treaty of Rawalpindi, to relinquish control of Afghan foreign policy (as well as discontinuing British subsidies to the country) thus effecting genuine Afghan independence in 1919.

14.) In order to "prop up" an unstable communist Afghan government the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. But the mujahadeen with the covert aid of the CIA and other clandestine agencies defeated the Soviet Union which resulted in its withdrawal from the country in 1989.  But Afghanistan quickly fell into a costly civil war that "concluded" with the Taliban gaining control of most of the country by 1996. 

15.) The Taliban's refusal to hand over Osama Bin Laden led to NATO, headed by the United States, allying itself with the Northern Alliance; their combined forces successfully removed the Taliban from power and a few years later Hamid Karzai was elected president of Afghanistan. But rampant corruption in Karzai's government and a renewed Taliban led insurgency threaten to undo the progress made to date in Afghanistan. 

This lengthy, broad overview of the history of Afghanistan should, I would hope, make clear that more often than not the history of the Afghan people has been one of conquest and domination; not one of military success.

I think part of the reason this myth persists as it does is because for Westerners the most recent memory of the Afghans is their seemingly miraculous defeat of the Soviets. This in turn ties into one of Western civilizations' enduring myths: the biblical story of David's defeat of Goliath. You see we glory in the thought of a simple primitive people armed mostly with WWI era weapons defeating the mighty and evil Soviet Empire with its vastly superior technological capabilities because we think it displays a bit of ourselves in them. In sum, their honor is our honor; their glory our glory. (The reality of course is that without our covert aid, especially the Stinger missiles we provided which were crucial in bringing down the Soviet Hind helicopters, the Afghan people would have been crushed by the Soviets.)

Of course there is a sense in which myths can be fruitful. For instance, myths have the power to inspire and sustain us through trying times and can be useful as a didactic tool. But in the case of this particular myth I think more harm than good has been caused by its overwhelming acceptance. In fact, I believe our foreign policy towards Afghanistan has been hampered and adversely affected by our belief in this myth. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in crafting his military strategy at the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom referred time and time again to this myth as justification for his "light footprint" method which I believe is a central reason why the security situation deteriorated so rapidly in the subsequent years of the victory over the Taliban.

Sadly, even now I believe this myth continues to negatively affect our military as well as geopolitical objectives in regards to Afghanistan. Though it's a platitude often heard by the losing side of any conflict, if we do "lose" this "war" it will be because we put ourselves at an initial psychological disadvantage by our resolute belief in this myth of the unconquerable nature of Afghanistan and so will in the end have beaten ourselves. Therefore, I believe the first crucial step to success in Afghanistan begins with discarding this parasitic myth. But unfortunately, myths don't die easily and I don't see this one becoming extinct any time soon. However, until it does American foreign policy will continue to be indentured to this myth of Afghan invincibility. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

My Oscar Picks

For once I've actually seen all ten films that have been nominated for best picture this year at the 83rd Academy Awards so I just wanted to offer my opinion on how I believe the Oscars should pan out.

1.) Best Picture: Given my recent post about the film it probably comes as no surprise that my choice for Best Picture is The King's Speech. Now to be fair I might be a bit prejudiced on this one, but I still had several nominated films to watch after viewing The King's Speech and if anything I thought True Grit might unseat it but it didn't. 2nd Runner up would have to go to Toy Story 3 which I thought was superbly well done. Of course it'll still be a long time before the Oscar awards committee overcomes some of its prejudices so as to award Best Picture to an animated film (or a sci-fi one for that matter which is why the otherwise excellent Christopher Nolan film Inception won't win this year either).

2.) Best Director: No surprise here; Tom Hooper for The King's Speech. But honorable mention must go to Debra Granik (whom the Oscars did not nominate) for the very unsettling Winter's Bone.

3.) Best Actor: Maybe Javier Bardem did have an excellent performance in Biutiful but I haven't seen it so I'm going to have to pick Colin Firth for his role as King George VI in The King's Speech though Jeff Bridges stellar portrayal as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit made this a difficult choice. But since Bridges won last year I'm going to stick with Colin Firth.

4.) Best Actress: This was probably my hardest one to pick. I vacillated between Natalie Portman for Black Swan and Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone for some time. And though not the most objective way to determine things, I flipped a coin; Natalie Portman won. (Okay, maybe my ever so slight crush on Natalie Portman tipped the balance in her favor.)

5.) Best Supporting Actor: Probably the easiest choice I had to make. Though he may be an asshole to work with and a jerk in his personal life, Christian Bale should win for his role as the real life Dicky Ecklund in The Fighter. Say what you will about Christian Bale; he is a very talented actor whose deserved Oscar is long overdue.

6.) Best Supporting Actress: Another fairly easy choice; Helena-Bonham Carter for The King's Speech. But of course special mention should be made for Hailee Steinfeld as the stubborn but wise beyond her years Mattie Ross in True Grit.

7.) Best Original Screenplay: I was inclined to give this one to The King's Speech yet it cannot be doubted that the most truly original is Christopher Nolan's Inception. So, Inception, it is. Plus, it's time Nolan received an Oscar especially given that he was snubbed at the 81st Academy Awards.

8.) Best Adapted Screenplay: This is the category I felt the least qualified to make an informed judgment about because I hadn't read any of the books these films are based on. However, a good friend of mine (who has his own excellent blog at Exceptional Mediocrity) assured me that Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of the book about the creation of Facebook, The Accidental Billionaires, was a brilliant one and given that I know how excellent Sorkin's film adaptations for other books that I have read have been (e.g., Charlie Wilson's War) I'm going to choose Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network.

Well, there you have it. For what it's worth, which I know is very little, these are my Oscar picks for the 83rd Academy Awards.

I promise that the next post will be a bit more substantial. Things here have still been pretty crazy as the company gets set to leave. This also includes me because apparently my transfer paperwork won't go through in time for me to extend. So it looks like I too will be home soon.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Brief Thoughts Concerning Darwin Day

The 12th of this month was Darwin Day, i.e., the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (incidentally also the 202nd anniversary of Lincoln's birth) whose On the Origin of Species changed the study of biology forever. Having become a strong proponent of the biological doctrine of evolution over the last several years I've been meaning to get around to actually reading all of Darwin's works especially On the Origin of Species. And so I made one of my study goals for the year to do just that. However, I had read many times before that there were two works in particular which Darwin said greatly influenced his thought, and since I have a strong interest in the intellectual debt that writers/thinkers owe to those that have preceded them I decided it would be valuable to read these two works before reading Darwin.

The first of these was "An Essay on the Principle of Population" first published in 1798 and written by the famous political economist and demographer Thomas Malthus. Against the then dominant utopian visions of the time which emphasized the evolving perfectibility of human nature, Malthus in this work argues that the chief human paradigm is actually one of suffering because the relationship between food production and population growth is an inverse one. In other words, while food production is essentially geometric, population grows at an exponential rate which means that population at some point inevitably outgrows the rate of food production which in turn leads to certain miserable factors such as famine, pestilence, war, etc that must act as a check on population growth so as to preserve equilibrium in nature. So Malthus:
"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world". (p. 61, 1st ed)

Here in this brutal notion of the inevitability of certain segments of the population dying out for the sake of population equilibrium lies the germ for Darwin's doctrine of the "survival of the fittest". In fact, on the influence of Malthus for his work Darwin wrote:
"In October 1838... I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population... it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species." (Autobiography, p. 128)

I was able to mostly finish Malthus' population essay some months ago and actually found it to be a rather easy and pleasant read except for some of the tedious chapters in which Malthus criticizes various utopian authors and their proposals for possible checks on population growth. I decided not to read his last few chapters in which he engages Adam Smith because one of my other study goals for the year is to read Smiths' works. Once this is accomplished I then plan to finish Malthus. But again this was a pretty enjoyable read.

I wish, however, I could say the same for the second book that I just recently finished that influenced Darwin's thought, namely, Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (three volumes first published between 1830-33). Now ever since I read the abridged version of Les Miserables in high school and was confused as hell with the plot I've harbored an utter disdain for abridged works of any kind. But, admittedly, in this case I'm glad that I ended up with the abridged version of Lyell's mammoth three volume work on geology. It wasn't his prose that made the work a difficult read or anything like that but rather the tedious use of example after example to support his arguments.

And yet it is for this very reason that Lyell's work was so persuasive and basically closed the door on prior geological theories. Before Lyell the "discipline" of geology wasn't really a science per se in the sense of Newtonian mechanics at the time. It tended to be more of a philosophical system and prior as well as during Lyell's time the debate was essentially between catastrophists and uniformintarists. The former basically argued that the so-called "old" features of the earth could be attributed to cataclysmic fits of great upheavals and so could still fit with a young earth worldview. In contrast, the latter argued that the causes in the changes to the earth are essentially of a uniform, slow-moving nature and therefore are better explained by a theory that views the earth (and consequently the universe) as very old. It was this latter camp that Lyell eventually fell into being influenced by the works of James Hutton and John Playfair (the former more via the latter though according to the Penguin introduction).

Lyell's contribution made possible by his extensive travels and hands on work with the various geological features of the earth was to essentially popularize uniformintarianism and raise geology to the level of a proper scientific discipline as well as to greatly reduce the influence that the Anglican clergy had previously held in the realm of the sciences. And it was essentially Lyell's persuasive argument for the very ancient nature of the earth which influenced Darwin whom religiously read PG while traveling around the world aboard the H.M.S. Beagle.

But what was surprising to me as I read PG was a chapter Lyell devoted to arguing against what he termed "the theory of the progression of species" or in modern parlance, evolution. Many make the mistake of thinking that Darwin (and Alfred Russell Wallace) invented the notion of evolution when in fact the idea that species may change over time was actually a rather ancient one. Furthermore, in Lyell's day a popular view among biologists was the transmutation of species a doctrine having been advocated by the french naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who argued that species transmutated over time into newer species and also inherited acquired characteristics of their parents. This "evolutionary" belief is what Lyell argues against in this chapter. I was of course puzzled by this until I read the Penguin introduction to PG. (I've developed the habit of delaying the reading of introductions until I've actually read the work in question). There it is explained that Lyell's reluctance to accept evolution was based more on moral and less on intellectual reasons. In fact it wouldn't be until late in life after he had developed a deep friendship with Darwin and after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species that Lyell would (though still very reluctantly) accept the tenets of evolutionary theory. Eventually, this acceptance made it into the last few editions of PG Lyell published before his death. The Penguin abridged version retains the very 1st edition; hence my puzzlement.

Anyways, it's a good feeling to be done with these two books. Now I can finally proceed to read Charles Darwin on his own terms.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More on the Revolution in Egypt

Some of the news reports and blogs that I have read have praised the so-called "success" of the revolution in Egypt in forcing Hosni Mubarak to step down. What many are failing to realize however is that thus far one cannot count this as a success for democracy because Mubarak simply handed power over to the Egyptian Armed Forces. Sure, the Egyptian military says it will rule for only six months and then attempt to form some sort of process that supposedly will lead to a democratic government but as history has shown time and time again it is indeed a rare event for a military in power to do such. Plus, again as history has demonstrated, revolutions have a way of transforming into reigns of terror and/or pure chaos. So a bit of restraint I think is called for before we start getting ahead of ourselves and proclaiming this a success for democracy in the Middle East. In addition, I've also seen many praising President Obama for his handling of this crisis when actually I think his vacillation has exhibited a lack of foreign policy experience that I was initially worried about when he was running for President. Now personally I like President Obama (plus he is technically my boss at the moment), but I don't think this has been one of his finest moments. The international historian Niall Ferguson elaborates on this further than I'm able to do at the moment:

Monday, February 14, 2011

The King's Speech: A Royal Pleasure

Somewhat reluctantly I finally watched The King's Speech*. This initial reluctance originated with the buzz that I had heard about some of the historical inaccuracies in the film. But given that I'm a fan of historical period pieces and that the critical reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, I decided to take the plunge. And, wow, thank the Most High that I did. It is quite nearly a perfect film as well as easily the best of the Best Picture nominees that I've seen thus far.

For those who are not familiar with the movie it is about King George VI's (King of England during WWII and the father of the current reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II) struggle with a severe speech impediment and the somewhat unorthodox methods that speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) implements in order to help the King. Other notable actors in the film include Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth. Now before this film I had never particularly cared for Helena Bonham Carter believing that she was getting work principally because she is Tim Burton's wife. However, she was great in this film with the result that my opinion of her acting abilities has changed significantly for the better. Also, Guy Pearce who hasn't been in too many films of late played Edward VIII and also did quite well. But it was of course Colin Firth's portrayal of King George VI which was the most remarkable and deservedly worthy of the Oscar nomination that he has received for the role.

As for the historical inaccuracies they are there. However, they aren't as pronounced as I was led to believe. Mostly they have to do with the presentation of Winston Churchill (played by Timothy Spall) as having supported the abdication of Edward VIII (coerced out because he wanted to marry a woman who was about to be divorced for the second time; something that would have been too scandalous of an affair for the King of England since he was also head of the Anglican church; here for more) when he in fact resolutely advised Edward to remain king. Thus, the warm relationship portrayed in the film between King George VI and Churchill is anachronistic because in reality the King resented Churchill for some time for having supported his brother during the Abdication crisis. It wasn't until WWII that King George VI and Churchill became close friends. (For more about the inaccurate presentation of Churchill in the movie read Christopher Hitchen's fine review here.)

Another inaccuracy has to do with the film's perspective on King George VI's views concerning Hitler. For example there is a scene in which George VI, before he has become king and while his brother is still king, chastises his brother for his lackadaisical attitude toward the turmoil that is starting to envelop Europe to which Edward simply replies "Herr Hitler will sort them out" prompting George to retort "Yes, well, who will sort Herr Hitler out?". This is problematic because the actual views of King George VI towards Hitler are somewhat murkier than the film suggests. For instance, in his letters the King seems to speak somewhat favorably of Hitler and later gives his complete support to the appeasement policies of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (of course one could argue that the King had to support these policies since he didn't have any real authority to alter them).

Along with these rather substantial alterations to history there are some minor ones which were clearly made for cinematic purposes such as condensing the actual time that Logue treated the King (the movie makes this appear to be a matter of a few years when it was actually more like twelve years or so). In the end I didn't really have a problem with any of these changes because they don't really affect the tone and/or purpose of the film. In fact, my only real grief with the movie was the depiction of Churchill by Timothy Spall which I thought was not particularly good. But I implore you not to let these minor deficiencies deter you from seeing this film. Trust me it is well worth it. (Some of you are are much more liberally disposed may have problems with the films apparent glorification of the now antiquated notions of royalty to which I can only say that if you give it a chance you'll still enjoy the film).

Anyways, I think I was already predisposed to love this movie because it deals with similar themes that another favorite movie of mine, namely, My Fair Lady does so perhaps you would be wholly justified in completely disregarding my opinion of The King's Speech. Regardless, this provides me with a nice segue into leaving you with one of my favorite scenes from My Fair Lady because after all it is Valentine's Day, a day when I tend to suffer from slightly misogynistic thoughts. Enjoy and happy Valentine's Day.

*Update: The King's Speech won the Best Film award at the 64th British Film Academy Awards.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Reminder Concerning the Difficulties Involved in Attempting to Authenticate the Sayings Attributed to Jesus by the Gospel Writers

I have a lot of blogs that I keep up with as anyone who has perused my links has surely observed. This means that I've been doing a lot of catching up on my reading of them in the last several days which is why I haven't really posted anything lately (in addition to having been on a mission). So as I was catching up on Loren Rosson's blog (still a favorite of mine that I've been following since 2005) I came across his post concerning Mk 9:1 and the historical Jesus which was a poignant reminder to me of the difficulty involved in the historian's task of determining with any degree of certainty what the historical Jesus actually said. Here's the (in)famous saying:

"I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power." (Mk 9:1)

For historical Jesus scholars this has always been a particularly difficult passage because a reasonable case can be made for settling on any of the following options:

(a) concluding it to be an authentic saying of Jesus due to its implication that Jesus made a false prophecy which the early Church surely would have found embarrassing making it highly unlikely that this saying was created by the nascent Christian community (this being based on the so-called criterion of embarrassment)

(b) determining that the early Church in fact created this saying as a means of comforting those bereft with disappointment that the "end" had not yet come (Loren cites I Thess 4:13-18 and I Cor 15:51-53 as early examples of this within the developing Christian community)

(c) asserting some sort of synthesis of the above, e.g., that the historical Jesus said something in substance akin to this saying but that the early Church modified it to fit the context of what they were going through at the time, namely, disappointment that the "end" had not yet arrived. (In the comments Dr. Goodacre suggests this last option by noting how Matthew, uncomfortable with Mark's version, subtly alters this saying to Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” emphasis mine, MT 16: 28)

Loren converts, via arguments of John Meier, from (a) to (b) while Dr. Goodacre, writing in the comments section, supports (c). For my own part I'm not sure which solution is most satisfactory given the data at hand. Part of the problem here has to do with other factors which could influence how one determines the solution such as the dating of the gospel writers' works. For example, depending on how one dates Mark's gospel (the consensus is typically 70 CE or around the Second Jewish Temple's destruction) can influence significantly how one views the authenticity or inauthenticity of this saying. To elaborate further, if one determines that Mark is written late into the 1st century then it might make more sense to view this saying as a creation of the Church because of the increasing delay between the time of the historical Jesus and the expected coming of his kingdom by his followers. Likewise, the closer to the events of the historical Jesus that one believes Mark to have been written would incline one to think the saying to be more original because the expectation of the "end" wouldn't be as prominent among the early believers.

Anyways, if I had to choose one of the three I would probably elect (c). However, as I noted in the comments the more I study the historical Jesus (and its related issues such as the Synoptic Problem whose preferred solution could also affect how one determines the authenticity of this saying) the more skeptical and pessimistic I become in regards to determining which sayings attributed to Jesus by the gospel writers actually originated with the historical Jesus. And thus after all these years I still am persuaded that E.P. Sanders' emphasis on giving priority to studying the actions of Jesus attributed to him by the gospels over the sayings of Jesus is the superior method in reconstructing the historical Jesus (here for more). This I should say is in marked contrast to where I started out in my studying of the historical Jesus so many years ago, i.e., much more sanguine about what I thought could be attributed to the historical Jesus which in my former pious Christian days (and when I was a fan of NT Wright) was just about everyone of the sayings. But that is a story for another time.

Friday, February 11, 2011


I got back from mission a couple of days ago. Things have been rush rush because the company I'm with is scheduled to leave country in the next few weeks. I am however trying to extend which means I'm both helping this company get ready to leave and trying to jump through hoops to get a four month extension with another company. Therefore, there may not be very many posts for the remainder of this month but I'm still going to try my best to post as often as I can. Anyways, I should have a post up within the next couple of days. Until then enjoy one of my favorite clips from the Muppet Show:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Tolkien and the Creation of the "Lord of the Rings"

I just recently finished Humphrey Carpenter's excellent biography of J.R.R. Tolkien and there were several things that struck me about Tolkien's life that I had not known before (or maybe had just forgotten for several years ago I did read Carpenter's book on the Inklings, an informal literary club that included C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Warren Lewis, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield, and others at various times, for a research paper that I did on Lewis). For instance, though I recalled that Tolkien served in WWI I didn't know that he had actually experienced the horror that was trench warfare. Moreover, it was a pleasure to read about Tolkien's actual scholarship such as his translations of important medieval works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, his philological contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary, and his critical reflections on the epic poem Beowulf to name just a few.

But of course Tolkien is most famous for Lord of the Rings and what I discovered is that it was his philological acumen and interests that we have to thank for what is in my mind one of the greatest pieces of modern literature. You see one day Tolkien was reading Crist, an Old English Anglo-Saxon poem when he was struck by the following line:

"Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth to men sent"

Here wrapped up in this tiny line was as Carpenter notes "the beginning of Tolkien's own mythology" for Tolkien was so intrigued by this obscure reference to Earendel (this later of course becoming Earendil in the LOR whose light aided Frodo in surviving the attacks of Shelob) that he felt it deserved to have its own language so Tolkien created one which he came to call Quenya (later to become one of the Elvin languages) complete with its own linguistic rules (grammar, syntax, phonology, etc). This language was essentially an amalgamation of the many languages Tolkien was familiar with but was in large part derived from Finnish which when Tolkien discovered this language said: "it was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me." But as Tolkien continued to develop this language he soon realized that the language itself needed its own context or rather its own mythology. This mythology then became the basis for Tolkien's Silmarillion which is of course the mythological milieu of LOR. (Later in life Tolkien noted that another motivation for creating the Silmarillion was that he always felt England had lacked a proper mythology and so created his own "English" mythology as a means of correcting what was to his mind a severe cultural deficiency.)

The next component in the eventual creation of LOR occurred one day in the early 1930's when during another mundane round of grading student exams Tolkien abruptly wrote on a blank space in one of these exams "in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." This spontaneous notion combined with various elements from stories he had told his children over the years became the genesis of The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Interestingly, though Tolkien didn't necessarily intend The Hobbit to take place in the mythological world of the Silmarillion various references and allusions from his mythology slipped in (such as the character of the Necromancer for instance). Tolkien then published The Hobbit in 1937 to remarkable success such so that the publisher immediately requested a sequel to which Tolkien readily agreed.

However, Tolkien sent them a manuscript copy of his Silmarillion which due to a misunderstanding the publisher rejected which set Tolkien to work on "A Long Expected Party" the first chapter of what was supposed to be a sequel to The Hobbit. But the "sequel" quickly took on a life of its own becoming something altogether different, more complex, dark even. What also became apparent was that whereas The Hobbit had a smattering of references here and there to the Silmarillion this new work had as its subtext the mythology of the Silmarillion. (In fact Tolkien tried in vain to publish the Silmarillion along with the LOR believing it to be a necessary companion volume; unfortunately the Silmarillion was never published during Tolkien's lifetime to his great disappointment since he always considered it his best work.) Amazingly, Tolkien's publisher was truly long-suffering as it took him sixteen years to finally complete what became LOR. Unfortunately, the work's length prompted the publisher to force a division of the work into three parts which Tolkien reluctantly went along with. The result was the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954 to great critical success. The other two volumes followed shortly thereafter and were received likewise by both the public and critics alike.

Thus, thanks to Tolkien's skills and interests in philology we have been graced with this great piece of modern literature. And so that's my brief account of how LOR came to be. No posts for several days because when the military tells you it's your last mission it never is.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Perfect Bad Movie?

I tried. I really did. I wanted to at least like In the Name of the King if only for the sake of Jason Statham of whom I'm a fan. I mean there are so many reasons why I should have liked this movie. It has an excellent cast: Jason Statham, Ron Pearlman, Claire Forlani, John Rhys-Davies, et al. It has plenty of action which you can always count on when Statham is starring. And it is a fantasy flick. But the reality is that anything director Uwe Boll touches, and I'm sorry to use such unflattering language, turns to shit. And, unfortunately, it holds true for this movie. It's so terrible that it doesn't even deserve a proper, critical film review. Uwe Boll has become in my opinion the worst mainstream movie director living today and I just can't take any more of his filth. Henceforth I will never watch another of his movies even if by some miracle one of his future films garners a rating of above 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

But watching this terrible movie wasn't a total waste for it did cause me to do a little thought experiment on what would constitute the perfect bad movie if only as a way of entertaining myself while I suffered through this monstrosity. Here's what I settled on; any movie composed with the following:

Director: Uwe Boll
Producer: Joel Schumacher
Executive Producer: John Travolta
Writer: Michael Bay
Stars: Paris Hilton and Paul Walker

Can you think of any other combination (the conditions being that the people chosen are mainstream film folk and living)?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tauntaun and Wampa Sightings!

There have been Tauntaun and Wampa sightings on the east coast! Don't believe me? Go here to see for yourself!