On The Greatness Of Great Books

One of the characteristics of mediocre books is that they are a product of their time, and of great books is that they speak to all times. How does this happen? What is it that makes a book great rather than mediocre, and how is it that the great authors can be distinguished from those who merely speak to their own times?

One of the notable aspects of literature is that it takes a bit of time for the truly great books to distinguish themselves. While a particular age is going on, certain authors may be hyped as being groundbreaking voices, only for those books to be justly forgotten as time passes because they only spoke to their own particular time and culture and once that age’s crises were resolved and society had moved on to other concerns, those provincial concerns were no longer worthwhile and the particular author did not show larger insights into humanity that others could relate to or build upon.

I was struck by this subject as I was looking through my annotated copy of Pride & Prejudice today, a rewarding task that often does not trigger a personal essay like this one. What struck me is that in looking at the behavior of George Wickham, a case could be made against him from the point of view of the concerns of the #MeToo movement, in looking at the way that Jane Austen portrays his predatory behavior towards young and vulnerable women who are around fifteen years of age or so. While I decided not to write at length about this, thus preserving at least one Ph.D topic for some present or future scholar in English literature, the fact that this could be done so easily suggests that Jane Austen’s literature speaks to a variety of concerns, and while it is exceedingly unlikely that Jane Austen specifically had in mind the concerns of the early 20th century when she wrote more than 200 years ago, her book deals with characters in such depth that such a case can be made that part of her purpose in writing Pride & Prejudice was the illustration of characters whose evil is multifaceted and complex enough to be relevant in any age. That this was done by a Regency spinster who deliberately avoided portraying any social occasion where only men were present makes it all the more remarkable.

What is it that makes great literature layered? Jane Austen was certainly a product of her time, in that she generally assumed the validity of her social system and was reticent about writing about subjects of great controversy. She demonstrates a familiarity with the literary tropes of her time and lovingly mocks them, especially in her earlier juvenile literature. She also comments on the picturesque and debates that were going on about the troubled relationship between manners and morals and the difficulty of determining the character of someone from their public face. Despite the fact that she was writing within a given context, as everyone does, the fact that she was able to delineate the nature of the character of people despite the miniature world in which she portrayed of gentry households with upwardly mobile daughters ought to remind us that while we all write within a given context, the extent that we are able to demonstrate insight into humanity allows us to be appreciated outside of that context, while simply demonstrating a familiarity with our own context will make us timebound and passe when that context changes.

How is it that we acquire a firm knowledge of the human condition that allows our writings to be of worth to future generations who must deal with their own problems and concerns? There are several ways that this can occur. Some writers are great because of their intrapersonal knowledge, because they explore themselves so honestly that their searching self-examination lives on after they perish. One can think of the essays of Montaigne or the autobiography of Augustine as exemplars of this sort of writing that survives because of the insight it provides into the self. In stark contrast to this, the writings of Austen, Twain, Conrad, and others of their kind are notable because of the skills of observation that they put into watching the societies around them and their pious hypocrisies. Since human beings, apart from painful reflection and repentance are hypocrites, the exposure of hypocrites in one’s own generation is eternally relevant because there are always powerful double standards and hypocrites in high places to be exposed and taken down a few notches. Some of those are even those hypocrites we look at in the mirror.

What makes the great authors great is that they are able to get to the bedrock of reality, to present us with a mirror that allows to see ourselves better and also a window to see our fellow human beings better. It takes time to separate those artists who merely present convention to the reader, which becomes irrelevant once those conventions change with the passing of one age to another. Those writings which represent the zeitgeist may be notable in their time as being reflective of contemporary social and political concerns, but their extreme relevance to the time is often demonstrative of their lack of insight about the essential and unchanging aspects of human nature. Some writings may seem modest in their aims and execution at the time, but seem timeless and universal when that modesty is better understood later on. What is great lies beneath the surface, and to tell the difference between the timebound and the timeless requires a sense of perspective that is difficult to have in the press of contemporary events. There is no shame in postponing a verdict as to what is great and that which is merely timely to the future, when those who are better qualified to judge can weigh in on the matter. Not everything needs to be decided quickly, after all.

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The Inescapability Of Politics

My sincerest sympathies and no small amount of empathy are with anyone who attempts to wrestle with the issue of politics when it comes to the Church of God. The main reason for this is the wide gulf that exists in the desire that people have (especially those in positions of authority) to denigrate involvement on the part of ordinary members in political matters with the absolute mania that these same authorities have in practicing politics without self-awareness or insight into their own political behavior. The other reason, and the one I will be focusing on here, is that the Bible itself is a deeply political document and believers themselves are engaged in politics of the highest order and so it can be very difficult to properly demarcate the legitimate practice of godly politics from what is often viewed as the illegitimate practice of worldly politics, a task which is difficult enough already without considering the hypocrisy that is often involved in this demarcation.

When we look at politics in its most restricted form, we see that it comes from the Greek word related to the city, the polis. Just like economics springs from the household management of fathers and mothers (oikos being the Greek word for the household, and the root of economics), so too politics springs from the rule of city-states, the foundational unit of Greek politics. This alone ought to clue us into the political nature of being a believer. After all, Hebrews 11:8-10 reads: “ By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” The very same passage that praises Abraham for distancing himself from the politics of the earth by living in the land of promise as a stranger and pilgrim and foreigner points out that he was waiting for the city whose builder and maker is God–namely the New Jerusalem, pointing out that his estrangement from earthly politics was due to his devotion to the politics of God’s kingdom. We should note, as well, at least in passing, that this city is described in detail in Revelation 21 and 22 and the arrival of God’s polis on earth marks the end human history and the beginning of the world to come which we hope for so fervently but know comparatively little about the logistics and workings of eternal life within the Kingdom of God.

Similarly, any mention of the behavior of believers and the promises of God to believers indicate sthat politics is at the heart of what is being offered to those who live a faithful life in obedience to God’s laws. (It should go without saying, of course, that obedience to God’s laws and a defense of their legitimacy is itself a political matter, as the laws of God are political insofar as they are the laws of God’s Kingdom and the expressions of God’s eternal character, and obeying them is an act of loyalty to the King of that Kingdom.) For example, when believers are called “ambassadors” in 2 Corinthians 5:20, such a title has always involved political behavior, namely representing a particular political entity that has a recognized statehood and supporting its interests and well-being in foreign and sometimes hostile lands. As believers, we are not vulnerable and helpless refugees who are stateless and lacking in citizenship and a national identity, but we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, with the highest possible political identity for human beings imaginable.

And lest we lose sight of this fact, the Bible makes this matter plain in both the Old and New Testaments when talking about the blessings for physical and spiritual Israel. Exodus 19:5-6 reads, for example: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.  And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”” Similarly, 1 Peter 2:9-10 reads: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” It should go without saying that the promised blessing of being kings and priests are themselves political offices in both civil and religious matters. (Lest we forget, politics exists in both church and state.) Indeed, both Exodus and 2 Peter make it plain that it is God’s acceptance of Israel and the Church as His people that gives us an identity that we would not otherwise have and which we can in no way deserve. To be considered the people of God is to have a political identity as being citizens of His nation and members of His family. Citizenship is political. Royal families are political. Being kings and priests is political, as is the exercise of those offices.

Even when we look at the blessings that are promised to individual believers, those are precisely political in nature, and indeed often involve the uncomfortable discussion of earthly politics. Let us, for example, take the discussion of the rewards given to those people who serve God and Jesus Christ faithfully on earth in Luke 19:11-27: “Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately. Therefore He said: “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Do business till I come.’ But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us.’ “And so it was that when he returned, having received the kingdom, he then commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, ‘Master, your mina has earned ten minas.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Master, your mina has earned five minas.’ Likewise he said to him, ‘You also be over five cities.’ “Then another came, saying, ‘Master, here is your mina, which I have kept put away in a handkerchief. For I feared you, because you are an austere man. You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ And he said to him, ‘Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant. You knew that I was an austere man, collecting what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow. Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ “And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to him who has ten minas.’ (But they said to him, ‘Master, he has ten minas.’) ‘For I say to you, that to everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. But bring here those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me.’ ””

This particular parable is immensely political in ways that are both very obvious and less so. Most obviously, of course, is the political behavior of the lord who became King Himself, in giving to his loyal followers political power as a result of their enrichment of Him through profiting from what He has given them. As believers, we expect the be rewarded in his Kingdom with ruling over five or ten cities or some other political office of that nature. Let us not forget, after all, that the original meaning of politics involved the management and rulership of cities, which is precisely what believers expect (with reason) as a promise to be fulfilled for loyal and faithful service by God. We who obey God on this earth and claim fealty to His Kingdom expect to be rewarded by political office, and we are entirely reasonable to expect this given the political nature of the biblical promises themselves. To claim that voting for political offices or expressing one’s support or lack of support for various political leaders and positions is somehow political while denying or ignoring at the same time that ruling over cities in the world to come is also political is immensely stupid and hypocritical.

The politics of the parable of the minas, though, is not limited to the political offices that are promised to faithful and productive believers. Let us note that this passage begins by describing Jesus Christ as a nobleman who went into a far country to receive for Himself a Kingdom and then to return. This is, as we might note, an accurate description of Jesus Christ’s behavior in returning to God’s throne to receive authority in ruling over earth and then returning in the future to set up and establish that kingdom. It is also, though, a reference to the politics of the contemporary Roman Empire, where the various rulers of the Herodian dynasty (and other such people) would go to a far country (Rome) and receive for themselves a subsidiary kingdom or tetrarchy to rule over as a client king of the Roman Empire. In at least one such case, Archelaus, one of the sons of Herod the Great, was opposed by Jewish leadership who did not want him to rule over them, and as might be imagined he was not in a charitable mood when he received Judea and Samaria as his tetrarchy and returned to rule over his kingdom [1]. Thus even a discussion of the politics of God’s kingdom uses uncomfortable and somewhat on-the-nose discussions of earthly politics.

As an aside, this is by no means the only occasion where Jesus Christ alludes to earthly politics in His ministry. He was challenged about the propriety of taxation to the Romans (always a heated subject in any nation where the legitimacy of rulers is questioned) and also asked to express his opinion on the extralegal application of the capital punishment on a woman caught in the act of adultery. He was even questioned about his stance on paying the temple tax given his criticism of the corruption that went on that “den of thieves.” Perhaps most pointedly, though, Jesus Christ is quoted as saying the following in Luke 14:28-33: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

This passage does not strike the contemporary reader as being immediately political, but it was in fact a rather pointed criticism of two aspects of the behavior of Herod Antipas, who was, we should not forget, the political leader of Jesus Christ, being the ruler over Galilee and Perea, where Jesus Christ was a subject of his being considered as a citizen of Nazereth as well as someone who frequently lived in Capernaum, a border town within Antipas’ tetrarchy. Antipas was famous as a builder [2], but he also left some incomplete buildings which subjected him to ridicule, and his irregular patterns of divorce and marriage led his army to be defeated by that of his scorned father-in-law, who was the King of Nabatean Arabia at the time [3], thus making this passage a political commentary on the follies of his own ruler, a daring act and also one of considerable relevance for contemporary believers.

Given all of this, therefore, it is beyond dispute that the Bible itself deals deeply with political matters and indeed requires believers to be conscious of their political duties to God and to Jesus Christ as Lord and King. Our obedience on this earth is a matter of politics in demonstrating our loyalty is primarily to the Kingdom of God and only secondarily to our political loyalties here on earth. The blessings that we are promised and the offices that we expect to receive in the world to come are political–though they are not voted on by men but given by God, demonstrating monarchical rather than democratic politics, it must be admitted. At times, the Bible comments on political matters and even (especially in the Hebrew scriptures) shows anointed believers as prophets and believers interacting with and influencing political matters, serving Gentile rulers in high political office, anointing rebels against kings God has weighed in the balance and founding wanting, and in delivering politically charged rebukes against the corruption of Israel and Judah, even pronouncing God’s views of geopolitical matters like alliances and the course of empires.

In giving a biblical discussion of the involvement of believers in politics, it must be emphasized that the believer has, by virtue of having committed to obedience to God’s laws and ways, already made a political statement in favor of the Kingdom of God and already has received a political identity as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven and as an ambassador of that kingdom to the rebellious province of earth. Involvement in politics is, as a result, unavoidable for the believer. Perhaps believers may need to be reminded of their ultimate commitment and loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven, but this merely reframes the question of how our identity as believers shapes our politics, because politics itself is inescapable. Moreover, any discussion of the legitimacy of the involvement of ordinary members in politics must also address the near universality of the mania for institutional politics practiced by the ministry that has existed for decades. Just as believers are to serve as models for the behavior of those who, at present, have not entered the Kingdom of God but will be held accountable to it at the time and place of God’s choosing, so too leaders within the Church of God serve as examples as to the legitimacy of involvement in political processes for members to imitate. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

[1] https://www.armstrongeconomics.com/research/monetary-history-of-the-world/great-empires/judaea/herod-archelaus-4-bc-6-ad/

[2] https://www.armstrongeconomics.com/research/monetary-history-of-the-world/great-empires/judaea/herod-iii-antipater-antipas4bc-39-ad/

[3] https://biblehub.com/commentaries/luke/14-31.htm

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There Once Was A Chicken

One of the most obvious aspects of my tastes that was readily evident, so much so that it was obvious to my family even when I was a child, was my fondness for chicken. It is something I have commented on numerous times, so I mention it here merely as context for the fact that I tend to be rather sensitive to words relating to chicken in foreign languages that I study, and find it interesting when those words occasionally converge, even if they appear to do so for independent reasons.

The Indo-European languages have a wide variety of words used for the chicken. The Spanish pollo, for example, is mirrored by similar words in French and Italian that make sense in having a Latin root for the word, although the word for rooster is gallo and for hen gallina, about which I will have more to say shortly. It is noteworthy that the Portuguese word for chicken, frango, is so distinct from the rest of the Romance sub-family, in its word for chicken. In looking at the humble chicken, it appears to be nearly universal as a food bird but also immensely complex in what people happen to call it.

My fondness for chicken as it relates to Asian food, for example, has given me the interesting understanding that the word for chicken is relatively similar in both the Tai languages of Thai and Lao on the one hand and Vietnamese, part of the Vietic branch of the Austroasiatic languages, on the other. Thai chicken dishes are referred to as gai, which is not dissimilar from the Lao kai, which is the word that Thai uses for egg. Similarly, the word for chicken in Vietnamese is ga. This appears to be fairly rare when one looks at languages, as the rest of the Austroasiatic family appears to have a different name for chicken that was passed down through those languages, and the cousins of the Tai-Kedai languages have their own distinct words for chicken.

How does one come up with a name for an animal. In the Bible, of course, we have the story of God bringing the animals before Adam and being named, but there not being any being of his equal to be found among all the animals, which prompted a loneliness and a longing that prompted God to create Eve out of his rib. Even so, though, people learn about the names of things from being told what they are from childhood, or in that second childhood when one seeks to learn another language and does the same thing at looking up the names or pointing at things and asking what they are called. How striking is it that three different language families hit upon similar words for chickens from among the sounds that were available to them. One is led to think that chickens are a pretty fundamental thing to know about, seeing how convenient they are for eating.

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Album Review: Just The Same (Terri Clark)

Just The Same, by Terri Clark

It is perhaps unsurprising that given the fact that I have listened to few albums by country artists that I know relatively well, that I approached this rankdown of Terri Clark’s “Just The Same” album being largely unfamiliar with her work. Though Clark has had a notable and long-lasting career as a country artist with a strong base in her native Canada and also considerable success in the United States (especially in the second half of the 1990s), she is less familiar as an album artist. This can be demonstrated by the Spotify stats for this album, which show that aside from the first two songs on the album which have more than a million plays, and the third song having 100,000 plays, the rest of the album sits at 50,000 plays to as little as under 25,000 plays. This indicates an artist known more as a singles artist than as an album artist, and it is worth pondering if this reputation is a fair one. Is Terri Clark an artist that can be appreciated just from the few singles she releases from each album, or are her albums as a whole worth checking out? Let’s see.

The album begins with “Emotional Girl,” with its fiddles and Clark’s twangy voice, an album that expresses Clark’s passionate heart and a warning to a would-be partner about this fact. “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” is an excellent cover and was a worthy hit from this album. “Just The Same” serves as a moving ballad with some excellent guitar work about the complications of love and Clark’s refusal to judge people on their money or past. “Something In The Water” offers a funny, but rather unhappy, reflection on a pattern of experience of moving on that the narrator shares with numerous other women. “Neon Flame” gives an inventive and creative way of describing an ex-partner in a way that seeks to allay the concerns of one’s current partner. “Any Woman” gives a melancholy reflection on the process of healing and recovery for a woman who’s been hurt by a man in a past relationship. “Twang Thang” addresses Clark’s fondness for country as a gatekeeping exercise, which sort of indirectly addresses her strong twang approach in her own singing. “You Do Or You Don’t” pushes a reluctant lover to face up to whether or not he actually loves her, with some excellent instrumentation. “Keeper Of The Flame” is a melancholy ballad about being with a workaholic partner who does not leave enough time for love and intimacy. “Not What I Wanted To Hear” is a driving song about the tension between needing to know the truth and not wanting to hear it because it is pleasant at the same time. “Hold Your Horses” speaks about the singer’s independent nature and her unwillingness to be pushed into marriage that seems to undercut some of the other songs on this album.

This album is a collection of songs that are individually enjoyable to listen to but are a bit of a chore to listen to together, especially given Clark’s sometimes shrill voice and not entirely pleasant attitude. If Clark can be praised for occasionally moving beyond relationship drama in this album (not to say that there isn’t plenty of that as well, though), when she does so she does not always do so very well, as when she engages in some country gatekeeping in “Twang Thang.” A couple of times, in “Any Woman” and “Something In The Water,” she gets pretty close to misandry in terms of examining problems with a man not in the individual but in the collective, which may please those who enjoy girl power but are less than pleasing to me, given my zero tolerance policy for misandry. Overall, each of these songs individually offers some pleasure to listen to, whether in the songwriting or the production and instrumentation, but the album as a whole is less than the sum of its parts, even if some of its parts deserve to be a lot better known.

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Consistent Inconsistency

For those who are interested in the Myers-Briggs test, the SP personality types are reputed to be the most fun sort of people, whose focus is on sensory recognition (rather than intuition) and enjoyment rather than decisiveness. Whether or not one gives credence to the division of people into a wide variety of personality types, there are certain occasions where people show a deliberate sort of inconsistency that is focused on the immediate needs of the argument rather than on a larger logical or moral worldview that has always gotten on my nerves. When one wants to have long-term conversations with people, a large part of the enjoyment of that comes from recognizing a certain baseline way of thinking and behaving that remains more or less constant, and then figuring out the layers and complications of the person that depend on certain triggers that allow one to get a deeper understanding of where someone is coming from.

Those whose lives are lived on the surface are focused mainly on getting by on a day-to-day basis. So, for example, when I am talking with some people about music charts, their focus is on maximizing the success of a particular favored song or minimizing that of a song they dislike or have grown tired of based on that particular period of time. There is no thought about making a consistent rule that would be applicable across all times to all songs, for example, because any formulation that would serve to one’s benefit at one time may not another time and one always wants to benefit and does not want to be hampered with rules that are to be applied consistently, because such consistency is a vulnerability.

This happens all of the time in political discourse, one of the many reasons why such conversations are unpleasant and frequently unprofitable. It is hard to respect people when one sees on a day-to-day basis people change their logic and reasoning based on how it is most convenient to what they view as their cause. Admittedly, none of us is immune to this tendency, but some people are especially ignorant to the way that they may say, for example, that no one is above the law even as the events of that very day demonstrate that they practically consider themselves to be above the law when it comes to such things as having one’s spouse being seemingly immune from DUI charges, or oneself being immune from insider trading prosecution that would land anyone else in the federal penitentiary like Martha Stewart.

In such circumstances it is worthwhile to consider the nature of the consistency that people show. Winston Churchill, as a politician, was famously inconsistent over the course of his career when it came to tactics, but what he wanted was consistent enough over the long term that he has been regarded as a statesman. The same could be said, for example, about Abraham Lincoln in the drastic difference many people see from his early political career as an ambitious Whig and his later political career as a principled Republican after 1854 and his return to politics. For all too many people, though, what is consistent is not principles, or a desire for the well-being of others that requires first speaking out against one extreme and then the other based on the spirit of the times that one is combatting, but rather a desire to win at all times. When one wants to win, one cannot be too scrupulous about how one wins, because at different times and in different situations different aspects of one’s arguments or program will be most appealing, and so one has to tilt first one way and then another to suit the moment, always trying to dodge the unpleasant reality of having one’s past comments and positions be brought up for public scrutiny and criticism.

Ultimately, one’s character is deeply intertwined with one’s attitudes about history and the past in general. To the extent that one has an interest in preserving history and encouraging its study and its application to one’s own life, one will generally be a person whose essential consistency can be celebrated and praised even with the reality that there is a lot of growth in the thinking and behavior of a given person, because that growth has an organic basis that does not contradict the past but rather puts it in a better context. Those who seek to wipe their tracks, though, and who do not consider the past to be of importance, are demonstrating their unwillingness to be judged by what they said or did yesterday or earlier today, because it may have to change to suit different circumstances that may pop up at any time, and one does not want to be held to the promises in the dark or the unwanted commitments and statements of standards that are no longer beneficial or convenient. Of such people we should be wary.

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On The Image And The Word

It ought to be of little surprise to anyone who knows me well that I am fond of both the image and the word. Besides being responsible for the writing and speaking of a fair amount of words, depending on who I am around and on my schedule, I have also long had an interest in meme culture. It is commonly said as a cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, and leftists are typically made fun of for being unable to distill their thinking into concise and humorous memes in the way that is familiar for those whose political views are right of center. But while I was trying to discuss the meaning of words for someone for whom English is a second language, it struck me as well that English (as well as numerous other languages) have an advantage when it comes to understanding them that there is frequently some sort of image around them that can be used in order to better understand the meaning of a given word that may seem difficult at first.

I would like to point out, before getting too far into it, that English is not unique in this. Chinese characters, for example, are famous for the way that the characters used in words have a great deal of meaning that can be used to decipher the context of the word. Similarly, biblical Hebrew is famous for having its words be spelled out in symbolic action that describes the word in vivid detail by virtue of its component parts. English, as it uses a rather non-pictographic alphabet, is not visually descriptive in this sense, but it is frequently so when it comes to the mental image that is portrayed by the words that make up the language.

That this is so can be demonstrated by looking at a few words that I had to define for my ESOL friend. I was asked about the meaning of obnoxious, for example, which refers to something that is bothersome or troublesome. Obnoxious, of course, has noxious as a root, and noxious refers to unpleasant and often toxic odors, providing the sort of mental picture of the way that bad behavior “stinks” and leads us to turn our nose the way we would at some sort of foul-smelling and poisonous odor. Similarly, in defining discombobulated, it is helpful to think of someone or something (like a duck or a concussed football player) who is walking around bobbing their head in a confused fashion, in order to better understand what the word pictures. English is full of lengthy words which can be split up into smaller parts which can be more easily and often visually understood.

Just as images can be understood by the words that must be used to explain the given image and its context in order for it to be understood by someone who does not share the common base of knowledge that is used by those who understand the same shorthand, so too words can be best understood by the images that they conjure up. To the extent that the image summons up the common base of textual knowledge that allows for comprehension and the word summons up the images that also allow for comprehension and understanding, we can better use our knowledge to feed into itself and allow it to grow far faster than it would otherwise.

One of the notable aspects about English and many other languages is that abstract things can be better understood if they are seen as acting in the same way as other beings. For example, one’s mind wanders in the same sense that a sheep wanders throughout a field and must be gathered back into the flock by the loving and caring shepherd. In the same way, in Hebrew, God saves His people by a powerful and outstretched arm, providing a powerful image to what is often the rather abstract and indirect working of divine providence in our lives. By putting the mental, spiritual, and emotional worlds, which are hard for us to visualize, in the same terminology as we use to discuss the physical world, and by referring to wandering planets in the same way we refer to wandering thoughts and wandering animals, we can bridge the gulfs of understanding that result from differences in scale as well as category that often inhibit our understanding. Through the judicious use of metaphorical imagery, we can understand that in vital ways, something that we cannot see acts in similar ways to that which we are familiar with, and so we can bootstrap our knowledge of the familiar to better perceive and understand that which is beyond our sight. Only in such ways can we understand vast areas of knowledge at all.

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On How Republics Die

If you are the sort of person who is inclined to seek insights in the republics of the past, Cicero is the sort of person who is easy to appreciate. A smooth-tongued new man who rose from provincial status to become one of the most powerful people in the late Roman Republic, Cicero’s eloquence and appealing rise from obscurity make him easy for people to cheer on and have made him a popular subject of study and praise. Yet even as his life has been justly celebrated and posterity has been kind to his vanity (including his puffery about having defeated a conspiracy through his mere eloquence while serving as consul), it is important to remember his end. Despite not being among the senators who assassinated Julius Ceasar, it was known that Cicero was no friend of Caesar or the autocracy that was already ascendant in the dying Roman Empire, and as a result when Octavian (before he secured power as Augustus and became the first Imperator of the Roman Empire) made peace with Marcus Antonius and established the short-lived second triumvirate, included on the list of people to eliminate before peace could be made between the two rivals was Cicero, whose ugly end bought a few years of peace at most in a time of frequent civil disorder in a republic that was falling into tyranny and oppression.

Students of history, though, know that the Roman Empire was moribund long before Cicero’s death marked the end of the Roman Republic. With the benefit of hindsight we can look at the period where the Roman Republic went from a struggling republic to one that had been mortally wounded, and that moment occurred nearly a century before the end of the Roman Republic when the populist leaders of Rome, the Gracchi, were both assassinated by those who felt threatened by their message of populism that had begun to resonate with the populares of Rome who had missed out on the wealth that Roman expansion had given the Roman elites. Once political power became used to enforce violence on one’s political enemies, the die had been cast, and Rome’s republican experience was doomed to failure, even if it took Rome a long time to actually perish as a republic, as the forms of the Roman Republic continued to struggle on for many decades even after the virtue and restraint of the republic had been lost in periodic civil wars between Marius and Sulla, between Julius Caesar and Pompey, and ultimately between Octavian and the assassins and Marcus Antonius that finished the mortally wounded republic off for good.

What are the conditions which are required for genuine republics to endure? One of them is a commitment to the process of discussion, by which no victory or defeat is ever final. So long as it is realized and accepted that every election is merely a snapshot and that a defeated party or faction can change its argument and seek (and obtain) a governing coalition in the future, no mistake is final. The voters of any body can always make mistakes, but it is the ability to go back on those mistakes and make different choices that allows for growth and the endurance of free institutions. This requires, though, that we see opposition as being loyal to the ground rules of discourse that can always overturn any electoral decision in the future. As long as this is accepted, the behavior of people in power is restrained by the knowledge that their time is not permanent, that it may very well change and that one’s opponents may rule in the future, and so one’s hostility to political opposition is restrained by one’s awareness that how one treats others will be paid in kind to oneself. Arguments over words, rivalry and verbal hostility, as unpleasant as they are to many, can be kept within boundaries so long as it is recognized that one’s opposition one day may be one’s rulers the next election, which encourages mutual respect even where there is serious disagreement about the best course of action a government should take.

Where this restraint is lacking, genuine republican virtue cannot be found. Once someone, be it a ruler or a ruling faction, decides that they will not accept being out of power ever again, and that their loyal opposition deserves to be treated like maggots or cockroaches, they in turn become the monsters that threaten the destruction of their constitutional regime upon which the legitimacy of their rule stands. The use of temporary political power to attempt to keep an active opposition from being able to run for office through politically motivated persecution and prosecution, until only a tame and captive opposition that is completely docile remains, or until political opposition leaves the realm of rhetoric and enters the realm of violent dispute and deadly retribution for previous abuses of authority marks the death of any republic. All too often in history, tyrannical rulers and corrupt elites accuse their opponents of being threats to democracy while themselves serving as the executioners of the republics that they claim to serve. At the time, people may have to bend before political inevitability, because they lack the force to counter such tyranny with, but the condemnation such evil rulers receive for the civil disorders they bring into being is just and severe and lasting, whether it is enforced at the time or in the world to come.

How is virtue to be shown by those who do not fear either God nor man, who have no knowledge of or interest in the lessons of history, who fancy themselves to be above the laws that they enforce harshly on common people who they consider themselves also to be above and political enemies? How are such people to be taught that the fear which haunts them about being brought to justice is not an evil but is a good that is the vestigial conscience that they have long seared and suppressed? How are such people to be brought into a remorse and repentance that provides insight that they, just like everyone else, stand at the dock under the stern hand of the supreme Judge and the verdict of a history that they will be unable to defend themselves against after they draw their last worthless breath? How are such people to understand that their behavior destroys the foundation upon which they seek to build the edifice of their rule, and that in rejecting restraint that they eschew building on the rock and instead construct foolishly on quicksand, and that when the storm comes as it will inevitably come that the institutions they rule and the monuments they construct to themselves will come crashing down in ruin? For as the totalitarian regimes of the world have shown us over the past wicked century, a regime can slaughter its political enemies by the millions in concentration camps, gulags, and laogais, famines and plagues and self-destructive warfare, but those who inflict such horrors upon their fellow human beings will be justly cursed for all eternity. Is temporary power worth such a fate?

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On The Iron Law Of Projection

What is the Iron law of projection? It states that anything that one accuses someone else of is something that one is guilty of oneself. In the more general sense, the Iron law of projection implies that the things that we hate the most about other people are things that we find–and hate–within ourselves, but simultaneously wish to push the blame off and attention on others. In a sense, the Iron Law of projection is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a reality that the things that we dish out to others spring from ourselves.

This need not be a bad thing in principle. It has long been noticed by observant people that comedians are invariably people who struggle deeply with sadness, melancholy, and depression. At least empirically, we may determine that if our effect on others is to uplift them and make them more joyful and able to cope with the absurdity and tragedy of life, that we first engage in the monumentally difficult task of trying to cheer ourselves up and help us to cope with such horrors and such suffering before it becomes noticeable to others. By the time that other people have been uplifted by the joy that we provide through humor, we have sought to uplift our own dark hearts for a long, long time in silent mourning. This specific application can be written large, in that the private work we do on ourselves is what we bring to the outside world when it comes to dealing with others. That which we struggle with and work on in ourselves is the work that we end up doing to others, often unconsciously but sometimes deliberately and intentionally.

There are a variety of reasons for this. The most fundamental is that we are asymmetrical beings in terms of our understanding, in that we understand our own motives and our own subjective internal existence far better than we understand what is going on inside of other people. The result is that we tend to project into the outside world what is going on inside of us. We treat others the way that we are. If we treat others with kindness and respect it is because we are that sort of people ourselves. If we are harsh and accusatory with others, we are equally harsh and unsparing, if only privately, with ourselves. Ultimately, that which comes out of us is that which is inside of us.

One might think that people would not always wish to reveal what is inside of them. There are a great many of us, for example, who do not greatly want to be known. Whether or not what is inside of us is not always up to our own moral standards (to say nothing of God’s standards or the mores of our place and time), we may simply mistrust others and the way that they would judge us knowing us the way that God knows us and that we know ourselves. This is true whether or not the reality inside of us is really evil or would only be thought so by those whose standards and judgments are often defective themselves. Yet at the same time, we are beings whose ability to keep things under wraps is highly limited because we long to express what is within us and long to create a world that is appealing and in correspondence with the world that is inside of us, to remove as much as possible the gap between our internal reality and the external reality that we must live within. We all want to be at home, to be somewhere where we can kick our shoes off and let our guard down and feel safe and secure knowing that we are loved for who we really are. This is not always an easy thing to find, and to the extent that we are unable to find such a place the pressure within us can often be intolerable, and inevitably finds an escape in some fashion.

We can see the iron law of projection everywhere in our current society. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, most obvious in those areas where there is the greatest pressure to justify ourselves and condemn other people for personal and political gain. In such circumstances there is nonexistent motivation to come clean about our own character and every motive to paint rivals and enemies in the blackest terms possible. In such an environment, hypocrisy and double standards are inevitable unless one is a just person of honesty and integrity, and it must be readily admitted that in our dark times such people are in short supply. And even if such people were more common, it is quite possible that the prevailing cynicism would be so great that such people would not be believed even if they existed. If that is indeed the case, we cannot expect help to come from within ourselves, but rather it must come from another place.

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Movie Review: Bullet Train

In watching the Bullet Train trailers, while avoiding spoilery reviews, it seemed as if there was a twist that was leading the studio to market the film as something other than it was. I expected there to be some sort of switch that would lead the film to be something different than a fun but brainless action movie that was full of comic violence. Now, without being too spoilery myself, I can say that the comic violence is something that this movie is full of, but there is a lot more going on than that. You can, if you want to, find in this film an escapist action film with a lot of violence that manages to be jokey enough about it that one does not have to take it too seriously, but at the same time there is a lot here that is serious that is going on underneath the surface, and the film’s marketing campaign ended up working wonderfully in that it attracts two groups of people who would come to see this film and enjoy it a lot–people looking for a lot of exciting action, and those who recognize that the film’s marketing is a disguise for something else and are curious to see what that is. Neither of those groups of viewers will end up being disappointed.

One of the joys of this movie is that the tight approach to framing the action of the movie ends up serving the filmmaker’s apparent larger goals. Throughout the film there are a great many moments–starting from the beginning and continuing to the end–that could have been played for pathos but instead have a lot of the emotional sentiment undercut by ironic humor of a somewhat slapstick variety. Yet the film itself does deal with some potentially emotional subjects–such as the importance of good parenting. Similarly, the film’s action, and the way that every object and character in the film ultimately belongs and has a surprising degree of importance, often ironic or karmic in nature, is itself a sign of the film’s overt attempt to portray karmic justice. Those characters that seek to control fate find themselves destroyed, while those who accept their fate ultimately find themselves successful and alive, no mean feat in a film with a body count as high as this one. This film seems to leave only one loose end remaining at its end, and if that does not necessarily seem enough for a sequel, it is enough to remind us that even after an ending as seemingly decisive as this that there is still something else in the film’s universe to portray.

It is difficult to exaggerate how many twists are present in this film. Indeed, the film itself opens with a twist, and its last twist–a satisfying one–occurs towards the beginning of the credits and a reward for those who do not leave immediately after the main action ends, which itself features a twist when it comes to the film’s casting. Overall, this movie has a lot to praise about it, it not only provides escapist fun but also some serious material to think about when it comes to the burden that fathers have in trying to raise successful offspring, and how hard it is for people to remember who the real enemy is in a comically small world of rival murderous assassins and career criminals. If Brad Pitt is the big name here, this film is truly an excellent ensemble piece, and the filmmakers do a great job of quickly introducing important objects and characters with flashback scenes that add to the depth of what is being shown without slowing down the rapid pace of the film, a pace that is entirely suitable given the subject material of a carefully selected group of people being sent together on a bullet train to a troubling and dark fate. Those who see us as being like those seemingly doomed passengers are welcome to see the dark setup of this film as a reminder of the dangers of our own age, hurtling towards catastrophe even as we try to cope with the hostilities of our circumstances and wail against the injustice of our fate.

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In Those Days There Was No King In Israel; Everyone Did What Was Right In His Own Eyes

[Note: This is the prepared text for a split sermon given to the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on August 6, 2022.]

One of the characteristic tendencies of the crises of our day and age is the way that people are so hostile to authority. While there is a general mania for authority, to seek it to rule over others, there is a widespread and nearly universal tendency in the world around us to tear down and reject any authority over us that goes against our interests and positions. In practical terms, this leads there to be a tendency for people to seek to rule over the unwilling but be unwilling to have the other rule over them. As is often the case, the Bible speaks eloquently about this sort of problem, and provides insight into the sort of anarchical spirit that we find all around in the pages of biblical history. Today I would like to spend the time allotted in my split sermon to untangle a single statement that appears multiple times in the book of Judges and that, not coincidentally, concludes the book as a judgment against the rebelliousness of Israel in the very last verse of that book. Let us therefore begin by turning to the last verse of Judges, in Judges 21:25. Judges 21:25 reads: “ In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Now, was it true that there was no king in Israel during the time of the Judges? It is true that there was no human being on earth who was the king over Israel during this period. God ruled Israel indirectly, through the high priests of the family of Aaron and the Levites who assisted them and also through a variety of men and women whom God raised up to deliver Israel from their periodic oppression that resulted from their sins against God. But while there was no king over Israel, with the possible exception of the abortive attempt of Ahimelech the son of Gideon to rule over Israel from Shechem, there was still an obvious King who ruled over Israel at this time, against whom the Israelites were nearly constantly in rebellion against, as had been the case throughout their national history.

This king, of course, was God Himself. The godly authors of the psalms always recognized the authority of God as King, and repeatedly wrote about God as their king. Let us turn to examine such verses in order and then discuss them as a group to see what was different about the way that the psalmists recognized God as their king and the way that Israel rejected God as their king. Psalm 45:6-7 speaks, for example, of God’s love of righteousness. Psalm 45:6-7 reads: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions.” This messianic psalm of the songs of the Sons of Korah speaks about God’s love of righteousness and hatred of wickedness, and it was their love of wickedness that led Israel to reject the authority of God and to seek their own human kings who would be like them, instead of the righteous leadership that God provided which included national chastisement for their evils that they chafed under.

Not long after this, the Sons of Korah commented about the kingship of God in Psalm 47. This psalm is short and repeatedly affirms the kingship of God, so let us read the psalm in its entirety. Psalm 47:1-9 reads: “Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph! For the Lord Most High is awesome; He is a great King over all the earth. He will subdue the peoples under us, and the nations under our feet. He will choose our inheritance for us, the excellence of Jacob whom He loves. Selah God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with understanding. God reigns over the nations; God sits on His holy throne. The princes of the people have gathered together, the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; He is greatly exalted.” Here we see in vivid language that God is our King, the King over all the earth, reigning over all of the nations, sitting on His Holy throne and above all other authorities that exist. Israel failed to recognize that reality or to act on it. They acted like the heathen nations around them instead of behaving as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Later on, in Psalm 74:12-13, the psalmist Asaph reflects upon the power of God as King to rule over the chaotic forces of evil and rebellion in the earth and on the sea. Psalm 74:12-13 reads: “For God is my King from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. You divided the sea by Your strength; You broke the heads of the sea serpents in the waters.” God’s authority over His creation and His hostility to the serpent, the devil, and the devil’s servants has been from the beginning, and again, Israel’s failure to recognize God as their king led them to fail to recognize whose side they were on, a problem that can easily afflict us all as well.

The last psalm I would like to look at with regards to the kingship of God today is Psalm 95. Psalm 95 is another relatively short psalm of only 11 verses, so let us read it in its entirety. The Psalm begins in the context of God’s authority as king and creator but then moves in a direct that was particularly and painfully relevant for the people of Israel and for us today. Psalm 95 reads: “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is the great God, and the great King above all gods. In His hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it; and His hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand. Today, if you will hear His voice: “Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ””

This psalm gives a particular warning to the results of failing to recognize God as king. It was the failure of the people of Israel in the wilderness to recognize and honor and obey God that led them to wander for 40 years and to have their carcasses strewed about the wilderness and fail to enter the rest of entering the promised land. And it was the failure of later generations of Israelites to honor and obey God that led them to fail to enjoy the rest of the promised land and to have periodic cycles of oppression that resulted from such disobedience when a generation arose that did not know the last judge who had delivered them from the previous cycle of oppression and domination by tyrannical heathen peoples. Israel’s failure to obey God led them to fail to receive the full enjoyment of the blessings they could have received as the children of Abraham and led them into repeated crises. The same is lamentably true for our generation today. And because we too have rejected God as King in our society, God too is grieved with our generation because we go astray in our hearts and do not know His ways. The resulting national judgment is lamentable and predictable.

We have spent the first part of this message examining the fact that there was a King over Israel, and there is a King over us, who was not recognized by the larger society, and the implications and consequences of that failure to recognize God as king. Let us now turn to the second half of the statement that was made by the anonymous writer of Judges, namely that Israel did what was right in their own eyes. There are six times in the Bible where it is mentioned that people did what was right in their own eyes and in all these cases the verdict is an ominous one. Let us therefore discuss what it means to do what is right in our own eyes in the Bible.

The first time that the phrase doing what was right in his own eyes appears is in the book of Deuteronomy, in Deuteronomy 12:8. Let us look at Deuteronomy 12:7-9 and see what it says about this. Deuteronomy 12:7-9 reads: “And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households, in which the Lord your God has blessed you. “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes— for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the Lord your God is giving you.” The expectation of God was that when Israel entered the rest of the promised land that they would stop behaving corruptly and doing what was right in their own eyes and would turn to do what was right in God’s eyes. Unfortunately, that never happened.

The next two times the phrase doing what was right in his own eyes occurs are the two times in the book of Judges when the phrase occurs that we have been looking at so far. In both Judges 17:6, at the beginning of the epilogue of Judges, and in Judges 21:25, at the very end of the book, the author of Judges comments that: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” It was the rejection of God’s authority in their lives that led the Israelites to do what was right in their own eyes. And, it should be noted, what was right in their own eyes was wrong in the eyes of God. Israel’s following what was right in their own eyes led predictably to misery and judgment.

The fourth verse where the phrase is used is an interesting one, as it occurs in the book of Job, in Job 32:1, right at the beginning of the section of Job where Elihu rebukes both Job and his friends. Indeed, this phrase is a particularly ominous one given what we have seen so far in the book of Judges. Job 32:1-3 reads: “So these three men ceased answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes.  Then the wrath of Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, was aroused against Job; his wrath was aroused because he justified himself rather than God.  Also against his three friends his wrath was aroused, because they had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job.” It is, of course, not our interest to discuss the book of Job in great detail here, however it is worth noting that in a context where being righteous in our own eyes and justifying ourselves rather than God is something to avoid, the fact that Job justified himself rather than God in his debate with his friends is something that ought to concern us. It is all too easy for us to justify ourselves, and when we are in arguments and debates, it tends to be our instinct to do so, and this worrisome development can often prevent us from being able to be just to what lessons we can learn from what others are communicating to us.

Finally, the last two times in the Bible where the phrase “right in his own eyes” occurs are in the book of Proverbs. And, as might be supposed from what we have said about the phrase so far, this phrase is viewed negatively by Solomon in Proverbs. First, let us look at what is said in Proverbs 12:15. Proverbs 12:15 tells us: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But he who heeds counsel is wise.” None of us should want to be considered by the Bible as a fool, and yet a fool is right in his own eyes. Yet to be wise requires us to heed counsel, and that means to regard what other people have to say and not only what we think. It is not that we should take what others say uncritically, but rather that to heed counsel and be the sort of person who can be advised by others is a mark of wisdom.

Similarly, we find this phrase used again in Proverbs 21:2. Proverbs 21:2 tells us: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, But the Lord weighs the hearts.” Here we have come full circle. It was the rejection of God’s authority that led Israel to do that which was right in their own eyes, but here Proverbs reminds us that even though every way of a man is right in his own eyes, the Eternal weighs the hearts. Ultimately, we will not be justified and vindicated because we have done what was right in our eyes. It is not by following our heart, or listening to our conscience, by which we will be made right, but rather by following God, and it is the Eternal who will weigh our hearts and judge whether indeed what we have said and done is right according to His eyes. What we judge according to what is right in our own eyes ultimately has no meaning or importance when we are dealing with eternal judgment.

What lessons can we learn from the ending of the book of Judges? There are a great many similarities that we can see between our own age and the time of the Judges if we look at them in great detail, most notably the anarchical hostility to godly authority and the rampant violence and moral corruption that we find present in Israelite society, and in the resulting divine judgment that came upon that wicked and ungodly society that viewed politics and not its ungodliness as the reason for its weakness. Let us be wiser than ancient Israel was and not view the increase of government power as the solution for moral rebellion in our society, though. The proper solution to doing what is right in our own eyes is to repent from our hostility to God’s authority and to commit ourselves to doing that which is right in God’s eyes.

As we have seen, the problem of ancient Israel was not that they had no king. They did have a king in God Himself, but they did not see their king nor did they respect or regard His authority. Let us live by faith and not by sight so that we may be wiser than the corrupt children of Israel of old. Wisdom requires that we move beyond that which we can see and recognize the authority of God and of His hand in the national calamities that we face for our rebelliousness against his ways. So long as we live in a world that is surrounded by people who walk by sight, it will require a great deal of vigilance for us to rise above the level of our contemporary society around us. Let us, with the help of the Bible, set a proper example to those around us of what it means to live by faith and to walk in righteousness, so that we may honor and obey God as our King and may do what is right in His eyes in a world that seems committed to walking in the ways of the wicked Israelites of long ago, having learned nothing from biblical history whatsoever.

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