May 19, 2007


For first time visitors, Goat Rope usually covers fairly serious topics during the week, with gratuitous animal pictures thrown in mostly to justify the trouble of keeping them.

During the weekend, however, the animals get to speak for themselves. This weekend, we are pleased to welcome back Weimaraner dog and Goat Rope Farm Visiting Professor of Literary Theory Dr. Molly Ringworm. Be sure to check out her earlier contributions in the archives.

Dr. Ringworm is the author of Deconstructing Human Footwear and The Social Construction of Squeaky Toys, in addition to many articles in scholarly publications. She will be speaking on the subject of intertextuality in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick or The Whale.

It is our hope that features such as this will elevate the level of discourse and promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.


Have you ever noticed that like when you read a story it's kind of about other stories too?

Like in Moby Dick when the guy says "Call me Ishmael," Ishmael is the guy in that book but it kind of makes you think of the Ishmael from Genesis who is kind of a wanderer? Like the dude in Moby Dick?


And then there's that whole whale thing going on. I mean there's the whale in Moby Dick but there's also the whale in Jonah. Except that the whale in Moby Dick is white and we don't know what color the other one is.

Not that it matters or anything.

And then there's Captain Ahab who is kind of cool but kind of a whack job. He's named after a bad king in the Bible.

And then there's that part where there's this whale ship Rachel that's looking for a lost child, like the part in Jeremiah about "Rachel weeping for her children."

And then there's that part in the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou" where the guy is about to drown but then floats on a coffin like Ishmael did in Moby Dick.

It's like it's all part of a story inside a story inside a story. And even now you are reading this like a story with me in it but we're talking about other stories...

And like your life is kind of a story and mine is too but I can't remember very much of it.

That's kind of weird. I think I need to go pee on something now.


May 18, 2007


Caption: Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: From me all has come forth, and to me all has reached. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there." Gospel of Thomas, 77

The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope has been a series of musings on the apochrypal Gospel of Thomas, along with links and rants about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier entries.

By way of conclusion, El Cabrero is catholic and orthodox enough to be OK with the decision of the church fathers to exclude Thomas from the New Testament canon.

But it does deserve a wider reading. If nothing else, Thomas provides another example of how very diverse early Christian communities were. And finally, it's good to let the some of the sayings of Jesus in Thomas challenge the reader.

Here's the official Goat Rope selection of Thomas' Greatest Hits:

Jesus said, "Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will rule over all." (2)

"Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you. For there is nothing hidden that won't be revealed." (5)

"Fortunate is the person who has worked hard and has found life." (58)

Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you." (70)

They said to him, "Tell us who you are so that we may believe in you."

He said to them, "You examine the face of heaven and earth, but you have not come to know the one who is in your presence, and you do not know how to examine this moment."

The Jesus of this gospel always seems to push the listener/reader back to the present moment, which may not be a bad place to start.

Speaking of the present,

BOTTOM FEEDERS. Business Week has a great special report in the May 21 issue about how many businesses are squeezing more profits from the working poor. Sample quote:

In recent years, a range of businesses have made financing more readily available to even the riskiest of borrowers. Greater access to credit has put cars, computers, credit cards, and even homes within reach for many more of the working poor. But this remaking of the marketplace for low-income consumers has a dark side: Innovative and zealous firms have lured unsophisticated shoppers by the hundreds of thousands into a thicket of debt from which many never emerge.

Federal Reserve data show that in relative terms, that debt is getting more expensive. In 1989 households earning $30,000 or less a year paid an average annual interest rate on auto loans that was 16.8% higher than what households earning more than $90,000 a year paid. By 2004 the discrepancy had soared to 56.1%. Roughly the same thing happened with mortgage loans: a leap from a 6.4% gap to one of 25.5%. "It's not only that the poor are paying more; the poor are paying a lot more," says Sheila C. Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

MARINES AGAINST TORTURE. Here's a post from West Virginia Blue about two retired Marine generals speaking out against the Bush administration's policy of torture.


May 17, 2007


Caption: From the Gospel of Thomas, "If two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to the mountain, 'Move from here!' and it will move."

In addition to rants about current events, this week's Goat Rope is a series of musings on the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier entries.

If you're familiar with the New Testament gospels and read Thomas, many of the sayings in it will seem fairly familiar and consistent with the picture of Jesus that emerges from Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Other parts will probably seem really strange. And then there are some that are kind of in the middle; they sound like something Jesus might have said or close anyway. This may be because parts of Thomas were assembled very early, possibly before the other gospels, while other parts represent the later theological elaborations of some early Christian community.

As an example of the familiar, verse 94 has Jesus say "One who seeks will find; for [one who] knocks it will be opened."

Then there are passages from Thomas that don't appear in the canonical gospels but could be authentic sayings of Jesus (or at least are similar to what he might have said). For example, in the other gospels, Jesus says "No man can serve two masters." Thomas also has "A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows" (47). The cryptic command to "Be passersby" (42) could work with the canonical sayings where Jesus sends his followers on the road.

This kind of sounds like Jesus:

"If two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to the mountain, 'Move from here!' and it will move." (48)

as does this:

"Love your brother like your soul, protect that person like the pupil of your eye."

Some scholars think that some of the following brief parables, one of which was quoted here yesterday, could go back the the historical Jesus:

96 Jesus [said], The Father's kingdom is like [a] woman. She took a little leaven, [hid] it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!

97 Jesus said, The [Father's] imperial rule is like a woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking along [a] distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her [along] the road. She didn't know it; she hadn't noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.

And then there are the truly strange parts, which lean towards gnosticism and are probably of later origin. Here's an odd one:

Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, "These nursing babies are like those who enter the (Father's) domain."

They said to him, "Then shall we enter the (Father's) domain as babies?"

Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the (Father's) domain]." (22)

In these verses, salvation is seen less as moving forward to some consummation than as moving back to the origin. When asked how the end will be, Jesus replies:

Have you discovered the beginning, then, so that you are seeking the end? For where the beginning is, the end will be. Fortunate is the on who stands at the beginning: That one will know the end and will not taste death. (18)

And finally, there are some parts of Thomas that just make you think, whatever their origin may be. El Cabrero's selection of Thomas' Greatest Hits will run tomorrow.

But now, back to today's salt mines...

HEALTH CARE. It should come as a shock to no one that two recent studies of health care by the Commonwealth Fund finds the US bringing up the rear among developed countries in the quality of its health care system. Karen Davis, president of the group, noted that “The United States stands out as the only nation in these studies that does not ensure access to health care through universal coverage and promotion of a ‘medical home’ for patients."

POWER POPULISTS VS LOSER LIBERALS. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research frequently points out that progressives or "loser liberals" often lose the struggle over ideas by accepting the idea that they want to use the government to redistribute market outcomes whereas conservatives want to rely on the market. "Power populists," by contrast

doesn’t accept the basic government/market distinction that loser liberalism treats as its starting point. The power populists see government policy as determining who wins and loses in the market place.

Both sides use government. The real difference between progressives and economic conservatives is that the latter use government to distribute money upward while the former want to use it to help middle and low income people. Check out his ebook The Conservative Nanny State.


May 16, 2007


Caption: These guys found the grain that was spilled. Will we?

The guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope, in addition to rants on current events, is a discussion of the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus' sayings that didn't make it into the New Testament.

If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier entries.

In the first three canonical gospels, Jesus' public ministry begins, after his baptism by John and a period of temptation in the wilderness, with the proclamation that the Kingdom or Reign (Greek: basileia) of God was at hand.

People have rassled over what that meant pretty much since then. Most often, the Kingdom was viewed as the decisive intervention of God and the end of history, which would include judgment of the living and the dead followed by God's glorious reign over the elect.

But there are elements of the tradition in which the Kingdom was seen as beginning in and through the actions of Jesus and his followers (such as "the Kingdom of God is within [or 'among'] you" in Luke 17:21). In other words the kingdom may not have been viewed exclusively as a future state: it might have been a verb or a program to be enacted.

What would that look like?

It's right there: Jesus and his followers would go from peasant community to peasant community in Galilee. Wherever they went, people would gather and share what food they had in a climate of equality. The sick would be healed, unclean spirits cast out, sins would be pronounced forgiven, outcasts would be included in the life of the community. And the good news of the Kingdom--compassion, solidarity, and counter-cultural wisdom--would be proclaimed.

The Gospel of Thomas goes even farther. The Kingdom is always already here if we could only see it:

Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) imperial rule is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) imperial rule is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty." (3)


His disciples said to him, "When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?"

He said to them, "What you are looking forward to has come, but you don't know it."(51)


His disciples said to him, "When will the (Father's) imperial rule come?"

"It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it." (113)

In a parable found only in Thomas that may be authentic, the Kingdom is spilled all over the place:

Jesus said, The [Father's] imperial rule is like a woman who was carrying a [jar] full of meal. While she was walking along [a] distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her [along] the road. She didn't know it; she hadn't noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty. (97)

In other words, it's not where she thought it was but is spilled out all along the way. Now that's something to think about. Maybe we ought to pay a little more attention.

Meanwhile back at the ranch...

CONTRADICTIONS OF FREE TRADE. James Surowiecki has a good item in the May 14 New Yorker about how the US is using "free trade" negotiations to push for excessive protections for intellectual property at the expense of the needs of developing countries. He notes the contradiction that the US has often been unwilling to "impose" US labor standards on developing countries but is more than willing to impose harsher standards when this benefits major corporations: "Free-trade agreements that export our own restrictive I.P. laws may make the world safe for Pfizer, Microsoft, and Disney, but they don’t deserve the name free trade."

LAYOFFS. The same author has interesting things to say about the economic effects of layoffs in the April 30th issue. Short version: CEOs often resort to mass layoffs when times are hard but there is some evidence that they can do more harm than good to the long term performance of the corporation that resorts to them.


May 15, 2007


Caption: This man is digging for lost gospels.

In 1945, a library of early and mostly unknown Christian writings was discovered near Nag Hammadi in Egypt by a peasant named Mohammed Ali. One of the texts discovered was a Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas, a fairly early collection of sayings attributed to Jesus.

Many of the Nag Hammadi texts were Gnostic in viewpoint. Gnosticism is kind of a catch all term for diverse teachings that combined Judeo-Christian elements with Hellenistic forms of mystical beliefs that were eventually considered heretical by the the orthodox or catholic church.

The writings were buried in a sealed jar, which probably meant that monks from a nearby monastery intended to hide them after church father Athanasius and others condemned their use in the 4th century. Their discovery, and others that followed, have driven home the point that early Christianity was by no means monolithic.

The Gospel of Thomas, which was probably originally written in Greek, seems to contain elements from different periods. It is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus that claim to have been compiled by Didymus Judas Thomas. There is no birth, passion, or resurrection story, nor are there accounts of miracles. Jesus is depicted primarily as a wise teacher.

Scholars debate the date of its writing but it may largely have been written around the same time as the other gospels. Parts of it may have even been assembled earlier than the others. Debates also rage on whether it is an independent source of Jesus' sayings or whether it relied on the other gospels and/or their sources (I think it's the former, for what it's worth).

Most of the sayings in Thomas are similar to and often simpler than those found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It may even contain a few authentic sayings of Jesus that are found only there. Other sayings seem to be of later, semi-gnostic origin. Here's a good discussion from the Virtual Religion Network. And here's the gospel itself.

In any case, an encounter with the sayings of Thomas is challenging and thought provoking. Buy as Scarlett O'Hara so aptly said, "I'll think about that tomorrow."

Now back to some contemporary items.

BAD DAY FOR MASSEY. Massey Energy stock took a dive as news of its legal troubles spread. Here's Bloomberg:

Shares of Massey Energy Co., the fourth-largest U.S. coal producer, had their biggest drop since July after an analyst said a federal water-pollution lawsuit may lead to $2 billion in fines.

The shares slid $2.73, or 9 percent, to $27.60 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The decline was the biggest for Richmond, Virginia-based Massey since July 28. Before today, the stock had jumped 31 percent this year.

The U.S. filed a civil lawsuit against Massey accusing the company of 4,633 violations of the Clean Water Act over the past six years, Credit Suisse analyst David Gagliano said today in a note to clients. Based on 69,000 days of non-compliance, Massey could face $2 billion in fines, he said.

There's more to that story if you click the link. And here's AP's take on it. El Cabrero is overcome with grief. Not.

BUSINESS WEEK ON PRIVATIZATION. El Cabrero has gotten behind in his magazines. Here's a good item from the May 7 Business Week about the next round of privatization. Investors are looking with longing at our roads, bridges, and other infrastructure and the public stands to lose big.

MR. PEABODY'S COAL TRAIN. The same issue has this on Peabody Coal CEO Gregory Boyce. Peabody also happens to be the target of a campaign aimed at winning workers the right to organize unions without intimidation. The same company is said to be considering selling its WV operations.


May 14, 2007

GOSPEL TRUTH and more (or less)

Caption: Jesus had some harsh words for goats in the gospels. Far be it from me to disagree.

El Cabrero has been slogging slowly through the New Testament gospels in Greek, thanks mostly to the English translation underneath each line. I think I'm on chapter 4 of Mark now.

I've probably spent more time reading and thinking about the gospels than all the other parts of the Bible combined. I think they're interesting both for their subject matter and for trying to figure out how they came to be written.

Scholars often view New Testament sources to be like layers of rock, with some belonging to older strata than others. Most believe that Mark was the earliest and date it to around 70, 40 years after the death of Jesus. It's the shortest and least theologically developed. It has no birth narrative and the earliest copies of it don't even include the resurrection.

Matthew and Luke, whoever they were, composed their gospels within 20 or so years of Mark and used it as a source, incorporating it pretty much whole into their own. Still, they had no qualms about making changes in the Markan version to suit their purposes. Because Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar, they are often called the "synoptic" gospels, which kind of means "the same eye" in Greek.

Matthew and Luke contain a lot more of Jesus' sayings than Mark, many of which appear in both. It is widely believed that they relied on a lost collection of Jesus' sayings called Q from "quelle," the German word for source. They each had unique material of their own as well.

The Fourth Gospel, commonly known as John, is totally different and probably of later origin than the others. In the earlier synoptic gospels, Jesus doesn't talk about himself and refuses to give signs. In John, that's about all he does.

Although these four were the only ones to make it into the canon of the New Testament when it was finally settled by the Church in the 4th century, there were plenty of other contenders, many of which have been lost.

Most of the gospels that didn't make it to the varsity team were cut for obvious reasons. Some were pretty loopy. But I have a special soft spot for one that didn't make it: the Gospel of Thomas, which I think at least deserves another look.

It oughta fill up a week's worth of blogging anyhow. Now, on to some sordid contemporary matters.

BAD DAY FOR MASSEY. Here's a (non) shocker from the AP this weekend:

Federal prosecutors allege that Massey Energy Co. and its subsidiaries have illegally poured pollutants into West Virginia and Kentucky waterways about 4,633 times within the past six years — roughly 69,071 days’ worth of violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act.

Actually, it kind of is a shocker that the industry-friendly Bush administration is actually doing anything about it.

MSHA TO REVIEW ITSELF. And that's not all. As Ken Ward reports in today's Gazette, MSHA is starting to take a harder look at itself and is preparing to release reviews of its own actions. To be fair, it looks like MSHA head Richard Stickler is taking mine safety very seriously. This is a welcome contrast to earlier Bush appointees.

EXTENDED DUTY. Time Magazine has an interesting item about what it really means to the people involved when military tours of duty are extended.

ETYMOLOGICAL TIDBIT: in the ancient language of Proto Indo-European, which was the parent of many languages from Europe to India, the word "daughter" originally meant "little milker," presumably of cows and goats. They probably knew a thing or two about goat ropes. El Cabrero is learning to milk goats, but his grown daughter isn't much help...