December 22, 2007


Goat Rope is pleased to offer a special repeat Christmas edition of one of the canine film critic's finest reviews. In this holiday feature, Goat Rope Farm film critic Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor Shegg-AY) will discuss the perennial seasonal favorite, "A Christmas Story."

Once again, we must remind our readers that Mr. Sege suffered a head injury from crashing into a wall whilst chasing a squeaky toy. As a result, he has on occasion been known to transpose the plots of the films he discusses. Nevertheless, we believe that his insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.

It is our hope that features such as these will elevate the level of public discourse and contribute to a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.

And finally, the human and animal staff of Goat Rope, with the possible exception of the goats, join in wishing you and yours a happy holiday season.


OK, so this movie is awesome. Some people may not think this movie needs explaining by a film critic but there's a lot going on there that you might not get at first.

First, there's this kid who wants a BB gun for Christmas so bad it's driving him nuts. But everybody keeps telling him he'll put his eye out with it.

What they don't know is that he really needs this BB gun because this evil robot from the future who looks like some kind of muscle governor is coming back and trying to kill him.

The evil robot catches the kid and puts him in a prison down south where he makes friends with everybody by eating 50 eggs.

I could probably eat 50 eggs if Moomus and Doodus would let me...

The 50 eggs is sort of a symbol for the 12 days of Christmas. Fifty is like the square root of twelve.

Anyway, he escapes from New York and these Christmas ghosts show him what's going to happen to him if he doesn't straighten up. So then he trades in his BB gun and buys Christmas presents for everybody, even the evil robot whose name is Tiny Tim, who gets the girl that works at the fashion magazine.

It's awesome, especially if you eat eggs and popcorn while you watch it.


December 21, 2007


Caption: The Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio, courtesy of wikipedia.

Aside from links and comments about current events, the theme for this week's Goat Rope is the early history of Christianity. If this is your first visit, please click on the earlier posts.

Most people are aware that persecution of Christians by Romans was a prominent feature of early Christian life until the early 4th century. However, it wasn't all lions all the time. With some exceptions, persecutions tended to be sporadic and local and were often instigated by angry citizens or mobs rather than the Roman state.

The first major Roman persecution was that of Nero around the year 64. The emperor, who was nuts by even Roman imperial standards, blamed Christians for a fire of which he was the likely cause. This is what the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the incident in book 15 of his Annals:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Although this would be cold comfort to the persecuted, including possibly Peter and Paul, Christians under Nero were not persecuted for their beliefs but rather for the bogus claim of arson.

Often, local persecutions were initiated by angry pagan citizens who pressured the state to take action against believers. Roman provincial governors had two main priorities: keep the peace and collect taxes (not necessarily in that order), and might yield to such pressures. Some early Christian martyrologies portray them as reluctant persecutors.

Given that early Christians were a pretty inoffensive group, what was behind the persecutions? In some cases, Christians would be blamed for various natural disasters, diseases, or other misfortunes, presumably because the gods were angry that their worship was neglected.

In other cases, Christians were believed to routinely engage in orgies, incest, and even ritual cannibalism. This came about through misinformation about basic Christian beliefs and practices. For example, it was known that Christianity was supposed to be a religion of love, that believers called each other brother and sister and exchanged a holy kiss, and that their most sacred ritual, the Eucharist, involved partaking of the flesh and blood of the Son of God. Some people evidently heard a few of those key words and drew their own conclusions.

More often, particularly in the systematic and empire-wide persecutions, which got worse in the third and early fourth centuries, Christians were persecuted for refusing to honor the divine genius of the emperor, a simple ritual that might involve burning a piece of incense or participating in a public sacrifice. Christians who did so were usually released, while those who refused could suffer horrible martyrdom.

In general, Rome didn't really care what people believed, as long as they participated in such public demonstrations of loyalty, which was probably viewed in much the same way that many Americans regard the Pledge of Allegiance. Sad to say, not too many years have passed since groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses were mistreated in this country for refusing to say the pledge.

One of the many sad ironies of history is the alacrity with which the persecuted become persecutors themselves.

IT'S NOT JUST THE UNINSURED. The scope of America's health care crisis goes beyond the more than 45 million uninsured Americans. According to Families USA,

While much national attention has focused on the uninsured, there is an almost invisible but growing crisis among insured families, as rising health care costs devour an ever-growing portion of their pre-tax income. In the United States, 61.6 million people under the age of 65, 82.4 percent of which are insured, are in families that will spend more than 10 percent of their pre-tax family income on health care costs in 2008, according to a report issued today by the consumer health organization Families USA.

In addition, there are 17.8 million people in families that will spend more than 25 percent of their pre-tax income on health care costs in 2008.

Here's a summary of their new study with a link to the full report.

WORK AND HEALTH. A new study finds that "Employees who have more control over their daily activities and do challenging work they enjoy are likely to be in better health..."

TAX CUTS OR INVESTMENTS? Here's an item by Robert Borosage about alternatives for moving the economy out of the doldrums.

TO READ OR NOT TO READ? The correct answer is the former. Unfortunately, that's not happening as much as it used to. Here's a New Yorker article on that lamentable trend. Here's a sample:

In 1982, 56.9 per cent of Americans had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. The proportion fell to fifty-four per cent in 1992, and to 46.7 per cent in 2002. Last month, the N.E.A. released a follow-up report, “To Read or Not to Read,” which showed correlations between the decline of reading and social phenomena as diverse as income disparity, exercise, and voting. In his introduction, the N.E.A. chairman, Dana Gioia, wrote, “Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement.

"OH DEER," HE WHALED. According to this science item, whales may have descended from tiny deer-like creatures. Check out the picture.


December 20, 2007


Caption: The western wall of the Jerusalem Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme for this week's Goat Rope is early Christian history. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

One of the most tragic features of Christian history is its role in the rise of anti-Semitism, which has had horrible consequences over the centuries.

It's important to remember that Jesus was a Jew who spent virtually his entire ministry among Jews, with perhaps a few exceptional encounters such as those related in the gospels. All of his earliest followers were Jewish. The whole New Testament, with the exception of Luke, Acts and possibly some minor epistles, was written by Jewish believers in Jesus. Likewise, many early converts were either Jewish or were Gentile "God fearers" sympathetic to Judaism.

However, controversies soon arose between the new religion and the old, reflecting Christian anger over the failure of more Jews to convert. While many Jews of the time expected some kind of Messiah, for the overwhelming majority, Jesus did not fit the bill. He was, after all, a peasant who was executed in the most degrading way and many recalled a passage in Deuteronomy that said that anyone hanged on a tree was accursed by God (21:23).

Early Christians engaged in a series of polemics in which they attempted to present themselves as the legitimate heirs of the Hebrew Bible and Jews as those who rejected their redeemer and ultimately God. The Jewish connections were further frayed as more and more Gentiles joined the movement.

Also, as early Christians attempted to survive in a Roman world, they began to shift the blame for his crucifixion from Rome to the Jewish leaders and even to the entire Jewish people. At the same time, Roman anti-Judaism increased after the Jewish revolts of the first and second centuries which resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the disperal of Jews throughout the empire.

Finally, when the church became the official religion of the empire, the state was fully set for centuries of bloody persecution.

IRAQ. Despite the Bush administration's efforts to put a triumphal spin on events in Iraq, the Washington Post reported the following:

Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of "occupying forces" as the key to national reconciliation, according to focus groups conducted for the U.S. military last month.

A GOOD RESOURCE for current information about the need for "An Economy that Works for All" is here.

MORE ON THE JUDICIAL HELLHOLE CLAPTRAP can be found here and here.

NEW DRUGS could change the nature of death, according to this Wired Science item. The post speculates that with new anti-aging drugs, people would still die, but without a lot of the distasteful preliminaries.


December 19, 2007


Caption: Zeus, courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero is musing this week about the history of early Christianity. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

The religious climate in the Mediterranean world in the first century of this era was a lot different from anything we're used to. Most people these days, for example, believe in one God (sometimes less).

In the Roman empire, atheism was virtually nonexistent and monotheism was a minority viewpoint. Jews, the main monotheists of the time, made up maybe seven percent of the Roman empire--and many of them weren't too happy about being part of it.

Polytheism was the rule and it seemed as natural then as it does weird today. In fact, worshipping one god to the exclusion of all others was considered a kind of impiety. In classical Greek religion, the gods were like a deck of playing cards--one only made sense within a system of relationships with other ones.

There were gods and gods. Some pagans imagined one very remote supreme god, with other major gods and goddesses below that level and a host of lesser ones. Kind of like a divine pyramid. There was a divine division of labor whereby you turned to one or the other god to deal with this or that problem.

There were many views about what happens after death (ranging from nothing to a lot), but the main focus of pagan religion was on meeting temporal needs. Pagan worship consisted mainly of prayers, sacrifices and festivals designed to keep the gods happy or at least placated. They didn't require a whole lot of attention.

Here are some things about pagan religion that seem strange today. First, it didn't really matter what you believed about the gods. There was no pagan Bible or creed. The gods didn't care much what you thought about them as long as you didn't tick them off or neglect their sacrifices.

Second, ethics weren't a big part of pagan religion. It wasn't that pagans were less moral than non-pagans. Rather, questions of ethics were considered important in their own right and were more a part of philosophy or wisdom.

Third, pagan religions were pretty tolerant. Becoming a devotee of, say, Isis, didn't mean you had to neglect Zeus or couldn't be initiated in the Mysteries of Demeter.

Christianity stood out from all the other contenders as being everything paganism was not.

El Cabrero is no pagan, although I do admit to a soft spot for the Olympians. But there is something kind of nice about a pluralistic approach to the universe in an era of all too common fanaticism.

EMOTIONS AND HEALTH. There's a big connection.

SPEAKING OF HEALTH, here's an item on health care as market failure.

HELL HOLES, JUDICIAL AND OTHERWISE. Social scientists at WVU took a close look at WV's legal system and found the claims of the Chamber of Commerce about our "hellhole" status don't hold up. Here's the full report and here's a link to a report by Scott Finn from WV Public Radio. You may have to scroll down.

MEGAN WILLIAMS UPDATE. Here's Gazette coverage for a rally held last night in Charleston.

GIANT RAT UPDATE. They found some in Indonesia five times the size of a city rat.


December 18, 2007


Caption: It started here but took a lot of twists and turns. Photo courtesy of wikipedia.

One of the things that is most striking and interesting about early Christianity is its diversity. Often we tend to think of "the early church" as a unified body, but that was far from the case.

Many New Testament writings attest to controversies within Christian communities within the first century (keep in mind though that the canon of the New Testament was not finally set until almost 350 years after the crucifixion of Jesus).

The writings of Paul, the earliest surviving Christian documents, attest to tensions between Paul, Peter and James, as well as others farther removed from the historical person of Jesus.

That diversity grew in the second century and was only definitely closed when the orthodox or catholic tendency received imperial support in the 4th century and unorthodox versions were suppressed or driven underground.

The version that won out, and to which El Cabrero belongs, may not have been the earliest or most popular in many places.

Not surprisingly, many controversies centered around the person of Jesus. To start with, peasants in Galilee who responded to Jesus' ministry there may have continued that tradition with little knowledge of or contact with the later church.

For some communities, such as those that circulated the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Jesus was primarily a wisdom teacher.

Christians known as Ebionites continued to observe Jewish law and regarded Jesus as a man who was "adopted" by God. At another extreme were the Docetists who believed that Jesus was a divine being who only seemed to suffer (the term Docetism is derived from the Greek word meaning "to seem").

Followers of the second century leader Marcion believed that the God of the Hebrew Bible was a lesser deity and not the loving father proclaimed by Jesus.

Some people classify Docetism and Marcionism as early forms of a much larger gnostic movement, which has Christian and non-Christian forms. Gnostics tended to regard the material world as evil and claimed to offer a path to liberation for a small spiritual elite.

The whole field of studying diverse Christian traditions exploded with the discovery of several gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945.

It makes you wonder what else is still out there somewhere.

NATURAL LAWS? Does nature have laws or just habits? Here's an interesting item on this scientific controversy.

UNIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE. A growing number of people in the labor movement are taking the climate change issue seriously. Here's a post from the AFLCIO blog about the recent climate conference in Bali.

HELL HOLES AND HOOEY. Here's a good reality check on the state of WV's legal system. The Chamber of Whatever and allies continually issue reports about the abominable state of our courts but the data isn't there to back them up. Perhaps they will only be happy when workers and citizens no longer have access to the legal system. Thanks to the WV uber blog Lincoln Walks at Midnight for posting this.

URGENT DINOSAUR UPDATE. They found another one. This time it's a huge meat eater from the Republic of Niger:

The new species is one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs ever to have lived. Carcharodontosaurus iguidensis was probably 13-14 metres long, making it taller than a double-decker bus. It had a skull about 1.75 metres long and its teeth were the size of bananas.


December 17, 2007


Caption: It's a long way from Jesus to Constantine. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

While lots of people are gearing up for the traditional holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, El Cabrero has been musing about the birth of Christianity, a topic I find endlessly interesting.

Historians often distinguish between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus. According to the earliest sources, the religion of Jesus consisted of his proclaiming and to a degree enacting enacting the Kingdom of God. The religion about Jesus arose in the time immediately after his crucifixion in Jerusalem around the year 30. I'm not saying the two were incompatible or inconsistent with each other, just different.

Whatever really happened, it is historically indisputable that some of his early followers claimed to experience him as a living reality after the death on the cross. Initially, the community of believers was tiny, although it grew steadily throughout the Mediterranean world despite sporadic persecutions.

Historian Bart Ehrman, who produced From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity for The Teaching Company, estimates that the number of believers grew from 20-100 people in the year 30 to 5-7 percent of the total population of the Roman Empire--around 3 to 4 million out of a total of 56 million--by the time of Constantine (circa 272-337).

Massive conversions are not necessary to account for this growth. The increase described above could have happened if Christians increased their membership by 40 percent per decade or 4 percent a year, about the rate that the Mormon church has grown. This could have simply involved the slow conversion of friends, family members, and social networks.

Major conversions did not occur until the Emperor Constantine's conversion around the year 312 (although he did not undergo baptism until he was on his deathbed). Around 313, he and co-emperor Licinius agreed to a policy of toleration for all religions, including Christianity. Once the religion gained imperial favor, many more conversions followed. By the end of the fourth century, around half of the empire's residents were Christians.

Under Emperor Theodosius I, orthodox or catholic Christianity became the state religion and pagan practices were banned.

It seems to me that the alliance of church with empire was a major and unfortunate turning point. When religion and state merge, the result usually isn't better government--it's worse religion.

FORESTS AND TREES will play a major role in any successful effort to address climate change, according to this Time article.

VETERANS' ISSUES. Here's a link to the Washington Post's ongoing series on returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

RECONCILIATION? It looks like a truce is in effect between Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and WV Governor Joe Manchin. I think I liked it better the other way.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CONSERVATISM is the theme of this op-ed of mine from yesterday's Gazette-Mail.