August 02, 2008


And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

William Blake, Preface to Milton, aka Jerusalem

August 01, 2008


Since the theme at Goat Rope this week has been religion in America, I can't think of a better way to end it than with an example of a sign of the times.

As you may have noticed, apocalyptic religion is big these days. Millions of Americans have read the Left Behind series and other such stuff and await the Rapture, which some believe to be an event in which Christians of the preferred variety will physically disappear and be snatched up to heaven before things go really south for everyone else.

This is an odd religious idea totally absent from historical Christianity--Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. It was promoted by John Nelson Darby in the 1830s and caught on among some literalists. In the early 1900s, it gained a mass audience with the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. This version of eschatology appeared in its marginal notes, so it looked like it was "in the Bible." It really became popular with the publication of Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth (a frequently revised work) in the 1970s. (Search the Goat Rope archives for "apocalyptic religion" for more.)

Anyhow, a new website-- people, for a modest $40 fee, to send email messages and key information to those who didn't make the team while you are bodily eating pie in the sky.

For a whole lot of people, this endlessly revised end time scenario is pretty much what religion is all about.

Houston, we have a problem...

RETHINKING THE "WAR ON TERROR." The RAND Corporation reports that policing, intelligence and policy are more effective in anti-terrorism efforts than brute military force.

CONFUSED BY FINANCIAL JARGON? This devil's dictionary may help.

700 YEARS AFTER THE FACT, the Italian city of Florence is still trying to make up for exiling Dante.

TAKE YOUR EXERCISE PILL. It may actually work.

A LITTLE GOOD NEWS FROM WV. The Children's Health Insurance Program will expand health coverage to children living in households earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level. It was 220 previously. Lots of groups, including AFSC, have supported this.


July 31, 2008


Camp meeting, circa 1839, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme this week at Goat Rope is a paradox of the American religious experience: while the US is among the most religious and religiously diverse countries in the world, many residents measure pretty low on surveys of religious literacy--both of the religions they profess and of those they don't.

One thing that may have set the tone for this was the popularity of revivalism on the American frontier, of which the Second Great Awakening of the first half of the 1800s is a prime example. As the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote,

Long before America was discovered, the Christian community was perennially divided between those who believed that the intellect must have a vital place in religion and those who believed that intellect should be subordinated to emotion, or in effect abandoned at the dictates of emotion...under American conditions the balance between traditional establishments and revivalist or enthusiastic movements drastically shifted in favor of the latter. In consequence, the learned professional clergy suffered a loss of position, and the rational style of religion they found congenial suffered accordingly. At an early stage in its history, America, with its Protestant and dissenting inheritance, became the scene of an unusually keen local variation of this universal historical struggle over the character of religion; and here the forces of enthusiasm and revivalism had their most impressive victories.

Of course, given the hardships of farm and frontier life, this kind of religion provided relief from toil, a chance to socialize, and a welcome form of entertainment. Abraham Lincoln, who was pretty unorthodox in religious matters, enjoyed such spectacles while growing up. He once said "When I see a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees."

The effects of the Second Great Awakening can still be felt in El Cabrero's neck of the woods. I remember many conversations I had growing up about religion with people for whom religion was preaching and who suspected educated clergy to be instruments of the devil. They believed every word of the Bible, even if they were a little hazy on what these might actually be.

As Stephen Prothero notes in Religious Literacy, this religion of the heart was a marked change from the kind that prevailed before when the nation was founded:

As has been noted, religious faith and religious knowledge were inseparable in the colonies and the early republic...But early Americans didn't just know Jesus; they knew the Sermon on the Mount (often by heart). They believed, as the Reverend John Lathrop of Boston's Second Church wrote, that "the connexion between knowledge and faith, is such, that the latter cannot exist without the former."...All that changed, however, with the rise to public power in the early nineteenth century of a new form of Protestantism called evangelicalism. By the end of that century a lack of elementary knowledge of Christianity would constitute evidence of authentic faith. What for generations had been shameful--religious illiteracy--would become a badge of honor in a nation besotted with the self-made man and the spirit-filled preacher.

The triumph had unintended consequences:

In the name of heartfelt faith, unmediated experience, and Jesus himself, they actively discouraged religious learning. To evangelicalism, therefore, we owe both the vitality of religion in contemporary American and our impoverished understanding of it.

LEAVING A RECORD...DEFICIT. President Bush will leave his successor the biggest one yet.

THAT'S JUST SWELL. The US has reassured Israel that it might whack Iran. Here's more on the subject from Scott Ritter.

LOSING TIME. This doesn't show up on official unemployment statistics, but millions of American workers have had the hours of work cut.

IF "SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN" RAN HOROSCOPES, here's what they would look like.

OLD SCHOOL COMPUTING. This is an interesting look at an ancient Greek computational device. Where did they plug it in?

HYPERION TO A SATYR. A professor from El Cabrero's alma mater Marshall University will write a biography of George W. Bush. The author, Jean Edward Smith, has previously written 12 books, including a prize-winning and bestselling biography of FDR--peace be unto him. The contrast between the two is mind boggling.


July 30, 2008


Monument celebrating freedom of worship, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme at Goat Rope this week is American religious literacy or the lack thereof (accent on the latter). You'll also find links and comments about current events. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

As mentioned in earlier posts, America is one of the most religious--and religiously diverse--countries in the world, but it's people know surprisingly little about what they profess to believe or what others believe.

It didn't used to be that way. Say what you want about the early colonists, they knew what they believed--even if they were kind of ate up with it, as we say in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia.

Puritan clergy in New England were highly educated, steeped in Calvinist theology and were often fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Anglicans, later to become Episcopalians, drilled their young in the catechism and the intricacies of the 39 articles and stressed a tradition that relied on scripture, tradition and reason. Other religious groups worked it in their own fashion.

The idea that religion was all heart and not a whole lot of head took some time to arrive here. Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy, identifies at least two factors that contributed to the current state of affairs. One was the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that occurred in the first half of the 1800s, about which more tomorrow.

The other was the American tendency suppress religious differences when confronted with some kind of "alien challenge." For example, from the 1800s, many American Protestants emphasized their commonality in the wake of a growing Catholic population. During the Cold War, the term "Judeo-Christian civilization" became common and expressed a degree of unity against the challenges of Soviet communism.

Over time, a kind of generic religiosity became common, as expressed in a quote attributed to President Eisenhower: "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith-and I don't care what it is."

HOUSING. After all the bailouts, maybe it's time to do something about foreclosures.

THERE'S GOLD IN THEM THERE DUMPS. Garbage could be big business.

MINE SAFETY. This one is a couple of days old (due to a road trip), but it's a good one on MSHA in the waning days of the Bush administration.

STRAP ON THE OLD JETPACK. Somebody actually made one.


July 29, 2008


A few years ago, none of the members of Jay Leno's audience could name any of the twelve apostles, as Stephen Prothero notes in his 2007 book Religious Literacy. If that wasn't bad enough, the most frequently quoted "Bible verse" in America is "God helps those who help themselves," which we owe to Benjamin Franklin.

I don't know how many times I've heard people attribute the Declaration's "all men are created equal" to the Bible.

Among the factoids Prothero notes in his book are the following:

*Only half of Americans can name even one of the four canonical Gospels;

*Most don't know the name of the first book of the Bible;

*Only one third know that it was Jesus who delivered the Sermon on the Mount;

*Most didn't know that Jonah was a book in the Bible (check Goat Rope archives for a long series on that little book).

The sad part is, those questions refer to religions embraced by the majority of Americans. When it comes to knowledge of other faiths, the picture is even worse.

Prothero points out that in today's world, regardless of one's own beliefs, some basic knowledge of religions is a necessity of good citizenship. He even came up with a basic religious literacy quiz that he started giving to students but now is sharing with the general public. How do you think you would do?

Find out by clicking here.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Here's Barbara Ehrenreich on the human toll of the debt crisis.

THE END OF AN ERA? This item argues that the end of the Bush era will also mark the end of right wing anti-government ideology.

THINKING BIG. Here are 10 big ideas that changed history.



July 28, 2008


El Greco's version of Paul, courtesy of wikipedia.

When the apostle Paul visited the city of Athens, he noticed an altar dedicated "to an unknown god" and chided the Athenians for worshipping what they didn't know. (Acts 17:23)

According to Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, modern Americans don't come off much better. Prothero is author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't.

In the opening pages of that book, he describes a conversation with a visiting professor from Austria about American students:

They are very religious, he told me, but they know next to nothing about religion. Thanks to compulsory religious education (which in Austria begins in elementary schools), European students can name the twelve apostles and the Seven Deadly Sins, but they wouldn't be caught dead going to church or synagogue themselves. American students are just the opposite. Here faith without understanding is the standard; here religious ignorance is bliss.

He notes a deep paradox about American religiosity:

Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can't name the four Gospels, Catholics who can't name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can't name the five books of Moses. Atheists may be as rare in American as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.

When Mark Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, it was a laugh line when Tom guessed that David and Goliath were the first two apostles. These days, y'all don't even want to know how many Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife or that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife...

In a world in which religion plays such a major role (not always for the good), that's not just unfortunate; it's kind of dangerous. In fact, I'm not sure which is more dangerous: ignorance about other people's religion or unthinking acceptance of one's own.

More on that tomorrow.

CASH FOR CLUNKERS? Here's an interesting idea about an eco-friendly approach to stimulating the economy.

READING AND THE WEB. Is one killing the other?

THE NEXT WAR? More and more Americans are trying to stop a possible war with Iran.

GIVEN ALL THE NASTY POSSIBILITIES ON THE HORIZON, some people think survivalists aren't that crazy after all.

DON'T JUST DO SOMETHING--SIT THERE. Mindfulness meditation has been show to slow the progress of HIV.