Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey



(Movie Review)

            It is probably impossible to review this film without comparing it both to the original source material, and to the 3 Lord of the Rings movies that came before it.  So, in order to lay bare my own biases, I’ll start by briefly sketching out:

My History with J.R.R. Tolkien

          The Hobbit was one of my all-time favorite childhood stories.
            I was, it must be admitted, more influenced by the Rankin-Bass cartoon (W) than Tolkien’s original story.  I first saw the cartoon when I was 8 years old, and due to the miracle of VHS I was able to re-watch the cartoon again and again and again.  I had seen the cartoon multiple times before I even learned it was connected to a book. (In the 1980s, before the explosion of the Internet made geek culture so much more accessible, it was possible to be ignorant of a lot of things when growing up in the sleepy Midwestern suburbs).
            But I did eventually get around to reading the book as well.

            Like many children before and since, Tolkien opened up a whole new world to me that I wanted to play around in more, and many of my own childhood literary attempts were based in a Tolkien-esque world.

            But for all that, I never got into The Lord of the Rings books.  I tried several times to read them, and just didn’t have the patience.  The furthest I ever got was through the first book, and about 20 pages into the second book before I got so frustrated with the fact that the story wasn’t going anywhere, and just gave up.  (Although that being said, it still remains my ambition to read the trilogy someday before I die.)

            I also have a love hate relationship with The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.  There are moments of brilliance in them.  (The big battle scene in The Return of the King is just amazing.)  But on the whole I find them hard to sit through.
            I don’t mind long epic movies if they keep a good pace, but I thought the Lord of the Rings movies were poorly paced.  Slow motion was over-used, which caused some scenes to drag out needlessly long.  (I don’t like slow motion in movies in general, but as a rule you should never have slow motion sequences in a movie that’s 3 hours long.) 
            Also, in the first movie especially, Peter Jackson set up all these terrifying creatures, only to have them be hopelessly inept when conflict actually came.  (The Ringwraiths always miss what was right in front of them, no matter how poorly Frodo hid himself.  And the Orcs looked scary, but then hardly put up a fight when good guys just sliced right through them.)

            All of which brings me to review the latest Peter Jackson/ Tolkien offering: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Review
           You know, it’s funny: despite all the bad reviews this movie has gotten, and despite my mixed feelings on previous Peter Jackson Middle-Earth films, I actually enjoyed this film.
            Maybe it’s because of my childhood fondness for the original story.
            Maybe it’s because my expectations were low. I had read the early reviews, and I was already well aware of what the film’s flaws would be.  (I’ll get to this more below, but before I even started watching this film I knew people had complained it was padded with extra material to stretch out the story, and I knew people said there were tonal problems from trying to make a children’s book into an epic.) So I watched the film with a forgiving eye.
             
            Probably, more than anything, it’s because I didn’t watch this film all in one sitting.   I watched the film in small bits over 3 days, just as a way to unwind a bit after work.
            If I had watched this film all at once, I suspect it would have tried my patience just like the previous Peter Jackson films.  But in this day and age of DVDs, and pause buttons, there is no reason why anyone has to be held captive to a movie’s length ever again.  Why not just watch 3 short movies instead?

            Also, maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think Peter Jackson may actually be improving his craft with age.  In spite of all the extra material and padding that was added into it, this film showed better pacing than the Lord of the Rings movies.  The action scenes, even though some of them were arguably a bit superfluous, were well done and impressive to watch and the slow motion sequences were cut to a minimum.  (I would have preferred Peter Jackson cut the slow motion out entirely, but apparently he can’t help himself.  He has to have some slow motion sequences in all of his movies.)

            I was worried about Gollum’s scene, and thought the film would drag during the game of riddles. But actually the directing was quite good in that scene—Peter Jackson did a good job of maintaining the suspense even though it was just two characters talking to each other.

            As for the film’s flaws—these have already all been pointed out by other reviewers.
            Some people are appalled that Hollywood has the greed to try and milk The Hobbit for a whole trilogy, but I’m pretty jaded myself.  Every single thing Hollywood does is a business decision, and everyone knows this.  There’s no point in trying to criticize Hollywood for being greedy anymore than you would criticize any other capitalist enterprise.  You take it for granted that Hollywood are greedy money-grubbing capitalists, and then you ask, in spite of all this, did they manage to produce something that’s entertaining or worth watching?

            Final judgment will have to wait until the whole trilogy is completed, and then we will be able to see how well the extra material worked through the story as a whole.  But based on the first installment, I didn’t have a problem with all the extra material. 
            After all, people often will read the novelization of a movie to get more in depth into a story.  It’s not often that the movielization of a novel is what provides the extra material, but in theory there’s no reason it can’t work the other way around.  To me, it just made the story more interesting to see how Peter Jackson was trying to add extra plot threads, complications, and extra motivations to Tolkien’s original simple story.

            I also thought it was kind of cool how Jackson integrated material and characters that will better help to set up The Lord of the Rings story.  In the future, when all 6 Middle Earth movies will have been completed, there’s every indication that these Hobbit movies will move very smoothly into The Lord of the Rings.  It should make interesting viewing for future generations.
            (Of course, once again I should emphasize the key to putting up with Peter Jackson is not to watch his films all in one sitting.  I probably would have had a lot less patience with all the extra material in this movie if I had watched it straight through, but broken up into 3 different nights I didn’t mind it at all.)

The Tone
          The Hobbit was originally written as a sort of children’s fairy tale, while The Lord of the Rings was an epic for adults.  The tone between the two stories is not entirely consistent.
            I have read some reviewers who have criticized The Hobbit for its mixed tone, but in my view this is a problem inherent with the source material. 
            Because The Lord of the Rings movies came first, they obviously had to have some impact on how The Hobbit would be made.  The filmmakers had to make some sort of effort to bring The Hobbit more inline with the darker, more epic tone of the previous movies, but at the same time stay true to the original source material.
            For the most part they do an okay job at this balancing act, but either way I just think it’s interesting to see how they try and deal with this problem. 

Big Screen versus Small Screen
          Some of the action sequences were a little hard to follow on my TV screen.  There was just too much happening at once.
            For this reason, the action sequences would probably be better appreciated on the big theater screen.   
            But then if you watch this movie in the theater, you don’t have the luxury of pausing it halfway through and breaking it up into small chunks.  So you have to pick one or the other.

            (On a sidenote: it seems more and more movies these days contain really dense action sequences that I have trouble following on my small screen TV.  This was never a problem when I was a kid.  Am I just getting old, or is CGI enabling movies to pack a lot more action into one frame?)

New Zealand
          Even before I saw The Lord of the Rings movies, I spent two years in Japan living next to a New Zealand fellow who was constantly telling me how beautiful his home country was.  (I would be constantly overwhelmed by the beauty of the Japanese countryside in Oita Prefecture, and he would always refuse to be impressed by it.  “I’m sorry,” he used to say, “but when you come from New Zealand, it takes a lot to impress you.  These small waterfalls and mountains in Japan are nothing like what we’ve got back home.”)

            Although I still have never been to New Zealand, these Peter Jackson movies have done a lot to convince me that he wasn’t lying.

            The Hobbit follows in that tradition.  Wow! What beautiful scenery throughout the whole movie!  And I thought landscapes like this only existed in fairy tales!

Other Stuff
          Basically I’m in agreement with Whisky Prajer’s short review of this movie

            Also, for a very intelligent breakdown of the original movie trilogy, see Nostalgia Chick’s videos: Fellowship of the Rings [HERE], The Two Towers [HERE], and The Return of the King [HERE and HERE].

Link of the Day

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

From theoatmeal.com
The Gay Marriage Debate--Now and 50 Years From Now

What this cartoon is perhaps missing is how much the debate has already shifted in our lifetimes.
I think (although I'm somewhat out of my depth here) that in the 1950s and 1960s homosexuality was pretty much a non-issue.  With the Gay liberation movement in the late 60s and 70s, those of us growing up in the 1980s and 1990s were the first generation to get the full force of the conservative backlash against homosexuality.
I remember my youth pastor used to go on polemics against gay culture, and my Bible teacher in middle school used to actually say (repeatedly) that someday God would destroy California like he did Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality.
Now the culture has moved on so that this kind of bigotry is increasingly on its way out.
I'd like to think that the culture has changed enough since that time that you couldn't get away with teaching that kind of stuff to kids anymore.  (Although I've lost touch with the Christian education system, so I don't really know for sure.  But I'd like to imagine they're a lot more on the defensive now than they were back in the 90s.)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

From Salon.com
Assata Shakur first woman named on FBI most wanted list
40 years after reportedly killing a state trooper, Shakur exemplifies the continued punishment of black power

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

From Yahoo News:
Millions in CIA "ghost money" paid to Afghan president's office

Tens of millions of U.S. dollars in cash were delivered by the CIA in suitcases, backpacks and plastic shopping bags to the office of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai for more than a decade, according to the New York Times, citing current and former advisers to the Afghan leader.
The so-called "ghost money" was meant to buy influence for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) but instead fuelled corruption and empowered warlords, undermining Washington's exit strategy from Afghanistan, the newspaper quoted U.S. officials as saying.
"The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan", one American official said, "was the United States."

Sunday, May 19, 2013

From Cracked.com

#3 on this list in particular had me chuckling.

******************************************
On a completely different topic, here are various articles I thought worth reading on the topic of the Obama administration obtaining the AP News phone records.

From the Guardian: Justice Department's pursuit of AP's phone records is both extreme and dangerous. The claimed legal basis for these actions is unknown, but the threats they pose to a free press and the newsgathering process are clear

From Digby: Drones, leaks and loose lips: underneath the AP scandal



From Slate: Obama’s War on Journalists. His administration’s leak investigations are outrageous and unprecedented.

From Salon.com:Absolutely outrageous: Big Brother is watching
The Justice Department's abuse of AP phone records puts the media and truth-tellers on notice: We see everything 
And a Tom Tomorrow cartoon from 2 years ago: The Slow Boil

And from the New Yorker:

“Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform whom I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers… at risk,” Obama said. “U.S. national security is dependent on those folks being able to operate with confidence that folks back home have their backs. So they’re not just left high and dry.” Although he then referred to balancing all that with a “democratic” process that held him “accountable,” it may be that the central problem for Obama, when it comes to questions of secrecy, is not realizing that it is sometimes the press that has the backs, as he likes to put it, of our soldiers, especially when they are sent places they shouldn’t be, for reasons that make no sense.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

From Salon.com
Texas church pushes racist doctrine

Nacogdoches' Appleby Baptist Church argues that there's a biblical precedent for strict racial segregation

For the moment ignore the fact that you would probably disagree with this church's theology.  The larger point here is that this the place is where the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ has apparently brought these people.

In case you don’t get the meta-message about thoroughbreds versus mongrels, the church’s statement mangles a Biblical passage in Matthew in which a Canaanite woman pleads with Christ on behalf of her daughter, who is assumed by the Appleby church to be black. “Christ terms her people as dogs,” the church says. “‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs.’ … Unlike modern day blacks yelling about equal rights, this woman humbles herself and says ‘Truth Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.’”

Okay, so they are clearly misinterpreting this passage because the Canaanite woman is not black.  Does the fact that Jesus is discriminating against her on the basis that she is a Canaanite make it any better?

Finally, for proponents of our 13th Amendment, the church helpfully reminds us that slavery is fine with God. “The New Testament does not condemn slavery,” it says. “What it does condemn is the misuse of a slave.”

...actually, they're not technically wrong on this.  That is exactly what the New Testament says.

Friday, May 17, 2013

From Khmer440.com
Growing Up as a French Teenager in Phnom Penh

The world of international schools he describes here is completely different than my life in Phnom Penh, but it's a well-written article nonetheless, and a fascinating portrait into the lives of young teenagers in Phnom Penh international schools.

And while I'm linking to stuff on Khmer440, here's an article that has managed to get a number of my Cambodian friends very upset:

7 Reasons Why You Should Never “Friend” Cambodian Women on Facebook
(I want to be clear, I'm linking to this article not because I approve of the author's thesis, but just because it's been causing waves over here, and so maybe of interest.)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

One of the more interesting articles I've read on the Justin Bieber--Anne Frank controversy.  From the New Yorker:
Anne Frank, Belieber?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

From Yahoonews

2nd child of Pa. couple dies after only praying:
A couple serving probation for the 2009 death of their toddler after they turned to prayer instead of a doctor could face new charges now that another son has died. 

To be fair, in my background we were never taught to use prayer as a substitute for professional medical care.
Still, given what the Christian faith teachers about the power of prayer, you can certainly see the logic of these parents.
The fact that this kind of prayer does not work kind of makes you question the whole thing, no?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but via the grapevine I'm beginning to hear about the big news surrounding Calvin's financial difficulties.  I found this article interesting.

Monday, May 13, 2013

From Salon.com
A look at Pam Stenzel, the popular Christian speaker who has renewed controversy over abstinence-only education 

My Christian school used to sponsor tons of speakers like this.
It's odd to think of all the time and money being invested to try and make young people afraid of having sex.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Friday, May 03, 2013

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

(Book Review)
Subtitle: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

            In my first Bart Erhman book review, I expressed some disappointment with Forged, but also came away with the feeling that Bart Ehrman was a talented writer, and that I wanted to check out more of his books.
            I was right to stick with Ehrman, because this book was a fascinating read from beginning to end.

            This book is the one that put Bart Ehrman on the map.  It’s not his first book, but this was his first bestseller that catapulted him to broad attention back in 2005.

The Review
          This is a book about the textual problems with the New Testament.  (The textual problems with the Old Testament would be a fascinating subject matter as well, but that’s not Ehrman’s area of expertise, so this book focuses only on the New Testament.)

            Much of what is inside the book is not new and, in and of itself it’s not even that controversial.  Most of the textual problems Bart Ehrman points out should already be footnoted as problem areas in your Bibles  —for example Mark 16:9—20 (the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples), or John 7:53—8:11 (the woman caught in adultery).  And since Christian scholars already acknowledge these problems exists, much of what Bart Ehrman has to say in this book could just as easily come from a Christian writer—were it not for the fact that Christians tend to avoid drawing attention to these issues.  (For example: the history of how Christianity went from an unquestioning faith in the authority of the Latin Vulgate, to the acknowledgement that there were serious problems that existed with the surviving Latin and Greek manuscripts; how modern biblical scholars determine which are the best and most reliable manuscripts; and the techniques scholars use to try and reconstruct what the original words must have been from all the surviving conflicting manuscripts.)

            What makes this book much more charged is that Bart Ehrman explicitly ties the subject material into his own personal story of how he lost his faith in Christianity.
            Ehrman starts the book out with an autobiographical account of how he grew up in an Episcopalian background, became a born-again Christian as a teenager, and went into Biblical studies at Moody Bible College, Wheaton, and finally Princeton Seminary.  At each step of the way, his faith was challenged as he learned more about the Bible, but the final straw came one day at Princeton.
            As Ehrman relates it (pages 8-10):
            A turning point came in my second semester, in a course I was taking with a much revered and pious professor named Cullen Story.  The course was on the exegesis of the Gospel of Mark. .... [W]e had to write a final term paper on an interpretive crux of our own choosing.  I chose a passage in Mark 2, where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees because his disciples had been walking through a grain field, eating the grain on the Sabbath.  Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that “Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath” and so reminds them of what the great King David had done when he and his men were hungry, how they went into the Temple “when Abiathar was the high priest” and ate the show bread, which was only for the priests to eat. One of the well-known problems of the passage is that when one looks at the Old Testament passage that Jesus is citing (1 Sam. 21:1-6), it turns out that David did this not when Abiathar was the high priest, but, in fact, when Abiathar’s father Abimelech was. In other words, this is one of those passages that have been pointed to in order to show that the Bible is not inerrant at all but contains mistakes.
            In my paper for Professor Story, I developed a long and complicated argument to the effect that even though Mark indicates this happened “when Abiathar was the high priest,” it doesn’t really mean that Abiathar was the high priest, but that the event took place in the part of the scriptural text that has Abiathar as one of the main characters.  My argument was based on the meaning of the Greek words involved and was a bit convoluted.  I was pretty sure Professor Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be a genuine error in the Bible. But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me.  He wrote: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”  I started thinking about it, considering all the work I had put into the paper, realizing that I had had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem, and that my solution was in fact a bit of a stretch. I finally concluded, “Hmm… maybe Mark did make a mistake.”
            Once I had made that admission, the floodgates opened. For if there could be one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could be mistakes in other places as well.  Maybe, when Jesus says later in Mark 4 that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds on the earth,” maybe I don’t need to come up with a fancy explanation for how the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isn’t. And maybe these “mistakes” apply to bigger issues.  Maybe when Mark says that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mark 14:12, 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14)—maybe that is a genuine difference. Or when Luke indicates in his account of Jesus’s birth that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem (and performed the rites of purification; Luke 2:39), whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:19-22)—maybe that is a difference. Or when Paul says that after he converted on the way to Damascus he did not go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before him (Gal. 1:16-17), whereas the book of Acts says that that was the first thing he did after leaving Damascus (Acts 9: 26)—maybe that is a difference.

            From this revelation, Ehrman proceeds to the problem of textual manuscripts:
           
            This kind of realization coincided with the problems I was encountering the more closely I studied the surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  It is one thing to say that the originals were inspired, but the reality is that we don’t have the originals—so saying they were inspired doesn’t help me much unless I can reconstruct the originals.  Moreover, the vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making their inspiration something of a moot point. (p. 10).

            Aah, but the Christian response to this is that it doesn’t matter that we don’t have the originals, because the same divine power that inspired the originals also ensured that the copies stayed faithful, right?
            Well, according to Ehrman this point is precisely the problem:

            [T]hese copies all differ form one another, in many thousands of places.  As we will see later in this book, these copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament….
            If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don’t have the very words of scripture?  In some places, as we will see, we simply cannot be sure that we have reconstructed the original text accurately. It’s a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don’t even know what the words are!
            This became a problem for my view of inspiration, for I came to realize that it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place. If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he would have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew). The fact that we don’t have the words surely must show, I reasoned, that he did not preserve them for us.  And if he didn’t perform that miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think that he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words. (p.10-11).

            As you can see, in his introduction Ehrman deliberately frames the whole textual problem from the perspective of a skeptic.

            However, once he gets done setting the tone of the book, not every section carries this polemical charge.  For much of the meat in the book, Ehrman goes into his scholarly mode.  He’s not so much interested in making a theological point as he is in talking about a subject that fascinates him, and he wants to convey this interest to the reader as he explains how exactly Biblical scholars are able to re-construct their approximation of the original manuscripts from all the varied texts that we have.

            As I read the book, I found myself wondering: why I was just hearing about all this now?  Why hadn’t my Bible teachers ever explained this process to me in school?
            But it’s not just their fault.  To my own detriment, why had I never been curious about this before?  I had seen in my Bible many times footnotes indicating that the text was uncertain, or that variant readings were possible.  But it had never occurred to me to be curious as to how scholars arrived at these decisions.  (Maybe I was just intellectually lazy.)

            Ehrman himself highlights how overlooked this whole subject material has been in the past.  It’s not just that he is writing about this from a different perspective than Christians—it’s that Christians haven’t been writing about it at all.

            What is striking, however, is that most readers—even those interested in Christianity, in the Bible, in biblical studies, both those who believe the Bible is inerrant and those who do not— know almost nothing about textual criticism.  And it’s not difficult to see why.  Despite the fact that this has been a topic of sustained scholarship for more than three hundred years, there is scarcely a single book written about it for a lay audience—that is, for those who know nothing about it, who don’t have the Greek and other languages necessary for the in-depth study of it, who do not realize there is even a “problem” with the text, but who would be intrigued to learn both what the problems are and how scholars have set about dealing with them.
            That is the kind of book this is—to my knowledge, the first of its kind.  (p. 15)

My Own Personal Memories

          I’m going to go off on a little bit of a tangent here with some of my own personal memories.
            I don’t ever recall any of the textual problems with the Bible being taught at all in my religious school. But since modern translations of the Bible are usually pretty good about footnoting textual problems, most of us noticed it on our own.  (In my school, the teachers told us Bible stories from Kindergarten to 2nd grade, but from 3rd grade we were given our own copy of the NIV Bible and gradually we were expected to do more and more of the reading on our own.) 
            I remember in 6th grade my Bible teacher was talking about Rahab the prostitute, and making a point about how God can sometimes use sinful people to bring about good results.  (Put aside for the moment that the “good result” intended here was the mass slaughter of the entire town of Jericho.)  A couple of my fellow classmates raised their hands and pointed out that the footnotes in the NIV said that possibly Rahab was an innkeeper instead of a prostitute, and thus the whole theological point our teacher was trying to make was possibly moot.
            Our teacher just laughed it off.  “You know how there’s so many lawsuits going around these days?” he said.  “I imagine if Rahab was still alive now, this would be something she would want to bring to sue about.”
            [Granted this example is from the Old Testament, which is outside the scope of Ehrman’s book.]

            The other memory I have is from sometime in my teenage years.  I was having dinner at my grandparents house, and they concluded each meal with devotions from the Christian Reformed publication ---I think the name was Today (is that right?) and accompanying Bible readings. 
            That month, Today had been working its way through the Gospel of Mark, and that particular night was the devotional on Mark 16.
            To its credit, Today didn’t try and dodge the issue that Mark 16:9-20 was added by a later writer.  (Although since the footnotes so clearly highlight this problem, it would be difficult to avoid.)  Instead, Today insisted that even though this was a later addition to Mark, it was still the inspired word of God just like everything else in the Bible.  (The logic being, I think, that by virtue of it being in the Bible, ipso facto it therefore must be inspired.)
            After my grandfather finished reading the devotional aloud, he added, “Hmm.  That’s very true and important to remember.” 
            Still, there was something about the way he said it.  I got the impression that this was all new information to him, and that he was having some difficulty processing it.

            It didn’t sit entirely well with me either, despite Today’s attempts to re-assure.  If God had wanted these last 11 verses in the Gospel of Mark, why hadn’t he just originally inspired Mark to write them?  Why did someone have to come along later and add them?
            And if these last 11 verses weren’t inspired, then why did God allow the Bible to become corrupted?
           
            Other than that, my only experience is just noticing the footnotes on my own.  (In 7th grade, my church gave us all a copy of the NIV Student Bible for confirmation, and the front of the Student Bible had an independent Bible study plan—if you read one chapter of the Bible a day, in 3 years you can read the whole thing.  For 7th, 8th and 9th grade I dutifully worked my way through on Bible chapter a day.)  But at the time, how textual variants arose, and how exactly scholars determined what the correct reading was, never concerned me.  Perhaps I was just intellectual complacent. 
            But also, when you’re a Christian, you have a vested emotional interest in not really opening up Pandora’s Box by thinking about these things too deeply.

A Critique of Bart Ehrman
          Since this book was published, a number of people have written critiques and rebuttals.
            This one here caught my eye because it was written by an atheist, Common Sense Atheism, someone who you would think would be sympathetic to Ehrman’s argument.  But no, Common Sense Atheism claims that Ehrman exaggerates the textual problems of the New Testament.
            It’s worth reading the whole critique in full, but I’ll just quote a small section of Common Sense Atheism’s  thoughts here.


            My own reading is that Misquoting Jesus doesn’t necessarily disagree with this, but it’s a question of emphasis.
            A critical reading of Ehrman is that he is deliberately sensationalizing the problem. 
            A more sympathetic reading of Ehrman is that he is following the academic tradition of starting with a controversial statement, and then refining it more in the analysis.  Ehrman starts out by stating that there are thousands upon thousands of variants in the New Testament, but then he goes onto explain that most of these are not actually that important.

            Either way, a close reading of Ehrman shows he does acknowledge that the variants can be used to reconstruct the original text.  (Whether or not he places enough emphasis on this is I suppose debatable.)

            Erhman believes that it’s impossible to know for sure what the original words of the Bible were.  Those words were lost to us the moment the document went from the original to the first copy.  Any mistakes made in copying at this initial stage would have been transmitted to all the other copies.
            However, by comparing the wide range of copies available to us, Ehrman says it is possible in most cases to at least reconstruct what the early textual tradition was.

            The problem, for someone who comes from Bart Ehrman’s fundamentalist background, is that it is necessary to do this reconstruction in the first place.  If every word of the Bible is supposed to be inspired by God, then why did God allow so many variants to come into the text?  Why didn’t God just ensure that the text was correctly copied each time?  Surely it is within God’s power, and if God interjected himself in human affairs to inspire the text, why not interject himself into the copying process?
            As Bart Ehrman himself says:
            [T]he only reason (I came to think) for God to inspire the Bible would be so that his people would have his actual words; but if he really wanted people to have his actual words, surely he would have miraculously preserved those words, just as he had miraculously inspired them in the first place. Given the circumstance that he didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone through the trouble of inspiring them. (p. 211).

            Moreover, as Erhman points out, the field of textual reconstruction has only really existed relatively recently.  If God considered his word important for all people, why did generations of Christians have to rely on the flawed King James Version?  (Would George Hensley, the founder of the snake-handling churches in 1909, not have died of a snake bite if he had known that the verses in Mark commanding believers to handle snakes was a later addition?)

            Thirdly although most of the time it is possible to figure out what the text original said, there are exceptions and Bart Ehrman is more concerned with the exceptions—the areas where we still have question marks over what the Bible really said.  After highlighting many of these problem areas in the main body of the text, Ehrman sums them all up in the conclusion:
             
            To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.  It would be wrong, however, to say—as people sometimes do—that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on the theological conclusions that one draws from them.  We have seen, in fact, that just the opposite is the case.  In some instances the very meaning of the text is at stake, depending on how one resolves a textual problem: Was Jesus an angry man? Was he completely distraught in the face of death?  Did he tell his disciples that they could drink poison without being harmed? Did he let an adulteress off the hook with nothing but a mild warning?  Is the doctrine of the Trinity explicitly taught in the New Testament?  Is Jesus actually called the “unique God” there? Does the New Testament indicate that even the Son of God himself does not know when the end will come? The questions go on and on, and all of them are related to how one resolves difficulties in the manuscript tradition as it comes down to us.
(p. 207-208—all of the examples briefly mentioned here refer to something discussed in more detail in the body of the book.)

            Another thing Ehrman points out in the body of the book is that the whole debate about women in the church (something the Christian Reformed Church, in my hometown, has been tearing itself to pieces over for the last 40 years) is directly related to textual variants.
            The verses in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, appear to have been added by a later scribe, and are not in the original words of Paul:
            As in all the churches of God’s people, the women should keep quiet in the meetings. They are not allowed to speak; as the Jewish Law says, they must not be in charge. If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is a disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in a church meeting.

             The other verses forbidding women from being in authority in the church come from 1st Timothy, but since 1st Timothy wasn’t written by Paul, but was written by someone else using Paul’s name, those verses are equally problematic.

            The fact that the church has placed so much emphasis on these few verses shows how big a problem it is when we discover that Paul didn’t even write them. 
            As Ehrman says: “Think of all the sermons preached on the basis of a single word in a text: what if the word is one the author didn’t actually write?” (p.56)

            As for the fact that the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples in Mark, the woman taken in adultery in John, and the doctrine of the Trinity in 1st John are all later additions, Common Sense Atheism doesn’t think this is a problem because it’s not new information.   Three of these [problematic passages highlighted by Ehrman] (Mark 16:9-20,John 7:53-8:11, 1 John 5:7-8) have been rejected by scholars for over acentury, and are marked as inauthentic in modern translations. No textualproblem there.
            But the point isn’t what whether these textual problems are new or old, the problem is that these passages were not in the original texts.  So the theological problem—did God inspire them or didn’t he?—can not be dismissed so easily.

            All that being said, Common Sense Atheism’s critique of Ehrman’s use of other passages (Hebrew 2:9, Matt 24:36) seem to be valid, and his essay is well worth reading as a counter-point to Ehrman.

Hitchens and Ehrman
          I’ve brought this subject up twice before now, and I realize I’m beginning to sound like a broken record on this issue.  So this is the last time I’ll mention it, I promise.

            After reading Christopher Hitchen’s book: God is Not Great, I puzzled over where Hitchens got this from:
“One of Professor Bart Ehrman’s more astonishing findings is that the account of Jesus’s resurrection in the Gospel of Mark was only added many years later.”  (p. 169)

            Hitchens didn’t actually cite his source here, leaving me to puzzle in my original review where he got his information from.  But I’m now pretty sure Hitchens was referring to this was the book, because this is the book where Ehrman deals with the extra verses.  But Hitchens obviously didn’t read the book very carefully.

            First of all, this was not one of “Professor Bart Ehrman’s findings”.  Scholars have known for over a century that the last 11 verses in Mark are a later edition and every modern translation of the Bible should have this clearly indicated.  Bart Ehrman discusses in this book how scholars arrived at the conclusion that verses 16:9-20 are a later edition, but he at no point does he take credit for discovering it himself.

            Secondly, even without those later verses, Jesus is still resurrected in the Gospel of Mark.  There’s an empty tomb, and the angels tell the women that Jesus has been raised. 
            The difference is (unlike the later Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John) the resurrected Jesus never makes any appearance in the original Gospel of Mark, and the disciples never actually see Jesus’s resurrected body.  But it is an exaggeration to say that there is no resurrection in Mark.  Bart Ehrman is clear on this—Hitchens just got sloppy.

Another Review
In his follow-up book, Jesus, Interrupted (book review coming soon), Bart Ehrman recommends Ben Witherington's review [LINK HERE] as one of the more thoughtful critiques of this book.  Ben Witherington mixes criticism with praise in his review (no doubt why Ehrman himself recommends it.)  What is noticeable to me is that even though Ben Witherington appears to be a conservative Christian, and is obviously coming at this whole problem from a different angle than Ehrman, he has no problem with Ehrman's description of textual criticism as a field:
The first four chapters provide a laypersons guide to textual criticism, and while one could quibble with this or that, basically Ehrman has provided us with a clear statement of the principles applied in that discipline. This is material I could happily assign to seminary students wanting to understand the basics of text criticism. I don't have a lot of qualms or quibbles about much of what he says there

But the very next sentence starts out with that ominous word However... He then begins his critique.
Basically my reaction to Witherington's critique of Bart Ehrman is similar to my statements above.  Witherington is trying to show that Ehrman has over-stated the problem, but the very fact that there is a problem to being with indicates God has been careless with the scripture he supposedly directly inspired.

Link of the Day
Professor Chomsky Interview: Reflections on Education and Creativity

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Cambodia Daily recently had an excellent article on the problem of orphans being exploited in for-profit orphanages. Unfortunately you have to pay to read the whole thing.  (The Cambodia Daily's webpage is frustrating.  I wish they'd figure out what they are doing.)
But the Age has an article on the same subject.
Stealing a generation: Cambodia's unfolding tragedy

NGOs in Cambodia for years now have been trying to tell people not to visit or support privately owned orphanages, but unfortunately their is a slow learning curve in Cambodia,  (I didn't know anything when I first got of the plane either) and by the time backpackers realize what's going on the damage has been done and they're ready for the next batch of fresh faces off the plane.
So spread the word--if you or someone you know is visiting Southeast Asia, don't visit the orphanages.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Understanding Second Language Acquisition by Lourdes Ortega

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book
          This book was assigned reading for the Master’s Course in applied linguistics that I did two years ago.

            At the time, I did my best to be diligent with my readings, and I read most of the book.  However some weeks the amount of assigned readings could be overwhelming, and I would have to resort to skimming and scanning strategies to get the main idea out of certain chapters without reading every word.

            (Because I’m a bit anal retentive about this book review project, I only review books which I have read cover to cover, and so consequently I never blogged this book at that time.)

            However recently I decided to re-read this book—both because I was worried I was starting to forget what I had learned in graduate school, and for my own professional development.  And this time I did it cover to cover.

The Review
          This was not an easy read for me, and I really struggled with sections of this book, but I’m glad I read it.

            But let’s be clear—this book is not supposed to be pleasure reading.  It is specifically designed to be a textbook for graduate level linguistics courses, and it reads accordingly.

            One of things I discovered in graduate school was that all of the assigned articles were written in a highly technical vocabulary and dense style that made them very difficult to read.  (My first week, before I learned to just skim over anything I didn’t understand, I spent an hour in the study room just trying to get through one paragraph from an article in a linguistics journal.)
            Arguably academics shouldn’t cultivate such an inaccessible writing style, but that’s another debate for another time.  The fact is that they do, and so if you want to read and write in academic circles you have to learn to be able to decode this.

            In that respect, this book was good training for me.  It represents a middle ground between the more accessible English prose that I am used to, and the more difficult style of the academic journal articles.  I struggled a lot with this book, but I think it got easier as I kept reading. 

            If, like me, you’re hoping to use this book as training to read more dense academic prose, one of the benefits of the book is the way Lourdes Ortega starts out with a technical definition and then goes on to explain it in simpler language.  She will typically introduce a topic using highly academic language that made my head spin, but then she will go on to clarify what she means in language much easier to understand.  I think this was good training for me because I got practice in how to use the academic language, but was also able to understand the meaning.

            Here is an example from her discussion on Markedness.  First she starts out with the academic language (page 37).

            Markedness is another important source of universal influence when learning human languages that is known to interact with L1 influences. The term has been used by linguists in a number of different ways (Batistella, 1996). In SLA, it has been used to denote a closed set of possibilities within a linguistic system, where the given possibilities rank from simplest and most frequent across languages of the world, or unmarked, to most complex and most rare, or marked. In addition, a special characteristic of many but not all markedness sets is that each marked member presupposes the existence of the less marked members, and never the other way around (in other words, the markedness relationship is implicational and unidirectional).

            Okay, so I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of that my first time reading through. But then Ortega goes on to clarify what she means in much simpler language:
            Linguists have found markedness hierarchies across the world’s languages in a number of key areas of morphology, phonology and syntax. A good example is relative clauses, which we will examine in Chapter 6, section 6.11. Another good case concerns the distinction between voiced and voiceless stops. If you touch your Adam’s apple while pressing and releasing your lips to produces a clean /b/, you will feel a vibration through your fingertip, because /b/ is a voiced consonant.  By contrast, if you now do the same thing while trying to pronounce a clean /p/, you should feel no vibration at all, because /p/ is a voiceless consonant.  Voicing is the main feature distinguishing the two sounds, otherwise /b/ and /p/ are pronounced using the same articulation features of place (both lips) and manner (a sudden obstruction of air followed by a release accompanied by aspiration).  Voiced stops (as in the sounds /b/, /d/ and /g/ in ‘tab’, ‘seed’ and ‘bag’) are more marked than voiceless (as in the sounds /p/, /t/ and /k/ in ‘tap’, ‘seat’, and ‘back’). The evidence comes from multiple sources. All languages of the world have some voiceless stops, but only some have voiceless and voiced ones, and no language exists that has only voiced stops without also having voiceless ones. Children learning an L1 that has both voiceless and voiced stops will acquire the former before the latter. There is also a natural phonetic process operating in human languages called devoicing, by which voiced stops can be pronounced as voiceless in certain positions, so that a marked feature (voiced) becomes neutralized and the unmarked one (voiceless) is used instead.

            Now, if you go back and re-read the first paragraph, it makes much more sense.  So I think this type of textbook is good training for reading academic articles, even if it did cause me a lot of frustration at times.

            (There were a couple of sentences in this book that I never did succeed in making sense of, despite re-reading them several times.  But only a couple of sentences out of 254 pages.  And the fault may well be mine.)

            When I was actually in graduate school, the stress of weekly assignments and weekly readings would often cause my brain to freeze up and I had a difficult time concentrating on the readings.  But now that I’m finished with school, I was able to re-read this book at a much more leisurely pace (I made a goal of only reading 10 pages a day) and I was able to make it through the whole book easily in a month.

            The end of every chapter has a summary of the important points.  This is classic textbook stuff (the mere words chapter summary conjure up images of dry academic textbooks) but I actually did find it quite useful to have the important points highlighted for me at the end of the chapter, and it helped me to consolidate my knowledge.

            I plan to re-read this book a couple more times to help me internalize all the information that is in here, but I think this book has given me a good basis for understanding the field of second language acquisition.

Interesting Things I Learned From This Book
          As someone who struggled for many years to acquire one language (Japanese) and teach another (English), I entered into my Master’s program hoping to learn all the secrets of second language acquisition, only to discover that there was no store of secret knowledge, only areas of inquiry.  When it comes to learning second languages, scholars disagree on just about everyone it is possible to disagree about. 
            This is partly because, as Ortega explains in her book, Second Language Acquisition as a formal field of academic study is relatively new—only since the 1970s.  Also I got the impression (although nobody told me this in as many words) that we just don’t know enough about how the human brain works yet, and so consequently can’t yet fully understand how the human brain processes languages.

            Through this mess, Ortega does an excellent job of conveying exactly what we do know about second language acquisition so far, where the areas of disagreements lie, and what questions are ripe for future research.

            A few interesting things that caught my eye as I read this book:

* I had always thought that after early childhood it is impossible to fluently learn a second language.  I had assumed this was common knowledge.
            For the most part, this appears to be true, but researchers have trouble explaining why.  Some researches think it is a result of some biological clock operating in our brain, other researches think the first language is interfering with the acquisition of the second.  (Again, it appears we just don’t know enough yet about how the human brain works.)
            And more surprisingly, there are exceptions which are hard to explain and keep messing up any consistent theory about age and language learning.  In some rare exceptional cases, adult learners of a second language learn the second language completely fluently to the point that they are indistinguishable from native speakers.    These type of exceptional learners may be “as much as 5 per cent to 25 percent of learners how are given a ‘fair chance of success’ (Birdsong, 1999b, pp. 14-15)” (p. 19)

* Contrary to popular wisdom, adults actually pick up foreign languages faster than children—at least initially.  In naturalistic settings, children will catch up and surpass adults after about a year, but adults still have the initial advantage.
             However in foreign language classroom settings, older children and adults have an advantage over younger children that appears to never go away.  Even after 5 years of instruction, the advantage for older learners still persists.
            (This stuck with me, because I am currently teaching younger children.  I complained to a colleague of mine that the textbook introduced too many grammar points too quickly, and he replied that it was okay because they were younger so they could absorb this information quicker.  But because of this book, I now know younger children actually learn slower in a classroom.  Since then I’ve been arguing for a slower paced learning in the Young Learners program.)

* Something else which had a direct effect on my teaching was that learners discussing in groups can sometimes better learn a new form if they discuss it together in their native language than if they discuss it in the target language (from section 4.10 LEARNER-INITIATED NEGOTIATION OF FORM.)  This has caused me to be less dogmatic about English-only in my classroom.

* As someone with an active interest in blogging, I really enjoyed the section about social media and how English learners were able to gain confidence and find identity through writing and posting stuff online.  (It made me think about how I might use this in my own classroom.  I’m not in a position to do this now, but if I were ever in a situation where I had the complete freedom to create a curriculum for a more advanced class, I would love to experiment with getting English learners to create their own book and movie review blogs.)

* The scholarly work of Stephen Pinker is cited briefly.  (I enjoyed the non-scholarly work of Stephen Pinker—TheLanguage Instinct, a fascinating book about how language works that he wrote for the general public.)

* And, speaking of scholars I am familiar with, from page 77: “In addition, negative and even confrontational interaction patterns can occur in learner-learner work as well, as shown in the work of Neomy Storch at the University of Melbourne (eg. Storch, 2002). 
            I never actually had a class with professor Storch, but she guest lectured in one of my courses on this very topic of leaner-learner interaction, and even showed us some of the learner conversations that seemed to indicate conflict.

Japanese Connections
            Finally, as someone who spent 8 years in Japan, the sections referencing Japanese learners of English, or foreigners learning Japanese, were both especially interesting to me.
From page 231:
            Similarly, the identity of speakers as ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ and as ‘novice language learners’ or ‘expert language learners’ cannot be taken as fixed, as CA [Conversation Analysis] has demonstrated how such categories may be relevant in one interaction event and irrelevant in the next.  This was shown by Yuri Hosoda (2006) in her analysis of 15 video- and audio-taped casual conversations involving 15 L2 Japanese speakers, who had been living in Japan between 6 and 20 years, and their L1 Japanese friends or acquaintances. She captured witnessable evidence supporting the interpretation that, on occasion, the L2 speakers ‘orient to themselves as a “novice” in the language spoken in the interaction while they treat their interlocutors, at that moment, as a language expert’ (p.33).  This occurred when an L2 speaker invited their L1 friend to correct or help with certain lexical items.  These invitations were recognizable because they were performed via overt signals such as sound lengthening, rising intonation, explicit expressions of ignorance, gaze, raised eyebrows, and so on.

            This may be true of all L1-L2 interaction, but I have specific memories of this happening to me in Japan.  When I didn’t know the Japanese word for something, I would often have to invent it by putting other words together (for example, “the smell of sweat” instead of “body odor”.)  Instead of giving me the correct Japanese word, my Japanese interlocutor would often adopt themselves to my vocabulary, and re-use the word that I had invented.

* Japanese speakers tend to add a lot of extra vowels to the ends of words when speaking English.  But interestingly, Ortega cites some research that shows this isn’t purely just because of linguistic incompetence.  Rather, when speaking English, Japanese people will often use an extra vowel at the end of an utterance to show that they’re not done speaking yet, and they have more to say on the topic (and to prevent another speaker from taking the floor.)
            I would never have picked this up on my own, but once I read it, I decided it does resonate with my experience of Japanese English.  Rethinking some of their speech patterns, I think maybe they do in fact often emphasize the vowel sounds to show that they’re not done speaking.

* This is something I found funny:
            In Japan, women will often use high pitched voices to sound cute.  (Or, as Ortega puts in a way that is characteristic of her academic writing style “the contention that in Japanese a high-pitched voice is a recognizable marker of femininity” (page 246).)
            Western females learning Japanese will often fail to add the high pitch to their voice, but it isn’t because they are ignorant of how pitch works in Japanese.  On the contrary, they are often “acutely aware of the cultural significance of pitch” (p.246). They just refused to do it.  From the data, one Western female says:
            “Sometimes it would really disgust me, seeing those Japanese girls, they were not even girls, some of them were in their late twenties, but they would use those really high voices to try to impress and make themselves look real cute for men. I decided that there was no way I wanted to do that.” (p. 246)

* At one point in the book it is theorized that the reason foreigners seldom learn polite speech and Japanese honorifics properly is because of the Japanese reluctance to correct foreign speakers.  From page 247:
            Siegal suggested that this response may have been motivated in the Japanese nationalist discourse of the henna gaijin or ‘strange foreigner’, which construes Japanese as a difficult language that foreigners cannot and need not master; it would be only an oddity for foreigners to learn Japanese things too well or become too Japanese.
           
            This is often true.  Of course, from a foreigner’s perspective, it’s not always a bad thing.  It means that in interactions between foreigners and Japanese, even within Japan itself, the Japanese person considers it their responsibility to adopt themselves to the foreigners’ language and customs.  So even within their own country, a Japanese person will seldom demand that the foreigner speak Japanese, but instead apologize for their own limited English.  (Contrast this with the American attitude, if you will.)
            Of course when it comes to correcting a foreigner’s speech, another equally important factor may be the Japanese concern with politeness, and their concern that they will cause the foreigner to lose face if they overtly offer correction.
            (Although actually now that I’m thinking about it, when I’m outside of the classroom I don’t go around correcting the grammar of everyone I talk to either.  If a Japanese person or Cambodian person is talking to me in English, and I can understand the meaning, I don’t offer correction on their grammar unless I’m explicitly invited to.  Maybe instead of just assuming this is a Japanese thing, it would be interesting to do comparative studies on how often native speakers of other languages offer unsolicited correction.)

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky in conversation with Jonathan Freedland