Harrod’s massacre of the innocents

Herod the Great: Ancient Judaean tyrant and department store magnate

From today’s Guardian:

Harrods limits Christmas grotto to £2,000-plus spenders

I think it’s fair to say that there is nothing that makes Jews in the US and UK feel more alien than Christmas, and nothing weirder about Christmas for those not part of that culture than the Santa Claus/Father Christmas complex. As I’ve commented at length before, I have always been genuinely baffled by the custom of persuading children to believe — not just play believe, but genuinely believe — in a mythical figure that no adult believes in. Unlike belief in God, or trustworthy government, which can lead to awkward but also fruitful discussions, this one depends on the children never asking the question. Once they ask the question the jig is up, or the parents need to lie, or create elaborate deceptions that are the stuff of modern legends. This puts children from non-Christian religious traditions in an awkward position, because they have to keep this obvious truth from their fellows, or be accused of undermining the Christian family, which is a heavy burden to place on five-year-olds.

Which brings us to today’s headline.

Amid all this there is nothing odder — unless it’s the workshop literally in the middle of the ocean — than the nexus of Father Christmas to capitalism. On the one hand, there’s the whole racist sweatshop vibe (brilliantly parodied by S J Perelman in his Clifford Odets spoof Waiting for Santy) that’s supposed to paste a gift-economy covering over the cold cash transaction of holiday purchases. On the other hand, there’s the literal use of the Santa Claus figure for in-store sales promotion.

The Knightsbridge department store has been accused of “behaving like the Grinch who stole Christmas” by restricting access to its Father Christmas to customers who have spent at least £2,000 in the 170-year-old shop.

One customer complained that his family’s Christmas tradition “had been ruined by Harrods’ greed”, and that the store

has turned the charitable nature of Father Christmas into a money-making venture.

I think Harrods is playing with fire here. How long until Father Christmas finds out about the grasping nature of his partner and pulls out of this arrangement, which he obviously had entered into in the assumption that an upscale London department store could be counted on to put the interests of ordinary people first?

Really, if wealthy capitalists can’t be trusted anymore to eschew greed and promote the general welfare, who can we turn to? Any ideas? Karl? Friedrich?

16th century lessons on fake news and disinformation

I’ve just been reading an interesting book on the relationship between two 16th-century social-media influencers, Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther (Fatal Discord, by Michael Massing). I was struck by one comment that came up at the Diet of Worms that speaks to our current conundra over propaganda and disinformation.

Luther argued that he could not recant all of his writings, since some stated truths universally acknowledged by Christians. They must point out to him which particular assertions were false, and demonstrate the falsity with citations from genuine authorities, which could only be scriptural.

Determined not to be drawn into a debate, the theologian Johann Eck countered that Luther’s

assertion that some of his books contained teachings that were sound and acceptable to all was specious, for heretical books, going back to the Arians, had been burned, despite containing much that was godly and Catholic. In fact, Eck said, no doctrine is more effective in deceiving than that which mixes a few false teachings with many that are true.

This is a clear formulation of the principle of optimal fakery that I have discussed at length in this essay.

The nature vs. nurture debate: High Christology edition

At least since the late nineteenth century the social interpretation of biology — and of genetics in particular — has devolved repeatedly upon the nature–nurture dispute: To what extent is a human’s individual characteristics determined by a predetermined essence or nature — qualities they are born with, commonly identified with inheritance; or by nurture, the particulars of the physical and social environment in which they develop after birth. From one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, I learned that an analogous debate roiled the early Christian Church.

One of the key disputes among early followers of Jesus concerned the nature and meaning of Jesus’s divinity. At the extremes you had the “low” christology belief that Jesus was a wise man and preacher, of the same nature as any other human; and the “high” christology claim that Jesus was identical with the creator God of the Hebrew Scriptures, and only appeared to be human. (Perhaps even more extreme were the gnostic claims that Jesus was an even higher being than that nasty Yahweh, who obviously fucked up his one major task*, for possibly nefarious purposes. In between were a range of beliefs that Jesus was entirely divine and entirely human. Ehrman points out that in the ancient Mediterranean world there were two “major ways” that it was believed possible for a human to be divine:

  • By adoption or exaltation. A human being… could be made divine by an act of God or a god…
  • By nature or incarnation. A divine being… could become human, either permanently or, more commonly, temporarily.

In other words, God by nurture or God by nature. Nurture is particularly emphasised in the Gospel of Mark, Nature in the Gospel of John. Reflecting the common prejudice in favour of “nature” as the more powerful, one typically thinks of incarnation as representing a more exalted view of Jesus. A Jesus who grew up as a human, and only in adulthood was adopted by God seems less genuinely godlike than one who is, so to speak, fruit of God’s loins — hence the virgin-birth story of Matthew and Luke.

One of the more fascinating novelties of Ehrman’s account is his elucidation of adoption customs in the Roman world, particularly as regards nobles and rulers. Of course, we know that Roman emperors commonly adopted heirs — most famously, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian — but Ehrman explains how prevalent views of adoption were that today would be called progressive: Adoptive families are families by choice, so could be considered superior to the accidental biological families. An heir chosen by a great leader for the qualities he has demonstrated better incorporates and perpetuate’s the leader’s essence than his biological descendant.

Thus, a Christ nurtured by and ultimately adopted into the divine family by God after he had proved himself worthy is a more genuinely divine being than any merely so-to-speak genetically divine progeny, who might ultimately turn out to be a disappointment to his father.

* A classic joke with a gnostic perspective: A man goes to the tailor to order a new coat. The tailor fusses around taking measurements, asking exacting questions about the fabric, the cut, and so on. Having finished he names a price and tells the customer the jacket will be finished in three weeks. “Three weeks! The Lord created the whole world in just one week!”

The tailor shakes his head, picks up another recently completed coat, and beckons the man to come to the window. “One week you want? Look at the work here. The precision cuts. The minute stitching. The harmonious interplay of the parts. And now” gesturing out the window, “look at this world…”

True freedom of religion

I’ve just been reading David Nirenberg’s history of antisemitism Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, and I came across the interesting letter 40 of Ambrose. Ambrose was Bishop of Milan for two decades in the late 4th century, and is considered one of the Fathers of the Church. The letter, addressed to the Roman emperor Theodosius, is framed as a plea for freedom and tolerance. And what is it that the “Godfearing, merciful, gentle, and calm” Theodosius has not sufficiently tolerated? It is the religious obligation to burn down synagogues.

In 388 a mob of monks in the Mesopotamian city of Callinicum burned down the Jewish synagogue and a gnostic Christian church. The local military governor ordered that the monks be punished and that the synagogue be rebuilt, at the expense of the local bishop, who had incited the attack.

There is, then, no adequate cause for such a commotion, that the people should be so severely punished for the burning of a building, and much less since it is the burning of a synagogue, a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God Himself has condemned.

Ambrose goes on to remind Theodosius of the fate of his predecessor, who was thought too solicitous of the safety of Jews and their houses of worship:

Is it not on this account that Maximus was forsaken, who, before the days of the expedition, hearing that a synagogue had been burnt in Rome, had sent an edict to Rome, as if he were the upholder of public order? Wherefore the Christian people said, No good is in store for him. That king has become a Jew.

In other words, if you defend the Jews you might be suspected of being kind of a Jew yourself.

Anyway, this reminded me of John Boswell’s Jews and Bicycle Riders, and certain cries for religious tolerance that are abroad in the land today…

Hate the sin, vote for the sinner

When the Republicans selected for the Senate race in Alabama a man so sanctimonious that he insisted on displaying a monument to the Ten Commandments at the state Supreme Court  — insisted to the point of losing his job as Chief Justice — it was almost to be expected that he had some pretty nasty dirt in his past. According to the Washington Post he molested a 14-year-old when he was a 32-year-old district attorney. This wasn’t one of those “met her in a bar and I thought she was 19” sort of things:

He struck up a conversation, Corfman and her mother say, and offered to watch the girl while her mother went inside for a child custody hearing.

“He said, ‘Oh, you don’t want her to go in there and hear all that. I’ll stay out here with her,’ ” says Corfman’s mother, Nancy Wells, 71. “I thought, how nice for him to want to take care of my little girl.”

Honestly, if this were a television show I’d almost accuse the writers at this point of being too stereotyped and predictable.

Of course, Alabama Republicans are shocked and appalled — NOT! There are the standard excuses: The news media are mean, they’re all Democrats and liars, it can’t be true because if it were we would have heard about it before. And then, for the particularly Evangelical among them, there is this, from Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler:

Even if you accept the Washington Post’s report as being completely true, it is much ado about very little… Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus… There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.

I admit, I get tripped up on the finer points of Christian theology, but wasn’t Mary a virgin?

The Pope’s Shluchim

I’ve just been reading Amir Alexander’s book Infinitesimal, about the intellectual struggle over the concepts of infinitesimals and the continuum in mathematics and science (and theology) in the 17th century. The early part of the book is a history of the Society of Jesus, presented as a ruthless and intellectually daring force for religious conservatism, strictly hierarchical, devoted to its holy founder, a thoroughly mystical movement that built its reputation and influence on educational outreach. And then it struck me: The Jesuits were just like Chabad-Lubavitch!

Kids’ Kindness Krusade

So, there’s this president in America, and his job description definitely does not include “Defender of the Faith” or anything like that, and he’s getting bashed for having suggested that the Crusades — hundreds of years of Europeans hoisting aloft the banner of Christ and marching off to slaughter infidels and expropriate their lands, in case you’ve forgotten — might have raised some misapprehensions that Christianity is not 100% a religion of peace. He also made the (clearly revisionist) assertion, with no footnotes to back it up, that churches in the American South weren’t doing everything they possibly could to end slavery and later discrimination against Black Americans. Political and historical opponents aren’t taking these slurs lying down!
Maybe it’s because my ancestors were the first victims of lazy crusaders who thought they might as well start by killing the infidels closer to home (Rhineland Jews), but I’ve always found the Anglo-American use of “crusade” to mean an ardent struggle for a good cause — possibly hopeless, but usually a good thing (for example, the “crusade against rape culture” or against the REF), or even against equine colic). (I don’t know how it is used elsewhere. I can’t think that I’ve observed the corresponding German word used in a generic sense.
This dissonance particularly stood out for me when I saw, in an elementary school in Cambridge MA where I was doing some volunteer teaching, a poster announcing the “Kids’ Kindness Crusade”. Even without knowing the story of the Children’s Crusade (which may or may not have been a real historical event) it seems bizarre to me that people would think a “kids’ crusade” sounds like a positive thing. It seems as weird to me as promoting a “Parents’ Patience Pogrom”, or “Genocide against Germs”. Or, for that matter, “war on illiteracy and unnumeracy“.