Reading: Bart D. Ehrman (or, In Praise of the Historical Jesus programme)

I’ve lately been reading quite a few of the books by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman has the same story to set up most of his books, which are mostly about the same subject matter: the historicity of the Christian Bible. Like a bad Vonnegut novel, it starts off with the identical origin story. Ehrman grew up in a not particularly religious household, and then became evangelised as a teenager. Ehrman then went to religious colleges and was warned about ‘secular’ institutions which have course on bible study.

 

Eventually Ehrman widens his academic horizons and discovers philosophy and literature. Ehrman becomes the bible scholar but finds that his initial evangelical pretentions to the inerrance of the bible are predicated on premises such as: the book that we read today (i.e. what we can buy from bookshops, churches or online etc) has a long historical narrative as to how it came to be.

 

Ehrman explores the histories of early Christianity and finds a story of how certain narratives won in historical disputes and the result of that is the Christianity that we understand today. As someone reading Gibbon I can definitely recall the disputes of the likes of the Arians and the Donatists, how questions of Christology, Soteriology and Mariology (not the study of an Italian plumber) reveal deep schisms of belief between people and was hardly a dry scholarly issue at the time. The history of Late Antiquity is the story of how our Christianity of today came to be.

 

Let’s take a bit of a step back. I like Ehrman’s work, even though I haven’t read many of the commentators he’s referring to. I’m currently pacing through DF Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined at the moment. I find this fasincation with the Historical Jesus utterly fascinating for a few reasons. One is that it shows the success of Kant’s programme on religion. If we are to take the idea of moral religion seriously we have to then consider the historicity of the character of Jesus.

 

There’s a divide in the so-called apologetics of today where people try to use hokey rational arguments which don’t convince someone with a background in philosophy, and other arguments on the vein of William Lane Craig or William Alston or Malcolm Platinga which applies some pretty heavy metaphysics (which is always very attractive to me) to give arguments for the existence of God. Then there’s the other side of apologetics: claim that Jesus was an Historical figure.

 

Back in the turn of the 20th Century this tradition might have been called ‘Liberal Theology’ or ‘Protestant Theology’. I find it astounding that Atheist/sceptics have finally caught up with 19th Century Theology in the form of Bart D. Erhman. Many of the atheists of the 2000s had arguments which were no better than Hume in the 18th Century. When it comes to critique of religion, I always thought that the powerful arguments came from Kant, who came from within the spiritual and exegetical tradition to critique the articles of Christian faith. It is one thing to convince someone who has no background or interest in understanding a religion or any religion, but it takes another to see the logical extensions of what it means to have faith and see where it leads. Kant I take it, follows the latter route in his moral philosophy. It is often said that the liberal protestant tradition has come from Kant’s programmatic statements in the Religion within the bounds of Mere Reason work. I find the argumentative strategy in Ehrman’s book refreshing, as if atheism has their own ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ of their own. As it happens, with the controversies and immense criticisms going towards people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher (on contemporary political issues) or Richard Dawkins (on his, perhaps one should refer to them as ‘social opinions’); perhaps we need a protestant movement within atheist intellectual circles to distance ourselves from their doctrines.

 

Destre returns from the mists to write this post

 

Team Predator (going to Reading Mall)

I may or may not have talked about this on the blog. One of the things I rarely do but always think about is airsoft. Airsoft is a game (some consider it a sport) which involves playing in various tactical situations and games akin to paintball, but with BB guns and often replica weapons. I am aware it’s not a thing for everyone especially as it’s very injury invoking (I have a permanent knee injury from airsoft) and it is intensely physical.

 

Among my group of friends we have got a unit. We call ourselves Team Predator. I have lately been organising an airsoft day – guised as a stag party at the Reading Mall this coming sunday. I am very much looking forward to playing on that site. Apparently it was once a shopping centre called ‘Friars Walk’ which closed down and is now used for airsoft and occasionally they have a George Romero style Zombie airsoft simulation game.

 

There are various elements that I love about airsoft. I love coming across all sorts of people. You get the teenaged kids with their dads, who basically used to be us 10 years ago. Then there are the airsofters who are a bit hardened, some are ex military, some are current military and others are extremely into it. I would say that Team Predator is somewhere between those two extremes.

 

I love the role play of airsoft. I get to use leadership and tactical skills that I don’t use in my ordinary life or (that much) at work. I love the opportunity to be seen in a different way, or not be seen at all wearing a mask. In the mask you are genderless yet distinct. I have kitted myself out for airsoft and my team are similarly excited about this.

 

Another aspect of airsoft that I often overlook is…the fear. The prospect of having a gun shot at you and grenades flown about is very scary. Injuries are very real in the game (I am a testament to that) and even though it is role playing and fantasy, the adrenaline and the perception of fear and acting under pressure is most definitely not.

 

I remember the last time I played airsoft that the fear was so intense that I didn’t push as hard as I used to when I played before. The sense of fear brings with it a real authenticity. The people who talk a lot about playing may not be the ones making the crucial plays and doing the crucial actions. The sense of fear and how to act in a fast paced situation is the real judge of a good airsofter and not the size of your gun or how expensive your equipment is.

Some thoughts on my music playlists

Lately I have not listened to as much underground black metal music as I would like to. This is for a variety of reasons (scarcity being the main one). I always make a point of keeping a diverse set of listening interests. Sometimes if I hear a conversation about a band going on and I don’t know much about it, I will make a note in Google Keep and check on them later. I also have a rolling task every month of making a ‘big fuckoff playlist’ which lasts anything from 8-12 days (as in up to 300 hours).

 

I like to organise my playlists in ways that try to acknowledge the greatest amount of unity through the greatest variety of depth. I’m sure Kant didn’t envisage the application of schematic concepts in this way. I listen to music with a variety of different personas and hats. With my spotify subscription I try to organise my music in as rational a way as possible.

 

I am interested in learning about early 20th century music from the perspective of being a fan of Modernist thought. My interest in modernism also informs my interest in black metal (but that’s another story). I am also interested in connecting to understand my old piano teacher’s Jazz heritage. I had initially been listening to the early jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and Benny Goodman, and then I evolved to exploring John Coltrane most recently.

 

I am also exploring composers that I haven’t known very much about and trying to get an informed opinion of. I listened to the works of Krenek, CPE Bach, Aaron Copland and I am currently exploring Jean Sibelius, Gerald Finzi and I have about 3 different Leonard Bernstein playlists. There seem to be three Leonard Bernsteins: the conductor who was well known for performing the greats and the classics of European artmusik; Bernstein the composer who wrote works that reflected this meshing of his distinctly American and urbanite sensibility with someone who is steeped in the history and heritage of the Europeans; and finally the ‘popular’ Berinstein who lives on as the dude who did West Side Story and those other Jazzy tunes. I think that through listening to all three of these Bernsteins concurrently I am having a better appreciation of his perspective and the interesting cultural soup that formed his outlook.

 

I was recently watching a MOOC on modern music which discussed the recent composer George Crumb (Whom I know nothing about). Crumb said in an interview how growing up in the USA with parents who were local band and orchestra musicians influenced him, as well as the multicultural agenda of the music department at his university. Music is alive insofar as it is both current and historical. I love listening to music through different personas, similar to how I have conceptualised Bernstein. I enjoy listening to music as someone who is a bad amateur musician. I enjoy listening to music as someone who is interested in its history and culture. Then there are the sensibilities of someone born in the 1980s and was a kid of the 90s and a 20-something through the 2000s trying to negotiate getting a bit older and uncool.

 

When I listen to all this music I explore things I like and things that I don’t like but still try to be informed about. I love the idea of trying to find some kind of unity in all the musical personas that I have, but on the other hand I think it is not possible or desirable. I want to have Shining’s Förtvivlan, min arvedel as something relatively recent that I absolutely adore and feel encapsulates me as a person, but at the same time I also feel the same kind of identification and emotion (albeit different emotional colours) about Beethoven’s Sonata no. 8, which I am currently working on and trying to deal with the tremolando of the left hand in the first movement (the word pathetique comes to mind!). Often people talk of historical periods and some have referred to the present as ‘postmodern’. Let’s say that I accept this label. Being a post-modern means that I can go to the gym listening to the music representing my outlook through Black Metal when I’m walking around with my headphones in; but also write blog posts at 3am while listening to Blaise Pascal on audiobook and listening to the music of Darius Milhaud (of les six) fame. Postmodern is one word to describe it perhaps, or perhaps muddled, confused. But not to say that these are necessarily bad things to mix it all up.

Watching: Avengers: United they Stand (1999)

On the start of any kind of discussion about this 1999 Marvel venture, this cartoon was universally deemed an average at best television show. Avengers: United they Stand serves as an example of how the flaws of an aesthetic work serve as interesting aesthetic features.

 

I knew of this show when it was originally out but I had little interest in it. In an age nearly 15 years later where there’s a big cultural interest in comic characters and franchises/intellectual properties/money-making commercial properties (delete as appropriate), the Avengers: United they Stand (UtS) serves as a lovely obscurity.

 

After I finished episode 13 I then found out that was actually the final episode. I was then reminded of a discussion in the TV series ‘Toast of London’ (starring Matt Berry [a subject for a future blog post I’m sure]) in which the titular character, Steven Toast, wrote a book without an ending. The literary agent loved the book but said that it couldn’t not have an ending. Toast made this decision to write a well considered feminist novel but left it without an ending. As if its incompleteness left it complete.

 

I feel the same about this show. The premature ending with the unresolved plot lines and even an unresolved episode arc was a masterstroke of story. There was an unresolved romantic storyline between Vision, the synthetic lifeform created by Ultron (one of the main villains); and Scarlet Witch.

 

It is certainly true that the female characters left much to be desired in terms of developing a back story or sense of an inner world, but as far as 1990s kids shows went, it fared a hell of a lot better than most. The gender ratio was about 3:5 or 3:4 (if you consider vision as normatively male – which technically you shouldn’t as a robot is genderless). The flaw of having poorly developed female characters was not so much an issue of poor gender representation but poor representation of the character roster in general, as almost all of them hardly had much back story.

 

Perhaps the big thing that people point out was the obvious thing: How can you have an Avengers lineup that does not include Captain America, Iron Man or Thor? This notion made me think really hard. In recent comics (Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X Men, All New X Men, Avengers, or in their unique cases: Wolverine and the X Men and Secret Avengers), characters such as Wolverine and Captain America are basically present either as main characters or significant background characters. Having a world where certain characters have so much of a role in that universe evokes a cult of personality about them. This could be said of world leaders or public figures who seem to be in multiple discourses (say, celebrity culture and political discourse combined).

 

Thinking about the B-team, or the other guys is a really neat angle for a TV show. Thinking back in 1999 when there was a dearth of big Marvel shows: X men TAS had finished, Spiderman TAS had finished and shows like X-Men Evolution or Avengers: EMH (which I have discussed in a previous post) had not arrived; having this bunch of B-teamers was inherently underwhelming for a comicbook franchise which put a high place on the heavy hitters.

 

There was something inherently equalising about the UtS lineup. Contrast UtS’s Hawkeye to the Hawkeye character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic world was basically a pawn, the lowest fodder of a chess board and his abilities in the final fight were…staying on a high vantage point with arrows? Contrast this to ARC powered Iron Man who flew all around the city; Thor and Hulk who are comparably invulnerable to anything resembling human. There’s probably a good reason why Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye hasn’t found the right time to re-appear in the Marvel Cinematic universe and that is because it’s hard to have a place in such a super-powered world.

 

UtS’s Hawkeye is perhaps the best character in the show by contrast to his MCU counterpart (next to maybe Vision, but I’ll get to him). Hawkeye has a rough edge to him, being a former criminal trained in the circus (sensitive to his comic book origin). Hawkeye is very much a loose cannon, with legitimate trust issues and complex loyalties. Except for the ridiculous costumes they had (which were a very thinly veiled toy commercial), Hawkeye’s character made a Marvel character look…human when it is not desirable to be so in such a superpowered universe.

 

Vision is perhaps my favourite character in this show. Vision has the developing humanity and exists in a show where acting wooden was actually a benefit in the context. Some of the flaws of the ‘main’ characters who appear in the show are quite notable because they reveal something very human and real about them. Captain America’s cameo in one episode shows him as brash, and an inadequate leader compared to Hank Pym’s Ant Man. Even though Cap is the universal hero he is trapped by his own reputation and seen almost as if he were a better leader than he actually is. Kids watching this show probably would have lost this level of nuance.

 

By contrast, Hank Pym appears jealous, vindictive and self-doubting as a leader, and it makes him look like a very ugly person. In addition he spies on his wife visiting a family friend of hers in the penultimate episode and when she finds this out she is a little annoyed but shes seemed to let it go pretty easily. Hank Pym does look like a pretty horrible person in this show. Finally there was the appearance of Iron Man in a one episode cameo. Iron Man seems so single minded (as he was working in one of his commercial projects) that although he appreciated the help of the Avengers and joined in the action, he had no time for small talk, reflection or even acknowledgment that he was once on the Avenger roster. This shows an interesting side of Iron Man – flawed but not like the usual flawed depiction of an hedonistic and distracted Tony Stark, who lets his personal failures have implications on his professional life.

 

To close I thought I’d mention the honorable and noble aspects of the show. Although I’d think this show was absoutely rubbish as the 13 year old that I was in 1999. There are bits of the show that are farcical. For example, the NSA liason, Raymond Sikorski (who serves as a representative of the real world) continually notes things such as the poor public perception of the Avengers; how they caused millions of dollars in damages to public property. Not to mention the episode where Big Ben  is destroyed and nothing is mentioned of it at all afterwards, except to find out how it was caused. Have no doubt that this is not a great show nor is it a good show. It’s my view though that there are interesting psychological gems in the character development (or lack of) that as an adult (who probably should be doing better things), gives an interesting complexity to the show.

In Praise of: Captain America

I’m a bit behind in what I want to write about lately. Evidence of this is the fact that Antisophie was discussing about the ‘fatigue’ of super-hero films after Thor 2: the Dark World which may lead to suggest that the emerging genre is tired and has little to offer except more of the same.

 

Then I saw Captain America: the Winter Soldier, twice. I saw it with two different groups of people. One with a nerd friend, who got all of the easter eggs and got all of my jokes about defeating Magneto with a wooden gun. The other group I saw it with were the last people to take any interest in super hero films that involved the supernatural, but oddly enough they don’t mind science fiction if it fitted in with their worldview (i.e. technologies that were conceivable). On both counts we found the film to be quite moving, despite all the explosions.

 

Mark Kermode had a review of the film which said something to the effect of: the plot had a thread which was very contemporary which could have been developed more, but was tempered with the inevitable action set pieces that are a requirement with a big budget film such as this. One of the reasons I am a big fan of the Marvel stories is that the stories can be genuinely engaging and are a reaction to much of the things going on today.

 

On a personal note, I think that Captain America’s real super power is his commitment to his sense of personal and political value. Steve Rogers has an uncompromising commitment towards a conception of the good and on many occasions he is challenged to not always uphold this ideal. I was recently reading the 2013 issues of Captain America, where the character is kept in a dimension created by Armin Zola. Rogers spends over a decade in this dimension and his aging is visible. One also notices that he develops a relationship with a child who is Zola’s son and is challenge on a great many fronts. In the recent 2010-2012 Avengers EMH animated series, Captain America’s character faces a public backlash after his Skrull doppelganger destroys the public reputation that Rogers had. The EMH Captain America carried on despite the public hatred about him and was unwavering.

 

The idea of a Captain America has to be different in a world where the idea of the United States has vastly changed due to geopolitical and economic factors. But I’m quite impressed at how Marvel still successfully makes him relevant.

Thinking Musically

I’ve written in the past about the adjective ‘musical’. Lately I’ve been hosting and helping people with improvisation. The odd thing is that I am no expert in music and I am an amateur and dilettante. I love to watch youtube videos about improvisation and playing technique and reading things here and there. I feel that one of the things that really enhances my ability to play is just to listen. There is a skill in being an effective listener of music and for me that is more of an accomplishment than whatever I happen to perform.

 

I have often said something to the effect lately, that the emphasis in performing well is to think musically. I keep saying this so much I don’t even know what I mean sometimes. I thought I might clarify what this could possibly mean in this post.

 

Thinking musically is about a commitment to music itself, music as a human activity and tradition that goes back to – God knows when! As a human activity we have forbears and we are inevitably indebted to them. It is fair to say that I am a paternalist about music often. Many things go back to Bach. Even the things that are developed as a reaction against something else, show that something else as a form of influence (Neoclassicism vs. 20th century Avant-Garde for example).

 

To think musically is to have your own voice. To think musically is to have a sense of conviction. My old piano teacher always used to emphasise the conviction of a performance over technique. Sometimes your conviction can be so strong that you might go against the standard interpretations or customs already established. Thinking musically can therefore be a means of expressing individuality.

 

As well as a commitment to traditions, genres and so forth; there is often an internal logic. There is an internal logic to an individual piece of music, sometimes in the phrasing, the articulation. Sometimes the internal logic is to one’s own playing style. An internal logic may be towards the interpretation of a composer or period.

 

I like to apply thinking musically to when I write my blogs. One thing that is a cliche of mine, is that I go for extended digressions that don’t always have a comprehensible take home message. Another example of applied musical thinking to a non musical discourse, is Glenn Gould’s ‘The Idea of the North’. This documentary on the Northern wastes of Canada applies an idea from the musical genre of the Fugue. The subject of the documentary focuses on vox pops of various people who have an experience of living on the northern frontiers of Canada and the aural testimonies are layered on top of each other in the form of subject, counter subject, answer. Of course I presume that when Gould did this documentary, not many of the intended audience would understand this Bachian influence on the art of radio documentary making. In lieu of this obscurity, it causes me to laugh at Glenn Gould’s sincerity. That so few would understand him yet he still continued his commitment to thinking and living musically.

 

Perhaps thinking musically is not a thing-in-itself, but a media through which ideas come forth. I think of how Haydn’s music often contains humour, not within the musical form but by virtue of being funny.

 

Perhaps I have a specific view about thinking musically. Lately my idea of musical thinking is a commitment to form and using form as a tool of expression. I often feel that things such as genre and style can often be the product of our cultural education and upbringing and instead of contributing new music to add to a historical process of cultural idioms and styles, we simply replicate them. While this in itself is not aesthetically ‘wrong’ or bad (see my post on musical conservatism), it is the unconscious and indeliberate nature of these influences that is deleterious. Like Walden, we must live deliberately in our music. If our upbringing is blues and our heart is in blues, then make it so, but deliberately.

 

On having differing musical preferences

I have an improperly empirical thesis: performers often like things different to what they are working on. I suppose it’s maybe like the barber not being able to shave their own head, or working at a food preparation factory and completely avoiding the produce made from brands one stocks for (I actually know someone like that – interesting stories he has).

I remember having a few conversations with people I know to be musicians and musical performers, who can have vastly different tastes to what they are immediately working on. Perhaps the infamous stock example is when Fenriz of Darkthrone said in an interview that he likes to listen to house music, but for the purposes of appearing as Fenriz and being in the black metal mystique, he will downplay that fact. I used to be part of a choir in which we were working on some distinctly sacred works of music, and then in the conversations afterward it was established they liked very trashy (their words not mine) music like show tunes and things from Disney soundtracks.

I often meet people who read my blog, and I suspect they are probably surprised of how little I want to talk about philosophy in certain social situations. In fact I am increasingly unwilling to talk about philosophy or music or particularly blogging-preferred topics. Preferring to be a different person within blogging and without it. Likewise I probably don’t talk enough about my involvement with the Community Garden project when I muse more about Schoenberg and Adorno, part of that is a deliberate choice, the other part is deciding my niche when it comes to blogging about things.

Performing-wise I suppose I have my own such distinctions of character and sensibility. Last week I was at this impromptu jamming session where a lot of non-english language songs were performed and it getting involved with the jam was so much fun it was more about the participation. For me it was also fun to work out the harmonies and how to do continuo style accompaniment on a melodic instrument rather than a typical ‘continuo’/accompaniment instrument. So I would say to my trumpet buddy: PEDAL POINT G MAJOR TO D MAJOR DOMINANT. HARMONISE THE MELODIC LINE PARALLEL THIRD, and so on.

I find it a lack of imagination to be interested in only one kind of music, especially in the age of genrefication where there’s a tendency to be all about a certain kind of vibe and stuck in that feeling continuously. I also think from a cultural perspective it is extremely limiting. I think it is deleterious to the genre of indie how it is increasingly and incredibly posh, for example. Diversity is beautiful, although it seems having too broad a mind offends people.

Something does seem troubling to me about how I might like playing all this 17th-19th century music where what I actually listen to on my mp3 player is a mix between video game soundtracks, black metal, metal songs of various genres that impress certain memories on me and ‘trash’. My personal ultimate test for how I like music is if I choose to put it on my tired old MP3 player. Having said that, I might write and muse about how certain pieces of music or songs might be great works, but not choose to listen to it so much. I recall in an interview with (I think) Vladimir Ashkenazy, he said that while people appreciate the greatness of Bach it is ultimately ‘boring music’ to fill a full concert! I’m inclined to agree. I listen to Glenn Gould by tracks on spotify, rarely by album!

Perhaps an culinary analogy is due here. My meat and potatoes of what I like in music I know are very often not great works of art. However I can appreciate that there are ‘finer foods’ that I may desire to partake in, but it would probably be undesirable or impossible to live on fine foods all the time, even though it may be desirable in terms of cultural capital to be seen doing so.