Apples and oranges

Well now way back in the Bible
Temptations always come along
There’s always somebody tempting
Somebody into doing something they know is wrong
Well they tempt you, man, with silver
And they tempt you, sir, with gold
And they tempt you with the pleasure
That the flesh does surely hold
They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple
But man I ain’t going for that
I know it was her pink Cadillac …

— Bruce Springsteen, “Pink Cadillac”

I’m reading Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town. It’s a lovely, candid and generous book and one of my favorites in the burgeoning genre of younger memoirs about recovering from evangelical childhood.*

Describing the intense, unyieldingly correct faith of her childhood, Held Evans writes:

I was the nutcase kid who removed wise men figurines from manger scenes at Christmas to more accurately depict the historical time line of Advent. I gently corrected my Sunday school teacher when she referred to Jonah getting swallowed up by the whale (everyone knows that the word is literally translated “big fish”) or referenced the forbidden apple in the garden of Eden (which was more likely some sort of Middle Eastern fruit, like a fig).

Held Evans is able to look back and laugh at her insistence on such “corrections” because she realizes now that they were based on a misplaced certainty. I remember such certainty, too, and how it led to odd speculations about things like the “historic” location of the garden of Eden or the precise identity of the forbidden fruit.

So let’s correct one of those corrections. The fruit in the story of the Garden of Eden was neither an apple nor a fig. Nor was it a pomegranate or a grape. The story just says “fruit,” and to ask what kind of fruit the story actually refers to is to misread the story, transforming it through that word “actually” into the historical account it never claims itself to be. That’s not how the story presents itself and it’s not something the story allows itself to be. That’s not what this story is for.

Imagine someone leaving a performance of Hamlet and dismissing the play as worthless because the final scene just wasn’t funny. On the one hand, that criticism is valid. Hamlet has some very funny bits, but the ending is a real downer and once the final duel starts, you almost never hear anyone in the audience laughing. But on the other hand this complaint is simply confused. It’s based on misreading what kind of story the play is telling and judging it as though it were some other kind of story than what it is.

Trying to validate the story of the garden of Eden by deducing its historical “details” — what kind of fruit? where was the location of the garden? — is the same sort of error. It’s as foolishly beside-the-point as complaining that no one laughs at the end of Hamlet.

So, then, where did the popular notion of an apple come from? How did this come to be the prevalent idea when we picture this story? I suppose that painters or sculptors portraying scenes from this story had to settle on some identity for this fruit — but what led them to choose the apple?

Cecil Adams has an excellent discussion of the history of this idea on The Straight Dope: “Was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden an apple?

Genesis doesn’t mention apples, but Proverbs 25:11 says a timely word is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. More significantly, in the Song of Solomon the apple is an erotic symbol indicating sweetness, desire, and the female breast, which gives you an idea how things are starting to go, metaphorwise.

Early Christian scholars often took the forbidden fruit to be an apple, possibly because of the irresistible pun suggested by the Latin malum, which means both “apple” and “evil.” At least one early Latin translation of the bible uses “apple” instead of “fruit.” A contributing factor no doubt was that apples were a lot more popular in Europe than in the Middle East, where it’s generally too hot for them to thrive.

… Still, the apple wasn’t the unanimous choice for forbidden fruit. Carved depictions of Adam and Eve with apples are found in early Christian catacombs and on sarcophagi. The apple was the favored representation of the forbidden fruit in Christian art in France and Germany beginning around the 12th century. But Byzantine and Italian artists tended to go with the fig.

In fact, you can read Christian iconography as a long, twilight struggle between figs and apples over which is the alpha temptation symbol. The apple has a lot to recommend it: red (blood) or golden (greed), round (fertility) and sweet-tasting (desire). The fig, on the other hand, has a certain phallic look, noted as far back as the ancient Greeks, who, admittedly, thought everything looked phallic. By the Renaissance, almost simultaneously we have Albrecht Dürer depicting Adam and Eve and the serpent with an apple (1504, 1507), and Michelangelo equipping the same cast with figs on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (circa 1510).

Ultimately the apple prevailed. In Areopagitica (1644), Milton explicitly described the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil as an apple, and that was pretty much the ball game. Islamic tradition, however, commonly represents the forbidden fruit as the fig or olive.

If we’re going to insist on identifying the forbidden fruit from the story in Genesis, then forget about apples and figs. I prefer to go with another suggestion by some early rabbis — the citron. Adams notes that this idea was based on a pun — the Hebrew word for citron is etrog, which sounds like ragag, or “desire.”

But I like the idea of the citron because it’s a citrus fruit, which raises some interesting possibilities for this story. This occurred to me while reding another of those recovering-evangelical memoirs, Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words. In his chapter on evolution, Dudley notes:

The reason that humans, gorillas and chimps need to consume vitamin C in their diets — while lower mammals, including primates further down the evolutionary tree, don’t — is that humans, gorillas and chimps all have the same, inactivating mutation in a gene needed to make vitamin C. From an evolutionary perspective, the gene was mutated and rendered nonfunctional in an ape ancestor, then passed on to its evolutionary descendants, including humans. From a creationist perspective, God gave all higher primates the same broken gene for no apparent reason.

So genetically, we humans have no choice but either to add some vitamin C to our diets or to suffer from scurvy. That changes the story quite a bit. A story about choice becomes a fatalistic tale of hard-wired genetic inevitability. That’s a rather substantial and dramatic change — almost a complete reversal of the meaning of the story as originally told.

But that’s what happens when we take one kind of story and treat it as another kind of story. Any attempt to read this story from Genesis as history — as the tale of a historical man named “Mankind” — inevitably changes the story and inevitably entangles it in some such notion of fate or fatalism. If we insist on twisting this origin story into a pseudoscientific or pseudohistorical tale of our actual genetic ancestors, then we’re forced to regard Adam and Eve as having the same genes — the same fallen, imperfect genes — as we possess as their children. That’s not what the story seems originally to have intended, but once we turn from reading it in the way it was originally written we shouldn’t be surprised that its meaning changes. To treat any story as another kind of story is always to change its meaning.

Was the forbidden fruit a citron? Or an apple or a fig? The story doesn’t say. It’s not that kind of story.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* See also Alisa Harris’ Raised Right, Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words, Christine Rosen’s My Fundamentalist Education, Jason Boyett’s O Me of Little Faith, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, etc. The pattern I’ve noticed thus far in those I have read is that most of the authors had to question or abandon the “package deal” politics that came with their faith in order to reclaim and rediscover that faith. The one exception is the author who retained the conservative politics of fundamentalism, but lost the faith. Interesting, that.

Stay in touch with the Slacktivist on Facebook:

Rekindled with fire from above
And if you float you burn
'Moral tribalism' and translating the d-word
The Psalms and the word of God
  • Bificommander

    Would it have mattered that there is also the famous Apple of Discord from the Illyad? Or was that story not really well known during the middle ages?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    It might have been the same apple. After the mess in Eden, God couldn’t stand the sight o the damned (!) thing and gave it to His old running buddy, Eris.

    My teacher went on and on about how this was an attempt to portray women
    as stupid and evil, for failing to get eternal life for her son.

    I like your interpretation better — it makes sense and your teacher’s explanation doesn’t, really. If the first woman was stupid, then she didn’t pick a heavy rock on purpose and she’s not really ‘evil’. If she was evil, then her picking the heavy rock was a deliberate calculation — not stupid at all. She couldn’t have been both, can she — even if you think eternal life would be better than cunning.

  • lofgren

    To be fair to my teacher, who was one of the best I’ve ever had, I was paraphrasing. The gist of our disagreement was over whether the woman failed to obtain immortality deliberately or through ineptitude, and whether she deserved praise or condemnation for her choice/failure.

    I should also say that I was a high school senior reading a photocopy, and she was an educated woman who had read more world mythology than I knew existed. I can only describe my own reaction to the story. I don’t claim it was representative of the traditional intent.

  • Lori

     So genetically, we humans have no choice but either to add some vitamin C to our diets or to suffer from scurvy. That changes the story quite a bit. A story about choice becomes a fatalistic tale of hard-wired genetic inevitability. That’s a rather substantial and dramatic change — almost a complete reversal of the meaning of the story as originally told.  

    I love this.

  • Matri

    Indeed. It turns the Original Sin from a choice, into a Design.

    It turned from “Adam & Eve eating the fruit because they were tricked by the serpent”, into “Adam & Eve eating the fruit because God made it so they will die if they don’t”.

    Understandably, that’s not a popular translation.

  • http://johnm55.wordpress.com/ johnm55

    Bruce Cockburn implies that it was a Mango

    She’s got a mango in the garden – sweet as can be
    She’s got a mango in the garden – full of mystery
    She’s got a mango in the garden – from the original tree
    She’s got a mango in the garden – shares it with me

    So that settles it ( for me at least.)

  • Lizzy L

    I present the section on “The Bible” to my parish’s RCIA group each year, and I often start with pointing out that not all “history” is true, and that “truth” is multidimensional, and is not limited to “historical” truth, which is a modern category. Every year I encounter someone who finds this incomprehensible and threatening. When I remind this person gently that Jesus said “I am the Truth,” — not a statement that can be made to fit into their “historical truth” category — they sometimes just shut down. The concepts of allegory and anagogy are not in their worldview and are not wanted. This is very sad. OTOH: not everyone reacts this way. TBTG.

  • lofgren

    I prefer a very similar story from a Native American tradition* that I read in high school. In that story, God creates woman first. The woman then gives birth to the first man. Before the first man is weened, God offers the woman a challenge: if she can skip a rock over a nearby pond three times, then he will grant the woman’s son eternal life. If she can’t, he will grant the woman’s son knowledge, guile, and trickery.

    The woman picks up the heaviest stone she can find, and plunks it at her feet in the water.

    My teacher went on and on about how this was an attempt to portray women as stupid and evil, for failing to get eternal life for her son.

    But when I read it, what I saw was a woman who valued knowledge over eternal life. She knew her son would struggle, but from the struggle he would grow, mature, and change. If he was born with eternal life, he would probably just be an insufferable bore.

    *Almost certainly influenced by Christian traditions that came later. That’s the difficulty with oral traditions. They’re never told the same twice.

  • Albanaeon

    Honestly, the first thought I had was “That was pretty smart of the women.”  Eternal life sounds great on paper, but without knowledge, what’s the point.

    After all, I think there is some small creature called a “hydra” that is technically immortal, but I don’t think it really has the gifts to appreciate it.

  • 2-D Man

    I remember a story about a man named “Mankind”. He fought a Hell-in-a-Cell match against the Undertaker’s brother, Kane.

  • Anonymous

    Nope, the Hell in the Cell match was against the ‘Taker.

  • Jenny Islander

    I ran into the problem of “that isn’t what this story is about” just the other day with my early-primary-aged daughter.  I read her the story of Cain and Abel and she got hung up on what exactly Cain did to make his sacrifice unacceptable.  I had to reiterate that the point was what Cain did about his feelings.

  • Anonymous

    I still have that problem with the Cain and Abel story. I mean, the kid got rejected by GOD, for reasons unclear. That’s a hell of a provoking factor, that makes it really hard for me to take it as a straight morality tale.

  • Anonymous

    I always thought it was obvious. God’s a carnivore.

  • Anonymous

    Same here. Sure, he threw the world’s greatest (and first!) temper tantrum, but honestly, what was God’s deal there? Unless he threw together some half-assed basket that he didn’t care about, but then we don’t know what he did, we just know God didn’t like it.

  • Anonymous

    I recommend Barbarah Ehrenreich’s “Blood Rites” for an interesting look at why Yahweh wants meat.  Quick summary: the practice of blood sacrifice of animals and/or people is part of  our ancient ancestors rationalization and or recreation  of the fact that large predatory beasts kept eating their friends and neighbors. 

  • Anonymous

    @ to  Jenny Islander as well, I believe the Cain and Abel story makes sense in a couple of different ways. It’s a story about what is proper to sacrifice, ie: Yahweh wants MEAT!  And its also a story about the conflict between the semi nomadic herders the ancient hebrews were, and the settled agricultural people they were on the verge of becoming.

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    I remember reading the explanation for where Cain’s wife came from once. It was in a book about lost books of the Bible–bits that had been judged to be redundant or inaccurate or just not teaching what the Church wanted to teach.

    In the expanded version of Genesis, Cain and Abel each had twin sisters. Adam wanted Cain to marry Abel’s twin and Abel to marry Cain’s. Cain didn’t like Abel’s twin–forget love, he didn’t even LIKE her–and wanted to marry his own.

    So this is where the sacrifice came in. Abel sacrificed a lamb and Cain sacrificed the best of the harvest. God liked Abel’s sacrifice better (probably because it was a dead animal–the Old Testament God loves the smell of burnt offerings and sin offerings) and consumes it while leaving Cain’s sacrifice alone, which was supposed to mean that God didn’t approve of Cain marrying his twin. Cain got mad and, in a fit of jealousy, killed Abel. Then he ran off to the land of Nod with his own twin sister. And Abel’s sister had to hang around until Seth (who didn’t have a twin) was born and grew up enough to have sex with her.

    It kind of changes the story, doesn’t it? Suddenly it’s not about Abel giving the best that he has to the Lord and being an innocent victim who had done no wrong. It’s about two men fighting over whether they’ll marry their own twins or each other’s twins and asking God to arbitrate. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Cule/100001621659800 Michael Cule

    As I’ve probably said before, I rather like the idea of the Knowledge of Good And Evil being in a pomegrante.

    They’re fussy fruit and you have to eat them bit by bit, seed by seed. Instead of Adam and Eve munching down on a crunchy apple, which is finished in a few seconds, I see them lying back and each eating a seed at a time, getting knowledge of more and more sins as they go.

    “I’m getting something called Simony…””Oh, yes! I got that one a while back. Don’t see how it applies just at the moment though… Have you had Gossip yet?””Hmmm. That’s also a bit tricky to do just now…. Hey! I just realised something! We’re naked!”

  • Anonymous

    One thing’s for sure: nobody ever casually, thoughtlessly took a mouthful of pomegranate.  It’s a fruit that takes effort and you can’t claim afterwards you didn’t know what you were doing.

    For more on the Straight Dope, human biology and vitamin C, Cecil also did a column on how the Inuit avoided scurvy in a diet traditionally scarce in fresh fruits.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    To quote the great Richard Feynman, “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

    I get the feeling that those who feel the need to assign the Forbidden Fruit a specific species, or see Genesis as “historical” are those who cannot live with the uncertainty of not knowing the answer, or the doubt that their answer might be wrong. 

    Speaking on this subject, I think that Fred might enjoy the Assassin’s Creed series, as the “Piece of Eden” is a recurring plot device, and it draws heavily from Abrahamic mythology to weave a tale of historical and science fiction. 

  • Worthless Beast

    Always be ready with a video game recommendation, eh?  (I’m keeping these titles in the back of my head for when I’m ready to buy more used games. Was Bioshock on PS2? )

    I just had a weird thought flash through my brain regarding a good video game recommendation for theology – in keeping on-topic, it *only works if you misread it/read it in just the right way, too.* 

    Katamari! 

    I’ve only played the second game, myself (addictive as crack), but as I recall, if my memory’s not completely botched, the plot of the first game is supposed to be “God screws up.  God sends his son to earth to correct the problem.  Chaos ensues.”    – Think about it for a moment. 

    And if that hurts your brain, just play the level where you feed the sumo wrestler until he starts eating/absorbing people.

  • Daughter

    Which one kept the conservative politics but lost the faith?  Did I miss that?

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Imagine someone leaving a performance of Hamlet and dismissing the play as worthless because the final scene just wasn’t funny. On the one hand, that criticism is valid. Hamlet has some very funny bits, but the ending is a real downer and once the final duel starts, you almost never hear anyone in the audience laughing. But on the other hand this complaint is simply confused. It’s based on misreading what kind of story the play is telling and judging it as though it were some other kind of story than what it is.

    I’ve been meaning to write on this subject for a while, if any of you were standing near me at the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) you know that the way I tend to phrase this is, “It’s not a fish statue.”  The reason is that I think of it like someone looking at an equestrian statue, say this one, and criticizing it for looking nothing like a fish.  The shape is all wrong, and there are no scales, and there are no fins, and it’s a horrible representation of a fish!  All of which would be true, but completely invalid as criticism because it’s not a fish statute.

    And that is how my brain works.

  • hapax

    hapaxspouse was just commenting this morning on a post at Answers In Genesis (no link) about “Did the Ark need a stern if it was not using a propulsion system?” 

    I assume the answer is “no”, but really;  they might as well ask “Did the Ark need a bottom if it was kept afloat by the Powah of Faith?”  Talk about asking the Wrong Question…

  • lofgren

    What’s with all these comments about us not knowing what Cain did to disappoint God? I thought the story was pretty clear. Abel offered choice pieces of meat, Cain offered veggies. God values animal sacrifices more highly than vegetables (see: almost every sacrificial tradition anywhere ever).

    The story is about both how to make a proper sacrifice and also the first murder. You should tell your daughter that she should always make her sacrifices of animal flesh.

    Of course if Fred can reinterpret the story of Adam and Eve as purely metaphorical despite several millennia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims treating it as literal history, I guess you can reinterpret Cain and Abel as not about making an appropriate sacrifice to god.

  • Lori

    What’s with all these comments about us not knowing what Cain did to disappoint God? I thought the story was pretty clear. Abel offered choice pieces of meat, Cain offered veggies. God values animal sacrifices more highly than vegetables (see: almost every sacrificial tradition anywhere ever). 

    The Biblical account (which you seem to hold as literally true) does not give any indication that God expressed a preference for meat sacrifices prior to punishing Cain for giving vegetables. People are pointing out that it’s assy to punish someone for doing something wrong when you never told them how to do it correctly. 

    Something else you might want to consider—even among those who hold the story as literally true, not everyone agrees that the point was God Wants Meat. Some people believe that the issue was that Cain didn’t take care to give the best of his crops, unlike Abel who gave “the firstlings of his flock and their fat portions.” The moral thus being that God Wants The Good Stuff, Not Your Cast-offs. (Note: Atheist or no atheist, I was raised a preacher’s kid so I’ve been around this block a time or two hundred.)

     Of course if Fred can reinterpret the story of Adam and Eve as purely metaphorical despite several millennia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims treating it as literal history, I guess you can reinterpret Cain and Abel as not about making an appropriate sacrifice to god.  

     
    You do know that 

    A) there are also many millennia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims treating the story exactly the way Fred treats it

    B) The number of people who believe something and the length of time that people have believed it has no actual bearing on the truth value of a statement

    right?

  • lofgren

    I’m sorry, but what do you mean the biblical account does not give any indication that god wants meat? It says it pretty clearly: Abel offered meat, Cain didn’t, God preferred the meat. I’m not sure how much clearer you can get. If meat vs. veggies wasn’t the crux of the disagreement, then the story wouldn’t offer that as the difference. If the quality were relevant, the story would say that Cain offered poor quality while Abel offered high quality. That’s how stories are written. If the story says, “Cain gave veggies, Abel gave meat, and God preferred Abel’s offering” it follows that the author is indicating a preference for meat. Any other interpretation is deliberate obtuseness. The fact that this is supported by, again, just about every single tradition of sacrifice everywhere is just icing in this case. This story is an instruction on proper sacrifices for god. What’s a proper sacrifice? Well look it says right here: the fat of the firstborn. Clearly this is what gets god’s attention. Clearly vegetables don’t work. Because it also says right here that God had no regard for that sacrifice.

    I certainly don’t regard the story as true. If the story were literally true, there would be a million questions worth asking. The fact that the story is a story is exactly what makes the textual evidence so commanding. You have to actually make up additional details, willfully ignoring the contextual evidence, in order to deny that God preferred the meat to the vegetables. You have to say “Maybe the vegetables were rotten,” or “Maybe the vegetables weren’t quite ripe,” or “Maybe God is allergic to eggplant.” These conjectures are the equivalent of “Maybe the grasshopper actually socked away a huge stash of gold to pay the ants for their hospitality, but he was robbed by highwaymen and the real lesson is about teh value of storing your gold in an FDIC insured bank account.”

    Cain gave god fruit.
    Abel gave god meat.
    God liked what he got from Abel.
    God ignored what he got from Cain.

    That’s the story. Anything else is fanfic.

  • Lori

     I’m sorry, but what do you mean the biblical account does not give any indication that god wants meat? It says it pretty clearly: Abel offered meat, Cain didn’t, God preferred the meat.  

    Read again what I actually wrote: “The Biblical account (which you seem to hold as literally true) does not give any indication that God expressed a preference for meat sacrifices prior to punishing Cain for giving vegetables. (Considering that we’re discussing the interpretation of a story, reading more closely is probably the way to go.)

    Leaving someone to guess what you want and then punishing them for guessing wrong is a sort of an asshole thing to do.  

    I’m not sure how much clearer you can get. If meat vs. veggies wasn’t the crux of the disagreement, then the story wouldn’t offer that as the difference. If the quality were relevant, the story would say that Cain offered poor quality while Abel offered high quality.  

    Quality is mentioned. Cain gave fruits of the field. Abel gave the “first fruits” of his animals. IOW, it is stated that Abel’s offering was of the best quality. No statement at all is made about the quality of Cain’s offering. It’s hardly far fetched to think that might imply something labout the quality of Cain’s offering. Because that’s how stories work. 

     Cain gave god fruit.
    Abel gave god meat.
    God liked what he got from Abel.
    God ignored what he got from Cain.

    That’s the story. Anything else is fanfic.  

     

    No one is questioning which sacrifice God liked. They’re questioning why he liked one and not the other and also questioning the reasonableness of his response to the liking vs not liking. That isn’t fanfic. You seem to be quite attached to a particular view of a story that you say isn’t even true. That in turn seems to be making you a touch arrogant in your approach.

  • lofgren

    “The Biblical account (which you seem to hold as literally true) does
    not give any indication that God expressed a preference for meat
    sacrifices prior to punishing Cain for giving vegetables. (Considering that we’re discussing the interpretation of a story, reading more closely is probably the way to go.)

    I agree; you should read more closely.

    1. I see no indication that Cain was punished for his offering. The story only suggests that god preferred Abel’s, and didn’t care for Cain’s. If I do not care for a gift that my father gives me, but prefer a gift that my aunt gives me, I am not “punishing” my father. Even if Cain were punished for his offering, so what? I would agree that is a dick move on God’s part, but I’m not sure how you could use that to argue that WE don’t know what Cain did wrong.

    I don’t find it particularly relevant that God doesn’t explicitly tell Cain what he wants for a sacrifice. There’s no indication he was expecting or demanding a sacrifice. Cain and Abel simply offered him one. Maybe Cain should have asked before he got all huffy. Either Cain already knew, because of sacrifices offered by his parents, or he didn’t know, in which case, after the sacrifices, now he does. God basically says afterward “Hey, you win some you lose some.” If that’s “punishment” then I am the product of an abusive childhood.

    (And anyway, even if Cain didn’t know what he did wrong there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he had reason to think it was “not killing Abel.” In fact since he hides the truth about his actions we know that he KNEW (or at least felt) that was wrong. Else why hide it?)

    2. Quality is mentioned – but as you say, only with regard to the proper offering. It follows that the quality of the improper offering is not relevant. If it were relevant, it would be mentioned.

    That is how stories work. Stories do not work by omitting crucial details. That is what we call a badly written story, i.e. one that doesn’t work.

    3. The only distinction between the offerings cited by the story is that one was meat and one was vegetables. If you want to posit some other random difference that you made up, then that is fanfic.

    You may call me arrogant, but I call these ridiculous attempts to muddy the water with random conjectures unsupported by the text sloppy and irresponsible. I can make up all kinds of alternative interpretations for stories – maybe the evil queen actually disliked Snow White because White once tried to kill the queen in her sleep. Maybe Fairie Godmother is a code word for the transvestite Cinderella beat to death for his lovely slippers. Maybe Wilson was secretly banging Jill Taylor behind Tim’s back all those years. But let’s not go and suggest that these crackpot theories are equally plausible interpretations of the author’s intent. To do so is commensurate with saying “Maybe it was just a really, really badly written story.”

    To tell a child that asking a question that is clearly answered by the text is somehow missing the point, especially when the child is probably thinking “Shit, I don’t want God to ignore MY sacrifice!” is rude. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, one that you are asking me to believe the author (or recorder) simply left on the cutting the room floor, even though a perfectly plausible reason is actually given right there in the story. It’s disrespectful to the story and to the child.

  • Lori

     That is how stories work. Stories do not work by omitting crucial details. That is what we call a badly written story, i.e. one that doesn’t work.  

    If you think that a story that works has to spell out all the crucial details and can’t provide important information by implication then I have no idea what to say to you. I also have no idea what you’ve been reading. 

    And with that, I’m out of this because I see nothing worthwhile to be gained by continuing. 

  • lofgren

    A story can imply some things, but if you want me to believe that your inference is more compelling than the actual words on the actual page, you’re going to have to do a lot better than what you’ve offered. Yes, the story mentions the quality of Abel’s sacrifice. But so what? It says explicitly that Abel offered meat and Cain offered vegetables, and that God preferred the meat. All you have to offer is “Maybe it was the quality that was important.” But we can’t infer that the quality was important because the quality of Cain’s sacrifice is unknown. That’s just making shit up.

  • Lori

    A story can imply some things, but if you want me to believe that your inference is more compelling than the actual words on the actual page, you’re going to have to do a lot better than what you’ve offered. Yes, the story mentions the quality of Abel’s sacrifice. But so what? It says explicitly that Abel offered meat and Cain offered vegetables, and that God preferred the meat. All you have to offer is “Maybe it was the quality that was important.” But we can’t infer that the quality was important because the quality of Cain’s sacrifice is unknown. That’s just making shit up.  

    Have you ever read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James or Going After Cacciato Tim O’Brien. How about the short story, “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”, by Ron Carlson?

    I am dying to know what you think happened in the stories. 

  • lofgren

    I know Turn of the Screw. What’s your question?

  • Lori

     I know Turn of the Screw. What’s your question?  

    What do you think happened in that story?

    You’ve said that stories only work if they lay out all the crucial details and don’t demand any inferences. I’m trying to figure out what, with that attitude, you do with stories that have unreliable narrators. 

  • lofgren

    You’ve said that stories only work if they lay out all the crucial details and don’t demand any inferences.

    That is a lie.

    I said that stories only work if they include all of the crucial details. That includes all crucial details needed to make necessary inferences.

    In this situation, you are asserting that you can safely make the inference that God was displeased by Cain’s offering because Cain’s vegetables were of a poor quality. But you have no evidence of this. You cannot infer it based on the details provided by the story. You have to invent the additional detail that Cain’s offering was of poor quality – a detail not attested by the text at all.

    You are claiming to know how a character felt about something that you cannot know. That’s not an inference, it’s a wild-ass guess.

    As I recall, and it’s been a while so forgive me if I can’t quite remember, Turn of the Screw is about a woman who agrees to be the governess for some children. She comes to believe that the house they are in is haunted. I feel like she ends up killing one of the children, but I am very fuzzy on that. I might be confusing it with a movie that was very similar to the book. In any event I think what you are trying to get at is that it remains ambiguous as to whether there really was a ghost or if the governess has gone mad, at least as I recall.

    I am still unclear on the relevance of this. Turn of the Screw is a story. If it is ambiguous, then it is ambiguous. Asking what really happened is as pointless as asking whether Cain’s veggies were rotten, or whether he chose the lady or the tiger, or if Banquo’s ghost was really there or not. The crucial evidence is simply not there. But that is not the case that we have. We have a perfectly plausible explanation before us, and NO details to imply elsewise. The only way you can infer something else is by positing extra information. It is as if the story ended “And then the tiger ate him.” And you say “Haha! But what if ‘Tiger’ was a pet name for the lady!?” It’s grasping at straws. And it’s silly.

  • Lori

     That is a lie.  

     
    A little OTT, especially considering that your earlier misreading of what I write. But, whatever. I said that stories only work if they include all of the crucial details. That includes all crucial details needed to make necessary inferences.   

    Your standards for what is and is not crucial seem to move to fit the moment. I was right when I said that this exchange is essentially pointless. 

    In this situation, you are asserting that you can safely make the inference that God was displeased by Cain’s offering because Cain’s vegetables were of a poor quality. But you have no evidence of this. You cannot infer it based on the details provided by the story. You have to invent the additional detail that Cain’s offering was of poor quality – a detail not attested by the text at all.You are claiming to know how a character felt about something that you cannot know. That’s not an inference, it’s a wild-ass guess.  

    To quote you, this is a lie. 

    What I said is that some people interpret the story that way and that such an interpretation is not so far-fetched as to be out of the question. 

    You are clearly very attached to your interpretation of the story. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is you acting like there’s no reasonable way that anyone could see it differently. Your continued insistence on that is arrogant and annoying. And I say that as a person who isn’t really invested in the story and has no religious beliefs based on it. 

  • P J Evans

    I’m trying to figure out what, with that attitude, you do with stories that have unreliable narrators.
    Probably hse takes them literally. (I’m not seeing any understanding from hir that stories are metaphorical. Are you?)

  • lofgren

    And also, why is Turn of the Screw relevant? It’s a first person narrative, recounted by an unreliable storyteller. That’s very different from what we have in Cain and Abel, which is supposedly a story handed down from God himself – but even if it isn’t (or if you consider god to be unreliable), it still does not follow that the storyteller omitted crucial details to the understanding of his own story.

    Are you claiming that there is some contextual evidence that Cain’s sacrifice was of a poor quality? If so, please indicate. Because there is a whole raft of evidence that god prefers meat to vegetables. If you expect me to believe that your inference is more compelling than explicitly stated text, you have a lot of work to do.

    Or are you claiming that crucial details to understanding the events of Turn of the Screw were totally omitted? I don’t recall feeling that way.

  • Lori

     It’s a first person narrative, recounted by an unreliable storyteller. 

    Yes it is. That means that there are crucial details of the story that are not spelled out. And yet, the story works just fine. 

    You see my point? 

  • Anonymous

    “You may call me arrogant, but I call these ridiculous attempts to muddy the water with random conjectures unsupported by the text sloppy and irresponsible.”

    I was raised to call it ‘midrash’. I was also raised to consider someone who thought there was only one way to read a story, biblical or otherwise, and believed that the first surface explanation that caught their eye explained everything an ignoramus.

    Isn’t it interesting how many ways there are to approach a text?

  • lofgren

    Thus far, nobody has offered any alternate interpretations that do not rely on rewriting the story to include additional details not in evidence.

    Lori is the only one of you who has had the guts to actually share her interpretation – that God was displeased not by the vegetables themselves, but by bad quality vegetables. There is ZERO evidence of this in the text. Cain offered vegetables. It is not an “inference” that they were poor quality vegetables, it is completely made up.

    If you want to posit that the story has a message regarding God’s preferences, put up or shut up. Show me why I should believe that god was upset by some other aspect of Cain’s offering besides its general content.

    Stories have subtext. Nobody is disputing that. But that is not what this discussion is about. this is about whether or not the question “Why was god unhappy with Cain’s offering” has an answer. I say it does. God was unhappy with Cain’s offering because it was not fatty meat.

    If you have another “deeper” interpretation, please do offer it. but also be prepared to defend it, because at the moment I see no reason to distrust the explicit statements of the text.

  • Lori

     Lori is the only one of you who has had the guts to actually share her interpretation – that God was displeased not by the vegetables themselves, but by bad quality vegetables. There is ZERO evidence of this in the text. Cain offered vegetables. It is not an “inference” that they were poor quality vegetables, it is completely made up.  

    Again, it’s not my interpretation. It is an interpretation with which I am familiar and that I do not think is unreasonable. 

    “Completely made up.” I do not think that means what you think it means. 

    You must have been a real joy in English class. 

  • Anonymous

    “If you have another “deeper” interpretation, please do offer it. but also be prepared to defend it, because at the moment I see no reason to distrust the explicit statements of the text.”

    I’m not arguing for a particular interpretation. I just think that your staunch determination to reject anything but your own interpretation is quite silly.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Lori is the only one of you who has had the guts to actually share her interpretation

    What’s with the personal attacks?

    Several of us have not been engaging in the interpretation of Cain and the vegetables (I wasn’t until my last post, anyway) so we hadn’t shared our interpretation because we weren’t talking about the subject.

    Do you think you can cut down the antagonistic language a bit?

  • lofgren

     I am getting frustrated because I have offered an interpretation, and several others have said essentially that my interpretation is not the only one possible. Nobody has shown any weakness in my interpretation. There are no gaps, no logical inconsistencies, no irrationalities or impossibilities beyond the fantastical premise itself. Only the repetitive chant that there exist, somewhere, somehow, superior or at least equally plausible interpretations that no one will share with me.

    I am perfectly willing to consider other interpretations. What I am not willing to do is accept a weaker interpretation that has less textual evidence going for it.

    Folks have called me stubborn and arrogant for believing mine is the correct interpretation, but only one other has been offered and not even Lori, who originally offered it, is willing to defend it.

    Until somebody offers another interpretation, then mine is the only one I have to go on. I can’t stubbornly refuse to consider another interpretation if nobody offers one. It’s not arrogant for me to insist that mine is the best if nobody will measure theirs against mine.

    Only one alternative has been offered. I find it wanting, because it requires greater leaps than mine does, including assuming details that the storyteller himself did not find relevant enough to include. As the quality of Cain’s sacrifice is not attested to, we cannot infer that god was displeased by it. That’s at least one step too far – you have to invent the detail that Cain’s offering was of poor quality, and then you have to infer that (even though this detail was not considered worth mentioning by the recorder of the story) quality was the crucial aspect of Cain’s sacrifice that displeased God. You can’t do that. Once you have made the first step, every step following it is your own invention.

    If you have an actual position, something concrete that we can measure against my interpretation, by all means bring it on. I am not afraid to be wrong. But I will not say that my interpretation is equal to some ethereal, unstated alternative that I have never seen and that no one will actually present to me. Absent other options, I really have no choice but to rely upon my own interpretation.

  • Lori

     Only one alternative has been offered. I find it wanting, because it requires greater leaps than mine does, including assuming details that the storyteller himself did not find relevant enough to include. 

    No, it does not depend on greater leaps than yours. It depends on weighting things differently, on a different method of parsing the text. 

    Let’s try this one more time. In the story the quality of one sacrifice is mentioned and nothing specific is said about the quality of the other sacrifice. So, we’re 50-50 on comments about quality. Exactly why does that clearly indicate the quality does not matter? You say that if quality mattered there would have been an explicit statement about the quality of Cain’s sacrifice. Others say that if quality didn’t matter nothing would have been said about the quality of Abel’s sacrifice. 

    How do you get from there to telling people that the text obviously supports your position and the opposite position is clearly a weaker argument? Your inability to see any point of view other than your own is why I’ve called you arrogant, and I stand by that. 

  • lofgren

    In the story the quality of one sacrifice is mentioned and nothing
    specific is said about the quality of the other sacrifice. So, we’re
    50-50 on comments about quality. Exactly why does that clearly indicate
    the quality does not matter? You say that if quality mattered there
    would have been an explicit statement about the quality of Cain’s
    sacrifice. Others say that if quality didn’t matter nothing would have
    been said about the quality of Abel’s sacrifice.

    I don’t think that’s a reasonable assertion. It is the quality of Cain’s offering that the story hinges on, not the quality of Abel’s. The instigating event is god’s displeasure with Cain’s offering. Clearly he expected god to be pleased. Abel got the reaction he expected – that is why we ask “What did Cain do wrong?” We assume that a gift will be appreciated. When it is not, that turn of events begs explanation, not the other way around. Therefore no matter how much you say about Abel’s offering, omitting the cause of God’s disinterest in Cain’s is an oversight.

    Let’s compare another situation. For Christmas, I got a TV and a hat. I like the TV but I don’t like the hat.

    Not liking the hat is the oddity here. Say this to fifty people after Christmas. Fifty of them will say immediately, “What’s wrong with the hat?”

    Elaborating. For Christmas, I got a plasma TV and a hat. I like the TV but I don’t like the hat.

    Obviously it makes no sense to assume that I don’t like the hat because it’s not plasma, nor does it make sense to assume that the hat is of shoddy quality. Say this to fifty people and unless they are flatscreen enthusiasts they will immediately ask “What’s wrong with the hat?”

    For Christmas, I got a 1080p plasma TV and a hat.
    I got a 1080p plasma TV with a swiveling mount arm and a hat.
    I got a 1080p plasma TV with a swiveling mount arm and 3d glasses, and a hat.
    I got a 1080p plasma TV with a swiveling mount arm, 3d glasses and a yearlong subscription to the Playboy channel, and a hat.

    I don’t like the hat.

    I’m not going to say that you will get the exact same reaction from all fifty people by the time you get to the last one. Too many opportunities to be distracted. But still, there is no indication that the hat is of a poor quality. I just don’t like it. The quality of the TV, no matter how elaborate, is not sufficient to draw conclusions about the quality of the hat. And after you are done talking about how awesome your new TV is, I’ll wager more than half of those folks will still either circle back ’round or walk away wondering what the hell was wrong with that damn hat.

    In a casual retelling, that omission might be happenstance. In the bible, that is impossible. It cannot be an accident that this question which begs, pleads for an answer was left out by mistake, not in a book that devotes HUGE swathes of text to how to avoid displeasing god. There are only two conclusions that do not require inventing additional details that are not in evidence: either God does not like hats, or whatever aspect of the hat displeased god is simply unknowable. The omission is glaring, either way.

    That, combined with the pages and pages devoted to animal sacrifice in the coming chapters (which I absolutely consider fair textual evidence), coupled with the higher valuation of blood sacrifice in, again, almost every single sacrificial tradition, suggest to me very strongly that one of the several lessons in Cain and Abel is that god prefers meat.

    How do you get from there to telling people that the text obviously
    supports your position and the opposite position is clearly a weaker
    argument?

    Because that’s my opinion. It’s not that I can’t see your point of view. I just think you’re wrong. Did we all just abdicate our opinions at some point when I wasn’t paying attention? When did it become arrogant to have an opinion and defend it? I refuse to tiptoe through life pretending I think that all opinions are equal. If I thought a different position was better than mine, I would change my position. The fact that I hold this position means that I think it is clearly the stronger one. Otherwise it would not be my position.

  • Lori

     Because that’s my opinion. It’s not that I can’t see your point of view. I just think you’re wrong. Did we all just abdicate our opinions at some point when I wasn’t paying attention? When did it become arrogant to have an opinion and defend it? I refuse to tiptoe through life pretending I think that all opinions are equal. If I thought a different position was better than mine, I would change my position.The fact that I hold this position means that I think it is clearly the stronger one. Otherwise it would not be my position.  

    So now we’ve gotten to the part of this discussion where you try to turn the fact that you’re acting like an ass into a virtue. I figured we’d get there eventually. 

    Fine, my position is that I think you’re an arrogant ass. I’ve explained why. You say that you’re not. I think you’re wrong. 

  • ako

    I got a 1080p plasma TV with a swiveling mount arm, 3d glasses and a yearlong subscription to the Playboy channel, and a hat.

    See, if I heard this, my first assumption would be that, unlike the television, the hat was unimpressive and you didn’t particularly like it.  I routinely hear people talk this way (prominently highlighting the positive features of one thing while completely failing to say anything good about the second thing), as a way of expressing displeasure without quite coming out and saying it.  I wouldn’t come to any conclusions about what specifically was wrong with the had, but I’d guess that there was something about it you found undesirable.  Because that is how I normally hear English used.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I offered an alternative interpretation. The story is not about what food God likes best but how it is appropriate (or not) to react to circumstances favouring someone else over you.

    Here’s a weakness I perceive in your interpretation: implicit in the assertion that the story is solely about telling people that God likes meat better than vegetables is that the millions of people for whom this story forms part of their religious literature are shallow idiots.

  • lofgren

    I offered an alternative interpretation. The story is not about
    what food God likes best but how it is appropriate (or not) to react to
    circumstances favouring someone else over you.

    That’s not an “alternative.” I agree 100% that this is one of the lessons of the story. I said so in my very first post on this topic. This is no way disagrees with me. I am only arguing that the reason that Cain’s sacrifice was not appreciated by god is a. knowable and b. because god prefers meat to veggies. I have never said anything about the rest of the story because I agreed with the very first proffered interpretation, that Cain’s reaction was a lesson about how to handle your own feelings, not about other people’s feelings. I do not believe there is any conflict here.

    implicit in the assertion that the story is solely about telling people that God likes meat better than vegetables

    Whoever argues that is the sole meaning of the story is probably an idiot. Glad it’s not me. Since, y’know, I never said that, and have repeatedly stated the opposite since my first post on this topic.

    Again, my claim:
    Cain’s folly is knowable.
    The folly is that god prefers meat.

    That’s all.

  • Lori

     Again, my claim:

    Cain’s folly is knowable.
    The folly is that god prefers meat.

    That’s all. 

    So, you make statments like this, complete with “that’s all” and “the rest if fanficiton”, and then say that it’s ridiculous for people to think that you believe that God’s preference for meat is the sole meaning of the story? Do you not see the problem with that? 

  • P J Evans

    I am getting frustrated because I have offered an interpretation, and
    several others have said essentially that my interpretation is not the
    only one possible. Nobody has shown any weakness in my interpretation

    Then you’re missing the point of the discussion.
    It isn’t about whether your interpretation is the only one possible. That’s clearly wrong, because it’s been shown to be not the only interpretation around.
    It isn’t about whether yours is correct: if it works for you, fine; we can live with that.
    It’s about you insisting that you have the Only Correct Interpretation, and everyone else is Doin It Rong, and that it Must Be Literal.
    And that’s where you’re wrong.

  • Tonio

    It isn’t about whether yours is correct: if it works for you, fine; we can live with that.

    If the text is indeed communication from a god, then it’s reasonable to suspect that the god intended for only one interpretation. Or more precisely, it’s prudent to try to figure out which interpretation the god intended, because if one uses an interpretation that works for one’s self, the god might not like that. It would be like not understanding an item on a shopping list and coming home with the wrong item that doesn’t work with the recipe.

  • Lori

     If the text is indeed communication from a god, then it’s reasonable to suspect that the god intended for only one interpretation.   

    It depends on who you ask. Jews a pretty big on the idea that what god intended is for us to think about things and work them through, not that there was one correct answer that we’re supposed to suss out. 

  • Tonio

    Jews a pretty big on the idea that what god intended is for us to think about things and work them through

    While that idea sounds appealing, I don’t know why that would be any more likely than the scenario I suggested. The Jewish idea may be too good to be true, or too much to expect. With any immensely powerful being, human or otherwise, it may be safer to walk on eggshells and possibly find out it’s not necessary. Like having a first-aid kit in one’s car.

  • Lori

    Obviously I don’t believe any of it one way or the other, but in general I don’t think opting for fear is actually always the best way to go. 

  • P J Evans

    With any immensely powerful being, human or otherwise, it may be safer
    to walk on eggshells and possibly find out it’s not necessary. Like
    having a first-aid kit in one’s car

    If you have to walk on eggshells, then you’re dealing with a being who probably is not good to or for you. Especially when we keep being told that God loves us as a father (or, more likely, a mother). That isn’t healthy love….

  • Tonio

    If you have to walk on eggshells, then you’re dealing with a being who probably is not good to or for you.

    Yes, that was implied in my post. If the universe was ruled by a god that was in fact abusive, we wouldn’t have any recourse. There wouldn’t be a cosmic equivalent of Child Protective Services to place us with a foster god.

  • ako

    It depends on how you see things. Walking on eggshells may reduce the risk of harm, but if the universe is run by an abusive god, I figure I’m screwed anyways. Abusers always make up an excuse to blame the victim, no matter how the victim behaves. May as well enjoy life, as death would put me completely at the abuser’s mercy and they don’t need the added power of controlling my life.

    If there is a non-abusive god (or multiple non-abusive gods), and I am not getting any clear messages, may as well live my life the best way I know how and arrive at the afterlife claiming honest ignorance and relying on divine mercy to keep me from cruel or unjust punishment.

    And if there is no god, and life is all I have, I don’t want to waste it in fear of a nonexistent monster,

  • Tonio

    if the universe is run by an abusive god, I figure I’m screwed anyways.

    I thought about that, and you would be right if we were talking about a consistently abusive god, where one would reasonably predict the god’s reactions. I was postulating an abusive personality where the reaction is unpredictable to a large extent, coupled with the general inscrutability of personalities. Your post and Lori’s seem to imply that fear is a choice, instead of a lizard-brain response or Pavlovian response where one has to fight to overcome the fear.

  • ako

    Actually, an unpredictably abusive god seems to support my point even better. If the god is unpredictably abusive, there is no reason to think that one might placate it by figuring out what it wants, as it could change its mind at any moment and turn nasty.

    Feelings of fear are not a choice. What one does about them, to a certain extent, is. It is possible to be abused and kept in terror for so long that one gets stuck in the lizard brain placating crouch. If that happens, the only good answer I can see is for someone who is powerful enough to stop the abuser and free the victim, then try to help the victim heal. If the abuse is ongoing and hopeless, I wouldn’t criticize a victim for constantly trying to placate the abuser, but neither would I encourage them. I’d just be really, really sad, and try to find out of there was any good I could do.

  • Tonio

    You’re right that trying to placate such a being wouldn’t make any sense. I wonder how many people would actually have the courage to defy the being. If put in the place of Abraham, how many would tell the god, “I won’t sacrifice my son! It would be wrong of me to do it, and dammit, it’s wrong for you to ask me to do it for any reason.” I would think that even people who haven’t been traumatized and who wouldn’t hesitate to defy a much more powerful human would hesitate if a god tormented them directly, or if the god asked them to do something that conflicted with their most deeply held senses of right and wrong.

    In any case, my original point was about the inability to discern the personality of something like a god, and the persistent idea in theology that a god would be benevolent or at least just.

  • P J Evans

    Have those theologians ever heard of Loki? How about Madame Pele? And Coyote. And a lot of other gods and goddesses, who may not be either benevolent or just.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    Have those theologians ever heard of Loki?

    Loki is why the Norse gods can’t have nice things.

  • ako

    See, when you said:

    With any immensely powerful being, human or otherwise, it may be safer
    to walk on eggshells and possibly find out it’s not necessary. Like
    having a first-aid kit in one’s car.

    I took it as you suggesting it was the wisest course of action to assume a capricious and abusive god, and seek to placate it.

    I certainly agree that it’s wise to consider the possibility of a malevolent god, or a god of limited benevolence, or multiple gods of varying degrees of benevolent, or no god at all, alongside the idea of an omnibenevolent god, and develop one’s conclusions based on available evidence.  I was largely disagreeing with the idea that it is advisable to assume an abusive god and also seek to placate it.  If that’s not what you were saying, we aren’t in disagreement.

    I also think it would be difficult to oppose a god, and most people would hesitate.  A malevolent god would probably be like a dictator, only more so.  Even if the best hope is to stop them, the demoralization of horrible conditions, combined with the constant fear that one might be caught disobeying and things might get even worse, can be incredibly discouraging.  It takes exceptional heroism to stand up to such a being.  If such a being were proven to exist, it seems like the only hope would be for exceptional heroism (which happens sometimes, and isn’t beyond the realm of possibility).

  • Tonio

    I certainly agree that it’s wise to consider the possibility
    of a malevolent god, or a god of limited benevolence, or multiple gods
    of varying degrees of benevolent, or no god at all, alongside the idea
    of an omnibenevolent god, and develop one’s conclusions based on
    available evidence.

    Yes. I would include an indifferent god in that list of possibilities. By way of answer to P J, what we know as “theology” seems to be limited to Christian preconceptions about deities. From my limited knowledge of Judaism and Islam, their scholarly endeavors focus instead on Jewish and Islamic law. Obviously the idea of an omnibenevolent god is appealing, but that has nothing to do with its likelihood.

    I was largely disagreeing with the idea that it is advisable to assume an abusive god and also seek to placate it.

    And I wasn’t advocating that idea. Instead, I was arguing against the opposite assumption. Would it be unfair to theologians to speculate that they focus on an omnibenevolent god because that’s the type of being they want to exist? If anything, I might assume that one wouldn’t want to get on a god’s bad side, which is not the same thing as assuming an abusive being.

  • P J Evans

    It would be like not understanding an item on a shopping list and coming
    home with the wrong item that doesn’t work with the recipe.

    That happens. (Self-rising flour doesn’t sub for all-purpose.)

    Since I don’t think the Bible was written, or even dictated, by God, I don’t think that it’s restricted to Only One Interpretation.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Lori is the only one of you who has had the guts to actually share her
    interpretation – that God was displeased not by the vegetables
    themselves, but by bad quality vegetables. There is ZERO evidence of
    this in the text. Cain offered vegetables. It is not an “inference” that
    they were poor quality vegetables, it is completely made up.

    What the fuck am I? Chopped liver? The screencap is one of my posts on the first damned page.

  • lofgren

     I thought that yours and my interpretations were in agreement. I don’t consider yours to be competing with mine. We both see that section of the story as arguing that meat is more pleasing to god than vegetables.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    As it happens, I disagree.

    I’m an atheist and therefore do not believe in the divine origin of the Bible or in the authenticity of the story of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel.

    I read it as a purely metaphorical tale, as Fred does, though for different reasons.

    It is a tale which attempts to ascribe to the God-being of the story the same traits
    as humans, but that in turn is simply a reflection of cultural traits and may be encapsulated in “man created god, not the other way around.”

  • lofgren

     I’m not sure what you are disagreeing with. We seem to be in complete agreement. Please explain which of my arguments you disagree with.

  • Matri

    I certainly don’t regard the story as true

    Oh really? Then can you please explain why you said all of these:

    It says it pretty clearly:

    Any other interpretation is deliberate obtuseness.

    Well look it says right here:

    You don’t regard the story as true, but you regard it as being literal? You’re being butthurt (sorry everyone) by the fact that everyone isn’t taking the story as being literal and in its re-re-re-translated entirety.

    Take a look in the mirror, re-read your own Bible while taking your own advice about not ignoring context. The context being that if your bible isn’t in aramaic then it isn’t the original.

    That’s the story. Anything else is fanfic.

  • lofgren

     I don’t think any of us are working with the original aramaic, which would only matter if you believe the story to be true. If you believe the story to be true, then asking additional questions about the sacrifice makes sense, because those additional details exist and, presumably, could be tested if we had some kind of time machine.

    But since the story is a story, those additional details are nothing more than something the interpreter is making up.

    The only way that positing some other factor as the cause of God’s disapproval has any meaning is if you assume the story actually happened. If you assume the story is a story, then it must contain all of the information necessary to understand it, because any information not included in the story doesn’t exist.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    But since the story is a story, those additional details are nothing more than something the interpreter is making up.

    Okay, that is pretty fucking offensive to a person of faith who has enough intelligence to believe that a story can be meaningful and reveal fundamental truths without being literal history.  

  • lofgren

     I don’t think it should be. If you do not believe that Cain or Abel existed, or that their sacrifice ever occurred, then you have to admit that asking additional questions about Cain’s sacrifice (e.g. the quality of the vegetables) is fruitless. The sacrifice never actually happened, so this question has no answer that is not the invention of the interpreter.

    What’s weird is that I am arguing that this story reveals a simple truth: God prefers meat to vegetables. Lori is arguing that, actually, the source of God’s displeasure is NOT revealed by the story. In order to interpret it that way, she must posit additional details not attested to by the story. Because if you just read the story without inventing details about Cain’s offering, it’s pretty clear that the source of God’s displeasure is the in the different content of the sacrifices.

    God likes: fat of the first born.
    God doesn’t like: vegetables of any kind.

    I’m the only one arguing that the story reveals that. Everybody else is arguing that the story says:

    God likes: fat of the first born.
    God doesn’t like: ????

  • P J Evans

    How about trying to follow this:
    God likes the best quality items from whatever is produced.
    Giving God less than the best makes God unhappy.
    God was happy with Cain’s offering.
    God was unhappy with Abel’s offering.
    Therefore:
    Abel didn’t give his best stuff.

  • lofgren

    That’s backwards. Your assertion that god likes the best stuff is not in evidence in the story. This is, again, you making stuff up. When you make something up, especially when you claim to know the mind of god, you’re rewriting the story with an alternate character interpretation. That is fanfic. It is not fair literary criticism.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    If you do not believe that Cain or Abel existed, or that their sacrifice ever occurred, then you have to admit that asking additional questions about Cain’s sacrifice (e.g. the quality of the vegetables) is fruitless.

    No, we don’t. We can ask whatever questions we like.

    What’s weird is that I am arguing that this story reveals a simple truth: God prefers meat to vegetables.

    I think you stopped reading before you got to the end of the story.

    Cain and Abel, the man of the city and the pastoralist, natural competitors, both offer sacrifices. God likes Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Maybe because, in context, Abel’s sacrifice showed more generosity or greater faith (the author of the Letter to the Hebrews seems to think so). Maybe not, although it’s interesting and, I think, edifying to reflect on the question.

    Either way, things were good for Abel but less so for Cain. Cain gets the shits. God asks Cain why he hath the shits and assures him that if his actions are good he will be accepted.

    Cain goes and murders Abel. Wait, what? What the hell did Abel do? Now Cain is in trouble.

    Stuff happens all the time that is good for one and not another; maybe there’s a good reason for it but maybe there’s not and that’s the way things go. But justice isn’t served by turning on the innocently fortunate. God didn’t punish Cain for questioning, but he did punish him for lashing out at his brother. I think there’s more to be gleaned from the story than “God has random preferences”.

  • Anonymous

    “I don’t think any of us are working with the original aramaic,”

    First, HEBREW.

    Secondly, I can read Biblical Hebrew. And Aramaic, to some extent. Lots of people can. Why in the world would you think no one at Fred’s blog would?

  • lofgren

    I don’t doubt that you do. I only doubt that you are working with the original story. (See that word “original?”) Because as far as I know, that is impossible. These stories were very likely oral traditions long before they were ever recorded, and their inventor is long dead. So when I say you are not working with original language, the keyword is original.

  • Anonymous

    Ah, we’re going for the ‘we don’t have the original, original, original oral text’ thing. I was somewhat confused by the use of ‘Aramaic’, a language that did not exist at the time the original original was being spread around.

    That’s true. Somewhat irrelevent, but true. We do, however, have a text, and textual intepretation is an old and hallowed tradition.

    So, let’s examine your interpretation. Do you have any insight into why the first murder in human history is framed as a fight following the revelation that God, like George Bush Sr., doesn’t like broccoli?

  • lofgren

    Ah, we’re going for the ‘we don’t have the original, original, original
    oral text’ thing. I was somewhat confused by the use of ‘Aramaic’, a
    language that did not exist at the time the original original was being
    spread around.

    Don’t blame me for that. It was some other poster who brought translations into it, insisting that I have to read the story in Aramaic or else I can’t have an authoritative interpretation. It’s true I brought the “original” criteria to bear, because in truth it would not be sufficient to read an untranslated version of the tale, just as it’s not sufficient to read any modern retelling of an ancient myth and call it accurate to the original.

    So, let’s
    examine your interpretation. Do you have any insight into why the first
    murder in human history is framed as a fight following the revelation
    that God, like George Bush Sr., doesn’t like broccoli?

    I should think it obvious that pleasing God through sacrifice is a major theme of the old testament. It starts here, with the basic division between the value of meat and vegetables, and proceeds throughout to get more specific.

  • Anonymous

    “Take a look in the mirror, re-read your own Bible while taking your own advice about not ignoring context. The context being that if your bible isn’t in aramaic then it isn’t the original.”

    Hebrew. Hebrew. The Gemara is in Aramaic.

  • Anonymous

    “That’s the story. Anything else is fanfic.”

    That’s the most obvious interpretation which occurs to you.

    In my tradition, we don’t assume that what we see on the surface of the text is all there is.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Of course if Fred can reinterpret the story of Adam and Eve as purely metaphorical despite several millennia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims treating it as literal history, I guess you can reinterpret Cain and Abel as not about making an appropriate sacrifice to god

    You know that this isn’t acutally *true*, right? I mean, in terms of factual accuracy, your statement lacks it.

    The idea of there *being a distinction* between “literal history” and allegory is comparatively recent (compared to the age of the hewbrew scriptures), even in the theoretical sense, and in the folk sense, the idea that the first few chapters of Genesis are “true” in a way that, say, fairy tales are not is even more recent (Well, I imagine that your average tenth century peasant would tell you that the story of Adam and Eve is “truer” than the three little pigs, but not because one is a chronicle of events that actually happened and the other isn’t). 

    The idea that literal history is one thing, and that ahistorical alegorical stories are another, and that the bible is the former and not the latter is largely an Enlightenment-era concept, and the form we know it in today is pretty much the work of nineteenth-century proto-fundamentalists.

  • lofgren

    This sounds so absurd to me I am tempted to simply ignore it, but I’ll bite.

    What evidence can you provide that people prior to the enlightenment made no distinction between literal truth and metaphor?

    It just sounds so ridiculous – like a dude could walk into his buddy’s house and say “I just got totally screwed by some guy at the market,” and the buddy wouldn’t even be able to distinguish between the dude getting overcharged, having homosexual intercourse, or actually having a screw drilled into his body. You’re really asking me to believe a lot, that the human brain was profoundly different for most of written human history. That’s a tough sell, on par with something like the bicameral mind, an interesting thought but nigh impossible to actually prove.

    I would also like to see some evidence that the folk did not regard Adam and Eve as actual people for the majority of pre-enlightenment Christendom. Again, it’s just a hard thing to buy. You’re essentially asking me to believe that all the authority of the Catholic church stemmed from a collection of stories that the average person had about as much regard for as Red Riding Hood. These people literally burned literal people for, what, a slight preference for some other pretty stories? Are you suggesting that clergy were no more respected than traveling bards? Just storytellers – nothing more.

    I certainly can’t take your word for this, because you’re asking me to ignore my eyes and believe that a major shift in the outlook of every human being occurred rather suddenly as a result of a few philosophers dissecting a puppy and looking through a telescope. Don’t get me wrong, I love this type of conjecture. Von Danniken and all that. It’s all very fascinating but not something I am just going to accept at your word.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    You’re essentially asking me to believe that all the authority of the Catholic church stemmed from a collection of stories that the average person had about as much regard for as Red Riding Hood.

    You’re pretty dismissive of the power of myth. I don’t know any Aboriginal peope who believe there was a physical Rainbow Serpent who created the landforms but I do know some for whom the story powerfully captures ideas and values about their relationship with the environment. I don’t believe there was a prophet called Jonah who was swallowed by a fish, spewed up on enemy territory and who bitched about God caring about people he hated, but the story resonates with me on a completely different level to Red Bloody Riding Hood.

  • lofgren

     I’m not dismissive of the power of myth. I am dismissive of the idea that before the enlightenment, humans were unable to distinguish between an allegory and a true history.

    I also find the claim that the bible was not regarded as a literal history highly dubious. In the modern world we have so much evidence that these stories are just stories, and people still cling to them as literal histories. You really expect me to believe that most pre-enlightenment humans were somehow so, hrm, enlightened that they understood that these were just clever stories?

    No, scratch that. You really expect me to believe that people couldn’t tell the difference?

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    No, scratch that. You really expect me to believe that people couldn’t tell the difference?

    Yes. 

    In a world where almost everyone was illiterate, the way you got your facts, ALL your facts, was word of mouth. Instead of history books, what you had was the memories of old people, and the stories told by family, friends, and the occasional minstrel.  And if Uncle Dick said things happened one way, and uncle Frank said they happened a slightly different way, who was anyone to say that the one was more “true” than the other?  

    Xenophon and Plato both give accounts of the trial of Socrates, which go generally the same way, but differ in numerous details. Who’s to say which one is “right”?

    Until Guttenberg, printed bibles of any sort were rare, and vernacular bibles were often incomplete, of varying quality, and not always authorized, which meant that when your average person heard the story of Adam and Eve, they weren’t reading scripture: they were hearing their priest recite something, probably from memory, likely their own paraphrase.  

    In a world that didn’t have a tradition of *documentary*, “history” itself was always “just clever stories”. The idea that “some stories reflect accurate literal events in the past, and others are Just Stories” wasn’t one that woudl square with their life experience.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’m not dismissive of the power of myth. I am dismissive of the idea that before the enlightenment, humans were unable to distinguish between an allegory and a true history.I also find the claim that the bible was not regarded as a literal history highly dubious. In the modern world we have so much evidence that these stories are just stories, and people still cling to them as literal histories. You really expect me to believe that most pre-enlightenment humans were somehow so, hrm, enlightened that they understood that these were just clever stories?No, scratch that. You really expect me to believe that people couldn’t tell the difference?

    You seem to be mixing us up. I’m not the person who made that point.

    I took issue with your assertion that applying modern definitions of historical writing to biblical literature was the standard interpretation for almost the entire history of the semitic faiths. Your rationale seems to be

    (a) reasoning that no one would give a shit unless they believed biblical literature to be absolute historical fact
    (b) noticing that this fundamentalist interpretation is common among conservative 20th and 21st century Americans, and reasoning that people in the past could not possibly be capable of greater nuance than a subset of contemporary Americans.

  • lofgren

     Not quite. My rationale is that:

    (a) Nobody save the truly insane or sadistic would wage centuries of war, give up their lives, empower a violent and authoritarian priestly class, murder their own daughters, or commit genocide over slight differences in interpretation of acknowledged fictions. Priests do not whip themselves bloody or castrate themselves over pretty tales.

    (b) Noticing that a very large and vocal swathe of Christians and Muslims since at least Galileo have held the stories as literal facts, to the point of murdering those who disagree. Bishop Ussher was not a 20th century American. He was not some hayseed with no authority. At this time, 70% of Americans believe in angels, not some negligible subset.

    My general assumption, absent evidence to the contrary, is that people never change. I most certainly do find it hard to believe that people of the past would be capable of greater nuance than modern day humans. Especially when you consider the lack of alternative sources of information about the world, the limited travel, the deference to the authority of the church, and the autocratic nature of most governing bodies throughout world history.

    So yes, I do find it very difficult to believe that the crusades were fought over differing interpretations of stories that everybody agreed were just made up. Speaking as an atheist, arguing this position to me makes the crimes of great religious leaders even more monstrous. It’s one thing to fight a war over a belief that you have access to the real truth and that others are spreading lies. At least that I can understand. It’s quite another to slaughter (and die, and send others to die) for stories that you believe are just clever parables about human nature.

    I do not believe you could shape the world as religion has shaped it if it were the case that most people did not really believe the stories were anything but clever fictions. Quite simply,  I do not see humans interacting with fiction this way. Telling me otherwise requires me to accept a massive shift in human behavior – that our ancestors cared so much about literary criticism they were willing to slaughter each other over it.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Nobody save the truly insane or sadistic would wage centuries of war, give up their lives, empower a violent and authoritarian priestly class, murder their own daughters, or commit genocide over slight differences in interpretation of acknowledged fictions. Priests do not whip themselves bloody or castrate themselves over pretty tales.

    But they will do those thing over what they believe to be truths encapsulated in stories. Or, more commonly, to protect their own power and self-interest, for which they attempt to turn the messages in the stories to their own benefit.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Or to illustrate with a more concrete example:

    As I said before, I don’t believe there was a man named Jonah whose experiences are recorded in the book bearing his name. I will do nothing to defend the idea that there was.

    I do believe that God is concerned for people I can’t stand; a concept the story of Jonah beautifully conveys. I’ll do a lot to defend that truth.

  • Lori

    Now I think we might be getting somewhere. 

     So yes, I do find it very difficult to believe that the crusades were fought over differing interpretations of stories that everybody agreed were just made up.  

    The existence of differing interpretations of a story is not dependent on the story being acknowledged as fiction. People routinely differ in their interpretations of and beliefs about events which they all agree occurred. 

    I do not believe you could shape the world as religion has shaped it if it were the case that most people did not really believe the stories were anything but clever fictions. Quite simply,  I do not see humans interacting with fiction this way. Telling me otherwise requires me to accept a massive shift in human behavior – that our ancestors cared so much about literary criticism they were willing to slaughter each other over it.  

    You have totally missed the point of the way Fred, and many other people here, interpret the Bible. First and foremost, “not every story is literally true” =/= the entire thing is simply “clever fiction”.  

  • lofgren

    The existence of differing interpretations of a story is not dependent
    on the story being acknowledged as fiction. People routinely differ in
    their interpretations of and beliefs about events which they all
    agree occurred.

    I don’t disagree at all. I’m not sure why you think I do.

    You have
    totally missed the point of the way Fred, and many other people
    here, interpret the Bible. First and foremost, “not every story is
    literally true” =/= the entire thing is simply “clever fiction”.

    I don’t think I have missed the point at all, but perhaps our host will correct me if I am wrong. Fred does not believe that the stories of the bible literally occurred as they are written. Instead, he believes that they reveal deep truths about humanity and the universe through parables, imagery, and other literary devices. I happen to agree about the humanity part.

    But like the Bohr atom, it’s still a clever fiction. Even if you believe that there is a truth to the story, even a deep and revealing truth that is difficult to express otherwise, the story itself, if it did not literally occur, is a fiction. That’s pretty much the definition of fiction.

    I do not believe that people would do the things that they have done in the name of religion if they felt that the process of worship was basically literary analysis. I do not believe Fred is representative of that type of believer, and I do believe that type of believer is representative of most believers. My eyes and my ears tell me this. I do not see people going to war over different interpretations of Hamlet, even though I also believe it has something true to say about human nature. I do not see people going to war over Moby Dick. Deep in the bowels of the internet, there are people who will threaten to gouge out your eyes for preferring Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger, but as far as I know nobody has actually done it.

    And, as I have come to expect from you, you tell me that the bible is not a clever fiction (even though it is also not literally true), but don’t spare a single word to tell me what it is. If it is not fiction, and it is not literal history, what is it? What occupies this space between? It is a poor teacher who will only tell me what is not but can’t elucidate what is.

  • Lori

    Even if you
    believe that there is a truth to the story, even a deep and revealing
    truth that is difficult to express otherwise, the story itself, if it
    did not literally occur, is a fiction. That’s pretty much the definition of fiction. 

    You are quite a black & white thinker aren’t you? A thing is literally true of it’s just fiction. And apparently you think all fiction is fundamentally equal. Not everyone agrees with you and Fred is one who does not. (I’m not speaking for him. He’s written about this quite a lot in the past.)

    If you think that a story, while not literally true, was provided in order to teach you the truth about God then it’s not “just” fiction and yes, some people would be willing to go to the mattresses over the meaning of those stories.

    And, as I have come to expect from you, you tell me that the bible is
    not a clever fiction (even though it is also not literally true), but
    don’t spare a single word to tell me what it is. If it is not fiction,
    and it is not literal history, what is it? What occupies this space
    between? It is a poor teacher who will only tell me what is not but
    can’t elucidate what is.

    See above.

    Also note that I was raised in a religious family, but I’m an atheist and have been for a long time. I personally believe that the Bible is a collection of stories and other writings that tell us a great deal about humans in much the way history (often also not literally true), sociology and yes, straight fiction do.

  • lofgren

    A thing is literally true or it’s just fiction.

    No, a story literally happened or it is fiction. See: definition of fiction.

    And apparently you think all fiction is fundamentally equal.

    Cite please? I really have no idea where this is coming from. Suffice to say I do not believe it. There is revealing fiction and there is obscuring fiction. There is diverting fiction and there is trying fiction. There are fictions that feel more true than history and there are fictions that are always feel like lies no matter how many times you tell them. There are useful fictions and there are useless fictions, and there are fictions that cause harm.

    If you think that a story, while not literally true, was provided in
    order to teach you the truth about God then it’s not “just” fiction and
    yes, some people would be willing to go to the mattresses over the
    meaning of those stories.

    If you say so. For the purposes of this conversation, I will take your word for it. I still find it difficult to believe that for centuries people were so enlightened that they brought more critical evaluation to their foundational myths than they did to claims of sea creatures and cyclops, but if this is your firmly held belief, that the enlightenment actually brought about a steep downward spiral in the tendency of believers and their authorities to believe that these myths are literal histories, then I really can’t say anything to dissuade you.

    Still, we can say with authority that it has been the position of many large denominations that these stories are literally true since at least the 1500s, and I would assume that this belief did not arise instantly and without supporting tradition the second that Bishop Ussher put quill to parchment or Galileo put his eye to the lens. I amend my earlier statement to centuries, rather than millennia.

    And I will await that explanation of what how a story cannot be literal history, but also not fiction.

  • Lori

     If you say so. For the purposes of this conversation, I will take your word for it. I still find it difficult to believe that for centuries people were so enlightened that they brought more critical evaluation to their foundational myths than they did to claims of sea creatures and cyclops, but if this is your firmly held belief, that the enlightenment actually brought about a steep downward spiral in the tendency of believers and their authorities to believe that these myths are literal histories, then I really can’t say anything to dissuade you.  

    I never mentioned the Enlightenment at all, let alone put forth a firmly held belief about it.

    What I said has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. You’ve stated that you don’t believe that people would go to war over stories that they did not believe were literally true. I disagree with you. If people think that a story is telling them something about God and what does and does not please him some of them will fight over it, whether they think the events of the story literally happened or not. 

    You claim to think that people should state their opinions and you’ve patted yourself on the back for not “tiptoeing around”, but you seem unable to recognize when others do the same. 

     
    And I will await that explanation of what how a story cannot be literal history, but also not fiction.  

     

    I’ve explained this a couple times now. The problem is not that I haven’t offered opinions or explanations and it’s not that we don’t agree. The problem is that you can’t see any point of view other than your own. 

    If you want an illustration of how things can be approached differently see the earlier part of this conversation where Sgt Pepper’s Bleeding Hearts Club Band and I disagreed about the reading of the story of the prodigal. He and I see that story quite differently. His statement of his position didn’t change my feelings about it, but I understand his point of view and how he supports it. Both of us acknowledge that the text leaves out more than enough detail to open itself to multiple interpretations, not all of which are compatible with each other. 

    In contrast, this:

     
    If I thought a different position was better than mine, I would change my position.The fact that I hold this position means that I think it is clearly the stronger one. Otherwise it would not be my position. 

     

    is a very fundamentalist position. It’s especially dogmatic when one considers that we’re discussing Biblical interpretation and you claim to be an atheist. As an atheist myself I’m finding this all rather embarrassing. My one consolation is that I know most people here have enough experience with atheists not to believe we’re all like you. 

  • lofgren

    A thing is literally true or it’s just fiction.

    Also, I dispute the “just.” I don’t think I ever said that it was “just fiction” as if fiction is the lesser of the two. If I did, I hereby apologize to fiction.

    I think it is sad that you would assume that calling a story fiction is some sleight. I certainly don’t intend it that way. I revere fiction. When I say a story is fiction, it is not disparaging.

    I also believe that the bible “is a collection of stories and other writings that tell us a great deal
    about humans in much the way history (often also not literally true),
    sociology and yes, straight fiction do.” I’m just not clear on why you can’t acknowledge that those stories in the bible are fiction. I find it weird. And until you explain what makes them not fiction, I’m not sure you know either.

  • Lori

     I think it is sad that you would assume that calling a story fiction is some sleight. I certainly don’t intend it that way. I revere fiction. When I say a story is fiction, it is not disparaging.  

     

    Take your sadness for me and put it somewhere dark. I don’t think that calling a story fiction is a sleight. 

    The distinction I was making in referring to “just fiction” was not a sleight to fiction. My point is there’s fiction and then there’s fiction that people believe is being employed by God to communicate information about Himself that they, as humans, would otherwise be unable to understand. 

    You’re so focused on the idea that a thing is either literally true or its fiction that you’ve missed the entire point of the way Fred and many others read the Bible and understand their faith. 

  • Tonio

    My point is there’s fiction and then there’s fiction that people believe
    is being employed by God to communicate information about Himself that
    they, as humans, would otherwise be unable to understand.

    For me, that brings up the question of intent, which I hope is far different from Lofgren’s argument. I’ll leave the matter of whether the belief about the fiction is accurate or not, because even if the stories was created solely by humans, the question of intent remains the same. And that question is, how can the reader know if the message or meaning that zie picks up from the story is what the author intended it to mean? And if it isn’t, does it matter? If the stories are communications from a being, I would think it’s important for everyone to make sure they understood what’s being communicated as accurately as possible.

  • Matri

    You’re really asking me to believe a lot, that the human brain was profoundly different for most of written human history.

    I would also like to see some evidence that the folk did not regard Adam
    and Eve as actual people for the majority of pre-enlightenment
    Christendom.

    Again, you’re believing that the front page of a letter is written on paper and the back page is written on chlorine ice.

    You’re not consistent in your arguments. You’re not consistent in your “evidence”. But you are most certainly consistent in your inconsistencies.

    What evidence can you provide that people prior to the enlightenment made no distinction between literal truth and metaphor?

    It just sounds so ridiculous – like a dude could walk into his buddy’s
    house and say “I just got totally screwed by some guy at the market,”
    and the buddy wouldn’t even be able to distinguish between the dude
    getting overcharged, having homosexual intercourse, or actually having a
    screw drilled into his body.

    Here’s the evidence in your own words:

    That’s the story. Anything else is fanfic.

  • lofgren

     I don’t understand this at all. What does the paper stand for, and what does the chlorine ice represent? How is my criticism of others appending random inventions to the Cain and Abel story evidence that pre-enlightenment humans made no distinction between metaphor and literal history?

    Please rephrase your response, because you have totally lost me.

  • P J Evans

    You don’t seem to understand anything that isn’t literal.
    You can’t read and understand parables that way.
    You can’t read and understand the Bible that way, because most of it wasn’t written ‘literally’. (Most of it wasn’t written down until long after the period it was set in.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    You’re essentially asking me to believe that all the authority of the Catholic church stemmed from a collection of stories that the average person had about as much regard for as Red Riding Hood.

    Oh, and also: the story of Adam and Eve is somewhat peripheral to Christianity in comparison to the story of Jesus

  • lofgren

    Sure, but the claim is that humans could not distinguish between allegory and literal history. Presumably that would apply equally to Jesus as it would to Adam and Eve.

    Another thing: wouldn’t this have made trials impossible?

    Judge: “Did that man kill your son?”
    Witness: “Well, sure. I mean, my son is right there as alive as can be, but he killed him metaphorically and since we can’t tell the difference what with being pre-enlightenment storytellers, I guess I have to answer yes.”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Of course if Fred can reinterpret the story of Adam and Eve as purely metaphorical despite several millennia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims treating it as literal history

    Citation, please

  • Anonymous

    “Of course if Fred can reinterpret the story of Adam and Eve as purely metaphorical despite several millennia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims treating it as literal history”

    There are branches of all of those traditions that have also treated it as metaphorical for lo these many centuries, so it’s hardly like Fred came up with this off the top of his head.

  • Anonymous

    And as I’m sure you know, Fred, there is nothing in Genesis about the serpent being Satan in fancy-dress. Just like the apple, that little detail was added much later. I’m a semi-retired teacher and Religious Education (RE) was one of my duties. As a humanist I could have opted out but that would have meant handing one of my colleagues an extra duty. So I would just read a Bible story (if we were studying Christianity ~ in British state schools RE is usually multifaith) and discuss it with my class. The children often thought that the story meant that Adam and Eve were simply greedy, they had everything they needed and still wanted more. Sometimes they might add that God realised that it isn’t good for people to be handed everything on a plate. Nowadays I might ask a class to consider that “wanting more” is part of the human condition and not necessarily a bad thing ~ not when it leads us to explore space and develop the polio vaccine.

    Incidentally, young children HATE the parable of the Prodigal Son. They get very indignant on behalf of the obedient son who stayed home.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Incidentally, young children HATE the parable of the Prodigal Son. They get very indignant on behalf of the obedient son who stayed home.

    I used to feel the same way, but every time I read it the stay home son’s words I like him less and less.  The prodigal son was an incredible jerk, but the person he was a jerk to wasn’t his brother but instead his father.  So what does stay home son do?  He decides to be a jerk to his father.  Now that prodigal son finally stopped twisting the knife stay home son decides the time is ripe to attack.  Classy.

    When I first read the story I didn’t pay all that close attention to what was being compared or the way things were being said.  Looking at it more closely things I didn’t originally pick up on became clear.  The first was that the stay home son makes it all about himself.  If my sibling took half the money in the household in a way that basically amounted to telling one of my parents, “I wish you were dead,” ran away, spent it all, and then came back to celebration I’d be concerned for my parent.  I’d think they were being taken advantage of.  The stay home son makes it immediately clear he doesn’t give a damn about that.

    The second is that he doesn’t make an apples to apples comparison.  What he wants is a goat for the purpose of celebrating with his friends.  Maybe he should have gotten that, I can’t say, but what I can say is that that isn’t what the prodigal son got.  The prodigal son isn’t celebrating with his friends, the prodigal son is present while his father is celebrating.  A celebration that stay home son is being begged to join.

    There’s only one thing the prodigal son is getting that the stay home son isn’t, and that’s that the Prodigal son is wearing the best robe.  The stay home son isn’t pissed off that he didn’t get the fattened calf, his father is pleading with him: please come in and have the fattened calf.  He’s not pissed of that his father never threw a celebration for him.  He’s pissed off that he didn’t get to do something else entirely.

    Specifically, he’s pissed off he didn’t get to be like the prodigal son on a smaller scale.  Which is, to a certain extent, a legitimate concern.  The prodigal son got to take a bunch of the father’s wealth and go off and spend it somewhere else.  The stay home son wanted to do that with a much smaller portion of the wealth, specifically a goat.  There’s no indication that he ever asked to do it.  But whether he asked or not, he’s pissed off that it didn’t happen and then this completely unrelated in no way comparable thing happened and he is fracking pissed and doesn’t want to have the fatted calf with his dad damn it.

    I don’t know.  I used to really feel for the stay home son, but now I feel like his father has been treated like shit for so long that maybe, just maybe, the guy deserves this one day of happiness and then tomorrow stay home son can delver his rant with the message, “I’d much rather have a goat with my friends than the fatted calf with you.”  Maybe dad deserves one day when neither of his sons is delivering the message, “I hate your guts.”

    Because I get why he feels pissed off, but sometimes it’s not about you and making it abundantly clear to your father that you really don’t like him very much when your other brother finally, at long last, stopped delivering that same message isn’t a very nice thing to do.  He did work hard, he did follow the rules, and all that he asks in return is that his father not enjoy himself.  That last part is where my sympathy for him trips up.

    He doesn’t want to be invited to a celebration the way his brother was (he makes a point of actively refusing the invitation) he wants to go off on his own.  Until writing this post it never occurred to me that it made sense to tack, “the way his brother did, but on a far smaller scale,” onto the end of that sentence.

    Now that it has I’ll have to think on it more deeply.  Taking that into account, does that change how I view the parable?  I’m not sure yet.

    It has implications for a debt jubilee.  All of the people who, if one should happen, will feel left out because they never got in debt to be forgiven will be playing the role of the stay home son, while the father would be the one saying, “But the revived economy is awesome.  Seriously you have to partake in the fatted calf of significant growth,” though I actually have no idea how you would stand outside and avoid the rebound of the economy.  You’d probably have to get wind of it ahead of time and work to prevent the rebound in the first place, which would mean that it doesn’t fit the parable.

    Anyway, apparently I had a rant in me just waiting to come out.  If I could write like this on my NaNoWriMo novel I wouldn’t be 12 days stalled.

  • Lori

     I used to feel the same way, but every time I read it the stay home son’s words I like him less and less.  The prodigal son was an incredible jerk, but the person he was a jerk to wasn’t his brother but instead his father.  So what does stay home son do?  He decides to be a jerk to his father.  Now that prodigal son finally stopped twisting the knife stay home son decides the time is ripe to attack.  Classy.  

     

    The son who stayed home doesn’t act the way he does toward his father in response to what the prodigal did. The stay at home son is reacting to what the father has done and not done. The father is more than a bit of an ass. All the carrying on when baby brother the asshat comes crawling home only because he has no real choice is the last straw and the elder brother finally pitches a fit. I doubt very much that it was his finest hour, but the fault was as much the father’s as his. 

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I have to be careful because if I’m not I’ll make this the “chris the cynic writes multiple walls of text about the prodigal son story” thread.  I already made a very long post to put here and then had to remind myself that people probably don’t want the thread to be filled to the brim with me talking about this.

    So, trying to be short, I think you’re being overly charitable with the elder son.  He doesn’t know the things you’re assuming he’s reacting to.

    All of the information he has on what’s going on with his brother and his father comes to him in a very short direct quotation.  It’s all of 17 words in the Greek.  Four of those words are “the”, two of them are “your” two of them are conjunctions.  My point is: he has very little information on his brother.  He knows two things.  One is that his brother has come back.  The other is that his brother is a word that can be translated as “healthy”, “sound”, or “of sound mind”*.  He knows nothing else.

    He definitely doesn’t know that little brother had no real choice.  (And never speculates that that might be the case.)  He doesn’t even know that little brother came crawling.

    We will find out later that he assumes little brother has been squandering money with prostitutes, but the parable neither supports nor refutes that, the only information it gives us is that when the money was being spent little brother was too far away for older brother to have any knowledge of what it was spent on.  Which is to say: older brother is making shit up.

    That making shit up comes up again when it comes to why the fatted calf was killed.  It was explained to him in three words.  You’d think that three words would be very hard to misinterpret, but what says to his father contradicts those three words.

    That said, the stuff he makes up isn’t always wrong.  He was right about his brother squandering the inheritance even though for all he knew the celebration was because his brother came back with twice as much stuff as he left with and decided to give it all back to dear old dad.  (But I wasn’t kidding about there being nothing to support the prostitute claim, there is no connotation of the word used to describe what the younger son actually does that in any way relates to prostitution in any dictionary I have access to.  It doesn’t rule it out, but it doesn’t even hint at it.)

    Likewise I can make an argument that he was right about what he said about the fatted calf even though, given the information he had available, he should have thought he was lying.  Of course I can also make an argument that the information he had available was correct and he really was lying.

    If I’m judging him, I’m more concerned about what he knew than what the objective truth happened to be.  I’m more concerned about whether what he’s saying is in line with what he knows than whether it is in line with what he doesn’t know.

    *This is where not having it in the original language is really annoying.  That ambiguity probably didn’t exist in the original, there may have been some other ambiguity, but probably not that one.  If the elder was told that his little brother was acting like he had a sound mind that’s very different than if he was told that his little brother wasn’t missing any fingers or toes.  I’m guessing it means healthy in body here.

  • Lori

     So, trying to be short, I think you’re being overly charitable with the elder son.  He doesn’t know the things you’re assuming he’s reacting to.  

    I think you’re being to charitable to the father.

    All of the information he has on what’s going on with his brother and his father comes to him in a very short direct quotation.  It’s all of 17 words in the Greek.  Four of those words are “the”, two of them are “your” two of them are conjunctions.  My point is: he has very little information on his brother.  He knows two things.  One is that his brother has come back.  The other is that his brother is a word that can be translated as “healthy”, “sound”, or “of sound mind”*.  He knows nothing else.He definitely doesn’t know that little brother had no real choice.  (And never speculates that that might be the case.)  He doesn’t even know that little brother came crawling.  

    None of this matters, because the stay at home son’s reaction isn’t about his younger brother. It’s about his father. 

    I get that the story is supposedly about the elder brother being shitty about the prodigal’s return, but I think it utterly fails at that. It reads to me like exactly what I suspect it is, a story written by either a bad dad or a prodigal son. 

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    This thread is moving faster than I can keep up and should have been sleeping by now.  I will try to catch up later.  Sorry to everyone who has said anything to me for not being quicker.

    The fact that I just spent almost half an hour writing a post only to realize it was garbage probably didn’t help.  I’ll try again.

    None of this matters, because the stay at home son’s reaction isn’t about his younger brother. It’s about his father.
    But when he talks about what his father did he, to the best of his own knowledge, lies.

    He knows extremely little about what his father did, but the little he does know about he doesn’t even care enough about to get right.

    I assume that everything he says that we don’t have very clear reason to doubt is true because otherwise I think the bottom drops out and it’s impossible to make any interpretation.  So I assume that he really has obeyed never anything disobeying until his father said, “Come join the party,” or whatever it was he said (we don’t have a direct quote in the original text.)  I assume that when he makes a big deal about his problem being a lack of a goat to use with his friends he’s serious.

    I try not to impose too much on the story.  So, for example, I resist giving a reason for why he explicitly avoids direct comparison.  There has to be a reason.  But if we assign a reason then we’re basically assigning our own meaning.  We could say that it’s because his father is an abusive ass and thus there’s no way he could enjoy himself with his father and that is why he makes it about doing something with his friends rather than with his father.  In that case of course we’ll side with the son.  We could say that it’s because they celebrate together all the time so he doesn’t really care about it anymore.  We could say that there were aliens involved.

    We don’t know.  All that we do know is that when he says what he’s pissed off about it’s not getting a goat to use with his friends, that being his response to learning his father is celebrating.

    The more I look at the parable the more I see things that I put into it that were never there in the first place.  Most of those things were in support of my original interpretation which was that the older son was being shafted.  I was sure that he was left working in the field while all this was going on.  There’s no indication of that.  Now I’m very tired and the word transliterated as hos (rough breathing, omega, sigma) has many, many meanings.  So I could be missing something, but it looks like there is no indication that time passed between when the father said lets celebrate and when the elder son started coming back.

    That doesn’t mean that the interpretation that he was left out there is wrong, but it also means that there’s an argument to be made that he wasn’t abandoned or forgotten, which is something I didn’t even realize was possible until I decided to double check something while writing what is now the third (and hopefully final) version of this post.

    I never did address whether I was giving the father too much credit.  It’s hard to tell.  We don’t know that much about him.  We know that he gave little brother half of what he owned when, those who know more about the culture than I do, say the little brother’s request carried an implicit message of, “I wish you were dead.”

    Then the story leaves the country.  Big brother and father do not move to a different country and so they drop out of the story entirely until little brother returns.  So then we see father again.  We find out that he’s really happy his son he thought was dead is back.  He celebrates.

    Big brother says he never got a goat to use with his friends.  I take this as accurate.  If I try to infer things about the father from this I have difficulty because big brother never indicates that he asked for a goat.  If big brother asked for a goat and the father said, “Hell no, I already gave that other jerk half of what I own, I’m not giving anything else away,” that’s one thing.  It’s another if big brother expected the father to know he’d been wanting a goat.  Or if the father was using all of the goats to celebrate with the son thus leaving none to celebrate with other people.

    We can attach any meaning we damn well please to it.  If he was abusive, was he abusive by neglecting the elder son, or by smothering him to the point that elder son had no free time to do things with his friends?  Elder son says that he wants to do something with someone else, the father says you’re always with me.  I think I can probably make an argument that the Elder son just once wants to do something away from his family but he can’t get away and he’s pissed off that the brother who did get away isn’t suffering.

    I think I can probably make a lot of arguments.  We really have no idea what the father did here.  Hell, we don’t even know what he said.  He did a word that can be translated as anything from invited to ordered to pleaded, but we don’t have what he said.  If we did, how much of our interpretation would hinge on the first thing he said to elder son after younger son got home?  But we don’t have it.

    Then he the father gives his closing line.  It doesn’t clarify much.

    What’s missing from the story is the relationship between the two.  What happened while the younger son was abroad?  The only description we have is a word that could mean that the elder son considered himself to be a slave, or it could simply mean that he considered himself to have been serving his father.  That’s a wide swath.  We know that he was working, but we don’t know what their relationship was like.  The only thing that we do know about it is that the younger son wasn’t involved at all.  He was off in another country, out of contact.  We have no idea what happened to the two who remained apart from the fact that it didn’t involve goats with friends.  Goats with family, maybe or maybe not, goats with friends no.

    I spent three and a half hours that I should have been sleeping with this thread in one post or another.  (with occasional breaks to look at Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings)  At this point I’m just happy my fingers are hitting the keys, even if much of the time the key I need to hit is delete because it seems to take two or three times to write anything right.  I’ve noticed that when I’m tired words sometimes pop into or out of my posts for no apparent reason or worse still clauses do.  I don’t think anything like that has stayed into the final post but if it has I’m sorry.  I’ll probably be sick much of tomorrow, when I miss sleep it tends to screw me up.  Please be patient and I’ll try to get back as soon as i can.  I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to provoke things and then leave because I’m not.

    I’d try to respond to everything tonight, or rather this morning, but I need sleep.  I swear that I will get back to this when I can, just be aware it might take a while.

  • Kukulkan

    chris the cynic wrote:

    This thread is moving faster than I can keep up and should have been sleeping by now.  I will try to catch up later.  Sorry to everyone who has said anything to me for not being quicker.

    Chris, if you’re still up reading this: Go to bed. It will all wait until tomorrow.

    I’m going to go off and have dinner with some friends — I’m already running a bit late for that — so it’s not like I’ll be responding until I get home this evening anyway.

    Maybe it will all be clearer after a good night’s sleep.
     

  • Lori

      Hell, we don’t even know what he said.  He did a word that can be translated as anything from invited to ordered to pleaded, but we don’t have what he said.  If we did, how much of our interpretation would hinge on the first thing he said to elder son after younger son got home?   

    I doubt that knowing the exact first words that the father said to the elder son would change my POV at all, but they might. 

    I think the one thing we can agree on is that the story is short on detail in a way that leaves a lot of space for people to see it based on things they bring to the story. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is open to debate. Beyond that I suspect we’ll simply have to agree to disagree because we’re approaching the story from radically different angles. 

     I’ve noticed that when I’m tired words sometimes pop into or out of my posts for no apparent reason or worse still clauses do.  

    I do that too. There was a stretch when I was in grad school where it happened so much that I gave some thought to the possibility that I had had a stroke (I suffer occasionally with migraines and I’ve had a few that I would have been willing to believe were something more serious). It turned out to be just a side effect of not sleeping enough. I hope you get a good night’s rest. 

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Ok, you know what I said about respond to people in order?  Not happening.  I’m all lost.  I know that there are 11 12 [new response just came in] things in this thread somewhere addressed to me (since I have email notification set up), but I seem to be having incredible difficulty staying on top of what is where.  I hope I don’t miss anyone.

    Elder brother: You never threw a party for me. Father: You could have had a party any time you wanted. The nicest thing I can say about that exchange is that it’s problematic. I always want to go up to the father and say, “It’s not about the fucking party you ass. He wanted some of your attention. He wanted some acknowledgement. He doesn’t get that from throwing a party for himself, you jerk.This is probably the heart of my disagreement with… uh… a group of people that seems to be smaller than I initially feared but certainly includes more people than you alone.The elder son never says that.  Oh my god how I wish that he’d said that.  That’s what I wanted him to say.What he says is that his father never gave him a goat to have a party with someone else.  Not his father.  It would have been easier to say, “You never threw a party for me,” but he chooses to instead specify that he’s not interested in a party with dad.  That’s different.Your interpretation is what I want to have but I can’t make it fit with mister, “You never gave me the resources to have a party with someone not-you.”  In fact, “You’ve had the resources to have a party without me all along,” actually seems like a pretty good response to me given what elder son actually said.That brings up the fact that the father is using resources earmarked for elder son to throw a party for younger son.  If elder son were mad about that, I’d be on his side there.  He doesn’t even mention it.What about the question of whether he was working in the fields while the party was taking place?  If he was left out there working while everyone else had a good time I’d definitely think he was right to be pissed off.  We don’t know the exact details because he doesn’t see fit to mention them.  For all we know he was already on his way back when the celebration started.  (The detail with respect to the order of events is less than clear.)  There’s a difference between, “We knew you were already on your way so decided we’d tell you when you got here,” and, “We figured you could work your ass off while we were having a good time, you don’t mind, do you?”  Whatever the case was, he doesn’t mention it so it’s hard to interpret that as the reason that he’s pissed.And so on, with every interpretation I try.

    All of that said:

    I think the one thing we can agree on is that the story is short on detail in a way that leaves a lot of space for people to see it based on things they bring to the story. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is open to debate.

    I go back and forth myself.  We do have some pretty specific details that I think we can work with, but given the other things 

    Beyond that I suspect we’ll simply have to agree to disagree because we’re approaching the story from radically different angles.That’s probably the case.  Part of the reason that I’m not cutting out the above and just leaving this part is that, while it starts from a quote from you, it also addresses, I think, some stuff of interest to other people.  If we disagree so much on the meaning of a ten word phrase I doubt we’ll accomplish too much.That said, if you feel like I’m being rude by having the stuff above the hyphen in the same post as agreeing to disagree (which I can see how you might because it has the effect of giving me the last word) just say so and I’ll remove it.

  • hapax

    What about the question of whether he was working in the fields while
    the party was taking place?  If he was left out there working while
    everyone else had a good time I’d definitely think he was right to be
    pissed off.  We don’t know the exact details because he doesn’t see fit
    to mention them.  For all we know he was already on his way back when
    the celebration started.  (The detail with respect to the order of
    events is less than clear.)

    The last time this parable came up I recommended Kenneth Bailey’s exhaustive analysis in the the context of contemporary Middle Eastern culture (POET & PEASANT AND THROUGH PEASANT EYES) which goes into great detail the extent to which *both* sons more than insulted their father from the very beginning of the set up, to the point of actively wishing him dead.   

    I shan’t repeat my extensive summary of his discussion, but to address this specific point;  it is a mistake to think of a major feast in a first century Palestinian town in any terms of “when did the party start?” 

    In one sense, the party “started” at the moment the father announced it; then it “started” when the calf was slaughtered and distributed to homes all over town for roasting (because no one house would have a big enough oven);  it “started” when all the village women and house servants began singing and dancing as they cooked the meat, and began looking for side dishes they could contribute;  it “started” as the the guests (= the entire adult population) began to trickle into the host’s home, playing their pipes and clapping hands; it “started” as the village children (one of whom was later interrogated by the elder brother, instead of entering his home to simply ask his father) gathered around, hoping for handouts and treats;  it “started” as ALL the village men (not just the brother) came home from fields, to find out that a grand feast was occurring;  but it couldn’t “start” until the oldest son, in his role as the junior host, entered the house and welcomed the honored guest, the younger brother returned from dead, a role the elder declined because he preferred to refer to himself as an independent servant-for-hire rather than as a member of the family(note that he doesn’t ask why his father didn’t throw him a party, but rather why he couldn’t, like his brother, go off with his inheritance and spend it with his friends, once again quite literally telling his father: “I wish you dead”).

    The only conceivable application of this parable to the current economic crisis that I can think of is to put the bankers in the role of BOTH the younger and the older brother:  first saying to the home-owner, “We’re going to go take this money you gave us to secure your mortgage and blow it on gambling on a financial equivalent of three-card monte”; and then coming back and saying, “Gosh, how can you be offering mortgage cramdown when we don’t have enough to give big bonuses to our buddies?  Forget legal technicalities and just drop dead, so we can foreclose and move things along.”

    Except I don’t see the abused father / homeowner / victim in any position to offer forgiveness and reconciliation, let alone a party;  his robe has been stripped from him, his ring pawned in an effort to keep the heat on, and any fatted calves he might have had are poisoned with pepper spray…

  • Anonymous

    (In Which Lector reads too much into things, and over-shares)

    I hadn’t thought of that, and it’s an interesting perspective. My sympathy for the father is somewhat strained by what he’s asking of his kid: Come celebrate the brother who abandoned the farm, left you to do the work, and got to screw around while you were (Probably) stuck in a tense, unhappy environment created by his leaving. Which is insensitive at best, and emotionally abusive at worst. (Don’t feel what you feel, that’s selfish. You should not be feeling that, so quit acting like it.)

    I’m over coming co-dependency, and the situation is somewhat familiar, so I admit I am mapping a my own experience onto this. That sort of request would have been an attack, for the amount of emotional damage it’d cause. I’d have felt taken advantage of, unappreciated, unloved, like a second class member of the family, considered less important and less worth care or consideration than the returning sibling. It seems very probable the obedient son might have been in a similar headspace.

    If I had ever been asked to come celebrate my prodigal sibling, I would have been a lot, lot meaner than he was.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I don’t think I’ve ever gotten this much response to anything I’ve said before.  (I wish it had been on a different subject.)  I’m going to try to respond to everything addressed to me in chronological order.

    (In Which Lector reads too much into things, and over-shares)
    No such thing in the first place, and you really didn’t in the second.  I’ve had a lot of posts I’ve had to apologize for, I think that give me some perspective on things like this, and you really shouldn’t feel like you’re doing anything wrong with that one.  It’s not reading in too much, it’s not over-sharing.

    I also think that there’s a lot of mapping our own baggage onto things.  There’s a reason that I want to be on the remaining son’s side and it’s that my baggage fits in the overhead compartments much more neatly for most of the story if I do that.  Then it all falls apart when when he opens his mouth because what he says doesn’t fit any of the interpretations that me agree with his actions.  There are so many things he could have said that would make me on his side, if he said anything like what you said I’d be on his side, but he doesn’t say any of those things.

    No matter how I try to contort my reading, even if I try to look at the Greek and see if I can twist some other meaning out of the words*, I can’t make it fit.

    Before he starts talking, I’m all for him.

    On the subject of mapping our own experiences onto things, when this last came up one of the commenters was a mother with two daughters.  One who was still around and responsible, the other who had run off and might, for all she knew, be dead.  For all I know she’s shared her story in this thread as well, I’m still on the first page, but her talking about how she would feel if her might-be-dead daughter came back has stuck with me.

    Basically, she’d celebrate a lot.  Even knowing that her other daughter wouldn’t react well to it.

    Is it extremely insensitive?  I don’t know.  But I could never hold it against her.

    * Actually, because of ambiguity in the language (I blame Herodotus) doing that weakens one of the places I was absolutely with him.

  • Anonymous

    Basically, she’d celebrate a lot.  Even knowing that her other daughter wouldn’t react well to it.

    But would she preemptively leave the other daughter out of the celebrating?  I think that’s what bothers me most about the Prodigal Son parable.   (Well, that and the implication that the father has never been appreciative and just taken Responsible Son for granted.)  Responsible Son doesn’t even know his brother’s back until he comes in from working in the fields. What, Dad couldn’t be arsed to send someone to find him and join the celebration?  I can’t hold Responsible Son taking that as a giant “fuck you” from Dad against him, either.

    Basically: celebrating that your long missing kid isn’t dead, perfectly understandable.  Not bothering to tell tell your other kid, not so understandable.

    (Which is not to say that Responsible Brother isn’t kind of a jerk, too. None of them come off good. Like I said earlier, they desperately need some therapy.)

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    But would she preemptively leave the other daughter out of the celebrating?

    For me this is another area where we’re not even given enough information to make sense of the omissions.  We can be pretty sure that it’s not high on the list of things pissing elder son off based on what’s left in and what’s left out, but that’s about the elder son’s feelings, not the dad’s thoughts or actions.

    Certainly he didn’t wait for the elder son.  If he sent a messenger it was the suckiest messenger ever which would be just as bad as not sending one.

    All that the story says is that the older son was in the field and as he came near the house he heard music and dancing.  (Technically it also says “his” and a particle that can be translated as many things, here probably “and” if we’re going to use it, but can also often be left out.)  Anyway, there are so many things we can do with that.  One thing that interests me is that there’s no indication that any time passes between when the dad says they should celebrate and when the elder son starts coming home.  (Then again there isn’t any indication time doesn’t pass.)

    Almost certainly telling elder would be much better than not, but I personally have somewhat more sympathy for not telling him if the reasoning was “he’s already on his way,” though in that case I have much less sympathy for the decision not to wait for him.

    And the story is silent on everything.  Lori is right that the story is low on detail.  This is one place where it is extremely so.

    If we wanted it to be sympathetic to the father he lit a signal fire telling his elder, “Hey, something’s up, come on home,” if we want the opposite the younger son came home right after elder left for the day, the party lasted all day and into the night and it was only then, after a long day’s soul-crushing back-breaking work while everyone was celebrating, that he found out there was a party going on.

    All that we really know is that the elder son doesn’t think it worthy of note.

    @veejayem:disqus 

    While it’s nice to have someone agree with me for a change, I think that there’s more going on than ordinary sibling rivalry.

    Am I caught up?  I think I’m caught up.

  • Anonymous

    All that we really know is that the elder son doesn’t think it worthy of note.
    I actually agree with you about the older son losing sympathy the moment he opens his mouth. For me, it’s that – standing back and looking at what people do in the parable – the omissions make everyone look like an ass (depending on what one brings to the omissions).

    If the younger son had gotten to say “No, wait, Dad, that’s really not necessary!  I was an ass, I’m just glad to be home.  Really.” then he’d be more sympathetic.  If older son had either complained about more sensible slights “Really, Dad, you didn’t even send anyone to tell me he was home?  I can just feel the love. -_-” then he’d be more sympathetic.  If Dad had lit a signal fire or included “And go get OS!” to his list of things for servants to fetch, he’d be more sympathetic.  But without those details, we’re left with a mess.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    I actually agree with you about the older son losing sympathy the moment he opens his mouth. For me, it’s that – standing back and looking at what people do in the parable – the omissions makeeveryone look like an ass (depending on what one brings to the omissions).

    You know, I may just leave it there.They’re all jerks.  Parable over.

    I’m not sure if this is where my participation in this conversation ends, but if it is I think it’s as good a place as any.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    Well, if that’s really it, then as parables go this wasn’t one of Christ’s best works.

    It’s hard to tell that it’s the same guy who spoke of “Lazarus and Dives”. It must have been a ghost writer.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    While it’s nice to have someone agree with me about this for a change

    FWIW I’ve been agreeing with you, but not joining the conversation because I don’t think I have anything productive to add.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Thank you for saying this.

  • Lori

     On the subject of mapping our own experiences onto things, when this last came up one of the commenters was a mother with two daughters.  One who was still around and responsible, the other who had run off and might, for all she knew, be dead.  For all I know she’s shared her story in this thread as well, I’m still on the first page, but her talking about how she would feel if her might-be-dead daughter came back has stuck with me.

    Basically, she’d celebrate a lot.  Even knowing that her other daughter wouldn’t react well to it. 

    I would never criticize a parent in that circumstance for celebrating the return of a child. However, if that parent takes the stay at home child for granted and then celebrates the returned child at the expense of the one that never left, I’d take Ms Stay At Home’s side if she wasn’t able to refrain from being a might pissy with her mom about that. I wouldn’t think it was the best possible reaction that Ms Stay At Home could have, but I’d get it and I wouldn’t look down on her for it. 

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Are we agreeing to disagree or engaging?

    Given how much I said in the same post as saying that you were probably right about agreeing to disagree I certainly think that fairness says you should be able to post that much and (much, much) more without me responding if you don’t want me to.

  • Lori

    You can, as always, respond as much or as little as you wish. My point about agreeing to disagree is that we’re unlikely to change each other’s minds and I don’t want the disagreement to seem hostile. We disagree on this. That doesn’t mean that I’m angry with you or think less of you. It’s just a difference of opinion.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    First, thanks for clarifying.  I never got the sense of any hostility from you.

    Agree to disagree to me is usually put at the end of a conversation and since this particular topic has a tendency to bring up abuse, I’m trying to be very careful to look for any signs that people want me to stop. I’d rather get false positives, as in this case, than end up hurting someone.

    However, if that parent takes the stay at home child for granted and then celebrates the returned child at the expense of the one that never left

    The thing that I want to say is is that we really don’t know that he took him for granted.

    Part of this is why I blame Herodotus*.  It’s unclear if the elder son is saying that he remained his father’s subject while the younger one ran off and spent his half of the money, or if he’s saying he was treated like a slave for the duration.  Those are so very, very different.

    Both would fit.  Saying, “He ran off and I remained your subject like a son is supposed to be subject to his father within this culture,” is perfectly reasonable.  On the other hand, saying he’s been like a slave would be a pretty good complaint to bring up and there’s no reason to assume that’s not what he’s saying.

    If he has been treated like a slave then I definitely agree that he’s been taken for granted.  Quite possibly worse than that.  The dad has hired servants, while he could be hiring someone else’s slaves I feel like, and this is totally unsupported and random speculation, that hired servants are probably free people.  Who would probably be treated better than slaves.  In which case it is possible that the elder son is saying he’s been treated worse than the staff.

    On the other hand, it could just mean that he stayed a member of his father’s household.

    Big giant range of meaning in that one word.  And in this case, in my opinion, the ambiguity is firmly on the side of bug rather than feature.

    And then there’s the goat thing.  He’s not saying he’s pissed off for his father never celebrating with him.  He doesn’t even bring that up.  Does that mean that his father does celebrate with him so there’s nothing there to complain about?  Does it means that not only has his father never thrown a celebration for him but father’s also been such an ass that if father did throw a celebration it he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it simply because father is there?

    It’s not really clear.  (And I’m going to have to look at dr ngo’s point as well because the prestige of being a feast giver is something I never really took into account before.)

    * Herodotus called what the Persians did to the people they conquered enslaving them.  (For an example of what the Persians did to people, see the ending of the Babylonian captivity.  I tend to think of that as setting them free rather than as them becoming slaves of the Persians instead of the Babylonians.)

    I think it’s because it sounds more dire to say, “The Persians want to conquer us and then we will be slaves,” than, “The Persians want to conquer us and then we will be largely autonomous much like we were before largely running our country as we see fit, leading lives that in no way compare to those of our slaves, but we’ll be in the country of Persia meaning we’ll have to pay tribute and might have to obey the occasional order.”

    It might not really be Herodotus’ fault, he’s pretty much the earliest example of Greek prose we have so if the usage was common in prose before him we simply wouldn’t know about it.  Anyway, whoever did it first the result was that the meaning of the word expanded there are two very different meanings of words related to slavery.  One refers to actual slavery.  The other refers to being subjects.

    For comparison of the meanings, every character in the story would be considered the subject, but definitely not the slave, of Rome.

    Here things get more difficult for me because while I know some about what things were like in Rome in general, I don’t know as much about what they were like in the Roman provinces of Judea and Galilee in particular.  In the Roman family structure you were definitely expected to be subject your father (with at least as much force as you were subject to Rome), you were not expected to be treated like a slave by him, so you can see where the range of meanings can really screw with interpretation there.  Trouble is, I have no idea whether the same was true for Jewish families of the time.

    [added]
    Why does disqus keep killing my formatting?

  • Anonymous

    Lori, I actually felt a bit foolish writing that, because I do think it’s obvious, and I suppose you all know it too, but I think the obvious meaning of the parable is getting lost in the fine divination of the exact characters involved through what’s said and not said and exactly how much time elapsed between party starting and the elder son coming home and whether or not a messenger was available and how much the elder son really wanted a goat to party with his friends and does the father actually do anything to acknowledge his elder son or is he just taken for granted, where is the mother in all of this – did she die? Does the younger son look like her? Maybe *that’s* what’s going on.

    This is an interesting intellectual exercise, no doubt, and you might need to ask these questions if you were going to flesh out the story into a play or something.

    But to do this as a serious inquiry into the meaning of the parable to miss the point of the parable, and in fact to miss the point of parables in general.  They’re not real people and they’re not fleshed out enough to treat them as such in a fictional analysis, and that’s by design, because those details don’t matter, and to the extent they cloud the purpose of the story, they’re actually worse than irrelevant.  If Jesus had said things like “the father gave serious consideration to sending a messenger but didn’t because he was still sore at his elder son for being so demanding about the damn goat earlier to impress his idiot friends”, that makes for a worse parable, not a better one, because the central point would be lost in the kind of discussion you’re having now about whether the father’s right about the elder son’s friends and his demandingness or whether he’s just a petulant old man.

    It’s a bit like being given a word problem in mathematics like “Johnny is 50 meters away from a building and he measures with his theodolite the angle of the top of the building with the ground to be 40 degrees.  What is the height of the building? ” and then saying “he looks like he’s 9 years old in the picture, what’s a nine-year-old doing with a theodolite? Has he been trained to use one? I don’t think we’ve got enough information to tell.  Is the ground flat?  Is this child labour? Why is it Johnny and not Janey? Are they telling us girls can’t do geometry?”

    It’s not that I don’t think you can tell something about attitudes to women that examples in the past have often involved boys or that that’s not important, but the point is that for the purpose the story is being told, the gender of the geometer is unimportant.  You don’t learn anything about trigonometry by asking these questions.  You assume (usually without thinking about it) whatever is necessary for the story to work

    You assume that Johnny does know how to use the theodolite and the ground is flat, or maybe you decide that details are irrelevant, it’s not really about a little boy who’s in any way ‘real’, it’s actually about a triangle and the tangent function.

  • Anonymous

    whoops, replied to the wrong person.  The good news is I have a disqus login now so I can edit posts next time disqus eats my linebreaks. 

  • Lori

     But to do this as a serious inquiry into the meaning of the parable to miss the point of the parable, and in fact to miss the point of parables in general.  They’re not real people and they’re not fleshed out enough to treat them as such in a fictional analysis, and that’s by design, because those details don’t matter, and to the extent they cloud the purpose of the story, they’re actually worse than irrelevant.  

    All I can say about this is that I think the stuff that “worse than irrelevant” is, as I said earlier, often something very like a Freudian slip. The fact that that’s not what the person meant to say doesn’t mean that it’s not telling you something the person may not have wanted you to notice. 

    Obviously the POV on this is going to be very different between a person who is inclined to see the Bible in a necessarily positive light because it’s the word of God and me, who thinks it’s a collection of stories written by people to accomplish particular goals and therefore is as open to critique as any other moral fable. 

    As an example of something secular, I had the same kinds of problems with those moralizing little children’s books Madonna wrote. Someone gave a set to a friend of mine so I had a chance to read them a couple years ago. The details have slipped my mind, but I remember sort of hating all of them. They were simple and obvious even by the standards of books written for fairly young children, but they had underlying issues that I found problematic. 

  • Anonymous

    Or what Lori said, basically.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right, the stayathome son doesn’t show any concern for his father. He just goes into a typical sibling-rivalry, “It’s not fair!” rant. All of us with siblings ~ especially younger ones ~ have been there. In the murky depths of the subconscious we aren’t saying “You like him better than me”, so much as complaining, “You don’t like me better than him”.

  • Kukulkan

    veejayem wrote:

    Incidentally, young children HATE the parable of the Prodigal Son. They get very indignant on behalf of the obedient son who stayed home.

    Damn right.

    Some of us older children aren’t too keen on it either.

    The prodigal son goes off and becomes and investment banker, engages in all sorts of reckless and risky behaviour involving credit default swaps, collateralised debt instruments and securitised mortgages and, when it all blows up in his face, what does he get?

    The stay at home son goes out and tends the flocks, guarding them against wolves, tending to the new lambs, carefully husbanding the estate’s resources so as to build them up and what does he get?

    Good old dad comes along and says “You know all those savings you carefully put aside? We’re going to use them to bail out your brother. Oh, and by the way, with those savings gone, you’re going to have to live in austerity. Isn’t that keen? Aren’t you happy that you’re brother is back?”*

    I don’t mind that the prodigal son got his inheritance early. I don’t mind that he blew it all on riotous living. I don’t mind that when he came back, the father embraced him and was glad to see him. What pushes it over the edge is the fattened calf — who I assume the stay at home son had been carefully tending and fattening up — and the fact that no-one could be bothered to go out and tell him that his brother had returned and there was a celebration going on. Instead he only finds out when he comes in that evening from tending the flocks out in the fields.

    It’s like you come home one day, thinking you’ve done pretty well. You’ve lined up a buyer for that fattened calf and with the money from the sale you can finally hire the labourers needed to clear that field at the edge of the estate and plant some grape vines, which in a few years should start producing and paying for themselves, so that you can start saving up the bride-price you need so that you and Martha can… What? You just killed the fattened calf because my deadbeat brother came home? Oh, yeah. I’m thrilled dad. Just thrilled.

    When you’re a kid, the message of the story is clear: being good and obedient is a schmuck’s game and just means you’re going to be taken for granted.

    Just a word about audience: the prodigal sons aren’t the ones who are likely to be listening to the parable. They’re the ones who ditched Sunday school for something else.

    ————————–
    * Of course, it should be noted that in the original version the prodigal son had the good grace to come crawling back and just ask to be taken on as a hired servant in his father’s household. In this modern version, he just demands the bail-out and treats it as his due.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    See, here’s the thing, I don’t remember the part where we were invited to join the party.  If the government had spent as much money bailing out ordinary people as it spent on the bank I’d feel a metric fuckton better about how it all went down.

    I don’t remember the part where we where someone came out to us and pleaded that we come in and take our share of the bailout.  Maybe I missed that part, I was in a depressive funk for what would have been the 2008-2009 school year for me if I’d managed to go through the motions of signing up for classes, so it is certainly possible that I missed that part but if I did please tell me who turned down the citizen’s bailout on my behalf because I’d like to kick that person’s ass.

    You’ve lined up a buyer for that fattened calf and with the money from the sale you can finally hire the labourers needed to clear that field at the edge of the estate and plant some grape vines, which in a few years should start producing and paying for themselves, so that you can start saving up the bride-price you need so that you and Martha can… What?

    I’ve heard interpretations like this before, and the problem I have with them (which is a pretty serious problem) is that the older son states his grievances and that’s not one of them.  He explicitly states that his problem with what happened is that he never got a goat he could use in celebration with his friends.

    If I just lined up a buyer for the fatted calf and then someone went and killed it I’m not going to say, “Damn it you never give me a goat!”  I’m going to mention the fact that I was planning to do something with the calf.  (And swear.  A lot.)  Maybe that’s just me, but if what’s pissing me off is the fatted calf in the here and now I’m going to mention that instead of throwing a fit about the goats I didn’t get in the past.

    If the elder son is thinking about Martha then why not mention Martha?  Why make it about his friends and the fact he hasn’t had a chance to kill a goat with them?  I mean, he could be talking about Martha provided that what he wants to do with her isn’t just with her.  The word for friends is in a form that is the same across genders so as long as there is more than one of them the can be whoever.  It could be that he does want to celebrate with Martha, but it only works grammatically if she brings another friend with her.  Could be Mary, could be Steve, could be anyone really.  All that we know for absolutely certain is that if he’s thinking about doing something with Martha he’s not thinking about it being just the two of them.

  • Kukulkan

     chris the cynic wrote:

    I’ve heard interpretations like this before, and the problem I have with them (which is a pretty serious problem) is that the older son states his grievances and that’s not one of them.  He explicitly states that his problem with what happened is that he never got a goat he could use in celebration with his friends.

    If a story doesn’t contain certain details, then the audience will fill them in from their own experience of the world. If you don’t like the details being added, perhaps the original story shouldn’t have been so vague.

    Here’s what we do know: there was a fattened calf (Luke 15:23). Calves don’t fatten themselves, that takes time, care and attention. As such, the fattened calf is clearly an example of savings and stored wealth.

    We also know the older son was in the field and that he has spent years “slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders” (Luke 15:29). This suggests that he was probably the one who put in the time, care and attention.

    So, the prodigal son not only gets his entire inheritance, he also gets a chunk of the savings his elder brother helped build up.

    This is not a radical interpretation.

    Now, the older brother may well have been willing to help his younger sibling out. They are brothers after all. But it would have been nice if he’d been given the choice.

    As for the goat, what the older brother says is “Yet you never gave me even a young goat” (Luke 15:29). Note the “even”. A goat is clearly seen as lesser than a fattened calf and the older brother never got that much.

    And then the father turns around and says “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” So everything belongs to the older son? Well, yeah, except when dear old dad decides to give it away without consulting him.

    The older brother specifically objects to the fattened calf: “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:30). Now, this may just be a comparison: he gets the fattened calf, I don’t even get a goat. Or it may be that the fattened calf represents a lot more than just a celebration. It is one of the few specific details included in the story after all.

    A lot of parables flounder on the rock of economics. They may be about love and acceptance and about how God with infinite resources can behave, but they are cast in a form where real people know from experience that resources are limited. A fattened calf used for one thing is not available for other things. And no matter how happy you might be to see that your brother “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32), you might still object to wasting the resources represented by the fattened calf to celebrate that fact.

    Maybe a quieter celebration would have been the way to go. It certainly would have precluded this interpretation rather than encouraging it.

    Oh, and as for celebrating with his friends in my example: “bride-price”. Weddings are usually celebrated with friends.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    If
    a story doesn’t contain certain details, then the audience will fill
    them in from their own experience of the world. If you don’t like the
    details being added, perhaps the original story shouldn’t have been
    so vague.

    This was actually the very last thing I
    saw before turning of my computer last night/this morning.  It gave me a sort of aha
    moment. Upon reading this it felt like, maybe that’s why other
    people and I come at this from such very different directions. Maybe
    this explains everything.

    It’s probably not true but I’m going to
    stick with that thought because it can be used make it feel like if I
    just hold things together this morning to respond in depth to this
    one point before my body gets into full swing with its “you only
    half as much sleep as you were supposed to, I hate you,” thing*
    then maybe that will solve everything and I won’t have pissed of and
    alienated what seems to be everyone.

    [And I’m still writing things that go on
    forever. Sorry.]

    Anyway, the quoted text.

    I cannot disagree more strongly. I’ve
    actually been meaning to write an in depth explanation of why I
    cannot disagree more strongly with that sort of thing for what I’m pretty sure is more than a
    year. Can’t really pin it down more than that. More than one year,
    less than two.

    I’m a big believer that stories are
    told in omissions and silences. That the story happens in what we
    aren’t told and we don’t see. That a part of the reason that what we
    do see is so important is that it tells us an infinite number of
    other things that are not happening. That goes beyond what makes me
    disagree with you on that point, because I apply it to details that
    the story explicitly doesn’t contain as well as the ones that are
    simply not mentioned.

    There was a time when I would have dug
    around for other people to support this point. From composers to
    Sherlock Holmes to some book on poetry I read a while back and so
    forth. That’s actually what I intended to do in the thing I never
    wrote.

    I realized while thinking about your
    post before I went to bed this morning that that’s pointless. Its
    not about how many examples can be fielded, because if it were I
    wouldn’t believe what I believe and most of the examples that support
    my position wouldn’t exist.

    And then I had a moment of self
    realization. (I should thank you for that. Thank you.)  I realized
    that the reason why I feel the way I do about this is probably a
    result of the life I’ve lived. The
    story of my life is one of omission.
    It’s of things
    not happening.

    I think that has left me focusing on
    the empty spaces.

    In my own writing you’ll see that I
    tend to have pauses called out in my dialog a lot. That said, you’ve
    got me worrying about what I don’t make explicit. The only reason
    that any of my stories can work the way I intended is if people take
    what I don’t say to be meaningful.  

    The fiction we’ve all been
    exposed to makes us expect Lucifer to be a backstabbing liar who
    cackles incessantly once the mark is out of earshot. I’m extremely
    vague about Lucifer is doing when she’s not with Nick Andes in Where
    Antichrists Come From. Far vaguer than anything in the Parable of
    the Prodigal Son, if people start filling in details based upon their
    own experience they’re going to assume that Lucifer is planning on
    betraying Nick, and that would destroy the entire story. I’m
    counting on readers to pay attention to what isn’t said.

    I don’t even know how I’d follow your
    advice and make the story contain those details. “Lucifer doesn’t
    cackle here,” perhaps? “Dear reader, I just want you to know
    that Lucifer is actually being honest”? Must I call out every
    single thing that didn’t happen? You seem to imply that that is the
    case.

    But I’m getting side tracked. I want
    to be talking about interpretation, not writing. No one here wrote
    the story, so I shouldn’t be coming at this from a writer’s
    perspective.

    In interpretation I also look towards
    omissions. In the text Bella never calls her friends back home in
    Phoenix. In the text Bella never misses them. In the text Bella
    never thinks about them. In the text they don’t exist. But it is
    not, unless I missed something, that they explicitly don’t exist.
    And we can point out that the existence of Boston isn’t attested to in the text of Twilight either.

    I take this to mean that Bella doesn’t
    have friends from back home in Phoenix and that Boston does
    exist. I take it this way because of what is mentioned and what
    isn’t. Bella does mention her interactions with other people, she
    does mention phone calls and emails, (she doesn’t mention a list of
    major cities on the Massachusetts coast.)  As such I think that we can
    expect that if she did have friends back in Phoenix, or really anyone
    other than Renee back in Phoenix, she would have mentioned them. She
    didn’t. I take that silence to have a meaning of its own rather than
    adding my own details to it.

    Because if I start adding my own
    details to it then what we find is that Bella’s best friend was named
    Brian and they called themselves B and B, and they’ve known each
    other for years and are accustomed to sitting together for lunch and
    they only talk on the weekends because that’s when Brian’s free long
    distance minutes are on his cell phone. The only thing in the text
    that contradicts that interpretation is the fact it’s never
    mentioned, but I consider that, in itself, to be telling.

    Twilight is a good example for those who know it, but most people here have probably not read the book. Is Star Wars more
    universal? I’m going to guess that it is.

    Consider the Death Star. The Death
    Star was filled with people. Thousands, I think. We have exactly no
    details on what the vast majority of them are doing. If the story of
    the prodigal son was “so vague” then there are not words to
    describe the superlative vagueness of these people’s stories. The
    only thing we know about them is that no details about them are
    mentioned. I would say that that means a lot. I would say that that
    tells us a lot. Most of all I think it means that we can’t simply fill in the missing details from our own experience of the world.

    Because our own experience of the world
    indicates that someone, somewhere, should have seen what happened
    Alderan and said, “I didn’t sign on for this.” The empire has
    never had a weapon like the Death Star before and even princess
    Leia, who had a very low opinion of them, thought that pointing out
    it was being used against an entirely civilian planet with no
    connection to the military whatsofuckingever that was not involved in
    the war against the Empire might dissuade one of their most assholic
    leaders.  What happened would have been equivalent to the first
    nuclear bomb deployed by the US being dropped on Toronto (except, you
    know, that Canada does have weapons and most Canadians would have
    been left alive to retaliate, but what I mean here is that it’s being
    dropped on a not-an-enemy place.) Except Alderan was a part
    of the empire. There may very well have been Alderanians on board
    the Death Star and even if they weren’t I should probably be picking
    a US target. Of course it gets somewhat complicated to maintain the
    analogy in detail because the US wasn’t dealing with a rebellion at
    the time.

    Do we really think that none of the
    several thousand people closest to the project would have objected if
    that had happened? I don’t. If I fill in the empty spaces and
    omitted detail with my own experience of the world, I fill in
    rebellion. I don’t know how large, I don’t know who. I don’t know
    whether it’s storm troopers or maintenance personnel or fighter
    pilots or some combination of all of them along with the cooks and so
    forth who have set up their command post in one of the Death Star’s
    cafeterias. My temptation is to say that they’re trying for a
    mutlipronged attack across multiple corridors as well as trying to
    sneak through the maintenance corridors and man sized air ducts that
    always seem to exist in sci-fi space stations, with their main
    targets being fire control, whatever powers the big gun, and the
    targeting computer.

    Because that’s what my experience tells
    me should be happening. They knew that they were involved in
    operating a weapon of mass destruction in time of war, they didn’t
    know it was going to be used to blow up a planet of pacifists right
    in front of them. That’s an atrocity on a scale no human being has
    ever witnessed, (as evidenced by the fact that the earth is still
    here) and what I know from the real world is that it takes far less
    than that to get someone to say, “Land the helicopter between our
    troops and the civilians, point the gun at our troops.”

    Nothing in the movie contradicts that
    interpretation. In my opinion what isn’t in the
    movie does contradict it. I think it would have been mentioned. It
    probably wouldn’t have been quite as worthy of mention as, “My
    financial plans for the future depended on the damned calf that you
    went and killed,” but I think maybe a passing, “Lord Vader, we’ve
    contained the situation on level 23,” would have shown up.

    I think that the fact that we aren’t
    told about them means that they were not doing anything that was
    extremely worthy of note in the minds of those in a position to tell
    us. Otherwise we would have seen something.  Maybe when Tarkin had his, “Evacuate? In our moment of
    Triumph?” moment it would have been worked in. You know, “I’ve
    analyzed their attack and there is a danger, plus we’ve got that
    whole revolution thing going on on the lower decks.” Something like
    that.

    I think that the fact the story doesn’t
    contain certain details can, at times, tell us as much as (and
    sometimes even more than) what it does contain.

    I don’t think all omissions are like
    this, by any means. I think, for example, that the omissions in the prodigal son leave us with
    very little about the character of the father and his relationship
    with the elder son. (I wonder how much of this is intentional.)

    Anyway, where I do think omissions are
    more meaningful is in things like what’s on the elder son’s mind. We
    have every single word he says. We know exactly what he had to say to his
    father. Which means we also know all the things he didn’t say. To
    me that is like the dog that didn’t bark in the nighttime. It tells
    us something. It tells us that while we might not know exactly what
    did happen, we’ve got a general idea of what didn’t. And what didn’t
    happen is anything that would have caused him to say something other
    than what he does say. There are probably infinite possibilities on
    both sides of that divide, but they aren’t the same infinity.

    We have to interpret if we’re going to
    say anything, and that does involve bringing our own experiences, but
    I don’t think it’s the case that we can simply add in any detail
    that’s been left out. We know everything he did say, so when he
    doesn’t say something, when he doesn’t bring up certain details, the
    absence of those details is telling us about him and the story at
    large. It tells us that whatever happened, it wasn’t something that
    would have left him saying something else.

    If I simply fill in the story with “own
    experience of the world” what
    the elder son says becomes literally impossible. There is no way
    that would follow from what I fill in. So I can’t. Because the
    vagueness of the story demands that I don’t simply do that. Your
    experience is different than mine, and maybe that isn’t the case for
    you. But you didn’t say anything to suggest that what you meant was anything other than what you said which doesn’t allow for the certain details being omitted to prevent the audience from filling them in from their own experience of the world.

    I’m running much longer than I should,
    and I’m getting much more into feeling sick, so I should probably try
    to wrap this up now (I didn’t write this post in order, hence the
    stuff following this section.) When I started talking about this
    parable in this thread, I had forgotten about the last time it came
    up. Last time it came up someone said something that set off memories of abuse** in such a way that I couldn’t face the thread and I had to run away.
    I’m not proud of that. I don’t like it when people come in, start
    an argument, and then run away in the middle of it preventing anyone from having a chance to respond. I don’t want to
    be that person and last time I was. If I’d thought of that before I
    probably would have kept my mouth shut here.

    Anyway, I’m going to try to make sure I
    don’t do that this time. I’m off to a bad start since I’m probably
    going to be out for the rest of the day, and in all honesty the fact
    that the thread is something like three or four times longer now than
    it was when I had last read all of it ten hours ago terrifies me, but
    I swear that I’m going to try not to run away this time.

    As
    for the goat, what the older brother says is “Yet
    you never gave me even a young goat” (Luke
    15:29). Note the “even”.

    The copy the Greek I have available
    doesn’t contain the even. Then again the reason it is available is
    because it’s from 1885, so it’s probably not up to date on the latest
    scholarship and I’m not sure if it contains information about the
    manuscript tradition anyway. (Do you happen to know what is being
    translated as even?)

    Anyway, that’s beside the point because
    I didn’t notice the lack of an even before and I was noting the even
    in the translation in front of me and I think this is another example
    of us treating omissions differently. To me even means that were
    talking about a difference in degree instead of nature except where
    otherwise noted. The even means that he’s equating the goat to the
    fatted calf and saying the fatted calf is like a goat only moreso.

    To you apparently it means the
    opposite. You’ve been arguing that his interest in the fatted calf
    is categorically different than his interest in the goat in a way not
    stated in the text. (Use the goat for celebration, sell the calf as
    part of an investment strategy eventually resulting in marriage.)

    That, “except where otherwise
    stated,” is part of how I view things that seems to be
    fundamentally at odds with how you view things. If we can’t even
    agree on the usage of the word “even” then I very much doubt
    we’ll ever see eye to eye. I see omissions as meaningful where if
    I’m reading you right, you don’t.

    * And about that, I realized sometime
    between when I turned off the computer and when fell asleep that it
    might come off like I was blaming the thread, which would be silly.
    I’m not blaming the thread for me doing something that I know makes
    me sick, and the only person in the thread that I blame is myself.
    If it sounded like I was doing otherwise, I apologize. I have a
    feeling that whenever I get a chance to reread this thread I’m going
    to find that I fucked up in communication a lot.

    Hell, even if I were going to try to
    weasel out of responsibility for my actions, the thread in itself
    would get at most partial credit.

    ** Not of me. I wanted to say I was
    never abused, but I realized I shouldn’t lie. So just be aware that
    I wasn’t abused in that way. The memories were of people I love, one
    in particular, having their lives utterly destroyed by other people I
    love, again one in particular. I don’t have trouble coping with it
    in the abstract, or even in detail most of the time, but for whatever the reason the comment in question
    changed things in such a way that I couldn’t cope.

    From the discussion in that thread I
    gather that that’s pretty standard stuff, probably shouldn’t be
    enough to make me run away, but what can I say? I couldn’t take it.

    I’m sorry this is so long. Very, very
    sorry. Right now I’m in a state where whenever I try to trim it down
    I see things and think, “Well, that needs clarification,” and it
    ends up longer. I’m also worried because I know it’ll be a while
    before I come back so I can’t depend on being able to clarify in later posts the immediate future.

    I just tried to shorten it again and
    almost added a whole new paragraph before I remembered I was
    supposed to be shortening it.

  • Anonymous

    There’s an extended universe Star Wars book that actually does deal with the silent staff of the Death Star.  It’s called, appropriately enough, Death Star and isn’t bad.

    As to the Prodigal Son parable…  I find it hard to be on anyone’s side, since all three of the characters act in problematic ways.  The prodigal son was a young idiot who sort of figured out he was an idiot, but, at the same time (so far as we know) is perfectly willing to be given everything by dad, yet again.  Humility, dude?  The older son is pissed off for partly understandable, partly odd reasons which makes him less sympathetic.  The father seems to play favorites and, weirdly, didn’t bother to send anyone to tell the older son that his brother was back.

    That family needs therapy.  A LOT of therapy.

  • Anonymous

    Oh god, yes. Sooo much therapy. And now I’m tempted to write a short story where the whole ‘mark of cain’ nonsense is avoided by a passing Angel and/or foreign pagan god playing family therapist.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    The prodigal son was a young idiot who sort of figured out he was an idiot, but, at the same time (so far as we know) is perfectly willing to be given everything by dad, yet again.  Humility, dude?

    He’s silenced the moment his dad starts speaking.  He gives his, “I’m not worthy,” line and then the dad orders the servants around and the prodigal never appears in the story again.  And by servants I, in all likelihood, mean slaves.  The word originally just meant slaves but, due to ambiguity (again, I blame Herodotus), it could actually mean things less … horrible.  And since the prodigal comes looking to be hired, maybe it doesn’t mean slaves in this instance.

    We don’t know how he reacts.  And since we know nothing of how he reacts, this is an omission I can do nothing with.  If we had even one tiny inkling of how he reacts then the choice of what was left in and what was left out would itself be telling, but when everything is left out the story becomes void.

    We know his dad ordered the probably-slaves to do various things for the son, we don’t know how he reacted.  The only order that we know to have been carried out is that the fatted calf was killed and we don’t know whether that was with prodigal cheering it on or going, “No, really.  I don’t need this.  Please, I feel bad enough without you making a big deal about it.  You really don’t need to do this.  I don’t need a feast.”

    We cut from the father saying the should celebrate, to the text saying, “and they began to celebrate,” to the brother in the field coming home.

    I wonder if this omission is actually to try to get us in elder son’s headspace.  We know a lot more than he does about what’s been going on*, but we don’t know anything about how his little brother reacted after his dad took him back, and since elder son doesn’t either that puts on somewhat level footing in that regard.  We know more about what led up to the celebration that elder does, but we don’t know anything more than him about the celebration itself.

    * One important thing that he doesn’t know, for example, is that prodigal came back saying, “I’m not worthy,” and came back not looking for a giant welcome but hoping for work.  As such I think it’s clear that the story isn’t working too hard to give us the same info as elder.

  • Kukulkan

     On writing.

    chris the cynic wrote:

    I don’t even know how I’d follow your advice and make the story contain those details. “Lucifer doesn’t cackle here,” perhaps? “Dear reader, I just want you to know that Lucifer is actually being honest”? Must I call out every single thing that didn’t happen? You seem to imply that that is the case.

    It’s not advice, it’s an observation.

    Generally writers use it to their advantage. Take Star Wars, which you bring up later. There’s a scene in the first film:
          268. INT. DEATH STAR.
          Darth Vader strides purposefully down a Death Star
          corridor, flanked by Imperial stormtroopers.

                        VADER
                Several fighters have broken off
                from the main group. Come with me!

    The next time we see Darth Vader is:
          292. EXT. SPACE AROUND THE DEATH STAR.
          Three Imperial TIE ships in precise formation dive
          toward the Death Star surface.

          293. INT. DARTH VADER’S COCKPIT.
          Darth Vader calmly adjusts his control stick as
          the stars whip past in the window above his head.

                        VADER
                Stay in attack formation!

    Question: how did Darth Vader get from the corridor to the cockpit of the TIE Fighter?

    Answer: the audience fills in the details based on their knowledge and experience. We assume he and the two pilots that followed him in scene 268 went to a hanger in the Death Star, climbed into the TIE fighters, launched into space, and manoeuvred around to the position we see them in scene 292.

    We do this because we know that the Death Star is a military craft that carries TIE Fighters, so we can assume there are hangers full of TIE Fighters scattered throughout the structure (along with mess halls, sleeping quarters, rec rooms, etc.). Further, we saw a Death Star hanger earlier in the movie when the Millennium Falcon was drawn into it. Also we saw the Rebel pilots climbing into their X- and Y-Wings in their hanger on the Fourth Moon of Yavin, so it’s easy to extrapolate that the Imperials do the same thing. There’s no need to show any of this; let the audience do the work.

    This is one of the reasons why all the itinerary porn in the Left Behind books is so irritating. There’s no need to tell us how Buck got from his office in Chicago to, say, a television studio in Tel Aviv. The audience is both capable and willing to fill in the details for themselves. By this I don’t mean that they actively work out all the specifics in their heads; I mean they know they could if they had to and so don’t consider the transition a problem. He caught a cab, took a flight, booked into a hotel, etc. So long as nothing significant to the story occurred along the way, we accept and expect the story skip over the details and cut to the next important bit of action.

    Writers can exploit this tendency in the audience. There are a number of stories where things seem to be one thing until some revelation at the end recasts the whole narrative and the reader realises that everything in the story was quite different. What happened was the reader had automatically and unconsciously filled in the details, but they were the wrong details. The author had just been very careful not to contradict the reader’s natural assumptions until the very end.

    On the other hand, sometimes it’s important to establish certain details even though they are boring and the sort of thing the audience usually fills in for themselves. As Buck is walking through the airport to get to his flight, he sees a couple of Global Community officers hustling a Hare Krishna off to the security office and he pauses to reflect that it’s been ages since he’d seen anyone publicly proselytising or celebrating any religion other than Babylon Enigma and he’d never stopped to think about how that had been accomplished. We establish that Buck goes to the airport and takes a flight to Tel Aviv and give a sense of what life under Nicolae is like. The audience doesn’t notice the bit about the airport because they’re focussing on the police state tactics, but it’s there.

    An example of this sort of thing that come to mind is the fourth season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode The Initiative where we follow Riley Finn and a couple of his friends as they leave a party and go through a series of checkpoints to get to a big secret para-military base hidden under the UC Sunnydale campus. The main focus of the sequence is Riley and his friends talking about his developing relationship with Buffy and relationships in general, but it also serves to establish that the Initiative base exists and Riley and friends are part of it.

    Another example is from the Tintin album Destination Moon where Hergé gives us what is effectively a guided tour of the moon rocket as part of a very funny sequence in which Professor Calculus becomes furious because Captain Haddock said he was “acting the goat” (pages 39-49). Again, a lot of detail is established rather than being left to the audience to just fill in without it being boring because the focus is kept on something else.

    As for your specific problem regarding Lucifer and going against audience expectations, that’s a bit trickier. I can think of two possible ways to handle it.

    First, do a scene early in the piece which seems to be very clinched, but which doesn’t go the way the audience expects. That is, subvert the audience’s assumptions right at the beginning. This signals to the audience that your Vampires/Demons/Ghosts/Spies/Antichrists are Different and alerts them to be on the look-out for other deviations from what they expect.

    Second, have a PoV (Point of View) character who shares the audience’s assumptions and is surprised that certain things don’t happen and comments on that. Only a little bit of this is needed and it can even be a passing PoV character, but again it alerts the audience that things are different here and gets them looking for other deviations from what they expect.

  • Kukulkan

    On the Prodigal Son.

    chris the cynic wrote:

    We have to interpret if we’re going to say anything, and that does involve bringing our own experiences, but I don’t think it’s the case that we can simply add in any detail that’s been left out. We know everything he did say, so when he doesn’t say something, when he doesn’t bring up certain details, the absence of those details is telling us about him and the story at large. It tells us that whatever happened, it wasn’t something that would have left him saying something else.

    I end up focussing on the details that are included because I assume they were included for a reason. And one of the few details that is included in the parable is the fattened calf.

    Now, there are two possible reasons for it’s inclusion.

    First, the fattened calf is simply a marker for how happy the father is to see the prodigal son. He’s so happy that he has the fattened calf killed for the celebration. He’s that happy. In modern terms, he was so happy that he threw a huge party and commissioned Andrew Lloyd Webber to compose a special song welcoming the son back to be performed by the Rolling Stones at the party, with the original three members of Bananarama reformed as the support act, just because those were the bands the son liked when he was younger.

    That is, he’s so happy that the celebration is excessive.

    Second, to highlight the fact that the celebration was excessive. Now, I grant you all the stuff about selling the fattened calf and vineyards and marrying Martha I just made up. There’s nothing in the parable to specifically support those details. But I find that the only way to make clear what is lost when savings and stored wealth is blown on something like a big party is by emphasising what that wealth could have been used for. Killing the fattened calf is an opportunity cost, and all those other opportunities and possibilities are now gone.

    I don’t know what the elder son may have wanted to do with the fattened calf, but I do know from the details included in the story that, since the prodigal son had already gotten his inheritance, everything that was left was part of the elder son’s inheritance. Whatever he may have wanted to do with that fattened calf — with the stored wealth represented by that fattened calf — he now can’t because his father blew it all on a big party. A big party to which no-one thought to invite him, incidentally.

    So maybe the elder son was just being churlish, but I think he had a valid point. And I can see why young kids don’t like the parable. It really does say that if you’re the good, responsible one, you’re a schmuck who will be taken for granted. Of course you’re always there and will always try to do the right thing, there’s no need to acknowledge or celebrate that.

    In an earlier post you wrote:

    See, here’s the thing, I don’t remember the part where we were invited to join the party.  If the government had spent as much money bailing out ordinary people as it spent on the bank I’d feel a metric fuckton better about how it all went down.

    Your complaint here basically boils down to the bankers got a fattened calf and ordinary people didn’t even get a goat. What you’re feeling there is essentially what I think the elder brother is expressing.

    Not only did we not get invited to the party — and remember, the older brother only got invited belatedly — but with the ongoing economic instability, unemployment and austerity measures, we’re being asked to pay for the party. Actually, “asked” is too nice a way of phrasing it.

    Am I unhappy that the banks got a bail out? No. Companies didn’t go bankrupt, people kept their jobs, life savings weren’t wiped out. All good things. I’m not unhappy about that at all.

    What I’m unhappy about is that through some strange alchemy the whole thing seems to have become my fault and I — and others like me — are being punished for it. If there was some sense of shared sacrifice I would accept that, but there isn’t. They get the fattened calf and we don’t even get a goat. No, it’s worse than that; it’s like the parable of the talents where we are the one who who does not have and they want to take even what we do have away from us.

    I think the father’s response completely misses the point. He never considers the elder son, it’s entirely focused on the prodigal. He was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. I really think the father’s response borders on being deliberately obtuse; unthinkingly callous.

    The banks were saved from a near-death experience and we’re all supposed to be thankful that we’re all living with massive unemployment and increasing austerity because the banks are all right now.

    Maybe that’s why I’m an agnostic, because I just can’t find it within myself to feel that way. If I’m going to sacrifice for others — while they sacrifice nothing — I figure it should at least be my choice.
     

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Your complaint here basically boils down to the bankers got a fattened calf and ordinary people didn’t even get a goat.

    No.  No it does not.  My complaint was that the fatted calf was slaughtered, a feast was held, there was music and dancing, and rather than being invited in we were all kept out.

    If the people of this country had been invited in so that they might partake of the same benefits as the bankers, even if not the same attention, then I personally think things would have gone a lot better, notably for struggling home owners.  The problem wasn’t that they never got a smaller bailout in the past, the problem was that the people were barred from attending that one.

    We didn’t choose to stay out side and refuse to come in when we were personally invited/pleaded with/ordered (depending on your translation of choice) by the head of household.  The banks got bailed out and we were told, “No dancing for you, no feast for you, stay the fuck out!”  That’s the exact opposite of what happens in the story.

    In the story the elder son is invited to take part.  The people of this country were not invited to take part in the bailouts.

    There’s a vast difference from choosing to stay out of a party and being not allowed in.

  • Kukulkan

     chris the cynic wrote:

    Your complaint here basically boils down to the bankers got a fattened calf and ordinary people didn’t even get a goat.

    No.  No it does not.  My complaint was that the fatted calf was slaughtered, a feast was held, there was music and dancing, and rather than being invited in we were all kept out.

    I really don’t see the distinction you are drawing here.
    One party got a bailout/fattened calf, the other got nothing/not even a goat. The feelings of the side that got nothing/not even a goat are, I think, similar. Both stem from the shock of the realization of just how little valued they and their contributions are.

    We didn’t choose to stay out side and refuse to come in when we were personally invited/pleaded with/ordered (depending on your translation of choice) by the head of household.

    You keep stressing this point — and it’s a valid one — but you keep skipping over the broader context.

       I. The elder son was not invited to the party.
      II. He only learned about it when he came in from the fields and found everyone in the
          middle of a celebration.
     III. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that if you weren’t invited — weren’t even
          informed — you probably weren’t welcome and to choose to sit it out.
      IV. When the father comes out to invite/plead/order the elder son in to the celebration he
          proceeds to ignore his quite valid feelings and talks only about the prodigal son.

    Now, for me, the combination of items II and IV has the clear subtext of “it’s all about the prodigal son; not only are you and your contributions not valued, I’m barely aware of them.”

    Or, to put it another way, the only time anyone gets any attention around here is by causing trouble. The prodigal son gets attention by blowing his inheritance, the older son gets attention by sulking and sitting out the party. Since, apparently, that’s the only thing the father responds to, I can see why the sons behave that way.

    There’s a vast difference from choosing to stay out of a party and being not allowed in.

    No-one said they weren’t allowed in. They just weren’t invited. And when they complained, they were told “Oh no, this is for you too. The banks will use the bailout money to re-negotiate the mortgages and make loans to businesses to get the economy moving again and create jobs so everyone will come out a winner.” It’s just that once the people were somewhat mollified by that statement (invitation/pleading/order) the bailed out banks haven’t followed through on that promise and no-one in any position of authority seems to care that they haven’t.

    What one really wants here is something like the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 17:3-4), but, alas, that’s not what we’ve got.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    (Noting that the elder son can hear, appears to be physically capable of dancing, and we have no reason to believe he is incapable of pleasantly digesting the food in question.)

    When you’re invited into a feast you are being invited to eat.  You are not being told to watch other people eat while being forced to go hungry.

    When you’re invited into a dance, you are being invited to dance.  You are not being told to watch other people dance while you are not allowed.

    When you’re invited to come to the place where there is music, you’re being invited to enjoy the music, not to watch other people enjoy the music while you hear nothing.

    Whatever we may think about the elder, the younger, and the father, or the situation as a whole, the elder son is being asked to partake in the perks of the celebration.  He’s being asked after it’s already started, but he’s being asked.

    For the bailouts to be comparable the people would have had to have been asked to partake in the perks of that.  The people’d have had to have been offered a portion of the money.  Direct relief instead of the indirect stuff we were told would manifest itself through hazy means as a result of the banks being bailed out.The people emphatically did not get invited to that party.  No one offered us a portion of the fatted calf, dancing or music.  Which is to say we weren’t invited to the celebration.  We weren’t offered to partake in the bailout money.

    That makes it different.  It’s not just that the fatted calf was killed, it’s that the people weren’t offered to share in the results.  We weren’t offered when it happened, we weren’t offered when we came home and found out what was going on, we weren’t offered when we asked for it.

    For the parable to fit that situation the elder son would have to be saying, “I see you’ve got a party going on here, can I come inside?” and the father would have to say, “No.  Stay outside.  But don’t worry, the fact that your brother is enjoying himself will rub off on you.”

    disqus is acting strangely, hopefully this won’t post three times.

  • Kukulkan

     chris the cynic wrote:

    For the parable to fit that situation the elder son would have to be saying, “I see you’ve got a party going on here, can I come inside?” and the father would have to say, “No.  Stay outside.  But don’t worry, the fact that your brother is enjoying himself will rub off on you.”

    Yeah, but the point of the parable is that the older son is being a jerk for resenting the fact that there is a party. Some of us are saying that he was justified in being a somewhat resentful because he wasn’t invited. To which you point out that he was invited… eventually.

    If we remove the implication that the older brother wasn’t invited — and that only follows from the passage saying he was out in field and heard the celebration already in progress when he returned — that doesn’t change the point of the parable.

    The older brother resented the fact that his prodigal brother got a party and he didn’t. Not that he wasn’t invited to that party — that’s just a contributing psychological detail that I and others bring to the story — but the fact that his brother got a party after bad behaviour while he, who had been good, didn’t get a party.

    So, there was a bailout. We were promised a part of that bailout (though the promises weren’t followed through on) through what we were told were the normal workings of the system. But the main point is there was a bailout. And it was given to the banks and financial institutions who had engaged in bad and reckless behaviour, not to the people that had been good and prudent. And those of us who had been good and prudent resent that bailout — especially since it turns we are the ones who have to pay for it; it used up the calf we had helped fatten up.

    So, as far as I can tell, the promise equates to an invitation to partake of their party, not a party of our own.

    They got a bailout, we didn’t. We should be happy they got a bailout because they almost died and now are alive again.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Please don’t lie to me about what I said.  It’s rude.

    I would also argue that it’s pointless.  You can read what I wrote.  I can read what I wrote.  Any onlooker can read what I wrote.  What exactly is the lie meant to accomplish?

    Second, if the elder son had gone and joined the party he would have gotten to partake in a feast there and then.  He would have gotten to dance there and then.  He would have gotten to listen to music there and then.  Not an empty promise of it coming about later, actual results in real time.

    To imply that the people who were shafted by the banking crisis got anything like that kind of offer is false, it is rude, and it is hurtful.  They’ve haven’t just been left out in the cold, they’ve been kept there.  They haven’t refused to come in, they’ve begged to.

    They’re not standing out in the cold because they’re pissed off that they weren’t given the opportunity to throw their own bailout at some point in the past, they’re pissed off that they’re not even getting the table scraps from this one.

    They’re not refusing to come and have a piece of the fatted calf because they’re angry about past goats denied, they’re begging for a piece of the fatted calf.  They’re not refusing to dance because they’re angry there were not dances in the past, they’re saying, “Can I please come in for just one dance?  Even a little one would be better than nothing.”  They’re not refusing to come to where the music is, they’re asking to be allowed in for even one song.

    To imply that the people who were shafted by the bailout are the same position as the elder son, that they could instantly get a share of the bailout if they could manage to make up and play nice with the banks, is false.  It is blatantly, hurtfully false.

    They’re not staying out because they don’t like the bankers, though they almost certainly do not.  They’re not staying out because being around the bankers would be traumatic for them, though it might very well be that it would be.  They’re staying out because they haven’t been allowed to come in.  Far from being pleaded with to come in and partake and then refusing, they have pleaded and been refused.

    Those who are hurting have not refused help.  They have been refused help.

    Those two things are different and your repeated conflation of the two is rude and it is hurtful.

    Third, you know as well as I do* that the story is completely silent on whether or not the elder son has gotten parties in the past.  He says that he’s never had the opportunity to throw one.  No one ever mentions whether or not he’s had one thrown for him.  Maybe he has, maybe he hasn’t.  Treating the idea that he hasn’t as if it were fact is presenting the text as saying something it does not.

    It is, at best, being extremely and intentionally misleading.

    What I said at the beginning of the post has very high stakes for me.  If you continue to misrepresent my words to me then this is where I have to leave.  I’m simply not going to continue in a conversation where someone does that to me.  What follows is a simple request.  If you ignore it I’ll be unhappy but I’ll probably stick around.

    Please do not say extremely misleading things, especially not an hour and a half after you have demonstrated that you know them to be extremely misleading, in the future.  It is very difficult to have a conversation with someone who is not only acting in bad faith, but also doing it blatantly.

  • Kukulkan

    chris the cynic wrote:

    Please don’t lie to me about what I said.  It’s rude.

    I agree, lying is rude.

    It’s also rude to accuse people of things they didn’t do. As far as I’m aware I haven’t lied to you or about you.

    Everything I’ve attributed to you is a direct quote; a straightforward copy/paste. As such it should be completely accurate. If you think anything attributed to you is not what you actually wrote, please quote the offending passage and point out how it differs from what you did write. Once you have done so, I will apologise for the error and retract it.

    Otherwise I’m going to kindly ask you to take your personal attack and fuck off.

    ———————–

    Second, if the elder son had gone and joined the party he would have gotten to partake in a feast there and then.  He would have gotten to dance there and then.  He would have gotten to listen to music there and then.  Not an empty promise of it coming about later, actual results in real time.

    So now you’ve decided to revise your complaint from he wasn’t invited to he wasn’t allowed to attend. This is known as moving the goal posts.

    The point of the parable is that you’re supposed to be happy that they got bailed out. Whether or not you got invited to the party is irrelevant. In fact it’s seen as churlish to complain that you didn’t. That apparently is how the Kingdom of Heaven works. That’s why I think the parable is problematic. You’re the one defending it, so don’t attack me for pointing out that it has problems. Address the problems or explain why they aren’t problems.

    The older son’s complaint wasn’t that he wasn’t invited, it was that he didn’t even get a goat. Well, guess what? At the end of the parable he still doesn’t have even a goat.

    The parallel works. You just don’t like it.

    It is very difficult to have a conversation with someone who is not only acting in bad faith, but also doing it blatantly.

    I’ve said that I think the parable is problematic. As far as I can see, I’m the only one who responded to arcseconds’ request to re-write the parable so as to avoid the difficulties and, in the process, I identified what I see as the problems and suggested ways to fix them. To the best of my knowledge you haven’t responded to arcseconds’ request, so I have to assume you think the parable is fine as is.

    Well, the problems I highlight by making a parallel with the bailout are the same ones I identified. The parallel with the bailout is just another way of pointing them out. Attacking me for making that parallel doesn’t make the problems go away.

    If you don’t like the bailout then as far as I can tell you know exactly how the older son felt. If the older son was just acting like a jerk and being mean to the father, well then…

    If we take the parable seriously as presented, then we should be happy for the banks that they got bailed out. If we’re not happy for the banks — if, indeed, we find that notion that we should be seriously wrong and distasteful — then we need to admit the parable as presented has some problems. Or admit that we aren’t up to the standards represented by the parable — and, if that’s the case, I admit that I’m not.

    Of course, we can avoid considering those problems by just attacking the messenger and declaring the whole subject off limits by saying it offends you — and clearly, anything that offends you must, by definition, be wrong.

    What I said at the beginning of the post has very high stakes for me.

    As it does for me. So either back up your accusation or withdraw it.

    I’m sorry you don’t like me pointing out problems with a parable, but making personal attacks isn’t going to make those problems go away.
     

  • P J Evans

    We should be happy they got a bailout because they almost died and now are alive again.

    I think the banks have died for real, but the bailouts turned them into zombie banks. And we’re supposed to not notice that they’re really dead. (The fees they charge are what’s keeping them looking like they’re alive.)

  • Anonymous

    I can’t help feeling that a simple “Hey you’re home, welcome back” would have sufficed in the original story. And I really like the investment banker analogy. That would be the prodigal son saying, “OK, I spent all the money and then some. It’s what I do. Now you need to give me a whole lot more and tell my boring older baby brother to stop whining before the neighbours start to think you’re some kind of socialist”.

  • http://brandiweed.livejournal.com/ Brandi

    “It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took; we know it because she repented.” — Mark Twain

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    several millennia of Christians

    Just of of curiosity, am I the only one who’s brain threw out an error message right there?  I mean unless we’re talking about time traveling Christians.

    I’m wondering if maybe the several was meant to hook up with the next word in the sentence after the quoted bit (Jews) while the Christians were meant to be attached to at most two of those millennia and to do even that much we have define when there started being Christians in a rather interesting way (by pretty much every estimate I’ve ever heard Jesus started his ministry less than 2000 years ago.)  Even then, how is “several” being defined and when is the beginning of Jewish treatment of the tale dated to?

  • http://dumas1.livejournal.com/ Winter

    We know it was not a durian that Eve took, for she convinced Adam to share it.

    If there’s one fruit that actually looks evil, it’s the durian.

  • Kukulkan

    Okay, I guess I’m going to be a bit of a jerk here, because I’m going to stand up for the people asking these sort of “inappropriate” questions.

    I’m a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft and one of the reasons is his approach to writing a story. As he summed it up in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated October 17 1930:

    My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax. The author must forget all about ‘short story technique’, & build up a stark, simple account, full of homely corroborative details, just as if he were actually trying to ‘put across’ a deception in real life — a deception clever enough to make adults believe it. My own attitude in writing is always that of the hoax-weaver. One part of my mind tries to concoct something realistic & coherent enough to fool the rest of my mind & make me swallow the marvel as the late Camille Flammarion used to swallow the ghost & revenant yarns unloaded on him by fakers & neurotics. For the time being I try to forget formal literature, & simply devise a lie as carefully as a crooked witness prepares a line of testimony with cross-examining lawyers in his mind.

    To me, stories exist to be cross-examined and scrutinised and, if a story can’t stand up to scrutiny, then it’s not much of a story.

    There are a couple of reasons for this.

    First, stories are open to interpretation which means at their core they contain an ambiguity; if you look at it this way, it means one thing, if you look at it that way, it means something else. One of the reasons to make a point by telling a story is to communicate that ambiguity. Straightforward statements are generally unambiguous, but sometimes what you want to communicate is the ambiguity, that sometimes it really does depend on how you look at it. That sometimes it’s an old woman, sometimes it’s a young woman and it’s always both simultaneously.

    Saying some questions are invalid or miss the point or are otherwise inappropriate is trying to eliminate that ambiguity by fostering a tunnel vision and saying there’s only one possible interpretation.

    To take Fred’s example, if it doesn’t matter what the fruit in the story of Adam and Eve was, then the question is harmless. Say it’s an apple, or a fig, or a pomegranate or a persimmon or a banana or whatever. If it doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t matter. However, if you say it’s a citrus fruit like an orange or a lime and that does change the meaning of the story, then asking what the fruit was is not an invalid question.

    If we say the fruit was an orange and Adam and Eve ate of it because they needed the vitamin C, then the story stops being one of temptation and disobedience and turns into one of the illusion of free will and blaming the victim. If Adam and Eve need the vitamin C, then they had to eat the fruit or die, but they got punished for eating it anyway.

    This actually sums up a very real human dilemma. Lots of people get caught in situations where they make a choice and then get blamed and punished for making that choice even though there were no other options — or, rather, the only other option was effectively death. It’s a way of putting the responsibility for the punishment on the victim rather than on whoever it was that set up the no-win scenario in the first place.

    Maybe the meaning of the story is that sometimes you just have to do what you have to do and endure the punishment that results because you’re going to suffer either way.

    And, of course, I’ll point out that if you’re an artist commissioned to paint the scene asking what the fruit was is perfectly valid because it’s impossible to paint just a “fruit”. It’s got to be something specific.

    In the case of Cain and Able, asking what Cain’s offence was is, I think, also valid. On one level you want to know what Cain did so you can avoid doing the same. On another level, knowing what Cain’s offence was allows you to judge whether or not God’s rejection was reasonable. I mean, if God was just playing favourites, then I would say that God bears more than a little responsibility for what happened. Anyone in a position of authority knows that if you play favourites it just creates bad feelings and leads to unpleasantness. Perhaps the unpleasantness isn’t quite as drastic as what happened with Cain and Able, but it’s never good.

    Maybe that’s the meaning of the story: don’t play favourites.

    Alternately, if we take up the suggestion made by various posters that Cain’s offence was not offering meat and that God only wants meat sacrifices, then I can see Cain’s response: “You want a meat sacrifice? Okay, here’s a meat sacrifice! Happy now?” I mean, he wouldn’t be the first worshiper to reach the conclusion that if sacrificing animals is good, sacrificing people is better.

    The second reason is because not questioning stories just makes us gullible. In the post following this one, Fred talks about the story that Mitt Romney doesn’t use hair products. Figuring out the intended meaning of this story is easy: Mitt Romney is an authentic guy who doesn’t rely on forms of deception like hair dyes and gels to project a false image.

    It could be said that by questioning this story, Fred is missing the point and reading it as the wrong sort of story.

    Of course, by questioning it, Fred is also inverting the meaning of the story. The meaning becomes Romney does use hair products because he — like everyone else who appears on television — has too, but lies about it. That is, he’ll do whatever it is that he feels he needs to do, but will only tell you what he thinks you want to hear, so you can’t actually trust what he says. Or, more simply, he’s not authentic.

    Similarly, with the Iraq War we get told that we had to invade Iraq because they were developing nuclear and biological weapons. Then, after the invasion, we get told that we have to attack Iran because the Iranians are helping the Iraqi resistance build IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and we know that it’s the Iranians because the Iraqis couldn’t build those by themselves.

    So the story is: Iraqis are dangerous because they are smart enough to build nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, but they are not smart enough to build IEDs, only the Iranians are smart enough to do that. Ummm… yeah.

    It could be said that it’s valid to question these types of story because they are not the type that’s intended to make a point, they are intended to deceive. I will respond by saying that the only way to figure out what kind of story you are dealing with — whether it’s one intended to illustrate a point, communicate an ambiguity or to deceive — is by questioning it. Stories intended to deceive break down under cross-examination fairly quickly. Stories intended to illustrate a point, yield the point. Stories intended to communicate an ambiguity reveal the ambiguity.

    The only reason I can see for getting annoyed with people asking questions about a story is because they are asking the wrong questions. However, the only reason you know they are the wrong questions is because you already know what the story is about and you can see that those questions are not going to lead to that conclusion. So what you’re really feeling is impatience; you just want them to get to the answer already.

    If it’s important for people to figure something out for themselves, though, sometimes you have to accept that they will spend some time going up blind alleys before they get there. It’s all part of the process.

    Further, unless you’ve been up that blind alley personally, you’re only assuming it’s a blind alley. It may very well turn out to be, but it also may lead to some new discoveries and conclusions that you and others missed.

    Asking questions is a big part of what makes us human. If God didn’t want us to ask questions, then He bungled badly in designing us the way we are.

    Just as an aside, if we’re made in God’s image and we enjoy asking questions, that implies that God also enjoys asking questions. Of course, if God is omniscient, He probably finds the whole experience rather flat because He already knows all the answers. So, maybe he enjoys us asking questions vicariously because for us the process of questioning and discovery is real since we don’t have all the answers.
     

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I read the story of the meat vs vegetable offerings as a reflection of the human taste for meat over vegetables or fruit. Yes, fruits and vegetables can be quite tasty (I like carrots, for example), but there is nothing that, in my mind, substitutes for the mouth-watering smell of a steak on the barbecue. By and large, barring conscious choice to omit meat from the diet, human societies seem to try to include meat in the diet however and whenever feasible to do so, and certainly North and South America go fairly heavy on the meat.

    If God was made in human image (an anthropomorphic God is the most common variant proffered in Christianity), then it stands to reason that God takes on human preferences and foibles. (“I am a jealous God”, and accepting burnt meat as the best kind of offering, and so on)

  • bad Jim

    “What tempted Adam wasn’t the apple in the tree but the pair on the ground.” I don’t know who said this.

    It’s pretty clear from the hierarchy of sacrifices specified in Deuteronomy that meat is preferred to vegetables and that some kinds of meat are better than others.

    We can object that Cain couldn’t have known this; in movie terms this is a continuity error: we haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet. This isn’t the only instance in Genesis; there’s also the least popular line from the story of Noah: “Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.” (The surplus of clean beasts will be sacrificed after the flood is over.) All we can say is they didn’t worry about such niceties back then.

    The story of the prodigal son is parallel to the parable of the talents. The characters object that the latecomers don’t deserve their benefits. What Jesus is actually offering is eternal life, which, being infinite, is incommensurate with any amount of deserving.

  • Lori

     The story of the prodigal son is parallel to the parable of the talents. The characters object that the latecomers don’t deserve their benefits. What Jesus is actually offering is eternal life, which, being infinite, is incommensurate with any amount of deserving. 

     

    That’s one way to look at it. I’d be more sympathetic to this view if the father wasn’t such an ass. 

    Elder brother: You never threw a party for me. 

    Father: You could have had a party any time you wanted. 

    The nicest thing I can say about that exchange is that it’s problematic. I always want to go up to the father and say, “It’s not about the fucking party you ass. He wanted some of your attention. He wanted some acknowledgement. He doesn’t get that from throwing a party for himself, you jerk. You’d know that if you could take a minute or 2 off from playing favorites and actually think about your first born. As a side benefit, if you hadn’t played favorites with second son maybe he wouldn’t have turned out to be such a spoiled brat.” 

  • Anonymous

    Whoo boy, The parable of the talents. When that little bit of loveliness came up in sunday school, I spent the whole session arguing that a)The situation was unfair, b)The third slave had less room for error, it was totally reasonable for him to just keep the initial investment safe C)It’s not like the master told them what to dowith the things D)the master was an evil jerk. E)Yes I know he represents god, the master’s still an evil jerk.

    I have a rule: I don’t care what you say it represents, if a story is a story of injustice, part of what it represents is injustice, and you don’t get to ignore that.

  • Lori

     D)the master was an evil jerk. E)Yes I know he represents god, the master’s still an evil jerk.

    I have a rule: I don’t care what you say it represents, if a story is a story of injustice, part of what it represents is injustice, and you don’t get to ignore that.  

     
    This. 

    Why yes, I was a problem in Sunday School. Why do you ask? 

  • Anonymous

    I once told my teacher that ‘this book’ didn’t have any good stories about girls in it. When she suggested a parable, I got a page in before I dropped it, announced that I didn’t think any story starting with a guy divorcing his wife cause she wouldn’t come when he called was a good story, and that the book sucked.

    There’s also the time I took a teacher up on his intended-to-be-rhetorical challenge and won ten bucks off him.

    Sunday School troublemakers unite!

  • Matri

    There’s also the time I took a teacher up on his intended-to-be-rhetorical challenge and won ten bucks off him.

    Sunday School troublemakers unite!

    Aww man, I wish I could have joined that club!

  • Lori

     Sunday School troublemakers unite!  

    I once expressed my displeasure with the content of a Sunday School lesson by calmly announcing, “I’m going to teach the class today.” I think I was about 4 at the time. 

    When I was in 6th grade I basically followed through–by going into great detail about why I was having a lot of trouble believing in a God who, judging by the treatment of women in the Bible, didn’t much believe in me. 

    It should have been obvious early on that I was not destined for a life of faith. 

  • dr ngo

    Recently I heard a sermon by Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal
    priest, bestselling author (Leaving Church and An Altar
    in the World) distinguished professor of religion at Piedmont
    College (GA), and part-time chicken farmer. 

    She preached on the parable of the talents (from Matthew), which she
    described as problematic, but normally interpreted as a call for
    stewardship (hence frequently read during Stewardship Sundays,
    etc.).  She pondered, citing a certain pre-revolutionary Nicaraguan
    ministry to campesinos:  why do we assume that the master
    (small “m”) is The Master?  If we came to this story without
    preconceptions, wouldn’t we just see him as a cold-hearted
    son-of-a-bitch, harsh to his slaves, exploitative of his debtors,
    demanding high interest regardless of where it comes from?  Isn’t he
    the archetypical capitalist, who crushes the one of his minions who
    has the courage not to engage in exploitation, and to tell him to
    his face what a son-of-a-bitch he is?  Do we seriously believe that
    Christ would say, with regard to campesinos or today’s
    “Occupy” crowds, that there problem is that they didn’t give enough
    to the bankers, and therefore that what little they had should be
    taken away from them?

    (I paraphrase freely – for the actual sermon, both as text and in
    performance, go to Duke
    Chapel website.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    “Distinguished professor and part-time chicken farmer” is an awesome CV :)

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    We can object that Cain couldn’t have known this; in movie terms this is a continuity error: we haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet. This isn’t the only instance in Genesis; there’s also the least popular line from the story of Noah: “Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.” (The surplus of clean beasts will be sacrificed after the flood is over.) All we can say is they didn’t worry about such niceties back then.

    In context, I don’t even see it as a continuity error. God doesn’t *punish* Cain for his sacrifice. He doesn’t *blame* Cain. He tells Cain to do better next time. The early books of the bible seem very much to be telling the story of an evolving relationship between a God and His people. There’s no reason in this setting to require that God have expressed a preference ahead of time, because there’s no reason in this setting to require that God *have* a preference ahead of time. You can full well say that Cain and Abel were just trying stuff at random and Abel got lucky, and Cain, being a sore loser, instead of resolving to try better next time, decided to off the winner.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    I remember one interpretation — likely out of Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN — that Cain WASN’T a sore loser. Rather, he learned from Abel’s sacrifice to give the best of what he had; what he loved the most.

    And his brother was what he loved the most. 

  • Lori

     I remember one interpretation — likely out of Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN — that Cain WASN’T a sore loser. Rather, he learned from Abel’s sacrifice to give the best of what he had; what he loved the most.

    And his brother was what he loved the most.  

    Given Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac I think you could tell the story this way without totally violating the spirit of things. 

  • lofgren

    Given
    Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac I think you could tell the
    story this way without totally violating the spirit of things.

    Yes, and you could posit that Cain never offered the sacrifice and later lied about knowing Abel’s whereabouts because god appeared all angry before he had the chance. If God appeared and angrily demanded the whereabouts of somebody I had killed, I can’t say I would have the courage to tell him.

    The only trouble is that Cain, being his mother’s son, ought to have known that murder is wrong. Even Abraham, after being commanded directly by god to kill, felt the need to lie about it to everyone around him.

    Still, this interpretation does not conflict with the interpretation that god prefers meat, since we know by god’s reaction that whatever might have caused Cain to think god wanted him to kill Abel, he was wrong.

  • Tonio

    the historical account it never claims itself to be. That’s not how the
    story presents itself and it’s not something the story allows itself to
    be. That’s not what this story is for.

    Fred seems to assume that “what the story is for” and “how the story presents itself” is obvious, and I suggest that both are somewhat opaque, especially for people with little or no knowledge of the ancient culture that created the book. He and many others here also seem to assume that the only alternative to an allegorical reading is a literal historical reading. It’s easy to say, “C’mon, how could it be historical when there’s a talking snake?” I thought of a third possibility where the Eden story is a legend, similar to how King Arthur was probably a Briton chieftain. Obviously such a story could also serve as an allegory, but it wouldn’t be the same as a made-up allegory.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I was one of those kids who liked to point out that it wasn’t specifically an apple in the story, but I never believed it was intended to be a historical account of anything. I corrected for the same reason I say “quotation” and “invitation” instead of “quote” and “invite” – because I have a tendency towards being a pedantic pain in the arse :)

  • Lori

    Now that I’m thinking about stories with unreliable narrators I’m being driven a bit nuts by my inability to remember the title and author of a short story I read in my first lit class in college. Maybe one of the many well-read slacktivites (with a better memory than I have) can help me. 

    The story is set in a small town. I don’t think it’s ever specified exactly what the narrator’s situation is, but he’s a bit “slow”. He’s tells the story of a local man who was recently killed in a “hunting accident”. The dead man was quite fond of practical jokes and used to play them on people with no regard for consequences. He traveled for his job (traveling salesman I think) and one of his favorites jokes was to randomly select a married woman in a town he was passing through and send her flowers with a card that implied that they’d been fooling around. The joker took great pleasure in laughing over how upset the women’s husbands would be. 

    Anyone remember this? It was written sometime before the mid-80s and was well-enough known to have made it into the sort of lit anthology used to teach college freshmen. (I have a strong feeling that when someone tells me who the author was I’m going to feel totally ridiculous for not being able to remember it off the top of my head.)

  • http://feathertail.dreamwidth.org/ Tachyon Feathertail

    The most vocal exmormons are the ones who retained their fundamentalist, black-and-white, “I have the whole truth” ways of thinking, and just became fundamentalist atheists.

  • bad Jim

    The story of the prodigal son is about the promise of eternal salvation, infinite bliss which pretty much no one deserves.

    The bad son as little deserved it as the last workers hired in the parable of talents. It’s a pretty simple point.

    As an atheist I feel silly for belaboring the point. As a liberal I’m outraged by the prospect of anyone advocating withholding welfare from those deemed undeserving.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The bad son as little deserved it as the last workers hired in the parable of talents. It’s a pretty simple point.

    You’re confusing the parable of the talents with the parable of the workers in the vineyards. And the last workers hired in that parable did get a just wage – they got enough money to meet their needs for the day.

  • Kukulkan

    bad Jim wrote:

    The story of the prodigal son is about the promise of eternal salvation, infinite bliss which pretty much no one deserves.

    Salvation may be eternal and bliss infinite, but fattened calves are a limited resource, which is why they are valuable.

    Like I said, a lot of parables run aground on the rock of economics, which doesn’t allow for infinite, eternal or never-ending. That’s why using real-world examples for such concepts runs into trouble because we know on a level that even faith can’t reach that, in the real world, some things are in limited supply.

    The bad son as little deserved it as the last workers hired in the parable of talents. It’s a pretty simple point.

    You’re confusing the parable of the talents with the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

    The parable of the talents is the one in which the master says “Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:26-30).

    I especially like the part about “But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him” since that seems to sum up the current neoliberal attitude towards the poor and destitute very nicely. Especially since this is in service of one who harvests where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter. Nothing quite like appropriating the results of other people’s labour and then demanding still more.

    As an atheist I feel silly for belaboring the point.

    As an agnostic I really wonder where Jesus stood on issues of economic justice, since he seemed to argue for both sides of it.
     

  • dr ngo

    As I noted above, I recently heard a sermon disputing the standard interpretation of this parable, in which the master is The Master.  Why, the preacher asked, do we assume this?  Maybe it’s another kind of parable entirely, one depicting the atrocity that is unchecked greed (capitalism).  (I paraphrase, of course.)  Maybe it’s not about how God behaves, but about how greedy bastards behave . . .

  • Kukulkan

    dr ngo wrote:

    As I noted above, I recently heard a sermon disputing the standard interpretation of this parable, in which the master is The Master.  Why, the preacher asked, do we assume this?  Maybe it’s another kind of parable entirely, one depicting the atrocity that is unchecked greed (capitalism).  (I paraphrase, of course.)  Maybe it’s not about how God behaves, but about how greedy bastards behave . . .

    I’m not assuming the master is anyone, I’m just noting that he comes across as a complete greed-crazed bastard. The version in Luke (chapter 19:12-28) is even worse. There the master has a bunch of people who didn’t want him as ruler slaughtered. Mind you, given his attitude and behaviour, I can certainly understand why they didn’t want him as ruler.

    Maybe I’m just being tone-deaf to irony, or maybe irony really doesn’t travel well over a span of centuries and translation into a very different language.

    I don’t know what Jesus intended with this parable, but on the face of it, it’s pretty nasty. And the master does not stand condemned, the servant does, so the whole thing comes across as incredibly unjust.

    Also, I really don’t know how to square “I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter?” (Matthew 25:26) or “I was a severe man, withdrawing what I didn’t deposit and reaping what I didn’t sow?” (Luke 19:22) with “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” (2nd Thessalonians 3:10) since the master definitely doesn’t work, but seems to expect to eat quite well and the text doesn’t seem to disagree with this expectation.

    If it is irony or a way of saying don’t be like this, then I must admit that it’s going right over my head.

  • lofgren

    According to Wikipedia, the septuagint has a line in Cain and Abel with which I was not previously familiar. God says to Cain, following the sacrifice:

    Hast thou not sinned if thou hast brought it rightly, but not rightly
    divided it?

    This does seem to indicate that problem is not with the vegetables per se, but rather the portion that Cain gave as his offering.

    So I guess I revise my assertion to: Cain’s folly is knowable, but it depends on which version you read.

  • Anonymous

    So I guess I revise my assertion to: Cain’s folly is knowable, but it depends on which version you read.

    Perhaps next time you should do your research *before* loudly claiming your interlocutors are “just making shit up”.

  • lofgren

    Perhaps next time you should do your research *before* loudly claiming your interlocutors are “just making shit up”.

    Meh.
    If anybody was basing their interpretation on that passage, they could
    have mentioned it at any time. This conversation went on for HOURS. Nobody mentioned this passage, and my comment was directed at those folks who said that we simply don’t know what caused God to disapprove of Cain’s sacrifice. This passage makes that more clear.Besides,  the original commenters I was responding to claimed that the reason
    for god’s disapproval was unknown. I and a half dozen others piped up
    that the story pretty clearly suggests that God prefers meat, and
    neutrino and I were the only ones who stuck around when Lori’s face
    exploded.Maybe next time if you have a piece of evidence that is not being considered in the conversation at hand, you could just cut and paste it from wikipedia instead of popping up at the last second to be snide and contemptuous.

  • Lori

      I and a half dozen others piped up 

    that the story pretty clearly suggests that God prefers meat, and 
    neutrino and I were the only ones who stuck around when Lori’s face 
    exploded.Maybe next time if you have a piece of evidence that is not being considered in the conversation at hand, you could just cut and paste it from wikipedia instead of popping up at the last second to be snide and contemptuous.  

     
    Again, you can put this where it’s dark. 

    The fact that this is how you see the conversation is a perfect example of why I said that you’re arrogant. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    lofgren: Your habit of assuming 100% agreement from me and then metaphorically grabbing onto me to support your argument is a bit presumptuous to say the least.

    You apparently are unwilling to see nuances and shades and prefer a binary mode of argumentation, AND seem determined to drown nuance in the bludgeoning of tl;dr suppositions and if-this-then-thats.

  • Izzy

    Arriving late to the thread…is it me, or is Lofgren’s whole argument:

    1. You’re all interrogating this text from the wrong perspective!
    2. Blah blah something about atheism that’s somehow related?

    And if so, is there any point in me reading his posts? Because…Lord, how tiresome can you get? It’s not like there are prizes for having The One Right Interpretation. Are there?

    So:

    I can see Cain’s response: “You want a meat sacrifice? Okay, here’s a meat sacrifice! Happy now?” “Cain Rose Up” by Stephen King is a short story that…deals with that theme. And is all sorts of freaky.I’m torn on the Prodigal Son thing. As the “responsible daughter”, I spent a fair amount of time sighing at my folks for, in my worldview, being total pushovers re: my sister–who is a perfectly functional person these days, for the record–and also did a bit of eye-rolling at my friends about mutual acquaintances because, seriously, why are we even bothering to invite her places, oh my GOD let her have tantrums on her own time…and so forth. So I get that perspective. And I’m not much for unconditional love, because it does tend to strike me as “…so why bother?” and I’d rather be liked for being relatively good company/competent/etc and know that people would stop liking me if I wasn’t.On the other hand, the prodigal hasn’t asked for anything much, the dad is offering–which, if that materially disadvantages the other son, that’s a problem, but I don’t know–and yeah, it’s nice to know that your kid’s alive, I’d imagine, even if said kid is a fuck-up. And these days I’m all for not making people pay too harshly for screwing up a few times, and am inclined to consider the prodigal’s deal something similar.  My recent catching-up-on-Mad-Men binge has actually given me an interesting perspective on this: (Rot13d for spoilers.) Bar bs gur zbfg erprag rcvfbqrf V jngpurq jnf gur bar jurer Crttl’f byqre fvfgre jnf pbzcynvavat gb gur cevrfg nobhg ubj Crttl jnf fb njshy sbe univat na vyyrtvgvzngr xvq naq “frqhpvat n zneevrq zna”, naq tbvat ba yvxr abguvat unq unccrarq–jul qvqa’g gur fvfgre trg n erjneq, rgp?  And I found the complaining character about ninety percent unsympathetic–nygubhtu fur’f gnxvat pner bs gur xvq, juvpu qbrf tvir ure n yvggyr zber yvprafr gb or naablrq–partly because of the nature of the “sins” being complained about, but partly because…dude, the only person keeping you from going out and having a good time is *you*.For me, it comes down to the line between “this person is not taking any responsibility for their life and expects everyone else to take care of them” and “this person is doing stuff I wanted to do and didn’t and is not getting punished for it” and what side the complainer is on. Prodigial Son doesn’t give me enough information to go on either way.Also, I’m on Team Fig. I like figs, I feel like oranges or pomegranates would have been too much effort and we’d still be in the garden, and…ew, olives. Apples are a decent second choice, if you get the sweet crispy Fuji kind, but it definitely wasn’t Red Delicious, because that name is a LIE. Also: worms. Ew. Although maybe they wouldn’t have been in Eden?

  • Izzy

    Disqus: I hate you.

  • Lori

    it definitely wasn’t Red Delicious, because that name is a LIE.

    So true. A Red Mushy wouldn’t sell of course. The question is, why does this apple exist? There can’t be that much demand for apples for photo shoots where looks matter and taste does not? Why do people continue to eat it? That will always be a mystery to me. My only guesses are that it tastes a lot better to other people than it does to me or the power of advertising and habit is even stronger than I think it is.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    The only part of any apple I really like is the skin. Red Delicious has a very nice, sturdy, flavorful skin. Most of the ones that apple conoisseurs prefer have thin, flavorless or even slightly bitter skins.

  • Izzy

    That’s a good point. Hm. Now we just need to find a use for everything else about the apple. Does it work in pies?

  • Lori

    Does it work in pies?

    IMO, no. It tends to fall apart, so you end up with something that’s more like apple sauce in a crust than apple pie. And it doesn’t make good apple sauce because it doesn’t have much flavor. I guess it could work in recipes where you want to use applesauce to cut down on the amount of fat you’re using, but you don’t actually want much apple flavor.

  • Izzy

    So what we need is a Red Delicious skin on a Fuji/Gala body. Hmmm.

  • Lori

    My current favorite apple for eating raw is the Honey Crisp. It’s pretty much what it sounds like—a sweet (although not too much so) apple with a nice firm flesh. I’ve never eaten the skin separate from the rest of the apple, so I have no real thoughts on how it tastes. It’s not a particularly thick skin though.

    I think we have some in the fridge. Maybe I’ll have one later and do a skin taste test.

  • Anonymous

    Red Delicious has a very nice, sturdy, flavorful skin.

    They do?  Wow do people have different taste buds.  I think Red Delicious apples have the most bitter skin of any apple variety I’ve tried. 

  • http://redwoodr.tumblr.com Redwood Rhiadra

    They are quite bitter – but quite a few people *like* strong bitter and/or sour flavors. (Not me – bitter and sour are nature’s way of telling us “not safe to eat!”)

  • http://redwoodr.tumblr.com Redwood Rhiadra

    The thick skin of the Red Delicious means it keeps longer – so you can harvest in October and still sell it next September. And the growers have been breeding for redder color (looks good on the grocery shelves) and thicker skin, at the expense of flavor, for the last 130 years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    And if so, is there any point in me reading his posts? Because…Lord,
    how tiresome can you get? It’s not like there are prizes for having The
    One Right Interpretation. Are there?

    I would say a) No, b) more than I thought possible, and c) lofgren seems to think so, based on:

    I am getting frustrated because I have offered an interpretation, and
    several others have said essentially that my interpretation is not the
    only one possible.

    Which I was going to comment on, but really, this one line sums up lofgren’s entire argument sufficiently to recognize that there is no point to engaging with it.

  • Izzy

    Wow. I missed that quote, and…wow.

    Zie’s annoyed that people are saying that it’s possible for zir to be wrong?

    Dude. Lofgren: are you actually an Evil Overlord? Like, one who hasn’t read the list?

    Off to make pasta and snicker. Mostly snicker.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    Well, at least now you know that if a regular visitor on this thread stops posting abruptly, it’s because a gang of evil ninjas stopped by to explain why it isn’t possible for there to be more than one interpretation…

  • Izzy

    Once more with formatting?

    Arriving late to the thread…is it me, or is Lofgren’s whole argument:

    1. You’re all interrogating this text from the wrong perspective!
    2. Blah blah something about atheism that’s somehow related?

    And
    if so, is there any point in me reading his posts? Because…Lord, how
    tiresome can you get? It’s not like there are prizes for having The One
    Right Interpretation. Are there?

    So:

    I can see Cain’s response: “You want a meat sacrifice? Okay, here’s a meat sacrifice! Happy now?”
    “Cain
    Rose Up” by Stephen King is a short story that…deals with that theme.
    And is all sorts of freaky.

    I’m torn on the Prodigal Son thing. As the
    “responsible daughter”, I spent a fair amount of time sighing at my
    folks for, in my worldview, being total pushovers re: my sister–who is a
    perfectly functional person these days, for the record–and also did a
    bit of eye-rolling at my friends about mutual acquaintances because,
    seriously, why are we even bothering to invite her places, oh my GOD let
    her have tantrums on her own time…and so forth. So I get that
    perspective. And I’m not much for unconditional love, because it does
    tend to strike me as “…so why bother?” and I’d rather be liked for
    being relatively good company/competent/etc and know that people would
    stop liking me if I wasn’t.

    On the other hand, the prodigal hasn’t asked
    for anything much, the dad is offering–which, if that materially
    disadvantages the other son, that’s a problem, but I don’t know–and
    yeah, it’s nice to know that your kid’s alive, I’d imagine, even if said
    kid is a fuck-up. And these days I’m all for not making people pay too
    harshly for screwing up a few times, and am inclined to consider the
    prodigal’s deal something similar. 

    My recent catching-up-on-Mad-Men
    binge has actually given me an interesting perspective on this: (Rot13d
    for spoilers.) Bar bs gur zbfg erprag rcvfbqrf V jngpurq jnf gur bar
    jurer Crttl’f byqre fvfgre jnf pbzcynvavat gb gur cevrfg nobhg ubj Crttl
    jnf fb njshy sbe univat na vyyrtvgvzngr xvq naq “frqhpvat n zneevrq
    zna”, naq tbvat ba yvxr abguvat unq unccrarq–jul qvqa’g gur fvfgre trg n
    erjneq, rgp?  And I found the complaining character about ninety
    percent unsympathetic–nygubhtu fur’f gnxvat pner bs gur xvq, juvpu qbrf
    tvir ure n yvggyr zber yvprafr gb or naablrq–partly because of the
    nature of the “sins” being complained about, but partly because…dude,
    the only person keeping you from going out and having a good time is
    *you*.

    For me, it comes down to the line between “this person is not
    taking any responsibility for their life and expects everyone else to
    take care of them” and “this person is doing stuff I wanted to do and
    didn’t and is not getting punished for it” and what side the complainer
    is on. Prodigial Son doesn’t give me enough information to go on either
    way.

    Also, I’m on Team Fig. I like figs, I feel like oranges or
    pomegranates would have been too much effort and we’d still be in the
    garden, and…ew, olives. Apples are a decent second choice, if you get
    the sweet crispy Fuji kind, but it definitely wasn’t Red Delicious,
    because that name is a LIE. Also: worms. Ew. Although maybe they
    wouldn’t have been in Eden?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Izzy: To drift totally off thread for a moment – about Mad Men? The only thing that’s really made it watchable, for me, has been Bryan Batt as Salvatore Romano. After they had to drop him, I haven’t really felt the desire to watch the rest of it.

  • Izzy

    Oh, see, I’m in S2 and liking it a lot. Totally reinforces my “oh God I’m so glad I was born after the 1970s” thing–as does my mom’s reaction when I mentioned it*–but I actually find myself liking the majority of the characters. And wanting to smack them at regular intervals. It’s a strange dichotomy. 

    I also do approve of continuing the Dirty Dancing tradition whereby Character A’s suggestion that Character B read Ayn Rand is a way to indicate A’s suspect-at-best moral status.

    *Paraphrased: “I don’t watch it. It’s a very accurate depiction of a time I have no desire to remember.”

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I kind of identify with Romano, since his struggles as a closeted homosexual are quite familiar to me. It may seem bizarre but I will definitely say that as late as 1988-1992, it was still not totally a wise idea to come out of the closet with trumpets blaring, etc. (I name that time period as that’s when I began coming to terms with the fact that my sexuality is not 100% straight; I think my attraction to men is a bit less strong than it was back then, but I’m veering into tl;dr land)

    I side-eyed Cooper so hard when he mentioned Ayn Rand, incidentally.

    The piggish behavior of the men in that show make me embarrassed on behalf of my gender and make me also happy I was born and raised in a period where social disapproval of sexual harrassment became a widespread thing.

  • Anonymous

    The piggish behavior of the men in that show make me embarrassed on behalf of my gender and make me also happy I was born and raised in a period where social disapproval of sexual harrassment became a widespread thing.

    *eyes Herman Cain* Ha ha ha no. Did you see how much money he got donated in the first few days after the sexual harassment/assault accusations started rolling in?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    EllieMurasaki: Unfortunately, true. :(

  • Lori

    Did you see how much money he got donated in the first few days after
    the sexual harassment/assault accusations started rolling in? 

    In fairness, his money raising has tanked since then. I think the first big surge was somewhat due to the Conservative idea that sexual harassment is not an actual thing, but a lot of it was simple knee-jerk rallying to support One of Ours who is being attacked by Them.

    Cain couldn’t leave well enough alone and actually talked about the accusations, sounded like a stupid asshole, went on to say equally stupid and/or assholish things about other topics and the money dried up.

  • Izzy

    Oh, for sure. Like, the infidelity, whatever, I don’t ever care about that. But the way they talk about/to women, even the guys we’re supposed to like–even the guys I *do* like, most of the time–is…damn. In Peggy’s shoes, I would have wanted Pete C. to die *so hard* during Episode 1.

    Oddly, Mad Men is the closest I can come to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” or to respecting and liking people who hold hideous points of view. Cannot do it with modern characters; cannot do it with modern RL people. 

    I’m with you on the early-nineties time limit, actually. I was a *little* too young for political consciousness, but we were in California, so I overheard some of the grownups talking, and it was definitely more controversial.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Izzy: Oh, speaking of Pete Campbell? The most cringeworthy thing I’ve ever seen him do is use his wife to get a story published just because his ego couldn’t stand being second to Ken Cosgrove.

  • Izzy

    Ohhyeah. That was definitely the most “…dude, *seriously*?” move on his part. Although the one where I really wanted to punch him was his treatment of Peggy post-That-One-Incident.

    Unfortunately, there are plenty of guys who pull *that* bullshit fifty years later. At least they mostly avoid the rest of it. Mostly.

  • Pj Evans

    Izzy, I think it isn’t you.

  • Narya

    I have some vague memory that “fig” is also Italian slang for ladyparts, though that could be error or misremembering on my part. But if it’s true, then that makes a nice pun, too.

  • P J Evans

    I don’t know if that’s what fig is in Italian slang, but there’s a rude Italian gesture that’s referred to as ‘giving someone a fig’.

  • Kukulkan

    Pj Evans wrote:

    I don’t know if that’s what fig is in Italian slang, but there’s a rude Italian gesture that’s referred to as ‘giving someone a fig’.

    I’m told the Celts considered apples to be symbols of female sexuality.

    If you cut an apple in half and look at it, it’s not hard to figure out why.
     

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    The thing about the prodigal son story, to me, is that it’s got this one line: “But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.”  

    Dude thought his son was dead. Turns out he’s not. And he thinks that’s cause for celebration.

    And the other son, the “good” son, is bitter about it. He’s shouting “Why does HE get a bail-out after his bad behavior and I don’t? Why does HE get to have his underwater mortgage foregiven, while I, who work hard unlike those filthy hippies and made all my payments and had the good luck not to fall in with a bad crowd don’t get one? It’s not FAIR. The free market decided that he should starve to death in a gutter, so where does Big Dad get off bailing him out?  He should be forced to live under AUSTERITY MEASURES and not have a big ostentatious party! Why isn’t he being PUNISHED?”

  • Anonymous

    Being upset your…divisive…sibling is being given a grand celebration for coming home =/= asking for them to be punished. A household’s resources are much more finite and its debtors much less forgiving than the average governments, just to start with. ‘Bailing-out’ the prodigal son with an elaborate party is a literal cost that (however grand or slight) will have an immediate, negative financial consequence for the household, and helps nobody over the long-term, not even the prodigal son.

    And if we’re going to treat Dad as Government symbol, we have to ask why the returning son is being given a major familial resource, (that he has legally given up any right to) and invited to indulge in immediate leisure despite having already cost the family significant amounts of money when he walked off with his early inheritance. Especially in comparison to the elder son who is not given similar resources as a matter of course (despite being the only child with an actual claim to them) and left to continue to labor instead of being sought out to join the celebration. Somebody is getting screwed in this scenario, but it sure isn’t the prodigal son.

    I support liberal policies and social safety nets. I do not support ‘safety nets’ that marginalize one person in favor of another.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Incidentally, on Cain and Abel:  a very long time ago, my Freshman Honors class covered the book of Genesis (The honors curriculum at my college was a sequence of four classes which covered ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern history, each one from the perspective of a different department. I got theology, history, english, philosophy in that order, and coincidentally, I think that’s probably the optimal order to get them in. Also, I really dug the irony of taking a theology class at a catholic college from a female Episcopalian minister), one of the discussion questions (along with “What kind of fruit was it?”) was “Why did God like Abel’s sacrifice better than Cain’s?”  The point of the question was to demonstrate the difference between what Everyone Knows about what the bible says, and what’s actually in there.

    The answer I gave at the time, fwiw, was “Because God has always been partial to shepherds.”

  • MaryKaye

    Tonio wrote: 

    There wouldn’t be a cosmic equivalent of Child Protective Services to place us with a foster god. 

    What a lovely sentence!

    I have a roleplaying character who could really use a foster god; the god of humanity is a hundred years dead, and the character’s whole culture is twisted by that.  They’ve turned to someone who is unequivocally evil, but available and reliable and possible to work with.  As part of the character’s ongoing moral development she’s come to reject this option, but there is nothing else for her, and that’s bitterly hard.  It is difficult to be a non-theist in a setting where supernatural evil is so pointedly real:  it’s an admission that the deck is hopelessly stacked against you.

    She just got named to an administrative rank in the Temple of Asmodeus, for political reasons, and she is privately wondering what that implies about her own soul.  If someone challenges her on this point at the wrong moment, she is emotionally volatile enough right now for a huge, politically awkward explosion to ensue.

  • Izzy

    Nice!

    That’s one of the semi-impressive things I do remember about the first couple Drizzt Do’Urden books, actually: how much of a struggle it is to have faith in the divine when the only divine you know exists is a hellgod.

    I kind of like the idea of a Bureau of Worshiper Protective Services. Could be a fun story if I could write it without going into the Anvilicious.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’d never eaten any type of apple other than Red Delicious (sic) until I was in my early 20s. Red Delicious (sic) were considerably cheaper than the others; plus a large part of my growing up was done in an area with limited food variety in the shops.

    Halfway through a Pink Lady as I type. One of the many unacknowledged privileges of employment and urbanisation :)

  • arc

    I am wondering what people here – lofgren in particular – take to be what makes one interpretation better than another.   I’d be especially interested in what makes an interpretation the one correct interpretation.  lofgren, do you actually believe that one interpretation is correct and the rest incorrect?

  • arc

    I think it’s pretty difficult to describe in terms that we can readily comprehend the understanding people have of truth when that understanding is radically different to our own.  And certainly such people do exist.  ‘Postmodernists’ are a good example (I’m assuming that most people here are some species of realist, at least about ‘scientific facts’ – apologies in advance to any postmodernists reading).  As I’ve mentioned before, i think the holocaust denier David Irving is a good example of another kind – there’s something very performative about him and I don’t think he thinks of himself as lying, because I don’t think he really sees any distinction between the truth and his performance.  Other examples might be furnished by people we diagnose as having a mental condition (Irving might not be so far from this himself – he does seem to have something of the narcissist about him). Given such examples in our own time is one reason why we shouldn’t be too hasty about supposing that people in radically different cultures from out own have the same understanding of truth as we do.It certainly seems that narratives told by cultures without either our high degree of literacy or our notions of proof and disputation are usually (if not always) told with other purposes than recording literal history or anything like it.  Often these purposes are moral or justificatory, but they’re often also simply practical – the Māori, for example, have a story where the lifecycle of eels is mapped on to the night sky (which then, I suppose, serves as a mnemonic).  I don’t think the question of whether or not eels really do travel through the sky could really be raised in the traditional context.  Their reaction to one of our ‘literal histories’ might well be ‘and what was the point of that?’. Another reason for thinking that the notion of truth here must be quite different in many cultures is that often contradictory stories are told, and there are plenty of examples of cultures being pretty nonchalant about other people’s gods and stories.  (as an aside, of course it’s often been remarked that what passes for ‘literal history’ in European society has often been just as moral and justificatory as any myth)I’m not a logical positivist, but I think they were on to something with the notion that truth is tied up with verification. A small-scale non-literate society can of course do things to verify who committed a crime and whether a plant is safe to eat, so there probably is some working notion of truth versus falsehoods there.  The narratives of the elders, though, or tales of distant lands have no notion of verification that could be attached to them, so there isn’t any distinction possible between what is told and what is true. However, we shouldn’t be too quick to suppose that even medieval europeans – culturally less distant to us than small-scale pre-literate societies – had robust notions of truth even when it came to crimes.  Remember that medieval europeans still engaged in trial by ordeal right up to the 1700s, and they also put animals on trial.  It might be more productive of thinking of such trials as a ritual to decide whom (or what) to punish than any procedure designed to uncover the truth. (and, worryingly, perhaps we’re not too far from that with our own trials…)

  • arc

    man, what do you have to do to get linebreaks these days…

  • Anonymous

    man, what do you have to do to get linebreaks these days…

    If you can edit your comments, then I found that if you encase the whole comment in pre tags, then edit the comment to remove them you get linebreaks.

  • arc

    Anyway, there’s another thing I wanted to note: it’s a mistake to think that everyone in medieval europe or wherever had the same notion of truth.  I imagine that the peasants weren’t too disimmilar to pre-literate small-scale societies in their treatment of narratives.  Some had things that look very modern and scientific, like Bacon and William of Occam.  Rational investigation of sorts was practiced within the Church (I’m thinking of philosophy, theology, and canon law), and of course that was a highly literate part of society, so the more urban and literate parts of the Church probably did have something close to the cultural set-up to have something resembling a notion of literal truth (which is why people like Occam could come into existence there).

    Of course, for those in power, as usual, ‘facts’ are just a way of getting what you want done.

    In addition, there certainly were people with a pretty sophisticated take on truth and the Bible.  The Midrashic literature, for example, appears to take an approach to texts which seems akin to postmodernism.  The early Christian neoplatonists, also, took the correct avenue to truth to be philosophy of a somewhat esoteric nature, which could only really be understood by the intellectual elite, but the Bible was a good, accessible metaphor for the real truth that common people could understand (the pagan neoplatonists believed similar things about classical mythologists).

    So it’s quite certain that not everyone was a biblical literalist.

  • arc

    Man, i’ve got a lot to say on this topic.  Anyway, while I think it’s a mistake to think everyone (or most people)  in history is a straightforward realist, and if they believe in the Bible they believe it’s true in a straightfowardly realist way, I also think it’s a mistake to suppose that everyone was instead taking a sophisticated multi-leveled non-literal approach to the interpretation of texts and narratives.

    However, I think the Enlightenment, for all the benefits it provided in terms of science and rationality, did result in a bit of an obsession with objective truth and a deaf ear to symbolism and interpretation, which we’re still working through today (they switched on the light but stoppered their ears).  Dawkins and biblical inerrancy folk are flip sides of the same coin here.

    (Actually, I think this obsession has its roots in the unsanctified union of pagan philosophy and judaism, and its two bastard children – christianity and islam.  No-one else outside these traditions seems quite so concerned with  True and Consistent Doctrinal Purity for Everyone.)

  • arc

    guys guys guys

    the parable of the prodigal son is just that, a parable – and like any good parable it has an obvious point, and has been stripped down to the bare essentials to convey that point.  It’s not a subtle work of short fiction by Mansfield or someone where a lot can hinge on small details like how the tea cups were laid out.

    The point is to tell us that as far as God goes, They may well be righteous, but Their righteousness is outstripped completely by Their love, grace and mercy. 

    To the extent that we’re righteous (and most of us are fairly righteous) the whole point is that we don’t like what’s going on and we sympathise with the elder son.

    The difference in treatment between the two sons isn’t right.  It isn’t just.  From the perspective of fairness, justice and right the elder son is completely justified in his attitude.  The whole point of the parable, though, is that the celebration isn’t about fairness, justice and righteousness, and neither is God.  and the celebration isn’t about the elder son at all, or about anything anyone has done in the past – it’s about the return of a loved one from the dead.

    The moral challenge of the story is, I guess, to try to become more like the father and less like the elder son, or to reconcile yourself to a cosmos where people don’t get their just deserts, but rather get saved and celebrated no matter what they have done, or something like that.

    All else is incidental. But if you’re going to keep the point in mind, rather than turn this into an episode of a soap opera where we argue about the exact dynamics of a fictional family, interpret it in whatever makes you view the elder son as a pretty reasonable sort, but one that’s concerned with fairness, and the father as someone who’s reasonable keeping in mind that his primary motivation is overwhelming love for both his sons.

    So let’s say the elder was coming home soon anyway.  But hinging all this stuff on not being invited in seems to me to be missing the point – in fact, it’s making the same mistake as the elder son, in a way, it’s focusing too much on the details of who is being treated fairly.

    I think the example of the earlier commenter who’s actually in the position of the father with regards to her daughters is helpful.  If a long absent loved one of mine turned up alive rather than the suspected dead, I’d not wait for some other loved one I see every day to get home before I started celebrating. 

  • Lori

     guys guys guys

    the parable of the prodigal son is just that, a parable – and like any good parable it has an obvious point, and has been stripped down to the bare essentials to convey that point.  It’s not a subtle work of short fiction by Mansfield or someone where a lot can hinge on small details like how the tea cups were laid out.  

    If something I’ve said has created the impression that I don’t know what message we’re supposed to get from the parable of the prodigal son then I have failed to communicate clearly. I am very well aware of what the point is supposed to be. 

    My problem with this parable is the dame problem I have with most of the other parables—it gives just enough detail to undermine it’s own point in a way that I consider to be essentially the same thing as a Freudian slip. The obvious, “nice” mean is right there on the surface, but if you dig down even just a little bit the rot shows through. 

  • Kukulkan

    Lori wrote:

    My problem with this parable is the dame problem I have with most of the other parables—it gives just enough detail to undermine it’s own point in a way that I consider to be essentially the same thing as a Freudian slip. The obvious, “nice” mean is right there on the surface, but if you dig down even just a little bit the rot shows through.

    I’m with Lori on this one.

    While I can understand what most of the parables are trying to say — I think I’ve already said that the point of some, like the parable of the talents, completely escape me — I find that some of the details included in the parable actually serve to undermine their own point.

    Sometimes this is because things have changed in the past two thousand years — the parable of the Good Samaritan really does loose something if you don’t appreciate that Samaritans were a despised minority of whom only the worst was expected. And sometimes it’s, as Lori says, a kind of Freudian slip where the teller is revealing certain assumptions which are really questionable. And it’s not unreasonable to question those assumptions.

    I got involved in the discussion of the Prodigal Son when I responded to veejayem’s observation that young children really HATE the parable of the Prodigal Son. I can understand why they do and I can’t say they are wrong in getting indignant on behalf of the elder son. There are some very problematic assumptions built into that parable.

    And I must admit that my focusing on the economic aspects comes from the fact that when I was a kid, my mother died when I was about ten and I ended up being in charge of the family budget because no-one else seemed capable of it. I was the responsible one. So, perhaps, I’m just a little more sensitive than most to family members just blowing savings we needed for other things on stuff like parties.

    Also, as my experience taught me, being the responsible one means you get to be the nag and the meanie who everyone else complains about and who just stops them from having any fun. After a while, especially when you’re young, you seriously wonder why you bother. There’s a reason such duties are referred to as “thankless”.
     

  • Anonymous

    The ‘assumptions’ might be problematic, but they’re necessary.  That’s what God is like (according to Jesus).

    I put the ‘assumption’ in scare quotes because the notion that it’s OK for the younger son to be celebrated isn’t really something that’s assumed by the audience and the teller,  rather it’s what the teller is trying to convey by the whole story.  It’s news to the audience – that’s what they’re supposed to be learning from the story.

    You should sympathise with the elder son.  He has done everything right, and the younger son gets the celebration.  It’s right that children don’t like it, because it goes against what (most of them) get taught at home – bad behaviour results in bad outcomes, and good behaviour gets rewarded.  But that’s not what happens in this parable.   The whole point is that it undermines your expectations of fairness. 

    And so it is with the Kingdom of Heaven.  God doesn’t reward good behaviour; rather They celebrate when the lost come home.  It’s reasonable to expect to be rewarded more when you’ve served more – but that’s not what’s on offer, so it’s time to start giving up or at least radically de-emphasizing your notion of righteousness and start working on your notion of loving grace.  At least, that is what Jesus says both here and in the parable of the talents, and it seems to be a fairly consistent thread to his teaching.

    The whole point of Jesus’s teaching is that it’s not a series of obvious homilies to make your children good and obedient and allow them to succeed in business.   If you don’t find the teaching challenging, you either aren’t listening or you don’t need it (and therefore are a much better person than I am). 

  • Kukulkan

    arcseconds wrote:

    You should sympathise with the elder son.  He has done everything right, and the younger son gets the celebration.  It’s right that children don’t like it, because it goes against what (most of them) get taught at home – bad behaviour results in bad outcomes, and good behaviour gets rewarded.  But that’s not what happens in this parable.   The whole point is that it undermines your expectations of fairness.

    Children get told that for a reason. We also try to set up society to function that way.

    If it turns out that being good is just taken for granted and being bad gets you a big celebration, then why be good? The incentive is not there.

    I can’t remember the specific name of it, but there is a heresy that since God demonstrates his grace and mercy by forgiving us our sins, we should go out and commit as many sins as possible just so God can forgive us. Seems a rather suspect notion to me, but it follows logically from this idea, so I can’t say it’s wrong within the framework established.

    I don’t want the guilty punished. I’m quite happy with the idea that they get saved and their return to the fold is celebrated. I just think the righteous need to be acknowledged and celebrated as well. If that’s not how the Kingdom of Heaven works, then maybe that’s why I’m not really sure I want to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    It’s reasonable to expect to be rewarded more when you’ve served more – but that’s not what’s on offer, so it’s time to start giving up or at least radically de-emphasizing your notion of righteousness and start working on your notion of loving grace.  At least, that is what Jesus says both here and in the parable of the talents, and it seems to be a fairly consistent thread to his teaching.

    I really don’t understand how taking what little someone who has nothing (ignoring the logical contradiction there as simply being a rhetorical flourish) or slaughtering those that disagree with you (both parts of the parable of the talents) has to do with loving grace. I would have thought they were demonstrating quite the opposite.

    I’m not being deliberately obtuse here; I genuinely don’t understand that.

    If you can explain it, you’re far more insightful than I am.
     

  • Anonymous

    oops, I was thinking of the workers in the vineyard one, not the parable of the talents.

    (in the vineyard one too the rewards are not distributed according to merit.)

    mea culpa.

    I’m not going to attempt to explain the parable of the talents right now, firstly because it’s more difficult (and I’m not sure I can succeed), secondly because the topic is quite a different one.

  • Kukulkan

    arcseconds wrote:

    oops, I was thinking of the workers in the vineyard one, not the parable of the talents.

    (in the vineyard one too the rewards are not distributed according to merit.)

    mea culpa.

    Oh, okay. That one I get. No problems with that one.

    Just as an aside, when I was learning Latin years ago I once got into real trouble when I suggested that a valid translation of Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa was “It’s my fault, it’s my fault, it’s all my fault.” The teacher insisted that it had to be “My sin, my sin, my most grievous sin.”

    Personally, I thought I had it colloquially right.

    I’m not going to attempt to explain the parable of the talents right now, firstly because it’s more difficult (and I’m not sure I can succeed), secondly because the topic is quite a different one.

    Maybe we could schedule a time for it, because I would really like to get other people’s thoughts and ideas on it.

    But not now. We’re in the middle of other things. Maybe in the quite period following Christmas and New Year’s.

  • Anonymous

    I think you had it exactly right, assuming you were studying classical latin and not, say, medieval church latin.

    ‘Sin’ is a term that comes with a hefty theological and cultural baggage which quite probably doesn’t map on to anything that the Romans had.  I’d be wary of translating anything anything outside an expressly Christian context as ‘sin’, particularly anything from the classical world.

    I’ve just checked and both latin-dictionary.org and the OED give ‘fault, blame’ for ‘culpa’.

    You should demand a reconsideration of your grade and the head of your former teacher on a plate or something :]

    (well, at least, you had ‘culpa’ right.  ‘maxima’ doesn’t mean ‘all’, although you might have a point about the colloquialism)

  • Kukulkan

    b>arcseconds wrote:

    You should demand a reconsideration of your grade and the head of your former teacher on a plate or something :]

    I just got sent out of the class for the remainder of the lesson. As far as I can tell, it didn’t affect my grade — well, except that it irked the teacher enough that he probably marked me harder than he might have. Fortunately, I was up to standard.

    Just another example of me standing up for something when it probably would have been more politic to just smile, nod and let it go. Sometimes I think that’s the sin of pride at work; other times I think it’s just a commitment to accuracy and honesty. Probably a bit of both.

    I only remember bits and pieces of Latin now though. Lack of practice, I suspect.

  • Anonymous

    Children get told that for a reason. We also try to set up society to function that way.

    Do we? Perhaps in a pretty weak sense.  We punish people for doing things that are against the rules (so long as they’re caught and can’t afford a lawyer clever enough to get them off), but there isn’t much in the way of rewards for people who do good things (there are some, but they’re few and far between and the rewards of looking out for number one are far easier to attain).  The marketplace rewards meeting demand, not working hard or being good or even following the rules.

    Anyone who says otherwise is a fool or is trying to sell you something :]

    If
    it turns out that being good is just taken for granted and being bad
    gets you a big celebration, then why be good? The incentive is not
    there.

    You’re not really doing good if you’re doing it for an incentive, though.  If the elder brother is doing everything solely because he expects to get a greater reward than the younger, then he’s just as selfish as the younger one, he’s just more prudent. 

    Once again, I think the whole purpose of this parable, and of much of the teachings of Jesus in general, are about trying to get people away from any kind of tit-for-tat, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, black eyes and feathers in your cap style understanding of what God is and what being good is all about.

    I can’t remember the specific name of it, but there is a
    heresy that since God demonstrates his grace and mercy by forgiving us
    our sins, we should go out and commit as many sins as possible just so
    God can forgive us. Seems a rather suspect notion to me, but it follows
    logically from this idea, so I can’t say it’s wrong within the framework
    established.

    Well, the usual story is that repentence is necessary for forgiveness, and if someone deliberately going out and committing more wrongs in order to be forgiven, then they can’t really have repented of those wrongs in the first place, and I’d say they don’t really understand what ‘repentence’, ‘forgiveness’, or even ‘wrong’ really mean.  (a wrong is something you get punished for, maybe, and forgiveness is when you get a party instead of the expected punishment).

    The prodigal son does repent, and I think that’s an important part of the story. It stops the father from looking like a sap.  While it might not be unrealistic for a loving parent to celebrate even if they had reason to believe the prodigal was insincere, that really would be something that undermines the point of the parable, because it would muddy the issue.

    I don’t want the guilty punished. I’m quite happy
    with the idea that they get saved and their return to the fold is
    celebrated. I just think the righteous need to be acknowledged and
    celebrated as well. If that’s not how the Kingdom of Heaven works, then
    maybe that’s why I’m not really sure I want to be a part of the Kingdom
    of Heaven.

    Well, the parable isn’t about that. It’s about what happens to people who are lost and then found.   The elder son is there really just to provide a commentary on how this undermines any notion of desert.  There’s plenty of other material in the new testament that shows that those who do good are also rewarded – the parable of the vineyard, for example.

    In general analogies only work up to a point, and it’s important not to try to stretch them further than they go.  If it were necessary that analogies must be entirely isomorphic to the thing to which they are analogous, then analogies would be pointless  and only possible in the trivial case – you could only use the thing itself as an analogy.

    It’s made more difficult of course because there’s no clear picture in the text of what the Kingdom of Heaven actually is – as far as I recall Jesus only ever speaks of it metaphorically, and the other parts that might show you something about it are steeped in imagery as well.   It’s a bit difficult when the subject you’re discussing can’t actually be discussed directly.

    Anyway, while the elder son doesn’t get a party in the parable, he does get to spend several years with his loving father doing honest work, and he doesn’t have to live in degraded filth, and he doesn’t have to swallow his pride, come crawling back and hope to be treated like a slave.  He also doesn’t get involved in debauched pleasures, either. Any decent person would prefer to be the elder son, almost by definition, no?

  • hapax

    Anyway, while the elder son doesn’t get a party in the parable, he does
    get to spend several years with his loving father doing honest work, and
    he doesn’t have to live in degraded filth, and he doesn’t have to
    swallow his pride, come crawling back and hope to be treated like a
    slave.

    The elder son gets all the parties he wants.  The only way for the father to divide up his estate between his sons while he still lives is to in effect allow them to declare him “dead.”  BOTH sons have to agree to this.

    When the father tells the elder “all that I have is yours”, he isn’t speaking metaphorically.  The elder son legally owns everything at this point.  What he doesn’t have — what he can’t have, until the father is dead — is the disposition of the household.  That is, he can’t cart off the livestock and have a party with his buddies that excludes the father and his cohort.

    The elder son is refusing to acknowledge that he is a member of the family, a larger community.  He does not call his father by that title.  He refers to himself exclusively in terms of servant-for-hire.  He is basically saying, “Nope, we’re not a family, we’re in an employer-employee situation with a wage dispute.”

    Note that the younger son’s original “repentence” is not much better.  He isn’t showing “humility” in going back and asking to be hired as a slave / wageservant.  He is trying to avoid starvation (good for him!) as a result of his own greediness and opting out of the family, but not by asking for forgiveness and to be welcomed back;  rather, he’s saying, “Yeah, I screwed up, but I’ve got Executive Experience, man;  give me a job.”

    And the father says to him, “Nope, we don’t do things like that here in the Kingdom of Heaven.  You’re a member of the family — a beloved, honored member of the family — with all the privileges AND RESPONSIBILITIES that come with that.”

    We don’t know what the younger brother says.  That isn’t the point.  The point is that there isn’t a “bad” son and a “good” son, no matter how you divvy them up.  There are TWO lost sons, because they — for whatever reason — have lost themselves, chosen to see their relationships in terms of points earned and points lost, rather than as members of the family.

    And the father says to both of them, “We don’t work that way.  We live and work and die and rejoice together.  Come in and be part of the family again.”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    If it turns out that being good is just taken for granted and being bad gets you a big celebration, then why be good?

    Because you love your father/other people and don’t want to hurt them? We teach children be good to gain rewards and avoid negative consequences, but we also want them to mature to a higher stage of development where actions are motivated by their intrinsic value. I do, anyway.

  • Anonymous

     If a long absent loved one of mine turned up alive rather than the suspected dead, I’d not wait for some other loved one I see every day to get home before I started celebrating.  
    But would you forget about them entirely?  It’s not that the celebration waits, it’s whether or not the stay at home son matters enough to be told that his brother has returned before he gets back at the usual time.  (Of course, it matters whether he’s already on his way or just left before brother staggered in.)  It seems cold toward the non-missing loved one to not tell them ASAP.  For one thing, presumably absent loved one is also their loved one, too.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I might well forget completely about the loved one I see every day in my utter joy and jaw-droppingness with regard to someone I loved and thought was dead coming back into my life. 

    That’s not because I’m cold or because I take people for granted, but because like most people I’m actually somewhat susceptible to emotion.  Slightly more idiosyncratically, I’m also somewhat prone to get caught up in whatever I’m doing now and forget about other things.

    Also, while I still maintain that it’s ridiculous to search for details about how much the father really loved his elder son, because parables don’t work like that, I suspect that the original audience would not have given a second thought about the level of emotional validation the elder son got from his father, firstly because they would have understood how a parable works, and secondly the notion of the high importance of emotional validation of children I imagine is more of a preoccupation of progressive middle-class 21st century westerners than it was of 1st century Jews.

  • Lori

     Also, while I still maintain that it’s ridiculous to search for details about how much the father really loved his elder son, because parables don’t work like that, I suspect that the original audience would not have given a second thought about the level of emotional validation the elder son got from his father, firstly because they would have understood how a parable works, and secondly the notion of the high importance of emotional validation of children I imagine is more of a preoccupation of progressive middle-class 21st century westerners than it was of 1st century Jews.  

    The thing I found ridiculous was being told that stories that were so of their own time had been spoken by an all-knowing deity and were supposed to be applied and remain unquestioned for all time. 

    And with that I am out of this because I can feel a rant coming on. 

  • Anonymous

    To quote a writer far wiser than me: Justice without mercy is unjust, but mercy without justice is unmerciful.

    If you wound somebody, even accidentally, in the service of another’s happiness, and don’t act to heal that wound, you are behaving poorly, unjustly. Unmercifully. I refuse to accept as moral a lesson which teaches me to ignore that.

    There is no mercy or justice or goodness in accepting with out protest unfairness and inequality, in telling somebody who feels wronged to quit feeling wronged.

  • dr ngo

    One aspect some commenters in this thread seem to have overlooked is the role of feasting (vs. saving or investing) in many pre-modern societies.  In some of those that I have studied, the principal social role of wealth is *precisely* to feast, to share with the community, for which the feast-giver obtains benefits in terms of regard that far outweigh whatever might be obtained by saving or investing.  WEALTH IS TO SHARE.  We encounter this outlook in retreat when “modernity” enters, and a few forward-looking villagers start being encouraged by new circumstances (e.g., colonialism and/or capitalism) to cut back on feasting – or eliminate it entirely – in order to build up capital, or “grow” their wealth, or otherwise participate in the “Puritan ethic” upon which, we are told, modern capitalism was constructed.  Such people may be regarded by the “traditional” community with distaste, if not horror.  Saving your money (or your fatted calf) rather than spreading it around may be considered not just a dereliction of your social duties, but an outright contempt for society and all of its values.

      In the Philippines, as late as the 1950s, prospective modernizers, anxious to use their wealth “wisely” in the new vein, by investing in farm improvements or small business or education, learned, sometimes the hard way, that it was all but impossible to do this while remaining in their home village, where the pressure to “share” whatever they had with all – in return for local honor, regard, loyalty, esteem – kept nibbling away at any surplus they might otherwise have accumulated.  In the words of one (American) sociologist:  If you want to get up, get out.

    I don’t know for sure what this has to do with the parable of the prodigal son.  I don’t know the extent to which the society in which the parable was told operated like this, and I don’t know what it proves if it did.  But I am highly suspicious of analyses that begin with the assumption that by holding a feast for the returning son, the father was depriving the older/other son of his working capital, thus preventing him from modernizing the farm or whatever.  That is, I suspect, to impose on this story a profit-and-loss framework that might have been alien to much of the original audience.

    It also suggests one of the problems the father may have had with supplying a goat to the other son for him to feast with his friends.  “Feasting” as such is not the issue, in the sense of having good things to eat and drink; everyone in the village gets some.  This also made sense in a society without refrigeration; when you kill a large beast – which may constitute a significant part of your “capital” – you might as well feed everyone, because the meat is not going to keep!

    But being the *giver* of a feast often is more significant than merely consuming Good Stuff.  (There’s considerable anthropological literature on this, I am told.)  So what the other son may be asking for – and the father is denying him – is the means to be a feast-giver himself, to attract to himself the aura/benefits of “patronage” within that society, means to which the father may have felt the son was not yet entitled.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    One aspect some commenters in this thread seem to have overlooked is the
    role of feasting (vs. saving or investing) in many pre-modern
    societies.  In some of those that I have studied, the principal social
    role of wealth is *precisely* to feast, to share with the community, for
    which the feast-giver obtains benefits in terms of regard that far
    outweigh whatever might be obtained by saving or investing.  WEALTH IS
    TO SHARE.

    The Tlingit potlach is an excellent example of this.

  • Kukulkan

    dr ngo wrote:

    One aspect some commenters in this thread seem to have overlooked is the role of feasting (vs. saving or investing) in many pre-modern societies.

    This is a valid point.

    However, as the parable of the talents makes clear, the society Jesus was delivering these parables in was not a pre-modern one. People clearly understood the idea of investing and, more importantly, the idea of return-on-investment.

    After all, the master’s expectations in that parable as to what the servants should do with the talents he gave them are not treated as bizarre, unusual or even anything that needs to be explained or expanded on. The audience is expected to know that’s how things work.

    As such, applying such notions to other parables is not bringing an inappropriately modern perspective to bear. The perspective is already one that existed in the society at the time.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a challenge for you who don’t like the characters you think you see in the original parable, and something more constructive than arguing over what the sparse details tell us about the rich human psychology evident in these characters:

    rewrite it.

    *) The original point has to remain: that grace and love trumps righteousness. 

    *) Someone has to be aggreived that a certain outcome is unjust and unfair.  The final point has to be that the outcome was not about justice and fairness, but about love. 

    *) The aggreived party must be sympathetic and reasonable.  They’re right – the outcome is unjust. 

    *) the recipient, if there is one, should be quite undeserving of the outcome, but they should be somewhat sympathetic too – at least just before the outcome is bestowed.   They don’t think the outcome is deserved either. 

    *) it must have emotional impact – so what’s at stake has to be important.

    *) It also has to be short and to the point, that’s part of the art of writing a parable.  The NIV has this story in 500 words, but you’re all so detailed-focus I’ll give you 1000 words as an aspirational target.

    Those are my only requirements, but I will quickly point out some of the features of the original that make it work.  3 people is probably the minimum that this can work for, although I’m keen to be proven wrong about this.  Making them a family makes sense in terms of what’s at stake and the emotional impact – I think this would be hard to motivate with someone’s accountant (without it getting creepy).    The love angle is maximised by having the younger son to be thought dead or at least lost completely.

  • Kukulkan

    arcseconds wrote:

    Here’s a challenge for you who don’t like the characters you think you see in the original parable, and something more constructive than arguing over what the sparse details tell us about the rich human psychology evident in these characters:

    rewrite it.

    I think you could fix it just by having the elder brother home when the prodigal returns. Have him standing there, witnessing and listening to the entire exchange between the father and the prodigal.

    So we pick up at verse 25 in Luke chapter 15.
    But when the older son saw all this, he was not happy. He left the celebration and went to stand alone in a field.

    The father notices and approaches the elder son to ask “What’s going on?” The elder son answers “How come when my younger brother comes crawling home after blowing his inheritance he gets a big party, but I, who have stayed here and faithfully done everything you ever asked, don’t get any sort of acknowledgement?” I think that would emphasise that the elder brother is being a jealous jerk since it removes almost all the valid reasons why he might be angry.

    The father than replies “Son, the party is because your brother has returned to us; we are all together again. I would gladly do as much for you or any member of the family. I understand why you’re angry, but come, let’s celebrate the return of your brother. He that was dead and is alive again; that was lost and is found.”

    I just think a more inclusive language from the father — “you or any member of the family” — and a simple acknowledge that he understands the older son’s feelings would a long way to sorting out the difficulties. As it is, the focus on just the prodigal son in his speech tends to undermine the point.

    Oh, and leave out the whole business about the fattened calf and the goat. Just make it a celebration.

    Alternately, replace the older son with a chief steward who has no familial stake in the matter and who just voices the conventional wisdom that the father shouldn’t welcome the prodigal son back because he’s a deadbeat who will just bring more pain and sorrow. That way the father’s response, emphasising love and forgiveness over prudence and justice doesn’t get caught up in questions of family dynamics. You can even soften the exchange by having the father start with “Oh good and faithful servant, I know that you have only my best interests at heart, but…”

    The difficulty with this one is that it creates a family/not-family dynamic (is the prodigal welcomed back only because he is family?) that may also prove problematic.

    Maybe Jesus just needed a good editor. Or maybe Luke just wasn’t that good at transcribing the parable.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    If it turns out that being good is just taken for granted and being bad
    gets you a big celebration, then why be good? The incentive is not
    there.

    When “white-collar” crime gets a slap on the wrist and companies can legally make money by all manner of dodgy tactics that any reasonable person would deem an attempt at reaching into one’s wallet…

    I think we’re at the stage now where the taken for granted part is widespread in this society.

  • Lori

     The last time this parable came up I recommended Kenneth Bailey’s exhaustive analysis in the the context of contemporary Middle Eastern culture (POET & PEASANT AND THROUGH PEASANT EYES) which goes into great detail the extent to which *both* sons more than insulted their father from the very beginning of the set up, to the point of actively wishing him dead.    

    If we take away the assumption that the father in the story represents God and that God by definition is good and can’t be wrong I think most of us would be asking what the hell went on in that family to make both that man’s grown sons wish him dead. 

  • hapax

    We don’t know what went on in the family prior to that point.  But we do know that the sons couldn’t declare their father dead without his active agreement.

    And we do know that every time either son tried to rub it in his face the father responded with astonishing humility (seriously — the kind of offense we are talking about here showed up in comparative legal discussions with the father having the *responsibility* to punish such rebellious sons with death), running out to meet them (instead of having the son come into the father, as was proper), entreating (rather than commanding them, as was his right) to come back and act as a family again.

    There could be dark hidden currents of parental abuse that justified the sons’ resentment, of course.  But maybe — JUST MAYBE — the sons were actually greedy, arrogant, self-centred jerks, all on their own, without it being the parents’ fault.

  • Lori

     But maybe — JUST MAYBE — the sons were actually greedy, arrogant, self-centred jerks, all on their own, without it being the parents’ fault.  

    Of course that might be the case, but if we approached the story with no preconceived ideas that the father must be good I think most of us would ask the question. One son wanting you dead is one thing. Both sons wanting you dead seems like a weird family dynamic. 

  • Anonymous

    I’d just like to say that aside from still thinking this parable is a good parable, I also think that the family dynamic is quite believable even in our culture (which is one reason why it’s a good parable).

    Drop the extraneous detail (I still maintain it’s not important) and concentrate on the broad aspects.

    I’ll refer once again to Chris’s account of the poster in the earlier thread.  While of course I don’t know her, I’ll use feminine pronouns to show I’m trying to suggest this works in a modern setting with a case not unlike hers.

    Younger daughter takes some money and runs and becomes a heroin-addicted adult entertainment industry worker.  Older daughter stays at home to save money for a car and a house. 

    I’ll pause here to note that it’s pretty common in such circumstances, when you see your loved ones every day, to not celebrate them in extravagant fashions.  They just get ordinary birthday parties, not marquees on the lawn and the whole tribe invited around.  That might not be being the absolute bestest most ideal parent, but it’s compatible with being a pretty good one.

    Younger daughter one day comes back and says she’s sorry and it was a huge mistake. 

    It’s very understandable that mum will be overjoyed, and a celebration might be exactly what she decides to do.  It’s also understandable that ‘Ms Stay at Home’ (to use Lori’s expression) might get a bit ‘pissy’ about it.  She might well say things like ‘I’ve slaved for years and you didn’t even throw me a decent 21st!’ – which might not actually represent how she really feels towards her mother most of the time, but does express frustration with how ‘rewards’ are being distributed (of course, that’s not what’s going on here, but it’s understandable for someone to feel as though it is).

    (I think hapax is right and the elder son actually is being pretty insulting too, but under these kind of circumstances I wouldn’t take that to actually be a measure of how the child actually feels about their parent most of the time.)

    Actually, I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that if the parent didn’t feel celebratory, that something might be a bit amiss – remember, the child was thought forsaken and possibly dead.

    But I must admit I also rather like the idea of a taciturn farmer scarcely acknowledging the prodigal, just a curt nod of the head, as if it hadn’t been years but just a few days, and then later quietly moving the son’s things from the servant quarters back to his old bedroom.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’ve been keeping out of the Prodigal Son discussion because I really do get the perspective of the people who hate the parable and I’ve seen here before how this discusson upsets people. But it seems to be carrying on so I’ll put my belated oar in.

    I’m a Christian and I don’t believe that God is an abusive arsehole. I believe, as arc explained, that this parable illustrates the love and mercy of God. But in my own heart I share the resentment of the older son. It resonates very closely with my life experience.

    When I reflect on the perspective of the older son it brings up feelings of frustration and injury and offense at the injustice. That’s not small stuff. But once, while reading this parable, I reflected on the perspective of the father who saw the son he thought dead come back to life. Just a few minutes of imagining that the person I love the most, who is dead, came back to me and that was the end of the day for me. I could bear so many slights, so much injustice against myself, if I could have back the one I lost.

    The other thing I think of is what the older son’s resentful attitude, although completely understandable, would sound like to me if I were in the position of the father. Did the son stay and work hard because it was the right and good thing to do; because he loves his father and wants to be with him? Or did he stay because he assumed there would be consequences if he didn’t – and now he regrets that he, too, didn’t break his father’s heart and get away with it?

  • Anonymous

    There’s one more thing I wanted to say abour parables – one purpose of using indirect speech is that the listener has to work it out for themselves to understand them.  In this way it is hoped that they will achieve a deeper understanding than if they’re just told the message directly (this is another way in which they’re like word problems in mathematics)

    So whether or not it improves the story by having the father explain what’s going on to the elder son, it would klnd of defeat the purpose of telling the parable by having it contain its own direct explanation.

  • hf

    I want to go back to the start of the first flame-war, if anyone cares, because I think you’re all mostly wrong.

    lofgren wrote: Of course if Fred can reinterpret the story of Adam and Eve as purely
    metaphorical despite several millennia of Christians, Jews, and Muslims
    treating it as literal history, I guess you can reinterpret Cain and
    Abel as not about making an appropriate sacrifice to god.

    I started to say here that Augustine famously objected to Young-Earth Creationism. Google tells me that in fact he did not — he made a very general statement about not denying the evidence of your own eyes. (People quote this as an argument against YEC because the evidence today demolishes that view.) But even the YEC commentary that I found admits that Augustine interpreted part of Genesis metaphorically at one point in his life. (Likely he did so more strongly than that source wants to acknowledge.)

    Note, however, this also means he made a clear distinction between literal and figurative history. Evidently he makes this explicit in at least one later work:

    “The narration in this book (Genesis) is indeed not a type of
    figurative speech, as in the Song of Songs, but is completely of events
    as in the book of Kings and other literature of this kind.”

    On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis
    De Genesi Ad Litteram, Bk 8 chap. 1, sec 2

    Augustine also objected to the claim that the other side of the Earth (the “Antipodes”) had people living on it, because

    Scripture, which confirms the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, teaches not falsehood; and it is too absurd to say that some men might have set sail from this side and, traversing the immense expanse of ocean, have propagated there a race of human beings descended from that one first man.” (City of God XVI.9. via the online Catholic Encyclopedia)

    His objection relates to the story of Adam, “the first man”, a story that he treats here as literal history. (And he gets the relevant part almost right IIRC, though it seems the land-bridge option never occurred to him. Take warning, all ye who would rule out possibilities without close inspection!)

    Now as to the story of Cain and Abel, that one seems chiefly intended to say that herders are better people than farmers. Questions about the sacrifice seem less important. God does prefer the meat, but the story is old enough that he might not have a reason for wanting meat at this particular meal. In fact, he might not have fully-formed preferences yet if we go with the young boy-god theory. Any later preferences on his part could result, in-story, from bad memories of Cain.

    (On the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I guess I’d go with hapax.)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X