The Book of Lead

The Christian Science Monitor and other news sources are carrying stories about the alleged discovery of ancient Christian texts recently in Jordan. The Monitor seems to want to believe, but goes for journalistic balance:

Written on lead in Hebrew and Aramaic, the secretly coded books — or codices — were hidden for centuries in a remote Jordanian cave until a traveling Bedouin found them some five years ago, according to a statement released last week by British Egyptologist David Elkington. Depictions of crosses on the lead-bound leaves, coupled with metallurgical analysis, suggest to Mr. Elkington that these might be early Christian texts that pre-date even some letters in the New Testament.

Others aren’t so sure. All evidence to date suggests Christians didn’t use the cross as a symbol until the 4th century, according to Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. The use of codices also dates to a later period, he said, and metal analysis has yielded no precise dating in this case.

Oh, by the way, reputable scholars can’t study the codices, because they are allegedly in the possession of an Israeli Bedouin, oh and they’re written in a code that no one can understand — but they must be Christian because of the illustrations, which are of menorahs and crosses (and no, I’m not making this up).

One reputable scholar, April DeConick, offers lots of reasons for doubt on her blog (along with links to lots of other scholarly blogs). Wikipedia, on the other hand, appears even less skeptical than the Monitor, with a brand-spanking-new, gosh-wow entry on “Jordan Lead Codices” that sounds as though Elkington himself wrote it.

I’m just trying to avoid the obvious jokes about weighty reading.

Noted with comment

In an essay in the New York Times Book Review, David Orr provides snide commentary on a special poetry issue of O: The Oprah Magazine. Along the way, he offers the following snarky assessment of Mary Oliver’s poetry:

Roughly a fifth of the coverage [in O magazine] is devoted to Mary Oliver, about whose poetry one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.

Now I know why my fellow religious liberals seem to like her poetry so much: it’s the equivalent of cage-free or free-range eggs.


I was walking across the patio at the church this morning. Suddenly, smoke swept across the far side of the patio. Was someone burning brush? No, it wasn’t smoke — it didn’t smell like smoke, and it wasn’t blue — it must be dust. But the only way you’d get a dust cloud like that would be if it were very windy, and there was nothing more than a gentle breeze blowing.

Then I looked up. One of the trees in the patio, a non-native tree, some kind of European conifer, was releasing huge clouds of pollen, so much pollen that it looked like smoke.

Diana Wynne Jones: an appreciation

The Official Diana Wynne Jones Web site reports that the well-known fantasy author died yesterday. She was best known as a “young adult” author, meaning that her books were marketed to early teens, that many of her characters were teenagers, and that her books were actually driven by character and plot rather than literary experimentation. I think of Diana Wynne Jones as an author who was concerned with religion, and not just because of her fantasy series The Dalemark Quartet, which remains my favorite fictional creation story — richer than the thinly-disguised Christian creation story of Narnia, more morally complex than the bombast of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

Jones herself was confused by the contradictions of ordinary dogmatic Western Christianity. At the age of nine, she had a hard time making sense out of the Anglicanism in which she was raised:

“There I sat [in York Minister cathedral], wrestling with the notion that Heaven Is Within You (not in me, I thought, or I’d know) and of Christ dying for our sins. I stared at the crucifix, thinking how very much being crucified must hurt, and was perturbed that, even with this special treatment, religion was not, somehow, taking on me. (I put it this way to myself because I had baptism and vaccination muddled, like germs and Germans.) “Autobiography” on Official Diana Wynne Jones Web site.

By the age of about ten, she cut through the Gordian knot of mid-20th century Anglicanism in a straightforward way: “I settled my religious muddles by deciding that I had better be an atheist.” Yet for all her atheism, religious and moral questions are integral to her books. At the most superficial level, the Dalemark Quartet is filled with a richly-imagined ancient paganism. Others of her books include organized religion as little more than part of the social landscape, but at a deeper level a sense of awe and wonder at the universe, which is the most basic of religious responses, pervades her books. She also wrestles over and over again with yet another basic religious issue — why is there chaos, and why is there order in the universe?

Many religious liberals rave about the atheist fiction of another young adult author, Phillip Pullman. But Pullman has always struck me as heavy-handed and strident in his atheism. I’d much rather read Diana Wynne Jones. Her fictional universes explore what it’s like to live in a universe where there is no god or goddess who’s going to bail us out if we get in trouble. At the same time, in her universes human beings do not stand at the center of everything; that would make things far too simple. In her universes, there isn’t one correct answer to each moral question; moral choices are difficult and often painful; and in her fictional universes one’s moral choices can make a huge difference to oneself and to others. This is the kind of morality that I would like to present to young adults — or to adults, for that matter.

If Girl Scouts are doing it, will congregations be next?

200 Girl Scout troops in Ohio now take credit cards for cookies. One council reported a 20% increase in sales once they started using GoPayment, a little gadget that attaches to a smart phone, takes your money, and sends a receipt to your email address. Here’s a video from the Associated Press showing how they do it. And if you’re wondering how much it costs the Girl Scouts to take payment this way, here’s the scoop from a print version of this AP article:

Intuit, the Mountain View-based company that manufactures GoPayment, charges a small fee per transaction and offers various pricing plans to customers based on sale volume…. Intuit charges the Girl Scouts its lowest rate, at 1.6 percent plus 15 cents per transaction. Most customers pay 2.7 percent per transaction. [San Mateo County Times, 26 March 2011, p. A2]

As fewer and fewer people carry ready cash, this is an obvious way for the Girl Scouts to try to increase sales. But would it work for congregations who pass the collection plate in their services? If you watch the video, it’s obvious the transaction would take too long for the average offertory. It might possibly work for bake sales, rummage sales, ticket sales and the like, but my guess is that the cost is too high and the sales volume too low to make it worthwhile. If congregations want to fight their way out of the dark ages of cash transactions, my guess is that we’re going to have to change the way we do things — but I don’t know what that’s going to look like.

Sacred Harp at GA?

Scott Wells, at Boy in the Bands, poses an excellent question regarding the upcoming General Assembly (GA) of Unitarian Universalists: “What might we show or teach one another in the hallways and cafés of Charlotte?”

My answer: I really want to share some Sacred Harp singing at GA. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s “theologically incorrect,” but it’s rockin good music that draws in punk rockersGrammy-winning performers of medieval musicavant-garde sound artistsyoung urbanitesfolkies — and just ordinary people like you. This is whatreal hymn singing sounds like: loud, raucous, unrestrained, by turns mournful and ecstatic.

I kinda doubt there will be many Sacred Harp singers at GA, but if you’re one, let me know, and let’s see if we can set something up.


It’s so green,
I said, as
we drove past
San Bruno
Mountain. Yes,
said Marsha,
enjoy it
while you can.

The rain came
and went. Light
rain, heavy
rain, no rain.
The water
rushes down
creeks to the
Bay. Then stops.

Months with no
rain, no rain
at all. Sun.
More sun. And
San Bruno
Mountain will
turn golden-
brown and dry.

It’s so green,
I said to
myself. I
admired it
for an in-
stant, then fo-
cused back on
the freeway.

Statistical modeling of membership in organized Western religion

A recent research paper, “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation”, co-authored by Daniel M. Abrams, Harley A. Yaple, and Richard J. Weiner, applies the tools of statistical mechanics and non-linear dynamics to membership in religious organizations. Unfortunately, based on this mathematical analysis, the authors jump to unwarranted broad conclusions:

People claiming no religious affiliation constitute the fastest growing religious minority in many countries throughout the world. Americans without religious affiliation comprise the only religious group growing in all 50 states; in 2008 those claiming no religion rose to 15 percent nationwide, with a maximum in Vermont at 34 percent. In the Netherlands nearly half the population is religiously unaffiliated. Here we use a minimal model of competition for members between social groups to explain historical census data on the growth of religious non-affiliation in 85 regions around the world. According to the model, a single parameter quantifying the perceived utility of adhering to a religion determines whether the unaffiliated group will grow in a society. The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction. [p.1]

The mathematical analysis appears to be sound — I’m not a mathematician, and not competent to judge this myself, though it seems consistent with what little I know about mathematical modeling of non-linear systems. But the model really only applies to reported membership in traditional Western religious groups. In religion will be “driven toward extinction”, the authors are assuming that membership in a congregation or organized religious social group is equivalent to “doing religion” or “being religious.” While this may be true for certain cultural contexts, e.g., where contemporary Western Christianity is assumed to be normative, it does not hold true in other cultural contexts. For example, in Japan individuals are often not “affiliated” with, or “adherents” of Buddhist temples or groups, yet when a family member dies many people will still turn to a local Buddhist temple for funeral rituals; this type of religion does not equate being religious with group or institutional affiliation or adherence. Continue reading “Statistical modeling of membership in organized Western religion”