Sunday, November 22, 2015

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman

Bart D Ehrman provides a carefully considered, insightful, perspective on the Bible. It is a document which he has spent a long time examining. Ehrman has been a biblical scholar and a professor of religion for over thirty years. He has written 27 books, primarily on topics related to the Bible. Since 1988, he has taught at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. But he does not believe in God. He defines himself as an “Agnostic.” This is a definition he chose not because the word “Atheist” is repugnant to him, but because he thinks that it is more accurate to say that he cannot disprove the existence of God. (One cannot disprove the existence of unicorns either, but that doesn’t mean we need to quibble over the possibility of their existence.) The professor’s purpose in writing this book is to have a population that questions and understands what is written in the scriptures. He’s not out to make atheists. After all, he is married to a churchgoing Episcopal woman and teaches students, the majority of whom are believers. Professor Ehrman’s view is that “the Bible lies at the foundation of Western culture and civilization…the Bible informs our thinking in more ways than we are inclined to allow” (Ehrman, p. 14). Its ethics and ideas have profoundly influenced Western civilization for better and worse. Even today, citizens of Europe and the Americas express thoughts (sometimes direct phrases) that are found in the Bible; often without being aware of their source. So, for Westerners, knowing what the Bible says permits them to be more conscious of factors that have shaped and continue to form, the societies in which they live.
God’s Problem is a methodical, chronological examination of the Bible’s many answers to the question “Why Do We Suffer.” Ehrman takes the reader from the views of the Prophets on this subject, through those of the apocalyptic Jewish sects, to the appropriately final Christian apocalypticists. This author combines a good biblical scholar’s full understanding of the text, with the incisive mind of an individualist Agnostic who is not afraid to question its wisdom or consistency. For example, Ehrman reveals the views of the Prophets who lived during a time when Israel and Judea were Jewish kingdoms. People then were distressed by famines and attacks from neighbors. They asked why they were suffering. The Prophets, almost universally, answered that the people were being punished by God for disobeying his laws. The Prophets assured that God would re-embrace his people when they returned to his laws. Conversely, after Israel and Judea fell, many Jews were being persecuted by their conquerors for maintaining their religion and obeying Jewish law. So why isn’t God returning to his people, as promised, to re-embrace them? When this generation of Jews asked why they were suffering, the apocalyptic Maccabees answered that God’s cosmic enemies and their earthly minions were battling God and harming his people. The book of Daniel, written at this time, assured that God would send a Messiah who would vanquish the Lord’s enemies and establish a heavenly kingdom on earth. So the answer of the Prophets, that God causes suffering as punishment for disobedience, directly conflicts with the apocalyptic Jewish answer, that God’s enemies cause suffering as retribution for obedience to God. These contradictions make clear that the Bible is not inspired or channeled from a Supreme Being. If it were, answers would complement each other, rather than contradict each other. Instead, the Bible is a compilation of writings by different people, at different times, answering the question based upon their situation. Ehrman’s method is to present in each chapter a different biblical answer to why people suffer, then expose the inadequacy of the answer in a final assessment.

In discussing the ways that God punishes his people, our theologian expresses his difficulty in accepting this behavior of God. He criticizes universal punishments like the Great Flood, where God drowns all of the innocent babies on the earth because people have become sinful. He criticizes the individual punishments meted-out on specific wrongdoers, like when God kills the infant of King David and Bathsheeba for their betrayl of Uriah. Clearly, God’s moral actions do not sit well with Professor Ehrman.

Though the writer is capable of complex biblical analysis and extensive, rational contemplation, regarding the question of suffering, his main criticism of the inadequacy of biblical answers derives directly from the compassionate impulses which drove him from belief to Agnosticism in the first place: today’s conditions of suffering and God’s resounding absence. Ehrman is grief-stricken by the overwhelming suffering endured by God’s alleged children: If “the God who created this world is a God of love and power who intervenes for his faithful to deliver them from their pain and sorrow and bring them salvation…Why are babies still born with birth defects? Why are children kidnapped, raped and murdered? Why are there droughts that leave millions starving…If God intervened to deliver the armies of Israel from its enemies, why doesn’t he intervene now when the armies of sadistic tyrants savagely attack and destroy entire villages…If God [fed] the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of loaves, why is it that one child…dies every five seconds of hunger?” (Ehrman, pp. 5-6). Ehrman has many religious friends and students who have posed answers based on the Bible. The most common answer is that God gave humans free-will and humans use that free will to do evil. The professor has two answers to that question: 1: “If God gave people free will as a great gift, why didn’t he give them the intelligence they need to exercise it so that we can all live happily and peaceably together?” (Ehrman, p. 13). 2: “If suffering is entirely about free will, how can you explain hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters?” (Ehrman, p. 229).

Whether one responds to Professor Ehrman’s well-reasoned analysis of the Bible’s answers, or to his personal anguish over today’s conditions of suffering, one will respond. The question of why we suffer leads one on a thought-and-emotion-provoking journey that, at some point, most thinking and feeling westerners exposed to the Bible will undertake. Inviting Bart Ehrman along on this trek, will help to clear-away some of the fog on the path.

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Woman of Valor. Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America by Ellen Chesler.

“Margaret Sanger went to jail in 1917 for distributing contraceptives to immigrant women.” She worked from “a makeshift clinic, in a tenement storefront in of Brooklyn, New York. When she died fifty years later, the cause for which she defiantly broke the law had achieved international stature” (Chesler, p. 11). Of course she did not accomplish the acceptance of birth control on her own. There were many who preceded Sanger in the effort to secure legal, reliable contraception. There were many who worked on the issue as volunteers under her, or as rivals for pre-eminence in the movement. And there were scientists and activists who followed her and expanded upon her gains. A few of Sanger’s accomplishments include several successful court rulings mitigating the Comstock Laws, thence allowing the dissemination of (formerly illegal) birth control information; creation of our country’s first network of birth control clinics; and introduction of the diaphragm into the United States. Twenty-first Century proponents and opponents of birth control agree on very little. But there is one thing historically-minded activists of these opposing movements do agree upon: Margaret Sanger is the reason why birth control is so widely accepted in the United States today.

This biography was a twenty-year-long odyssey for Ellen Chesler. The years of care have paid-off. It is a masterful, detailed and balanced study, on one of the most effective activists for social change to appear in the US. One of the strongest features of this biography is one that has the capability of being a weakness. In her introduction, Chesler cautions “this study necessarily incorporates some of the history of these sweeping developments. It veers away at points in the narrative from the woman herself” (Chesler, p. 12). True, but the veering reveals the culture, the historical evolution and the placement of Sanger in the context of her time’s political developments. It is not only necessary, but informative.

Ellen Chesler undeniably supports birth control and sees Sanger as a hero. After all, the work is entitled Woman of Valor, not Kicker of Dogs. In spite of her personal admiration, Chesler is capable of fairly portraying the difficult personality traits and unjust political perspectives of her subject. Sanger was a thorny, vain, competitive woman. Those who appreciated her company were thick-skinned people capable of admiring a driven, intelligent, challenging friend. Additionally, the author freely depicts Sanger as a terrible parent who abandons her sons, leaving them with “an unappeased hunger for the love and approval of a mother…who lavished her exuberance on other people and causes but never found enough time for them” (Chesler, pp. 137-8).

Margaret Sanger’s racism is a well-known fact and one that Chelser unflinchingly portrays. She supported the philosophy of eugenics. In the early 1800s, eugenics began with the lofty and flawed goal of creating a better society by encouraging the best human stock to breed. Further complicating their misapprehension of humanity and genetics, eugenicists composed the economic and social elite of the US and Europe who either quietly felt or explicitly stated that theirs was the class/culture which should be breeding. Conversely, those of other classes and cultures should be breeding less. Sanger’s advocacy of birth control caused members of the Eugenics Movement to approach her with their idea that birth control could be used to prevent growth of undesirable classes. Sanger was of an immigrant Irish Catholic background. Furthermore, she had married a Jew and produced what eugenicists would think of as "mongrel children" from that marriage. She was from two groups whose reproduction the eugenicists would want to limit. Nevertheless, Sanger was nothing if not an opportunist. She was offered vocal support from an elite during a time when she had little else, and she took it. In the words of her biographer: “eugenics…became an unmitigated defense of property, privilege and race baiting” (Chesler, p.215).

Other expressions of this activist’s personal racism are a mass of confusing mixed messages, but undeniable. Clearly she was prejudiced enough to take support from the Eugenics Movement. Conversely, she employed African American doctors in her Harlem clinic when such a practice was unthinkable for a white organization. Also, she would not permit expressions of racial bigotry among her staff. Finally, she opposed “racial stereotyping” by eugenicists, “claiming that intelligence and other inherited traits vary by individual, not by group” (Chesler, p.215). However, Sanger later contradicts this claim. The reviewer has read Ms Sanger’s “What Every Girl Should Know. Part II: Sexual Impulses.” In this article, which appeared in the December 29, 1912 issue of “New York Call,” she states “the aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that the police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.”** Shocking as that sounds, these were not uncommon perceptions among white people. While there may have been some free-thinking white individuals who thought that non-whites were entirely our equals in brain development and were of the same species as whites, the norm of US society was far less enlightened in 1912. Less than fifty years earlier, African Americans were slaves and even the most progressive of abolitionists believed that they were mentally inferior to whites. Racism was so endemic to early 20th Century America that it existed on both sides of the contraception issue. Some favoring contraception blatantly supported using it to limit African American reproduction. Some opposing contraception argued just as fervently that limiting the size of white families was “race suicide” and would allow African Americans to dominate politically in areas of the country. Less well-known, and  more disturbing, is a 1926 address Sanger gave to women’s auxiliary of the  Ku Klux Klan ( At this point, Ms Sanger’s ignorance concerning race and the Klan approaches the surreal. The KKK is an immensely anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization. How this Catholic-born activist with her half-Jewish children came together with a group that hates both of those aspects of her is a mystery. But more importantly, the KKK was well-known as a hate group that most thinking people avoided. It is clear that Sanger furthered racism in her time. Despite the plethora of mixed messages, her public actions (support for eugenics, addressing the KKK and her published writings) all caused harm to the cause of African American equality.

Ellen Chesler’s portrayal of Sanger’s life is an achievement of rare quality: factual, balanced, highly readable and unafraid of controversy. Some may think that Ms Chesler is the true “woman of valor.” She never shrinks from the truth and fully, patiently examines the circumstances of the time. It is a biography that will leave the reader with a strong background on the history of the Birth Control Movement, the life of Margaret Sanger, and the zeitgeist of US society during her time period.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor. Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

**Sanger, Margaret. "What Every Girl Should Know," New York Call, December 29, 1912. The Public Papers of Margaret Sanger: Web Edition. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2015.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney

Noah Charney has written a well planned and colorful book that will introduce the general public to the subject of art forgery. This is not an exhaustive, academic study of the topic. It is an entertaining presentation that relies on the sensations of crime, trickery and flamboyant personalities, to seduce its audience. Nonetheless, the book contains a respectable amount of information for the uninitiated.

This author has selected an uncommon, but effective direction for his book. He first sympathizes with the popular image of forgers as “artful tricksters—often ingenious, skilful, quirky and charming.”  (Charney, p. 13). These criminals are generally perceived by the public as damaging only the reputations of arrogant art experts, and the wallets of wealthy collectors who can afford a loss. But this view evolves. Charney’s evaluation progressively pays more attention to the effects of such criminal behavior on society. “A forgery scandal…damages our understanding of the past and skews the study of history.” (Charney, p. 89). Charney later examines counterfeiters who enter historical archives posing as researchers. When inside, they insert false provenance that will be later found by buyers to validate the history of the false work being sold. This is highly damaging because “once real archives have been impregnated with fake historical evidence…every piece of documentation in the archive must be called into question.” There is no other way to tell how many records have been tainted. (Charney, p. 177). Archives must then embark upon an expensive, time-consuming process of re-examining all records to expunge the fakes and become once again trustworthy for scholars. Since most archives are non-profits with little expendable cash, this is a hardship. The theme of destructiveness progresses to the point where Charney is presenting literary forgeries like “The Donation of Constantine” which permitted the Vatican to seize large provinces of property, and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which led to numerous anti-Semitic murders and pogroms. Shifting from artworks to written forgeries, is incongruous with the rest of the book, but does illustrate the most harmful consequences of forgery.

Professor Charney purports to offer his readers the opportunity to “peer into the forger’s mind, motivation and methods.” (Charney, p. 17). While it is a dicey claim to say that one can enter the mind and motivations of another whom one has never met, using only written information, the author does make a brave attempt. His task is further complicated by the fact that he relies on the words of convicted forgers, who lie for a living. Naturally, the forgers ascribe to themselves only the most self-congratulatory explanations for their actions; and these explanations almost never involve greed. But Charney is taken-in by these professional deceivers. He claims “we might assume that money is the primary motivation for art forgery, but we see again and again that this is rarely true—although profit might be a welcome bonus. Forgers are complex psychological characters driven by many different impulses.” (Charney, p. 14). It is not certain that Professor Charney’s PhD in Art History gives him the qualifications to analyze the criminal mind. While this author primarily ignores the profit motive, he does ascribe some negative reasons for art forgery to his subjects. Chapters entitled “Pride, Revenge, Fame and Power” are headings under which individual forger’s stories are told.

One of the most interesting, contentious and mentally challenging chapters is “Genius.” Here, Charney presents the early forgery careers of famous artists. Michelangelo once carved a statue which he passed-off as an ancient Roman marble. (Charney, p. 36). Later, when famous, Michelangelo “copied drawings of the old masters…he smoked and tinted the paper to give it the appearance of age.” He was thereby able to “keep the originals and return the copies in their place.” (Charney, p. 38). This, and other examples of talented artists committing crimes, does blur the line between forger and artist. To complicate matters further, forgers do not reproduce works that are hanging in museums and galleries; they would not be able to sell their fakes as originals this way. Instead, they study the style of a master and reproduce works in that style. One might argue that they are producing an original work with aesthetic, emotional appeal. But let’s not get carried away. Most average art school graduates can copy an original work or style; that’s part of the training. This does not make one a “genius.” Concerning masters who were also forgers, one can see their original works as excellent art, while also accepting that they once created inferior derivations. Charney later challenges his own thesis with comments that “a forger’s work is inherently derivative” and that with few exceptions “forgers are largely failed artists who are missing one component of greatness.” (Charney, p. 108). The author’s chapter on “Revenge” is testimony to the failure of most forgers to produce successful original works. When they are unsuccessful in the art world, they turn to forgery for revenge and profit.

Noah Charney’s subject and presentation have the power to excite and captivate his audience. He understands his readers and appeals to what moves them. Combining the iconoclastic personalities of several forgers, with the crime drama of law enforcement’s pursuit and capture, the author spins fascinating stories while providing instruction. The Art of Forgery provides the best of opportunities for readers, to be both entertained and informed.

Charney, Noah. The Art of Forgery. London: Phaidon Press, 2015.