The Bog of Lost Scholars

October 8, 2006

Qur’an Slog: Getting Help

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 3:37 pm

I’m not a very good independent scholar.

Oh, I can learn practical skills on my own — many of my needlework skills are self-taught from books or websites, for example. But when it comes to a long-term course of intensive study, I have trouble blocking out the time for it; I get very few stretches of uninterrupted quiet time, and when I do, fifteen other tasks are competing for the minutes.

So classes are a big help. It’s not that I necessarily learn better from a teacher; it’s that the class provides structure. And it’s psychologically easier for me to block out two hours to go to a class than it is to block out two hours to study at home.

When my church offered a class on reading the Qur’an, then, I signed up. We’re working from the back forward, so I’ve now read the last twenty surahs. The teacher is interesting and intelligent; the students, being Unitarians, ask lots of pointed questions. I’ve learned that my earlier assessment was correct; the Qur’an does indeed make reference to stories that the audience in 7th century Arabia would have known well but that 21st century readers might not be so familiar with. The class is definitely helping me make more sense of what I’m reading.

December 28, 2005

New Year’s Resolutions: Religion

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 8:19 pm
  1. I resolve to finish my slow Qu’ran slog in 2006.
  2. I resolve to muddle through some verses of John in Greek at least once every month or so, because that’s why I was was taking Greek in the first place!

April 14, 2005

UU Jihad Name

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 3:21 pm

On the Unitarian Jihad: While I affirm the free and open search for one’s UU Jihad name using the automatic name generators, my personal search for truth and meaning requires me to choose my own UU Jihad name. This choice is made with full respect for my co-UUJ-ists who have themselves chosen the automated path.

Sibling Sherman Tank of Good Manners

September 9, 2004

Qu’ran Slog Continued

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 5:45 pm

My slow slog through the Qu’ran continues; I’m up to Surah 26, The Poets. This Surah has the story of Moses demonstrating to Pharaoh that he’s been sent by God when Moses’s staff eats those of Pharaoh’s magicians (in this translation, there’s no explicit mention of the staves turning into serpents). One element follows that isn’t in the Exodus version: the magicians immediately believe that God is God and declare their faith; Pharaoh threatens to execute them, and the magicans reply, basically, “Go right ahead; we know where we’re going after death.” A very neat little passage.

So far, the biggest challenge for me in reading this interpretation is that the language is so unlike what I’m used to — not just the “translation”, as far as I can tell, but the text itself. Old and New Testament, no problem; I’ve been reading those texts since I was seven years old (as a child, I got through boring sermons by reading the Bible, on the grounds that Mom and Dad couldn’t chew me out for reading it in church). I know which sections are narratives and which are more poetic, where the writer’s talking to the audience and where they blend into the narration.

The Qu’ran’s different. You always have the narrator’s voice — God’s voice — right there in front of you. There’s frequent references to stories that the narrator assumes the reader already knows; some of them I do know from the Old Testament, but others I don’t quite get. It’s much more challenging for me to read it. I can read the Bible without a concordance handy, but for the Qu’ran I’m really wishing for one.

July 8, 2004

A Bumper Sticker I’d Like to See

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 6:00 pm

Your driving outwitnesses your fish

(Yep, I’ve seen too many exceptionally rude drivers with Christian symbols on their vehicles lately.)

April 16, 2004

Okay, What Was in That Salsa?

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 5:14 pm

We took our very pregnant marketing assistant out to lunch today, and one of the topics that came up was childbirth videos. It suddenly occurred to me that this should be Mel Gibson’s next film project: “The Birth of the Christ”, featuring a filming of a Real! Genuine! Birth! or at least a fabulous special effects version. (Hey, it’s got blood and agony and suffering; should be right up his alley!)

At this same lunch, I said that reggae chant should be the next fusion music; can’t you just see a bunch of monks in dreadlocks singing “Te Deum” to a reggae beat?

I don’t know what was in that salsa, but obviously I need to get a supplier….

December 15, 2003

Further Proof that I Am Not a Humanities Scholar

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 1:35 pm

From chapter 1, Carnival and Other Christian Festivals, by Max Harris:

“Support for my conviction that words are not the final interpretive authority can be drawn from the field of art history. In a brilliant essay, first published in 1983, Leo Steinberg drew attention to the previously unremarked fact that in Renaissance art Christ’s penis was not only portrayed–as had rarely been the case in medieval art–but that attention was drawn to it and, most astonishing of all, that it was frequently erect. He argued that this was not just a matter of increased naturalism but that it advanced a theological argument for the full humanity and sinlessness of Christ. Chastity without ability would have been impotence, not commendable restraint.”

See, this is why I’m not a humanities scholar, or at least not an art historian. I’d never think up an argument like that. (I love the “chastity without ability” line, though.)

November 25, 2003

Surah 20: Ta Ha

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 5:03 pm

(Apparently nobody knows what Ta Ha is supposed to mean. I can’t help thinking “tee-hee” when I see it….)

This Surah includes the life of Moses, the fall of the angel Iblis (the Islamic parallel of Lucifer — I wonder which story came first?) because he would not bow down before Adam, and the story of Adam and Eve. (It’s interesting to see that in this version, Adam and Eve are clearly equal sinners in the Fall, as opposed to the Jewish/Christian version where Eve was the first to sin.)

One nifty passage, from the story of Moses: The magicians of Firon [Pharaoh] cast down their staffs, which turned into snakes; Moses cast his down, and his consumed theirs. Then:

70. And the magicians were cast down making obeisance; they said: We believe in the Lord of Haroun and Musa.

71. (Firon) said: You believe in him before I give you leave; most surely he is the chief of you who taught you enchantment, therefore I will certainly cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will certainly crucify you on the trunks of the palm trees, and certainly you will come to know which of us is the more severe and the more abiding in chastising.

72. They said: We do not prefer you to what has come to us of clear arguments and to He Who made us, therefore decide what you are going to decide; you can only decide about this world’s life.

November 17, 2003

Kachinas and Muppets

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 5:56 pm

When I was a kid, my parents got us this big book about American Indians, a wide-ranging overview of tribes in various regions. It was one of my favorite books to browse. The varying customs and ceremonies; the many ways that different tribes hunted or grew foods, the wide range of kinship patterns — fascinating. That book was a great introduction to the fact that “American Indians” and “Native Americans” are terms that lump together a whole bunch of people with nothing in common besides being on this continent before Europeans were.

It’s kind of funny that out of all the different customs that should’ve seemed strange to ten-year-old me — odd-sounding foods harvested in harsh conditions; unusual initiation ceremonies; ritualized wife-swapping; human sacrifices at a chief’s funeral — the one that I had most trouble getting my mind around was the section about Hopi kachina dancers, masked and costumed dancers representing gods and spirits. From fuzzy memory, when kids came of age, a special private kachina dance was held for them, and after the ceremonies, the dancers removed their masks, and the kids discovered for the first time that the dancers were men they knew. Then each kid got a chance to look through a mask and see the world as a kachina saw it, and the boys were afterwards eligible to become kachina dancers themselves.

I didn’t get it. Hadn’t they always figured that these were people? What’s so special about looking through a mask — won’t the world look just the same as it does through eyes? It just seemed like a completely alien custom.

It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I finally made a connection between kachina dancers and something in my world. A couple years after Jim Henson’s death, I was watching a show about his life and works, and for the first time in my conscious memory, I saw Henson on camera operating Kermit the Frog.

If anyone had asked me before then, I would have said that of course I knew the Muppets aren’t real; they’re just puppets, felt and fur and foam, operated by humans that you can’t see on camera. But seeing Henson with Kermit on his arm, and Frank Oz with Miss Piggy on his…I discovered that no, I hadn’t really known, because it was a shock to see that indeed, Kermit is not an independent entity.

Even now, when I’m watching Sesame Street or my Muppet Show DVDs with my son, it doesn’t entirely register. I can make myself see the hand motions and imagine the puppeteer just below the bottom of the screen, but it’s an effort. Kermit and Ernie & Bert and Miss Piggy and Big Bird and the Count and Fozzie and Cookie Monster and Gonzo….they’re all real to me, in a way that puppets on other shows aren’t. (Barney’s just somebody in a costume to me. The inhabitants of the realm of Make-Believe on Mister Rogers — they’re obviously just puppets. Between the Lions? Good puppets, but puppets.)

I wonder how many people my age, the first generation raised on Sesame Street, have the same unconscious impression. I wonder how many of us see the Muppets as, certainly not gods (they’re way too fallible) (although then again, comparing with some pantheons, they might fit right in), but at least as living beings, spirited entities, part of our common mythology. I wonder how many of us, seeing Henson and Kermit, felt the collapse of an assumption we hadn’t realized we had.

I wonder how many of us, while sorting laundry, have put a sock over our hand, and pushed in the toe to make a mouth, and tried to experience the world as a Muppet experiences it.

November 7, 2003

Surah 19: Mariam

Filed under: Religion — castiron @ 8:22 pm

The slow Qu’ran slog continues. Surah 19 tells, among other things, the Islamic version of the conception and birth of Jesus. That was quite interesting — I didn’t know that the Qu’ran uses the virgin birth as well, even though in Islam Jesus is a plain human and a prophet rather than the incarnation of a deity (and in fact, this chapter has some verses saying “how come you people say God has a son? God doesn’t work that way!”) The bit about Jesus in Mary’s womb telling her to shake down dates from a palm tree is resonant of an old English carol about the unborn Jesus telling the cherry tree to bow down and give his mother fruit. I wonder whether the two stories draw from the same source or are just independent ideas? (And one curiosity: Mary/Mariam is refered to as “the sister of Haroun”, or Aaron; I don’t know of a Christian tradition where Mary had a brother Aaron, though I’m not that up on Marian studies, but it’s an interesting parallel with Mariam and Haroun the siblings of Moses.)

This Surah also has a bit about Abraham abandoning his father’s false gods for the true God, and the story of the birth of John the Baptist, though he’s not a baptizer in this version.

One interesting verse: 19:86. And We will drive the guilty to hell thirsty. An appropriate image for a desert culture…..

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