Social Media and Persia

A story appeared on the BBC recently about “sin free Facebook.” The website, which started in Brazil, is based on the idea that users don’t like having swear words and violence among their friends. According to the story some 600 words are banned from use, making me think that I’m seriously behind the times. With an “amen” button and a keyword of “bless” Facegloria has been growing dramatically. Some 100,000 friends are now on board. Of course, the concept of friends in a religious conceptual context goes back to the Quakers, but they tended not to use computers, if I remember my history correctly. The odd thing, to me, is that on social media you get to select your friends already. If you don’t like what they post, why are you friends?

Sin is going through a resurgence of academic interest these days. One of the features that emerges from all this exploration is that sin is not as clearly defined as we might think it is. Wrong and right. White and black. Things in their proper order. In the biblical world the word “sin” seemed to mean missing what you’d aimed at. From there it grew to cover all kinds of infractions. Today most people think of sin in sexual terms—those things you aren’t allowed to do. Ironically we call other things phrases like “hate crimes” rather than “hate sins.” And crime is supposed to make it worse, since sin is often not illegal. Or if it is illegal, it’s not often brought to the law.

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I have a Facebook account, but I have to confess to not looking at it much. My days are busy and although the marketing departments of publishers use Facebook, those of us with editorial roles are seldom encouraged to spend time on it when we could be doing something more valuable. I arrive home so late I don’t even check my email before bed. I guess I haven’t had the time to notice the sin on Facebook. Yes, a few of my friends use what Spock might term “colorful metaphors,” but I seldom feel the need for confession after reading a post or two. My friends, like me, are fallible and many of them are in less-than-ideal circumstances. I really don’t think social media with further restraints would help the situation. Of course, I could use an “amen” button on this blog, I suppose. I think I’d rather have it read “verily,” though.

World Cup Runneth Over

I’m not a sports fan of any description. I guess the message, “it’s just a game” sank in rather well as a child. Nevertheless, I was curious when some friends invited us over to watch the World Cup finals. New York City has been abuzz over the last few weeks, and if my walk home takes me past a bar in the city, I almost always have to cross the street to get around the crowds standing outside. So, I’ve been a little intrigued. It perhaps helps that some considerable primordial Teutonic blood makes its home in my ancestry. Hey, but it’s only a game. As a sometime jogger, it was interesting watching these guys running themselves ragged for 120 minutes, but what makes the World Cup worthy of a blog on religion is the sheer amount of religious imagery that pervaded the Brazilian broadcast of the event. Several lingering shots on Christ the Redeemer backlit by a halo-like sun preempted footage of the game. When night fell, the shots show Jesus looking down to watch the game.

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The Argentineans, it would seem, should have had the spiritual advantage. With a pope in the Vatican, and a fan or two even dressed up like the Holy Father, the match taking place in some of the most Catholic territory outside of Rome, you might think some blessing would have been ambient. As the game ended Christ the Redeemer was lit up in rainbow colors and the Germans held the trophy high. Perhaps this is just grousing coming from a guy who’s lost as many times as I have, but it seemed that there could have been a bit more bonhomie on the part of those who managed to make their way to the final for what was, throughout, a very tight game. Perhaps they were just exhausted, but a smile for the camera might have gone a long way. They only lost by one.

During the match, as the director chose scenes of Christ the Redeemer, the announcers could be heard saying, “shouldn’t we be watching the game?” A profound, yet utterly human reversal of the usual evangelical trope of keeping one’s eyes on Jesus. But the millions around the world tuned in were not interested in Rio’s most famous landmark; rather, they wanted to see what was happening down on the ground, in real time. Heaven has its place, no doubt, but it should not interfere with matters of worldly importance. For many, some sociologists tell us, sports serves the function of religion. While extremely fit men run themselves to exhaustion, a kind of worship is taking place down on the field. Looking up to the icon on the hill, it is crucial to remember that it is just a game.

Anomalies in Paradise

In 1874 (C.E.) a mysterious ghost of an artifact from Brazil was announced. In a story full of twists and turns and multiple Spanish surnames, a director of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro had received a copy of a Phoenician inscription allegedly found in Brazil. Efforts to trace the letter to its source and to find the actual artifact both ended unsuccessfully, leading the director, Ladislau de Souza Mello Neto, to conclude the letter was a hoax and the artifact non-extant. The story might have ended there had not Cyrus Gordon, one of the premier Semiticists of the last century, allowed his open mind to reexamine the evidence. Gordon, in an article in 1968, argued that the inscription had to be authentic because of advances made in the understanding of Phoenician that would have been unavailable in the 1870’s. Gordon’s interpretation was in turn challenged by Frank Moore Cross, noted Harvard epigraphist, and scholarship heaved a collective sigh of relief and returned to the status quo. No Phoenicians ever crossed the Atlantic.

Neto's un-copy of the un-inscription

This little incident highlights one of the persistent conundrums of academic life. Anomalous objects are found/reported every once in a while and mainstream academia immediately debunks them to come back to center. A student of Hinduism asked me recently about the correlation of ancient calendars; before British colonialism hit India artifacts were dated to much earlier periods. Under the influence of Britain Dravidian culture grew younger and the background to European culture was considered more ancient, more time-honored. Those with investment in the system do not like to have privileged positions challenged.

While a post-graduate student at Edinburgh, my advisor had me read Peter James’ Centuries of Darkness, a study that challenged the accepted chronology of the ancient world. Intrigued, we set up a seminar with representatives from the Archaeology Department to discuss whether this was a feasible approach to the many problem areas of ancient chronology. The archaeologists duly trooped in, set up their weapons and took pot-shots at the book, blowing multiple ugly holes in its arguments. After about an hour, when the archaeologists were unable to answer a very specific question by my advisor, he asked, “How many of you have read the book?” Sheepishly, not a hand was raised. The premise of the book was sufficient for its well-deserved snubbing. I learned a valuable lesson about academia that day — open minds lead to trouble. It is a lesson that demonstrates a very basic insecurity of those who do not wish to have their assumptions challenged.