The Bible needs no sugar

Srikanth T. Rao sent me to this article at CNN’s religion blog. While the general point that we’ve become a race of euphemisers is well taken, The rest of the article is full of crap

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Srikanth T. Rao sent me to this article at CNN’s religion blogs.

The Bible is a gritty book. Very raw. Very real. It deals with people just like us, just as needy and screwed up as we are, encountering a God who would rather die than spend eternity without them.

Yet despite that, it seems like Christians are uncomfortable with how earthy the Bible really is. They feel the need to tidy up God.

For example, look in any modern translation of Isaiah 64:6, and you’ll find that, to a holy God, even our most righteous acts are like “filthy rags.” The original language doesn’t say “filthy rags”; it says “menstrual rags.” But that sounds a little too crass, so let’s just call them filthy instead.

And let’s not talk so much about Jesus being naked on the cross, and let’s pretend Paul said that he considered his good deeds “a pile of garbage” in Philippians 3:8 rather than a pile of crap, as the Greek would more accurately be translated.

[…]

God’s message was not meant to be run through some arbitrary, holier-than-thou politeness filter. He intended the Bible to speak to people where they’re at, caught up in the stark reality of life on a fractured planet.

[…]

I believe that Scripture includes such graphic material to show how far we, as a race, have fallen and how far God was willing to come to rescue us from ourselves.

God is much more interested in honesty than pietism.

And that’s what he gives us throughout Scripture, telling the stories of people who struggled with the same issues, questions and temptations we face today.

[…]

Jesus never said, “The Kingdom of God is like a church service that goes on and on forever and never ends.” He said the kingdom was like a homecoming celebration, a wedding, a party, a feast to which all are invited.

[…]

Only when the Bible seems relevant to us (which it is), only when the characters seem real to us (which they were), only then will the message of redemption become personal for us (which it was always meant to be).

We don’t need to edit God. We need to let him be the author of our new lives.

Read the comments for some amusing takedowns of this rubbish (sorry, I mean ‘crap’. I wouldn’t want to sugarcoat anything).

While the general observation that we have become a race of euphemisers is valid (here’s George Carlin’s take on this; nobody does it better), the rest of the article is full of crap.

Reading religious scripture literally is the quickest way to making people atheists. However, the more likely explanation for why scripture includes the graphic stuff is that the people who wrote god’s lines needed to wank off once in a while, and to do it without getting called wankers.

The ‘Bible’ has no ‘original version’. It’s been a work in progress for two millennia. And ideas get progressively more refined (and less stupid) with time. People are eventually going to realise that you don’t have to tell stories of how entire towns were raided, the men and boys killed, the women raped, and the girls kidnapped, in order to instill morality in your children. In fact, morality is best instilled entirely devoid of religion; but if that isn’t your cup of tea, surely the rapes and murders are better left out than in.

And whatever else is true about our failings, the human race has (or at least most parts of it have) come a long way from the age of the middle-eastern shepherd from two thousand years ago. We do not struggle with the same issues and temptations as people then did (“the Old Testament includes vivid descriptions of murder, cannibalism, witchcraft, dismemberment, torture, rape, idolatry, erotic sex and animal sacrifice.”). Not everybody has to constantly fight the temptation to torture, murder, dismember, and eat the person next to them. And the only complaint people today should have about erotic sex is that they don’t get enough.

Sugar, anyone?

Of that line between welfare and governmental overreaching

This story about children (one of them an infant) of Indian parents being taken away from them by Norwegian authorities and put in Norway’s foster-care system is a little old. Other people have taken apart this stupidity as well. It brings to the fore the problems with the welfare state that libertarians worry about. I am by no means a libertarian, but there are some things that are simply too stupid to have to resort to ideology to resolve. If anything fits that bill, this has to be it.

I grew up in a house where I didn’t have my own room. I slept on the floor in the same room as my father, until I went to college. Was this mistreatment? I eat with my hands, as does everybody I know. I also know for a fact that I wasn’t born with the ability to pick up food and put it in my mouth; somebody had to teach me. And they weren’t committing a crime against a child in so doing.

That Norwegian authorities would take away children from their parents for letting their kids sleep in the same room and for feeding them with their hands is bewildering. What are these people smoking? How daft do you have to be to think that this is not just abuse, but such abuse as to warrant taking the children away from the parents?

The argument being made for the authorities seems to be that people who move to new countries should adapt to the new culture. This argument is easily reduced to the absurd. Imagine if you were potty-training your kids but you’re Indian and you use water instead of paper. As a matter of simple mechanics, surely the physical contact involved in this is more ‘serious’ than in feeding your kids with your hands. What punishment do you suppose is appropriate?

Everything I do is informed by the culture in which I grew up. My relocating to a country with a different culture cannot, in this age of the global village, make everything I do criminally punishable. All parents screw up their children. The exact nature of how said screwing-up should be done has to be left to the parents. There have to be limits to what the government can regulate in a society with pretensions of democracy.

To paraphrase House, ‘No, there isn’t a thin line between welfare and the government going crazy; there is, in fact, a great wall of China with armed sentries posted every twenty feet between a welfare state and governmental overreaching.’ And the Norwegian government has definitively placed itself on one side.

Being a student at JNC

I was asked to write up about half a page of something to go into the JNC brochure for 2011-12. I took more than one pass at this, the second one because the  first would’ve been impossible to publish in a JNC brochure. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be put up here. Below are the two half-page blurbs I wrote.

First, the version I think will get published in the brochure:

Being a student at JNC – Croor Singh, Engineering Mechanics unit

 I joined JNC two months after I graduated, having spent the five most formative years of my life at IIT Madras. It wasn’t hard, ill-advised as it may have been – as it may yet be, to compare and contrast the campuses, the milieus, the people.

 The most obvious observation which can be made is that the campus at JNCASR is well cared-for. A lot of money and effort goes into maintaining the infrastructure, and it shows. (Ask somebody from IITM how the hostels that were built not four years ago have fared.) Oscar Wilde might point out that living in an aesthetically pleasing environment can do only good things to how much people care about their surroundings, and how they treat fellow inhabitants.

 There are other differences too: a smaller community means that everybody knows everybody else at JNC; it is very easy to get a reputation, and very hard to get rid of one. The average person here is also easier to impress (shock?) than at IITM. Or perhaps nonchalance (indifference?) is just an emergent property with a higher threshold number.

 There are also similarities. As at IITM, the admission forms include one that asks parents to declare that they will be responsible for what their children do. Even if said children happen to have children of their own. Internet content is filtered through the url-filter from hell. Because graduate research students are too dumb to understand what sexual harrassment is, I guess. The hostel’s internet connection is switched off at 8 am. Because people need to be told when to wake up; again, I guess. And that drink you were having with your friends on Friday? That had better have been Coke.

 These similarities are but symptoms of a broader underlying condition, but that is a different, and much longer, essay.

That ‘different, and much longer, essay’ is something I hope to get back to; I’ll put it up here when I do.The second version was more critical, it was a rant:

Being a student at JNCASR – Croor Singh, Engineering Mechanics Unit

I joined JNCASR in August 2010 as an R&D assistant, and as a PhD student later that year. I work with Rama Govindarajan (who insists on that preposition rather than ‘for’), who is unobtrusive to a fault. My presence at JNCASR is her doing.

In the very early days, something I wrote for my blog got blocked because the url contained the word ‘sex’ [1]. I pointed out to the webmasters that not everything of that description is pornography, and that I saw little reason why content should be filtered at all in a post-graduate research institution. I hear this is still talked about as being the raving of a rabble-rousing libertine.

There is, among the forms for admission into the Centre, one that asks parents to declare that they may be held responsible for the conduct of their ‘wards’. I thought it odd that somebody else could be held responsible for my actions, and said so. In an email. Copied to several people. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth followed. A group of people empowered to change the status quo met, and decided to do… nothing. The student guidelines now state explicitly that the parental-consent form may not be signed by the student [2]. Well, duh.

This treatment of enfranchised adults like children is by no means an aberration. There is an upper limit on the number of courses a student can take. Because the student and her advisor are not to be trusted with that decision. Alcohol is banned in the student residence. Not really, of course, but the rule exists and has been advertised. The hostel’s internet connection is switched off between 8am and 7pm, because, one may assume, graduate-research students need to be told when to wake up.

Perhaps the worst part is that JNC is nearer the present-century end of the scale when it comes to this sort of thing.

[1] https://croor.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/olfaction-and-nocturnal-sex-drive-in-drosophila/

[2] JNCASR Student Guidelines, page 22.

Anandwan and the Maharogi Sewa Samiti of Baba Amte

Sourabh Diwan told me about the late Baba Amte‘s organisation, the Maharogi Sewa Samiti, Warora, and the work they have been doing to help rehabilitate people afflicted with leprosy. They are now calling for help towards building a corpus, to supplement the pittance that the government of Maharashtra gives them for support. There’s an appeal (pdf, English). They say they’ve helped 2.3 million people over the last 60 years. I find that number inspirational. I also think it’s heartening that they hope to do work of gigantic proportions.

Please consider donating.

Binayak Sen at IISc. Full version.

There was a talk by Binayak Senon January 18th at IISc. The event, advertised as ‘A Discussion’ with Binayak Sen turned out to actually be that. Apart from a two-minute introduction of the speaker (as if anybody needed it) and a three-minute prefatory note by Dr. Sen, the session was spent mostly asking questions which Dr. Sen answered eloquently.

I  took notes, obviously. However, it is entirely possible that my notes and my report here are coloured by my thinking. I write the following, therefore, in first person, as I would something I myself came up with. Take from it what you will; all good points made here may be attributed to Dr. Sen. Any mistakes are mine.

There were three reports in the newspaper in Calcutta. The first was about tea-garden workers in West Bengal who were killed in an accident [I can’t find a source for this: the general theme, yes; this particular instance, no]. The second was about a woman who was refused admission into a hospital, even though she was in labour; she gave birth on the pavement in front of the hospital and died. The third was that Manmohan Singh called the fact that 42% of the children under 5 in this country are malnourished; this was part of the HUNGaMA report I’ve mentioned elsewhere.

But consider that as long as a decade ago, the National Nutrition Bureau Report said, among other things, that 37% of adults are malnourished, that 50% of the Scheduled tribes and 60% of the scheduled castes of this country are malnourished, and one has to ask why these weren’t considered a national shame. More depressing statistics: 23% of infants are malnourished at birth, but that number grows to 46% by age 3, and is roughly constant until age 5. This malnourishment is debilitating for life, if one goes by Barker’s hypothesis. The WHO’s definition of famine is that 40% of the population of a region be chronically malnourished. By this definition, India is in a state of stable famine. The consumption of cereals – the preeminent source of protein – has fallen drastically in the last 50 years. The food security bill, the UPA’s ‘dream bill’, is insufficient (at 7 kilograms of grain per person per month), to say nothing of how we might go about implementing it.

We have failed in other avenues of social progress too. Universal health care, which we’ve been talking about since forever, is still a pipedream. Most villages in the country don’t even have primary health centres, and the PHCs that do exist aren’t properly staffed. Universal education is another one of our dreams-never-to-become-reality. We narrowly beat out Kyrgystan in a recent international test of how the average 15 year old fairs at reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. With all this, should we really be surprised that some people take to arms against the government? The planning commission report on left-wing extremism admits that the government’s policies have been a failure. As Justice Sudarshen Reddy said (5 July 2011, Nandini Sundar and others vs the State of Chattisgarh, at the Supreme Court of India)

Tax breaks for the rich, and guns for the youngsters among the poor, so that they keep fighting amongst themselves, seems to be the mantra from the mandarins of security and high economic policy of the State. This, apparently, is to be the grand vision for the development of a nation that has constituted itself as a sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic.

Amidst all this, the government seems to be under the impression that speech causing disaffection for the government (define: sedition) should be punishable as a criminal offence. Screw freedom of speech, and screw democracy with its checks and balances.

There isn’t a magical solution to any of these problems, except for you and me to participate in the process. There are no longer any neutral observer positions available. If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the reason there isn’t a solution. There is no substitute for participation.

If you think the narrative in the above jumps all over the place, remember that these statements were made in response to questions from the gathering, and as such depended on what the questions were. I’ve taken several liberties of putting together responses from bits and pieces, and of omitting stuff that I couldn’t possibly fit in without also stating the question. As before, any errors must be taken to be mine.