22 October 2005

The evolution of Christianity

This has been running around my head for a while. I'm sure other people have already realized this, but it's my first shot.

It's occurring to me that on of the most important things that ever happened in the evolution of Christianity was the letter of Romans and maybe just the strong influence of Paul, period. I've been saying to folks how odd I find it that you could ostensibly get rid of the first-hand accounts of Jesus's teaching and still have a very functional Christian religion. In fact, I doubt anything would change. This has been striking me as terribly odd especially as I read the words of Jesus which seem much more mystic than the hard line, clear theology of Paul. It seems that through this letter, Christianity was not only made accessible to Roman culture, but became marked by the same thought-processes as the Romans. Christianity became a Western religion rather than a queer off-shoot of Judaism that no one was really clear about.

This bothers me more than it probably should. I've been wondering what would have happened if the message of Jesus had moved East instead of West and what would have happened if a bulk of the Pauline writing was replaced by a similar figure from, say, a Buddhist heritage. I guess this couldn't work in that Paul's understanding of Jewish thought helped him make links between messianic writing and Jesus. Still though.

We like Paul so much because his writing is relatively clear compared to Jesus who, if you read without the aid of the back half of the New Testament, is really bizarre, unclear, and mysterious. It's so much easier to show someone the "Roman Road", the typical blueprint for "sharing" the gospel than to say, Read what Jesus says and do what he says. Because what will you get from Jesus. Love God, love others, love the poor, and follow me. We can't very well tell people to do that. What kind of faith statement does that produce anyway. I don't want to be critical of Paul just yet and am holding my tongue from saying that Romans is the worst thing that could have happened to the teaching of Jesus. But I'm beginning to get more frustrated with the hierarchy of Paul over Jesus.

Yoko and I watched "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (the old one) tonight and the shit that comes out of Wonka's mouth is just fabulous.

21 October 2005

"Insurgents" or "terrorists"

I haven't kept up my linguistics dialog as I have been too busy reading to comment on any of it. I am finishing the first part of the written discourse unit and let me tell you, it's like the sky opened up and rained Skittles or men or something. Did I ever write about dancing with some gay Filipinos to the song "It's Raining Men"? Now that was surreal.

Anyway, maybe some of you have been saying, "Sure, discourse analysis is sexy, I'll admit that. But what's the point talking about words? Seems like a big fat waste of time, if you ask me or my cousin Kip. Now, let's go have a beer." Certainly, I'd like to have a drink with your cousin, but I think you might be a little misguided about our friend. She is very helpful and useful and not just for intellectual masturbation, although I love intellectual masturbation as much as the next person. In fact, discourse analysis helps us all put our finger on that "intangible" thing that makes you think, "Now, that comment sounds terribly racist, sexist, or stupid, but I can't really tell why" or "That newspaper story seems really contrived, but I can't really tell why" or "The language of story seems really worn out. Why is that?"  Discourse analysis comes in and says, "Let's stop bullshitting and talk clause relation."

I've been reading a lot of articles in which Feminists or lit. critics take swings at their given targets by criticizing the language used instead of the idea or argument. A quick example: Are the fighters opposing the new Iraqi government "insurgents" or "terrorists"? You tell me what word you use and I'll tell you your political affiliation. Were the events of September 11th a "crime" or an act of "war"? You get people saying the right word and you can do just about anything. I like to use the word "ass" to refer to the smell of my apartment. Think about the difference between, "My apartment smells like ass" vs. "My apartment smells bad."

Maybe the example wasn't so hot. At least not as hot as dancing with gay Filipino men.

18 October 2005

Thai Enlightenment Tour, Day 3

Well, my time of enlightenment has just about come to an end. I've learned a couple of things, mostly about haggling for prices and avoiding prostitutes. I learned some things about not so legit goods as well: If the price of a legit pair of shoes is $150, you can expect to pay about one fifth of that on the "black" market. But if the price of shoes is $90, you again will expect to pay one-fifth of that price. This baffles me because both of the pairs of shoes are clearly not real so it shouldn't matter what they cost in the real world, right? Wrong, my man, wrong. This is troubling me because I could only find some knock off pumas that fit me and puma is an expensive brand I guess.

Also, I just found out there is an exit tax of $15. Bastards.

My room ended up being cheaper than planned though so that's cool. It all evens out.

The buddha here look different than the buddha in Japan. Like the buddha here has a look on his face like he knows something that you don't. I guess he sort of does, but it's kind of creeping me out. I don't want to invite that buddha into my heart.

Tomorrow, Japan will swallow me whole again and I say, go ahead, Japan. I love you too.

17 October 2005

Thai Enlightenment Tour, Day 2

After my update last night, my Enlightenment Tour took me to the veranda of the hostel where I shot the shit with a guy from India for like an hour and got sort of drunk. I didn't intend to, really, but rum and coke is too easy to drink. The Indian asked me if I was an "expat" or a "sexpat" in this dizzying, kinetic city. I quickly answered that I wasn't interested in the sex and he said that was good. Look, but don't get involved.

I went to bed sort of worried about all of that, what with this being the sex capital of Southeast Asia or whatever. What, I thought, will become of me amid all this sin and sadness.

When I awoke, a little hungover and an hour early — it took me four hours to figure out that Bangkok is actually two hours behind Japan right now. I was in this huge weekend market, looking for the snakes, but I didn't find any snakes. Instead, there were very kind, thoroughly depressed squirrels. The market was nice, but not nearly as cheap as I thought it was going to be. I didn't buy anything except some hot, cheap green curry.

I took a nap in the park then went down to the Times Square of Bangkok sure to encounter herds of prostitutes there. Rather, I found ice cream — ice cream and one of the biggest malls I have ever been to in my whole life. I decided to see a movie too, a Thai movie keeping with the whole enlightenment theme. The movie was really good, but it got out late and I was all worried that I was going to miss the last train as I had to transfer at a place I hadn't transferred at. I got home safely and am avoiding drinking the rum and coke in favor of going to bed soon.

Globalism has had such an effect on countries like our dear Thailand. I don't think I'm ready to elaborate on this just yet, but maybe after I think it over a little more. I will say this: fat, ugly American men are free to find gorgeous, lively Thai women to hold their hands and flirt with them in public. Asshats, I say. The both of them.

No prostitution to speak of so far — only one man dressed as a woman. I guess if you aren't looking for it, you don't have to deal with it. We can all eat at Burger King and forget that there are children in slavery here.

I miss Yoko almost as much as I miss Tom.

Thai Enlightenment Tour, Late Day 2

The Buddha is everywhere in Thailand — everywhere but my heart.

I couldn't see the Grand Palace because my clothes weren't "polite" enough. Tell me, does his majesty shower in pants?

I walked and walked.

I hate haggling for shoes, but I like having shoes.

And I was wrong: I miss Tom almost as much as I miss Yoko.

16 October 2005

Thailand Elightenment Tour, Early Day 1

I am now in Bangkok, full of joy and giggles and all that. I have not as of yet a) gotten sick due to drinking the water although give me a couple of hours or b) been propositioned for sex by a gay man posing as a woman. Neither of these things are really a part of my goals for enlightenment in Bangkok, but we'll see how things progress.

The place I am staying at is pretty nice — I'm using the internet so I can't really complain. It's a little more expensive than I had hoped: $7 a night rather than $5, but this is marginal. I have my dorm room to myself more or less.

Tokyo was fabulous again. I got to Shinjuku at five yesterday morning and just sort of watched the whole city wake up from a top the McDonalds. The trains don't run that late in the city so that early in the morning, groups of people are still stumbling home and whatnot. A kind of hungover beauty.

Yoko asked me if I was looking for a wife in Thailand and I said that I wasn't. I think my international wife search committee has stopped taking applications, at least for the time being. We'll see how things pan out.

For now, there is hot sweaty Bangkok to wander about, so please, hold my seat until I get back.

13 October 2005

Deleted things

All sorts of things have happened the last couple of days, but I haven't had the heart to write about them. I'm reading about genre analysis which is interesting enough and also starting to think about my first paper for my first MA module. I think things will come together by the end of the month.

My dad's coming to Japan for the third time and bringing my bike. He will also be the first member of my family to meet Yoko, and maybe the only member to meet her before things get any more serious in all the most wicked and terrible ways.

Speaking of wicked and terrible ways, I'm going to Thailand tomorrow to see, you know, what Thai people are up to. I'm staying next to this weekend market that sells snakes and chickens. So I might buy a chicken.

Which brings me to a new hypothesis that McDonalds is screwing poor people, hardcore. Before I talk about the reasons I think this, I need to do a quick survey: did you enjoy going to McDonalds when you were an impressionable young lad or lass? Why?

(Rant about Fundamentalist Christians and evolution deleted after further thought.)

(Rant about Oprah deleted after further thought.)

Now, I'm not sure why I care so much about that.

I'm trying to decide what hill I'm willing to die on.

09 October 2005

Stephen needs an advocate

I had a hankering to make a list and Lutz came to the rescue: a list of things Stephen needs from Google:

1. Stephen needs an advocate at school to work with him on at least two occasions.
2. Stephen needs a wordprocessor.
3. Stephen needs a working plan that will be straightforward and easy to implement.
4. Stephen Needs Some Success.
5. Stephen needs to unravel the secrets and disturbances of his life.
6. Stephen needs shooting.
7. Stephen needs the assistance of a good civilian lawyer.
8. Stephen needs structure and direction.
9. Stephen needs round-the clock medical care.
10. Stephen needs constant attention and my parents always have to chase after him.
11. Stephen needs to take Warfarin every day.
12. Stephen needs all the love and support he can get.
13. Stephen needs a "street person" like Bloom the bourgeoisie, whose home is as much on the avenues and pubs of Dublin as in the house of Eccles Street.
14. Stephen needs to tell us very much here.
15. Stephen needs a bottle opener, quick!
16. Stephen needs a ride and needs a room.
17. Stephen needs to look after his skin.
18. Stephen needs Q-tips.
19. Stephen needs to think about his physical presence whilst singing so that the communication is complete.
20. Stephen needs a bit more time to prove he's as good as Ronan.
21. Stephen needs to look a little deeper than 1950's Aramaic assumptions.
22. Stephen needs help in geometry.
23. Stephen needs me here to take care of him.
24. Methinks Stephen needs to brush up on both reading and spelling.
25. Stephen needs to do it.
26. Stephen needs to be seen by a doctor for clinical depression.
27. Stephen needs help in boarding any vessel.

05 October 2005

My readings this week

My readings this week have been on cohesion in texts and how we acheive it through any number of rather complicated means that we take for granted as native speakers (most of us). You start thinking about the circus of assumptions and connections and inferences you make just by reading a simple sentence and before you know it, you're really impressed with the human race in general. Well, the parts of the humans race that have written languages. The rest of those illiterate losers can go screw themselves as far as I'm concerned.

In my classes this week, I've been really amazed at how difficult (and ambigious) pronouns are. Observe:

"I pulled out a lavender handkerchief and handed it to her. 'Did Grandma ever tell you the story behind this one?' I asked. 'It was one of her favorites.'"

We had a good discussion about the meaning of "it" in the last line. Does "it" refer to the story or the handkerchief? The Japanese teacher said "it" referred to the story. I argued that is referred to the handkerchief. But what made me think that?

I think the phrase "this one" helps us understand that the "it" is clearly referring to the handkerchief. We generally try to avoid two ambigious pronouns because of the confusion it causes. In this case, it seems to me that if "this one" referred to the hnadkerchief while "it" referred to the story, it would be a mistake on the part of the author because it is natural to assume that "it" is the handkerchief.

It's sort of like this sentence, "Bill had the ball and Jim was on the other side of the room. He threw the ball to him," where even though their is a double pronoun usage, we are able to deduce their meaning from the situation. Of course, if we said, "Bill and Jim were playing catch. He threw the ball to him" we would have all sorts of problems in figuring out what was happening.

::Stephen steps off linguistics turtle::

You know, GW had it right on with John Roberts. That dude was sexy. The sexiest Supreme Court Justice in a long time. But this new what's-her-face? Not doing it for me, George. Couldn't we just send John Roberts through the whole thing again and just give him two votes? That seems like the easiest and sexiest solution.

Also, for some reason, my ability to speak Japanese in the last three weeks has just bottomed out. I'm like an idiot all over again. It's particularly frustrating as now I have a really, really good reason to have to speak Japanese everyday (yeah, she's great, isn't she?), but for some reason I can't understand anything. Please, someone, get me a hormone shot.

03 October 2005

Letter to Derek Webb

In the midst of working on that essay for Mr. Hunt, I took Tim up on his challenge to write to this CCM artist, Derek Webb. Read the lyrics to his song here. What follows is my letter to him:

Mr. Webb:

I should say first that I have never actually listened to any of your music and I suppose that this makes me a poor critic of your work. But after a friend posted lyrics to your song “Wedding Dress” on his blog and I made a critical comment about your lyrics, he suggested I write you myself. To be frank, I would rather not write this letter, but it doesn’t make much sense to simply bad-mouth your song and not take the opportunity to hear from you as an artist. What I originally wrote on my friend's blog follows:

"I find it interesting that Christian literature and art likes to champion the idea of the 'whore' or the loose woman, as opposed to the loose man. This kind of thinly-veiled misogyny isn't helpful for our discourse at all, I don't think. It may convey an idea that we (vaguely) understand (although I haven't met a lot of prostitutes lately), but at what cost. We may glean a meaning about Christ, but at the expense of taking in a thought (conscientiously or unconscientiously) that is damaging towards our discourse about women. Please, let's not be haters.

Also, does this dude really feel this way, or is he just pulling some idea out of the box that is vaguely 'Biblical' to sell records? There's not an original thought here, best I can see. And that tells me a brother is trying to make some money by cashing in on what people think they know about the text."

In retrospect, I think I regretted saying that this song was written to sell records because I certainly have no idea why you write or don't write songs. So I apologize for that. As far as my complaint about the content of your lyrics, I suppose if I knew I was going to send this to you, I would have said it differently, but this is all a practice in owning what I say about others so I will have to let it stand.

I think I want to restate my complaint in a little bit more of an intellectual manner and hopefully, if you have the time, interest, or whatever, hear your response. I will drop my complaint about misogyny because that is a larger question I have with the text and isn't, in retrospect, the main problem I had with the song.

You may remember at the end of the 90's and the early '00's a heavy metal band from Iowa called Slipknot. Slipknot appeared right around the time when people were starting to not be afraid of Marilyn Manson anymore. Slipknot wore (and maybe still do wear) masks and were all-around a frightening group of young men. The kind of people you might avoid at the mall.

I found the lyrics to the second song off of their second album to be particularly interesting in understanding the band and the genre of music in general. In "Disasterpiece," the lead singer shouts, "I wanna slit your throat and fuck the wound." I remember being initially repulsed by this lyric and wondering how the band could get away with singing this. What had the world come to?

Of course, the members of Slipknot don't actually engage in this sort of activity (as far as I know they are only as bad as your average rock star), but Slipknot understands that by saying this sort of ridiculously violent nonsense, they are able to turn parents against their music which in turn causes teenagers to want their music even more which in turn sells records. None of the members of Slipknot, I imagine, are interested in killing anyone. They are interested in selling records and tailor their music to cause controversy not out of artistic integrity, but market savy. They are excellent marketers.

This is a really round-about way to get to what I want to talk about, but I think the point is that artistic integrity suffers when artists choose to lean on images, phrases, or thoughts that are known to cause the intended reaction as opposed to honestly trying to create art that is true to themselves or their true feelings one way or another.

This is the pervasive problem in Christian music, I think. There are plenty of songs out there, that in the end, spend most of their lyrical energy on words that are meaningless or dead in modern usage, but which appeal to a "Christian" or "Biblical" sensibility. As an example, I might mention any song referring to eagles soaring. roses being trampled, oceans roaring, or hailing a King. Certainly, all these phrases have time and place, but it seems to me that for the most part, our 21st century American culture has no interest in or understanding of these terms. It's not a bad thing—we just use different images these days to convey those thoughts.

The problem is when artists insist on pulling phrases out of the Bible boxes and stringing them together to make any sort of nonsense, that when coupled with a D-A-Bm-G-A-D progression allows singers of the songs to "experience God." Unfortunately, I'm burnt out.

This leads me to your song which, what I think I wanted to say to my friend Tim, appeals to a dead sense of purity. A white dress is a dead symbol. A repentant whore is something different in our discourse (I might point to the incredible drug film "Requiem for a Dream" here. There are many others that don't come to mind at this time). The whore of Jesus' day is something that we vaguely understand, but there has got to be a better image that our culture understands to convey this idea. We have all new signifiers and don't need to rely on what would have made sense in the 50's to make our music compelling.

An artist I respect a great deal, David Bazan from the band "Pedro the Lion," has said, "The message is degraded when it's made into slogans and low-level propaganda. They're attempting to reach a certain audience just like advertisers do -- and that, ultimately, degrades the art."

So in the end, I guess I honestly wanted to ask if you feel like a whore? And if you honestly do, how do you know what a whore feels like? I understand in all of this I could be very, very wrong and you could have written this song from the darkest place in your heart and were entirely true to yourself as an artist in writing it. Certainly, if that is true, I withdraw my complaint and apologize for being so contentious.

Thanks for taking the time to read this letter which has become far too long. I wish you the best in your art and look forward to hearing from you.

Stephen Pihlaja
Niigata City, Japan

02 October 2005

Jusco message chairs and carrots

I spent the day with a my three favorite people in Japan right now: the missionary Jim, Yoko, and Neal. Together, we make quite a set. I'm not really sure how Yoko managed to put up with four hours of me calling Neil a muthafucka, Jim twisting my nipple, and our constant complaints about Japanese culture. That said, we did get a lot of stares, Jim with his beard, Neil with his almost 2 meter frame, and me and Yoko holding hands. We were like a circus. The best part was when we all hit the massage chairs in Jusco. People actually pointed at us. Incredible. We spent part of the day at Jim's church too, playing music (sort of) and sharing our thoughts on what a "promise" was. I got a picture of Charlie Brown totally putting his heart out on the line in English and Japanese.

Let's talk clauses.

Think about these two sentences: "The jungle is very humid and hot. Plants grow easily in the jungle." Compare with: "Because the jungle is very humid and hot, plants grow easily in the jungle." Which sentence (or two sentences) would you say is (are) easier to understand? Which (one) give(s) us the most clear relation between humidity and heat in the jungle and the effect of plants growing?

I think the answer to question two is pretty clear (the one sentence with the clause-joining word "because"), but I am not so sure about the first. The reading I am doing talked about how children's books sometimes remove clause relation words in an effort to simplify the text, but the author wondered if this was indeed making the story easier to understand or just complicating things by forcing the child to deduce the relationship by themselves.

That's a good question: how do you deduce the relationship between the two sentences in the first example without the help of a clause-relating word? Do you draw on your previous knowledge of heat, humidity, and plant-growing (which you learned by growing Cannabis in the basement)? Or is there something happening in the sentence that implies a cause-effect relationship? I'll be honest, this one has me stumped. I think I am currently leaning towards thinking that we just know the relationship based on past experience, but I'm not really sure.

All this thinking makes me want to eat a carrot.