Charlotte Brontë, feminist

The Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, originally published under gender-ambiguous pseudonyms, as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Ellis Bell’s Wuthering Heights was republished under Emily Brontë’s real name shortly after her death. At the beginning, Charlotte Brontë wrote a biographical note on Emily and Anne, now both dead. It included this note on their choice of pseudonyms:

Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality and, for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.

The biographical note is followed by an editor’s preface, also by Charlotte Brontë. Talking about the qualities of constancy and tenderness in the characters of the novel, she wrote,

Some people will think these qualities do not shine so well incarnate in a man as they would do in a woman, but Ellis Bell could never be brought to comprehend this notion: nothing moved her more than any insinuation that the faithfulness and clemency, the long-suffering and loving kindness which are esteemed virtues in the daughters of Eve, become foibles in the sons of Adam. She held that mercy and forgiveness are the divinest attributes of the Great Being who made both man and woman, and that what clothes the Godhead in glory, can disgrace no form of feeble humanity.

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Female Wizards on the Discworld

I have a theory about female wizards on the Discworld, which is just about possible to defend on the basis of the first three books (The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites), but which also owes something to much later ones (The Last Continent and Unseen Academicals).

Unseen University is the Discworld’s premier college of magic (in its own mind, at least); not the only one. We already know there are wizards on Krull, which is almost completely separate from the rest of the Disc. We know that at least one of them (Marchessa) was female, and that this was not remarked on.

Buggarup University in XXX is another example of a separate college of magic, though it too is all-male.

In Unseen Academicals, we see that in fact Unseen University has rivals not only in places separated from the rest of the Disc, but also on the main supercontinent. The UU Dean has just set one up in Quirm; there’s a visiting professor from one in Genua; and I recall hints that there are others, with long-standing rivalries between them. (And Ponder Stibbons can play academic politics as well as anyone, thank you very much!)

We also see that there are differences in academic culture. UU wizards must be celibate (there’s a hint in The Colour of Magic (and again in Sourcery) that it’s only straight sex which is outlawed, but the possibilities thereby left open are never explored. This does not appear to be the case in Genua. When Ridcully heard that a Genuan wizard had been “named in divorce proceedings”, he just assumed that the Genuans didn’t prohibit their wizards having sex with women. He had to be explicitly told that in this case it was gay sex.

So UU has a “straight sex explicitly outlawed” and “gay sex doesn’t happen, does it?” culture, but accepts that other universities have different cultures. The one in Krull even accepts women, and did even before Esk’s time. Maybe others do too? Maybe, in fact, UU is the sole remaining holdout?


Experts and Expertese

I have a great deal of respect for experts. Actual, real, honest-to-goodness experts. The people who have written theses. The people who put massive amounts of work into coming up with original ideas, then do their very best to poke holes in them before publishing them. The people who will graciously admit defeat when they’re proven to be wrong, and will carry on working, carry on developing new ideas. I have a great deal of respect for the scientific method and for scientists themselves. And I know it doesn’t always work like that, but it does often enough.

And what really annoys me, what really gets me going, is seeing that respect misappropriated by “psychic healers” and similar bullshit artists. Those people dream up ideas which sound good, but are disdainful of the tools humanity has painstakingly developed over centuries for checking whether ideas are true. In fact, in many cases, they seem to not even care whether or not their ideas are true. It is dispiriting to see such people given respect that is not their due.

The utter contempt these scam artists have for the real experts, the people who put their life’s work into working out how the world really works, is the rudeness.

And besides all that, there’s the issue of how dangerous these people can be. Should I mention vaccines?

This entire blog post is under the license CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere, as long as you link back.

Why did Thorongil warn Ecthelion against the White Wizard?

I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings. Appendix A, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers”, tells us that Aragorn son of Arathorn spent part of his youth in Minas Tirith under the assumed name “Thorongil” serving under Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor.

Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey.

Appendix B, “The Tale of Years”, tells us,

2957-80 Aragorn undertakes his great journeys and errantries. As Thorongil he serves in disguise both Thengel of Rohan and Ecthelion II of Gondor.
10th July 3018 Gandalf imprisoned in Orthanc.
18th September 3018 Gandalf escapes from Orthanc in the early hours.
25th October 3018 Council of Elrond.

Saruman’s treachery was not clear to anyone before the dispute with Gandalf in July 3018. And Aragorn did not learn of it till he and Gandalf met again in Rivendell in October. So why was Aragorn already suspicious of Saruman roughly 40 years earlier?

I asked this question a while ago on Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange. I got a few good answers. Here’s the one I selected as the best, from Peter Turner:

Not sure where this is in the annals, but it says in the Tolkien Companion by J.E.A Tyler

Saruman made his first deliberate move in this direction (toward imposing his will, which was forbidden of the Istari) in the year 2759 Third Age, when he appeared at the Coronation of King Frealaf of Rohan, successor of the mighty Helm Hammerhand. The Wizard brough with him rich presents, and declared himself the friend of Rohan and gondor, and a little later was able to persuade Steward Beren of Gondor to grant him the Keys of Orthanc, the mighty Tower which, together with its fortress of Isengard, commanded the strategic Gap of Rohan. All thought this was a welcome move.

All, that is, except a weary ranger who would see everything given up by Gondor as a challenge to its power.

And it further says that

all the time the Wizard was secretly searching the Tower of Orthanc for a long-lost treasure of the Dunedain … the Palantír of Orthanc.

Then in 2851 the White Council met to think of ways to stop Sauron from coming back

Saruman, hoping that the Ring would expose its location if Sauron were left unharassed, deliberately overruled a strong recommendation (from Gandalf) … that Dol Guldur be attacked.

By his actions, Gandalf may have suspected that Saruman was up to something, although I don’t think Gandalf even knew of the ring.

So, either through his own understanding of the Palantír through the lore of his people or through his association with Gandalf, Aragorn was more naturally suspicious than Gandalf and I think it makes sense that he’d know something was amiss well before anyone else had reason to suspect.

You can read Peter’s answer and all the others at SF&F SE. This entire blog post, both my own writing and the section I quoted from Peter, is under the license CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.


Tu Chu asked a question on Stack Overflow:

I am developing a game for the iOS (and later for Android) devices which needs to get data from a database on a server. What I have done so far is to use PHP to echo out the data from the database as XML. The program will check often with the server so performance is a big deal here. So, would JSON or XML be better for this task?

Well, which is better? I don’t know. It depends on the specific use case, and we don’t have enough detail to answer that question. And this, indeed, is what I said:

Produce XML output. Check the time taken and the file size.

Produce JSON output. Check the time taken and the file size.

Decide which is best.

What more could I say?

When Alice asked a more general question on Programmers Stack Exchange, I was able to say more.

Alice asked,

How important is it to learn XML when JSON is able to do almost all that I need? Having said that, I use JSON mainly for AJAX requests and obtaining data from various APIs. I am a total newbie to web development and the reason I am asking this is that I want to know whether I should go ahead and buy a book on XML or whether I can just give it a pass.

Well, while XML and JSON do have overlaps in use-cases, they are actually very different languages with very different design goals, so I replied,

XML definitely outshines JSON for markup (which is, after all, hinted at in the name).

I wouldn’t like to see a random XHTML page converted into JSON format. It would be horrible. OpenOffice and the latest editions of Microsoft Office all use compressed XML as their format of choice.

As a general rule: Markup goes in XML; structured data goes in JSON.

That’s when you’re outputting data and have full control yourself over the format. If you’re outputting data according to industry standards, or consuming other people’s data, you may need to use XML even in places where JSON would seem more appropriate. That’s because XML is longer established and has been used in many standards.

License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.

How can I send 100,000 e-mails weekly?


That really is the simplest answer.

On Stack Overflow, xRobot asked for guidance on setting up a system which would send 100,000 e-mails every week to a variety of addresses. This is, actually, quite tricky, as was demonstrated in Piskvor‘s rather awesome answer. Here it is:

Short answer: While it’s technically possible to send 100k e-mails each week yourself, the simplest, easiest and cheapest solution is to outsource this to one of the companies that specialize in it (I did say “cheapest”: there’s no limit to the amount of development time (and therefore money) that you can sink into this when trying to DIY).

Long answer: If you decide that you absolutely want to do this yourself, prepare for a world of hurt (after all, this is e-mail/e-fail we’re talking about). You’ll need:

  • e-mail content that is not spam (otherwise you’ll run into additional major roadblocks on every step, even legal repercussions);
  • in addition, your content should be easy to distinguish from spam — that may be a bit hard to do in some cases (I heard that a certain pharmaceutical company had to all but abandon e-mail, as their brand names are quite common in spam mailings);
  • a configurable SMTP server of your own — one which won’t buckle when you dump 100k e-mails onto it (your ISP’s upstream server won’t be sufficient here and you’ll make the ISP violently unhappy; we used two dedicated boxes);
  • some mail wrapper (e.g. PhpMailer if PHP’s your poison of choice; using PHP’s mail() is horrible enough by itself);
  • your own sender function to run in a loop, create the mails and pass them to the wrapper (note that you may run into PHP’s memory limits if your app has a memory leak; you may need to recycle the sending process periodically, or even better, decouple the “creating e-mails” and “sending e-mails” altogether).

Surprisingly, that was the easy part. The hard part is actually sending it:

  • Some servers will ban you when you send too many mails close together, so you need to shuffle and watch your queue (e.g. send one mail to, then three to other domains, only then another to
  • You need to have correct PTR, SPF, DKIM records.
  • You need to handle remote server timeouts, misconfigured DNS records, and other network pleasantries.
  • You need to handle invalid e-mails (and no, regex is the wrong tool for that).
  • You need to handle unsubscriptions (many legitimate newsletters have been reclassified as spam due to many frustrated users who couldn’t unsubscribe in one step and instead chose to “mark as spam” — the spam filters do learn, especially with large e-mail providers).
  • You need to handle bounces and rejects (“no such mailbox”; “mailbox full”).
  • You need to handle blacklisting and removal from blacklists. (Sure, you’re not sending spam. Some recipients won’t be so sure — with such large list, it will happen sometimes, no matter what precautions you take. Some people (e.g., your not-so-scrupulous competitors) might even go as far to falsely report your mailings as spam — it does happen. On average, it takes weeks to get yourself removed from a blacklist.)

And to top it off, you’ll have to manage the legal part of it (various federal, state, and local laws; and even different tangles of laws once you send outside the U.S. (note: you have no way of finding out whether lives in Southwest Elbonia, the country with world’s most draconian antispam laws)).

I’m pretty sure I missed a few heads of this hydra — are you still sure you want to do this yourself? If so, there’ll be another wave, this time merely the annoying problems inherent in sending an e-mail. (You see, SMTP is a store-and-forward protocol, which means that your e-mail will be shuffled across many SMTP servers around the Internet, in the hope that the next one is a bit closer to the final recipient. Basically, the e-mail is sent to an SMTP server, which puts it into its forward queue; when time comes, it will forward it further to a different SMTP server, until it reaches the SMTP server for the given domain. This forward could happen immediately, or in a few minutes, or hours, or days, or never.) Thus, you’ll see the following issues — most of which could happen en route as well as at the destination:

  • The remote SMTP servers don’t want to talk to your SMTP server.
  • Your mails are getting marked as spam (<blink> is not your friend here, nor is <font color=...>).
  • Your mails are delivered days, even weeks late (contrary to popular opinion, SMTP is designed to make a best effort to deliver the message sometime in the future — not to deliver it now).
  • Your mails are not delivered at all (already sent from e-mail server on hop #4, not sent yet from server on hop #5, the server that currently holds the message crashes, data is lost).
  • Your mails are mangled by some poorly designed server en route (this one is somewhat solvable with base64 encoding, but then the size goes up and the e-mail looks more suspicious).
  • Your mails are delivered and the recipients seem not to want them (“I’m sure I didn’t sign up for this, I remember exactly what I did a year ago” (of course you do, sir)).
  • There are problems with users with various versions of Microsoft Outlook and its unique handling of Internet mail.
  • You hit wizard’s apprentice mode (a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop — in other words, automated e-mails as replies to automated e-mails as replies to…; you really don’t want to be the one to set this off, as you’d anger half the internet at yourself).

And it’ll be your job to troubleshoot and solve this (hint: you can’t, mostly). The people who run a legit mass-mailing businesses know that in the end you can’t solve it, and that they can’t solve it either — and they have the reasons well researched, documented and outlined (maybe even as a PowerPoint presentation — complete with sounds and cool transitions — that your bosses can understand), as they’ve had to explain this a million times before. Plus, for the problems that are actually solvable, they know very well how to solve them.

If, after all this, you are not discouraged and still want to do this, go right ahead: it’s even possible that you’ll find a better way to do this. Just know that the road ahead won’t be easy — sending e-mail is trivial, getting it delivered is hard.

I’ve rewritten that slightly to tweak the grammar and to avoid a couple of unnecessary and potentially triggering metaphors. As good as it is, it’s not the last word on the subject. Here’s more advice, from splattne, on how not to be marked as a spammer:

Be sure that your e-mails don’t look like typical spam e-mails: don’t insert only a large image; check that the character-set is set correctly; don’t insert “IP-address only” links. Write your communication as you would write a normal e-mail. Make it really easy to unsubscribe or opt-out. Otherwise, your users will unsubscribe by pressing the “spam” button, and that will affect your reputation.

On the technical side: if you can choose your SMTP server, be sure it is a “clean” SMTP server. IP addresses of spamming SMTP servers are often blacklisted by other providers. If you don’t know your SMTP servers in advance, it’s a good practice to provide configuration options in your application for controlling batch sizes and delay between batches. Some mail servers don’t accept large sending batches or continuous activity.

Use e-mail authentication methods, such as SPF, and Domain Keys to prove that your emails and your domain name belong together. The nice side-effect is you help in preventing that your email domain is spoofed. Also check your reverse DNS to make sure the IP address of your mail server points to the domain name that you use for sending mail.

Make sure that the reply-to address of your emails are a valid, existing addresses. Use the full, real name of the addressee in the To field, not just the email-address (e.g. "John Doe" <> ) and monitor your abuse accounts, such as and

Of course, on the other end, it’s also important to protect against spam coming in.

The copyright for the two essays quoted above rests with their original authors. They were originally published on Stack Overflow and Super User, respectively. Both of those essays, and this entire blog post, are under the license CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.

Am I small-minded?

This thought occurred to me just last night:

There are some opinions I understand and agree with. They are based on arguments and presuppositions which make sense to me, and which seem to me reasonable and well supported.

There are some opinions I disagree with. The arguments in their favour seem to me lacking in some way, perhaps by being based on presuppositions which I do not share, or perhaps due to a failure in logical reasoning from those presuppositions.

There are some opinions I disagree with completely. The arguments in their favour are non-existent, or are based on presuppositions so completely alien to my mind that I simply cannot make sense of them, or follow a chain of logical reasoning which I cannot grasp.

It occurred to me last night that the middle set, the arguments which seem lacking, but not fundamentally unreasonable or utterly incomprehensible, is a quite likely to be a reasonably good proxy for how open-minded we are. (Compare Aristotle’s dictum that it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. What I’m saying is not quite the same thing, but it is a related concept.) It also occurred to me that, for me, the middle set of ideas is, actually, rather small. I find it quite hard to get my head around conservative politics; I find it very difficult to understand or communicate with people who are uninterested in scientific evidence for or against the types of medicine they advocate; and I often find religious concepts difficult to grasp (which last is especially odd, given that I was raised religious).

So, how worried should I be about that?

License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.

Do Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own version of the Bible?

Jehovah’s Witnesses use the standard 66-book Protestant Bible, but usually use their own translation thereof (they do reference other translations from time to time, but generally use The New World Translation). It’s fair to say that the NWT is quite, let’s say, distinctive in places, and has received a fair amount of criticism. The Witnesses do not in any way claim that the translation of the NWT was inspired by God, and are happy to argue their doctrines from other translations if you ask them to. (Indeed, they did so for many years before the release of the NWT, and continue to do so in languages which do not yet have a version of the NWT.)

Here are some of the distinctive features of the New World Translation.

In the specific case of John 1:1, which is always brought up in discussions of the translation philosophy of the NWT, it’s probably fair to say that the Greek is a little ambiguous, and the NWT rendering is defensible. They do, of course, provide a footnote and an appendix article on the subject in The New World Translation — with References.

The terminology is slightly different: what is commonly called the “Old Testament” the Witnesses (and the NWT) call the “Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures”; what is commonly called the “New Testament” they call the “Christian Greek Scriptures” (the word Christian is intended to prevent any possible confusion with the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). This is, arguably, more neutral terminology than the usual. I like it.

The Greek text of the New World Translation is the Westcott and Hort master text, not the Textus Receptus used by the King James Version. There’s a certain amount of dispute in Bible translation circles about which text is better. (The NWT is far from the only translation based on the Westcott and Hort text.) Textus Receptus is based on the majority of ancient manuscripts found. Westcott and Hort is based on fewer, but older, manuscripts. The argument in favour of W&H is simply that older manuscripts are probably better. The argument in favour of TR is that the Bible was copied very carefully and the few old texts which happened to survive merely because they were in Egypt, which has a better climate for this kind of thing, were probably inferior copies. Some also claim that if W&H was the better text, God wouldn’t have allowed it to be lost for so many thousands of years. All of this debate (and yes, I have read a book on the subject, firmly in favour of the Textus Receptus and the related Majority Text) is rendered somewhat moot by the fact that most theologians say that few of the differences between the various Greek texts are theologically meaningful. Footnotes reference other texts and ancient translations (including the Vulgate and Syriac translations) in places, but in general the translation is based on W&H.

(The Hebrew text is far more standard. The NWT uses the Masoretic Text, just like almost everyone else. The footnotes of NWT Ref occasionally reference the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and various Syriac translations, but in general they use the Masoretic.)

One of the distinctive features of the NWT is the use of the name Jehovah. The Tetragrammaton (four-letter name of God) appears multiple times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Many translations render this as LORD, following the Jewish practice of not pronouncing the Divine Name (though the Jews do write the name in their scriptures). The Jerusalem Bible renders the name as Yahweh, which is a scholarly “best guess” at the original pronunciation. The Witnesses use Jehovah, which is almost certainly not the original pronunciation, but is the traditional rendering in English, found in both religious and secular books for many many years. Certainly including some form of the name is more accurate than bowdlerising it.

One of the even more distinctive, and certainly less defensible, features of the NWT is that they also use the name Jehovah in the Greek Scriptures, although it is not found there in any extant manuscript. When the Greek text quotes the Septuagint, they reinsert the name (yes, reinsert, as they maintain that it was there originally). Certainly there do exist editions of the Septuagint which contain the untranslated and untransliterated tetragrammaton, and others which render the divine name as Pipi, suggesting that they were copied from an earlier version which contained the original tetragrammaton, the Hebrew letters of which look a little like the Greek letters for Pipi. (I now feel the need for a fantasy novel in which God is called Pipi. It’s a wonderful name.)

However, NWT includes the divine name in other places too. Sometimes support comes from the existance of the tetragrammaton in Hebrew translations of the Christian Greek Scriptures (some of those Hebrew translations used for support are actually fairly recent, so any support they offer is tenuous at best). The name Jehovah occurs many times in the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, each time accomapied by a footnote and an explanation of the rational in NWT Ref.

In general, the footnotes and appendices in NWT Ref are about the mechanics of translation, not theology. They are about tricky linguistic points and textual variants.

Originally published on Christianity Stack Exchange. License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.

What does it mean for a priest to ‘lose faith’?

Alex asks an interesting question on Christianity Stack Exchange, and gets an answer which is well worth repeating here. The answer is from Affable Geek, a Christian minister.

Here’s his meditation on losing faith:

In short, it sucks. It sucks eggs. Really. It’s like believing the Gospel, but not having any grace to go with it.

The biggest problem with “losing one’s faith” is that your moral compass remains unchanged. Unlike what I suspect many can do — namely ignore their own internal compass — priests are, by and large, a self-selected lot. People who are attracted to the priestly vocations have a strong sense of right and wrong, and at least in my case, I have a physical reaction to it. At the risk of having too graphic an image, when I act in a way that is contrary to my internal sense of ethics (call it the opposite of integrity), I feel that pain in my stomach that is felt when you need to throw up, but can’t. My heart pounds, my stomach turns, and I feel ill. Stressed seems so quaint a term. Trust me, its physical.

Jeremiah 20:9 has the prophet telling God:

But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.

For many of us, real honesty is fundamental to that integrity. We cannot preach that which we do not believe, lest that feeling arise. Were losing that honesty and commitment to transparency and integrity something that was lost along with one’s belief, it would be easy. We would merely be actors playing a part. Being a charlatan or a hypocrite would have no hold on us. But no, sadly, if its your job to preach and minister, you still have to do it.

I would suggest that there are three categories of “losing one’s faith,” and there are different effects of each. Hebrews 11:6 says,

“Who ever would come to God must

  1. believe that he exists and
  2. believe he rewards those who do good.”

Using that verse as an outline, I would suggest that as Tolstoy said, “Happy [Christians] are all happy alike. But miserable [Christians] are each miserable in their own way.”

  • Category 1 would be what is often called “the long, dark night of the soul.”Many Christian leaders, from Mother Teresa to Billy Graham, echo the sentiment of the Middle Ages mystic who describe a period in which God seems to simply be silent. In these cases, the work of ministry is merely a drudge, devoid of the music that God brings. I would argue this is the least “bad” of the categories of losing one’s faith. No one suggests that God is anything but silent. Your moral compass remains, your theology is intact, and your ministry can continue as leader and teacher. Individually, it just becomes a matter of work like anything else. You do what you need to do, you don’t violate your conscience, and you just eagerly anticipate God’s return, both in your life and the next.
  • Category 1b would be the full-on rejection of God’s existence.NPR had an amazingly good story about a Methodist minister who became an atheist. In that story, she describes the same gut-wrenching feeling that I describe, and speaks of the consequences in her life. She describes how she came to the rationalization that God is a myth. (If you will forgive the commentary, it seems a natural extension of too cereberal and metaphorical a faith. It can be a very natural progression from mythic to myth.) In her case, she got up and addressed a convention of atheists, much to the applause of that body, but was then somehow astonished that her temporal boss — the Methodist bishop, fired her. Grant you, if I spoke glowingly about a competitor’s product at the competitor’s function and urged everyone to ditch my own company in favor of the competition, I would expect to be fired too, but I digress. The point is in that instance, she was able to find both solace and connection in a new group of “believers” (albeit atheist believers), and restore her sense of integrity. For her, “losing her faith” was simply a job change, and in this day and age, job changes are easy.

    In my case as a Baptist minister who found himself desiring a stronger liturgy, changing from the Baptist denomination to the Episcopal one was fairly easy. I could preach as I wanted, and I could continue to minister. Different clothes but the same God. It doesn’t turn your world upside down to modify your faith. It’s different when it breaks.

  • Category 2 is the one that sucks the most. It says, “God exists, but he is not good.”That is my current dilemma. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the circumstances of my life have made it increasingly difficult to believe that God is good. I can only hold on secure in the knowledge that I am not yet ready to “curse God and die,” but I’m beginning to like Job’s wife a lot more than Job.

    You see, it’s real work to maintain a love for a God whom you secretly hate. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. When a minister loses his faith, the job is the easy part. Pastors, of course, tend to find alternative employment. (I know of one who, after leaving his wife — my college friend and a girl I considered marrying! — became a used car salesman. Talk about about transferrable skills!) They do this because they cannot be honest with themselves in ministry.

    No, the hard part isn’t the money but the music. You see, for me, God’s love is like music. I can live without it, but life lacks color. It lacks joy. I know in turning my back on Him, I turn my back on myself too. I lack purpose, I lack … music. I am left only with that gnawing pit in my stomach: Insufficent to expurgate, but sufficient to cause distress. Were I able to deny the existence of God, I could rewrite my life. Absent that, I left in a state of limbo that churns against my very core.

    In my case, I console myself with the last lines of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The hymn writer himself was once a pastor, but also gave it up to, in his words, “chase after worldly things.” He so eloquently phrases it:

    Prone to wander, Lord I feel it — Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it to thy courts above!

    If only, I think. If only. You can imagine how much it sucks to know the music, and yet be bereft of the assurance that it will come to pass. I personally tend to “blow hot and cold,” preaching to myself (really the main I reason I preach!) the goodness of God, hoping only that I can convince myself of that fact. If only I were a better preacher 🙂

So that, my friend, is what it means to lose one’s faith. It is to choose a personal hell in which you get hit on both sides. You become your own worst enemy, and you cannot rest.

If you will forgive the Ferris Beueller riff, “I most heartily do not recommend it.”

Copyright Affable GeekOriginally published on Christianity Stack Exchange. License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.

Abram and Sarai made a mistake, twice


There was a famine in the land. Abram went down into Egypt to live as a foreigner there, for the famine was severe in the land. When he had come near to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman to look at. It will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will kill me, but they will save you alive. Please say that you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that my soul may live because of you.”

When Abram had come into Egypt, Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. The princes of Pharaoh saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. He dealt well with Abram for her sake. He had sheep, cattle, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. Yahweh afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this that you have done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now therefore, see your wife, take her, and go your way.”

— Genesis 12:10-19, World English Bible

And then,

Abraham traveled from there toward the land of the South, and lived between Kadesh and Shur. He lived as a foreigner in Gerar. Abraham said about Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken. For she is a man’s wife.”

Now Abimelech had not come near her. He said, “Lord, will you kill even a righteous nation? Didn’t he tell me, ‘She is my sister?’ She, even she herself, said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands have I done this.”

God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also withheld you from sinning against me. Therefore I didn’t allow you to touch her. Now therefore, restore the man’s wife. For he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you will live. If you don’t restore her, know for sure that you will die, you, and all who are yours.”

Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ear. The men were very scared. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done!” Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you have done this thing?”

Abraham said, “Because I thought, ‘Surely the fear of God is not in this place. They will kill me for my wife’s sake.’ Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. When God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is your kindness which you shall show to me. Everywhere that we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

Abimelech took sheep and cattle, male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored Sarah, his wife, to him. Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you. Dwell where it pleases you.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. Behold, it is for you a covering of the eyes to all that are with you. In front of all you are vindicated.”

Abraham prayed to God. God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his female servants, and they bore children. For Yahweh had closed up tight all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

— Genesis 20:1-18, World English Bible

So, what gives? Did Abraham (Abram) and Sarah (Sarai) make the same mistake twice? Once again, Ron Maimon has interesting things to say. First, read his take on the authorship of Genesis, then come back here and read this essay about this specific incident.

Summary: It didn’t happen twice: it’s told twice (three times, actually). But the incest angle is interesting, and suggests that real history underlies the myth.

The following essay is quoted from Ron Maimon. Full details, attribution, and link are at the end of the post. Note that I do not consider myself qualified to comment on the veracity of this essay, but I do think it’s interesting.

The Genesis text is widely believed by modern secular scholars to have been put together from various traditions, compiled in at least two major independent narratives, which were merged to produce the final text. The merger is very rough, so that the two narratives may be easily distinguished, because one consistently uses the sacred name “Yahweh” to refer to God, and the other uses the more generic identifier “Elohim” (God) in Genesis and the early parts of Exodus.

To those who doubt this idea, the textual boundaries are sometimes glaringly obvious, as in Exodus 3:14, where the first 14 verses are Elohist, and the rest a Yahweh tack-on. In Exodus 6:2, God says to Moses that he did not reveal his name “Yahweh” to Abraham Isaac and Jacob, only to Moses. But this is contradicted by the Yahwist narrative in Genesis, where all the patriarchs reference Yahweh several times by name. For a nice Genesis example, consider the entire chapter of Genesis 39, which is a lovely Yahwist narrative about Joseph’s attempted seduction by his master’s wife, which ends with Joseph in jail. This chapter throws off the rest of the narrative, because in the rest, Joseph seems to be Potiphar’s servant throughout. The inconsistency is resolved in KJ by a stretched translation— which claims that Potiphar who is “Rosh Ha-tabachim” is actually the head of the guard. These examples are just those I noticed, but the arguments about this division date back to the 19th century, and it is universally accepted by secular Bible scholars today.

The two narratives have different and recognizably consistent authorial voices, indicative of at least two separate authors, both excellent writers. By the end of Exodus and throughout Leviticus, there is a third much less inspired author writing, who uses a legalistic language, full of unnecessary repetitions and pedantic double-speak, and narration, when it comes, is jarringly bad (like the first verses of Leviticus 10). This author is referred to as “Priestly”. Aside from J, E, and P, as the Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly authors are called, I could not clearly distinguish any other voices, although the academics sometimes do.

The narrative in Genesis 20 is an Elohist narrative, and it is just repeating a different tradition regarding the narrative in Genesis 12, which is Yahwist. The two narratives come from the same tale, but they differ in a few details. The distinguishing details are revealing, since it is here that one learns the most about Abram’s relation to Sarai. In the first narrative, Abraham tells Pharaoh that he was lying about Sarai being his sister. In the second narrative, Abraham says that Sarah is his half-sister.

This is very strange, since incestuous ancestry is most often used in the Pentateuch to indicate that a certain tribe is somehow cursed, or weakened, or inferior. Here, the implied incest is for the ancestors of the Hebrews, so it is really very striking— it suggests that there was a deep rooted tradition for Abram/Sarai being both brother/sister and husband/wife, a tradition that was able to survive transmutation through many retellings, even with the strong incest taboo that is evident in other parts of Genesis (Gen 35:21 & 49:4, 19:30-38).

On the internet, one finds a possible explanation. Abraham/Abram and Sarah/Sarai have a very striking parallel in Hindu mythology in the couple Brahma and Saraiswati, who are both brother and sister and husband and wife. The narrative parallel here has led some of the internet folks to suggest that the origin of the Hebrew religion is as a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism. According to John Newbrough’s book Oahspe Bible Part 2: A New Bible in the Words of Jehovih and His Angel Embassadors, Jesuits suggested the connection.

There is another monotheistic tradition which comes from the Persian region which is identified as Abraham’s birthplace, which is Zoroastrianism. The existence of different monotheistic traditions claiming to come from the same place suggests a common ancestry, and it could be a monotheistic Brahma cult. If you google “Brahma Saraiswati” you find lots of websites.

The sister/wife story is repeated a third time, with Isaac and Rebekah as the couple. This third repetition is in Genesis 26:7 and thereabouts. The third repetition is not as salient as the other two, but it suggests that different tribes assigned the same stories to different patriarchs. This uses Yahweh as God’s identifier.

Copyright Ron Maimon. Originally published on Christianity Stack Exchange. License: CC BY-SA 3.0. Feel free to repost elsewhere.