Fox Zealot Vs. Mainstream Aslan

Zealot - Reza AslanThe Fox News interview is Reza Aslan was interesting and fun. (For those that haven’t seen it, it is embedded below.) He was on to hock his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. And basically, the entire interview was about why a Muslim would write a book about Christianity. I understand why they approached Aslan and his book this way. The truth is that he was only being interviewed because according to conservative ideology the only interesting thing about the book was that Aslan is a Muslim. And really: who in the mainstream press is interested in New Testament scholarship?

What is sad about the current state of Biblical scholarship is that the field is overflowing with Christians. To me, there is no question that a Muslim can be a good Biblical scholar. But I have great questions as to whether any given Christian can be a good Biblical scholar. This isn’t to say that there aren’t Christian Biblical scholars who are good. In fact, there are great Christian biblical scholars. But there is a natural concern that these scholars will try to conform their scholarship to their religious beliefs. A Buddhist, for example, doesn’t have that problem.

The attitude on view at Fox News is typical. It is also an indictment of modern American Christianity. The way I see it is that “believers” are so insecure about the truth of their belief that they can’t brook any objective discussion of it. What’s funny about it is that such people think they are protecting the religion. But any objective viewer can see the terror in their attacks.

I haven’t read Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. What’s more, I have no intention of doing so. Based only on the title of the book, it sounds distinctly like well traveled territory. In particular, it sounds like John Dominic Crossan—himself a Roman Catholic. I don’t mean that as an insult. Crossan is brilliant. I just don’t see why I would read yet another book on biblical scholarship that says more or less what I already know.

Plus, in the interview, Aslan said something that I really disagree with. He said that there was no question that Jesus was crucified. There is very much a question about that! There are no non-Biblical sources for the Crucifixion. What’s more, the Crucifixion stories are not consistent. I think it takes a great will to assume that somehow there must be some historicity behind what are at least mostly legend. As Robert M. Price wrote in The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man:

One wonders if all these scholars came to a certain point and stopped, their assumption being, “If Jesus was a historical figure, he must have done and said something!”

His point (in this comment and the book as a whole) is that as scholars dig into the Bible, they find very little that works as history. So believers have a tendency to simply stop working at a certain point and figure what they haven’t studied must be true. Regardless of who Jesus was or was not, it just can’t be determined by what is in the Bible. Regardless of all this, Aslan is firmly in the middle of New Testament scholarship. He isn’t arguing that the historical Jesus isn’t to be found in the Bible, much less that Jesus was a myth. Clearly, he thinks we can determine who Jesus really was based upon the Bible. And that man most likely is very much the man who Crossan finds in the Bible.

I used to have a roommate named Jerry. He was very conservative. He was also a hardcore Christian. Or so he thought. He never went to church. He never read the Bible. He commonly hired prostitutes, did drugs, and was extremely mean to many of God’s creatures. He was only a Christian in the sense that he would explode in rage if anyone suggested that Jesus was the one, true way. That’s what the whole Fox News interview seemed like to me. The truth is that Aslan’s book falls somewhere within the mainstream of Biblical scholarship. But such people can’t accept anyone who is not a true believer discussing their religion. It really comes down to the fact that they know almost nothing about their supposed faith. And that is something that is worthy of outrage.

Celebrate Emily by Reading Wuthering Heights

Emily BronteOn this day in 1511, art historian Giorgio Vasari was born. Pianist and Wolfgang’s sister, Maria Anna Mozart was born in 1751. Poet Samuel Rogers was born in 1763. Automaker and antisemite Henry Ford was born in 1863.

The half-sister of Marilyn Monroe, Berniece Baker Miracle is 94 today. I bring it up only to imagine what might have been. Blues great Buddy Guy is 77. Director Peter Bogdanovich is 74. Singer and lyricist Paul Anka is 72. Saxophonist David Sanborn is 68. Arnold Schwarzenegger is 66. I’m not even sure what he is. Actor Jean Reno is 65. So he will not be working anymore. Lawyer Anita Hill is 57. Actor Laurence Fishburne is 53. Actor Lisa Kudrow is 50. Director Christopher Nolan is 43. And actor Hilary Swank is 39.

The day, however, belongs to the great British novelist Emily Bronte who was born on this day in 1818. There is not a lot to say about her. Wuthering Heights is the most satisfying of the Bronte sisters’ novels. And I have never read any of the poetry—or at least I don’t remember any of it that I read or which one of the sisters might have written it. She appears to have been very shy. If her sister Charlotte is to be believed, she rarely left the house. All of that makes me the more fond of her. Regardless, she left us as much of a testament of her life as we need in her great novel. We celebrate her life by reading it.

Happy birthday Emily Bronte!

Obama’s Economic Clique and the Summers Pick

Larry SummersWhen Obama and Clinton were running for the Democratic nomination for president, I tended to side with Obama. The reason was not one I’ve heard anyone else mention. My fear was that Clinton would be another George W. Bush, just on the left. By that I mean that she would have been too insular. I thought that Obama would be more broad in where he looked for input. But that hasn’t been the case. Obama has been very insular. And when it comes to economic policy, it seems that the people he listens to are a group of New Democrat, pro-banking nitwits.

I’ve been thinking about this because of all the speculation about Larry Summers being nominated as Federal Reserve Chair. It isn’t that Summers would make a terrible choice for the job. I have big problems with him, especially his strong dollar policies (under and then following Robert Rubin) while he was in the Clinton administration. But there are far worse candidates for the job. The big problem is: why would Obama be so keen on Summers?

The answer, I think, is just that Obama’s insular economic decision making team is dominated by the kind of people who think that Larry Summers rocks. Obama could have just picked Janet Yellen, the current Vice Chairman of the Fed. She is extremely well qualified for the job and she is, as the pronoun indicates, a woman. Obama could have nominated arguably the best person for the job and also done something historic. Apparently, that didn’t matter. Or more likely, that didn’t even occur to Obama’s economic clique.

It’s pretty clear that a Summers nomination is not going to fly with most of the Democratic Party. As Dean Baker wrote, “There is a multi-count indictment that includes his support for the repeal of Glass-Steagall, his opposition to regulating derivatives, his notorious comment about women possibly lacking the ability for sophisticated mathematical reasoning, and his protection of the big banks in his years as President Obama’s National Economic Adviser.” And now a Senate Democratic leader told Talking Points Memo, “Given the level of opposition to Larry Summers within our caucus, confirming him would be a huge challenge and probably a pretty ugly process.”

But that doesn’t mean Obama won’t do it. In fact, he has often taken pride in thumbing his nose at the Democratic base. That’s how he got his New Democratic economic team in the first the place. Think what a Summers pick would mean, however. It would mean that Obama didn’t care about shoring up his base for the coming fights with the House Republicans. It would mean that he thought that Summers was so important that it trumped everything else going on in his second term. It would mean that he really didn’t care about his party.

I wonder if that’s not the case. After all, this talk about a Summers nomination has been festering. The White House could have leaked information to indicate that Summers isn’t in contention. Hell, they could have forced Summers to withdraw his name from consideration because he wanted to spend more time with his kids. But we haven’t heard a peep. And remember: that wasn’t the case with Susan Rice. So I think it is possible that Obama is still thinking he can ram Summers through as the Fed chair. It isn’t hard to believe. Generally, Janet Yellen is seen as a fiscal dove who isn’t obsessed with inflation. And in Obama’s insular economic club, that may disqualify her.

Update (30 July 2013 2:34 pm)

Matt Yglesias sent me to a Bloomberg View article by Albert Hunt, Could Geithner End Up the Next Fed Chairman? The important bit of the article is what people in the Summers camp are saying about Yellen, “No one doubts Yellen’s credentials as an economist, but questions have been raised, mainly by those in the Summers camp, about whether she has the gravitas to manage a financial crisis.” As Yglesias notes, it is hard to see this as anything except pure sexism.

I will go Yglesias one further: if Obama decides to pick Geithner as Fed chair, it will be an even more sexist pick. Then it won’t be a matter of thinking that Summers just has some great ability that no one else has. It will be that Obama just doesn’t want to pick Yellen. And what reason could there be for that? After all, no one doubts Yellen’s credentials as an economist. What else could it be? (Also: Geithner is a little weasel; who could think that he has “gravitas”?)

Politics of the Not-So-Grand Bargain

ObamaObama will be unveiling a Not-So-Grand Bargain at a speech today. The new deal would cut corporate income taxes down from 35% to 28% (and a special 25% rate for manufacturers). This would be made up by closing loopholes. The deal would also create a temporary windfall that would be used for infrastructure and education spending. Even before the details of the plan came out John Boehner rejected it, saying it was just more taxing and spending.

My concern about this deal is not its specifics. In general, the deal sounds pretty good. What’s more, real conservatives should love it. The problem is that I don’t trust future lawmakers. As we well know from experience, it is a lot easier to introduce loopholes into the tax code than it is to change rates. The standard rationale for exchanging loopholes for lower rates is that it is fairer. But the business community—especially the big players—are not interested in that. They want lower rates so that they can pay less. They assume (rightly) that they will later be able to get preferential loopholes. So that’s the problem: the deal would be good for a while, but soon we would have just as many loopholes but a lower tax rate. And then we will again be offered the deal to get rid of the loopholes if we lower the corporate tax rate down from 28% to 20%. And on and on. (Note: we could better replace the corporate income tax by taxing dividends as regular income.)

But okay: this deal is not too bad and is actually great compared to a lot of ideas Obama has had. And I can think of two ways in which this deal is a good thing. The first is clear from John Boehner’s instant hostility towards it. In a normal political environment, the head of the opposition would feel it necessary to at least give lip service to the proposal. “I have not seen the details of the proposal, but the Republican Party has long been in favor of lowering corporate taxes, which are at the highest level of any of the G-20 countries.” See how I made that sound reasonable while throwing in a totally deceptive conservative talking point? Anyway, Obama may just be playing Boehner and his caucus to make them look even more intransigent than they already are. After all, this Not-So-Grand Bargain is more a Teeny-Tiny Itsy-Bitsy Bargain. Corporate taxes don’t even make up 2% of federal income taxes. So Boehner saying that the deal leaves “small businesses and American families behind” is just silly and it looks that way too.

The other thing that is good about this proposal is that it shows that the administration may actually have learned a little bit about negotiating. It includes things that Obama is doubtlessly willing to trade away. But I don’t want to overstate this. The truth is that the administration has done this before, but it has been so eager that it’s traded things away too early in the process. Also: I fear that the White House may be willing to trade away all of the infrastructure and education spending. If that’s the case, then this deal breaks down to nothing but the corporate tax changes the Republicans have long wanted. That would not only risk greatly lowering corporate taxes over time, it would do almost nothing to promote economic growth.

In the end, I’m sure that the Republicans will simply be against this even though it is a good deal for their corporate backers. But it involves working with Obama and that would look bad to the base. I’m sure that the Republicans figure their corporate backers have nowhere else to go. (I’m not sure that’s the case; the Democrats are bought and sold by them as well.) The one thing that defines the modern House Republicans is that they are not willing to give up anything to get everything they want. I’m sure that will turn out to be the case here. So Obama will once again be shown to be the adult in the room. The question is whether the mainstream press will even notice.