What I Learned About the Bible

Earlier this summer I found a Reader's Digest guide to biblical history at a book sale. Called Great People of the Bible and How They Lived, this coffee-table sized book gives a clear and comprehensive back-story to the Bible from Abraham the Patriarch to Paul to Evangelizer. How were the Canaanites different from the Philistines? How many times did Paul get beaten to a pulp on his missionary journeys? It's all in there. Plus, the book employs drawings and diagrams to explain what the people of the Bible wore, how they farmed, what their houses looked like on the inside. Written by an ecumenical team of theologians, the book mixes biblical chapters and verses with lessons in history, geography, and ethnography. And since it's published by Reader's Digest, the text is easy to follow and consistently engaging.

Raised as a Unitarian-Universalist, but culturally Jewish, I've always been curious about biblical history and how the Jewish and Christian religious got their start. This book taught me a lot.
Here are some of the surprising things I learned:

>That Joshua, the successor to Moses as leader of the Israelites, led a bloody decades-long campaign to conquer Canaan in which no enemy--man, woman, or child--was left alive. I think we'd call that war crimes nowadays.

>That no one seems to know what happened to the Arc of the Covenant. It was built by Moses, carried around by the Israelites, stored in a tent, lost to the Philistines in a battle, recovered by Joshua, stored in Temple of Solomon's holy of holies... and then it disappeared sometime between II Chronicles and the start of the Babylonian Exile. Calling Indiana Jones...

>That God appreciated King David despite his failings. Even though David made a lot of mistakes (my college roommates would call it "stumbling"), he loved and worshiped the Lord, and always knew how to ask for forgiveness and accept his punishment. Feel like seducing another man's wife and then ordering her husband killed? No problem, God will slay your son and curse your family--but you'll still remembered as a righteous guy.

>That everyone in Jerusalem--from the Roman-appointed kings to the Jewish priests, to Jesus himself--understood that it's much easier to execute someone when they are unknown and unpopular. Jesus stayed alive and preached for as long as he did because the local leaders feared that persecuting him would spark a rebellion.

>That there was a split in the early Christian church between the Jerusalem sect, which believed that only full-fledged Jews could be Christians, and the Antioch sect, which allowed the baptism of Gentiles who weren't circumcised or followers of every Jewish law. But since the growth opportunities were among the Gentiles, the church leaders debated and decided to become more inclusive.

>That the early Israelites were good at kvetching. I'm surprised that Moses didn't tear out his beard... or maybe that's why he got white hair so quickly.

>That the Maccabees, known from the Hanukkah story, set up a strict theocracy after driving out the forces of the hated Selecid king, Antiochus IV that continued a civil war between the orthodox and reformist groups within the Jewish religion.

>That the Parissees were actually the more liberal of the two main Jewish priesthoods, and were the ancestors of modern rabbinical Judaism.


Last month I submitted a letter to the editor, but Lancaster newspaper has so far declined to print it. The letter questions why Lancaster General Health doesn't provide domestic partner benefits for its employees--and suggests that it is placing itself at a competitive disadvantage by not doing so. Here is the text of the letter:

Dear Editor:
Lancaster General already dominates county healthcare, but its leaders aren’t content. Newspaper reports tell us they want to build a medical school and add more residency programs. Even for a heavy-hitter like LGH, achieving those goals would be like moving from the minor leagues to the majors. Is LGH ready to advance? Not yet, and here’s why.

All of the region’s teaching hospitals--Drexel, Hershey, UPenn, and Temple--provide health benefits to the domestic partners of their staff. In contrast, LGH offers nothing for domestic partners. According to the hospital’s rules, only spouses “as recognized in Pennsylvania,” are eligible for benefits.

So why and how do other medical schools and hospitals offer DP benefits? It’s simple. These institutions recognize that doing so makes them more competitive. And DP benefits aren’t limited to Philadelphia and Harrisburg--York Hospital offers them, too. To qualify, employees and their partners fill out an Affidavit of Domestic Partnership, a legal form that can be satisfied by a joint mortgage, a shared bank account, or the mention of the partner in a will.

By rejecting DP benefits, LGH already faces a disadvantage in attracting and retaining top-notch students and staff. This weakness will only spread if LGH becomes a major teaching hospital and starts competing directly with regional powerhouses like Temple and Hershey. So before LGH unveils any new blueprints, they should add domestic partners as eligible dependents. Until they do, LGH will never compete in the big leagues.

Jason Stevenson
Lancaster, PA


No taxation without...

Early this November the Senate decided to ignore an attempt by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) to add questions pertaining to citizenship and immigration status to the 2010 U.S. census. Including these new questions well after the questionnaire had been finalized would not only cost millions of dollars, but would likely decrease participation by legal immigrants and refugees. The later, of course, is what Vitter and Bennett were aiming for. Both come from states that could potentially lose--or fail to gain more--Congressional representation if all the residents of the states are counted. Plus, bashing illegal immigrants, and legal ones, too, is turning out to be a popular sport for Republicans running for re-election in 2010. I just have one reminder for Sen. Vitter and Sen. Bennett. It's an old phrase that they might remember from their American history lessons in elementary school. It's a saying that is fundamental to why America became an indepdendent nation. And, funny enough, it's an answer to one of the questions on the U.S. Naturalization exam--the test that immigrants take to become U.S. Citizens. That phrase, if you haven't guessed it already, is "No Taxation Without Representation." Because if Vitter and Bennet don't believe that legal and illegal immgirants deserve to be counted and to be represented in Congress, then I guess they don't want their tax dollars either. And I think Sam Adams would agree.


Letter published in the Lancaster Intelligencer-Journal, June 18th

Dear Editor,
Before the debate over health care reform spins out of control, let's make it personal. Ask yourself: 'What is my health care like?'
If you have employer-based health insurance--as 62 percent of Americans do--how much have your monthly premiums and co-pays risen in recent years? Here's a hint: They've nearly doubled the rate of inflation, and they'll keep going up.
If you buy your own health insurance--as about 5 percent of us do--how often have you been denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition or had trouble getting reimbursed?
If you use Medicare--which covers nearly every person over the age of 65--how concerned are you that your benefits will exist five years from now?
And if you don't have any health insurance--a fact of life for 46 million Americans, including 8 million children--when's the last time you had had preventative care like a cholesterol test or a mammogram, or saw doctor who wasn't in an emergency room?
Now ask yourself, 'Is this the health care system that America deserves?'
Right now, during President Obama's first year in office, we can solve the health care crisis by reducing unnecessary costs and providing care for everyone. Forget meddling bureaucrats. Forget greedy insurance firms. Forget politics. This should be about ensuring that babies are born healthier, adults can stay employed, and seniors can enjoy their retirement. Now is the time to demand real health care reform from our elected leaders, or we'll all get sicker together.
Jason Stevenson
Lancaster, PA


All modern speeches owe their greatness to one source

And that would be Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. No other speech is as recognizable for its clarity, strength, and symbolism as Lincoln's two-minute homily from 1863. That's why so many politicians like to borrow words, phrases, and even the cadence from that speech. Heck, even I used it as the basis for my campaign talk while running for National Honor Society president in high school. And it worked. I won.
President Obama followed the trend on June 5 when he spoke at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Here is part of his speech:

And it is now up to us, the living, in our work, wherever we are, to resist injustice and intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take, and ensure that those who were lost here did not go in vain. (2009)

Which sounds a lot like this section by Lincoln:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. (1863)

And then Obama cherry-picked this familiar phrasing as well:

It is up to us to redeem that faith. It is up to us to bear witness; to ensure that the world continues to note what happened here; (2009)

As Lincoln said 146 years earlier:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. (1863)

I bet $100 that Obama's chief speechwriter, Jon Favreu, has a well-thumbed copy of Lincoln: Speeches and Writings Vol. 2 in his suitcase. Or because he's a young guy, saved on his iPhone.


Did you hear the one about ol' Abe?

A newspaper article I recently read quoted a New Yorker article that claimed more than 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, our country's 16th president and original log-cabin hero. In the next week there likely will be 15,000 new articles (and perhaps a few more books) written about Lincoln as the 200th anniversary of this birth arrives on February 12th. Of the millions of words that will celebrate his life, I can predict that some of the most popular will be adjectives describing his character like "honest," "self-educated," "hard-working," "compassionate," and "solemn." One aspect of his personality, however, that most accounts will omit is Lincoln's love of a naughty joke. Abraham Lincoln--the savior of the Union, the American Moses, the politician with a poet's touch--was also a serious cut-up. Whether the joke was self-deprecating, or told at the expense of an unfortunate friend, or just a re-telling of an old country fable, Lincoln was as masterful at tavern humor as he was at speeches that thrummed with a Biblical cadence.
When he arrived to southern Illinois as a young man in search of a career, wealth, and acceptance, his reputation for telling stories won him many friends and invitations to gatherings. Years later, as a semi-established Illinois lawyer riding the circuit for many months out of the year, Lincoln would often entertain the other
attorneys and judges at the end of each day with humorous anecdotes and stories. Occasionally he would deploy these stories in his arguments before a judge or jury, or mine his court experience as material for an anecdote (the one about the supposed horse expert who put his shirt on backwards comes to mind). And as president, Lincoln would often entertain a visitor or office-seeker with a story based on some aspect of their background or conversation, sometimes leaving these men bewildered by the casual and ribald nature of the nation's leader. It's easy to speculate that had he been influenced early on by a modern book or writer, or not turned to law and politics as a profession, Lincoln might have made a career as a mid-19th century frontier humorist like Mark Twain.
But where did Lincoln, who's melancholy spirit and bouts of serious depression are also well documented, find the source for his humor? And could a man who experienced so much tragedy in his life--the early loss of his mother, the death of two young sons, and a bloody civil war he felt responsible for ending--still be the one with the loudest laughter in the room? Lincoln himself answered that question head-on, and with his usual honesty. The occasion was a cabinet meeting in July 1862 when he unveiled his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. With his stern advisers assembled, and many of them in opposition to the proclamation, Lincoln began the meeting by reading aloud first one than another chapter of a humorous novel by Artemus Ward. None of the cabinet members laughed and several were clearly annoyed by his diversion, which caused Lincoln to cast the book on the table and exclaim, "Gentleman, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do."
If Lincoln could laugh, both at himself and the curious contradictions of his era, then I think that humor one more of his virtues that should be mentioned as often as his honesty. Being able to laugh at oneself, after all, indicates a degree of self-reflection and confidence that constant seriousness cannot match.


McCain's hero worship?

Dick Cheney = low. General David Petraeus = high. Wall Street bailout = low. Main Street rescue package = high. Political buzz words often have numbers attached to them. Not dollars and cents numbers, but approval/disapproval numbers. Because Dick Cheney's popularity rating is in the low double-digits, you'll see more Democrats than Republicans mentioning the Veep by name. He's a political third rail; invoke his name in a sentence, and the electorate's acceptance of whatever you're taking about (even giving free kittens to kids with cancer) will plummet. GOP pollster Frank Luntz wrote a whole book, Words That Work: It's Not What Your Say, It's What People Hear, about this strategy of using popular language to shape public opinion.
So when Alaska governor Sarah Palin drops the name of
Gen. David Petraeus into every answer she gives on Iraq or the war on terror, it's not by accident. A Gallup poll conducted in September 2007, when Gen. Petraeus delivered his assessment on Iraq to Congress, found that Americans had a 61% approval rating of the general--far above the low 30's registered by President Bush at the same time.
But what I find troubling is the worshipful tones she and John McCain use to describe Gen. Petraeus. During the vice presidential debate she said, "I am thankful that that is part of the plan implemented under a great American hero, Gen. Petraeus." During Sen. McCain's convention acceptance speech he said,
"[t]hanks to the leadership of a brilliant general, David Petraeus, and the brave men and women he has the honor to command." Midway through the first presidential debate, McCain said almost the same thing, calling Petraeus a "great general." But why stop there. During a July interview with Katie Couric McCain described the then commander in Iraq as "one of the great generals in history." Would Sun Tzu, Genghis Khan, or Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (who McCain invoked with significant errors in historical fact during his opening statement at the first debate) care to object?
I am naturally wary of politicians who tie their political fortunes to the poll numbers of buzz words. But I am afraid of those leaders who attempt to chip away at the essential wall between civilian government and military war-fighting for political gain. Would a McCain-Palin administration find room for Gen. Petraeus in their cabinet? Probably. But by telegraphing those intentions so blatantly, McCain is blurring the boundary between the military's apolitical allegiance to the Constitution and the orders of the President and the gamesmanship of political campaigns. It's time for war hero McCain to stop his hero-worship of Gen. Petraeus for the benefit of the TV cameras.