Literacy: Optional in America

The other day I was having a conversation with Carmel, one of the nice, polite, friendly, competent baristas at the Omni Hotel where I buy my afternoon latte. I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but I asked, “So, Carmel, were you named after the mountain or the church?” (For those who did not grow up in the South with lots of black friends, “Mt Carmel Baptist Church” and “Mt Nebo Baptist Church” are very popular names in the Southern black Christian heritage, a fact which I know from experience to be true but could not begin to account for.)

Carmel’s eyes widened slightly in mild surprise, and then she congratulated me: “Wow, there aren’t many people who know that’s a mountain. Usually people ask me which kind of candy my parents named me after.”

“But, um, wouldn’t it be obvious…?” I left the rest of the question hanging unspoken in the air.

“You would think so!” she exclaimed. “But no, I get that all the time. In fact, the other day I was ordering a salad at [unfortunately I didn’t catch the name of the restaurant] and I wrote my name on the order. Then when I went and picked up the salad, there was a side order of what I thought was some weird salad dressing. But it turned out to be a little cup of caramel…so I think when I wrote my name…”

I was already laughing and we finished her sentence together: “…they thought you/I wanted caramel on your/my salad!”

 

Preliminary notes on Jude

These notes are just some rough thoughts ahead of tomorrow’s Bible study session with some friends at Sugar Creek Baptist Church. I post notes like these in advance and then the other guys don’t have to sit and listen to me drone on and on at the Bible study itself.

Jude is a book whose target audience was Jewish Christians steeped in Jewish tradition and literature, both Biblical and extraBiblical. His letter has four main parts: introduction, talking trash about the Bad Guys (that is, the heretics he assails), encouraging the good guys (that is, the faithful Christians to whom he is writing), and a doxology that is arguably the greatest doxology in all the Bible.

Most of the letter is trashing the Bad Guys. The structure here is not so obvious if you aren’t Jewish, but it basically works like this: these people were “written about long ago” in two different ways, and Jude wants Christians to grasp the lessons of the past and thus avoid lurking catastrophe in the present. Arguably the key phrase in the whole letter is, “I want you to remember…”

The two ways in which Jude attacks the Bad Guys are these:

  1. There are stories in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition that show how bad things happen to sinners like these modern-day Bad Guys; so they were being talked about in analogies, as it were. (If you’re familiar with the theological term “types,” well, that’s where Jude is going with this.)
  2. Some things that were prophesied in the past were prophesied about these guys in particular.

The sources Jude uses are best laid out in a table. From this it is obvious that Jude thinks that his readers will be familiar not only with the Old Testament, and with the teachings of the Apostles (that is, the closest thing Christians of Jude’s time had to the New Testament), but also with non-Biblical Jewish tradition – which we ourselves aren’t familiar with, and which therefore makes it hard for us to catch Jude’s point.

Think of it this way: up until fifty years ago, every child in England knew who Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar were – they were the Three Kings of Orient who visited Jesus at His birth, the Magi. So imagine that, say, C. S. Lewis is writing a letter to a British friend and he wants to make some point using the Magi as an illustration. But he knows his friend knows the Bible exhaustively, and also his friend is English; so Lewis knows that all he has to do is mention the name “Balthazar” to remind his friend of the whole story. So Lewis says, “I think, frankly, that God has given you a fairly clear warning; I hope you may be as heedful as Balthazar.” This would make no sense at all to people unfamiliar with the English tradition of the names of the Three Kings – they wouldn’t even recognize it as a reference to Matthew 2 at all, because while the story of the Magi is Biblical, the names of the Magi are merely traditional.

(I would also point out that you would be rather unwise to think, on the basis of that letter, that C. S. Lewis was silly enough to think that the Magi were in real life actually named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – the shorthand reference would very succinctly and efficiently make his point, which would be that his friend should pay attention to God’s warning, not that people who think we don’t really know the names of the Magi are wrong. In the same way, Jude can refer to Jewish tradition as a shorthand to remind his Jewish Christian readers of stories that can serve as analogies for the behavior and fate of the Bad Guys, without necessarily having troubled to ask himself to what extent the traditions were perfectly accurate.)

Verse Text of Jude Ancient source
5b Jesus at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe Exodus (pretty much the whole book), Numbers (esp. 14:11-12)
6 And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. Genesis 6:1-4, as interpreted by…

…Jewish tradition about “The Watchers,” all over the place, at least ten or fifteen sources just that we know of such as:

1 Enoch, “Book of the Watchers,” especially 6-11

Jubilees 4:15, 22, 5:1-2

2 Baruch 56:10-16

Philo

Josephus

Lots more

Note that 1 Peter 3:18-22 appears to accept this interpretation as well. (2 Peter was written using Jude as a source; so 2 Peter 2:4 could just be taking Jude’s word for it rather than being an independent source.)

7 In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and foreign flesh. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. Genesis 18, 19. Note that the Watchers were angels who had sexual relations with human women, while the Sodomites were human men who tried to have sexual relations with angels (this is the main point of the phrase “strange/foreign flesh,” I think). I am pretty sure Jude is not primarily referencing the homosexual aspect and we can’t assume that the “Bad Guys” were engaging in homosexuality just because Jude compared them to the Sodomites. (I don’t mean by this that homosexuality is fine as long as everybody involved is human, of course – I’m only pointing out the rhetorical tactic I think Jude is actually using).
8 In the very same way, on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings The Bad Guys: the first two accusations look backward to Jude’s first three examples and says the Bad Guys are like to OT Bad Guys; the last looks forward to his next one to say the Bad Guys are NOT like the OT good guys
9 But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” It is highly likely (based on things said by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gelasius Cyzicenus) that Jude was quoting the last part of The Assumption of Moses, which was a first-century retelling of the Jewish tradition that the Archangel Michael had personally buried Moses; but in this version Satan shows up and insists that he is the rightful owner of the body due (presumably) either to the same sin that caused Moses to forfeit the right to enter the Promised Land (cf. Deut. 32:48-52), or else to Moses’s murder of the Egyptian (Ex. 2:11-15). We don’t know how far back the tradition of the dispute over the body goes. Unfortunately our only manuscript of The Assumption of Moses is incomplete, and if Jude was quoting from it, he was quoting from the part that was lost. At any rate, this is the Jewish tradition to which Jude is referring.
10 Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand, and the very things they do understand by instinct – as irrational animals do – will destroy them The Bad Guys are NOT like Michael
11a Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; Genesis 4

In some strains of Jewish tradition, Cain is notable for having actively encouraged others to sin

Perhaps more relevantly to Jude (but we can’t be sure because we don’t know how far back this tradition goes), there was a strain of Jewish tradition (reflected in some early Christian writers as well, such as Tertullian’s rather strained and hyper-literal exegesis of 1 John 3:12) that held that Cain was not Adam’s son, but was instead the product of sexual intercourse between Eve and one of the fallen angels (either by seduction or rape).

11b they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; Three charges were laid against Balaam:

1.       He took money to curse Israel, though in the end he blessed Israel instead (Numbers 22-24). This is the part we remember because we like the story about Balaam’s donkey. It was not what Jewish tradition focused on, though; that was…

2.       Having been unable to curse Israel, he sabotaged Israel by advising the Moabites and Midianites to use sex to defeat the Israelites, by having their women seduce them into unfaithfulness to God at Peor (Numbers 25, Balaam’s role in which is revealed in Numbers 31:16). Note that the Moabites specifically invited the Israelites to join them in their sacrificial feasts (Numbers 25:2), which every Christian would instantly have connected to the Christian love-feasts that Jude accuses the Bad Guys of polluting in v 12.

3.       He practiced divination (Joshua 13:22), but this doesn’t seem to interest Jude

11c they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion. Numbers 16

In later Jewish tradition Korah was obscenely rich, which would fit well with Jude’s denunciations of the Bad Guys’ greed; but we don’t know how far back that tradition started so can’t be sure Jude is referring to it

12-13 These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm – shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted – twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. They are bad guys

The “wandering stars,” by the way, are planets (“astér planétes,” “wandering star,” is the Greek word for “planet” and is obviously where our own word “planet,” literally “wanderer,” comes from). Ancient thought revered the stars because they were so orderly and (unlike all the chaos and randomness that makes life on earth so unpleasant) never left their appointed places – except for the planets, which wandered around the heavens. Given Jude’s focus on what a bad thing it is to “not keep to your own proper place,” as it were, he no doubt was of the school that thought rather badly of the planets for their irresponsible behavior, and thus this is an insult in keeping with that particular Judean motif. Compare James 1:17, where “in whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” is Greek astronomical language referring precisely to the contrast between the inconstancy of the moon and planets, and the noble constancy of the everlastingly unchanging stars.

14-15 Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all of them of all the ungodly acts they have committed in their ungodliness, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” 1 Enoch, the “Book of the Watchers” section, 1:9. So far as we can tell this is a direct quotation.
16 These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. They are bad guys
17-18 But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” This is, in effect, a New Testament quote – that is, it is an appeal to the teachings of the Apostles.
19 These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. They are bad guys and not Christians

Oh, I can answer THAT question REAL fast

A friend of mine, whose feeling I will try to avoid hurting by not saying his name and trusting that he will not visit this blog, shared the following meme on Facebook recently…

Native American genocide

…and having shared it, asked plaintively, “Why didn’t we learn about this in school?”

Oh, that’s a a question with a quick and easy answer: because it’s a damnable racist lie, that’s why.

A slightly fuller answer: (a) you only get to 100 million by counting every indigenous American in both North and South America who died between 1492 and 1776 of anything other than old age; (b) you only manage to call those 100 million deaths “genocide” by defining the term “genocide” with extreme perversity and dishonesty; and (c) you only get to that aggregate number by wielding the term “Native Americans,” which is itself a racist term that derives all of its force from pretending that there is no difference between, say, the Iroquois and the Nez Perce, or that you do not commit a grievous insult of the Navajo people by treating them as “the same people” as the Apache.

I’ll take up these points in reverse order…

First, however, let me emphasize that most of the liberals I know would be neither stupid enough, nor dishonest enough, nor hate-filled enough to post this meme. The people who came up with this meme are the scum that float on the surface of the liberal septic tank, and they are not representative of most of my own liberal friends and relatives, though I have certainly encountered my fair share of “Free Thought Project” types over my thirty years of adult life. No liberal friend of mine should assume that I am taking a shot at him in this post; I am talking about the semi-humanoid cockroach droppings who produced this meme.

That very important clarification having been made, I return to my rant.

A meme of this sort is a good example of just how thoroughly and shamelessly racist are many (though by no means all) white liberals, such as the people who no doubt came up with this meme (even I, with my extremely low opinion of Russell Means, don’t think he’d be stupid enough to put this out here with his official endorsement). If you bring up, say, the Five Civilized Tribes, and you use that name to refer to them, it is a stone-cold guarantee that some of the liberals of your acquaintance (assuming you know more than two or three whom you have carefully selected for civility and good sense) will condemn you for being “racist” and “Eurocentric” for deeming those tribes to be “civilized” while the other indigenous peoples were “savages” (even if you have never used the word “savage” yourself). You will be assured that only a Eurocentric racist such as yourself would presume to pass judgment on other cultures’ practices and moral judgments from your own culture’s perspective, as though your culture were somehow objectively superior to theirs, you cultural imperialist, you. They will do this, these liberals, because they are absolutely convinced that their subculture’s practices, assumptions and moral judgments are manifestly superior to your racist bigot hate-filled fundamentalist homophobic white-privileged culture’s evil ways, indeed so obviously superior that it is simple justice that they be allowed to use the full coercive power of the world’s most irresistible government to impose their enlightened views upon your hate-filled backwardness. (They will have precisely zero self-awareness in this conviction and in this knee-jerk rush to condemnation of the Other, which is to say, you.) And they will assure you that, say, George Washington was a contemptible racist and cultural imperialist for daring to suggest that although American Indians were of equal dignity as human beings, yet their society was inferior (though this type of liberal also is placidly confident that dead white rich men, and possibly those that are neither dead nor rich, have no dignity as human beings and may be hated with a clear conscience, since conservative culture is so plainly inferior to liberal culture). They will despise Thomas Jefferson for having proffered the following advice to the Choctaw Nation:

“I rejoice, brothers, to hear you propose to become cultivators of the earth for the maintenance of your families. Be assured you will support them better and with less labor, by raising stock and bread, and by spinning and weaving clothes, than by hunting. A little land cultivated, and a little labor, will procure more provisions than the most successful hunt; and a woman will clothe more by spinning and weaving, than a man by hunting. Compared with you, we are but as of yesterday in this land. Yet see how much more we have multiplied by industry, and the exercise of that reason which you possess in common with us. Follow then our example, brethren, and we will aid you with great pleasure.”

The mere fact that every single word Jefferson said was, you know, perfectly true, is of no moment, as liberals of that type (I mean, the type who will instantly condemn you as racist the moment you self-identify as not being perfectly orthodox in your conformity to their cultural mores) generally have no interest in whether statements are true, but only in whether they themselves happen to find them offensive, which is to say, unfashionable in their social circles.

But in the meantime, what the use of the term “Five Civilized Tribes” clearly implied, is that people like Washington and Jefferson knew perfectly well that different Indian nations had different cultures. The Choctaw were “civilized” in part because, unlike the Apache, their women did not cultivate an extremely high proficiency in the art of torture of captives of war. The American government’s treatment of the Choctaw Nation is vastly more worthy of condemnation than is the American government’s treatment of the Apache, partly because the Apache were a nasty bunch of people (I can’t remember who said it first, but “if the Apache were the only people on earth, they would pick a fight with the moon”) and the Choctaw were not, but mostly because the American government knew that the Choctaw were a peaceful and “civilized” nation, and yet the American government drove them out of their homelands anyway.

But the point is, the “racist” American government knew that Cherokees and Comanches were two very different things, and that human-sacrificing Aztecs and peaceful Choctaws were in quite different categories. But to modern white liberals, they are all “Native Americans.” And so white liberals come up with memes such as the one that triggered this post, sublimely unaware that white people who carry on about “Native Americans” might as well be walking around waving great big flashing neon signs that say, “All those people look alike to me.” Which they do, to such liberals, because for such liberals the world is divided into “white people,” whom right-thinking persons frown on, and “everybody else,” of whom right-thinking persons approve.

And then there is the viciously accusatory word “genocide.” Here again, the use of this word clues you in to the racism of the people who created this meme. For the meme makes no sense unless you define “genocide” as “when people with relatively dark skin die as a result of interaction with people with relatively light skin.” Thus every Comanche or Apache warrior killed in battle between Comanches and Apaches is ignored and does not count for establishing the moral standard of “Native Americans.” Every Huron or Algonquian or Mannahoac warrior captured and tortured to death by the Iroquois is ignored and does not count in establishing the moral standard of “Native Americans.” Every Spanish or Mexican female settler who was raped and enslaved by the Comanche…the Comanche weren’t white so it doesn’t count against “Native Americans.” The Iroquois’ overrunning neighboring tribes and claiming their territory by right of conquest…not a problem; what’s a little disagreement now and then between “Native American” brothers?

But let Europeans show up and do to the Iroquois or the Comanche what the Iroquois had done to the Huron, or let white soldiers kill Comanche soldiers in battle to protect Texan settlers of Mexican descent, and that is not only evil, not only an act of unjustified war – it is “genocide,” despite the fact that there is absolutely no way to fit deaths in battle between warring independent nations into the label “genocide” unless you are a person of no good faith whatsoever. (Deaths in massacres of women and children in settlements, maybe, but not deaths between opposing groups of warriors/soldiers in battle — and don’t start talking to me about U.S. Army massacres of “Native American” women and children if you aren’t willing to check to see how many white women and children were massacred by “Native American” warriors.) Nay, more – if Jesuit missionaries show up at an Indian settlement, and a resulting smallpox epidemic kills 10,000 Wyandot, this is also “genocide.” And this is true even though the Europeans who first brought Eurasian diseases to the Americas knew nothing at all about how infectious diseases work, and had not the slightest idea that the Americas were full of people who had no immune defenses whatsoever against smallpox, typhus, measles, influenza, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, and the like. Europeans had, after all, gone all over the world and it’s not like everybody in China and India started dying en masse when the Europeans showed up. Of course we today know that this is because the entire Eurasian landmass was a contiguous area in which any disease that started anywhere would eventually migrate to everywhere, and that the Americas had been cut off from this process since before the invention of the wheel – but no sane person could expect European missionaries to understand the concept of a virgin soil epidemic, much less to credit them with enough sophistication to kick one off on purpose.

The malice involved in the accusation can plainly be seen when you find people insisting that Europeans deliberately tried to inflict smallpox on Indians in order to wipe them out, in a form of primitive germ warfare; so it is too genocide. Then you ask for the evidence…and you find precisely one example over the course of five centuries, of one military commander deliberately giving indigenous Americans smallpox-infested blankets (the notorious Fort Pitt episode, notorious precisely because it’s the one thing the Native American Genocide conspiracy theorist can grab hold of). And this, to these people, is all that’s required to establish that “Europeans wanted the Indians to die out and would have infected them if they could, and even if they didn’t do it on purpose they were happy all those Indians died” – because, after all, you know how racist and evil and full of hate white people are. Oh, and the money spent by the American government to inoculate indigenous Americans against smallpox? – probably it was a bureaucratic mixup and they thought the vaccines were going to white people, or at any rate there’s bound to be some excuse that will let us pretend it didn’t happen. Anyway, when the American government tried to inoculate the Sioux against smallpox in 1831, and the Yankton Sioux took the vaccination but the Santee Sioux refused to accept it, and as a result of bunch of the Santee died – it was the American government that killed those Santee Sioux, you know. Those genocidal bastards.

So, just to be clear: one military commander trying to defend Fort Pitt using germ warfare establishes the character of all white people, including the “American government” (even though the event took place before the “American government” existed); but the actual literal American government’s attempt to inoculate indigenous Americans against smallpox…well that just doesn’t count. Because, well, you know, it doesn’t.

Oh, and by the way, do you know what would have happened to the white women and children who had taken refuge in Fort Pitt, had Pontiac’s forces taken the fort? It’s not hard to guess. Pontiac was, after all, explicitly waging a war that by the standards of this meme would be genocidal if it weren’t for the fact that in the world of this type of liberal, melanin-rich people can’t, by definition, commit genocide against the melanin-impaired:

“It is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our lands this nation which seeks only to destroy us.”

A figure of speech, did you say? Well, when Pontiac started the war at Fort Detroit they killed every British man, woman and child they found outside the fort, ritually cannibalizing one of the soldiers. They got to Fort Sandusky, entered the fort under the pretense of truce, then massacred not only all of the soldiers but also all of the traders. At Fort Michilimackinac they got in by a ruse, killed 15 soldiers in battle, then ritually tortured to death five more. At Fort Venago they killed everybody but the commanding officer; they saved him so that they could burn him at the stake. At Fort Presque Isle they British surrendered when Pontiac’s allies promised to let them go to Fort Pitt; then as soon as the soldiers were out of the fort they were massacred.

But the Fort Pitt commander who wanted to give these nice, simple, harmless children of nature smallpox because it was the only way he could think of to keep the women and children under his protection out of the hands of the noble Pontiac – man, he was a nasty genocidal dude… Look, sarcasm aside, I think his behavior actually was pretty contemptible – but then, unlike many liberals, I also think Pontiac was a vile and evil person, even though he wasn’t white and therefore is immune from liberal criticism. (I mean, he only massacred women and children; it’s not like he did something truly evil, like betraying his people by voting Republican — which is, so far as I can tell, the only thing that can make this sort of liberal think a non-white person is Evil.) The world is full of evil people, after all, and most of the world’s wars have been wars with lots of nasty people on both sides. And despite the desperate attempts of you-disagree-with-me-because-you’re-a-privileged-white-racist liberals to convince themselves otherwise, evil is not a function of, nor even mildly correlated with, whiteness.

Look, the American government killed ethnically indigenous Americans in wars of subjugation, just as indigenous Americans had been killing each other in wars of subjugation for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. This may be morally reprehensible (it is at least easy for us in our wealth and ease and luxury and security to say so) but it is not genocide. Millions of indigenous individuals died in epidemics due to diseases that came across with Europeans and to which the indigenous had no immunity. This is one of the great catastrophies of human history, but it is not genocide. The American government forced tens of thousands of indigenous Americans to leave their ancestral homelands and go live on reservations, and many a peaceful and innocent person died as a result of the privations on such forced marches as the Trail of Tears. This decision to force resettlement may be worthy of moral condemnation (I myself would condemn it in very strong terms indeed), but the deaths that resulted were not genocide.

And this would all be true even if a hundred million indigenous Americans really had died as a result of encountering English settlers and “the American government.” But that number is ludicrous and is a shameless lie. Estimates of how many aboriginal Americans were living in all of North and South America in 1491 generally come in around 50 million; 112 million is the high end.  But almost four out of every five inhabitants of North and South America lived south of the Rio Grande. The highest estimate I know of for North American population, including Canada, is 18 million people. And that was in 1491. By 1650 (according to William Denevan, from whom I get the 112-million-person high-end estimate), the native population of both North and South America together was less than six million. (The overwhelming majority of deaths were due to European diseases to which the indigenous population had no immunity.)

It is probable that the indigenous population had come back to a certain degree by 1776. But by 1776 there were already more Europeans in North America than there were indigenous persons – and the non-indigenous population of the British colonies in 1776 was about two and a half million. Had there been a hundred million indigenous Americans in 1776…well, the white folks wouldn’t have gotten very far with their Evil Genocidal Plots.

And so we come back to the short answer I gave at the beginning: the reason that children have not been taught in schools that the American government killed 100 million Native Americans in the largest act of genocide in history – is quite simply that it is a damnable racist lie.

 

Mystery Solved Dept.

The church I attend doesn’t have nearly enough parking for all the people who go there on Sunday morning, and there is no land available to build more parking lots. So most of us park off-site and ride shuttle buses to the sanctuary, in order to leave room in the church parking lot itself for visitors.

A few Sundays ago, just as the shuttle bus was starting to pull away from the shuttle stop, a lady who appeared to be somewhat irate came zooming diagonally across the parking lot and cut in front of us, forcing the bus driver to slam on the brakes. All the folks on the bus were good Christian people and so no disparaging comments were heard, though a couple of us met each other’s eyes and grinned knowingly. In moments she was at the exit from the parking lot onto the I-69 frontage road. There was oncoming traffic but she did not deign to notice it; the driver of the nearest oncoming car had to swerve over to the middle lane to avoid her as she gunned her vehicle into his path. As the shuttle bus itself came up to the parking lot exit, we all saw her make a hard, high-G-force right turn into the next parking lot, fifty yards or so down the road; and as we pulled out onto the service road the entire bus began to laugh out load as the lady in question veered her car into a parking space and slammed on the brakes…

…right in front of the business with the big sign above the door saying, “DEFENSIVE DRIVING.”

Some word usage frequency comparisons between John and other NT writers

Last week I was pointing out something to the men’s Bible study group that I am part of…Reformation churches are very Pauline, and so we tend to think of the gospel almost entirely in terms of faith and grace. It’s easy for us to forget that “faith” and “grace” were not religious terms when the Apostles started using them in the New Testament — the relationship between God and humans, being unique, is something for which there are not actually adequate words in any human language. When the Apostles tried to explain to new Christians how God thinks about us and feels about us and deals with us — how salvation and justification and sanctification all work — they had no choice but to pick ordinary words that would get them reasonably close, and then try to explain how God’s “grace” was different from the “grace” human beings ordinarily feel for each other, or how God’s “love” is not exactly like what we think of as “love” from our experience of loving each other. When Paul tried to explain this, the terms he found most useful were “faith” and “grace.”

But John did not find those words useful at all. He practically never uses them. Instead, even though he is trying to describe the same thing that Paul is, he uses an entirely different set of words — not because he disagrees with Paul, but because he has a different way of trying to explain the not-fully-explicable. For John, the key words are “love,” “truth,” “abide/remain,” and “commandment.”

In the following graphs I have shown the frequency with which various terms are used in different parts of the New Testament, which I have divided into the Synoptics (that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke), John’s Gospel, the Acts, the Pauline Epistles, the Catholic Epistles (meaning not letters written by Roman Catholics, but instead letters written to the Church Catholic, i.e., James, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude), the Johannine Epistles (1, 2 and 3 John), and Revelation. The statistics are quoted in the number of usages per hundred pages.

I should say that the frequency with which words appear in the Johannine Epistles is exaggerated because the sample size is small; so while you should be impressed, you should perhaps be not quite as impressed as the graphs would naturally make you feel.

I will say that I was surprised to find that James, Peter and Jude talk about grace as enthusiastically as Paul does. At some point I will post an essay here about what the term “grace” meant to the first-century Christians who wrote and were intended to read the New Testament documents, and why the early church (except for John) found “grace” to be such an ideal word to express how God deals with us. For now, I will content myself with saying that either Paul took over the faith/grace idea set that Peter and James had already become accustomed to using heavily, or else all of the church except John was heavily influenced by Paul’s approach. I have a mild opinion that the latter is more likely. What is clear, at least, is that the Apostle John had his own way of thinking about and expressing the impact Jesus had had on his life and on the life of his “children” in the faith; and he seems to have remained serenely unaffected by the way the rest of the church talked.

Faith usage

In this case I left out instances of the verb πιστεύειν (pisteuein, “believe”), because I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to distinguish between the sense of “believing a proposition” and “having faith.” The relationship between πιστεύειν pisteuein and πίστις (pistis, “faith”) is not nearly as straightforward as the relationship between ἀγαπᾷν (agapan, “to love”) and ἀγάπη (agape, “love”). And we would need to include the words for “faithful/trustworthy/believer,” “unfaithful/untrustworthy/unbeliever,” “lack faith / be unfaithful / fail to believe,” and distinguish between the theological and non-theological usages. So, quite a bit of work to be done.

The main thing to understand is that this graph is somewhat misleading (I will revise it later) because John does occasionally use the verb πιστεύειν pisteuein “believe in” and the various other words related to faith — he just practically never sees a need to use the term πίστις pistis “faith” itself.

Grace usage

Paul and the rest of the Apostles’ generation found this term generally useful; the difference in how frequently they use it is insignificant given the small sample size of the Catholic Epistles. John uses it three times in the first chapter of his Gospel and then is done with it. (The opening  “grace, mercy, and peace” in 2 John is a conventional greeting, as are the two usages in Revelation — sort of like the way we all use “Dear …” at the beginning of a letter, even to someone who is so much of a stranger to us that we don’t know whether to call the person “Sir” or “Madam.”)

abide usage

John really latched onto the idea of “abiding in Christ,” and it is central to his thought. It is at most an afterthought to all other NT writers.

Commandment usage

All NT writers agree that we should obey God’s commandments (though Paul does not think highly of their practical efficacy). To John, however, God’s commandments are at the core of the Christian experience…but then that’s probably because to John God’s commandments really come down to love, and love is really central to the Christian experience.

Truth usage

Obviously all NT writers think that Jesus brought us the truth. But…two and a half times a page in the Epistles…that’s a lot. Again, note that one of the reasons “truth” is so central to John’s thought is that he has more in mind than we usually think of when someone speaks of the “truth;” for John truth is a deeply practical, relational thing, so that one of his favorite phrases is “walking in the truth” — a phrase he uses where Paul would almost certainly say, “living in faith.”

But there’s no question what John’s favorite word is…

Love usage

We know how important Paul thought love was; he proved that in 1 Corinthians 13. So how important is love to John? Important enough for him to use it almost ten times as frequently as Paul does!!

The thing about John isn’t that he has a few favorite words; every author does. What’s striking about John is that when he has a favorite word, it is a favorite; nobody else plays favorites with words the way he does. Here are the six terms all set side by side, each one with the person who uses them most frequently, and how much that person uses them.

Highest usages per term

That’s right — John has four different words that he uses more often than Paul uses faith and grace added together.

And that’s why, if you’re going to read John, you’d better make sure you know exactly what he means when he talks about God’s commandment, about abiding and remaining, about truth, and most of all about love.

“Déjà vu” (low-budget review)

So I recently rewatched the delightful vignette “Наваждение” (“Déjà vu”) from the classic 1965 Soviet comedy Операция „Ы“ (Operation Y). And I was struck again by just how sweet and innocent and charming that piece is, in large part of course to the choice of Aleksandr Demyanenko and Natalya Seleznyova to play the two young students (Seleznyova floating joyfully down the examination hall steps in slow motion after acing her exams may have captured the essence of grown-up-but-innocently-girlish charm and beauty like no other five wordless seconds in film history). This is the only Yuri Nikulin film in my library in which I routinely skip the part that has Nikulin in it.

It got me thinking about what are the sweetest-without-being-saccharine love stories from movies. My short list: the Colin Firth / Lúcia Moniz part of the otherwise-awful Love Actually (for my birthday anybody who wants to give me a heavily edited Love Actually in which everything except that storyline has been savagely hacked out will have my undying gratitude); my personal favorite movie Return to Me; the unimprovable While You Were Sleeping; and the far-too-little-known Keanu Reeves / Aitana Sánchez-Gijón / Giancarlo Giannini film A Walk in the Clouds. (Yes, I love the long-form Pride and Prejudice and the Samantha Morton version of Jane Eyre, and Casablanca is Casablanca, but “sweet” is not the first word they conjure up, at least for me.)

Sadly, YouTube fails us here, as the complete “Déjà vu” is not there. But you can get Operation Y And Other Adventures of Shurik on Amazon with English subtitles. (They critically and inexplicably fail to translate the note Lida writes to test Shurik’s psychic powers, which says, “Find the teddy bear,” assuming I am correctly reading her handwriting as “Найти плюшевого мишку.” That’s a very important piece of information!) I think the first and third vignettes are amusing slapstick comedy, but “Déjà vu” is on a completely different level. Well worth the money in my opinion.