My last Christmas Eve in Warsaw —
the gray, uncertain day
dying into the early dark,
we wait for the first star, then light
the twelve skinny candles on the tree
and break the wishing wafer.
Holding a jagged shard of a wish,
mother intones: “Health and success,
fulfillment of all dreams.”
Kissing on both cheeks,
we break the wafer each with each.
So begins Wigilia,
the supper of Christmas Eve.
The number of the dishes
has to be odd: spicy red borscht
with uszka, “little ears” —
pierogi with cabbage and wild mushrooms
soaked back to dark flesh
from the pungent wreaths;
fish — the humble carp;
potatoes, a compote from dried fruit,
and poppy-seed cake.
Father counts: “If it doesn’t
come out right, we can always
He drops a pierog
on the starched tablecloth.
I stifle laughter as he picks it up
solemnly like a communion host.
On the fragrant, flammable tree,
angel-hair trembles in silver drafts.
Then we turn off the electric lights.
Now only candles in the dusky hush.
Father sets a match
to the “cold fires.” Icy starbursts hiss
over the staggered pyramid of gifts:
slippers and scarves, a warm skirt,
socks and more socks,
a book I will not finish.
We no longer sing carols,
mother playing the piano —
the piano sold by then,
a TV set in its place.
Later, unusual for a Christmas Eve,
we go for a walk. The streets
are empty; a few passers-by
like grainy figures in an old movie.
It begins to snow.
I never saw such tenderness —
snowflakes like moths of light
soothing bare branches,
hazy halos of street lamps.
Each weightless as a wish,
snowflakes kiss our cheeks.
They settle on the benches and railings,
on the square roofs of kiosks —
on the peaceful,
THE PURITANS’ REAL WAR ON CHRISTMAS
“When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it but the attempt foundered on the deep-rooted popular attachment to these mid-winter rites.”
(and the Roman feast of Saturnalia as the origin of Christmas was used in the attack on traditional observance)
“In addition to the association with immorality and the concept of misrule, another of the central objections to the feast for the stricter English Protestants between 1560 and 1640 was its popularity among the papist recusant community. Within the late medieval Catholic church, Christmas had taken a subordinate position in the liturgical calendar to Easter. Its importance, however, had been growing and was further enhanced by the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, for whereas, as John Bossy has recently pointed out, the more extreme Protestants had little time for Christ's 'holy family', reformed Catholicism laid great stress on this area. The Tridentine emphasis on devotions to the Virgin Mary in particular elevated the status of the feast during which she was portrayed as a paragon of motherhood.
Certainly, English recusants seem to have retained a deep attachment to Christmas during Elizabeth I's reign and the early part of the seventeenth century. The staunchly Catholic gentlewoman, Dorothy Lawson, celebrated Christmas 'in both kinds... corporally and spiritually', indulging in Christmas pies, dancing and gambling. In 1594 imprisoned Catholic priests at Wisbech kept a traditional Christmas which included a hobby horse and morris dancing, and throughout the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Benedictine school at Douai retained the traditional festivities, complete with an elected 'Christmas King'. The Elizabethan Jesuit, John Gerard, relates in his autobiography how their vigorous celebration of Christmas and other feasts made Catholics particularly conspicuous at those times and, writing on the eve of the Civil War Richard Carpenter, a convert from Catholicism to Protestantism, observed that the recusant gentry were noted for their 'great Christmasses'. As a result, by the 1640s many English Protestants viewed Christmas festivities as the trappings of popery, anti-Christian 'rags of the Beast'.
The celebration of Christmas thus became just one facet of a deep religious cleavage within early seventeenth-century England which, by the middle of the century, was to lead to the breakdown of government, civil war and revolution. When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it but the attempt foundered on the deep-rooted popular attachment to these mid-winter rites.
The following December the issue led to violence in London when a crowd of apprentices attacked a number of shops in Cheapside which had opened for trading on Christmas Day and forced their owners, 'diverse holy Londoners', to close them. In reporting the incident Mercurius Civicus sympathized with the shopkeepers but argued that to avoid 'disturbance and uproars in the City' they should have waited 'till such time as a course shall be taken by lawful authority with matters of that nature'.
The following year, when Christmas Day fell on the last Wednesday in the month, the day set aside for a regular monthly fast, Parliament produced the anticipated legal rulings. On December 19th an ordinance was passed directing that the fast day should be observed in the normal way, but:
With the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights…
Both Houses of Parliament attended fast sermons delivered by Presbyterian ministers on December 25th, 1644, the Commons hearing from Thomas Thorowgood that:
The providence of heaven is here become a Moderator appointing the highest festival of all the year to meet with our monthly fast and be subdued by it.
In January 1645 the newly-published Directory of Public Worship, which outlined the basis of the new Presbyterian church establishment, affirmed bluntly that 'Festival days, vulgarly called Holy days, having no Warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued'.
During the Christmas of From 1646 onwards, with Parliament victorious over Charles I, the attack on the old church festivals intensified; as the Royalist author of the ballad The World is Turned Upside Down put it, 'Christmas was killed at Naseby fight'. In June 1647, a further Parliamentary ordinance abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, and substituted as a regular holiday for students, servants and apprentices, the second Tuesday of every month. During the Christmas of 1647a number of ministers were taken into custody by the authorities for attempting to preach on Christmas Day, and one of them subsequently published his intended sermon under the title The Stillborn Nativity. Despite this government pressure, however, Christmas festivities remained popular, and successive regimes throughout the 1650s felt obliged to reiterate their objection to any observance of the feast.
n December 1650 the republican council of state urged the Rump of the Long Parliament to consider increasing the penalties for those caught attending 'those old superstitious observations', and in 1652 a proclamation published on Christmas Eve ordered that shops should be open and the markets kept on 25th, and that shopkeepers should be protected from violence or intimidation. Four years later, sitting on Christmas Day 1656, Oliver Cromwell's second Protectorate Parliament discussed a bill to prevent the celebrations in London. In 1657 the Council of State again urged the mayor and aldermen of London to clamp down on all celebrations in the capital, and a number of people attending church services on December 25th were held in custody and questioned by the army. Richard Cromwell's council repeated the injunctions to the mayor in December 1658. Insistent Puritan pressure, therefore, for the abolition of Christmas was kept up to within a few months of their fall from power at the Restoration, but it is clear even from the constant repetition of the government injunctions that it met with anything but willing acquiescence. In fact, the attack on Christmas produced instead a heated literary controversy and active, and on occasions violent measures to protect the traditional customs associated with the feast.
The counter-attack upon [pro-Christmas] opinions began with the publication of Christs Birth Mistimed by Robert Skinner, and of Certain Queries Touching the Rise and Observation of Christmas by Joseph Hemming, a Presbyterian minister in Staffordshire. Hemming presented sixteen questions or 'queries', which attacked Christmas on the grounds that the date of Christ's birth was uncertain, that the feast had no scriptural basis but was purely a human invention, and that it was a superstitious relic of popery. He argued that Christmas had begun as a Christian version of the Roman mid-winter feast of the Saturnalia and that customs such as Yule games and carols were relics of these pagan rites. The following November this point was repeated in greater detail by Thomas Mockett, rector of Gilston in Hertfordshire, in his work Christmas, The Christians Grand Feast. In order to encourage the citizens of ancient Rome to convert, argued Mockett, the early Christians came up with their own equivalent of the Saturnalia, thus bringing:
...all the heathenish customs and pagan rites and ceremonies that the idolatrous heathens used, as riotous drinking, health drinking, gluttony, luxury, wantonness, dancing, dicing, stage-plays, interludes, masks, mummeries, with all other pagan sports and profane practices into the Church of God.
By perceiving these essentially harmless and deeply cherished folk customs to be a threat, the Puritans succeeded only in alienating large numbers from the new regime they had established. The attack on Christmas was thus one of the Parliamentarians' biggest mistakes, and one which was ironically the result of anxieties, originally misconceived but ultimately self-fulfilling.
1.Christmas was once against the law in America. When the Puritans came to this continent they brought their objection to Christmas with them. They believed it was a creation of man, not Christ, so it should not be considered a holy day. They weren’t too keen on the revelry that went along with the holiday, either. Christmas was celebrated in America by Anglicans but most Protestant groups forbade it. It wasn’t until June 26, 1870 that Christmas took its official place on the American holiday calendar.
2. Christmas trees were forbidden as a part of the celebrations until as late as 1640. Since the tradition of bringing evergreen boughs or trees into the home at the Winter Solstice was pagan in origin, the early Church forbade them. The first recorded instance of a Christmas tree dates to 1510 when the town of Riga in Latvia brought a tree into the town square, decorated it and then burned it. Thankfully, we have relegated the burning part to the Yule log. Approximately 30-35 million Christmas trees are sold each year in the U.S.
WILL CHRISTMAS SURVIVE? Christmas has always been the most JOYFUL holiday, and there is much to be said for the power of joy. So I predict that secularized Christmas will still be around even a hundred years from now — perhaps hardly recognizable, just as our Christmas would already shock true believers just a century ago.
Will religion be around? Reform Judaism, the most evolved of the Abrahamic religions, is heavily leaning toward agnosticism, as is Unitarianism. Liberal Protestantism in general will be the next to fade away. The metaphorical readings will inevitably give rise to the question: “So god is a metaphor for WHAT?” We simply don't need this archaic metaphor as a complicating layer of reality. We need ethics, and examples of ethics. This is where some of the old stories may still be useful. But the story of Jonas Salk not patenting the polio vaccine has a greater power for me.
I’ve had an interesting debate on Facebook about which holiday is more central and is more likely to survive a hundred years from now: Christmas or Easter? Theologians insist that Easter is more important. But Christmas has a universal appeal. Once people recognize that they don't need to be saved, the whole salvationist theology falls down like a house of cards. But the motif of parental love, present in nativity, is ever-lasting. Take that away, and you have Harlow's self-destructive, "crazy" maternally deprived monkeys. That is the rock, the foundation: the bond between parent and child. Mysticism is b.s. next to the power of that.
That, ultimately, is the “rock” on which all human culture is built. It’s “rock-a-by baby.” A human infant cannot survive without a certain minimum of love — not just physical care, but emotional love. And the need to be loved, to be touched, to be completely accepted by at least one person (or being — dogs make great therapists) remains a great human universal.
True, there has been less and less emphasis on Baby Jesus in Christmas. Maybe eventually Baby J will go. But we will need to have some kind of love fest that’s not strictly about romantic love, but more about cheer and good will and peace, at least temporary.
MOTHER TERESA’S CULT OF SUFFERING
“MOTHER TERESA OFTEN TOLD US THAT AS MISSIONARIES OF CHARITY WE DID NOT SERVE THE POOR TO IMPROVE THEIR LOT, BUT BECAUSE WE WERE SERVING JESUS, who said that whenever service was rendered to one of the least, it was rendered to him. Jesus promised eternal life to those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked. . . . I do believe that Mother Teresa had a great deal of compassion for the poor, but it’s hard to deny that she was more interested in improving everyone’s lot in the next life than in this one.”
By even her own words, Mother Teresa’s view of suffering made no distinction between avoidable and unavoidable suffering, and instead cultivated passive acceptance of both. As she put it, “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.” Or consider this anecdote from her life:
One day I met a lady who was dying of cancer in a most terrible condition. And I told her, I say, “You know, this terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus — a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you.” And she joined her hands together and said, “Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.”
Mother Teresa’s outlook on suffering played out in her order’s homes for the sick and dying, which doctors have described as deficient in hygiene, care, nutrition, and painkillers. Miami resident Hemley Gonzalez was so shocked by his volunteer experience that he has founded an accountable charity to provide better care. “Needles were washed in cold water and reused and expired medicines were given to the inmates. There were people who had chance to live if given proper care,” . . . “I have decided to go back to Kolkata to start a charity that will be called ‘Responsible Charity.’ Each donation will be made public and professional medical help will be given,” Gonzalez said after returning to the U.S. He also launched a Facebook page called, “Stop the Missionaries of Charity.”
Mary Johnson is a former nun who joined Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, at age 19. For the next twenty years, she lived a life of service and austerity among the sisters, which she has described in her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst. But beneath the stark simplicity of her daily routine stirred a host of emotional, interpersonal and spiritual complexities, including the order’s tangled view of love and pain. Johnson’s thoughtful observations offer a window into the woman who inspired her spiritual vows and who ran her order of women religious.
The Mother Teresa I knew was a remarkably dedicated, self-sacrificing person, but not one of the wisest women I’ve known. Both empowered and shackled by religious faith, Mother Teresa was generous and unreasonable, cheerful and never content, one of the world’s most recognized women and one of its loneliest and most secretive.
Q: As a postulant in the Missionaries of Charity, one of your superiors, Sister Dolorosa, told you, “Mother always says, love, to be real, has to hurt.” Did you believe that?
Johnson: In the beginning of my life as a sister, I tried my best to believe what I was told, including that the greatest sign of love was Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. I’d never known the sort of mutual love in which two people rejoice in each other, strengthen each other, enjoy each other. I do believe that true love is willing to suffer for the beloved when necessary, but I don’t believe that suffering is the truest or best sign of love. I certainly now reject the notion that love demands the immolation of self for the beloved, though that’s something Mother Teresa seemed to believe all her life.
Q: During your time with the sisters, you gave up all possessions—your hair, which had to be shorn every month, an audiotape sent by your parents, even photographs. How does this relate to the fusion of love and pain?
Johnson: The Missionaries of Charity set out to live like the poor they serve. We each had two sets of clothes, which we’d wash by hand every day in buckets. We are rotting vegetables and stale bread that we’d begged from wholesale grocers. We slept in common dormitories, without any privacy, on thin mattresses we’d made ourselves. Living poorly day by day convinces you that life is hard. For a Missionary of Charity, ideal love was self-sacrificing, even to the practice of corporal penance.
Q: Your first session of self-flagellation is imprinted in my mind: “My knees shook. I took the bunch of knotted cords into my hands. From Sister Jeanne’s stall, I heard the beating sounds, one, two, three. . . . I swung harder. The skin of my lower thighs turned red, then red with white streaks as I hit harder.”
Johnson: When I took that rope whip into my hands, I was scared, I was excited, I hoped that I was on my way to conquering my selfishness and becoming a holy person. When you visit the homes and shrines of various saints, you often see hair shirts or whips or spiked chains on display. This is a religion in which nearly every house of worship, classroom, and private home has as its most prominent feature the image of a bloodied, tortured man. We were taught that wearing spiked chains and beating ourselves allowed us to share in his work of redemption. I know it doesn’t make much sense when you say it just like that, but within that entire system it had its own weird logic.
Q: After Mother Teresa’s death, the public learned of her struggles with anguishing doubt. You quote the words of a priest who comforted her with words that glorified her pain: “Your darkness is the divine gift of union with Jesus in his suffering. Your pain brings you close to your Crucified Spouse, and is the way you share His mission of redemption. There is no higher union with God.
Johnson: I often wish that Mother Teresa had found someone who would have encouraged her to look at her doubts honestly, to examine them, to confront them. But instead of finding someone who encouraged her to think for herself, she found Father Joseph Neuner, SJ, who spun Mother Teresa’s doubts in such a way that the doubts themselves were deemed a sign of her holiness. I believe that the anti-intellectual bias of the Missionaries of Charity can be traced to the day that Mother Teresa was told that the content of her doubts was something she ought never explore. We all tell ourselves stories that help us cope; wisdom looks at those stories and knows how to distinguish the true stories from the coping mechanisms. Mother Teresa swallowed the stories whole.
Help us to understand the theology under this mindset.
Johnson: Ah, Valerie, theology is a story that seeks to explain things. In the Catholic Church, official theology is determined by the hierarchy, who have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. When Mother Teresa admitted to the priests and bishops who were her spiritual directors that she was tormented by feelings of distance from God and by doubts in God’s existence, these priests and bishops didn’t want to encourage real questioning; they probably didn’t even give themselves permission to question deeply. Unquestioning faith enables the system to continue undisturbed. Official theology often serves politics.
In this particular case, Father Neuner taught Mother Teresa to reframe doubt as a sign that she had drawn so close to God that she shared the agony of Jesus, who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mother Teresa’s doubts did not therefore require examination, but a greater, unquestioning faith. The adoption of such a dogmatic stance proscribed any questioning of the Church’s teachings, including those that caused such suffering to those Mother Teresa served—like prohibitions against birth control and the effective relegation of women to second-rate status in the Church. When these priests convinced Mother Teresa never to question, they were molding her into one of the most outspoken proponents of official Church teaching. The same thing happens on a smaller scale whenever a member of the faithful is taught that reason must be subjugated to belief.
Q: Because of her opposition to contraception and her seeming disinterest in modern medicine, some have called Mother Teresa a friend of poverty rather than a friend of the poor. How do you see that?
Johnson: Most people today would say that we help the poor by helping them out of poverty. That was never Mother Teresa’s intention. Mother Teresa often told us that as Missionaries of Charity we did not serve the poor to improve their lot, but because we were serving Jesus, who said that whenever service was rendered to one of the least, it was rendered to him. Jesus promised eternal life to those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked. Mother Teresa was undeniably interested in reserving a really good spot for herself behind the pearly gates. I remember once when we were having dinner and a sister was serving water for the other sisters. Mother Teresa stopped the table conversation to point to that sister and tell us, “Jesus knows how many glasses of water you’ve served to the poor. He’s counting. When you get to heaven, he will know.” I do believe that Mother Teresa had a great deal of compassion for the poor, but it’s hard to deny that she was more interested in improving everyone’s lot in the next life than in this one.
Q: Why don’t supporters hold the Missionaries of Charity accountable?
Johnson: Supporters of the Missionaries of Charity are often theologically similar to the sisters, interested not so much in the (to their minds) short-term goal of helping the poor as in the long-term goal of getting everyone to heaven. It’s a little bit like certain evangelical Christians who look forward to nuclear holocaust in the Middle East because they believe devastating war will herald the end of the world and the union of all the good with God.
Of course Catholicism teaches that as a human being you are a wretched sinner who DESERVES to suffer. This is my chief grudge against the church: how could you convince an innocent little girl that she was evil? I was a reasonably happy normal child until the indoctrination; then I was redefined as a sinner who deserved to be thrown into hell. How could you do this to a child??!!
But of course they don't see even rape as anything esp terrible because suffering is good for you. I picked up the idea of self-inflicted suffering mainly from the lives of the saints — but that's a conscious memory. I may have picked it up also from the church culture in general.
One surprising thing about Mother Teresa was her chronic doubt. It would be easy for me to imagine her drawing strength from the certainty of her belief, the way I draw strength from the certainty of my knowledge that there are no gods. Her letters reveal that Mother Teresa wasn’t at all sure if god existed. Unfortunately the priest who was her spiritual advisor persuaded her not to examine the doubt, but to accept it as part of the suffering that was god’s gift to her, the way a disease would be.
It can be difficult to explain to a non-Catholic: the more you suffer here, the shorter your time in Purgatory (possibly even none) — and off you go to heaven, to live into eternal bliss! (but since pleasure is so bad, will you be able to enjoy that bliss? Or is "bliss" simply peacefulness, attainable without self-flagellation?)
Somewhat tangential: I see America as a profoundly anti-Christian country (despite all the fundamentalist sound and fury). I think it’s due to the Protestant stamp on the culture, a lot less (and not at all when in the liberal denominations) into damnation, and not at all into suffering. Not that Americans are exactly known for their devotion to la dolce vita, but are in my observation actually in that direction, yes. “You only live once” is something I hear all the time, and not just from avowed atheists! (But then only 5% of atheists admit to being atheists.) And note that it's the Catholics who use the crucifix with all the gory detail of the tortured naked body — the Protestants use the bare cross.
Should I add that the liberal Protestants are increasingly more and agnostic, with some openly agnostic ministers? As are the Reform rabbis? And even the fundamentalists — I can’t say I know that many, but those I do — they never worry about going to hell. Take paradise for themselves for granted. Sin away — all is forgiven. Nothing can separate you from the Lamb. Ah, if only someone said this to me when I was growing up, in the anguish of repression and scrupulosity!
HOW CAN RELIGION GENERATE BOTH SAVAGERY AND NOBILITY? DOGMATIC VERSUS SPIRITUAL RELIGION
There’s something very strange about religion. There have been recent appalling acts of terrorism, allegedly carried out in the name of religion. However, we also know that some of the most virtuous and noble human acts are carried out in the name of religion. How can religion generate both such savagery and such nobility? How can the principles of religious faith be used to justify terrorism, and at other times encourage acts of great altruism and justice?
To make sense of this, we need to distinguish between two fundamentally different types of religion: dogmatic religion and spiritual religion.
Dogmatically religious people are those who think that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. For them, religion isn’t about self-development or experiencing the transcendent, but about adhering to a set of rigid beliefs and following the rules laid down by religious authorities. It’s about defending their beliefs against anyone who questions them, asserting their "truth" over other people’s, and spreading those beliefs to others. For them, the fact that other people have different beliefs is an affront, since it implies the possibility that their own beliefs may not be true.
Dogmatic religion stems from a psychological need for group identity and belonging, together with a need for certainty and meaning. There is a strong impulse in human beings to define ourselves, whether it’s as a Christian, a Muslim, a socialist, an American, a Republican, or as a fan of a sports club.
At the root of these impulses is a fundamental anxiety and sense of lack, caused by our sense of being distinct individuals, existing in separation to other people, and a world "out there." This generates a sense of being "cut off," like fragments that were once part of a whole. There is also a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, caused by our insignificance in the face of the world. As a result, we need to "bolster" our sense of self, to strengthen our identity. And religion, and other belief systems, helps us to do this.
Dogmatic religion is dangerous because it creates an in-out group mentality. It encourages people to withdraw empathy and morality from other groups, to see them as inferior and ignorant.
"Spiritual" religion promotes the higher attributes of human nature, like altruism and compassion, and fosters a sense of the sacred and sublime. "Spiritually religious" people don’t feel any animosity to other religious groups; in fact, they’re happy to investigate other beliefs, and may even go to other groups’ temples and services. They usually aren’t evangelical; their attitude is that different religions are suited to different people, and that all religions are different manifestations or expressions of the same essential truths.
This is why religious people are capable of the most appalling acts, but also of some of the most noble. This is why religion produces both good and evil, both Osama Bin Laden and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”
The division between dogmatic and spiritual religion seems the best answer to the old puzzle: how can religion inspire both evil and good? In reality there is of course some overlap between the dogmatics and spirituals, but seeing the polarity helps clarify the persistent mystery.
Another important distinction is that dogmatics believe in a vengeful god, while spiritual people see a loving and merciful god or “cosmic consciousness” (Christ consciousness, Buddha consciousness). They see the necessity of rejecting certain parts of the bible or other “holy” scriptures. Ethics trumps the literal interpretation.
Note Yahweh in the little window in the sky
SCHOLARS OFFER NEW THEORIES OF THE ORIGINS OF THE KORAN
In 1977 two other scholars from the School for Oriental and African Studies at London University -- Patricia Crone (a professor of history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) and Michael Cook (a professor of Near Eastern history at Princeton University) -- suggested a radically new approach in their book ''Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World.''
Since there are no Arabic chronicles from the first century of Islam, the two looked at several non-Muslim, seventh-century accounts that suggested Muhammad was perceived not as the founder of a new religion but as a preacher in the Old Testament tradition, hailing the coming of a Messiah. Many of the early documents refer to the followers of Muhammad as ''hagarenes,'' and the ''tribe of Ishmael,'' in other words as descendants of Hagar, the servant girl that the Jewish patriarch Abraham used to father his son Ishmael.
In its earliest form, Ms. Crone and Mr. Cook argued, the followers of Muhammad may have seen themselves as retaking their place in the Holy Land alongside their Jewish cousins. (And many Jews appear to have welcomed the Arabs as liberators when they entered Jerusalem in 638.)
Mr. Cook and Ms. Crone have revised some of their early hypotheses while sticking to others. ''We were certainly wrong about quite a lot of things,'' Ms. Crone said. ''But I stick to the basic point we made: that Islamic history did not arise as the classic tradition says it does.''
Ms. Crone insists that the Koran and the Islamic tradition present a fundamental paradox. The Koran is a text soaked in monotheistic thinking, filled with stories and references to Abraham, Isaac, Joseph and Jesus, and yet the official history insists that Muhammad, an illiterate camel merchant, received the revelation in Mecca, a remote, sparsely populated part of Arabia, far from the centers of monotheistic thought, in an environment of idol-worshiping Arab Bedouins. Unless one accepts the idea of the angel Gabriel, Ms. Crone says, historians must somehow explain how all these monotheistic stories and ideas found their way into the Koran.
''There are only two possibilities,'' Ms. Crone said. ''Either there had to be substantial numbers of Jews and Christians in Mecca or the Koran had to have been composed somewhere else.''
Indeed, many scholars who are not revisionists agree that Islam must be placed back into the wider historical context of the religions of the Middle East rather than seeing it as the spontaneous product of the pristine Arabian desert. ''I think there is increasing acceptance, even on the part of many Muslims, that Islam emerged out of the wider monotheistic soup of the Middle East,'' says Roy Mottahedeh, a professor of Islamic history at Harvard University.
Christoph Luxenberg’s work, based on the earliest copies of the Koran, maintains that parts of Islam's holy book are derived from pre-existing Christian Aramaic texts that were misinterpreted by later Islamic scholars who prepared the editions of the Koran commonly read today.
Scholars like Mr. Luxenberg and Gerd-R. Puin, who teaches at Saarland University in Germany, have returned to the earliest known copies of the Koran in order to grasp what it says about the document's origins and composition. Mr. Luxenberg explains these copies are written without vowels and diacritical dots that modern Arabic uses to make it clear what letter is intended. In the eighth and ninth centuries, more than a century after the death of Muhammad, Islamic commentators added diacritical marks to clear up the ambiguities of the text, giving precise meanings to passages based on what they considered to be their proper context. Mr. Luxenberg's radical theory is that many of the text's difficulties can be clarified when it is seen as closely related to Aramaic, the language group of most Middle Eastern Jews and Christians at the time.
For example, the famous passage about the virgins is based on the word hur, which is an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply ''white.'' Islamic tradition insists the term hur stands for ''houri,'' which means virgin, but Mr. Luxenberg insists that this is a forced misreading of the text. In both ancient Aramaic and in at least one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means ''white raisin.''
Mr. Luxenberg has traced the passages dealing with paradise to a Christian text called Hymns of Paradise by a fourth-century author. Mr. Luxenberg said the word paradise was derived from the Aramaic word for garden and all the descriptions of paradise described it as a garden of flowing waters, abundant fruits and white raisins, a prized delicacy in the ancient Near East. In this context, white raisins, mentioned often as hur, Mr. Luxenberg said, makes more sense than a reward of sexual favors.
In many cases, the differences can be quite significant. Mr. Puin points out that in the early archaic copies of the Koran, it is impossible to distinguish between the words ''to fight'' and ''to kill.'' In many cases, he said, Islamic exegetes added diacritical marks that yielded the harsher meaning, perhaps reflecting a period in which the Islamic Empire was often at war.
A return to the earliest Koran, Mr. Puin and others suggest, might lead to a more tolerant brand of Islam, as well as one that is more conscious of its close ties to both Judaism and Christianity.
Some Muslim authors have begun to publish skeptical, revisionist work on the Koran as well. Several new volumes of revisionist scholarship, ''The Origins of the Koran,'' and ''The Quest for the Historical Muhammad,'' have been edited by a former Muslim who writes under the pen name Ibn Warraq. Mr. Warraq, who heads a group called the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society, makes no bones about having a political agenda. ''Biblical scholarship has made people less dogmatic, more open,'' he said, ''and I hope that happens to Muslim society as well.''
Andrew Rippin, an Islamicist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, says that freedom of speech in the Islamic world is more likely to evolve from within the Islamic interpretative tradition than from outside attacks on it. Approaches to the Koran that are now branded as heretical -- interpreting the text metaphorically rather than literally -- were widely practiced in mainstream Islam a thousand years ago.
''When I teach the history of the interpretation it is eye-opening to students the amount of independent thought and diversity of interpretation that existed in the early centuries of Islam,'' Mr. Rippin says. ''It was only in more recent centuries that there was a need for limiting interpretation.''
HE CHOLORIDIAN TRINITY
John Edward Wansbrough (February 19, 1928 – June 10, 2002) was an American historian who taught at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Wansbrough's emphasis was on the critique of traditional accounts of the origins of Islam. Born in Peoria, Illinois, Wansbrough completed his studies at Harvard University, and spent the rest of his academic career at SOAS.
He caused a furor in the 1970s when his research on early Islamic manuscripts, including the analysis of the repeated use of monotheistic Judeo-Christian imagery found in the Qur'an led him to posit that the rise of Islam was a mutation of what was originally a Judeo-Christian sect trying to spread in Arab lands, rather than by simple cultural diffusion. As time evolved the Judeo-Christian scriptures were adapted to an Arab perspective and mutated into what became the Qur'an which was developed over centuries with contributions from various Arab tribal sources. Wansbrough's research suggests that a great deal of the traditional history of Islam appeared to be a fabrication of later generations seeking to forge and justify a unique religious identity. Within this context, the character of Muhammad could be seen as a manufactured myth created to provide the Arab tribes with their own Arab version of the Judeo-Christian prophets.
Interestingly, the Koranic concept of the Christian Trinity is the Father, the Mother (i.e. Mary), and Jesus. There was an early Christian sect, the Choloridians, who did believe in this kind of Trinity.
AN INHIBITORY NEUROTRANSMITTER MAY BE KEY TO SLOWING DOWN AGING
As we age, the firing of neurons becomes more chaotic, in proportion to the decline in the levels of GABA, the neurotransmitter that makes the firing more selective. The article points not only to the potential anti-aging use of benzodiazepines, but also of meditation, which increases GABA-ergic inhibition, thus improving cognitive function and emotional regulation.
“The slowdown of the brain with old age is due to the lack of a brain chemical which helps neurons to be selective about what they respond to, reveals research involving the world's oldest monkeys.
The reason GABA is so important in the brain is that it works as a "gating" mechanism, explains Leventhal. By helping neurons to respond only to specific stimuli, it enables the brain to make sense of the vast quantity of incoming information.
However, as people get older the neurons in their brains increasingly fire non-selectively. Interpreting information then becomes like listening to "whispering in the discotheque as opposed to shouting in a quiet room," Leventhal says.
Higher brain functions, such as visual recognition or understanding language, require the processing of information in the brain but decline as people get older. This decline appears to be due to a reduction in a neurotransmitter called GABA, say researchers, which means neurons with specific tasks become more easily fired by some other stimulus.
Macaque monkeys, with an age equivalent to 90-years in humans, were not as sharp as their younger counterparts in visual tests despite having perfect eyesight. But when they were given drugs to increase levels of GABA in the brain they improved vastly, say the team.
Delivering GABA calms the neurons down and they become more selective, says neuroscientist Audie Leventhal, at the University of Utah School of Medicine, who led the study. "They look the same as they did 20 years ago," he says.
When GABA and a GABA-enhancing drug were delivered to the brain cells, the team saw an improvement in the selectivity of neurons in the older animals within a couple of minutes.
Oriana: I am not happy with the article’s recommendation of benzodiazepines (benzodiazepenes don’t increase GABA levels, a common misconception; they increase the sensitivity of GABA receptors). But there is an interesting drug that’s an analog of GABA: gabapentin. It also happens to be inexpensive and remarkably safe.
ending on beauty:
THE ONLY DEITY I COULD RESPECT
In Catechism classes I was told that after death there is immediate judgment (as opposed to the Last Judgment), and all my sins will be reviewed (something like, "On January 5, 1982, 3:12 pm, envied a neighbor her nice new car"). Only this morning, i.e. decades later, it occurred to me that the only kind of deity I could respect would be one that instead asks a different question: WHAT GOOD HAVE YOU DONE?
I think my answer would consist of several parts, including the good I think I’ve done as a teacher, as a friend and lover, and as a poet (yes! a stranger coming up to me after a reading, obviously affected by an insight in a poem of mine, uplifted — that counts, doesn’t it?) But I’d start with beauty — I have tried to nourish people with beauty.
And I think the deity that I could respect would have not only an ethical aspect, and be friendly and cuddly, but also have the attribute of beauty (am I thinking of a feline deity?) Just indulging in flights of fancy here — but if one can create a god, but create a cruel, punitive one? For social control through guilt, yes, but at the individual level, there is a need for a beautiful friend . . .