Shortsighted

Kudos to Robert Cowan for saying that the objections that scuttled Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to pay for college classes for prison inmates were “shortsighted.” By refusing to fund what these politicians sardonically labeled “Attica University,” they show themselves penny-wise but pound-foolish, as well as ostrich-like in their refusal to see some basic facts.

Cowan’s statement that “with access to college-level courses, prisoners are much less likely to return to the behaviors that landed them in jail in the first place” has been demonstrated time and time again. Fewer than 2 percent of the released graduates of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, highlighted in the HBO documentary The University of Sing Sing, have returned to the penal system. This has saved the public millions of dollars. Just as important, these college-educated men have returned to their communities, gotten jobs (not without difficulty), helped keep their children in school, and modeled how our penal system might actually accomplish justice and restoration rather than punishment and serial recidivism. 

Today we see signs that many people are waking up to the terrible effects of policies that have caused the mass incarceration of poor minorities. As part of this recognition, perhaps those who complain about the cost of educating felons can look clear-eyed at the more devastating price of ignorance—their own as well as that of so many under-educated who inhabit our prisons. 

Paul E. Dinter
Ossining, N.Y.

 

No wonder

The trio of authors you assembled to address the training of priests was spot on (Clerical Errors). The church, beyond any hesitation, has a long way to go. As a survivor of clerical abuse, I must focus on your first writer, Paul Blaschko, and his experience in the seminary. I was horrified. What Blaschko witnessed as common practices with respect to sexuality and human development can only be described as draconian. No wonder some men are inclined to abuse. Most do not. I’ve been blessed to know many good and holy priests who are well grounded and have deep friendships with both men and women. Over time, life has taught them that they, regardless of celibacy, are complex sexual persons who need intimacy just like all pilgrims in Christ.

Mark Joseph Williams
Far Hills, N.J.

 

Creative tension

Is it just me, or would Andrew Bacevich’s review of Elizabeth Samet’s No Man’s Land (March 6) have fit just as well with your series of articles on how we train our priests (Clerical Errors) in the same issue?

According to Bacevich, the main thesis of Samet’s book is that war is chaos—“never, ever what you expect it to be”—and requires leaders who have a capacity for creativity. “To assume that inculcating an identifiable set of attitudes, habits, and skills provides an adequate preparation...is to do a tremendous disservice to those sent to fight, especially in positions of leadership,” as Bacevich summarizes Samet’s argument.

I have no first-hand knowledge of military training, and it’s been over thirty years since I was in seminary (during a relatively creative period in many U.S. seminaries), but I wonder whether Samet’s critique of how the military trains its leaders might also apply to how the church trains its leaders.

The problem, Samet says, is that “training does not inculcate creativity. Its whole purpose is to enforce conformity, binding rather than liberating.” I hope today’s seminarians experience their training as more liberating than binding; I hope too that they are being encouraged to develop “imaginations bold enough to anticipate a future that may look nothing like the past or remarkably like some forgotten past.”

Dave Cushing
Waterloo, Iowa

 

Torn

Regarding Luke Timothy Johnson’s review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee: I’m not even Christian; I’m Jewish, so why am I torn between the historicism of Ehrman and the sturdy belief of Johnson? It is said of Franz Kafka that he had two fixed ideas: 1) there is no God, and 2) that he exists. F. Scott Fitzgerald held that the mark of a sound mind is the ability to keep two opposing views and still function. That describes perfectly my struggle to choose between two respected figures.

Ever since I picked up a pocketbook New Testament over four decades ago I have been addicted to the study of early Christianity. My shelves are stacked with E. P. Sanders, Fr. Raymond Brown, Albert Schweitzer, Fredriksen, Wills, even Bultmann. Magazines like Commonweal, U.S. Catholic, and the Christian Century arrive along with Jewish Social Studies, Moment, and the Jerusalem Post.

Early on I got skeptical looks from Jewish friends when I equated the rapid spread of Christianity with the lasting power of Judaism, both miraculous in their own right. But it is a sign of our technological world that I experienced no conflict until I started listening to the Great Courses CDs on long car rides. I listened to Ehrman and Johnson. As a practicing skeptic, my first favorite was Ehrman, who has a strong appeal for us college-educated, secular-minded types who tell ourselves we’re just seeking “truth.” Ehrman is historically seductive on early Christianity, with a hard eye for “facts.” He recommends reading the New Testament “horizontally,” better to see all the inconsistencies: The gospels cannot have been written by eye witnesses. Did Jesus die on the night before Passover, as in John, or the day of the holiday, as in Matthew? How did the single mention of Mary Magdalen turn her into a prostitute? And what about pseudigrafia and those extra chapters of Mark? Ehrman, a Scripture scholar and prolific author, smooths the guide for the perplexed by repeatedly proclaiming that he is not denouncing, merely trying to be historical.

That was all very well and good until I discovered Luke Timothy Johnson, who gently puts all that historical data aside, spurning Schweitzer, Vermes, Renan, et al. as essentially irrelevant, not even bothering to refute any of the points I mentioned. His posture leads one into the lush pastures of experiential belief and—let no one deny it—he is very good. When I mentioned Johnson to a Jewish scholar, he smiled, himself no automatic true believer, and said, “He is the best.” I cannot do better than Great Courses, which describes Johnson as “one who maintains that the most familiar aspects of Christianity—its myths, institutions, ideas and morality—are only its outer ‘husk,’” “as opposed to its ‘kernel’…which still holds the secret to its ability to attract new followers.”

I suspect there are many Christians who share this conflict. Every once in a while I hear an echo from the Christian side of the fence about the burden of pure belief. The problem is certainly not unknown among adherents of both faiths; witness Augustine for Christians and Maimonides for Jews, both prime witnesses to the struggle for belief. As a Jew, the best answer I can summon is the response of the people to Moses (Exodus 24:7): We will do and we will hear—exactly the opposite of ordinary logic. Surely I will go on pondering which one to choose. Perhaps I will never be decisive. Perhaps the struggle is its own reward.

Harold Ticktin
Shaker Heights, Ohio

Published in the May 15, 2015 issue: 

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