‘It Can’t Happen Here’? A (Frightening) Look at American Dystopias

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Although a long line of American authors have written about the United States in positive and even utopian terms, others have written about a darker place, even imagining a dystopian America. For example, in 1935 Sinclair Lewis published a novel depicting a fascist dictatorial takeover of the United States along the lines of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. For many the very notion of an “American dictatorship” is a contradiction in terms and thus too absurd to merit serious consideration: America is often believed to be self-evidently “exceptional” and thus immune to ills that can befall other nations. As Lewis’s title somewhat mockingly put it: It Can’t Happen Here. This lecture surveys several 20th-century works whose authors thought that political evil can indeed “happen here” and that Americans ought to be vigilantly on their guard against “it.” Continue reading

The Gospel According to Muhammad: The Qur’an’s Account of Jesus as a Non-Canonical Gospel

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Although a relatively late Abrahamic scripture, the Qur’an has quite a bit to say about figures and events in the Abrahamic tradition that preceded it and that Islam understands itself to be built upon. Among other things, the Qur’an contains within it an account of Jesus’ life and mission that in some sense amounts to yet another “gospel”. This lecture will present an introduction to this “Gospel According to Muhammad” and consider the Qur’anic version of the Jesus story in comparison with New Testamental versions of the story as well as with several non-canonical “Christian” versions. Continue reading

Online Socratic Method Seminars in Adult Congregation Education: A Look at Today’s Realities and Possibilities

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For most of its history, “distance education” meant correspondence courses in which teachers’ lessons and students’ responses (if any) were transmitted by surface mail. With the development of the Internet, however, it is now possible for individuals who are separated physically to come together intellectually in shared virtual learning environments — including virtual environments that are beginning to support the most “high touch” learning of all: “Socratic Method” seminars structured to facilitate students’ critical, collaborative, first-hand engagement with classic texts. After providing a brief overview of distance education in general and contemporary online learning environments in particular, this lecture will examine the realities and possibilities of online Socratic Method seminars today and consider the contributions that such seminars might make to adult congregation education. Continue reading

‘For He Shall Save His People from Their Sins’: The Gospel According to Matthew as Jewish Literature

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Although the Gospel According to Matthew is generally and naturally thought of as a “Christian” work, historical and literary evidence suggests that both the text’s author and intended audience may well have been Jewish. Indeed, in some ways Matthew “makes more sense” as one of the last books of the Hebrew Bible than as one of the first books of the New Testament. This lecture will survey the historical and literary contexts in which Matthew was originally produced as well as the religious contexts in which it has been subsequently read in order to consider a new thing in an old light. Continue reading

‘A Rich Man Who Dies Rich Dies in Disgrace’: Andrew Carnegie and ‘The Gospel of Wealth’

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As perhaps the classic embodiment of the “rags-to-riches” American Dream, Andrew Carnegie developed a well-thought-out perspective on the proper place of wealth — the getting of it, the living with it and the giving away of it — in a democracy. Indeed, Carnegie both articulated what came to be known as his “Gospel of Wealth” in numerous writings and speeches and manifested it in his life, including in his numerous charitable gifts. Through an examination of Carnegie’s works, this lecture will explore Carnegie’s perspective on wealth, with special attention to those aspects that drove Carnegie to become the father of modern philanthropy. Continue reading

You Say ‘Yahweh’, I Say ‘The LORD’; Or, Why God by Any Other Name Ain’t

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While the gods (and goddesses) in most religious systems have personal names (think: Zeus, Jupiter, Athena, Mars, etc.), many people think that the god of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament does not — that “He” is simply “God” or “The LORD”. The truth, however, is more complex and subtle. This lecture will survey the evolution of the name(s) of the god(s) of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament as well as explore the philosophical implications of deity naming (and non-naming). Continue reading

On the Transvaluation of Viking Values: Nietzsche Reads Beowulf

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In his Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche traces what he calls the “slave revolt in morality”, an episode of the “transvaluation of values” in which Western notions of “right” and “wrong” were inverted. As a consequence, the “master morality” of the Greco-Roman world (embodied in its epics) was replaced by the “slave morality” of Judeo-Christian world (embodied in its scriptures) and what was formerly “good” became “evil” and what was formerly “bad” became “good”. This lecture will apply Nietzsche’s paradigm to Beowulf — arguably a “Christian Viking” work about the “pagan Viking” past — in an effort both to better understand the poetic significance of the life and death of the great hero Beowulf and to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Nietzsche’s theory. Continue reading

Aeneas Gets an Epic: Virgil’s Aeneid and the Invention of the ‘Greco-Roman’ World

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Both in its conception and in its execution, Virgil’s Roman epic the Aeneid is intimately dependent upon Homer’s Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Indeed Virgil goes out of his way to both imitate Homer’s poems and to connect his story with Homer’s stories.  This lecture will explore the various relationships between Virgil’s work and Homer’s works in order to better understand both the Aeneid as a work of literature and Virgil’s cultural project to portray Rome as an integral part of the classical Greek world. Continue reading