Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Bible Geek

My favorite podcast for several years has been “The Bible Geek” with host Robert M. Price.   A New Testament scholar, former evangelical pastor, and current atheist, Bob Price has a great love and respect for theologies, religions and myths (including comic books, of course!).   

He has little patience with “axe-grinding apologetics”, but he also has great friendships with apologists which creates an atmosphere where relationship is valued over polemics - although Bob will certainly tell you what he thinks about an issue!

He is also a master of accents, reading questions from listeners in the accent of their choice.  He usually reads Scripture in the voice of Charlton Heston, unless Jesus is speaking, then it is Willem Defoe.  And the apostle Paul is Paul Lind (Bewitched). 

All in all, it is a fascinating podcast if you like such things.  

I got a bit of a thrill when he recently addressed some of my questions.  If anyone is interested, I will paste the questions below.  Happy listening!   Or not listening!  :)

These questions are addressed at the beginning of the Dec. 5 2013 podcast.  I am particularly impressed by his response to the first question.  There is a lot for me to explore in there.

Hi Bob!

1.  My chosen myth is that of a pantheist, or panentheist, God.  God is all that is (including myself and the Bible Geek!).  And even if there is a stand-alone person of God in the mix, creation must reflect God's thought and intention,  and therefore that creation should be considered part of God, just as our thoughts and intentions are a big part of who we are.

Is there any history of this type of thought within the Judeo-Christian tradition?

2.  It seems to me that the problem people have with determinism, whether theistic or naturalistic, is that they assume there is a separate "I" being played like a marionette.   However there is no separate "I."    We are not controlled by naturalistic factors - we ARE those naturalistic factors.   The alternative is that we are disconnected from the phenomena around us.  It seems to me the same is true if one believes in theistic determinism.  God is not pulling our strings to achieve His intention - rather we ARE God's intention.

I suppose I agree with the Calvinists a bit on this one.  Too bad they mix up God and the devil!

I would be interested in your thoughts on freewill within this context.  Is there an "I" that is separate from naturalistic phenomena or from God's intention?  The idea seems incoherent to me.   

Thanks so much for your incredibly valuable insight.  I am in the car a lot teaching music lessons and playing gigs, and I always enjoy the Bible Geek!

These questions are addressed in the middle of the Dec. 7 podcast.  I was glad to hear him generally agree with me on the first, as the meaning of “turn the other cheek” has come to mean “ignore” instead of what it actually means - “OFFER the other cheek.”    The 2nd question was not addressed directly, but he offered interesting thoughts anyways.  The 3rd question response was interesting, but I think it may show a bit of a weak link in Mr. Price’s Christ Myth Theory.  However I am still very interested in the theory, and it is quite possibly correct.  Who knows?

Greetings to the garrulous Geek who knows his Greek!

I have a few questions for you, sir.

1.  I have been listening to some episodes of The Bible Geek over the last year and the subject of "turning the other cheek" has come up a few times.  Your view seems to be that the best interpretation of that passage is that it is a rejection of a retributive honor system.  While this makes some sense for sure, particularly since it is a direct challenge to "an eye for an eye" in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, I wonder if there is more to it than that.  

The passage does not say simply to walk away.  Rather it says to offer the striker the other cheek as well.   This seems to go a bit further than rejecting retaliation for the offense.   To me, it seems to imply a non-violent power play, where the struck takes back control from the striker - as in "You may have hit me, but I am the one calling the shots.  Here, hit my other cheek as well."

Doesn't this seem close to the kind of non-violent resistance we saw from Ghandi in the 20th century?  It seems an act of taking back power for the powerless by shaming the conscience of the offender.    

What sayeth the Geek?

2.  I join the Geek in criticizing the Penal Substitution Theory as fundamentally unjust.   How does punishing an innocent for the crime of another satisfy justice in any coherent way?   The sins of humanity are not presented by Paul as being akin to a parking violation, where another might pay a measly fine in our stead.  Rather the author of Romans sees the sins of humanity as a capital offense - "the wages of sin is death".

Killing an innocent in a guilty person's place makes no sense according to any civilized justice system.  Or, to put it in a way we have all heard many times, two wrongs do not make a right.

However, I am wondering if the "substitution" idea can still be moral if we remove the "penal" from in front of it?

The version I will offer here is still one of substitutionary atonement. It maintains that Christ still takes the place of sinners in a sense. But it removes the "penal" part, which is the idea that Christ's sacrifice was to appease God.
Christ submitted himself to death at the hands of sinners. He showed us the wages of our sin by taking them on himself, for sinfulness responds to love in violent ways. Contemplating the death of Christ at the hands of men, who represent the imperfections we all have, convicts our hearts. This leads us to turn from the destructive ways of sin. Therefore Christ has substituted himself for us, showing and bearing the consequences of our sin and convicting our hearts in order to lead us to the more beneficial path of right action. And of course, this right action, leads us to "at-one-ment" with God.

Christ dies for our sins, because of our sinfulness. But not because God needed to be appeased, but rather because there is a natural suffering that comes about when we do not know love.

This interpretation is one along the lines of Ghandi's hunger strikes. By taking this physical burden on himself to protest potential combat between Muslims and Hindus, he convicted the hearts of both sides and, at least for a while, led them to avoid conflict. His was a substitutionary atonement.

Is there a history of this view of atonement in Christianity?

3.  Finally, I am getting more and more familiar with the Christ Myth Theory.   While I still don't see it as the most likely candidate for describing the "historical" Jesus, the Geek has certainly succeeded in convincing me that it is a possibility to be taken seriously.

My question is this - according to the CM Theory, what would have been the catalyst for the formation of the early church?   It makes sense that if there was a person named Jesus, and he was crucified, and his followers believed him to have been raised by God, then this would have led to a reinterpretation of Jesus' past role on earth, a development of a heightened Christology over time, and the formation of a new religion.

If the Christ idea came about from a combination of Gnosticism, other mystery religions, and the notion of Yahweh as a dying and rising God - what was the spark which brought it all together into what would become Christianity?

I love your show.  Thanks for the education and the entertainment, friend!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ancient of Autumn Days

by Steven Stark and dedicated to G.A. Compton
The singed embers of the pear tree flicker red as Rahab's rope. 
Yet no trumpets, but whispering winds (no less mighty), announce this great fall.

The sweetgum sage waves his wand, weaving wisdom into colored stars. 
Yet the Magi must travel, and Diogenes must set down his cloak.

The youthful maple, like young Achilles in the lust of battle, is mortally wounded. 
But he laughs and holds high his banner stained with sunset blood.

The pistache contemplates her colors, golden orange and scarlet spice, knowing that the Queen of Sheba in all her glory was not arrayed as one of these.

The stoic elm fades, resigning his kind, quiet shade with one last gift -
-the graceful flaxen fall of his summer substitution, when Apollo was appeased and our frail faces were cooled.  

The great-hearted ash is weeping honeyed tears.
And a heart burns, crimson and contrite, as the wrinkles fall deeper around autumn eyes.

Monday, October 7, 2013

An Open Letter To Tom Coburn on Medicaid Expansion Money For Oklahoma

Dear Mr. Coburn, 10-7-2013

I recently read your editorial in the Tulsa World in support of our state leaders’ decision to turn down Medicaid expansion money.

I believe your reasoning is flawed in many respects.  You voice concerns in your piece about our state’s financial situation if we do expand Medicaid.   But let’s be clear - the federal government’s proposal is to send our state millions and millions of dollars.   These dollars would have provided medical care to the poorest among us.  But let’s also not forget, we are talking economics here after all, that these hypothetical dollars would not disappear into the ether after they are spent.   When medical personnel receive payment for their work, they in turn spend that money in their local communities.

What I am saying is that because we have turned down Medicaid expansion funds, local businesses in Oklahoma are missing out on millions of dollars in business.  This is money that would surely drive unemployment down and enrich our citizens.  It would almost certainly provide enough income for some citizens to lift themselves right off of the Medicaid roles.  Jobs and rising incomes are the answer for the large number of poor in Oklahoma.  And this decision to turn down money for healthcare, and therefore for local businesses, is going directly against that possibility.  

Small business owners, look around your store.  There would be more people in it if our state had accepted Medicaid money.    Governor Fallin’s decision has directly led to less use for your cash register.  And you are paying your federal taxes while other states (not ours) receive the economic benefit of federal dollars in return.

I can hear criticisms now:   “We don’t want money that was put here by federal spending.”     But you, Mr. Coburn, know that ALL money is put into the economy through federal spending.   That is where financial resources originate.  Dollar bills are not dropped from helicopters.  They do not spontaneously generate in our wallets.   They are introduced through federal spending.   Then we use those dollars locally to facilitate business.  (Banks also introduce dollars, but those dollars are owed back to them.  Federal spending introduces dollars owned free and clear.)

I have addressed the federal debt with you in previous letters.  However, I must point out that suggesting, as you did in your editorial, that a check from the US government could “bounce” is a falsehood.  You know this is not true, but you are stoking ignorance and paranoia in order to promote your political goals.

The United States government has run a continuous debt since 1837.  It always will, for its debt is simply the creation of money into the non-government sector.  The United States cannot, in principle, bounce a check, because all checks anywhere originate with federal spending.   You might as well suggest that the NBA might run out of points for its next game.    

In fact, the only way the US ever could come close to bouncing a check is if conservatives in Congress willfully choose to do it on purpose - which is exactly what they are threatening to do.   You and your colleagues are pronouncing fearful prophecies and then trying to self-fulfill them.  

But even if the federal government was not proposing a huge stimulus to care for our poor, our state would not go broke if we did it on our own.   Rather, we would need to spread our resources out in a different manner in order to provide more health care.  We could boost our overall productivity by hiring the unemployed, and if we need to divert some resources away from luxury cars, vacations, video games, etc. to provide basic humanity to the poor, then so be it.    

But the resources are there.   

Let’s talk about the working poor.  A childless person bagging groceries for $8 an hour cannot afford healthcare.  She is also not eligible for Medicaid, since she has no children and is under 65.  Governor Fallin’s decision to turn down the Medicaid expansion has made sure that this person still cannot qualify for Medicaid.

Do we need people to bag our groceries?   To cook and serve our meals at restaurants?  To pour our coffee?  To work our cash registers?   To care for our children?   

Then let’s not blame them for their station in life while simultaneously depending on them.  We need them.  Let’s get them health care.

I think that if you don’t want them to have health care - you will say you do, but without offering a legitimate possibility, this is a lie - then you should probably pour your own coffee.

We live in a world where people are more interested in the world obeying their particular political philosophy than they are in feeding and healing the poor.   But if the private sector were able to provide adequate care for the poor, then it would already be done.   Until churches routinely pay for heart surgeries, we need the public sector to be involved, as a public good.

I often imagine Jesus being asked - should we feed the hungry and heal the sick publicly or privately?       I imagine his answer to be   -    YES!

Perhaps the biggest weakness in your arguments against accepting Medicaid expansion money is what you propose to do instead.   Which is basically nothing.

What I read in your letter is essentially this - please stay away from the doctor, working poor.  

You make the line too long.

Mr. Coburn, I appreciate your intellect and your energy.   And I am sure that you are a wonderfully capable physician.   But on the issue of the Medicaid expansion in Oklahoma, you are guilty of both economic and moral malpractice.

Sincerely, your constituent, 

Steven Stark, Oklahoma City

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Oklahoma State Teacher Of The Year

Bravo, Peter Markes.  He is doing so much for students and for music in our culture.   I have come to believe that making music in a group setting is an unsurpassed method of building character, and the orchestra at Edmond North is putting that into practice every class period (and beyond).

Friday, September 20, 2013

Theology From The Plain Part Four - Does It Make Sense To Think Of God As A Person?

In an earlier TFOP post I wrote that I use the word “God” both in reference to the totality all that is and also to a smaller portion of all that is that reflects its possible overall intention and ultimate direction.    Granted, the second definition requires much more of a leap of faith than the first!

However in either of these cases, but particularly focusing on the less controversial first meaning of “God”,  does it make sense to think of God as a person?  

If God is all, then it would make sense to think of God as more than a mere person.  And it would seem an act of extreme hubris to think that God is exactly like us, one small part of the all.  Yet it is also true that there are persons within the all - us for instance!.  So even if the totality of God is much more, or much different, than a version of exactly what we are (persons), personhood is certainly not something alien to God.

Therefore, is it acceptable to think of God as a person, or to attempt to interact with God in personal ways?  Through internal dialogue, speaking, intuitive feelings, or any kind of experience?

I think it does make sense to seek God personally, not so much because God is necessarily a person, but rather because I am a person.  The personhood of God could be a framework, a symbol, a language, a heuristic even, existing in my own mind that enables me to possibly interact meaningfully with the all.

So once again,  if I attempt to interact personally with God, it is not so much because God is a person, but because I am a person.   Personhood is a framework that this particular part of the cosmos (me) might use as an operating system to think about the cosmos as a whole.

One criticism I can think of is this - does this mean that I can anthropomorphize anything?   

First of all, anthropomorphizing things is not necessarily bad, but obviously when we stop trying to consider another entity on its own terms it can be dangerous.  The golden rule does not work so well if we are dealing with another life form with different needs than a human!  But when I am talking about God here, I am not talking about a tree or a lizard.  I am talking about all that is.  The cosmos as a whole.  Everything.  Any kind of possible communication would have to take a form that is specific to me - a kind of user interface adapted to the abilities of the user.

And secondly, I already have ways of interacting with a tree.  I can touch it, see it, etc. - which are also user interfaces for me.  To say a tree is "rough to the touch" says as much about my systems of perception as it does about the tree.  This subject is obviously a huge potential rabbit hole.....   But the main point is that I do not need to consider a tree a person in some way to interact with it.  However, I do not have a way of interacting with the cosmos as a whole.  I cannot zoom out to take much more of it in (much like a skin cell cannot zoom out to see the entire body), and I certainly cannot get outside of “all that is” both because of my limited abilities and because that is a meaningless concept anyway.  

Of course many would argue that whatever I think, I still do not have a way of interacting with the cosmos!  Point taken!  But if I want to take a leap of faith and assume that meaningful communication is even a remote possibility, then it makes sense that I would need a user interface of some kind.  And it makes sense that personhood might be that user interface for me, since I am a person.

So in conclusion, I am not suggesting that there is definitely a personal God out there.  That is beyond my ability to comment definitively on.  But I am saying that a personal God exists in me, because I am a person.  And if it is a meaningful endeavor to seek interaction with “all that is”, it certainly seems reasonable that personhood could be a user interface for me.

But is it a meaningful endeavor?  Is it possible that the personal God within me corresponds to something greater?  My thought is that, because our understanding of things must necessarily relate to our total experience of things as a part to the whole,  there may be room for a little leap of faith here.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Another Night

Apparently this aired during the last commercial break of Letterman this week (I assume regionally?) - and no one told me!   

I really enjoyed playing with Graham, and I look forward to hearing the new album this fall.  I contributed cello tracks on two or three songs back in the spring.

The moustache has gone, but the music remains.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Only Thing I'm Missing Is You

This is a demo of a country song I wrote and recorded while working on the music for the documentary "Where Did The Horny Toad Go? in the summer of 2011.   It needs a better singer, but other than that, I am pretty pleased with it.

“The Only Thing I’m Missing Is You”

by Steven Stark

Working thirty acres of Texas soil,
my hands are blistered from this toil.
The mesquite and the cedar must go.
Got to make some room for the live oak to grow.

Heaven is here under the West Texas sun,
but hell lives on through things I have done.
I’m shooting up cactus with an old .22.
The only thing I’m missing is you

The scrub looks small, but the roots run deep.
For years of neglect, this is what I reap.
I’m thinking of the day you had to go.
It’s taken me while, but I’ve come to know that

Heaven is here under the West Texas sun,
but hell lives on through things I have done.
I’m ankle deep in brass from my old .22.
The only thing I’m missing is you.

Heaven is here under the West Texas sun,
but hell lives on through things I have done.
Running out of ammo for my old .22 
The only thing I’m missing is you.

Heaven is here under the West Texas sun,
but hell lives on through things I have done.
I’m running out of cactus for my old .22.
The only thing I’m missing is you.

Rocky Mountain Vacation Addendum!

I almost forgot the best quote of the trip!   I asked my 87 year old grandmother if she had found a church in Pagosa Springs to attend over the summer (they live in Eldorado, TX most of the year).   

She responded, “I like the old hymns, and it is tough to find a church where they still sing them.  Instead, they sing all these.....well, I call them 7-11 songs.  There’s 7 words and you repeat them 11 times.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rocky Mountain Vacation!

The five of us had a great trip up to Pagosa Springs....Susan, Severin, Wolfgang, myself and the stomach bug. 

The stomach bug didn't enjoy Colorado too much, but it had a rockin' time on the trip up and the trip back!

We fished, rafted, hand fed chipmunks, hiked up a waterfall, observed much wildlife (including red foxes, mule deer and hummingbirds) and had a wonderful time with my uncle and grandparents.

We thoroughly enjoyed the canyons of the Texas panhandle, the deserts of New Mexico, and the mountains and lakes of Colorado.

And since we passed through Amarillo (the boys loved the Big Texan!), I have to include my favorite country song of all time.

I wish all of you a wonderful summer!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Boy Scouts To Allow Wealthy Members

The Garlic Press reports:

NASHVILLE, TN --  Many conservative religious groups were surprised by a recent vote by the Boy Scouts of America to amend membership requirements.  The organization will now allow wealthy youth to be scouts, although a ban on wealthy scout leaders remains in place.
Dr. Richard D. Land is the president of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the moral and ethics concern entity of the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States.
“We are saddened by the Boy Scouts decision to fly in the face of traditional Christian values.  Being wealthy is continually condemned throughout Scripture, particularly by Jesus himself in the New Testament.  Frankly, I will be surprised if any Southern Baptist churches continue sponsoring boy scout troops that allow wealthy members.”

“I mean, have you read James chapter 5?” Dr. Land continued, “Or the Magnificat?" 

"What about Matthew 19 where Jesus says that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?   I don’t think that was about finding giant needles or tiny camels...”

When asked what he thought about interpretations of the Scriptures which suggest that the real point is about prioritizing things in life, rather than directly condemning wealth, Mr. Land snorted,  “What are we going to do?  Take the Bible at face value when it suits us and then do theological gymnastics when it doesn’t?”

The Boy Scouts of America also recently voted to allow gay members to be admitted to the group.  

“The gay thing is a sideshow,” said Dr. Land.  “Sure, we don’t like that either, but Jesus didn’t even mention it directly.   When I think of a gay person and a rich person, I think I know who has a better chance of getting through the eye of that needle!”

When asked about the suit he was wearing, and whether it reflected a degree of wealth, Dr. Land responded quickly,  “What, this thing?   I got it at a garage sale.”    

As he opened the door to his rusted 1998 Ford Festiva, he called back, “What do you think I am?  A Presbyterian?”

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Letter To The Members of the American Muslim Association in Oklahoma

Dear members of the American Muslim Association of Oklahoma,
I would like to take a moment and apologize for the unwise and ignorant actions of our fellow Oklahomans who defaced the exterior of the Grand Mosque this past weekend.
In Christianity, the church is a community of persons united by certain principles.  This is distinguished from the church building.   Therefore no ignorant action, perpetuating dislike and misunderstanding, one can ever truly deface your community.   

I will keep you in my thoughts, and please know that so many of us treasure the variety of different practices and traditions you bring to our city and our state.  

I know that we serve a common purpose.  I hope that we can continue to work together - as it says on your website - “towards the goal of spirituality, betterment of humanity, and performing charity.”

“Our ardent prayer and hope is that peace prevail throughout the world.”

I hope to see you soon.   

Your neighbor,   

Steven Stark  (a member of Mayflower Congregational UCC)

Monday, April 29, 2013

Janos Starker Playing Bartok

Thanks for being an interesting character, Janos Starker - and an amazing cellist.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


In my previous post, I mentioned the "Cavatina" movement from Beethoven's string quartet No. 13 in Bb Opus 130, as performed by the Emerson String Quartet.

I cannot just mention it though.  I listened to this most celebrated, most intimate, most holy music again after my previous post, and I don’t mind saying that I cried like a child.

This movement is a spacious contemplation of the point of it all.   But it is what happens after the fire and the fury.  After our impassioned “Why?!!” has run its course.  After the drunkenness has begun to fade.

It is the clear-eyed moment right before dawn.

The middle portion of the piece, which begins at the 2:22 mark (once again, as performed by the Emerson quartet here) is the center.  The sublime.    It is the moment when the ALL, of which I am an infinitesimally small part, touches my arm and says, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The speaking continues,  “Remember.   This life, this existence, this creation, this crucible - of pain, of sorrow, of awe, of joy, of terror and of beauty -  this crucible of creation is the one we chose - do you remember?  We chose it.  We created it.  We wanted to forget, for a while, and therefore to really live."

"But all will be well."

And at the 2:50 mark this still, small voice then swells in glory - a tiny peek through the veil.

And then, in utter generosity,  at the 3:22 mark these reminding phrases are repeated again, in different voicing - another reminder of the variety in the unity - the choice of creation.  

And one last peak at 3:50.  One last peek for now.

Then we are gently led back.  Back to a moment of rest before this life beings anew.

But remember.   All will be well.

Cheese Doodles and Beethoven


When cheese doodles leads to a moment of pure bliss!

From the amazing Radiolab episode:

"On day 86 of a 3-month trek to and from the South Pole, adventurer Aleksander Gamme discovered something he'd stashed (and forgotten) under the ice at the start of his trip (3 months earlier). He wasn't expecting such a rush of happiness in that cold..."

And now!

Please listen to the "Alla Dansa Tedesca" and "Cavatina" movements from Beethoven's string quartet No. 13 in Bb Opus 130.  I like the Emerson String Quartet’s performance (as usual!).  These ten minutes of music are just a slice from Beethoven’s mesmerizing late quartets.

The first time you hear it, it is quite beautiful. By the 5th or 6th time it sounds like the music that should play at the end of the world.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Badass Fugue

This is the last movement of the F minor quartet from Haydn's Op. 20 set. What's this? Not the jaunty classical Haydn you are used to? That's right. This is a double fugue. The 2nd violin presents the first subject, then the viola follows up with the second one. It's incredibly intellectual and exciting music.

In a "regular" fugue, each instrument enters with the melody (called the subject) one at a time.  A series of episodes and returns to the subject follow, through different keys and variations.  In this double fugue, there are two subjects - just to make it even cooler.

It’s only about three minutes, so be sure to listen to the whole thing! 

Thursday, February 7, 2013


I realize that we live in an age of sound bytes and bumper stickers, and what we need is more reasoned discussion.

But I love expressing ideas compactly!   Perhaps catchy phrases, at their best, can stimulate thought and conversation?   Plus they are fun to work on, like a poem or a musical phrase.

Here are a few that I have collected over the last year.  Many of them are somewhat similar, as I have tried different approaches to similar ideas.   You may or may not agree with all of them, but I hope you enjoy some of my slogans!

Yelling “Tyranny!” feels more effective than “I disagree with your position because it is incrementally different than mine!”

True justice is an expression of love, not its counterweight. 

If you want to learn it quickly, practice it slowly.

Your work is what you make.  Your income is what you take.

Nothing produces libertarians faster than the other guy winning.  

For your family, your income is what you make.  For your society, your income is what you take.

The only true revenge is rehabilitation.

It is amazing that people can think on the one hand that government is incompetent and on the other hand that it is perpetrating vast conspiracies.

Symbols convey truths that cannot be adequately expressed with vernacular language.

Labels, like nets, are useful at capturing ideas, but they miss a lot through their holes.

Common sense is only useful when one understands the context.

Efficiency is only worthwhile if it leads to greater well-being.

Sometimes freedom is more a product of your perspective than of your circumstance.

Faith is not the same as belief.  

Our understanding relates to our experience as a part to a whole.

“Living within our means” is ultimately a question of our resources, not our finances.  (with apologies to the economists at

Love is looking at another and seeing yourself.

There is always room for a reasonable leap of faith.

In a society of conformity, we focus on difference.  In a society of diversity, we focus on commonality.

Hope + Trust = Faith

Faith is not our problem.  The abuse of faith is our problem.

Closing our eyes to empirical reality is an abuse of faith.