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Mark Twain’s blasphemy, Emily Dickinson’s presumptuous impiety



As we all know by now, Louisiana is experimenting with freeing their children from the tyranny of the Government Schools, and will soon, maybe, start spending public school funds on vouchers for kids to attend any private school their parents want (unless it’s anIslammy school, of course). And as we also all know, this will open the door to public funds being spent onsome rather innovative “science” curricula.

The hippie freaks at Mother Jonesran a fine story detailing some of the fun stuff to be found in textbooks published for the Christian School and homeschool market. Sure, the Earth is 6000 years old and The Flintstones is biologically accurate, but that’s old hat. Let’s get beyond Creationism and see how Christianists teach other subjects! For instance, early 20th-Century history:

“[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.” — United States History for Christian Schools, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2001

Or this revisionist view of the Great Depression, in which we learn it ain’t no thing after all:

“Perhaps the best known work of propaganda to come from the Depression was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath…Other forms of propaganda included rumors of mortgage foreclosures, mass evictions, and hunger riots and exaggerated statistics representing the number of unemployed and homeless people in America.” — United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1996

Or maybe this intriguing spin on mathematics?

“Unlike the ‘modern math’ theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute…A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory.” —

Maggie Koerth-Baker has an outstanding exploration of the possible “anti-Biblical” implications of set theory over at BoingBo... and we urge you to go over there and read it as soon as you’re finished with your Wonketting. Really, go read it. It’s Sunday, you filthy heathens, we already KNOW you aren’t in church. Then come back here for a nice dirty secular chat.

The Mother Jones bit that really intrigued us was a couple of brief excerpts from Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, published by Bob Jones University in 2001, which appear to dismiss Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson because of their spiritual failings: “Twain’s outlook,” we read, “was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless … Twain’s skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.” And Dickinson “viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.”

Hmmm, thought Your Correspondent, we would like to investigate this Bizarro-World further! Happily, you can get just about anything on ebay,and so, Dear Wonketteers, we present Part One of our exploration of this 10th Grade Literature textbook from Parallel Earth.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the Christian Right has a decidedly special view of the world, one in which the Bible is, at least in theory, central to everything — even basic logic. The literary texts in Elements are pretty unremarkable, really — there’s a fairly conventional mix of poetry and prose, a bowdlerized version of Romeo and Juliet, and a few personal essays. (Unsurprisingly, the selections are almost all by men. Including Dickinson, only five women appear in Elements. Only two, Eudora Welty and Helen Keller, get the honor of multi-page prose works. Girls, you should be mommies, and maybe you could write poems.) The real surprise to a secular reader is not that the selections are especially religious. A few are, but most aren’t.

The High Weirdness is to be found before and after the literary readings, in the book’s interpretive framework, and especially in the “About the Author” notes (we’ll address those in a later post — today, we’ll look at How To Read Literature Like a Fundamentalist). Each topic area in Elements is introduced with a brief discussion of how that figure of speech or narrative structure is used in the Bible:

Personification gives human characteristics to objects, ideas, abstractions, or animals. Notice, for example, Isaiah 55:12: the mountains and hills “break forth…into singing, and all the trees of the field…clap their hands” (5).

It is perhaps a relief that the editors do not insist on literalism for this passage, at least. Elements is careful to remind young readers that, for the best examples of literary excellence, “there is no writing in English that equals the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible” (27). However, the editors warn, “If the artistry of Scripture is detached from the message and authority of Scripture and its divine origin is disregarded, literary analysis can promote unbelief” (ix). Such worries about theological purity run throughout the book. Even aesthetic judgements are possible avenues for sin. In discussing allusion, we move from the perfectly obvious observation that modern readers often miss the allusions in older literature, to a peevish condemnation of the inside jokes of modern writers:

The allusions in much modern poetry are private rather than public. That is, they refer to the author’s personal experiences rather than to the common experiences of mankind or even to the general reading experience of educated people. Unidentifiable personal allusions…indicate that the writer does not care to communicate clearly with his reader or that he egotistically thinks himself the center of everybody’s world. Sensible readers are impatient with such vagueness (92-93).

This suspicion of anything other than clarity in writing is something of a running theme in Elements. After all, the King James Bible is always straightforward and obvious in its meaning (yes, they suggest this — biblical allegories are a simple matter of diagramming out what the symbols stand for!), so good writing should be, too. The editors’ utter intolerance of ambiguity comes to a head in their introduction to the “Short Fiction” section, which is worth quoting at length:

The Bible describes evil actions but leaves no doubt what our attitude toward those actions should be. It does not leave us in moral confusion. Good fiction likewise does not, directly or by implication, call good evil or evil good. It does not leave moral questions unanswered. Its moral viewpoint is that of the Scriptures.

Fiction then needs to be judged as strictly by standards of truth as nonfiction. There is no subtler persuasion than that which occurs in a well-written serious work of fiction. We will need to ask of a story whether God — the Biblical God — is present and active, at least by implication, in its imaginary world…. Do characters’ actions have moral consequences? Is evil condemned and good approved? … The discerning Christian approves of fiction that is neither cynical (denying the possibility of happiness and goodness) nor sentimental (denying the possibility of unhappiness and evil but Biblically realistic , affirming the possibility of happiness and goodness as man acts in accordance with the will of God) (228-229).

We have a feeling that the editors of Elements of Literature For Christian Schools would not much care for a lot of our favorite books and authors.Catch-22, for instance, is a hell of a good read, but isn’t especially redeeming, and it certainly doesn’t hold out much hope for redemption. For that matter, neither does Bleak House. Vonnegut? Orwell? Cheever? No. Octavia Butler? Tom Robbins? Zadie Smith? Carl Hiaasen? Nope. Louise Erdrich? Philip Roth? Saul Bellow? Ursula Leguin? No, no, no, and no. David Sedaris? Oh, my, no. No, sorry, every one of them is a bad writer by this definition. Maybe Anthony Trollope is OK, although his characters find happiness while being Christians, not really because they are Christians.

We suppose The Handmaid’s Tale is right out, too, although at least it has a happy ending.

Coming In Part II: Mark Twain’s blasphemy, Emily Dickinson’s presumptuous impiety, and James Joyce: an unhealthy influence.

[Mother Jones / BoingBoing]

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What do Christian fundamentalists have against set theory?

I've mentioned here before that I went to fundamentalist Christian schools from grade 8 through grade 11. I learned high school biology from a Bob Jones University textbook, watched videos of Ken Ham talking about cryptozoology as extra credit assignments, and my mental database of American history probably includes way more information about great revival movements than yours does. In my experience, when the schools I went to followed actual facts, they did a good job in education. Small class sizes, lots of hands-on, lots of writing, and lots of time spent teaching to learn rather than teaching to a standardized test. But when they decided that the facts were ungodly, things went to crazytown pretty damn quick.

All of this is to say that I usually take a fairly blasé attitude towards the "OMG LOOK WHAT THE FUNDIES TEACH KIDS" sort of expose that pops up occasionally on the Internet. It's hard to be shocked by stuff that you long ago forgot isn't general public knowledge. You say A Beka and Bob Jones University Press are still freaked about Communism, take big detours into slavery/KKK apologetics, and claim the Depression was mostly just propaganda? Yeah, they'll do that. Oh, the Life Science textbook says humans and dinosaurs totally hung out and remains weirdly obsessed with bombardier beetles? What else is new?

Well, for me, this is new:

"Unlike the "modern math" theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute....A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory." —

Wait? What?

First off, let's establish what set theory actually involves.

Sets are exactly what you think they are—groups of things. Prime numbers, unicorns, cats, whatever ... you can make a set of it. Set theory is just a way of talking about what sets do and what they are like.

On the surface, this sounds pretty simple. For instance, most of what I learned about set theory when I was in college came through classes in anthropological linguistics. That's because sets, being made of anything you damn well please, have applications outside of pure math. Ted Sider, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University has some good examples of this in a set theory primer he's written:

In linguistics, for example, one can think of the meaning of a predicate, ‘is red’ for instance, as a set — the set of all red things. Here’s one hint of why sets are so useful: we can apply this idea to predicates that apply to other predicates. For instance, think of ‘red is a color’. ‘Is a color’ is a predicate, and it looks like it holds of things like the meaning of ‘is red’. So we can think of ‘is a color’ as meaning a set containing all the colors. And these colors in turn are sets: the set of all red things, the set of all green things, etc. This works because i) a set collects many things into one, and ii) many sets themselves can be put together to form a new set.

So far, so good. In this basic form, sets are involved in lots of things. They come up in musical notation, they help define the way we communicate with computers, and they are the things that make Venn Diagram jokes possible.

But sets and set theory can also be a lot more complicated. For instance, you can make up sets that contradict themselves. The classic example is a set made up of barbers who shave everyone in town (including themselves) and who only shave the people who don't shave themselves. Oops. Another problem: Sets that are too broadly defined, so you don't know if you're actually putting the right stuff in there. A set made up of the favorite things of a tall person, say. Paradoxes like this are what really drive set theory, much of which centers on defining rules for sets and how they work so that we don't just go around assuming certain sets exist when they clearly can't—andso that we can still use the valuable logic and math of sets even when we can't prove that the stuff we're sticking into a set actually exists in the real world. Basically, set theory has a lot to do with creating rules and helping us apply a rule-based system in weird, hypothetical situations.

All of which turns out to be really important when you want to talk about the idea of infinity. Set theory actually has its origins in attempts to define infinity and deal with it in a concrete way in mathematics. Checking Wikipedia, you'll learn that this "modern" theory was actually established in 1874. Why 1874? Because that was when a guy named Georg Cantor proved that there are different infinities and that not all infinities are created equal.

Again, what?

This is really where set theory starts to sound like something you thought up while high and later forgot about.

You can have an infinite set of numbers, right? That makes sense. But, Cantor figured out that an infinite set of, say, whole numbers, is smaller than an infinite set of decimal numbers. They're both infinite. But they're not the same. This TEDEd video explains it really, really well:

So what does all of this have to do with Christian fundamentalists? I have to admit, when I first read that Mother Jones piece, I was stumped. I don't remember anybody disparaging set theory at the schools I went to. And, I'll be honest, I didn't remember enough about what set theory was to be able put the pieces together. (I was also somewhat disappointed to find that the Conservapedia entry didn't offer much help.)

But after re-acquainting myself with this stuff, I think I see a couple of things happening that would make set theory problematic for some Christian fundamentalists.

First: Some of these folks get very touchy about the idea of infinity. Mark Chu-Carroll is a software engineer at foursquare and a math blogger. Unlike me, he was already aware of the fundamentalist objection to set theory, because he's actually had people show up in his comment section railing about how the theory is an affront to God. Particularly the part about multiple infinities. Chu-Carroll told me that one commenter explained the problem this way: "There is only one infinity, and that is God." Basically, this perspective looks at set theory and Georg Cantor and sees humankind trying to replace the divine with numbers and philosophy.

The second problem is a little more complex. Remember how the modern idea of set theory really isn't all that modern? That's because I'm pretty sure A Beka doesn't mean "modern" as in "recent", but "modern" as in "modernist".

I can tell you from experience that A Beka (and Bob Jones University Press) are stridently against modernism in all its forms. (I'm assuming they're against post-modernism, too, but you have to understand that the opinions and perspectives this sort of Christian fundamentalism has about society and culture were formed between the late 1920s and early 1970s and, because of this, the culture wars that they are fighting often come across as confusingly antiquated. Thus, the ongoing obsession with the imminent threat of Communism. See also: Why I sat through multiple sermons on the evils of rock n' roll in the late 1990s.)

If you associate modernism primarily with abstract art, Scandinavian furniture, and houses made out of glass, then all of this is probably just as confusing as set theory, itself. But art isn't really what the fundamentalists are thinking about when they think about modernism.

Instead, they see modernism as the opposing worldview to their own. They are all about tradition (or, at least, what they have decided is traditional). Modernism is a knee-jerk rejection of tradition in favor of the new. Obviously, they think a very specific sort of Christian God should be the center of everything and all parts of society, public and private. Modernists prefer ideas like secular humanism and think God is something you should be doing in private, on your own time. They believe strongly in the importance of power hierarchies and rules. Modernism smashes all of that and says, "Hey, just do your own thing. Nobody's ideas are any better or worse than anybody else's. There's no right and wrong. Go crazy, man!" [Insert obligatory bongo drumming session]

I am hamming this up a bit, but you get the picture. Modernism, to the publishers of A Beka math books, is sick and wrong. The idea is that if you reject their specific idea of God and their specific idea of The Rules, then you must be living in a crazy, dangerous world. You could kill people, and you would think it was okay, because you're a modernist and you know there's really no such thing as right and wrong. Basically, they've bumped into a need to separate themselves from the almost inhuman Other on a massive scale, and latched on to modernism as a shorthand for how to do that. It doesn't matter what you or I actually believe, or even what we actually do. They know what we MUST believe and what we MUST be like because of the tenets of modernism.

More importantly, they know that we are subtle, and use sneaky means to indoctrinate children and lure adults into accepting modernist values. So the art, the literature, the jazz—probably the Scandinavian furniture, too, though I never heard anyone mention that specifically—are all just traps. They're ways of getting us to reject to One True Path a little bit at a time. (I should note that, up to this point, I am basing my analysis on what I was taught in Baptist school. After this, I'm speculating, and attempting to connect the ideas I know are present in this subculture with set theory.)

Set theory, particularly the stuff about infinity, has a bit of that wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey flavor to it. It doesn't make sense on the level of "common sense". It's dealing with things that aren't standard, simple numbers. It makes links between nice, factual math and floppy, subjective philosophy. If you're raised in Christian fundamentalist culture, all of that—every last bit—absolutely reeks of modernism. It's easy to see how somebody at A Beka would look at set theory and conclude that it's really just modernist propaganda. To them, set theory is just a step on the road to godless atheism.

Add in the historical fact that Georg Cantor's ideas weren't terribly popular at first, and they can easily create a narrative where true math is being suppressed so that false, modernist math can corrupt the minds of children.

If this sounds crazy ... you're right. It's pretty crazy. In fact, it's this kind of thinking, and my realization that it was based fundamentally on lying about everybody who wasn't a member of your religious tribe, that led me away from religion to begin with. Ironically. But there is a coherent thought process going on here, and I want you to understand that. If all you do is point and laugh at the fundies for calling set theory evil, then you are missing the point. This isn't about them being stupid. It's about who they think you are.

• Mother Jones on the wacky things you can find in Christian school t... 
• Wikipedia on set theory; some interesting history, but not great for helping you understand this stuff. 
• Ted Sider, a philosophy professor at Cornell, has a pdf document that is a must-read if you are starting from scratch and Wikipedia's set theory explanation makes your brain hurt. 
• A link to the TEDEd video embedded in this story, which explains some of the weirdness with infinite sets quickly and simply. 
• Vanderbilt University math professor Eric Schechter has a page about the Axiom of Choice, one of the rules in set theory that allows you to play with hypothetical sets and overlaps with some of the problems of infinity. Includes links to other great resources. 
• Mark Chu-Carroll's math blog Good Math, Bad Math

Image: Venn Diagram, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from scottjacksonx's photostream

14 Wacky "Facts" Kids Will Learn in Louisiana's Voucher Schools

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
God Bless Our SchoolSeparation of church and what? 

Thanks to a new law privatizing public education in Louisiana, Bible-based curriculum can now indoctrinate young, pliant minds with the good news of the Lord—all on the state taxpayers' dime.

Under Gov. Bobby Jindal's voucher program, considered the most sweeping in the country, Louisiana is poised to spend tens of millions of dollars to help poor and middle-class students from the state's notoriously terrible public schools receive a private education. While the governor's plan sounds great in the glittery parlance of the state's PR machine, the program is rife with accountability problems that actually haven't been solved by the new standards the Louisiana Department of Education adopted two weeks ago.

For one, of the 119 (mostly Christian) participating schools, Zack Kopplin, a gutsy college sophomore who's taken to to stonewall the program, has identified at least 19that teach or champion creationist nonscience and will rake in nearly $4 million in public funding from the initial round of voucher designations.

Many of these schools, Kopplin notes, rely on Pensacola-based A Beka Book curriculum or Bob Jones University Press textbooks to teach their pupils Bible-based "facts," such as the existence ofNessie the Loch Ness Monster and all sorts of pseudoscience that researcher Rachel Tabachnick and writer Thomas Vinciguerra have thankfully pored over so the rest of world doesn't have to.

Here are some of my favorite lessons:

1. Dinosaurs and humans probably hung out: "Bible-believing Christians cannot accept any evolutionary interpretation. Dinosaurs and humans were definitely on the earth at the same time and may have even lived side by side within the past few thousand years."Life Science, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2007

Much like Whoopi and Teddy in the cinematic classic Theodore Rex. Screenshot: YouTubeMuch like tough cop Katie Coltrane and Teddy the T-rex in the direct-to-video hit Theodore RexScreenshot: YouTube

2. Dragons were totally real: "[Is] it possible that a fire-breathing animal really existed? Today some scientists are saying yes. They have found large chambers in certain dinosaur skulls…The large skull chambers could have contained special chemical-producing glands. When the animal forced the chemicals out of its mouth or nose, these substances may have combined and produced fire and smoke."Life Science, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2007

3"God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ."—America: Land That I Love, Teacher ed., A Beka Book, 1994

4. Africa needs religion: "Africa is a continent with many needs. It is still in need of the gospel…Only about ten percent of Africans can read and write. In some areas the mission schools have been shut down by Communists who have taken over the government."—Old World History and Geography in Christian Perspective, 3rd ed., A Beka Book, 2004

The literacy rate in Africa is "only about 10 percent"--give or take a few dozen percentage points. residentevil_stars2001/FlickrThe literacy rate in Africa is "only about 10 percent"…give or take a few dozen percentage points.residentevil_stars2001/Flickr

5. Slave masters were nice guys: "A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well."United States History for Christian Schools, 2nd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 1991

Slaves and their masters: BFF 4lyfe! Edward Williams Clay/Library of CongressDoesn't everyone look happy?! Edward Williams Clay/Library of Congress

6. The KKK was A-OK: "[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians."United States History for Christian Schools, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2001

Just your friendly neighborhood Imperial Wizard! Unknown/Library of CongressJust your friendly neighborhood Imperial Wizard Unknown/Library of Congress

7. The Great Depression wasn't as bad as the liberals made it sound: "Perhaps the best known work of propaganda to come from the Depression was John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath…Other forms of propaganda included rumors of mortgage foreclosures, mass evictions, and hunger riots and exaggerated statistics representing the number of unemployed and homeless people in America."United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1996

Definitely Photoshopped. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/WikipediaDefinitely Photoshopped. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikipedia

8. SCOTUS enslaved fetuses: "Ignoring 3,500 years of Judeo-Christian civilization, religion, morality, and law, the Burger Court held that an unborn child was not a living person but rather the "property" of the mother (much like slaves were considered property in the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford)."American Government in Christian Perspective, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1997

9. The Red Scare isn't over yet: "It is no wonder that Satan hates the family and has hurled his venom against it in the form of Communism."— American Government in Christian Perspective, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1997

Meanwhile, God sneezes glitter snot in the form of Capitalism. Catechetical Guild/WikipediaCatechetical Guild/Wikipedia

10. Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson were a couple of hacks: "[Mark] Twain's outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless…Twain's skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel."Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University, 2001

"Several of [Emily Dickinson's] poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life."Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University, 2001

And her grammar was just despicable! Ugh! Todd-Bingham picture collection, 1837-1966 (inclusive)/ Manuscripts & Archives, Yale UniversityTo say nothing of her poetry's Syntax and Punctuation—how odious it is.Todd-Bingham picture collection, 1837-1966 (inclusive)/ Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University

11. Abstract algebra is too dang complicated: "Unlike the 'modern math' theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Bookteaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute…A Beka Bookprovides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory."—

Maths is hard! Screenshot: MittRomney.comMATHS: Y U SO HARD? Screenshot:

12Gay people "have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists."Teacher's Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998-1999, Bob Jones University Press, 1998

13. "Global environmentalists have said and written enough to leave no doubt that their goal is to destroy the prosperous economies of the world's richest nations."Economics: Work and Prosperity in Christian Perspective, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1999

Plotting world destruction, BRB. Lynn Freeny, Department of Energy/FlickrPlotting economic apocalypse, BRB Lynn Freeny, Department of Energy/Flickr

14. Globalization is a precursor to rapture: "But instead of this world unification ushering in an age of prosperity and peace, as most globalists believe it will, it will be a time of unimaginable human suffering as recorded in God's Word. The Anti-christ will tightly regulate who may buy and sell."Economics: Work and Prosperity in Christian Perspective, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1999

He'll probably be in cahoots with the global environmentalists. Luca Signorelli/WikipediaSwapping insider-trading secrets is the devil's favorite pastime. Luca Signorelli/WikipediaWhew! Seems extreme. But perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised. Gov. Jindal, you remember,once tried to perform an exorcism on a college gal pal.


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