Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Swearing on the Bible...


Answer: In some states, witnesses simply raise their right hand and "solemnly swear or sincerely affirm to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth." I would take an in-between measure. If witnesses want to swear on the Bible, the Q'uran or any other text or item that they revere in good faith, let them do so. If they don't want to, they can take the secular oath above.

Rediscovering the Parable of the Sower

I've been recently reading The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?, the controversial annotated translation of the four canonical gospels and Thomas. I understand the objections many have to the book, but methodological issues aside, it is thought-provoking. Consider its "spin" on the Parable of the Sower:

A sower went out to sow his seed; and while he was sowing some seed fell along the path, and was trampled under foot, and the birds of the sky ate it up. Other seed fell on rock; when it grew it whithered because it lacked moisture. Still other seed fell among thorns; the thorns grew with it and choked it. Other seed fell on fertile earth; and when it matured, it produced fruit a hundredfold.

Luke 8:5-8

In the canonical gospels, Jesus interprets the parable for His disciples after leaving behind the "huge crowd," explaining:

The 'seed' is God's message. Those 'along the path' are those who have listened to it, but then the devil comes and steals the message from their hearts, so they won't trust and be saved. Those 'on the rock' are those who, when they listen to the message, receive it happily. But they 'have no root': they trust for the moment but fall away when they are tested. What 'fell into the thorns' represents those who listen, but as they continue on, they are 'choked' by the worries and wealth and pleasures of life, and they do not come to maturity. But the seed 'in good earth' stands for those who listen to the message and hold on to it with a good and fertile heart, and 'produce fruit' through perserverance.

Luke 8:11-15.

In the judgment of the Jesus Seminar, only the underlying parable - and not the appended interpretation - is authentic. The Fellows so conclude for several reasons:
  • The parable, but not the interpretation, is indepdently attested in Thomas 9.
  • The concern with perserverance and avoiding distractions reflects the situations and concerns of the second and third generations of Christians, when the community experienced varying responses to its evangelistic efforts.
  • The distinction between 'us' (disciple insiders who are given the real message) and 'them' (non-disciple outsiders who who are denied full access to Jesus' teaching) "contravenes much of Jesus' fundamental teaching" -- which "blurs the division between the privileged and the unprivileged."

Now, whether or not you find these explanations persuasive, consider what follows if they are right. We can't rely on the "given" interpretation - which would merely be a Markan invention. We would have to assess the parable on its own terms. Are there possible interpretations other than the given one?

I think the Sower could easily be read as a parable about social justice. The sower, in this version, is God. The seeds, people. The different growing environments are, well, just that: different growing environments.

The first set of seeds are eaten up by birds. Now, if the seeds are people, then the birds must represent something larger than people. In other words, they would represent what Walter Rauschenbusch would call "supra-personal forces." These seeds represent people that are "swallowed up" by forces like capitalism, war and the criminal justice system. (In Jesus' day, the Roman government.)

The second set of seeds fall on rock and whither for lack of moisture. These seeds could represent people that are not actively "swallowed up" by supra-personal forces but suffer from malign neglect: the victims of underdevelopment, lack of education, etc.

The third set of seeds fall "among thorns" and are choked. These are destroyed, not by forces larger than themselves or by neglect, but by fellow plants, which could obviously represent fellow human beings. These seeds could represent people that are damaged by child abuse or violent crime.

The fourth set of seeds fall on fertile soil and produce. These could represent people who are lucky enough to "fall" into a social situation that is not hampered by supra-personal forces of evil, that possesses sufficient resources for thriving, and that is not upset by domestic violence or crime.

Noteworthy under this interpretation is that the seeds fall into their "social situation." While I certainly do believe that people do have the ability to lift themselves up from a terrible environment, this particular parable reminds those of us who might "blame the victim" just how difficult that is. The verb "fall" is important for another reason too - because it emphasizes the passivity of the Sower in this situation. God does not "place" us into the situation that we are in. It is not because we "deserve it." God has given us, as seeds, all the innate tools we need to be fruitful. And God wishes that all of God's seeds would fall on fertile soil. But God will not intervene apocalyptically and bring about social justice. Jesus taught us how to turn the entire earth into fertile soil, and it is by listening to Him and acting on His teachings that we can bring this about. Only then can all of God's "seeds" reach their full potential.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Observations upon returning to Texas, part I

Maybe it's that I am spending a lot of time in East Texas these days (a region notoriously more connected to the Old South than the more metropolitan areas of the state), but I've noticed something disturbing: the increased display of Confederate flags and symbols.

Growing up in suburban Dallas, it was rare to see a Confederate flag; such displays were generally seen as "redneck" or backwards. See this post, for example. Texans, for what it was worth, seemed to value icons of Texas heritage - Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, cowboys, etc - over those traditionally associated with the Confederacy. Lately, however, I've noticed more and more cars - okay, usually they are trucks - proudly displaying rebel flags. While I don't think Texans are identifying with their state any less - if anything signs of Texas pride have only become more commonplace - I'm left wondering if some of the values traditionally associated with the Confederate flag (i.e. racism) are enjoying a comeback in our post 9-11 environment.

Then again, I could be just another city slicker. Buying groceries last week with Infission at a grocery store in Marshall, Texas, we came across a young lady in the dog food aisle. I asked Infission (outloud, hoping to gain the young woman's opinion on the subject) which dog food would work best to stink up the waters off of our dock, hopefully attracting catfish (a trick of the trade). It was at this point that I noticed the young lady wearing a hat displaying a small Confederate flag.

The young woman, obviously perplexed, looked at me and said, "You're not from around here, are you?"

"Nah," I said, "I'm from Dallas."

"Oh, that explains it," she replied, giggling at my expense.

Quick to our aid, "local" boy Infission was quick to add, "But I'm from Texarkana."

"Well that's better," she said. "Try Catfish Charlie. It ain't dog food, but it works everytime."

Law School Reflection from a Bar Study Perspective

I thought that I would share a couple of quick thoughts on law school generally now that I am on the other side and studying for the bar exam.

(1): Law school is too long. It really doesn't take 3 years to get the jist of law school. After an intense first year (1L) and a chance to some of the courses you really want to (2L), law students should be eligible to take the bar exam and move on with their lives. While there is certainly enough material on the bar exam to fill three years of law school, there's nothing saying anyone that wanted to be a licensed attorney couldn't learn it for themselves. Abraham Lincoln learned the law that way, and that's pretty much what Infission and I are doing right now in re numerous topics (commerical paper?).

(2): Why can't there be a bar review course offered in law school? Given that graduation from an "accredited" law school is often mandatory in order to sit for a state's bar exam, doesn't it make sense that those same law schools should prep you for the exam?

In high school I took an SAT prep class as one of my electives. Why can't law school offer something similar for the bar exam?

(3): They weren't lying when they said that there was a lot of material on the bar exam. Speaking of, I'd better get back to studying!!

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Still here, Still busy

Well, we've got even less access to the internet (and time) than I thought. I just wanted to let everyone know that we're still here and promise to be back up to full strength as soon as we can. Maybe 42 will have time for a thought this weekend?

As far as the bar goes, things are going well.

We're studying in a little cabin on Caddo Lake, which is indescribably beautiful. I must confess that being out on the dark lake at night - and listening to the wonderfully bizarre symphony of crickets, frogs and owls - is somehow even more humbling than being in New York City. Also, our remote and untamed locale forms an odd contrast with the aphoristic lectures on Texas Criminal Procedure that we listen to during the day. Definitely a unique experience.

In any event, perhaps there will be time for theological reflection next week!

Sunday, June 05, 2005

26 Reasons Why This Blog Will be Different Until August 1

Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Evidence, Civil Procedure, Real Property, Torts, Agency, Partnerships, Corporations, Family Law, Community Property, Wills, Estate, Guardianship, Commercial Paper, Secured Transactions, Bankruptcy, Consumer Rights, Oil & Gas, Trusts, Federal Estate & Gift Tax, and Federal Income Tax.

Yes indeed. The subjects on the Texas Bar Exam.

What's that? You want to know what "Commercial Paper" is? So do I. So do I.

In any event, 42 and I are studying together in a remote area and we won't have access to the internet on week days. In fact, we'll hardly have access to any media but the bar materials and a trusty NRSV. But I expect we'll write (by hand) in the evenings and on post on Saturdays. Expect a much more reflective, less current events-based blog in the weeks to come. Also, since we're studying together, expect some posts from our joint psuedonym, jj.

By August 1, I'm sure we'll be back up to full steam....

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Reflections on Law in the Ivory Tower

Howdy from Benbrook, Texas -- my temporary residence until I get my new digs in Austin. Before 42 and I head off to study for the Texas Bar Exam, I think the time's right for me to offer some reflections on law in the Ivory Tower.

Almost all law schools require that their applicants submit a short "personal statement" along with their GPAs, LSAT scores and letters of recommendation. It's supposed to be reflective - to take the admissions committees beyond the numbers and to help them see the flesh and blood person behind them. Almost four years ago, in the summer of 2001, I drafted a personal statement that reflected on my undergraduate experience.

The interplay between the "intensely traditionalist, Bible-centered culture" of my upbringing and "culturally-critical, radical instruction I received in my Liberal Arts courses" stimulated, panicked and devastated me. It shredded my unexamined cultural assumptions and forced me to ask the "big questions." For the first time, I questioned such givens as Capitalism, Democracy and Christianity, and I formulated answers that were truly my own....

My undergraduate experience at a massive state school changed me forever. My graduate experience at an intimate ivy league law school has not had the same effect. Although a J.D. is often viewed as a professional degree, law schools like those 42 and I attended groom their students more for life in academia than for life in the courtroom. Our law professors styled themselves practical philosophers and our classes addressed the "big questions": How legitimate is the market economy and the existing distribution of resources? (Federal Income Tax, Property) What are the purposes of punishment and boundaries of personal responsibility? (Criminal Law) What is the definition of Democracy and how should majority rule be limited? (Federal Jurisdiction) What is Equality? (Constitutional Law)

But, in truth, my law school's practical philosophers - Socratic as they may have been - never seriously threatened my moral foundation. Law and Economics, the overwhelmingly dominant scholarly paradigm, struck me as morally absurd on its face. L&E not only takes the quite problematic position that all persons will strive only to maximize their own self-interests, it also has the audacity to normatively declare such selfishness as the only "rational" course. L&E fundamentally assumes that anything that marginally increases the Gross Domestic Product is good, while anything that hinders our lockstep towards this goal is bad. "Efficiency" is the only value. L&E is utilitarianism at its worst. I was shocked when one of my first-year professors dismissed a student's objection that a certain law hurt the poor as "merely distributional effects." But I have heard Jesus' call to serve others and to concern myself most with those least privileged echoing deeply within my soul. I could not be misled by the mechanical application of neo-classical Economics to Law.

More alluring were those modern descendants of Critical Legal Studies such as Critical Race Theory, Feminist Theory, and Antisubordinationism. I was engaged by professors who taught that the Constitution could be read as a document mandating distributive justice and intrigued by judges who argued that the Equal Protection Clause required equal marital rights for same-sex couples. In the end, however, I decided that Critical Legal Studies was merely a pale, hopelessly pretentious reflection of what Jesus said long ago:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free...."

"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me' ... "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'"

When I entered law school, these were the foundations of my moral/policital philosophy. Neither the seductive empiricism of L&E nor the superficial intellectual refinement of CLS have shaken them.

My legal education has bolstered my researching, writing and reasoning abilities. It has provided me with doctrinal and theoretical frameworks. It will provide me with a license to practice law. These are indeed powerful tools in our society. But they are no more than tools.