bookmark_borderPost-300: Luther on the Book of Revelation

The two acquaintances I mentioned in #298 (“The Beginning is Near”) belong to a certain Korean church or (church-like entity) with very unorthodox teachings “based on” wild interpretations of the Book of Revelation. They say Revelation specifically prophesies the coming of their own leader (a Korean man born in the 1930s), who is a kind of Christ-like figure in their belief.

I don’t much trust people who talk too much about the Book of Revelation. As I see it, that book and its dream-like apocalyptic imagery is (at best) fuel for wild yet idle speculation under the cover of allegedly divine revelation.

I’ve heard that Luther had similar things to say on it. Here is Luther’s highly critical preface to Revelation:


About this Book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.

First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions. Moreover there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images. For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.

Luther’s Preface to Revelation, continued:

Moreover he seems to me to be going much too far when he commends his own book so highly [Revelation 22]—indeed, more than any of the other sacred books do, though they are much more important—and threatens that if anyone takes away anything from it, God will take away from him, etc. Again, they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all. And there are many far better books available for us to keep.

Many of the fathers also rejected this book a long time ago; although St. Jerome, to be sure, refers to it in exalted terms and says that it is above all praise and that there are as many mysteries in it as words. Still, Jerome cannot prove this at all, and his praise at numerous places is too generous.

Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it. But to teach Christ, this is the thing which an apostle is bound above all else to do; as Christ says in Acts 1[:8], “You shall be my witnesses.” Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.

[1522 “Preface to the Revelation of St. John” in Luther’s translation of the New Testament. Pages 398-399 in Luther’s Works Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I (ed. E. Theodore Bachmann; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960).]

bookmark_borderPost-299: Baltimore Race Riots

“Ideas have consequences,” someone once famously said.

And so it happened that race riots have struck, again, in 2015, in Baltimore:



I try to imagine what a Martin observer, looking on, would think.
The Martian would observe, over the past few years, the steady promotion of a certain idea in respectable halls of opinion in the USA. The idea is that there exists a darkly sinister yet enormous conspiracy to oppress Blacks, up to and including murdering innocents in large numbers, and, further, to let the murderous (White) police off scot-free.

Many regular people believe this vicious slander (and others pretend to, for certain personal or political reasons). The Martian would see people in the highest levels of government promoting this idea, more-or-less explicitly. People from the most prestigious and tone-setting positions in the national media (say, the New York Times Editorial Board), too, the Martian would see constantly pushing the idea.

The Martian would be baffled. Why would top officials in a government promote ideas that undermine the authority of their own police, and more generally undermine the entire system they lead, that they control? He would conclude that such a bizarre system cannot be sustainable.



Another baffling thing for the Martian: The authorities do not assert authority. Police were ordered, it seems, to withdraw during the rioting and allow a certain amount of destruction without interference. No one wanted to order any assertive police action. Think of the headlines! “Peaceful Protestors Killed by Police”

And so hundreds of buildings and vehicles were destroyed, who-knows-how-many-millions’-worth looted, and the loss of prestige as the entire world sees another U.S. race riot.



“Community organizers” from the Nation of Islam and New Black Panther Party and others have been showing up. One such “community organizer” is Deray McKesson (formerly the “Senior Director of Human Capital with Minneapolis Public Schools”). He was interviewed on CNN. The host kept asking him to condemn the violence of the people he was partly leading. He refused, saying variants of this from hisTwitter: “Property damage is not violence, it is property damage. Violence is when people are hurt, injured, harmed. The police have been violent.” (In fact, two dozen police were hospitalized with injuries from brick-throwing rioters. The police’s steady-retreat tactics will have reduced their casualties).

Another Black activist interviewed on TV said (something close to) “People in our community are angry. And just wait until we don’t have a Black president anymore, then things will get worse.”

What the Martian would think upon hearing this, I won’t even begin to guess.

bookmark_borderPost-298: The Beginning is Near


This is a surprising and pleasing image to me. Maybe it’s best to view it from the bottom to top, but viewing it all at once is nearly as good.
Recently, a couple of Koreans of my acquaintance belonging to a certain “End Times” church have been pressuring me to join an intensive Bible Study with their church, which I have not done. The premise of their Christian-esque religion is that a figure called “The One Who Overcomes” is foretold in the Bible (The Book of Revelation), and that this prophesied figure is a Korean man alive today, the leader of their church, in fact, and that the Korean “One Who Overcomes” will lead the Elect (most of whom live in South Korea and all of whom are members of this particular church) to salvation as the rest of the world comes to an end.

This is a small church but very active and aggressive. It is another in a long line of such churches in Korea. My impression is that the “religiously unaffiliated” in Korea have such a negative impression of Christianity due to these highly visible, aggressive, “fringe” churches that Korean Christianity has reached a glass ceiling.

Another such church had its Bucheon regional headquarters (I think) on the top floor of a particular building at the bottom of which I have often eaten cheap meals. This one proposes that a “God the Mother” is foretold of in the Bible and that she is — yes, a Korean woman, and, yes, alive today. My friend James from California (himself a devout Christian who graduated from a Lutheran college in the USA; previously mentioned here in #128, #178, #212, #225, #227) once went up to that headquarters, at their invitation, and promptly annoyed them by questioning all their premises. One reason cults can succeed in Korea is that you’re supposed to unquestioningly listen to an authority figure. I myself was accosted three or four times on the street by them and shown a video presentation.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are also here, but are much more agreeable and rarely if ever aggressive, in my experience. All of these groups tend to “target” Westerners. But one doesn’t: In certain areas of Seoul, you can often see a pair of well-dressed thin young White men, ties and all, carrying books and folders. These are Mormons, and they seem to have quite many missionaries in Korea. I once even saw a pair at a mega-grocery store in Bupyeong, Incheon. I once studied with one a Brigham Young University student who had previously been a Mormon missionary in Korea. I recall that he told me his main strategy during his tour of duty as a missionary was to sit next to old women who were alone on the subway and say something in Korean, which would delight them, and then he had an opening to do the Mormonism pitch. His Korean was very good, especially his speaking. Never have I met a White man who can speak Korean so well. Practice, practice, practice.

But as far as the One Who Overcomes and all other End-Timesians. I completely reject all End Times scenarios. I am not willing to cede intellectual ground on this End Times issue. Any End Times theorizing can only be destructive, as I see it. When End Times thinking outgrows the metaphorical dank cellar of the cult and enters the semi-mainstream and then inevitably intertwines itself with geopolitics, that ought to alarm us. This is one of the problems with the USA’s relationship with Israel, as I see it. Some so-called Christian churches in the USA today preach a kind of worship of Israel mixed in with End Times theories. (Which is cause and which is effect is open to debate.)

I know one person who is a candidate for a Master’s degree in Psychology at Columbia University. I wonder about the psychological motivations of “End is Near” people. I like the “Beginning is Near” more.

bookmark_borderPost-297: Pointless War Story, Tokyo Bay 1945

I arrived by boat in Japan and left by plane. About seventy years earlier, some unknown American had a brief experience in Japan the precise reverse of mine in the sense that he “arrived by plane and left by boat,” and in a more dramatic fashion. His story is told through the eyes of a Japanese watching:

After discussing the war generally, [the Japanese professor in his 60s] began, with seeming reluctance, to speak of his own war experience as a university draftee who had used all his family’s influence to avoid call-up until he was finally tapped for coastal-defense duty late in the war. One day in July 1945, he went on, the intensity of his voice increasing with each sentence, he found himself in charge of an emplacement of ancient coastal guns just as an American flyer [pilot] parachuted into Tokyo Bay. As the downed American swam towards his position, the youthful candidate-officer found his mind racing. What should he do? Kill him, or take him prisoner? Suddenly, he was spared the choice, for right there in the middle of the bay, a U.S. submarine surfaced, scooped up the pilot, and submerged again, taking him to safety. At that moment in his story, the scholar broke off almost breathlessly, and said, “You see, that’s the only kind of thing you’ll hear. Pointless stories. It’s too late to talk about crucial issues. All the people in decision-making posts are long dead.”

Quite dramatic for a pointless story.

It comes from a book I’d bought cheaply in Tokyo (200 Yen or $1.65 at today’s exchange rate). It’s called Japan At War: An Oral History” published in 1992, an original English publication by an American, Dr. Theodore Cook. The interviews were conducted in 1988-1991 in Japan. He says he “selected people from [the ranks of] general to private, prison-camp guard to journalist, dancer to diplomat, idealistic builder of ‘Greater East Asia’ to ‘thought criminal,’ who talk revealingly of their wars”.

The pointless story has two incredible points to it, as I see it. One, he considered killing a potential prisoner-of-war upon capture. Two, the pilot’s manner of rescue, as described, seems so surreal that if I saw it in a James Bond movie I’d think to myself, “Gee, they’re really pushing it now”. The author makes some more comments about why this little anecdote is not so pointless. A photograph of the page is here.



This business about killing a captured airman in war seems especially cruel. I read that the Imperial Japanese government, late in the war, in its increasing paranoia and desperation, put captured American airmen on trial for war crimes (the bombing of cities) with possible death sentences, which were often imposed. In this kind of atmosphere, some must’ve also been killed without pretense of trial, on the spot, and a conscripted coastal defense position leader may have felt a kind of social pressure to do the same. (Just another chapter in a long-ago-concluded war.) The professor, recalling this moment in summer 1945, existed in that world. The war swept up everyone. Multiply these kinds of situations by the thousands for every day of the war, and that was the war.

So, as to pointlessness. The professor’s idea can be taken further, if we want. Maybe almost all the stories from almost everyone’s lives are pointless. This is one view, and a depressing one. I reject it. We all have our personal narratives and experiences; we were “there”, somewhere, some time; we were part of it, something, whatever “it” was, whatever it’s still shaping into.

I also recently bought a tattered old copy of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. His relations of his early life are full of pointless stories, too, but they are greatly enjoyable and help us understand the man and his time and place.

Likewise, I understand that in the 1970s my father did an audio recording of his grandfather (born in the 1890s in Iowa, to parents born in Denmark) asking for, to carry forward the theme of this post, whatever pointless stories he had to tell. I don’t know the full extent of this recording and have never heard it, but I have seen a partial transcript. He described how the original members of his family came to enter the USA. This was more of a retelling of a story his own father had told him, though, I suppose.

An idea that came to me as I’ve been writing this. Q. What is life? A. Life is a series of pointless stories.

bookmark_borderPost-296: It Came Out of the Sky

Towards the end of 1969, a few months after the first human moon landing, an album was released in the USA called “Willy and the Poor Boys” which featured the now iconic song “Fortunate Son”. Another song on the album was “It Came Out of the Sky”.

Below is that song, its lyrics, and some comments on it that occur to me. (As of now, for copyright reasons Youtube blocks the song on mobile devices but it can be heard on desktops.)

I see the song as saying this: People tend to react to new, unknown phenomena or developments based narrowly on the way they already see the world, the way they’ve always done things. Few, if any, can really break free of this mental constraint. (I think this makes the song a musical version of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”)
It Came Out Of The Sky Lyrics

Oh, it came out of the sky, landed just a little south of Moline
Jody fell out of his tractor, couldn’t believe what he’d seen
Laid on the ground and shook, fearin’ for his life
Then he ran all the way to town screamin’ “It came out of the sky!”

Well, a crowd gathered ’round and a scientist said it was marsh gas [1]
Spiro [2] came to make a speech about raising the Mars Tax
The Vatican said, “Woe, the Lord has come”
Hollywood rushed out an epic film
And Ronnie the Populist [3] said it was a communist plot

Oh! [Guitar]

Oh, the newspapers came and made Jody a national hero
Walter and Eric [4] said they’d put him on a network TV show
The White House said, “Put the thing in the Blue Room”
The Vatican said, “No, it belongs in Rome.”
And Jody said, “It’s mine but you can have it for seventeen million!” [5]

Oh, it came out of the sky, landed just a little south of Moline
Jody fell out of his tractor, couldn’t believe what he’d seen
Laid on the ground a shakin’, fearin’ for his life
Then he ran all the way to town screamin’ “It came out of the sky!”

[Notes and Comments]
[1] The government often classified purported UFO sightings as “marsh gas” (whatever that is). The lyric is not “a government spokesman said it was marsh gas,” though, but rather “a scientist.” Scientists have always had an interest, on behalf of pride in their field, in insisting that all phenomena can be explained with presently-known information and theory.
[2] This is Spiro Agnew, Vice President at the time, under Nixon. Why they chose “Spiro” for making a speech about raising a “Mars Tax”, I don’t know.
[3] “Ronnie the Populist” must be Ronald Reagan, then governor of California (elected Nov. 1966, served till Jan. 1975) and conservative spokesman (from the 1950s), later president.
[4] Walter Cronkite, fatherly news figure many years ago. Who Eric was, I don’t know.
[5] “Jody,” a country-bumpkin figure here, is the only character in this song who doesn’t spin the UFO’s arrival for his own personal agenda. He just runs off to alert the others, attracts a crowd of locals, and then worldwide attention. Jody, though, seems uninterested in the UFO, and in the end all he cares about is this potential huge cash payout he asks for. An apparently genuine alien spacecraft (if that’s what “it” of the song is) should be in the national interest to study and understand. That they put in this lyric at all (“you can have it for seventeen million”) shows how confident the USA was in 1969 in itself and its institutions; Here we have this guy, Jody, a nobody, who comes across a UFO landing, would (it is implied) have his rights respected enough to be paid for the UFO, rather than having the UFO seized by the army and Jody punched in the stomach for protesting or jailed for a while (as might happen elsewhere). In the end, this is meant to be a comedic song, but comedy has to be plausible. I don’t think that implied respect for the rights of a “Jody”-like figure is as plausible in today’s USA.

bookmark_borderPost-295: Believing in Islam

I heard somebody from the UK make this comment a while ago:

“I’ve met people who don’t even believe in God, but they believe in Islam.”

He was talking about Muslims living in the UK, I think. What this means is open to interpretation.


From what I gather, Political Islam is one of the great unexpected developments of the past century. A hundred years ago, around WWI, Westerners believed that Islam was an enfeebled religion, a remnant of the medieval past that had long since  faded in vigor and lacked the ability to revitalize itself. My impression is that modern Political Islam was born in 1979, but that even then few people of Western Christian origin paid much attention or worried much about it. As late as the 1990s, it was not a significant issue in American consciousness.

I make some sweeping statements about things that happened before my lifetime, there. I can say this: I’m reasonably sure that neither of my grandfathers, at least, paid any mind to Islam (as a “political” force in the world), any more than they’d have paid to Buddhism, say. They were both born in the late 1910s. I heard them say very many things in the 1990s, when I was a boy, but not one word about Islam or Muslims. I remember being at my grandparents’ house in Iowa when Clinton ordered one of the bombings of Osama Bin Laden, and we saw it unfolding on CNN in their living room. This event elicited no comments from my grandfather about Islam. I remember around the same time my grandfather telling me about a letter he was writing to the local congressman, I think, against the idea of ceding control of the Panama Canal (then still U.S.-controlled) to a Communist Chinese company; something like that. But never one word about Islam.

bookmark_borderPost-294: Finding a John Donne Poem

I turned a piece of paper over and found this:

Go and Catch a Falling Star
By John Donne

Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

I don’t seek out poetry, but if it seeks me out, I’ll give it a try. But — Nope. Couldn’t understand it. Can you?

I was talking with a nice Korean young man (born 1988) who is an English Literature major at a university in Seoul. We were scribbling on the back side of the paper; on the front was this poem.

I read it again and a third time. Slowly an idea took shape in my mind: Adventure. Could it be? — a poem praising the adventurous spirit, both physical and mental, eternal curiosity, relentless seeking after new knowledge; maybe on the fantastical side, but approving. Life is the eternal pursuit of knowledge and experience, and also full of fool’s errands, and maybe, ultimately, every single thing is a fool’s errand, but that’s okay. Something like this took shape in my mind. Poetry is hard. I said simply in English, “I think this poem means ‘Adventure is good.'” He flatly replied: “No.” A little condescendingly, he explained the real meaning:

He said it criticizes women for being foolish and unserious in life. I didn’t understand how he could get that from those nine verses. And multiple interpretations of any poem are surely possible!

The paper was a handout he’d made for his class. He’d had to explain the poem, longform lecture style.

At home later, I find that this poem actually has three stanzas (here). Here is the rest:

If thou be’st born to strange sights,
    Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
    Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
            And swear,
            No where
Lives a woman true, and fair.

If thou find’st one, let me know,
    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
    Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
            Yet she
            Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

I see now why he said that.

It’s hard to sift through the Shakespearean phrasings and obsolete grammar forms, but the meaning is clear, I think, if we recognize the phrase “be true” as meaning “loyal in romance” which was still used in old songs from the 1960s I have heard.

Why was only the first stanza on his handout? Did he present that stanza alone and talk all about the poem being about women (something he will have read in a commentary on the poem in Korean, I expect)? Now that would be disorienting. (I know that a lot of language classes in East Asia operate under the watchful eye of the Emperor’s New Clothes Principle, though — Lots of confusion while everyone pretends they know what’s going on; many pass courses and tests by memorizing and not true working competence.)