Archive for the ‘Interesting Thing of the Day’ Category

Jan Luyken, Zes mannen en twee vrouwen op de Dam voor het oude stadhuis levend verbrand (Six men and two women burned alive on the Dam in front of the old town hall), 1549

The third way of Christianity

The history of Christianity is alternately fascinating and tragic—often both at the same time. I have always been amazed that the religion whose founder taught his followers to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” has produced so much war, violence, and intolerance over the centuries. Equally amazing to me are the massive and seemingly irreconcilable differences between different brands of Christianity, and even between individual adherents of any particular brand. This is all the more poignant considering that, according to the New Testament, the one prayer Jesus offered for future generations of believers was “that they may be one”—he hoped that by their own unity, they would demonstrate the unity of God. Things…didn’t turn out quite that way.

Many of the divisions within Christianity arose because someone perceived a problem and, reasonably enough, tried to correct it. More often than not, attempts at reform resulted in still more violence and fragmentation. But a certain oft-neglected thread of church history also stands out as one of the bloodiest, quite ironically because those responsible for the movement were pacifists. The movement was known as Anabaptism, and it survives to this day as a form of Christianity that is neither Catholic nor Protestant—a third way.

The Protestant Reformation

The story begins in the early 1500s. The excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic church had reached epic proportions. Immorality among priests and bishops was blatant and widespread, and the pope was selling indulgences to pay for construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Feeling that the church’s mission had become one of greed, not of genuine spirituality, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Luther denounced the decadent state of the church and called for reform. He wanted to rid the church of practices that he felt were not supported by scripture—things like the authority of the pope, the veneration of Mary and the saints, the notion of purgatory, the celibate priesthood, and many others. Luther’s complaints didn’t make him any friends in Rome, but he did manage to attract quite a large following of people who wanted the Church to return to what they felt were its core values. This movement became known as the Protestant Reformation, because its followers were protesting the status quo of Catholicism.

At nearly the same time in Switzerland, another reformer named Ulrich Zwingli was making waves. Zwingli believed most of the same things as Luther, but wanted to take reforms even further. He wanted to dismantle the traditional church hierarchy and allow each congregation to choose its own leaders. Zwingli also insisted that communion was merely symbolic, whereas Luther kept to the notion of a “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament of bread and wine. Although Luther and Zwingli could not see eye to eye, they and their followers were after many of the same things, and were equally disliked by Rome.

Beyond the Reformers

Among Zwingli’s followers in Zürich were Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz. Grebel and Manz agreed with the reforms proposed by Zwingli and Luther, but as they studied the Bible, they became convinced that neither set of reforms went far enough. What they wished for was a return to the simpler ways of the earliest first-century believers as depicted in the New Testament. The modern church had strayed far from this ideal, they felt, and needed much more than reform—it needed a complete rethinking of its basic tenets.

At the top of their list of gripes was the State Church. To be a citizen was to be a member of the church and subject to its rules. While the state government ultimately answered to Rome, it was also true that it could dictate locally what the church could and could not do. Grebel and Manz believed that church membership should be voluntary, and to this end proposed the shocking notion of the separation of church and state. The government, they felt, served one purpose and the church, another. To regard civil rulers as divine agents was asking for trouble, as history had shown all too often.

Grebel and Manz also held that the New Testament teaches pacifism, which ruled out believers participating in any sort of military service or condoning capital punishment. But the issue that caused the greatest stir was that of infant baptism. The Roman Church, in its state-sponsored mandate to assimilate all citizens, received newborns into church membership by way of mandatory baptism. Grebel and Manz, however, found no precedent for infant baptism in scripture. Instead, they argued, baptism was a symbolic act that should be undertaken voluntarily by adult believers as a sign of their faith. Since infants could not decide to believe, it was meaningless to baptize them. Accordingly, in 1525, Grebel took the daring step of rebaptizing an adult believer in his group, and others quickly followed.

Making a Splash

What’s so daring about pouring water over someone? At that time, the church—which, recall, was inseparable from the state government—recognized two heresies worthy of death. One was denying the Trinity, and the other was baptizing someone a second time. The reason the church took this so seriously is that baptism symbolized control. To be baptized into the church implied obedience to the church; to accept another form of baptism was tantamount to treason. Grebel, Manz, and their followers were soon labeled “Anabaptists”—a Greek word meaning “rebaptizers.” This was no mere description, either, but a cruel epithet, spoken with venom and scorn. It had the psychological import of calling someone a “terrorist” today. True or not, it could get you in very deep trouble. The early Anabaptists themselves did not use that term, not only because it was dangerous but because they disputed its accuracy. If an infant was baptized, they reasoned, that was not a true baptism because it was not by choice; so baptizing that person as an adult was not really rebaptism at all.

The Anabaptists were considered the worst kinds of heretics—not only by the Roman Catholic church, but also by the reformers, with whom they shared so many other beliefs. Both camps saw Anabaptists as a tremendous threat to their authority and control, and began to hunt them down and persecute them relentlessly. Unlike the reformers, Anabaptists rejected the use of violence or force, which, alas, made them easy prey. The classic 1660 Dutch book Martyrs Mirror details the lives and deaths of thousands of Anabaptists who were martyred for their beliefs in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Spreading the Faith

Despite this persecution—and in some cases, because of it—Anabaptists multiplied and spread across Europe. In 1536, a Dutch Catholic priest named Menno Simons joined the Anabaptist movement and soon became one of its leaders. Within a decade, Dutch Anabaptists came to be known as “Mennists,” which later evolved into “Mennonites.” But Mennonites are not the only group to trace their origins back to the sixteenth century Anabaptists. Other offshoots of this movement developed into the Amish, Quakers, Brethren, Hutterites, and (of course) Baptists—among others.

Historically, although Anabaptists are neither Catholic nor Protestant, in a way they’re hyperprotestant—they outreformed the reformers, and paid dearly for it. Adult baptism will no longer get you burned at the stake, and the doctrine of the separation of church and state, far from being heretical, is now accepted dogma in most western nations. But the Anabaptist ideals of a simple faith and a simple lifestyle are just as interesting today as they were in the 1500s—and the principle of nonviolence just as radical. A poster that was once popular in Mennonite churches read: “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.” See what I mean? Utterly crazy.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 10, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on March 13, 2005.

Image credit: Rijksmuesum, Amsterdam


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

International Day of Peace

In 1981, the United Nations established an International Day of Peace; it was originally the third Tuesday in September, but in 2001 it was changed to be September 21 (regardless of which day of the week if falls on). As the name suggests, today is all about promoting world peace. For most of us, the idea of ending conflict in the world seems about as likely as the idea of stopping the Earth’s rotation. But you know what’s achievable? For any individual to not be mean to other people for a day. That’s a pretty low bar, I know, but how about just thinking, throughout the day, about being nice to people—even (especially) people who are not nice to you? How bad could it be? On the other hand, how good could it be?


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Question marks

You know what this is about, don’t you?

People who want to make fun of the Canadian dialect of English invariably start with one of its two most idiosyncratic features. The pronunciation of the diphthong “ou,” of course, is one of them—in words like out and about, Americans exaggerate both the gliding and rounding of the vowels so that it sounds like the “ow” in power, whereas the stereotypical Canadian pronunciation is closer to “oat” and “a boat” (though for some reasons, lots of Americans seem to think the Canadian pronunciation is “oot” and “a boot,” which makes me think they’ve never encountered any actual Canadians). A Canadian may protest this characterization, pointing out that Americans butcher the language in numerous other ways—”Every dialect of English has its faults, eh?” This is the second oft-ridiculed peculiarity of Canadian English: turning a statement into a question by adding the word “eh” at the end, which means, approximately, “Isn’t that so?”

Needless to say, not all Canadians fit the stereotype—my wife, for example, rarely uses “eh,” just as I avoid most of the influences of Pittsburghese. Some of her family members from Saskatchewan, on the other hand, say “hey” instead of “eh,” and there are many other regional variations of English within Canada, just as there are within other English-speaking countries. But whether or not one uses “eh” (or “hey”), every English speaker knows dozens of ways to add a word or a phrase to the end of a statement so that it becomes a yes/no question. Questions formed in this way are called tag questions.

You’re It (Aren’t You?)

In one of my first graduate linguistics courses in grammar, we studied English tag questions at great length, because they nicely illustrate a simple, rule-based grammatical transformation. The simplest way to make a tag question in English is to repeat the verb, negate it, and then repeat the subject. For example, “She is smart” becomes “She is smart, isn’t she?” If the verb is already negative, you just make it positive. “It won’t rain” becomes “It won’t rain, will it?” In most cases, if a sentence doesn’t use a “be” verb, tag questions are created using a form of the verb “do”: “This scarf matches my hat, doesn’t it?” Depending on the verb and the context, there are numerous other variations, along with special exceptions to the rules. When I was a kid, every student in elementary school was taught that when speaking of oneself, one must use the awkward-sounding “Aren’t I?” to form a tag question unless you’re willing to phrase it as “Am I not?”

Beyond these basic kinds of tag questions, though, there are many other ways of achieving the same (or very similar) result. “Don’t you think?” and “You know what I mean?” are common, as are “Right?” and “OK?” and sometimes even “Huh?” In certain parts of the United States, Canada, and England, “Isn’t it?” is shortened to “innit?” and used as an all-purpose tag question, even where the verb doesn’t seem to match, as in “This shirt costs a lot of money, innit?” But if you think of “innit?” as short for “isn’t it so?” you have a nice parallel to the all-purpose French tag question, which also shows up in English. “This foie gras is splendid, n’est-ce pas?” And oddly enough, “yes” and “no” can often be used interchangeably to form tag questions. “We’re having fun, yes?” means about the same as “We’re having fun, no?”

Tag Questions Have Many Uses (Don’t They?)

What I have always found most interesting about tag questions is their many and varied uses. Ostensibly they are questions that seek agreement or disagreement with whatever the original statement was, but more often than not, they are used for reasons other than gathering information. In some regional dialects of English, tag questions occur quite frequently—every few sentences or so—with the net effect of softening the overall impact of the speaker’s statements. In other words, tag questions can make speech sound more polite or deferential by implicitly suggesting, “I could be wrong about this; what do you think?” This is also one of the functions of the Canadian “eh”—just as a Canadian will often say “Sorry!” if you step on his toes, frequent use of “eh” can serve the social purpose of limiting one’s impression of self-importance.

Quite often, tag questions are used mainly as a tool to move conversations along, to involve other participants. A tag question can invite feedback—anything from a nod to a “Yeah, sure,” to a lengthy response. But with very few exceptions, tag questions that expect a response are looking for a positive response: an agreement with the speaker’s original statement before it became a question. They say: “I believe such-and-such. Do you agree?” So tag questions can exert a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) pressure on the listener to respond positively, like a preacher who makes a string of bold statements followed by “Amen?” It would be unexpected, to say the least, for a member of the congregation to shout out “Not really!” So just as tag questions can be used as a means of expressing courtesy, they can also be misused as a way of controlling a conversation, inducing guilt, or expressing passive aggression. Hence the infamous “You’d never leave me, would you?” It’s not easy for someone to respond, “Oh, sure I would!”

Tag questions can be used to make accusations, especially when followed by an explicit demand for agreement: “And then you bludgeoned the victim with Volume XI of the Oxford English Dictionary, didn’t you? Admit it!” They’re also a perennial favorite among parents: “You didn’t finish your vegetables, did you?” or “You need a nap, don’t you?” In fact, tag questions are a veritable Swiss army knife of English constructions, with almost as many possible uses as expletives. Although tag question formation is usually taught to people learning English as a second language, the full range of uses and variations is rarely addressed, making them confusing for people who don’t grasp their underlying motivations.

You Don’t Get It, Eh?

Even English speakers don’t always understand the unwritten rules for tag questions. Several times I’ve heard Americans try unsuccessfully to imitate a Canadian by saying something like, “Isn’t it cold up here, eh?” And that’s simply wrong; a tag question only works if it modifies a statement (or, in some cases, a command: “Stay for dinner, eh?”).

Tag questions are fascinating, aren’t they? You enjoyed reading about them, didn’t you? You will keep reading Interesting Thing of the Day every day, won’t you?

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 18, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on January 10, 2005.


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

String cheese

I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that September 20 is National String Cheese Day, as that has been the case every year since (checks notes) 2017. Yes, it was just last year that Galbani Cheese (“Italy’s Favorite Cheese Brand”) made that declaration. So it’s a bit ambiguous which nation “national” refers to, but whatever. I should note that string cheese (which, after all, is just mozzarella, in the form of small, individually wrapped sticks) was not invented by Galbani, but rather by Francis Baker of Baker Cheese. (Francis was the son of Frank Baker, who founded the company, and to whom the invention of string cheese is often and incorrectly attributed.) But remember: it’s not really string cheese unless you peel it, which of course all reasonable people do.

Image credit: Chris Hsia [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

The 826 Valencia facade

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium. (826 Valencia is the original location, but there’s now a second shop, King Carl’s Emporium, in the Tenderloin, and another shop coming soon to Mission Bay.)

Buried Treasure

Odds are, if you have even the slightest appreciation for whimsy, you’ll think 826 Valencia is an excellent place to browse. Once you know the joke, it’s great fun to go there just to watch the expressions on people’s faces as they walk in for the first time and realize where they are. But you’re also likely to wonder, “How exactly does a pirate supply store stay in business—even in San Francisco?” If you come at the right time of the right day, you may also wonder, “What are all those kids doing with those computers in the back of the store?” The answers to these two questions are connected: 826 Valencia is really a nonprofit organization devoted to helping children aged 8–18 learn how to write, and the store is just the front portion of a large area that’s mainly classroom space. The organization offers free, volunteer-led workshops and tutoring in creative writing, expository writing, and English as a second language. The pirate store helps raise money, as well as being an effective gimmick for drawing the attention of children and adults alike to the writing center.

The 826 Valencia organization was founded in 2002 by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida (who, incidentally, were married the following year). It rapidly took off, and has attracted the support of numerous other well-known authors. In fact,the organization has been such a runaway success that people in several other parts of the country wanted to create similar programs. So 826 Valencia started an umbrella organization called 826 National, under which eight local 826 chapters operate, all of which have their own weird theme stores:

Not that anyone should need an excuse to open a store catering to superheroes or secret agents, but if you must have an ulterior motive, teaching kids how to write is certainly a good one. Yes, you could argue that 826 National encourages children to participate in piracy, but at least they’re doing their part to fight plagiarism.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on March 16, 2007.

Image credit: Chelsea Marie Hicks [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day