Why Parables?

July 22, 2010

In The Oral and the Written Gospel, Werner Kelber addresses the question of why Jesus speaks “only in parables” (Mk 4:33-34) in Mark.

With parabolic discourse language is pressed toward its limits.  … The message to be delivered in each case can barely be uttered at all, and never in straightforward language.  This is symptomatic for speaking in parables.  something is left unsaid, and it is this unsaid that matters most. (64)

For example, Nathan could not come right out and condemn King David for using his royal power to take Uriah’s wife and have Uriah killed.  So he introduced his condemnation with less than straightforward language in the form of a parable:

[Nathan said to David], “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.
The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.  Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die;  and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man. …” (2 Sam 12:1-4)

Kelber also cites Jotham’s parable to Abimelech in Judges 9:8-15 as a similar example.  He has a good point here:  you use a parable when you cannot say something directly.

Fast-forward now to the Gospels, in which parables have multiplied like rabbits.  Mark explicitly states the purpose of Jesus’ parables in 4:12, a verse that has confounded scholars for centuries:

And [Jesus] said to [his disciples], “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (4:11-12)

You tell a parable in order to express something that you can’t say in plain language.  Mark is a work of literature most likely written somewhere around 65-75 AD.  Could it be that the parables were actually not spoken by Jesus but were written by Mark to address issues current 35 years after Jesus’ death? Mark could not have Jesus directly addressing issues in Mark’s own day, and still maintain some semblance of verisimilitude in the story.  So is it possible that he resorted to parables to get around this limitation?

This is one of the questions I am working on addressing in my festschrift article.


Granite Mountain with Buck

July 21, 2010

Ever since we missed the cutoff and ended up at Pratt Lake, Buck and I have been wanting to finish the original job and trek to the summit of Granite Mountain.  Neither of us like crowds, though.  So we took a Wednesday afternoon to do it.

When we got to the cutoff this time it was easy to see why we missed it – if you didn’t notice the little sign you can hardly see the trail going off to the right.

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It was a warm day but not that hot – 75 degrees maybe.  But for those of us wearing thick Collie fur that’s pretty hot weather to be climbing a mountain. We had gained 1,700 feet of altitude (from 1,800 at the base to 3,500) when Buck had had enough and lay down in the middle of the trail.

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He’s taken time out for rests before, but this was different.  He was panting faster than I’d ever seen him before – I counted 250 shallow pants per minute.  I gave him some water, but that didn’t help much.

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(This dog water bottle, by the way is called the Gulpy and it is an incredibly intelligent design.  When the trough is folded back over the bottle the spout is automatically closed.  When you open the trough the water doesn’t just dribble out, you have to squeeze it – so you get just as much as you want.)

After 15 minutes a hiker came down and stopped to talk.  Buck often is the occasion for exchanges of pleasantries.  Practically ever other person we see feels compelled to say something like “Beautiful dog.”  I get lots of practice saying “Thank you” and by now I’ve got the line “Collie and Golden Retriever with some German Shepherd” pretty well memorized.

This hiker was a Korean-looking man with a big pack and two hiking poles. He’d been photographing flowers and had a pack full of photographic equipment.  Noticing the frantically panting dog, he mentioned seeing something like that on the Mason Lake trail. (The Mason Lake trail is near Bandera mountain and was in the news recently because a man fell to his death and his Corgi waited at his side for 24 hours until the rescue folks came).  On that trail this man had seen another dog who was suffering from heat exhaustion.  His owner was literally dragging him along by the leash trying to get him up to the lake.  The dog died.

This story didn’t exactly put my mind at ease, and I considered turning around.

Buck didn’t want to drink much but I tried another tack:  poured water all over him and rubbed it into his fur to try to cool him off.  Hard to say if it was effective, because it was another 15 minutes before he finally felt able to get up up and trudge on.  He seemed to want to go upward and onward rather than downward and backward, so on we went.  The same hiker said there was a pool fed by melting snow just 30 minutes up, so that was our next cool-off destination.

The trail pretty soon peeked out of the trees on occasion and offered vistas of I-90 far below and the mountains on the other side of it.

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An hour later Buck was getting hot again and we had to stop for several 15 minute panting breaks.  He would go off the trail into the bushes and dig out the ground a bit and lie down there.  The “30 minutes to the pool” dragged for more than an hour and things only got hotter because the sun beat down on us as we got out of the trees.

I was getting worried, as I had a limited supply of water and was using it up to keep his fur wet even though that didn’t seem to help.  Eventually we met a couple of hikers and they said the pool was just “100 or 200 yards” further.  Buck and I rejoiced and trudged on.  100 yards passed, then 200 yards, then 30 more minutes and no water.  Buck was slowing down and walking behind me now and I was getting more worried.  Then one time I looked behind me and he was gone – and for an instant I was possessed by sheer terror thinking perhaps he’d collapsed.  But no, he had stepped aside to say hello to a chipmunk.

Came across another hiker and he said no, there’s no pool at all, but a little trickle of running water.

At last we reached a creek and Buck got his feet wet, and a bit farther was the pool.  Buck is squeamish about water, but this was only 18 inches deep or so and I shoved him in so he got all of his legs and his belly soaked.

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It wasn’t long an heat worries were over, because we hit snow.  Lots of it.

It was right about here that I suddenly heard a very loud whistle.  I thought some hiker was using his whistle from his “ten essentials” pack to call for help.  It came again, very loud but obviously from a long distance away.  As we continued up there were more of them, and I realized these were the “whistlers” that Whistler BC was named after – rodents with remarkably powerful vocal cords.  Buck barked to entice them to come out of their holes in the rocks to play but was no more successful at that than he is enticing squirrels to come down out of trees.

Soon the snow was everywhere and some of it so steep you had to kick into it hard to create a step, and if you didn’t do that well enough you’d take an unplanned seat-of-the-pants sledding trip down the mountain.

The snow even made the trail hard to find in places.

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Finally the end was in sight – the fire lookout at the tippy top of the mountain.

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More snow and a a lot of big rocks later, we made it to the top and lounged for a while under the fire lookout.

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And enjoyed the views. (If you look hard enough you can Rainier in the first picture below.)

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Lots of flowers were blooming but I only took a picture of one kind … maybe more next time.

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So we had a great time, but I will be more careful with Mr. Collie-fur next time.  No hot-day mountain climbing.  A thorough brushing to remove as much undercoat as possible before warm-day mountain climbing.  Leave early in the morning before it gets hot.

The experience reminded me of how much I worry about him.  Relatively speaking, with human family members there isn’t usually that much to worry about.  Spouses and kids don’t get lost when they get free of the house or yard, and if they do get lost, they know how to tell people who they are and where they live.  Spouses and kids always look both ways before crossing busy roads, but if a door or gate is carelessly left open, and if the roaming dog that results gets to a busy road … well, the unthinkable could happen.

In about two and a half years, Buck has become a member of the family and it would be a disaster of incredible magnitude to lose him.

When I was twenty years old I had a cock-a-poo my mother had named Poochie Pooh.


When my parents and siblings all moved to the lower 48, Poochie Pooh was my the only family I had left.  Then one day he got out of the back yard and the unthinkable happened.  I remember dialing my parents’ number dozens of times to try to reach them. Finally my mother answered and I blurted out, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”  She answered, “Did your house burn down?”  It seemed as though she didn’t at first understand my value system very well, but she caught on quickly.  I was so depressed and unable to come out of the depression that in a couple of weeks she flew up to Alaska from Seattle to help me out.

My scale of possible disasters is similar now to what it was then.  That makes me feel very vulnerable at times precisely because “the worse that could happen” is always a possibility with a dog in many more might-actually-happen ways that don’t really apply to human family members.

Alter vs. Sternberg on Fiction vs. History in the Bible

July 15, 2010

It may not be self-evident to some people, but biblical texts are literature and must be interpreted as literature.  But what kind of literature?  Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg are two prominent biblical scholars who disagree sharply as to whether it is fiction, fictional history, historical fiction, or history.  They both exemplify the best of biblical scholarship, while the disagreement between them on this score exemplifies how modern biblical scholarship so often “strains out a gnat and swallows a camel.”

For Robert Alter in The Art of Biblical Narrative, the Bible (to both “the Bible” means what Christians call the Old Testament) is a mix of fiction and history, with the earlier parts more like historicized fiction, and the later parts more like fictionalized history.

Under scrutiny, biblical narrative generally proves to be either fiction laying claim to a place in the chain of causation and the realm of moral consequentiality that belong to history, as in the primeval history, the tales of the Patriarchs, and much of the Exodus story, and the account of the early conquest, or history given the imaginative definition of fiction, as in most of the narratives from the period of the Judges onward.” (32-33)

How does one know it’s fiction?  The authors write as though they know things no historian could know.  The earliest parts begin with legends but embellish them:

What a close reading of the text does suggest … is that the writer could manipulate his inherited materials with sufficient freedom and sufficient firmness of authorial purpose to define motives, relations, and unfolding themes, even in a primeval history, with the kind of subtle cogency we associate with the conscious artistry of the narrative mode designated prose fiction. (32)

Later parts of the Bible do the same thing with a slightly more historical base.  King David did exist (Alter says), but no historian would know what the author of the David stories purports to know:

… these stories are not, strictly speaking, historiography, but rather the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer … He feels entirely free … to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention, or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue (and he is one of literature’s masters of dialogue) for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have had knowledge of exactly what was said. (35)Through the sudden specifications of narrative detail and the invention of dialogue that individualizes the characters and focuses their relations, the biblical writers give the events they report a fictional time and place. (42)

The biblical author is thus no more nor less a historian than Shakespeare:

The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays.  Shakespeare was obviously not free to have Henry V lose the battle of Agincourt, or to allow someone else to lead the English forces there, but, working from the hints of historical tradition, he could invent a kind of Bildungsroman for the young prince Hal; surround him with invented characters that would serve as foils, mirrors, obstacles, aids in his development; create a language and a psychology for the king which are the writer’s own achievement, making out of the stuff of history a powerful projection of human possibility.  That is essentially what the author of the David cycle does for David, Saul, Abner, Joab, Jonathan, Absalom, Michal, Abigail, and a host of other characters. (35-36)

Meir Sternberg in The Poetics of Biblical Narrative has what he thinks is a radically different viewpoint.  He argues that no “history” is completely accurate, and no “fiction” is completely imaginary.  You label a literary work’s genre based on what the author’s intention is, not on its degree of accuracy. History is “a discourse that claims to be a record of fact.”  Fiction is “a discourse that claims freedom of invention.”

… what makes fictional and breaks historical writing is not the presence of invented material — inevitable in both — but the privilege and at will the flaunting of free invention. (29)

Thus, even if the account of David is shown to be false, that does not affect its genre; it may still be historiography.  Indeed, in the case of the Bible, the authors by no means intended it to be read as fiction:

Were the narrative written or read as fiction, then God would turn from the lord of history into a creature of the imagination, with the most disastrous results.  The shape of time, the rationale of monotheism, the foundations of conduct, the national sense of identity, the very right to the land of Israel and the hope of deliverance to come:  all hang in the generic balance. … [The Bible] claims not just the status of history but, as Erich Auerbach rightly maintains, of the history — the one and only truth that, like God himself, brooks no rival. (32)

Suppose, Sternberg wonders, someone were to tell the biblical narrator that the Babylonians have a different story that’s just as valid?  The answer is easy to guess:

Would the biblical narrator just shrug his shoulders, as any self-respecting novelist would do? … This way madness lies — and I mean interpretive, teleological, as well as theological madness. (32)

It is the claim of inspiration that explains the apparent omniscience of the biblical narrator.

… the narrator’s claim to omniscience dovetails rather than conflicts with his claim to historicity.  It is no accident that the narrative books from Joshua to Kings fall under the rubric of Former Prophets.

But if as seekers for the truth, professional or amateur, we can take or leave the truth claim of inspiration, then as readers we simply must take it — just like any other biblical premise or convention, from the existence of God to the sense borne by specific words — or else invent our own text.  And to take it means to read the Bible on its own historiographic terms, suspending all the ‘how do you know?’ questions one would automatically address to a historical narrative playing by documentary rules. (33-34)

Yes, of course there is made-up stuff in the Bible, but that does not mean it’s fiction or that the writers were deceivers.  The Bible comes from an ancient world where different conventions ruled.

But if it is convention that renders Jane Austen immune from all charges of fallacy and falsity, it is convention that likewise puts the Bible’s art of narrative beyond their reach.

Herein lies one of the Bible’s unique rules:  under the aegis of ideology, convention transmutes even invention into the stuff of history, or rather obliterates the line dividing fact from fancy in communication.  So every word is God’s word.  The product is neither fiction nor historicized fiction nor fictionalized history, but historiography pure and uncompromising. (34-35)

Therefore, Alter is simply wrong, dead wrong.

… it is doubly surprising to find him in the camp of fiction. This line having once been adopted, however, it is not at all surprising that he comes to grief.  the case has never been stated so well, and the parts abound in shrewd observation, but the whole suffers from the same fatal flaw as all the previous arguments for the Bible’s fictionality.


Both Alter and Sternberg are brilliant scholars, and neither suffers from the common tendency to religious bias that colors many if not most biblical scholars.  But one of them must be right and the other wrong … right?

Well, this is the sort of thing that gives the word “academic” the negative connotation of something akin to counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.  The differences between the two are more in the words they use than in the content of what they are saying.

Both agree that much of the content of the Bible is, pure and simple, made up, the product of the authors’ imagination.  Both agree that the authors’ intent, however, was to link their message to historical reality.  Essentially they differ in the language they use.

Alter uses the terms “fiction” and “historiography” with the meanings that they have today.  Sternberg uses the same terms with the meanings that he imagines they would have had at the time the Bible was written.  Of the two approaches, Sternberg’s is certainly more artificial since nobody used these terms or anything like them back then.  What he accomplishes by using them in this artificial manner is to assert what Alter never disputes:  the biblical writers intended to write an absolutely authoritative narrative, unlike modern fiction which one can take or leave as one likes.

Lake Serene with Buck

July 5, 2010

On July 4 the intrepid duo headed for Lake Serene.  This was our second time on this trail and we were determined to finish the job this time.  The last time we went, the truck was brand new and I left a Garmin GPS attached to the windshield and on the way up it occurred to me on the way up the trail that I could end up missing both a window and the GPS if I was away too long.  So we went only to Bridal Veil falls and turned around.

This hike was relatively easy – a 7 mile round trip with a 2,000 foot elevation gain – but it promised a scenic lake at the end set between towering cliffs.

This was one of the most artificially built-up trails we have been on yet.  Many of the steep parts had been made into a dirt and timbers staircase.

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Even relatively flat places were framed in by timbers, but this did not make for easy going because the space between the timbers was filled by rocks of various sizes.  Even coming back down it’s hard to make good time on tihs trail because you’re constantly watching your step to make sure you don’t twist an ankle on the uneven surface.

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At the lake we crossed a long narrow bridge over a log jam on our way to what some hikers we met called “Lunch Rock”.  And there we saw the magnificent view of – fog. (The slightly bluish tint just over the edge of the rock is beautiful Lake Serene, of which we saw only the near shore when we were standing right next to it.)

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Buck didn’t mind the fog, so long as the chipmunks provided entertainment and I provided the treats I always give him as a reward at the end of the trail.

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On the way back we made a side trip to the old “Honeymoon Mine” and investigated the abandoned tunnel.

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Of course, there were picturesque waterfalls and creeks along the way.  Unfortunately, many of my pictures did not turn out well.  For the Dirty Harry hike I lugged my big and heavy Nikon D40 digital SLR, but I figured I’d cut some weight down by carrying a small point and shoot after that.  So I got a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH20 and took it along for the Pratt Lake hike.  It did OK on that sunny day, but on the cloudy 4th of July it was a disappointment.  You would think that a digital camera these days could be made intelligent enough that if the auto-focus focuses on infinity for a scenery shot, it would know enough not to go to flash mode, or if it did go to flash mode, it would dynamically adjust the exposure when it realized that the flash had no effect whatsoever at that distance.  But no, it didn’t.  So many pictures turned out dark because the camera flashed and expected the flash to be effective.  Once I figured out what was happening I turned the flash off, but then what I found out was that the ISO rating is not that high and the stabilization control was not that effective and many pictures turned out blurry from a too-slow shutter speed.  At any rate, I did get a couple of pictures of streams and waterfalls, one on the way up, and one on the way down when the fog had rolled in.

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Pratt Lake with Buck

July 5, 2010

On June 25 Buck and I hiked to Pratt Lake.  That wasn’t the intention when we started, though.  We were going to conquer Granite Mountain – a 3,800 foot climb in 4 miles to a fire lookout at the 5,600 summit.  However, in our heads down determination to make good time we marched right past the cutoff to Granite Mountain and ended up heading for Pratt Lake.  We realized our mistake not too long after we missed it, but we came upon a couple of (young and green) hikers and asked them, and they confidently told us the fork was up ahead of us.  A mile or so later we got to it and discovered it was the wrong fork.  After already climbing a couple of thousand feet or so, neither Buck nor I felt like retracing our steps, so on we trudged to Pratt Lake, 6 miles each way a total of 2,900 feet of elevation gain (2300 in, 600 out).

We crossed raging rivers.

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Trekked through knee-deep snow drifts.

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Rested once in a while.

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Crossed great fields of gigantic boulders.

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And finally reached a quiet lake in a valley surrounded by mountains.

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Where Buck got to play in the water and dig for buried treasure and get muddy2010-06 Pratt Lake Hike 019 .

The Power of Negative Experience

July 3, 2010

This year I received my best Father’s Day gift ever:  the whole family went down to Roy, Washington to visit Ewe-topia.  At Ewetopia dogs get to pretend they’re herd dogs and chase sheep around.  For my Collie-Shepherd mix, this beats even squirrel-chasing, and few things are as much fun for me as watching my dog have a great time. (As I explained in an earlier post, that also applies to other family members but with them it’s very much a hit-or-miss operation.  And when you do get a hit, the excitement level is a couple of orders of magnitude lower than what you get from a dog when all you do is say the word “walk.”)

Yes, I could have done this myself anytime, and I did have to pay for it myself, but it was more fun as a family activity.  Only as a Father’s Day gift would the whole family agree to endure the hour-plus drive each way just to let Buck have a try at sheep-herding.

I also had to arrange the visit myself.  You have to call before your first time, and when I did that a woman answered the phone and talked nonstop at breakneck speed for several minutes giving an information dump, most of which I had no chance of retaining.  But one thing I did catch:  they offered a “makeover” in addition to the sheep-herding.  What’s a makeover?  You tell them whatever bad habits your dog has and they fix it in short order.  How do they do that?, I wondered.

Buck does have some less than endearing habits.  He can be a bully at the dog park:  he loves to attack and intimidate certain breeds of dogs that are a smaller enough and submissive enough that he can get away with it.  And when you take him on a walk on the leash, he’ll pull your arm out of its socket if he sees a squirrel.  And when he’s off leash he comes when called only if there’s not anything else more interesting, like a squirrel, occupying his attention.

Buck has been to a few puppy training sessions, but that didn’t do much for these issues.  We looked into one-on-one training, but that ran around $400 for one half-day session.  So now the offer of a “makeover” for $50, which included the herding lesson which would otherwise be $12, sounded worth a try even if probably too good to be true.

At Ewetopia we found that for the makeover we had to sign a release form that among other things advised that we were consenting to trust the trainer’s judgment even if he had to use “harsh” methods.  That caused some concern.  What did that mean?  What were they going to do to my baby?  I decided with some trepidation to go ahead, figuring that if I saw something I couldn’t live with I’d intervene.

When Buck’s turn came, I was given a choke chain (nowadays the PC term is “training collar”) to replace his buckle collar and a thick braided leather 6-foot leash to replace his 16-foot extendable one.  The trainer, a fairly short, stocky man who walked a little stiffly, introduced himself as Joe.  He took the leash.

The first words out of his mouth were “Sit!”  Buck, who knows what that means but is accustomed to doing things on his own schedule, dawdled.  He immediately got “popped,” i.e., Joe yanked the leash upward.  He kind of got the message, and sat.  Joe began a long monologue about dog training, keeping one idea on the recalcitrant Collie mix who was supposed to stay sitting.

Not inclined to stay sitting, Buck got up again in short order.  Pop!  OK, thought Buck reluctantly, I’ll sit down again.  This was repeated a number of times.  One of the times, an extended “pop” lifted his front paws off the ground and he gave a yelp.  But before too long and he got the message and stayed sitting.

Next was “heel” training.  Similar story.  Get a little too far ahead:  pop!  Get a little too far behind:  pop!  Get distracted and try to say hi to a passing dog:  pop!  Before long the dog who had never heeled in his life was obediently walking at heel, ignoring other dogs, carefully matching his gait and position to the speed and turns of his handler.

The makeover continued by addressing the problem with aggression against smaller dogs.  An accomplice would parade past Buck close by with a pair of small dogs, and when Buck would try to react:  pop!  If he so much as looked at them:  pop!  They would take the dogs behind him and stop for a while right next to his behind, and he was not allowed to so much as acknowledge their presence, on pain of another pop.

OK, then, I wondered, so how are they going to get him to come on command even when there’s a squirrel around?  You can’t pop a dog who you don’t have on a leash.  Joe explained the method:  they put the dog into the sheep corral but without any sheep.  A couple of accomplices go out there with rock bottles.  You go in too and call the dog.  They throw rock bottles at the dog until he comes to you.  Repeat the procedure until the dog gets the message that it’s extremely desirable to go the person calling him.  This sounded a little scary, as I had heard the talk about “rock bottles” earlier, and it evoked visions of beer bottles filled with rocks being bashed against poor Buck’s head.  Turns out the “bottles” are big plastic bottles like you get laundry detergent or bleach in, with only enough rocks in them to make noise.  They’re scary to a dog, but not painful.  You could whack a dog really hard with one of these flimsy plastic bottles and not do any damage.

Joe told a story about how when he did this for one dog owner, the owner’s friend who had come along complained that this was cruelty to animals and unnecessary.  Joe asked her, “well, this works, but can you tell me a better way?”  You can teach a dog the “positive” way by rewarding with petting and hugs and treats, but when he sees a squirrel or a rabbit, no desire or habit of coming based on treats and hugs can begin to compete with the thrill of the chase.  The only effective deterrent would be if the dog assimilates the idea that the consequences of chasing the squirrel would far exceed the excitement.  “If you have a better way, I’m all ears.”  The woman had nothing to say, and the rock bottle lesson continued and from the testimonial letters Ewetopia receives, it appears the method is very successful.

Buck survived all that and learned some new skills, and then came the reward – sheep herding!  Into the corral he and I went with the trainer. (Not Joe, he was no doubt off putting another dog through boot camp.)  By now it was afternoon, and a long rainy day of paws and hooves running around in circles had transformed the ground into mud.  No matter, Buck’s excitement grew as he realized sheep were on the other side of a gate at one corner of the corral.  Then they let the sheep out, and Buck was in dog heaven.  He ran after them, barking and nipping at their sides.  They ran away.  He ran after.  They ran in circles around the corral and he followed in hot pursuit.  The trainer kept up with a long pole that she could use to make Buck back off if he actually attacked them, but he never did that.  He wasn’t herding them to any specific purpose, but he sure kept them trotting around for the full 10 minutes he had allotted to him.  At the end he was a happy and tired dog covered with mud from his belly down.

Nowadays the PC approach to dog training is exclusively “positive”.  We were taught in our puppy training classes that you always reward positive behavior and the worst you do for negative behavior is about 30 seconds or so of “time out.”  We used this for house training, and let me tell you that a house training process that went fairly quickly for other dogs in the past dragged out this time for months.  It was as if Buck was something of a dimwit, but from later experience we know that wasn’t it.

This experience makes sense if you take a moment to put yourself in a dog’s shoes … er, paws.  You get richly rewarded when you pee outside and a mildly unpleasant short timeout when you do it inside.  So what line would your thinking take?  Sure, I like to make Tom happy and pee outside, and that time out stuff is a bit of a nuisance when I do it inside, but after all if I suddenly realize that I really have to go, what’s the big deal?  I have to get somebody to let me out, and who knows how long that might take.  I don’t mind 30 seconds in a dark bathroom that much.  And they give me hugs and treats sooner or later anyway.  I won’t miss one treat or hug and I don’t get one every single time I pee outside anyway. Dogs aren’t dumb and they can weigh pros and cons of their actions quite intelligently.  So with Buck the “accidents” continued.  Then one day I came into the bedroom and there was Buck standing on the bed peeing.  I grabbed him by the collar and yanked him off the bed and hauled him down the hallway all the while screaming at him like a banshee, then with a great heave launched him out the back door.  He got the message quite clearly after that, and at last the long house training ordeal came to an end.

Joe had made a strong point about the importance as well the technique of effective “come when called” training:  if a dog doesn’t learn this extremely well, it could cost him his life.  The squirrel or rabbit could run across a busy street, the dog in hot pursuit forgetting to look both ways first.  Having been brainwashed into accepting the “positive training only” approach, I had few options for preventing this.  The only possibility would be to trap a squirrel, fabricate a carrying case, bring it with on walks, and when I needed Buck to come no matter what, haul out the squirrel and wave it around or get it to chatter.  That sounded like a lot of work and I don’t have an unlimited supply of squirrels and so I never tried it, and in any case even that might not effectively interrupt a chase in progress.

“Positive training” has limitations that those who advocate it do not acknowledge and do not warn you about.  This carries over into the human world as well.  I suspect this is a realization that prompted much of the biblical writings as well.  Moses and the prophets and Paul and the evangelists all realized that you can’t just promise rewards for good behavior, if you really want to be effective you have to promise pain and suffering for bad behavior.  And that’s why they did.  Read Deuteronomy and you’ll realize that every promised blessing has a curse counterweight.  Read the prophets and you’ll see that every misfortune is blamed not on the vagaries of chance but on peoples’ bad behavior.  If your nation has been trampled down by invaders and your capital city destroyed and you’ve been exiled to a foreign land where you’re used like a slave, well, that’s all because you didn’t take care of the poor and defenseless when you were well off, so let that burrow itself deeply into your memory so that you remember it and act differently when you find yourself well off again some day.  Read apocalyptic literature and you’ll see the same pattern as Deuteronomy except it’s moved out into the eschatological future.  The pattern is identical in the New Testament.  Compare Matthew 25 to Deuteronomy.  All of these writers wanted to bring about considerate, cooperative, altruistic behavior among their people or all people, and they realized about people what Joe at Ewetopia realized about dogs:  rewards alone aren’t always enough.  Fortunately for the biblical authors and for the people they wrote for, many people in those days believed the interpretations and promises.  Today most people don’t believe in the same way, and as a result the biblical texts are not as effective as they were.  So how could you accomplish the same ends today?  How do you get people who don’t believe in future rewards and punishments to choose good when they’re strongly tempted to do otherwise?

Richard Feynman in The Meaning of it All, a great little book I highly recommend, addresses this issue as an unresolved question for modern man.  Science has undermined the belief in the metaphysical aspects of religion, he points out, but there is still no alternative to religion for the moral aspects of guiding human behavior; one reason is that:

… as far as I know in the gathering of scientific evidence, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere, anything that says whether the Golden Rule is a good one or not.  I don’t have any evidence of it on the basis of scientific study. (44)

On the other hand, what he calls the “inspirational” aspect, and you might also call it the “motivational” aspect, is undermined by science:

The source of inspiration today, the source of strength and comfort in any religion, is closely knit with the metaphysical aspects.  That is, the inspiration comes from working for God, from obeying His will, and so on.  Now an emotional tie expressed in this manner, the strong feeling that you are doing right, is weakened when the slightest amount of doubt is expressed as to the existence of God.  So when a belief in God is uncertain, this particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.  I don’t know the answer to this problem, the problem of maintaining the real value of religion as a source of strength and of courage to most men while at the same time not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical system. (46)

One might say that to get people to behave altruistically (let’s say many of them some of the time and some of them much of the time) requires the equivalent of a trainer and choke chains and rock bottles.  In the Christian tradition, the Old Testament prophets and authors of the New Testament provided these.  But their methods are not as effective today as they once were.  Are there equivalent methods that would be effective in the modern world?  On one level, civic laws perform this function, but for the deeper level of promoting Golden Rule behavior, that’s not the answer.  Like Feynman I don’t know the answer to this question.

(Lest anyone miss the allusion, the title is meant to be a counterpoint to “the power of positive thinking.”  I don’t dispute the truth of the latter phrase, and I don’t necessarily advocate or condone the use of some equivalent to rock bottles for humans, but it is interesting to speculate about how recognition of “the power of negative experience” may have motivated the writing of some parts of the biblical texts.)