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Letters

  • No-Frills Jesus
  • Magic Time
  • Immigration
  • Advice & Consent


    No-Frills Jesus

    The article of mine that Charlotte Allen ("The Search for a No-Frills Jesus," December Atlantic) calls "an essay on the Gospels" in fact was on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. And the sentence of which she quotes a "quasi-mathematical" snippet read in its circumspect entirety, "While Matthew and Luke did not have exactly the same Q in front of them, and small discrepancies abound, it is roughly true that Matthew = Mark + Q and that Luke = Mark + Q + the considerable body of narrative and preachment present only in Luke, called by some scholars."

    It seemed strange, by the way, to read a lengthy investigation of early Christianity without a single reference to the oldest documents in the New Testament, the epistles of Paul, which show a cosmic incarnational theology already in place.

    John Updike
    Beverly Farms, Mass.


    I read the article about Q with disbelief. All those people in contention about the contents of a manuscript that does not exist, is not known to have existed, and most likely never existed. Do you wonder that people believe in flying saucers?

    David A. Gibson
    Spencerport, N.Y.


    Charlotte Allen primarily attempts to show how the various Gospels relate to one another and to a potential Q, or source document. There is another approach to trying to understand them. It is well known that the writers of the Gospels lived many years after the death of Jesus. They knew little of His life and believed that all was foretold in the Hebrew Bible. Therefore they believed that if they searched the Hebrew Bible properly, they could find the life of Jesus. This explains the strong parallelism between the Gospels and the Hebrew Bible -- for example, the Bethlehem birth, going down to Egypt, twelve disciples, and so forth. In many cases the Gospels announce items taken from the Hebrew Bible; whenever the words "as it is written" or "to be fulfilled" are used, the event is a borrowing.

    In Matthew, Jesus announces that He will be in the tomb for three days because Jonah was in the whale for three days, a clear borrowing from the Hebrew Bible. The entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, the casting of lots for the clothing after the Crucifixion, and many other events fall into this category.

    The ancient writers did not use footnotes. "As it is written" and "to be fulfilled" were attempts to document their case. They were intended to strengthen the early Christians in the belief that Jesus had fulfilled the prophesy in the Hebrew Bible. Ironically, the very attempt to "prove" the events of the Gospels from the Hebrew Bible shows them to be inventions.

    Lawrence Briskin
    Centerville, Ohio


    Charlotte Allen provides an excellent summation of modern research on the historical Jesus and the hypothetical document Q.

    Paul, however, receives no attention in the article. Although Paul is often accused of being the founder of later Christianity, or of moving the story of Jesus in certain theological directions, he is in actuality our earliest witness to the life of Jesus, antedating all the Gospels. In his letters he indicated that he knew a fair amount from the oral tradition about Jesus' life and sayings, such as the account of the Last Supper in I Cor. 11 and of the Resurrection in I Cor. 15. This material was transmitted orally according to ancient custom, and the oral transmission forms a historical bridge between Jesus and those who wrote about him thirty to sixty years later.

    Arthur Freeman
    Moravian Theological Seminary
    Bethlehem, Pa.



    Charlotte Allen replies:

    John Updike and Arthur Freeman upbraid me for neglecting the New Testament letters of Paul, which indeed are the oldest Christian documents in existence -- at least as old as the hypothetical primal stratum of the hypothetical Q. Furthermore, as Mr. Updike correctly points out, Paul's letters, written roughly from A.D. 50 to 64, reflect "a cosmic incarnational theology already in place" -- that is, a theology centered in Jesus' life story, atoning death, and resurrection which was already traditional (as Professor Freeman observes) in Christian communities all over the Mediterranean world, from Jerusalem to Rome, by the time Paul addressed the subject, a mere twenty years or so after Jesus' crucifixion. That it was traditional we don't have to guess at, either, because Paul made it clear that he and his readers had heard it elsewhere from others. Had my article attempted a reconstruction of Christian origins, I would certainly have mentioned Paul. However, I was merely examining a scholarly phenomenon: how it is possible to "reconstruct"a document that may not have existed and then claim that its "theology"is earlier and probably truer to Jesus than any early Christian document actually in existence.



    Magic Time

    Michael Davitt Bell's "Magic Time" (December Atlantic) brought out beautifully the distinction made in some cancer circles between a "healing" and a "cure." Although a healing of the emotions and the spirit can include a physical cure and a cancer remission can create the kind of happiness that Bell talks about, healings and cures do not always occur simultaneously.

    Like Bell, I have suffered for several years from a sarcoma and have been given little hope by my oncologist for a long life. I have explored several areas of holistic medicine, including a nutritional program, a Japanese form of energy work, and some intense psychotherapy. While my cancer has continued to grow, I, like Bell, have experienced a change in attitude from numbness and depression to a sense of happiness and acceptance. I have found, as he has, that being open with family and friends (which for me includes accepting help from them) is an essential part of learning to tell one's own story. In describing my situation and observing my own and others' reaction to it, I learn more about who I am. I have learned that I have more courage than I thought I did and more love for the people around me. In "breaching the wall" of etiquette or denial, I have found that what I have to say generally includes truths for which people, once they have gotten over the shock of them, are grateful. I have found a new purpose and meaning in battling my disease and an increased sense of self worth which makes it possible for me to accept the inevitability of death.

    I do differ with Bell in one area, however. I do not choose to believe in time lines set down by doctors -- time lines based on the experiences of other people. I have enough confidence in the mind-body connection to feel that life can be extended or shortened by a person's attitude. I don't believe that my disease is my fault or that if I die it will be because I didn't try hard enough, but I do believe that my mind and spirit will have an effect on the length and quality of my life. My religious beliefs include the thought that God has a plan for each of us and a potential lifeline for each of us. As I thankfully relax in my newfound joy in life, I relax also in the confidence that I will be given the strength to cope either with whatever life brings or with death.

    Caroline Stephens
    Longmont, Colo.


    "Magic Time" is a masterpiece of wisdom. No "poor me" -- merely a pragmatic look at the process that awaits. Michael Davitt Bell has truly given us all a gift of grace, courage, and wisdom.

    John E. Moren
    Davis, Calif.



    Immigration

    David M. Kennedy's article "Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?" (November Atlantic) supports his position well on the historical facts. However, it neglects a few key contemporary political points.

    The reconquista Kennedy discusses in his conclusion missed perhaps the most important aspect of the visible takeover of the southwestern United States. Ramparts magazine wrote that the Southwest is being taken over by the Ford Foundation (primarily) in dollars, not by U.S. military force. The National Council of La Raza, the Mexican-American Legal and Defense Education Fund (funded significantly through Ford), and the Citizenship U.S.A. program make it much more difficult for today's immigrants to assimilate into the predominantly Anglo-Saxon American culture. For example, these organizations have fought hard for funding for bilingual education and against teacher testing, and in California made sure that funds appropriated for bilingual education were not included in Proposition 98's funding equation, ensuring that Latino students would have more difficulty acquiring English, which for the most part is not spoken at home. This is so because school districts have a significant financial incentive to keep bilingual students enrolled in this program.

    These organizations, through funding from Ford and the federal government (each organization receives a third of its funding from the federal government), fight with all their political power to assure themselves a part of the post-civil-rights pie of victimization, regardless of actual discrimination. They strive to foster a sense of Hispanic identity first and an American identity as an afterthought. It is no wonder that citizens of southwestern states feel compelled to pass official-English laws and initiatives similar to California's Proposition 187.

    The real question is this: Can we continue to permit immigration, given the current political substructure influencing immigration and other policies (other ethnic groups have begun to follow the Latino model)? At present the answer is no. We are already pursuing a course of Balkanization (especially on university campuses) that is extremely dangerous. The highest-rated newscast in the Los Angeles market is on KMEX-34, Univision, a Spanish-speaking TV station. Thus the present does not echo the past even in the slightest.

    Jason Bryce Rush
    Fullerton, Calif.


    In reviewing the costs and benefits of immigration, both David M. Kennedy and George J. Borjas ("The New Economics of Immigration," November Atlantic) fail to mention the environmental costs of immigration-generated population growth. What accounting is being made for the loss of biodiversity, destruction of forests, and exploitation of our rivers and lakes to provide energy, housing, and food for our growing population? This question may make us uncomfortable, but how can it be said that we will be better off ignoring than confronting it?

    Mark W. Nowak
    Negative Population Growth
    Washington, D.C.


    George J. Borjas's method for estimating the economic effects of immigration is insightful and important. It reveals that immigration creates both an "immigration surplus," which benefits primarily employers, and a "redistribution of wealth" to the detriment of those who depend for their living on wages. Depressed wages, which underlie both effects, are caused by growth in the labor force: more workers must compete in a relatively slow-growing job market.

    Borjas makes a crucial decision in accepting the estimate that "a 10 percent increase in the number of workers lowers wages by about three percent." I am aware of such findings. Claudia Goldin, of Harvard, uses data from immigration and labor markets in the rapidly industrializing U.S. economy of 1880-1920.

    The effects of a growing labor force may be magnified in economies that are developing less dramatically (creating fewer jobs) than the United States was at that period in its history. For example, studies of pre-industrial England, by the historical demographer Ronald D. Lee, of the University of California at Berkeley, show that a 10 percent increase in population depressed wages by 22 percent. That is, Borjas cites a three percent wage decline; Lee estimates 22 percent. The present effect is probably somewhere between.

    Lee's data span several generations. In contrast, the United States is experiencing a 10 percent increase in population every nine or ten years. Direct immigration plus the children born to post-1970 immigrants accounts for 60 percent of that very rapid increase. Population growth quickly translates into labor-force growth.

    Thus it is easy to conclude that the "immigration surplus" for employers is larger, and the redistribution of wealth away from Americans who work for wages is greater, than Borjas estimates. Moreover, Borjas appears to underestimate the public-sector costs of immigration. Taken together, these effects suggest that the immigration of low-skill people (who make up more than 90 percent of the stream under "family reunification" policy) is a serious net drain on the economy and also counterproductive in terms of the long-standing social policies for giving opportunity to least-advantaged Americans and strengthening the working middle class.

    Virginia Abernethy
    Editor, Population and Environment
    Nashville, Tenn.


    Neither Kennedy nor Borjas mentions the environmental and social consequences of today's immigration policy, under which our nation will not only experience the strains that Kennedy sees but will double in size in less than a century, and still be growing. A third essay by a demographer-environmentalist would have deepened the analysis, and the alarm, by more than a third.

    Otis L. Graham Jr.
    University of North Carolina
    Wilmington, N.C.


    I am writing to correct an error in the article by George J. Borjas. He states that whereas Canada allows would-be immigrants to "buy" visas by investing $250,000 in Canadian businesses, the United States has not taken such an approach. This is untrue. Since 1991 the United States has set aside 10,000 visas each year for those immigrants willing to invest a million dollars in an American business and employ ten American workers. The figure is lowered to $500,000 for certain "targeted employment areas" -- that is, rural areas that at the time of investment have unemployment rates at least 150 percent of the national average. The investors are admitted as permanent residents on a conditional basis for two years. If during this two-year period the investors fail to live up to the requirements of their "alien entrepreneur" visas, they face deportation proceedings.

    Cheri Attix
    San Diego, Calif.


    David Kennedy's comparison of the potential future of the American Southwest to what has happened in Quebec is simply silly. Though I would feel a certain amount of dreamy cultural pride if his prediction came to pass, I am certain that it will not. The unique nature of the situation that he accurately identifies -- namely, geographic proximity to Mexico -- will produce a very different dynamic. Leaving one's cultural home, whether by a walk across a highway or a trip across an ocean, is no small thing. It is undertaken always with the understanding that you may never see that place again, that you may live your life and be buried in what you once would have considered foreign soil. In the past immigrants' ties to their source culture were stretched over a vast expanse of ocean and eventually and necessarily snapped. The geographic proximity to Mexico makes immigrants' ties to that country stronger, and thus has merely slowed down the assimilative processes that are at work in other immigrant groups from the moment they arrive here. The unrelenting flood of American culture into Mexico will help the process along by preparing potential immigrants beforehand.

    I find far more troubling the current disintegration of American culture and its relationship to immigrants. As my family and I have witnessed progressive groups of Mexican immigrants arrive, we've seen them take to gangs, drugs, social-welfare dependency, and general spiritual and moral meltdown, not because that was their intent but because they see it as their best hope for assimilation into the lower strata of American society. The burden that current immigrants might place on the social-welfare system is in large part a byproduct of the existence of such a system in the first place. I have a very hard time believing that if social welfare and easy access to public hospitals and schools had been available at the turn of the century, the immigrants of that era would not have taken advantage of them to the same extent. If anything, the current wave of immigrants has done an unfortunately good job of assimilating into American culture -- a culture of dependency, moral and spiritual lassitude, and general apathy toward hard work, education, and community involvement.

    The fact is that the cultural argument against immigration is at its core a measure of the increasing weakness of American culture. The problem with immigration today is much less a result of where immigrants come from or what they bring with them than a byproduct of the impoverished cultural produce that is raised locally and that they are merely harvesting.

    Luis Fernandez
    Columbus, Ohio



    David M. Kennedy replies:

    Jason Bryce Rush's list of factors impeding the process of Latino assimilation is long, including the Ford Foundation, the Mexican-American Legal and Defense Education Fund, and a Spanish-language TV station (KMEX). That station arrests my attention. Philanthropic efforts to sustain immigrant cultures, or ease their members' transition into American society, are nothing new. Jane Addams's Hull House, in late-nineteenth-century Chicago, for example, was but the most famous of scores of "settlement houses" that undertook just those tasks for European immigrants a century ago. Many of the young social workers in those institutions (including Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, and Henry Morgenthau) went on to play conspicuous roles in the New Deal, much of whose historical mission was to usher the large immigrant communities previously on the margins of American life into this society's mainstream. MALDEF also has counterparts in a previous era's ethnic lobbies and urban political machines, organizations that sought simultaneously to hold immigrant communities together and to guide their members into the larger society. Just to the degree they succeeded in the latter aim, they eventually failed at the first, and passed into the history books, as did the settlement houses. But KMEX, I believe, represents something new, as Mr. Rush acknowledges. It testifies to the fact that at least one present-day immigrant community has the mass and the money to sustain a major, and separate, medium of information, entertainment, and advertising. Some scattered, low-powered, limited-range ethnic radio stations flourished evanescently in the 1920s, only to be swamped by the emergence of high-powered transmitters broadcasting into large "markets." Further developments in technology, and the same commercial logic, now serve KMEX. KMEX demonstrates once again that because of the size and cultural coherence of the Latino community, the gods of commerce may have more to do with its ultimate destiny than all the foundations and political operatives in the land -- and those gods are largely indifferent on the question of assimilation.

    As for the demographic and environmental implications of immigration, I can only repeat that from a global perspective migration to higher-productivity employments may well be among the strongest incentives to lower fertility, and that I am highly skeptical of the argument that immigration is a major cause of environmental degradation.

    Finally, though Luis Fernandez may find my comparison of the present-day American Southwest with Quebec "silly," I must say that I find his contribution literally incredible. Are we really to believe from it that the children of earlier immigrants did not attend school? That today's immigrants embrace "gangs, drugs, social-welfare dependency, and general spiritual and moral meltdown" as techniques of assimilation? That not the prospect of economic opportunity but the lure of "lassitude" and degeneracy on a scale equivalent to Sodom and Gomorrah is what really drives immigration? Mr. Fernandez is clearly unhappy with contemporary American culture, but I submit that he's got it all wrong: America's continuing attractiveness to newcomers ranks among the healthiest indexes of this society's vitality.



    George Borjas replies:

    Although Cheri Attix accuses me of erroneously stating that the United States does not set aside visas for "investors,"my conscience is clear. Although I refer in my article to the availability of investor visas in Canada, I do not make any statement whatsoever about the presence or absence of such visas in the United States. I am well aware of the existence of the U.S. program. Nevertheless, as Ms. Attix must realize, the 10,000 visas available to investors are but a tiny fraction of the total number of visas handed out annually. And that is why my article stresses the family-reunification aspect of current policy -- which is clearly responsible for the bulk of entrants.

    Most of the other reactions from readers stress costs of immigration that neither my article nor David Kennedy's stressed, such as the impact on the environment and on our cultural and political values. These questions are important and worth discussing. Unfortunately, we simply do not know as much about these effects as we do about the easier-to-measure economic effects.



    Advice & Consent

    Readers of "My Grandfather's Last Tale" (December Atlantic), about the late composer Ernst Toch, may have become infected, like me, with haplessly futile curiosity regarding precisely where it was that Toch spent his all-important stint on the Austro-Italian front during the First World War. In her taped oral history, completed just weeks before her death in 1972, my grandmother Lilly went to great lengths to enunciate the name of the place clearly, since she was the last person alive who knew it. "Hot Potato Shit," she intoned authoritatively. And not then, nor ever in the years since, despite hours and hours spent combing dozens of atlases and gazetteers, have I been able to determine where the hell she was talking about.

    My nights of sleepless tossing, however, have now miraculously come to an end. One of the article's readers, George Strauss, of Piscataway, New Jersey (originally from Vienna), had the wit to reach for a 1913 Baedeker guidebook to the "Oesterreich Ungarn"region of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and there, right where it was supposed to be (in the Krain region between Laibach -- now known as Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital -- and Trieste), he located a village called (or anyway once called, for who knows what it's called nowadays) Hotederschitz. Mr. Strauss makes a convincing case for the confusion in Viennese pronunciation, and I wish to thank him profusely.

    Lawrence Weschler
    New York, New York


    "The Greatest Show on Earth" (December Atlantic), Sheila Gordon's gentle, touching story of a lonely way-station along a limitless stretch of railroad track in South Africa, put warm breath in the people she depicts living in that tiny, isolated hamlet in the middle of nowhere.

    It is a haunting tale, beautifully expressed: if "page-turner" can be used for magazines as it is for good books, then The Atlantic Monthly clearly deserves this bouquet of flattery for fine fiction.

    Robert J. Curcio
    Tuolumne, Calif.


    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; March 1997; Letters; Volume 279, No. 3; pages 8-13.

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