Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Great Courses Are Great, Except When They’re Not.

First off, I do think that, in general, The Great Courses series on Audible is a really good deal. Unfortunately, you don’t get any of the really heavy-duty courses (like taking Koine Greek as a language), but you can get some really good courses that are full of up to date research, stuff that is hard to get elsewhere. (Like the course on the Etruscans, or on Central and South American civilizations, or on the ancient civilizations of the Asian steppe. The “Medical School for Everybody” series is very useful and practical, too.) Many of the best ones cover multi-disciplinary material, so you get enrichment in several areas.

The best deal is during those months when Audible subscribers get two-for-one, or when Great Courses are on sale. There are also free short podcasts by Great Courses professors, treating various interesting short subjects.

The problem is that some of the Great Courses are… um… not so great. So you have to keep an eye out.

First off, make sure you listen to the audio samples. If a professor’s voice is going to drive you up the wall, don’t buy that course!

Second, be prepared to tinker with the audio speed. Most audiobooks today are provided to you at twice the speed they were recorded, because many listeners want to get through books fast. So be aware that, to get the actual normal speed, you will have to lower the speed to .75 or .50 on your player. (If you like fast listening, you may even turn up the speed, of course! Myself, I can’t absorb stuff at that speed.)

Obviously, there is no way in heck that you want to take “The New Testament” from Bart Ehrman. Ewwww. He’s a bad scholar, dishonest in argument and talking out both sides of his mouth. He’s bad about citation, saying nasty stuff about a primary source in one paragraph, and then using it silently as backup for his own argument. (And did I mention that he brands someone a liar and forger for being an ancient male victim of sexual harassment, and writing anguished autobiographical material about how harrowing it was? And then he uses other bits of the man’s writing as a source throughout his book, to prove how awesome and good the harassing groups were? Ewwwwww.)

Even other atheist scholars of classical and early Christian literature despise Ehrman. Every time he puts out a book, professors and other knowledgeable researchers put out page-by-page reviews of his mistakes and deceptive statements. So the chances are that you will actually lose knowledge if you listen to him, as well as providing money to an objectively evil man.

On the other hand, you probably would want to listen to “The Old Testament” course by Amy-Jill Levine. She was Brant Pitre’s professor, and she’s a big honking expert on a lot of Second Temple stuff. You will learn a lot of interesting info, as well as getting familiar with all the scholarly speculation you could ever want. You even get some rabbinical stuff thrown in.

The problem is that Brant Pitre was apparently more patient with professors than I am. Yes, you get lots of good information. Yes, she does discuss a lot of hot topics and important questions in Old Testament studies, and a lot of the whys and wherefores of why modern people think certain things about Biblical stories. But geez, sometimes she is annoying when she is trying to be engaging.

(Honestly, I do not care whether or not some professor likes or dislikes any character in any book, and I care even less about whether she likes a Biblical person. I certainly don’t want to spend five or ten minutes out of every “class” on professorial likes and dislikes. I don’t want people reading stuff into the text that isn’t there, or at least not for twenty minutes. Just tell me about the actual thing, thank you!)

(I realize that this is exactly what profs do in actual classes. Ptui. I’ve dealt with it before, yes. There are very few profs who are good at it, and even they are wasting their students’ time and money. It’s unprofessional, and it’s not edgy or cute. If you have to say it, say it in 30 seconds or less, and then move on.)

The more serious thing is that Levine tends to mention stuff that might hurt someone’s faith in the Bible, without mentioning stuff on that same topic that has been the usual explanations for these things. She doesn’t do this all the time; in fact, she is sometimes very interested in providing different exegeses from different times and different faiths. But it must be hard on younger, less experienced students.

So yeah, “The Old Testament” is a goodish class and a frustrating class, all at once. The advantage is that you can talk back to the professor all you want, and it doesn’t disrupt other students or affect your grade. 🙂

“Biblical Wisdom Literature” by Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., is just about the exact opposite. It’s a course taught from the standpoint of a scholar with specifically Catholic faith, but he is careful to give space for thought for Jewish, non-Catholic Christian, atheist, agnostic, and pagan students. (And not by saying that their faith traditions or unbelief are as valid as Catholicism, or more valid.) He wants people to learn and grow, not to be distressed. Since the Biblical wisdom literature does include a lot of material teaching civic virtue, natural law, and philosophical wisdom, he has room for this. He also encourages direct interaction with the original texts, as well as contemplation on how they can inform his students’ lives. He clearly wants the students to pay more attention to the texts than to him talking about the texts. Whenever he expresses personal opinion, it is clearly marked as such, and it doesn’t take long. The information is carefully expressed.

So that would definitely be a great course to take!

One final word. These are college-level courses aimed at adults, so the professors feel free to discuss mature or shocking material. You can’t talk about some topics at a college level without going into nasty details. There’s not going to be a medical course that doesn’t get a little gross. There’s not going to be a course about the Bible that doesn’t talk about sex and violence. So be careful about listening to these, where little ears can hear.



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The Pope Who Was an Armed Librarian

Before he was elected to the papal see, Fr. Achille Ratti was just an ordinary paleographer and seminary teacher. Then, because his manuscript skills were so good, he was assigned to work at the famous Ambrosian Library in Venice. He spent many years there, from 1888 to 1911. He was made head of the library in 1907.

(He was also a great man for mountain climbing during his librarian days, btw, and was the first person ever to climb many Alpine peaks.)

During his happy time at the Ambrosian, Milan was a growing industrial city. Labor disputes and civic unrest sometimes occurred. The library was sometimes threatened.

And one day, when a break-in was attempted and the manuscripts and books were threatened along with the staff and patrons, Fr. Ratti’s coworkers found out that he kept a gun in his desk and wasn’t afraid to use it. So did the crowd of evildoers, who retreated in frustration. (I can’t find a cite for this, but I remember reading a quote from one of his Milan coworkers.)

Ratti was later assigned to the Vatican Library. He never had to use a gun there, but we know he still kept his in his desk. We know this because later, when he was appointed to Vatican diplomatic duties in Poland, he felt the need to write back and send for it. (It was mailed to him in the diplomatic pouch, of course!)

He was made a cardinal in 1921, to honor his diplomatic service and his work in the Vatican Library, but was simultaneously made Archbishop of Milan. But he had barely begun his new job in Milan when Pope Benedict XV died.

Ratti’s election was a surprise to everyone. He was allegedly a compromise candidate, supported by those who would otherwise have voted for Cardinal Gasparri or Cardinal Merry Del Val.

Pope Pius XI was elected pope in 1922, and served until his death in 1939. It was a rough time to be pope, especially with Mussolini moving in next door. He attempted to secure the rights of the Church in a time of oppression by diplomatic concordats. Unfortunately, most of these were immediately broken by said dictatorships. He canonized St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas More, and St. Therese of Lisieux, among other inspirational saints for modern people. He re-established the Pontifical Institute of Sciences. He also published the famous encyclical in German, “Mit brennender sorge,” which had to be smuggled into Germany, and was read out in every Catholic parish in defiance of the Reich. (He got help in composing strong enough German prose from his secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who would be his eventual successor as Pope Pius XII.)

And so… if somebody tells you that the Florida bill allowing armed school librarians goes against Catholic teaching and practice, remember Pope Pius XI – armed librarian and armed diplomat!

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