Recent Reading: 9 April: Fasting, Blood-Sucking, Spending and Stealing, Hating and Cheating

** Nancy Hitt in Fasting: Act of Devotion or Violence? at Preaching Peace starts by acknowledging that fasting “works”:  “People who fast often report a combination of results that they find spiritually beneficial.” She then asks: “Why does fasting “work”?  What kind of work is accomplished? … Is fasting a violent or a nonviolent practice?”

Hitt looks briefly at Biblical tradition and at the current practices of some religions and denominations, noting that the motivation for most fasting practice seems to be either to please God or to sway God. As far as results,

“it makes people feel cleaner, purer, more in control of themselves. It makes them feel like they are doing a holy thing by going without food for a long time; they are more spiritual because they are less physical. … My concern is that any time I hear people using the words ‘cleaner, purer, more in control of themselves’ I worry that we have resorted to violence. Cleaner than what? Purer than who? What is the cost of that self-control? Why is control over the body’s need for food a holy undertaking? Christianity is an incarnational experience of relationship with God; what does our fasting incarnate?

Read the essay for her thoughts on this, and others’ in the comments.

** From a March issue of The New Yorker, “In the Blood: Why do vampires still thrill?” by Joan Acocella doesn’t really try to answer the subtitle’s question. Instead the essay is mostly a 6-page exploration of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the books written about it. She does start with a history of vampires in lore, literature (more than 1000 novels), TV, film (150 movies), scholarship, and the popular culture (Serbian Gypsies believe that “pumpkins, if kept for more than ten days, may cross over.”)

And she gives a few perfunctory suggestions as to why we are sucked in, if you will; the genre is really about (choose one or more):

  • the frightening other: immigrants, feminists, gays — “symbols of the real-life sociopolitical horrors facing the late Victorians” — though she doesn’t say why this would appeal
  • the nature of victims and victimisation, of opppression, a suffering and misunderstood minority, raising the question, “How can we have sympathy for the Devil and still regard him as the Devil?”
  • the unsettling experience of the irrational, the supernatural: “‘Do you not think that there are things in the world which you cannot understand, and yet which are?'”
  • most obviously, the “allure and menace” of forbidden sex: “The baring of the woman’s flesh, her leaning back, the penetration: reading of these matters, does one think about immigration?”
  • human desire and its morality

** Is everyone else as fascinated by behavioural economics as I am? Reports at the Economix blog about several studies on spending, saving and stealing money:

>> People are less likely to spend large denomination bills than smaller ones (breaking a large bill “accentuates the ‘pain of paying'”), but once they break a larger bill, they’re more likely to spend more than they would have if they were spending smaller denominations (the ‘what the hell’ effect)

>> White-collar workers who make more money are more likely to steal. Economics would predict that the less you have to lose, the more likely you are to commit a crime, so “if you can make a lot of money legitimately, why put those earnings at risk with illegal activities that might get you thrown in jail?” However, a study found that “insider-trading convictions are concentrated among richer managers” even when for firm size, industry, potential profits, and risk of discovery were factored in. They’re not sure, but it might be hubris that drives these crimes.

** “Haters Cheat Less” – provocative and somewhat misleading headline from Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias about a study in Psychological Science that found that unethical behavior increased when someone seen as a member of one’s own group was observed to cheat extravagantly, but it decreased when the major cheater was a member of another group. Rivalry, the allure of belonging, and group identification at work again.  Doubt the study would show the same results, though, if the two groups felt they were in (cut-throat) competition with each other to achieve a  strongly desired goal that could provide enough justification for modeling one’s behaviour and identity on ‘the other.’

Hanson asks:  “So folks will cheat less when told that outsiders cheat more.  When can this justify preaching that other nations, religions, races, genders, etc. are evil or immoral?


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