Monthly Archives: September 2013

All Booked Up

I remember places by books. Perhaps it is a sickness, but it is a wonderful illness—I love being surrounded by books. When I travel to a new place, a book often serves as a souvenir, as I recall where I discovered a certain title and decided that I want to own it. Of course, independent bookstores are rare and becoming rarer. Who can remember which Barnes and Noble was which? The loss of independent bookstores is a sign of culture collapsing, at least ideologically. Being surrounded by LED screens is just not the same. The viewing goes both ways. Some towns I associate primarily with their bookstores. Over a recent weekend I visited Cranbury, New Jersey for the first time in many months. Apart from its utterly charming, historic downtown, Cranbury is the home of The Cranbury Bookworm, one of my favorite used book stores. My optimism fell under a cloud when I saw the storefront empty. Suddenly, the compelling draw of this quaint town was somehow diminished. My wife and I walked down another block, and I was somewhat revived to see that the Bookworm had merely moved.

Of course, the new location was much smaller. I heard the cashier telling another customer that they had been forced to move and had kept only twenty percent of their stock. So much was clear from my own browsing. My past visits had been perhaps a little too imprudent, but I often walked out with an armload of happiness. This time I purchased a couple of inexpensive paperbacks out of a sense of duty. I support used bookstores in principle. I have had people tell me that we have too many books for the amount of space we can afford to rent. Some people regularly recommend a purge. In a world where finding a comfortable place to be encased by books is increasingly difficult, I have come to regret some of the treasures I’ve given away, or sold, over the years. If I can’t find a sanctuary for books, I shall have to make one. For those who never learned the rapture of reading, it is difficult to explain. I have a phobia of booklessness.

Photo credit: CillanXC. I miss Borders.

Photo credit: CillanXC. I miss Borders.

Even this thing we call religion began, fairly early, as an expression in writing. After people invented writing as a way of keeping receipts, they began recording religious texts. Eventually a Bible. Religious books proliferated. It may seem counter-intuitive, but even today Christian books make up a huge market, no matter how much head-shaking goes on by those who seek only secular lucre. Religion and books often go together, but even when our published parcels take a profane track, they remain lovable. They are more than texts—they are memories. One of my advisors along my academic path inscribed each book with his name, the place he bought it, and the date. Perhaps he infected me with the books-as-souvenirs idea. If he did, I thank him. And I will continue the elusive quest for the bookstore where I might pass a happy hour or two on an autumn weekend.

Ban Ban Go Away

I always seem to discover banned book week in retrospect. With the insane amount of time put into getting to and from work, and actually working, my daily bus ride is my main vehicle (literally) for reading. For eating forbidden fruit. Historically speaking, the first literature was religious literature. Much of it, if anybody bothered to read it, would end up on banned book lists, I’m sure. The Bible is granted a special amnesty, given its reputation as a divinely penned parchment, but it too has its share of unseemly topics. Sex is there almost from the beginning. Violence too. We could go further, but sex and violence are usually sufficient to land a book on the list. And the choices are always so period specific. Catcher in the Rye seems downright tame in the new millennium (or, indeed, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), and yet we still find new books to condemn. I wonder if such books aren’t forming a new kind of scripture.

There was a time when religion challenged social convention rather than championed it. Religions have been co-opted and domesticated by political interests. Can you imagine the man who overturned money-changers’ tables in the temple on the floor of the stock exchange? We have quantified everything, even—especially—human beings. That which can be quantified can be measured and that which can be measured can be sold. Religions, but only those upholding the status quo, grease those wheels nicely. If we had a chance to know religious founders personally, I suspect we would have found banned books in their libraries. Ideas can be dangerous things.

Despite my generally kind words on this blog, I do read books that I don’t like from time to time. I would never challenge the right of the author to express his or her ideas, nor the publishers (no matter how misguided I think them) for promoting them. I am not the one to quantify. Looking over the American Library Association’s list of banned and frequently challenged books, however, I realize that my fiction-reading hours would be slim indeed. We tend not to ban non-fiction, challenging though it may be. It is the imagination that offends. Such is the power of fiction. Last week was banned book week. Time to look over the list of latest condemned editions to find what to read this week. I am always looking for future scriptures.

The usual suspects...

The usual suspects…

Bible According to Batman

DarkKnightRises Biblical tropes are alive and well in popular culture. Many would choose the flight option rather than admit they enjoy a good Bible story. They may anyway, however, without realizing it. Although The Dark Knight Rises came out over a year ago, I only just had the chance to watch it. For a kid who grew up on the campy 1960’s television series, Christopher Nolan offers adult fare. Put the kiddie menu away and sit up straight at the table. I don’t read reviews, in general, before seeing movies because I don’t enjoy spoilers. I had no idea whether Batman would come out of this alive or not. I wasn’t really even sure who Bane was (even before The Dark Knight everyone knew who the Joker was, or thought they did). The Dark Knight Rises places the whole of Heilsgeschichte (sacred history) before the viewer with verbal cues. Unless you’re reading while watching, you’ll miss it though.

Bruce Wayne is clearly cast as the wounded healer in this final installment of the trilogy. Physically and psychologically crippled, he hobbles around in a combination of Jesus and Yoda figures, somehow supernatural yet fully human. Death and resurrection transpire twice for him in this film. When Bane breaks Batman’s back (an often fatal injury) even Catwoman thinks he might be dead. He is very much alive, however, in the prison only “Bane” escaped (resurrection one). Not only does he rise from the grave, he also ascends into heaven by escaping the well—anyone who’s read Jeremiah, or even Genesis, knows the origin of that motif. Risen, ascended, and glorified, Batman returns to beat the crap out of Bane. But the bomb is still on the loose and before Batman faces his nemesis he tells Commissioner Gordon to arrange “an exodus”—Joseph’s descendants must get out of Egypt. At the Red Sea (the Hudson River) the Pharaoh’s army blocks the exodus of the children of St. Swithun’s who, in response, bow their heads in prayer (am I the only one seeing this?)

Commissioner Gordon, found guilty of betraying the common man, receives the sentence of Exile (“death, by exile” to be precise). Again, those sensitive to Jeremiah know that exile is a kind of death, but death with a noble purpose. The Heilsgeschichte of Israel involves exodus and exile. The Christians added on death, resurrection, and ascension. Christopher Nolan put them together in one Dark Knight. But I mentioned two resurrections, no? Flying the bomb out of Gotham, Batman is definitively blown to smithereens—the blast radius was, after all, six miles. And yet, Alfred has a post-resurrection visitation, where no touching occurs (Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father) sees his savior. Was the Bat the Holy Spirit on autopilot? Is that Catwoman with him? Might I be so bold as to type Mary Magdalene? Well, I may be over a year late with my observations of The Dark Knight Rises, but as I think Christopher Nolan understands, the Bible has been lying around even longer. If the success of this movie is anything to go by, it will be around for a long time yet to come.

Monsters are Due on Main Street

MedievalMonstrosityNow that the slow descent into darkness has begun, my mind naturally turns to monsters. In the early days of this blog I felt as though I had to justify writing about monsters when I was limiting myself (mostly) to religion, but it is now clear that many scholars have recognized the connection. Monsters cross over boundaries, and, given religions’ focus on proper borders, declaring monstrosity is often a sacred task. That comes through clearly in Sarah Alison Miller’s Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body. Utilizing mainly three medieval texts, Miller draws out how they present various aspects of the female body as monstrous. Predictably, the source of their conviction is frequently the viewpoint of the church, the dominant institution of the Middle Ages. Biology was a touch more advanced than it had been in the biblical period, but despite the figures, many writers assumed the male to be the default model of humanity and the female somewhat suspect. Given the multiple pluralities of the natural world around them, this idea is passing strange.

This book is not for the squeamish. Miller plumbs the depths of bodily fluids and the beliefs surrounding them in a pre-scientific era. Male writers wondering at the changes the female body undergoes, however, may have been a necessary stage in the growth of knowledge. It is easy for us today to suppose that equality should have been always on their minds, but Scripture, a large source of authority for medieval mentality, had cast the sexes into an uneasy opposition. The only figure in the Bible who seems sensitive to the unfairness of it all is Jesus. And even his viewpoint couldn’t change the conservative conviction that somehow God was truly the über-male and that all the females of nature were somehow subordinate. Dare we say it? Monstrous.

Miller closes her brief consideration by delving into the writings of Julian of Norwich. Julian was a most remarkable mystic who wrote of God in strikingly feminine terms. Turning those boundary-violating bodies into the sacred, here was one medieval writer who saw the female as normative, salvific, even. Julian never commanded the kind of authority that a male cleric could, but as Miller shows, even men in this period were considering the feminine aspects of a wounded deity. Reformation, however, snapped a masculine, Protestant lid on any such speculation. Today, ironically, many Protestant traditions have, at first reluctantly, admitted female clergy. The religious body of the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church, still keeps women in a separate, somehow subordinate role. Monsters come in many forms and they break down boundaries. Some borders, however, may be meant to be breached.

Darwinian Dawkins

Richard Dawkins seems like he’s probably a nice guy in person. You can tell quite a bit about somebody from their writing, and even when Dawkins is being abrasive in script, you can almost see a gleam in his eye. When I read The God Delusion, for example, I found myself nodding in agreement quite a bit. Not that I agree with everything he wrote; as an academic I can’t, in principle, agree with everything anyone writes. Nevertheless, Dawkins expresses himself with passion and clarity, if with a bit over overstatement. I was interested to read the interview with him in the 10 Questions section of this week’s Time magazine. When one is building a case, it is easy to pile on rhetoric, and pretty soon the force of an argument takes on its own life and sometimes a few casualties are left bleeding in the wake. Still, it is a good exercise to sharpen the mind.

Wikipedia Commons, photo credit: Mike Cornwell

Wikipedia Commons, photo credit: Mike Cornwell

The last of Time’s 10 questions deals with how Dawkins can be certain there is no God. Dawkins, in a conciliatory move, declares that there is much of which we can never be certain. Noting that future science will discover realities that we simply don’t foresee, he suggests, “it’s extremely unlikely that it would happen to home in on an idea from a Bronze Age tribe in the desert.” I found this final sentiment a touch off-kilter. We have plenty of scientific developments that have come out of the “Bronze Age tribes,” but God is not one of them. “Desert tribes” gave us metal smelting, bovine and caprid domestication, and, perhaps most importantly of all, writing. God, however, comes from a much earlier evolutionary strata. In fact, by the time that the Sumerians appeared, multiple gods were already in their train.

In fact, evolutionary scientists seem to indicate that our brains have contrived some need for God/gods. That God isn’t a semitic desert mirage, however, is attested by people all over the world developing the idea independently. Not only did the Israelites and their forebears have deities, so did the Vedic cultures that we now call Hinduism. So did the Native Americans, indigenous African religions, and those who developed in isolation on Australia. Gods evolved everywhere. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that this means that we have some need of them. I like what Richard Dawkins writes. I enjoy his candor and passion. We do, however, have to credit the desert tribes with much of the thinking that leads to science, but the gods, they are far more ancient than that.

What’s a Sukkot?

It’s not every day you see a lulav and etrog, even in Manhattan. You can tell life’s too busy when you miss that it’s sukkot. Not that I’m Jewish, but I have been invited to sukkot a time or two by a friend, and it was always a fun, relaxed occasion. A festive little booth in the back yard, sweet wine and cookies. Running the rat race in New York City it is sometimes easy to forget. On my hurried footrace to some place or another, I noticed a group of Orthodox Jews standing along East 42nd Street with lulav and etrogs in hand. So distracted was I that I only vaguely wondered, “why are they holding those at this time of year?” Several blocks later, entering the Port Authority Bus Terminal I saw a man just standing as the crowds parted around him like the Red Sea. In his hands lulav and etrog. Finally it dawned on me: sukkot. It is fall, the time of year when I used to be able to enjoy the bounty of nature and the good-natured holidays. A time before when.

800px-EtrogC

The Hebrew Bible prescribes a set of three pilgrimage holidays: sukkot, shavuot (pentecost to the Greek, or Christian), and passover. Of the three, all associated with the exodus from Egypt in some traditional way, sukkot is the most lighthearted. The command to live in booths is said to be a reminder of the dwelling in tents during the wilderness wandering. Anthropologically speaking, it probably goes back to an ancient tradition of living in huts during the harvest when you don’t always have time to go home and tuck yourself comfortably in every night. Combines hadn’t been invented, and harvesters had to work long hours to ensure that the crop was gathered in. Eventually it became a celebratory occasion. Nice of Moses to allow a bit of festivity here.

Back while at a certain seminary in Wisconsin, a local Jewish friend used to invite my Hebrew Bible class to sukkot. Numbers were small, and invariably wary—were they going to be proselytized by the other? No, but they were invited to shake the lulav and etrog, sip a little wine, and chat about Leonard Cohen. A bit of a cultural exchange in the midst of prolonged indoctrination. I often wonder if my friend continued the tradition after I was asked to leave. The Christian school never made any reciprocal invitations, of course. Ecumenism is often a one-way street. So I stopped a moment at smiled at the stranger in the bus station, solemnly holding lulav and etrog aloft. Life is a bit too busy when we can’t even take a moment to consider all the things we take for granted every day.

Civil Lies a Ton

Often I began my classes by asking a basic question: if something pervasive, invisible, and very powerful were affecting you daily, in all aspects of your life, would you want to know about it? I don’t recall too many sleepy shoulders shrugging. We want to know what it is that is impacting us on a daily basis. Of course, I meant religion. Our secular society has a peek-a-boo affinity with religion; if we close our collective eyes, it will go away. Time and history have long put the lie to this idea—religion is a deep and pervasive force in society, and it is not about to go away. In our one-size-fits-all culture, however, we like to think that the bottom-line of greed and personal promotion will satisfy everyone. Statistics, however, seem to indicate otherwise. Not just America, but the world is a pretty religious place. I have always wondered at the strange elitism that considers itself above the influence of hoi polloi (in the literal sense). “If I’m not religious,” so the reasoning goes, “then no sensible person can be.” And we ignore religions until they explode and then go on ignoring them some more.

Although my career hasn’t turned out the way I’d hoped—I am an academic through and through—I still believe in the conviction that got me started down this rough and tangled trail. Religion is important. It is important to understand because it is very much a part of what it means to be human. Even those who are not religious have had to switch off an instinct that every child feels during a thunderstorm, and every adult feels at a time of deep, existential crisis. We may not believe, and yet we believe we believe. Religion is part of us. If we ignore it, we become strangers to ourselves.

I often look at our insipid culture. Sure, the internet provides hours of entertainment, and even some bits and pieces of knowledge. We have, however, consistently devalued those things that make us civilized. Art, music, literature, and yes, religion, all played a part in the very founding of what we consider civilized existence. Prior to that we were hunter-gatherers, roaming after the necessities of daily life. While our institutions of learning struggle to make entrepreneurs believe they still have value, we train our children to hunt and gather. It may not be food, but it is something not so different from food. Only money truly satisfies. If there were another way of being in the world, it might imply—why, it might imply that there is something more to be gained from life. And since that idea is a religious one, it is safest to ignore it and pray it will go away.

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