On occasion those with great wealth try to give something back to society. One such gift takes the form of libraries. The J. P. Morgan Library on Madison Avenue in New York is a touch pricey for those who live in humbler domiciles, but the Edgar Allan Poe display proved too immense a draw to ignore. Standing inches away from manuscripts written in Poe’s fine hand was a kind of communion. It wasn’t too difficult to believe he might have somehow been there. In Baltimore last month I didn’t have the opportunity to revisit his grave, but I picked up a book by one of his modern cousins, Harry Lee Poe. This Poe has theological training and an interest in seeing that his famous cousin isn’t theologically shortchanged. Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe is a rare look at Poe and religion. Treatments of the theology of writers are hardly rare, but since Poe wasn’t openly religious, he was typecast a little too readily into the putatively godless camp of those of us with a taste for the macabre.
Evermore may not convince everyone that Poe was a profound religious thinker, but Harry Lee Poe marshals substantial evidence from both Poe’s published writings and letters that he was often caught in that crux between science and religion. Indeed, there is no evidence that Poe was an atheist. He wrote on what were considered lowbrow topics because those were the kinds of pieces that would sell. Since Poe was perhaps the first American to attempt to make a living solely by his pen, he had to pay attention to what people wanted to read. Evermore, while not a biography in the usual sense, does point out that Poe wrote across genres and that his life, while often tragic, had many spells of happiness and some contentment. Poe was a victim of character assassination after his death by a second-tier clergyman, Rufus Griswold. Much of the book is spent dispelling myths.
Perhaps above all, Edgar Allan Poe had a clear mind that could keep imagination alive in the religion and science debate that was to explode shortly after his death with Darwin’s Origin of Species. For Poe, the universe was a story being crafted by God. Creativity was essential to beauty, a concept that haunted Poe. A writer must be introspective, and this will often leave him or her open to criticism by those who prefer simpler answers. Great beauty can be found in complexity, however, and the practice of ratiocination requires a healthy dose of imagination to help make sense of a world that often seems to make no sense any other way. And standing here, my face inches from a handwritten copy of “The Bells,” I can almost hear them ringing.
Posted in Books, Current Events, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged Baltimore, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe, Evermore, Harry Lee Poe, J. P. Morgan Library, New York City, Origin of Species, Rufus Griswold, The Bells
I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.
Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.
“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.
Posted in Bible, Bibliolatry, Genesis, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged adonai, biblical literalism, Genesis 3, Jehovah's Witnesses, Orthodoxy, theodicy, Watchtower, Yahweh
Despite the war on Christmas, it came. To be honest, I haven’t yet gone to the window this morning to see if smoky remains litter the street of my small town, but there is something decidedly positive inside me that tells me that it’s Christmas. Religious holiday or not, any celebration that can make people feel at peace for even just a day is worth it. Christmas has always been a time of sharing. Not to exclude our southern hemispheric and equatorial companions, but the darkest time of year requires something to lift the human spirits. I wonder if even the Romans back in their salubrious Mediterranean climate felt a bit of a pinch at this time of year as they planned the festivity that marked the shortest day of the year. Without precise timekeeping, it is difficult to know exactly when the solstice is—to me for about a fortnight is looks dark pretty much all the time. I catch the bus to work in the dark, arrive at work before sunrise, leave work in the dusk and by the time I’m on the bus home it is dark. These few days around the solstice I know that I could use a little break.
How like human nature to take such a wonderful concept and turn it into something to fight over. I don’t know the religious preferences of everyone at work. I suspect a large number might be Jewish, and some are likely Muslims. Many, I suspect, have no religious leanings at all. Yet today they all have a gift, tree or not. They are paid for not working. The gift might be extra sleep, or it might be the light that neighbors shed in the darkness with gaudy displays of Christmas lights, or holiday lights, or just colorful lights—what is the difference, really?
The whole concept of a war on Christmas has to do with feelings of superiority. Those who take up the war cry feel proprietary rights to a holiday their religion did not invent. We don’t know when Jesus was born. The best guess scholars have is that it was in April, around about the time we celebrate Easter, I suppose. Christmas was despised and scorned by many Christians until the nineteenth century, the very ancestors of the conservative factions that claim Christmas as their own banned the holiday for its papist trappings and pagan undertones. Now they wish to claim Christmas as uniquely theirs. Like the Grinch up on Mount Crumpit, I put a hand to my ear and learn something new. Christmas is for everyone. Any holiday that can bring peace to this troubled mind for a few hours is a day to be shared.