The Deal

Intellectual property is a concept that only arises where thought can be monetized. Think about that. (But don’t charge me, please!) It is a strange idea, when you ponder it. In any case, one of the problems with writing book reviews is that the reviews themselves become the intellectual property of the journal in which they appear. In a mental ménage à trois, everyone gets something out of it: the publisher gives away a book for free publicity, the journal gets copyright content of value to its readers, and the reviewer gets a free book. In the best of these encounters everyone goes home happy. I began doing book reviews when teaching at Nashotah House. Academic books are expensive and although professors make more than editors do, they are still hard-pressed to pay academic press prices. After my strictly platonic affair with higher education, I stopped doing reviews for a while, but now that I have hours on a bus to read, I’ve picked up the habit again.

Most often I review books for the two societies of which I’m a member—the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. There might, however, be a conflict of interest here. One of the main things I do on this blog is talk about books. Since I’m no longer a professor, but I still think like one, I figure it’s a compromise I can live with. The conflict arises because I post daily on my blog while publishers take weeks, or even months, to publish reviews. Despite technology, publishing is a slow business. That means that I read books I can’t really talk about until the review has appeared. That’s the case with Jill Graper Hernandez’s Early Modern Women and the Problem of Evil: Atrocity & Theodicy. I can’t say here what I say in my review since the review isn’t my intellectual property anymore. There’s another trade-off here: publishers get your name out there in return for owning your content—everything can come down to the level of business, it seems.

Still, I can use this post to reflect on theodicy—the justification of God in the face of evil. Since I don’t address this fact in my review I can say here that since Trump’s election it’s difficult to read a book about suffering without tying it to the current political situation. Many of the incumbent’s ardent supporters are coming to see that he doesn’t really care for them or their issues, and conservatives as well as liberals have four years of suffering to face. I was surprised how often in reading this philosophical treatise that our present national shame came to mind. Perhaps that’s inevitable in a book that discusses how women have been repressed in a world where they too have been relegated to the level of a commodity. Intellectual property seems less a concern when human beings are still trafficked as chattel. That’s not just bad business, it’s evil.

Crossing Beowulf

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.

The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.

Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.

The Scofield Connection

While reading about Cyrus Scofield recently—and that book has stayed on and played with my mind for some reason—I ran across the conferences that he held in preparing his famous reference Bible. Although he claimed the sobriquet “Doctor,” placing D.D. after his name, like many a self-puffer Scofield has no university that will support the claim. (It’s amazing how many high-level CEOs and “important” businessmen pad their résumés with false degrees. Even some government wannabes do it, and then they want to defund education after they get into office.) Perhaps because he had no seminary training, and likely didn’t even graduate from college, Scofield might’ve felt a sense of insecurity when it came to a very large book originally written in languages he couldn’t read. There’s a reason “King James Only” Christians exist. In any case, he set up meetings in a couple of conspicuous places to go over his work. One of those places was Grove City College.

Now, like many small, Christian colleges, Grove City isn’t widely known. Most of the student population—at least when I was there—was fairly local. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, for the most part. Still on the (admittedly rare) occasion when someone asks me where I went for my undergraduate work, they generally haven’t heard of Grove City at all. Even though I spent four years of my life there, I had no idea about the Scofield connection until I read Joseph Canfield’s book. That’s because not all Fundamentalists grow up with Scofield. I’m sure I heard about the Scofield Reference Bible but I didn’t own one and I wondered what the big fuss was all about. After all, the annotations were the work of a man, and I was interested in the words of God. Far more popular was the revision of Scofield known as the Ryrie Study Bible, but I never read that either.

The end result is that many people think that Scofield’s words are “the Bible.” As I used to tell my students, binding pages together within a book makes a statement. If you’re saying “this is the word of God” and part of “this” is Scofield’s annotations, most people can’t distinguish between text and commentary. I eventually acquired a Scofield Bible, not for valid information, but simply for information. I was amazed at how poorly executed it was. Nevertheless, a true believer reading through the first chapters of 1 Chronicles is ready to accept even minimal narrative as divine. So it is that many Americans have come to believe in a Bible that’s not biblical. Religion is full of paradoxes and in this case I’d shared sleeping quarters with one in my more formative years although the connection was unknown at the time.

The One Who Seeks

Academics and social media are, at times, an uneasy fit. In my work as an editor I come across many of the professorate who have virtually no web presence at all. If you’re wanting to write a book these days and you aren’t yet famous, you need what they call a “platform.” That is to say, you need to be easily found on internet searches, you have to have “followers” on various social media, and people have to know where to look to find information about you. A starter site that does fairly well is the for-profit venture called academia.edu. Because of that final “edu” extension, many suppose this is an educational site with no money in mind, but that’s not really the case. Still, it’s free to post your academic papers there and many intellectuals, public and otherwise, have vested some of their effort on getting academia followers.

J. C. L. Gibson, someone, and Nicolas Wyatt

My own profile on academia, which has copies of most of my papers available for free downloads, at one time was in the top 2%. I felt so special. Being kept out of academia for so many years, one does begin to wonder. In any case, one of the features of the site is that when someone lands on your page you receive a notice telling you how they found you. More detailed information is available for a fee (this is one of the not not-for-profit aspects I was mentioning). Sometimes they will provide you with the search terms used and the paper found. My site has quite a bit about Asherah. I wrote a book on the goddess, still largely overlooked, and several discrete papers. The other day I received a notice that someone found my page with this notice of how:

Someone from India found “A Reassessment of Asherah:…” on Google with the keyword “sex photos hd com R A N ilaku.”

I have the feeling someone left my site keenly disappointed. Although my book does discuss sexuality a little—you kind of have to with Asherah—I did wonder about the “photos” and “hd” and “ilaku” parts of the equation. You must be pretty desperate in your pornography quest to stumble across my academia page. Not that I’ve replicated the search, but I must be thousands of pages down in the results. Still, someone found my first book that way. And that’s the lesson—an internet platform may bring your work unexpected fame. Whether or not that fame is ill, will, however, remain an open question.

Classic Fiction

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the ancient documents still widely recognized, at least by name. Many introductions to literature, or the western canon, refer to it. It is, in some senses of the phrase, the world’s first classic. I’ve read Gilgamesh enough times not to know how many times it’s been. During my doctoral days I was focusing on the literature of neighboring Syria (long before it was called “Syria”). As an aside, Syria seems to have gotten its name from the fact that non-semitic visitors had trouble saying “Assyria” (which was the empire that ruled Syria at the time). Leaving off the initial vowel (which was actually a consonant in Semitic languages) they gave us the name of a country that never existed. In as far as Syria was a “country” it was known as “Aram” by the locals. Back to the topic at hand:

Although the story of Gilgamesh may be timeless, translations continue to appear. It won’t surprise my regular readers that I’m a few behind. I finally got around to Maureen Gallery Kovacs’ translation, titled simply The Epic of Gilgamesh. Updating myself where matters stood in the late 1980s, it was nevertheless good to come back to the tale. For those of you whose Lit 101 could use a little refreshing, Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who oppressed his people. (And this was well before 2017.) The gods sent a wild man named Enkidu as a kind of distraction from his naughty behaviors. In an early example of a bromance, the two go off to kill monsters together, bonding as only heroes can. They do, however, offend the gods since hubris seems to be the lot of human rulers, and Enkidu must die. Forlorn about seeing a maggot fall out of his dead friend’s nose, Gilgamesh goes to find the survivor of the flood, Utnapishtim, to find out how to live forever. He learns he can’t and the epic concludes with a sadder but wiser king.

The fear of death is ancient and is perhaps the greatest curse of consciousness. When people sat down to start writing, one of the first topics they addressed was precisely this. Gilgamesh is still missing some bits (that may have improved since the last millennium, of course) but enough remains to see that it was and is a story that means something to mere mortals. Ancient stories, as we discovered beginning the century before mine, had long been addressing the existential crises of being human. Thus it was, and so it remains. No wonder Gilgamesh is called the first classic. If only all rulers would seek the truth so ardently.

Basic Training

I recently sat through Sexual Harassment Prevention training. Not because of anything I’ve done, mind you, but because organizations have long realized that if training isn’t mandated, lawyers are ready to pounce when someone does do something illegal. I first started taking these trainings at Nashotah House and I’ve had them just about everywhere I’ve worked since then. Even so I sometimes see people who just don’t “get it,” even after training. Workplace harassment is, unfortunately, something we do need to be concerned about. I couldn’t help but think, however, while sitting in the training—does having a Commander in Chief with a history of sexual harassment make all of this merely academic? Sexual harassment is against the law, but the one who swears to uphold this law with an oath on the Bible breaks that very law. There are very deep implications here.

It might’ve been a different story if all of this weren’t known before going into the election, but it was. In the twenty-first century, who in good conscience could vote for a man on the record as a sexual harasser? In many situations you’d lose your job for less. In this case masses of hate-filled rhetoric topped common sense: don’t do as I say, don’t do as I do. I want to be your leader. This cultural schizophrenia takes its toll on our family values. Where all people are not treated equally there are no human values. I’m sitting in this training room being told of court case after court case where companies dismissed individuals for doing something the leader of the free world just doesn’t see as wrong.

How little it takes to undo the progress of centuries. I suppose that’s what we might expect when a bunch of educated people put democracy in place for a nation that prides itself on being anti-intellectual. Perhaps this was inevitable. We’ve become a nation where we have to try to lead our leadership. Politicians long out of touch with the quotidian training in the pedestrian lives of the masses. We know—and hopefully knew before we attended that seminar—that all people have a right not to be harassed based on gender or any other immutable characteristic. Instead we’ve become a nation where “President” is supposed to be a protected category and where, outside a very small Oval Office, the rest of the country is left to fend for itself.

Non-Lending Library

One of the hidden benefits of the coming societal collapse is the chance for the resurgence of print books. Since I’ve spent most of my life surrounding myself with volumes thick and thin, dense and light, I’ll have plenty to read between bouts of skulking out for food like a feral cat and clawing off those who follow me home, thinking that it’s edible stuff I’m stockpiling. Won’t they be surprised to learn it’s only books! My wife sent me an Atlas Obscura story the other day about book curses. The description of the life of a medieval scribe sounded oddly compelling to me—hunched all day over a writing desk, copying books by hand. Not having to worry about catching the bus before sunrise or being too tired to answer your personal email in the evening. The point of the piece, however, was the book curses.

I’ve been an avid reader since moving to a small town where the main occupation of kids my age was recreational drug use. I was one of the very few who didn’t inhale. Reading became my escape from the loneliness I felt. And I used to lend books to people who’d ask me. I quickly learned that others didn’t share the same care for books that I had. Lent books seldom made their way back to me. We were poor and there were no bookstores nearby and Amazon wasn’t even a meme in Jeff Bezos’ eye yet. Replacing books wasn’t easy. Once I lent out a book I’d already read (but you couldn’t tell it, I’d been so careful). The borrower actually did return it, but the spine was all creased and cracked so that you couldn’t even read the title anymore. I soon began to regard books like those medieval monks who put curses on them so nobody would steal them. I stopped lending them out.

The thing I’m banking on is that books will retain their barter value when society implodes. Of all possible universes only in that one will I be considered wealthy. Those who visit our little apartment inevitably comment on the number of books. What they don’t realize is that there’s a strategy involved here. Like those medieval monks, I have a suspicion that knowledge—including facts that don’t have alternatives—will one day in our dystopian future be valued above all the tweets and lies Washington seems to suggest we follow blindly. And blindness will make a great curse, now that I think about it, to protect these books from being stolen. Or “anathema-maranatha,” as my medieval mentors used to say. Or as Sarah Laskow ends her piece, “May whoever steals or alienates this book, or mutilates it, be cut off from the body of the church and held as a thing accursed.” Maybe this isn’t so strange for a guy whose first academic appointment was at a school that reminds many of The Name of the Rose. (Which was the last book I lent out, for the record.)

Such a Happy Place

I fear anyone named Ronald. Being named’s something a kid can’t help, I know, but associations run deep and irrational fears are the flavor of the day. When a friend sent me a link to the original Ronald McDonald clown concept, I had to look. Now, I’m not one of those people who’s afraid of clowns. I know that perhaps puts me in the minority. In college I was introduced to, and even rebooted a club for, Christian clowns. Back in the days of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, many were exegeting Paul’s phrase “fool for Christ” in a new way—the way of the clown. I’ve never been a particularly smiley guy, but I do research things before getting involved. Not only did I read about Christian clowns, I read about the history of clowning itself. It helped that this was before people started dressing up like clowns to assault others in imitation of cheap horror.

Clowns, it should come as no surprise, were originally peasants. The name itself means “rustic,” or “laborer,” even in classical languages, just as it does in English. The affluent have, it seems, always liked to laugh at the poor. The clods could be expected to goof up time and again and their brainless antics would humor the bored, but entitled classes. Buffoons becoming missionaries took a somewhat tortured path through a culture that cast religion in a rather stern, harsh tone. Children of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were trying to say “lighten up,” laugh about your beliefs. Isn’t that what Paul said? Tertullian wrote, “prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est”—believe by all means because it’s absurd— didn’t he?

In my greasepaint and mismatched clothes I joined a troop of unspeaking clowns, acting out stories of kindness and good will. We were, after all, made from dirt (the laborer tills the soil, and the word clown comes from the same root at “clod”). We like to think things might’ve evolved since then, but when we turn on the news we see that although it’s no longer Ronald, the antics of the plutocrats haven’t changed since my college days. What d’ya think of that Star Wars defense initiative? After all, we call “Mutually Assured Destruction” a doctrine, and doctrines have their origins in church councils. Ronald McDonald is recognized by his painted face. Beneath the makeup, however, he’s just a man. A clown has no business being leader of the free world. And yes, I’ll take fries with that. Supersize it, will ya?

Direct Address

For a man as amazingly influential as he was, Cyrus I. Scofield hasn’t been the object of much curiosity. In the venerable academic tradition of ignoring those you disagree with, serious scholars dismiss Scofield as some kind of evangelical aberration, a theological leper, if you will. It’s difficult to locate book-length treatments of the man, although he may claim considerable credit for the elections of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the current incumbent. Somewhat skeptical of the obviously polemical The Incredible Scofield and His Book by Joseph M. Canfield, curiosity drove me to read it as an accessible and thoroughly researched account. Now, one evangelical going after another isn’t a pretty sight, but if you can get past the “this is what the Bible really means” oneupmanship, there is clear evidence of a sharp mind with legitimate historical accuracy as its priority in Canfield. This is especially clear where he demonstrates that scholars shown the evidence will choose to ignore it to preserve the sanctity of a man hardly a saint.

The strange religion that has developed from the Scofield Reference Bible has had an astoundingly long reach. If you know what “the Rapture” is, it’s probably because those who took their cues from Scofield’s Bible ensured that it became a standard American trope. It generally doesn’t have to be explained, even though the idea doesn’t occur in the Bible. It’s based on a set of “dispensations” developed among the Plymouth Brethren, a fairly small British and Irish sect that influenced the world through its prophet Scofield. (Scofield himself was not a member of the Brethren, but he learned his system of “history” from them.) Although the Scofield Reference Bible wasn’t technically the first study Bible, it was the first widely influential one. It is, in a sense, America’s Bible.

Scofield himself was hardly clergy material. Canfield documents this clearly and doggedly. Among the evangelicals, however, an admission of guilt—no matter how insincere—has to be taken at face value. If you’re caught “backsliding” after that, all you have to do is admit that too. They’re obligated to forgive you 490 times, if they’re truly literalists. We can see this at work in the bizarre evangelical backing of Trump, a Christian only by the loosest possible definition. If you say you’ve accepted Jesus they have to believe you. It’s the ultimate scam. Scofield himself seems to have been aware of this. Particularly wrenching was the account of how, after he was making a respectable income from his Bible, he refused to give money to one of his daughters from his first marriage when she wanted to buy a house. His will left no money to any charitable organization at all. You can take it with you, apparently. And so, we’re left with a world devised by such a man with no theological training. Since he’s so obviously low brow, however, we lack scholarly biographies that take the care of Canfield in exposing information readily available to those with open eyes.

Terms of Interment

In an early episode of The Simpsons Marge is commissioned to paint a portrait of Montgomery Burns. Angry with him because of his constant treatment of others as beneath him and his glib superiority granted by wealth, she paints him old and feeble, naked as he climbs from the shower. The crowd present for the unveiling is appropriately shocked. Marge explains her motivations for the painting and one of the voices in the crowd affirms, “He is evil, but he will die.” That scene was brought back to mind by an article a friend sent me on Archaeodeath. As someone who’s volunteered on an archaeological dig, I understand that the past is a history of death as well as of life. We read what historians choose to preserve. And, as Professor Howard M. R. Williams points out, the tomb often tells a tale that requires some subtlety in reading.

Never a great fan of the wealthy, some years ago I visited Sleepy Hollow. It was before the television series began, back in an October when the mind begins naturally to turn to death. I’d always liked the story by Washington Irving that had made this quiet town famous and it’s really not hard to get there from New Jersey. While in town we visited the famous cemetery, in search of Irving’s grave. Others are buried there, too. High on top of a hill stands a palatial tomb to some Rockefeller. As Prof. Williams makes clear, all must die and all tombs lie. Those who insist on the most opulent tombs are those who routinely overestimate their personal importance. So it is my mind turns from Montgomery Burns to Cyrus the Great.

There was a time when world conquerors possessed a dose of humility. It may seem strange in today’s world that an Iranian (in the days before there was an Iran, designed as it was by Europeans) would be considered a benevolent dictator. Cyrus reversed the deportation rules of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Subject peoples were permitted—encouraged even—to return to their lands. He even federally funded the building of temples and, to translate, centers for the arts. Cyrus understood that grateful people make good subjects. When Cyrus died, after being king of the world, he was interred in a decidedly understated tomb outside Pasargadae where, according to one account his inscription read, “I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.” Archaeologists uncover the dead. Those who bill themselves grandly, as the diggers understand, seldom deserve the glory bestowed by their own minds. Marge Simpson, as usual, is a voice of wisdom.

Some president’s tomb

Animal Fights

What does it mean to be human? The answer’s not as straightforward as it might seem. Reading Robert Repino’s Culdesac, that question came back to me time and again. This novella takes off from the story of Mort(e), about which I blogged shortly after its publication. Humans and animals that have acquired some human characteristics are at war. Most see those on the other side as inferior and that can make a human being reading the tale just a touch uncomfortable. We don’t have a great track record when it comes to dealing with non-human animals. We are all, after all, members of the same “kingdom.” Even down to the level of phylum and genus many of us show more general similarity than stark differences. Culdesac is a morphed bobcat who remembers all too well how humans treated animals before the war. And memory is a powerful thing.

Repino has a way of sweeping the human reader (here the enemy) into the story and making those foundational questions ring as if struck with a hammer. What does it mean to be human? Granted, reading such provocative work under the current administration adds a layer of poignancy that wasn’t there when Mort(e) stood alone. In fact, it is a question that we have to ask just about every day when we see the headlines. There’s no leadership on this point coming from above. The idea of other humans as chattels has a long and disgraceful history. You can differentiate anyone on some basis or another: female or male or intersex, black or white or brown, rich or middle class or poor, large or average or small. Differences working together might be the very definition of culture. Culdesac shows what can happen when one sees only the distinguishing characteristics rather than the commonalities. It’s a parable.

Education, the one weapon in our arsenal that actually dismantles prejudice and intolerance, was one of the first targets our government sought to dismantle after 11/9. Indeed, the antipathy—if not downright hostility—toward education has been a characteristic of which Americans have long been unduly proud. We are not self-made, none of us. We all had our teachers. We all had our books. As we stand on the rim of this smoking crater and wonder how hatred toward one’s own species could be allowed to be nominated, let alone win, I believe the answer lies in our personal belief in education. We must all use the opportunities we have to educate. Get caught reading a book. Or helping a stranger. Or just being kind. As Culdesac emphasizes, wars are long-term events. Results won’t change after only one skirmish. If we all valued education—reading, learning—enough such aberrations as this could never happen. If you’re casting about for something to read that will make you ponder things at a most human level, I would suggest Culdesac.

Informed Deceit

I sign a lot of petitions. That’s because the job of prophet doesn’t pay well enough to support a family any more. What it does mean is that I get a lot of emails from causes looking for supporters. I don’t sign blindly. That was brought home to me the other day when I had an email from the “White House.” A more obvious effort at trying to scramble for table scraps of respectability I cannot imagine. Already since January our government has swooped to new lows of deception and now false news comes right to your inbox. This email informed me that Neil Gorsuch has overwhelming bipartisan support for his Supreme Court nomination. Being an individual with a working brain, I know that’s not true. The “White House” wanted me to sign a petition supporting Gorsuch when I’ve already signed several protesting his candidacy. It’s clear that our government wants a court prophet.

Isn’t it odd, I mused, that a government that has no intention of listening to the majority is sending a petition to support one of its own? We know that the Russian Party (formerly known as the GOP) will support anything Thurston Howell the President hands them. Such a petition is only a way of saying “I told you so.” I miss the days when Isaiah could walk right into king Hezekiah’s bedroom and say “Thus saith the Lord…” These days the Lord tweets and the chirplings in the nest beg for more worms. You see, court prophets know which side their palms are crossed on. This isn’t Ash Wednesday, it’s Ash Administration.

Court prophets, in ancient times, were those paid by the government to support what the king wanted to do. It was a cushy job. What the reigning Trump wants at the moment he or she (for the modern court prophet can double-cross her own gender) proclaims it as God’s will. No experience necessary. The thing about the Bible, though, is that court prophets are pretty roundly condemned. The real prophet could generally be told by the fact that he (less commonly she in those days) was dead. Or soon to be. Those in power seldom care for criticism. Especially when skeletons are fighting each other for elbow room in their closets. Even so, Holy Writ says, figuratively, that it’s better to be a living politician than a dead prophet. If that doesn’t sound biblical, read the words of the prophet: “Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp… and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.”

Who Knew?

Reading about Jesus is an occupational expectation for an editor of biblical studies. Not that this is anything new for someone who grew up thinking of him constantly. One of the issues often raised about the son of Mary and Joseph is what he did during his childhood. There are apocryphal gospels that address that question since the canonical ones don’t, other than a Lukan visit to the temple in Jerusalem where the professors were stumped by the student. A query that’s pondered from time to time is why nobody thought to write down the early years. A related question is less often asked: who knew in the early days that Jesus would amount to what he did? It’s pretty much accepted that the tales of a miraculous birth were borrowed from the common stock of quotidian cultural heroes of the day. Anybody famous had to have had a spectacular start. If they knew from the beginning, however, that he was going to be great, why didn’t they write his story?

Unless, of course, they didn’t know. Jesus was born, according to the best that we can reconstruct, in a working class family. He had brothers and sisters, according to the gospels, and since Joseph disappears from the story rather early, he was likely raised in by a single mother. Who pays attention to such mill-fodder as this? One of the common people who will, more likely than not, come to nothing? A statistic to make great the egos of Herods and Caesars. Who bothers to write such things down? It’s only after fame that we become interested. What made him so? How did his meteoric rise get started? Before then, who really cared?

Stuck here in the middle of Lent, it’s easy to forget that even Jesus started life as a nobody. Many who start life privileged end up obscure. There’s perhaps a cosmic balancing act taking place here. The fulcrum—and who thinks of the fulcrum while riding on the teeter-totter?—the fulcrum is the common person. Fame may ease the path to halls of power. Cronies will fall over themselves to kiss the hem of any robe headed toward the Oval Office. Those who claim such rights will do so on the back of a guy so occluded we don’t really even know where he was born. Or what he did before he was thirty. And had he lived out his life like the rest of his neighbors we wouldn’t be asking the question even now.

Sell-by Date

Labels give us the information we need to enact our prejudices immediately. Having been on the receiving end of great cruelty by “conservatives,” for example, I’m immediately cautious of anyone bearing that brand. A strange confession, perhaps, from someone who grew up in that camp. I struggle to remind myself that a label’s not a person. For example, I had a very good education at Grove City College, a conservative school. It wasn’t uniformly that way, of course. Now having a better sense of higher education politics I can see how this might happen—how a school committed to a doctrine might inadvertently challenge that view in the name of education. Quite a few things swayed me to broaden my view as a religion major at Grove City. One of those collegiate experiences was watching Cabaret.

Enough time has passed that I can’t recall the exact context of the film. I suspect it was a weekend entertainment required by some humanities intro course. For a kid from the sticks, seeing a ménage à trois on the big screen made a deep impression when I’d always thought of the world in binary terms. The larger message of the film was not lost on me, however, that those who are prejudiced will always find ways of expressing their hatred, if society will let them. Last night I watched Cabaret again. As a movie it hasn’t aged a day. Society, however, seems to have regressed back to those days when a Nazi could stand and proudly sing at a social gathering and others, distressed by economic hardship, would willingly  overlook the evil that lay in plain sight in the hope of change.

Back when the film was made I suspect the Vietnam War was on the public mind. We thought we’d safely gotten beyond the fascist threat. In the scene where the boarding house residents are complaining about conspiracies between “Jewish bankers and Communists” it became clear that people fall for the same tactics time and again. Rumors, fear, and economic disappointment are a dangerous combination in a democracy. The players have changed but the fact of fascism hasn’t. We can see it being enacted plainly, as it has been every day since 11/9. Accommodation is more deadly than conservatism. As the story opens Nazis aren’t welcome at the Cabaret. By the end they predominate there. Their hateful agenda had been accommodated, normalized by the press. And who can forget the song that could well be the anthem of the current administration, “Money Makes the World Go Round”? There’s an accurate label for that, I’m sure.

Childhood’s End

I believe it was C. S. Lewis who wrote that in reading autobiographies he always found the earliest years the most interesting.. In my experience the same applies to biographies; what made the person famous enough to merit a biography—auto or not—started in the innocent years. I try not to extrapolate from my own case because I never read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass until I was in college. (It was only in college that I first saw Mary Poppins as well.) Beloved childhood classics weren’t really part of my childhood. Like many adults, then, I wonder who was Alice, really? Everyone knows there was an Alice but what do we know of her inner life? What’s the story with Lewis Carroll?

In my mind Simon Winchester is an historian associated with large pictures. Maps of the entire world, huge volcanoes, big oceans—the meaning of everything. I only discovered his The Alice behind Wonderland by accident. As soon as I spied it I knew I’d have to read it. As I expected, the younger years are most intriguing. Those of us who cut our classical teeth under the tutelage Liddell and Scott may not realize said Liddell was the father of Alice. But it’s not the father that impresses so much as the daughter. And Charles Dodgson himself—the cast of characters is compelling even with little action beyond photography and story telling. Yet we’re riveted. What was the dynamic that led a bachelor cleric to write a world classic for children?

Who doesn’t, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, long for the carefree days of childhood? Looking at photos of our younger selves evokes a world accessible only in our heads. The world that made us who we’ve become. Winchester bases this brief study on perhaps the most controversial photograph of Alice Liddell that Charles Dodgson ever took. Even the story of wet-plate collodion photography allures the reader with its promise of stories untold. We know little of why the Liddell family grew apart from Dodgson, so much so that the adult Alice didn’t even attend the funeral of the man who’d made her an immortal. What happened here? When we find out we’ll perhaps be a step closer to finding out why becoming an adult means sacrificing a child. We may be a step closer to finding a girl known to most of the world simply as “Alice.”