Monthly Archives: November 2018

Paying Troll

There was a time, should the media of my youth be believed, when a man insulted another man’s wife at his peril.  A barroom fight, or perhaps a sober brawl, would ensue.  Such chivalrous days are likely over and the internet makes nasty comments so easy to disseminate (how terribly masculine!) for all the world to see.  Hiding behind assumed names, avatars, or delusional fictions, you can feel like a big man by saying unkind things to a person you’ll never meet.  Such is the world of Trump’s America.  Although he may think himself divine, Trump didn’t invent Twitter or the internet.  Neither did Al Gore.  Still, the distasteful political rancor leading up to the midterm elections led to a man (I presume) trolling my wife behind a mask of Facebook anonymity.

It’s hard to tell how to react.  Feminism doesn’t always want a man to step in and defend, but we’re all raised with tales of princesses and those who honor them.  Having been raised by a woman with an absentee husband, I have nothing but admiration for strong women.  Although categorized as a “white man,” I can’t see my own brand as better than any other.  We are all human beings, and with some rare exceptions, we deserve respect.  Like all evolved creatures, however, I sometimes reach deeply back into my primate roots and the tropes of my childhood begin to simmer.  Who trolls another man’s wife over politics?  Who doesn’t stop to consider that every woman is a daughter and many are mothers and sisters?  If you want to pick on someone, well, you know how the saying goes.

The midterm elections brought some much-needed balance to a government way off kilter.  There are still trolls under the bridges, however.  The storybooks tell how knights vanquish trolls and even the liberated male can’t help but imagine himself on that proud steed.  What kind of man takes a keyboarded cheap-shot at another man’s wife?  The quality of his discourse speaks volumes.  Those on the left believe in equality and can’t respond in kind.  It is, ironically, a far more biblical response than trolling on the right.

I’ve lost readers of this blog due to politics.  Some of my former readers have even told me so.  I appreciate their candor.  We can’t all agree, I know.  What we can do, however, is be civil.  Those who put themselves in elected office know that they are opening themselves to criticism.  It is very hard to slander a United States president, in the words of the Good Book, “how the mighty are fallen.”  Those with thin skin should think twice (or even once) before running for the most criticized office in the world.  Most, until now, knew that what they said would set the tone for the nation.  We’re all entitled to an opinion, and, for the time being, are free to express it.  Still, I’d think twice before insulting another man’s wife.  But then, I’ve always been a hopeless idealist.

Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Centuries

Although it may not be obvious, history marks us as hopelessly shortsighted.  As a species we’ve only been keeping written records for about four millennia.  History, as we know it—without the intervention of gods—is an even more recent phenomenon.  Since living a century is a rarity (although becoming more common), a hundred years seems like a very long time.  Our lives spin out over a brief span of active decades until we run out of energy and let others make the important decisions.  We hope, against hope, that they will have learned from our collective mistakes.  Learning isn’t always our strong suit as a species.  In just one century we forget and arrogantly refuse to read our history.

One hundred years ago the War To End All Wars ended.  World War One was a slaughter on a scale unimaginable, involving nations around the world distrusting each other and hating one another enough to threaten all the advances of millennia of civilization.  When the war was over we thought we’d seen the last of conflict.  Two decades later it started all over again and the Second World War wiped out millions of lives.  The aggressors, known collectively as fascists, were strong nationalists, believing in racial superiority and privileged rights for those in power.  When that war ended, just about seven decades ago, a stunned world took little for granted beyond the awareness that fascism was, at least, gone for good.

Today we stand on the brink of a chasm that spans one century.  Fascists are in power in the United States and elsewhere.  International tensions are running high and the “leader of the free world” openly eschews reading history.  Protests against the war in Vietnam were largely prompted by the real-time coverage on television.  Now we have a world-wide web, but no basis for truth beyond the tweets of madmen.  For many people the decade-and-a-half that they spend in school seems a long time.  We used to believe that it took that long to learn what our restless youth need to survive in a complex society.  We teach them, among other things, history.  The need to learn from our past is perhaps even more important than technology.  My generation of academics, reaching over half-a-century now for many of us, has been taught that lifelong learning is the value we must instill in students.  Given that we’ve collectively had a century to learn, and that we’re still edging toward the same collapsing precipice, a hundred years seems not nearly long enough.

And Found

For a kid who grew up on a steady diet of television, I have to admit being out of practice.  A combination of Gilligan’s Island and Dark Shadows informed much of my young outlook.  Starting all the way back to our days in Edinburgh, my wife and I had stopped watching TV.  We were in our twenties then, and it was a matter of not being able to afford the luxury.  Back in the States, cathode-ray tubes were ubiquitous, but cable was expensive and my employers not generous.  We had a television but only watched very occasionally, and then only what fuzzy programs we could pick up on the aerial.  So it continued.  We’re now at the point of not having had television service for over half of our lives, and we understand from the younger generation that a good internet provider makes cable superfluous anyway.

This prologue is simply a way to introduce the fact that we have finally, after two or three years of watching (we still have little time for it), finished Lost.  Now, I don’t get out much, but I had heard people talking about it when it originally broadcast.  More importantly, I’d read about it in books published by university presses.   I knew going into it—spoiler alert for those even more behind the times than me!—that the castaways were in Purgatory.  That seems to have been the point all along, but when money keeps rolling in because the story is compelling, you don’t want to reveal your hand too quickly.  Last night we watched the final episode where what was suggested back at the beginning was made clear: the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 had died in the crash and were making up for past sins.

The role of Jack’s father (Christian Shephard) as leading the passengers to the light may have been a bit heavy-handed, but the church where they finally meet has the symbols of many world religions, conveying the message that there is more than a single path.  The truly surprising aspect of all this is how popular the series was.  There were religious overtones from the beginning, but since the series wasn’t preachy, viewers apparently didn’t mind.  Yes, as the star character’s surname indicates, people don’t mind being led.  In fact, the names of many of the characters are indicative of some of the paths up that mountain.  I have to wonder if those who vociferate loudly and longly about their religion being the only way might not learn a lesson from television.  Even if the suggestion only comes from someone who grew up watching Gilligan’s Island.

Residual Thoughts

I feel compelled to say that this book was not among the overwritten tomes I mentioned in yesterday’s post.  Indeed, although the title reflects the outlook of the author, you need to get to the subtitle to find out what the book’s about.  Although I work at an academic press, I disagree with academic book pricing models.  Graham Twelftree’s previous book, Jesus the Exorcist, had to be picked up in a paperback reprint edition before it could be affordable to the likes of mere mortals.  After reading it I learned that Twelftree had written a more popular book on the topic—Christ Triumphant: Exorcism Then and Now.  Putting much of the material from the previous book in less technical terms, this version goes on to ask questions that can’t be put into a standard dissertation, such as “should exorcisms still be done?”

The academic is necessarily a skeptic.  One of the biggest problems our society faces is the open credulity of those who haven’t been taught to think critically.  Twelftree is a rare academic who keeps an open mind while approaching the material with a healthy skepticism.  Often it’s too easy to suggest that disregarding that which doesn’t fit a theory is the only way forward for an academic.  Sweeping off the table that which we don’t like.  The word Twelftree uses is “residue”—that which remains after the majority of possession cases have been explained medically.  The usual response is to disregard this small fraction of anomalous material and claim “case closed.”  In this book Twelftree dares to go further.

The supernatural has become an embarrassment for many, even in believing communities.  An interventionist god, or demons, would set off chain reactions that would distort the known laws of physics, so such things simply can’t exist.  Things which we can’t explain only exist because we haven’t got all the variables yet.  I recall how cold that made me feel when I first encountered the idea in physics class.  “Scientific determinism” it is sometimes called.  This little book rehearses the New Testament material covered in Twelftree’s dissertation, but goes on to raise the implications from that study and apply them to modern times.  It’s a brave thing to do in an academic world where brushes and brooms are very common.  Where residue is wiped up and tossed away without a second thought.  Those who stop to think through the implications are rare, which makes them so much the more interesting reading.  And not being from an academic press, such books are often  affordable.

Universal Books

I’m reading an overwritten book right now.  In fact, I just finished an overwritten book.  Such works, I suppose, are the results of being taught how to write.  It’s not that people can’t be taught to compose, but for various reasons some authors, either through the privilege of having high-powered publishers, or their own conviction that they don’t require correction, overwrite.  I suppose overwriting is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.  Several years back I recall a critic stating Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was overwritten.  I thought it was fun.  Yes, deliberately exaggerated, but nevertheless well-composed.  Those books were enjoyable to read because, I think, they refused to take themselves seriously.  Writers can be temperamental people.

As an editor something I need to repeat—for academics are consummate overwriters—is to keep your intended readership in mind.  No book is written for everyone.  In fact, many people can’t make it through books like the Bible because they’re hard to read.  Religious books often are.  There’s no such thing as a universal book, but some believers in some religions make the claim for their sacred texts.  Like many curious people I find it rewarding to read the scriptures of other traditions.  It’s not always easy—in fact, it seldom is.  It’s frequently disorienting and I look for an edition with an introduction.  The reason is when it comes to books, even sacred ones, it’s not one size fits all.  Many religious conflicts in the world could be resolved if we’d just realize this.

Someone who reads a lot is bound to be disappointed from time to time.  We turn to books either looking for a certain mood or specific pieces of information.  Authors often take things in their own directions.  Our minds don’t all work in the same way.  That’s why, in my opinion, reading is so important.  I prefer “long form” writing—I always have.  Sometimes an idea can be well expressed in an article, but taking the time to develop ideas requires a nuance not all publishers appreciate.  (Yes, I realize that by expressing this sentiment in a brief essay like this I leave myself open to deconstruction—one of the overwritten books I just read was written by a deconstructionist.)  Still, I have trouble abandoning books that take ideas in a way I wouldn’t go.  Usually when I start reading, I’m committed to finish.  Some would say that’s foolish.  I take it as a learning opportunity.

Whose Canon Is This?

Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days.  The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind.  Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book.  When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up.  Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis.  Had we left out some sacred books?  That would seem to be a grave mistake.  As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.

The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.”  Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out.  My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?”  That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth.  If something really happened it was, by definition, true.  The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later.  Scripture is more subtle than that.  So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon.  Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.

The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together.  Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible.  The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge.  Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible.  Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away.  Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing.  And, ironically, some even left out his book.  Such matter remain hidden indeed.