Youth Evolving

Picture a picture.  A photograph.  I’ve got a specific one in mind, but it’s likely one you’ve not seen.  Any photograph will work for this lesson, but if it’s one of your own, one from your youth works best.  Your teenage years.  The photograph that I’m imagining is one of a slightly older friend of mine.  It shows him as a teenage machine-gunner in Vietnam.  I didn’t know him at the time, of course; I was too young to be sent off as a national sacrifice for a police action to protect capitalism.  In any case, I got to know this friend later, after he’d survived the conflict, wounded but alive, and I was struggling to survive puberty.  Emotions at that time were off the charts, but I never saw the photo until I was an adult.

Why am I asking you to think of old pictures?  I was recently reading a discussion where intelligent people were wondering why, throughout human history, we have idealized youth.  I suppose there’s no single answer, but I have a suspicion that it has to do with evolution.  We often wrongly assume that we can get at the naked truth.  As if we could somehow get outside of our own frame, our personal point-of-view, and look at reality objectively.  Our brains, however, evolved to help us survive in an often hostile environment.  The “point”—if you’ll allow me to hypostasize a bit—of evolution is to survive long enough to reproduce.  Many species with young that can care for themselves simply die at that point.  Mission accomplished.

As human beings (and mammals) our young need parental care to survive, at least for a few years.  Biology would seem to dictate that by the time we can reproduce—that self-same puberty which is such a difficult age—is the point at which we’ve reached our evolutionary goal.  There’s something deeper going on here, of course, but I wonder if this might not be behind the question of why we idealize youth.  We remember with a sharp pang—don’t need to see a doctor about that one—the incredible and unsurpassed discoveries we personally made at that age.  There will be other surprises as life goes along, of course, but nothing will ever equal our biologically determined goal.  I’m oversimplifying, I know.  Still, this may be one mystery that is less mysterious than it seems.  I know this because I have a photograph of a young man.  It matters not if it is of someone I know or me.  We have made it through our most awkward age, and we reflect on how it made us into who we have become.

Was I ever that young?

Chilly Fluids

I’m not sure why I did it.  Read In Cold Blood.  I’d known of Truman Capote’s main claim to fame for years, but an accidental recent mention, a cheap copy in a used bookstore, and a week of grabbing time to read did it.  I’m not a fan of true crime, and despite my fixation on horror movies, I try to steer away from anything that doesn’t have a hint of the speculative about it.  There’s a difference between horror and terror.  I’d happily lived a half-century without ever hearing about the Clutter murders and kind of wish that were still the case.  Yes, there are doubts about the veracity of Capote’s account at points and novelists are often convincing liars, but still, at the heart of the matter more than just four people are senselessly murdered in the course of the tale.

A few elements stood out in the reading of the book.  One was that given the naiveté of the 1950s I wonder how anyone could ever really want to go back to that decade.  We’re run by a government full of doddering old men who seem to idealize the falsity and utter conformity of an age that was really a pressure cooker in which cases such as this would explode.  I was born in the much idealized 1960s but I don’t think we should go back to them.  We learn, we change, we grow.  Knowing what we now do, it was kind of painful reading how blissfully ignorant so many people were.  We may be more afraid these days, but at least we’re more realistic.

Another factor, very much at home in this world older but no wiser, is how the Bible is cited at the trial in support of capital punishment.  Although it may not have been intentional on Capote’s part, he demonstrates a deep truth about Scripture.  It can be read in more than one way.  In conservative Kansas in 1960 it could sway jurors to seek the death of other human beings.  The murders were indeed savage and pointless.  Capote’s account of them is difficult to read.  Perhaps more difficult is the way the Bible is used to unleash the basest instincts of people against other human beings.  Yes, parts of the Good Book require the bad thing, but if we’re over fifty years beyond Holcomb we’re over fifty score beyond a time when just one interpretation stands for all.  If it ever did.  There’s a difference between horror and terror, but the Bible can participate in both.  I prefer to stick to the former.

Patchwork

I don’t wear clothing with advertisements.  Perhaps it’s my Quaker-like sensibilities, or maybe it’s just that I hate being a shill.  What has any corporation done for me that I should give it free advertising?  Actually, not free—advertising that I have to pay to give?  I do have a few college sweatshirts, though.  Always a booster for education, I don’t mind wearing that brand.  Otherwise, I sit back and marvel how marketers get people to think it’s cool to strut their (the marketers’) stuff.  Brand names declare one’s tribe, one’s level of affluence.  I used to rip any exterior labels off my clothes but it became clear it was a losing battle, especially when brands are incorporated (note the word) into the very design.  And we play along.

I shouldn’t be too harsh.  After all, corporations are people too.  At least in the cataract-infested eyes of the law.  They have rights just like, or even more than, individuals do.  We live this fiction and watch the wealthy grow loftier, and we wear their brands so that others will sense where we belong.  Long ago I began to object to this.  Maybe it was because I grew up poor and wearing cheap knock-offs of brand names was embarrassing.  The cut of your trousers said something about what your folks could afford.  I actually began buying all my own clothes at the age of fourteen and, consequently, habitually wear things until not even Goodwill will consider them appropriate for resale.  And I still tend to buy generic.  Thoreau, in a patched quote from Walden and Civil Disobedience can be made to say it well:

As for clothing, […] perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility. […] No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.

The fact is we despise the patch-wearer for not playing the capitalist game.  You’ve got to pay good money for jeans with tears already in them and the world of the facile has no room for posers who actually wear through the knees.  If we ever meet you’ll know me by the frayed edges of my sleeves and cuffs.  I’ll likely be the guy sitting on a bench without a Starbucks cup in my hand, cradling Henry David and nodding vigorously.

The Root of All

The other day I was in one of those stores where everything is sold really cheaply.  I figure it helps balance out all those times when I’ve been overcharged for things at other stores because I was pressed for time and needed something quickly.  In any case, these dollar store establishments have a constantly rotating stock, it seems (things move at a buck!), and so you might or might not find exactly what you’re looking for.  While just looking around, acquainting myself with the content, I came upon a shelf of Bibles.  God’s word for a dollar a pop.  This isn’t a place I’d normally come looking for books.  Then it occurred to me: many of those who shop in such stores are committed to a faith that keeps them in their economic bracket.

That suspicion was confirmed by other items at the store.  Many of them were Christian-themed.  This seemed like the opposite of the prosperity gospel.  People trying to scrape by, to shave enough off the budget to make it to another paycheck.  Many Americans live like this.  Many of them support Trump.  Selling the Bible to them cheaply definitely involves a mixed message.  There’s indeed a message, as I’ve learned in the publishing, in the way books are priced.  Getting a thousand-pager printed where the unit cost is below a dollar requires a massive print run.  Someone knows that Bibles sell.  You won’t find such cheap divine revelation at Barnes and Noble.  The same content, maybe, but not at the same price point.

The economics of cheap Bibles contains a message.  Those who can’t afford much can be guided toward spending some of it on the Good Book.  While just reading the Bible may indeed bring comfort to those who know where to look, as a whole this book requires major interpretative work.  As I’ve been indicating over the last several days, Holy Writ is not nearly as straightforward a reading experience as many suppose it to be.  Trying to figure out what Nehemiah’s differences with Sanballat the Horonite have to do with the rest of us isn’t an easy task.  To find out, if the internet doesn’t give us quite all the knowledge we want or need, can require some intensive study, up to and including seminary.  Even then you might not get it.  Studying the Bible requires further commitment than simply picking one up for a Washington might imply.  But then, it costs less than a lottery ticket.  And you can get it while saving money on other things you need.

Eastern Canon

It’s complicated.  The Bible, that is.  Tracing its origins as a book can easily occupy a lifetime, but the issue that keeps coming up with Scripture is how, definitively, to close the canon.  If we should.  My research on demons lately has led me once again to the books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch.  The latter has long been popular with the paranormal crowd because it has some weird stuff in it.  Thing is, as I mentioned back in November, these two books are part of the biblical canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  And the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  That makes these two books by definition “biblical.”  You won’t find them in nearly any printed Bible in the western world, although you can locate them in collections of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

This privileging of the western canon has implications.  How do we know what really belongs in the Bible?  Judaism never officially closed its canon, but by consensus the same books contained in the Protestant Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) are those recognized.  Early Christian writers had different Bibles.  It took almost four centuries for them to agree  generally on what should be included.  In Europe, that is.  Not all branches of the church were represented in the Council of Rome.  Instead of waiting for the consensus of all—there was an urgency to stomping out heresy—the decision was made.  For some.  Meanwhile other Christian groups continued to use certain books that “the official” closing of the canon left out in the rain.  Or the desert.  Whichever.

The question of just what’s in the Bible goes a bit deeper than that.  The Tewahedo Churches of eastern Africa also recognize the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.  “So?” did I hear you say, “Catholics recognize them too—what’s the big deal?”  These books, however, in the Ethiopian and Eritrean canons are not the same as western 1 and 2 Maccabees.  The books of the Mäqabeyan contain different content while maintaining the same basic name.  This means that we’re gonna need a bigger canon.  What’s more, these books have been pretty much ignored by biblical scholars.  One of the reasons, no doubt, is that they are written in Geez, a language not on the menu of too many seminaries.  Simply to dismiss them, however, is to ignore the belief system of over 50 million Christians.  It seems that the version of the Good Book tucked under the arm of many an evangelist is the condensed version.  Putting together a canon, it appears, is more complicated than it looks.

Not that kind of cannon! (Photo credit: Walther Hermann Ryff, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mission Impossible

You can always tell Jehovah’s Witnesses by their tracts.  When I heard a tap, tap, tap on my front door the other day I was handed a flier and a cheery invitation to an important celebration (Easter).  The circumlocution used for the holiday made we wonder so I flipped over the tract and saw the familiar JW on the bottom.  I always treat religion at my door with respect because, well, you never know.  It’s this latter bit—the uncertainty—that has always given me pause when it comes to missionaries, domestic or imported.  Missionaries by definition believe their particular spin on religion is the only correct one, otherwise there’s no reason to convert others.  This is often the highest hurdle over which globalism must leap—the willingness to admit one might be wrong.

I could be wrong about this, but I have always considered the willingness to admit you might be incorrect as a sign of spiritual maturity.  I also know from my youth that that kind of uncertainty can drive you crazy.  We want to know we’re right!  But then, who doesn’t?  Those of us who think globalization is a good thing have failed to take into account just how difficult it is for many people to admit possible error.  For the vast, vast majority of human history we were separated from one another by natural boundaries.  Travel for leisure did not exist.  Within a local group beliefs would likely be fairly uniform.  Then you encounter others who might say, well, you’re wrong.  That’s seldom a welcome prospect.

More than air travel, the internet has shown us, as we connect, just how diverse a species we really are.  What about that missionary at my door?  For religions indoctrinated into one doctrine this can’t be easy.  I’ve had conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses before.  There’s no convincing them they might be wrong.  Missionaries come with the assurance they’re saving you.  Rare is the proselytizer who’s there possibly to learn the truth.  As I think about it, after decades of attending church how many times has anyone wanted to have an in-depth conversation about belief?  Outside confirmation class, that is.  And even there, when most are either teenagers or older specialists in some secular business, discussing deep issues seems to make others uncomfortable.  When the missionaries come, I want the conversation to go both ways.  I’ve spent half a century thinking about these things, after all.  When there’s a tap, tap, tapping at my door, I wonder what tracks will be left behind.

Chapter and Verse

Maybe like me you’ve read some arguments based on chapter and verse.  I should mention that I mean chapter and verse in the Bible.  The typical scenario will go like this: Genesis (say) uses this word three times in chapter 38.  The case then often slips to making a point on the number of instances a word or phrase occurs within a circumscribed set of verses.  (The actual word doesn’t matter—this is a thought experiment.)  When I ran into an example of this a few days ago a thought occurred to me: chapters and verses are later additions to the biblical text.  They were never part of the original and were only added because Bible readers got tired of saying “That part in Genesis where…”  In other words, chapter and verse are artificial means of interpreting the Bible.  They’re very useful for taking quotes out of context.

I used to tell my students that you have to think carefully about what is the Bible and what isn’t.  As a culture where the book has instant recognition, we tend to think of that discrete unit of pages and cover as coming from one person—the author.  In reality most books (I can’t speak for the self-published) are the work of several people.  Just like it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes one to assemble a book.  That includes the Good Book.  Not everything between the covers is sacred text.  I’m pretty sure about that since as I was glancing through the latest edition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible I found my own name in the Preface.  As much as I’d like to claim otherwise I’m not exactly biblical. 

Modern ways of looking at ancient texts require a degree of facility in understanding how God’s scribes of yesteryear went about their work.  While early experiments in binding books may go back close to the time when the latter parts of the Bible were being written, the scroll—without chapter and verse—contained only the words of the text.  Most ancient manuscripts in Greek, anyway, didn’t even bother to put spaces between the words.  That leaves some room for ambiguity in among all those letters.  The Bible is a complex book with a complex history.  We do it a disservice as modern readers treating it as a modern book.  If you read Scripture online, or via electronic media, an even further layer of interpretation has been added.  That’s why we still need Bible scholars tangled somewhere in this world-wide web.