2019 Books

  Goodreads is always a little eager to put the tally on a year’s worth of reading.  This year, however, since I’ve been engaged in some larger books, they may be on target.  According to their count I’ve read 71 books this year.  (I re-read two, so my personal count is 73.)  New Year’s Eve, for me, is a time to reflect about what I’ve learned in the past year.  Much of that involves books I’ve read.  A good deal of my reading has been for Nightmares with the Bible.  To write a book you need to read books.  Frequently it means taking them on regardless of your mood—and I tend to be a mood-driven reader.  So what books stand out from 2019?  (They all have individual posts on this blog, in case you missed them.)

My first nonfiction book of the year was Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster.  Animal intelligence always makes for good reading and this was reprised in Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.  I’ve fallen behind in my Frans de Waal reading, though.  Of the many research books on the Devil and demons, Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Mephistopheles stands out.  Russell’s clear thinking and wide view make him a pleasure to read even on unpleasant subjects.  Other books in that category didn’t quite rise to his level.  Monster books, on the other hand, rocked.  I loved James Neibaur’s Monster Movies of Universal Studios, Mallory O’Meara’s Lady from the Black Lagoon, and Kröger and Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote.  These were all excellent.  Tipping toward the unusual, Guy Playfair’s This House Is Haunted and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip gave me pause for thought.

Perhaps because I was reading longer books, this year didn’t have fiction in the numbers I usually strive for.  Most of it was quite good, though.   David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was memorable and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (strangely similar to Mitchell) became an instant favorite.  My young adult fix came through Christy Lenzi’s Stonefield and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.  Victor Gischler scored with Vampire a Go-Go and Cherie Priest made a fine impression with The Toll.  I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Fall yesterday, but it will stay with me into 2020.

A couple of memories/biographies also made deep marks on my mind.  Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him brought me close to Rod Serling and Barbara Taylor Brown’s Learning to Walk in the Dark found me where I live.  America’s Dark Theologian by Douglas E. Cowan isn’t really biography, but it was thought-provoking (as his books always are) and increased my resolve to read some more Stephen King.  The books I read make me more myself.  At the end of each year I think back over it all.  And this year I pondered what got me through a difficult 2019.  I have ended the year more myself than ever, I suspect, and I looking forward to a reading through the new decade.

Falling

Time.   It’s a resource of which I’ve become acutely aware.  If I probe this I find that among the assorted reasons is the fact that I’ve finished my fourth book and I realized I’m much further behind that I’d hoped to be at this point.  It took me a decade to get Weathering the Psalms published and Holy Horror seems never to have gotten off the ground.  I’ve pretty much decided to try to move on to writing that people might actually read, and academic publishing clearly is not the means of reaching actual readers.  I can’t help compare myself with prolific writers like Neal Stephenson.  (It helps that he’s a relative.)  I just finished Fall, Or Dodge in Hell, and was wowed by the impact of both the Bible and mythology on the story.  I’ve always admired the way that writers like Neal can not only comprehend technology, but also can project directions into which it seems to go. 

Not to put lots of spoilers here, but the story of one generation of gods being conquered by another is the stuff of classic mythology.  Many assume it was the Greeks who came up with the idea, what with their Titans and Olympians and all.  In actual fact, these stories go back to the earliest recorded mythologies in what is now called western Asia.  For whatever reason, people have always thought that there was a generation of older gods that had been overcome by a younger generation.  Even some of the archaic names shine through here.  Like many of Neal’s books, Fall takes some time to read.  It’s long, but it also is the kind of story you like to mull over and not rush through.  Life, it seems, is just too busy.

There’s a lot of theological nuance in Fall, and the title clearly has resonance with what many in the Christian tradition categorize as the “Fall.”  (Yes, there are Adam and Eve characters.)  Those who are inclined to take a less Pauline view of things suggest that said “fall” wasn’t really the introduction of sin into the world.  Anyone who reads Genesis closely will see that the word “sin” doesn’t occur in this account at all.  One might wonder what the point of the story is, then.  I would posit that it is similar to the point of reading books like Fall.  To gain wisdom.  Reading is an opportunity to do just that.  And if readers decide to look into matters they will find a lot of homework awaits them.  And those who do it will be rewarded.

Writing Prophets

So I was sitting at a table with two writers I’d just met.  It was at the Easton Book Festival and since I’m new to the area I was very aware that I didn’t know anybody.  I was also aware that my book, Holy Horror, wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen, despite it being mid-October.  As we were talking my two interlocutors mentioned the advances they’d received for their books, one of whom was able to buy a house with said advance.  As I listened I kept my mouth shut, because that’s polite, even though my jaw was slack.  The other person hadn’t been able to buy a house, but after writing on a topic so obscure I can’t remember it, had been able to do something noteworthy with the advance.  My royalties from Holy Horror wouldn’t have covered the cost of this dinner.

In the weeks following the festival—always busy with AAR/SBL looming, then Thanksgiving, then December—I began some soul-searching.  What was I doing wrong?  I also did some web-searching.  One of the articles that came up, written by a business writer, suggested pulling up your socks and getting to it, demanding money for your writing.  I don’t see anywhere to put a coin slot on this blog, which is more of a labor of love than anything anyway.  Then the kicker came.  This business writer cited Hosea 4.6, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge,” as the basis of why people would pay for content.  Now pardon me for taking things a little literally, but I doubt Hosea was in the business of giving business advice.  The knowledge people lack, in context, is knowledge of Yahweh.

Now here I was back on familiar territory.  I’ve taught classes on Hosea, and this intriguing prophet was commenting on Israel’s lack of knowledge of God’s ways.  There were some folks akin to prosperity gospelers back in the pre-Gospel days, suggesting that if you kept God happy rewards would roll your way, but history had other plans.  Israel fell to the Assyrians shortly after Hosea’s time, his writing advice apparently unheeded.  As I revise Nightmares with the Bible for publication—the reviewer felt it was too tradey—I have to wonder about my conversation back in October.  Neither book of my conversation partners was one of broad appeal.  In fact, the second was rather technical.  They had, however, been paid for their work.  Academic publishing is built on the paradigm that the writer already has a university job and doesn’t need the money.  Hosea also said, if I recall, something about what happens if you sow the wind.

Biblical Employment

The other day I read something where the author casually suggested some biblical personage was doing their job.  That idea seemed to stick in my throat on the way down, like improperly masticated toast.  Jobs are something we do in a surplus economy, but in biblical times could what anyone did properly be called a “job”?  Sure, there were kings (aka bullies), and priests.  They were exempted from too much physical labor.  Even the plaintive bleating of sheep followed by a thud and sudden, eerie silence, was carried out by lesser temple functionaries.  But did these people think of what they did as jobs?  Did someone write them a check at the end of two weeks so they could pay their rent and utilities, and spend their weekends wishing they were doing something else?  Jobs are a modern phenomenon.

How easy it is to forget that ancient people were by and large country folk.  Even until late in the nineteenth century (CE, for those who are counting) in the United States most people were farmers living in the country.  Their job?  Simple survival.  Trading on the surplus—of course money had been invented by this point—they grew or tended what their land allowed but what they did wasn’t so much a job as it was a way to keep alive.  In the earlier biblical times, back beyond the New Testament, money wasn’t always an assured way of trade.  Many people could go their entire lives without seeing silver or gold.  Those in cities specialized their trades somewhat, but if they grew weary of say, weaving luxury textiles, did they have to carefully consider healthcare options before “quitting their jobs”?  Rolling over their 401Ks?  Writing new killer cover letters?

We need another word for ancient occupations.  And we also need an awareness of how our modern lenses distort our vision of ancient lives.  People lived for short periods of time.  Most men died by forty and most women by their twenties.  Sure, you could survive longer than that—much longer—but healthcare perks weren’t then what they are today for those who can afford them.  Your perspective would certainly shift if your life expectancy were so short.  I can’t help think, though, that there were people like me out there in the field, perhaps watching over a flock of mangy sheep, thinking about the larger issues consciousness affords.  They couldn’t get a job as an editor, I don’t suppose, since literacy was rare.  If they’d been trained to write their future would’ve been secure.  But times change, even as does the very concept of a job.

Balthasar-Paul Ommeganck, Landscape with shepherds, via Wikimedia Commons

Virtually Religious

“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.  I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).  Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.  I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.  I found SID’s question intriguing.  In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.  A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”  He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.  Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.

The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.  Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.  The one who creates is God.  Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.  When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.  Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.  Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.  Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?  When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.  Who doesn’t want to know?

Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.  We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.  SID is aware that he’s been simulated.  Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?  Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?  If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.  It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.  And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.

Conversations

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.

First Christmas Parable

The Christmas story is full of surprises.  This year near Bethlehem, a parable occurred to me.  Like many parables, it raises questions.  A question for all you men out there: when’s the last time you were pregnant?  Was it because some woman—who can’t be responsible for her urges—didn’t take proper precautions?  Isn’t this the way God punishes people for having the sexual intercourse he created?  Since God gave you an anatomy just like his, you certainly have priority in the cosmic scheme of things, but this pregnancy of yours—what are you going to do with it?  Oh, and don’t look to Onan for answers to your own urges; God stuck him dead for that kind of thing.  But that troubling “what if”… What if Mary had had a choice?  According to the Good Book she did.  “Be it unto me,” Mary said.  She could’ve said “No.”  Many men in your *ahem* delicate condition did not.  The problem with virginal conceptions is that people will talk.

Many people don’t remember at this time of year that Mary and Joseph were immigrants to Egypt.  Had the Nativity occurred today in these States that follow God’s word, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus would’ve ended up in separate cages.  Wasn’t he born in a cage?  Oh, cave!  That’s definitely an improvement.  One wonders how the Gospel might’ve gone from there.  And what of those annoying buzzing creatures overhead calling for peace on earth?  Shoo!  Trade wars!  Tariffs!  Nuclear threats!  These were the gifts of the three wise men, were they not?  Or perhaps we should get biblical and follow Herod’s mandate.  Killing two-year-old boys isn’t abortion, after all.  After giving birth they’re your problem, not God’s.  You’ve got to get them born—that’s the most important thing.  And since women can’t possibly know what it’s like to be pregnant what are you going to say when they walk out and tell you, “It’s not my problem”?  “Be it unto me,” said Mary.

Shepherds, it should be noted, were the poor.  Ironically that first Christmas the good news was first revealed to them.  Herod, half-insane, kept shifting members of his government around.  He had put away his previous wives—perhaps because they made him pregnant—and assassinated all his rivals.  Unless that’s fake news—the old fox was known for that.  So the immigrant family thought it was safe to return after Herod was removed from office.  Jesus grew to espouse the message of love and acceptance—extending it even to foreigners.  The state, believing itself established by divine right, had him put to death.  It’s Christmas, and we’ve seen all this before.  If only those with eyes would see.  But parables, it seems, have gone out of style.