About Steve Wiggins

Associate Editor, Oxford University Press.

How To Study

As much as I critique Calvinism, I participate in its hardness sometimes.  For instance, when I was employed in higher education I would’ve considered reception history—the kind of research I’m now doing—soft.  My doctorate consisted of learning to read dead languages and trying to make sense of ancient religions where tons of lacunae existed.  It was rigorous mental work.  More modern studies, however, often look at the human (softer) side of religion.  There are any number of approaches: gender studies, sexuality studies, disability studies, and plenty involving the social sciences.  I was taken aback, however, when I first encountered fat studies.  This is apparently a thing now.  As far as I know it hasn’t been applied to biblical studies, yet.  The title is intentionally somewhat derogatory, rather like queer studies adopted a term at first intended to disparage, but later taken as a token of pride.

Fat studies is a field that considers the acceptance of all body types, and the prejudices against those who might be called “overweight.”  We’ve begun to reach a period of acceptance of difference—well, we had been getting there, until about three years ago.  Academics are keen to explore implications of just about anything, and considering those who face acceptance issues due to weight, or body mass index (BMI), suggests itself.  The media likes to cast us into various crises: an obesity crisis, an anorexic crisis, substance abuse crises, and satanic panics.  Each of these crisis points eventually leads to some form of study.  We want to understand this inherent complexity of being human.  Some feminists expressed surprise when masculinity studies became a thing some years back.  Being male, I see that the only way to break down seeing my own gender as normative is to put it under the microscope with all the others.

Because of historical developments, a particular subset of the human race came to see itself as the measure of all things.  I doubt this was intentional, but over time the male of northern European persuasion, particularly the Protestant variety, came to be seen as the textbook human.  He stood about six feet tall and tended to fit a certain BMI.  He was straight.  Like a ruler.  All other humans were measured against him.  This system of privilege is breaking down.  Some, as we can see in Washington, are reluctant to let it go.  Difference, however, is endemic to any species.  And males are no more normative than females.  Or those attracted to their own gender.  Or who change gender.  Or who weigh more than others.  Until we learn to accept all humans, it’s only right that we study our assumptions.  There will always be those who look at dead languages and some day we may want to study even them.

Fueling Fires

Paying attention to world affairs can take all your time.  In fact, for those who study foreign affairs, it practically does.  I’ve been struggling with the fact that you can’t be lazy in a democracy.  I know that’s true—we must constantly be vigilant of governments turning evil (with a wink)—and yet we each have our own lives to look after.  Trying to balance this teeter-totter, I noticed a Washington Post story lately about library officials in China burning books.  Said books challenge government ideology and are being destroyed.  We’ve seen this before.  Nazis burned books, and Republicans would certainly like to.  Even further back in history Medieval thinking led to the destruction of what would now likely be invaluable tomes.  There is biblical precedent, of course.  Read Acts 19 if you need a refresher.

Book burners now do their deed for its symbolic value.  We live in an age of Kindles and Nooks and books online.  Not as many are printed as there used to be, but the smell of burning plastic doesn’t convey the same pathos.  Besides, you can just whip out your synced phone and continue  reading.  Those of us who’ve committed our lives to reading find this symbolic gesture heinous.  Yes, there are books that offend us.  I’ve read more than one that I wish I hadn’t.  I have, however, no inkling to burn them.  Books represent our attempts to increase knowledge.  Fiction or non matters not.  Those who write have something to say, and surveys reveal that many adults really would like to write a book.  As a symbol, there’s nothing like it.  I suspect that’s why burning them makes such an impact.

The western world is struggling to understand China.  One of the largest investors in both Africa and South America, China is building foreign relations just as the Trump administration is jettisoning them.  Many well-informed Americans don’t realize just how long and how well China has been making connections through financial investment.  Sounds like a very capitalist thing to do.  That librarians should burn books seems an odd form of theater in such a scenario.  Governments that can’t take criticism are autocracies.  I know few donkeys that would state any one of their party is really a saint.  That’s GOP territory.  At least we haven’t started book burnings on the White House lawn.  As we turn our gaze to the east, or, depending on your perspective, to the west, we do have to wonder just how long it will be before we do.

Quiet Night

Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.  This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.  That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.  My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.  Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.  Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.  This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.

With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.  As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.  There’s a matter-of-factness to them.  They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.  Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.  Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.  That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.

In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.  I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.  Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.  Academics have a point, though.  For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.  The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.  That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.  At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.  And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.  And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.  Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.  We can all use a good challenge.

Space Farce

Okay, so “Space Force” sounds like a gimmick that you’d see in a 1950’s ad geared to dungaree-wearing boys.  These boys, who’d be named “Dick” would show the girls, named “Jane,” just how it was done.  So as I read about the furor of dedicating a King James Bible from the Bible Museum as the official Bible for military branches aimed at the stars, I had to think how very small we actually are.  So 45 thinks, like Reagan thought, that we need outer-space defenses.  These guys need to read more science fiction.  Actually, some plain old science would help.  If there are most advanced civilizations out there—and such seems increasingly likely, given that our understanding of science is subject to change—we are nothing more than cosmic mosquitoes buzzing close to our own planet where we can wail on each other in the name of lucre.  And we call it “Space Force.”

An article on NPR points out the hypocrisy of swearing in the military on a Bible.  One guy in there, I’ve heard tell, was called “the prince of peace.”  He’s somewhere near the back.  The public loves a good warmonger, though.  We can send our tentative rockets into orbit where bug-eyed aliens laugh with bemusement, and say “Just you try something.”  Or we can make business deals with Russia with one hand while pointing our missiles in their direction with the other.  Is that a missile or am I misreading something, Dick?  I can’t ask Jane, because she just follows along.  Maybe we’re inheriting the consequences of those who grew up reading Dick and Jane.  Boys with their rockets, girls with their dolls.

Bringing religion into the military is nothing new.  German soldiers marched out into a couple of World Wars with “Gott mit uns” inscribed on their waists.  Millions died.  No lessons were learned.  So now we want to take conflict so far over our heads that we can’t even see.  Ancient people knew the gods were fighting far above.  That’s how they made sense of the world.  Some, like Erich von Däniken took those stories literally and thought our alien observers were the reason.  Now that we’ve got drones we have no need of UFOs anymore.  All that sci-fi I watched as a kid wasn’t wasted after all.  Only I grew up reading that Bible instead of swearing on it.  I was pretty sure that war wasn’t a good thing, as he rode on a red horse with his sword pointing upward.  Time to dust off William S. Gray and get back to watching Space Force. 

From NASA’s photo library

Bodies and the Fall

Less common than it once was, the term “Dark Ages” was formerly used to denote what in Europe was known as the Medieval Period.  We now know that the pervasive darkness ascribed to the time was only partial: science, legal thinking, and rationalism were well underway.  Nevertheless, the sway of the church was enormous, and even until and beyond the days of Isaac Newton, the supernatural was assumed to exist.  Dyan Elliott’s Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology in the Middle Ages is a fascinating journey through this contradictory time.  Elliott explores how the mysteries of sex (nocturnal emissions and menstruation loom large among them) played important roles in the development of Catholic theology that ultimately led to the close association of demons and witches.  Concerns with priestly purity, largely due to concerns about transubstantiation, led to enforced celibacy and the (further) denigration of women.

It would be difficult to summarize this insightful book.  Although relatively brief, it packs a wallop.  Concerns about purity go back to the Bible and before.  Ancient cultures had recognized aspects of contagion and knew that some diseases spread by contact.  Their perception of biology was “scientific” according to their current understanding, but it lacked microscopes and knew no shortage of supernatural entities.  Demons had great explanatory value in such a world.  As Elliott shows, they often appear in disquisitions about sex.  How can spiritual beings engage in physical relations with human bodies?  What were they made of?  Were they all bad?  Although demons had explanatory value they also raised many questions.

Fallen Bodies draws correlations between the dismissal of priests’ wives and the evolution of witches.  As the Eucharist became more and more holy, stricter controls had to be placed on consecrating hands.  Sex was the great source of pollution, and the Virgin Mary became rather less human through her own miraculously sterile conception.  The implied misogyny may not have been so much intentional as a reflection of the struggle to understand what modern medical science generally explains materially.  We still grapple with the mystery of life.  Conception can be viewed clinically, and biological responses can be “explained” scientifically (anyone who’s been in love will admit to the mystery of it, though).  Denizens of the Middle Ages worked with the tools they had to make sense of a world often bewildering.  Even physics still has to deal with quantum realities.  History teaches by its unfortunate missteps.  Someday those who “govern” the world may learn to read it and exorcise demons now otherwise readily explained.

Integrity

I’m not lying when I say untruth has been on my mind a lot.  A few days ago I posted on freedom of speech and how it’s an ideal rather than an actuality.  What with lies being lobbed at us daily, I got to thinking about the ethical implications for honesty.  Integrity.  The freedom to state what we actually think is something a little different.  How often in daily life do we act authentically?  And when we’re with others we act differently than when we’re alone.  Which is truly us?  Someone pointed out to me recently that if you walk with someone your body language is different than if you walk alone.  Even walking alone your body language shows your interior frame of mind.  A sad walk isn’t the same as a happy walk.

As social creatures, the ideal of being forthright all of the time would lead to chaos.  All of us lie, one way or another, at times.  That’s where integrity comes in.  Integrity, it seems to me, indicates someone who is honest, all things being equal.  I once noticed a politician who blinked every time he said the word “God.”  That blink, I believe, was a form of “scare quote.”  I don’t know, but I suspect said politician didn’t have any strong belief in a deity.  Some circumstances require that you pay lip service anyway.  Ethics dictates that we try to be honest, but even keeping secrets is a kind of lie of omission.  Our own personal wants—which are honest—often have to be suppressed for the sake of fairness.  Again, we live in a situation where the most powerful pursue their own desires while neglecting the needs of others.  Is this then integrity?

Often I ponder what it means to be social creatures.  Some of us are naturally introverts.  We nevertheless rely on others because society is too complex.  What any one person could build an iPhone single-handedly, and then set up the 3G, 4G, or 5G network on which to use it?  Could that same person grow their own food, manufacture their own automobile, and construct their own house?  The self-made rugged individualist is a myth we cherish, but it too is an untruth.  We rely heavily on others and we count on those closest to us to be honest.  When lying becomes a lifestyle integrity lies in tatters on the floor.  Just three years ago I wouldn’t have been having such thoughts, if I’m honest with myself.

Now You Don’t

Quite some time ago I realized I should read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  What put me off, as usual, was length.  Long books take a real time commitment, but since Black History month is coming up, and we’ve just celebrated Martin Luther King, I planned ahead and read.  A profound book, at several points I felt like a voyeur reading it.  The African-American experience of life is something I always feel uncomfortable approaching.  I’m afraid of appropriation, and I’m afraid of not paying attention.  I grew up not having a sense of racism, but nevertheless am implicated in the whole.  Maybe that was intentional.  As a story Invisible Man is often described as a picaresque, but having an unreliable narrator who was a victim of my own culture was difficult to countenance.  It was hard to know what to think.

We never understand another person’s experience of life.  We sympathize, we empathize, but we can’t really get inside the head of even our best friends.  I can’t help but think we’d all be better off we recognized that race is a social construct, and a potentially evil one at that.  We are all human beings and we should act that way.  But this novel left me wondering if it’s really possible.  Good novels will do that to you.  So I’m sitting here scratching my head and a little bit flummoxed by what I’ve just experienced.  Was it authentic or can I not help but project my own experience as an non-minority upon someone else’s writing?  Even questions like this are socially conditioned.  I too am trapped in my own mind.

You might think that by this time we would have evolved beyond our distrust of those long separated from us by natural barriers.  Homo sapiens are distrustful of strangers, and even the internet hasn’t brought us the understanding we require.  Not yet, anyway.  The background to “race relations” in the United States can’t be separated from slavery and the attitudes it engendered.  On almost every page of Invisible Man its traces can be seen.  That kind of cultural memory, and other cultural memories such as Jews being routinely castigated by Christians, or monotheists being raised to combat polytheism, are deep dividers.  Our cure for these evils is understanding.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of literary fiction.  It rings true, however, and although it represents a world I do not know the fact of its publication invites  those of us outside the tradition to read.  Indeed, doing so is one way of attempting to reach understanding.