Come People and Consider

“Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.  This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.”  So Daniel answered the megalomanic king Nebuchadnezzar, according to chapter 2.  This is some Scripture that CPAC has chosen to ignore, or at least not bothered to read to the end.  In truth I was always bothered when Daniel said “Thou art this head of gold”—which seems to be more brass-kissery, if you get my drift, than prophecy.  But dear CPAC, the statue of Nebuchadnezzar crumbles when the kingdom of God arrives, unable to stand on its feet of clay and iron.

Image in public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I’m not one to tout Daniel as prophecy, but seldom have we seen such things come true so literally.  If we turn to the other testament, in a somewhat politically incorrect aphorism a personage of the gospel of Matthew quoth, “they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  Funnily, those who claim to support a “Christian” America have failed to read even the surface of the Good Book.  Without the Bible what is fundamentalism?  That image in Daniel 2 is considered an idol.  After all, when the Trump of antiquity built a statue all were required to fall down before and worship it.  Those who didn’t were thrown into the fiery furnace.

The Conservative Political Action Conference has sent shivers down the collective spine of our nation.  Even as it was going on I was standing in the rain signing petitions for local Democratic candidates because going inside meant being potentially infected by the Republican disease known as Covid-19.  Apparently half-a-million dead is never enough for those who believe in a social darwinism although they claim to base their lives on the book that says all this took a mere seven days.  Although Daniel gained great fame and wealth by telling the king what he wanted to hear, during a party a few short chapters later he saw a hand writing on the wall.  “And this is the writing that was written, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.”  And although given a third of Belshazzar’s kingdom that very night it was all lost to Darius.  “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”


Many Moons

Scientists, often with their base matrix bound up with the local religion, are frequently interested in  myth.  And sometimes religion too.  This is no surprise.  Many of us go into religious studies because of its influence on our lives and scientists, who measure and analyze material realities, must be curious when their results challenge some religious or mythic assumptions.  So it is that Ernest Naylor addresses mythic beliefs about the moon’s influence on animals and what scientific findings on the same show.  Although this book wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, Moonstruck: How Lunar Cycles Affect Life does address the subtitle assertion quite directly.  Naylor, a marine zoologist, knows about tides—caused by the moon—and their effects on marine organisms.  That connection is the main focus of the book, with occasional forays onto dry land.

What caught my attention right away was that when discussing myth and religious ideas, Naylor describes two stories as biblical: the woodcutter banished for gathering on the Sabbath and Judas’ banishment.  Both of these, he seems to believe, have the Bible banishing the criminals to the moon.  That was news to me.  There may well be folklore with such associations, but a simple opening of the covers of the Good Book would dispel this particular “myth.”  Neither the sabbath wood-gatherer nor Judas were banished to the moon after their deaths.  The former presumably went to Sheol and the latter presumably to Hell.  For me this illustrates yet again how many ideas professional people outside the guild suppose to be “biblical.”  The Bible says very little about the moon.  One New Testament demoniac is described as “moonstruck,” but beyond that the occasional references are mainly just to the moon qua moon.

The Bible’s a big book.  Everyone in western society knows it’s an important book but few read it.  Even fewer deeply engage with it to understand its original context and message.  We hear stuff and we’re told it’s in there, and we believe it.  I first noticed this in high school.  Classmates would tell me “the Bible says…” (you can fill in the blank with just about anything, this isn’t a quiz).  Almost always they were wrong.  By that point I’d read the Good Book many times cover-to-cover.  I owned concordances and knew when foreign matter was introduced.  The thing about the Bible is that it’s fairly simple to look it up.  Moonstruck focuses on marine animals and tells interesting connections to the moon.  It has a chapter on humans and the moon, finding little direct biological influence.  It’s an informative book, just don’t use it to verify what’s in the Bible.


Welcome Home

It feels like we’ve got our country back.  I’m not talking about just Democrats, but all Americans.  The last wicked four years felt like a nightmare to millions.  May such evil never happen again.  Many thoughts are vying for attention in my head with the end of the Trump era.  We now have only our second Catholic president, following a heathen one (I fear this may insult heathens, my apologies if it does).  We have finally, after far too many years, have a female vice-president, having been robbed of our first female president by the electoral college four years ago.  Like many Americans, I came away from the inauguration yesterday with the feeling of relief that a person with human sympathies, who doesn’t pathologically rely on lies, is in the White House again.  Listening to the oath of office I wonder how 45’s hand didn’t burn off on the Bible four years ago.

The inauguration is, of course, a ceremony of civil religion.  The family Bible upon which President Biden (how right that feels!) placed his hand is an American institution.  Quite often families have had a particular Bible in which to keep family records and important data (in the days before the internet collected all that).  Not only that, but Biden was actually able to quote the Bible, and not from one of those verses everyone knows from overuse.  What a difference from the cynical, lackadaisical holding up of an unread Bible after teargassing non-violent protestors for a photo-op.  No matter what his detractors may say, Joe Biden actually is a Christian, something that cannot be said of the former incumbent by any meaningful use of the word.

On the night of January 19, Biden began the new administration with a moving candlelight vigil for the 400,000+ Americans who’ve died from Covid-19.  Until that moment, the White House did not care about them at all.  The program included a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s iconic “Hallelujah.”  Interestingly Cohen’s ambiguous line was altered to “I know there’s a God above,” for Americans of a certain stripe need that kind of reassurance.  Compassion.  This is one of the central messages the Bible offers.  We should care for and love one another.  It has been four years since Americans have heard that message.  The evil times through which we’ve suffered are not gone for good, but never has an inauguration been so sorely needed by a country that likes to think itself chosen.  At least we have our country back, no matter party or creed, and that is worth celebrating.


Prophet Margins

One of the most misunderstood of biblical phenomena is prophecy.  One of the reasons it’s so misunderstood is that other ancient peoples came to associate it with predicting the future.  Now, what prophets said often had implications for the future, but they were more forth-tellers, as they say in the biz, than fore-tellers.  Amos, for instance, was a prophet concerned with social justice.  We know little about his life, but we can discern that ancient prophets could be paid to become “yes men” (“yes persons” just doesn’t sound right, and most were male) for the establishment.  Kings then, as now, surrounded themselves with sycophants who would tell them their policies were approved, or even ordained by God.  Amos was not one of those.

Amos points out in the book attributed to him that he was no paid prophet.  He was an honest worker with a great concern for social justice.  He lived in a prosperous time, but the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor troubled him.  (Amos has never been a favorite among prosperity gospelers, since his message has always been recognized as authentic among both Jews and Christians and he condemns the inequality rampant in society.)  Many in the eighth century BCE believed ceremonial actions—like, say, holding up a Bible in front of a church—pleased God.  Amos boldly declared such things sickened God as long as society favored the rich at the expense of the poor.  There’s a reason Evangelicals and Republicans tend to avoid Amos.  “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” is not an easy thing to hear when you’re busy giving tax breaks to those who earn more than enough while refusing basic health care to the poor.

Prophets tend to speak of the future in conditional terms.  If your ways don’t change, then this will happen.  Some Christians, anxious to prove that Jesus was the messiah, came to see prophets as great predictors of the future.  Amos would likely have taken exception to them.  Even in his own day Amos made people uncomfortable.  His favorite image for God was that of a lion ready to attack.  His contemporaries told him to shut up.  Amos then made the famous statement that he was no professional prophet.  He would not adjust his message so that the comfortable could feel good about themselves.  If Amos were in America the last four years would’ve had his throat raw with pointing out to “Christians” how they’d come to misrepresent everything the prophets stood for.  We need more like him today.


Wooden Translation?

The summer got away from me, as it always seems to, leaving several boxes of things yet to be sorted.  Since these boxes are in the garage where there’s no heat, doing it during winter isn’t really feasible.  Still, I found myself in the garage storage area the other day and quickly tipped open a box or two to remind myself of what might be inside.  One of the treasures I found is actually from my wife’s family memorabilia.  Not exactly a family Bible, it’s a New Testament one of her grandfathers gave one of her grandmothers as a gift.  It’s a red-letter edition, but what makes it unusual is the binding.  It has olive wood covers from Jerusalem.  The front cover is embossed with a Jerusalem cross.

Bookbinding has long been an area of personal fascination.  Growing up when and how I did, most of my books are paperbacks.  The paperback was initially one of the responses to shortages introduced by wars.  Since they were cheaper to produce they could be priced down.  I have a few academic paperbacks from the twenties (I can’t make myself acknowledge that 1920 was a century ago) whose paper bindings are literally paper.  I fear to take them off the shelf, given the fragile nature of their bindings.  Prior to that books tended to be “hardbacks.”  A piece of cloth-covered cardboard was the preferred means of protecting the vulnerable leaves inside.  Before that leather was routinely used.  Those were the days when books were properly thought of as an investment.

I often think of how little I will leave behind, at least in terms of items of monetary value.  Books seldom maintain their cover price for long.  As someone who lurks on used book websites, however, I do know that the choice tome of either quirky fiction or nonfiction under-appreciated at the time can easily jump market values with predatory sellers.  Even for a paperback.  I am loath to confess how much I’ve paid for a book I really needed for research that mere public libraries simply can’t access.  (The university library is a place of wonder, and one of the resources I most often miss in having become secular.)  Just this past week I saw a sci-fi book from the sixties I wanted to read priced at over $500 on Amazon (used).  When I went to check on it this morning all copies were gone.  And to think the world considers books a poor investment.  The real key is to be obscure, no matter your binding material.


Truly Exceptional?

Exceptionalism seems to be in the air these days.  Most recently it’s become a plank in the Republican platform—America is God’s own chosen nation (despite what the Bible actually says).  It’s also been a trait of nearly all human endeavors.  Human exceptionalism, that is.  The idea, whether admitted or not, is based on the Bible.  Even those bespectacled scientists who make no time for religion insist that humans are different from other animals.  Why?  The Bible tells them so.  Evolution certainly doesn’t.  And so we go about thinking how superior we are to other lifeforms.  And not only that, but to other humans in other geographical locations.  It seems Homo sapiens sapiens could use an ego check every now and again.

Not only does our sense of superiority go downward over the animals, it also reaches to the very boundaries of this infinite but expanding universe.  We are alone, scientists declare.  The only intelligent life in a universe far beyond the ability of the human brain to comprehend.  There can’t be any alien visitations with (laughably) superior beings crawling out of their flying saucers.  No, we were the best that evolution could do.  And we elected Donald Trump to be our president four years ago.  What’s that about an ego check?  Especially since we’ve learned that there is water on the moon.  Almost certainly there was once liquid water on Mars.  There may even be traces of life in the atmosphere of Venus (although the earthly jury is still out on that one).  Only humans can make that declaration.

Photo credit: NASA

I have to wonder at this arrogance that comes along with consciousness.  Do we believe we’re the best simply because we learned to apply the laws of rationality to our gray matter?  Back when I was a seminarian the word “pantheism” was rather like a swear.  To suggest a universal connectivity (literally) was an offense against the deity portrayed in the Bible.  (I would hope that a God that big would encourage us to understand the implications of a universe so large.)  We humans have our good points, of course.  I love people and their foibles.  Were we not so dangerous we might even look cute in the cosmic eyes above, as well as the inferior eyes of our pets.  Exceptionalism, it seems to me, ought to be the dirty word.  It seems far more human and humane to throw the gates open wide and consider the possibilities.  I love people, but if we’re the best there is, the universe is in serious trouble.


Biblerama

Perhaps you’ve heard—the New Revised Standard Version is being updated.  Stop the presses!  I’m sure that everyone has been anticipating this as much as biblical scholars have!  If you’ve not been able to feel the buzz maybe it’s because you’re not in the Bible publishing business.  As the discussions have been going on (rights holders are of course consulting with publishers, because that’s where the money is) a great deal of energy goes into deciding what exactly to call it.  And since Christianity is so fragmented there have to be different versions of the versions.  Some include the apocrypha and others do not.  Some prefer British spelling and others American.  Imperial interests are important, even when it comes to Scriptures.  What may be overlooked in these developments is the connection to the most influential English translation, the King James.

The King James Version was not the first English translation of the Bible, but it was the version that captured the imagination of some as directly inspired by God.  Strangely enough, King James onlyists can seldom name the translators who apparently had the divine mouth to their ears, but never mind that.  The KJV held immense sway especially among literalists because it is so quotable.  In the 1950s it was revised.  (There are, by the way, several differing versions of the King James Version, and the original included the apocrypha.)  That first major revision came to be known as the Revised Standard Version.  Translators seldom begin their task with what original language manuscripts they can find; new translations are based on existing translations in families.  It’s okay, we’re all related.

Bible closet

When I was a kid the RSV (Revised Standard Version) was considered pretty good by many.  Hardly an overwhelming affirmation, but still, it’s something.  The real concern began when the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) came out in the eighties.  The reason?  It used inclusive language!  See what happens when you allow women to read?  Ironically, the book that has been used for centuries to liberate white men is something you want to keep out of the hands of women and non-whites unless you make it clear that everyone from Adam to Jesus and Paul was a white man and this is his story.  Now the New Revised Standard Version is being updated.  Nobody’s quite yet sure how it will be denominated.  And this is only one family in a vast genealogy of Bible translations.  If you’re not in the Bible business, you’re missing all the excitement.


Arrival

Excitement that comes during the work week gets sublimated.  Work, you see, is like a huge ship chugging ahead at about 30 knots.  It takes some time to stop, or even change direction.  So on Thursday, while I was still at my desk, Nightmares with the Bible arrived.  Since all work—even salaried—is measured by the clock by HR,  I couldn’t take off time to enjoy the birth.  I opened the box, cursorily flipped through a copy, and got back to the task for which I’m paid.  After work it’s time for supper and I can’t stay awake much beyond seven or eight, which meant I neglected my baby.  Friday was another work day, and although I wanted to do all the things marketers tell you to do, I had other duties.

So now it’s Saturday and I can officially say Nightmares have been released.  I have a discount code flyer, about which nobody has yet emailed me, but the offer still stands.  You can get a discounted (but still expensive) copy by following the instructions below.  Feel free to share with your rich friends.  Better yet, have your library order a copy.  I’m hoping for a paperback on this one, but that’ll be a couple years and I know paperbacks seldom outsell hardcovers, even expensive ones.  Raising a child can be a costly venture, no?  Adding another book meant that my display copies had to move out of their cubby-hole onto a bookshelf.  Hopefully, if things go well, there will be more siblings.  Perhaps better priced.

A Reassessment of Asherah was published by a European academic press and put at the incredibly high price of $78 back in 1993.  Gorgias Press reissued it, with additional material, but made it even more expensive.  I can’t even afford to buy a copy.  Weathering the Psalms was only $22, but wasn’t a gripping topic for many.  Cascade Books, at least, know how to price things.  Holy Horror, at the shockingly high $45 for a paperback (McFarland), languished.  It missed its Halloween release and no reviews have appeared.  “Nightmares” might well capture my sense of the price for my second missed Halloween release.  There are other books in the works.  If any of them get completed I’ll be seeking an agent to try to bring the prices down.  Until then, Nightmares will be the final word.  It’s out there now, for those brave enough to engage with it.


Toilet Paper Redux

So we find ourselves needing to clean up again.  Maybe you’ve noticed it too.  Since the second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak has wiped across the nation toilet paper has once again become a hot commodity.  Not finding a single roll in Target, I decided to test the waters on Amazon.  Sure enough, many brands are now listed as “out of stock.”  Could it be a coincidence that Trump will be leaving office and we need a lot of toilet paper right now?  Inquiring minds want to know!  Capitalism is like that.  Supply (or lack thereof) and demand.  Instead of making sure people have access to the basic necessities, we would rather have panicky citizens with soiled underwear looking for leadership where none exists.  And voting for lack of leadership yet again.  Flush!

Still, you’ve got to wonder—why toilet paper?  What is it about thin paper on a roll that presses the fear factor?  If people can know to avoid embarrassing smells, why haven’t they plugged their noses when the breeze blows across Pennsylvania Avenue?  Logic fails here.  Have we educated a nation to fear for their backsides but not to see clear and president danger in front of them?  Now that we’re nearing two weeks since the results were announced, we have had nothing but pouting from the Oval Office.  That, and drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.  Seems like we’ve got to be dirtying the world somehow.  We could use some toilet paper.  Maybe America needs more fiber in its diet.

Those who still support Trump don’t seem to realize that his response (or lack thereof) is the main reason a quarter-million people have died in this country and the virus is completely out of control.  I guess it’s that way with messianic figures.  Ironically the Bible (printed on thin paper itself) warns of someone who acts messianic while lying all the time.  He’s called the Antichrist.  You can tell him because just about everything Jesus did, he does the opposite.  Welcome the foreigner?  Feed the hungry?  Heal the sick?  Talk about God and how to deepen your relationship with the divine all the time?  Have you got any boxes checked yet?  Or are you waiting for the Charmin supply truck to go rolling on by?  Perhaps it’s time to invest in paper.  We print our money on it and hope somehow it will save us.

White gold or pay dirt?


Black Bible

In such a bibliocentric culture, I wonder why we lack curiosity about the Bible.  Not only do we not study it much in religion classes, we often accept it as a fixed cultural object.  Saying that it’s the word of God, as if that explains anything, many Protestant groups take it as the 39 books of the “Old Testament” and the 27 of the New, ignoring the 66 total that stands like a warning sign of impending idolatry.  Roman Catholics and some Anglicans add the books of the Apocrypha, or Deuterocanon, bringing the number closer to 73 books.  I say “closer to” because some of these books seem to be expansions on other books already in the canon.  Over the years the National Council of Churches has added a few more books, considering various other groups (mostly Orthodox) that recognize some further works as canonical.

In this era of recognizing the importance of black lives and black culture, I’m amazed there’s so little curiosity about the Ethiopian Orthodox canon.  I’ve spoken to many biblical scholars who could care less that the fantastic books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch are in the canon of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches.  It’s almost as if these groups simply don’t matter in the world of Christendom.  I note that biblical scholars I ask about this are usually Protestant or Catholic themselves.  It seems to me almost a racist slight not to include books that are recognized among some Christian groups, but not others.

What is the scientific criterion for determining a book is the word of God or not?  It surely can’t be fear of contradiction, for the Protestant Bible—the briefest in mainstream Christendom—has plenty of contradictions of its own.  The Bible itself famously does not name the books included.  Various authorities made decisions at various points about which books should be included and which should be left out.  It is such a very human process.  But when it comes to including the books of churches that total nearly 40 million members, suddenly people just aren’t that curious.  Those of us interested in demons have to take Jubilees and 1 Enoch seriously.  They are fascinating books.  And Biblical for millions of people.  The past several years have made me think quite seriously about the borders built around the Bible.  Whose choice is it not to include books already in the canon for their neighbors?  Or, as might be more accurate, who has the authority to cut out books that already belong for many African Christians?


Nightmares Awake!

According to Amazon, Nightmares with the Bible has now been published.  Authors are seldom the first to see copies of their own books, strangely enough.  I probably won’t have any physical copies for a couple of weeks yet.  Until then I’ll wait like an expectant mother.  I don’t actually read my own books after they’re published.  Like some other writers I know, I’m terrified of finding mistakes.  And the older I get the less certain I am about anything.  I’m not even sure if it’s officially published yet or not.  I choose to trust Amazon’s opinion on that.

Right now I’m caught up between four or five other book projects, each a good bit along.  Since writing is often a mood-based thing, what I do in the sleepy hours of pre-dawn is what I feel like writing on any given day.  Unless you have a book contract in hand, that’s not, I suppose, that unusual.  I’m trying to guess what might most get the attention of an agent.  Both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible were written for general readers.  I don’t have the name-recognition to command any kind of attention (or affordable prices), so I need to find a topic that’ll do the work for me.  I personally find religion and horror a fascinating subject.  Many other academics do as well, but general readers not so much.  It’ll feel more like reality when I have a copy I can have and hold.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with ebooks.

What usually makes me stick with a project for the dash toward the finish line is a book getting close enough to see the ribbon ahead.  I write incessantly, so I have a backlog from which to draw.  I know my tastes are odd, which means it’s a challenge to get others onboard with my likes.  I know horror fans love to read about movies.  I suspect most of them don’t care much about the religious aspect of what they’re seeing.  That’s why I write about it.  People get information about religion from popular media.  Even if they deny their interest, writers and directors will slip it in regardless.  I’m just calling them like I see them.  The nice thing about movies is you can have instant replay.  And with a fair number of us now publishing books in this niche, hopefully conversation will follow.  Until then, I’ll just be waiting here until my first copy arrives.


Bible Lesson

I was recently reading the revised preface and “To the Reader” (in draft form) for the NRSVue.  In case alphabet soup’s not your thing, that’s the New Revised Standard Version updated edition.  Of the Bible.  As I read through these seldom referenced pages it occurred to me, not for the first time, the care and concern with which scholars approach the original text of the Bible.  No matter what Fundamentalists may say, we do not have the original text.  In some places the translations you read are the best guesses of those who’ve spent their lives trying to understand what an obviously corrupted copy was intended to reflect.  Such care reflects the widespread (but shrinking) sense that this text somehow magically informs daily lives and should lead to political action.  I’m sure Jesus would’ve arched an eyebrow over that.

Biblical scholarship is hampered by the fact that the manuscripts that have survived are copies of copies of copies (etc. etc.).  Translators—yes, including those of the King James Version and the New International Version—are making some informed guesses on an Urtext we simply don’t have.  Lives, however, are often sacrificed on the basis of the belief that we have here some object to be worshipped instead of read and understood.  I like to tell my skeptical friends that the Bible is actually full of really good things.  There’s some nasty stuff in there too, but we can learn from the parts that convey deep spiritual wisdom.  Listening to your elders is a good idea, but it’s not the same as worshipping them.

Humans have a deep desire to make things sacred.  Maybe it’s because after watching us muddle around down here we want to believe there’s something better out there.  It’s problematic, however, when we make an earthly object, put together by humans, into a deity.  There are those who get around this by claiming the Bible is from God in the original.  The point is we don’t have the original.  There are some words (especially in Hebrew) of which the connotation and denotation are unsure (for words have no inherent meaning).  Reading, we know, is a complex enterprise.  That’s why it takes years to master it and constant practice to maintain it.  Those who leave off reading after school may, I fear, fall back into literalism when they encounter a text.  Bible scholars take great care at trying to reconstruct the original, and all of that can be undone by a failure to just keep reading.


Another Turn

I have read The Turn of the Screw before.  Henry James’ most famous ghost story is a classic of ambiguity.  My previous reading, maybe a decade ago, was in an edition of James that insisted on stuffing other stories into the same binding, most of which I’ll probably never read.  I located a reasonably priced edition containing only the novella I wanted and it is published by Heathen Editions.  Obviously priding themselves on the unorthodox, Heathen Editions provides books with some little commentary, particularly pointing out unfamiliar words or explaining circumstances that many modern readers lack the training to spot.  The edition ends with James’ own afterword to the story, something my larger James volume lacks.  The story I remembered in part, but the notes also engaged me.

These notes aren’t numerous and they don’t distract.  In my case I understood the words defined, but I appreciated some of the historical or literary context supplied.  With so much literature available these days modern readers have to be drawn back into the classics.  James’ style tends toward the choice of more words than would be strictly necessary to tell the tale.  The fact that it was serialized helps to explain that.  Like Middlemarch and The Woman in White, both of which I’ve posted on in the past, being serialized encourages a kind of verbosity that modern publishers of fiction eschew.  At least in my limited experience.  For The Turn of the Screw the slow building to the climax requires spreading out.  The story itself could be summarized in a paragraph (which I won’t do, because you should read it yourself), but the feeling of dread has to grow as bits are slowly revealed.

One of the notes particularly caught my attention.  In an oblique reference to David and Saul, the editor expanded the footnote a bit.  The scene is when Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit sent by God and David is called in to help him with a kind of music therapy.  David plays his lyre and Saul’s demons temporarily leave him.  This is subtly referenced in chapter 18 of the Heathen Edition.  The note briefly explains Saul and David and then, for the only time in the book, goes on to provide a reception history of the reference by informing the reader that Leonard Cohen also refers to this episode in his song “Hallelujah.”  I’m sure the opening lines are familiar enough that I don’t need to risk violating copyright to quote them.  So it was that while reading a ghost story the Bible was introduced, which, of course has been my research agenda for a few years now.  A turn of the screw indeed.


War of Egos

As an author you have to believe in your book.  Experience has taught me that if you don’t, nobody will.  Still, there are ways of believing in your book while keeping your ego in check.  Given the ego we’ve seen along Pennsylvania Avenue these last few years it may come as little surprise that even some wannabe authors can nearly match it.  The line, as professionals draw it, is balancing between the importance of your work with the realism that few books sell well.  Your best approach, as author, is humility.  Many people don’t read the professionals.  You quickly learn this if you’re in an editorial role.  It is normal to receive emails from authors telling you how important their work is, some even claiming it as an even on a cosmic scale (I am not joking).

I often consider how much pain authors could spare themselves with just a tiny bit of research.  If a publisher has turned your book down twice already, don’t submit it a third time.  (You already crossed the line the second time you sent it.)  And don’t send your proposal with a list of demands.  What I’ve noted both on this blog and elsewhere is that editors value professionalism.  We don’t like turning down books.  We don’t want to ruin a prospective author’s day.  There are, however, safeguards you can use to prevent the worst kinds of disappointment.  Rule number one is check your ego at the door.  Do you know how many books have been published?  Do you know just how difficult it will be for your book to get noticed?  Take a reality check.

Also, scale your expectations.  How many bestsellers have come from university presses?  If you’re after bestseller status you need to aim for a trade publisher.  This is pretty basic stuff.  Those of us who publish in the academic world do believe our books are important, but many of us also know that they start only small conversations.  Biblical studies isn’t exactly a growth field.  We talk amongst each other, a collegial little group for the most part.  And to keep things on the collegial level it is helpful to remember that we’re not publishing for ego.  We’re publishing to try to move knowledge ahead, even if just by a micron or two.  Good writing, I was once told, is simply clear thinking.  Getting that writing published is part of a conversation and conversation only works if  we are willing to keep our egos on their leashes.


The Good of Others

On a recent trip to visit family in upstate New York, the Sunday we had to leave (for work Monday is an implacable law), we decided to have lunch in a local park.  The weather was fine and there was plenty of social distancing, given the size of the grounds.  After a nice picnic and stroll, we realized it was getting late to start out in order to get home by my oddly early retiring time.  We headed back to our hosts’ car only to find it wouldn’t start.  They had a new battery and so we popped the hood and hoped to find something obviously wrong as we waited for the long response time for AAA in a rural area on a weekend.  We were a little concerned because we still had a long drive and no real way to get back to our own car, parked at our hosts’ residence.  A stranger came up and asked if we were having trouble.  Listening to the symptoms he said, “Do you mind?”  Putting his head under the hood, he said, “I’m a mechanic.”  He had our host try again and the car started right up.  He refused to take payment and wouldn’t even give his name.

Despite the fear the Republican Party tries so hard to spread, it has been my experience that good Samaritans abound.  When I’ve had car trouble far from home, I’ve never waited long beside the road before a stranger has stopped and asked if they could help.  Technology may make us feel more self-sufficient (we have smartphones and can call for our own help), but it doesn’t always work that way.  My wife had accidentally left her phone at our hosts’ place, and I’d forgotten to charge mine so the battery was depleted.  Uber would require an active, charged phone and our hosts were using theirs to communicate with AAA.  If the stranger hadn’t stopped by we would’ve been stuck, likely for hours.

I oftenconsider how Calvinistic GOP thinking can be—assuming the “total depravity” of everyone and declaring that we must be kept in check by laws that maintain outdated concepts of both humanity and justice.  To be sure, there are dangerous individuals out there.  Would you want Trump to stop by if you were having car trouble?  What selfless behavior could you expect from that quarter?  Sucker!  In general, however, people are good.  They are motivated by what they think is right.  We’re in a pandemic.  The mechanic didn’t know us (we outnumbered him), he had no obligation to help.  Good Samaritans exist, and they are frequently found outside the yellowed leaves of Scripture.

Balthasar van Cortbemde – The Good Samaritan, via Wikimedia Commons