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.

Protest Day

Today should be known as Protest Day.  Three years ago with over a million others I marched in Washington.  The media still routinely underreports the numbers there, despite the metrics used on the ground.  “They’re only women,” it seems to say.  I marched the last two years in New York City.  The protest can never stop.  Once a democracy has opened the door to evil, it can never rest again.  It’s cold outside.  There’s a winter storm in the forecast.  Women everywhere are out marching.  This mansplained world must come to an end.  We must hear all voices.  Despite having control of all branches of government, the Trump message isn’t being heard.  Perhaps there is justice in nature.  I like to believe it, even when it’s hard.

Patriarchalism wears many disguises, such as biblicism.  If all you take from the Good Book is the idea that men are more important, then you’ve missed the point.  The Bible is a book with a context and those who can quote it without knowing what it originally meant are left wondering why so many other Christians disagree.  The message must be heard.  Liberation theologians long ago realized that Jesus’ gospel had been drowned in the voices of legalism.  They did what we all should be doing today; they protested.

Signs of national and international weariness are everywhere evident.  Trump-supporting senators strike out with ad hominem attacks for all reason has failed them.  Used to be if you aided and abetted a criminal you’d get in trouble.  Now you just get bumped to a more influential committee.  So we protest.  History hasn’t forgotten Watergate.  It will never forget the disaster of 2016 when a political party sold its soul.  

A restaurant not far from here is owned and operated by a young woman.  A sign on the register says “The Future Is Female.”  I hope it’s so.  Our hunter-gatherer sensibilities have been suborned by the possibilities of agricultural surplus.  Where there’s surplus there’s mammon to be made.  In the Middle Ages mammon became the name of a demon.  Today it’s inscribed on the hearts of those who follow cash, no matter where it may lead.  Once upon a time a man from Galilee said the wealthy wouldn’t inherit the kingdom.  Like Caesar they dedicate the temple to themselves.  We may not all be able to get out to march today, but we can make our consciences heard.  Women deserve every right men have.  It’s time to learn to share.  Until that happens, we must protest. 

United, We Divide

I was a teenage Methodist.  Or, I should say, a teenage United Methodist.  My family had moved to a town where there were no Fundamentalist churches.  Indeed, the only Protestant church was the UMC.  Although very aware of religion, I hadn’t studied it deeply at that point—I’ve come to understand a bit better the marketplace of Christianties and how it works in a capitalist society.  The thing is, the more I learned about John Wesley and the Methodist movement, the more I saw how well it aligned with my own thinking and experience.  I became an Episcopalian largely because John Wesley never left that tradition and urged his followers in the same direction.  Of course, the “United” in United Methodism was due to mergers during the ecumenical period when Christians were learning to overlook differences and a strong base remained from which to draw.

The news has come out that the United Methodist Church has decided to split over the issue of homosexuality.  Most major Protestant denominations have made their peace, albeit uneasily, with the issue.  They recognized that while a source of guidance in spiritual matters the Bible’s a little outdated on its scientific understanding.  If God had revealed evolution to good old Moses things might’ve been a bit different.  We now know that homosexuality isn’t a “choice”—it is found in nature, and not rarely.  Homo sapiens (if I’m allowed to use that phrase) have developed in such a way that sexuality is a main preoccupation of religions.  Some animal species are monogamous and in our case many cultures adopted this as conducive to an ordered society.  Then it became codified in some sacred writings.

While homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, every book of that Bible has a context.  Like it or not, close, serious study of Scripture raises questions you just don’t get if you read only authors who think the same way you do.  It is far easier to do that—who doesn’t like being right?—but thinking seldom gains credibility by never being challenged.  Iron sharpens iron, someone once said.  The emotion behind the issue, I suspect, is driven by a couple of things: fear of that which is different, and the inability to see the Bible as anything but “da rules.”  In those cases where the rules contradict one another you just have to choose.  At least in Christianity.  In Judaism they ended up with the Talmud.  In any case, we’re now seeing the fracturing of society based on party lines.  We could always use a few more choices, I guess, for competition is what spiritual capitalism is all about.

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.

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

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.

Seasonal Reading (Not)

I might excuse writing a post on Satan on Christmas Eve by positing that I misread the title of this book as Santa.  After all, as Ryan Stokes explains, the Greek form of the title is ho satanas, which clearly contains the first of the canonical tripartite “Ho, ho, ho.”  The reality, however, is that work on Nightmares with the Bible continues despite the holidays, and there’s so much reading to do that not all of it can be seasonal.  I’ve known about Stokes’ book for some time, even as I’ve known his name through his various articles about the Satan.  This book, while not exhaustive, is certainly comprehensive for the time period covered and lays considerable groundwork for future discussions of the Devil.  What becomes obvious working through it, however, is that many different ideas about the Satan are represented in the Bible and related literature.

Long ago, as far back as my dissertation, I realized that it’s a problem for modern readers to systematize what ancients viewed disparately.  The Bible has no single idea of the Devil.  We’re quite accustomed to saying that “Satan” (which Stokes shows may not be a name in the Bible) and “the Devil” and Lucifer are all synonyms.  That’s not really the case.  Ancient peoples had many names for beings that caused problems, but not all of these entities were evil.  Belial, Mastema, Melchiresha, Beelzebub (and the list could go on) were designations used by different groups at different times.  These entities are sometimes agents of Yahweh, doing God’s will.  At other times they seem to be enemies of God, adversaries.  “Executioners,” is Stokes’ emphasis in these roles.  In early (and more recent) attempts at systematization, readers have tried to roll these various images into one.  With but limited success.

Ancient peoples didn’t feel the necessity that more modern ones do to make everything fit “scientifically.”  After all William of Ockham hadn’t shown up yet to suggest complicated ways of explaining things should be simplified.  We get the sense from reading ancient texts, including the Bible, that lots of ideas were floating around as to who these nasty beings might’ve been.  And their nastiness was really the result of human perceptions of who they were because often they were in league with the Almighty.  Theirs was not a simple, binary world of black and white.  It was more like a photo that we would still designate by that term but which is really grayscale.  Grayscale shades from white to black with the chiaroscuro preventing simple explanations.  Although it’s not about Santa, this book is very informative and will raise any number of questions at any time of year.