Sects and Violence in the Ancient World is nine years old today. Not that I’m keeping count. Really, I’m not. WordPress sent me a notice, and they ought to know, being the virtual womb whence my thoughts gestate. The original plan for this blog was to take my abiding interest in the religions of antiquity and give them a more public face. My brother-in-law, Neal Stephenson, thought I should do podcasts, because, at the time I spoke incessantly about ancient deities. I can still hold forth about Asherah at great length, but ancient Near Eastern studies is, believe it or not, an evolving field. You need access to a university library, or at least JSTOR, and a whole sabbatical’s worth of time to keep up with it. Even though telecommuting, I’m a nine-to-five guy now, and my research involves mostly reading books.
So Sects and Violence began to evolve. I realized after teaching biblical studies for over a decade-and-a-half that my real interest was in how the Bible was understood in culture. Having a doctorate from a world-class university in the origins of the Good Book certainly should add credibility. My own journey down that pathway began because of interpretations of Scripture that were strongly cultural in origin. I first began reading with Dick and Jane but quickly moved on to Holy Writ. It has shaped my life since before I was ten. It’s only natural I should be curious.
Like most tweens, I discovered sects. Why did so many people believe so many different things? And many of them call themselves Christians. And the Christians I knew said the others weren’t Christian at all. And so the conversations went, excluding others left, right, and center. As someone who wanted answers, this fascinated me. The Bible was the basis for many belief systems of sects everywhere. From Haiti to Ruby Ridge. From New York City to Easter Island. From Tierra del Fuego to Seoul. And not just one Bible, but many scriptures. And these beliefs led to behavior that could be called “strange” were it not so thoroughly pervasive. Scientists and economists say we’ve outlived the need for religion. By far the vast majority of people in the world disagree. I couldn’t have articulated it that way nine years ago, but since losing my teaching platform, I’ve been giving away for free what over four decades of dedicated study—with bona fides, no less!—has revealed. Happy blogday to Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.
Posted in American Religion, Bible, Current Events, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged blogging, Edinburgh University, Neal Stephenson, religion, Sects, violence
So, I’m packing. Have been, on and off, since January. One of the most dreaded moments of packing is the closets. You know how in horror movies the villain often hides in closets? We have no danger of that. Any monster foolish enough to try it would be suffocated under tons of stuff. Some houses may have walk-in closets, but I am inclined to call a mining company whenever I need to find anything in ours. Our closets have led full lives. It’s almost 100 degrees outside and I’m excavating. We’re at that stage of “absolutely need to keep?” instead of “do we want this?” Then I came upon it. The layer of SBL tote bags. Like a paleontologist of ancient academia.
If you’ve been a member of the Society of Biblical Literature you know what I mean. Every year the Society wants you to realize value for your money, and they give you a tote-bag to help you haul home the books you’re going to buy. Long-time attendees know to pack an empty suitcase inside their regular one just to accommodate the books. (That could also account for about ninety percent of my packing—we have more books than a small town public library.) But it’s not the books that are the problem today, it’s the bags. I’ve been attending SBL since 1991. Do the math. I seem to recall that they didn’t do tote bags back in Kansas City, but soon after they became part of the agenda. And I have an impressive pile of them in my closet.
Too small for groceries—especially in the early editions, back when we could meet in smaller venues—and too impractical for anything other than books, they multiply in our closets. What professor doesn’t have his or her iconic briefcase already? Reduce, reuse, recycle they say. At least half of my totes have never been reused. Zippers? Who thought of that? Pulling handfuls out of the closet, I marvel at their colors. I can’t remember everyone walking around with a red bag—what year was that? (San Francisco, 2011.) The black leather edition—remember that one? (SBL, n.d.) The bags aren’t really useful for packing, on a movers’ scale. You can imagine the burly guys outside their truck scratching their heads at this impractical conveyance. Like so much else in life they’ve become mere souvenirs. From the French word for something like “remembrance,” souvenirs are meant to take us back to the place in vivid detail. I fear that many past meetings have run together into a blend of biblical arcana. I’m sure that’s just me. Still, I’m responsible for this new discovery. I’d I’ll need shortly to decide whether these totes go into the museum or back into the landfill that moving inevitably creates in a throw-away world.
Posted in Posts, Just for Fun, Bible, Books, Memoirs, Environment
Tagged Society of Biblical Literature, Books, recycling, San Francisco, Kansas City, Environment, moving, SBL
Now that Holy Horror will be appearing soon, I’ve been neglecting my horror movies. It’s not on purpose, I assure you. I don’t feel comfortable speaking as a writer—publishers tend to agree with that, and besides, my job is more of being a reader—but my experience of it suggests you never have enough time. (Or money; movies never come with no costs.) With another book under contract and a lot more going on behind the scenes than I reveal on this blog, as Morpheus says, “Time is always against us.” So when my wife showed me a story about Hereditary, I knew my list of must sees would only continue to grow. I haven’t even seen Get Out yet!
Beyond being simple guilty pleasures, horror films area also a means of coping. I know this because although they’re generally very successful at the box office, I’ve rarely met anyone who admits to watching them. Horror thrives on secrets. We act one way in public, and a different way when we shut the door and pull the drapes. Since we’ve outlived our belief in gods and heroes, cinema has taken the role of mythology in modern life. Crammed with archetypes—and yes, stereotypes—movies act out age-old themes in impressive displays of color and sound. You might even learn something without trying. Mythology may have originated in stories told around the campfire, but science never displaced the need for hearing them again and again in different media.
I’ve taken to writing books about films because it’s clear that meaning lies there for many people. The invention of cinema and television forever changed culture. Yes, there’s cheap, thoughtless material available in both formats. Still, movies have an ability to convey truths in a way that sermons often fail to do. The values they depict are often very human ones. Horror, for example, isn’t about blood and gore. It’s about survival. That’s not to say the protagonists always reach a happy ending, but we learn from their mistakes. There’s a reason you shouldn’t open closet doors in a house not your own. Those who do, however, often find uncomfortable truths inside. Holy Horror looks in the closet at the way the Bible functions iconically in horror. Since writing it I continue to notice the Bible in horror and I feel affirmed in the conclusions I drew. And if only I had a bit more time, I’d be watching more mythology. And the list only keeps getting longer.