Thunder Towers

It sounded like brontide.  The Martin Tower, the tallest in the Lehigh Valley and once corporate center for Bethlehem Steel came down yesterday morning.  Completed only in 1972, the following decade saw the collapse of the steel industry, and the building has sat vacant a dozen years.  Now it’s gone.  The reasons the building could no longer stand are many and I won’t try to explain them as if I understood.  The fall of the tower, however, put me in mind of human folly and the belief that corporate profits will only ever grow.  Capitalism is built on a set of myths that the wealthy truly believe—I suspect many others do too, otherwise the system couldn’t possibly last.  Adam Smith may have been right academically, but in reality humans are greedy, venal, and shortsighted.   At least those who “rise to the top” are.

We didn’t move to the Valley for the steel.  Having settled in New Jersey just about when the Martin Tower was abandoned, like many other displaced academics I was looking for a job.  There were cities in the Midwest—we weren’t far from Milwaukee or Madison—but there was no work.  If you’re “overeducated” your best bet is to settle near a huge metropolitan area, as closely as you can afford to.  Then hang out your shingle.  Capitalism, however, has made New Jersey affordable only for the excessively wealthy.  Besides, I was born within the imaginary lines that we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In fact, when I got my license transferred last year the computer asked me if I still lived in Venango County, where I was born.

I didn’t see the tower come down.  It’s not visible from my house, but it was always right there when I drove to Lowes to pick up some necessary hardware to survive in this area.  (Weed-whacker and lawnmower—reel variety.)  My mythology of towers always takes me back to Babel.  In the biblical worldview towers were a sign of arrogance.  God seemed to think they were trying to invade divine turf, and so he made it so we could no longer understand one another.  There hasn’t been a moment’s peace since.  We build towers tall to show what we can do.  We don’t really need an angry deity to come down and confuse our language any more.  We’ve got capitalists and their excess money to lead the way.  The sound of thunder roared and I divined just where such leadership will guide us.

A Nightmare or Two

Some books are complex enough to require a slow reading.  Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds is such a book.  For those of us raised in a faith primarily geared toward avoiding Hell, the concept becomes a lifelong nightmare.  It doesn’t help that, depending on your clergy you’re taught different, sure-fire ways of achieving that avoidance.  Often it hinges on “believing” the “right” thing.  Fundamentalists tend not to call it “doctrine” since that sounds rather Catholic, but the idea’s the same; it’s a tenet of faith.  As Bernstein shows, however, Hell is an idea that developed over a very long time with several different views of what happens after death.  There’s no single, linear progression, but rather a conglomeration of ideas from a variety of sources.

No single volume can cover all the background to Hell.  Bernstein focuses on Egypt for the early material, as well as Babylonia.  These early civilizations demonstrate that people have always wondered what comes next, and what happens to those who oppress others—the bullies of this life who don’t deserve the same eternal rest as the rest.  Usually some form of punishment awaits, but not always.  In the Hebrew Bible one of the great issues was the fact that everyone goes to Sheol, good and bad alike.  As in classical Greece and Rome (on which Bernstein spends a great number of pages) the concept of the netherworld is gloomy, but not torture.  Except in exceptional cases, of course.  The Greeks had Tartarus as a place for those who dissed the divine.

Even early Christianity didn’t have a uniform view of it.  The New Testament is decidedly divided on the topic.  Revelation seems to be the last word, but it’s not.  Later thinkers such as Origen and Augustine (who came to different conclusions) weighed in.  Catholic Christianity lavished great love on the latter and Augustinian views became disproportionately influential.  Reading his lack of compassion can cause nightmares, although he justifies it theologically.  The one thing I missed in Bernstein’s lengthy treatment was the Zoroastrians.  This religion of ancient Persia introduced a distinct dualism into the biblical world; it perhaps represents the first relatively developed concepts of Hell and Heaven.  Zoroastrianism suffers from lack of documentation, however, and it is difficult to parse it as meticulously as Bernstein does the other cultures covered.  This book requires much pondering as it’s read, and if you were raised believing this kind of thing it’s sure to bring back a nightmare or two.

Horizontal Thinking

“Theology” is a word that means very different things in different contexts.  I dislike labels in general and I seldom call myself a “theologian” since that implies a systematic or “dogmatic” theologian on this side of the Atlantic.  (And a better paying job.)  In the about to exit Britain “theologian” tends to mean someone who studies religion and can be used regardless of discipline.  In any case, I avoid the use of the title since my interests tend toward the history of religious ideas, not making them into a workable system.  I was a little surprised when I received an invitation from the journal Horizons in Biblical Theology to contribute a piece on horror and the Bible.  The issue in which the article was published (41) has just appeared.  Ironically, invitations to contribute seldom came when I was employed as an academic.  Of course, “independent scholar” is now a fairly common avocation.  Especially in theology.

Horizon

I won’t post any spoiler alerts for the contents of the article—I don’t want to quell the stampede of those eager to read it—but the basic idea is that biblical studies has embraced horror.  Like long-lost cousins, they have come together at last, realizing that they are both pariahs.  People generally don’t know how to carry on a discussion with a biblical scholar, as if those of us who spend time with the Good Book are constantly judging others.  I can’t say as I blame them since that image is reinforced fairly constantly.  Horror scholars, on the other hand, are thought to be weird examples of arrested development—stuck in the juvenile phase.  Social respectability isn’t their strong suit, although horror movies do well at the box office and one of the most successful writers ever is Stephen King.

Religion and horror share more than being associated with troglodytes, however.  Both address primal human fears.  Religion may not be “all about” fear, but a healthy dose of it is.  If life was peachy all the time, would we have any need of religion?  We need help coping with our fears, and religion has a long history of dispensing it.  Knowing we’re going to die, and in all likelihood will experience some suffering before that, whether physical or psychological, is a heavy burden to bear.  Religion has always been there to provide meaning and sometimes even solace.  Horror, or at least the best of it, does so too.  I’m not sure I would call it theological, but if you’re interested you know where to find my latest musings on it.

If Onlyists

A special brand of Fundamentalism called King James Onlyism is a particularly odd variety of faith simply because of its required backing and filling.  In brief, this particular evangelical position claims that the only inspired translation of the Bible is the King James Version.  It’s best not to look too closely at the KJV, however, or the problems start.  Primary among them is that the version most Onlyists cite is not the original King James.  Published in 1611, this translation is immediately evident by its use of “I” for “J” and for the long s (the one that looks like an f).  Perhaps more troubling for Onlyists, it also includes the Apocrypha.  There was still some debate at the time concerning the status of these deuterocanonical books, and they were part of the actual KJV.

The typical King James used by Onlyists is a revised KJV.  In England, where the translation was done, revisions were made from time to time, leading to an Oxford version (Blayney text of 1769) and a Cambridge version (Scrivener text of 1873).  On these shores further adjustments were made leading to the rather strange situation where there is no single King James Version of the Bible.  There are many King James Versions.  Attempts to control Scripture often end up like that.  The underlying problem is the belief that there is a single version of Holy Writ.  Inerrantists are pledging their faith to something that doesn’t exist.  Defending this approach many would claim that the revisions are minor, but small changes can make huge differences.

The belief in one single version relies on the belief that God inspired not only the original writers, but the translators as well.  It denies that the better manuscripts that have come to light since the early seventeenth century (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) contain any authentic information of what the Good Book says.  Textual criticism, in the absence of any original manuscripts, is the best way we have of discovering what the original likely said.  Onlyists argue that the manuscripts from which King James’ translators worked were the divinely selected ones and their work was inspired—a position against which no empirical proof can be offered.  This faith trades in certainties that only bringing in direct heavenly control can achieve.  And it means that Catholics are wrong, despite King James’ inspired error to include the Apocrypha.  That’s the thing about a trump card like inspiration—once it’s played there’s no way to overcome it.

Chilly Fluids

I’m not sure why I did it.  Read In Cold Blood.  I’d known of Truman Capote’s main claim to fame for years, but an accidental recent mention, a cheap copy in a used bookstore, and a week of grabbing time to read did it.  I’m not a fan of true crime, and despite my fixation on horror movies, I try to steer away from anything that doesn’t have a hint of the speculative about it.  There’s a difference between horror and terror.  I’d happily lived a half-century without ever hearing about the Clutter murders and kind of wish that were still the case.  Yes, there are doubts about the veracity of Capote’s account at points and novelists are often convincing liars, but still, at the heart of the matter more than just four people are senselessly murdered in the course of the tale.

A few elements stood out in the reading of the book.  One was that given the naiveté of the 1950s I wonder how anyone could ever really want to go back to that decade.  We’re run by a government full of doddering old men who seem to idealize the falsity and utter conformity of an age that was really a pressure cooker in which cases such as this would explode.  I was born in the much idealized 1960s but I don’t think we should go back to them.  We learn, we change, we grow.  Knowing what we now do, it was kind of painful reading how blissfully ignorant so many people were.  We may be more afraid these days, but at least we’re more realistic.

Another factor, very much at home in this world older but no wiser, is how the Bible is cited at the trial in support of capital punishment.  Although it may not have been intentional on Capote’s part, he demonstrates a deep truth about Scripture.  It can be read in more than one way.  In conservative Kansas in 1960 it could sway jurors to seek the death of other human beings.  The murders were indeed savage and pointless.  Capote’s account of them is difficult to read.  Perhaps more difficult is the way the Bible is used to unleash the basest instincts of people against other human beings.  Yes, parts of the Good Book require the bad thing, but if we’re over fifty years beyond Holcomb we’re over fifty score beyond a time when just one interpretation stands for all.  If it ever did.  There’s a difference between horror and terror, but the Bible can participate in both.  I prefer to stick to the former.

The Root of All

The other day I was in one of those stores where everything is sold really cheaply.  I figure it helps balance out all those times when I’ve been overcharged for things at other stores because I was pressed for time and needed something quickly.  In any case, these dollar store establishments have a constantly rotating stock, it seems (things move at a buck!), and so you might or might not find exactly what you’re looking for.  While just looking around, acquainting myself with the content, I came upon a shelf of Bibles.  God’s word for a dollar a pop.  This isn’t a place I’d normally come looking for books.  Then it occurred to me: many of those who shop in such stores are committed to a faith that keeps them in their economic bracket.

That suspicion was confirmed by other items at the store.  Many of them were Christian-themed.  This seemed like the opposite of the prosperity gospel.  People trying to scrape by, to shave enough off the budget to make it to another paycheck.  Many Americans live like this.  Many of them support Trump.  Selling the Bible to them cheaply definitely involves a mixed message.  There’s indeed a message, as I’ve learned in the publishing, in the way books are priced.  Getting a thousand-pager printed where the unit cost is below a dollar requires a massive print run.  Someone knows that Bibles sell.  You won’t find such cheap divine revelation at Barnes and Noble.  The same content, maybe, but not at the same price point.

The economics of cheap Bibles contains a message.  Those who can’t afford much can be guided toward spending some of it on the Good Book.  While just reading the Bible may indeed bring comfort to those who know where to look, as a whole this book requires major interpretative work.  As I’ve been indicating over the last several days, Holy Writ is not nearly as straightforward a reading experience as many suppose it to be.  Trying to figure out what Nehemiah’s differences with Sanballat the Horonite have to do with the rest of us isn’t an easy task.  To find out, if the internet doesn’t give us quite all the knowledge we want or need, can require some intensive study, up to and including seminary.  Even then you might not get it.  Studying the Bible requires further commitment than simply picking one up for a Washington might imply.  But then, it costs less than a lottery ticket.  And you can get it while saving money on other things you need.

Eastern Canon

It’s complicated.  The Bible, that is.  Tracing its origins as a book can easily occupy a lifetime, but the issue that keeps coming up with Scripture is how, definitively, to close the canon.  If we should.  My research on demons lately has led me once again to the books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch.  The latter has long been popular with the paranormal crowd because it has some weird stuff in it.  Thing is, as I mentioned back in November, these two books are part of the biblical canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  And the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  That makes these two books by definition “biblical.”  You won’t find them in nearly any printed Bible in the western world, although you can locate them in collections of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

This privileging of the western canon has implications.  How do we know what really belongs in the Bible?  Judaism never officially closed its canon, but by consensus the same books contained in the Protestant Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) are those recognized.  Early Christian writers had different Bibles.  It took almost four centuries for them to agree  generally on what should be included.  In Europe, that is.  Not all branches of the church were represented in the Council of Rome.  Instead of waiting for the consensus of all—there was an urgency to stomping out heresy—the decision was made.  For some.  Meanwhile other Christian groups continued to use certain books that “the official” closing of the canon left out in the rain.  Or the desert.  Whichever.

The question of just what’s in the Bible goes a bit deeper than that.  The Tewahedo Churches of eastern Africa also recognize the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.  “So?” did I hear you say, “Catholics recognize them too—what’s the big deal?”  These books, however, in the Ethiopian and Eritrean canons are not the same as western 1 and 2 Maccabees.  The books of the Mäqabeyan contain different content while maintaining the same basic name.  This means that we’re gonna need a bigger canon.  What’s more, these books have been pretty much ignored by biblical scholars.  One of the reasons, no doubt, is that they are written in Geez, a language not on the menu of too many seminaries.  Simply to dismiss them, however, is to ignore the belief system of over 50 million Christians.  It seems that the version of the Good Book tucked under the arm of many an evangelist is the condensed version.  Putting together a canon, it appears, is more complicated than it looks.

Not that kind of cannon! (Photo credit: Walther Hermann Ryff, via Wikimedia Commons)