Category Archives: Bible

Posts that are specifically related to the Bible

Righteous City

I’m a stomach sleeper, if that’s not TMI.  This began many years ago when I realized that upon awaking from nightmares I was always on my back.  I started doing what I knew was dangerous to infants, safe since I haven’t been part of that demographic for decades.  Terrazzo isn’t one of my favorite sleeping surfaces, however, and on my back on the floor of Newark’s Liberty Airport I realized I couldn’t roll over, for many reasons.  My glasses, for one thing, were in the internal pocket of my Harris Tweed.  For another, on one’s stomach one’s wallet is exposed in a way that’s maybe too inviting.  Before suggesting I could’ve placed my wallet and glasses elsewhere, let me write in my own defense that rationality isn’t my strong suit after midnight.

The night before

I found a spot next to a set of escalators where the constant thrumming alternately kept me awake and soothed me to nod.  I heard many languages spoken as I drifted in and out of consciousness for the few hours I had to wait for dawn.  And nobody disturbed me.  This is rather remarkable—a person asleep is a vulnerable being.  Doing it out in public with no private walls was a new experience for me.  I don’t sleep on planes, buses, or trains.  Or, until two days ago, airports.  It brought to mind the biblical world.  A town was considered a righteous place if a stranger could sleep unmolested in a public place.  The traveller—please take note, United—was in need of special consideration.  My situation revealed something unexpected about Newark Airport.

The morning after

It was full of angry, frustrated people.  I opened my eyes at five a.m. to find a very long line snaking down the corridor behind me—a queue that had been there when I first drifted off.  These were people trying to reschedule flights since United couldn’t bump that day’s passengers because they’d decided not to fly out the night before.  Despite the weariness and intensity of emotions, there was very little bad behavior.  We were biblical strangers, mostly in the same circumstances.  No creature comforts, no privacy.  An east Asian woman said the next morning that in her country the airline would’ve brought food, and blankets at least.  In the United States fiscal concerns reign supreme, however; do you know how much it would cost to care for all these stranded people?  When I opened my eyes the situation was about the same as when I closed them.  I couldn’t help noticing I awoke on my back.

Eternal Return

For those of you who don’t live, eat, and breathe academic religious studies, it’s my duty to point out that the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) annual meeting begins this week.  For those of us in the biz it’s like the sun holding still at Makkedah as we try to prepare for our various roles.  This year the conference is in warm and sunny Denver, so be sure to dress in layers.  The meeting was held in Denver many years ago now, and I remember very little of it other than it being the year my final published paper from my Nashotah House days was read.  Or started to be.

I don’t know whether it was the altitude or the time of year, but I wasn’t feeling well the last time we met in Denver.  Although it may not show on this blog, I’m really into geology and the city has a great mineral collection in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  I went out to look at the collection the morning of my paper and had the great embarrassment of being sick while in the museum.  I went back to my hotel for a nap and when it was time to read my paper I had to excuse myself because running my eyes across the lines of text made me nauseous.  Concerned-looking philologists didn’t know what to do as I sat through the session with my head between my knees.  That’s how I remember Denver.

Perhaps this year will offer redemption.  You see, it’s very different attending the conference as the representative of a press instead of an institution.  Your time is completely booked.  People want to discuss their book ideas with you.  For a few short days of the year you’re one of the popular guys.  But for me, there are colleagues from every stage of my career on hand.  Not too many people from Nashotah House come, although there are more now than there were when I was about the only faculty member who went.  I see those I knew from Oshkosh and Rutgers, Gorgias and Routledge.  Those I knew as friends before we became professional colleagues.  They’re not after me to publish their books, and sometimes that’s all it takes to make three days of popularity really count.  Later today I’m off to Denver and I won’t have time to see the sparkling minerals this time around, but hopefully I’ll remember it more fondly when its over.

Knowing How To Know

Some questions are deceptively simple.  For example: how do you know?  The fancy philosophical word for this is “epistemology,” although that often takes it a step further to ask how do you know you know.  Given that many powerful individuals are motivated by a Fundamentalist faith the question of how we know is more important than it might seem.  Back in the days when faith commitments meant thinking such things through, theologians in the western world came up with three bases of knowledge: scripture, tradition, and reason.  Anglicans, especially, favored this “three-legged stool.”  If you removed any one of the three, the stool became unstable, topsy-turvy.  The analogy worked well.  It assumed that all three factors would be weighed against each other.

Image credit: Blackash at en.wikipedia

As time went on two developments occurred—the wider belief in science, and the work of John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England and founder of the Methodists.  Science argued that reason alone led to knowledge, whereas Wesley’s thought suggested a fourth leg for the stool—experience.  This latter configuration eventually became known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral, sometimes one leg was bigger (usually Scripture), but the other three could not be dismissed.  Science, however, rested on a one-legged stool, reason alone.  Fundamentalism, which is a fairly new form of religion, chooses Scripture as its one leg for a wobbly stool.  It may sometimes claim “tradition,” but since it only dates to the nineteenth century its tradition can’t hold a candle to that of, say, Roman Catholicism.

Amid all the drama we see developing in the halls of government where, increasingly, the power to declare truth resides, it’s important to understand how we know.  For a large and growing segment of society Scripture has been removed as a leg of the stool.  For others it is the only leg.  Having attended a United Methodist seminary, I admit the Wesleyan quadrilateral made great sense as soon as I heard of it.  At the time I didn’t think of this, but if you remove Scripture, the stool still has three legs, and could stand for even a secular person.  Scientists, if they examine their own precepts closely, could see that their stool has those three legs: tradition, reason, and experience.  The largest, of course, is reason.  Still, science builds on the work of earlier thinkers (tradition) and the observation of results (experience).   Knowing how we know the truth has become a question that theologians would’ve never anticipated.  The self-assured assertions of a self-convinced egoist don’t have a single leg to sit on.

 

 

Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

Residual Thoughts

I feel compelled to say that this book was not among the overwritten tomes I mentioned in yesterday’s post.  Indeed, although the title reflects the outlook of the author, you need to get to the subtitle to find out what the book’s about.  Although I work at an academic press, I disagree with academic book pricing models.  Graham Twelftree’s previous book, Jesus the Exorcist, had to be picked up in a paperback reprint edition before it could be affordable to the likes of mere mortals.  After reading it I learned that Twelftree had written a more popular book on the topic—Christ Triumphant: Exorcism Then and Now.  Putting much of the material from the previous book in less technical terms, this version goes on to ask questions that can’t be put into a standard dissertation, such as “should exorcisms still be done?”

The academic is necessarily a skeptic.  One of the biggest problems our society faces is the open credulity of those who haven’t been taught to think critically.  Twelftree is a rare academic who keeps an open mind while approaching the material with a healthy skepticism.  Often it’s too easy to suggest that disregarding that which doesn’t fit a theory is the only way forward for an academic.  Sweeping off the table that which we don’t like.  The word Twelftree uses is “residue”—that which remains after the majority of possession cases have been explained medically.  The usual response is to disregard this small fraction of anomalous material and claim “case closed.”  In this book Twelftree dares to go further.

The supernatural has become an embarrassment for many, even in believing communities.  An interventionist god, or demons, would set off chain reactions that would distort the known laws of physics, so such things simply can’t exist.  Things which we can’t explain only exist because we haven’t got all the variables yet.  I recall how cold that made me feel when I first encountered the idea in physics class.  “Scientific determinism” it is sometimes called.  This little book rehearses the New Testament material covered in Twelftree’s dissertation, but goes on to raise the implications from that study and apply them to modern times.  It’s a brave thing to do in an academic world where brushes and brooms are very common.  Where residue is wiped up and tossed away without a second thought.  Those who stop to think through the implications are rare, which makes them so much the more interesting reading.  And not being from an academic press, such books are often  affordable.

Universal Books

I’m reading an overwritten book right now.  In fact, I just finished an overwritten book.  Such works, I suppose, are the results of being taught how to write.  It’s not that people can’t be taught to compose, but for various reasons some authors, either through the privilege of having high-powered publishers, or their own conviction that they don’t require correction, overwrite.  I suppose overwriting is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.  Several years back I recall a critic stating Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events was overwritten.  I thought it was fun.  Yes, deliberately exaggerated, but nevertheless well-composed.  Those books were enjoyable to read because, I think, they refused to take themselves seriously.  Writers can be temperamental people.

As an editor something I need to repeat—for academics are consummate overwriters—is to keep your intended readership in mind.  No book is written for everyone.  In fact, many people can’t make it through books like the Bible because they’re hard to read.  Religious books often are.  There’s no such thing as a universal book, but some believers in some religions make the claim for their sacred texts.  Like many curious people I find it rewarding to read the scriptures of other traditions.  It’s not always easy—in fact, it seldom is.  It’s frequently disorienting and I look for an edition with an introduction.  The reason is when it comes to books, even sacred ones, it’s not one size fits all.  Many religious conflicts in the world could be resolved if we’d just realize this.

Someone who reads a lot is bound to be disappointed from time to time.  We turn to books either looking for a certain mood or specific pieces of information.  Authors often take things in their own directions.  Our minds don’t all work in the same way.  That’s why, in my opinion, reading is so important.  I prefer “long form” writing—I always have.  Sometimes an idea can be well expressed in an article, but taking the time to develop ideas requires a nuance not all publishers appreciate.  (Yes, I realize that by expressing this sentiment in a brief essay like this I leave myself open to deconstruction—one of the overwritten books I just read was written by a deconstructionist.)  Still, I have trouble abandoning books that take ideas in a way I wouldn’t go.  Usually when I start reading, I’m committed to finish.  Some would say that’s foolish.  I take it as a learning opportunity.

Whose Canon Is This?

Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days.  The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind.  Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book.  When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up.  Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis.  Had we left out some sacred books?  That would seem to be a grave mistake.  As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.

The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.”  Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out.  My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?”  That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth.  If something really happened it was, by definition, true.  The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later.  Scripture is more subtle than that.  So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon.  Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.

The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together.  Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible.  The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge.  Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible.  Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away.  Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing.  And, ironically, some even left out his book.  Such matter remain hidden indeed.

November Novina

One of my New Testament professors was fond of saying early Christianity was exclusive so that people would want to join.  “If everybody could be a Christian,” he suggested, “why would anyone want to be?”  There is a snob appeal to such a country-club approach to religiosity (although I believe it to be false) that has somehow come to be attached to All Saints Day.  As the holiday that spawned Halloween (or so some say), All Saints seems to hold us the exclusive members of a sect that began with radical equality.  The slight was addressed in All Souls Day (tomorrow), when the rest of us might have a chance of being remembered.

There was a death in my extended family yesterday, of someone not much older than me.  I won’t reveal the personal details here, but I do ponder the coincidence of his passing so close to All Saints.  When we’re gone, we hope, people will remember our good, opposite to what Shakespeare suggested might be the case with Julius Caesar.  There are those who touch our lives for good, be it loudly or softly, and we tend to think of that good as who they were.  But sainthood?  Isn’t that a bar too high for anyone to achieve?  And if we think we’ve made it, even that very thought is enough to disqualify us.  Some sects of Christianity treat any member as a saint, but that leaves little to which to aspire.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

For the rest of the world this marks the beginning of November—that month when cold settles in along with longer nights, but no reduced working hours.  We are approaching the holiday season, for we need some help to make it through times when loss can feel so close at hand.  The veil separating worlds—something science has tried hard to dismiss—was believed to be more permeable at this time of year.  All Saints was a bright day of upbeat music and glory, while All Souls followed in black and more somber tones.  That’s kind of like November.  I grew up, as did my departed kin, without the awareness of these holidays of transition.  Protestants sometimes miss the complexity traditional Catholicism had carefully grown.  At Nashotah House this was a day of obligation (although they all were, really), and we’d be invited to add names to be recited in mass.  I have a name or two to add this year, and I like to think anyone should be free to join.