Category Archives: Books

Posts that feature a book

Warnings Ahead

As a noun, “freak” is akin to a swear word. To refer to another person in such terms is often considered derogatory and degrading. Still, we all know what it means—an individual who doesn’t conform to expected models. I was a little worried about Mark S. Blumberg’s Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, then. It had the word “evolution” in the subtitle, and that sounded scientific enough. Besides, those of us interested in monsters know, deep down, that they are essentially freaky things. Indeed, Blumberg starts his book with teratology, the study of monsters. And monsters come from religious backgrounds. Their name is related to the root “to warn.” I’m a squeamish sort, though, and reading about freaks of nature requires a constitution I sometimes lack. Especially when it comes to science.

Yet I couldn’t put the book down. To begin with, the concept of developmental evolution (devo evo, for those in the know) is utterly fascinating. If you grew up, like I did, being taught that genes govern evolution solely, this book will surprise you. Evolution can happen at the level of the phenotype, based on environmental pressures. This is well documented and hardly a matter of dispute. Bodies can change according to what they need. Blumberg offers case after case where this dynamic may be seen. The idea that we are “programmed” falls, ironically, at the feet of biology itself. We, and all animals, are adaptive creatures. Humans may not be able to regenerate lost limbs, but many amphibians can. Sometimes it’s a matter of age, and sometimes it’s a matter of matter. I found such a quantity of astonishing stuff here that I overcame my queasiness to see what the next page might reveal. When I hit the chapter on reproduction I realized once again that nature does not agree that “man plus woman equals marriage.”

This must be one of the most threatening areas of science to Fundamentalists. The sheer variety of ways that “genders” interact in nature, and appear in human bodies, will have purists calling out for heavenly clarification. Reproduction, in other words, isn’t in the service of conservatism. Fish, for example, that change “genders” instantaneously after mating, taking turns being female and male with a mating partner, must surely call for theological justification of some sort. And female lizards that don’t require males to reproduce, but are helped along by being mounted by another female so as to jog some ancient reptilian memory, require us to rethink our rather simplistic terms of endearment. Not for the the faint-hearted, but amazing for those who dare, this book takes our appreciation for “life finding a way” to a whole new level. Even if it’s a little freaky.

Clown King

Like many people, I enjoy a Stephen King novel from time to time. King has a talent for drawing you into his tales, and whether or not they’re scary you feel a kind of relief when they’re over. A few years back I read IT. I was prepared to be scared because many people talked about fears of bathrooms after reading it, and, of course, of the terrifying clown. Not being a fan of serialized television movies, I never saw the 1990 movie adaptation. Besides, reading a novel that long is a serious investment of time, and since I like to hear lots of different voices in my reading, I spread out the wealth. In any case, the novel didn’t scare me beyond the neighborhood bullies (who’ve since moved to Washington DC) and I moved on to other things. The new film adaptation has people talking about IT again, and clowns, and clowns always remind me of college.

During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was fashionable for Christians to clown around. Taking cues from Paul’s one-liner about being fools for Christ, evangelicals began to experiment with clowns as a means of witnessing. I got involved my freshman year at Grove City College. I researched clowns. Where had they come from? What was the proper way to do it? Was there a deeper meaning? A friend recently sent me a video from Origin of Everything on the subject. I see a lot has been added to the history that I once studied. The idea of the circus clown is one of the more recent innovations of a character that was, in origin, a bit frightening. In classic horror movie style, heavy makeup functions like a mask and we rely on faces to know if someone is friend or foe.

We were taught, in our rudimentary training, that clowns do not talk. To express yourself you had to exaggerate gestures. I learned that makeup did indeed free you from social constraints. The Christian clown, however, had to be good. We weren’t meant to scare anyone into heaven. As nights are growing longer and people’s thoughts are coming to grips with the end of summer, clowns make good companions in the dark. IT may not be King’s scariest novel, but he did understand that bullies and clowns are fears that never go away. And when you combine the two, and move them into the White House, vaunting white faces and corrosive social values, well, maybe it’s time to go to the movies and try to have artificial fears for a while.

Reason to Believe

Gods, the experts say, are on the way out. Have been for some time. The loudest voices in this arena are the New Atheists who suggest science alone explains everything. Problem is, the gods won’t let go. My wife recently sent me an article from BookRiot. (That’s a dangerous thing to do, in my case.) Nikki Vanry wrote a piece titled “Dallying with the Gods: 16 Books about Gods and Mythology.” Most of what she points out here is fiction, and that makes sense because gods and fiction go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The first book she lists is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—a book I read years ago and which has subsequently become an American phenomenon. There’s even a television series based on it now. Like Angels in America, only more pagan.

What surprised me most about this list is the books I hadn’t read. Or even heard of. After American Gods, I got down to number 10—Christopher Moore’s Lamb—before reaching another I’d read. Then down to 16, Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. There are, as Vanry notes, many more. Our experience of the world, as human beings, suggests there’s more to it than what we see. Not everyone would call these things gods, nevertheless there certainly does seem to be intentionality to many coincidences. Things pile up. Then they topple down on you all at once. Seeing such things as the works of the gods makes for a good story. At least it helps explain the world.

Many materialists do not like to admit that humans believe. Call it the curse of consciousness, but the fact is we all believe in things. Even if that belief is as strange as thinking fiction only comes from electro-chemical reactions in a single organ in our heads. Gods often appear in fiction. Frequently they’re in the background. Sometimes they’re called heroes instead of deities. At other times they’re right there on the surface. Such books carry profound messages about believing. It doesn’t matter what the authors believe. Believe they do. And such books sell. As a culture, we may be in denial. What we sublimate comes out in our fiction. There are gods everywhere. Singular or plural. Female, male, or genderless. Almighty or just potent. Reading about them can be informative as well as entertaining. We’ve got to believe in something, so why not gods?

Contemporary Scripture

Being born into a religion makes all the difference. I say this as someone who was born into a family that would now be labeled Fundamentalist. That orientation stays firm unless a reason arises to question it. And that reason must be compelling. Many today wonder how, for example, Mormons can believe the narrative of golden plates told by Joseph Smith and that led to the Book of Mormon. Like many non-LDS members, I am curious. While this isn’t the main question in Terryl L. Givens’ The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, he does address it. The answer comes in the form of a community of belief. The idea is perhaps surprising in an age of individualism, but communal belief has been, historically, the mainstay of religion. A few individuals in any tradition dig deeply and ask questions. They rise into leadership roles, and steps along the way confirm their convictions. Most, however, are everyday believers.

The Book of Mormon is an interesting scripture. The idea of tribes from Israel colonizing the New World has its challenges. The Bible itself tends to go silent about what happened to the northern tribes (“Israel” proper) after the exile. This opens the door to all kinds of possibilities. Various cultures have claimed to be the remnant. Native Americans, of course, tend not to apply the idea to themselves. As Givens points out, the Book of Mormon states that the Israelites of the New World died out long ago. Probably when the Latter-Day Saints are few centuries older, it may happen that metaphorical views toward the Book of Mormon might become prevalent. It took over a millennium before “mainstream” Christians began to ask some pointed questions about their own Scriptures.

Scriptures are products of their own periods. No matter how sacred or inspired they are thought to be, they were written down in human time and human space. Hints are often left along the way regarding authorship, origin, bias, and perspective. The Book of Mormon is rare in having a known publication date, and that in the nineteenth century. Autographs—original texts—are available, even if the golden tablets are not. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a scripture come into being. We know who wrote the Book of Mormon, and when. Its printing history is known, as is its context in the Second Great Awakening. All that’s needed are a few more centuries for scholars to see how things develop. Those who study scriptures are inclined towards the long view anyway.

Hieroglyphs

The word “hieroglyph” translates to “sacred writing.” If you’re like me, your first attempts to learn writing were probably not very sacred at all. Tongue pressed to the corner of my mouth, eyes staring fixedly at the paper flat in front of me, my hand going anywhere but where I wanted it to, writing was a burden. I soon grew to love it though, not realizing it was changing my brain even as I was assimilating how to do it. Anne Trubek introduces quite a few new angles to the story in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. She begins at the beginning, cuneiform, not hieroglyphics, and offers a brief sketch of how handwriting developed into the phenomenon we know today. And how it is now becoming something very different than what it once was.

Trubek’s book is full of delightful surprises about the development of scripts and the technologies that attend them. Like most non-specialists in cuneiform suppose, she suggests handwriting is basically anonymous therein. In fact, it’s not. Molding clay into a smartphone-shaped tablet doesn’t seem like technology, but the process of writing took a leap forward when someone figured out how to do this. Those who work with cuneiform can learn to identify handwriting. In the Ugaritic corpus, the tablets “signed” by Ilimilku can be distinguished from those written by others, and not just by his name. Technology has been devised to measure depth and order of stylus strokes in the clay, the angle the stylus was held, and many other seemingly insignificant features. Handwriting was present from the very beginning.

Perhaps what is most striking about Trubek’s study is how religion enters the discussion at almost every stage. Very early on writing was identified as a sacred activity. This continued through the middle ages when monks were those who performed writing as part of their non-secular duties. Even those who piloted penmanship in the modern period often noted that a person’s moral, Christian disposition could be measured by how said person made their letters. Writing, as those who do it for a good while know, becomes a sacred activity. Most world religions have holy books. Many of those books were the reason for an interest in literacy in several cultures. Even a surprising number of secular writers have understood the activity to have spiritual dimensions. Trubek’s book gives bibliophiles plenty to ponder. She doesn’t see the rise of keyboarding as a threat to writing because even in the computer age, individuality comes through. And for those who truly understand hieroglyphs, all writing is sacred.

Shocking Truth

The electrician recently stopped by. We’re renters and although I don’t mind doing minor household repairs to benefit the landlord, I draw the line at electricity. It’s a scary thing. I’ve been shocked too many times to want a jolt bigger than I can handle. I even once accidentally grabbed the metal prongs when unplugging something as a child (it was a microscope light, I remember) and that helpless feeling of being unable to drop the plug even while my body jerked uncontrollably left me with a healthy respect for those who actually understand insulation, capacitors, and those impossible electrical diagrams. So when the pull chain came out of the ceiling light I wasn’t going to try to fix it.

The electrician, like most people who see our apartment, commented on the books. “You like to read,” he said. I can’t help but feel guilty about that. It’s almost as if you should apologize for requiring the stimulation of so many tomes. I confessed that I did, but I wanted to justify it. “I work in publishing,” I feebly offered as an excuse. Concentrating on the fixture above his head, he said, “I don’t ever read a book unless I have to.” He fixed the pull chain and left. I couldn’t have fixed the thing so quickly, or safely. He even had a metal ladder. I was grateful for the light, but once again felt somewhat freakish for my bibliophilia.

Those of us who write books must read books. You can’t learn how to do one without the other. Because of movies and television, we picture writers as people with large houses and separate rooms as libraries where they can sit surrounded by books as they type away at their next bestseller. Those of us who work for a living seldom have such luxury. A separate room just for books? I like letting my books reside in whatever room they feel like. Most affordable apartments don’t come with a study. There are living room books that you want people to see, and kitchen books that suggest good things to eat. There are bedroom books that you might not want others to see. What I don’t have is a library. A book zoo. My books roam freely about my home. It occurs to me that one area lacking in my collection is one about household wiring. Maybe instead of feeling weird I should get wired. I’m sure there are books out there that will tell me how. Or at least that will let me know that a wooden ladder makes a poor conductor.

Church of Advent

It’s a common name. You might know one yourself: William Miller. Indeed, for many years of my own life I borrowed that surname from my stepfather before returning to my birthright after seminary. But the ordinariness of the name alone doesn’t explain it. Joseph Smith, a fellow creator of a new religion, also bore an innocuous name, and he was a Junior. While many people might have trouble placing William Miller among religious founders, they would likely know of Seventh-Day Adventism, a religion that sprang from the root of his teaching. During his lifetime the preferred title was Millerite, but Adventist also worked. David L. Rowe presents a sympathetic, but not hagiographic account of this somewhat remarkable life in God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World. For Miller, you see, predicted the year Jesus would return.

A self-taught farmer, Miller became convinced that the Bible indicated 1843 would be the end. This idea was based on calculations derived from cryptic books such as Daniel and considering their days to be years. A touch of math and before you know it, it’s all gonna burn. During the intense period known as the Second Great Awakening upstate New York was perhaps the most religiously creative place on the planet. New ideas bumped into each other and, as if the bounds of Christianity were too constraining, flew out into new forms of belief. People grew convinced that the world might indeed end in 1843. When it didn’t, they called it the Great Disappointment and carried on. Adventism is still with us today.

Rowe also makes the point that for being such an obscure individual, Miller influenced the great religious movements that would give us modern day Fundamentalism as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses. These groups trace their spiritual ancestry to the convictions of a not-so-simple farmer who could fill an auditorium with his plain speaking and clear exposition of the scriptures. He devised his end times scenario with the use of only a Bible and concordance. No seminary or advanced theological reading was necessary. Millerites did not reach the numbers of Latter-Day Saints. They were disowned by the Baptist Church that gave them birth. They got the date of the end of the world wrong. Yet they persisted. It is a curious story with a long afterlife that still helps elect extremist presidents to this day. William Miller, ever unassuming, managed to change the very world that he was certain would end even before the midpoint of the nineteenth century.