Category Archives: Books

Posts that feature a book

Direct Address

For a man as amazingly influential as he was, Cyrus I. Scofield hasn’t been the object of much curiosity. In the venerable academic tradition of ignoring those you disagree with, serious scholars dismiss Scofield as some kind of evangelical aberration, a theological leper, if you will. It’s difficult to locate book-length treatments of the man, although he may claim considerable credit for the elections of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the current incumbent. Somewhat skeptical of the obviously polemical The Incredible Scofield and His Book by Joseph M. Canfield, curiosity drove me to read it as an accessible and thoroughly researched account. Now, one evangelical going after another isn’t a pretty sight, but if you can get past the “this is what the Bible really means” oneupmanship, there is clear evidence of a sharp mind with legitimate historical accuracy as its priority in Canfield. This is especially clear where he demonstrates that scholars shown the evidence will choose to ignore it to preserve the sanctity of a man hardly a saint.

The strange religion that has developed from the Scofield Reference Bible has had an astoundingly long reach. If you know what “the Rapture” is, it’s probably because those who took their cues from Scofield’s Bible ensured that it became a standard American trope. It generally doesn’t have to be explained, even though the idea doesn’t occur in the Bible. It’s based on a set of “dispensations” developed among the Plymouth Brethren, a fairly small British and Irish sect that influenced the world through its prophet Scofield. (Scofield himself was not a member of the Brethren, but he learned his system of “history” from them.) Although the Scofield Reference Bible wasn’t technically the first study Bible, it was the first widely influential one. It is, in a sense, America’s Bible.

Scofield himself was hardly clergy material. Canfield documents this clearly and doggedly. Among the evangelicals, however, an admission of guilt—no matter how insincere—has to be taken at face value. If you’re caught “backsliding” after that, all you have to do is admit that too. They’re obligated to forgive you 490 times, if they’re truly literalists. We can see this at work in the bizarre evangelical backing of Trump, a Christian only by the loosest possible definition. If you say you’ve accepted Jesus they have to believe you. It’s the ultimate scam. Scofield himself seems to have been aware of this. Particularly wrenching was the account of how, after he was making a respectable income from his Bible, he refused to give money to one of his daughters from his first marriage when she wanted to buy a house. His will left no money to any charitable organization at all. You can take it with you, apparently. And so, we’re left with a world devised by such a man with no theological training. Since he’s so obviously low brow, however, we lack scholarly biographies that take the care of Canfield in exposing information readily available to those with open eyes.

Animal Fights

What does it mean to be human? The answer’s not as straightforward as it might seem. Reading Robert Repino’s Culdesac, that question came back to me time and again. This novella takes off from the story of Mort(e), about which I blogged shortly after its publication. Humans and animals that have acquired some human characteristics are at war. Most see those on the other side as inferior and that can make a human being reading the tale just a touch uncomfortable. We don’t have a great track record when it comes to dealing with non-human animals. We are all, after all, members of the same “kingdom.” Even down to the level of phylum and genus many of us show more general similarity than stark differences. Culdesac is a morphed bobcat who remembers all too well how humans treated animals before the war. And memory is a powerful thing.

Repino has a way of sweeping the human reader (here the enemy) into the story and making those foundational questions ring as if struck with a hammer. What does it mean to be human? Granted, reading such provocative work under the current administration adds a layer of poignancy that wasn’t there when Mort(e) stood alone. In fact, it is a question that we have to ask just about every day when we see the headlines. There’s no leadership on this point coming from above. The idea of other humans as chattels has a long and disgraceful history. You can differentiate anyone on some basis or another: female or male or intersex, black or white or brown, rich or middle class or poor, large or average or small. Differences working together might be the very definition of culture. Culdesac shows what can happen when one sees only the distinguishing characteristics rather than the commonalities. It’s a parable.

Education, the one weapon in our arsenal that actually dismantles prejudice and intolerance, was one of the first targets our government sought to dismantle after 11/9. Indeed, the antipathy—if not downright hostility—toward education has been a characteristic of which Americans have long been unduly proud. We are not self-made, none of us. We all had our teachers. We all had our books. As we stand on the rim of this smoking crater and wonder how hatred toward one’s own species could be allowed to be nominated, let alone win, I believe the answer lies in our personal belief in education. We must all use the opportunities we have to educate. Get caught reading a book. Or helping a stranger. Or just being kind. As Culdesac emphasizes, wars are long-term events. Results won’t change after only one skirmish. If we all valued education—reading, learning—enough such aberrations as this could never happen. If you’re casting about for something to read that will make you ponder things at a most human level, I would suggest Culdesac.

Childhood’s End

I believe it was C. S. Lewis who wrote that in reading autobiographies he always found the earliest years the most interesting.. In my experience the same applies to biographies; what made the person famous enough to merit a biography—auto or not—started in the innocent years. I try not to extrapolate from my own case because I never read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass until I was in college. (It was only in college that I first saw Mary Poppins as well.) Beloved childhood classics weren’t really part of my childhood. Like many adults, then, I wonder who was Alice, really? Everyone knows there was an Alice but what do we know of her inner life? What’s the story with Lewis Carroll?

In my mind Simon Winchester is an historian associated with large pictures. Maps of the entire world, huge volcanoes, big oceans—the meaning of everything. I only discovered his The Alice behind Wonderland by accident. As soon as I spied it I knew I’d have to read it. As I expected, the younger years are most intriguing. Those of us who cut our classical teeth under the tutelage Liddell and Scott may not realize said Liddell was the father of Alice. But it’s not the father that impresses so much as the daughter. And Charles Dodgson himself—the cast of characters is compelling even with little action beyond photography and story telling. Yet we’re riveted. What was the dynamic that led a bachelor cleric to write a world classic for children?

Who doesn’t, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, long for the carefree days of childhood? Looking at photos of our younger selves evokes a world accessible only in our heads. The world that made us who we’ve become. Winchester bases this brief study on perhaps the most controversial photograph of Alice Liddell that Charles Dodgson ever took. Even the story of wet-plate collodion photography allures the reader with its promise of stories untold. We know little of why the Liddell family grew apart from Dodgson, so much so that the adult Alice didn’t even attend the funeral of the man who’d made her an immortal. What happened here? When we find out we’ll perhaps be a step closer to finding out why becoming an adult means sacrificing a child. We may be a step closer to finding a girl known to most of the world simply as “Alice.”

Strange Worlds

The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.

Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.

From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.

Seeing Belief

Although most of us can recognize it on sight, we have a difficult time defining religion. In the early parts of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, John C. Lyden discusses this lack of definition and offers some broad categorizations since his thesis depends upon it. How can one assert that film may be understood as religion if religion isn’t identified? Lyden makes clear that this book won’t be about an ideological or theological interpretation of film. It’s more about popular culture and how elements of that culture, such as cinema, may be religion. This leads to the discussion of the topics of his subtitle: myths, rituals, and morals. These all share some conceptual territory with movies, therefore understanding them is important.

To me the most interesting part of the book is the consideration of genres (westerns, gangster movies, melodramas, romantic comedies, children’s movies, science fiction, thrillers and horror) as exemplars of various aspects of this religion. Each genre includes the discussion of a feature film, and some even have two. Of course, Lyden’s book is a few years old now and other studies have shed further light on both how religion and film interact and also on the interpretation of various genres of movie. The hope of the book—that it may be the start of a new kind of discussion about religion—has to some extent been realized, although the analysis has taken off in several directions at once. There can be no doubt that cinema taps deep spiritual needs in a way not unlike a religious ceremony.

It seems that society has come to distrust the usual purveyors of religion. Dishonesty almost as deep as that of the government has been found in it and the responses are remarkably similar—cover-ups and denials and many species of prevarication. Cinema seems downright credible in comparison. What you see is what you see. The big difference between movies and religion, however, is that we’re only too glad to acknowledge the human sources of celluloid. Many religions, especially in the monotheistic tradition, rely on direct divine revelation as their origin. Lyden isn’t suggesting that film substitutes for religion in that way, but on a more practical level it may. It meets our needs. We trust we’ll get what the poster and trailers promise us. We sit reverently in the dark awaiting illumination. And yes, there’s an exchange of money involved for any kind of worship involves an offering. No religion’s free of cost.

World Stories

worldofstoriesAlthough I’ve not formally studied it, Buddhism has long been part of my thought process. Like Thomas Merton—and this may be the only point of comparison between us—I find little difference between the contemplative worlds of Buddhism and Christianity. Mindfulness knows no denominations. I suspect David R. Loy’s book The World Is Made of Stories would cause anxiety for some. Those not comfortable, for example, with paradox. Or those who believe that only the literal is meaningful. Separated by the vast land mass of Asia, eastern and western ways of thinking about the world—telling their stories about the world—diverged widely in antiquity. There was a kind of “rediscovery” of south and east Asian thought in the late nineteenth century western hemisphere. Since then occasional famous explorers such as the Beatles, or professional practitioners such as the Dalai Lama, have brought Buddhism’s ideas to the mainstream, but because they coexist well with Christianity there has been no cultural reason to displace them.

I found Loy’s world compelling. All is narrative. That’s the way human brains work. If you’re reading this right now, you’re following my narrative. If you’re not really paying attention, another narrative has gripped you. Science is a narrative just as religion is. It is the way we think. The internal monologue. Consciousness itself. Stories. People will follow a story quite naturally, which is one of the reasons it’s such a shame so few people read for pleasure. We can watch our stories (what is a sporting event but a narrative playing out before a fan’s eyes?) and many people do. The written story often, however, takes us deeper.

Contemplation is an endangered species. Although I found the enforced quiet days at Nashotah House (such as Ash Wednesday) to be an onerous rule, I would arrive home with little to say in any case. The world of busyness that we’ve made our business can choke the meditative spirit. Although some workplaces offer yoga sessions (themselves based on Hindu spirituality) they hardly encourage meditating at your desk. It seems the natural enemy of productivity when, in reality, it increases it immensely. Who doesn’t work better after a vacation? The business world often presents the religious life as one of indulgent non-productivity. I remember being made to feel stupid asking for one Good Friday off while working my first full time job in retail. When cash transactions grew to be too much I’d find a church on my lunch hour and just sit. Now I only find time to read Buddhist books on the bus on the way to work. Look deep enough and there’s a story in that.

Admission Price

bibleandcinemaThe drama of acquiring Adele Reinhartz’s Bible and Cinema: An Introduction almost overshadows the joy of reading it at last. Back in my teaching days I realized that in very long class sessions (some went for four hours at Rutgers) students needed a break from me almost as much as I needed a break from myself. So I showed short clips of movies that had the Bible in them. The problem was, there was no easy way to find such movies. I’d seen many myself, but academics hadn’t written much on the subject and even a web search, in those days, wasn’t much help. Reinhartz is one of those scholars who understands we can learn about the Bible from movies, and her book would’ve been welcome in those days of fumbling my way through a darkened room, as it were.

Bible and Cinema is a Routledge book. In fact, it was underway during my brief tenure at the press. I very much wanted to read it but for questions best left to the empty ether, my welcome at Routledge wasn’t prolonged. The book came out before I left, yet I didn’t have a chance to get my hands on a copy. Being Routledge priced, I couldn’t afford it with my own funds. The book stayed with me, though, and last year I found a used copy, in passable shape, offered on Amazon for the price of a regular book (currently about $16). I immediately ordered it and anxiously awaited it. December came and went. The book didn’t arrive. Amazon informed me that it hadn’t been shipped and they would cancel the order unless they heard from the seller. In the new year, that’s what happened.

Once I’ve made to order a book, I have a hard time stopping. I had to cough out a bit more since reasonably priced used copies still couldn’t be found now that the one had gone AWOL. I’d been bitten, though. The new seller also delayed. The Trump administration began. I received a familiar message from Amazon. I wrote to the seller in anxious tones—if only I’d comped myself a copy before exiting Routledge! At last, late, and a bit beat up for the price, it arrived. It was worth the wait. This is a fine exploration of how the Bible has been made into movies and how movies have incorporated the Bible. Reading it was like watching movies on the bus. And for that, it’s hard to overestimate the price.