Category Archives: Books

Posts that feature a book

Fair Weather

“I just saw God up on your ridge.”  (Kudos to anyone who can name the source of that quote!)  Many years ago I read Stewart Guthrie’s remarkable Faces in the Clouds.  The idea that he presents is that pareidolia—seeing faces or people where they don’t actually exist—may account for the belief in God.  Early people, not knowing any way to interpret such obvious examples of humans writ everywhere thought they were gods or spirits.  Since reading this book, I’ve taken to trying to capture incidents of pareidolia where I can.  The other day as I was working away in my home office, I noticed a literal face in the clouds.  I thought “I just saw God outside my window.”

Now I know this isn’t really what I saw.  I know matrixing (mistaking noise for signal) when I experience it.  I hope.  Nevertheless, the resemblance was detailed—brow ridge, nose, distinct lips, chin.  The lighting in the fair weather cumulus will likely make this difficult for you to make out, and you might see a face other than the one I saw.  Not everyone thinks of the Almighty in the same way.  Looking at the picture I snapped I can see at least two faces stacked on top of one another—the council of the gods?  Who am I to tell deities what they can or can’t do?   Or to prevent imagination from going where it will?  Religion seems to be an evolved characteristic of our biological makeup—our eyes show us what to believe about the world around us.  The rest is hermeneutics.

Gods and the skies naturally go together.  We can’t reach the heavens nor can we control them.  We can increase greenhouse gases in them, though, threatening the very illusion we see in the clouds.  The glimpse of the divine we once saw there can easily dissolve into acid rain.  Heaven and Hell, according to the story of Dives and Lazarus, aren’t very far apart.  Even as we gaze into the cerulean sky seeking serenity, others are bending laws to allow them to destroy it for profit.  There’s a reason Dives is simply called “the rich man.”  Does Scripture defend the practice of environmental destruction?  Dives’ friends claim the planet was given to us to use and use up and Jesus will swoop out of those clouds we’re manipulating at the last minute and rescue us from the mess we’ve made.  Looking into God’s face in the clouds, I interpret this all as a mere excuse.  To destroy the environment is to side with Dives as he makes his flaming bed of nails in Hell. This is why windows in an office are divine.

Bitten by Religion

The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be.  Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated.  Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe.  It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate.  Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention.  It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations.  Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.

While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one.  It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website.  Novel reading takes some concentrated effort.  Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through.  And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are.  I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).

My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers.  The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character.  The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery.  Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context.  Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark.  It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other.  The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced.  And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not.  And serpents may not be what they seem.

Moving Books

One of my anxieties about moving is that commuting time was my reading time.  Enforced sitting for over three hours a day meant consuming book after book.  Now I have to carve out time to read.  Life has a way of filling the time you have.  I say the following fully aware that you’re on the internet now, but one of the biggest time drains is the worldwide web.  Humans are curious creatures and the web offers to answer any and all queries.  (It still hasn’t come up with a satisfactory answer to the meaning of life, however, IMHO.)  Even when I’m working on my current book, a simple fact-check can lead to surfing and before I know it, I’m out to sea.  That’s why books—paper books—are such a good option.  A footnoted source meant another trip to the library, and libraries led to more reading.

I’m a Goodreads author.  I like Goodreads quite a lot, and I actively accept new friends there.  In the past I set goals of reading 100+ books per year.  Aware back in January that a move might take place, I lowered my expectations.  I figured, even without commuting, that 65 books would be attainable in a year.  Of course, Goodreads doesn’t count the books you write, only those you read.  I had to tell even Amazon Author Central that Holy Horror was my book.  Moving, however, is a liminal time.  Every spare minute is spent packing.  And you still owe “the man” eight hours of your day.  That rumble that you feel is the moving truck growing closer.  Reading time has become scarce.  I fear I’m becoming illiterate.

And Goodreads makes me think of Twitter.  I’ll just click over there a while and wonder why I can’t seem to grow a following.  Ah, it turns out that you have to tweet often and incessantly, with erudite and trenchant things to say.  The birds chirping once a second outside my window can’t even keep up.  Problem is, I have a 9-to-5 job, and I’m trying to write Nightmares with the Bible.  And there’s just one more fact I have to check.  Wait, what’s the weather going to be like today?  Gosh, is that the time?  I have to get packing!  That moving van will be here only hours from now.  I need to calm down.  The way to do that, in my case, is to read a book.

Extra Baggage

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.

Melting Psalmists

With weather like this, I could use a Psalm or two.  Of course, in my mind, weather and Psalms are closely connected.  Here in the mid-Atlantic states, we’ve been experiencing a heat wave.  Unlike many parts of the west, such heat here in the east is accompanied by very moist air, meaning that cooling down is only possible in a large body of water or air conditioned interiors.  We have neither readily available at our place, so we try our best to keep cool and compose psalms, mostly imprecatory, I fear, about the weather.  Although it was thunderstorms that stirred my interest to write Weathering the Psalms, I included a chapter about temperature, for the Psalter sings of hot and cold as well as lightning and thunder.

The world of ancient Israel was quite different from that of North America.  There are mainly two seasons in the Levant—dry and rainy.  The dry season isn’t always as hot as we tend to imagine it, although the day I visited Masada the air temperature was about 120 degrees.  Enough to make a dip in the Dead Sea look inviting.  The Bible often views high heat as a form of divine punishment.  Although we human beings have expanded to fill just about every ecosystem our planet has to offer, we thrive in central California conditions.  Not all of us can live there, however.  And it’s a good thing that global warming’s a myth since it’s awfully hard to function when it is over 90 degrees for days in a row.  WWDD?  What would David draft?  Perhaps, “I’m melting”?

The interesting thing about the global warming myth is how real it feels.  I suppose the solution is to use more fossil fuels to help keep cool.  Fans, arctic air conditioning, lingering languidly at the open freezer door.  I stand here sweating, wondering what the Almighty could possibly find wrong with a country that is now great again.  One that takes children from their mothers yet insists birth control is evil.  One that loudly and punishingly insists guns should be in every home.  One where the elected head of government is involved in over 3,500 lawsuits, yet gets to appoint justices in the Supreme Court.  David got caught, if not in flagrante delicto, at least within a couple months of adultery with Bathsheba.  Instead of paying her off, he had her husband murdered.  But then—and here’s the key difference—he humbled himself and repented.  The sweet Psalmist of Israel might yet have something to teach us yet about weather and the Psalter.  Until the United States becomes the chosen nation again, I think a cold shower will have to do.

You’ve Never Seen

In spite of accusations of puerile voyeurism, horror is a genre containing many deep films. I have no training as a film critic, but it’s evident that among the more weighty of horror heavyweights is The Exorcist. Mark Kermode is, on the other hand, a film critic, and his book named after the movie demonstrates just how much a viewer can see. I’ve watched The Exorcist quite a few times and there were things I’ve consistently missed. I also realize that I’ve only ever seen The Version You’ve Never Seen (the 2000 theatrical re-release). Having been too young and far too skittish to have seen its debut, I’ve been happy—if that’s the right word to use with such a production—with the version I’ve seen. That’s the human condition, I guess. Kermode made me wonder what it would’ve been like to have experienced it before the spoilers became universally known.

Yes, there are striking special effects—especially for the early 1970s—but the message is what really holds the depth. The story is the classic struggle of good and evil. Demons are, after all, a form of evil personified. The fact that a young girl is the victim may be a little too true to life, but it also gives the drama considerable emotional resonance. In the end, according to the view of the writer and director, good wins. The struggle, as they portray it, is real and costly. It’s always informative to find out what those who made a film thought it was about. Even with the motive of making money, many involved in the industry still have the hearts of artists. Maybe even priests.

Having learned at the feet of post-modernists, we know that no interpretation—even that of the creators—is privileged. Just as there’s no such thing as “only reading,” no one “only watches” cinema. The acts of reading and watching inherently involve interpretation. Kermode draws that out nicely in this little book. His interpretation, as insightful as it is, is but one way of looking at it. Was The Exorcist the version originally released in 1973? Bill Blatty and Bill Friedkin disagreed to the end about what the definitive version was. The many sequels and spin-offs have reinterpreted the story in their own ways. So it is with the struggle against evil. There’s no one single way to go about it. Some make horror movies to demonstrate that point precisely. At least in my view they do.

Wolves Again

Although I don’t read movie reviews until after I’ve seen a film, I have a confession to make. With rumors swirling of The Conjuring 3, and since a chapter of Nightmares with the Bible will involve The Conjuring, I was a little curious what it might be about. Word on the street—and by “street” I mean “internet”—is that it will feature the case of Ed and Lorraine Warren that’s presented in Werewolf. Co-written by William Ramsey (the victim) and Robert David Chase, the book describes the strange malady of Ramsey, who never actually changed into a wolf, but for inexplicable reasons (at the time) thought himself a wolf and took on a wolfish look as he attacked people. The reports suggest he had preternatural strength at such times.

Since most of the Warrens’ books are concerned with demons, it should come as no surprise that in this case that was the diagnosis as well. With no real reason given, once upon a childhood evening Ramsey was possessed and occasionally broke out into violent fits. He landed in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times, but was eventually released. Noticed by the Warrens on one of their trips to England, Ramsey was invited to come stateside for an exorcism. According to the book, the rite was successful at least up until the time of publication. That’s the thing about demons—you can’t always tell for sure when they’re gone.

It’s pretty obvious why such a story line would appeal for a horror flick. You’ve got a werewolf, an unnamed demon, and an exorcism—there’s a lot to work with here. Weird things happen in the world, and there’s not too much to strain the credulity in this case. It would seem possible that a mental illness could cause much of what’s described as plaguing Ramsey, though. Its episodic nature is strange, I suppose, and the Warrens had a reputation for spotting demons. I did miss the conventional elements of the exorcism, however. No demon forced to give its name, no levitating and no head-spinning. Not even a bona fide bodily transformation. They’ll be able to fix that in Hollywood, I’m sure. Credulous or not, there will always be people like me who feel compelled to read such books. And since there’s no final arbiter but opinion in cases of the supernatural, that can leave you wondering.