Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Evolving Intelligence

In the process of unpacking books, it became clear that evolution has been a large part of my life.  More sophisticated colleagues might wonder why anyone would be concerned about an issue that biblical scholars long ago dismissed as passé.  Genesis 1–11 is a set of myths, many of which have clear parallels in the world of ancient West Asia.  Why even bother asking whether creationism has any merit?  I pondered this as I unpacked the many books on Genesis I’d bought and read while teaching.  Why this intense interest in this particular story?  It goes back, no doubt, to the same roots that stop me in my tracks whenever I see a fossil.  The reason I pause to think whenever I see a dinosaur represented in a museum or movie.  When a “caveman” suggests a rather lowbrow version of Adam and Eve.  When I read about the Big Bang.

The fact is evolution was the first solid evidence that the Bible isn’t literally true.  That time comes in every intelligent life (at least among those raised reading the Good Book).  You realize, with a horrific shock, that what you’d been told all along was a back-filled fabrication that was meant to save the reputation of book written before the advent of science.  The Bible, as the study of said book clearly reveals, is not what the Fundamentalists say it is.  Although all of modern scientific medicine is based on the fact of evolution, many who benefit from said medicine deny the very truth behind it.  Evolution, since 1859, has been the ditch in which Fundies are willing to die.  For this reason, perhaps, I took a very early interest in Genesis.

Back in my teaching days it was my intention to write a book on this.  I’d read quite a lot on both Genesis and evolution.  I read science voraciously.  I taught courses on it.  I’d carefully preserved childhood books declaring the evils of evolution.  To this day Genesis can stop me cold and I will begin to think over the implications.  When we teach children that the Bible is a scientific record, we’re doing a disservice to both religion and society.  This false thinking can take a lifetime to overcome, and even then doubts will remain.  Such is the power of magical thinking.  I keep my books on Genesis, although the classroom is rare to me these days.  I do it because it is part of my life.  And I wonder if it is something I’ll ever be able to outgrow.

Pleasant Dreams

The last time I watched Pleasantville I didn’t have this blog running to discuss it.  It was also during the Obama administration where it felt more like nostalgia rather than a documentary.  In case you’re not familiar, Pleasantville is a movie about how a nerdy teen, David, and his cool sister Jennifer get sucked into a 1950’s sitcom, “Pleasantville.”  They find themselves in black-and-white and in a world as regimented as Stepford, but somewhat more humorously so.  As Jennifer is eager to get back home, she introduces this colorless world to sex, and as the two-dimensional characters begin to experience strong emotions colors start to appear.  The “picture perfect” Pleasantville begins to let the plastic facade of the 1950s slip to reveal a complex and messy world of true humanity beneath.

Watching the film in the age of Trump, as with most things, interjected a current of fear.  The townspeople feel threatened by those who are different, colorful.  They want everything just as it was—women serving their husbands, everyone the same hue, and pretending that sexuality doesn’t exist.  It may have been originally intended as an homage to the the 1960s, but what became clear in an age of MAGA is that crowds easily respond to suggestions of hatred.  Many of those in the group, individually, are “coloreds” themselves, but fear to let it show.  Conformity is much safer even if it means hating those who are different.  I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but the superiority of the white man apparently was.  One of the characters is, tellingly, named Whitey.

Initially drawn to the film seeking biblical references (occupational hazard) I knew there was an Eden scene before I first watched it.  Margaret, on whom David has a crush, has discovered actual fruit at Lover’s Lane.  She brings him an apple which, the TV Repairman (if you’re lost, please watch the movie—it’s quite enjoyable) points out, is a form of sin in this world of simple answers and unspoken repression.  A mash-up of Jasper Fforde and American Graffiti, the film exposes the lie behind the idea that all were put on earth to serve the white man.  Jennifer discovers books and stays behind in colorized Pleasantville to go to college, something of a rarity in those days.  Although the movie bombed at the box office, it has a serious message to convey.  There was no perfect 1950s iconic America.  The process of becoming great is one of evolution, rather than that of a fabled Eden, available only in black-and-white.

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.

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.

Read, Mark and

One of the persistent questions of Christianity, given that there are four Gospels, is how to account for the differences between them.  The issue isn’t unique to Jesus-followers, however, as the composition history of the “books of Moses” shows.  Discrepancies in Genesis got the whole ball rolling, after all.  In fact, once I learned about historical criticism I decided that I’d better stick to the Hebrew Bible—there are some things you just don’t want to know about your own faith.  The way doctoral programs are set up these days, you can’t specialize in both testaments anyway, although that’s becoming a lot more common among scholars in these latter days.  In any case, I was reading about the Gospel of Mark lately and the question kept coming up of whether certain phrases went back to Jesus, were coined by Mark, or had their origin in the early church.

The picture that emerges from this kind of jigsaw gospel is of Mark sitting down, pulling his sources together like a graduate student in the days before computers.  Only Mark won’t get a doctorate when he’s done.  More recent scholarship asks the question of what if Mark wasn’t really a completed book after all—we read the gospels through lenses that were ground in the eighteenth century, at the earliest.  Nobody thought to question that Moses or Mark would sit down to write a book just like anyone did then.  (People writing books on their phones in electronic form only, as they do these days, will play havoc with future historical critics and their theories.)  Maybe these weren’t meant to be finished books.  Check out Gospels before the Book by Matthew Larsen and you’ll see what I mean.

The Bible, in other words, is a very complex book.  We know little of its authors beyond Paul of Tarsus.  We don’t even know that they were setting out to write Holy Writ.  Bible is a matter of interpretation.  As I thought about Mark—whoever he was—shuffling his papers about, mulling over what it would mean to become the first evangelist, I thought how like us we’ve made not only God, but also the writers of sacred texts.  True, they weren’t worried about tenure committees, or bad reviews, or being accepted by prestige presses.  It seems, however, that they were also not thinking of what readers down the millennia would do with their words.  When it’s all done we still don’t know who said what, but at least we have persistent questions that can’t be answered.  And job security ensures that Bible reading will continue as long as there are discrepancies to debate.

Getting Dirty

Composting is a very biblical activity.  Adam, according to the second creation account in Genesis, was formed from the divinely created dirt.  Some scholars try to capture the word-play in that story by suggesting “human” was made from “humus,” but since that sounds like chickpea dip it may not help so much after all.  Besides, we now know that soil has a complex and fascinating history.  Erosion grinds up rocks.  Organic matter dies and decays, forming the loosely packed substrate in which plants can survive, slowly breaking up the more dense pieces through the transformative power of water.  It is, imprecisely speaking, a miracle.  When Adam drops dead, he becomes once more part of the soil from which he was formed.  It’s poetic.  Elegant.  Economical.

Now that we have a house we’ve decided to try our hand at composting.  We’d considered it many times over the years since, what with recycling and hoarding, we’d managed to get our weekly garbage down to one fairly small bag.  Besides, since our government won’t be nice to the planet, somebody has to.  Institutional people that we are, my wife and I had to read up on composting before giving this very natural decomposition a try.  Things have to be just so for the process to work perfectly.  It was in the process of this reading that the biblical aspect became clear to me.  

The trick is to make sure the neighbors don’t complain about the smell.  That, in part, determines what can or can’t go into the compost bin.  Meat and dairy can’t go into the mix.  Since I’m primarily vegan such things aren’t generally here to be disposed of in any case.  Even the drier lint can go there, for the clothes that we wear become part of who we are, right Henry David?  And here’s where there’s a danger of TMI, although it’s good theology—cast-offs from our selves can also be composted.  Hair, for example.  The composting literature we have seems to take Adam himself out of the equation by specifying pet hair, but hey, mammals are mammals.  The longer I thought about this, the more obvious it was that burial, ideally, is a form of composting.  Giving back to the earth from which we’ve sprung.  That simple wire bin out by the garage is in the process of making the substrate for new life.  We may not be farmers, or gardeners like Adam, but composting feels like giving back somehow.  It’s an act of creation.