Category Archives: Literature

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.

The Pack

Maturity, in my experience, means knowing little and assuming even less. When I was young I grew up on a diet of books that were linear—plots were easily followed and there was clear resolution at the end. Who, as a kid, thinks that such a standard is impossible? One of this year’s reading challenges was a book nominated for an award in 2018. That assures a pretty current book, and I chose Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. Like life, it’s not linear. The narrator is unreliable. There are a lot of threads left hanging. It’s also a completely mesmerizing story. I selected it not because the content deals to a large extent with religion—I had no idea that it did when I selected the book, but, given what I do on this blog it was definitely a bonus.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers here since this is a novel well worth reading. I’ve always been impressed with writers who can convey accurately what it was like to be a teenager. A time of awkward discovery when we learn that things weren’t what we thought. Linda, the narrator, has been raised in a religious commune in the northern Minnesota woods. When a Christian Scientist couple moves into a cabin not too far away, she becomes a trusted “governess” for their young, sickly son. Unable, for religious reasons, to admit their son’s illness, they entrust him to Linda’s care. She comes to know each person in a unique way and learns that even adults don’t have the answers.

An interesting conceit for a story—one minority religion learning about another—the book ranges wide and far from that. Life as a teenager is when one typically both needs and rebels against religion. The awakening of adolescence, something our psyches aren’t equipped to comprehend much before this time, throws everything into confusion. History of Wolves won’t lead to any answers, but it is a useful discussion partner to have along the way. The Christian Scientists I’ve known have to face some of the same issues raised in this tale. Ironically, the advance of science has hit this group particularly hard. Novels such as this demonstrate that we, as a species, still turn to religion to explain our world. We’re frequently told that it’s safe to ignore—it’s from the childhood of our evolution. I wonder, however, whether Homo sapiens have just begun to reach adolescence and we are just starting to learn what it means to be adults in a world we don’t understand.

Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Only Which King James?

Nothing is as simple as it seems. Not that the Bible ever claims simplicity for itself. Among those who make up their minds before seeing all the evidence, there’s a strong preference for the “King James Version” of the Bible. Many with that preference will claim that they don’t interpret the Good Book, they just read it. Reading itself is an act of interpretation and stakes tend to be pretty high when the claim for divine authorship is on the table. So I figured I’d better interpret something about the King James Bible myself. Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The Story of the King James Version is an informative, authoritative, and often witty treatment of the topic. One of the immediate takeaways is that there is no single KJV.

Beginning in the beginning, Gordon tells the story of the Bible in English. There were translations before the King James, and its translation companies used these previous efforts and sometimes borrowed extensively from them. In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun. Once the King James was done in 1611 it had to be printed, and printing, being what it is, led to errors. Although these were of the secular, human kind, they nevertheless appear from the beginning and new typesettings led to corrections and other errors, some perhaps intentional. Then came the revisions. What readers buy—and some claim is an inspired translation—as the KJV is a revision of a revision. Of a revision. In other words, the inspiration seems to lie with the redactors rather than the translators themselves. There are many different “official” King James versions. Translations are never static.

King James Onlyists (a modern movement) may not realize that the New Revised Standard Version is the modern descendant of the King James. The Revised Version (RV), followed by the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and its more recent, feared progeny (the NRSV) are all based on the King James translation. That is the version “Revised” in each of these efforts. They consult improved versions of ancient texts that have been discovered since the Jacobean era, but where they earn the ire of conservatives is in the updating of the modern language. A Bible with no thees or thous hardly seems sacred at all. The line of continuity is there, however. Other Bible translations “start over” but still consult the KJV, such is its stature. The real problem comes in supposing that any one translation is the original. No original Hebrew or Greek biblical manuscripts survive, and no original King James Version exists. How uncomfortable these facts are, everyone will have to interpret for her or himself.

Taming Shakespeare

It hardly seemed credible, from what I heard in high school, that anyone would read Shakespeare if it weren’t required. I’m not completely naive, but I do wonder if we insist on introducing kids to the Bard before they’re ready for him. The real stumbling block is the unfamiliar words from the Elizabethan period. With enough regular reading they’re less of an obstacle to adults. Or should be. Or not to be. In any case, one of this year’s reading challenge books required that I read The Taming of the Shrew. I’d never read it before and kind of shied away from it because of the chauvinistic theme—Katherine has to be “tamed” by Petruchio so that her poor, sweet sister Bianca can be married. The overall theme is biblical—Rachel can’t be wed before Leah, so Laban declares. The play’s a comedy at the expense of women.

Those who know Shakespeare better than I question whether the playwright’s motives were as undeveloped as all that, but it is in keeping with the time. That’s not to excuse such patriarchal thinking, but we can’t rightfully blame people for thinking in the terms of their time. Yes, we now realize (except on Pennsylvania Avenue) that women and men deserve equal treatment. We are all human beings and should be treated as such, not as if one gender were somehow more important or better than another. In the Tudor Era, however, that idea had not yet caught on. The Taming of the Shrew contains clues as to why.

Perhaps the most reviled part of the play is Katherine’s closing speech as to why women should be subjected to men. Her reasoning is distinctly biblical. Indeed, the edition of the play I was reading took pains to point out the biblical allusions in the speech—primarily to letters of the New Testament. The fear, unaccountably real after all these centuries, is that we might go back to such thinking. The Bible, after all, doesn’t change much. The most conservative of society still read it in the King James, although the Bible Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew best was the Geneva translation. And, like the schoolchild reading Shakespeare, such conservatives need a little help with the language since words have changed their usages over time. They also may need some assistance realizing that not only words evolve, but so does our understanding of what it means to human. It’s not women who need to be tamed, Mr. Shakespeare. No, it’s quite the opposite.

Russian Passions

Dmitri didn’t do it; guilty anyway. That’s it in six words. I have to confess my tolerance for really long novels isn’t what it used to be. Blame it on being a child raised by television—every thirty minutes I’m ready for something new. I first read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov when I was in seminary. Seminarians are an odd breed, and many of them relished the deep, ponderous novels with profound things to say about humankind. The Brothers Karamazov is such a novel. When you’re a student, reading’s part of the job description. As a writer Dostoyevsky gets away with things that’d lead to you failing composition class these days. Speeches that stretch on for chapters, characters taking 100 pages to die, and children talking like adults. It’s a heady mix.

I’ll have to admit that I remembered very little of the story from my last reading. I knew Fyodor Karamazov got killed. I couldn’t remember by whom. All the buzz in seminary was about the famous Grand Inquisitor scene. That’s the part where the Grand Inquisitor interrogates Christ and finds him wanting in the eyes of the church. So daring. So deep! And so early in the book. As I made my way through many heavy-lidded pages, with some dismay I realized that after I’d read the high point of the book I still had 457 pages to go, none of which I remembered from my reading three decades ago. I don’t mean to disparage the classic—I noted and underline several passages as I read. The blame is entirely on me. Still, the endless gloom of personal guilt that hangs on every character, even Alexei—whom Dostoyevsky states outright is his hero—become overbearing at times. This is a nation battened down by Christianity.

Often I’ve expressed the idea that we force children to read great novels before they’re ready to do so, ruining the classics for them for life. I first read Moby-Dick in seminary and I’ve read it several times since. It seems nobody’s really ready for Melville before their twenties. What is the age for Dostoyevsky? I think I comprehended more this time through. There were ideas here that, had I more time, I would likely have enjoyed lingering over. If life were so kind as to allow us the leisure to digest huge books I have no doubt that we would all be wiser, if not more satisfied. Fyodor Karamazov is dead. Alexei is cheered by the school boys. This long journey has itself been the goal.

Zombie Wars

I suppose, rationally considered, most monsters can’t possibly exist. Maybe that’s the psychological relief required to enjoy the movies made about them. We can imagine the thrill, but we know we’re safe once we leave the theater. Culturally, monsters fight for supremacy. The early 2000s belonged to the vampire. They were everywhere. I once heard a literary agent advise wannabe authors to write on vampires since the publishing industry was showing no signs of slowing down on them. Then came the zombies. They’re still with us. World War Z came to my attention as a movie, but as one I never saw. I’ve watched many zombie films and none has lived up to the status of the spectacle that launched the genre, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It remains a classic to this day. Still, I was curious and so I read Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Let alone the chapter after chapter of tough-talking, cool-sounding reminiscers, I have trouble buying zombies. Yes, I get the scare factor, but maybe I’ve read too much science even to visualize myself into a fantasy world where a creature with no digestive system would be driven to eat. It just makes no sense. Human bodies can function with missing parts, of course, but without the integration of muscles, ligaments, digestion, and brain, it seems difficult to accept that they’d keep coming after you when they’ve been decaying for years. It’s all I can do to get out of bed most mornings, even as a healthy, living body. Analysts, I know, talk about zombies as metaphors, but with over 300 pages of stories in no way believable, I had to wonder about the limits of credulity. Maybe Carl Sagan was right after all.

I hope I’m not unsophisticated enough not to realize that the real point in Brooks’ novel is how the surviving humans treat each other. There is a moral to the story. We develop new and “better” weapons to kill one another. We’re smart enough to have world peace and prosperity, but wars are constantly erupting. We have a nation with many brilliant people and yet we elect a Trump. Self-destruction, it seems, is written into our genes. We consume one another. Even when the enemy is completely imaginary we find ways of believing. So I read World War Z, appreciating the irony. I still can’t get over, however, the trope that all you need is a human brain to want to destroy others.