Overdone

One of the things you see quite a lot of as an editor is “the next big thing.” Authors with an ego that awes me ensure me that this book will be the sea change we’ve all been waiting for. Things will be different after this is published. I don’t blame them. The trades all say that you’ve got to convince the editor that this project is worth her or his while. Overstating the case is par on this course. All of this got me to thinking. If you’ve read biblical studies seriously you’ll recognize the name Wellhausen. I don’t even have to use his first name—you know who I mean, right? Well, we’ve gone beyond the days when you could be a Wellhausen. When I was a student people spoke of the Wright, Bright, and Albright school. We knew who each of these gentlemen was. Now there are so many spoons in the pot that we’re not even certain what’s cooking.

Have you seen this man?

I’m not sure what the attraction to advanced degrees in this area is. If my case is anything to go by (and I don’t claim that it is) you grow up in a Bible reading family and you want to take the next logical steps. When you’re far enough along on the path to realize what’s happened, it’s too late to turn back. Many things in life are that way. There is a tipping point, a moment of crisis, then nothing will be the same. Then you learn you’ll never be the new Wellhausen. There was only one, and that was a couple of centuries ago now. I run into some pretty strange stuff when it comes to ways of reading the Bible. When the dust settles, however, we’ll still be counting J, E, D, and P on our fingers.

This isn’t a field for fame. Don’t believe me? Approach a stranger on the street and ask them if they know who Wellhausen is. Alas and alack, one of our greatest names is nobody outside the academy! In my own days among the privileged professorate, I never suspected I’d be anything but one of many voices trying to be heard. After all, my training was really more in history of religions than Bible in the first place. Dead languages had to be negotiated, but that’s all part of becoming an expert in something nobody really cares about. But then I think of Wellhausen. There was a time when all of this could make a nation such as Germany sit up and take notice. That day was centuries ago, and I’d better check that pot—I think maybe whatever’s in it may be done.

Living Challenged

One of the surest signs of hope for the world is that academics are beginning to notice monsters. A trickle began some time ago and it’s probably best to call it a trickle still, nevertheless, the quality of the trickle is improving. Some serious publishers are now counted among the mix of those who pay attention to the lovable unlovable. Greg Garrett’s Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse is one of the more recent approaches to the undead that looks for religious themes among them. They’ve been there from the beginning with zombies, of course, but few with tenured positions bothered to look. It’s an open question how long the current fascination with the undead might last, but Garrett’s treatment finds them useful sources of theological thought.

Perhaps the aspect of my own fascination that I feel most often compelled to explain is why fear has such an appeal. Garrett makes the point that fear often causes people to make bad choices, and I would have to agree. It is, however, the fear of fear that takes a greater toll. You see, fear is a survival instinct. Without fight or flight we’re all zombie food. Some of us learn this harsh lesson early in life, and if we manage to survive long enough we might even become nostalgic for it. It’s not that I like be afraid, but I do know that if we fear fear—if we avoid looking at what scares us—we put ourselves in danger that the flight response might well prevent.

Garrett’s treatment is helpful in demonstrating that there is a reason for such stories. In fact, according to his analysis zombies can leave you with a profound sense of hope. He uses the living dead as a means of thinking about community, ethics, and apocalypse. Not all end of the world scenarios are that bad. How we treat the living dead may tell us quite a bit about our own rectitude or lack thereof. In other words, zombies are more than their puerile thrills might suggest. There’s something of substance here. I don’t agree with all of Garrett’s conclusions, but he offers a stimulating tour of the current media frenzy around the living challenged and is surely correct that there is more going on with monsters than many of our parents would like to have a religion expert admit. Those childhood years might not have been wasted on monsters after all.

The Birds

While waiting for the bus, now that it’s light out that early, I like watching the birds. They have complex interactions and so many different styles of flying. They have ways that are a closed book to our species. From human eyes they seem so playful that it’s difficult to believe they participate in a struggle for survival. Evolution tells a different story, of course. Living not far from the great human nest of Newark’s Liberty Airport, it’s not unusual to see an engineered flying machine soaring high over their avian heads. Which, I wonder, are the better fliers? Birds, after all, evolved. Flying wasn’t planned, as far as we can tell. Although not so much around here, some birds don’t even fly.

I once read—many years ago and I can’t recall where—that if a person were to fly they would need an enormous chest to beat the very large wings they’d need for lift-off. Birds, apart from being naturally aerodynamic, have hollow bones which make them a touch fragile, but less tied to gravity. Our planes and jets, unlike the escape vehicle in Chicken Run, don’t flap. Bernoulli’s law keeps them aloft, along with some meticulous engineering and heavy fuel consumption. Humans may imitate nature, but they supersede it when they can. Still, I have to wonder why, if birds were a special creation as our literalist friends claim, God didn’t make them more like a plane.

Holding your wings out stiff all day, I’ll allow, would get pretty tiresome. Still, if you’re designing a critter to fly you might as well go with the best parts available, right? If not, I’m going to have a talk with my mechanic and ask for some of my money back. Birds, for all their charm, are very good illustrations of evolution at work. Dinosaurs taking to the air is so poetic that it has an organic feel. Flying is a great way to escape your land-bound predators. That step from long leaping to flying may be a doozie, but it seems to explain the shape of birds better than any intelligent design. Among bipeds, though, only one claims the place of being god-like in shape. Having said that, there are some flaws that a good biomechanical engineer might address. But then, who said God majored in engineering? When I went to college I was firmly under the impression that he’d majored in religion. And that, as many engineers might suppose, is for the birds.

O Absalom

It feels like confession every time I go to get my hair cut. I sit in the chair and a girl younger than my daughter looks perplexed when I explain it’s been a few months since my last shearing. “Forgive me, daughter, for I have sinned…” Haircuts take too much time is the truth of it. I’ve never been one to worry overmuch about outward appearances. I’m an internal kind of guy. I’ve never liked shaving and I can’t really see giving up ten more minutes of my busy morning than I have to, only to hover a sharp blade near my already beauty-challenged face. No, the scissors trim takes just a few minutes once a week or so, and everything’s good for a few more days. But the haircut is more on Absalom’s time schedule. Frankly, I just don’t think about it. Suddenly hirsute.

Absalom’s hair was both his pride and his fall. Usurping the kingdom from David, Absalom had a head of hair that left the girls screaming. Then, routed in the forest, his head got caught in a tree. The Bible doesn’t say specifically that it was his hair, but use your imagination. In antiquity, hair meant something. Alexander the Great was known for his luxurious locks. Even the word “Caesar” means “hairy.” Hair was considered a natural head covering, a kind of piety that required little effort. Ironically in evangelical circuits the Roman haircut and clean-shaven look predominated. I had a job after college that required me to shave my beard since “customers don’t trust a man with facial hair.”

But I’m not into hair for the fame. I just don’t have the time. Weekends are scarce and short and I’ve got a lot to do. I’ve got a book that needs publishing and a life that needs living. I can do it with long hair. I can’t do it without time. Absalom spent his free time plotting. His coup was the result of careful planning. I’m sure he didn’t stand there outside the city gates thinking, “people would like me better if I had short hair.” Quite the opposite. In this country of clean, biblical living, however, we’ve opted for the razor and scissors. I’ve had people ask if a beard is hard to keep clean, as if I’m a dirty old man under these silver strands. Hair and beards can be washed and be as hygienic as any person can be in New York City. I just take care to duck when I go under trees.

Flat Devils

Fiction is a framework to approach reality. People are drawn to stories because they help us to make sense of a bewildering world which wasn’t, in reality, custom made for us. Marta Figlerowicz’s Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character explores the types of characters that modern novelists are taught to avoid. She points out, however, that they occur in great novels beginning from the early stages of the category up through fairly contemporary classics. The flat protagonist, in short, isn’t believable. I’m not enough of a literary critic to judge her examples, but I have been thinking of one such character that occurs in popular culture all the time—the personification of evil. In my reading on writing I’ve learned this is to be avoided. Nobody is pure evil. Popular media begs to differ.

Being of working class sensibilities I can’t separate myself from the lowbrow crowd, I’m afraid. My fascination with Sleepy Hollow is pretty obvious on this blog. One of the recurring themes in the series is the antagonist that is indeed pure evil. Whether it’s Moloch, Death, Pandora, or the Hidden One, those who are evil represent the dark side of humanity, or the universe. They glory in destruction. Of course, in late Judaism and early Christianity this was a role taken by the Devil. As a child I was taught that it was wrong to feel sorry for Satan. This clashed in my head with the idea of forgiveness and with the love of all. Could God not love his (and he was masculine) own enemy? How could we hope to do the same, then?

In the most ancient of religions, as far as we know, evil wasn’t personified. Yes, evil happened, but it was simply part of the matrix of being. Some gods tended toward good while others tended the other direction, but a being of pure evil doesn’t seem to have existed. Even Tiamat loved her children, at least until they killed her consort. The stark black-and-white world of monotheism can’t explain evil without an divine enemy. A flat protagonist, to be sure, but one you can always count on to do the wrong thing. The closest we come to that in real life is the Republican Party. Insidious, sneaky, using every possible loophole to shove their agenda through, they are the perfect flat protagonists. No, I’m not inclined to believe in the Devil. Or at least I wasn’t until November of 2016.

The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

Keeping Pace

I had no idea my life was in danger. I was out for a weekend walk with my wife, when suddenly, there they were. Snails. In case you think I’m over-reacting, take a look at Christopher Jobson’s piece on Colossal titled “Why Knights Fought Snails in the Margins of Medieval Books.” One of the main points is that the snails were symbols. We tend to forget the power of symbols today. Even modern vampires no longer react to crucifixes—what are we supposed to do? For those who are willing to linger a moment instead of rushing on immediately to the next thing, snails give us quite a bit to contemplate. In a world that hates slow-pokes, “consider,” as my friend Ecclesiastes might’ve said, “the snail.”

As highly evolved cousins of the snail, we suppose we were cut out for greater things. We build towers. We make new nations. We watch them both crumble. On the ruins of those walls we find snails. They have very little to do and expend no worries about getting there on time. Nobody emulates them, although some masticate them. They tend to disappear when the sun is hot. They don’t like the limelight. Yet snails contribute to our world in ways we simply don’t take the time to contemplate. Our time has been commodified. We’re told when to sleep and when to wake for our jobs. Then we’re told none of it matters anymore since 45 has decided to change the rules with his latest tweet. And still the snails crawl.

Before I learned to fear them, I remember happy childhood moments finding snails. This was generally not at home since we rented even then, and landlords have a weird compulsion about landscaping. When wandering far enough from home I’d find snails crawling on stalks of damp grasses early in the morning. They fascinated me. If I plucked them off, they’d pull in their eye-stalks and retreat into their shells. So secure. So symbolic. Eventually I learned that I was obligated to move fast. Keep pace. Be measured by my productivity. Pharaoh’s watching, after all, and that quantity of bricks required isn’t getting any smaller. Not many, I would learn, share my appreciation of snails. It takes a great deal of confidence to go slowly. Those who routinely ignore speed limits won’t understand my symbolism here, I know. Still, I can’t help but think we have a great deal to learn from our cousins who remind us that time isn’t everything after all.