Not Your Parents’ Bible

As someone always interested in origins, I reflect on how I’ve ended up the way I have.  I mean, who plans to end up a Bibles editor?  In the grand scheme of a universe with a sense of humor, it’s an odd job.  I grew up reading the Bible, but lots of people do.  Most of them end up with ordinary people jobs.  Obviously, working on a doctorate in the field is admittedly strange, but then, my interests have always been to get to the truth.  The other day I spotted a book on my shelf—the book that arguably started it all.  The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden.  These days I would recognize this for what it is, a cheap reprint of a book published quite some time ago (1926 and 1927).  No “value added content.”  Just a reprint.  But why did this book have such influence?

It was the first time I’d realized—and growing up in poverty with parents lacking college educations you have to teach yourself a lot—that there were other books about as old as the Bible.  The idea fascinated me.  Somehow my fundamentalist upbringing had convinced me the Bible was the first book ever written—after all, its author was God and how much more primordial can you get?  Now this particular book (Lost Books of the Bible etc.) contains some apocryphal Gospels.  Not having a strong grasp on the concept of canon, I wondered why these books had been excluded, or, to use the title conceit, “lost” and “forgotten.”  In college I would learn about the canonical process.  I’d hear more about it in seminary.  There I would learn that even older sources existed.  In the pre-internet days, in a rural town without so much as a public library, how would you find out about such things?

Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion captured my imagination in seminary.  Even there, however, nobody on the faculty seemed to know much about what had come before the Bible.  Harrell Beck told us of ancient Egypt in our classes, but clearly there were further depths to plumb.  I learned about James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, which I bought at the Harvard Divinity School bookstore.  Other texts went back beyond Holy Writ.  Just how far would have to wait until the University of Edinburgh.  I sometimes wonder if I might’ve taken a different turn here or there had anyone been able to answer my young, unformulated questions about the origins of the Bible and other ancient books.  Now we just have to ask the internet.

A Saint Lent

Photo credit: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikicommons

Lent, among the denominations that observe it, is intended as a time of intense reflection.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday the fact of one’s own mortality becomes a foremost consideration as the faithful are reminded that they will die.  It has always struck me as paradoxical that St. Patrick’s Day always falls in Lent.  Those who abide by the liturgical calendar readily acknowledge that Lent is a punctuated season; saints’ days and feasts can still occur, temporarily disrupting the heavy contemplation.  While at Nashotah House we never celebrated St. Patrick beyond a brief mention during a collect of the seventeenth.  His day, rich in Celtic mythology, it seems, was inappropriate to the mandated gloom so highly valued by the soul-sick.  Having some Irish ancestry, I always felt a little slighted by this aloofness regarding a saint most people can actually name.

College campuses, I later learned, tend to schedule their spring breaks to include Saint Patty’s Day because of the damage drunken students may exact.  The stereotypical besotted Irish have become an excuse for excess during Lent, although, I suspect the forty days have little to do with it.  A saint becomes a justification for sin, it seems.  And Lent continues the morning after.  There’ll always be Lent.  The tray holding the ashes of last year’s palm branches is never empty.  Two once religious observations clash in mid-March of each year.  During a brief spell the historically oppressed Irish are celebrities for a day.  Such are the vicissitudes of liturgical calendar clearing.

Today many people celebrate a saint they wouldn’t otherwise recognize.  One that mythically drove the snakes from the Emerald Isle, and who perhaps hid a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  A holy man who has made it possible for anyone to be Irish for a day.  Leprechauns and clovers are in fashion as the ironic luck of the Irish closes down major thoroughfares for parades in the midst of ashes and dust.  Outside there may be snow or budding trees.  Perhaps both at once.  There’s a richness to these conflicting symbols that belies the commemoration of a missionary with alcohol.  The day is part of the complex of equinox holidays, whether intentional or not.  The green man of yore begins to awaken as light starts to outstrip darkness for half a year.  We’ve had enough of dusk.  Anticipate the light.  The rules state that Lent will still be here tomorrow.  But the light is beginning to grow. 

Culpability Defined

What seems to be lacking in the United States government is any realization that actions have consequences.  While in Christchurch, New Zealand at least 49 people have been murdered only for being Muslim, Trump feels that tweeting “heartfelt” condolences somehow exculpates him from fostering an atmosphere of hatred.  Indeed, the main shooter in that travesty cited Trump as an inspiration.  The sickening lack of awareness that deeds have consequences has once again led to a body count.  Meanwhile in these states the Republican Party refuses to condemn the daily and consistent message of racism coming from an edifice that is more and more appropriately called the “White House.”  Do you have to pull the trigger to be guilty?  History will decide.  

Politics has always been a crooked game, but until 2016 most elected to the highest office—God help us, even George W. Bush—realized that the office had responsibility associated with it.  It wasn’t a place you could play loose and easy and tweet from the hip and think it was your right as “just another citizen.”  Muslims have been part of American culture from very nearly the beginning of this experiment in colonialism.  Freedom of religion was one of the pillars of democracy that Trump has been chopping down like a cherry tree while tweeting “No I didn’t.”  The GOP applauds.  Here’s how to instill one religion as the norm, not considering the consequences.  Massacres in the name of Christ don’t make you Christian.  Not cutting history class should be a requirement to run for elected office.  Or at least taking basic civics.  Instead we have a government that refuses to recognize that it can inspire murderers around the globe and then offer heartfelt condolences with no apologies.

Where is the condemnation of racism?  Where is the line between black and white?  Where is the sense of any culpability for creating and sustaining the warm, moist environment where the bacteria of hatred thrives?  When you awake to the news that yet another white supremacist has taken inspiration from an angry white man who has nothing to be angry about and has consecrated murder as patriotism how can you look the world in the eye?  Hiding behind a tweet does not bring back the dead.  How do we get the message through?  Millions of us have repeatedly marched in protest.  We flipped one house of congress and we daily sign petitions until our fingers bleed but no response comes from those who won by a mere technicality.  If there are indeed ghosts in this world there will be mass immigration and it shall be richly deserved.

The Rules of Waiting

Tom Petty must’ve been a commuter.  On a winter’s morning after switching to Daylight Saving Time, waiting is the indeed the hardest part.  For a bus, that is.  In the dark.  The saving grace is that humans are rule-makers.  Before I even began commuting into New York I’d been instructed in the etiquette.  Those who get there first leave some kind of avatar—a briefcase, an umbrella, a lunch box—in their place in line and then sit in their cars.  Being the paranoid sort, and also thinking myself tough, I’ve always just stood at my place as the chill wind finds its way down my collar and then buffets me almost off of my feet.  With the time-change, however, I decided to do like the commuters do.  I walked out to the line of objects to find one widely separated from the others.  Being a law-abider, I put my lunch down after the errant water bottle.

“Hey,” a stranger called me on my way back to my car.  “Somebody just left that water bottle—you should move your bag up next to the backpack.”  Thanking him, I did so.  Not only was this person I didn’t know watching me in the dark, but he was also keeping the rules.  Indeed, when the bus crested the hill and commuters lined up next to their possessions, the water bottle remained unclaimed.  It was still there fourteen hours later when I got off the returning bus.  Now, I’m not a big fan of anarchy, but this incident demonstrates just how inclined we are toward civil behavior.  There’s no bus stop police force to ensure nobody jumps line.  Even at the Port Authority waiting in the queue at the end of the day the rules are mostly self-governing.  Those who don’t obey are scolded by their peers and generally comply.

There’s a natural sort of ethic among those who catch the bus before 5 a.m.  We’ve all been awake earlier than nature would seem to dictate.  We’re in a dark, isolated location outside town.  We look out for one another, realizing that any one of us might easily lose our place in line should the rules break down.  I was struck by the kindness of this caliginous stranger.  Or perhaps it was just his love of order.  Had my representation been out of place, other commuters might’ve grown confused.  The system might’ve broken down.  The last thing anyone wants is chaos before cock-crow.  I decided to interpret it as kindness, however, as I made my way back to my car to put on Tom Petty to face the hardest part.

If It Itches

The problem, or rather a problem, of growing up Fundamentalist is taking things literally.  I suppose we’re all born naive realists, learning only later that things aren’t what they seem.  One of the dynamics of finding something new to say about demons involves an unconventional method of research.  Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted is a case in point.  Being part of a series called “Theology for the People,” this book is not an exploration of literal demons or the Devil.  Well, it kinda is and kinda isn’t.  It is an engaging and often insightful treatment of the question of evil and what to do about it.  Evil is a question, but most of us, at least pre-Trump, could recognize it when we saw it.

Beck is a professor of psychology.  This meant that at several points I found myself pausing to consider some of the points he was making.  Some parts didn’t work for me—welcome to the world of reading—but others were eye-opening.  One thing that all books about the Devil seem to have in common is the observation that evil is clearly present in our world.  Governments, and Beck uses Rome as an example, easily become oppressive and harmful to the weak and powerless.  As a volunteer in a prison ministry, Beck knows whereof he speaks.  When governments are run by the unstable (think of the one with a toothbrush mustache or any other who declare themselves geniuses) oppression follows.  Evil not only bobs in the wake of oppression, it is oppression.  Beck has a Christian anchoring—call it theology—behind this, but it clearly works even without that.

Getting over my literalism, I know that academic books about demons or the Devil come with more serious titles and more hefty price-tags.  The value of a book, however, has to do with more than the cash you shell out for it.  Beck does a service by offering a theology that isn’t too theological.  I’ve known many candidates for the ministry who lost their compassion by getting tangled in the weeds of theology.  Even to the point of making sarcastic remarks to someone who wanted to help them when they fell on the ice.  I know myself, and I have to learn to trust those who practice theology in ways that I do not.  This may not be conventional research, but it is important reading.  Old Scratch, after all, is not just in the details.

Checkmate

March has been designated as Women’s History Month.  Since history has been written, well, historically by males, women have frequently been excluded.  History as a serious attempt to describe “what actually happened” is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Yes, men (mostly) have been writing their views of what events meant from the days of the Bible and the Classics on.  A few females had made their way into the narratives, but reading history often makes it seem like males were the only people of consequence.  I was thinking about this the other day after I read a reference to the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll.  Chess, I realized, is a game with a message.  Now I don’t often have time for games, but this felt important.

I’m not a good chess player, but I know that if you lose your queen you’ve got to be far better than I am at it to win the game.  In fact, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.  Now if you plan to come back with something like “using the bishop, knight, and rook you can surpass the power of the queen” it suggests two things.  One, you’re better than me at chess, and two, you’re missing the point.  The queen can move in both perpendicular and diagonal lines.  She can land on either color.  The range of her motion is limited only by the size of the board.  The bishop is limited to one color square only and the rook takes two moves to equal the queen’s diagonal skills.  

Think about the king—he moves one space at a time, and mostly only to avoid capture.  The queen is out there defending the realm.  Even as a kid learning to play chess, it was obvious that the queen did far more than a bishop limited to his ecclesiastical domain, or the rook with his brute force.  The knight makes a move the queen cannot, but his range in limited.  If a player retained only a queen the opponent’s king could still be captured, in my mind.  Chess should be a queen’s game.  

History is a way of looking at things.  Although it involves facts—and this is where the government narrative goes off the rails; the denial of facts is an autocrat’s game—it’s not the same as facts.  History is an interpretation of facts.  The fact is that male history of the world just could not have been possible without women.  It’s time not just to acknowledge it, but to celebrate it.

Learn and Let Learn

My wife often works weekends.  Generally this involves trips to New Jersey, and since my unconventional schedule means we see each other awake only a brief time during the week, I often tag along.  The colder months of the year, and general economic caution, mean things to be done around the house can wait.  Most of the locations where she works have nearby bookstores, but even a guy with proclivities like mine finds it hard to spend more three or four hours in one place, even in such a welcome environment.  It finally occurred to me that one need not be a resident to find shelter, and free wifi, in the public library.  I’ll pack my laptop, and if it’s going to be a full day, a sack lunch, and head to the library for a change of scenery.  It has led to a kind of renaissance for my spirits.

Public libraries generally do not house the books I read.  The source of my jouissance has rather been discovering how well used the libraries are.  In both affluent and more modest neighborhoods, people willingly spend part of their Saturdays in buildings dedicated to learning.  Not all are there for the books, but they seem comfortable surrounded by them.  We gather in a temple to the human mind.  And everyone’s generally quiet.  Mentors coach young people who want to learn.  Some even dress well, as if the library might be a place to be seen.  In a nation where education is under attack, I always leave refreshed without spending a penny.

Such opportunities are a rarity.  Before the library opens, if we happen to be at her venue early, I may need to find a Starbucks.  They more or less assume you’ll consume to utilize their free wifi, but beyond that a day at the library comes without cost and considerable gain.  A variety of ethnicities are always present, and nobody’s right to be here is questioned.  It’s a microcosm of what we could be as a nation, had we the will, the desire to learn and let learn.  People generally have a difficult time with silence—just ask any introvert.  I suspect this is one reason not everyone shares my enthusiasm for a cloistered experience of a Saturday.  Libraries are where we’re forced to be relatively quiet to respect the needs of those actually there to read.  Hoi polloi prefer to be loud, as any bar on a weekend afternoon will reveal.  But the libraries remain, and even in their own way, are buzzing hives of the life of the mind.