Tag Archives: Bible

Making Lovecraft

Perhaps it’s all just coincidence, but once in a while a number of unexpected things come together. Since I do a lot of reading this often happens in the context of books. The current case begins with my first noticing Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. I saw a review online, and since I enjoy contemporary novels that build on the worlds created by H. P., I added it to my reading list. The first coincidental aspect of it was that I found in Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca. Like most independent bookstores, it’s not huge, so the selection of books that cater to my odd tastes is always adventitious. I found it on the staff recommendation shelf and recalled that it was on my reading list. A second coincidence came in finding Neal Stephenson’s name under a cover blurb. My brother-in-law’s name is enough to get a book onto the bestseller’s lists, but I had no idea this kind of book would be to his tastes as well.

I began reading it right away. The third happenstance is that Ruff crafted a biblically literate story here. In a day when those of us associated with the Bible are definitively passé, it is nice to see popular fiction fighting back a little bit. Not that Ruff is advocating or proselytizing, but his finely tuned story is definitely enhanced with a bit of biblical knowledge. He’s unapologetic about it. In our religion-critical outlook these days we sometimes forget that the Bible has several stories that maintain, and even reward, contemporary interest. The most obvious example in Lovecraft Country is the story of Cain. There are plenty of others that can be dug out as well, and Ruff even leaves some on the surface so that they aren’t hard to find. Not that this is a religious book. It’s just not afraid of religion.

Some may find that odd in a homage to the noted atheist Lovecraft. What they may not see is that the master himself used religion from time to time in his tales of horror. Also, for those who are willing to be honest, we know that an unsavory racism resided in Lovecraft’s outlook. Ruff, like other writers who see the positive side of this author’s work, tells a story of African-American struggles in the “idyllic” 1950s. The protagonists, dropped into a world of real Lovecraftian magic—and in a very self-aware way—are all a close-knit black family and their friends. Which led to another coincidence. Quite unconnectedly, I’d been reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This plays an important part in the story as well. Sometimes reading itself can lead to a cascading set of coincidences. Lovecraft Country is one instance where it happened, but that may just be my unusual taste in books.

Devonian Dreams

Toothbrush and dental pick in hand, I go at it. Not that I’m a professional, mind you, but curiosity drives me to this. You see, this crinoid before me is at least 358 million years old and anything that can make me feel young deserves all the attention I can give it. Crinoids are also know as “sea lilies,” but they aren’t plants. They’re actually echinoderms, and the fossils I’ve found in the past have only been cross-sections of their “stems,” a stone circle, as it were. This one has tendrils visible, and I can’t believe that it was a chance find on one of my recent walks through Ithaca’s gorges. I’m dreaming Devonian dreams, and I want to brush away the plaque of the eons and see what I’ve actually found.

Fossils are a kind of eternal life. The creature that died to leave this impression lives on as a monument in stone. It reminds me of my unfortunately brief stint as an archaeological volunteer. Scraping away dirt to reveal a piece of pottery that hadn’t been touched by human hands for 3,000 years. Of course, that’s merely a second ago when you’re talking about something pre-Carboniferous. The dinosaurs won’t even show up for another 100-million years. And I think I have to wait too long for the bus. Time, as they say, is relative. Did this medusaized creature before me realize just how terribly long it would take for enlightenment to arrive? And how so very swiftly it could fall one foolish November night? Careful, this fossil’s fragile.

I grew up among the Devonian substrate in western Pennsylvania. The Bible on my shelf told me to disregard the evidence before my eyes. Some clever true believer had declared Noah’s flood the culprit, never bothering to explain how freshwater fish showed up after the deluge. Those we tried to keep in our aquarium never seemed to handle the slightest disturbance of their salinity. The ages of the literalist are by definition short-sighted. 6,000 years seems hardly enough time to account for any sedimentary stone, let alone that riddled with fossils. I’m hunched over my bit of slate, dental pick hovering nervously over what will never come again. The Bible behind me says it’s an illusion. You may be right, Mr. Scofield. You may never have evolved. But as my fingers glance a creature dead before even the crocodile’s grin I have to declare that I have.

The Ezra Puzzle

America loves the Bible. Thing is, most Americans have no idea how complex the Bible actually is. Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Christian Orthodox Bibles all have different contents. I was reminded of this the other day while trying to look up 4 Esdras. If you’re scratching your head saying, “4 Esdras? Is that even in the Bible?” it only makes my point. The books we call “the Apocrypha” are also known as “the Deuterocanon” by Catholics. The reasons are complicated, but the Apocrypha consists of books that were never in the Jewish Bible. Jerome, the 4th-5th-century biblical scholar translated the Bible into Latin (it was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, mostly). When he came to the Apocrypha, he translated those books too, but with a special heading saying they weren’t in the Jewish Bible. During the Middle Ages the headings were often left out and the Apocrypha was included with the “Old Testament.” During the Reformation, Protestants rejected all kinds of excess, including excess scripture. The Apocrypha was out. The Counter-Reformation, living up to the title, led to the definitive inclusion of the Apocrypha in Catholic Bibles. Meanwhile, different Orthodox groups kept some, rejected others, and added still others. When Americans say “the Bible,” they generally mean the Protestant Bible.

There are some implications to be thought through here, given that we’re talking about holy writ. Not all Christians agree on the same Bible. What’s more, the disagreements about what to include started pretty early. Does it count if you swear on an incomplete Bible? Would a New Testament do in a pinch? What if you’re Jewish? Having a national holy book is somewhat problematic when we can’t all agree on the contents. Many people would have some trouble opening right to some of the less popular books, say Ezra. Unless you’ve got a New Testament only, you’ll have Ezra. Go ahead, take a look. (It’s somewhere in the middle.)

Everybody’s complete Bible has the book of Ezra. So far, so good. 1 Esdras (“Esdras” is Latinized “Ezra”) is not in the Deutorcanon of the Catholic Church. It is, however, included in an appendix. It is part of the Orthodox canon, and it also goes by the names of 2 Esdras and 3 Esdras. Just to make it interesting, the Vulgate, or Latin translation of the Bible associated with Jerome, calls Ezra and Nehemiah 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras. Need a score card yet? It gets more confusing later! So 1 Esdras is either Ezra, 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, or 1 Esdras, depending on whose Bible you’re borrowing. But where’s 4 Esdras? Well, there is a 2 Esdras (not the same as 1 Esdras or Nehemiah) in Slavonic, but not Greek, Orthodox Bibles. 2 Esdras is known as 3 Esdras and 4 Esdras, the latter when it is in the Vulgate appendix. The fun’s not over yet! 2 Esdras is broken into 3 parts and they are called 5 Ezra, 4 Ezra, and 6 Ezra. There is, however, no 1, 2, or 3 Ezra (unless the Latin name is Anglicized). If you’ve got a headache, take two Esdras and call me in the morning.

The Preacher

Ecclesiastes, I used to tell my students, is one of the most unusual books of the Bible. And that’s saying something. When we think of the Good Book we think of pious thoughts and lofty feelings—you know, the white-shirt, evangelical sort. The Bible, however, isn’t what most people think it is. Ecclesiastes, nestled right there near the geographic center of the Protestant Bible (and there’s more to say about this) is a book unlike any other. It is philosophical, weighty, and somewhat gloomy. It is a book where God can’t be relied on to help you and the world may very well be against you. It honestly admits that things just aren’t as they should be. “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools,” it says, “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good.” (That’s 9:17-18, in case you want to check me out.)

America used to be known around the world for its pragmatism. Now it’s being laughed at as the master of irrationality. I remember when elections were matters of gravitas and serious consideration of the issues. They’ve now become high school popularity contests, even including the locker-room talk. Trump insults his own party and they kiss up. We have a president more impressed by kid’s toys in Saudi Arabia than by the top-notch research universities in his own country. I turn to Ecclesiastes for consolation. It’s a good book to read when everything’s going wrong. “For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.”

My white-shirted friends will surely object. I’m taking verses out of context—prooftexting, it’s called. But, my evangelical friends, you say Scripture is the word of God. Fully inspired and inerrant, is it not? How can you dismiss the wise, wonderful, woeful book of Ecclesiastes? The world is a complex place. Those who seek office as public servants should at least be able to distinguish the servant from the master. They lay their hand upon the Bible to take a sacred oath of office. Beneath that withered hand lies the book of Ecclesiastes, forsaken among its more cheerful siblings. Do not forget Ecclesiastes. It is the book that best makes sense of our day. “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit.” Herein lieth the truth.

Cloaking Device

America’s book is seldom read. Those of us who spend an unusual amount of time with the Bible know this from personal experience, but others are starting to notice too. Kenneth A. Briggs’ The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America is a rambling account of the way a variety of everyday people from prisoners to academics and clergy use, read or not read, and perhaps inwardly digest the Good Book. There are moments of stark insight in this book, but with no narrative arc it is somewhat easy to feel like you’re reading about what random people say about the Bible. I don’t need a book to tell me that I’m odd, but much of what I read here was old hat to a guy who grew up Evangelical, went to seminary but never got ordained, completed a doctorate and taught the Bible nearly two decades before being booted out of its company. I’m not sure what I expected to find. Perhaps redemption?

Briggs does provide some useful statistics, and not as maniacally as sociologists do. We learn that few people read the Bible and the numbers are declining. Still, people buy the Bible and tend to have multiple copies in their domiciles. It is cheaper than insurance, after all. Holy Writ, however, is an alien among us. Few people have any idea what it was like to live before smart phones, let alone before the smelting of iron. The concerns and dialogues of the Bible seem so terribly provincial and, to be honest, unenlightened (if one can say such a thing about divine revelation). Still, we won’t accept a president who doesn’t lay his (and it’s always his) hand on the Good Book and swear to uphold America.

The Invisible Bestseller gave me plenty of information to ponder. Some of the tales Briggs tells are interesting. Others are so mundane as to be stultifying. The overarching fact is that the Bible is an established object in our culture. Some take it seriously enough to read it and stick with it—this isn’t easy to do, and I speak from experience here. Such people are rare. After all, apart from getting you a hall pass out of Hell, the Bible doesn’t seem to do much for people these days. Still, when I take a moment to read the Sermon on the Mount, I can’t help but feel we might be missing some wonderful rhetoric by ignoring the Good Book so much. But then again, I’m fully aware that I’m the one that’s odd. Briggs’ book stands as a testament to a couple of testaments that continue to wield enormous power without ever being read.

One Size Fits All

The divide between religion and science is often artificially widened by one side or the other. Of course the divide’s artificial—both science and religion are human constructs, after all. This is illustrated well in the sense of wonder in an article titled “True Story Of Volcanic Eruption Told By Aboriginal People For 7,000 Years” by Robin Andrews on IFLScience!. The very concept that a scientifically verifiable event survived in oral tradition for thousands of years completely unbalances those accustomed to think that the ancients were superstitious dupes who looked to the gods to explain everything. What’s often not realized is that the gods were an early version of science. Think about it—ancient people observed their environment for cause and effect. They couldn’t use the empirical method because it hadn’t been invented yet. That didn’t mean they were unsophisticated.

We look at the pyramids and wonder. How could such archaic people construct such advanced monuments? The rudiments of science actually begin to appear in the human record very early. Our species is a curious lot. The explanations for the close observations tended to be mythological. Gods are great for filling gaps. What we don’t see is any conflict between knowledge acquired by reason and ideas conjured by imagination. They fit together nicely. Human brains evolved that way. Belief is a strange thing—it influences reality, at least on a quantum level, but somehow it must be denigrated when compared to “pure science.” A large part of the blame, of course, has to go to those who had learned to take the Bible literally, particularly beginning in the eighteenth century.

The Bible had a disproportionally influential role in the founding of European empires. From the regular Roman under Constantine to the Holy Roman under Charlemagne, what became Catholicism informed political structures. In the British Empire, ever vacillating between Catholic and Protestant, the Bible played a major intellectual role. Real problems developed, however, when the idea of science alone took over. This was after Newton, Galileo, and Darwin. None of these lights suggested religion had no place. The real issue isn’t vanquishing, but finding proper balance. No matter how well calibrated our instruments may become, until we learn to detect “spirit” we have to admit that science can’t replace religion. Such harmful ideas as eugenics and behaviorism indicate that we need a balance and not a slam dunk. Who knows? Some of even the Bible may be true. Unless we learn to admit we don’t know all, those sitting around the fireside telling stories should be given credibility regarding what they’ve seen.

Size and Its Matters

Have you ever wondered where your Bible came from? No, I mean physically. There are many possible answers to such a query, so the other day I was searching for Bible printers on the web. A great many Bibles are printed by Royal Jongbloed, in the Netherlands. They specialize in the super-thin paper used in much Bible printing. The reason the paper is thin is purely pragmatic. The Bible is an economy-sized book and if printed with “regular” paper it would be large and unwieldy—something desirable only by those with nefarious purposes, I suspect. Bible paper, by the way, was developed originally by Oxford University Press. And in case you’re wondering, the convention of printing Bibles in two-column format is also a space-saving convention. So I was looking over the Jongbloed site, wondering if they’re nervous at all about the increase of Nones. Then I remembered that in many parts of the world Christianity is actually growing, so there should be security in the Bible printing market for some time.

The Netherlands had a large role to play in the development of Protestantism and its love of the Bible. Many English non-conformists found it a welcoming place. Bibles were welcome. But Bibles aren’t all that Jongbloed does. They print scientific manuals too. Now that caught my attention. There’s nothing mercenary going on here—some scientific manuals are really big and are printed on (of all ironies) Bible paper. Is there some kind of conflict on interest going on here? I mean, which is it—science or religion? Or maybe there’s a third way. Maybe it’s not an either/or proposition. Maybe Occam shaves a little too closely.

The craziness flooding out of the District of Columbia has us all worried. Science is being attacked. If you’re being attacked you look around for your enemies. Religion! But wait, is religion really science’s enemy? How easy it is to forget that science developed from alchemy and astrology, both religious practices. Even today many scientists see no inherent disagreement between the two. If we want to be effective in warding off the pressing insanity we need to realize who the real enemy is. Science and religion can both be honest searches for the truth of this universe we inhabit. No, the natural enemy of science is personal greed. It’s also, if we take any kind of religion at it’s word, the enemy of religion as well. What we see bursting the floodgates of Foggy Bottom is the desire for personal gain cloaked as governance for the masses. We should never forget that the Netherlands facilitated a movement that changed everything. Besides, it’s just too expensive to print Bibles in a land badly in need of a Reformation.