Grasses and Bans

It’s been so busy that I didn’t realize it was Banned Books Week until yesterday, when there was but one day left (today).  I usually make a point of reading a banned book during this week, but I suppose I read so many of them normally that the observance might lose its edge.  But that’s just an excuse—in this world of uber-corrupt governments, preventing censorship is a sacrament.  We’ve seen just this week how dictators try to silence those who expose them.  Banned books, whether we like what they say or not, should be available for reading.  This is an amazingly bipartisan holiday.  Some places have banned the Bible, to which true believers in the principles of Banned Books Week would respond “Even books we might disagree with should be made available.”  Censorship seeks to cut off discussion.

Although I won’t finish in time, after work yesterday I quickly grabbed my unread copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to begin to make up for my oversight.  Leaves of Grass has been called America’s homegrown Bible and it has an almost religious following, as it has for decades now.  Poetry has a way of moving people that frightens autocrats.  It taps into something that skirts around our conscious mind at times, opening up possibilities that censors would rather keep closed.  Over the past couple of years books of poetry have again begun to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list.  People read to be moved.

One element banned books tend to have in common is that they’re honest, even when they’re fiction.  Honesty is a source of great anxiety for many.  We don’t like to let our true selves be seen because, truth be told, we feel vulnerable.  Banned books take us into uncomfortable places.  And sublime places.  Not all books are great literature, of course.  Even I have been known to part with a book after reading it because it simply didn’t speak to me in the way I like to be spoken to.  Still, I’m loath to give such a book a negative review.  It didn’t speak to me, but it spoke to the author and the publisher, obviously.  It is a voice that deserves to be heard.  That’s what Banned Books Week is all about—defending the right of human expression.  I may not finish my banned book by the end of today since weekends tend to be busier than many work days.  Still, I’m looking forward to my encounter with America’s other Bible.

Detective Daniel

In a recent article, which will hopefully be published, I explore the origins of the horror tradition in the Bible.  That should come as no surprise since the Good Book is really the beginning of the western literary canon.  Yes, there are earlier works—the Epic of Gilgamesh may be considered part of that canon as well, for the canon has no official curator—but because of Scripture’s status literature in the western world takes off from there.  In any case, the other day I was considering the additions to the book of Daniel in the Apocrypha.  The Apocrypha is, of course, part of the Catholic biblical canon, but not the Protestant.  The additions to Daniel roughly fall into three stories, or two stories and a poem.  The two stories—Bel and the Dragon, and Susanna—involve Daniel as an early kind of detective.

Traditionally the inventor of the detective story is Edgar Allan Poe, and certainly in the modern literary canon that may be so.  One wonders, however, if Poe might have drawn his inspiration from these apocryphal stories.  Susanna goes like this: two nasty elders fall in lust with Susanna, the beautiful wife of a local prominent judge.  They stalk her, learning her habits, and when they know she’ll be alone they confront her demanding sex.  If she won’t, they’ll claim they caught her with another man and since the law requires two witnesses, well, she was screwed.  Since she won’t comply they accuse her and she is condemned until a young Daniel in turn condemns the court for not questioning the men separately.  When Daniel does so the details of their story don’t match and Susanna is vindicated.  Part courtroom drama and part ratiocination, this is an early detective tale.

Bel and the Dragon involves a couple stories together, but the story of Bel is the one involving detective work.  The priests of the god Bel take food into their temple every night to offer as a sacrifice.  Since it’s gone in the morning, they offer this as proof that Bel is real.  Daniel, however, knows Bel is just a statue and so he sprinkles a fine layer of ash on the floor around the food one night.  The next day as Bel’s followers announce the food is gone and the temple was sealed for the duration, Daniel takes them back and shows the footprints in the ash—the priests have been entering from a secret access and eating the offering.  There may not be a direct line from these stories to Poe, but they nevertheless reinforce the idea that the western canon begins with Holy Writ.  If we explore this with our own ratiocination we’ll discover, I believe, much more.

Funny Business

Do animals laugh?  The question sounds innocuous enough, and when my wife played me a RadioLab episode on that very question, the conclusion, although cautious, was that at least rats and chimpanzees do.  This is an instance in which the very question strikes me as terribly speciesist.  Despite the fact that evolution suggests otherwise, Homo sapiens are constantly seeking that fabled northwest passage that will separate us from animals once and for all.  One by one, over the decades, the defining traits have fallen aside.  Animals make and use tools, they build dwellings with ornaments, they solve puzzles, they communicate, and they laugh.  Were we not so obsessed with our own greatness (and consider whom we’ve elected over the past few years!) we might easily recognize that we have evolved to be what we are.

Perhaps it’s because we wish to retain our right to exploit animals.  After all, eating animals is big business and it’s harder to eat someone who’s not so very different from you.  In our culture certain animals are taboo for fodder: dogs, cats, and horses, for example.  This isn’t universally the case, and knowing that animals laugh might just make it a little worse.  We like to think animals “react” using “instinct” rather than respond with genuine emotion.  Until we fuss and fawn over Rover, and accept his affection as genuine.  Consciousness can be quite a burden to bear.  Funny, isn’t it?

We accept evolution up to a point.  Is it any wonder then that creationists still are a force with which to contend?  Often we fail to recognize that science, as it has developed in the western hemisphere, gestated in a largely Christian context.  The reason for drawing a hard line between animals and humans is ultimately, in this setting, biblical.  We’ve moved beyond the idea of God creating each separate species one-by-one, but we haven’t gotten beyond the literal truth of Adam naming and dominating them.  If we don’t consider the biblical origins of these ideas they continue unchallenged, even into the laboratories and sterile rooms of today.  It makes us a bit uncomfortable to consider just how influenced we still are by the Good Book.  At the same time we consider its meta view on the biological world, even as the evidence continues to pile up that little, if anything, really separates us from our faunal kin.  Try explaining that to the rats.  That sound you can’t hear without special equipment, by the way, is their laughing.

The Root of All

The other day I was in one of those stores where everything is sold really cheaply.  I figure it helps balance out all those times when I’ve been overcharged for things at other stores because I was pressed for time and needed something quickly.  In any case, these dollar store establishments have a constantly rotating stock, it seems (things move at a buck!), and so you might or might not find exactly what you’re looking for.  While just looking around, acquainting myself with the content, I came upon a shelf of Bibles.  God’s word for a dollar a pop.  This isn’t a place I’d normally come looking for books.  Then it occurred to me: many of those who shop in such stores are committed to a faith that keeps them in their economic bracket.

That suspicion was confirmed by other items at the store.  Many of them were Christian-themed.  This seemed like the opposite of the prosperity gospel.  People trying to scrape by, to shave enough off the budget to make it to another paycheck.  Many Americans live like this.  Many of them support Trump.  Selling the Bible to them cheaply definitely involves a mixed message.  There’s indeed a message, as I’ve learned in the publishing, in the way books are priced.  Getting a thousand-pager printed where the unit cost is below a dollar requires a massive print run.  Someone knows that Bibles sell.  You won’t find such cheap divine revelation at Barnes and Noble.  The same content, maybe, but not at the same price point.

The economics of cheap Bibles contains a message.  Those who can’t afford much can be guided toward spending some of it on the Good Book.  While just reading the Bible may indeed bring comfort to those who know where to look, as a whole this book requires major interpretative work.  As I’ve been indicating over the last several days, Holy Writ is not nearly as straightforward a reading experience as many suppose it to be.  Trying to figure out what Nehemiah’s differences with Sanballat the Horonite have to do with the rest of us isn’t an easy task.  To find out, if the internet doesn’t give us quite all the knowledge we want or need, can require some intensive study, up to and including seminary.  Even then you might not get it.  Studying the Bible requires further commitment than simply picking one up for a Washington might imply.  But then, it costs less than a lottery ticket.  And you can get it while saving money on other things you need.

Chapter and Verse

Maybe like me you’ve read some arguments based on chapter and verse.  I should mention that I mean chapter and verse in the Bible.  The typical scenario will go like this: Genesis (say) uses this word three times in chapter 38.  The case then often slips to making a point on the number of instances a word or phrase occurs within a circumscribed set of verses.  (The actual word doesn’t matter—this is a thought experiment.)  When I ran into an example of this a few days ago a thought occurred to me: chapters and verses are later additions to the biblical text.  They were never part of the original and were only added because Bible readers got tired of saying “That part in Genesis where…”  In other words, chapter and verse are artificial means of interpreting the Bible.  They’re very useful for taking quotes out of context.

I used to tell my students that you have to think carefully about what is the Bible and what isn’t.  As a culture where the book has instant recognition, we tend to think of that discrete unit of pages and cover as coming from one person—the author.  In reality most books (I can’t speak for the self-published) are the work of several people.  Just like it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes one to assemble a book.  That includes the Good Book.  Not everything between the covers is sacred text.  I’m pretty sure about that since as I was glancing through the latest edition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible I found my own name in the Preface.  As much as I’d like to claim otherwise I’m not exactly biblical. 

Modern ways of looking at ancient texts require a degree of facility in understanding how God’s scribes of yesteryear went about their work.  While early experiments in binding books may go back close to the time when the latter parts of the Bible were being written, the scroll—without chapter and verse—contained only the words of the text.  Most ancient manuscripts in Greek, anyway, didn’t even bother to put spaces between the words.  That leaves some room for ambiguity in among all those letters.  The Bible is a complex book with a complex history.  We do it a disservice as modern readers treating it as a modern book.  If you read Scripture online, or via electronic media, an even further layer of interpretation has been added.  That’s why we still need Bible scholars tangled somewhere in this world-wide web.

You Call That Working?

A recent post of mine on the United Methodist Church got a lot of response (for me, anyway) on other social media.  As I pondered this—I’ve written about the topic many times before—it occurred to me that most people probably have no idea what biblical scholars do all day.  (That is, besides write books that only other biblical scholars read, and teach their classes, or, very occasionally, edit books.)  Biblical studies is arguably one of the oldest academic pursuits in the world and what it boils down to in a word is “contexts.”  We try to understand the multiple contexts of the biblical texts.  Think about this a second: when you pick up a book, newspaper, magazine, or their electronic equivalents, what is the first, if often unconscious, thought you have?  Isn’t it something like “what kind of book, newspaper, etc., is this?”  Is it fiction or non?  Is it reputable or not?  Who wrote it and when?  These are all contexts.

The Bible was written about two millennia ago.  Very little of that original context still remains.  In fact, none of the original manuscripts even still exist.  It was a book written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  The vast majority of people in the western world do not read these languages, and so the Bible comes to us in mediated form—translation.  Translation, as any writer knows, is a form of interpretation.  It is not, and can never be, the original.  To figure out what the Bible “means” it has to be interpreted—even just reading it is a form of interpretation.  Biblical scholars want to be able to interpret it in informed ways.  We learn about its various contexts and use them to help us understand.

What did people think like thousands of years ago?  Can you even remember what it was like to look up a distant location without the internet?  Writing letters or dialing a rotary phone to get information on it?  Going to triple A to get maps?  And all of that was only two decades ago.  Life in biblical times was very different than life today.  The people then didn’t understand science the way that we do.  The writers of the Good Book didn’t have any idea that what they were scribbling would one day be considered holy scripture.  They had completely different contexts.  Whether the contexts are historical, literary, or social scientific (we still haven’t figured out an elegant way of saying the latter) biblical scholars use a variety of methods to get to those contexts.  We can’t go in with the answers already in our heads—if we did we’d only find what we were looking for.  At the end we have an answer, not “the” answer.  And so biblical studies continues.

Common Tyrants

“Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not intitled to obedience from their subjects.”  The words aren’t mine, nor are they from this century.  That, however, makes them no less true.  Jonathan Mayhew was an eighteenth-century clergyman arguing that Bible’s admonition to obey government officials did not apply to those who abused power.  In reading these words I felt a sense of loss in a very basic way.  No, I’m not a fan of turning back the clock—it can’t really be done anyway—but when the word of a single book was not disputed those tempted to follow tyrants could be made to justify it with a Good Book that could also be used to refute it.  We no longer have a common frame of reference, but tyrants still exist.

Shouting matches have been substituted for discussions because those who support tyrants can’t see how they are also being oppressed.  It’s one of the ironies of history.  This internet age has only found a way of magnifying people’s differences on the political scale, even as it has brought us to the common marketplace of culture.  Who doesn’t use Amazon?  Tyranny, by definition, is the arbitrary use of power.  One might think of, oh, declaring a national emergency when none exists just to get what one wants.  One might think of surrounding oneself with criminals against the nation just to get what one wants.  One might think of business practices meant to ruin others just to get what one wants.  There seems to be a common theme here and it’s one on which the Bible has a great deal to say.  The only Scripture that gets quoted is that which supports tyranny, eh, Mayhew?

When the debate was about the Good Book we were largely all on the same page.  Not all colonials wanted to break with King George III.  Some profited from the connection.  Others thought Holy Writ prevented revolutions rather than inspiring them.  Tyrants have always been with us.  You’d think that with all the media we have these days that we’d be able to spot one fairly easily.  The camera, however, has a way of giving the lie to the Good Book.  Anyone can say they read it.  Or claim they obey it.  Its own test seems to be “by their fruits you will know them.”  The words aren’t mine.  They’re from a distant century past.  But it seems the fruit is dying on the tree, even as spring begins.