More Classics

Western civilization, in as far as it still exists, has traditionally identified itself with a heritage that includes the classics and the Bible.  As study of the Bible grew beyond a bunch of guys discussing what they thought the text meant, realization dawned that comparison with the classics might not be a bad idea.  The main difference between the two was that one was considered revealed by God and the other was mere human invention.  Nevertheless, an educated person was expected to be well acquainted with both.  In today’s version of “western civ” it’s sort of an embarrassment to admit to being interested in the dusty old classics, and the Bible has reverted to being a bunch of guys discussing what they think it means.  In the interim there was some fantastic work done that helped us understand whence we came.

Those of us born in the sixties or later were raised in a culture where the classics were diminishing.  Yes, I’d heard of Cicero, Seneca, and even Ovid, but I couldn’t tell you what they wrote.  By the time I really took an interest I had the hundreds of volumes of the Loeb Classical Library to tackle—a daunting feat even for an undergrad.  Those guys wrote a lot.  Compared to the classics the Bible—a pretty big book—is miniscule.  As someone who deals with biblical studies all day long (and who has done so for decades) I’ve had to pick up on the classics a bit.  Those of us who were more inclined toward the Hebrew end of the spectrum discovered the vast, and still not fully translated, archive of ancient West Asian material.  If you wanted to include these ancient classics that influenced our civilization only indirectly, you wouldn’t have time even to tweet.

There are those who accuse classicists of any strip of being backward looking.  Those of us so accused are often amazed at how current events so closely resemble things the ancients encountered.  Historians, relegated to their shadowy corners, have been the Cassandras of us all, warning that if we don’t learn this stuff we’ll end up repeating it.  As often as they prove correct the rest of the “civilization” scratches its head in wonder at how we’ve come to this point.  I’ve not read all of the classics.  I’ve not even read all of the Ugaritic tablets—more have been discovered since my ill-fated dance with academia.  We have much to learn from ourselves.  About ourselves.  If only we could spend our time in the classic pastime of reading.

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.

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.

Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Quiet on the Winter Front

There’s a weird silent time, after a book is published, when you start wondering how it’s doing.  Holy Horror was apparently released November 29, and published December 29, if done according to standard publishing practice.  The release date is when stock is received in the warehouse.  The book is printed and technically available, but not yet published.  Publication is about a month later when the sellers, distributors, etc., have received their orders and can begin sending them out.  Publishing, as I’ve noted before, is a slow business.  Somewhere around this point you start wondering how your book is doing.  Reviews take some time to appear.  The publisher falls silent (I know this from the editorial perspective as well).  You start thinking, did it really happen?

This is the internet syndrome.  We’ve become used to instant results and it’s difficult to believe that can get by without minute-by-minute updates.  The problem is publishing is slow.  Reading a book takes time.  Not all readers review.  It’s perhaps the kind of malaise you expect in late winter.  In my case, however, my book was an autumn book that missed its release date by a few months.  Yes, hardcore horror fans are still chomping at the bit for upcoming features like Us, but the public in general is well on its way to Valentines Day and what comes after.  We are pretty much a holiday-driven culture and Holy Horror was a Halloween book released after Christmas.  That, and the combination of Bible and horror is unexpected, with many, I’m guessing, thinking the book is something it isn’t.

Often at work I ponder how publishing has changed, even if it runs like sap in January.  Professional writers—those who lived from their books alone—used to be rare.  Most authors were otherwise employed, and many of them worked in publishing.  It stands to reason when you think about it.  I’ve worked for three publishers and finding other writers is, and has been, a rarity.  Instead editorial boards consist of people who largely don’t have the experience of writing a book of their own talking about author expectations.  A disconnect has emerged where writers find employment in other industries and find themselves wondering why publishers do things the way they do.  Even with that background knowledge, I do wonder how my little book is doing.  It’s only natural.  And now that we’ve progressed to February, it’s only eight months more until October.

OBSO

Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a subscription service for institutions that gives access to many biblical studies resources produced by the press.  It also features current essays that stand on this side of the paywall, written on contemporary issues.  In a shameless self-promoting plug, I’d direct you to this link to see my latest publication.  You see, I’m not alone in looking at Bible through the lens of horror.  As the acknowledgements to Holy Horror reveal, many conversations were going on that led to that book.  While the ideas contained in it are my own, I’m by no means the only one to have noticed that the Good Book makes guest appearances in genre fiction.  One of the points I made to my students when I held a teaching post was that the Bible is ubiquitous in our culture, whether we know it or not.  Just look at the Republican Party and beg to differ.

The idea is not without precedent.  For those who read the Bible real horror isn’t hard to find.  The Good Book can be quite a scary book.  Consider for just a moment the final installment—Revelation, apart from being full of amazing imagery, is an amazingly violent book.  Attack helicopters and atomic bombs may not yet have been invented, but there was no shortage of ways to kill people in the pre-gunpowder world.  Revelation paints the world in the throes of horrible suffering and death.  Indeed, the completely fictional Left Behind series rejoices in the death of the unrighteous who are, well, left behind.  Even today there’s a significant segment of “Christianity” that rejoices in the chaos Trump has unleashed.

In the OBSO article I sketch a brief history of how this came to be.  The history could work in the other direction as well.  The fact is the Bible and horror have always gone fairly well together.  Among genre literature, however, horror is a distinctive category only after the eighteenth century (CE).  Early horror novels, under the guise of Gothic fiction, often involve religious elements.  Culture was already biblically suffused then.  This is a natural outgrowth of a would steeped in violence.  Personally, I don’t like gore.  I don’t watch horror to get any kind of gross-out fix.  My purposes are somewhat different than many viewers, I suspect.  What we do all have in common, though, is that we realize horror has something honest to say to us.  And it has been saying it to us since from in the beginning.

Not about Pigs

Pseudepigrapha always struck me as a great name for a pet guinea pig.  Neither members of the porcine family nor from Guinea, these rodents are remarkably companionable.  But like the word pseudepigrapha, this post isn’t about guinea pigs.  I’ve been reading various documents among this sprawling category of texts, and I can see the fascination they hold for scholars of Second Temple Judaism.  My own specialization was on the earlier end of the spectrum—Ugarit had ceased to exist even before a first temple was built and provided clues to how this whole religion got started in the first place, but that’s a story for another time.  The account of the pseudepigrapha  cannot be summarized easily.  Some of the documents have been known to scholars for a very long time.  Others have been (and continue to be) discovered, some quite recently.

Not a pig.

The documents classified as pseudepigrapha generally bear the name of someone who couldn’t have been their “author.”  We now know that ancients didn’t think of writing the same way we do.  They didn’t publish books like modern writers do, and scholars have been exploring how the category of “book” distorts even the Bible, let alone books that didn’t make the cut.  None of this diminishes the intrigue of these ancient texts.  The world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born contained many texts and traditions.  There was no Bible as we know it today—it was still being written (or compiled)—and no canon, literally a measuring stick, existed to determine what was holy and what was not.  

As discoveries in Mesopotamia have made clear, although few could read or write, writing itself was prolific, at least given the technological limitations.  Today if one wishes to specialize the literature of one subsection of one time period, and probably even some subdivision of that, has to be selected.  Universities don’t see the point, and much of this ancient material is understudied because there remains money to be made in looking at economically viable topics.  The pseudepigrapha have nevertheless come into their own.  Perhaps because some of the stories these documents contain have made their way into pop culture.  Even as I make my way through many of these texts that are young in my eyes, I realize the proliferation of writing made such growth almost inevitable.  There remains, however, a high-pitched squealing that demands attention, regardless of what the exact genus and species of the creature may be.

Mythic Truth

“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.”  I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism.  We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true.  This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation.  Words, however, have uses rather than meanings.  Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above.  Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry.  Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.

Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally.  Instead, they were known to be true.  It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true.  In other words, historicism is our myth.  Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits.  Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry?  On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal.  We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive.  Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.

The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true.  If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ.  The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way.  In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times.  The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth.  They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable.  Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote.  The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing.  Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can.  Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.

Whose Canon Is This?

Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days.  The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind.  Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book.  When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up.  Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis.  Had we left out some sacred books?  That would seem to be a grave mistake.  As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.

The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.”  Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out.  My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?”  That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth.  If something really happened it was, by definition, true.  The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later.  Scripture is more subtle than that.  So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon.  Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.

The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together.  Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible.  The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge.  Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible.  Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away.  Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing.  And, ironically, some even left out his book.  Such matter remain hidden indeed.