Tag Archives: Bible

Bible Hobby

Hobby Lobby needs a hobby. Besides the Bible, I mean. The amorphous media has been buzzing about the new Bible Museum set to open in Washington DC soon. The Lobbyists seem to think the Bible will save America. Not the Bible exactly, but their narrow, constricted, and uncritical view of the Bible. Seems a lot to expect from a museum. Museums, the Green family apparently hasn’t considered, are monuments to the past. When I last saw the politically incorrect Elgin Marbles I didn’t feel inspired to run out and build a parthenon. Instead, I simply wondered about the past and how it must’ve been cool back then. I didn’t want to live there though.

I’m sure there are great plans for the Good Book in the Bible Mausoleum. Looking at displays of the same text over and over can surely get a little dull, if we’re being honest with ourselves. I like Bibles as much as the next guy. Actually, I probably like them more than the next guy, but that’s beside the point. I don’t need to go to a museum to see them. There are Bibles all around my office, a mere arm’s length away. Here at home I can take in many of them at a glance—there are Bibles on three sides of me even as I write this from my favorite chair. Saving a nation that’s had the Bible from the very beginning sounds just a touch ambitious to me. But then, I’m no billionaire with nothing better to do with my money. There’s probably a tax write-off in there somewhere.

The thing about the Bible is, once you learn about it you can’t unlearn what becomes clear along the way. Cover your eyes or ears if you will, but we know the Bible had a long and complex history before becoming “the Bible.” It doesn’t have much of a plot without Revelation tacked onto the end—and seriously, that was one of the reasons it made it into Holy Writ to begin with! The circumstances that led to the Bible were often quite profane, in fact. It was the recognition of it as a sacred book that was a religious activity. The next step was to spread it as far as possible. That’s pretty much been done. The end result? The election of Donald Trump. If that’s salvation we’re all screwed. At least when we’re all standing in the bread line we’ll have a museum to visit while we wait. And it will be an encomium to something that was great once upon a time.

The Price of Worship

The wind resistance alone must drive the cost of gas up considerably. Of course, with Yahweh on your side you don’t need to worry about pocket change. We were driving through a sleepy town in the Poconos. A light rain was falling. We came upon a truck advocating not for the usual and expected Christ, but instead for Yahweh. Promising “dramatically affected” lives for those who do so, the implied message on this portable billboard is somewhat ominous. We are apparently being restrained by “non-mortal, non-native beings of ill-intent.” The grammar of the placard confuses things a bit since it seems to suggest that calling on Yahweh will “release restraints on” said non-mortals, and that’s hardly a good thing. I suppose they can’t reveal the nature of these entities without giving away spoilers for drawing the curious in.

This vague, supernatural world presided over by the personal name of the deity seems just a little out of place in Bible country. There’s a kind of literalism about Pennsylvania that I find strangely comforting. It is where and how I grew up. I never encountered God’s personal name—at least not with first-person familiarity—until I attended college. Even then we were encouraged to be careful with its use. The commandment about taking the divine name in vain is just a bit disconcertingly unspecific, considering that it isn’t spelled out in more detail. And who exactly are these beings of ill-intent? They’re all the more frightening for not being named. Demons, I must suppose, but I don’t recall the Good Book saying anything about their restraints being released. This is a new kind of apocalypse maybe.

The thing about the Bible is that it’s everybody’s book. Some modern translations use Yahweh rather freely, opting for the admission that translating it leads only to more questions and “Lord” is obfuscation. Still, it seems awfully familiar. The need to air one’s personal beliefs, in some quarters, is very intense. There’s a passion behind this proclamation that I can’t help but admire. People stop and stare. Some, like yours truly, will want photographs of your vehicle. I suppose that’s the point, nevertheless, not too many people like being stared at. Evangelical culture demands it, as I recall from my youth. Putting your personal beliefs out there comes with a price. Part of that may be reduced gas milage and, consequently, pocket change.

On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit: http://maps.bpl.org, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.

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.