Greatest Weakness

What a privilege it must be to work in a world of ideas!  (And to get paid handsomely to do so.)    My particular (and peculiar) career—if that’s what you call it—is intimately bound up with academics.  Those who know me personally treat me nicely, but the vast majority who haven’t a clue that I’m anything other than a guy who’s helping them get published sometimes forget their privilege is showing.  I’m not busting on my homies; I know what it’s like.  But I’ve noticed some interesting trends (“turns” in academese) that are fascinating from the point of view of an ordinary mortal with a mortgage and a great deal of anxiety about it.  For example, I find catch phrases time and again.  (See what I did there?)  Academic writers learn that if they buck the conventions they’ll be relegated to presses that don’t enhance your career.  All roads lead to Harvard, after all.

All of this is preamble to a curious trend that I’ve been seeing claiming that an idea’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  I read this time and time again, so I began to wonder about the origin of this idea.  Now, not even Google understands “what is the origin of the phrase greatest strength is greatest weakness?” but it does bring up about a thousand-and-one websites about job interviews.  I’ve had many of these throughout this thing I’m calling a career, and just like everyone else I’ve read that when asked what your greatest weakness is reply that your greatest strength (whatever it may be) is it.  The classics such as “I’m a workaholic,” or “I just can’t stop acquiring more x” (and we all need more x), are tired cultural tropes.  How did academics pick up on this?

Does it stretch back to Achilles and his heel, or Goliath and his gigantism?  Or is it that to admit weakness is to disqualify yourself from a job?  A well-meaning friend told me I should go through this entire blog (as if anyone, including me, has time to do that) and expunge all mentions of having lost my job.  They should be replaced with insinuations that I’d chosen to leave.  “Nobody,” he implied, “likes a loser.”  Well, I guess my greatest weakness is that I’m an honest graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  Novels and nonfiction books, short stories and essays, and even a learned article or two.  I used to be an academic you see.  And I was always honest.  It was my greatest weakness, if you see what I mean.

Kings of Israel

Eating out is something that has become more of a habit than it should. Still, when we get together with friends it’s a cause for celebration, and a restaurant is usually somehow involved. You only live once. Well, maybe. In any case, while waiting for a seat at a new place I happened to glance over at the bar. Two huge bottles of wine stood there. I asked our friends if they knew what they were called. I can’t recall how I’d learned, but the proper name for them is “Jeroboams.” Jeroboam, in case your reading of 1 Kings is somewhat rusty, was the first king of Israel when the “United Monarchy” split into Israel v. Judah after Solomon’s reign. The curiosity of my friends led me to research the subject a bit. What I found was alcohol of biblical proportions.

Another name for the same size bottle as a large Jeroboam is Rehoboam. Rehoboam was Solomon’s son, the king of Judah while Jeroboam took over Israel. Moving up to a 6 litre bottle the name becomes Methuselah. Methuselah, of course, is the Bible’s oldest man. Symbolically, if you do the math, he drowned in the flood. Nine litres will be called a Salmanazar, also known as Shalmaneser, a king of Assyria who attacked Samaria. Twelve litres, and perhaps the namers were getting a bit tipsy here, is either Balthazar or Belshazzar. The former, while not biblical, is the name of one of the three Magi from the visit of the wise men. Belshazzar was, according to Daniel, king of Babylon and is somehow scripturally mixed up with Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar, by the way—famous for his madness in Daniel—denotes 15 litres. An 18 litre bottle, depending on which line you’re following (if you can) is either Melchior—another of the Magi—or Solomon, the father of Rehoboam and one time boss of Jeroboam. The 27 litre bottle is called Goliath, for obvious reasons. And if you’re still standing, the 30 litre bottle may either be Midas or Melchizedek. The latter is the mystical king of Salem, later to be called Jerusalem.

I’m personally no fan of wine, so much of this was news to me. Not all bottle sizes are biblical, but many of them are. Spirits, in all seriousness, were taken to be related to the spirit world in ancient times. And the Bible, a book most familiar to those engaged in the industry of wine, was a natural place to find often ironic names. According to John, Jesus’ first miracle was changing water to wine at the wedding at Cana. Prohibitionists shudder to read that the carpenter from Nazareth changed six jars, each holding between 20 and 30 gallons, into free spirits. Wine bottles, perhaps to society’s benefit, never grow so large. But it’s time to go, our food has arrived.

They Might Be

Last week I mentioned that a letter-writing friend had sent me two articles from the 1868 Prescott Journal newspaper. Some time ago I did some research into the history of newspapers since many of the stories from the early days of the medium seem difficult to accept. Perhaps it was a more credulous time, or perhaps newspapers were a form of entertainment as well as information, but the occasional hoax made its way into the pages of even reputable papers. I’m always surprised how many tales involve a kind of biblical literalism, whether stated or not. The second story from the aforementioned Wisconsin newspaper has to do with a giant skeleton unearthed at the Sauk Rapids. At ten-foot-nine, this veritable Goliath was estimated to have weighed some 900 pounds when alive. This prodigy sparked some piety in the writer, who concludes by stating, “We hope ‘642’ [the article doesn’t hint at the referent here] may learn humility from this dispensation of Providence, and that a view of the ‘femur’ and ‘fibula’ of this deceased stranger, may teach him the futility of all attempts at fleshy greatness in these degenerate days.”

Quite apart from the pious closing, the idea that giants once inhabited the earth is indeed biblical. Studies have been undertaken that speculate on why people of antiquity believed in giants, and one of the more plausible explanations has to do with the discovery of megafauna bones. Not having a conceptual world wherein dinosaurs or mammoths might fit, giant leg-bones and ribs, for example, look pretty much like those of people. Only much larger. Whatever the reason, people all over the ancient Mediterranean believed in an era of giants, and that belief made its way into the Bible as well as into Greek mythology. Only, if the Bible says it, it must be true, no? And so, finding giants in the earth is not to be unexpected.

Goliath_Bible

Interestingly enough, this craze of finding giants has not ceased. The internet keeps bogus photos of unearthed giant skeletons alive and the explanations we’re given amount to proof of the flood. After all, the Bible says giants came before the flood, and if Noah wasn’t a giant, well, they had to have been wiped out, right? But then they show up again later in the form of the Anakim or Goliath and his kin. The question of whence the giants 2.0 came is not answered, but if it’s literally true then there should be no surprise if one should turn up in Wisconsin. After all, other oddities have turned up in that same state, some of which still defy explanation in the rational world of the twenty-first century.

Paying Goliath

A friend pointed me to the story of David and Goliath. Well, actually, it was the Malcolm Gladwell story of David and Goliath. TED talks have become a regular part of public education and I was a little surprised to see one based on a Bible story. If you’d blink you’d miss it. I’d seen Gladwell’s new book on David and Goliath in the bookstore, and I had assumed it was about some hidden principle based on little boys challenging giants to single combat. Who knows. So when I turned on TED and heard Gladwell describing pretty much what I would do in class, and knowing that he was raking in the bucks for doing so, I gave it some thought. Yes, it is clear that he’s done some research into ancient warfare. Most of us who read the Hebrew Bible do, since ancient warfare is a large part of Holy Writ. (Yet the world seems surprised when religions turn violent.) Gladwell’s perspective is refreshing, but I can’t help think that the Bible does indeed view David as the underdog. Yes, slingers were always an important factor in warfare, just as archers were before guns were invented. I seriously doubt David was actually packing the firepower of a .45, however.

The interesting thing is that Gladwell takes the story so literally. Historically David’s existence is questionable, although I personally see the weight of tradition as bearing on the tipping point here. There were just too many stories of the boy who killed the giant in the Bible to say it was all made up. The fact that they don’t agree in details adds a hoary venerability to the tales. But can we take it to the level of seeing Goliath as having double vision because of his gigantism, and saying to David “why do you come at me with sticks” even though the lad is holding only one? Perhaps Goliath can be pardoned for using the plural instead of dual form (he is, after all, a Philistine), but the point here is that it is a taunt. David is what the dog saw, compared to the seriously shielded Goliath. Gladwell makes some good points, but, in my humble opinion, misses the giant.

Saul, the king of Israel, fears to send David into combat because the kid will be slaughtered and Israel will be enslaved. Yes, ancient armies relied on slingers, but, like archers, in great numbers. Perhaps it was David’s accuracy that was in doubt. According to the Bible, however, Israel boasted slingers who could hit a hair at distance, and these from the tribe of Benjamin, Saul’s own people. So the point of the story is that David’s victory is a miracle. Miracles no longer fly, of course. Those who write bestsellers know best. It stands to reason. Okay, so I’ll buy Gladwell’s book now, but I somehow feel that those of us who have spent a life studying the Bible really deserve something more that jobless obscurity. I come at the giant with a tiny blog, but then, I’ve alway been an underdog. An outlier, you might say.

477px-071A.David_Slays_Goliath

Gods and Goliath

EyreAffairNot only gods are proficient at creating worlds. Writers, as readers know, are the creators of worlds too. I first discovered Jasper Fforde via a friend’s recommendation. With the depressing demise of bookstores, however, I end up picking up whichever one happens to be on the shelf. Not that this is a bad thing, but I find myself in a melancholy cast when I think of all the joy that is not being had by avoiding reading. It’s all rather hollow, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Eliot? All of which is to say Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair was great fun. As usual when I read fiction, I kept an eye out for how religion appeared in this alternate world—most fiction that ignores religion completely somehow seems to be less realistic than Fforde’s fantastic tale. In the world of Thursday Next, the churches are dedicated to GSD, the Global Standard Deity. As one of the characters explains, the GSD is a combination of all religions intended to stop religious wars. It’s a great idea on paper, but religions are prone to wars as sparks fly upward.

Somewhat later in the novel Thursday encounters a crucifix-wearing vampire. Fooled by the sigil, she almost becomes a victim to the blood-sucker. When Thursday points out the supposed impossibility of a vampire wearing a crucifix, he replies, “Do you really suppose Christianity has a monopoly on people like me?” Although Fforde can be a great comic writer, some of his quips are quite profound. Indeed—does Christianity have the only vampires? All religions have their monsters, whether that’s what the author meant (score one for reader-response theory). The truth is the truth, no matter whether intentional or not.

The idealized world of The Eyre Affair is one in which religion has become universal. The great military conglomerate in the book is called Goliath not because of the Bible but because of its size and apparent strength. It is brought to its knees, however, by Thursday—a female David, if you will. In practical terms, throughout the book the military is much more powerful that the church of GSD. Perhaps that’s because people are afraid. Religion, which once upon a time allayed fears, has now become one of their main generators. “Nothing frightens me more than religion at my door,” John Cale once sang. In this rich complexity the reader is invited to bask as Jasper Fforde works his magic. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of his books. Before it is too late. You might find yourself learning a thing or two about religion. I did.