Update on Nightmares

Progress continues on Nightmares with the Bible.  Despite pandemic conditions, I received a happy email last week telling me that the manuscript had been transmitted to production.  If you don’t work in publishing that probably sounds like a pretty simple step, but in reality it’s immensely complicated.  The job of many editorial assistants is often just making sure books get through the transition from author to publishing engines safely.  Since Lexington/Fortress Academic is short-staffed at the moment (publishing is a “non-essential” business), they ask authors to take on additional responsibilities.  One that they passed on to me was to find people to endorse my book.  Fortunately I’ve got star series editors who agreed to take on the task, sparing me from going to someone and saying, “Um, hi.  Would you like to say nice things about my book?”  I’m shy that way.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not excited about the book.  It came about in an odd way, but like any parent an author loves her or his books, even if they aren’t quite what you expected.  Getting a fourth book published is kind of a hallmark for me, especially since I spend a lot of time on the websites of successful academic colleagues older than me that haven’t reached that benchmark.  Publishing books, for me, is a kind of validation.  The original ideas of editors aren’t much valued, either in publishing or in society at large.  Who cares what an editor thinks?  Put that same person in a college and s/he’s a superstar, eh, Qohelet?  So I sit here like an expectant parent, wondering what the book will look like although I already know what I’ve put into it.

Nightmares was never meant to be a research book.  Indeed, Holy Horror was written with an eye toward trade publication.  I’ve been working on my next book project (which I’m keeping under wraps at the moment for fear that someone with more time might get to it first, since there’s no getting the genie back in the bottle).  Before too many weeks have passed I’ll need to brush off my indexing skills (in as far as I have any), and get proofs submitted.  I’m afraid I’ll miss the coveted Halloween launch yet again with this book.  “Scary topic” books always sell best in September/October, but if you miss it, the next year you’re old news.  Like an anxious parent I sit here and wait because at this point things are literally out of my hands.

Too Close?

Some time back I did a Google search on something like “best novels about possession,” like one does.  I was in the midst of writing Nightmares with the Bible at the time.  One of the titles that came up was Sara Gran’s Come Closer.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I started to look out for it.  I finally found and read a copy.  It is a page-turner.  A first-person narrative, it is a story about how a woman became possessed and how her life changed because of it.  Creepy and moody, it isn’t your typical Exorcist-type story.  What it highlighted for me (I don’t want to give too many spoilers) is the dilemma of those who a) live in an era when such things are routinely dismissed, and b) who have no religious background on which to fall.

While there are some quasi-religious characters in the story, there are no priests.  There’s no Catholic Church with its reassuring, if disturbing ritual.  Nobody seems to know how to handle a powerful demon.  One of the features that fuels exorcism movies (and presumably many novels on the subject) is the uncertainty of success.  Will there be deliverance or not?  I’m not going to tell you the answer here for Gran’s novel, in keeping with the spirit of the genre, but the dilemma of where to turn is believably laid out.  Amanda, a well-employed professional, lives without religion.  She acknowledges that strange things happen, but when she gets an inkling that a demon is after her, she doesn’t know where to turn.  As the story builds the loss of personal control is convincingly portrayed.  What do you do without the church?

I often ponder the particular power of The Exorcist narrative.  The threat to a young woman (as I discuss in Nightmares) is part of the key.  Another is the knowledge that the Catholic Church has packed away a powerful ritual that is only brought out in what are clearly extreme circumstances.  Like Amanda, the MacNeils aren’t church-going individuals.  The difference is that they live near Georgetown University where help may be found.  Unveiling this ancient rite was perhaps the greatest brilliance behind the story.  We live in a different age, however.  Simultaneously both more religious and more secular.  With the old certainties now under question, people wonder what they are to do when the impossible happens.  That is the driving pathos behind Come Closer.  It is a scary story on many levels.

Nightmares with Nightmares

Although some staff members are furloughed, Nightmares with the Bible is still going to press.  Unlike many authors, I realize that Covid-19 has had a stifling effect on publishing, starting with bottlenecking books at printing houses.  Printers (along with publishers) were non-essential businesses and since you have to be physically present to run a printing press, the virus literally, well, stopped the presses.  Many publishers could work remotely, so the projects began piling up before printing houses reopened.  All of this is preamble to saying I am gratified that work with Nightmares is continuing.  Yesterday, however, it led to a nightmare of its own.

One of the reasons I don’t fight awaking early is that it is uninterrupted writing time.  Most of the rest of your time zone is asleep at three a.m., so I can write in peace.  Yesterday, however, I had to divide my manuscript into chapter files and resend it to the publisher.  No problem, right?  Technology, however, has made this once simple task a burden.  I use a Mac, and so my word processor is Pages.  Not only that, but the constant systems upgrades require me to empty space on my hard drive—really, the only stuff I keep on here are my writings and those pictures I snap with my phone.  Still, I had to load my external drive to access the final file sent to the publisher two months back.  With Pages you can’t select material from page-to-page in the thumbnails.  No, you must “physically” go to the start of the chapter, click, scroll to the end of the chapter, and shift-click to highlight and then copy it.  Then you have to open a new file, select a template, and paste.  Save and export as a Word document.  The process took about two hours.

 

Now, I get up this early to write and do a little reading.  Yesterday I could do neither.  Instead I was cutting and pasting like a manic kindergartener, trying to get my manuscript printed before the second wave comes and shuts everything down again.  Talk about your nightmares!  Technology has made the industry much swifter, no doubt.  When I first began publishing articles you had to send physical printouts through the postal services and await either a rejection, or acceptance, through the mail.  Book manuscripts required large print jobs and keeping duplicates (at least we didn’t have to use carbon paper!).  All I lost was a morning of writing before the work bell rang.  Still, nightmares come in all sizes, some of them quite small.

Eternal Returns

Nightmares with the Bible has been submitted.  Those of you who read this blog regularly know that it is my fourth book and that it is a kind of sequel to Holy Horror.  Nightmares looks specifically at demons.  I was inspired—if that’s the right word to use for it—to write the book because the chapter on possession movies in Holy Horror was clearly overflowing.  Not only that, but at the time I started writing the book not many resources were out there on demons.  Almost nothing, certainly, that asked the big question of what they are.  To answer that we need to go to the movies.  People get their information from popular culture, especially when it comes to trying to understand the arcane and even esoteric field of theology.

Movies, studies have shown, often participate in the reality our brains conjure.  Back when Reagan was president—is it even possible to believe those seem like halcyon days compared to these?—he was caught occasionally citing events from movies as historical realities.  We all do it from time to time, but then, most of us, if pressed, can tease movies apart from facts.  Church attendance has been going down for some time (and on Zoom you can tune in and tune out without having to “stay in the room”), and so people have to get their information on demons somewhere else.  Reality television and the internet also play into this as well, of course, but Nightmares sticks with movies because I’ve only got so much time.  The message is pretty straightforward though, we must consider where people get their information.

After you submit a large project, if you’re anything like me, you’re mentally exhausted for a while.  I’ve been working on this book for nearly five years—I started it before Holy Horror was submitted to McFarland.  I had already begun work on my next book, but I yet have to decide which one it will be.  I have several going at any one time.  Hopefully this next one won’t be coming out with an academic publisher.  I’d like it to be priced in the realm where individual buyers might consider it worth the investment.  I know from experience that even books just over twenty dollars are a stretch for most people, especially if they’re on academic topics.  Nightmares will come back, I know.  There will be proofs and indexing and all kinds of further work to be done.  I’m hoping that by that point I will have the next book nearly done.  If only I could decide which one it will be.

Reading Connections

It’s flattering to have someone notice your work.  The other day I had the very first email from someone who’d read Holy Horror and wanted to discuss it.  It was from an undergraduate, no less, who was doing a report on religion and horror.  She’d read my book (and yes, it’s undergrad friendly) and wondered if I’d be willing to talk about it.  I can’t express how surprised I was (and still am).  You see, I have emailed authors after reading their books.  Many of them show no interest in carrying on a conversation with someone they’ve “met” through email.  I’ve had so many single-sentence responses with no enthusiasm whatsoever that I’ve begun to think of those employed in academia as hopelessly stuck in tunnel vision.  If you write a book you’re wanting conversation with those who read it, I should think.  At least I am.

Those of us outside academe don’t have tenure committees to please or effectiveness committees to placate.  We write books to try to engage readers.  Unfortunately Holy Horror is priced for the library market.  During our phone interview, my interlocutor asked about the cover.  She said something publishers should hear: when walking around with Holy Horror her friends asked what the book was about because the cover is intriguing.  (It’s actually based on Chloë Grace Moretz from the reboot of Carrie, discussed in the book.)  In the midst of a pandemic, this first show of interest made my day, like seeing the first crocuses after a long, hard winter.  I do welcome conversation about my book.  I don’t have a classroom of students to force to buy and read it.  It’s out there for discussion.

Nightmares with the Bible is nearly finished.  Of course, publishers have hit a bit of a slow patch with many of their business partners shutting down.  Some publishers have gone into hibernation during the pandemic.  Books, though, will get us through.  A colleague of mine said the industry reports are showing that novels continue to sell while nonfiction is suffering.  Well, I’m no expert, but I do wonder if nonfiction might do better if authors would be willing to respond to this who express an interest in their work.  I know it’s a radical idea.  I also know that my books reach nowhere near what most publishers consider a viable readership.  What people are looking for during enforced isolation is a sense of connection.  Reaching out to find someone reaching back.  Books can do this, even if we never physically meet.

Coincidentally

I hope I never become too sensible not to pay attention to coincidences.  With the death of Max von Sydow falling the same week as the time change, the full moon, and Friday the thirteenth, I’m left feeling a little vulnerable.  I mean, what do we do now that the Exorcist is gone?  A couple days ago, when the moon was full—the last full moon before the vernal equinox—I awoke before 3:00 a.m.  Thinking Daylight Saving Time would have me groping for a few extra minutes abed, instead I found myself wide awake at the hour when monsters are thought to be afoot.  As I put my feet to the floor I saw the brilliant lunar light beating through the blinds like midday.  It was remarkable how very light it was.

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in congress to make Daylight Saving Time permanent.  Of course, getting any law passed without numerous riders and bickering is unlikely, but I do wish they’d get on with it.  That having been written, the time shift has been remarkably easy on me so far this year.  Perhaps those of us regularly awake in the dead of night adjust a little more quickly.  Keeping out of New York with the coronavirus lurking, I’d rather deal with my own monsters anyway.  I remember my amazement at seeing Max von Sydow unchanged from Fr. Merrin to Dr. Naehring.  Then I looked up just how much makeup the Exorcist had to have to age himself several decades.  He was a young man when The Exorcist was filmed.  At this time of day anything is believable.

Friday the thirteenth is a bit of lore grown from Christianity.  Friday was inauspicious because of Good Friday and the thirteenth lot fell on Judas, who, along with the others, made thirteen.  It was as if some demon were afoot on such Fridays.  These bits of Christian lore made their way into popular culture and then crept into horror films.  A good deal of Nightmares with the Bible revolves around The Exorcist.  So I sit here before sunrise with a bit of just-past full moon shining in, not too tired from losing an hour on Sunday.  It’s not difficult to think of scary things at this time of night.  Of course, demons traditionally come out around 3:00 a.m.  This week has been like that.  And without Max von Sydow, we want to be very cautious around demons.

Speaking of X

The project that ultimately led to Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible was an article.  Intrigued that the quasi-horror Fox series Sleepy Hollow was so solidly based on the “iconic Bible” in its first season, I wrote an article on how the Bible functioned in it.  After that was published I realized that there was plenty of material for a book on how the Good Book appears in horror films.  That book, of course, appeared late in 2018.  Nightmares with the Bible was a kind of sequel, but moving in a different direction.  It looks specifically at how ideas about biblical monsters (demons) are mediated through horror films.  This post isn’t all an introspective about past projects; in fact, it’s about present watching.

At one point in my research I noted that the X-Files wasn’t as biblically based as Sleepy Hollow.  I stand by that assertion, but my wife and I’ve been rewatching the X-Files on weekends for several months now.  Nearing the end of season two I’ve noticed just how often the Bible appears in it.  Unlike Sleepy Hollow, where the entire story was premised on (largely) the book of Revelation, the X-Files has multiple episodes that focus on religion.  What we might call New Religious Movements feature in some of the vignettes while others posit older, hidden religions.  The Good Book appears visually many times, or, and it’s often quoted, even if not shown.  Although some of the episodes are lighthearted, many of them are played as straight horror and address the question of the reality of evil.  I hadn’t been alerted by Sleepy Hollow the first time we made our way through the X-Files, but if I had more time, and if anyone were still interested, there’s a book in this.

Ironically, even in the light of a political party that takes its energy from a religious base, universities are no longer interested in the study of the subject.  I have no reason to believe that these two television series are isolated instances that I’ve just stumbled across.  American culture is biblically based, no matter how secular it may be.  To my way of thinking, when something like the Good Book has such a strong influence, the response of the rational should be to try to understand it.  I know what biblical scholars do all day; I used to be one.  Only in recent years have some of them begun to turn toward the concept of the iconic Bible and to consider how it influences American thinking.  I can only do this on a small scale, in my free time.  What I see, however, like a good X-File, defies explanation.

Poe’s Demons

In Nightmares with the Bible I use an idea penned by Edgar Allan Poe as one of the threads holding the book together.  One early reader complained that Poe didn’t write about demons, so the use of the great man was inappropriate.  That reader misunderstood me.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  As I think about the influence a writer can have on a young mind, I come back to this reader’s comments.  I can’t think of my book without Poe.  No, Poe did not write about demons, but he set the stage for what I’m trying to do in my book.  I’ve read analysts who claim Poe wasn’t a horror writer.  Certainly in the modern sense that’s probably true.  Still, he, like many others, was brave enough to suggest the tenebrous side of life was worth exploring, even if you only had a candle.  

Poe’s monsters were often interior.  They were psychologically probing, and although Sigmund Freud had not yet been born, it’s not inappropriate to say that Poe explored psychology.  Writers, I suspect, often deal with things they can’t name.  This is the way knowledge moves forward, even with fiction.  Especially with fiction.  As I’m reading books by academics who’ve done well for themselves, I often reflect how their legacy will remain within their field only.  It’s the rare nonfiction writer who manages to reach a cultural status that will find readers from other disciplines.  Most of us, however, will admit to reading a novel or two now and again.  Fiction writers, such as Poe, can claim things without backing them up with footnotes and citations.  That doesn’t mean they were any less astute at observing the world than academic writers are.  Often they’re more so.

I didn’t put Poe into Nightmares to show off.  His work has long been in the public domain.  I don’t cite him to claim that he would have agreed with my use of his insights.  No, I cite him because even if he wasn’t a horror writer my early encounter with him started me on a path of exploration.  Poe had trouble getting along in a literary world where rejection was endemic (it still is, I know from personal experience) and making a living as a literary person was unheard of.  He nevertheless knew that fiction was more honest than the alternatives, at least for some of us.  If we wish to face the world with integrity, we should admit that our heroes may have been made so in our own minds.  That doesn’t make them any less authentic, just because we’ve appropriated them for our own purposes.  We borrow what we find meaningful.

Strange Powers

Some books take you to strange places.  Not all of them are fiction.  I began Nightmares with the Bible as a way of understanding the many, disparate ideas of demons I encounter in popular culture.  (I can’t tell you too much about my conclusions, otherwise you wouldn’t be tempted to buy the book!)  One of those nagging questions is: what does “based on a true story” mean?  I’ve known of Walter Wink’s powers trilogy for many years.  Because of my research I’ve now settled down to read Unmasking the Powers (number two, for those keeping count).  This book will take you into strange places.  Wink was very much a Christian in his outlook and orientation.  At the same time, he raises questions I’ve had other Christians put to me—were the “gods” of other nations, as in the Bible, real?  That word real is slippery, and Wink tries to hold onto it.

Unmasking the Powers is a kind of systematic exploration of the various “spirits” found in the universe we inhabit.  One of these is the Devil, and although Wink doesn’t see him as necessarily a “being,” neither does he find the Bible making him entirely evil.  Indeed, one of the great conundrums of monotheistic belief is theodicy; how is it possible to justify the goodness of a single, all-powerful deity in a world with so much suffering?  Wink approaches this question from an angle we might not anticipate.  He then deals with demons.  Since this is my subject in Nightmares, I found his discussion apt.  And yet again, strange.  Powers emanate from the institutions we create (you might have correctly guessed this was the book I wrote about on Tuesday).  Wink is willing to challenge materialism and take such powers seriously.

Finding a new perspective when we’ve been reared in a materialistic one, can be difficult.  For those of us raised religious, there was an inherent schizophrenia involved.  Our teachers told us of a mechanistic universe, but had Bibles on their desks.  (Yes, this was public school, but let’s not kid ourselves.)  While physics taught us everything could be quantified, church taught us that spirit couldn’t.  At least not by any empirical means.  Wink will unblinkingly take you there.  He offers both scientific and spiritual points of view on these entities, although he tries to refrain from calling them such.  Still, he records many people who have seen angels.  And although quantum entanglement wasn’t really known when he wrote this book, if it had been, Wink would’ve been nodding his head.

Hereby Resolved

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing.  Having had a good Calvinistic upbringing, I’m a natural self-corrector.  If I’m aware I’m doing something wrong, I attempt to change my behavior right away.  This makes annual reviews at work exceptionally uncomfortable for me.  I’d much rather have my boss point out foibles as they happen so that I can stop doing them right away.  I realize my mindset here may be weird to those who were raised in more normal ways, and employers love process.  So I sit here in Ithaca on New Year’s day, preparing to drive home to face all kinds of unfinished business from 2019.  I’m still doing research for Nightmares with the Bible, thus it’s not ready to go back to the publisher or series editors yet.  I’ve started a new round of queries to agents about one of my novels, but I haven’t sent them yet.  And don’t even mention projects that need to be done to the house.

Life is busy.  I’ve taken on some new duties at the church I attend, exemplifying that old saw “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”  As the pressures from that obligation mount, I start to think that most people don’t have any idea just how all-consuming writing a book can be.  I work long days and although I don’t commute much any more, most of the rest of each day is taken up with writing and reading so as to write some more.  I hesitate to call myself a writer since I make laughably little lucre from it.  I can’t stop myself from doing it, though.  And although it’s the season for resolutions, I don’t plan to stop.  I know from work that graphomaniacs can be a problem.  Anything can be overdone.  On days when I don’t have to work I have to be pried away from my computer.  Otherwise I’ll write all day long.  It’s an issue, I know.

Perhaps because life on the national scale is so depressing, writing about things like horror movies is a great release.  I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had the chance to write pieces for venues like the excellent Horror Homeroom.  I used to contribute to Religion Dispatches.  That time has been sucked into getting my books that nobody will read finished.  Having written that self-disparaging remark I have to remind myself that one of my alumni magazines published a notice about Holy Horror without me having to send said notice personally.  That self-disparaging thing requires some fixing, I guess.  And were I not too busy already in 2020, I’d start on it right now.

2019 Books

  Goodreads is always a little eager to put the tally on a year’s worth of reading.  This year, however, since I’ve been engaged in some larger books, they may be on target.  According to their count I’ve read 71 books this year.  (I re-read two, so my personal count is 73.)  New Year’s Eve, for me, is a time to reflect about what I’ve learned in the past year.  Much of that involves books I’ve read.  A good deal of my reading has been for Nightmares with the Bible.  To write a book you need to read books.  Frequently it means taking them on regardless of your mood—and I tend to be a mood-driven reader.  So what books stand out from 2019?  (They all have individual posts on this blog, in case you missed them.)

My first nonfiction book of the year was Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster.  Animal intelligence always makes for good reading and this was reprised in Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.  I’ve fallen behind in my Frans de Waal reading, though.  Of the many research books on the Devil and demons, Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Mephistopheles stands out.  Russell’s clear thinking and wide view make him a pleasure to read even on unpleasant subjects.  Other books in that category didn’t quite rise to his level.  Monster books, on the other hand, rocked.  I loved James Neibaur’s Monster Movies of Universal Studios, Mallory O’Meara’s Lady from the Black Lagoon, and Kröger and Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote.  These were all excellent.  Tipping toward the unusual, Guy Playfair’s This House Is Haunted and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip gave me pause for thought.

Perhaps because I was reading longer books, this year didn’t have fiction in the numbers I usually strive for.  Most of it was quite good, though.   David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was memorable and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (strangely similar to Mitchell) became an instant favorite.  My young adult fix came through Christy Lenzi’s Stonefield and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.  Victor Gischler scored with Vampire a Go-Go and Cherie Priest made a fine impression with The Toll.  I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Fall yesterday, but it will stay with me into 2020.

A couple of memories/biographies also made deep marks on my mind.  Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him brought me close to Rod Serling and Barbara Taylor Brown’s Learning to Walk in the Dark found me where I live.  America’s Dark Theologian by Douglas E. Cowan isn’t really biography, but it was thought-provoking (as his books always are) and increased my resolve to read some more Stephen King.  The books I read make me more myself.  At the end of each year I think back over it all.  And this year I pondered what got me through a difficult 2019.  I have ended the year more myself than ever, I suspect, and I looking forward to a reading through the new decade.

Writing Prophets

So I was sitting at a table with two writers I’d just met.  It was at the Easton Book Festival and since I’m new to the area I was very aware that I didn’t know anybody.  I was also aware that my book, Holy Horror, wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen, despite it being mid-October.  As we were talking my two interlocutors mentioned the advances they’d received for their books, one of whom was able to buy a house with said advance.  As I listened I kept my mouth shut, because that’s polite, even though my jaw was slack.  The other person hadn’t been able to buy a house, but after writing on a topic so obscure I can’t remember it, had been able to do something noteworthy with the advance.  My royalties from Holy Horror wouldn’t have covered the cost of this dinner.

In the weeks following the festival—always busy with AAR/SBL looming, then Thanksgiving, then December—I began some soul-searching.  What was I doing wrong?  I also did some web-searching.  One of the articles that came up, written by a business writer, suggested pulling up your socks and getting to it, demanding money for your writing.  I don’t see anywhere to put a coin slot on this blog, which is more of a labor of love than anything anyway.  Then the kicker came.  This business writer cited Hosea 4.6, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge,” as the basis of why people would pay for content.  Now pardon me for taking things a little literally, but I doubt Hosea was in the business of giving business advice.  The knowledge people lack, in context, is knowledge of Yahweh.

Now here I was back on familiar territory.  I’ve taught classes on Hosea, and this intriguing prophet was commenting on Israel’s lack of knowledge of God’s ways.  There were some folks akin to prosperity gospelers back in the pre-Gospel days, suggesting that if you kept God happy rewards would roll your way, but history had other plans.  Israel fell to the Assyrians shortly after Hosea’s time, his writing advice apparently unheeded.  As I revise Nightmares with the Bible for publication—the reviewer felt it was too tradey—I have to wonder about my conversation back in October.  Neither book of my conversation partners was one of broad appeal.  In fact, the second was rather technical.  They had, however, been paid for their work.  Academic publishing is built on the paradigm that the writer already has a university job and doesn’t need the money.  Hosea also said, if I recall, something about what happens if you sow the wind.

Seasonal Reading (Not)

I might excuse writing a post on Satan on Christmas Eve by positing that I misread the title of this book as Santa.  After all, as Ryan Stokes explains, the Greek form of the title is ho satanas, which clearly contains the first of the canonical tripartite “Ho, ho, ho.”  The reality, however, is that work on Nightmares with the Bible continues despite the holidays, and there’s so much reading to do that not all of it can be seasonal.  I’ve known about Stokes’ book for some time, even as I’ve known his name through his various articles about the Satan.  This book, while not exhaustive, is certainly comprehensive for the time period covered and lays considerable groundwork for future discussions of the Devil.  What becomes obvious working through it, however, is that many different ideas about the Satan are represented in the Bible and related literature.

Long ago, as far back as my dissertation, I realized that it’s a problem for modern readers to systematize what ancients viewed disparately.  The Bible has no single idea of the Devil.  We’re quite accustomed to saying that “Satan” (which Stokes shows may not be a name in the Bible) and “the Devil” and Lucifer are all synonyms.  That’s not really the case.  Ancient peoples had many names for beings that caused problems, but not all of these entities were evil.  Belial, Mastema, Melchiresha, Beelzebub (and the list could go on) were designations used by different groups at different times.  These entities are sometimes agents of Yahweh, doing God’s will.  At other times they seem to be enemies of God, adversaries.  “Executioners,” is Stokes’ emphasis in these roles.  In early (and more recent) attempts at systematization, readers have tried to roll these various images into one.  With but limited success.

Ancient peoples didn’t feel the necessity that more modern ones do to make everything fit “scientifically.”  After all William of Ockham hadn’t shown up yet to suggest complicated ways of explaining things should be simplified.  We get the sense from reading ancient texts, including the Bible, that lots of ideas were floating around as to who these nasty beings might’ve been.  And their nastiness was really the result of human perceptions of who they were because often they were in league with the Almighty.  Theirs was not a simple, binary world of black and white.  It was more like a photo that we would still designate by that term but which is really grayscale.  Grayscale shades from white to black with the chiaroscuro preventing simple explanations.  Although it’s not about Santa, this book is very informative and will raise any number of questions at any time of year.

To Be Continued

I’m about in the middle of Neal Stephenson’s Fall: Or Dodge in Hell.  I’ve also just about finished Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers.  At the same time I’m revising the draft of Nightmares with the Bible, which will become my fourth published book.  While doing all of this at the same time (and working about nine hours a day), it occurred to me that to really “get” an author you should theoretically read her or his oeuvre from start to finish.  Ideally, to trace the arc of thought, you shouldn’t leave anything out.  The reason that this is as important as it is futile is one of the nagging problems that came to me while working on my doctorate: how do you know what a source you’re citing is really saying?

Pardon my nihilism, but this is an important matter when it comes to academic practice.  Academics cite many sources, and often miscite them.  I’ve seen it regarding my own work.  One scholar argued the exact opposite of what I published in an article and even made the point that he was building on what I’d stated.  Clearly he was digging where I’d been building or vice versa.  We were going in opposite directions and what I’d written was to undermine what he was arguing.  The thought came to me now because both Stephenson and Wink are the writers of many volumes.  I need to cite my sources, but it’s clear that the books are merely slices of lifetimes of thought.  Academia wants you to show your work, but its dated even before you press the “send” button.

I’m not knocking scholarly process.  It’s the best system we’ve come up with for getting near to the truth.  Since no one person has the entire truth, however, we get closer still if we follow a writer from start to finish.  Those of use who use pseudonyms in order to keep our day jobs only complicate things.  Our works (which we hope will outlast us) are only fragments of a larger world of thought that goes on behind the writing of books.  And what about weblogs, or “blogs”?  The million-plus words on this one are a stream of consciousness that weave within, behind, and outside of the books, articles, and stories I write.  Some writers make bold as to attempt biographies of other writers.  Some try to read everything said writers wrote.  Even so they’re only getting part of the picture.  To understand where a writer’s coming from requires more commitment than we’re likely willing to spare.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some books to finish.

Honest Labor

When an artisan begins a new job, s/he must acquire the tools of the trade.  During a period of unemployment I seriously considered getting certified as a plumber.  I’d done some plumbing repair and, unlike many people, I wasn’t afraid of it.  (I am, however, terrified of electrical work.)  When I was looking into it, it became clear that there would be a significant outlay of tool purchasing up front.  While all of this may seem obvious, people are often surprised to learn that writing books also involves tools acquisition, although it generally pays far less than plumbing. The tools used to be made of paper, but they can wrench pipes apart and rebuild a bathroom from scratch.  I’m referring to books, of course.  In order to write books you have to read books.

Long ago I gave up on trying to read everything in an area before writing.  There’s just too much published these days.  When I was teaching and actually had a modest book allowance I would attend AAR/SBL only to come back with armloads of books that I needed for my research.   Of course I had the backing of the seminary library as well, so I could find things.  As an independent scholar doing the same work, however, you have to do a lot more tool acquiring since no library will back you up.  Nightmares with the Bible came back from peer review with a standard-issue academic who wanted me to “show my work.”  (I.e., document everything.)  Apart from slowing the book down (it is written), this also means acquiring tools.  AAR/SBL always reminds me of just how much is being published these days and that my toolbox, although already quite hefty, isn’t nearly big enough.

As I’m going through Nightmares rewriting and adding footnotes, I’m discovering more and more material that could be included.  As an editor myself I try hard to keep to assigned word counts, and the entire allotment could easily be taken up by bibliography alone.  I am very modest in my spending at conferences now—independent contractors have to be.  Nightmares will likely be my last academic book; I can’t afford to keep going like this.  I don’t plan to give up writing, of course, just academic publishing.  Both this book and Holy Horror were written for non-specialist readerships, to showcase my non-technical way of explaining things.  Both ended up with academic presses and are slated to be among those specialist tools that the beginning artisan covets but for which s/he has to budget.  And when this house is finished it will have an impressive, if most unusual, private library.