Another Turn

I have read The Turn of the Screw before.  Henry James’ most famous ghost story is a classic of ambiguity.  My previous reading, maybe a decade ago, was in an edition of James that insisted on stuffing other stories into the same binding, most of which I’ll probably never read.  I located a reasonably priced edition containing only the novella I wanted and it is published by Heathen Editions.  Obviously priding themselves on the unorthodox, Heathen Editions provides books with some little commentary, particularly pointing out unfamiliar words or explaining circumstances that many modern readers lack the training to spot.  The edition ends with James’ own afterword to the story, something my larger James volume lacks.  The story I remembered in part, but the notes also engaged me.

These notes aren’t numerous and they don’t distract.  In my case I understood the words defined, but I appreciated some of the historical or literary context supplied.  With so much literature available these days modern readers have to be drawn back into the classics.  James’ style tends toward the choice of more words than would be strictly necessary to tell the tale.  The fact that it was serialized helps to explain that.  Like Middlemarch and The Woman in White, both of which I’ve posted on in the past, being serialized encourages a kind of verbosity that modern publishers of fiction eschew.  At least in my limited experience.  For The Turn of the Screw the slow building to the climax requires spreading out.  The story itself could be summarized in a paragraph (which I won’t do, because you should read it yourself), but the feeling of dread has to grow as bits are slowly revealed.

One of the notes particularly caught my attention.  In an oblique reference to David and Saul, the editor expanded the footnote a bit.  The scene is when Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit sent by God and David is called in to help him with a kind of music therapy.  David plays his lyre and Saul’s demons temporarily leave him.  This is subtly referenced in chapter 18 of the Heathen Edition.  The note briefly explains Saul and David and then, for the only time in the book, goes on to provide a reception history of the reference by informing the reader that Leonard Cohen also refers to this episode in his song “Hallelujah.”  I’m sure the opening lines are familiar enough that I don’t need to risk violating copyright to quote them.  So it was that while reading a ghost story the Bible was introduced, which, of course has been my research agenda for a few years now.  A turn of the screw indeed.

Fear Writing

Unless your publisher is good at marketing, that book you spend years on will remain unknown.  That “share” button in the right hands can make all the difference.  The other day while searching for reviews on Holy Horror I came across Scriptophobic.  The website had started a column titled “Holy Horror,” and so I contacted them asking if they’d like to review my book that shared the title.  They graciously accepted.  I want to drive traffic (in as far as I can drive anything) to their website, so I’ll simply say the review may be found by following this link.  It’s too early to tell if it will raise much awareness, but I’m glad to see a review at last.  I suppose I should let the publisher know.

Reviews are one way to get notice about a book out there.  It may not help that the idea behind the volume is a strange one: what can we learn about the Bible by watching horror?  (Or, as the reviewer points out, some not-quite horror.)  I’ve always had a bit of an issue, I suppose with strict genres.  Movies I consider horror may not be so for someone else.  I’ve read enough theory to know that even the experts have a difficult time pinning it down.  The real unifying factor behind the book is actually the Bible.  If I’d waited a little longer to write it I would’ve had more material to use, but I’m not getting much younger, and I needed to get the ball rolling or continue to wish I had.  Holy Horror really falls into the category of reception history, and more specifically as the study of iconic books.  Many biblical scholars, I’m discovering, have no interest in horror, or pop culture.

Books that bring unusual ideas together have always appealed to me.  Were I in a university department I would’ve asked colleagues to comment and critique, but this was a book done solo.  Appropriate to horror, perhaps, I was pretty much isolated when I wrote it.  Still, all things considered, I’m pleased at how it turned out.  No reviews have appeared on biblical sites, and I’ve always found the horror community to be so much more welcoming anyway.  That should be saying something right there.  Think about it.  In any case, if you’re interested in what intelligent horror fans think of a book like my humble effort to start a discussion, I encourage you to take a look.  Don’t wait for the biblical studies reviews unless you care to wait a very long time.

Bible Horror

The combination may seem odd, but it is definitely a valid one.  The Bible and horror, I mean.  My colleague in this venture, Brandon R. Grafius, has published the first book in the Horror and Scripture series, Reading the Bible with Horror.  This is a fascinating little volume that explores the productive use of horror films when it comes to interpreting the Bible.  The Bible isn’t all horror, of course, but a good deal of it is.  That’s one of the keys of biblical interpretation—no one method covers it all.  At least when I was teaching I used eclectic methods both because some methods work better than others in some places and because no one method is the correct one.  Using horror to interpret the Good Book is one of the newest methods out there.

The methodology involves looking at horror films (mostly) and finding biblical parallels.  Both the Bible and the movies interpret one another.  This can be a kind of reception history—the idea that to understand Scripture we must look at how it has been “received.”  The way that people read Holy Writ after it was written is as important as the way biblical specialists read it.  We all know what literalism is, and biblical scholars are well aware of its shortcomings as a method.  There are tons of other methods that seek to show the relevance of the Good Book, and one of them is to see how horror makes it so.  To get to this point the reader must get beyond our social bias about horror as a degraded, evil genre.  Some of it is quite bad, of course, but much of it has redeeming value.  Redeeming value so obvious that it can be used to interpret the Bible.

Grafius studies only limited examples here, for instance, the book of Job with its human suffering and superhuman Leviathan.  He also looks at hauntings and biblical ghosts, as well as haunted locations.  His chapter on haunted houses made me stop and think quite a bit.  He concludes with what will be the most challenging concept for many—the idea that God can be monstrous in the Bible.  He clearly can.  Apart from theodicy, one of the major reasons critics attack Christianity is the character of God as portrayed in the Bible.  Grafius isn’t attacking Christianity but rather he’s trying to show how a most unlikely source can shed genuine light onto it.  Reading the Bible with Horror is an insightful step in that direction, even if it’s a step into a rather haunted house.

Classic Monsters

Convergent evolution is a term that’s used for when two unrelated species, separated by some gulf, develop a smilier trait independently.  I began studying monsters in biblical reception history before I really knew others were doing so.  After I’d written Holy Horror I discovered an article by another scholar who was doing similar things, even looking at some of the same movies.  Liz Gloyn, it turns out, was also doing something quite similar with classical monsters.  Her Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture just came out a couple months ago.  Having taught classical mythology for a few semesters at Montclair State University, I have retained an interest in the subject and I was delighted to find a scholar who suggested that to get at the real substance you sometimes have to look beyond the heroes to the monsters they fight.  It’s the monsters who often prove more human.

Covering both cinema and television, Gloyn considers how classical monsters are represented in modern reception.  She looks at their appearance in literary forms as well.  Obviously not all of these reception avenues can be examined, but those she chooses are entertaining and informative.  In the case of biblical studies, I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholars pretty much just speak to each other.  The average person doesn’t read their books and the average pastor doesn’t either.  Laity, for the most part, get their interpretation of the Good Book from pop culture.  There’s a very good case to be made that, shy of sitting down and reading through a very big book, people would have little access to the Bible, or classics, if it weren’t for media representations.

Concurrent with my teaching classical mythology, the release of the reboot of Clash of the Titans transpired. (Gloyn covers both the original and the remake in her book.)  Students were really excited, anticipating the film.  It was one of the rare times (The Book of Eli was another) when I felt compelled to watch a movie as an adjunct professor, simply to share the experience with my pupils.  Clash of the Titans had made an impact on me in high school but the reboot failed to take me to the same place.  Still, here be monsters.  Those who’d never read Hesiod, Ovid, Pseudo-Apollodorus, or Homer, may have thought they were getting the straight dope from the silver screen.  That’s what reception history is all about.  Gloyn’s treatment kept me riveted, and I used to teach the subject.  Monsters have a way of doing that to you.

How To Study

As much as I critique Calvinism, I participate in its hardness sometimes.  For instance, when I was employed in higher education I would’ve considered reception history—the kind of research I’m now doing—soft.  My doctorate consisted of learning to read dead languages and trying to make sense of ancient religions where tons of lacunae existed.  It was rigorous mental work.  More modern studies, however, often look at the human (softer) side of religion.  There are any number of approaches: gender studies, sexuality studies, disability studies, and plenty involving the social sciences.  I was taken aback, however, when I first encountered fat studies.  This is apparently a thing now.  As far as I know it hasn’t been applied to biblical studies, yet.  The title is intentionally somewhat derogatory, rather like queer studies adopted a term at first intended to disparage, but later taken as a token of pride.

Fat studies is a field that considers the acceptance of all body types, and the prejudices against those who might be called “overweight.”  We’ve begun to reach a period of acceptance of difference—well, we had been getting there, until about three years ago.  Academics are keen to explore implications of just about anything, and considering those who face acceptance issues due to weight, or body mass index (BMI), suggests itself.  The media likes to cast us into various crises: an obesity crisis, an anorexic crisis, substance abuse crises, and satanic panics.  Each of these crisis points eventually leads to some form of study.  We want to understand this inherent complexity of being human.  Some feminists expressed surprise when masculinity studies became a thing some years back.  Being male, I see that the only way to break down seeing my own gender as normative is to put it under the microscope with all the others.

Because of historical developments, a particular subset of the human race came to see itself as the measure of all things.  I doubt this was intentional, but over time the male of northern European persuasion, particularly the Protestant variety, came to be seen as the textbook human.  He stood about six feet tall and tended to fit a certain BMI.  He was straight.  Like a ruler.  All other humans were measured against him.  This system of privilege is breaking down.  Some, as we can see in Washington, are reluctant to let it go.  Difference, however, is endemic to any species.  And males are no more normative than females.  Or those attracted to their own gender.  Or who change gender.  Or who weigh more than others.  Until we learn to accept all humans, it’s only right that we study our assumptions.  There will always be those who look at dead languages and some day we may want to study even them.

First Look

Youth might be described in a number of ways. One, of course, is in biological years. Another may be in exposure to experiences which change your life. There was a time, for example, when you can’t believe you were ever so naive. No matter how youth might be defined, a patina of fond memories tends to cling to images from that time with the passage of years. For me, unsurprisingly, those images are frequently books. I still recall the cover images of books from my tweenage years, and often think that if I found such books in a second-hand store, I would buy them for their ability to conjure past times. One such book comes not from my physical youth, but from my days teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. It was at that time, when the internet was also still young, that I began to try online research into H. P. Lovecraft. I found an edition of his stories titled The Shadow over Innsmouth for sale on a used book website. I was under-employed, but it was cheap and my curiosity inflamed.

Mainly I was interested in what I would now call the reception history of Dagon. Dagon is an ancient Mesopotamian deity mentioned briefly by name in the Hebrew Bible. He is also part of the pantheon of gods borrowed and invented by Lovecraft to populate his eldrich, watery world. I purchased this book for the titular story, where Dagon doesn’t actually appear, but his worshippers do. It is often claimed to be Lovecraft’s best story. As I sat down to read the whole book, however, I was struck by the strangeness of the collection. This edition, from 1971, included such unusual choices as “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “In the Walls of Eryx,” and “The Festival.” Also bundled here was the Houdini ghostwritten “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.” When I first purchased the book I’d only read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Colour out of Space.”

As my interest in Lovecraft grew, I acquired other, more representative editions of his work and have consequently read most of his oeuvre. It was that sense of yesteryear, however, that led me back to this browning, aged collection. It was, in truth, the cover. Looking at it brings back that very office in Oshkosh where I sat as I found the edition online for less than five dollars. No doubt, I was younger then. The call of Cthulhu has echoed across the web since then. For me, however, the first exposure will always be a beat-up paperback that I ordered secondhand.

Filmy Substance

It’s all about Jesus. Well, that’s an overstatement, even in context. One of the amazing things to me about books addressing the Bible in film is just how often Jesus movies come up. If it’s not Jesus movies, it’s movies that have a “Christ figure” or some such Christian trope. Don’t get me wrong—I have no issues with Jesus. It’s just that the Bible and film have so much more in common than this. David Shepherd’s edited collection, Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond, has some insightful pieces in it and some of what has become “standard fare” already in a field that’s so new. I found Richard A. Blake’s response fascinating. Maybe this was because he doesn’t approach the topic from a biblicists’ point of view.

I’m not really complaining about scholars who look to cinema for a rich source of reception history. I do it myself from time to time. Most of the books on this topic are collections of essays and collections are, by default, uneven. There’s an amazing amount of biblical material in movies that simply goes overlooked. Also, I would suggest, movies offer valid interpretations of the Bible. Somewhere along the development of the discipline we seem to have slipped into thinking that only certain people can legitimately interpret the Good Book. If it is a sacred text, however, it is as much in the public domain as any text can be. And texts in the public domain can legitimately be interpreted by hoi polloi. That’s the nature of being a text with universal assertions, I suspect. Directors and writers, therefore, are legitimate interpreters. We could learn a lot about the Bible from going to the theater.

Like many who’ve taught Bible to undergrads, I sometimes discussed films with them. I always believed students were legitimate interpreters of Scripture, too. This is a dialogue. One of the more interesting aspects of Shepherd’s collection is the pieces that focus on non-Hollywood movies. I don’t see a problem discussing Hollywood since we can assume a larger body of those who’ve seen the film. It is nice, however, to be reminded that “foreign” films also delve into what is sometimes treated as propriety material by Christians. Hindu representations of the life of Jesus? That’s a very interesting idea! Of course, not everyone likes to know how “outsiders” see them. That’s one of the beauties of using cinema as a means of interpreting the Bible. Those of us who study it don’t have the money to influence movies enough to make them in our image. It’s fun to watch someone else’s interpretation.

Crossing Beowulf

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.

The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.

Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.

Atlanta Bound

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Every year as the latter half of November rolls around, the mind of religion scholars goes toward the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. This morning I’m off to Atlanta to join a myriad of others who still think the academic study of religion is a good and noble thing. For those who read this blog regularly, it will be no surprise that I’m giving a paper this year. Honestly, I’m a little nervous. I haven’t delivered a paper in years—it is nearly impossible to do research when you are cut off from academic libraries and, more importantly, the time it takes to do the work. Having only weekends to pull ideas together is not conducive to pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward. Sleepy Hollow came to my rescue this time around. That, and reception history.

Reception history is the hermeneutic that looks at the Bible from the point of view of later interpreters. For the Hebrew Bible that reception might be that of the New Testament, or even later books within the Tanak itself. Of course, the Bible has been studied and interpreted for nearly two millennia now, and not all those reading the Good Book have official training. Increasingly, with religious extremists making headlines from decrying the color of Starbucks cups to an all-out attack on Paris, understanding the reception of religious texts is important. The Fox network hit Sleepy Hollow is an excellent example. The show begins with the Bible and although the end has yet to be determined, Scriptures have played a role throughout. And a viewership of pitiful biblical literacy drinks it all in. It is important to understand how the Bible has been, and is being, perceived.

It may be, over the next few days, that my posts will be disrupted from their usual schedule. It is always a little hard to predict how things might play out when you’re away from home. I’m not sure what wonders Atlanta might bring. My own book should be on display in the book stalls for the first, and likely only, time. I will be meeting with people from dawn to dusk, discussing their book ideas. And I will, of course, be listening. Listening for the gallop of horse hooves in the background. Yes, the meeting is always a stimulating event, and with apocalypses in the news, I think I have selected a very timely topic this year indeed. If the frogs croak my name, I will know it is only my imagination.

Brain Dead

I’ve been thinking about brains (is there any more existential thing to do?). Reading a book this week about the mind (see Thursday’s post) probably has something to do with it. And also having finished a book on zombies maybe contributes as well. You see, I find it strange when scientists assume that we can figure out all the answers with our limited brains. Although we are endlessly fascinated by them, neuroscientists have long noted that they do have weaknesses—they (brains) are easily fooled, and, for those who find no room for the mysterious in the universe, we’ve made up gods to keep us company. We know that relative brain size—relative to body mass, that is—is a large factor in intelligence, but we seem not to imagine the possibility of larger brains than those we carry around. I suppose it’s not without reason that alien brains are disproportionately larger than our own, according to the standard image of the “grays.” We don’t like to think there’s something smarter than us hanging around. It’s a frightening thought.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.35.48 AMOn the more earthy side, brains have been the usual fare for zombies in one sub-division of the zombie movie neighborhood. George Romero gave us flesh eating as a paradigm, but eventually zombies settled on brains. This was on my mind as I finished the epic Strangers in the Land that Stant Litore kindly sent me in Kindle form. I’d read What Our Eyes Have Witnessed on my own, and the author wanted me to read more. Litore’s zombies are more in the canonical Romero sector—they eat flesh and their bite conveys zombiehood. Strangers in the Land takes its base story from the book of Judges. Only Deborah becomes a zombie slayer. Brains aren’t eaten here, but they must be destroyed for a zombie to—what? Redie? Full of colorfully drawn characters, the story rambles through the countryside of ancient Israel, plagued with zombies. It is the brain that keeps a zombie going.

While I have to stand by my recurring assessment that the zombie is a hard sell in novelistic form (here goes my mind again! Reading a book gives your brain too much time to focus on the utter impossibility of bodies missing organs or vital tissue to move, or “live,” even with a brain) Litore is onto an interesting idea here. Looking at it metaphorically (as surely he intends it) helps. Perhaps I just miss the lumbering revenants of Return of the Living Dead calling out “Brains! Brains!” The Bible, however, is endlessly open to reinterpretation. What Our Eyes Have Witnessed was post-biblical. This current installment moves us into the realm of reception history. I’ve been researching reception history and the undead for a few months now. I have some conclusions to share in an academic paper a few months down the road, but for the time being, I’m still trying to figure out brains. Or maybe I’m just out of my mind.

Receive History

Sacred texts, without readers, are mere artifacts. While so evident as to be trite, this truth lies behind the area of biblical studies called reception history. Perhaps from the earliest days that some books were considered holy, those who studied them wondered primarily what the original author meant. That was, after all, why the texts were preserved as special—they possessed a quality that other writings lacked. Over the centuries this perspective gained nuance and sophistication. (Despite what some secularists say, the study of the Bible can be quite scientific. Some of it is so technical that even specialists have a difficult time following it.) Until last century, however, one aspect remained unchallenged. The goal was to reach what the original author meant. The enterprise of exegesis is geared toward that end. Strip away the reader to get to the writer.

thumb_IMG_2069_1024Meanwhile sacred texts, such as the Bible, continue to develop their own lives in culture. While today’s facile use of the Bible in politics may seem to be something new, the use of Scripture in government is as old as this nation. It easily goes back to European explorations of text, and perhaps even to Asian exegesis before then. Even though the founders of the United States were unquestionably Deists, for the most part, they also were biblically literate. Even the Enlightenment recognized that the Bible held a privileged place in western civilization. Perhaps it was not the only sacred text, but it was a sacred text to many thousands, or millions, or people. Such a pedigree is wasted only with great loss to all. Enter reception history.

In the days of ecclesiastical hegemony, the church, however defined, had the right to interpret Scripture. With the growth of literacy and education the possibility of understanding the Bible spread to any who could read, or had ears to hear. We have only to glance around to see the ramifications of that today. While students may not know who Moses was in the Bible, they can tell you Christian Bale played him in a recent blockbuster. They may not know that Noah was 600 years old when the flood came, but they can tell you he was a troubled, if not somewhat psychotic, devotee of God. At least in popular culture. And that is merely the thinnest veneer of the surface. The idea of sacred texts remains embedded in our worldview. It would seem that if we want to understand ourselves, reception history will unearth vital clues.