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.