Tuesday, September 29, 2020

On "The Road to Los Angeles" by John Fante ****


I last read this book in my early twenties, during a Fante fix, when I first discovered him. Alas, outside of Ask the Dust and one of the novellas in West of Rome, his work proved disappointing to me, but three very good works is not a bad record really, in the scheme of of things.

Not much matches Ask the Dust for quality. This work, though, keeps much of what maked that book intriguing. It is another book in the Arturo Bandini saga, but unlike the two of the four, it keeps the narrative voice of Ask the Dust pretty firmly in place (if perhaps with less balance than that one). None of the Bandini novels are particularly consistent among each other with regard to the facts of Bandini's life. In Ask the Dust, Bandini's mom and dad are in Colorado, and he's alone and twenty in Los Angeles. In this book, his father is dead, and his mom and sister live near the beach on the California coast. But as with Ask the Dust, the narrator here is exceptionally bombastic. Everything is superb or awful to the utmost extreme. There is little middle ground with Bandini. And as in Ask the Dust, the narrator is a misogynist and a racist--here, even more disturbingly. He kills animals in cruel and purposeless ways for fun. One can kind of like the characters in Ask the Dust; it's much more difficult to like them in this book--but most especially Bandini.

The main character is a high-school dropout who on some level supports the family. One could feel for such a person whose life has been placed into one of sacrifice for future chances because of his father's death. He works dead-end jobs (cannery work is the central job in this book and is well described). There's a certain intelligence that seems to be going to waste.

And yet, Bandini is also a scoundrel. He steals from his family. He is a slacker at any job he takes and usually quickly loses. He claims to be a writer, but it's clear that he has little talent. He is disrespectful to all and deliberately hurtful. He gloms on to philosophy without really understanding it, the same way that he uses big words for the sake of using big words (sometimes not completely accurately). We see within him a certain maniacal will to power and faith in himself (countered with occasional self-hatred). He is not someone you would want to be friends with.

The empty bravado reminds me a lot of Holden Caulfield. What we really see is a boy who is forced too early to be a man--but who is ultimately still a boy. As his writing is immature, so is he. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

On "Ask the Dust" by John Fante *****

I read this book multiple times in my early twenties, but it has been probably more than a decade since the last time that I read it. I remember loving the book, though on the last read, being disappointed by its second half. This time around, I didn't find the second half as disappointing, though clearly the best portions of the book are in its early-going.

What makes this book so utterly enchanting is Fante's use of language. Although he writes simply, he does so in a way that is poetic, even without being luscious in his description. The simple turns of phrase and occasional perfectly placed metaphors do the trick. And he knows it, as evidenced in a passage early on. The book centers around a writer named Arturo Bandini and his love of Camilla Lopez/Lombard. In one passage shortly after he first sees Camilla, Arturo begins an excited oratory to her: Oh, Camilla, you . . . but he abruptly quits with these simple words: "but not here." It's inappropriate, Bandini/Fante seems to be saying to begin with such praise. We don't even know the gal--and what's more, to do so would actually break down how much we understand Bandini's connection to her.

Another thing that makes the book so engaging is Bandini's sense of confidence in his own skill as writer. He is hubristic to the extreme--so cocky that it's funny, so cocky it's hard to believe he's serious. In addition, that cockiness spills over to equal moments of despair. Bandini is a man of extreme emotions.

Finally, there is the dialogue, which consists of constant punches between the performers, most especially Camilla and Arturo. There is not a lot of lover speak here; instead, each line spoken is a surprise, insult after insult, and yet, somehow, beneath it, longing.

Of course, that longing is more on Arturo's end than Camilla's. Camilla is in love with another man--Sammy--a man who unlike Arturo plainly cannot write, even though he wants to.

On this read, one thing that stood out very much to me was Fante's interest in what constitutes an American. Both Arturo and Camilla talk of being American but also denigrate each other as not so, most especially because they are not Anglo. Both want desperately to fit into that narrow definition of American but push each other (and others) down in that effort. Were I writing a paper, I'd likely look at the theme more closely and draw some conclusions, but that is not my place here.

Near the end, Arturo and Camilla reach a sort of understanding that softens their relationship, as Camilla becomes addicted to marijuana and goes crazy (the extremity of this addiction and insanity seems a bit unrealistic given what is known of the drug now), and that certainly makes the writing less compelling (now come those Oh, Camilla! lines that were put off earlier), but that section of the book is relatively short and fits well the work's overall arch.


Monday, September 14, 2020

On "The Death of WCW" by R. D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez ****

I didn't care for professional "wrestling" when I was a teen or young adult, when it was on television from time to time, preempting programming I actually did want to watch. I didn't like the violence, the production values, the stupidity. And I don't think I'd care for it now. But I read a book about it.

One thing changed between then and now. Back about fifteen years ago, I went to see a wrestling event in a tiny town, a small event, with maybe one hundred in the audience. It was a hoot. But I also came to respect what the men who work as wrestlers do. Yes, of course, it's fake (only youngsters would think it might not be), but there is a great amount of athleticism involved for most of the wrestlers. These guys are gymnasts, acrobatics, and stuntmen. They learn how to properly fall, how to fake being hit and fake hit, and more than that, they learn how to flip and jump and perform a number of other tasks that high school gym taught me just how difficult such things were to do. And if you don't take things to seriously, a lot of sketches can be pretty funny. That doesn't mean I'd want to watch it on TV--or become a regular at the arena, but in a small venue where many of the guys are just learning, yeah, it's worth the price of admission.

This book is about the big boys, the ones on television, mostly specifically in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in an era when WCW (World Championship Wrestling) was in high competition with the WFF (the World Wrestling Federation--now World Wrestling Entertainment). The latter had some big stars, but WCW, purchased by Ted Turner, as it was a mainstay of his TV empire, threw cash at some big players and brought them over to itself.

But WCW didn't just have the new guys wrestle. It created a storyline in which a new set of wrestlers--the New World Order--was coming to set the WCW right, whipping up on all the WCW stars. This put the wCW in control of the ratings game, as WFF and WCW competed against each other on Monday nights. So successful was the WCW that it expanded its show an hour and also had shows on Saturday and Thursday nights in addition to its regular Monday night slot.

But the success was not to last. Wrestlers get old. And as many of the stars had creative control written into their contracts, they didn't want to lose. That meant there was no room to craft new stars among young guys coming up, which meant that like a really successful pro-sports team that doesn't have young guys waiting in the wings to take over when one generation passes, the WCW's ratings began to fade. And that's when desperation set in in terms of storylines that were nonsensical, such that audiences began to fade, and the WWF retook its dominant role.

In the meantime, Turner sold to Warner Brothers, which in turn merged with AOL, which meant that money guys came to make the decisions, money guys who didn't appreciate how wrestling had helped build Turner's TV stations and how wrestling's audiences waxed and waned. Beyond that, wrestling wasn't good on advertising dollars, even when successful in the ratings, as sponsors tended to take the view that only poor folk watched such stuff. And so it was the WCW, with its TV contract cancelled and running at massive debts, found itself without much of an audience.

In the end, it was sold to the WWF, which, as the authors bring out, squandered its chance for a ratings coup, given how many viewers had wanted to see various WCW stars fight WWF stars. Instead, the WWF essentially reaped vengeance on the WCW wrestlers who came over, writing total domination into the shows and taking on mostly second-tier stars rather than the more expensive ones.

The book, in essence then, is about how to create and squander a TV audience. In between, the authors spend a lot more time talking about the details of this or that episode and its ratings, which, while written with a good deal of jokes and winks, at times becomes cumbersome to a nonfan.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

On "Once upon a Time I Lived on Mars" by Kate Greene ****

By chance, the day after I finished this book, I happened to watch an episode of The Simpsons in which the Simpsons compete to be chosen to be among the first settlers of Mars, and one of the activities they participate is something like what Kate Greene explores in this book. For about four months, she and five other participants lived in a dome near a Hawaiian volcano in a manner that was meant to imitate what life would be like if one lived on Mars. They could not leave the dome, except after putting on bulky astronaut suits. Food was largely of the variety shipped along with astronauts--powders and sundries that last long and weigh less--except for whatever food they were able to grow in the dome. Communication with the outside world was put on a twenty-minute lag, like the one that would exist between Earth and Mars. One of the main points of the study was to test out what being able to grow fresh food would mean for the astronaut, as food "fatigue" is one of the main issues in long-term space travel. That is, many astronauts lose weight over the course of a mission just because they grown tired of the powders and such available to them. But the mission also became, as Greene shows, an opportunity to explore a number of other themes and ideas having to do with being human, as if, by living far away from all of humanity (even if just an experiment), one could learn a few things about what being human means (similar ideas could probably also be explored by someone held in solitary confinement for extended periods of time--a work that would likely be both excruciating to read and probably enlightening).

Among the themes Greene settles on are boredom, solitude, and communication. These, for me, were the most interesting of the broader themes she discussed. Boredom, for example, can be the impetus for incredible creativity--something I would agree with. The correspondence chapter is particularly fascinating, since it revolves around the way in which communication happens when there is a twenty-minute lag between you and all others. We have gotten used to telephone calls--and not just calls but cell phone calls, where people are always available. Even the written word, in the form of text messages and sometimes e-mail, is often immediate. Add a twenty-minute lag, and all communication is broken up, more similar to the way that our ancestors communicated (when not thousands of miles away). You write letters. Information is not immediately available. This is something that seems strange to me now, but what seems even odder is the way in which we have come to depend on such communications. Granted, I never lived in a prephone world, but I did grow up at a time that was sans Internet and sans cell phone. Even phone long-distance phone calls were rare, given the expense. We wrote letters. That that sort of world seems odd now, so odd now, is crazy to me. In a way, I could almost envy the bubble Greene lived in for that. Although it's unnerving when communication devices go down, if they do so for a few days, one gets used to it again, to the new, slower pace of life, and one begins to appreciate the life that we lost.

More arresting than the themes Greene explores, however, is the actual "science" writing that she does--the tales of astronauts and of scientific experiments that have been foisted onto unsuspecting people. The latter, the reason laws now require people's informed consent before such experiments can take place, was a particularly harrowing and sad story, one that involved several black men and a fake cure for a disease that went on for decades, long after, it seems, the experiment had run its course. Rather than treating the disease (as promised), the scientists simply watched what the disease did to the men. Such barbarity rivals much of what the Nazis did to their victims. On astronauts, we learn that women actually likely make better ones, because they eat less and weigh less, but our societal tendency to favor men's daring-do and strength has put many more men in space than women.

Perhaps the most intriguing anecdote of the book comes right at its start, the tale of an astronaut on a spacewalk, one of the very first. Alas, the astronaut's space suit was too stiff to do much and there wasn't anyone to pull him back in. The astronaut's own sweat steamed up the facemask so that he couldn't see--he solved this problem by painstakingly rubbing his nose against the glass to clear a line of sight. Two hours later, he stumbled back inside; if he hadn't been able to get back, he'd have had to have been left. The story seems horrifying. But such are the experiments that astronauts participate in out in space, where sometimes engineers haven't thought everything through. In those early years of space travel, this was especially true, because, hey, no one had ever been in space and, thus, we often didn't know that X would work better than Y. I imagine that a trip to Mars, as much as we think about it, also would eventually involve a number of issues we haven't anticipated.

Centuries ago, explorers spanned the world. People settled in lands they didn't understand or thoroughly know. Many died. People still went. I suppose Mars isn't unlike that, but the idea of journeying (and settling) there seems so daunting to me that I wonder why anyone would ever agree to such a thing. Greene posits something of an answer--as unique likely as anyone else's.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

On "Restoring the Original Bible" by Ernest L. Martin *****

Although frequently repetitive, this work is an excellent resource for those who wish to know, from an ultraconservative perspective, how the Bible was canonized. Most scholars take the position that the canonization of the scriptures happened sometime between the second and fourth centuries CE, with the final writings of the Old Testament taking place as late as the second century BCE and of the New Testament in the second century (or late first century) CE. Martin takes the position that was the norm before biblical criticism of the nineteenth century called this into question and became the standard view among academics. (Having previously read Paul R. Finch's Beyond Acts, I see now where Finch drew most of his claims, adding to them the legends regarding the spread of Christianity in the Britain in the first century.)

Martin's real point is to encourage Bible translators to "restore the original Bible"--that is, to put the Bible in its original order, as it exists in various older versions of the manuscripts. Here, Martin does an excellent job of showing how and why the Jews placed the Old Testament in the order that they originally did, with the Torah (our traditional first five books) coming first, then the Prophets (which include also Joshua, Judges, and Kings), and then the Writings (which include Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Chronicles). Some of the latter seem oddly positioned in this "original" version, when we think of Daniel, for example, being a prophet or the Chronicles being largely history, but Martin shows how and why the canonizers settled on this order using various methods, some having to do with how each section of the Old Testament reflects temple worship and priestly responsibilities, some having to do with numerology (in the original Jewish canon, several works are combined, making for just twenty-two books, which combined with the New Testament makes forty-nine books, or seven times seven). The versions coming down to us today largely use the Septuagint, whose order was different. Although Martin's comments with regard to the priestly tie-ins, the five books written specifically for women, the books written for kings, and so on are really interesting, one can certainly see some reasons for the Septuagint order as well.

The New Testament order is also altered from the original manuscripts, according to Martin. This happened through the work of Jerome, insofar as he reordered the New Testament when he created his Latin Vulgate. Indeed, the original order actually makes a good deal more sense other than that Jerome's version does put several works that seem quite last toward the back, giving the New Testament more of a chronological feel in some ways, though those were not the likely reasons for Jerome's reordering. The original order places the seven general epistles directly after Acts. The reason for this is that they are generally more basic in instruction, and importantly, they are written by and to Jews. Throughout canonization, as Martin brings out, one's connection to the Jewish priestly line was often the reason items were placed in the order that they were; also, this would put the New Testament in the order that the Gospel was preached--to the Jew first, that is. Then come Paul's epistles. Here, too, Jerome made a change, placing Hebrews at the very end, rather than just before the pastoral epistles. In each case, Jerome was likely pushing an agenda of Roman authority, ensuring that it came directly after Acts rather than works that were written to a Jewish church.

What's very interesting in a lot of this discussion, however, is the degree to which some things that we think we don't know were actually fairly uncontroversial at earlier dates. We don't know, for example, who wrote Hebrews, and yet Martin shows how Paul was known as the author to most writers for several centuries after Paul's death. The quotes Martin offers for this and other points with regard to the Bible's canonization and order seem like extremely convincing testimonials (Augustine, for example, telling us that it was the apostles themselves that set out the canon of the New Testament).

In other words, I wasn't as moved by Martin's discussions about the order of the books as I was by his discussions of how the books operate in that order and by how those books came to be canonized, if we take a conservative view. As Finch goes into a lot of the same story with the New Testament, I won't revisit that here; however, one detail that has always mystified me that Martin has a good hypothesis on has to do with how Easter came to be chosen as a day to worship on rather than Passover. Certainly, there are reasons related to wanting to avoid Jewish associations at a time when the Jews had revolted against Rome and were thus looked down upon and persecuted in response, and to the fact that Easter had certain connections to pagan traditions, but those points haven't seemed quite enough for me in terms of how some would celebrate a Eucharist on Easter versus Passover. Martin (in chapter 26) takes the position that after Hadrian's banning of the Jews from Judea but before Jewish authorities convened a council about seven years later, the Jewish calendar was in disarray, owing to the fact that there was no temple authority to dilineate when the year was to start, or if there would be a leap month (as happens on the Jewish calendar seven out of every nineteen years). As such the Jewish holy days began slip from their normal seasons (such that Passover even fell in January), and in the absense of an agreed-on calendar (for Christians and Jews), believers were left to fend for themselves in terms of figuring out whether to let further slipping occur and whether the sacred year's start should be adjusted. It was at this juncture, Martin claims, that some Christians took on the Easter practice, given that there was no agreed-on calendar to follow. Roman Christians stuck with the Easter tradition, even after the Jewish calendar dilemma was resolved (with a calculated calendar that now allowed Passover to occasionally precede the vernal equinox, whereas Easter always follows it--this was the occassion, a year in which this happened, for Polycarp's visit to Anicetus in Rome to try to resolve this differing views).

Saturday, August 15, 2020

On "After the Apostles" by Walter H. Wagner ****

This history of the second-century Christian church seems more like a set of introductory highlights than a straightforward account of what happened. In one sense, that is all such a history can be, as our knowledge of the second century is rather haphazard--a few sources here and there and a lot that doesn't seem all that clear. Wagner does a good job of pulling together some disparate themes and making the whole seem somewhat cohesive. Though the book claims to be written for the general reader, parts of it seemed a bit on the technical side to me, with the author still have a penchant for using Anglosized Greek words rather than just synonyms (though I realize that such usage was an attempt to show how no English word quite fits the meaning of the Greek, such usage is still offputting and makes the book seem more technical than what it purports to be).

The book is split into three major sections. The first part attempts to give historical background, showing how second-century Christianity was in part a response to the disappointments of the first, as Jesus's return proved not to come as early as many had expected, how Jews interacted with Christians, and what philosophical ideas were up for debate within the larger society. The clearest and most useful chapter in this section, for me, was Wagner's rendering of Roman history during the century, which proved to be not only a good summary but also compelling.

The second major section of the book looks at five themes that Christians debated during the course of the century: creation and creator (who was the creator? what was the nature of the creation?--notable here would be various gnostic sects that argued that the creator of earth was not the the primary god and was in fact a fallen deity); the destiny of human beings; who Jeus was (man who became God? a created being? God who became man? God who posed as a man?); the church's government structure; and the role Christians were to play in society.

The third section then takes these themes and looks specifically at how five particular Christian thinkers answered questions related to those themes--namely Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. Of note here to me were the presentations of Clement and Tertullian. The latter came across as a firm and dictatorial-seeming thinking, very keen on all Christians falling in line with church authority (namely, the leadership in Rome); the irony, of course, is that Tertullian, later in life, fell out of sorts with Rome and himself became one of those who criticized those who were in charge of the church and refused to follow the authorities. Clement was notable for his seeming simultaneous condemnation of philosophy and his use of it--namely because in his view philosophy was really derived from the Jews and so, in fact, actually led, in a roundabout way, right back to scripture and the God of the Bible; thus, he could find in Plato or other Greek philosophers biblical principles. My hopes for this third section--a summary and comparison of the thinking of these five early writers--were, in fact, the main reason I was finally persuaded to read the book, and I was not disappointed.


Sunday, August 9, 2020

On "The Gnostic Gospels" by Elaine Pagels *****

 

This is an extremely lucid account of Christian gnosticism that also happens to make some rather bold claims about why gnostics lost out in their bid to control the Christian agenda during the early history of the church. I can easily see how this book won the National Book Award way back in 1980 and why it has been a constant on the bookshelves in the religious section of booksellers ever since. In my younger years, however, I had no interest in tackling this short volume, and I don't know that I would have appreciated it than as I do now. 

Pagels begins by discussing the Nag Hammadi library and her work with the manuscripts. This is the least intriguing portion of the book, and I could see simply skipping it to get to chapter 1, page 1. Here is where the meat of her arguments begin and where the book really picks up speed.

Pagels essentially argues that Christian orthodoxy had various reasons to sideline gnostic teachings, all of them having to do with the answer to the question of who was to be in charge. Gnosticism, in Pagels view, was much more prone to rejecting Christian authority as it had come down through the apostles. We can see this in several different ways.

The first centers on who walked with and saw Jesus while he was present on earth. Gnostics claimed to have visionary-type knowledge of Jesus, such that they could claim authority equal to or greater than those who had been witness to Jesus's physical ministry. By contrast, the Orthodox claimed that only those who had actually walked with Jesus and those in turn approved by that original fold held such authority over teaching and the church.

Another had to do with the authority within church groups themselves. Many gnostics held that all people were equal in terms of their ability to conduct church services and to teach at them. They were more inclined to be "moved by the spirit," in modern parlence, in deciding how to conduct a meeting. The Orthodox church became increasingly hierarchical, separating out the lay people from the ministry. Pagels ties this in even to their views of God, with the Orthodox claiming God as the one creator God and the gnostics claiming a pleroma of deities and the creator often being a lesser god.

Another difference is that some gnostic groups were more inclined to view women as equal to men in terms of the spiritual insight and authority; the Orthodox church, by contrast, did not ordain women into roles as elders and bishops. Gnostic groups often included a female deity among their pleroma or saw the Holy Spirit as the female part of God.

Another general difference was the willingness to die for the cause. Among the Orthodox, martyrdom became an honor. Gnostic groups, by contrast, often saw no need to give up one's life for one's beliefs. In part, this was a reflection of their differing views with regard to Jesus's death. The Orthodox claimed the Jesus, God's son, really did die; the gnostics often claimed that only the physical part of Jesus died but that in fact the spirit part lived on and that the physical part wasn't even real.

Finally, the two groups differed with regard to how they defined the church. The Orthodox saw the church more as a physical entity that held loyalty to the power structure set up within the church. Gnostics, by contrast, often saw the church as being those who had become spiritually enlightened. A bishop might, in fact, be less enlightened than a gnostic member. In other words, one's personal spirituality played a larger role among the gnostics, because for them often God was inside you and getting in touch with God meant becoming in touch with one's inner core. For Orthodoxy, by contrast, God was something outside one's self that one reached toward.

Pagels does a lot of simplifying and generalizing to make her points clearer, but that's part of what is so charming about the book and what makes it so compelling to read and easy to understand. She also presents Orthodoxy and Gnosticism as two warring sets of believers, with the former winning out. Only brief mention is made of how the latter actually ended up influencing, indeed transforming, the former, which is another story but an important one that is mostly lost here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

On "White Fragility" by Robin Diangelo ****

I read this best-selling book as part of a book club assignment. As books and conversations about race and racism are finding a large audience at this time, I hope that such things are able to effect real change. I suspect, however, that racism, and our attitudes about it, will continue to evolve into yet other different forms rather than disappear. The current manner in which racism continues to manifest itself in a systemic way is difficult to assess critically. Color blindness is on some level an ideal (often touted by conservatives) and on another a way to continue the exploitation of people of color (as often claimed by liberals). (As Diangelo and others would say of color blindness: coded "nonracial" language often suits a racially charged purpose; and when someone starts off with advantages, such "blindness" actually perpetuates the current system rather than interrogating it.) On the other side, appreciation of differences between cultures and ethnicities is an ideal (assuming such differences exist), until such "appreciation" becomes a means to set certain peoples aside as something "other" for supremacist purposes. I'm reminded of something a friend once said to me when I was a young man that has stuck with me forever after, namely, that we humans always find people to discriminate against for our own ends. If a society consisted only of white males, that society would find a way to distinguish among them so as to more greatly advantage some over others (height, weight, hair or eye color, etc.), merit aside (though what consistutes merit can also be loaded for particular ends); as such, racism, like all forms of discrimination or manifestations of inequality, is not easily resolved.

Diangelo's book looks at the ways that racism persists in society today, at how it advantages white people, and at how white people try to avoid discussing it. Diangelo's book has a very specific definition of racism that doesn't necessarily fit with the ways in which other people might use the term. Prejudice is a bias against others; discrimination applies that bias against others. Anyone can be prejudiced or discriminatory. Racism, by contrast, has to do, in Diangelo's usage, with systemic discrimination; as such, only those who are privileged are able to demonstrate and live in racist ways--namely, whites.

The system into which humans are born places whites at an advantage in the manner in which whites are treated by others (and by the system itself) and in the assumptions that are made about people. Certainly, class and other different social strata have their effects, but when we talk purely about the color of skin, whites have advantages. Furthermore, whites often refuse to talk about those advantages or to acknowledge them. Coded language is one way whites avoid such conversations. Another way is that whites claim that they are being attacked if someone shows them that they have said something that is discriminatory. These self-defense mechanisms keep racist tropes and practices--and by extension the racist system--in place. Learning to listen to others is a key to overcoming such ingrained behaviors, as is humility and constant self-examination.

Diangelo's book didn't really bring anything to my attention I wasn't already aware of, but it did do a great job of making me as white person feel uncomfortable, which in a way is a good thing, since that's kind of the point--to make whites think about everyday things in ways whites perhaps don't like to acknowledge.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

On "Beyond Acts" by Paul R. Finch ****


I thought that this would be a book about the history of Christianity in the late first century and early second century, and that it is, to an extent, but really, it's a book about the canonization of the New Testament. In that regard, Finch takes a rather traditional stand, though it's a bold one for today's modern biblical scholars, who have largely all come to believe that most New Testament books were written in the last first century and early second century and that many of the works are pseudonymous. Finch takes a stand in line with the writings of Ernest L. Martin, John Robinson, and Michael Kruger insofar as he believes that the works were largely written by their respective namesakes and largely before 70 CE. Like Martin, he believes that the canonization was well underway by that time as well, with Peter, Paul, and John all having a significant hand.

The main reasoning is fairly simple. If Peter, Paul, and John all wrote about how false teachers were increasingly influential in the church, why would they NOT set about creating a set of canonical writings for the church to be used after their deaths? The usual argument these days is that the canonization took place over centuries. Finch makes a valid point. However, for much of his book, the point seems ill supported. The body of the work is well written and easy to follow, but Finch seems to offer one point, with less-than-satisfactory support, then builds on it to point two, and so on. Because of the weakness of where he starts, I ended up wondering throughout most of the work the degree to which he could really back up his assertions.

The book takes a big turn after the main portion is over, however, as most of that further information--the primary source citations--I was craving is provided in the appendixes, ten of them. Here, he covers in depth such subjects as the date for the writing of Revelation (referenced obliquely in the text) and the writing of 2 Peter.

Finch begins his book with a discussion of witnesses to Jesus's life in Britain, including the apostles Peter and Paul. Most of this is based on legend, which is always dubious, since many legends have been written about the apostles largely for a given church or region to be able to claim a connection to the original twelve. Later, however, Finch does provide further source material and argument to testify as to why he believes Peter and Paul may have gone to Britain. In the former's case, the "other place" referenced in Acts would have been an oblique reference because Rome was at war with Britain, so such a visit would have been tantamount to treason. In the latter's case, Paul would have met royal British prisoners of war when he was a prisoner in Rome himself. Both prove to be interesting arguments insofar as they work off the timeline that Finch provides readers.

Finch also provides readers with a reasoned account of why Rome rejected John's authority (he believes that 1 Clement was actually written only shortly after Peter's and Paul's deaths; Clement, however, ignores John when responding to the Corinthians' questions). The reasons are multifold including John's continuing connection to Jewish traditions, his temperament, his "failed" prophecy (Finch believes half of Revelation to have been written well before the temple's destruction), and his connection to several gnostic teachers who later proved to be doctrinally unsound. I'd heard some of these theories before but never so well explained or argued.

Another interesting point comes in his discussion of how the New Testament was disseminated. He refers to Irenaeus's account of the "archives" and to the many second-century writers who seem to be referring to New Testament scriptures without much discussion regarding what belongs or doesn't. (There's even a quote from Augustine referencing the origin of the New Testament canon that I hadn't seen before.) He believes the apostles, knowing their deaths were near and finally coming to an understanding that Jesus was not returning in their lifetimes, saw the need to put together materials for posterity and then deposited these items in the major libraries in Caesarea and later Alexandria. The fact that the early manuscripts so closely resemble each would bear this out, since there would be much more variety if the scriptures had been gathered over time from various churches. Rather, there was, he says, a set of agreed-upon source texts. Again, for me, these were some intriguing ideas.

Alas, if there is one weakness to the volume, beyond the fact that so much of the basis of the argument is confined to the appendixes, it is that Finch takes a lot of time pontificating on how the experts are wrongheaded. Laying out what others think and what facts he has and how those facts feed into his own views rather than theirs should be enough; the snarky tone that he sometimes descends to does his own work a disservice.

Monday, June 29, 2020

On "From the Maccabees to the Mishna" by Shaye J. D. Cohen *****

This introduction to the transition that occurred in the Jewish faith during the early centuries of the Christian era does a good job of keeping things simple for those not intimately acquainted with the Jewish talmudic writings. The book wasn't quite what I was expecting, given that the title leads one to believe the account will be a narrative one, marching from a few centuries from Jesus to the rabbinic era that would follow a few centuries after. Cohen, however, opts to organize the book around themes more than chronology. While the lack of chronology was a bit disappointing to me, the themes prove to be an effective means to explore the transition nonetheless.

Cohen does, of course, provide some chronology, especially toward the beginning and end of his book, but that is mostly to give readers a bit of a skeleton onto which to hang the subjects that he addresses.

Among those subjects are the hellenization of the Jewish faith and the manner in which the Jewis faith existed in these early centuries. Cohen posits that religion was more of a practice, a way of life, than a philosophy for most Jewish people--and indeed for most religions until the tenets of Greek philosophy began to play a greater role in the thinking of peoples. As that took hold, some Jewish diasporic writers also tried to do more "thinking" on various theological subjects and even to pose Judaism as a philosophical religion that predated much of the philosophy that was emerging.

Cohen also explores the various sects that existed within the Jewish faith and how sectarianism in large part ceased as rabbinic structures took hold. The reason for this was in part because many sects were forged around criticism of temple authorities; once the temple no longer existed, the reason for the existence of many such sects also ceased to exist.

One chapter explores the canonization of the Jewish scriptures and the formation of the Mishnah, a subject dealt with by another book (Early Biblical Interpretation) in this series (The Library of Early Christianity) but that is summed up quite effectively in one chapter.

The final chapter focuses on the emergence of the rabbinic system.

As with all the books in this series, the fact that these books are in many ways summaries of prevailing research in the field makes them difficult to summarize themselves. But among the books in the series, this is one of the better ones.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

On "The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering" by Valeriy A. Alikin ****

Valeriy Alikin's basic thesis in this work seems to be that the Christian gathering and its attendant customs largely developed out of Greco-Roman associations and, as such, worship of pagan deities. Judaism, as such, played only a secondary role in the worship patterns of early Christians.

There are some difficulties--namely that the scriptures themselves testify to frequent meetings and evangelism of the Christians in the Jewish synagogue--in trying to prove such a thesis, but Alikin dodges those by claiming that even Jewish synagogue services were, in part, akin to the meetings of Roman associations in service to other deities. On this, Alikin may have some grounds to stand on, since the Jewish people would have been subject to similar laws with regard to meeting that others in the empire would have been, thus requiring official association approval. Further, that both Jews and non-Jews shared in some customs with regard to worship should be hardly surprising--prayer, singing, socials, communal eating, speeches--many of these are shared by virtually all religions when it comes to meeting together. And this in turns goes to Alikin's basic point: that Christian gathering developed out of a single tradition shared by Jews and non-Jews rather than disparate ones.

Alikin takes the fairly stand Protestant stand that the transition to a separate meeting for Christians versus Jews occurred very early. Using various scriptures in which the first day of the week appears (Paul's instructing the Corinthians to gather charity goods on the first day of the week; the meeting in which Paul is about to leave the city and heals a man who falls from the second floor), Alikin claims that the first day of the week very early replaced the Sabbath as a day of meeting. He furthers this view by claiming that the Eucharist meal, which he seems many similarities to in association banquets, was held on Sunday nights because Saturday nights were given to Jewish family gatherings. Sunday night, thus, became the earliest convenient time for Christians to meet as a body separately.


The Eucharist meal itself seems to be mixed with agape feasts. Wine and bread became the center of the meal, but early meals also included olives, meat, and other items--just as in association banquets (though the weekly nature of them was borrowe from Judaism). Over time, the meal became associated with the Passover (Alikin takes the stand that the Gospels were written later rather than earlier and that part of their agenda was to tie the Eucharist meal to the Passover).

Borrowing the practice from other religious groups, Christians began to meet also on Sunday mornings at dawn. Eventually, these meetings spread throughout the week. A simplified Eucharist was served, and the Sunday night gathering increasingly became a meal only for supplying the needy of the curch.

Similarly, the practice of reading and expounding on scripture, accordingly to Alikin, comes from similarly practices at the Greco-Roman banquets, more so than from synagogue practices. He reasons that because synagogue reading of scripture did not take place in the context of a meal, Christians likely did not gather the tradition of reading and expounding on scripture from the Jews but rather from other associations. Such claims seem incredibly specious, given scriptures like Acts 15, where the assembly specifically designates some decisions regarding the church because the Gentiles heard the reading of the scriptures in the synagogue each Sabbath, drawing into question both the idea that Christians met separately early on and that scripture reading was drawn from a different tradition.

One thing that particularly interested me with regard to this book was the fact that it was to explore the origin of the weekly (or daily) Eucharist meal. By drawing parallels to the practice in non-Jewish meetings, Alikin has certainly shown where the practice may have originated, but by downplaying the Jewish influence throughout, the assumptions from which Alikin bases the rest of his argument call into question the accuracy of his observations.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

On "The Legend" by Edith Wharton (10,468 words) ****

So some author writes some cool stuff, but no one notices or cares. That's probably the tale of most writers, though most probably aren't that good, which helps explain why no one care, but sometimes there are good authors who aren't good at catching the market. This happens. This happens to Pellerin. So he leaves, drops out of society, disappears. Meanwhile, in his absence, his books catch on. Folks forge reading groups around him. Scholars write about his work. A whole philosophy of life gets based around what he has to say. And then one day, he returns, not as Pellerin but as someone else. He's heard rumors, wants to know what people think of his work. He goes to the reading groups, meets with his fans and scholars, none of whom know who he is. He even writes another book. What do you think happens? Read the story here.

On "The People That History Forgot" by Ernest L. Martin *****

Martin writes about religious history as if he were writing a mystery novel. This book is about a set of people, he claims, who have been forgotten. Who are these people? They are people who many have thought were Jews. Archaeologists have found synagogues scattered throughout Europe and the Near East that include not just Jewish symbology but pagan. Such symbology is merely ornamental, not stuff the Jews worshipped, most scholars say. Martin says it is unlikely Jews would have added pagan symbols to their synagogues--these were the synagogues of another people: the Samaritans.

His points are interesting insofar as what I've read about the Samaritans from scholars who actually study the faith is that most of the ideas about them, picked up from the Bible and Jewish and Christian writings, are wrong. The very few that exist tend to be very faithful to their religion, which is in most ways much like Judaism. But Martin says otherwise. Those few Samaritans we know today are simply a remnant that remained faithful to their one-time beliefs. Most were quite as the Jewish records recount: namely, they were like Jewish people when it was convenient and like others when it was more convenient to be something else (not unlike many other Gentiles in the early centuries). As such, they mixed other religions with the Jewish faith. These are the synagogues with a mix of symbols.

But Martin doesn't stop there. He also shows how the people of the Near East, from around the area of Babylon, in fact migrated and spread around the areas near Israel in a sort of diaspora not unlike the Jews. These were the people who largely made up the Samaritans--and in turn, those Samaritans, numbering in the millions, spread across the Roman Empire. Most interestingly, Martin even claims that their numbers were so great, and their use as slaves so widespread, that they eventually came to outnumber the Romans in Italy such that the empire really became a Babylonian one.

Martin quotes from a number of primary documents, examines quite a bit of archaelogical evidence, and spends time with some secondary sources (most notably when it comes to the spread of people from the Near East throughout Rome) such that his argument seems fairly convincing, even if it hasn't gotten wide play, but I do wish the book had notes so that the argument could be even more fully traced.

The book is available online here both in audio format and to read (I mostly listened to this book, and the audio was good enough to keep me riveted), in addition to being available for purchase.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

On "The Lady's Maid Bell" by Edith Wharton (8729 words) ****

So much for going to the country for rest. A woman recovering from typhoid goes to work as a maid at a quiet estate, but one of the people she meets her first day is not alive. Why doesn't the staff use the bell system that has been integrated throughout the house? We soon find out. The ghost leads us down many paths, though I'm not sure that the story provides many answers by its end, but I think that's what makes this story so mystifying. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "Kingdom through Covenant" by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum ****

I picked this book up on something of a whim, it being part of a set of free samples. Because I've been reading a lot of early Christian history lately, I thought it might be interesting to step back and read about something a bit broader in scope--namely, something about the covenants in the Bible stretching back into the Old Testament. As seven-hundred-plus pages, I figured this book would be very thorough in discussing the various covenants, and it was. In fact, while I was expecting the book to be informative, I don't think I was expecting to learn quite as much as I did.

The authors seem very much conservative Christians (Presbyterians) in terms of how they interpret scripture and in terms of their belief in it. In a way, that was refreshing, seeing as much of the scholarly writing on early Christianity seems to be by people who are agnostic or atheist, even though they study the scriptures. Thus, the authors of this book take views about that canonization of scripture (during the time of Ezra and during the early second century) that I've read only in books by writers with generally less scholarly bonafides. Gentry and Wellum, thus, helped me to glean sources of others of their ilk who serve in religious studies departments but whose views are more conservative than what seem the vast majority of scholars who argue that canonization happened much later for both the Old and New Testament (namely, during the late second through fourth centuries A.D.). That said, the authors' Calvinist thinking certainly shows through, especially as they draw their conclusions at the book's end.

The book opens with a couple of chapters that set the terminalogical base and that help to spell out the controversy that exists regarding the covenants and how the authors' own theory aims to bring two divergent views into line with one another. First, the authors discuss biblical versus systematic theology. The former, in the authors' view, has to do with the interpretation of scripture, and the latter with how one applies it to one's life. They spend some time discussing how the former has become something quite different over the course of the last two hundred years--namely, that more recent nonevangelical scholars tend to look at the scriptures and discrete pieces rather than as a whole, robbing the Bible of much of its uniform message in favor of something that is more rooted in the historical meaning as per the creators of the books within their particular time and place.

The next chapter focuses on two theories, or way of looking at, biblical covenants: covenant theology versus dispensational theology. As the authors describe these two ideas, I could see aspects in which my own views fit into both, but by the book's end, it was clear that I probably fall more in line with dispensationalists than covenant theologians. It was interesting to examine my own beliefs in light of terminology used by a wider swath of theologians. Covenant theology essentially sees the Christian Church as an extension (or really, replacement) of the nation of physical Israel. Dispensational theology tends to look at the promises to physical Israel as being binding to the physical nation rather than to its spiritual replacement and as such as yet to be fulfilled. The Church, as such, is distinctive in some ways from Israel, which serves more as a metaphor for than as a literal extension of the Church.

The two differing views affect such things as the doctrine of infant baptism. If one holds to the covenant theological line, then all the church is like Israel, which means that as in Israel, there was a mix of believers and unbelievers, to be sorted out at the end. Baptism is like circumcision; as such, if babies could be circumcised on the eighth day, before any real awareness of their national identity, so it goes that babies can be baptized without real awareness of their religious/spiritual identity. A dispensationalist, by contrast, is largely going to argue that a person has to decide to become part of spiritual Israel; thus, baptism, as that sign, requires a conscious decision. The church, for those of this mindset, is made up solely of believers. (This is where some of the Calvinistic line of thinking comes in, however, as these authors seem to suggest that one cannot fall away--that is, if one falls away, one was never actually a believer. Your fate is sealed from before time.)

The authors then trace the various covenants through the Bible, discussing idea of covenant in its historical context (how a covenant, for example, differs from a contract: the latter has to do with material things, the former with a relationship between people). They trace how each covenant foreshadows the ultimate New Covenant through Jesus and how this was God's plan all along, starting from creation, through Noah, Abraham, his sons, the nation of Israel, and King David. In a sense, God forged a covenant at/with creation itself, intending man to serve him in the garden as his steward and as part of his family (in this sense, the authors' ideas seem quite close to the ways I read much of the Old Testament). Adam's failure necessitated a replacement. And each case down the line shows a replacement and its failure. Thus, Noah is a kind of second Adam and a kind of Christ, as are Abraham and his sons. Israel, too, serves a similar role. All failed by sinning. King David serves as a prefigure of the kingly Christ--but again fails to be the perfect king. It is only the Christ who can actually play the Adamic role perfectly and thus reconcile man and God and fulfill the covenant role required to make possible our relationship with God. This all seems fairly basic, but the real joy in the book is seeing the authors discuss the specifics. I hadn't ever thought of many of the parallels between Noah and Adam/Christ. And I hadn't thought much of the meaning of the sacrifice in Genesis 15.

At the end of the book the authors offer their assessment of how their ideas reconcile the covenant and dispensationalist view of the covenants. Like the dispensationalists, they see physical Israel as being something distinctive from the Church; the latter included believers and unbelievers, the latter only believers. Like the covenant theologists, however, they see the promises of the New Covenant as fulfilling those of the old and as being much greater than the old, thus replacing them. Thus, the promises of specific land to Abraham, and thus to Israel, are fulfilled in the New Covenant through the church's inheritance of the world. While I would agree with this assessment, I tend to think that the promises to Israel are much too specific in places to allegorize them all away (Manasseh to become a strong nation, Ephraim a company of nations; the return of Israel from the islands and the lands of the north, etc.); certainly, the greater promise to Abraham is that all are blessed through his name, and all who become spiritual Israelites inherit the earth--that is the overall message of the Bible--but why these other specific promises if in the end they are all somehow just metaphors?

Still, the specific readings of the covenants are very informative and thought provoking, and I will return to parts of this book again as needed as I reread certain passage of scripture.

Monday, May 25, 2020

On "Dinner with Craig" by Kate Folk (1090 words) ****

Here, a snake consumes a young woman's world, quite literally. One of the cool things about Folk's stories is the way that the metaphorical language we use in our lives is transformed into the literal, thus commenting both on our use of language and of our perception of the world. I mean, after all, what do we really mean when we say that we are being consumed by something? "Dinner with Craig" shows us. Read the story here at the Adroit Journal.


On "Jewish Believers in Jesus" edited by Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik ****

This exhaustively long volume aims to provide a history of "Jewish believers in Jesus" through the first six centuries or so of the Christian church. Unfortunately for me and my interests, but for good reason--though the reasoning was not entirely clear to me until the final chapter--the editors focus on the ethnic term "Jewish" rather than on beliefs that are "Jewish." That is, when defining "Jewish believers," they are interested primarily on people who are Jewish who became Christians, rather than on Christians who may have continued various Jewish traditions, be they Jewish or not. But Skarsaune's reasoning is sound, one realizes, by the end of the book. The first Christians after all, like the Jewish people at the time, weren't really using these terms in the same way--the borders between the two faiths were still being drawn. Thus, it would be unfair to these Christians followed Jewish practices, or these Jews followed Christian practices, when what constituted the unique practices of each hadn't been fully defined. What we can trace, however, to some extent, are ethnic Jews who professed a belief in Jesus, whether that belief entailed continuing adherence to many of the practices of what would later become rabbinical Judaism, adherence to a more circumspect set of practices derived from the religion of Israel, near complete abandonment of Israelite practices in preference for ones later defined as Christian for non-Jewish believers, or acceptance of Jesus as a human prophet without divine origins. As Skarsaune makes plain at the end, we can think of early Jewish Christianity as essentially like the reformed Judaism of its day.

Discrete essays cover various subjects as available in the primary sources--James and the Jerusalem church, Paul as Jewish in Acts and in his own writings, Jewish influences in the Roman church, Jewish influences in Asia Minor, various apocraphyl works (such as Jewish versions of the Gospels), the writings of the church fathers (such as Papias, Justin Martyr, Polycrates, Irenaeus, Hegissips, Origen, and Jerome) on Jewish believers, various Jewish Christian sects (such as Ebionites and Nazarenes), gnostic Jewish Christian sects, Syrian Jewish Christian sects, early church orders, early rabbical writings, and archaelogy.

One reason it is so difficult to trace such believers, it becomes clear, is that most of what we know about them are written by later writers who had a particular agenda--to proclaim the superiority of either Judaism or Christianity. Both had an interest in emphasizing differences, and neither had an interest in discussing a version of the faith that mixed ideas from both. Thus, we're left with Christians attacking Jewish Christians for maintaining solidarity with Jewish practices or believers; likewise, we're left with Jewish writers attacking Christians for pagan practices. But more often, especially among the Jewish writers, such believers are simply ignored. Our knowledge of them comes in the few veiled attacks that exist, showing us that such believers existed, even if after the New Testament writings, we have very little written from among them.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

On "Expiation" by Edith Wharton (8246 words) ***

This story is somewhat predictable, but the question at its heart is one worth pondering. The focus is on writers and on how they can get their writing to be more popularly successful. The way? Make it controversial. If you can get someone to ban it, you're sure of success. When a writer's attempt to write something in that vein, however, it is given a good review and noted as being quite pleasant, much to the author's chagrin. The story revolves around her attempt to "fix" the book's reception. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "Against Heresies" by Irenaeus ***

I listened to this over the course of a few months on various commutes. Actually, I would have finished listening to this weeks ago had it not been that Covid 19 disrupted my usual daily commute. Thus, listening was reduced to the rare circumstances when I was out and about running errands.

As a listening experience, this book stands on a par with most other Librivox recordings--namely, it was at times really dull, such that my mind often wandered. The readers themselves differed from chapter to chapter, with some reading better than others, though there were rarely readers whose accents left me struggling to understand. Still, because chunks of the book were on topics I was interested in, I was at times drawn in, despite the quality of the recordings--or the writing.

The translators include a long introduction in which they write about the challenges of translating--indeed, of even reading--Irenaeus. The man was not a talented writer and, in fact, perhaps did not have a full grasp on the language he was using. This makes for much much difficulty of understanding, even before you get to the process of translating the material.

Of the five books that make up Against Heresies, I was most interested in the first two. Here, Irenaeus lays out the various heresies, most especially gnostic ideas, for readers. It was nice to hear that much of what I'd read third-hand in various modern discussions of Valentinians, Balsides, and so on has been accurately portrayed based on Irenaeus's writings. That is, when people have summed up what these folks believed, using Irenaeus as their source, they've largely remained true to what Irenaeus wrote, rather than presenting some skewed picture that is not in the primary text.

What becomes evident is how reliant most thinkers Irenaeus discusses were on polytheistic ideas and religions, positing not the one God, creator of all, and his son, but rather a pleroma, or family of gods--or emanations from the supreme God--from which Yahweh and Jesus eventually derive. There's a certain degree of similarity among most of the heresies that Irenaeus writes about, though he does cover a few more Jewish-centric ones.

The later books prove less interesting, because Irenaeus sets out not just to describe the heresies but to do, as his title suggests: to write "against heresies." Thus, he spends most of the later portions of this book arguing that the ideas of such thinkers make no sense either logically nor biblically. The arguments here are usually fairly obvious, and given Irenaeus's penchant for lousy prose are not very engaging. The rare times my attention popped up in the later sections were when he wrote of various doctrinal ideas, such as the resurrection, has they provide a window into the standard thinking of many Christians in the late second century, before some later ideas, like going to heaven after death, took as firm a hold. On Irenaeus's views of the afterlife, I need to do a second closer reading, as they seem in places contradictory.

The Librivox audio version can be found here.

Monday, April 20, 2020

On "Dating a Somnambulist" by Kate Folk (849 words) ***

In Kate Folk's world, weird stuff happens. That weird stuff is metaphorical for the angst we feel in regular life over the mundane. This mundane finds its way into lists here of what her sleep-walking boyfriend picks up a night. And yet, despite the trouble, Folk's narrator lives on--there could be worse things in other worlds. Read the story here at Hobart.