Sunday, September 8, 2019

On "The Pelican" by Edith Wharton (7614 words) *****

There's something about stories that are written in the first person about someone else that I seem drawn to. I think of The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and A Prayer for Owen Meany. The latter seems less like the first two insofar as things actually seem to happen around Owen that affect the narrator; by contrast, the narrator in the first two pieces isn't really a large part of the story. He's a hanger-on, a person fascinated by the characters around him--and most especially one. (Brideshead Revisited has a similar dynamic, I'm now realizing.) Perhaps it's the narrator's fascination that works its magic on me: I too become interested in knowing more about this acquaintance or friend, as mystified as the narrator is. "The Pelican" works a similar form. Here, the narrator is a man who happens to fall in with a woman whose husband has died and who has a young child. She takes to the lecture circuit to make money. Unlike those other stories, however, here perhaps it is the narrator himself who is rather fascinating--this because he seems so much to detest the woman but still spends so much time writing about her, dropping in on her lectures, trying to avoid her, and so on. In short, he finds her lectures facile. But years go by, and every five to ten years he ends up running into her, each time, she's still at it, raising money to educate her son. At some of these drop-ins, she's wildly successful; at others, she's down on her luck. Such is fortune. But that son, well, she's been doing this a long while--and we begin to realize something more about the woman, that she's a con of sorts. And we begin to wonder also what exactly it is that draws her to lecturing, what makes her tick. Read the story here.

On "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" by Richard Bauckham *****

Cogently written and elegantly argued, this monograph was not only a breeze to read but a joy. I took it on because the subject seemed interesting, but I wasn't expecting to enjoy reading it so much as I did.

Bauckham essentially makes the argument that many contemporary scholars have it wrong. The Gospel accounts of Jesus's ministry are not oral traditions passed along for generations, many of them mythologized in the telling. They are actually written accounts based on eyewitness accounts of the happenings, from the lives of people who actually had interactions with Jesus. And he says there is evidence in the Gospels of this. In other words, those like third-generation-from Jesus Papias who say that the Gospels were written by people they knew, who themselves got their information directly from people who had interaction with Jesus aren't fibbing. Papias, in fact, says he preferred to get information from these eyewitnesses, who by his time were few in number, than from written accounts--such was the preference of historians at the time. That is, Roman writers only wrote about the distant past as needed to set the context for events that they themselves had firsthand knowledge of. It was no different for Papias, whose work largely no longer exists except in these passages where he explains his objectives. Putting such words into writing would have been especially important as the generation with firsthand knowledge of Jesus would have been passing away, the opportunity thus lost to capture these reminiscences.

For material internal to the Gospels, Bauckham looks at different features. One is the use of names in the accounts. Names used, he argues, coincide to the actual witnesses who were still living--and were part of the church--at the time that the account was written. Thus, if someone wanted to verify a story, one need only ask the person named. Unnamed persons are generally those not bearing witness, not connected with the church, but rather being talked about. Helping to confirm this idea is the very names that show up in the Gospel accounts, which tend to match by percentage the relative popularity of the names given to people in ancient Palestine (as we find in ossuaries and other archaelogical evidence). Thus, we have many Simons and Josephs, as one would expect if the stories were originating with witnesses to Jesus's ministry in Palestine.

Much is made in the scriptures themselves about the need that those who serve as apostles be witnesses from the beginning, corraborating the importance of witnesses being those who tell the stories. Bauckham looks specifically then at Peter, who by tradition (and by Papias's account) was the source of much of Mark's Gospel. Is there evidence within Mark that this was so? Bauckham points to the way that the Gospel essentially starts and ends with Peter's witness and the way in which Peter is a major character; certainly, his importance in the early church might account for this, but it can also be accounted for by his being the source of much of the information. One of the most interesting parts of Bauckham's argument comes from his analysis of the grammer. Much of the story uses a "plural-to-singular" narrative device, a feature that is used five to ten times more often by Mark than any other Gospel writer. That is, the sentence starts off in the plural and then focuses on the singular: e.g., "They came to the place, and then Jesus said to his disciples." The language is a bit strange in third person; put it into first person plural, however, and it seems quite natural: "We came to the place, and then Jesus said to us." It's as if Mark took Peter's account (we did this, we did that; he told us) and wrote it out in the third person (they did this, they did that; he told them), given that Mark was a nonpartaker in the events.

Another interesting feature is the way certain people aren't named in some of the Gospels but are in others. Why? Bauckham argues that it had to do with legal jeopardy and persecution. Thus, Mark merely mentions that someone cut off the priest's servant's ear, but John, writing much later, tells us it was Peter against Malchus. Why the secrecy, especially if Peter was the source? Because if the Jewish leaders had written evidence as to who had done the deed, Peter might have been able to be prosecuted for it. (This also explains why Peter so adamently disavowed being a follower of Jesus, even though he followed Jesus to the place where Jesus's trial was--if he had admitted to being a follower, others might have pointed to him as Malchus's assailant [John tells us that one of those who asked about Peter was related to Malchus].) Once John was writing, much later, Peter was long since dead--no troubles could follow from revealing his identity.

Or take Mary (sister of Martha and Lazarus), who annointed Jesus but who goes unnamed until John's account. The annointing, Bauckham argues, set up Jesus as the "annointed one," the "Messiah," thus adding to Jesus's followng and posing a threat to the Jewish powers, who would likely have wanted to persecute Mary for doing so. Once she's dead, however, it doesn't matter to name her.

Or what of the man who runs away naked when the priests come to get Jesus. He likely got involved in a scuffle with the priests and then to get away loosed himself from his robe; as with Peter, protecting the identity from being known as an assailant would have been important to prevent later prosecution. Some have posited that this was Mark himself (a sort subtle signature to the book), but Papias wrote that Mark never had any direct dealings with Jesus--only with Peter--and Bauckham finds it more probable that it was another disciple (possibly not one of the twelve) or even Lazarus.

Lazarus's story isn't given in any account until John. Why is that, given that it is a major reason the Jewish leaders decide to do away with Jesus according to John? Bauckham suggests that it was to prevent the leaders from themselves killing Lazarus, something John says they sought to do. Not putting the story in print would thus keep it from being spread about as easily and thus putting Lazarus in further jeopardy of being killed. Once he had died, however, once again, the reason to keep the story and Lazarus's identity somewhat hush-hush becomes less important.

From here, Bauckham recounts different theories regarding the passing on of oral traditions, showing how the idea that the Jesus stories were largely folktales by unknown community traditions rather than stories related by specific persons is unlikely--that is, showing how the various theories don't pass muster. This section, while easily understandable in Bauckham's deft rendering, was heavy on theory.

What is interesting also is that Bauckam generally does not take the namesakes as being the authors of the various accounts. He thinks they're pseudonyms. Likewise, he accepts the generally accepted idea that the Gospel accounts were written at later dates--in his case, just as the witnesses were beginning to die out (thus, the reason for rendering such information in writing).

One of the most interesting chapters in the book applies psychological theories of memory to how they would apply in the case of eyewitness testimony--and specifically with regard to how they apply to the Gospel accounts. What do we remember in detail, why, and how likely are those memories to be accurate and stable over time? No doubt, memory is often unreliable--we conflate various events or we come to think, given the power of suggestion, that we witnessed something we actually only heard about. And yet courts rely on eyewitness testimony, as indeed virtually any account of a happening.

And yet, in one example given, of a contemporary memory compared with a newspaper account from decades earlier, the person recounting the story, who was about ten at the time of the event and was part of the community where the event occurred, was amazingly precise and accurate. How and why? Bauckham, drawing on the work of pscyhologists, lists several extenuating circumstances that make certain memories more accurate and precise than others: (1) uniqueness or unusualness of the event; (2) consequentionalness of event; (3) emotional connection to the event, and (4) frequent rehearsal. All four lend to our ability to remember the event. Other important factors that tend to be part of accurate memories were (5) vividness of the imagery--memories we remember well tend to be remembered with with more imagery than other memories; (6) inclusion of irrelevant detail--we tend remember inconsequential items that happened as part of or around the event; (7) point of view--we tend to remember an event both from our own first-person perspective and from a third-person observer perspective; (8) dates--we don't tend to remember specific dates of events but we will remember the season, the time, the locale; (9) gist and details--we are better at remembering the general idea of an event than specific details, but that does necessarily mean that the memory becomes inaccurate (it's the way we begin to "interpret" the event in our memory). No doubt, Bauckham notes, those healed by Jesus or who witnessed a spectacular event would have had good reason to have good recall about it--it was unique, often consequential, had emotional connection (if you were the one healed), and would have been retold as a story frequently. As such, many of the accounts in the Gospels include vivid imagery, seemingly irrelevant detail, shifts in point of view, and elements of time and place. Even though the gist of a memory might be all that was recalled, often some details remain important in the recounting: the number of fish and loaves of bread, for example, and the size of the audience, as well as the baskets of leftovers taken up.

Bauckham then shifts his discussion to the Gospel of John, presenting several compelling arguments for why he believes the gospel to have been written not by John the apostle from among the twelve but by John the Elder, who he claims is the actual beloved disciple. (In this sense, Bauckham departs from conservative tradition but is still more conservative than others who see the Gospel as not being written by any John at all.) Some of the major reason for this belief are that two Johns (the elder and the apostle) are mentioned by Papias. Likewise, Polycrates, when writing of John denotes him as being related to the priesthood, which seems unlikely of the brothers of Zebedee; indeed, the book of John (18:15) references a disciple as being with Peter at the court during Jesus's trial--one who knew the various members of the council. The elder likely garnder his name because of the length of his life, as denoted near the end of the book of John, wherein some thought he would never die. That the apostle became associated with this John is not strange, as such mixing up of people with the same surname was typical of the period and after; as another example, Bauckham presents Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, who are often conflated even though it's pretty clear from the Gospel accounts that they were two different people. Further, John's use of third person to reference himself, except near the start and end of the book, were not atypical of Roman biographies at the time, which tended to subsume the author except at the start and close, suggesting a John really was the main source and/or author. (Personally, I still find it difficult to think that John of the twelve is not the supposed author--he seems to take on such importance with Peter and James that it seems odd that he would have more or less disappeared into history after the few very clear references to him in the Gospels and Acts, whereas John the Elder, who appears only in second-century sources and who presence is only implied in the Gospel of John played such a huge role in the first-century church. That said, Matthias, who became one of the twelve after Judas's death, is noted as having been with them from the beginning, so it is indeed possible there were yet others who were not noted by name who witnessed a large number of Jesus-related events and who played a role in the early church, as indeed is Bauckham's whole point.)

The final chapter closes in on what the fact that eyewitness testimony can be and should be relied upon as part of historical analysis says about how historians should approach their subjects--that is, with more respect than perhaps has always been shown.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

On "Trouble at the Dance Hall" by Donna Baier Stein (2665 words) ***

The center of this story is a fiddler who is struggling to get by--and who also happens to be a black man in a bar full of white people, some kind, some not so. Read the story here at Green Hills Literary Lantern.

On "Gods and the One God" by Robert M. Grant ****

This book sets out to describe the state of religion during the first century insofar as it related to what Christians would have encountered, then goes on to describe how those religions and philosophical thought based in them went on to influence the development of the Christian idea of the trinity.

What's interesting about the book is the way Grant ties in Christianity with an overall movement in philosophical and religious thought that was increasingly sliding toward monotheism. Centuries before Christians came on the scene, philosophers were beginning to describe concepts that emphasized one god (e.g., Zeus) as the father or hierarch over all the other pagan gods. Such reasoning would play an important role in the development of the Christian trinity as Christians tried to explain how God could be one and yet Jesus and the Holy Spirit were also God with the Father.

The through-line unfortunately isn't that clear in what Grant presents to readers, and for a book aiming for general readers, it's still a bit technical at times, something that probably can't be helped given the complexity of trinitarian ideas (e.g., Grant acknowledges a triad existed early on but it wasn't a true trinity, which is a difficult distinguishment). Still, it's an excellent reference.

Monday, August 5, 2019

On "Mrs. Manstey's View" by Edith Wharton (4114 words) ***

What makes this fairly formulaic story so special isn't the plot, which is as drear as one would expect from Edith Wharton, or the characters, who are perhaps a bit less uniquely drawn than usual but the writing style, which is beautiful and the portrait of loneliness in its most egregious form and what little hope one clings to. Manstey is an old lady with nothing to live for but a room with a view. Read the story here.

On "Collected Stories, 1891-1910" by Edith Wharton ****

This collection of writings from the first half of Wharton's writing life runs the gambit of subject matter.

"The Fulness of Life" works off of some fairly banal tropes: A woman at the gates of heaven finds the love she's always wanted, except it means that her husband will have to be alone for eternity because she was his love for all time. Guess what happens?

In "The Lamp of Psyche" a woman in love with her husband discovers that, though able bodied, he did not fight in the Civil War. Why? Her idealistic bubble is burst.

"The Valley of Childish Things" is a series of short vignettes that read almost like jokes. It's a strange piece that I'm not sure adds up to much--but that leave one with lots to ponder.

"The Muse's Tragedy" is about a literary critic who finds the companion of a dead writer he's written extensively about. The companion and he forge a relationship, but as the story proceeds, we move from third person to first and learn the truth of the companion's relationship to the dead writer, which is not, at least as she perceives it, the way that others have perceived it.

"A Journey" is a melodramatic tale about a woman who has to bring her sick, dying husband home but who seems unwilling to let anyone else know he's dead once he kicks the bucket. The piece seemed overwritten to me, like something I'd expect to see in some slick magazine for people looking for "thrilling" writing.

"The Pelican," by contrast, is one of the best Wharton stories I've read. It's a tale about a man's various meetings with a woman over the years, but it's tone is such that it gripped me from start to finish.

"Soul Belated," about divorce and non-remarriage, feels both quite modern and a bit dated, insofar as society standards go. Wharton is a curious figure insofar as her writings about relationships go--her modern sensibility fits in well today, but she was writing in and for a time when views were quite different.

"The Twilight of the God" is a short play and seems out of sort with the stories in the collection. It focuses on the ways in which we idealize relationships of the past to the detriment of those in the present.

"A Cup of Cold Water" is another study in class, which so many of the Wharton stories deal in. Here, as with many of her protagonists, a man has gotten in over his head, taking out a gal whose tastes are far too expensive for his salary, and pays the price.

"The Touchstone" is a novella that touches a bit on class (a man needs money to marry) but even more so it deals with questions of what we owe to the dead and to those who love us, even if we don't love back.

"The Duchess at Prayer" and "The Angel at the Grave" both in their own ways deal with the way that one responds to death and to the legacies that people leave behind, the first a statue of a woman at prayer and the second a man's storied ideas.

Fine art figured large in many works by Edith Wharton, as in "The Recovery," which revolves around a woman who marries a painter whose reputation is such that he is hired to paint for various patrons and even to have a show in Europe. In "The Rembrandt" a woman attempts to sell an "unsigned" Rembrandt--something no museum would be interested in precisely because it lacks the signature. "The Moving Finger" combines with art the macabre, when a man who loses his wife asks that a painting of her be continuously updated so that she ages with him. "Sanctuary" focuses on an architect who is faced with an ethical dilemma.

"The Descent of Man" focuses on the difference between economic considerations and values/science in answer to the question regarding the prostitution of one's writing versus true art.

"The Mission of Jane" is a tale about adoption told from the point of view of the ambivalent (even negative) adoptive father. The story ends with the father finding love within him, as one would expect, but not in the same place where one would usually expect.

"The Other Two" is a fine tale ahead of its time, focusing on a newly married man and his relationship with his divorced wife's two previous husbands. "The Reckoning" continues on that theme, with a woman coming to terms with what it really means to divorce someone after her second marriage ends.

"Expiation" is another piece focusing on writers--this time, on the nature of what makes a particular work popular.

"The Lady's Maid Bell" is a well-put-together ghost story with a ghost that is perhaps a bit more interactive than in most such stories I've read. "The House of the Dead Hand" is another ghost story, but only in its final moments--before then, it is a gothic tale around which the mystery of of a masterpiece makes the piece one that one can't stop reading.

"The Introducers" is a forgettable romance story whose plot is predictable from early on. "The Hermit and the Wild Woman" is another less intriguing story, this one reading like a Catholic fairy tale.

The very fine "The Last Asset" is a kind of psychological horror story, insofar as the main character learns how manipulated he has been when helping a lady with her daughter's wedding. "The Pretext" also works off the idea of love used as an excuse to perform certain actions that are not as genuine as one desires; here, an older, married woman falls for a younger man who also falls for her and who drops a fiance because he can't handle marrying someone else, much to family consternation. Does he love her, or is something else going on?

"The Pot Boiler" returns to the theme of art versus money. Here, an artist is convinced to paint portraits of society ladies for good cash, hence, compromising his artistic vision. Wharton seems to suggest that it's okay for folks without real talent to paint (etc.) for money but that it's a waste for a person with talent, who should live in poverty for art until discovered. I used to have conversations with a roommate on this subject, who viewed folks who wrote pop lit as hopelessly compromised. I wasn't totally convinced then that such a person was sacrificing integrity then, and I'm even less convinced now. After all, why should one's artistic skills only be put to use for the highest ends and not for the everyday? You can do "low-end" stuff and use it to pay for the high end, if that's what you want to do.

"The Best Man" focuses on a similar issue of money versus integrity, this time in politics. A governor has a district attorney few like, a man who had had a scandal a few years before and who the governor hired anyway, at his wife's urging. Now, it has come to light that his wife was paid to urge the governor to hire the man, just as she has again been requested now by another party to help get him fired. The news is about to break. What is the governor to do? Sully his (or rather his wife's) reputation by not firing the D.A. or fire him to avoid the scandal? Or?

"His Father's Son" is about a man living his life through his son, who is doing things he dreamed of doing (moving to the big city and becoming a society man).

In "The Daunt Diana" a man collects artwork, sells it, and re-collects it. "The Debt" focuses on a scientist's assistant who upends all that the scientist has done once he's dead, much to the consternation of the scientist's relatives. What is loyalty? To be true to scientific ends or to be true to someone's legacy? Or is the legacy those scientific ends?

"Full Circle" is a deft exploration of the psychology of guilt, as an author hires another author to write fan letters for him.

"The Legend" is about the cult of authorship, how we often esteem highly what others esteem more than we esteem by any sort of objective criteria (if that's even possible).

"The Eyes" and "Afterward" return to the ghost tale. In the former, a man describes a pair of eyes that look at him at night, mostly when he has run-ins with one family. "Afterward" is about a ghost one doesn't know is a ghost until "afterward."

The long "The Letters" closes the collection, focusing on many of Wharton's themes about love but reminiscent in some ways of the 1944 best-seller Forever Amber in its caustic views.

Wharton stands as a writer at the end of one era and the start of another. Her language is sometimes verbose, but her sensibilities are quite modern. In this sense, I find her fiction a joy to read. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

On "The Terrible Old Man" by H. P. Lovecraft (1150 words) ***

"The Terrible Old Man" is a kind of folk tale. It revolves around three men who go looking for treasure--via the robbing of an old man that everyone else is afraid of. They should have known not to pursue their ends. Read the story here.

On "The House Church in the Writings of Paul" by Vincent P. Branick *****

This very short book does a great job of summarizing what we can know about house church in the first century with what little information we have--from Roman society, from the New Testament, and from archaeology, and of course more especially from the writings of Paul.

We see not only how the house church came to be (Branick views time in the synagogues as being minimal and not very successful--something I think he pushes a bit too much, since there are plenty examples of the success in the synagogue, and since Paul and other Christians continued to go there when possible) but how it flourished and finally why it ceased to be. We also see how it worked when it did exist.

Branick explores the social context: the way that rich often hosted and how that set up a power dynamic in the church, how various house churches were networked together, and how churches might manage larger meetings. He discusses the major house churches we know of as discussed in scriptures.

The house church's demise seems to be related to the growth of the church and to the desire for more central authority among the elders in the church. As churches outgrew homes, homes were often turned outright into churches. Likewise, as pastors and elders tried to assert more authority, the idea of meeting in homes, which were thus to some extent under the control of the host--the owner of the home--house churches became even outright banned. As such, the contemporary Catholic church as we know it began to come into being.

Friday, June 7, 2019

On "A Landing Called Compromise" by Donna Baier Stein (4990 words) *****

In this opener from Stein's collection, two women come to terms with the friendship among their sons and another boy who suffers from a terrible accident. While the accident furthers the distance between the two women, an unnatural disaster brings them to a point where common humanity is recognized. Read the story here at the Saturday Evening Post.

On "Scenes from the Heartland" by Donna Baier Stein ***

A standard writing exercise consists of taking an image and writing a description of it. Sometimes this can lead to more, especially as one comes to know the scene or the persons inside the image. This was essentially the process the Stein went through in writing this book. The title of this collection, thus, is an apt one. The scenes here, however, are not photographs but lithographs, all of them created by Thomas Hart Benton, an artist whose work I have only lightly been familiar with before. As an exercise, each story finds success at putting a story to the image. Stein descends into the lives of each character in each piece.

In her afterword, the author notes that she wanted to get out of herself, to write about things that were less familiar to her. The lithographs were a means toward this. The exercise resulted in some very heartfelt meditations. That said, there's a part of me that felt like most of the stories strained at times to overcome a setting in time and place that was not the author's own--by that I mean that many of the tales, while well researched, seemed impersonal and even, to an extent, to fall back on the kind of Hollywood stereotypes one would expect when looking at the image rather than thrusting readers into something unfamiliar and extraordinary.

The best stories, though, do manage to do something to that effect. The most impressive of all is the opener, "A Landing Called Compromise," a tale that seems deceptively mundane but that builds to a great emotional catharsis.

"Trouble at the Dance Hall" explores racial relations at a country bar.

The title "Morning Train" is a play on words, as the story concerns a family whose son is about to go off to war, to the mom's grief and consternation.

"Pointing East, Where Things Happen" revolves around a revival meeting and concerns about faithfulness.

"For Her Own Good" focuses on two children whose father sends his wife (their mother) away for "woman troubles"--as in she has grown dispondent and doesn't do her chores in a satisfactory way. The children, of course, don't care about this--they want mom, and they want to enjoy the fair that they were promised to be able to attend. There's a grief and sorrow that runs throughout this piece, though it's not quite as finally crafted as in some other pieces.

In "The Sweet Perfume of Somewhere Else," it hasn't rained in a long while, and the main character dreams of being somewhere else--or more specifically being with someone else, her teacher. But what she wants proves not to be what she imagined, and the story makes an awful turn that has the girl wishing for childhood.

"Prodigal Son" is a heartbreaking tale about a son who has difficulty dealing with an injury to his father, in some sense blaming himself. The difficulty causes him to desert his family when it needs him most--this for a woman who becomes a quick study in booze and grift.

"Spring 1933" focuses on lost love an abusive father/husband.

The collection ends strongly with "Under the Weight of His Mother's Body," this one about a woman who marries beneath her expectations. I love a story that ends with an opening--especially to more trouble and concern. I'm reminded of a Raymond Carver story called "Neighbors," which ends with a couple who has been doing a bit more than house sitting when taking journeys into another person's house being locked out. That moment bears so much more than the simple pressing against the door. In this tale, an orphan from a small town named Arthur falls for a woman in the big city. A kind man, he's not ready for the demands this woman will make of him or for the demands his small town will either for that matter.

Some common tropes arise throughout the stories. At least two men marry women who then descend into various levels of alcoholism. At least two women mourn over sons. At least two fathers prove abusive of their families to various degrees. In fact, if one were to craft a common trajectory in the stories, it is one of disappointment with life's expectations and hopes. That's not to say the stories are all gloomy--in many cases, the characters find something redeeming among the sad events. Another things Stein does well by the collection is to present us with a view of a community at a particular time and place, the kind of linking that I often enjoy in story collections.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

On "Tweet" by Sabrina Orah Mark (1151 words) ***

Mark is a poet, which is obvious from this piece, which plays with language more than anything else one would expect of a story. It's about following, about religion, about looking for something beautiful, about wanting to be beautiful like that something, about not knowing where to go. It is about life and about social networks. Read the story here at the Collagist.

On "Luke the Historian in Light of Research" by A. T. Robertson ****

I came to this book rather oddly. Someone handed me a copy of Robertson's Harmony of the Gospels, a book my father had on his shelf for many years. I perused it--have found it useful in many ways--but I was intrigued by the fact that Robertson had a list of other books he'd written. Harmony is quite old, so I figured these books might well be in public domain, might well be available online, and indeed they were. This was the one that seemed the most intriguing--and indeed, it proved to be very handy. Admittedly, it's a bit dry and in some ways a bit hagiographic, but I like the Robertson takes Luke the writer seriously and that he dispels many of the ideas, still current to this day, that Luke is not the author of the two books credited to him in the New Testament, that those books were written far later. In fact, Robertson has good answer for most of the critics of Luke, as a writer and as a reliable source of information.

What's admirable here also is that we get something of a biography of Luke, as much as one can glean some two millenia later when pretty much all we have for data are the books he penned. Robertson also provides some useful background information--on Roman law, nauticals terms, written speeches, and first-century medicine. Read over the course of months, the book has given me a slight desire to look at one or two other titles by Robertson, still useful these many decades after their original publication. You can find this book on Google Books here.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

On "The Tree" by H. P. Lovecraft (1634 words) ***

Two artists vie to build a statue, but in the course of their work, one dies--vaguely becoming a tree. The supernatural effects go on to change the community. Read the story here.

On "Between Athens and Jerusalem" by John J. Collins ****

This book describes how Jewish people and Greek people interacted with one another during the second temple period, especially from 200 BC to 200 AD. Collins does this primarily through looking at apocryphal Jewish writings from this period, but also by looking at historical and social elements.

Gentiles, to some extent, took on Jewish customs during this period--many began to take off one of the days of the week. Some went to synagogue. Many were impressed by Judaism as a kind of philosophic religion or by the fact that it was monotheistic. But the focus isn't as much on those who took on Jewish customs as on the ways that Jews reacted to Gentiles.

In that respect, Jews wrote with various strategies to show that they were in fact every bit as intelligent their Greek conquerors. One strategy included playing up the philosophical angle of the religion. Another strategy included claiming that Greek ideas actually originated with the Jews. With many diaspora Jews, the law, while important, was not the overwhelming concern that we think of it being in rabbinical Judaism. Greeks might have as much affinity and promise of a good life as a Jew if they generally stuck to moral laws of God--dietary laws, circumcision, these things didn't matter so much in much of the diaspora literature.

Collins provides some great summaries and analysis of Alexandrian thought and history, more than I can sum up here, as he does of various specific texts, most of which I have never read.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

On "The 37" by Mary Miller (2097 words) *****

"The 37" seems a fitting end to Miller's Always Happy Hour collection. It's about a woman who tries. What I mean is that it's about a woman who, despite her constant anxiety, forces herself to travel, to go to places and to do things that she's uncomfortable with, like riding the bus. And in a sense, that's the most healthy thing a person can do--even if that person's mental state is seemingly unhealthy. Read the story here at Joyland.

On "Always Happy Hour" by Mary Miller ***

There is much that I enjoy about Mary Miller's writing. It's accessible; it's gritty; it's realism in the form that I much enjoyed when I was younger: dirty. These are stories about plain, old everyday life. They're not going to wow you with narrative innovations; rather, they're going to plod along wowing with the content of the words.

"Introductions" is a case in point of how good Miller can be when she is "on." This story is about an insecure woman fretting over her fairly secure relationship. Is she smart enough to be with her well-read boyfriend? good enough? pretty enough? Why is he still with her? Will they last? It's true to the feel of a lot of relationships, which makes me wonder to an extent why we live this way, why we want relationships when we don't feel ourselves worthy of them.

"The House on Main Street" focuses on a similar gal, though here insecurity is replaced by a kind of willingness just to be and a longing to be more. The narrator lives with a Yankee, both students in an MFA program in Mississippi. The New York City roommate frets constantly over how backward the South and southerners are, though showing herself not much more sophisticated than those around her at every turn, except in superficial ways (she drinks wine!). The narrator has settled into a pseudorelationship, a friends with benefits relationship, with another grad student who would marry her in a heartbeat. She thinks a lot about her ex-husband, even calls him occasionally, though she also wonders why, since she tells us she no longer knows what she saw in him. We're left wondering why the heart wants what it wants.

As the collection continues, some of the stories fall into a rut, becoming different versions of one another and harder to distinguish. In "Proper Order" a new (visiting?) professor invites students to her house for a party, largely with the intention of sleeping with one of them. She knows this is a horrible idea, but it's beside the point. Her life choices have generally been bad, and she thinks of how her students still have the ability to make the right decisions and choices, leading to better lives--this, even though the teacher is only shortly out of grad school, though not writing, after publishing a first book.

"The Longest Covered "Walkway in the World" seems a somewhat less effective version of the opening story of the collection. A woman goes out with her boyfriend, a divorce with a child he shares with his wife, taking daily turns at custody. The woman expects, at any time, to be rejected, for the man to go back to his wife. She aims to be a better person, worthy of love, but constantly believes she is incapable of that.

By contrast, "Uphill" is a fun story that seems somehow less than the sum of its parts. In it, a woman travels with her boyfriend to do a favor for a "bad guy"--a friend of the boyfriend's--taking a photo of a woman for which a substantial amount of money will be given, because, you know . . . The whole mystery at the center of this tale is part of what makes it so intriguing. Bad things are probably happening, but you're never certain exactly what those things are. As Mark Richard once said in a workshop I took from him, not knowing is often more powerful.

"Dirty" features some really memorable lines and some interesting characters, though the story as a whole doesn't seem to go much of anywhere. It features a gal and her boyfriend and their close other friend, who is dating a fat girl but won't admit it.

"He Says I Am a Little Oven" is about a woman on a cruise with her boyfriend an his parents. As with the main character in most of the stories in this collection, the relationship seems temporal and unsteady, the woman herself unsteady and often unemployed, dependent on the boyfriend.

"Where All of the Beautiful People Go" is a story about a pool party. A gal is hanging out with a much older female friend who debates whether to return the furniture she racked up on her newly dead mom's credit cards, who has prostituted herself because her husband can't get it up anymore, and who had an accident that may have affected her brain years before the narrator and the woman met. It's also a story about how accidents (and accidents of the mind) can change our whole being and circumstances, how utterly unpredictable our lives can be.

"Love Apples" is a story about a woman throwing her life away, at least that's how I read it. She has a fairly decent, if boring, husband, who she is divorcing to run off with a man from the Internet, her "boyfriend," whom she has never met in real life and who doesn't really know what she looks like. It seems to be a story about really bad decisions we make in pursuing dreams or in living them--for the moment.

The weather plays the role of an important secondary character in "Hamilton Pool," where drought has sapped the landscape in which Darcie and her ex-con boyfriend trundle along in survival mode, not really working, trying to deal with a past that was hard and brutal, one the boyfriend tells first wanted then unwanted stories about.

The title story serves as a kind of template for the book as a whole, insofar as it includes a typical female narrator and her boyfriend. The latter is jobless, has a child he shares with an ex, and the former feels very lucky to have him in her life--so much so that she worries about losing him, even as she drinks a lot.

"Little Bear" does something similar in a very short space, but the focus in this one is on the mom (who is actually married) with her child. She thinks on how ephemeral all these family blessings are and hopes desperately that things don't fall apart.

"First Class" is one of my favorites in the collection. Although boyfriends also feature in the background of the story, the focus is on the friendship between two women, one a spendthrift lottery winner and the other her unhappy hanger-on. The two take a trip with each other, the latter traveling on the former's dime. The hanger-on doesn't like her friend or the trips they take, and yet she finds herself oddly compelled to stay. The story answers the question why.

"Charts" focuses on the relationship between two sisters, one adopted, the other a divorcee who relishes the home, the things, she got in the divorce but who like most of the characters in the book has anxiety issues, such that when her sister comes to visit, she does her best to avoid serious social interaction.

In the end, the collection is, as one review states, a book about Texas (and Mississippi) women making bad choices. And in a sense, it is--but those choices are grounded in a sense of anxiety about losing love or not believing in the value of one's mundane life. And if that's one thing about Miller's stories that places them into a sector of fiction, it is the focus on the mundane, which much like Ann Beattie's or Bobbie Ann Mason's work, eventually makes most of them seem much the same.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

On "Happy Hour" by Denis Johnson (1590 words) ****

This short piece about drinking, scrounging by, and trying to score a certain woman expertly exhibits the kind of crazy randomness that rocks Johnson's stories. We're never sure quite where we're going to end up--perhaps popping horse meds. Read the story here at Granta.

On "When Christians Were Jews" by Paula Fredriksen ****

I started off with much excitement and anticipation of reading this book, which I'd been wanting to get to for quite some time. Fredriksen promised to approach the subject of early Christianity, it seemed, from a Jewish perspective, which makes sense, given that the early Christians were Jews. Alas, in some ways, I was a bit disappointed, but in yet others this proved a profitable read.

I'll start with what was not as I had hoped. First, while Fredriksen writes very accessibly, I had a hard time following a through argument. A lot of interesting subjects--and some not so interesting--are explored, but I didn't really feel like there was much of a unifying thesis. Second, Fredriksen's approach is very much one informed by in-vogue secular ideas about the Jesus cult: namely that Jesus was not worshipped in the first generation. That veneration grew with time and mythology. It's an easy assumption to make, because that after all is how most myths are born. But to make such an argument, Fredriksen has to assume that all of the New Testament other than Paul's writings was written significantly later, in the last first century or early second. And even problematic passages in Paul's letters are seen as being mistranslations: Jesus isn't "God" as we read Paul's writing in English but "a god." Fredriksen's stance with regard to her biblical sources is further testified to by the way that she often claims there are contradictions. Some of these I can easily see any reasonable person making such a claim about; but others seem preposterous. For example, she claims that Paul's not writing about persecuting Stephen by name means there's a contradiction and that it likely did not happen as it is written about in the much-later-written Acts. The mere fact that someone does not mention an event in specificity but only in general does not make for a contradiction nor excuse for dismissing its reality. If I were to write that many acts of Islamic terrorism happened in the early 2000s but never mentioned 9/11 specifically, that would not mean that 9/11 did not happen.

What I liked about Fredriksen's work, however, came late in the book, when she focused on the interaction of pagans with Jewish Christians. Here she left me with much to think about. That's not to say there aren't interesting points earlier: they are nestled in among the larger text. What is perhaps most refreshing was exactly what I came to the text to read about: that Fredriksen does not read into the early Christian movement an anti-Judaism. She sees Paul as very much Jewish, which is not something many other scholars seem to recognize. Unlike those scholars, Fredriksen sees Paul as part of the movement that Peter and the apostles forged rather than as one who stole into the movement and introduced a Christianity devoid of its roots.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

On "The Cats of Ulthar" by H. P. Lovecraft (1350 words) ***

For those who love cats, here's a story about cat revenge. Two townspeople hate cats and murder them at every opportunity, until one day . . . Read the story here.

On "A Brief History of the Trinity in the Early Church" by Franz Dunzl ****

This short history of Trinitarian thinking is largely fairly approachable, though the innate density of some of the ideas does keep it from being as accessible as one might wish for.

Dunzle begins his discussion with a brief statement about the problem--that Christianity claims monotheism but also claims more than one entity as God. This has made both Jews and Muslims claim that the monotheistic stamp is incorrectly placed upon it. How did Christianity continue to make monotheistic claims?

Early Christians claimed Jesus as God. How they did this depended on various sects. Dunzl looks in part at the Ebionites (p. 8), a group who rejected the synoptic Gospels, keeping only a Hebrew Matthew and positing adoptionism. Early versions of the Gospels, as Dunzl denotes with mainstream views on the cannon, did not include information on the birth of Jesus. Mark is our first Gospel and starts with Jesus's baptism and ministry. His place as God's chosen starts at that baptism, when the Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove--he's adopted as God's son. However, later views would come to see him as God's son from birth, coming from a virgin.

How does one reconcile the idea of Jesus the Son as one with the Father, even if subordinate to him? Jewish concepts of a second type of power, be it an angel or logos or wisdom, were extent in the Old Testament scriptures. Philo took such ideas and tried to reconcile them with Platonic philosophy, seeing in the Logos Plato's concept of the transcendent one and the expression or copy of that one in the lower physical world (p. 12). This idea would also find form in Christianity. The early writing, The Shepherd of Hermas, shows another theory: that Jesus was God's Spirit embodied or made flesh (p. 13).

The next chapter focuses on a debate between the Monarchians and the "Logos" theologians. The former were essentially modalists. They argued that God was one because he exists in different modes--a mode as Father (during which he does not suffer) and a mode as Son (during which he does). The main scriptures for this argument are John 10:38 and 14:8-10, wherein Jesus proclaims himself to be in the Father and the Father in him, and that if one has seen the Son, one has seen the Father. Logos theologians, however, would point to other scriptures to show how such modalism was nonsense. Take, for example, John 1:1--if the Word is with God and is God, and they are the same, then one could not say that God was with God and was God. Or John 8:17, where Jesus says two bear witness of him--himself and his father. If there are just modes, there is only one witness: himself and himself. Even the grammer of "I and my Father are one" suggests plural--not one person but one in unity. These were arguments of Tertullian against modalism (pp. 31-32).

Logos theologians focused on John 1:1 but also often drew ideas from Greek philosophy. Justin in his Dialogue with Trypho (56.11) claims there are "two Gods" but that the second is subordinate to the first in will--that is, there is only one will. But such an idea would still not have satisfied the tenets of strict monotheists. Leave it to Tertullian to begin to explain the concept in a more "acceptable" form--only he brings in a third entity, the Holy Spirit. The three are of one substance but of three forms or gradations. He compares the Father to water, the stream to Logos, and the Spirit to a canal. All emanate from the Father--are eternally begotten by him. The Logos brings forth salvation to the people, like a river, and the Spirit is distributed to the people like a canal distributes water (p. 32). Origen of Alexandria would take this idea even farther, coming up with much of the language that would later become standard (though at his time, such words didn't have yet the distinctive meaning they would come to have among theologians), describing the three as three hypostases of the one God.

Enter Arius. A presbyter in Egypt, where such men were essentially like bishops of small churches in other areas, Arius came up with an idea to maintain monotheism. Jesus, in his view, was begotten by God--essentially created by him. Being created, he was not the "real" god. In this manner, one could say Christians had only one God. This idea didn't sit well with the bishop of Alexandria, who worked to get Arius kicked out of the church. Arius appealed with his ideas to others in the eastern church and gained some other supporters, including several bishops.

The debate was serious enough that it came to the attention of the emperor, Constantine. Wanting unity in the faith that he was using to maintain unity in the empire, Constantine convened a meeting of bishops. The issue wasn't as big a deal in the West, so many from the West did not attend, but most eastern bishops did--260 in all came. The compromise worked out by Eusebius (the one who became the Christian historian) worded the belief in such a way that both Logos theologians and Arians could accept it. Alas, this was not satisfactory to the Logos theologians, so the eventual creed passed included several phrases that clarified the position such that no Arian could support it; further, an appendix was added that directly refuted Arianism.

Despite this, the main supporters of Arianism weren't kicked out of the church. Rather, they were banished to less prominent locations. Constantine's main goal was unity; he wanted all to get along.

Alas, the solution did not prove a lasting one. The rest of the story becomes one of constant political intrigues and ongoing further attempts either to overthrow the Council of Nicea's findings or to finesse them. Over the course of years following Nicea, some worked to try to get various bishops defrocked or pushed to the edges of the empire by making various accusations of immorality rather than even discussing the issues at hand.

One man with a "new" theory that essentially repeated many of the ideas of the modalists was Marcellus. He managed to endear himself and his ideas of the bishops in the west, bringing about a sort of schism in concepts between the eastern and western bishops. More synods and councils followed, under later emperors, finally settling out under the emperor Theodosius at the Council of Constantinople.