Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On "Angst" by David Eagleman (347 words) ***

Think your life isn't important enough. What if the universe really does revolve around you? Might not be as appealing as one thinks. Read the story here.

On "How Would You Like to Pay?" by Bill Maurer ***

This book is about changes in the way that we see and use money as technology increasingly replaces cash. Alas, I did not find it a terribly informative or thought-provoking book. It reminded me in many ways of BBC radio documentaries on economic topics--erudite, slightly boring, and largely retreading information that is widely available. It was in the few tidbits of information I hadn't heard about before that the book was its most compelling, but since the book is not grounded around a narrative but around ideas, it often didn't develop those tidbits very deeply. I felt like this would have been a better article than a book.

So what are we to take from the idea that people can use their cell phones to transfer money around, for example? In that question is the problem that I have with Maurer's book. He doesn't go much deeper than, Yeah, people can do this. More interesting questions are why such technology hasn't taken off.

Of course, as Maurer points out, it has--in Kenya. There, there's a company call M-Pesa. It functions as people's banks and Western Union resources in a nation where people in many places lack access to formal banking facilities. That's, of course, why it took off there. In other nations where we'd expect such a service to have more of a draw, people have access to banks and to credit cards, both of which ironically are sort of older technologies (though plastic has only really been around since the 1970s apparently). (But that still doesn't quite explain why people haven't switched over, which would be an intriguing question to try to answer.)

Another interesting idea: That it was only about 150 years ago that money was monopolized by the state. Before that, money was often issued by various vendors: railroads, banks, stores. Such money helped make transferring goods among/to people easier. But something that Maurer doesn't address is how American money, coming into its monopoly state near the beginning of the 1900s would seem to coincide somewhat closely (by two decades) with the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, that is, income tax--an interesting coincidence that I think would be worth treating out.

With the shift in technology, specialized, nonstate money is making a bit of a comeback. We're talking not just Bitcoin but also coupons, gift cards, and discount tokens. And we're most especially talking about cell phones, for while systems like M-Pesa offer formalized ways to transfer money via phone, more informal means also exist. For example, if I buy a top-up card for twenty dollars, send the code to someone too far away for me to drive to, and then tell them to buy a book for my daughter at college there. Barter in a way has taken place, but also the top-up card has stood in place of currency. The person gets minutes but spends cash to buy a book. This usage is what has freed up people in developing countries to "bank" in a way in minutes, where banks haven't been readily available.

In the end, the author concludes, money is unlike other "technologies" because money is about relationships--how we relate to others and to our world.

One thing I can say of note here is how beautifully the book is designed. It was that--its diminutive size, its color photos, its font, and quirky chapter numbering--that first drew my attention to the work. Then the topic itself seemed like it would be something interesting.

Friday, January 27, 2017

On "Teeny" by Nelly Reifler (2643 words) *****

"Teeny" focuses on a girl who is charged with taking care of the vacationing neighbors' cats--but who for some reason shies away from actually doing it, even as the cats begin to waste away. Read the story here at Failbetter.

On "See Through" by Nelly Reifler ****

Reifler's stories range from the traditional to the offbeat, from the scary to the mundane. It's when she's walking the line between that line of scary and mundane that she's at her best. Mystery--and more specifically the mystery behind our impulse toward violence--is the major motif of the early stories of this collection, which also are among the best.

"Teeny's" details I'll save for a separate review. It's definitely a story worth reading.

"Baby" tells the story of an extremely smart child who calls into question the mother's reason for living. We get the idea that the baby's philosophical dialogue lines are actually in the mom's head. But such does not stop her from reacting in the most horrible of manners.

"Rascal" revolves around a young man who motorbikes around the country, camping out and meeting new people. The idea seems innocent enough, until the rascal discovers that he can use the knife his mother once gave him to gather goods from other campers. While there may not be maliciousness intended, the rascal's inability to discern what the limits of acceptable behavior are is troubling.

The next three stories take a different turn, focusing on death and disease. “Julian” tells the tale of a boy whose father is dying and whose cousin comes to visit and makes explicit how scary that is. “Memoir” is about a village where the plague or some other disease has broken out and to which people fear to travel. The girl at the center of this tale has some strange sexual proclivities as well, which left me a bit befuddled, that combination of wasting away of doctors and townspeople while she's jumping the bones of random older men. “Splinter” is a more traditional piece, telling of a little girl who manages to get a thorn stuck in her head, while vacationing with her  divorced father in Greece. The latter is befuddled as to what to do and angry that her mother has saddled him with the child precisely because of things like this. The stories climax involves a dwarf--not the kind of person one reads about often and certainly not, by the end, in such a matter-of-fact way.

“Upstream” puts the metaphor of the salmon swimming upstream to full use. It recounts the tale of a young boy watching his parents' marriage dissolve as his father continues to have various deliances with his college students. The boy becomes fascinated by monsters but also by fish, a memory of his last family vacation to the Northwest.

“The River and Una” also uses a fish metaphor but not with as much success. This story reminded me a bit of some of my own early or poorer work—melodramatic and full of expected troubles: an absent father, a runaway sister, a mom who can't deal with said sister, fights between them, and then a dying sister who has gone too far (or was pulled/pushed too far).

“North Curve” seemed a great set-up for a story but disappointed me in ending too soon. I wanted to know more about this woman who grows up to work as a prostitute near where the brothel where her father died. “Summer Job” is about a girl who works at a dirty magazine store owned by a relative for the summer and her phone conversations with a boy she's never met.

"Auditor" returns to the writing about the awkward and scary people on the edge, only in this case, the person has actually gone over the edge. The auditor is a woman who dislikes friendly people and who one day can't take it anymore. Her seeming regret for her action suggests that she has perhaps learned to mitigate her tendency to become annoyed.

Finally, the title story revolves around a woman who works at a porn shop. I'm not exactly sure what to call such places, but they are the locations where women perform/strip for customers behind glass. I liked how Reifler narrated this one, with accounts of the different men, but I wasn't sure, in the end, how the stories added up.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

On "Second Encounter" by Xujun Eberlein (2981 words) ****

The last story in Eberlein's fine collection, this piece focuses on forgiveness and on the way that time and space can make for odd friends, as a victim confronts his one-time would-be assassin. Read the story here at Paumanok Review.

On “So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood” by Patrick Modiano ****

This novel was my introduction to the French writer Modiano. I was reminded a bit of Camus's The Stranger, mostly because of the short length but also a bit because of the kind of distant style. The narrator does his best to keep people out of his life. I much enjoyed the work, in an intellectual sort of way.

The book centers on a novelist who receives a phone call from a stranger who has found his address book. The stranger wants to meet to hand the book over, but it turns out, upon meeting, that the stranger has read the author's work and is curious about it. Most especially, he is curious about a certain man who appears in the author's first novel, a man whose name also appears in the address book. The author doesn't recall the name--or at least, that is what he says. The stranger is doing research, writing something of his own. He asks the author to look over a dossier of materials.

The author is persuaded to do this by the stranger's daughter, who is silent whenever the stranger is around but friendly when alone with the author. She seems to have her own agenda.

The author looks through the materials and comes across one name that stirs in him a memory of the man the stranger was asking about and a host of other memories. This one name is that of a young woman, a teenager, who takes care of the author for a year or so when he is a child. Why? And why do they get separated? And what exactly did this young woman go to jail for? These and other questions are items the author then becomes obsessed with through chasing down his memories. In fact, we come to think that the author knew exactly the information the stranger seeks, for the author's memories reveal that he has gone in search of the woman and that the man is intimately involved with his reason for the start of that search. That, however, does not mean that we are easily able to figure out why these two people are looking for the man--or why the author himself has had the experiences he has, or even whether he has (for one of the themes of the book revolves around how people remember things differently and why the obfuscate the past).

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On "The Anointing" by Jamie Quatro (3553 words) *****

One of the most impressive stories from Quatro's collection is this one. What I like so much about this story is that it takes faith seriously, at the same time that we can see the main character struggle with it. The protagonist's husband is a doctor who had gotten addicted to prescription narcotics and lost his license and who is now is a near constant state of depression. Hoping to resolve the problem, the protagonist goes to her church elders for help and healing--anointing. By the story's end, we're not sure who needs help more or whether the calls for help will work. Read the story here at Guernica.

On "I Want to Show You More" by Jamie Quatro ***

Sex, death, and religion in the North Georgia mountains, along the border with Tennessee are the focus of this collection.

The lead story is a short one about a woman having a phone affair with a stranger, which becomes the setting for many other stories throughout the book.

The next story, "Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives," expands on this theme. Here, the lover takes on the form of some kind of body, a wax figure, that decomposes in the couples bed and then elsewhere in the house, constantly reminding the couple of what was. There is no escaping the affair, even as it fades into oblivion.

That kind of odd metaphorical realism extends into the next story, "Ladies and Gentleman of the Pavement," wherein a woman runs a marathon with a statue tied to her back. In fact, that's the vogue: everyone carries a statue while running--a burden, a work of art. One is not allowed to run without it. At the end the connection between art and running becomes more apparent. One must finish the race, as hard as it is, but there seems no way to do so without compromising.

Beginning with the next story, "Here," the collection takes a more traditional turn. "What Friends Talk About" is yet another story involving a woman's affair with a phone caller. In this one, she takes her children to the park to play so that she can have phone sex with her audio lover.

"1.7 to Tennessee" revolves around an eighty-nine-year-old woman who opts to walk a letter protesting a war to the post office. The story reminded me in some ways of Eudora Welty's tale (the name of it escapes me at the moment) of an older walker along the side of the road. Along the way, the woman meets various people and thinks about her past.

"Imperfections" is a very short piece that again returns to Quatro's frequent focus: a mostly nonphysical affair. Here, a woman meets up with a man in person, along with his wife, but works the situation around so that she and the man are, at last, alone. Does the hope measure up to reality? Does it matter?

And "You Look Like Jesus" is yet another piece with a focus on an affair that is exclusively via technology--this one online, over the Internet. A woman recounts the photographs she sent and received from her paramour, the pictures she won't show her husband, the pictures she eventually deleted, one supposes, probably in an effort to save the marriage.

Quatro is at her best with stories involving straight-up religion (without the kink). "Better to Lose an Eye" takes a rather standard look at hypocrisy among Christians, but what is not standard is the point of view. Lindsey's mother's boyfriend shot her mom, leaving her a quadriplegic with a tracheotomy. Now Lindsey has been invited to a pool party, and she's too embarrassed to go with her mom in tow, especially knowing all the questions she's going to be asked. But grandma insists. It's hard not to feel for a girl in this situation--or for a mom.

“Georgia the Whole Time” continues with the theme of disease that works through many of the stories in Quatro's collection. In this case, a couple has to find a way to break it to their kids that mom's cancer has returned and that she's likely to die.

“Sinkhole” won an O'Henry Prize, but the story didn't much speak to me. It returns to some of the oddball pieces that kick off Quatro's collection. Here, a boy who is a magnificent runner has a “sinkhole” in his chest that allows him to hear God and that he feels must be healed, a healing he finds via relations with a girl.

“Sinkhole” introduces a set of stories that explicitly deal with religion that end the collection. Here, the motifs of sexual deviance, religion, and running come together. And it is here that the oddities of those early stories begin to make sense, for the suggestion seems to be that religion involves a kind of oddness of thought, an oddness that pulls us toward transcendence, the way that sex or death supposedly do (as George Battaile would have argued). “Demolition” is about just that. It starts as a story about the loss of faith--or the finding of “true” faith. A deaf man joins a church and then leaves it. Meanwhile, the church's stained glass begins to fall apart, but seemingly for no reason. The church congregation decides to do the most “logical” thing--get rid of the building and go into nature, the deaf man as their guide.

In “Relatives of God” a woman thinks back on her phone sex affair with a certain acceptance, an end, I suppose, to a collection that focuses so often on the mix of feelings attached to such an affair.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

On "Spirals" by David Eagleman (583 words) ****

God is omniscient. He knows why we are here, what our purpose is. But what if this weren't so? What if we were created by creatures who were actually less knowledgeable than we are? What would be the implications of that? Find out one possible outcome here.

On “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser *****

I am a big fan of Schlosser's expose on fast food and had read an excerpt of this work, so I have long been looking forward to getting down to reading it. I was not disappointed. Command and Control revolves around an accident involving a Titan II missile silo in 1980, but around that story, Schlosser also tells the story of the American nuclear weapons program and of the dangers that accompany it, most specifically as related to accidents.

The Titan II accident dealt with in detail began with a routine maintenance operation, a man dropping a wrench and it hitting the missile, tearing a hole in it such that fuel began to pour out. It ends with an explosion. In between are tens of hours of terror, consternation, and planning. The escaped fuel leads to heavy amounts of toxic gas in the silo, enough that the command center feels a need to abandon the structure, this despite the fact that they sit behind several blast doors that can supposedly withstand a massive explosion, but gas seeps, and nuclear explosions are, well, you know, sort of big, big enough that one doesn't want to test such doors.

Outside, Air Force personell discuss what to do. They forge plans. Few of them actually do anything. The sherrif of the nearby town warns people to get away, even though the Air Force largely says that it has things under control. The sherrif knows better, from an accident a few years before involving a toxic oxidizer that killed lots of cattle and made many people sick. News crews arrive. Information given to the public is sparse.

Meanwhile, there's a general sense of dread and panic among the military people in the know. The fuel leak is slowly draining the bottom of the missile, making a vacuum. Above this vacuum is oxidizer, even more toxic than the fuel. It will crush the bottom of the missile like a tin can at some point, and the result will be an explosion. And above that are nuclear warheads, and one explosion might well set off the other. Over the course of several hours, a plan is forged. The silo doors will be opened in an attempt to disappate the fuel fumes and allow workers to go down and patch up the leak.

And then there's that explosion. When it happens, it is gut-wrenching. I'd thought the sheer number of characters Schlosser introduces would mitigate against one's feelings for them, but that is not the case with those who are hurt.

In between the account of the accident is a history of America's nuclear arsenal--and of the accidents in which it has been involved. One of the most harrowing involves another silo that catches fire in which fifty-three men are trapped and killed. Another involves the accidental dropping of a nuclear bomb over North Carolina in which every failsafe but the very last fails to prevent detonation.

But despite such accidents, thousands of them, the military continues to use the weaponry, even that which is questionable in terms of safety, and often it fights against safety precautions because of the added cost. Some accidents don't involve the warheads themselves but the early warning systems. In one case, a computer malfunctions and tells U.S. military people that the Soviet Union has launched an attack. Only because the head of the Soviet Union is actually in the United States at the time do experts realize that the computer has a bug.

And then there are the various military strategies the United States has during the Cold War. The main one involves essentially sending over so many missiles in retaliation for an attack that some places are being bombed three times over. The Cuban Missile Crisis is recounted, showing just how close the two nations came to war--but often that closely was mirrored by accidents like the one recounted above.

What's scary, Schlosser notes is that the United States probably has one of the safer aresenals. Other countries in possession of nukes don't have as good of a safety record, as bad as the American record is. And all it takes is for one of those thousands of accidents to get out of hand.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

On "Shower of Gold" by Donald Barthelme (3500 words) *****

Here's a fun and absurd story about a man who agrees to go on television to make a little money, which he needs. But in between, we're provided into people's opinions about the show and even into some information about the president. Read the story here.

On "The Jews in the Time of Jesus" by Stephen M. Wylen ***

This book sets out to provide the context for Jesus's life--that is, to provide readers with a sense of the Second Temple period in Palestine. He rightfully points out early on the trouble that exists in any such study and that has existed throughout--that scholars often say more about their times than about the time they are studying. Anti-Jewish works were the order of the day in the 1800s; modernists corrected this to an extent, but still had their own contemporary biases in trying to find the real Jesus. Contemporary historians have moved toward trying to present Christ as a Jewish man in a Jewish setting--what would a carpenter's life have been like at the time? But even when confronting this question, there is the issue of which historical sources to trust. Do we take the New Testament at its word or the Jewish writers of the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash? None of these were written strictly at the time of Jesus but rather anywhere from twenty to several hundred years later, depending on the source. Contemporary sources can be found, but they are usually from small Jewish sects that did not represent mainstream views. Can these be trusted themselves?

Wylen kicks off his discussion of the Second Temple period with a short summary of the Biblical narrative leading up to the building of the Second Temple. It's interesting to think of several of the biblical books as being written at the start of this period and as being a response to the events that are happening. Prophecy ends with Malachi soon after the Second Temple, much to the chagrin of many of the Jews. In its place comes apocalyptic works, most of which don't end up in the final scriptures (as Wylen relates, the Torah was the most accepted as scripture in the Second Temple period, the Prophets with a lesser degree of acceptance as time goes on, with the Writings not being finalized in the Jewish Old Testament until around 100 CE); the author credits Ezra as a likely authority in terms of editing the Torah and other books into their final form during this period (although this ignores the references to kings such as Hezekiah restoring the holy books--I would assume the Torah--to the center of practical application in their own time [other scholars see the time of Ezra, and the Great Assembly of Priests, as being the final period of Old Testament canonization, including all the Prophets and Writings]). It would only be after Jesus that scripture writing would return--in the form of the Talmud for the Jews and in the form of the New Testament for Christians. But even there, the writing would be more a matter of interpretation of previous scripture than of new revelation. Of further interest would be the introduction of the interpreters to the Jewish public reading of scripture, as most Jews by now spoke Aramaic and did not always have a firm grasp of Hebrew. These translations often took the form of true interpretations, though, as commentary often was added.

The next chapter turns to the Hellenistic world, especially as it affected the Jewish religion and as the Jewish religion affected it. That the Jews did not wholly assimilate to the Greek is unique among the Middle Eastern cultures, and this has a lot to do with the belief in one God, as opposed to a pantheon that could be easily added to (or "translated"--some Greeks saw the Jewish God as Zeus). That the Jews lacked idols was unique also. Jewish thinkers were seen as quite wise, and a good number of people converted of a sort (again, unique, as one doesn't convert when there are more than a single god--one just adds to the pantheon). These God-fearers did not circumcise (something the Greeks abhorred, unlike most Near Eastern cultures), but they adopted a belief in the one God of Judah; it is to them that much of the New Testament is addressed (as in Acts 15). Jews also moved out into the Roman Empire, losing sometimes the ability to speak Hebrew or Aramaic and thus getting most of their Bible from a Greek translation. Paul was probably most fluent in Greek, the author says, as evidenced by the Septuagint's influence on his letters (as we see in his choice of certain words and even some of his ideas). Fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire might have been Jewish, the author says. But these Hellenized Jews disappeared by the Middle Ages. What happened? We don't know. They may have been subsumed by Rabbinic Judaism or by Christianity. Indeed, the popularity of Jewish culture fell by the wayside as the Jews became more and more trouble within the empire. Their unwillingness to join in with civic rites because of the latter's steeping in paganism led to a separation and to some resentment, especially as the Jews began to push for more rights--and eventually participated in several armed rebellions. An interesting aside dwells on the Pharisees, who, the author says, were actually quite missionary in their attempts to convert Gentile believers to Judaism (the Sadducees by contrast were not); once Christianity became the official religion of Rome, it became illegal to proselytize as a Jew.

Much of the first century's Jewish history is dependent on the Macabees, the subject of the next chapter. While relations between Greek and Jew were quite cordial during the period of Greece's empire, for a short period they were not so. The Greeks generally let local people continue to administer their own affairs, but for this brief period Antiochus IV decided to forcefully Hellenize the Jews, removing the high priest for one of his own, outlawing the Torah, and forcing them to eat pork. Enter a small group of rebels called the Macabees who successfully led a revolt. What I did not know was that the original Zadok (Aaron-descended) line of the priesthood was moved, at this time to Egypt, where an alternate Jewish temple was set up with high priest Onias. When Jerusalem was restored to Jewish control, this priest was not brought back--the Zadok line ended. As such no high priest thereafter was seen as fully legitimate. (The Egyptian temple was destroyed by the Romans at the same as the Jerusalem temple.)

The lack of legitimacy for the high priest helped lead to the formation of various Jewish sects, each claiming rightly understanding of the Torah and the priesthood, including the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Two Pharisaic doctrines became central to later teachings of the Jews and Christians. First was the oral law, which would be the basis for the Mishnah and the Talmud. The other was the belief in the resurrection, which is most clearly discussed in the Old Testament in Daniel, a book the Sadducees would have rejected. Christ too would preach this doctrine. Greek ideas about the immortal soul would creep into Judaism (possibly around this time) and Christianity [in the next century] and change this doctrine.

There is, in the next chapter, some discussion of Jewish education. Simon bar Shetah is said to have introduced compulsory education for Jewish boys, though some historians doubt the accuracy of this claim. The idea is significant, however, because if this is so, then Jesus likely would have received formal religious (and literary) education.

The Sanhedrin's origin is unknown, but its power structure is recounted in the Talmud. Some doubt that this structure was actually in place until the destruction of the Temple, for it gives the Sanhedrin power even over the high priest. Nevertheless, the president of the Sanhedrin (the Nasi) became eventually Rabban (Our Rabbi) by title. This president was a Pharisee. (The Pharisees and Sadducees shared power on the Sanhedrin, but the Pharisees, having the majority, wielded greater power. So while the Sadducees made up the high priests, the Pharisees were the ones who oversaw the ritual functions of those priests and also interpreted the law and set up civil authority.)

In describing Judaism, Wylen says that it was not so much a religion (as we think of it today) as a "way," just as Christianity was called "The Way." Grounded in traditions and rituals that had to do with daily life, it was central to one's being. To Wylen, the idea of Satan comes out of gnosticism, for Judaism focused on one God only. Angels were a later creation of the religion and were still seen as below God. Satan was the lesser being that in Gnostic circles would have been the counterposing god of evil. [Of course, Satan is called the god of this world, so in that sense, it would fit with gnosticism. But the idea that Satan never appears in the Old Testament seems flawed, early Genesis being a prime example. But it is true that he does not seem to play as prominent a role as in the New Testament.]

Liturgical prayer, Wylen says, was not part of the First Temple set of ceremonies. Prayer then was spontaneous. It was only with the Second Temple that such prayers became common and that after the first century. [Again, I'd be prone to point to scripture, where Christ warns against repetitive use of prayers. But my bet would be the Wylen would say that such scriptures are anachronisms, creations of second-century writers, put into Jesus's mouth.]

Wylen sees the synagogue, whose origins he denotes are mysterious, as being largely a place for public reading of scripture and explanation during the first century. The popularity of the synagogue would take off after the destruction of the temple. The synagogue could also be used as a community center and hostel for travelers.

Concerns about ritual purity weighed heavily on first-century Jews. Whereas earlier generations had seen this largely as a priestly function, the Pharisaic teaching that all were priests of a sort meant that all people had to be ritually clean. And thus, ritual washings became part of daily life.

A chapter on the writings of the time discusses the difficulty of reconstructing history from them. We have writings of later years, which include the Jewish Mishnah; in the author's view, the New Testament; the apocrypha from the Second Temple period; apocalyptic writings from various Jewish sects; the writings of Philo; and the nonreligious writings of people like Josephus. Each has its agenda, and most were not concerned primarily with history. The Mishnah is viewed in Judaism as being the oral law put down in print by the rabbis. Lacking complete sentences and often without much logical order (it is "oral" tradition and thus based around that rather than around how we would write), one often has to know the whole to know the part. Nevertheless, its major themes delineate themes that were of concern to the Jews of the time, themes that in many ways go along with those in the New Testament, such as purity. The oral law was about delineating the "gray" areas of the law. The Mishnah notes what different rabbis think and what the majority thinks. In some ways, its being written out was a response to the destruction of the Temple. Although the rabbis claim it as oral law descended all the way back to the times of Moses, many date its teachings to the Second Temple period.

This scholar does not believe the Pharisees were as important as the New Testament and the Mishnah imply that they were, as both were written (in the writer's view) after the temple's destruction as that sect gained ascendancy. Looking at apocryphal writings we see works that concerned particular sects but that often spoke of events to come that were actually historical at the time (Wylen does not believe, one gets the feeling, that such a thing real prophecy exists), a discussion of the present evil, and a prediction of coming greatness for the people of the sect. Greatness was almost always seen as something imminent, not as something millennia into the future. (We can see this in Phillip's explication of Isaiah to the eunuch: the book is, for him, primarily about Jesus.)

Wylen raises similar problems with the trial of Jesus. Mishnah teachings would make the trial illegal (such trials had to occur during daylight hours and had to take place over two days--one day for trial, and one day for conviction--and would not have occurred on a holy day). So either the Mishnah is an idealized version of legal practice written two centuries later, or the history is wrong. Wylen sees the likely answer as both. He says it's more likely that the high priest was in cahoots with the Romans, since he'd have been appointed by the Roman-appointed Herod. The Romans would have seen any Jew garnering crowds and talking of a new kingdom (literal or metaphorical) as a threat. For Wylen, the idea that Pilate washed his hands to show his unwillingness to convict Jesus is a fiction, as the practice was a Jewish custom, not a Roman one, and Pilate was not otherwise one with a moral compass that would have kept him from killing innocent Jews. Also problematic are the crowds around Jesus, one for him, one against, and one absent--these, for him, are simply literary devices, like a Greek chorus. (One could probably find arguments against each of these points. First, the trial court was a kangaroo court and the claim of blasphemy it made is not, even in the scripture, seen as proper. The events occur the day before the first holy day, if one takes into account different ways of counting the Passover, a controversy at the time. Pilate may have washed his hands precisely because it was a Jewish custom, as he was before a Jewish audience when he did it, and his "conscience" scripturally is spurred by his wife's bad dream, not by personal compunction. Likewise, crowds can differ depending on situation, as they do even for politicians today. Crowds riot over Trump's election, both for and against.)

Wylen's chapter on the sects of Judaism is perhaps one of the most informative. He focuses on four main ones: Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Pharisees. The priests were chiefly Sadducees; the Sadducees were the powerful and the high class, and they favored those in power (namely the Romans and Herodians); they controlled the Temple. They were not popular with the people. They accepted the Torah only as scripture and did not accept the oral traditions of the Pharisees. As such, they did not believe in angels or the resurrection. They did not believe in divine providence.

Essenes were a group that believe everything was divine providence. They eschewed civilization, living in the wilderness. They had their own solar calendar, not accepting that of the majority of Jews. They believed strongly in a world of good versus evil, Rome of which was part of the latter. And they believed in two Messiahs, one priestly and one royal, and a final prophet.

Zealots, Wylen sees, as being only in existence right before the rebellion around 70 A.D. As such, he sees the rebel groups we call zealots of the time of Jesus as not being an organized sect. Rather, if we believe part of what Josephus says (who saw them as an organized philosophical group), they were simply people who believed in no ruler but God and often were like Pharisees in their other views.

Wylen spends the most time discussing the Pharisees, for it is from them that Rabbinic Judaism descends. Seen as wise among the people and largely supported by them, the Pharisees were also likely despised by the masses and despisers of them, much the same that intellectuals are often looked up by to and look down upon others today (and vice versa). They believed in divine providence over history but not over individual actions, which means that they viewed repentance and obedience to the law as important. They were progressives when it comes to scriptural interpretation, often looking to apply the law to modern contexts and, thus, creating and sustaining an oral law tradition to accompany the written scriptures. This also meant that they accepted such beliefs as that in the resurrection. The Pharisees worked with Roman authorities rather than against them, but not necessarily as part of the governing elite. This positioned them well for power in the post-Temple period. The Pharisees did not separate themselves from other Jews but rather lived and worked among them--and attended synagogues. (Though one sect, the Haverim, were so picky as to separate themselves out from other Jews who did not follow the same practices.) Overall, the Pharisees did tend to separate themselves from Gentiles, however, because they came to see priestly laws as applying to all Jews--the nation is a called out as priestly one. Hence, laws concerning ritual purity, including various washings, came to be applied to all, and others laws regarding eating, tithing, Sabbath keeping, and marriage only to other Jews were also promoted.

Another chapter details the work of Hillel and makes various comparisons to the sayings of Jesus, showing how the two actually parallel each other in many ways. (The complication, of course, is that while Jesus postdated Hillel, Hillel's sayings weren't put to paper until after Jesus's sayings were, so who copies whom is an open question. But the easy point is that Jesus and Hillel came from similar traditions.)

The next chapter looks at various "roles" that one might play in the first century and how Jesus would have fit into each. For example, Wylen does not look at Jesus as being a prophet except in the form of a preacher, as the age of prophets ended several hundred years before Christ (he disregards the idea of New Testament prophets). For Messiah, Wylen looks at the meaning, "anointed one" and denotes that the anointed was always king and priest in Israel/Judah; the connotations that Christianity adds were not present for Jews in the first century, though there was an interest at the time in the resurgence of a Jewish state and physical king that would overthrow Rome rather than a king not affiliated with the Davidic line (as in Herod) (indeed, many Christians expected Jesus to found such a kingdom, as the Bible makes clear--it was only after his death that they began to understand his Messiahship in a different form, as a sin-taker). "Son of man" means simply one from Adam, a human being--it's a way of talking of yourself in the third person. But it, too, came to have greater connotations, such that the absence or inclusion of capitalization can suggest something different. Nor was Jesus a philosopher, which was a Greek idea, though some Jews looked upon wise Jewish teachers are comparable figures. Nor does Wylen see him as a rabbi, a concept that arose much later--or even a teacher of the law, as a rabbi would have been at this time (for to Wylen, Jesus mostly provides wise teachings, not biblical interpretations--this is the meaning of Jesus speaking by his own authority). So what was Jesus to a Jew at the time? Wylen sees him likely as fitting into the tradition of miracle worker/healer/charismatic rejected by the mainstream Jewish leaders, of which there are several later Jewish teachers who founded specific branches of Judaism (Hasidism, for example).

A final chapter looks at how the Jews and Christians separated and why. Both religions developed quite a bit in the wake of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., Judaism especially. Jewish leaders reorganized under the Hillellian Phrarisee Yahanan ben Zakkai, who put togher a new Sanhedrin of seventy-one leaders. The influence of the Pharisees became fully felt as it became the basis for the rabbinic Judaism that followed. Following Zakkai's death, Gamaliel II took over the leadership--it was his grandfather who trained Paul. The Bar Kokhba rebellion, some sixty years after the Temple's destruction, probably helped seal the separation, as its leaders was seen by much of the Jewish leadership as the Messiah, a hope that proved unfounded but that doubtless alienated Christians who already had a Messiah.

Another factor that lead to separation was the Birkat HaMinim--the curse upon the sectarians. I had always thought this was a curse upon Christians, but it was really a curse added to the synagogue worship service on all groups that were not mainstream. Wylen sees this as not necessarily directed at Christians, but I suspect that his views are motivated in part by his tendency to want to see the two groups as less antagonistic than they sometimes were in early times.

Roman politics played its part too. In 98, the Roman emperor Nerva, ruled that Christians did not have to pay the annual tax on Jews, thus recognizing Judaism and Christianity as separate. Although Christians were not free of said tax, they were not recognized as a lawful religion, unlike Judaism, and thus were not protected from other laws such as those allowing Jews not to participate in certain pagan rites. Just before Constantine took the throne, Julian the Apostate reigned. A thorough pagan, he actually gave the Jews permission to rebuild the temple. His death in battle, however, ended that hope early--and brought to power the one who would recognize a brand of Christianity as the state religion.

But the version of Christianity eventually accepted by the empire was quite different from that with its Jewish roots. Around the year 380, John Chrysostom became bishop of Antioch. He found that the church was still "Judaizing"--meeting with Jews in a synagogue--and put a stop to it. Such Judaizers were increasingly pushed out of association with those who came to be known as Christians within the empire.

I found this book very informative, one of the better secular accounts of first-century Judeo-Christian tradition. But as the author notes at the start, knowing for sure how some things happened is difficult. Even if one believes scripture fully, there is much background that is not completely clear, even with a fuller knowledge of history.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

On "All of a Sudden" by Carla Panciera (3018 words) *****

In "All of a Sudden," the first story from Carla Panciera's collection, Panciera paints the contours of a friendship from grade school into high school, showing how something so meaningful at one age can become something else at another, as we outgrow our various concerns. This is a sad story about the loss of friendship, even as other friendships take its place. Read the story here at New England Review or listen to it here at The Drum.

On "Bewildered" by Carla Panciera ****

Most of the stories in this collection center on loss in some way, and as such have a kind of emotional heft that can be appreciated. The writing tends toward the succinct, which can at times be off-putting, but when Panciera gets going, the manner is effective.

"No Sooner" revolves around a woman who dreams of having affairs while her husband is away from her. Despite her reservations about her in-laws and vice versa, however, she knows how good she has things with the husband she's chosen, even as her sister is watching her own marriage break apart.

The title story is deservedly just that, one of the best in the collection. It recounts the tale of a man who somehow just happens to end up in the right places at the right times. With no real plan in life, but with hard work and dedication, he's ended up well liked and very successful, as well as well married. Or at least, that's how it looks from the outside. Bewildered by his success, he is also bewildered by his seemingly crazy wife, who he both loves and find annoying. Her frequent tantrums with little warning finally, one day, result in her leaving him. What to do is next is not so easy to know, especially for one who has had so many things just work out sans plan.

The very short "Having Your Italy" is a meditation on the ways in which moments in a relationship fade with time, even as we attempt to cherish them.

"Weight" involves a woman dealing with the loss of her partner of many years by spending time with a new man and her brothers. Another story about loss, "Fine Creatures of the Deep," involves two women, neighbors, who despise one another with seeming no explanation. Both lose children. One cannot have another and has replaced it with a dog. In an effort to make peace, she makes soup each day for her neighbor. Do we make such sacrifices, show such love, for another person or for ourselves?

"End of Story" is about a man whose wife has cheated on him and who, as a result, has left the marriage for a younger woman. His recovery from the marriage has not gone well, however, and his pull back into it is something less than satisfactory. The love we had cannot be brought back to what it once was after such damage. I found this one of the more affecting story.

"Singing Donkeys, Happy Families" is about a woman with a crush on a man whose social network is largely a set of hippi families that do child activities together. The woman's attempt to fit into this group lead to strains with her daughters and husband.

"On Being Lonely and Other Theories" is also about infidelity and how such infidelity can destroy the lives of everyone around. Jon Olvey is a cop who is having an affair with his son's schoolteacher whose literal run-in with a dog brings the affair to the community's attention, including his son's, his wife's, and his boss's.