Thursday, September 20, 2018

On "And the World Was Crowded with Things That Meant Love" by Amber Sparks (604 words) ***

This tale is about long-distance lovers who exchange gifts. The lyric formulation of words is what saves this listing of presents. Read it here at Matter Press.

On "Cities of Tomorrow" by Peter Hall ***

Peter Hall traces theories of urban planning from the Victorian era to his present (mid-1980s). This book is a good summary of twentieth-century urban planning, though at times, it's a bit dry, which is saying something, when I'm a fan of the genre.

Hall starts his account with the urban poor in Victorian England and in similar locations around the globe at the time. For him, modern urban planning essentially originates in this milieu, the idea being, How can we reform society such that the urban poor will no longer live in such squalor?

One of these early plans was the Garden City, but like most such plans, the original theory rarely made it into actual practice, and the idea got twisted out of its original intent. Also, like so many of the ideas, in part because it was never put into practice as written, the planning theory did not end up helping the poor. Rather, its benefits went mostly to the middle class and the rich. The Garden City, in theory, was to be a city--or series of cities--interspersed in gardens. Each would be of limited size, with a green belt around it. In the city, there would be moderate space for homes, and there would be businesses and work within the city itself. It's this latter portion of the idea that rarely made it into reality. Instead, such cities became suburbs, with people commuting into the big city for work. This meant such cities only helped those with enough means to afford such a commute. The urban poor remained urban.

Another idea was one much maligned by Jane Jacobs--that of Corbusier. He had the concept of towers in parks. Again, his idea was thrown a bit out of context. When applied to the urban poor, such towers did not create wonderful communities. But, Hall notes, such towers could and did work for those of higher class.

Then there were the nonplanners, the anarchists, who essentially denoted that cities should grow on their own and that planners should work around that. Had I taken notes during my reading I could have likely explained this section better, as well as the sections previously. I will probably need to read the entire book over at some point.

Hall eventually turns his attention to the split between academic planners and those who practice, a split that made its way more felt in the second half of the twentieth century and that showed how academics had become uninvolved in how cities really work. In this same timeframe, there were more private-public partnerships, and some cities actually saw renewal, but again, the solutions led mostly to gentrification rather than actually helping the urban poor. In other words, the poor, rather than being raised up, were simply pushed out.

A final chapter focuses on poverty and racism. As Hall rightly notes, the middle class did grow from the time of the Victorians to the present such that some issues are less troublesome than they were one hundred years ago. He is also an advocate, it seems, based on the research he cites, for the death of family being a large cause for the fall into or continuing life in poverty, more so than race (though the history of racism certainly plays a role in where people fall in terms of class). Urban planning, it seems, while intended to aid in resolving these issues has ultimately not been able to solve the problem.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

On "Macadam" by Lucia Berlin (148 words) ***

This is Berlin doing poetry essentially. The focus of this story is the sound of words--or rather, one word. Read the story here at Biblioklept.

On "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau ***

I can't say that this is a book I've been wanting to read for a long time. I can take Thoreau in short bursts, but whole books bore me. I base this on those short pieces and on his Week on the Concord and Merrimack River. But this is a classic, and it was on the shelf at home, and I was needing a book, so I read it.

Also, there was an amazing NPR piece on Walden. That was really what made me take note--the radio piece made this book sound amazing. I figured, Why not? So I checked it out.

Some things the radio piece did: It quoted from the book--and those quotes were amazing (remember, short bursts). Also, it talked about how there's a subtext about the underground railroad, which Thoreau's family was involved in--indeed, there were a couple of mentions I spotted.

There's also the idea, according to the radio show, that this book is not about isolation and solitude, as most people assume, but about going into civilization. The radio person made this claim because Thoreau doesn't leave permanently--this is just one stop on life's journey. Of course, he's not really isolated at Walden either; it wasn't that far from town, and he talks about his neighbors and others who come to the pond.

For me, the book was more about simplifying one's life. The first chapter and the conclusion are the pieces that really drive that point home, and those were, for me, the most interesting parts of the book. Once Thoreau gets involved with describing the nature around him, it was a snooze fest for me. But his material on economy gave me much to consider. In a way, that was my life really up until marriage, although I probably did get myself too caught up in doing too many things rather than just enjoying the present. Still, in many ways, I was one to say, I don't need that or this, and I often didn't go out and purchase gizmos everyone else wants. Even furniture was minimal. Now, married, I don't have as much choice in regard to what to keep and what to get rid of; there's others whose desires and needs have to be accounted for, and their idea of simplifying (if indeed they even want to--kids tend to want more toys not fewer) is something different from my own.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

On "Holy Ground" by Jamie Quatro (about 6400 words) ***

In “Holy Ground” a woman decides to literally run away. She's been having an affair of sorts (on the phone) and feels a need somehow to make good. Her husband and kids stay home. She runs to a poorer area down the hill, in another town, where she hopes to live for a week, getting a sense of how others live and helping them. Instead, she finds herself helped of a sort. Read the story here.

On "Brushing Back Jim Crow" by Bruce Adelson ***

Jackie Robinson's heroic turn as the first African American major league baseball player receives lots of attention--and for good reason, as this brings out. But few think about all the other players who helped integrate professional baseball, and here I don't mean major league ball. Adelson, in this book, turns his attention to the minor leagues, particularly those in the South, which lagged behind the majors and which featured many of the same struggles that were endured by men like Robinson.

The book begins with an anecdote about a young man whose intention was to continue on to college but who was drafted by a baseball team. He didn't really want to play, but his dad urged him to, because that had been the father's dream. For most African Americans, until the 1950s, playing baseball professionally was just that--a dream--unless of course one played for the Negro Leagues. This was an opportunity, the dad brought out, to do something great for a people. The son chose baseball. The anecdote, as written, held for me an emotional wallop.

Alas, in one of the major issues for this book, the anecdote is repeated in the very next chapter, word for word (though in slightly greater detail insofar as it is enlongated at its start and end). Other anecdotes and quotes are repeated elsewhere in the book. And there is no index, so tracking down a minor character's identity is difficult; described first in some early chapter, the character is not reintroduced in a late chapter where he shows up again, and so one is left with a gnawing wish to remember who this guy is or was.

But the tales themselves are incredibly interesting. Adelson spends time in different leagues during the course of the 1950s, covering events year by year, and connecting them to large events in the civil rights movement. Often, rather than writing about the events, he lets quotes from newspapers or from interviews with baseball stars stand in for narrative, giving one a sense of the times.

In brief, some of the rather amazing things that happened included the following: A given minor league team might integrate by adding one or two black players. That team then reaped the benefits of larger attendance from black patrons, at a time when attendance numbers were otherwise sagging. But other teams in a league often disagreed with such actions, and so various things might happen to stop the integration from fully occurring. State and local governments might ban interracial game and sporting events, or the league leadership itself might step in to enforce segregation. As a result, black players from another team had to be left behind or the team might have to forfeit (ironically to the team that refused to play because of the inclusion of a black player). Just as segregated buses were boycotted in some cities during the civil rights movement, so too African Americans often ended up boycotting games by those teams that refused to integrate, which increased the attendance problem and the declining revenue. In some cases, leagues or teams ended up going out of business because of their stubborness. Some northern teams simply stopped coming South to play sports (most notably, in college football, but also exhibition baseball games with major league teams).

But even if a black player was allowed to take the field, there were other issues. There wasn't just the name calling, which often spurred such athletes on. There was the fact that seating was often segregated so that African Americans were relegated to lousy outfield seats and often not enough--this last factor sometimes led to expanded black and eventually integrated seating. There was the fact that black players might take the field with their white counterparts, but after the game, they'd have to go stay at someone's house. They couldn't go to the hotel with the team, couldn't eat at the same restaurants as the team, couldn't essentially do anything with the team itself out in public. It was a lonely and tough life, a mirror of what Robinson endured but sometimes in spades insofar as this was the South, where jim crow reigned.

I never thought much, when I was younger, about what some players had endured just a decade or so before my birth, men like Billy Williams or Hank Aaron, who played minor league ball in the South and who were old and about-to-retire stars or new coaches when I was a kid. I thought of them as great ballplayers, but their early careers were in fact civil rights-type actions, given the prejudice they had to endure. As Adelson shows, baseball was in some ways the first line of integration. As segregation fell here, it would fall elsewhere in entertainment, at schools, and in public transportation.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

On "La Vie en Rose" by Lucia Berlin (12 minutes) ***

"La Vie en Rose" revolves around two girls on a visit in Europe who are swept up by two young dashing soldiers and are summarily dealt with by their strict father. It's a story about youth--youthful daring and folly--more than about anything sinister or hateful, rebellious or oppressive. Listen to the story here at Soundcloud.

On "The Monkey Wrench Gang" by Edward Abbey ****

Here's another novel it's taken me over two decades to get around to reading. Back when I was in my early twenties and working in a bookstore, one particular coworker of mine was a huge fan. He was taking a break from college up in Utah, and his desire was to be an environmentalist attorney. And he was not, one would say, too averse to sundry tactics to prevent the development of the West. He was a huge fan of this book as well as Marc Reisner's book on dams.

And so finally, I've read Abbey's classic, and I can see the appeal to young idealistic Alex. Oh, to be young again.

As I read the book now, the four central characters, conspirers to prevent the destruction of the West through nearly any means necessary (save killing people), come across as essentially terrorists. They do not, for most of the book, seem like heros very much. And they are hypocrites, littering their way across the same landscape they profess to be saving by destroying bridges and wreaking havoc on new construction. For most of the book, I did not have much sympathy for them.

But credit Abbey with somehow making the characters get into you enough that by the end you are cheering for them, hoping they get away with all their bad deeds, even if you don't agree with them. You come to like them in some odd and twisted way. Perhaps, that's because most of the squares come across as unsympathetic foes. (I also credit Abbey with making much of the writing itself absolutely beautiful.)

Still, I do end up wondering where Abbey's real feelings lie. In creating characters who are not entirely good and in naming one of the "squares" after himself, one gets the feeling that while Abbey might sympathize with the views of his four main characters, he does not entirely approve of their means. The character named after himself is a ranger who comes across them and lets them go--the first time--and then who catches one of them the second. Maybe there's hope in a more conservative approach to conservation.

Friday, July 20, 2018

On "Things You Should Know about Cassandra Dee" by Amber Sparks (1801 words) ****

This story starts promisingly. It's about a girl who is ugly, really ugly. She dreams of other people's deaths--the future. And she dreams her own. But what she really dreams of is being pretty, if only for a moment. Read the story here at Atticus Review.

On "What Is Gnosticism?" by Karen L. King ****

Despite the seemingly simplistic title, this is not exactly a primer on the subject, but it does serve as a useful introduction nevertheless. King essentially spends the book denoting the trouble with defining the term gnosticism and then covering the history of its definition.

Gnosticism, in its earliest variety, was simply heresy. If something did not fit into what became Christian orthodoxy, early writers termed it gnostic--or more often heretical (because the gnostic term itself didn't really come to be until the Middle Ages, and even then, regular usage only really comes into being much later).

Attempts to define and determine the origins of gnosticism begin to make some real headway under Adolf von Harnack, who tied it to the hellenization of Judaism and Christianity. The History of Religions school said, not quite, finding ways to tie it to ancient Eastern philosophies (in, for example, Iran). Still other scholars tied it into pre-Christian Jewish ideas. In general, it would be easiest just to say that gnosticism is syncretic.

But this still begs the question of what gnosticism is. King spends the rest of the book looking at various definitions and then also at primary documents from the gnostics themselves. One trick with regard to discussing gnosticism has been that has largely been defined by its enemies. But when we look at so-called gnostic documents, suddenly there is not as much unity of belief, and "heresies" are not the same across the board. One could easily point to various origins or create various definitions depending on the document examined. For this reason, the term gnosticism may better be simply jettisoned. As King notes, early Christian teachings were in flux, and one can't really say that there was a uniform alternative.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

On "Teenage Punk" by Lucia Berlin (611 words) ***

This short piece centers on one of Berlin's recurring characters--Carlotta, a woman who drinks and drugs her way through much of life and whose several marriages are a testimony to her care-free life style. One of her great loves is this, Jesse, the drugged-out friend of one of her sons. Read the story here.

On "Paganism in the Roman Empire" by Ramsay MacMullen ***

This is a good survey of the pagan religions as they existed between about 100 B.C. and 400 A.D. in the Roman Empire, with an emphasis on the first two centuries of the Christian era. MacMullen notes many of the seeming contradictions that exist when we look at paganism as a whole in the empire and how it is quite impossible to talk of its rise and demise on any kind of decade-long cycle. But mostly MacMullen looks at how Roman society functioned with its wide array of gods pulled in from its various conquered domains.

Pagan religions were part of daily life. They were the means by which social functions happened. The poor, without recourse to large homes in which to host parties, hosted them in temple dining rooms. Festivals, put on by supporters of a particular god, invited people to come celebrate with them--there were parades and other fun activities.

Particular gods became popular, it appears, largely through sponsorship of rich patrons or government officials. They could change with the change of the local legate. People's personal gods--the local gods, the ones of each conquered nation--had more sticking power in the local area. And it, was more than trade or military service, largely slavery that accounted for the spread of a god in new locales, as slave families adhered to the ancient customs.

The rich and educated may have paid for and advocated a particular god. Philosophy may have leaned more and more on the idea of one god--or more properly, the superiority of one god, of which all the gods were manifestations. But the common people remained largely unmoved by such ideas.

As such, there wasn't a lot of missionizing in the sense that we would account for in religious conversion today. The most dominant argument for a deity was generally based around miracles--healings and the like. This was likely the appeal of Christianity, along with the martyrdoms to Christians endured, which were a kind of wonder in themselves.

Gods gained and lost popularity. At the time that Constantine came to power, the Sun was in the ascendant. But had he not converted to Christianity, the process of various other pagan gods gaining popularity for a time would have continued.

If this summary seems somewhat disjointed, that is probably partly because MacMullen's text at times seems this way. There is a clear organization underneath that flows along easily as one reads, but when one goes back to outline the thoughts included, it is a bit difficult, so fluid is the discussion.

Monday, June 11, 2018

On "Personal Foundations of Self-Forming through Auto-Identifications with Otherness" by Nelly Reifler (3041 words) ***

This story discusses philosophical ideas about identity in the form a squirrel who thinks she's a rat, which made me wonder whether I've ever enjoyed a work before written from the point of view of an animal. Read the story here at Barcelona Review

On "Cynics, Paul, and the Pauline Churches" by F. Gerald Downing ***

This is the second volume of Downing's work on early Christians and Greek Cynicism. In the first volume, he did not see much of Cynicism in Paul's works, but here, he corrects himself, now tying Paul to the Cynicism he sees in Jesus himself and his other disciples.

Methinks Downing overplays his hand here a bit, often repeating the same few facts about Paul that he says show he would have been taking for a Cynic: his state of dress, his public preaching, his scars. Downing says he is not claiming that Paul was a Cynic, but he comes very near to saying so, though he also denotes the Paul pulls back from such ideas in his later letters, as his readers claim too much freedom in misinterpreting his Cynical points. Hence, in Galatians Paul can deny the law. The Thessalonians take Cynic freedom to mean they can give up working; the Corinthians take it to mean they can engage in wanton sexual practices. Paul corrects them, and then by the time he writes Romans and Philippians, he focuses more on Stoic ideas.

Downing does draw out some differences between Cynics and Stoics that are useful. The former tend to act on their "virtue," while the latter tend to internalize it. It's okay to be poor or wealthy, the Stoics would believe, so long as one is happy in the former as well as in the latter; the Cynics, by contrast, would actually do something like make themselves poor.

He also shows that there were different types of Cynics. Not all of them were, or looked like, beggars; not all of them lacked for tact--some were gentle. This ability to metamorphose gives Downing the space to lay claim to the existence of Christian Cynicism. So what if they don't appear the stereotypical Cynic? Cynicism came in many varieties.

The basic outline of Downing's argument is this: Paul would have been taken as a Cynic by the Greco-Roman Gentiles, based on his actions and sayings. Paul likely would have known that he was being taken as such. Paul likely did so deliberately. Gentiles likely responded to him as a Cynic. Because Paul did these things with the blessing of Jesus's apostles, the rest of the Christian movement was likely Cynic in some form also.

While I can't bring myself to think of Christianity as a Jewish Cynicism movement, Downing does make a good argument for how some aspects of the Christian movement may have been perceived, at least superficially, as Cynicism in the early going among some people.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

On "The Jockey" by Lucia Berlin (ca. 350 words) ***

Berlin focuses on the animal lust of a woman for a man in this short piece. I love how the horse gets confused with the rider. Read the story here at Publishers Weekly.

On "On Pagans, Jews, and Christians" by Arnaldo Momigliano ***

This book consists of a collection of lectures. As such, it offers various snapshots revolving around the subject of the title but not a sustained or detailed treatment. This was something of a disappointment to me, though I came to the book with a few lectures specifically in mind as being of interest.

The book starts off with a couple of lectures focused on historiography of the subject at hand, neither essay of which was of particular fascination.

The third chapter deals with the concept of universal history as it developed in the ancient world--the idea of presenting world history as a story, with the foundation of man to the climax of kingdoms. Early world history was often structured around the theme/theory of metals--rising and waining kingdoms that descend through the various qualities of metal (gold, silver, etc.). Another common structure of bodily--world empires as youths, adults, and old people. Polybius writes what he calls the first universal history because he argues that only with the rise of Rome could universal history be written, Rome being the first truly world empire (the gall of this is a bit offputting to me, since other powerful empires existed in the world at the time and since other powerful empires had preceded it).

It is in the fourth chapter that Momigliano starts to cover territory more of interest to me. Here, he focuses on Roman writing about religion--specifically about Roman religion. These writings by Varro and others have largely been lost and are only put together through quotes from others. But there is a move among such writers to bring such religion to the fore; meanwhile, Cicero, who the author spends much time on, after the death of his daughter, largely pushes religion aside.

The fifth chapter discusses how difficult it is to piece together what religious practice was like in the first century BC in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. Despite this, the author manages to present some cogent ideas about religious practice in these places, most especially in Rome, where to get a feel for religion, one need only take a walk and observe what festival was being celebrated at a given time.

Next, the author discusses how Roman emperors became gods and what this meant. Some writers during the World War II era argued that the emperors were not so much worshipped as simply given homage--but the distinction is unclear, as writers since they have argued. The author sees the transition as one to make up for a loss of faith in the gods of old--the emperor was a living god, who could help restore faith in the other gods. Also, the worship developed out of worship of dead heroes, which became worship of living local magistrates, which became worship of the emperor, who took on more-and-more nonkingly power.

The next chapters focus on apocalpytic writing. One is a chapter on Josephus and his seeming isolation from apocalyptists writing in his day. Another deals in how writers of the time use apocalyptic pronouncements to oppose Roman rule.

In yet another chapter, Momigliano looks for an in-depth philosophic/theologic argument for polytheism and paganism in the Roman empire akin to that made for monotheism by the Christians. He does not really find it, he denotes, though the last section on the emperor Julian seems to me to provide exactly that. That Julian grew up Christian and turned away from it does mean, however, that he was in many ways arguing as much against Christianity as for paganism. For him, the polytheistic national faiths each served the individual nations within the Roman sphere--pagan gods were in a sense servants of departments of a most high god. Such accounted for cultural differences between peoples (more than the tower of Babel accounts for, which is simply linguistic differences). The proposed rebuilding of the Jewish temple was in this context--that is, as the rebuilding of the temple of one of the national gods, who was subservient to the great god. For Christians, by contrast, Rome eventually came to be an example of the one king/empire uniting the world, just as God would depose it and become supreme. Rome offered peace and thus the ease of the spread of Christianity. And Rome destroyed the temple, because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus.

In the next chapter--and in many chapters following--Momigliano turns to study biographies in the ancient and medieval world. In one, he focuses on Diogenes Laertus, who, he denotes, wrote primarily to promote Greek and pagan ways, completely ignoring the Christian cult that must have been growing up all around him. Other chapters focus on a faux letter between Seneca and a woman named Anna, a comparison between pagan and Christian women as seen in the lives and biographies of an aristocratic family, and a discussion of an autobiography of a medieval convert from Judaism to Christianity (the last section of which discusses the start of the Bar Mitzvah tradition).

Within all this, a chapter on the use of religion in Rome during the Imperial period proves quite valuable, though it is hard to summarize as it is not a terribly thesis-driven essay. Momigliano talks of Rome's adoption of others' pagan faiths, of the return to religious concerns under Augustus, and the foundation of the imperial cult.

The last few chapters of the book appear to be reviews and other ephemera. There is a chapter on Max Weber's use of the term "pariah-religion" to describe Judaism (how it really wasn't appropriate and what Weber's views really were) and a chapter on Jews in Italy (mostly in the twentieth century, before and after World War II). A chapter about how the Romans posed their origins in relation to the Greeks is rather interesting, especially if one has an interest in the Aeneid. The supposition is essentially that the Greeks see themselves as superior insofar as they were immigrants to the land as opposed to emigrants from a land; for the Romans, this distinction was unimportant. But it was important that somehow they relate to the Greeks; this is done through the story in the Aeneid, but that story in part involves a person who deserts the battle of Troy, who is something of an enemy to the Greeks but has to be somehow transformed into something of a friend. The last chapter is a long critique of the work of the linguist Georges Dumezil and his historical sociological work that claimed Indo-European cultures were split in a tripartate function: production, priesthood, and soldiers--Momigliano finds this idea preposterous.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

On "The Men and Women Like Him" by Amber Sparks (1772 words) ****

In "The Men and Women Like Him" the secret to time travel has been found. However, going back into the past would destroy the space-time continuum, so it's forbidden. This doesn't stop people from sneaking in to try to fix things and save lives. It is the job of another set of characters, called cleaners, to go back in time and stop these "do-gooders." Potentially a story about ethics, it remains too short to be anything more than a novel idea, but I suppose Sparks's goal here is more emotional--how restoring bad for "greater good" hurts. Read the story here at Guernica.

On "The 'Hellenization' of Judaea in the First Century after Christ" by Martin Hengel ***

This short follow-up to Hengel's earlier book on Judaism and Hellenism treads familiar ground but also provides a few new tidbits of information that relate directly to the New Testament--and Christianity.

As in the other book, Hengel discusses the importance of the Greek language and education, particularly to attaining social class. In the end, Hengel comes to the conclusion that what is "Greek" and what is "Jewish" is not easily separated. Indeed, as Hengel writes, "Not only Christianity but also rabbinic Judaism, which is different in so many other ways, basically rests on a synthesis."

Monday, May 14, 2018

On "Unmanageable" by Lucia Berlin (6 minutes) ****

The perils of a drunk (mother) are the subject of this story--how to get a drink so one can function and then get the kids off to school, all this before most liquor stores are open for the day. Listen to the story here at Soundcloud.

On "Judaism and Hellenism" by Martin Hengel ***

This technical book goes to great lengths to discuss just how Greek civilization affected Jewish culture and beliefs in the centuries before Rome's advance.

Hengel discusses how Greek culture impacted Jewish society before it even became an empire--largely through Greek mercenaries. Then he notes how Jewish mercenaries also brought into Jewish culture Greek ideas.

Then there was the language, which became essential to know if you were to be one of the upper class, as it became the lingua franca of the day.

Finally, there was education, which affected Jewish studies as well, even in ways in which Jewish thinkers tried to resist Greek influence. That resistance--the strength of it--was one effect. But even in that resistance, sometimes Greek ideas snuck in, in the form, for example, of formal education or in the idea that anyone could ascend to be a teacher through study and knowledge (as opposed to inherited familial limitations).

A large portion of the book devotes itself to how Greek thought affected Jewish writing. The author takes the position that Ecclesiastes, as well as some other wisdom books, was written after Greece took hold of the Promised Land and then traces the parallels in Greek philosophy to those books. I found this material less intriguing and, at times, ponderous. But the first half of the book provides a lot of information that I found very useful.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

On "Sugar" by Nelly Reifler (2220 words) ***

"Sugar" is the name of a girl's pet that she keeps locked inside a box, a box that her parents want her to get rid of. The trick here is that we never really learn what is in the box. Read the story here at Post Road.

On "Simon Magus: The First Gnostic?" by Stephen Haar ***

This book attempts to answer the question, Was Simon Magus really the first gnostic? To answer the question, Haar looks at different accounts of Magus, the different meanings of the words associated with him, and the critical views with regard to the various accounts about him. As for his own opinion on the subject--it stays nicely hidden until the last few pages. As such, one doesn't get much of a feeling of Magus himself; rather, one gets a nice summary of the related literature. I'd thought this typical of such studies in the first chapter, but it more or less continues throughout the book. As such, this is a great book for getting a full range of views on Magus, but such summary also makes for rather dull, if precise, reading.

As Haar notes, major problems with defining who Magus was include the fact that all of the writing about him is from his detractors and the fact that there is a large gap between the early accounts. First mentioned in Luke, he doesn't show up again for decades until he is called the father of all heresies by Justin Martyr. From there, his reputation spirals further down, until he is blamed for all kinds of odd practices.

Simon is called "Magus"--magi--a sorcerer. Haar explores what this might mean--or rather what it would have meant at the time. We tend to think of such people as magicians and soothsayers, but Haar shows how the magi were in a sense thinkers from Persia, priests of sorts. He also shows how "magic"--telling the future and such--was not always seen in a negative light.

Finally, he explores gnosticism itself and what it is. He shows how the meaning is hard to pin down. Eventually, he evaluates Simon as a gnostic in three different manners: (1) by the Messina convention, which created a formal definition for gnosticism, problematic as it is; (2) by the early Christian writers who defined who Simon was; and (3) by how Simon may have seen himself as far as Haar can tell/imagine based on the writings about him.

Monday, April 9, 2018

On "It Can't Be This Way Everywhere" by Carla Panciera (4991 words) ****

"It Can't Be This Way Everywhere" is about a woman who is tending to a prematurely aging husband, one who has Alzheimer's, even as she tends to small children and her own work. The discovery of feral cats in their garage lends her the opportunity to teach the children about responsibility and for her to see both the ways that her husband is still strong and the ways that he no longer is. Read the story here at Huffington Post.

On "The Keepers" by Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles ***

This short introduction to Samaritan history and culture takes its reason for being from a collection of materials available at Michigan State University. The authors spend a couple of chapters on this collection, which is likely of interest to a few very devoted to these studies but which was not the heart of why I turned to this work. The reason I turned to this work was that I wanted a relatively short synopsis of Samaritan history, religion, and culture--and that, in its middle chapters, was exactly what this book supplied.

The Samaritans we know in scripture are a people despised by the Jewish people. Josephus and Kings essentially tell us that they consist of people injected into the land of Israel, the northern kingdom, after the Assyrians deported the northern ten tribes. Those people took on Jewish customs, after begging for a priest from the land, and merged them with their own. That's the story from the Jewish perspective.

The story from the Samaritan perspective is quite different. In their view, they stem from a conflict over the high priesthood that occurred shortly after Phinehas's demise. Eli, the son of Yafni tried to usurp the sons of Phinehas (Ozzi being high priest at the time). Eli's group moved to Shiloh and then eventually Jerusalem. Ozzi's group stayed at Shechem and Mount Gerizim, the original holy place.

Historical records of the sect begin to show up around the time that the Jewish people return from captivity in Babylon. Ezra, in shaping the Jewish scriptures, allowed in books beyond the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and he condemned marriages between Jews and Samaritans, considering the latter essentially akin to Gentiles (though this tradition is largely an interpretation of Josephus--the biblical record does not explicitly mention the Samaritans in this context). Another thing Ezra did was promote Jerusalem as the center of worship.

It is when the Greeks take over the Promised Land that Samaritan consciousness really takes hold, and the sect enters history in its own light. Their separation from Judaism also becomes plain, as for example, the Maccabees rebel but the Samaritans do not, the latter not being considered of the same religion as the Maccabees. John Hyrcanus's attack on the group cemented their separation.

While the Jews and Samaritans did not get along during much of the early Roman period, the condition of the sect appears to have been one of general persecution throughout history, no matter which set of people were in charge. In the Christian era (after Constantine made Christianity the favored religion), Samaritans briefly had a respite in how they were treated because of Christian ideas about the "good Samaritan," but eventually they were blamed for gnosticism and persecuted by the Byzantines. When the Muslims took over, once again, there was a brief respite, until the Muslims decided that Samaritans did not qualify as "people of the book," unlike Jews and Christians, at which time they were taxed extra.

Today, Samaritans are often considered a sect of Judaism. Like followers of Judaism, they believe in circumcision, the keeping of the Sabbath, the biblical holy days, and the first five books of the Bible. However, they see Gerizim as the center of God's holy realm rather than Jerusalem and attach various biblical events to it just as Jews attach various biblical events to Jerusalem. They do not accept the rest of the Old Testament as scripture, and they have commentaries and other books (not considered part of their scriptures) that continue their story into Joshua's time. Their Pentateuch, while similar to the Jewish one, makes certain substitutions with regard to Gerizim as a place; it also is apparently closer to the Septuagint than to the Masoretic text. They believe in a Messiah to come, though he is seen primarily as a physical leader. They also, to this day, offer sacrifices. And the biblical holy days, finally, are on their own calendar separate from the Jewish calendar, the calculation of which only the priests know; thus Passover and the like may be celebrated at a slightly different time than it is in mainstream Judaism. They do not keep other Jewish days, such a Hanukkah or Purim.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

On "Carpe Diem" by Lucia Berlin (1268 words) ****

"Carpe Diem" makes much of a little. A woman goes to wash her clothes at the Laundromat but sticks her quarters in someone else's machines by mistake. Now she's out the money she need to dry her clothes, and the man whose laundry is now being washed twice it out an hour of his time, which leads to consternation and anger all around. Read the story here at Flavorwire.

On "The Wars of the Jews" by Josephus ***

The ancient history book still reads relatively well, though in sections I had trouble focusing on what was going on. This is in part because several parts include people with similar names, making it difficult to remember which person is which; because Josephus has a preachy agenda in places that gets away from the facts of the story; and because Josephus uses generous quotes from speeches as a rhetorical device.

The latter has its good and bad points. First among the bad, of course, is the fact that the speeches are simply a rhetorical device--not probably real. Second is that those speeches take away from the action or repeat points already made. However, one good thing about the speeches is that they provide a kind of window (even if fictionalized via Josephus himself) into the point of view of the particular historical actor. This is important when otherwise the point of view is largely Josephus's own, which can be rather skewed and biased for or against certain parties.

The story itself largely involves that of the recent war between the Romans and Jews in which Jerusalem and its temple are destroyed. For this tale, Josephus returns us back to Maccabees and the eventual rise of Herod the Great. But as the narrative continues, more and more focus is placed on the so-called "robbers"--a group of miscreants, in Josephus's view, who foment rebellion against the Romans.

What's perhaps most interesting about the history is how much of it focuses on Josephus himself and how self-serving the history appears to be. I've read around Josephus quite a bit, but actually reading his work through, I was surprised how central he becomes to the action in the second half of the book.

At first, he himself is one of these rebels, though I don't think he ever calls himself a robber. He seems somewhat central to the movement, and people in one particular town really look to him for leadership in the war against the Romans. In order not to trouble the town (as the Romans are largely after him), Josephus volunteers to leave, but the people won't have it. They want to stick by him.

But then one day, he says that he had a dream from God. In it, God tells him that he put the Romans in charge and that the Jews should surrender. The people won't hear of it. They opt to kill themselves so as not to fall under the cruelties of the Roman guard (which Josephus denotes are not cruel--that they will have mercy). The people draw lots to see who will do the killing of the community--Josephus ends up being one of them.

In the end, the community is killed, and rather than killing himself, Josephus surrenders. He is treated well by the Romans. And then he becomes their voice to try to get the rebellious Jews to see reason and to surrender. Throughout, then, Josephus talks of how terrible these various rebels are, how destructive, how they pollute the temple, how they kill their own people. He promotes the Romans as merciful, and yet he also describes crucifixions and the taking of prisoners and the use of them as gladiators and feed for wild beasts in the arena. I didn't come away feeling the Romans were all that nice. What I did feel was sorrow for those caught in the middle of all of this--likely to be killed by other Jews if not supportive enough or by Romans if caught.

The text can be read here at Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

On "Caught Up" by Jamie Quatro (964 words) ***

The lead story in Quatro's first collection is a short one about a woman whose phone affair with a stranger and advice from her mother leads to a less-than-satisfactory end. It's a startling piece in some ways, because the wife opens by talking about the many things she loves about her husband. I was left wondering why she would dally with another man--and on the phone at that. What is it that her husband lacks? Read the story here at Tin House.

On "The Zealots" by Martin Hengel ****

This excellent summation of the zealot movement from the time of Herod I to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. provides a full assessment of who the zealots were and what made them tick. 

The first point to ponder is who they were. Since Josephus rarely uses the term, we're left with some questions as to who constituted the party. More often, Josephus refers to such peoples as robbers; "zealot" is more narrowly applied to a sect of the freedom movement in the last five years before 70 A.D. But Hengel shows that there are good reasons to think of the Zealot movement as existing for much longer, going back to the time of Judas the Galilean, whose rebellion Josephus covers in detail. This group, Josephus says, adhere to the "fourth philosophy." For much of its existence, it likely consisted of small bands of guerilla fighters.

Judas the Galilean (so-called because he was likely from Galilee but did his work in Judea) was close to a radical wing of Pharisees. "Separation" for them meant accepting the "sole rule of God." The claims of all other rulers were to be shunned. The job of the Israelites was to throw off these other rulers. If they did so, God would bless them, because of their zeal, helping them to overcome the other rulers and establish a kingdom ruled by God. When Judas was killed, other family members took over his movement, which would eventually culminate in the events of 70 A.D.

Hengel covers the full history, as well as various concepts of zeal. It's a lot to take in. The book is great as a reference, if very scholarly, but it does not have a strong argument at its center. This is, in many ways refreshing, insofar as Hengel doesn't seem to make any boldly ridiculous claims, but it also makes for a slightly drier and less summarizable text.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

On "Tiger Bites" by Lucia Berlin (6512 words) ****

I found the narrator of this story--in fact, the whole family--to be irritating. She's a young woman, married too young, whose husband has run off, and she's hanging out with another family member who's done the same, in preparation for a family reunion. But in the midst of this, Berlin manages to take us to a Mexican abortion ward, a portion of the tale that is so well told and described, it makes the story well worth the effort to read. Read the story here at Literary Hub.

On "Nazarene Jewish Christianity" by Ray A. Pritz ***

This short but very much scholarly study traces the existence of the Nazarenes, a group of Jewish Christians mostly in Jerusalem who have a few mentions in various early historical works before disappearing. Often, they are mixed up with the Ebionites, but Pritz makes the case for them being a separate group--to wit, the Ebionites did not accept the divinity of Jesus, while the Nazarenes did. Making matters even more confusing is the fact that there are more than one set of Ebionites referenced in literature, some seeming to be Nazarenes.

Pritz studies out the early Christian sources and also the source of the name (Jesus was born in Nazareth; the name is used a couple times in scripture [once in Matthew and once in Acts]; the name appears to have been applied by outsiders rather than by the peoples themselves; it is possibly the fulfillment of prophecy but the fulfillment is obscure--possibly to a scripture in Isaiah, as the root of Nazarene and Nazarite, according to Pritz, appear different).

The study becomes most interesting in the chapters on Epiphanius and Jerome. The former wrote a long description of the Nazarenes in his work Panarian, not to be confused with a non-Christian Jewish sect of similar name about whom he also writes. Jerome claims to have come across Nazarenes in his journeys in Palestine, though it is uncertain whether he is referring to personal acquaintance or just coming across their works. He translated parts of the Gospel to the Hebrews, which he says they used, into Latin. Though they kept Jewish traditions, they were apparently not rejecters of Paul's writings and had much negative to say about the rabbinic Judaism.

After this, Pritz turns to later Christian writers, finding evidence that the Nazarenes likely existed into the third and maybe the fourth and fifth centuries. Most writers earlier accepted them as Christians, and thus that is one reason they are so little mentioned, but later writers considered them heretical, which is how they begin to show up in history.

Appendixes cover the supposed location of the Nazarenes and the question of whether the Pella tradition has any basis in reality. It was questioned by S. G. F. Brandon, who claimed that the Jerusalem Christians could not have escaped to Pella because Romans or Zealots would have killed them on the way, and once they got there, the inhabitants, who had been raided by Jews four years earlier, would have attacked them. Pritz notes that no one questioned the tradition before Brandon, that Josephus actually accounts for others escaping and may have had reasons to claim few did (to show up evil of zealots, power of Rome, etc.), and that no all places that were raided by the Jews reacted negatively to those Jews who lived there, who in some cases defended against the raids. Furthermore, Pella may have had Christian residents already who would have been more than willing to take in refugees.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

On "Even Crazy Old Barmaids Need Love" by Peter Meinke (3465 words) ***

This tale from Meinke's The Piano Tuner collection recounts the lives of several patrons at a bar--and most specifically, an unlikely pair, an old barmaid and an accidental mid-aged actor. What I found most interesting about this story, however, is the account of how the bar changes under new ownership and how the owner makes that happen; it seemed the account of someone who had reconfigured a bar himself. Read the story here at the Orlando Sentinel.

On "Jesus and First-Century Christianity in Jerusalem" by Elizabeth McNamer and Bargil Pixner ***

Written at a very basic and simplistic level, this book is both wonderful and dangerous. It is wonderful because it provides such a simple synopsis. It is dangerous, however, because the authors are believers in a controversial theory that is not so basic or widely accepted as the simple text would make a person believe.

That idea espoused is that the first-century Christians were, in fact, derived from Essenes--in fact, in many ways were Essenes, the isolationist ascetics behind the creation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The basis for this idea comes from several parallels in belief as well as the proximity of several archeological locations in Jerusalem. The arguments are in some ways persuasive, but part of that persuasion is in the way the information is provided, almost as if the ideas are foregone conclusions that most scholars take for granted.

These ideas cause the authors to propose that Jesus's trial was on a Wednesday, with the Passover meal on a Tuesday night, and his death on a Friday, with a resurrection on Sunday morning. The reason for this is that Essenes always apparently kept Passover on a Wednesday, following a 364-day solar calendar that apparently predated the lunar calendar that the authors says was put into Judaism during the Babylonian captivity. Since the trial could not take place at night (because of Jewish law), it is obvious that it must have taken place on Thursday. My understanding is that that the trial was not exactly by strict Jewish rules, however, which thus would not have precluded a night meeting. And the idea that the calendar was solar before Judah went to Babylon seems specious, since much is made in the Old Testament of the new moon as the means by which to calculate the various Jewish holy days, even in the historical books.

According to the authors, because Acts 6:7 says that priests joined the Christian sect and because the Sadducees were adamantly opposed to Christianity, and Pharisees weren't priest, the priests had to be Essenes. The argument here relies on various assumptions--that no Sadducee could or would accept Jesus, that no Pharisee was a priest, and Essene priests were welcome and served at the actual temple (when what I know of them suggests that they conducted their own religious rites separate from what they considered the polluted temple). But it is these kinds of ideas that are presented as nearly foregone conclusions, while similarities, such as both groups using lots to make a decision, are also pointed to as clear proofs of their being the same, rather than just being similarities among two Jewish groups (after all, lots were a customary way to make certain decisions in the Old Testament).

Another assumption the writers make is that the believers met every Sabbath in a synagogue for worship services of a sort, and then again on Sunday for Eucharist. I don't know the basis on which they make such claims, and without citation notes, it's impossible to find out (from another source, I'm guessing their source in Eusebius 3.27.3-6).

One thing I liked about the simple presentation, however, was the way in which in a matter of a mere one hundred or so pages, the authors were able to weave together so much Roman and Jewish history with the history of the Jerusalem church itself, giving readers a good feel for the events that affected the local congregation.

One interesting idea that authors have is that the Ebionites were the first schism from the Jerusalem Christians. I would figure the group would have been forged after the destruction of the temple and the disappointment over Jesus's failure to return at that time; this would have caused them to see Jesus as a mere prophet rather than as divine and to keep on with their Jewish traditions. But the authors see the Ebionite as forming before the temple's destruction. Rather, they claim, that a certain man name Thabuti (mentioned in Josephus and Hegesippus), who was apparently James the brother of Jesus's assistant (and of course, in these authors' reckoning, an Essene priest), expected to become head of the church after James's death; when Simon, Jesus's brother or cousin, was chosen instead, Thabuti left the group, taking followers with him, and these would become the Ebionites. I will need to read more on this subject.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

On "Stars and Saints" by Lucia Berlin (3188 words) ****

A girl from a Protestant family goes to a Catholic school, because her parents want to keep her away from the "not-so-nice" immigrant kids at the neighborhood school. But the consequences for the girl are loneliness, since she doesn't fit in with the other girls at the school. As such, she begins to find herself interested more and more in the nuns themselves and dreams of becoming one of them. Read the story here.

On "Jerusalem" by Karen Armstrong ***

This basic history of the city runs from its known existence before becoming capital of ancient Israel to its current existence as capital of modern Israel. I picked it up chiefly for chapters 5-8, which cover the period from Jerusalem's resettlement by the Jewish people in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah to its destruction and re-creation as the city of Aelia Capitolina. These latter of these few chapters were excellent in giving a summary of the events; the former got caught up a bit too much, in my view, with concepts of the temple as exists in Ezekiel and other locations.

Having read the sections I had the most interest in, I backed up to the start of the book, wherein Jerusalem was conquered by David. The city was, before then, a Jebusite town. And in fact, after David's conquering, it continued to be a Jebusite city, for he did not kill off its inhabitants. Armstrong sees many Jebusite ideas and beliefs as seeping into the Jewish faith at this time. In fact, Armstrong tends to view all faiths as sort of blending into one another, as I would expect, since she is a historian essentially of comparative religion--or at least this is how I've long viewed her work.

As such, it was interesting to read biblical events as explained by a largely secular historian, who sees the role of God as one largely of cultural interpretation. The deliverance of Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah, thus, is not a miracle but a case of luck: that the plague just happens to catch up with the Assyrian forces when they are on the verge of total victory.

Similarly, the Jewish and Israeli people are not really one from well before the time they split up after Solomon's reign. Armstrong brings out how David moved the capital to Jerusalem, probably, because it was more centrally located and "new," thus not giving the feel of Judah having "taken over" Israel. Solomon's excessive taxes of Israel both in money and labor are what drive Israel away, and Rehoboam's intention to maintain said system are what seals the deal. Israel is the stronger nation, and of course, it creates its own holy place to avoid being linked to Judah.

From there, Armstrong covers the familiar material I was looking for a nice summary of, until, of course, Rome obliterates Jerusalem and outlaws Jews from entering it. This policy weakens and strengthens over time, but eventually the Jewish people are prevented from entering Jerusalem due to Christian animosity to them.

Ironically, given today's situation, it is the Muslims who essentially open Jerusalem to the Jewish people again, though the Muslims do end up building a mosque on the Temple Mount that will prevent any rebuilding of a temple in the same location again. The Crusades once again close the city off to those of other faiths, and when the Muslims retake it, rather than seeking revenge, as they desire to do, they give in to pleads for mercy and let the Christians walk. (The Christians, who earlier had eschewed the idea of holy places then started to reverse that trend, which seems so with each group that takes the city.)

During all these times, various sites are newly associated with old events--this is where Abraham did this, where David lived or was buried, where Christ did this, where Mary did that, and so on. Some of these places well might be legitimate, passed on via generations by people who knew, but most appear to have been invented for various idealistic reasons. It makes one question history within the city.

Eventually, the Muslims are overtaken by Byzantium and the Turks (themselves Muslim), who are overtaken by the British, who finally concede the land to the Zionist movement. The latter is helped to fruition by Hitler, as Jews escape Europe to the Holy Land. Even then, the intention was not necessarily to take Jerusalem but to share it, but war with Jordan and Egypt essentially put Israel in charge of the city, and interest holders who earlier saw no reason for a retaking of the city, who had learned to practice Judaism in diaspora and accept it as such, now viewed it as God-given and essential to the faith. Tensions have remained ever since, even within Israel--with some seeing no reason to share the city with those of other faiths and some quite the opposite.

This is where, in essence, Armstrong lays down her thesis, her final points: That the city is most at peace when communities are tolerant of other faiths, as in the time of David or some periods of Muslim rule.

Monday, January 22, 2018

On "Here" by Jamie Quatro (about 4500 words) ***

This story recounts a family trip to a cabin. It's a trip made regularly, but this is the first time that the family's mother, who has died, is not with the members of the family. The dad in the story attempts to come to peace with his new role. Read the story here.

On "The Fate of the Apostles" by Sean McDowell ****

In this book McDowell looks to see what the various viewpoints with regard to the deaths of the apostles are and how likely accurate it is that they actually died as martyrs for the faith. The point that he makes is that their deaths show the sincerity of their views and help us discern to what extent the resurrection of Jesus Christ was real, at least in the minds of those who claimed to have witnessed his resurrected self. For as McDowell denotes, people do not go to their deaths for a con.

Thus, he creates a table of possibilities with regard to their deaths and the historicity of those accounts, ranging from most likely true to most likely false, and he finds that with the most famous "most likely true" is what we can accept and with those less famous we can see the accounts as "as likely true as not."

Most interesting of all, though, is his account of just how important the resurrection is to Christian theology. It was on this basis that the twelve apostles preached the divinity of Jesus and that they faced death as they did. Christianity was a resurrection sect, McDowell notes.

The individual accounts are workmanlike but very informative. For each apostle, plus Paul and James the brother of Jesus, McDowell recounts the legends and historical records regarding where they went or are said to have gone; then he recounts the various martyrdom narratives that surround the individual; finally he evaluates the reliability of said narratives and what this says about the possibility that the apostles actually died as part of their witness. (If I were going to criticize McDowell's argument at all, it would be in his assumption that because no legend shows any apostle as having recanted on threat of death, none left off believing. He doesn't take into account the possibility that an apostle might simply wander off after a time--no recantation necessary. This is not to say that I think this is what happened to those whose trail seems to disappear; it is simply to say that arguments from silence aren't necessarily the most compelling.)

As for where the apostles went, the theories for many run far and wide. Some would seem to be in contradiction with another, and a number arise from rather late traditions. Still, that the apostles scattered and that some traveled into Africa and India and Britain (and back) seems quite possible, given the actual conditions of the time, as McDowell shows.

This is an excellent reference. Would that there were a reasonably priced paperback available for individuals, rather than just the high-priced hardcover intended for scholarly libraries.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

On "People Are Already Full" by Gary Lutz (427 words) ***

Here's a short short by Lutz that feels in some ways put together sentence by sentence. In a way, I feel like Lutz's story is about the creation of the story itself, the difficulty of putting one together--it starts with two characters, elaborating on each, pulling itself against space toward them, changing views. Read the piece here at Thee Invisible.

On "Jesus and the Zealots" by S. G. F. Brandon ***

My interest in the zealots finds root in two factors: the fact that the Pharisees and Sadducees (and scribes and priests) are the Jewish sects emphasized in the New Testament as being in competition with each--and Jesus--for power; and the fact that some of the things that the apostles say lend one to feel that they might have had certain zealot leanings--namely, they figure that Jesus is going to create kingdom now, raising up Israel to overthrow the Roman governors. The latter gets full play in Brandon's account, which sees the Jesus movement if not actually a zealot movement than at least one with heavy zealot-favoring tendencies.

The issue with this view, however, is that Christians become in league with zealots and thus part of the reason for their persecution and ultimately the destruction of the Jewish-Christian element of the Christian sect. This is made possible in part only because Brandon starts with two premises: (1) As with many historians of religion, he takes a secular view of the scriptures and the events described therein (hence, he explains away anything supernatural, taking these are inaccuracies in the historical account and creating his own suppositions as to the real events); and (2) he accepts the mainstream Christian view that first-century Pauline (i.e., Gentile) Christianity was already distinctive from Jewish Christianity. Without these two premises, which are after all largely accepted, much of his argument loses strength.

Another interesting element in Brandon's account is that he sees the Jewish uprisings predating 70 AD as taking a heavy toll on Roman patience. This is in deep contrast to the view offered by Martin Goodman in Rome and Jerusalem, who believes that the uprisings described by Josephus were largely minor because no one else wrote about them and Josephus himself had an interest in propping up the mightiness of the Jewish people. It is the story of these uprisings (the first half of the book), however, in which Brandon's account excels, showing the effect the zealot ideology had on the Jewish peoples.

Zealots, as Brandon describes them, were peoples--often of the lower priestly classes, if not laymen, who believed that those in Judah who worked with Roman authorities were in fact causing God to turn from Israel. Taking their views from the idea that Phinehas was commended for killing those who served other gods in the Old Testament, zealots saw the key to Judah's strength as being a return to God at all costs. If one simply had the faith to live in strict adherence to God's way and did not compromise by, say, paying taxes to Roman authorities, God would step up and throw off the oppressors for Judah. No doubt, some elements of Christ's teaching mesh with this, as he criticized those in charge and as he commended people for their faith.

It's when Brandon starts drawing his argument toward how the Christians were zealots (or at least closely tied into their views, for even he admits that they were not out-and-out zealots) that his argument starts to weaken, unless of course one accepts the two premises. He makes this argument in large part by reviewing the Gospels in light of zealot sympathies. Taking the often-accepted position that Mark was written first, he argues that Mark, being written for a largely Roman audience in the immediate wake of the destruction of the temple, downplayed the zealot sympathies of Jesus and his followers. Mark didn't want Christians to be viewed as people who agreed with the uprising in Israel. Hence, he clouds certain events so that Jesus is seen as less in tune with rebels. Simon the Zealot, for example, is not outright called "the Zealot" (this name, of course, is played up to the hilt by Brandon--Jesus had a disciple of zealot sympathies--but there is little mention of Matthew the tax collector, that is, one with Roman sympathies). Much is also made of Peter's role in the book--it is much more negative than in the other gospels, according to Brandon, with Peter coming off like a dolt who doesn't fully understand Jesus's world-encompassing work, while the Gentiles are more able to see Christ's divinity, as in the soldier who proclaims that this truly was the son of God at the book's end. As such, Mark's gospel is Pauline in sympathy and orientation. (Nevermind that many scholars see one of Mark's main sources as being Peter himself!)

Matthew and Luke, being written in Brandon's view, some ten or fifteen years later, weren't as in need to hide the zealot tendencies of Jesus and his followers. Now, Jesus is seen as being merely a pacifist--not necessarily one who is inclined toward Gentiles themselves. The pacifism as such allows him to be more Jewish in orientation (Matthew's audience was more Jewish) without making him one sympathetic with the zealot cause. Still, zealotry peaks through in certain clues. For example, Jesus and his disciples are armed (with two swords) when the priests come to arrest him. That a whole group of people had to arrest Jesus suggests to Brandon that he was actually dangerous, and the two swords (largely to fulfill prophecy, the Gospel writers say) is probably a somewhat twisting of reality to make Jesus seem to not be a rebel rouser. His true danger is shown in how he cleans the temple of moneychangers, a job that, as Brandon notes, likely involved more that just one man (he makes a good point that a single man would likely have been arrested--unless there were others participating or, as is more probably, others sympathetic to his views to prevent the police from interfering). Brandon also masterfully twists Jesus's talk about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's into a statement of subterfuge in support of zealot beliefs about not paying taxes to Rome.

In light of these ideas, Brandon points to, it seems unlikely that the Jewish people were responsible for Christ's death as much as the Roman authorities, who saw him as being as dangerous as the Jewish powerholders, who were in sympathy with Rome. The Gospels deliberately obfuscate this point so as to not arouse the ire of Rome against Christians. It is, by the time the Gospels are written, Brandon thus claims, Pauline Christianity that is winning out: a view of Jesus as coming for sin for the whole world rather than a Jesus who comes to redeem solely Israel and that largely by wielding power (either in this life or in some future return).

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

On "The Lurking Fear" by H. P. Lovecraft (8173 words) *****

One of the stronger Lovecraft stories, this one shows off many of Lovecraft's standard techniques and proclivities. It involves a reporter who goes in search of "the lurking fear." An entire village of townsfolk disappears. The reporter goes with some aids, who als disappear. One night, staying in a house, his partner goes to the window upon seeing something intriguing--when he doesn't speak or turn around, the reporter goes up to him and finds his face has been mauled off. The fear, the reporter comes to believe, might have something to do with a family that once lived in the house, specifically with one man who was murdered. But the truth, as the story unfolds, is something ghastlier than a ghost. Read the story here.

On "Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories" by H. P. Lovecraft **

I first came across Lovecraft as a clerk in a bookstore years ago, though I was not, at that time, tempted to read him. I am not a fan of horror fiction, and the lurid covers of the two books we carried by him did not impress. However, I've come to know him in other ways, through the work of others who read him and were influenced by him, most notably Paul Bowles. But one can also see echoes of his predescessor Poe and a certain echo in the work of Latin America's fantastic realists. There is a gothicism and faux intellectualism that appeals in a way, as well as a certain ghost-tale folksiness. What does not appeal, for me, is his tendency to play up the weirdness, naming places and people by ancient made-up names, making it all not just surreal but clearly a world of fantasy so that the horror is of little true horror, even as he tells us how scary and horrifying everything is.

Year ago, I finally read a story of Lovecraft's online, a submarine adventure that proved actually really good--I was hoping for more with this book. Alas, it was not to be. The stories were strange but rarely carried much weight beyond that.

The first two tales in this collection introduce readers to Lovecraft's world. They are essentially histories, explanations of peoples and places, more than actual tales. It's with "The Terrible Old Man" that we begin to see actual plotlines and characters.

Many of the stories center on men coming face-to-face with what I might call "the eternal"--be it death or some spiritual force beyond the ability of our physical minds to fathom. This encounter generally results in a man's disappearance--and for those left behind a token of some sort of transformation that has occurred. For Lovecraft, then, this is what horror is: an encounter with the awesome that we should not behold. This doesn't necessarily equate to fear on the part of the reader (in fact, it rarely does) but rather fascination. Such is the case in a story such as "Hypnos," which recounts two men facing their own nightmares. The survivor of the tale finds that his friend is turned into some kind of statuette, one that others think the narrator himself has carved. If one is pulled along by the story it is by the descriptions not so much by suspense of what will happen.

The collection begins to draw to a close with a set of stories about one Randolph Carter, who descends into the land of dreams to search for, once again, "the eternal"--in this case the old ones/gods and the sunset city. The longest of these tales is more of a novella than a short story, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Here, as in many of the stories, familiar scenes and characters from other stories materialize. We visit, multiple times, Ulthar, which has become a land peopled by cats. All of this is in pursuit of the aforesaid sunset city. While a quest might make for good reading--I was reminded quite a bit of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings--here, the work plays out more like a medieval romance. The character undergoes various trials and performs various exploits among ghouls and other grotesque creatures, but the work seems more episodic than one with a culminating plot. In the end, the character finds that what he seeks is actually the landscape of his childhood.

And that's where the next story takes us--to Carter's childhood. Or rather, it is the story of Carter's disappearance as an older man, with a flashback to a time when he discovered "The Silver Key" that allows him to venture into this dream world. The next story, "Through the Gates of the Silver Key," focuses in part on the search for Carter and in part on Carter's adventures once he walks into the land of the silver key, reminiscent of the Kadath story explained above.

The title story of the collection involves a haunted house of sorts--a place wherein the lead character has bad dreams each night, dreams that he slowly comes to realize are in fact a reality of sorts. Too late, however, for he eventually succumbs to the evil. The house is later torn down. The last story in the collection, "The Shadow out of Time," focuses on a man who has amnesia for a few years, taking on the life of another, but who discovers that his body was actually taken over by another for a time, as their is an ancient race that lives on in and through others as it travels across space/time.

The macabre and strange, fanciful elements mixed with seeming historical detail place Lovecraft's New England work in the realm of Nathaniel Hawthorne, while his tone often makes him seem reminiscent of Poe. Both earlier writers have much to recommend them, but both also tend to be less than satisfying on some levels for modern readers, or at least this modern reader. I could say the same of Lovecraft's work.