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.

Monday, January 1, 2018

On "Better to Lose an Eye" by Jamie Quatro (4192 words) ****

Quatro is often at her best with stories involving religion. "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. Read the story here at Blackbird.

On "Nectar in a Sieve" by Kamala Markandaya ****

I needed a short, small book to read during travels recently and picked this book of my wife's off the shelf. In most ways a sad work, the book is a narrative probably equivalent to the lives of many people in this world and a great reminder of the blessings we have here in the first world.

The narrator is one of the later daughters of a family in India. As such, she has little in the way of a dowry, so although her upbringing allowed her to learn to read, she ends up marrying a peasant rice farmer--a man who rents the land that he farms.

As she ages, she learns better how to support her husband. She makes friends among the villagers. She has a daughter. She has trouble having more children and visits a doctor, who helps her to have several sons. The family struggles through good times and bad, living off the land, living in a hut the father built, dealing with heavy rains and no rains. Once in a while, they get a treat, like some extra spices for their food, their bowl of rice. A tannery moves into the village, and lives begin to change.

Some of the sons get involved with the labor movement. One gets killed. The daughter, in order to support the youngest child, goes into prostitution. None of the sons go into peasant farming. Some go work for the tannery; some go to work for the medical field. They may or may not be bettering themselves, as the pay is always low, basically subsistence.

If this were an American dream story, hard work would pay off. But this is not. This is third world. A life on the farm leads not to the dream of buying the land but to being kicked off the land as it is sold and having nowhere to go but to one's poor children or to the beggar house.

The language of the book is simple. It reads like what one would expect from a woman living in poor circumstances. One reason for this is likely also the woman's naivete and trustingness. Her husband can have an affair, and she figures it fair because she had trouble bearing sons. Her neighbor can demand food, and she gives it, though she can ill afford it. She leaves her belongings behind in the middle of a city in order to get a meal for herself and her husband and finds them gone when she returns.