Sunday, May 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 2, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 28, 2019

On "Fame" by Siamak Vossoughi (1261 words) ****

Vossoughi is an Iranian American writer whose book of stories showcases his unique style, a style that is also on display in this piece. His stories often aren't stories in the conventional American sense. They aren't heavy on plot or even on character development. Instead, they are often philosophical asides, opportunities to explore what something means or is--in this case, fame. And while this piece isn't perhaps as thought provoking as some of his other work, it is a good introduction to it. Read it here at Hobart.

On "The Two Powers in Heaven" by Alan F. Segal ***

This rather technical monograph attempts to trace the concept of "two powers in heaven" within early rabbinic writings in order to find the origin of the heresy (and just what it was the rabbis were responding to: Christianity? gnosticism? paganism? something else?). Segal spends a lot of time quoting and analyzing the rabbinical texts, most of which I'm not familiar with. What this meant for me, as one who has not read the Mishnah and other such works or who has spent a lot time reading about them, was that I found Segal's book at times difficult to follow--and a little dull.

Things pick up a bit toward the end, once Segal turns to intertestamental writings, Christian writings, and gnostic writings. In part, that was because I was more familiar with them, but also he spends a lot less time on these than he does on the rabbinacal work--so he's not quite so punctilious and technical.

The basic point that Segal is able to make is that the rabbis were responding not just to ideas that were around at the time in which they were putting their sayings down but to ideas that had been around for a century or two, ideas that go back to at least the first century. Some of these ideas may have come from Hellenistic Jews such as Philo, some from Christians, and some from gnostics. He also finds that most gnostic ideas probably had a route in Judaism rather than in Christianity, though of course such ideas drew from all sorts of sources.

Segal's book is referenced in the work of a number of other scholars, so there's no doubt that it is important. But writers such as Larry Hurtado discuss a number of the same things, only in a way that is much more accessible. So unless one has an interest in the real technical side of this discussion--and specifically of the rabbinical side--it's probably not the book to start with.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

On "From Beyond" by H. P. Lovecraft (3046 words) ***

Lovecraft here warns of science and philosophy. Those who don't succeed live on in despair; those who do go crazy. The friend in this story is one of the latter, who invents a machine that makes the invisible visible--in such a way that it kills those who use it. One senses a link to ideas of gnosticism, how the physical cannot grasp the nonphysical without becoming utterly impotent. Read the story here.

On "Writing on the Wall" by Tom Standage *****

Standage makes the intriguing claim that new media is in fact very, very old media. That is, with the exception of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during which we had an exceptional emphasis on mass media, our media has generally been focused on the social--people sharing things among each other, and things becoming virally popular among them.

Standage starts his evidence with tales from Rome and how messages were passed along in the ancient city. Most specifically, he writes of Cicero, who was a known letter writer. Within Rome, men of higher class, like Cicero, had a network for postal carriers who would carry messages to and from others, many times a day. When traveling afar, there were other means of carrying messages to and from Rome, via soldiers, sailors, and officials. Cicero always wanted to be in the know and pressed his friends to send him news of state while he was gone. In Rome itself, he passed on messages to others, copying parts of other messages he thought interesting, telling others to share his messages. This was not unlike Facebook in a sense, with popular ideas and messages being shared among friends and friends of friends, with some going "viral."

Books were passed along in a similar manner. Since one had to write out the book, there being no press, people would copy out books or passages of books they most liked. A few who could afford it might buy a book that had been copied out by slaves who often served as scribes. To get a book into circulation, writers often dedicated their works to patrons who had libraries from which they lent out to others. This was a way to get into such people's good graces.

Writing a book itself often involved a couple of drafts. Sometimes portions of a work in progress might be shared with close friends with an understanding that that draft was not to be passed on to others.

There was even a Roman "newspaper." This singular document was written out and posted in a public place each day. People could come and read it and copy out passages that they found of interest, which they then included in messages to others. We have no copies of the paper itself, but we have passages that were copied from the paper.

Christians used letter writing to pass along messages also, as is evident from the New Testament, the majority of which is made up of letters. These letters were shared with other churches and people--and were expected to be.

Next, Standage drops into the Reformation and looks at how Luther's message went viral. By that time, of course, there was a printing press. This meant ideas could be spread faster and more easily--but they were still not reproduced in a fast manner. A press might make two hundred copies of something in a day. Phamplets were printed and shared.

From here, Standage looks at the royal court of Britain in the seventeenth century. Knowing the power of print, governments put limitations on who could print and what could be printed. Printers often had to have licenses or get government approval for what they put into circulation. Special taxes also often applied. There was no shortage of people who tried to skirt these laws.

But what this also meant was that people also continued to pass along messages by hand, as in the royal court, where people imprisoned by Henry VIII kept a kind of public journal of sorts, writing out verses for one another--sometimes their own, sometimes those of others. In fact, poetry was, it seems, a kind of private affair. We think of Donne and others writing for a large audience, when in fact it was written for a few friends, friends who then ended up sharing those poems among their friends, much of this by hand.

Another innovation was the coffeehouse. In it, people gathered to discuss issues of the day. When it first became popular, such houses often focused on one kind of person--sailors, officials, intellectuals. Thus, some people held office hours there, and meetings took place there, allowing for the free exchange of information. It was via such a house we get our learned societies, and by them that we get our scholarly journal publishing. A society of scientists thought it a good idea to gather said information into a document to be shared among such thinkers. Only the best was to be included, meaning that they would review each others work before putting it in to print. Some knew others overseas and, with peer review, got those other Europeans into the publication. Such made me think a bit about scholarly publishing today, about how it costs so much and how one has to pay for it. There's much bandied about about open access, but even this has costs. Still, much of our practice goes back to these older times and to the need to print. I do think there are other models that could be used, models that might still cost ten thousand dollars or so to put out a quality product but that would be cheaper and more effective than our current system.

Finally, Standage gets to mass media. Around the early 1800s, steam printing allowed for a much faster process. Instead of a mere couple hundred copies a day, printers could now turn out a thousand or more copies. Most newspapers still printed for a very small audience, charging exorbitant prices of a half days' wage or so, but the New York Sun decided on a different model. It would print vast quantities and sell the paper for cheap. How would it recoup money? It would sell ads. Mass media was born.

Whereas newspapers earlier had largely been full of letters to and from people and material from other papers, things printers found of interest, the new mass market paper needed more info to include, so it hired reporters to go out and gather stories.

From here, we then move to radio and television. Radio started out as social, with people exchanging messages back and forth, but it became a one-way medium soon after the Titanic disaster. Radio was used for emergencies, and so many amateurs clogged the wires that it was hard for government messages to get through. In the case of the Titanic, amateurs were blamed for the message about ice not getting through to the ship (the real case, however, was that the ship had told another ship to quit sending messages to it because there were too many messages the Titanic itself was trying to send out for its passengers on board).

NBC/RCA took an early lead in gathering together a bundle of radio stations to forge a network. The fledgling CBS did similarly. When TV came about, NBC used its special interest clout with Congress to keep small stations from being able to compete or be formed, pushing out some early upstarts that would have provided competition, meaning that TV became almost wholly national in scope. In Britain, the government took an active role in forging media, with its BBC--there, individual licenses paid for the programming, which was to be for the "betterment" of the citizens. In America, the ad model form newspapers became the means by which money was made. Social media was no longer.

Until the Net, which Standage then goes into the history of.

But to some extent this is a bit of a broken argument, even if a neat one. For one, people never stopped sending letters or copying them out. Social media did not disappear during the TV era. And for two, the ideas that caught on were often those from the rich and the elite, even in the eras before mass media. After all, it was those who had power and money who were most able to spread their message, whether via TV or via a handwritten book. Similarly today, even with Facebook and the like, it is those with large platforms who have a larger role in shaping the discourse, and the larger platforms often belong to the elite. This isn't to say that a regular joe's message doesn't go viral at times, but it is to say that those who already have power more often have the likelihood of going viral.

Monday, February 25, 2019

On "Beverly Home" by Denis Johnson (5155 words) *****

The final tale in Johnson's collection of a drug-addled young man, this one focuses on his recovery. The piece examines sick people, which happens to be the job that the narrator has managed to find himself in. The deformed also happen to be the kind of people this man dates. But each night, he sneaks peeks at a seemingly normal couple, an ideal life, that he can only view through a window. What he comes to see is that we are all deformed in our own way. Read the story here at Revision 30.

On "One God, One Lord" by Larry W. Hurtado *****

This relatively short book attempts to figure out how Jewish people would have thought about Jesus as a divine figure when he first burst on to the scene. How, in other words, would a monotheist religion manage to explain a second unit in the Godhead? Why would Jewish people accept that and so quickly?

Hurtado rejects the idea that such acceptance stemmed from the Gentile side of the church and that Jewish Christians did not see Jesus as divine. Rather, he says that the idea of divinity was routed in certain concepts having to do with a kind of second in charge or command, behind God--a divine agent who works for and on behalf of and in place of God.

This agent can be found in various forms: as a personified attribute, such as wisdom or the word; as an angel; or as an important human figure/prophet. Of particular note, however, is the angel, for a principal angel figures prominently in many Old Testament and inter-Testamental passages. In this sense, then, Hurtado says, we can see the risen Jesus as fitting into the Jewish concept of a chief angel, a divine agent.

However, that would not mean that Jesus was one who early Christians worshipped, and Hurtado notes that unlike the divine agent's treatment in most earlier texts, it's clear that the worship practice of early Christians included Jesus with God. How that came about is not quite clear, but, Hurtado implies, it was likely related to Jesus's resurrection--an event that changed the view of certain peoples.

Hurtado's ideas are intriguing, especially as one tries to figure out how a Jewish person would have felt about Jesus at the time. The divine agent certainly seems like one avenue by which people could have seen him. But if the Gospel accounts are accurate, it's clear that Jesus claimed divinity of himself while alive, which still is rather mind-boggling insofar as having people accept that. Miracles must have played a large role, with the resurrection being the final step to such acceptance.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

On "The Other Gods" by H. P. Lovecraft (2037 words) ***

Men scale mountains. In the work of Lovecraft, however, this becomes not an adventure story about men versus the elements or even nature but about men versus the ancient gods who dwell atop those mountains, warning us away. Read the story here.

On "Redating the New Testament" by John A. T. Robinson *****

This compelling book illustrates for me something that I've thought about in some way or another since I was a teen-ager, namely how does one ever really know something? That isn't Robinson's point, of course, but what he does demonstrates this basic idea. What he does is this: Rather than accepting the later dates for the New Testament books presented by biblical scholars (of the nonconservative variety), Robinson starts with the premise that all the books were written before 70 A.D. because of their lack of addressing of what would have been a major event to religiously minded Jewish folks in the first century--namely, the destruction of the Jewish temple.

Now, many scholars present the later dates for certain books based on the idea that they actually do address this--most specifically in the Gospels. There is the whole Matthew 24 prophecy that Jesus renders. For a secularist, such a prophecy coming to fruition demands that the material had to have been written after the event, the prophecy a way of seeming to be profound and mystic when one is not. Robinson sees this as a poor argument, because the predictions in the Gospels about the Temple's demise are not of the specific variety that one would expect were one writing after the fact. Some items in the prophecy didn't come true in the exact manner Jesus predicted; no dates are presented, and in general the prophecy is rather vague. (Hebrews is an interesting case in point too, since if it were written after the fact, why not just point out the Temple's destruction in denoting Jesus as the replacement for the high priest?)

Having banished the few arguments for later writing of some of the books, Robinson follows through on his premise, presenting arguments for just when each book could have been written--all of them before 70 A.D. And all this goes to show what I often think/thought about as a young man--how assumptions, prejudices, and premises all shape our point of view before we even start into a topic. Start with an assumption that certain New Testament books must be written later, and suddenly all of them take on a different cast; start with another premise, and suddenly all of them fall much earlier. What is the truth of the date of writing? Who can possibly know?

Sunday, February 3, 2019

On "Necrophil" by Felipe Alfau **** (40 minutes)

"The Necrophil," from Alfau's *Locos,* is about a woman who dies for three months each year. Obsessed with death--she attends the funerals of strangers for fun--she has a kind of love affair with it. A doctor tries to cure her. Read the story here at Miette's Bedtime Story podcast.

On "Destroyer of the Gods" by Larry W. Hurtado *****

This short study of how Christians were distinctive in the ancient world is extremely readable. I've completed a handful of other books about paganism in the Roman Empire in the first century, but none of them were written as accessibly as this one. Here, Hurtado gives readers a real feel for how the pagan world functioned and just how Christianity would have been a disruption to such a society.

Whereas the Jews did not accept other gods, theirs was at least an ethnic religion. In fact, most religions were ethnic at this time. You were born into a faith, but few faiths were exclusivist. Your family god might also be shared by the nation, but the land where you live might have its own god, and you might go to the celebrations of other gods worshipped by friends and family. Rome was accepting of local gods, as such provided for political stability. This was the danger of Christianity, because it did not accept those gods as real. As such, it endangered, in many people's views, the political stability of nations and of the empire. It also meant you broke up the unity of families. It was also a different sort of religion in that it knew no ethnic limits, making its spread potentially greater.

Christianity was also a bookish religion. More than most faiths, its ideas were committed to print and passed along that way. Not only, of course, was their an emphasis on the holy book, but there were also letters and such that were shared. Hurtado spends a full chapter discussing this early written religious culture.

Finally, there were differences in morality, a subject discussed elsewhere but that Hurtado gives an adequate summary of here.