Sunday, October 27, 2019

On "The Reckoning" by Edith Wharton (8233 words) *****

This story looks at the emotional toll that divorce takes on a person, most especially the person not expecting/wanting the divorce. Unattached love is all fine and glorious if you're the one who gets out first. The story renders a bit too little of the pain that is usually experienced on the part of the party ending the relationship, but it does so to make a point about how love cannot be all about one's own self and feelings at a given time. Read the story here.

On "Moral Exhortation, a Greco-Roman Sourcebook" by Abraham J. Malherbe ***

This book is essentially a collection of short abstracts of various Greco-Roman philosophers' writings, arranged around themes that have some relation to the social environment in which the New Testament was written. Reading these extracts in conjunction with the biblical passages to which Malherbe refers can be somewhat illuminating, especially when it comes to seeing how Paul and other writers used rhetorical devices similar to thinkers of their day. At the same time, one wonders to what extent said devices are used by just about anyone. 

A few things become evident in reading the extracts. One is that, contrary to what I've read elsewhere, the selections Malherbe has chosen seem to show a set of philosophers very much concerned with morality--including, most notably, sexual morality. Romans come across as quite conservative per the selections chosen--adultery is discouraged and even fornication, as are homosexual relations. I end up wondering, however, to what extent these selections speak to the actual environment of the day. Mahlerbe, in fact, may be drawing largely from Stoic philosophy for those passages, and as such, a more conservative view certainly makes sense, since the Stoics were all about "denying the self" in a sense. In fact, it's easy to see how (gnostic) religion inevitably seems to advocate either aestheticism or its opposite when under the influence of such ideas, because both in essence argue that the physical should not be our focus.

Another major thing that becomes obvious, I have already denoted--that the structures of writing often are similar between Christians and philosophers. In this regard, one of the more interesting sets of extracts have to do with extended metaphors. As Paul uses metaphors to racing (sports), war, and the body (for unity), so too do the philosophers. One could say that such shared metaphorical ideas show that the concepts were common in the society at the time, but I also ended up thinking about how such ideas likely aren't unique to just the time period, that even without such metaphors in scripture or other ancient writings, writers today would likely come up with similar ideas.

Although the extracts are interesting and the summaries useful, this is indeed a sourcebook--Malherbe largely stays in the background, and the book doesn't build to any kind of crescendo in terms of its contents.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

On "Spring 1933" by Donna Baier Stein (4952 words) ***

What happens when a woman falls in love and then loses everything she thinks she might have. Not good things, apparently. Amber settles for something close to what she wanted and finds instead much worse the heartbreak. Read the story here at VQR.

On "The New Testament in Its Social Environment" by John E. Stambaugh and David L. Balch *****

This is one of the best reference books on the social world of the New Testament that I've read. It does a great job of summarizing Jewish history leading up to the Roman period. It discusses family dynamics, religious ones, financial ones, governmental ones, and so on. In its final chapter, it covers the social dynamics apparent in individual cities. It's a short book and easy to read, but it isn't easily summarized, especially given the fact that I did not have opportunity to take notes on it right after completing it. But I will be coming back to this book, as I bought a copy to keep.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

On "The Touchstone" by Edith Wharton (26,849 words) *****

Essentially a novella, this work ruminates on the subject of loyalty, love, and literary acumen. A man befriends a woman writer whose husband soon dies; she falls for him, writes to him for years, but the love is unrequited. Years later, after her death and needing money to be able to marry, the man arranges for the publication of the letters, which are a huge literary hit, but at what price to his personal soul? What do we owe to the dead? Do we keep their secrets forever? Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "The Search for the Twelve Apostles" by William Steuart McBirnie ***

This book seems a useful reference, but on the whole it was a disappointment, especially in comparison to the more recent Fate of the Apostles by Sean McDowell. The latter suffered from a kind of formulaicness, but this work suffers in some sense from a seeming lack of method.

McBirnie quotes extensively from various sources, many of them late in history such that one wonders to what extent the later sources are reliable. Further, at least in the edition I read, it was difficult to tell what was a quote and what wasn't--in other words, the design was not well suited to McBirnie's text (a problem likely resolved in more recent reprint editions).

Finally, McBirnie focuses heavily on burial sights of the apostles for his information. This seems somewhat dubious. Granted, in tracking the bodily remains of the apostles, he may at times hit on how true a given myth is, but given how many churches like to claim an apostle for their own and the relative proliferation of relics during the Middle Ages, burial sights seem a difficult way to go about finding the supposed path of the apostles.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

On "The Lobster" by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou ****

It's been a while since I read a screenplay. For a brief time, I read quite a few. Really, the story of my reading of screenplays is also the story of technology and me.

Back before I was an older teen, the only way to see a movie was in the theater or on television--what was available--and the latter was something I spent a lot of time watching. In my later teen years, we had a VCR, and rentals became something we could use to see specific films we wanted to that we had missed; more often, though, I simply recorded movies I would have missed on TV.

As a young man, once I was out on my own, I got rid of the television. The only way to see a film then was in the theater, and so it was that I started reading screenplays. At this time, this usually meant borrowing the screenplay or buying it--and this in turn also limited the selection of films I had access to.

With the Internet, things changed a bit. Drew's Script-o-rama offered a relatively wide selection of screenplays, so if I missed a film in the theater, quite often I could read the screenplay online. Or I could "read" a classic film. Once I had a computer that could play DVDs (around 2006), however, my need to read a film dropped precipitously. But from 1999 to 2006, reading was the way I came to know many films.

I didn't manage to see The Lobster in the theater, or catch it streaming when it was available on Netflix, and video stores don't exist much anymore, and so . . . here I am, reading again, a film I'd wanted to see.

In a lot of ways, I'm glad not to have seen the movie. My tolerance for violence or sex on screen is not what it once was, and judging by the screenplay, this film would likely have a lot of the latter.

But the screenplay itself touches on many themes that intrigued me about the film. It's a strange blend of dark comedy, fantasy, and thriller. David's wife dumps him, and so he is forced to go to a hotel for single people, where, if they do not manage to find a partner within a specified period, they are turned into an animal. Some run away and become loners, who live in hiding, trying to avoid being shot and turned into animals.

The plot is obviously a comment on the way in which society pigeonholes people into particular roles, as well as the general untidiness that singleness represents. It left me with much to think about--the way we transform ourselves to try to "fit" with someone; the difficulty that there is in being truly loving, let alone finding love; and the selfishness that we all exhibit in our search. David, at first sympathetic, is a character who by the midway point of the screenplay, I had come to dislike. Indeed, I can't say I much cared for any of the characters by the end.

I'm sure that seeing the film my reaction might be much different. Acting can really embue a role with compassion beyond what's in the written word. But as a mind exercise and as a truly unique piece of writing, the screenplay really works. It can be read here at Scriptfest.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

On "Big Bad Love" by Mary Miller (3914 words) ****

"Big Bad Love" seemed less compelling than many of Miller's tales in Always Happy Hour, but in the end, it packs something of a wallop. It concerns a woman who works at a care facility to abused children, a woman who puts a lot into her job but gets little out of it. Read the story here at the Good Men Project.

On "Primitive Christianity in Crisis" by Alan Knight ****

This was not quite the book I was expecting. I read it because it was recommended as a good study of gnosticism, its history, and its effect on Christianity. And indeed, the first third of the book is exactly that. In fact, Knight does such a good job of laying out the various concepts of gnosticism that he makes it seem easy to understand. In that, I suppose, is a problem insofar as at times, he seemed to be simplifying things or writing things as if they were facts when in reality some of the ideas are, from my other reading, in most people's mind under dispute.

Knight starts off the book with an anecdote about Nicolas, of Acts 6:5, the supposed founder of the Nicolaitans. The story is one I'd read before, how he was so full of zeal with regard to showing that the pleasures of this world mean nothing that he offered his wife up to others. The idea--that material things do not matter--becomes so twisted that it actually ends up being the source of both aestheticism (denying one's self) and of lasciviousness (giving into all pleasure). This is the heart of gnosticism.

But the story isn't quite as simple as that. While I believe Knight to be right in his summary of what Nicolaitanism is, others claim that it has to do with hierarchical rulership in the church. Still others would dispute the idea that Nicolas of Acts 6:5 was the founder of the sect--indeed, it is quite possible that the sect simply borrowed the name or that some other Nicolas founded it. Even the story about Nicolas offering his wife is one that some dispute. But little of these other ideas arise in Knight's book. Hence, while the book is easily approachable, I found myself a bit concerned that the simplicity also perhaps hid the fact that Knight's own version of various gnostic sects is not one that is widely accepted by scholars. This made me a bit leery, even as I greatly enjoyed reading such a finely crafted summary of the various sects.

The anecdote leads to an exploration of the various Greek philosophies widespread in the first century, their effect of Judaism and paganism, and (eventually) on mainstream (largely Protestant Reformation) Christianity today. The second chapter goes into the beliefs of the various gnostic sects. Knight also discusses gnostic ideas about heaven, angels, God, and the "eighth day"--which came to be revered, as opposed to the Sabbath, as going beyond the material realm. That discussion is a good one for understanding the philosophical underpinnings for much of the replacement of the Sabbath with Sunday, as opposed to the historical context provided elsewhere, as in Samuel Bacchiocci's From Sabbath to Sunday, which only touches on "eighth day" thinking.

Another thing Knight comments on a lot is the move toward a belief in the immortality of the soul, which made its way into Platonic philosophy through the Pythagorean philosophers. Knight claims that this belief is rooted in a "reformation" of sorts that happened in pagan religion around 700 B.C., wherein most religions came to have this idea. This is something that I need to read more about and that also made me wonder to an extent about his accuracy. Most scholars of religion and the Roman world that I've read claim that the concept of the immortality of the soul was not widespread in the first century, that in fact, unless you were a noble or king, you likely did not have much hope beyond this life. A king, by contrast, supposedly had some vague promise of some kind of afterlife, but this idea was not well defined. To be sure, the concept of the immortality of the soul can be found in Egypt hundreds of years earlier, and Plato and the Pythagoreans certainly adopted the idea, but how widespread it was beyond certain philosophers I'm uncertain of, given what others have written on the subject.

After the first section, Knight turns to gnosticism's effect and influence on contemporary Christianity and even on the Reformation. This was not what I came to this book for, even if his drawing of parallels between gnosticism and concepts like "once saved always saved" is illuminating. Some of the material on the Reformation teachers was particularly interesting, as I had never read much about Calvin's or Luther's actual lives. At the same time, not being one who follows many of the contemporary Protestant preachers, I was at times not as interested. In fact, much of the book in the latter sections seemed to become rather repetitive.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book were Knight's explications of certain scriptures, particularly of Colossians 2. I've never read as thorough a discussion on that chapter of Paul's letter as Knight gives, and it was well worth the read. And as much as I might belabor the book's possible shortcomings, overall, I found it a good read, especially the first part and in selective parts thereafter.