Monday, January 27, 2020

On "Afterward" by Edith Wharton (5322 words) *****

This ghost tale focuses on a ghost one doesn't know exists until "afterward," and as such it's rather chilling. A couple buys a haunted house in which nothing seems wrong. But the woman keeps having premonitions about something being odd or strange. That said, nothing is. Until . . . it's too late. Afterward. Read the story here.

On "Lost Christianities" by Bart D. Ehrman *****

I now understand why Ehrman could sell so many books, beyond just writing things about Christianity that are sometimes controversial. He happens to be an extremely engaging writer, and at least in this text, he is one who comes across as quite reasonable. I had in some ways expected not only to largely disagree with Ehrman but also to be angered by him. This book did neither to me. This is not to say that I agreed with everything that Ehrman had to say, but he gave me a lot to think about, and were I to accept all his premises, I'd likely more often reach similar conclusions.

The point of this book is largely for Ehrman to explore what Christianity may have become if orthodox Christianity hadn't won out. As such, he looks at various heresies and how those who taught them thought about Jesus--and also how the proto-orthodox pushed their agenda. As Ehrman notes, those proto-orthodox not only won out but also then wrote the history of Jesus and early Christianity, ridding it of the differences that existed in those early years and of the voices of those who taught in a different way. These are all excellent points--and ones would totally agree with.

Now, of course, we have access to some of the original documents that were earlier only available to us in quotes from those arguing against heretical teachers. This was made possible by the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library most especially, among others. Interestingly, the teachings of those arguing against such thinkers turn out to be largely correct about what such people were teaching--or at least that seems to be the case when we read it through the lens of such arguers; take the lens away, and some of the teachings may not be quite as antithetical in all cases.

Ehrman begins his discussion of how we establish authority in Scriptures. He looks at how people wrote pseudo-epigraphically and how such forgeries could affect how people accepted a given work. He argues quite well against those who would say that pseudo-epigraphy was simply a rhetorical device that was accepted (something that seemed a point in John Collins's book on diasporic Jewish writers); as Ehrman notes, the whole point of writing in someone else's voice with their name was to pose as that authority and discovery of a work being "forged" in such a name meant it wasn't accepted as authoritative generally.

Next, Ehrman looks at different forms of Christianity that existed--Ebionites, Marcionites, and Gnostics. The first were more Jewish in temper and emphasized Jesus as human (rejecting Paul's writings); the second were more Gentile in orientation, rejected the Jewish Old Testament and virtually all writings by New Testament writers outside of Paul (and Luke's gospel), and emphasized Jesus as divine. Orthodox Christianity pushed both such views out.

Here's where Ehrman's work gets really interesting. He looks at the New Testament as it comes down to us and largely argues that it was in selecting these books--and the accepted texts for these books--that the proto-orthodox established their authority. The New Testament is not, as Ehrman notes, necessarily as nailed down as we suppose. Ancient manuscripts (of which we have more than any other ancient text) of the books that make up the New Testament include numerous differences. Most of these, Ehrman concedes, are merely spelling errors and other simple and obvious mistakes. But a few suggest an agenda. One of the most interesting sets of differences are passages in Luke, wherein references are made to Jesus's father and mother or parents--in many of the manuscripts such wording is "changed" to emphasize only his mother, the idea being that some had used Luke's references to his parents to say that Jesus had not been conceived by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the oldest manuscripts (though not the majority of ancient manuscripts overall) have Father saying, in contract to Matthew and Mark, at the time of Jesus's baptism, "This is my beloved Son; today I have begotten you"--instead of "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." The majority of English translations take up the later version. Ehrman argues the manuscript was changed for the same reason (though this argument supposes that "oldest" is always better--something that I would say is not necessarily the case; the accepted text may be the real whose older versions fell into disrepair and the oldest could well be a changed text that we discovered; either way, though, the discrepancies do show the challenges textual editors/scholars have in defining what the original text was intended to be).

Then Ehrman goes into the subject of how the canon was settled on, again arguing that this was the product of proto-orthodox Christians winning out over the first four centuries. Indeed, if one looks at some second-century works, almost the entire the New Testament is referenced (namely in Polycarp's letter), while in other such works almost none of it is (Shepherd of Hermas, 2 Clement). What constituted Scripture differed from place to place, which is likely true. What is interesting here, however, is that in Asia Minor, it would appear that most of the New Testament was already settled by the time of Polycarp, which to me would suggest that this is where the proto-Orthodox canon formation actually came from, despite the fact that Rome continued to argue over biblical concepts for another several hundred years. In part, that would seem to make more sense because otherwise, it seems odd to me that some of the books we have in the New Testament would be there, as they don't well fit orthodox Christian doctrines. Indeed, modern scholarship to me, seems in a sense, to have taken on a kind of Marcionite canon insofar as most secular scholars now argue that other than about seven of Paul's letters, the rest of the New Testament was written much later and most of it pseudo-epigraphically; as such, we end up almost with an antinomian New Testament in which only a selection of Paul's letters count as truly apostolic.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

On "Breakfast" by John Steinbeck (1169 words) ***

While not one of Steinbeck's best stories, this one still shows much of his great skill. It's essentially the description of a breakfast among hired farmhands. Steinbeck thrusts at readers the sight, the smells, the taste, the sounds of all that is there. Read the story here.

On "Dialogue with Trypho" by Justin Martyr ***

This second-century religious text does a good job of showing Martyr's background in the study of philosophy and some of the arguments for and against Jesus as Messiah in terms of Jewish versus Christian views. It's not likely to be the most engaging reading to someone not interested in the issues and how they played out at the time, and it's often quite repetitive. You also get a lot more of the Christian views than the Jewish, for obvious reasons. In fact, I'd say the work is to actually fairly antisemitic. Repeatedly, Justin claims that the Old Testament law was put upon the Jewish people because of their unique stubbornness and innate bad nature, as if somehow other peoples are superior to this particular set of peoples.

One of the most surprising things about the work to me was the number of arguments that Justin makes from scripture with regard to the Messiah's identity. The number of typologies and prophecies that he pulls out and argues by is incredible. They are the same arguments generally made today by Christians. But it's interesting to me to see that these arguments were already formed in the second century, as if very little has been added since then. A translation may be read here.

Monday, January 13, 2020

On "Monkey Park" by Madison Smartt Bell (about 7,000 words) ****

This one involves a night of randomness. It centers on a woman and her male friend and her husband. She spends more time with the former than the latter, and there's a feeling of sadness insofar as we know that there's something going on between them that they won't quite acknowledge and can't. There's putting on clown faces, drinking too much, going to a park to play and to look at monkeys involved. Read the story from Hudson Review here at Jstor (you can sign up for a free account and read it online).

On "Zero db and Other Stories" by Madison Smartt Bell *****

I read this book nearly twenty-five years ago, back when I was in grad school. I went on to read another book of Bell's stories, which was about as good as this one. At the time, however, I don't know that I was necessarily that impressed. Rather, this was a book that stayed with me, the way a movie called The Conversation stayed with me, kept me thinking about it for weeks afterward.

The two stories that are my favorite in this collection fall at the start of the second section, which is my favorite section of the book. The book as a whole is set into three sections, with "three" being something of a motif in this work, as designated by the first and last stories of the first section. Those stories are called Tryptichs--they are stories in three parts.

Triptych I is about a little girl at a hog killing. Where Bell excels throughout the collection is in his somber attention to detail, and that's what makes this otherwise less interesting story impressive. It's set in the South, among black folk and white, and burning and accidents are something of a theme throughout the three disparate parts.

"The Naked Lady" is a powerful piece of wit and writing skill and was the one that most impressed me when I first read the collection. It's about the friend of an artist, their horrific home, the sculptures the artist creates, and the rats they kill.

"Monkey Park" is another sort of hopelessness--this one involving a couple that isn't.

"Triptych II" focuses on different ways of dying, one among peacocks, one an old man, and one a bull. The idea here seems to be that people are little more than animals in the end, facing their final hours. And it mirrors the final story in the collection.

The middle section includes six stories about young men (or a young man, as many of the stories seem to be about the same person and arguably all of them could be) fighting--or perhaps, more so, giving into--depression. "The Structure and Meaning of Dormitory and Food Services" involves a young man who goes off to college, does well for a few months, and then sinks into a morass wherein he stops bothering to attend classes and spends most of his days on the "sad" side of the university cafeteria. Here, a blind man is sat down by him each day, but the blindness is really the narrator's own, as he is lost without knowing how to escape his own lethargy.

"Irene" finds a young man living in a Hispanic neighborhood with cheap rent. The man knows little of his neighbors and few of them, but he forges a kind of fascination with a twelve-year-old girl that is at some level a bit creepy but at the same time a kind of cry for connection--with someone, anyone.

"The Lie Detector" involves a young man who loses his apartment and has to go find a new one. Thing is, his old landlord seems to be trying to stiff him on the deposit; his new landlord seems to be trying to ask for extra kickbacks in order for him to move in; and true to form, the narrator himself begins to apply similar sorts of dishonesty to grift a bit more cash for his needs.

"I Heart NY" involves a young man trying to do just the opposite--that is, to be a responsible and good citizen. He takes real interest in those around, but the city doesn't seem to care much for or about him, and when he tries to help others, it rarely works out. Police don't come to assist. Muggers he catches turn out to be the wrong person, and so on.

"The Forgotten Bridge" focuses on the same young man as in "Lie Detector" after he is in the new apartment--and on the relationships he forges with his Hispanic neighbors. There's a kind of sadness to the tale insofar as it's told from a distant time with a certain amount of nostalgia, though it's nostalgia for a time that was rough on all of the people involved.

"Zero db" is about a man who works on sound for motion pictures and other productions. Here, he's recording people in a bar after a particularly bad day at work.

The final section/story is "Today Is a Good Day to Die" and focuses on an officer in Custer's army out west who is rescued from a snow storm by the Indians Custer has tried to and will try again to kill. This leads to some uncertainty in the officer regarding his role and purpose in life.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

On "Full Circle" by Edith Wharton (8349 words) *****

Betton is an author who finds fan mail tiresome, so he hires a man named Vyse to respond to the mail for him. Vyse is a former classmate--and also an author himself, an unsuccessful author who once asked Betton for help getting his novel published, a novel that Betton found riveting, much better than anything he could write himself. Betton, however, did not help--let other matters get in the way. Now, with Vyse as his needy and poor assistant, Betton feels guilty--but also uncertain of Vyse's motives. Does Vyse recognize that Betton is not as good a writer? Does he realize that this second novel is not as good as the first? How can Betton keep up his reputation for Vyse or keep needy Vyse in his employee? In one sense, this is a story of revenge--but of revenge that a person perpetrates on himself for a life badly lived. Read the story here.

On "Herod" by Peter Richardson ***

Richardson's book focuses on the first Herod. It's a biography based largely around the work of Josephus, and it is focused primarily on the political rise and fortune of the king, recounting much in the way of his war exploits and quarrels within his family.

I came to this book not so much wanting to read about Herod as wanting to read more about the culture from which he derived--the Idumeans. The Edomites, of course, have a long history, but I wanted one that focuse specifically on the culture of the people at this time, the time of the Herods. There was no such book that I could find, so I figured a book about Herod might give me some of that. Indeed, this book did.

But because the focus was, as it should have been, being a biography, on Herod's political career, it was something of a disappointment for me.

Richardson uses fiction techniques to start and end his work. He begins with Herod's death, describing it from the point of view of various peoples who would have known him--radical zealots, Romans, Pharisees, and so on. Indeed, how he was remembered would have depended in many ways on what your own political and religious views were. He was, on some level, very religious, and another, just the opposite. He was an opportunist. He was one who did well for his adopted Jewish people. He was one who sold them out to Rome for his own gain. He was one who did the best he could to support Judah at a time of Roman hegemony. The conclusion reaches for similar points, documenting his various accomplishments.

In between, we get the actual biography, which is, as many histories can be, a bit overwhelming with its accounts of battles. Such rarely keeps me wanting to read, even in books that are outright about wars. After so many, they begin to seem similar, like so much maneuvering to attain specific ends. I tend to prefer to know those ends and in general how they were obtained--not so much the specifics.

The parts that spoke most to me, thus, were those that focused more on Herod's building program, which was impressive. Also of interest--though this too got bogged down in details--was his growing paranoia and the destruction of his family largely by himself. Finally, a mere chapter--but an interesting one--is devoted to his descendents, the tetrarchs that followed him and the final kings.