Tuesday, August 25, 2020

On "Once upon a Time I Lived on Mars" by Kate Greene ****

By chance, the day after I finished this book, I happened to watch an episode of The Simpsons in which the Simpsons compete to be chosen to be among the first settlers of Mars, and one of the activities they participate is something like what Kate Greene explores in this book. For about four months, she and five other participants lived in a dome near a Hawaiian volcano in a manner that was meant to imitate what life would be like if one lived on Mars. They could not leave the dome, except after putting on bulky astronaut suits. Food was largely of the variety shipped along with astronauts--powders and sundries that last long and weigh less--except for whatever food they were able to grow in the dome. Communication with the outside world was put on a twenty-minute lag, like the one that would exist between Earth and Mars. One of the main points of the study was to test out what being able to grow fresh food would mean for the astronaut, as food "fatigue" is one of the main issues in long-term space travel. That is, many astronauts lose weight over the course of a mission just because they grown tired of the powders and such available to them. But the mission also became, as Greene shows, an opportunity to explore a number of other themes and ideas having to do with being human, as if, by living far away from all of humanity (even if just an experiment), one could learn a few things about what being human means (similar ideas could probably also be explored by someone held in solitary confinement for extended periods of time--a work that would likely be both excruciating to read and probably enlightening).

Among the themes Greene settles on are boredom, solitude, and communication. These, for me, were the most interesting of the broader themes she discussed. Boredom, for example, can be the impetus for incredible creativity--something I would agree with. The correspondence chapter is particularly fascinating, since it revolves around the way in which communication happens when there is a twenty-minute lag between you and all others. We have gotten used to telephone calls--and not just calls but cell phone calls, where people are always available. Even the written word, in the form of text messages and sometimes e-mail, is often immediate. Add a twenty-minute lag, and all communication is broken up, more similar to the way that our ancestors communicated (when not thousands of miles away). You write letters. Information is not immediately available. This is something that seems strange to me now, but what seems even odder is the way in which we have come to depend on such communications. Granted, I never lived in a prephone world, but I did grow up at a time that was sans Internet and sans cell phone. Even phone long-distance phone calls were rare, given the expense. We wrote letters. That that sort of world seems odd now, so odd now, is crazy to me. In a way, I could almost envy the bubble Greene lived in for that. Although it's unnerving when communication devices go down, if they do so for a few days, one gets used to it again, to the new, slower pace of life, and one begins to appreciate the life that we lost.

More arresting than the themes Greene explores, however, is the actual "science" writing that she does--the tales of astronauts and of scientific experiments that have been foisted onto unsuspecting people. The latter, the reason laws now require people's informed consent before such experiments can take place, was a particularly harrowing and sad story, one that involved several black men and a fake cure for a disease that went on for decades, long after, it seems, the experiment had run its course. Rather than treating the disease (as promised), the scientists simply watched what the disease did to the men. Such barbarity rivals much of what the Nazis did to their victims. On astronauts, we learn that women actually likely make better ones, because they eat less and weigh less, but our societal tendency to favor men's daring-do and strength has put many more men in space than women.

Perhaps the most intriguing anecdote of the book comes right at its start, the tale of an astronaut on a spacewalk, one of the very first. Alas, the astronaut's space suit was too stiff to do much and there wasn't anyone to pull him back in. The astronaut's own sweat steamed up the facemask so that he couldn't see--he solved this problem by painstakingly rubbing his nose against the glass to clear a line of sight. Two hours later, he stumbled back inside; if he hadn't been able to get back, he'd have had to have been left. The story seems horrifying. But such are the experiments that astronauts participate in out in space, where sometimes engineers haven't thought everything through. In those early years of space travel, this was especially true, because, hey, no one had ever been in space and, thus, we often didn't know that X would work better than Y. I imagine that a trip to Mars, as much as we think about it, also would eventually involve a number of issues we haven't anticipated.

Centuries ago, explorers spanned the world. People settled in lands they didn't understand or thoroughly know. Many died. People still went. I suppose Mars isn't unlike that, but the idea of journeying (and settling) there seems so daunting to me that I wonder why anyone would ever agree to such a thing. Greene posits something of an answer--as unique likely as anyone else's.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

On "Restoring the Original Bible" by Ernest L. Martin *****

Although frequently repetitive, this work is an excellent resource for those who wish to know, from an ultraconservative perspective, how the Bible was canonized. Most scholars take the position that the canonization of the scriptures happened sometime between the second and fourth centuries CE, with the final writings of the Old Testament taking place as late as the second century BCE and of the New Testament in the second century (or late first century) CE. Martin takes the position that was the norm before biblical criticism of the nineteenth century called this into question and became the standard view among academics. (Having previously read Paul R. Finch's Beyond Acts, I see now where Finch drew most of his claims, adding to them the legends regarding the spread of Christianity in the Britain in the first century.)

Martin's real point is to encourage Bible translators to "restore the original Bible"--that is, to put the Bible in its original order, as it exists in various older versions of the manuscripts. Here, Martin does an excellent job of showing how and why the Jews placed the Old Testament in the order that they originally did, with the Torah (our traditional first five books) coming first, then the Prophets (which include also Joshua, Judges, and Kings), and then the Writings (which include Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Chronicles). Some of the latter seem oddly positioned in this "original" version, when we think of Daniel, for example, being a prophet or the Chronicles being largely history, but Martin shows how and why the canonizers settled on this order using various methods, some having to do with how each section of the Old Testament reflects temple worship and priestly responsibilities, some having to do with numerology (in the original Jewish canon, several works are combined, making for just twenty-two books, which combined with the New Testament makes forty-nine books, or seven times seven). The versions coming down to us today largely use the Septuagint, whose order was different. Although Martin's comments with regard to the priestly tie-ins, the five books written specifically for women, the books written for kings, and so on are really interesting, one can certainly see some reasons for the Septuagint order as well.

The New Testament order is also altered from the original manuscripts, according to Martin. This happened through the work of Jerome, insofar as he reordered the New Testament when he created his Latin Vulgate. Indeed, the original order actually makes a good deal more sense other than that Jerome's version does put several works that seem quite last toward the back, giving the New Testament more of a chronological feel in some ways, though those were not the likely reasons for Jerome's reordering. The original order places the seven general epistles directly after Acts. The reason for this is that they are generally more basic in instruction, and importantly, they are written by and to Jews. Throughout canonization, as Martin brings out, one's connection to the Jewish priestly line was often the reason items were placed in the order that they were; also, this would put the New Testament in the order that the Gospel was preached--to the Jew first, that is. Then come Paul's epistles. Here, too, Jerome made a change, placing Hebrews at the very end, rather than just before the pastoral epistles. In each case, Jerome was likely pushing an agenda of Roman authority, ensuring that it came directly after Acts rather than works that were written to a Jewish church.

What's very interesting in a lot of this discussion, however, is the degree to which some things that we think we don't know were actually fairly uncontroversial at earlier dates. We don't know, for example, who wrote Hebrews, and yet Martin shows how Paul was known as the author to most writers for several centuries after Paul's death. The quotes Martin offers for this and other points with regard to the Bible's canonization and order seem like extremely convincing testimonials (Augustine, for example, telling us that it was the apostles themselves that set out the canon of the New Testament).

In other words, I wasn't as moved by Martin's discussions about the order of the books as I was by his discussions of how the books operate in that order and by how those books came to be canonized, if we take a conservative view. As Finch goes into a lot of the same story with the New Testament, I won't revisit that here; however, one detail that has always mystified me that Martin has a good hypothesis on has to do with how Easter came to be chosen as a day to worship on rather than Passover. Certainly, there are reasons related to wanting to avoid Jewish associations at a time when the Jews had revolted against Rome and were thus looked down upon and persecuted in response, and to the fact that Easter had certain connections to pagan traditions, but those points haven't seemed quite enough for me in terms of how some would celebrate a Eucharist on Easter versus Passover. Martin (in chapter 26) takes the position that after Hadrian's banning of the Jews from Judea but before Jewish authorities convened a council about seven years later, the Jewish calendar was in disarray, owing to the fact that there was no temple authority to dilineate when the year was to start, or if there would be a leap month (as happens on the Jewish calendar seven out of every nineteen years). As such the Jewish holy days began slip from their normal seasons (such that Passover even fell in January), and in the absense of an agreed-on calendar (for Christians and Jews), believers were left to fend for themselves in terms of figuring out whether to let further slipping occur and whether the sacred year's start should be adjusted. It was at this juncture, Martin claims, that some Christians took on the Easter practice, given that there was no agreed-on calendar to follow. Roman Christians stuck with the Easter tradition, even after the Jewish calendar dilemma was resolved (with a calculated calendar that now allowed Passover to occasionally precede the vernal equinox, whereas Easter always follows it--this was the occassion, a year in which this happened, for Polycarp's visit to Anicetus in Rome to try to resolve this differing views).

Saturday, August 15, 2020

On "After the Apostles" by Walter H. Wagner ****

This history of the second-century Christian church seems more like a set of introductory highlights than a straightforward account of what happened. In one sense, that is all such a history can be, as our knowledge of the second century is rather haphazard--a few sources here and there and a lot that doesn't seem all that clear. Wagner does a good job of pulling together some disparate themes and making the whole seem somewhat cohesive. Though the book claims to be written for the general reader, parts of it seemed a bit on the technical side to me, with the author still have a penchant for using Anglosized Greek words rather than just synonyms (though I realize that such usage was an attempt to show how no English word quite fits the meaning of the Greek, such usage is still offputting and makes the book seem more technical than what it purports to be).

The book is split into three major sections. The first part attempts to give historical background, showing how second-century Christianity was in part a response to the disappointments of the first, as Jesus's return proved not to come as early as many had expected, how Jews interacted with Christians, and what philosophical ideas were up for debate within the larger society. The clearest and most useful chapter in this section, for me, was Wagner's rendering of Roman history during the century, which proved to be not only a good summary but also compelling.

The second major section of the book looks at five themes that Christians debated during the course of the century: creation and creator (who was the creator? what was the nature of the creation?--notable here would be various gnostic sects that argued that the creator of earth was not the the primary god and was in fact a fallen deity); the destiny of human beings; who Jeus was (man who became God? a created being? God who became man? God who posed as a man?); the church's government structure; and the role Christians were to play in society.

The third section then takes these themes and looks specifically at how five particular Christian thinkers answered questions related to those themes--namely Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. Of note here to me were the presentations of Clement and Tertullian. The latter came across as a firm and dictatorial-seeming thinking, very keen on all Christians falling in line with church authority (namely, the leadership in Rome); the irony, of course, is that Tertullian, later in life, fell out of sorts with Rome and himself became one of those who criticized those who were in charge of the church and refused to follow the authorities. Clement was notable for his seeming simultaneous condemnation of philosophy and his use of it--namely because in his view philosophy was really derived from the Jews and so, in fact, actually led, in a roundabout way, right back to scripture and the God of the Bible; thus, he could find in Plato or other Greek philosophers biblical principles. My hopes for this third section--a summary and comparison of the thinking of these five early writers--were, in fact, the main reason I was finally persuaded to read the book, and I was not disappointed.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

On "The Gnostic Gospels" by Elaine Pagels *****


This is an extremely lucid account of Christian gnosticism that also happens to make some rather bold claims about why gnostics lost out in their bid to control the Christian agenda during the early history of the church. I can easily see how this book won the National Book Award way back in 1980 and why it has been a constant on the bookshelves in the religious section of booksellers ever since. In my younger years, however, I had no interest in tackling this short volume, and I don't know that I would have appreciated it than as I do now. 

Pagels begins by discussing the Nag Hammadi library and her work with the manuscripts. This is the least intriguing portion of the book, and I could see simply skipping it to get to chapter 1, page 1. Here is where the meat of her arguments begin and where the book really picks up speed.

Pagels essentially argues that Christian orthodoxy had various reasons to sideline gnostic teachings, all of them having to do with the answer to the question of who was to be in charge. Gnosticism, in Pagels view, was much more prone to rejecting Christian authority as it had come down through the apostles. We can see this in several different ways.

The first centers on who walked with and saw Jesus while he was present on earth. Gnostics claimed to have visionary-type knowledge of Jesus, such that they could claim authority equal to or greater than those who had been witness to Jesus's physical ministry. By contrast, the Orthodox claimed that only those who had actually walked with Jesus and those in turn approved by that original fold held such authority over teaching and the church.

Another had to do with the authority within church groups themselves. Many gnostics held that all people were equal in terms of their ability to conduct church services and to teach at them. They were more inclined to be "moved by the spirit," in modern parlence, in deciding how to conduct a meeting. The Orthodox church became increasingly hierarchical, separating out the lay people from the ministry. Pagels ties this in even to their views of God, with the Orthodox claiming God as the one creator God and the gnostics claiming a pleroma of deities and the creator often being a lesser god.

Another difference is that some gnostic groups were more inclined to view women as equal to men in terms of the spiritual insight and authority; the Orthodox church, by contrast, did not ordain women into roles as elders and bishops. Gnostic groups often included a female deity among their pleroma or saw the Holy Spirit as the female part of God.

Another general difference was the willingness to die for the cause. Among the Orthodox, martyrdom became an honor. Gnostic groups, by contrast, often saw no need to give up one's life for one's beliefs. In part, this was a reflection of their differing views with regard to Jesus's death. The Orthodox claimed the Jesus, God's son, really did die; the gnostics often claimed that only the physical part of Jesus died but that in fact the spirit part lived on and that the physical part wasn't even real.

Finally, the two groups differed with regard to how they defined the church. The Orthodox saw the church more as a physical entity that held loyalty to the power structure set up within the church. Gnostics, by contrast, often saw the church as being those who had become spiritually enlightened. A bishop might, in fact, be less enlightened than a gnostic member. In other words, one's personal spirituality played a larger role among the gnostics, because for them often God was inside you and getting in touch with God meant becoming in touch with one's inner core. For Orthodoxy, by contrast, God was something outside one's self that one reached toward.

Pagels does a lot of simplifying and generalizing to make her points clearer, but that's part of what is so charming about the book and what makes it so compelling to read and easy to understand. She also presents Orthodoxy and Gnosticism as two warring sets of believers, with the former winning out. Only brief mention is made of how the latter actually ended up influencing, indeed transforming, the former, which is another story but an important one that is mostly lost here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

On "White Fragility" by Robin Diangelo ****

I read this best-selling book as part of a book club assignment. As books and conversations about race and racism are finding a large audience at this time, I hope that such things are able to effect real change. I suspect, however, that racism, and our attitudes about it, will continue to evolve into yet other different forms rather than disappear. The current manner in which racism continues to manifest itself in a systemic way is difficult to assess critically. Color blindness is on some level an ideal (often touted by conservatives) and on another a way to continue the exploitation of people of color (as often claimed by liberals). (As Diangelo and others would say of color blindness: coded "nonracial" language often suits a racially charged purpose; and when someone starts off with advantages, such "blindness" actually perpetuates the current system rather than interrogating it.) On the other side, appreciation of differences between cultures and ethnicities is an ideal (assuming such differences exist), until such "appreciation" becomes a means to set certain peoples aside as something "other" for supremacist purposes. I'm reminded of something a friend once said to me when I was a young man that has stuck with me forever after, namely, that we humans always find people to discriminate against for our own ends. If a society consisted only of white males, that society would find a way to distinguish among them so as to more greatly advantage some over others (height, weight, hair or eye color, etc.), merit aside (though what consistutes merit can also be loaded for particular ends); as such, racism, like all forms of discrimination or manifestations of inequality, is not easily resolved.

Diangelo's book looks at the ways that racism persists in society today, at how it advantages white people, and at how white people try to avoid discussing it. Diangelo's book has a very specific definition of racism that doesn't necessarily fit with the ways in which other people might use the term. Prejudice is a bias against others; discrimination applies that bias against others. Anyone can be prejudiced or discriminatory. Racism, by contrast, has to do, in Diangelo's usage, with systemic discrimination; as such, only those who are privileged are able to demonstrate and live in racist ways--namely, whites.

The system into which humans are born places whites at an advantage in the manner in which whites are treated by others (and by the system itself) and in the assumptions that are made about people. Certainly, class and other different social strata have their effects, but when we talk purely about the color of skin, whites have advantages. Furthermore, whites often refuse to talk about those advantages or to acknowledge them. Coded language is one way whites avoid such conversations. Another way is that whites claim that they are being attacked if someone shows them that they have said something that is discriminatory. These self-defense mechanisms keep racist tropes and practices--and by extension the racist system--in place. Learning to listen to others is a key to overcoming such ingrained behaviors, as is humility and constant self-examination.

Diangelo's book didn't really bring anything to my attention I wasn't already aware of, but it did do a great job of making me as white person feel uncomfortable, which in a way is a good thing, since that's kind of the point--to make whites think about everyday things in ways whites perhaps don't like to acknowledge.