Tuesday, March 14, 2023

On "Torah for Gentiles?" by Daniel Nessim ***

Nessim sets out to discuss how the Didache depends on the Torah for much of its teaching, essentially laying out a Torah for Gentiles as opposed to Jews. It's a decent if heavily focused introduction to the Didache, with a focus especially on the Didache's first half (the so-called "two ways" section, which would have been a common idea in the Jewish world that also would have played well for Gentiles).

The work derives from Nessim's dissertation, and it feels like one. As such, it really is a technical work aimed largely at scholars. There's a chapter that features a thorough literature review, and untranslated quotes of German and French scholars, as well as writing in the original Hebrew and Greek, abound. Such makes it difficult if less rewarding reading to the general reader.

Nessim takes the stands that the Didache emerged from a Jewish world in Syria around 80 CE, was written to and for Gentiles, and likely was written in at least two phases (with the first part written earlier than later). The work also probably contains elements of oral tradition and may have been intended for memorization by a community that was not very literate.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

On “Last Stand at Saber River” by Elmore Leonard *****

This short novel is the best western I've read so far among those in this most recent genre list (though not nearly as good at classic Van Tillberg's classic The Oxbow Incident). There's reason, I suppose, Leonard was the writer dujure for many movies in the 1990s. This work includes full characters, an engaging plot (with cliff hangers at the end of each chapter), and historical tie-ins. I was thoroughly entertained and wanting to read more than I am by a lot of fiction these days. The only thing disappointing was the end, which was sudden—I could have actually wished for a coda or an epilogue, though in a way that would have dissuited a work that was generally full of suprises. Still, without the coda, a certain amount of emotional payoff seemed absent.

The work concerns Paul Cable, a Confederate veteran returning to his home in the Arizona territory. In his absence, some Union-leaning ranchers have taken his property. Family (wife and three young kids) in tow, Cable needs his farm back, but the ranchers aren't about to surrender it. Meanwhile, the local general store has change hands. The new owner is himself a Confederate veteran but something seems off about him. Indeed, as Cable soon discovers, he's about as untrustworthy as most of the Yanks. For both, the Civil War looms large, even out here on the territory, where the war is far away.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

On "Beyond the Great Snow Mountains" by Louis L'Amour ***

Only one story in this collection is a Western; most fall under the adventure or crime/detective genres, but this was the only book available by L'Amour in the library, and I wasn't going to skip him in a reading list on Westerns.

A friend of mine growing up was a huge fan of L'Amour, had probably read all of this stuff. The friend could read at an incredibly fast clip, but if he had only read L'Amour, I would likely not be impressed, now that I've read this writer. The reading is not challenging. My friend, though, who had mastered speed reading to such an extent that he could look not just at sentences at a time but whole pages, would read Leon Uris or Charles Dickens novels in a night, so I know that he wasn't sticking just to short, simple books when he bragged of finishing so much so quickly.

That said, his admiration of L'Amour does make me think that perhaps he was more inclined to like heavily plotted material rather than strong characters. Indeed, from the collection, I would get the feeling that that is really all L'Amour was about. Sometimes, character motivations and actions seem secondary and nearly defy logic. Then again, I was reading a book published after L'Amour's death, made up of stories he did not publish in a collection in his lifetime, which suggests that even he may not have thought this his strongest work.

The collection consists of four stories. The sole Western, "Roundup in Texas," involves the familiar tale of a cattle rustlers and a man who sets out to save the cattle for a gal, ending, of course, in a shootout.

Among the adventure stories is "By the Waters of San Toledo," about a woman whose father dies and who is stranded in a faraway place with a man who she doesn't like but who thinks she should not belong to him. There is gunfighting, and a daring escape attempt. "Crash Landing" is about a man attempting to save passengers from a plane wreck that is precariously propped on a mountainside. "Coast Patrol" involves World War II pilots and ship captains and takes the prize for the most ridiculous character transformations--a woman whose father dies (a common trope, it seems, in these stories) is now due to be married to one of the seamen, having known him for a year and come to depend on him; Turk Madden, however, a U.S. flying ace who is flying for Russia, after discovering much of the ship's crew dead, tells her that the seaman is the one responsible and, in fact, that he is a traitor to the United States government who is on Japan's side. The woman immediately, despite receiving nothing but Madden's word, turns sides, taking up for Madden, and disavowing the seaman, her fiancee, despite his protests. After Madden kills the traitor, she and Madden get together. Not sure why she would betray her one true love on the word of a stranger. The title story also fits the adventure model, this one about a woman stranded in a faraway Asian country, who marries a local and who finally has a chance to return to the United States, but whose true desires are very much tested.

"Meeting at Falmouth" involves a twist ending that is hardly worth the fifteen or so pages it takes to get to it.

Two stories involve boxing and tough guys' attempts to make boxers throw fights for gambling money--"Sideshow Circus" and "The Money Punch."

Contemporary crime stories include "Under the Hanging Wall," about the murder of a mining employee, and "The Gravel Pit," about a man whose attempt to take off with a company's payroll goes awry such that he has to kill another man.

A man who writes adventure has to know how to describe a fight, I suppose, and L'Amour was certainly good at that. Much of many of the stories runs through the various punches each character throws, and somehow, one is able to keep track of what is happening. It's good action--but often not much more.


Sunday, February 19, 2023

On "Shane" by Jack Schaefer ****

This classic western is essentially the tale of a mysterious superhero who rides into "town," does away with the bad guys, and leaves. It is told from the point of view of a kid who witnesses the action, and it's interesting to see how Schaefer manages to get the kid to places where he can witness the important events.

My wife, in her own reading of The Virginian, is the one who first brought up the superhero comparison to westerns, and it made me think a bit about how most of the books I've read so far fall into just that sort of set of cliches. Indeed, there are numerous sites on the internet that claim superhero movies are the new western--and then a whole bunch rebutting that claim (westerns are more varied is the standard reply). But so far, I'd say there's a fairly common throughline with regard to standard western elements. Most involve a super gunslinger, generally mysterious, who saves a woman from some baddies. There are variations, of course. Some involve more than one gunslinger, as in Zane Gray's Riders of the Purple Sage. Some, as in the case of Shane, avoid the woman--the romantic love interest. Here, the gunslinger saves a family.

The work itself is set out on rangeland that is transitioning toward farmland. The resident rancher wants to keep the land free for his cattle to roam, and so he's doing his best to push out the homesteaders who have taken up residence on the vast open federal land with the intention of claiming their 160 acres. Threats of violence and then actual violence follow. The focus of the rancher's attack is the Starret family, because that's where the manliest man of the small and not yet official community resides. When I say, "not yet official," I mean that this is the wild west, land where there is no sherriff to enforce the law. It's neighbor against neighbor. And in that sort of situation, one needs men like Shane to protect the "decent" folk.

The writing here is assured, and the narrative point of view provides a kind of innocence and wonder that works well in what is a kind of tall tale. That gives the work a feeling of genuiness that has seemed lacking in most of the other westerns I've read, so that even if it's much the same story, it feels heartfelt.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

On “Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways” by Thomas A. Robinson *****

This is probably the best book I’ve read on first- and second-century Christianity in Antioch. The work is in many ways a critique of scholars who have tried to argue that the reason for Ignatius’s martyrdom was an internal division within his congregation and of scholars who have argued that there were multiple Christianities or multiple Judaisms. Robinson is intent on arguing that the fractiousness was likely from outside Ignatius’s church and that Ignatius’s church was the main body, if not the only, of Christianity at the time. He makes good arguments on both counts, but at the same time, I remain unconvinced that Ignatius necessarily presents us with orthodoxy and that there was really only one church.

The book starts out with an exploration of the history of the city and Christian culture within it. This first half, as noted, sets a very good stage for all that follows and is probably about as thorough as Downey’s chapter on the subject of the church in this period in his book on the history of Antioch of Syria in general. That history, which Robinson lays out, is then used to discuss Ignatius in context.

One interesting argument Robinson notes is that we don’t today speak of Mormonisms. Clearly, there are various offshoots, small branches, break-off groups of Mormonism. But the whole is still seen as Mormonism singular, and there is still generally also one major Latter Day Saints group. It’s a good point. Critics probably are too much inclined to think that early Christianity had no main group or that all the various offshoots and branches were every bit as large as the main (thus, the misemphasis that “Christianities” present). That said, I think Robinson may be a bit bold in trying to claim, as he seems to do, that all the docetists and Judaizers were mixed in with the one church and had no means of meeting on their own. Clearly, even today, heretical teachings within one Christian sect that are orthodox in another still make their way across sects at times, and you can have a person with a few odd views meeting among others who have another set of views, even if another sect might be closer to that person’s views on a particular point.

Another interesting claim is that Ignatius’s concern about Judaizing was not so much that Jews were converting to Christianity and bringing their Jewish practices with them, and insisting Gentiles fall in line, but rather that Gentiles were becoming Christians, then as they became familiar with the teachings, were becoming more attracted to full-on Judaism, such that they were leaving Christianity to become Jewish proselytes (in other words, there wasn’t a lot of Jewish proselyte to Christian movement; rather, it was more often Christian proselyte to Jewish movement). It’s an interesting argument, and Robinson presents a good case. Again, however, I think one should be careful about taking a hard line with regard to what was happening. My guess is that there were some who did exactly as Robinson claims, but I’m less inclined to believe that there weren’t also still Jews who were attempting to influence Christian practice. Maybe everything was settled in Acts 15, but it seems to me like even after that, there were plenty of people in the church who seemed unwilling to abide by the decision (at least if we take Galatians as being written after the Acts 15 decision) and that that had not all come to an end by 100 CE.

Monday, February 13, 2023

On “The Didache” by Thomas O'Loughlin ***

This second book on the Didache that I read was aimed at a more general audience and yet seemed much less interesting and useful. The work lays out the discovery of the Didache and then focuses on themes within the Didache and what those would have said about the community that used the document. O’Loughlin often seems more concerned, however, about how we read the Didache in our contemporary day and what that says about contemporary Christianity. He notes how various scholars have accepted or rejected it, or dated it late or earlier, based on their preconceptions about what Christianity is like now. If a given doctrine or practice seems odd, then that is good reason to reject part of the document or to argue that this particular sect was heretical in some way or that the ideas represent something before full development and so on. O’Loughlin closes with a section on the Eucharist and how one’s views on that are often used to separate Christians today, whereas, he claims, the Didache, shows that the Eucharist was really about unifying Christians rather than separating—once one was baptized, one was “in.” Baptism, thus, was the distinguishing feature. Point taken, except that even the Didache notes that the Eucharist was for members only, and is that not also then a way of distinguishing one set of people from another, just like baptism? Today, with so many Christian sects, many with differing views on the Eucharist and baptism, it really isn’t much different. One might be baptized and then be “in”—and able to participate in the Eucharist, but only in the group. Go to another Christian sect and a rebaptism might be necessary, but afterward . . . Although I suppose there are sects where only the ministry participates in the Eucharist, but that’s a whole other issue. Anyway, with a focus so much on critiquing contemporary Christian practices, the book proved to be less than I was looking for historically.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

On “The Way of the Didache” by William Varner **** I

I figured I needed to read more about the Didache and its connection to Antioch and the early church. I chose two books in hard copy. This was the shorter, but it looked more technical, in part because of the extensive notes and the much smaller print. I figured it would take longer to read than the other and would be less interesting. Surprisingly, that turned out not to be the case. This was by far the better book of the two. Perhaps, that's because I was looking for something that would be more historical in focus, and this certainly was that.

 Varner discusses the history of the discovery of the Didache, a handbook used by earlier Christians, and how that discovery led us to understand that we'd had versions of what was referenced in other works all along in yet other early works. Varner than provides his own translation of the Didache with extensive notations regarding how various passages mirror passages in the New Testament, which itself was very useful. He then focuses on the where and when it was written and to whom; whether the work, which uses parallel passages in Matthew, predated Matthew, postdated Matthew, or drew from the same source, presenting various interesting theories; posits an idea that the first part of the work (the so-called Two Ways chapters) was intended as a baptismal preparation guide; questions whether Jewish sources were the origin of that material; discusses the various rites and church organization guidelines discussed in the second half of the book (baptism, eucharist, ordination) and the short apocalypse section at the end of the book, offering cogent points at each about what this community was likely like.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

On "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" by B. Traven ****

"We don't need no stinking badges"--a comment my friend Mike used to often make. I'd forgotten about that line, but when I came across something quite like it in Traven's work, I realized that Mike likely was referring to this book or to the old Humphrey Bogart movie based on it, or, more probably, he was saying, "We don't need no stinking badgers," a line from some comedy (Strange Brew?--turns out it was Weird Al's UHF) or cartoon strip that he found uproarious that I didn't get the full meaning of. I've long intended to watch the movie--still haven't--but with Traven's work (in German) reaching public domain this year, I thought it a good thing to add to my westerns list.

But is this book even a western? It's certainly an adventure story, but one could debate whether it qualifies as a strict western. It's set in Mexico, in the mountains but also in the tropics--and in the 1920s. However, in the broader view of what qualifies as a western it would be: it involves bandits, Indians, and a search for gold. Nary a car appears, though oil plays a big role in the start of the book.

The tale focuses on one Dobbs, who, as the story opens, is homeless in Mexico. He begs, gets more than he expects--enough for a restaurant meal. The next day, he asks the same man for money again. The man tells Dobbs he needs to be more frugal. Indeed, Dobbs takes up residence at a cheap place, just a bed. He gets work at an oil field. The employer pays him only a small portion of what he's owed when the job comes to an end--there's promise of more work, though, and he'll get paid fully then (fat chance!). He and another guy essentially threaten the boss to get paid their full wages. Those paid, they settle in at their cheap hotel. Oil work is drying up; they are unsure what to do.

That's when they meet Howard, an old-timey gold prospector. If they can get together $100, they could head to the mountains to mine for gold. Somehow, the two guys wrangle up the money--debts they'd forgotten they were owed--and the three men head into the mountains.

Howard, through a couple of stories, warns them about the ill effects of gold. One can never have enough. Once you have what once seemed like a lot, you'll want more. And you'll do anything to get it. This is obvious foreshadowing.

Once they hit the gold and grab what they can. Howard again warns them. It's one thing to obtain the gold. It's another to actually sell it and cash out. The story involves a lady whose husband is killed for the gold; she hangs on and continues prospecting, making a bundle. When she's ready to cash out, she meets a dashing man who knows of her riches and a marriage is planned. Shortly before the wedding, however, she disappears.

And so it goes. In a way, the gold itself becomes the main character for a while. The story seems to be Dobbs's, but Traven's limited third-person drifts from man to man and eventually to other characters who don't show up till near the end of the book. Gold comes and goes, Traven seems to note; the real treasure is in the respect one has in the community.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

On “The Roman-Jewish Wars and Hebrew Cultural Nationalism” by Moshe Aberbach and David Aberbach *****

I was looking for something about the Bar-Kokhba revolt. This wasn't quite it. However, it proved to be a very interesting and solid book about the causes and implications of that revolt and the earlier ones. The work includes perhaps the best short summary I've read on the leadup to the 66-70 Jewish War, but it does so with the intent of getting to its bigger point: how those wars changed Jewish culture.

The work is split into two parts, one on the causes of the conflicts (and the culture as it existed before them) and one on the responses to the conflicts. The first part was the stronger section. Aberbach and Aberbach explore both short-term and long-term causes of the conflict. They include bad (particularly local) Roman leadership, high taxation and poverty, a corrupt priesthood, demographic changes in Rome (the Jewish nation was growing at a much faster pace than the declining Roman population), the differing religious cultures, and the differing responses to Hellenism (Rome turned itself much more heavily toward Greek culture, whereas Jewish culture internalized Greek culture into its own; in other words, one was more heavily transformed by it, while the other transformed it into its own).

The destruction of the Jewish nation as a political entity meant the preserving the nation became much more of a cultural endeavour. In ridding the empire of the Jewish temple, ironically, the authors show, Rome helped to ensure that Judaism would survive, because it was forced to transform itself into something not beholden to a particular place, in turn also helping to unify Jewish culture.


Sunday, January 15, 2023

On "Riders of the Purple Sage" by Zane Grey **

Imagine your spouse, who you dearly love, was having an affair for the past three years and that your best friend knew and decided to kill your spouse and the lover to avenge you without your knowledge. Imagine that you learned of the spouse's death and later learned that your best friend had killed the spouse (but that you don't know about the affair). How would you feel about your best friend? Imagine that ten minutes later, you learn that the spouse had been having an affair? Would that instantly absolve feelings and restore your friendship? Such calamities and sudden revelations of truth are the making of Grey

s book. Not those exact sort of revelations but ones like it--ones, dare I say, even more ridiculous. Here, plot takes precedent over feeling, character development, and logic. As such, this classic western seemed much like I usually imagined genre fiction being growing up; having now read a number of classic genre works, however, I've found that most are actually well written in almost every way. Not so here.

The riders are those who guard the cow herds of Jane Witherspoon, who of late lost her father, who was a rich man and from whom she inherited well. She is supposed to marry a man named Tull, as per the convention and command of the Mormon overseers of her local town. Her refusal has created a ruckus. What's more, she's been sort of carrying on with a non-Mormon named Venders, one of the few riders who hasn't quit her because of Mormon hostility and loyalty. As the book opens, Venders has been caught by Tull's men and is about to be beaten. In rides Lassiter to the rescue, a famous Mormon killer (that is, a man who kills Mormons). He's looking for a woman or the person who killed her, in order to seek revenge, but he just happens also to save Venders.

Jane had seemed to be into Venders, but saved, Venders goes off to save one of her herds, and Lassiter and Jane fall in. So much for the other seeming budding relationship. In fact, Venders ends up finding another gal, via a shootout with some rustlers, and spends most of the rest of the novel with her. Jane continues to lose cows to Tull and his group, who are intent on making her pay for not cowtowing to her Mormon overseers, and eventually things come to a head. I won't bespoil the rest of it, since plot "surprises" is pretty much all this book has.

Well, and this. Grey is pretty masterful at describing the landscape. That was the one redeeming factor--all those long passages about the scrub and the cliffs and the sage and the sunsets against them. It's a same such a setting had to be wasted on such an inane story.

Friday, December 30, 2022

On "Gunman's Reckoning" by Max Brand ***

I was long under the impression that Max Brand was a pulp writing active and working today. This is because years ago when I worked in a bookstore, Brand's books still came out about once a month, staying on the shelves about a year before going out of print in favor of some other title. (Our western section was very small, mostly made up of Louis Lamour, which was the only author who actually sold much.) Brand wrote a lot, I suppose, and the mass market company publishing his stuff was still pumping it out on a schedule--putting it back into print and then taking it back out of print. But in terms of when he was writing, well, that part I had dead wrong. His stuff goes back to the 1920s; the publisher was merely recycling old stuff.

I discovered this rather recently, as I started reading this list of westerns, a genre I haven't spent much time with. I'm reading mostly chronologically, so I had intended next to turn to Zane Grey, but I wanted to be devoted to that book, and Brand was available for free public domain download on my phone--I figured I'd read it in between the more serious other reading I was doing, that is, whenever I found myself in a waiting room with nothing but my phone in hand.

The text definitely is what I would have expected from a pulp western. It was rather silly overall, with lots of tough talk, lots of fighting, lots of plot twists, and characters who seem too over-the-top to be real. The book centers on one Donnegan, but it doesn't start off with him. Rather, we're introduced first to some hobo on a train who is out to murder a man who has broken up his gang. That man who is to be killed as it turns out to Donnegan, who remains a rather shadowy figure for much of the novel. He seems more like a sheriff in these early passages, but once he jettisons from the train, holding on to his life, he is seen for what he is: a hobo also, a wanderer of the world--but one with a keen ability to wield a gun, to see through people, and to manipulate people.

Donnegan finds his way to a house, where he meets a woman (Lou) whom he almost instantly falls for, even though they've barely spoken a word. He wants a place to stay, but that requires the approval of the woman's father (the colonel), who won't take visitors. Donnegan insists, and somehow the old man comes to view Donnegan as an asset who can help him reclaim a mine for himself and his daughter's fiancé (Landis) for herself. In fact, the woman is in love with this fiance, who in turn has gone to work in the mining town, fallen in love with yet someone else, and run off with the old man's fortune. Donnegan is on the trail to help. Sure, he wants the daughter, but since the daughter wants this other man, Donnegan, because he truly loves this woman, sets out to get this other man back for her. I can't say the motivation here really convinces me: men will do lots for folks they love, but for someone they've barely met and mostly to enable that person to have someone else? It seems rather crazy to take one's life in hand that way.

 Donnegan's plan essentially involves making himself into a "big" deal in the town, impressing folks with his gunwork and some money he comes into through a shady interaction with another shady character, a gambler whom Donnegan robs and sends away. This plan involves making the mining town woman (Nelly) who has run off with the fiancé (Landis) of the woman who is in love with him (Lou) fall in love with Donnegan himself. The plan largely works, it seems, but as it turns out, the woman, Nelly, who has taken the fiancé is actually just doing so as a ruse, as she's in love with yet another man (Nick), who in turn is absconding with the old man's mining interests through the fiancé but only because the old man himself had absconded with the mining interests of a friend of Nick's. More plot twists follow, and love seems to come and go quick for the men and women at the center of the story. In the end, of course, there's a reckoning, a shootout, and most all is sorted out (except maybe what happens to Landis in the end, but who cares--he's just a plot point).

Sunday, December 25, 2022

On "Christian Antioch" by D. S. Wallace-Hadrill ***

This work details the culture and ideas that developed among Christians in Antioch in the third century through into the seventh and even the ninth. As such, it's a bit out of my usual reading about Christian history, insofar as I mostly focus on the first two centuries. Still, knowing how thought progressed later can be helpful in understanding how it progressed earlier--or at least, that was my hope. The work is very much one of scholarship and not terribly accessible. Although terms are defined and people introduced, the degree to which such specialist terms and people are referenced throughout the work means that you have to read very slowly, take notes, or have recourse to some kind of reference work to get the full scope. That said, the gist of the arguments can still be gleaned from even a quicker read.

Watson-Hadrill shows how Antioch grew in distinctive ways from the process of thought that came to be more acceptable in Alexandria and, by extension in Rome. Antioch, though influenced by ideas coming out of these places, turned much of its attention to the east--to Mesopotamia and Persia, where its ideas found slightly more accepting ground.

After a brief introduction on the background of the church, Watson-Hadrill focuses on six major themes: biblical interpretation, historiography, the nature of God, the use of Greek philosophy, Christology, and desert monks. With regard to interpretation, I'd long read that Antioch took a more literal view of scripture as opposed to the Alexandrian way of reading scripture allegorically. What Watson-Hadrill brought out was somewhat surprising, however. Certainly, qualifiers must be made, insofar as many Antiochenes still used typography and this is really not easily differentiated at times from allegory. But what came to me as a surprise is the fact that some Antiochenes read the scriptures really literally--to extents that some come off sounding like today's secular reading of scriptures. They might go so far as to reject the idea, even though its made explicit in the New Testament, that Noah's ark or the Red Sea were types of baptism. More to the point, they often rejected prophecies taken to be about Jesus or future events, stating that these pertained only to ancient Israel.

With regard to historiography, the writers Watson-Hadrill studies are mostly later ones. As such, he talks a bit about Eusebius's history as being an interpretation of Christianity as reaching its fullness with the adoption of it by Constantine. It is a story, in other words, of triumph. Later historians in the region would try to pick up where Eusebius left off, but by then, such triumph was clearly not the end of the story, given how much infighting there had been in the church. As such, one might pick up the history from where Eusebius leaves off, but no one picks up the same story.

The nature of God, philosophy, and Christology discussions get truly into the weeds, with the Arians versus the Trinitarians and various groups in between (Monophysites, Nestorians). I always find this discussion a bit frustrating if not over my head. It's frustrating because these theologians get so caught up in the philosophy behind theology and lose track of, it seems to me, the real message--the way one should act (in some cases, it's not even clear that they're really that far apart in terms of thinking--but that doesn't stop them from treating each other horribly). The Nestorians, we might say, largely emphasized the human side of Jesus, while the Monophysites emphasized his divinity and the unity of God. Interestingly, Wallace-Hadrill points out how the Antiochenes and the Eastern church focused more on Aristotle's philosophy than Plato's, even though they might not have known it. Rather than the "ideas" being real and everything physical being a copy of those ideas, as in Plato's system; Aristotle focused on the particulars being real and the "ideas" being abstractions. As such, one can read the trinity as three persons who are unified as "God" as a kind of concept, rather than as a concept that finds form in three manifestations (although, in asserting that last part, I'm really presenting the trinity as modalism, which of course is another heresy to most Christian thinkers and so not a precise way to think of the concept).

In a final section, Wallace-Hadrill focuses on the religious devotion of many of the Antiochenes, Syrians, and Eastern Christians. He makes a case that their form of asceticism differed from that of the earlier Gnostics insofar as it was not asceticism based on the evil nature of physical things but on a desire to get closer to God, in the same way that Jesus was close. It's a valuable distinction but also, like so much that the church in the third through seventh centuries argued over, one that is difficult to really see. After all, the Gnostics too, even if rejecting the physical as evil, were aiming to get closer to God and the spiritual; that, after all, was the whole point.


Saturday, December 17, 2022

On “Paul, Antioch, and Jerusalem” by Nicholas Taylor ***

This book aims to correct a common view that Paul squared off against Peter and James and the Jerusalem church, that he had one brand of Christianity, they another, and the two were essentially enemies after Paul attempted to correct Peter in Antioch. That said, even as Taylor aims to correct this view, he seems in many ways to defend it. Mostly, what he tries to do is point out that the situation was actually much more complex than that summary affords. In the end, we get a viewpoint that is more inclined to see Paul as squaring off against certain of the Jerusalem church but coming to respectful terms with Peter and James themselves sometime after that Antioch meeting. Much is made of the two gospels, one by Paul to Gentiles and one by Peter to Jews.

The author essentially aims to show that Paul's relationship with the Jerusalem church varied over time. He did not contact Jerusalem early on and did not have a relationship with the church early on. Only when called to deal with how fellowship with Gentiles should be configured did Paul really start to deal with Jerusalem. This led eventually to the confrontation with Peter. After that, he tried to establish his own apostleship independent of Jerusalem (and Antioch, which had accepted Jerusalem's authority over his own) and created a number of independent church. In time, however, he came to some reconciliation with Jerusalem, or at least with the lead apostles, enough that he, as per agreed upon earlier, went forward with plans to collect donations for the Jerusalem church as a way of folding his own churches in with the lead church. This agreement was actually via/through Antioch, so Paul was actually doing something beyond or outside that agreement. When the timing proved to olate for Antioch's own donations, he had to go forward to Jerusalem on his own, which then led to troubles with the Jerusalem authorities and his eventual deportation to Rome and death. Or at least, that's much of what I got out of it. Taylor, as noted, seems to thread the needle a lot, showing how Jerusalem was never not in charge except that Paul was somewhat independent of it. It's a complex argument—much more difficult than simply saying Paul was on his own or Paul was not on his own.

The book itself is based on Taylor's dissertation. It doesn't appear that more than small changes have occurred between the two. The book is long on literary review and very definitely aimed at scholarly audiences, as his argument is one that would likely appeal only to those deep in the mud over what Paul's break or nonbreak with Antioch and Peter really consisted of.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

On "The Virginian" by Owen Wister ****

This book was a staple on the shelf at a bookstore where I used to work, a Penguin classic. I don't know that we ever sold a copy. It looked rather dull to me, like one of those books you should read but won't until it's assigned in some class. It never was. I never read it.

Here I am some thirty years later, and I read it, because Wister's book is known in some circles as the first true Western--a book with all the conventions of a cowboy novel--and actually written in the early 1900s rather than in the 1800s as I had once supposed. And it is a surprisingly good read--difficult to follow in parts but generally not too difficult, and in some ways narratively unconventional.

It is one of the few books I've read that is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator that is actually about a third person. Think Great Gatsby--which is really about Gatsby and Daisy and Tom and not so much about the guy telling the story--or to a lesser extent, On the Road, which in some ways is really about Dean Moriarty more than Sal Paradise, though Sal's ideas play a much larger role than in Gatsby. Here in "The Virginian," our narrator tells us all about a certain class of men that the Virginian perfectly fits and that is disappearing along with the American West. We don't learn too much about the narrator (he's from out east and doesn't really know much about Western ways, at least at the start), and many times in the narrative, the narrator completely disappears, as if he's simply recounting stories he's heard from the Virginian or his friends about the Virginian.

The Virginian is a southerner who for a long while has been a cow-puncher. One-half of the book revolves around his relationship with a man name Trampas, who early in the novel feels insulted by the Virginian at a game of cards. Thereafter, Trampas is forever looking to one-up the Virginian, and the Virginian constantly manages to put him down. Trampas is a brute, a man who only stops stealing cows from the ranch at which the Virginian works because after beinghired by the ranch. One day Trampas says insulting things about a lady from Vermont who has moved to the nearby town to be a school teacher; the Virginian defends her, even though he doesn't know her. He also, at some point, saves her from drowning. These incidents drive the Virginian to take an interest in the woman, even as Trampas again feels put out by the man. An ultimate insult occurs when the Virginian is put in charge of carrying cows east to Chicago with a crew; on the way back, Trampas attempts to abscond with the crew by telling them of the fortunes to be made in a mine. The train on which they travel breaks down; they're stuck. The mine is real temptation. The Virginian manages to keep his crew aboard by going frog hunting and then selling the cooked frog legs for high dollars to the various passengers and by telling a good number of tall tales about the great money to be made from frog legs. On his return to the ranch the Virginian is promoted to foreman.

Eventually Trampas quits, and cows begin disappearing again. Meanwhile, the schoolmarm is drawn to the Virginian but also repulsed. She has no desire in general to marry, but also she is disgusted by the way that our cowboy serves as the law in a place where there is no law--that is, the Virginian occasionally has to kill a man. Such an instance occurs when the Virginian and a crew are sent out to hunt down and kill a cattle rustler gang. They catch two, one of whom is an old friend of the Virginian's, and execution then proceeds.

Trampas is one who manages to get away, though the Virginian has no real proof. Meanwhile, Trampas buys a horse from a financially desperate man who promises to buy the horse back. Trampas treats the horse miserably and eventually kills it. This is the sort of man Trampas is. He also, in the process, realizes Indians are after him, and he departs; the Virginian is not so lucky. His schoolmarm finds him and nurses him back to health and finally falls for him.

This same Trampas executes the man who he has taken in as an accolade in order to escape from the lynch posse. And on the day of the Virginian's wedding tells the Virginian that he has till sundown to get out of town or face his death. And so we have the inevitable duel.

The book ends somewhat surprisingly on a quiet note, focusing mostly on the teacher and her Vermont family. One can think of it, I suppose, as an extended coda. In a sense, that's its proper function. After all, as the narrator states in the first chapter, he's documenting a kind of man who is disappearing from the landscape, as the West is being tamed.

Monday, November 28, 2022

On "Deep Time" by David Darling ***

Darling sets out to write the history of the universe from start to finish, in which man among that history is but a blip. Even so, man does ends up with a much larger role that perhaps time itself warrants, because, after all, we are the ones reading and writing and theorizing this history.

We start with the big bang, an event for which there seems no logical first cause. The next several chapters then focus on one particle, as it comes into being and as it works its way around this fledgling universe. Darling points out how much happens in those first few seconds but how, in a sense, because of that, time really is different at this point, wherein things are so condensed.

Darling does his best to keep things simple. Unfortunately, writing about such a wide span of time in such a short work means that there's a certain glossiness to the whole, a blurriness, such that at times I found my attention waining. It didn't help that I read the work online as an ebook. I think reading in print, taking a bit more time and being a bit more comfortable, would have made the reading experience better and thus the book better.

Although Darling admits that the universe would seem to need some sort of physical law for the components to work as they do--for positive and negative to exist and attract one another--he mostly keeps to a naturalistic view of everything. When we finally get to Earth and the formation of life, we are given the story of the primordial soup from which life springs. And then, for a heartbeat, we see man emerge.

After man's emergence, Darling spends most of the rest of the book talking about the spaceship Voyager, as it wanders out of the galaxy and into the wide universe. What happens to it as the years pass and as the universe itself continues to expand. Eventually, the stars start to go out. A few black holes swallow up vast swaths of the universe, but still other parts continue to wander aimlessly, cut loose from their suns and centers, until they too fall apart and return to their particulate state.

Another option, the one now less popular, Darling also explores, that the universe is not ever expanding, that it is limited, like a balloon, and so at some point begins to contract. This idea gets shorter attention.

Darling ends with a pull toward Eastern philosophy, but with a Western slant. He hypothesizes how many himself could change the universe, especially insofar as the observer is never really separate from what is observed. We are part of the universe itself. Our mind is the universal mind. It seems a happy note to go out on, even if the picture of dead stars wandering and disintegrating add infinitum is a rather dreary future to look out upon.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

On “Ramona” by Helen Hunt Jackson ***

This is the first in a list of westerns I intend on reading, a genre I've read little of. Jackson's book probably doesn't come to mind when one thinks of western tropes, I suppose, but it's set in the Old West, so I'm calling it one. It's a love story of sorts, but really, it's a screed meant to defend Native Americans and shame white America for its treatment of them. Jackson wrote a nonfiction work on a similar subject, got little traction, and so wrote this novel, which proved a success in terms of popularity but judging from history did little to change the tide of what was actually happening.

The work is about Native Americans and the manner in which they are mistreated by the white Americans moving into California. It centers around the person of Ramona, a half-Indian gal, but the story starts off being about Senora Moreno and her ranch, which her son runs in name but which she technically has control of. (I'm about to summarize the happenings, so avoid reading on if you don't want the work spoiled for you.) The Morenos are Mexicans who lost a huge chunk of land to white settlers as well. Juan Can, the main helper on the ranch is growing old and broken, and one day Felipe goes to help him, gets a heat stroke, and is in grave condition. In steps Alessandro, an Indian, who has been requisitioned to help with the sheep shearing. He suggests the Felipe sleep under the stars, like the Indians. The treatment works wonders.

Meanwhile, Ramona falls for Alessandro, even as she once had an interest in Felipe. Senora Moreno opposes this love affair. Ramona shall not marry an Indian, as that is below her station, but at the same time, she would never be able to marry Filipe, because he is above hers. One wonders who would possibly be appropriate, since she is half-Indian and half-white. Moreno threatens to send Ramona to the nuns and also to cut off her inheritance. (It turns out that her father had left her a large dowry. Senora Moreno agreed to take Ramona in when Moreno's sister, who had keep the the gal, died. There is no love for her, however.)

Ramona runs off. Alessandro is a leader among his people and fairly well off, but the Indians of Temucula, whom he brings her to, it turns out, have been kicked off their land. The U.S. government doesn't recognize their property rights, and white Americans are moving in. Alessandro and Ramona flee to San Pasqual, where the same thing happens again.

Flustered and angry, the couple move to the high mountains, where the trails are difficult to navigate. At last, they should find piece. But the couple's baby grows sick, a white doctor offers no real help, and Alessandro goes crazy. Eventually, the leads him to mistake another man's horse for his own and he is shot as a horse thief.

Meanwhile, Senora Moreno dies. Filipe regrets letting Alessandro and Ramona be sent away, so he goes in search for them, which is complicated by the fact that they covered their tracks (even changing Ramona's name) so as not to be caught. It is shortly after Alessandro's death that he finds Ramona and brings her back to his ranch to take care of. He admits his love for her and marries her. He also concludes that California is no longer a good place for people of his ethnic background, so he sells out to Americans and heads to Mexico to live.

The work is in many ways very melodramatic, reminding me a bit of the plays one sees at Old West amusement parks.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

On “Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Context” by Rudolf Bultmann ****

This classic work on the kind of thought that went into the making of the Christian sect takes a rather mainstream somewhat-secular scholarly approach to the subject, arguing that Christian practice is a mix of Jewish practice, mystery religions, and Greek philosophy. Although a translation from German, the text reads very much like a lyrical sermon in places, which one might think would wear thin but which actually grew on me. Bultmann quotes extensively from the scriptures, and although there is a fairly robust notes section, he seems often to avoid pointing to other scholars for his assertions, which makes for something of a need to take Bultmann at his word. That he is making claims many other scholars make means this may not be as problematic as it might sound; at the same time, too much emphasis on common ideas means that one isn't necessarily given reason to be convinced of some assertions since there isn't recall to actual primary sources (let alone, secondary) for them.

Bultmann starts with Jewish (really Old Testament) ideas about creation and the afterlife, largely asserting that such ideas grew out of Canaanite and Babylonian religion. Only after Jewish society mixed with that of Persia did ideas about resurrection begin to take shape within the Jewish faith itself. This is a common assertion but one that is not without those who have claimed otherwise—one wouldn't know that there are disagreements with regard to where the teaching about the resurrection derived from reading Bultmann, however. Still, one of the most interesting points Bultmann makes is how the Jewish faith became increasingly future oriented, as its own national problems and eventual demise took shape. That future orientation would in turn, to an extent, set up early Christian teachings, even as Christianity would itself eventually take more of a focus on the present, once it became clear Christ's second coming was not in the near future, though the “future” would survive in the Christian orientation toward an afterlife.

Bultmann then explores Greek philosophy—most especially its growth out of concerns regarding the governorship of the city-state. As the city-state fell by the wayside, other views came to the fore, including Stoicism and the various mystery religions. Bultmann does a great job of showing parallels between these two sets of beliefs with Christian belief, including lack of tie to specific cultures, and openness to peoples of all classes. (Bultmann does not, however, seem at all cognizant of the belief among many scholars that many of the so-called mystery religions did not gain widespread appeal until the second century, after primitive Christianity would have forged its basic ideas; if that is the case, then such religions may have affected Christianity in the second century and later but likely had much less influence on the first decades of the faith.)

Bultmann also looks at the influence of Gnosticism on the church, drawing comparisons between the two systems, mostly looking at parallels, such as a belief in a redeemer and renunciation of concerns with the physical world. A final section looks at early Christian ideas and how all these varying influences helped to forge what became Christianity.


Saturday, October 22, 2022

On “Antioch and Rome” by Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meier ****

This work is split into two parts, one by Meier on Antioch and one by Brown on Rome. The two men opted to write the book together, in parts, because they saw certain parallels in the development of Christianity within the two churches and thought it best that by pairing up they could write a book that showed off these parallels.

The basic point of view of the two authors falls in line with the common one that Paul represented some kind of radical break from Jewish adherence to the law among Christians and that Peter stood at the other end, as one aligned with James and who insisted on Gentile adherence to Jewish customs. That said, both see Paul and Peter as moderating their views as their ministries matured, such that they came to more closely resemble one another. Still, as the authors state up front, it was Peter's more moderate view (between James and Paul) that won the day, even if some of Paul's radical ideas were folded into the Christian church. This is not a view I share (I tend to take the “all is good” vibe represented in Acts and other Scriptures as real rather than as a gloss intended to put the best face on what was an intense rivalry and disagreement); nevertheless, there is much to appreciate about the book, insofar as the authors do a great job of summarizing much of the scholarship about the church in these two cities and, even more so, about many of the few early sources we have that might relate to these churches.

Meier posits four basic views among early Christians: a conservative strain that insisted Gentiles keep the full Jewish law, including becoming circumcised; a moderate conservative strain that insisted on some Jewish practices but not circumcision; a moderate liberal strain that insisted on neither Jewish food laws nor circumcision; and a liberal straing that rid the church of not only Jewish food customs and circumcision but also of Jewish festivals. Although the authors seem to posit that Peter was of the moderate conservative strain and Paul somewhere between moderate liberal and liberal and that Peter won out, it seems to me that if one takes such a stand, it was actually the liberals who eventually won out, as contemporary Christianity exhibits little of the Jewish faith outside of the use of its scriptures.

Along the way, Meier makes a good case for why Matthew was written in Antioch around 90 CE, and also explores similar dating, place, and authority for the Didache and the Ignatian letters, including which rescension should be accepted. Brown similarly explores the authorship and tie of certain other books to Rome, including 1 Peter, Hebrews, and 1 Clement. Although there is room for disagreement, the arguments are well reasoned and give one much to think about with regard to the development of these two Christian communities.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

On “The Incredible Human Potential” by Herbert W. Armstrong ****

This is another Armstrong book I hadn't read in decades. I enjoyed its thoroughness. Likely several booklets, that WCG offered, such as Why Were You Born?, essentially were chapters in this text. But put all together, the work has a kind of vibe. In many ways, it sums up the teachings of the Worldwide Church of God in the late 1970s. In that sense, it seemed a bit dated, but it also captures the spirit of many books of the era—that vibe. There's a kind of spiritualist self-help feel to it. This is what you could become, what God intends for you!

The work seems most dated (and disappointing) in its discussion of the church. Armstrong admits that the church is the people, and yet at times, he pretty clearly ties the definition of the church into the legally incorporated organization he served as the legal head of. It seems self-serving and given that that entity has mostly ceased to exist in any recognizable form, it lends a lack of credence and applicability to some of the material.

But in other respects, he lays out the faith as many have understood it, a reading that is distinct among Christian sects: God's purpose for our lives, how human minds work, why there is so much evil, and what happens after death.


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

On "Jews and Christians in Antioch in the First Four Centuries of the Common Era" by Wayne A. Meeks and Robert L Wilkes ***

This very short volume provides an introduction and background information about Christianity in Antioch largely as a means to introduce two sets of fourth-century documents written in Antioch: a group of letters by Libanius and a couple of sermons by John Chrysostom. The unifying reason for presenting the two sets of works is the writings are about the Jewish people of Antioch.

Libanius mentions the Jews offhandedly in a kind of historian context; I found myself more drawn to Chrysostom's work, which heavily focuses on them and their interaction with Christians, whom he sees as too easily drawn to the religious practices of. We are presented only with two (the first and last) of his homilies against Jews, but they, especially the first, are incredible in terms of showcasing the degree to which some older Christian--that is, Jewish--traditions persisted, despite the attempts of men like Chrysostom.