Tuesday, May 18, 2021

On "Early Eastern Christianity" by Francis Burkitt ****

This set of six lectures is at this point the best summation of the history of the Christian Church in the east that I've read. I'm sure there are other, better, more recent works on the subject, but I haven't gotten to them yet. Burkitt, here, takes the implications of the very few sources that we have and draws out a reasonable synopsis of what may well have happened to Christians east of Palestine during the first centuries of the Christian era.

The lack of sources at the time is, of course, the central issue with research in this area. What we have comes from a period much later or is questionable legend. What we do know, however, suggests that Christianity started among the Jewish people (as we are told that it came along through merchants). The first person to bring the message, Addai, apparently died in peace, but those who followed suffered or seem out of chronological time--it's claimed, for example, that the second following Addai, Palut sought ordination from Serapion in Antioch, but that would have been long after Addai, if Addai had connection the apostles. Thus, Burkitt posits that Palut was likely connected to the Catholic church (insofar as it was connected to Rome) while those before perhaps had not been (rather, the church before was more loosely configured).

What's also interesting is how the church in the East was influence by Gnostic ideas from the East itself. So often, I've read about the differing culture in the East, but Burkitt does a good job of showing how differing Christian ideas were not just a later phenomenon. The Church in the East, thus, was a different kind of Christianity, but it was, at least by the time it enters the historical records, not much more connected to its Jewish roots than Roman church of the West.


Thursday, May 6, 2021

On "The First Edition of the New Testament" by David Trobisch *****

In this short but very readable monograph (save for the Greek scattered throughout), Trobisch makes the claim that the New Testament was of early vintage and was the product of a singular editorial hand (even if a group of editors). To make his point, he looks largely into the text itself, comparing how anthologies are put together in our contemporary day to what must have happened back in the first century. Canonization (as opposed to anthologization), by contrast, is a different matter.

As an example of canonization, Trobisch examines the writings of the Christian Fathers, those who came directly after the New Testament. Here, there is significant variance with regard to what is placed into any one collection. One editor might include the letter of Polycarp, while another might drop it or use another rescention. If the New Testament had been canonized over the course of centuries, he claims, as most scholars believe, there would be little agreement as to what belongs in it. Instead, later ancient writers who question the legitimacy and inclusion of certain books in the New Testament are not, Trobisch notes, engaging in arguments over what gets canonized--or rather, included--in the New Testament but rather are engaging in criticism regarding an already established book, even as today's critics do. (This is not to say that there weren't other versions of the "New Testament"; Marcion, for example, created his own, though largely from the larger book, quite possibly already in large distribution.)

Other arguments for the singular editorial hand include the following, some more convincing or easier to understand than others. One is the common set of abbreviations (the Nomina Sacra) used throughout different versions of the manuscripts (though they are not, be any means, used consistently), mainly for the names of God. Another is the common use of the codex rather than the scroll in the early writings. Another is the manner in which the New Testament is arranged, with four distinct parts--Gospels, Acts and General Epistles (called Praxapostolos), Paul's epistles (with Hebrews coming before the pastoral epistles), and Revelation. These allow for easy splitting into separate codexes. They also mirror the pattern of the Old Testament, at least as it is presented in most English Bibles (histories first, then writings and prophecy). The presentation of the General Epistles first, right after Acts, with Paul's following, as is the case in most early manuscripts, also mirrors the presentation of the figures as they appear in Acts (with Paul coming last). Another item pointing to an editor is the uniformity of the naming conventions (Epistle of . . .; Epistle to . . .; Gospel according to . . .). Finally, from very early on, the work was known as the "New Testament" (this is the name all the second-century writers use), suggesting that this was the name the editors affixed to it. A later chapter of Trobisch's book looks at the way the New Testament is cross-referenced such that it sets up a particular unified view of the church and introduces readers to specific characters who can then be identified again later when one comes across their writings or their persona in other portions of the work (e.g., we figure the letters of Peter are from the Peter described in the Gospels, where we first read of him, and mentioned in Acts and Paul's letters, etc.).

Sunday, May 2, 2021

On "Facing the Snow" by Tu Fu, translated by Sam Hamill *****

The other great Chinese poet from the same period in which Li Po was writing is Tu Fu, and this selection of poems provides a rounded view of his work.

Hamill's introduction makes clear that Tu Fu suffered many of the same difficulties that Li Po did, as their lives ran roughly parallel, with Tu Fu, the younger, dying earlier also. However, both failed to obtain government jobs except on the lowest end, and both suffered the consequences of the wars that broke out in China around 750 that lasted for a decade or so. The poems reflect that. Like Li Po's work, we have only a segment of what Tu Fu actually wrote, maybe one-third.

Hamill's intrdocution, however, only touches on Tu Fu's life. Most of it is about translation--the difficulties of moving a poem from one language to another and the reason for his choices. Tu Fu was apparently quite a formalist, with many of his poems built around set stanzas and rhymes. English offers so much less in terms of rhyming opportunities that Hamill chooses instead to focus on the images and content, which seems a wise move.

The selection here connected more to me personally than the poems in the Li Po collection I read. Both poets write their share of nature poems, and poems about drinking, but Tu Fu also deals a lot with relationships and with the effects that world events have had on his life. It likely helped that Hamill doesn't leave some words untranslated, as did Hinton with the Li Po poems. As such, one doesn't feel quite as much the foreigness of Tu Fu's work. But beyond that, Tu Fu just seemed better at expressing the anguish of the world around him and of his own life. My favorite poems were those about war. He didn't delve so much into generic expressions about soldiers fighting as personal ones about how wars affect him and those around him. The communities he lives in feel the pain that having their young men and eventually old men too stripped from them to go fight yet another battle against the invading forces; they also feel the anguish of not having a strong government to defend them. There are poems expressing the difficulties of both positions. It's as if the people are pained either way. The speakers in Tu Fu's work migrate as invaders take over their land. They express the pain of the refugee. And later, when able to return, there is both a kind of joy in coming home again and a sadness. The homes they lived in five years ago are run down, unmaintained; many of the old neighbors have returned, but some never will. What is left but to wander out into the forest or along the river, seeking solace, knowing that you'd like to have a drink but that the folks you'd have shared one with are now gone.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

On "The Selected Poems of Li Po" by Li Po, translated by David Hinton ****

This work selects individual poems by one of the greatest Chinese poets, one who was active some 1400 years ago. Hinton introduction points out a lot of pertinent biographical details--Li Po's identification to Taoism (versus his friend Tu Fu's greater identification with Confucianism); his relationship with Tu Fu (he wrote two poems about Tu Fu, while Tu Fu wrote many more about Li Po, so the relationship seems to have been more meaningful coming from the other direction); Li Po's wandering ways and use of wine to reach states of ecstasy so that he could write better about the present moment; Li Po's political and military life and how in the civil wars of his later adulthood, he was exiled for the stances he'd taken; his disillusionment with war; and finally his return to solitude and wandering in nature. Interestingly, much of Li Po's written work, which was voluminous, has been lost. That which we have comes down to us from later collections of his material, and most critics think that as much as two-thirds of it is spurious. So much for the grand reputation I'd always thought Li Po had. It seems a shame that the fictional poet became so caught up with the real one such that we don't know whether what we have or how much of it is real.

The poems themselves are very enjoyable to read. What's amazing is the way that Li Po focuses on his surroundings such that the poems generally speak to us now even more than one thousand years later. A description of a mountain lends to thoughts about life and about moments in a given life, ones we share even now. Much is made of such thoughts especially toward the end of the collection, which I think I enjoyed even more than the beginning. Hinton had noted that Li Po's poetry had a certain carefree quality in his youth that was lost midlife as war took its toll. Indeed, the poems about war weren't that intriguing to me, but I found myself slightly more taken by the older Li Po than the younger. Experience leant a certain melancholy to the descriptions of nature that made the pieces seem all the more touching. It is amazing to think about how the wind and stream are the same that people generations ago also experienced and yet also how those things are never the same, even for us, from moment to moment, day to day.

Monday, April 26, 2021

On "Church: The Early Years" by Dennis Hawkes ***

This short e-book was put together with information one can glean from the Bible and various Bible commentaries. As such, it isn't really any great piece of research. But what Hawkes does here is still useful and perspective changing. Essentially, he tells the story of the early church, as it appears in the New Testament, through its various cities. By walking the reader through the cities mentioned in the Bible one by one, he helps the reader see connections that might not otherwise be as easily perceived. At least, that's how I felt.

It makes me wonder also about a book that simply records what we know about the various people mentioned in the New Testament. Sure, Paul and Peter and John are noted frequently and often the subject of writing, but putting together a set of various mentions of the more minor characters might also be a great new way to see the Bible and the various connections between its books.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

On "A History of the Jews in Babylonia: The Parthian Period" by Jacob Neusner ***

This relatively short book is one of the few on the subject. One could wish that it were a bit more accessible, but I find that there is little written about the Parthians and even less that is not from a scholarly perspective. Neusner lays out why this is early on his book--namely, that the Parthians left few records that survived behind. Most of what we know about them comes from what the Romans and Greeks wrote about them--that is, the empire to the West, their enemies. The empire itself also had a mix of various who wrote in their own languages such that creating the whole of a Parthian history might involve knowing not one or two but multiple ancient languages, many of them obscure, which is not common among any scholar.

Neusner puts most of his history together from Jewish Talmudic sources, quoting generously from them. The sources are not terribly compelling, which is part of why the reading proves dull in the end. Neusner seems focused on discovering how much the Babylonian Jews depended on the Palestinian ones for their religious practices--that is, how much the two influenced each other and the degree to which they exercised power over one another.

Of note is the fact that the numerous Jews in the Parthian empire were not inclined to rebel against Parthia in the same manner in which those of Rome rebelled. One reason is that they were given a great degree of self-rule. This, in turn, inclined to make them likely not to get involved in Palestinian uprisings. That said, the animosity Parthia had for Rome meant that it had no problem letting Jewish animosity play to the Parthian advantage in times of war with Rome.

The destruction of Jerusalem led to a fair number of Palestinian Jews fleeing to Babylon and then forging academies that were similar to those that had been common in Palestine. That said, the Palestinian academies did not look kindly on Babylonian scholars doing such things as setting the calendar, even when there was an absence of authority in Palestine with regard to doing so. The expectation was that only people near Jerusalem could do such a thing, and the Babylonians, at least during this time, largely conceded to the Palestinians in this regard once a calendar was set.

Given that this is one of the few books on the subject, I found Neusner's book useful and interesting, despite its overtly scholarly nature.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

On "Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero" by W. Warde Fowler ****

Fowler uses Cicero as the means to tell readers about the city of Rome especially, but to a certain extent about the empire in total, in the decades just before Rome turned from Republic to dictatorship. His use of Cicero's work made me want to read Cicero's own writings, particularly his letters, which seem to capture so well the times, at least from the perspective of an aristocrat.

Fowler's book itself doesn't start off very well. He tries to lay the groundwork for his study by describing the physical geography of Rome as a city. He essentially walks its streets in prose, telling us where this and that thing is. That sounds more interesting then it really is. I felt as if I'd have gotten a better sense of the city's layout by looking at a map. Missing from that description is much of a sense of how those streets actually would have felt at the time, which would have been a larger reason for providing such a long description.

However, after that first chapter, the book becomes markedly more interesting, as Fowler becomes more invested in the subject of the actual work--the social life of people living in Rome. There are chapters on the lower class, the business class, and the aristoricracy; chapters on women, slaves, and family life; a chapter on education and a couple chapters about the lives of the well-to-do. Finally, he closes with chapters on religion and festivals.

What he does well in these chapters is show how the life of the Romans was changing--and also why that change was occuring. His book does this better than many others books I've read by giving readers a clear sense of why such changes were occurring and by making comparisons to Britain in the 1900s, when he was himself writing. Of course, his views regarding why such changes were occurring are weighted in his own perspective, but such still makes one feel as if one understands what's happening more than just being told that there were more immigrants or there was an increasing amount of entertainment. Fowler gives readers a sense that Rome was a society in moral decline, and that that decline is part of what enabled a number of social changes as well as a change to the system of government.

War had led Romans to feel less of a connection to the gods. As philosophy (most especially Epicureanism) replaced religion at the core of elite thinking, a certain kind of wayward lifestyle took hold, as well as lesser concern for the state as opposed to the individual (the reason the republic eventually folded), such that population began to decline. To make up for the loss of labor, slaves were imported, then given more and more power; as such, foreign elements made up more and more of the population. The import of foreign slaves, as well as the inadequacies of philosophy, led to the import also of foreign religions--new gods. In addition, Stoic philosophy managed to merge religious concerns with philosophy such that it became more popular as the age of Cicero came to an end. As such, religion also made its recovery, as the age of the emperor took hold.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

On "The Book of Songs" translated by Arthur Waley ***

This book of ancient Chinese poetry proved less interesting than earlier passages I'd read from the work had led me to believe it would be. The poetry included here definitely are song lyrics insofar as the pieces usually quite repetitive, with minor variations made in each stanza. As such, the work can be interesting. But as well as Waley does in terms of trying to provide context for the poetry through occasional introductions and frequent footnotes, much of it didn't really speak to me in our contemporary times (in fact, the footnotes often proved distracting, as they provided alternative translations or generally ruined the feel of the songs when I paid attention to them). There are poems here about serving the king, about sacrificing to the gods, about dynasties, about hunting, about farming, much of the material seeming quite remote.

The real beautiful pieces of the collection come in the first third of the book. Those are the love and marriage songs. The human heart, it seems, doesn't change, and many of the songs about losing one's loved ones seem to carry the same anguish that folks today would also serve up. I look forward to turning my attention to some more contemplative classical Chinese poets, who may well run down similar paths to these songs.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

On “Small Is Beautiful” by E. F. Schumacher *****

I have been waiting years to read this book but have never gotten around ot it. I first became familier with it through my father, when I was a child. He would talk about it quite often. In those younger days, I was enthused and amazed by technology and by anything big. My father, however, typically disagreed.

Years later, during my first quarter in college, I took a class called Engineering and Technology, which ended up being more about the intersection between environmentalism and science than about hard-core engineering. The textbook for that class was a collection of essays that had come out of a conference at which E. F. Schumacher was one of the speakers. His imprint was all over the book (along with others such as Barry Commoner and Jeremy Rifkin)--and I finally discovered what my dad had been talking about and why he believed what he believed and came to see much as he did.

My father died a few weeks ago, and one of the items I saved for myself was this book from his library. It has all his notes and highlighting in it—rather extensive for general nonfiction—so reading the book was also in some ways like reading my father's thoughts on the work, taking me back to what he was thinking when I was around eight or ten.

One thing that struck me about the work, written in the early 1970s as it was, is how economically “socialist” it is at the same time as being “Christian,” a combination that receives much less attention in the post-Reagan United States than perhaps existed before, and one that I see little of in the church I attend now, wherein free market capitalism as being identified with “God's proper way” has become rather expected. I think that sad, given that Christianity should not be politically left or right. (My dad was not one typically to link himself to one political persuasion, though in his later years, even he seemed to espouse much of the Republican right positioning, something he broke from again in the last months of his life.) Things, as far as the link between faith and politics or economics, were definitely different in the 1970s.

Schumacher is not writing a Christian book, however. He is an economist, who also happens to be a Christian and whose creed often becomes part of his reasoning—but he also draws on Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. These sort of ideas impact his thinking. The book, as a whole, is written for a lay audience, which makes it easy to read but which also makes it perhaps a bit less persuasive than it might have been with extensive graphs, charts, figures, tables, and data. As such, one comes away feeling as if one is getting the simplified version of his reasoning, which in turn makes it seem at times like perhaps his arguments lack actual substance behind them. But at about three hundred pages, that is to be expected; a hard economics book would hardly have appealed to the general audience for which Schumacher is writing.

The gist of the book is that technology should be appropriate to the purpose for which it is being created and proposed rather than being blindly pushed upon society. In this sense, Schumacher's work falls in line with lots of other technological critics (a book published where I work, Not So Fast, makes various similar arguments). Technology (and indeed economics), in other words, should serve the needs of real people rather than economic statistics. What good does a high GNP do if most people are unemployed? But if GNP is growing, most economists would classify that economy as doing well or improving. This, Schumacher says, is the wrong measure—especially for developing economies. There, technology to scale is actually going to be of more value in lifting people out of poverty. Farms don't need motorized combines that are going to do the labor of fifty workers if one hundred people need jobs; rather, the technology provided should be one that will give those people some sort of living. That is real improvement, more than the supposed gains to productivity and profit. And for a first-world power attempting to aid third-world communities, such “appropriate” technologies are often cheaper to provide.

Schumacher also spends time writing about the faux value of nuclear power, which he sees as more costly than just about any energy technology. Indeed, he sees the energy sector as a whole as being built around faux economics. The long-term cost of such technology is not taken into account when determining the profit taken. If there is no place to store nuclear waste, then it is not a technology that we want. Similarly, while oil and coal may be useful, they are not replaceable, which means that they should be used carefully and selectively. Schumacher, in other words, is making his argument from the point of view of scarcity rather than of discoverability or continuing technological advance. Conservatives, by contrast, would typically make the argument that while new oil will continue to be discovered. This latter view is the one that has, for now, been proven correct. We seem to always find more sources. The problem, however, is that at some point, we won't. At some point, it will be gone. That may be hundreds of years away, though.

Schumacher also makes the argument that small businesses are better than large ones. He sees businesses of more than 350 people as having lost their human face. Those that keep below this threshold are likely to be better citizens and better run. Larger companies are best divided into smaller divisions to take advantage of smaller size. Along with this argument is one that Schumacher makes with regard to profit—namely that the assumption that company profit is an inherent good. In this view, government (and its accompanying taxes) interfere with private enterprise, but those taxes go toward paying for capital that a company uses (such as roads). Instead, he argues, larger companies should in fact be nationalized so that the profit, gained in part of public capital, is shared with the public. This does not mean that government should run said companies but rather that there should be a kind of board that ensures such companies are fairly run for the general public good. It's an interesting argument, though one wonders how it would work in a multinational context. Schumacher's answer to that question is an unsatisfying single paragraph that equates to essentially “we'll figure it out.”

Still, Schumacher's ideas are enjoyable as being a bit out of the box. The work has had quite a bit of “influence” apparently on the world of economics, and yet I don't really see that its ideas have been widely applied. One wonders what would happen if they were.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

On "The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce *****

At one time, I considered this my favorite book. When I look back at when that was so, I realize that I likely had lots of favorite books, rotating as I got to work after work--Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, various books by John Steinbeck (To a God Unknown, Tortilla Flat, and The Winter of Our Discontent come to mind), McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City, Kerouac’s On the Road. Somehow, though, I put this Joyce novel at the top of the list for quite some time. Today I don’t know what book I’d put atop that list, let alone what novel at the top of the best novel list. (Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End may qualify as the best novel I’ve read in the past couple of decades, but how could I really say that it tops The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises or whatever other great novels are out there.) The issue is generally that no one book fits every occasion, mood, or use. Of great short story collections/books, I’d rank Jesus’ Son as one of my favorites, but I certainly am not always in the mood to read about heroin addicts. Sometimes one wants a good plot, sometimes lyrical language, sometimes deep thoughts, sometimes new techniques or a very particular technique. As a much more widely read reader at age fifty than at age twenty, I find fewer techniques seem truly novel and so am often less easily impressed. The fact that some classic books still stand out to me may be a sign of how great those books are or of how the “first” book I read that did X or Y or Z continues, because of its personal connection to me, to hold sway over more recently read work.

Coming to Portrait twenty-five years since its last reading, I can easily see what I found so impressive about it when I was younger. It features a lot of classy technical virtuosity. The stream-of-consciousness works here without seeming too difficult to understand, and as Stephen Dedalus grows up, so too does the language used. The technique and language are something hard for me not to enjoy, even on the third or fourth pass all the way through the book (and innumerable passes through various passages). The book also gets into a lot of aesthetic discussions about art (and its relation to religion) that I would have found intriguing at the time.

Reading it now at an older age, however, I found myself having a hard time taking young Stephan terribly seriously. He seems so earnest in his thinking. The idea that art could replace religion, outside of giving one something to do with one’s life, seems silly. I found myself thinking that any such work I’d write now would make such points ironically, would poke fun at such notions--or really at nearly any serious notion at all. And I wonder how much I should actually identify Dedalus’s views with Joyce’s--could Joyce really be serious? Such is the cynicism of age and of our age.

I was also surprised by the brevity of the chapter (3) on awfulness of hell that had once seemed very long to me and somewhat less enjoyable. And I was surprised by the manner in which, in some ways, the book is slow and slow to develop. It is high modernism to be sure, and something I liked when younger. I still enjoy these modernist manifestos, but as a novel, Portrait seemed to me to be a bit too intellectually focused to be truly enjoyable to most folks looking for a good read, including these days to an extent even myself.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

On "California" by Kevin Starr ****

This fairly brief history of the state covers the beginnings of the land we have come to call California to the early 2000s. An interesting thing about reading a history of the state in which I grew up is the fact that I recognized far more history than I thought I knew. State history was covered in seventh grade; I have always wished that state history was covered again at a slightly later time when I would be prone to remember it better and when history could be discussed with slightly more nuance, so discovering that I knew the state better than I thought I did was in some ways a pleasant surprise.

Reading about the state's history also made me realize one other thing, given that I'm also reading a list of Chinese literature. It's much easier to get a grasp on new elements of history that one is already familiar with. With China, I largely feel lost in many cases. A basic history of the country, while useful and interesting, remains difficult to remember once the book is read. Here, because so much of the history was drilled into me over the years, I understand the outline of the events and can better figure out where new facts fit in.

Starr's book doesn't dwell much on the prehistory of the land--just a few pages on the geography and landscape and a few more on the Native cultures that preceded the arrival of Western settlers. In other words, Starr focuses his account on what we have written records for, and that worked well for my own interests.

Starr's overall point with the book is that California is in many ways a microcosm for the United States. The same political, cultural, and environmental issues that have so impacted the nation have played similar roles in this one state, which has come under the control of Spanish, Mexican, and American governments. One thing that I found interesting regarding the pre-American California was the degree to which the United States, as well as other powers, such as Britain and Russia, were scheming, from fairly early on, to take the area for themselves. It seemed rather inevitable, in Starr's telling, that once Mexico gained independence it would lose much of its North American territory. Such was the greed of the colonial powers.

Other passages of interest included Starr's exploration of the development of California's culture in the late 1800s. I was unaware of the extent of the bohemian movement in the state and would like to read more about that--what such people's views were and how they lived their lives during that period.

Also of interest to me was Starr's discussion of the rather contemporary development of California's politics. I was alive for much of this, and remember many of the events, but coming to them in a book, as an adult, was intriguing. I don't think I quite realized how nonidealogical many of the state's politicians were from about the 1950s to the early 1970s (even as Republicans dominated elections). Since then the state has moved toward the same sort of liberal/conservative division that has afflicted our nation, with rural areas much more conservative and urban areas, where most of the population is, more liberal.

Friday, March 5, 2021

On "The Christian Passover" by Fred Coulter *****

I pulled this book up online hoping to find out more about the origins of the Christian Eucharist and the history of how the Passover came to be transformed into it. Coulter's work, over five hundred pages, was mostly a disappointment in that regard. He refers readers to various anthropological and anti-Catholic polemics in that regard, which mostly focus not on the transformation but on the parallels between the Eucharist and various pagan rituals but never really explain how the latter became part of Christianity in a narrative sense.

The exploration of that theme is not Coulter's purpose, however. His focus is on how the Passover in the New Testament was celebrated and how the Jewish Passover transformed itself coming out of the Old Testament. In that sense, it is a fascinating read, because few other authors I've read have really explained, chronologically, how the Jewish Passover became a seder meal.

Coulter does a convincing job showing how the original Passover was celebrated on the night of Abib 14 in individual homes, throughout most of Jewish history. His contention is that the Passover was transformed into a Temple-priest-orchestrated sacrifice during the late first kingdom period of Judah, in an attempt to rid Judah of pagan traditions that had crept into the nation.

In this exploration, Coulter also shows how the at-home Passover continued into Jesus's day, even as the priestly Temple Passover had come to dominate the practice of some Jewish sects. At the same time, he shows how some Jews kept the Passover at the start of the fourteenth and some at the end, demonstrating how the biblical scriptures actually mandate the Passover at the beginning of the fourteenth. The move to the fifteenth, he contends, was caused by Hellenization and calendar/time changes, as the Jewish way of reckoning the day moved from sunset to sunset to, for a time, sunrise to sunrise, among other events.

Using this understanding, Coulter is able to document a timeline for Jesus's crucifixion and his own keeping of the Passover, at the start of the fourteenth. He also, surprisingly, shows how in the year that Jesus was killed, the Temple Passover was likely stopped before it could be completed, because of the earthquake that tore portions of the Temple apart.

One could say that the book really falls into three parts: a discussion of the Hebrew terms used with regard to the timing of the Passover; a discussion of the history and transformation of the Passover among the Jews; and a discussion of the meaning of the Passover. Appendixes go into even more detail with regard to mostly the first item.

The one thing I did not find sufficiently discussed in the book is Coulter's interpretation of Paul's term the "Lord's Supper." Coulter contends, but never really explains why he believes it to be so, that Paul was using the Lord's Supper in reference to the Jewish Old Testament Passover. Indeed, the meal Paul describes in the passage in First Corinthians could be just such a meal. However, at least in my research, I find that the term could be a reference to many different things, few of them definitive (other than a likely comparison on the part of Paul between the sacrifices pictured in such a supper). Although I'd agree with Coulter that "Lord's Supper" in reference to the Eucharist is a comparatively modern innovation--and quite likely a misinterpretation of Paul's usage--early uses of the term by later early Christian writers show it being a synonym for various fellowship meals; hence, the Old Testament Passover interpretation of the term isn't necessarily a given, the way that Coulter makes it seem. I needed more explanation for why Coulter believes that was Paul's intent with regard to the terminology.

Still, one would be hard pressed to find a more thorough book on the subject of the New Testament Passover. I much enjoyed it.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

On "The Pearlkillers" by Rachel Ingalls *****

I read this book decades ago, when I was in the twenties, at the suggestion of the manager of a bookstore where I worked. Although the manager's taste in books was good, I always remained somewhat resistant to her suggestions. I think the reason is that she was an older white lady, which gave me the feeling that she would like tasteful English women's novels. It is not--and was not--a fair stereotype. The books she recommended that I actually got around to reading proved to be extraordinary--and nothing like the dainty works I imagined she would have been into. This is one of those.

All these years after that initial read, I've kept this book on my shelf. I knew I liked it--a lot. Strangely, however, I haven't read it in the ensuing decades, and that same old prejudice has stuck with me on this one. Do I really want to read this book again? What did I see in it? However, I was taking a trip and I needed a book to read, and in my systematic way of rereading, I was on the letter I. I chose Ingalls. What had I liked about it?

Wow. This book is killer--and that quite literally. The title suggests a theme that continues through the four long stories (or novellas) that make up the work. It comes from a passage in the third story in the collection, which is about a woman who goes to meet her deceased mother's family, whom she's barely ever met. One of her aunts tells of people who when they wear beautiful pearls literally kill them--somehow sucking the vitality and life, the sheen, out of the jewel. Such is the family itself, as we come to feel and see, as the story, which has a magical realism feel, winds its way to its end, wherein the family appears to have some sort of secret to immortality, one that involves sucking the life from others.

The central idea, then, conveyed in the collection, is one of killing the people you love in order to manage your own survival. In the first story, a twice-married young woman goes on her honeymoon with her third husband, scared that somehow she is cursed with an ability to kill off lovers but also aware that she doesn't really love the man she is with.

The second story is my favorite of the book--a thriller and an absolute brute of a piece. College friends accidentally kill/bully a young man in their dorm and hide their part in the death. Years later, one of them decides to come clean. What to do? That is the heart of the discussion among the other surviving friends.

The fourth story, the longest, is also quite brutal. It tells the tale of a explorer/sailor returned to his family after a decade missing, the lone survivor of the journey. Or so we are made to believe.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

On "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu *****

This Chinese work of pithy sayings, much like other works of ancient Chinese philosophy, is difficult to summarize. That said, I much enjoyed the reading. Each chapter, consisting of only a few sentences, posed much to think about, especially as the work very heavily poses sets of seeming contradictions: the best kings obey the people; the best warriors don't fight; things like that.
The Tao, I would take from the work in general, as being "the way," and the "Te" as being a sort of life force. The general idea throughout seems to be to remain humble, to not make a show of one's self, and in that way one will reach the greatest degree of value in society. As I said, any summary by a person who lacks a real understanding of the ideas behind the work is going to seem rather silly. If I were a wise man, I would write nothing at all about it.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

On "The Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature" edited by Victor H. Mair ****

This concise volume of Chinese literature mostly dating to pre-1800 seems like a nice introduction to someone like me who is largely unfamiliar with Chinese literature outside of a few fundamental philosophical texts. Mair also aims to present lesser known contemporary translations, most of which seemed accessible and interesting.

That said, while I enjoyed the basic introduction, I found the book's layout and structure to be less than ideal. In terms of layout and design, the introductions to each of the individual pieces are set as footnotes rather than as headnotes, making for confusing reading. Sure, it's easy enough to figure out how the layout works after the first couple of entries, but the fact that the "headnotes" were set as footnotes means that on the few occassions where an introduction to a given reading is really long, the footnote runs across several pages; one then has to turn back several pages to begin the reading. The annotative footnotes can be useful and are appropriately set at the bottom of the page, though I found as I got deeper into the anthology that I read fewer and fewer of them, as many of them weren't essential for the understanding of the work and thus interrupted my enjoyment of the text; that said, as "optional" reading for further, they certainly are nice to have.

Another complaint I had with the general set-up was the choice to split the work up by genre. This, obviously, is the volume editor's choice, and it has some advantages, such as giving one a sense of the differing genres within Chinese literature as a whole. However, the editor doesn't really use the set-up to advantage because there are no general introductions to each genre outside of the extended footnotes at the start of a given reading. I would have preferred to have read the works in wholly chronological order, which would have given me more of a sense of the developing literary output over Chinese history, be it poetry, fiction, letters, drama, philosophy, criticism, prefaces, or whatever. The genre divisions were particularly frustrating when a given author wrote within several genres (some of which were related--lyric vs. poetry; poetry criticism vs. poetry; letter to another poet vs. poetry); thus, the book splits up his (and it generally is men who are the writers) various selections across hundreds of pages, with footnotes/headnotes referencing one back to some much earlier selection for a biography and more info. One doesn't get a feel for how a given author's criticism relates to his creative output or his work in another genre as a result. As such, I felt like I didn't really get as good a sense for Chinese literature as I might have.

Individual selections I found particularly interesting included the following.

I really enjoyed the passages from the Tao te ching that were selected, and I will gladly read this work in whole later in my study (in fact, I've already started).

I also really enjoyed much of the poetry that the editor selected. The poetry, in fact, is probably the only genre of traditional Chinese literature that I can say impressed me, as the rest seemed heavily folk oriented, pat, or too culturally centered to speak to a person thoroughly ensconsed in Western culture (one chapter is devoted to jokes, few of which made much sense to me, outside of the accompanying explanations, which of course made them less than funny). Of the poetry, I enjoyed, of course, the classic poets Li Po and Tu Fu. I also really liked the selections from the Book of Songs and hope to read more of that work down the road. What I came away with in regard to the poetry specifically was an understanding of how human feelings really cross time and space; many of the works seemed quite modern in terms of the issues the poets were dealing with, and yet the poems are often thousands of years old.

Li Shang-yin's Miscellany was a particularly interesting selection. Though not a poem in the anthology (it is in the genre Miscellany, because it is a list), the work is a set of lists on various topics that might as well be poetry, given how interesting most of the lists are--what is shameful, what is not to be despised, what is unlucky, and so on, more than forty lists in all.

In the novels section, I really enjoyed the passage from Ts'ao Hsueh-chin's Dream of Red Towers (more commonly known as Dream of the Red Chamber), which I'll likely given a full read of at a later time.

One nice thing about reading an anthology such as this is that I was able to read in a few genres, such as drama, that I'll likely not otherwise explore as I begin selecting invidual longer works to read. That's, of course, one reason I chose to read an anthology early on in my Chinese reading list and why I'll likely read the companion volume of modern Chinese literature sometime soon as well.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

On "An Education in Georgia" by Calvin Trillin ****

Part of a campus read at UGA this month, this work recounts the integration of the university largely from the point of view of the two first African American students to attend--Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes, and Margaret Early. Each represent different tacts and backgrounds taken in the fight for equal rights, and each experienced the events in different ways reflective of those tacts and backgrounds.

Early was a graduate student, so her experience was in some ways different from that of Hunger and Holmes, who tend to get more attention in the book (and, I find, in general). Hunter and Holmes went to the same high school, and both started off college somewhere else because of bogus rejections from UGA--Hunter went to Wayne State, Holmes to Morehouse.

Once accepted at UGA, Hunter lived on campus, while Holmes lived at a family's house. Holmes came from a family who had long been part of the civil rights movement, and his decision to apply and attend seemed a much more conscious (and family motivated) choice with regard to furthering that agenda. Hunter largely stayed on campus, while Holmes went home to Atlanta each weekend. Holmes took his studies very seriously; Hunter did not seem as focused on study. As such, Holmes excelled at the school but had a much less social experience; Hunter became more integrated into the university's social fabric, such as she could (some students and most faculty appear to have treated her well, but those same students at times had to step away from friendships because of threats and pressure from their other white friends).

Attending the university launched both Hunter and Holmes into their eventual professional fields. Holmes notes that while he did not enjoy his UGA years, his attendance allowed him the opportunity to attend Emory Medical School, which would not have been the case had he stayed on at Morehouse. Hunter would go on to become a renowned journalist, which is how I knew of her growing up in California, as she was often on PBS. Hunter's experience, as portrayed in the book, seems to be more about just trying to be a full-fledged person rather than an emblem of civil rights, though the two go hand in hand, since being treated equal as a person was the goal of civil rights movement. At the end of the book, for example, we learn that she married a white guy, something that she didn't want played up in media--this was her life, her love, her relationship, not something to be strutted out for some political end. And yet, it's impossible to separate the two when forces from outside raise the issue.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book to me had to do with the other Black students, the ones who came slightly later. This is a point Holmes makes very strongly at a presentation he gives later: that if others don't come, his and Hunter's and Early's efforts are wasted, as they become mere tokens. And indeed, as Trillin brings out, few tried to follow up, at least in those early years. Those who did included some younger female coeds who were pushed into Hunter's room on campus--indeed, all the Black girls were pushed to live together and thus separately from other students. More interesting was the story of one young man who opted to live in the dorm, who took part in various extracurricular activities, and who began attending a white church in town. He seemed determined to live the typical college life--to some success and, as the book shows, to a degree of failure to. His is a story that I would like to hear about in more detail, but being sixth or so in the set of names of early integrators, he is not the focus of most people's attention.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

On "The Millennial Hope" by Shirley Jackson Case ***

Case follows the history of millennial thinking from the ancients to her contemporary times in the early twentieth century. She does this not just for Judeo-Christian thought, with which millennialism is most associated, but for ancient non-Jewish cultures as well. It is this latter exploration that is perhaps the most interesting portion of her book.

In terming non-Jewish beliefs "millennialism," Case is stretching the term a bit. What's she's really exploring is end--of-the-world ideas and apocalyptalism, though millennialism--the idea that some kind of one-thousand-year reign of peace on earth--certainly had correspondence among some non-Jewish peoples. Egyptians, Babylonians, and Persians all had their counterpart ideas regarding a Messiah-like figure, mediator, or god who would somehow bring about new hope and/or judgment of the forces of darkness. The Greeks had a tendency to view the world as constantly growing more evil. Romans viewed world history as happening in cycles, from decadence to order and back again, with the Augustine age being one in which order was at the ascendant.

Case next covers Jewish ideas, before crossing over to Christian. The ideas of Messiah among the Jews of the first century are well covered elsewhere, so Case's exploration didn't particularly anything new to me. Early Christianity fit well within these ideas of a Messiah to appear and then reappear, one that proved to be shockingly disappointing to many when that return of the Messiah did not come within the first generation of believers' lifetime. With time, messianisim and millennialism faded among Christians to a heavier emphasis on individual salvation and spiritual rewards rather than a physical kingdom--the subject of the first part of Case's next chapter. The rest of that chapter focuses on millennial movements through time, including in the Middle Ages and 1800s. The historical summary here is just that--and thus not wholly satisfying.

But Case has another point in exploring her topic, and that is largely to argue that such world views are actually destructive to human endeavors to bring about a better world. After all, if we believe that the world is to be brought to a devastating end by forces beyond our control, prophetic ones that are fated long ago, then there is little reason for us as a human race to change our ways and to strive for a better society. There is some merit to such an argument, one that fits well with the fears and arguments over climate change today; at the same time, espousing a hope beyond ourselves is perhaps the only hope there is--but it should not preclude our doing the best that we can. Unfortunately, for many, such fatalism is exactly the excuse that is used to posit doing nothing--or even helping to bring on terrible events (as we might think of various religious adherents who actually try to spark conflict in order to, in their view, force God's hand).

On "The Stromata" by Clement of Alexandria **

I decided to follow up reading by Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus of Lyons, with this work by Clement, another long book that is exactly what its translated title suggests it is: miscellanies. As such, the work does not easily hold ones interest for long periods, though certainly it does a good job of showing some of the development of Christian thinking among those in Egypt in the late second century. (I am somewhat amazed as what remains from this period before printing--that folks felt a desire to write copies of this out to preserve it, given its length and lack of through-line.)

Clement spends much of the work referencing Greek and Roman philosophy, in addition to various biblical passages. The latter, he sometimes engages with by offering analogies to show how a given biblical idea fits within a moral concept of Christians (e.g., clean and unclean meats as symbolic of different kinds of thinking). The former, he spends much time referencing as inferior to Christian thinking, as antithetical to it, and as a predescessor to it. Through philosophy, Clement claims at some points, God brought Gentiles to a knowledge of the truth and of Jesus, just as through scriptures were Jews brought to such knowledge. But being a miscellany, Clement's views differ from section to section and purpose to purpose.

Book 8, being the most freshly on my mind, shows something of how Clement's thinking was in many ways more philosophically disposed than biblically. That book focuses not on anything religious but on ideas about symbology, writing, words, and names--how language came to exist as it does.


Saturday, January 2, 2021

On "Resurrection" by Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson ****

In this very readable summary of the history of the concept of resurrection in Jewish history--and eventually in that very early Christian history--Madigan and Levenson do much to defend the Jewish roots of the idea. Ehrman's Heaven and Hell makes much use of the idea that early Jewish faith that early Jewish thinkers thought of resurrection mostly on a national restoration level rather than on that of a personal level. That idea is present in this book as well, but Madigan and Levenson do much to show how this concept was still tied in to later more personal ideas and how the rabbis were able to easily interpret passages from the Torah in such a way.

The gist of the argument is that eternal life--like one's identity--in the ancient Jewish belief system was tied to one's genetic descendents, one's family. One lived on through them--and through one's name (through one's descendents). Eventually, once there was a nation of Israel, this was extended to that nation--and the idea of national restoration. This is the emphasis of resurrection passages in scriptures like those of Ezekiel 37.

That said, even with emphasizing nation and family, there's something of a hint of what would later be made explicit in Daniel and in various works written during the second temple era. The promises of an enduring name offered to families are offered also to people like eunuchs, who obviously have no hope that their name won't be expunged. Likewise, ideas of God being a giver of life began to be extended to a giver of eternal life--if he could create life, why could he not restore it? Tales of restoration of physical life became types for restoration of human life in general.

This Jewish belief was passed along to Christians, who took it up in their cause with regard to Jesus and eventually all Christians. What changed, however, in the years following was Judaism's interaction with Greek philosophy (and though not covered in the book, Christianity's as well). Eternal life was not a given in ideas about resurrection; the Greeks, however, believed in an immortal soul apart from the body. Eventually, this belief, in a soul apart from the body rather than with the body, would work its way into Judaism, and then the idea that that soul was eternal. As such, old ideas about resurrection would begin to fall by the wayside in medieval times, and current systems of belief among Jewish religious authorities often leave the belief regarding the ultimate reward of believers to believers themselves.


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

On "The Analects of Confucius" ***

I chose to read the James Legge translation available at Project Gutenberg. This is not the best version of The Analects, as became readily apparent in my reading. Other versions, some available online, offer substantial commentary, which is almost essential if one wants to grasp all that is being said. There are heavy references to various ancient Chinese figures and historical incidents, such that without the commentary, one often doesn't really understand what is being said.

For an overall "feel" of what The Analects are like, however, Legge's work will suffice. The work isn't so much first person as it is a series of short chapters in which various Chinese figures come to the Master (or sometimes others) for advice about a given situation. The Master then dispenses his wisdom. It is the dispensation of wisdom that, in many cases, resembles a collection of aphorisms: "A wise man is . . . ; a fool is . . ." and so on. The early books focus most especially on filial duty, while the later ones focus more and more on government. These two ideas, however, are related. Much emphasis is given to being a person of high moral values.

One particular little anecdote/piece of advice really struck me in the book. Confucius notes, at one point, that if one knows that a particular action/life course will lead to great wealth, one should pursue it with one's all, but since one is never assured that wealth is at the end of a course of action, one should instead pursue what brings joy. It's another way of saying, do what you love, and the money will follow, I suppose, but I hadn't ever quite seen it put this way. We don't control the future, so we should think of the present when setting goals. There is no point to pursuing riches that may or may not come if we don't enjoy what we do in the here and now, as the latter is all we can really be assured of.