Sunday, November 21, 2021

On "Tomorrow . . . What It Will Be Like" by Herbert W. Armstrong ***

I first read this book as a young teen, feeling somewhat obligated to do so and to "like" it, because it is a religious book. Coming to it again as an adult, I find it still difficult to assess critically, since Armstrong forged such an influence on my family's life when I was a kid. What would I think of it if I hadn't grown up around such influence? It's hard to say. Why reread it now? Because after this year's Feast of Tabernacles, I had a desire to study up on what the Bible says about urban planning in the millennium. I was hoping this book might have some ideas. In the end, there wasn't much on the subject, maybe a couple of paragraphs that remotely relate.

What I did find was a book that in some ways is very much of its time (1970s) and in others is rather timeless. That was the way that Armstrong often wrote. I found a lot of his standard catch phrases, the same quotes he liked to trot out constantly. He writes often in generalities that would be true of any time and place (there's lots of pollution in the world, etc.). But it's also interesting to think of this as a work of the 1970s, when concerns about overpopulation were rife, and when books like Futureshock were the rage. (It strikes me that such concerns still make up much of the publishing market, but somehow they don't seem quite as at the forefront as they did to me as a kid. Now, such ideas would be subsumed under works about global warming and climate change.) This book works off a lot of those 1970s fixations. Armstrong opens with two chapters about futurism: pessimistic views of the human future versus optimistic ones. Which will it be? And then, he lowers the scriptural appeal: Neither, because Christ will return (essentially saving humans from the reality of the more pessimistic assessment).

Much of the rest of the book looks at scriptures revolving around what this future world will look like. I found myself wondering, in some cases, what some not familiar with his other teachings would think or understand, because in some cases, the work seems to take that knowledge for granted. In some cases, I found myself thinking that the author goes on far too much about his views on top-down government and, most especially, who will do what in the millennium. One can certainly hypothesize about the role of specific resurrected patriarchs, but outside of David and the apostles, the scriptures don't actually say. Why spend so much time on the subject? There was also one passage espousing segregationist views that were very off-putting.

The book probably hits its stride most as it draws closer to its conclusion, in Armstrong's chapters on education and more especially language. The more scriptures take the central role the more grounded the work seems. But then, why not just read those?

A couple other surprising things about the book? First, its length. At barely over one-hundred large-sized-print pages, the work comes in at just a bit longer than the various pamphlets the church published. When I was young, one hundred pages seemed substantial; now, not so much. Second, its reading level. The work consists of short sentences and is very easy to read. It is set up to appeal to a wide audience, and in that sense, I rather appreciate Armstrong's writing skills and background in marketing. Maybe the writing seems a bit glib, but it certainly better conveys its points than the long-winded, highly qualified assertions I'm prone to.

Monday, October 4, 2021

On "The Sibylline Oracles" translated by Milton S. Terry ***

This ancient work consisting of fourteen books poses itself as a set of prophecies about world history and the fate of mankind. Parts were very interesting to me; others not so much, especially as the work gets to be rather repetitive and at times obscure. Not all the books survive and not all that do survive do so in complete form. The books, most scholars believe, were written over centuries by different writers with different agendas. Thus, some sections seem to be Christian in orientation, some pagan, and some Jewish--many merge aspects and views from these various traditions. It's interesting to read the differing views on the end of time as they develop within the books, though the varying writers makes for many inconsistencies in such views; because we don't know for certain who wrote what and when, unfortunately, tracing the development of thought within the collection is to some extent necessarily and unfortunately speculative. The translation itself that I read, available online here, was well done--with useful notes and the materials placed into polished blank verse.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

On "The Christians as the Romans Saw Them" by Robert L. Wilken *****

This book came up on a list of best Christian history books, and having found a good copy at a cheap price, I decided to try my hand at reading it. I was glad that I did. It is one of the most interesting takes on early Christianity I have read, one that seems like a very obvious study to undertake but that Wilken actually did.

Wilken focuses on the work of five individual Roman writers over the course of the first four centuries of Christianity--Pliny the Younger, Galen, Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate. In the course of doing so, he shows how the reaction of Christianity changed especially as it increased in popularity.

One issue with early writing about Christianity from those outside of the communion of believers is that so little of it survives. Pliny and Galen both mention it only briefly, as during their lifetimes, the religion was hardly widespread. Pliny's letter to Titus regarding what to do about Christians was well familiar to me. In it, he calls Christianity a superstition, which was one of two main ways that it could be perceived by those outside its associates. Galen, by contrast, in his brief offhand mentions of the faith seems to equate it with philosophy.

Celsus and Porphyry both take the religion much more seriously as a threat to social order. Alas, neither of their writings survive in whole. However, we are lucky to have large chunks of their works preserved in the writings of others who wrote responses to their work. Although both writers see issues with the faith mostly in relation to societal order, the latter is more familiar with Christian teachings. Such would be even more the case with Julian, who was raised Christian. As such, each writer posed a greater challenge to Christian orthodoxy, even as Christian orthodoxy took on a stronger and stronger role within the empire. This intermix of arguments for and against Christianity, Wilkin argues, in the end, opened up new avenues in intellectual thinking throughout the Western world, avenues that continue to reverberate today.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

On "Worship in the Early Church" by Ralph P. Martin ***

Based on a single quote in another work, I had at one time had high hopes for this work, but after reviewing its table of contents, my expectations waned. Still, when opportunity to purchase the book at a discount price (it was not available at my local library), I took advantage. Having now read it, my lower expectations were indeed correct. The work is a good summary of various views regarding worship practices in the early church as expressed by various scholars up through the early 1970s, but as with so much of our understanding of the practices, much is conjecture and much of the rest is implied by Scripture such that any devout reader of the latter is likely not to pick up much new here.

Martin largely notes just that--that we don't know for sure a lot about these practices. He summarizes views of others. I was, in part, particularly interested in his take on service organization and on the introduction of the eucharist into that service. He does see some connection between the eucharist and the Passover, but interestingly he claims that diaspora Passovers consisted only of bread and wine. Thus, there was no lamb at the Gospel Passover (to his point, the Scriptures don't reference the lamb, though, as with so much from this period, the historical evidence elsewhere may not be so conclusive as to say that lamb wasn't served as opposed to simply wasn't mentioned). The other major point one gathers from Martin's reading of worship practices is that they became more settled as Christians settled into their second century of being.

One nice thing is that Martin's survey did provide me with other areas that deserve more study on my part, such as focusing on the nature of Jesus's prayers outside of his model prayer.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

On “New Testament History” by F. F. Bruce *****

Imagine a Bible commentary presented in chronological format, and you'll have something of what this book by F. F. Bruce is like. Bruce lays out the context in which the early Christian church came into being, first by discussing the Roman and Jewish social and cultural world of the time, then by telling how John and Jesus did their work, and then by following the early apostles in their work. Going into this book, I thought I'd be underwhelmed. After all, much of this information is in the scriptures themselves—or so I thought. But Bruce doesn't just follow the biblical line, giving information that readers could easily glean from their own Bibles. Rather, the contextual discourse set up in the first third of the book continues through the whole thing, such that one gleans a fuller understanding of each of the events presented in any scripture that Bruce touches on. Although much of this information was familiar to me, some of it was not, and I feel I could return to particular biblical passages with a greater understanding. That said, this isn't a book with a particularly strong thesis, so any arguments one might have for or against the work are likely to be with sections than with the work as a whole, which is instead rather encyclopedic.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

On “Three Kingdoms” by Lo Kuan-chung, translated and abridged by Moss Roberts ****

This abridgment of the full text amounts about one-quarter of the original's size and about three-quarters of the original story. Roberts presents key scenes and summarizes large portions for the reader. In all, one gets a full sense of the essential plot, which seems an amazing feat really, when one thinks about how complex this novel is.

The story recounted here essentially involves the three kingdoms period in China, just as the Han dynasty was ending and three kings fought for control of the land, leading eventually to the short-lived Sung dynasty and the domination of China by the Mongols.

In the book, the Hans are beset by a disloyal general in the north lands Tsao-Tsao. Although he proclaims his loyalty to the emperor, he is most certainly looking to gather power to himself. Poised against him is a southern kingdom that has broken away and Liu Pei, the book's hero. Liu Pei aims to restore the Han dynasty.

The book, however, starts on a more personal note. Liu Pei becomes friends with two men with whom he forges a pact—namely, that they will always look out for each other. These two men thus forge Pei's main helpers during the course of his attempt to restore the empire. However, the pact proves also to be Pei's downfall, as the killing of one of the men means that he has to take revenge for his death by attacking a potential ally, even though his real enemy is Tsao-Tsao. Indeed, it is Tsao-Tsao who got the potential ally to kill the friend, knowing it would distract Pei.

Roberts discusses the various themes in the book and the way in which Pei represents both ultimate duty and honor but also how that intransigence to such order can lead to one's downfall. The other characters have similar links to larger ideas that are played out in the plot of the book.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

On "The Travels of Marco Polo" by Marco Polo **

Polo traveled from Italy across Asia and back during the years that the Mongol Empire reigned over most of the territory. The version I read was the Yule edition, which coming from the nineteenth century was likely a bit too old to keep the reading interesting.

The Yule edition was heavily annotated, such that the notes were often two or three times the length of Polo's original text. Polo's text itself might have been fairly interesting, although it would have been extremely repetitive. Many a chapter recounts how a given region was infidels, etc. Polo uses nearly the exact same wording each time. Of course, the annotations are necessary because many of Polo's place names are now out of date, such that it's hard to know what location he is writing about. However, the nineteenth-century place names are also many times out of date, such that the annotations weren't much help. And this truly seemed a scholarly edition insofar as the notes recounted numerous opinions with regard to what Polo actually meant every location that he wrote about.

A case in point would be Madagascar. Polo talks of giraffes and other creatures that are not at all on the island. Most scholars l think he has the wrong place and meant another location. After all, the big southern island would have been off his route anyway. Of course, Polo wasn't averse to writing about nearby places that he'd heard about. This really is a kind of geography book in many ways and was likely fascinating to readers of the time.

This isn't to say that there aren't parts that are fascinating even now. His account of Japan, I found a bit interesting, even if most scholars dispute his historical accounts of the battles that he describes. Another particularly intriguing account was of a nation that consisted of two islands. On one island only women lived, and on the other only men lived. The men would visit the women's island for three months of the year. Children lived with the women until the age of fourteen, at which time the boys moved to the men's island. Not many people, even in Yule's time, though the account accurate or true. Finally, there is the religious variety that he encountered, something we often don't think of now when we think of Asia. That is, in Polo's time, while there were plenty of Buddhists and others of so-called Eastern religious affiliations, in his time, there were also a fair number of Muslims and Nestorian Christians scattered across the continent all the way across China.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

On "Hidden Gospels" by Philip Jenkins ****

Jenkins's book is a corrective to and a rebuke of such cutting-edge scholars as the Jesus Seminar, who claim usually that the various Gnostic gospel discoveries shed more light on the historical Jesus than we had previous known and than that is available in the canonized New Testament writings. Jenkins is skeptical of such claims and more or less defends conservative religious views on the subject of how we should know who Jesus is and which books we should accept as "historical." While he makes a number of excellent points, he largely defends academic positions that place the writings of the Gospels fairly late (post-Temple destruction), which in my view compromises the authority the canonized Gospels have. After all, if it took fifty years to get around to actually writing about Jesus, then by then it seems like a good deal of mythologizing would have taken place. Thus, why could not these other gospels, not accepted, have been just as legitimate points of view that were mostly banished by the growing power brokers within the early church? Furthermore, he largely sees current doctrine as an accurate reflection of real church teachings of the first century, only faintly acknowledging the influence of Gnostic teachings on it.

Jenkins shows quite convincingly why such scholarship has proliferated and received so much attention. On the former score, the increase in academic programs in religion in recent years has meant that more graduate students have had to find fodder for original research. Gnostic gospels, Qumran scrolls, and other newly discovered documents are prime candidates for such study, since there has been less written about them. Add to that the agenda that many scholars have--for example, writing from a feminist perspective (or a Marxist one or a deconstructionist one, etc., depending of the critical school one wants to apply)--and there is ample desire then to enlarge the canon to include works that support one's point or to interpret them in such a way that they do. Finally, media, looking for good stories on religion, as it does, gravitates toward the controversial. Hence, even though 90 percent of the scholars might have conservative views on Christian faith, it's the 10 percent claiming that Jesus wasn't believed to be divine among the first two generations of followers or Jesus was a Cynic philosopher or Jesus was never crucified and in fact had a regular family, and so on, who get the attention.

Jenkins points out that many of the claims being made today by such scholars are actually quite old--that is, they have been made since the 1800s and in some cases even made only generations after the foundation of the Christian movement. Many of the newly discovered documents are merely new manuscripts of works of which we already have preserved copies. There is not much "new" to much such "new scholarship." In many cases, the agenda that such scholars have is actually subverted by the works they point to with such aplomb. Gnostic views, as Jenkins points out, were not generally so feminist, so egalitarian, so antiauthoritarian, as such scholars portray. Many were more misogynistic than anything seen in the accepted Bible. And they were very much focused around establishing some as better than the vast majority of people. Indeed, the simplicity with which Gnostic views are presented was usually anything but, with levels of gods (aeons) separating us from the divine, such that there was a great deal of knowledge to be gleaned before one could even claim to be truly informed.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

On "The Roots of Anti-Semitism" by Ernest L. Abel ****

This book explores where anti-Jewish racism first appeared and why. Abel shows how certain such feelings arose with Egypt during the Ptolemaic kingdom, as Jews attempted to differentiate themselves from Egyptians and often took on unsavory leadership roles such as tax collecting. This did not endear them to the Egyptians.

The attitude among the Greeks and Romans, however, was more complex. Jews were sometimes respected for their "philosophical" religion, which presented a moral world unlike that in the Greco-Roman culture. At the same time, the Jewish refusal to honor the gods, outside of their own, set them apart and disgusted their neighbors insofar as such views made the Jews seem to be self-righteous. Despite various uprisings that occurred throughout the history of the Roman Empire, the Jews were largely allowed to maintain their religion and were not looked down upon, though other peoples sometimes were annoyed by the exceptions made for the Jews, a view that was extended by the special tax eventually levied on the Jews after one of their revolts. This tax was not heavy, but it further set the Jews apart. That said, the luxuries extended to the Jews were not extended so much to converts to Judaism, a practice Rome did its best to quell, given the way that Jews didn't take full part in Roman society.

The real start of anti-Judaism feeling began with Christianity, which attempted to set itself apart from Judaism, both to avoid religious persecution from the Jews and social persecution by the Romans. When Christianity took the helm as the favored religion of Rome, its anti-Jewishness spread throughout society in a way that continues to reverberate even today.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

On "Christianity outside the Roman Empire" by F. Crawford Burkitt ***

This is essentially a short version of Burkitt's Early Eastern Christianity, as it is based on two lectures instead of five or six, and "outside the Roman Empire" for Burkitt means "eastern." 

We get a taste for Christianity as it developed outside Rome near Edessa and in other parts of the world that sat just outside its realm, where the Greek and Persian world collided, and where there were remnants of Semitic culture. Because there's little literature from this church, we don't know much about it until the middle of the second century. Burkitt sees this Christianity as having "changed less" than that further to the west, but given its predilection for ascetism, transubstantiation, and baptism only for monks (as doctrine apparently shared with the Marcionites), it would seem to me not that the church in the east changed less but that it changed in different ways--less influenced by Greek philosophy and more influenced by more eastern ways of thinking. Although Burkitt's other book on the subject is in part so long because it reproduces some primary sources in full, on the whole, it is the more thorough work and only about twice as long--thus more recommended.

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.