At a gathering of friends recently, a game of trivia broke out. Well, it was actually planned because we were not using the cards and pie wedges that we grew up with, but were making up our own questions. The submitter of the question was the final arbiter on whether an answer was correct or not. As usual, I probably overthought the process, trying not to make my questions too hard or too easy. Maybe my ideal contestant was a student in one of my intro classes since much of what I submitted was what I covered in my courses. Other questions were drawn from choice bits of this blog (something to which I never subjected my students). In any case, one of my submissions asked for the name of Job’s fourth friend. I was honestly surprised when nobody in the grew knew, or could even name one of poor Job’s friends. My slip of paper went into the unanswered pile in the middle, a stack alarmingly dominated by my own questions. Afterward, the friend who knew me the longest, and who grew up in a church-going family, asked “Did you really think anyone had read the book of Job?” Coming so shortly, as it did, after another friend in a different context had indicated that my interests are arcane, I began to feel my age.
Biblical literacy is a topic for which some scholars actively lobby the reading public. I’m not sure if the entire Bible need be known fully, although my job increasingly relies upon its popularity. Students used to ask if I still found the Bible meaningful, even though I spent my career parsing it apart. The answer is always the same: yes, the Bible is worthy of the attention lavished upon it. It has sections of unsurpassed beauty and even some lessons the world could still stand to learn. It is uneven, however. There are bits that probably should’ve never been canonized. There are moral lows as well as highs. And the book of Job is among the greatest pieces included in it.
On that point I would receive some argumentation, I’m sure. Many people detest the book of Job. The eponymous hero of the book seems almost blasphemous to some, and a complaining ingrate to others. In the course of his suffering four friends stop by. The last one, surely a later addition to the text, toes the party line of orthodoxy that the book severely shreds. Job also contains some of the finest poetry from the ancient world and has given modern English several catchphrases still currently in use. I’ve always felt a kinship with Job. While my lot has not been as pathetic as his, I have had enough set-backs to lend the book a kind of nostalgic patina. Even in their wrongheadedness Job’s friends can spill out poetry. And there is wisdom to be had in that dusty book. In the end I was probably the one who was wrong. There is nothing trivial about the book of Job.
A recent trip to Baltimore prompted me to read Benjamin F. Fisher’s The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe. Well, that and the fact that I had purchased the book from an overstock table on a visit to a local indie bookstore (support your local!). Poe is a difficult writer to get to know. His personal life seems to have been largely an effort to find financial security while he knew his intellect was greater than those who employed him, and yet he was the one left without means. His literary talent, now considered one of the brightest constellations in the American writers’ heavens, was denigrated and demeaned and not fully appreciated until after he died of unknown causes in a city where he no longer lived. There is a profound sadness about Poe, and he seems a tragic figure. I do wonder, however, whether success would have ruined him. The more society woos you, the more you’re willing to lower your standards, I shouldn’t wonder. Not that I would know.
Fisher’s guide is a basic introduction that only toys here and there with Poe’s religious outlook. I’ve not run across much about Poe and religion, but there is a deep spiritual awareness, along with ratiocination, in his tales and poems. I suspect it might go back to the fact that religion and fear are so tightly intertwined. If a religious element is missing, it sometimes leaves a reader hungry. I’d also been reading Ramsey Campbell’s Ghosts Know concurrently with Fisher. This is a novel where a skeptical radio talk-show host takes on a stage psychic to see who really knows who might’ve killed a young girl. As the story unfolds it becomes less and less likely that the psychic is tapping into anything other than individuals’ wish projections.
While I found both of these books interesting, I pondered the fact that Poe referred to the scariest elements in his works as “terror of the soul.” The supernatural in Poe, as Fisher points out, is often really just a projection of an interior state of one of the characters—the eponymous tell-tale heart is guilt breaking through, not an undead heart beating. In an era where belief in the soul is waning, scary books seem less frightening. We’ve been robbed of both the supernatural and the soul, so what is left to fear? If death is only a more profound kind of sleep and morals are only a matter of social convention, then we are truly alone in this vast universe. Of what should we be afraid? Still, when the night stretches on for many long hours this December, I find myself inclined toward Poe and I wonder if ghosts truly do know.
Posted in Books, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts, Travel
Tagged Baltimore, Benjamin F. Fisher, Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, ghosts, Ghosts Know, Ramsey Campbell, supernatural
When my rural, northwestern Pennsylvania shows up in the news, I pay attention. An Associated Press story recently appeared concerning Rev. Chris Terbush of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Inspired by the success of Duck Dynasty (which seems poised to overtake even Apple as the most popular purveyor of popular culture), Rev. Terbush has encouraged his congregation to show up on Sunday mornings in camouflage, ready to go forth and claim dominion over nature once the service is over. I’ve been ambushed by enough clergy that the idea makes me a little nervous, I’ll have to admit. But then again, I know where he’s coming from. I grew up in a town that celebrated the first day of deer season as a public holiday, with schools closed and the hills alive with the sound of muskets. Not being a hunter, I just enjoyed the day off school. This upbringing, however, gave me a profound appreciation for the Jeff Daniels’ movie, Escanaba in da Moonlight. But I digress.
Religious services evolve, just like any other social phenomenon. When I was young, just as the sixties were wresting the color of life from the black-and-white fifties, going to church was a formal event that demanded your “Sunday best.” Only the worst of heathens would show up before the Almighty in anything less than a white shirt and tie, a jacket and uncomfortable shoes. You had to show the divine that you were willing to go that extra mile and implicate that you didn’t intend to have any fun when it was over because the sabbath is a solemn occasion. I remember the weird feeling of walking into church during the weekday wearing jeans for the first time. It felt as if I were dissing the rules of the club. It was an exclusive affair.
The “theology of dress” has become an area of scholarly investigation with the growth of embodiment issues. What we wear says something about our beliefs, and the fact that we wear clothes at all is sometimes even traced back to Genesis 3. The origin of “good clothes,” clearly, was a status issue. Those who could afford to keep some surplus clothes unsullied by labor wished to strut their stuff on occasion. And who better to impress than God? All of this has eroded over the years with many churches as casual as any man cave. Now you can camouflage yourself in church. There may be more going on here than meets the eye, both literally and metaphorically.
What happens in the woods stays in the woods
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Genesis, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Associated Press, Bradford, Chris Terbush, Duck Dynasty, embodiment, Escanaba in da Moonlight, Genesis 3, Northwest Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania
I recently had the misfortune of flying on Delta Airlines. In all honesty I suppose my antipathy to Delta began with a flight on which I was not actually a passenger. A few years ago a news story of a Delta flight navigating to the wrong city created smirks for those who can afford to fly airlines that have better track-finding skills. With all of my flying over the past years, I’ve ended up on Delta a couple of times and my sense of their muddled thinking has only been confirmed. On a recent flight before which we were informed that our boarding would be “expediated” since the captain was late landing his jet at the next gate and would be flying right back to Atlanta whence he’d just arrived, I hoped the navigation would be better than the grammar. Landing in Atlanta for a flight to the thriving metropolis of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the gate agent repeatedly told us that the flight to “Aberdeen” was about ready to board. Several customers had to call out “Allentown” a few times before the agent realized her mistake. My misgivings grew. When I landed in Allentown, my checked bag had decided to take a tour of Detroit. It was late at night and I might have been a bit brusk with the poor, graveyard-shift Delta agent, but he assured me that my bag would be in by noon the next day.
Not a particularly trusting soul any more, I called Delta baggage information the next morning after looking at their website. The website showed the bag sitting just 15 gates from my departing Atlanta flight but then taking off to Detroit. When I called the representative told me that no information was available on my baggage (the artistry of understatement!). I informed her that I had the website up and that it showed my luggage in Detroit, I wanted to know when it would be in Allentown. Her tune changed to indicate, “oh yes, it is in Detroit.” But then, she could neither confirm nor deny that it would be on its scheduled flight. I had already determined to drive back to the airport to collect it. If Delta cannot be trusted to navigate to the right location in the air, then what would be their chances be on the ground in New Jersey? As I kindly suggested to the representative that they hire employees who could read, I couldn’t help but think of Schrödinger’s cat.
Erwin Schrödinger was the physicist who came up with the thought experiment of a cat placed in a box with a deadly substance. Whether the cat is alive or dead is only a matter of speculation without looking in the box, so, in reality, the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously. I’m no physicist, but I thought of Schrödinger’s luggage being both in the cargo hold and not being in the cargo hold at the same time. This was the very mystery of the universe, courtesy of Delta’s ineptitude, being foisted upon my frantic brain. Where was my bag? It was not in my possession, and I had last entrusted it to an airline that thought the best route from the Midwest to Allentown was through Atlanta and then Detroit, but they weren’t really sure if that was the case either. There is a consolation, however. You can get a refund of your twenty-five dollar baggage misplacement fee, in the form of a voucher for your next lost luggage episode on Delta airlines. I’m about ready to crawl into that box with Schrödinger’s kitten and await my fate.
Both here and not here.
With the weather that has dropped down over much of the US this past week, I can’t help but think of the religious implications of the weather once again. I’ve had a couple of discussions of my weather book, and perhaps it will be worth reviving; meanwhile the meteorological divine is alive and well. I recently had the chance to look through a November edition of National Geographic. We used to subscribe, but with the loss of too many jobs and the attendant moves, they became literally too heavy, and since the magazine is relentlessly prolific we finally had to donate our back issues to a loving home. In any case, this November’s issue proffers a cover story on Tim Samaras, the storm chaser who was killed by a tornado back in May. It was tornados that first led to my interest in the divine implications of the weather since the twister is often described as the symbol of an angry deity. The article on Samaras, however, took a different approach to the tornadic.
Describing the fatal May 31 tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma, Robert Draper, the article’s author, tends more toward language of the diabolical. Defining the terminal whirlwind as a “dense, moist leviathan,” Draper adopts the language of the chaos monster of antiquity. Over time leviathan came to be associated with evil (although originally it was morally neutral), even with the devil. That isn’t a biblical assessment but in a modern world swiftly becoming depleted of superlatives, leviathan has come to stand in for Satan. A few sentences later the trees are shaking “as if possessed by the devil.” Weather is often the provenance of the divine, but it can also be the tool of the devil. And since this was a fatal storm, one must be careful of blasphemy.
I have never witnessed a tornado first-hand, but I have been within a few miles of one or two. The utterly savage and random nature of the destruction translate to one of the most frightening atmospheric conditions imaginable. Reading about the growing storm, knowing that it will eventually murder the protagonist, reminds me of the stresses that led to my line of research at the very beginning. We have overcome so many of our natural predators that being completely vulnerable to the weather bestows a kind of metaphysical cast to it. We can still be frozen, washed or blown away, or overheated by the weather. It can desiccate us and begin wildfires to consume us. Its scale is immense. The origins may seem celestial, but the results infernal. Perhaps I will return to my book on the weather; it is clear that it remains one place where human power must bow before something so immense that it can only be divine or diabolical. Or both.
Posted in Deities, Memoirs, Monsters, Natural Disasters, Posts, Psalms, Weather
Tagged Devil, Leviathan, National Geographic, Robert Draper, Tim Samaras, tornado, Weather
The Salem witch trials were still half a century in the future. The Puritans, hoping for religious freedom, had come to Massachusetts. Despite prevailing attitudes toward the religious, the Puritans were keen on learning and began printing books. The first book printed in English in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. You see, the Psalms have a particularly important place in Christian (and Jewish) worship. In fact, much of what would later develop into the daily offices in the Church of England, adapted from the breviaries of the Roman Catholic Church, were services that started essentially as vehicles for reciting the Psalms. It is fair to say that Christian worship might have never taken on the elaborate forms that it has without the underlying recitation of the Psalter. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is now the most expensive book ever sold at auction. According to the New York Times, one of the eleven known Bay Psalm Books has just sold for over 14 million dollars. The Bible has a way of continuing to surprise us.
As someone who has more Bibles than your average layperson, I find it isn’t difficult to think that Bibles are fairly common. They are. I actually switched to The Green Bible in my classes out of the ecological concern that there have been over six billion Bibles printed. The Gideons give them away, and even the Christian heavy metal band Stryper used to throw handfuls of Bibles into the crowds. Chances are, in the United States, you are not physically far from a Bible at any given moment. So why would someone pay 14 million dollars for one? The answer goes deeper than the suggestion that the Psalms contain timeless truths—you can get those free on the internet anytime—but that it is part of our heritage. We are who we are, in part, because of the “Bible believing” founders of our culture. Survival was not taken for granted in the mid-seventeenth century. The Bible was a pillar of certainty in dangerous times.
Yes, interpretations of the Bible have led to horrendous results. There is no point in denying the guilt. Hermeneutics, however, is a human activity. The Bible gives as well as takes away. Some of us may never have a million dollars to spend. Many people don’t have enough to eat. Specialists tell us that some 45 million Bibles are printed each year. Bibles are big business. In the words of Big Dan from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ‘em!” David M. Rubenstein, the buyer of the book, intends to send it around to libraries to display. Although I’ve spent over forty years studying the Bible, it takes the skills of a man from an investment firm to earn enough money to buy one. And I wonder if that’s Big Dan I hear laughing, or perhaps it’s just the sound of Puritans singing in the wilderness.
Posted in Bible, Bibliolatry, Books, Current Events, Posts, Sects
Tagged 1640, Bay Psalm Book, Bible, David M. Rubenstein, Massachusetts, O Brother Where Art Thou, Psalms, Puritans, Stryper, The Green Bible