I wrote another piece for the Rock & Sling blog called “Expectations,” about the birth of our third child. He was nearly born at home, on the side of the road, or in the parking lot outside the Emergency Room. It was exciting and scary!
In May I read two great books on serious questions about America today that I would recommend heartily, one on what it means to be gay and Christian in America, and the other on poverty and the crisis of affordable housing in this country. There are two reviews for comic books, too, but only one of them is worth your time.
- Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu is a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues. Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences. When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life. While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories. He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum. What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them. He would then tell his own thoughts, but it was clear who thought what. He even managed to do this when talking to Fred Phelps, the late pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, in a tense conversation (the book was published in 2013, a year before Phelps’s death). Chu also spends time with those who have lost faith because of the way the church treated them, and with people in ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, and with gay Christians trying to remain celibate, and with those who have reconciled their sexuality with their faith. He talks to some who are well known like Ted Haggard, the disgraced pastor, Jennifer Knapp, the one-time star in Contemporary Christian Music, and Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network. But he mostly talks with everyday ordinary people who are trying to figure out their faith and sexuality. A recurring element throughout the book is the ongoing story of a young man who is struggling to come out to his conservative family. It all adds up to a very powerful book. I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.
- Ocean/Orbiter: The Deluxe Edition, written by Warren Ellis with art by Chris Sprouse and Colleen Doran, is a collection of two stories about human space flight. Though unrelated, both stories are science fiction about technologies beyond what we currently have. In Ocean, a global research team attempts to figure out what is below the ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, before a technology corporation (a thinly veiled Microsoft stand in; their operating system is called Doors instead of Windows). The answer threatens the fate of humanity. The second story involves a space shuttle that disappeared for ten years and then suddenly returns to Earth modified by unknown forces. Again, the answers to what happened to the shuttle affect the fate of humanity. The concepts behind both stories are interesting to a point, but they were very idea focused and not invested nearly as much in character. I don’t regret reading the book, but I don’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone unless they’re craving mysterious space adventure light reading.
- The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts by Paul Pope is a grab bag of early formative comics by an extremely talented artist. Pope’s art is full of action and expressive characters both heavily influenced by Japanese manga. The art is not a rip-off, though, but a blend of styles that becomes something new and uniquely his. The title story fits nicely in the crime genre, but with a bit of a supernatural twist. Rival gangs such as the Paid-in-Spades and the Do Nothings compete in the city, but individuals in the One Tricks gang each have a special ability to control others with their speech (much like Kilgrave in Jessica Jones). The protagonist of the story is Tubby, a member of the One Tricks, and his girlfriend Vim. They plan a heist of their own gang’s stash so they can get out of the city, but naturally it all goes wrong as these things tend to do. The other stories in the collection range from poems put into comics to a short story about an eating contest to a pair of wordless stories about chance encounters. A particular standout is a short piece about a young woman waiting for her artist boyfriend to pick her up after work late at night. He says he’ll be right there, but then gets caught up in his work again and arrives later than he said, leading to her having to fend off sexual violence from strangers while she waits and waits. It does a good job of perspective taking since most everything else in the collection is about young males and their viewpoint. Overall, it’s a good read for those who like crime fiction or good art.
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond is an essential book. Please, please, read it (Read an excerpt here). Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face. The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter. We meet Arleen and her two boys Jori and Jafaris (all the names have been changed) who get evicted at Christmas time after spending money on a funeral for Arleen’s sister instead of rent. We meet Scott, a nurse who lost his license after he suffered a back injury and got hooked on painkillers and can’t keep up with rent because of his addiction. We meet Lamar, a man with no legs, who tried to make up for back rent by helping paint the upstairs apartment, all to no avail after the house burned down later. Their stories are gripping and heartbreaking. And we meet their landlords Tobin and Sherrena, the former the owner of a rundown trailer park and the latter an enterprising owner of many dilapidated yet lucrative properties in the city leading her to proclaim that “the ‘hood is good.” For the most part, their stories are presented in a straightforward manner based on first hand observations and recordings Desmond took while spending time with the people. Occasionally he would add a beautiful description that made it more novelistic: “[she would] sit on a windowsill and light a cigarette, its smoke coming alive in the breeze like a raging spirit that had only seconds to live” (289). When appropriate during the narratives, Desmond explains aspects of the housing crisis in cities like Milwaukee, but he leaves most of the research, his own and others’, in the 60 pages of endnotes (which are worth reading, too). For example, “For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties” (75), and that over a period of two years, half of renters in Milwaukee “experienced a serious and lasting housing problem” (76). Problems with housing ripple outwards, too, leading to health and psychological problems. For instance, if the tenants at a property called 911 too frequently (3 times per month) the police could cite the landlord for a nuisance violation. Landlords would likely evict renters who called 911 too much, thus leading to an incentive for renters not to call, which is of course a problem if there are genuine reasons like domestic abuse to get police involved. Milwaukee recently changed the nuisance law to make an exception for abuse, but the incentives not to call remain for most situations. So many poor people live in substandard housing in bad situations, but then they don’t even receive the help that they are entitled to because the programs are underfunded. Sixty seven percent of poor people who rent received absolutely nothing from the federal government for housing assistance in 2013. It’s shameful. At the end, Desmond offers two solutions that could begin to ameliorate the sad state of affairs in housing. The first is to guarantee legal representation for those in eviction court, just like is done for criminal defendants. Without a proper defense, most renters lose in court against their landlords, if they even show up to court at all. But more fundamentally, housing should be a basic right for everyone. One way to accomplish this would be to give everyone under a certain income a universal housing voucher that guarantees that no more than 30% of their income goes towards housing costs. Such a program would not be cheap, but is certainly achievable if it were made a priority. For example, the cost of the mortgage interest deduction to the federal government alone would be able to pay for the program. For a country that calls itself a Christian nation, our priorities are certainly skewed. If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book. It is uniformly excellent. I can hardly recommend it enough.
I bought a stack of books at the annual library sale and got started on reading some of them in April. I couldn’t help rereading an old favorite in the hopes that I would find it just as enthralling again. (Spoiler alert: I did.) I also read another funny science book by Mary Roach and a more serious picture book of extinct species. To round out the month, I read a superhero origin story and a Newbery Honor winning kids’ classic.
- Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach is a funny and interesting book on what happens after we die. Years ago I read and enjoyed her first book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but I hesitated in reading the follow-up on the afterlife because I wasn’t all that interested in the topic, or at least what I had assumed would be her take on it. I needn’t have worried. Roach makes almost anything interesting with her lively and humorous writing. I rediscovered her last year when I read her book on the digestive system, and I then decided that I would happily read any of her books. I especially liked the early chapter on souls and the hunt for them in the body. I also learned about the dubious study that supposedly found that the soul weighs 21 grams. There were many other good bits: the hunt for reincarnated souls, testing the effectiveness of mediums, and the search for ghosts. One particular story involved a farmer, with the help of his father’s ghost, finding a new will that changed the entire family’s inheritance. I won’t give away what Roach’s investigation into the matter finds. Overall it was a very enjoyable read, but I would probably recommend one of Roach’s other books first.
- The Shadow Hero, written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew, is a fun origin story about a mysterious and short-lived Golden Age superhero named the Green Turtle. As explained in an afterword, the original Green Turtle only lasted five issues in 1944. He fought in China against the Japanese, but curiously it wasn’t ever known if he himself was Chinese or not (rumor was that his creator Chu Hing wanted him to be Chinese). His face was never shown; he was mostly drawn from the back or when he was in profile or was facing the reader, he had his face covered in some way (i.e. with his arm or obscured by another character). In fact, the publisher had him colored a garish pink, possibly to accentuate his Caucasian skin as a Chinese superhero might not sell. Another recurring element to those stories was that Green Turtle was always on the verge of telling Burma Boy, his sidekick, his secret origins, but never gets around to it as he is always interrupted. So in steps Yang, 70 years later, to write an origin for Green Turtle, possibly the first Asian American superhero. The story takes place in Chinatown in a stand in for the Bay area, where gangs thrive. Young Hank helps his father tend the grocery store while his mother wishes better things for all of them. After she is saved by a superhero, she pushes Hank to become a superhero, too, even though he doesn’t have superpowers. It’s a fun tale about identity and heritage that plays on many of the conventions of the superhero origin. A brief warning for younger readers: the story includes stereotyped language about Asian Americans to place it into historical context. It doesn’t condone the language, but rather shows how the stereotypes are wrong. If you like superhero origin stories, definitely check this one out.
- The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller. Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried. It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book. The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book. I think I loved this book because much of the action takes place in libraries as the characters conduct research with old documents and letters. Much of the story is related in letters, an obvious homage to Bram Stoker’s famous novel. It’s not a particularly deep novel, and the characters are not fully formed, but for a suspenseful thriller, I can hardly imagine a more successful novel. I read the book over ten years ago when it first came out and I really liked it then. I forgot much of the action since then, so I picked it up again hoping to have a similar experience. Part of me worried it wouldn’t hold up. I needn’t have fretted. I loved it all over again.
- A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals with text by Tim Flannery and illustrations by Peter Schouten is a sobering look at the effects of humanity on the animal kingdom. The book includes 103 species (mammal, bird, or reptile) that have gone extinct since the year 1500, most of them in the past 150 years. Peter Schouten’s illustrations are beautiful and naturalistic. I was reminded of the Audubon calendars we had in our house growing up. It was rather haunting to see animal after animal that is gone forever. Some of the species are familiar, even famous for their extinction: the gigantic moas of New Zealand, the Dodo of Mauritius, the Great Auk in the North Atlantic, the Passenger Pigeon of North America, and the Thylacine (aka the Tasmanian Tiger). I didn’t know about Steller’s Sea Cow, a gigantic relative of dugongs and manatees. It was the largest mammal (besides whales) to live in modern times, at up to 30 feet long and weighing approximately 10 tons. They were all hunted until there were none left by 1768. The text by Tim Flannery, an introduction and commentary on each species to accompany the artwork, is informative on what was known about each species and its demise. Sometimes a bird would be hunted for food by humans. Such was the fate of the Rail (a kind of bird) on Wake Island during World War II—during hostilities between the Japanese and American forces, the Japanese soldiers faced starvation and ate the birds to survive. More often the reason for extinction was the introduction of some other invasive species that disrupted the life cycle. Black rats might eat the eggs, for example, of some other island bird. The rats came to shore from aboard the ships that explored the South Pacific and other faraway once diverse habitats. Sometimes people destroyed the habitat for these animals, usually for agricultural reasons. Flannery also notes that a few species went extinct when naturalists gathered the last few remaining specimens for natural history museums. Our knowledge of the species came at the expense of their extinction, a truly bittersweet result. This book is a good complement to Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, showing example after example of humanity’s devastation of the natural world.
- The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is another classic of kids’ lit that I managed to miss when I was growing up. I thought maybe I had read it because I have some vague memory of a book I randomly picked up at the library that had to do with kids and some Egyptian mystery, but then I forgot the title and could never find the book again when I went to look for it. I don’t think it was the same book, but regardless, The Egypt Game is a good book for elementary age kids to read. It has a lot to say about friendships, imagination, and figuring out how to deal with disappointment. The initial main characters are April and Melanie. April has recently moved in with her grandmother, who herself has recently moved into a new two bedroom apartment so she would have enough room for April and herself. Melanie lives one floor down from April, and they become friends because of a shared interest in Egyptian history. They start to imagine that they themselves are living in ancient Egypt with its gods and ceremonies, priests/priestesses and pharaohs. The game is a secret they play in a fenced storage lot behind a junk shop, but they eventually end up inviting others to join them. I’m looking forward to the day my kids are old enough to read it so I can talk to them about their own Egypt games.
The book reviews for this month are another varied bunch–a historical mystery, some short stories about a party, a coming of age graphic novel, and a book about the Bible. The last one goes longer than usual since I had a lot to say about it as it relates to my recent wrestling with modern scholarship on the Bible.
- The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh) is an intriguing mystery from British history. The Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg and bored out of his mind. Friends visit him and bring him books to read, but it isn’t until he becomes fascinated with a portrait of Richard III that he engages his deductive skills. He wonders what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, Richard’s two nephews who most everyone believes that Richard himself had killed in order to secure the throne. Grant has trouble reconciling the awful crime with the face of the man in the portrait, so he sets out to figure out the mystery of what happened to the two boys once and for all. It’s a fascinating historical whodunit (and often funny), tracing various historical sources with a detective’s eye for evidence and motive. I especially liked how it emphasized mythmaking in the historical record and how those myths can come about. I was able to follow the historical characters and events, but I have some familiarity because of the many British literature courses I’ve taken. I now wish I had paid even more attention to the history bits in those classes. My only complaint is that the front cover of the book had the blurb: “One of the best mysteries of all time,” which raised my expectations too high. I enjoyed it plenty, but it probably never could have lived up to that statement.
- Mrs. Dalloway’s Party by Virginia Woolf is a collection of stories that serve as a good companion to her classic novel Mrs. Dalloway. From the introduction to the book we learn that the stories were written at the same time as or just after the writing of the novel, the latter of which was especially unusual for Woolf. She usually moved on to something different when she completed a novel. But she was interested in what she called in her writing diary “party consciousness,” that something about the gathering together of so many people under one roof that was both more artificial and more real than everyday life. In the course of seven stories we encounter a guest whose speech would fill a book and others who stand on the fringes hardly able to utter a syllable. There are misunderstandings and miscommunications as social opposites are introduced to one another. One woman worries the entire night about having worn the wrong dress that is not the current fashion. She had thought to wear something unique, but instead ruminated on the decision the entire party. Another man thought that he was so above the other party goers and their frivolity that he could barely deign to converse with anyone, and when he did it was with only the utmost condescension. I thoroughly enjoyed this slim book, but I have to say that it works best as a companion to the novel.
- This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, is a touching graphic novel about growing up. It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager. Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation. The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer. Rose and Windy are like most kids: they want to grow up. They talk about their soon to be developing breasts. They go to the tiny convenience store to buy candy and rent classic horror movies, which they watch to feel older. The 18 year old guys who clerk at the store don’t care that they aren’t old enough to be renting R-rated movies. Those guys are fascinating to the girls, but the girls can hardly put into words how they make them feel. The guys have their own drama with the young women their own age in town, which Rose and Windy watch as well, trying to figure out what is going on. And in her own cabin, Rose’s parents are having conflicts that she thinks she gets, but like most everything else, she misunderstands what’s really going on. It’s a beautiful story. The art is a real strength, too. At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story. I would definitely recommend this book.
- Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns is an essential book. I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts. The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human. In three main sections, Enns looks at supposed problems in the Old Testament that his incarnational analogy help resolve. The first is the matter of the close parallels of material from the Old Testament with Ancient Near Eastern literature. For example, the epic of Gilgamesh has a flood story that possibly predates the account in Genesis. The law code of Hammurabi of Babylon has laws that are similarly worded to laws in Exodus. Enns points out that the Bible is part of the cultural context in which it was given, meaning that the law codes should be similar and it should have similar myths concerning origins (myth here meaning a story to explain who we are and where we come from, not that it is made up). The second section deals with the diversity of the Old Testament. By diversity, he means that there are multiple voices speaking, sometimes in tension. For instance, in Proverbs sometimes the wisdom that is expressed in one verse contradicts what one finds in another verse (e.g. Proverbs 26:4,5 “Do not answer a fool..” vs. “Answer a fool…”). It turns out that the wisdom of Proverbs is situational. Another example that is even more forceful is the difference of the historical account in Chronicles with the similar accounts in Samuel and Kings. The account in Samuel and Kings emphasizes the centrality of worship, and the kings are evaluated on their ability to centralize worship in the temple (i.e. get rid of the high places and Baal and Asherah worship). The texts were likely written during the exile in order to explain why they were in exile. It was because they didn’t follow God and get rid of idol worship that they were handed over to foreign powers. But in Chronicles, which in the Jewish Bible is placed at the very end after all of the prophets and not directly after Kings, the point is to explain how they can be God’s people after the exile. It is from the point of view of those who returned back to the land and began again with Ezra and Nehemiah. Chronicles emphasizes the unity of the people and elevates the stature of figures like David and Solomon making them into heroes (much like American history often elevates the Founding Fathers, glossing over their failures). I first encountered this multi-voiced history of Kings and Chronicles in Josh Way’s excellent podcast on the Bible (click here to listen or read the transcript). Enns points out that diversity in Scripture is to be expected because God is speaking to different situations throughout Israel’s history, accommodating himself to wherever they find themselves at that point. The third section concerns the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. The gospel writers and Paul use the Old Testament verses in ways that we wouldn’t normally consider proper if we heard them used in the pulpit on a Sunday. They seem to wrench things out of context at times in order to make their own point. One example includes Matthew’s insistence that Jesus going to Egypt with his parents to avoid Herod is a fulfillment of prophecy in Hosea. But the context of the passage in Hosea is looking backwards to Israel being delivered from Egypt, not a forward looking prophecy about the future messiah. Matthew appears to be quoting out of context. But he is merely using similar methods that were used at that time, the Second Temple period. The writers in the New Testament are showing how passages in the Old Testament point towards Jesus, even if they are not direct prophecies. Enns introduces the word christotelic, in that the history of Israel in the Old Testament is leading towards and is fulfilled in Christ. My version of the book (the second edition) had a helpful postscript that reiterated his points and dealt with some of the reactions and arguments that his book elicited when it was first published ten years ago. I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.
A year ago I began thinking about modern scholarship of the Bible, and how I had never seriously considered it. Up until then, whenever I cracked open the Good Book, I took everything at face value. I accepted whatever my evangelical Christian tradition held regarding the authorship or historicity of any given passage. Although I knew Christians who disagreed on specific theological issues (e.g. the role of free will, how to interpret the book of Revelation, what type of baptism should be used, the role of women, etc.) all of us agreed on certain bedrock assumptions including the authorship of the Torah or the factual nature of the historical books of the Old Testament. God inspired a small collection of men to write down these books, and they were without error.
Though I grew up reading the Bible as literally and factually true in all points, I began this blog detailing how I changed my mind about the issue of creation and evolution. I learned what modern science had to say about origins and I adjusted my view of Genesis. Mostly that was a matter of reconciling science and faith, seeing them as compatible rather than opposed, though it also concerned the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis (and other passages, too, but especially those ones). I first encountered scholars who explained that it was possible to interpret the days of Genesis as long periods of time. They allowed for an ancient universe, though they still rejected evolution, presumably because it meant that humans could not be sufficiently distinct from animals and thus couldn’t truly be in the image of God. Later I read Christians who accepted evolution and had synthesized views of science and the Bible.
Despite changing my views on Genesis and the creation account, I still never considered much of modern biblical scholarship. All I had been exposed to were those who would defend against the attacks of modernism that had tried to debunk the traditional readings of scripture. So while at Bible college I had learned about the documentary hypothesis concerning the Torah—sometimes referred to as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis for its originators or other times referred to as JEDP for the sources that comprise the Torah (i.e. Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly)—I basically learned that it was an evil theory aimed at undermining belief in the Bible. We never spent time actually trying to learn why anyone would have come up with the theory in the first place.
So in a post I wrote more than a year ago, I explained that I wanted to be a modern day David Lurie, a character in a Chaim Potok novel who wrestles with modern scholarship on the Bible even as it shakes his faith. I began reading James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible to get a sense of what modern scholarship has to say about the Bible. It’s been eye-opening. I’m now more than halfway through the book, taking it real slow. It’s overwhelming at times to have the rug pulled out from under me. I have to sit on the floor for a while and think about it, then get back up, only to have it happen again with each new chapter I read. What follows are some of my thoughts so far, with some examples. I wrote portions of this post immediately after reading passages in Kugel so some of this records my real-time reactions to the book in an almost live-blog format.
Kugel’s book is very unsettling. Each new chapter spends some time looking at a passage first from the ancient interpreters’ viewpoint, and it feels mostly familiar. Much of my evangelical fundamentalist understanding is roughly the same on these points. I can at least see the connection from what they thought to the way I was taught. But then comes the modern scholarship on the passage. And it’s rationalist, and makes the passage come apart and mean something different than I ever thought.
To illustrate how Kugel organizes his chapters, let me give an extended example from the book on a passage that I had never really thought much about before. In Genesis 34 we get the story of Dinah, the lone daughter of Jacob amidst the 12 sons. This is the story known as “the rape of Dinah.” It comes after Jacob flees his uncle Laban with his wives, children, and livestock. Jacob wrestles with God and has his name changed to Israel. Then he meets up with his brother Esau who he had swindled out of blessing and birthright years earlier. Now Jacob and his household settle in the land of Canaan, outside the city of Shechem. A man from the city who also is named Shechem (same as the city) sees Dinah and rapes her. He falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Jacob and his sons aren’t too happy about this, but they agree to the marriage on one condition: Shechem, his father Hamor, and all the other men must get circumcised. They undergo the knife, and while they are recovering, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, slaughter all the convalescing men with swords. It’s all pretty gruesome.
Kugel presents the various lines of thinking by the ancient interpreters on this passage. First, what is the moral of the story? At first glance, it doesn’t appear to have one. But looking closer, they were able to point to the statement in verse 7: “such a thing must not be done.” In context, it might be the implied response the brothers had upon hearing about what happened to Dinah. On the other hand, this might be the voice of the narrator of the story, which would in fact be God who divinely inspired the writing of the text. But if the point of the story is the retaliation for Dinah’s lost honor, why give the story a whole chapter? The ancients were bothered by the apparent lie that the brothers tell when agreeing to the marriage. Simeon and Levi kill the Shechemites even though they abided by their side of the agreement.
Some interpreters said the real reason for the story was the problem of intermarriage. Indeed, that was a problem for Israel’s sons for generations, including the troubling account in the book of Ezra where the men are commanded to divorce foreign wives, which they do. So the brothers did not lie when they said that the marriage was a disgrace and should not take place, and their scheme to slaughter the Shechemites was justified. Some other interpreters thought perhaps the brothers were divided on the idea of Dinah’s marriage to Shechem. Perhaps ten of them thought intermarriage would be okay if they were circumcised, but Simeon and Levi disagreed. So there was no lie because the offer was sincere if not unanimous.
When modern scholars approach the stories of Genesis, they often are looking for an etiological message (a just-so story that explains how something became the way it is). But there doesn’t appear to be anything that the Dinah story explains. For one thing, Dinah completely disappears from the biblical record. The entire incident is only referred to once more (apparently) when Jacob is dying and he gathers his sons together to give them blessings. Simeon and Levi get left out of the blessings because of their violent actions against the Shechemites.
It’s all rather strange for a few reasons. Though Simeon and Levi apparently slaughter all of the Shechemite men in Genesis 34, Jacob himself seems to refer to having conquered Shechem “with my sword and with my bow” (Genesis 48:22). The city of Shechem appears again in the book of Joshua and is apparently re-populated, but there is no reference to what had happened before. Then in Judges 9 there is another reference to a guy named Shechem who lives in the city of Shechem whose father’s name is Hamor, just like in the story back in Genesis 34. Quite the coincidence.
Kugel points out that perhaps there is something that the Dinah story might explain. Perhaps it makes sense of the blessing that Simeon and Levi do not get from their father Jacob in Genesis 49. But a careful reader will note that the curse the brothers receive does not in fact have much connection to the story of the rape and the subsequent slaughter of an entire city. Some modern interpreters conjecture that the story happened at some other time (perhaps the time of the Judges) and has been inserted and retrofitted into the Genesis account to make sense of the fate of Simeon and Levi. So by this theory, Jacob never even had a daughter named Dinah. She was added to the text later with a story of her lost honor in order to make sense of the two brothers who were cursed.
This chapter on Dinah kind of blew my mind. The more I thought about the passage, the less it made sense with a straight forward traditional reading. I no longer know what to do with it. I’m not sure I accept all of the theories of the modern scholars, but I can’t completely trust the ancient interpreters either at this point. It’s a quandary.
Kugel points out many other compelling reasons to take modern scholarship seriously on matters of authorship and sources when it comes to interpreting Genesis. Many of the stories in the primeval era are etiological (again, an explanatory story for why things are the way they are), so the story of Cain and Abel might be an explanation about the Kenites, nomadic neighbors of Israel or the story of the Tower of Babel might be an explanation about the spread of language and the evils of Babylon’s religion and culture.
So if things aren’t what I thought, like Adam and Eve are not literal people but types, or that the Flood story comes from ancient Mesopotamian sources, what am I left with? A belief that God still exists and reveals himself to humanity. The Biblical accounts are human attempts to chronicle those revelations. But will even this understanding stand up to scrutiny?
The primeval literature (Genesis chapters 1-11) seems less vital, somehow, that it be historically true. It’s mythic and explanatory, an attempt to understand the world and how it got to be the way it is. When it comes to Abraham, it seems more important that he be a real person with a real relationship with God. Scholarship has seesawed on the question of Abraham’s actual existence. But it seems plausible that he was a real man. As I was about to read about the covenant and I was almost scared. After I finished and read how cutting up animals was common practice for covenants, I was relieved that the Abraham story makes sense. Phew. It could be true.
The next chapter was very thought-provoking. Kugel pointed out that there are two very different portrayals of God in the OT. At times he is anthropomorphic, appearing as an angel or man, and does not seem omnipresent or omniscient. The people he appears to seem to “be in a fog” until they realize (if they do) and then they fall prostrate. It happens to Joshua, Samson’s parents, and even to Abraham. It’s hard to mesh this view of God with the more traditional view of an incorporeal, omniscient, etc. being. But the passages that portray God this way seem to be real experiences with the divine. Was it a matter of perception for these people in the OT?
Reading this book makes me feel like I’ve jumped off a cliff and I don’t know where I’ll land. Will it be a 2 foot drop or a 2,000 foot freefall? Will I get battered and bruised on the way down? Will I even land anywhere? There’s no going back. I want to know the truth and face modern scholarship squarely in the face and take it seriously. I don’t want to rest on what I was always taught and accept it blindly. I want the faith I retain to be my own. But I’m worried what this will do to my faith.
Is it possible for me to lose faith? Is there a point at which I could learn something that would make me give up on the Bible? I don’t know. I don’t think I would have been able to say that when I was younger. I was confident, even if I didn’t know everything. I had unshakeable faith. Now all I know is that I have more questions and doubts than ever. But that’s not to say that I’ve given up.
It’s quite a rollercoaster to think through all of these interpretations. While I feel most familiar with the ancient interpreters, even their suppositions are often about problems I never saw in the text. It reminds me of the Talmudic scholars in a Potok novel as they tease out a passage and look at it from all angles. But then the modern scholars come at it and it seems like they’re trying to debunk everything. Take God out of it. Make it entirely a human document. And I don’t know what to do with that. It’s so foreign to me to look at the Bible that way.
A few months into my reading of Kugel I started reading Robert Alter’s Ancient Israel, a translation of Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, with extensive commentary, especially on translation. I wanted to read this book after seeing the smaller version that focused solely on the life of David. Alter’s translations have been praised for their poetic plainness and fidelity to the original Hebrew. I read the first chapter of Joshua, which isn’t a book that holds a lot of interest for me. When I was younger the stories of the taking of the promised land seemed heroic and adventurous, but now they seem a bit more horrific.
What struck me was the literary composition of the first chapter. It’s basically four speeches with a few words in between as connective tissue. First God speaks to Joshua, then Joshua speaks to the overseers, then to the trans-Jordan tribes, and lastly those tribes reply to him. In their reply, they say the exact same phrase (“Be strong and stalwart”) to Joshua that God says to him twice earlier in the chapter. What are the odds? It seems clearly to be a literary element to repeat the same exhortation to the new leader, showing that he is in fact the new leader now that Moses is dead.
A little later, after the famous siege and capture of Jericho and the subsequent treaty with the scared Gibeonites, the king of Jerusalem organizes 5 other kings against those Gibeonites in chapter 10. Joshua and the Israelite army come to the rescue, as per the treaty agreement. They defeat the armies, kill the kings, and then proceed to take city after city. Curiously, they do not take Jerusalem, despite having killed its king and taken every other city of the instigators. Jerusalem, of course, was not conquered until the time of David two centuries later. Why is Jerusalem left out? Is it possible that the entire account is not exactly factual?
Based on his introduction and the notes, Alter is definitely in the modern scholars camp. I like reading his translation because it uses new rhythms and vocabulary to get me out of any ruts I get into when I read a familiar translation. Sometimes my eyes glaze over as I’m reading the NIV or ESV. I feel like I’m ten years old and back in Sunday School. Alter helps get me out of that and see it anew. But with the fresh eyes is a fresh perspective that pulls bricks out of my biblical foundation.
So a few days ago I started another book (someday I’ll finish one of these books) called Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns that gives me some hope that I won’t have to fall off a cliff, or at least not so far down. Maybe some of my biblical foundation can be salvaged. He takes modern scholarship seriously while still taking the Bible seriously. His model for the Bible is incarnational, so just as Jesus is fully God and fully human, the Bible also is fully divine and fully human. Many of my previous assumptions about the Bible made me overlook its human dimension, overriding it in fact. The Bible had to be without any error straight from God or else it was a book like any other. But the evidence doesn’t support such a view. Instead, Enns argues that God speaks to humanity where they are, in their own language and culture, and even in multiple voices that don’t always agree.
So I’ve got more to chew on and consider. For now I’m stuck in the middle.
February’s reviews start off with three (!) comic books of varying quality. I read lots of comics, mostly from the library, but I don’t always review them. One reason is that because of the serial nature of much of comics storytelling, I don’t want to comment on and/or recommend a volume that is in the middle of a story. But I’ve decided to try reviewing more of the comics that I read so that anyone interested in the medium can possibly find something new to read. Or maybe I’ll make something sound so good I’ll convince someone to try their very first comic. It’s worth a shot. But it’s not all comics this month. There’s also a novel by a Nobel prize winning author and science writing from a New Yorker staff writer.
- Batgirl Volume 1: Batgirl of Burnside, written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and illustrated by Babs Tarr, is a smart, fresh take on an old character. This volume collects individual comics #35-40 of the series, but it begins a new start for Batgirl with a new creative team and a new outlook for the character. Batgirl is Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Jim Gordon of the Gotham City Police Department, but she hasn’t always been Batgirl. She was the original, but after the Joker shot her in the classic Killing Joke storyline, she became a paraplegic and became Oracle, a whiz at computers who provided assistance to other superheroes such as Batman and Black Canary. Others took up the mantle of Batgirl in the meantime. When DC Comics relaunched all of their comics a few years ago in an event called New 52, they decided to have Barbara the beneficiary of an experimental surgery that restored her ability to walk, a controversial decision because many found Oracle to be an inspirational hero with a disability. This latest version of the character is starting over at college in Burnside, a borough of Gotham. She is still a super genius with computers, which comes in handy against the villains she faces who use social media and celebrity to further their aims. I appreciated that with this incarnation, the creators revamped her costume into something practical. All too often, women superheroes have had costumes that were about the male gaze and not about the character herself. This Barbara wears a leather coat instead of spandex and boots instead of heels in a chic DIY look. Though not wowed, I enjoyed this new beginning, and I’ll probably read the next installment from the library when it arrives.
- Magneto Volume 1: Infamous, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Javier Fernandez, is the beginning of a chilling and brilliant anti-hero story. If you’ve read X-Men comics or seen the films, you know that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor: this collection includes a flashback to the Warsaw ghetto. He’s determined to prevent another genocide, the extinction of mutants. This version of Magneto is very much like the one at the beginning of X-Men: First Class. Instead of killing former Nazis, though, he is working alone to take out threats to mutant-kind. In the tradition of other anti-heroes, Magneto’s actions repulse the reader, but still his motivations are understandable and ultimately we end up sympathizing with him. Volume 1 collects the first six issues of the story, and I’m looking forward to continuing.
- Black Science Volume 1: How to Fall Forever, written by Rick Remender with artists Matteo Scalera and Dean White, is a pulpy sci-fi comic that unfortunately falls into the traps of its forebears. It’s published by Image Comics, which is home to a host of creator-owned comics series that are inventive and interesting (such as Saga and Wytches). The premise is solid: it’s an adventure story featuring a device that allows travel to alternate timelines within what the story calls the Eververse (basically all of the infinite possible universes). The cast of characters include the team of inventors who built the device, the two children of the team leader, the financial backer of the project and his partner, and a security guard. After an accident, the group gets stuck jumping from place to place, unstuck in time, with no apparent way to get back. I thought it could be fun, and it sometimes is. But I was extremely bothered by the portrayal of Native Americans in one of the alternate worlds. In that particular world, the indigenous people of North America are visited by some other group of spacetime travelers and they gain use of the device. They use it to find superior technology with which they first fight back against white invaders first defensively and then offensively as a sort of inverse Manifest Destiny. I get that Remender wanted to show the evil of the device. But it’s an alternate reality so he could have made the Native American tribes superior in the first place without outside help (the device works as a deus ex machina). Besides this, the portrayal of the tribes is that they are barbaric in spite of their advanced technology. In their first appearance, they are massacring German soldiers, who appear to be in World War I uniforms and defending trenches. In their next appearance, an indigenous soldier is vividly scalping an enemy soldier. The stereotype has been set, and unfortunately the characterization never gets much better even as we get to know one. The team leader sustains an injury so they need the help of a shaman to heal him, so they kidnap one. He effectively joins the group. Why he bothers to help them and go along after they have left his timeline is not made clear. Nearly every other character has clear backstory and motivation, but his reasoning is mysterious. Eventually in volume 2 of the series we do discover the backstory of his world that I already described, and we learn that he has a family; in fact, he is a grandfather, but it’s not much to humanize him. He’s still paper thin as a character; he’s mostly used as someone who has powerful technology to heal and to fight, not as a person. All in all, it’s an extremely disappointing portrayal of Native Americans. It could have been interesting and forceful (i.e. a world where Native Americans came out on top has potential as a premise), but the execution was abysmal. It played into all of the worst tendencies of the pulp tradition from which it came by playing to stereotypes. If you enjoy swashbuckling fantasy or sci-fi, look elsewhere. Black Science isn’t worth your time.
- Sula by Toni Morrison is a really great novel. It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town. In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely. Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again. I’ve kept this incomplete summary rather vague so as not to give away any particular details for anyone who hates spoilers. I was pleasantly surprised at how straight forward and easy the narration was to read. I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books. I love many difficult literary books. But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids. I’m more easily distracted. So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected. An impressive achievement. I’d highly recommend this novel. Now for a little anecdote. I was reading this at the dentist, and one of the assistants/hygienists asked me what I was reading. I told her the title and then said that it was by Toni Morrison. She stared at me blankly. I was momentarily surprised that she wouldn’t have heard of the Nobel Prize winning author, but then I began to think why would she necessarily know Morrison? Would she know the names of other famous authors who have won the Nobel like Alice Munro and Saul Bellow? Why would I assume people outside of my set of friends would know who these people are? Half of all American adults read four or fewer books in a year.
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert is a sobering look at the effects humans are having on life on this planet. There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth. Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts. Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing. Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species. In chapter after chapter, Kolbert details how species or larger groups have gone extinct or been threatened because of humans. The megafauna (such as mastodons, mammoths, and sabretooth cats) died out soon after contact with humans, possibly from overhunting. Large land animals to this day do poorly when in close proximity to humans because they reproduce so slowly and cannot make up for any population losses. Other chapters deal with the killing off of auks (similar to a penguin) or the Sumatran rhinoceros, which is not yet extinct but barely holding on (in fact, the rhino Suci who is highlighted in book died at the Cincinnati Zoo soon after the book came out). Still other chapters deal with how humans have made such an impact on different species. Habitat destruction, especially in diverse environments like rainforests, has led to untold numbers of extinctions of insects and larger animals in the foodchain. Ocean acidification, caused by global warming, is killing off corals and the many species which rely on coral reefs to survive. Humans also transplant species around the globe, sometimes unwittingly, which can cause all sorts of unintended consequences. The book opens with the fungus that is killing off many frogs and other amphibians. All sorts of invasive species are able to thrive in new environments when they have no natural predators. They disrupt their new ecosystem, outcompeting and/or killing the native species they encounter. The final pages offer up the possibilities of all of the mayhem humans have caused: either we will also succumb to the vast disruptions we have wrought to the planet or we will through our ingenuity overcome the looming disaster. It’s a bleak picture. Despite how depressing it can be, I still would highly recommend this book. Kolbert is a fantastic writer (the book won a Pulitzer Prize), and it’s important to think through the implications of human interaction with nature.
A new year of books and book reviews! I’m hoping to match my reading and reviewing goals from last year and do them one better (i.e. 51). These three books were a great start to the year.
- People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is an enthralling fictionalized account of the history of a book, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The story starts in 1996 after the ceasefire in the Bosnian War when a rare book conservationist is brought in to restore the illuminated Haggadah, the book Jews use for the Passover seder. While taking apart and then re-binding the book, Hanna Heath finds a few clues that might shed light on the remarkable history of the book that spans 500 years of European history. Interspersed between the main narrative of Hanna’s sleuthing are short pieces from the book’s history such as when it was saved from destruction at the hands of the Nazis during WWII. Other moments give glimpses into Vienna in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Spain at the time of the expulsion of Jews in 1492. It’s all rather riveting as the moments are about people—Jews, Muslims, and Christians— who have some connection to the book. I’m kind of a sucker for books about loving books, at least if they are done well (e.g. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose). It’s not very deep, but I enjoyed it a great deal.
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is a book I’ve read before and hope to read again someday. In other words, it’s a classic, and deservedly so. It’s a novel that somehow encompasses so much of life even though the main action only takes up a day. Periodically we hear the tolling of the bells marking the hours of a day in London of 1923. It starts with one of the famous lines of literature: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” From there, we follow Clarissa Dalloway (and other characters) through all the preparations for a party that evening at her residence. The guest list includes the Prime Minister, revered physicians, pompous bureaucrats, a poor cousin, an old suitor of Clarissa’s, and one of her oldest friends who, though living in Manchester and thus uninvited, happened to be in town and came anyway. Running parallel to the story of the events leading up to the party is the story of Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I who is suffering from shell shock (what we would now call PTSD). Through the use of flashbacks we find out some of the backstory of how Clarissa chose Dalloway instead of her old suitor, and how Septimus is haunted by the memory of his officer who was killed in the war. The narration floats and glides from character to character, in and out of minds, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next, like a butterfly flitting here and there. It can be disorienting, but it is also so fluid. We get to experience life through so many eyes and minds. It’s exquisite. It’s not an easy read despite being a tad under 200 pages, but it’s totally worth it.
- Our List of Solutions by Carrie Oeding is a collection of poetry full of longing and insight and barbecues. One thing I noticed is that this collection works as a cohesive book and not merely a random selection of poems by one author. Characters and objects and themes recur throughout the book, filling out the neighborhood feel to the proceedings. There’s Sandy who says “No more!” before being introduced to the concept of Beauty by a neighbor and finally closing the book with her own list of solutions. There’s the neighborhood barbecues where people eat meat and someone is always on the edge of the group, where there’s gossip and someone disappointing someone else. And then there’s the way the world works, first its prelude and then its understanding. It’s an understanding that’s really a curse.
Some who curse knowing the world, punch who we love saying, This can’t be
how the world works!
And some of us cursers learn
to just watch those in the world who don’t know how it works.
Of course those aren’t the only two options, and that’s not the only way to curse. It’s a complicated book, and these are intricate poems that don’t follow the same narratives or structures I’ve seen before. A speaker in one of these poems is just as likely to imagine a lengthy discourse on a new enemy before fumbling towards complete stasis as imagine that an old high school band mate had the key to beauty and freedom in a great bike metaphor, but that it was now lost. The poems do new and interesting things like revise themselves as they go along as in “Ruby, Give Leo One More Chance”: “You can know a person […] You can know a person too well. You can know a story. / You can feel nothing at all. // I can walk up to a stranger and, and I— / who cares what I could say. / This isn’t about talking to strangers.” It’s intriguing, and it’s a neighborhood I’d like to visit again, even if all the deer have left.
[disclosure: Oeding and I were in grad school together, but I didn’t know her very well. I actually decided to read her book because of a review by Angie Mazakis, another grad student and mutual friend. Angie’s review is much better. You should probably read that one instead of this one.]