Friday, October 31, 2014

Between the Testaments

Between the Testaments
© 1960 D.S. Russell
176 pages

            The sudden eruption of Christianity from Judaism is inexplicable when considering only the Protestant Bible.  From nowhere burst the Trinity, Satan as a rebel, and an obsession with the afterlife. But Christianity’s birth is less miraculous than it seems, and Between the Testaments demonstrates the birds and the bees. A short review of  Jewish history, material and cultural, establishes the background for the rise of Christianity. Scholarly without being cerebral, D.T. Russell’s survey draws on Josephus’ History as well as Jewish writings not collected in Judaism's official canon.  Russell’s review includes a history of  cultural conflict between the Jews and Hellenism, an outline of the Jewish sects that developed within that conflict (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, etc), and a review of the Jewish works aforementioned. Of particular interest to me was the influence of Zoroastrian dualism and the Apocalyptic tradition, which established the yearning for a Messiah who would conclude the raging battle between good and evil with a decisive victory for the Good. Even if Christians choose to regard the deuterocanonicals as 'less' than inspired, the extent to which they are quoted by New Testament authors begs consideration. In addition, Russell's history covers Judaism's shift from focus on the Temple to focus on the Torah;  thus here we see not only the metaphysical framework that Christianity will eventually build on, but the origin of contemporary Judaism,  a liturgical religion led by rabbis instead of a ritual one led by priests.  Between the Testaments is particularly strong as a reference source because it's more of a review than a presented argument. The facts are given, and conclusions left to the reader's drawing.


Monday, October 27, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014

It's National Novel Writing Month again, and I'm once again tasking myself with the challenge of writing 50,000 words before November is out. The challenge starts on November 1st, of course.  I have an idea in mind that's a quasi-fantasy political drama ("quasi",  because swords, horses, and castles are more interesting than machine guns and cars), so I'm looking forward to the starting pistol being fired off.

Last week I was plodding through Wolf Hall, but the narrative structure was so slippery and the chief characters without interest that I've more or less given up. So far it consists of people saying things that have nothing to do with Henry VIII, and Thomas Cromwell being depressed or anxious about his wife dying, his boss falling from grace and dying, and the general danger of being tasked by a king who will soon prove he has no compunction against serial executions How a book on Henry VIII manages to be anything less than exciting is a puzzle to me,  and after looking on Goodreads and Amazon I can't help but note that the book is polarizing: either people think it's the cat's meow, or they're utterly put off by it. I suppose I'm in the latter camp. I’ve abandoned it for season two of The Tudors, which isn’t making me like Cromwell any better.

Some historical fiction is coming up, as I just received Master of Rome in the post and have another book somewhere in transit. I also checked out a stack of nonfiction yesterday, mostly fiction -- the Great War, the Byzantines, a little economics, and a short work on Judaism. I'm probably overambitious considering NaNo and such, but who knows?

Happy reading -- and writing.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Unknown War

The Unknown War
© 1931 Winston Churchill
396 pages

The war to end all wars, what Sir Winston Churchill aptly described as the world crisis, began when a Serbian partisan assassinated the heir of Austria-Hungary's throne, setting into motion a Rube Goldberg diplomatic catastrophe.  Despite  the bloody spotlight quickly moving to the German invasion of France, and the English response, Austria's war against Serbia created an altogether different war in the east. Not here were the long, country-spanning trenches. The east was a front of movement and maneuver, but one denied consummation by the Central Powers' fixation on their western foes. The Unknown War, penned  by Churchill as part of his large history of the war in the 1920s, is a sweeping history of the conflict.

 Its sheer level of detail will no doubt be appreciated  by students, as Churchill is obsessed with not only diplomatic wranglings but the step-by-step maneuvering of the armies as they clashed in great battles.  The east contained no static front, and Germany's greatest victories came through risky attempts at envelopment. The German high command was slow to realize the potential of the Eastern front, so resolved were they that France was a more promising target. Time and again resources were taken from the East to fill the graves of the west, attacking places like Verdun, despite great victories in the east that seized Russia's rails and best positions. Austria, too, had its distraction once erstwhile ally Italy attacked it. The Italian command was in no danger of accomplishing anything, but Austria's fury at betrayal turned into counteroffensives that relaxed the hand at Russia's throat. Though Churchill writes the tsar's domain was on the verge of a comeback, victory was stolen at the last moment by the sudden Bolshevik coup.  (Those scoundrels!)  Churchill's happy talent for oratory translates for the most part into his writing; parts of it are narrative in the truest sense of the word, in that their cadence is speechlike.  The disastrous Gallipoli campaign is lightly touched on; most of the chapter concerns itself with how the invasion forced the Central Powers to devote a little more attention and manpower to the eastern fronts, to break Serbia and open it up as a channel of munitions to aid the Turks. The English exercise, a horror in its own right, is simply blamed on accidents and an incompetent commander on the ground.

The author's personal defenses aside, this is probably a solid lead for  those with an interest in the eastern front, but virtually no background.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Gone Girl (No Spoilers)

Gone Girl
© 2012 Gillian Flynn
432 pages

Gone Girl is a dark pleasure, a thriller driven by loathsome people whose greatest achievements are an exercise in sociopathy. Like The Sopranos or The Tudors,  the story is a gripping one, utterly captivating and visceral -- but it leaves one feeling somewhat guilty for having enjoyed such misery so much.  The story opens on Nick Dunne, with a Ken-Doll face and an empty interior. He has little personality to recommend him, but when he arrives home to a disrupted living room and a missing wife,  there's some sympathy to be had. When he mentions off-hand that an innocent comment was his fifth lie to the police, however, the mystery starts.  Told in two parts -- Nick, narrating the present-day aftermath of his wife's vanishing and said wife Amy's diary entries covering the years of their dating and marriage --   Gillian Flynn's story is a series of unsettling exposures preceding a massive upset.

What little sympathy the reader develops for Nick, suspected of murder by a city that's seen too many true-crime dramas, evaporates as we spend time with him. He is an unreliable narrator, hiding things from the reader and reflexively lying to even those trying to help him. At the same time,  the Nick as witnessed through Amy's diary is decidedly a failure as a husband; not because he disappoints her (she's ever so long-suffering), but that he is contemptible by every measure of husbandry. Her record of his selfish, cruel, and bordering-on-violent behavior coupled with the deceit he offers to the reader makes him very, very, suspicious. But it's a thriller, a mystery, and how exciting would it be if a suspicious husband accused of murdering his wife actually murdered her?  There's obviously more to the story, but what makes Gone Girl's  unavoidable twist exceptional  is that it utterly alters the character of the book; the reader's entire reality collapses as a third persona enters the ring and makes a murder-mystery into a psychological war of attrition, one that commands attention. This is one of those books that made me despair of work, meals, and bedtime, because I wanted  to keep reading it even though it grew darker and more gratuitous all the while. The morbidity doesn't cease with the ending, but it's appropriate in a way.

In the end, I'm left feeling like I do after a season of Sons of Anarchy or a similarly violent-albeit-compelling show. It's exciting stuff, yes, but I don't know that I would go around urging others to read it. The viciousness is a little much. Like Dean Koontz's The Good Guy, there's a limit to how morally revolting a character I can spend headspace time in.

I was reminded of Greg Iles' Sleep No More and Third Degree

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
© 2011 Brad Pitre
240 pages

Communion, the eating of bread and wine regarded as the body and blood of Jesus, is the heart of liturgical worship. Its place in Christian history holds such awe that even the most anarchic Protestant sect pays homage to it, if only once a year.  Where did it come from? What could have possessed a group of first century Jews into organizing an elaborate ritual around small fragments of bread, and regarding its consumption as the key to eternal life, as Paul wrote?  Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Christian Eucharist examine ‘the great Thanksgiving’ in the light of Passover. The work of a Notre Dame religious scholar, it draws not only from the Bible but from the broader Jewish religious tradition to place the Eucharist firmly within it.

Although Christianity and Judaism have grown far apart over the millennia, in the beginning this was not so.  The breaches between the two religions, so exaggerated now, are bridged when first-century Judaism is delved into fully. While modern Jews hold that the Messiah is an earthly king, come to establish a temporal kingdom, rabbinic commentators within the Mishna and Midrash were looking for a successor to Moses; a prophet who would lead another exodus, this one spiritual, and establish a new covenant. It is the legacy of Moses that much of the book is built on;  the exodus he led and the tradition he founded.

The first Exodus was lead by Moses, after a series of plagues delivered against the land of Egypt convinced its Pharaoh that releasing the Hebrews from slavery might be the wisest course of action. Though bothered before by p boils, locusts,  bloody rivers, and dead cows, the coup de grâce came in the form of an angel of death that slew every first-born son in the land, including the Pharaoh's own boy. The night the angel was at work, the Hebrews engaged in a ritual dinner that was instituted as their salvation.  Shortly after the Hebrews had left Egypt and received the Law of Moses, they were ordered to reenact that ritual dinner every year thereafter.  Passover, that reenactment, the yearly remembering of their rescue from slavery, is the origin of the Eucharist, its antecedent. The Eucharist is in fact the new passover; just as the first provided rescue from physical bondage, the second offered redemption from spiritual bondage and death.

Belief in the power of the Eucharist is not required to appreciate Pitre's argument, which demonstrates how the central Christian practice has well-established Jewish antecedents. Among them:  widespread belief in the eventual establishing of a new covenant, installed in blood, one in which the chosen people would feast on the presence of God, not ordinary food; a corresponding belief that the manna which fell from heaven during the Exodus was a sample of that extraordinary food;  the veneration of that manna, accomplished by its presence in the Ark, and the regular use of unleavened bread in Jewish sacrifices. Kept in the tabernacle, and referred to as the Bread of the Presence, it symbolized God's abiding with the people of Israel.  and finally, the Christian retelling of the Last Supper -- the first communion -- in which the fourth ritual cup of wine,  'the cup of salvation', is not consumed within the Upper Room -- but is referred to during the Passion when Jesus pleads to let 'this cup' pass from him, and later consumes wine on the Cross.   This last one is is somewhat stretched, but altogether it's a compelling case that the Gospel authors believed this, that they structured their telling of the Last Supper to connect it with the Passover, to link Jesus' life with Moses. Even if one regards Jesus as nothing but a apocalyptic prophet, the argument is no less compelling because it demonstrates what  the early church made of Jesus' life as they struggled to find meaning in it, increasingly removed from that promise that the end of days was imminent.  At the very least, the ritual consumption of bread and wine in celebration of the presence of God is made a common bond between Temple Judaism and Christianity, the unbroken thread.

There are still some minor quibbles; varying gospels place the execution of Jesus at different spots during Passover, some after the sacrifice of the lamb and some during it; obviously, the connective imagery is most strong if one regards Jesus as being crucified at the same hour that lambs were being  roasted crossways on spits.  The objection Jews would have against drinking blood and eating 'human flesh' is noted, and Pitre points out that many of Jesus' followers simply couldn't take it. The rest were swayed by the notion that they weren't eating fleshy flesh, they were partaking in a resurrected body, a 'glorified' one, and it wasn't the same. It's a hard sell ("a hard saying", to quote their biblical reaction).  The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist is altogether a most effective revealing of how Christian traditions simply grew intact from older Jewish ones.  It's not a novel idea; Christians from churches high and low consider Passover and Eucharist linked, but Pitre demonstrates the depth of their connection and makes plain that Christianity's Jewishness runs deep.

The Crucified Rabbi, Taylor Marshall. This also examines Judaism's role in shaping Christian (specifically Catholic) spirituality, though it's more of a general survey and not nearly as powerfully argued.
Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart Ehrman. Though I haven't reviewed it here, dualism is an important piece of the puzzle that is Christianity's origin.

They Thought They Were Free

They Thought they Were Free: the Germans, 1933-1945
346 pages
© 1955 Milton Mayer

How could ordinary, decent people abide the Nazis for the span of twelve years -- to allow a baby born at the NSDAP's seizure of power to practically come of age under their banner? Shortly after World War II, Milton Meyer traveled to Germany and attempted to answer that question for himself. Omitting his Jewish heritage, he cultivated friendships with ten German citizens and approached them with questions about their life during the war.  His mission was to understand their experience.Though primarily writing for the western world of the 1950s, urging the powers not to turn the Germans into the anti-Soviet front line, virtually none of the import achieved here has faded with the decades. He searched for insight about the German soul under the Nazi state, but discovered man.

Today Hitler and the Nazis are a byword for evil, but for Meyer's Germans, this was not so. The totality of the Nazi evil was not revealed until after the Allies had swept across Germany and discovered the camps, those ghastly factories of obscenity where families were slaughtered with hellish efficiency. For the Germans interviewed, Hitler was a bolt from the blue, a strike of leadership in a time of self-indulgent parliamentary quibbling. He was a leader who believed in Germany, who could inspire the kind of discipline needed to rebuild and recover from the Great War and depression. He  advanced a siege mentality, but stirred up the fortitude requited to endure a struggle.  Judging from his friends, Meyer believes that most Germans knew little about the atrocities that would be committed under that threatened mindset; for them,  Hitler was the man who had cured unemployment,  who had restored national pride; such was his stature in their imaginations that even when it became obvious that the NSDAP was leading Germany into ruin,  he was beyond reproach. Disconnected from the party, he was the Kaiser, the head of state, the man above politics; when things went awry, it was his advisers who were held liable, his administrators deemed malevolent. “If only Hitler know what was happening,” some thought.   The belief that the king can do no wrong seems to have deep roots in the human psyche,  appearing seemingly everywhere.

Even if Hitler was not known then as the source of evil,  no one could deny that something was amiss in Germany. Here Meyer examines how the Jews could be subjected to such desolation. . The Nazi cultivation of antisemitism worked not only to marginalize Jews, to keep the mind from lingering too long on where they kept disappearing to, but simultaneously gave baser instincts a target to fixate and build on. Urges for casual petty violence, normally inhibited by the law, were given legal sanction against Germany’s Jewish population; but violence, once unleashed,  is rather difficult to rein back in. That violence was not only physical, but psychological, eroding the civil soul;  Meyer's interviewees report how they were steadily compromised.  Merely conflicted when the Nazi campaigns were set in motion, torn by a sense that something was not right but unsure as to whether attacking the triumphant Party was worth it. That inaction only reinforced itself as Germans were slowly prised apart from conscience, either out of fear or moral sloth. Some values, like free speech directed against the government, were so new and existing only on the  periphery that when they disappeared their absence was as dimly noticed as that of the marginalized Jews. 

Though elements of the book are specific to Germany, the study of man compromised by rule is more generally applicable. Meyer believes the veneration of Hitler was tied to the German veneration of the Kaiser, but what society has been spared a leader who acts as if he is above  the law?  Even England, which prizes the Magna Carta and its supposition that the king is subject to laws greater than he, has had its Henry VIII;  in the modern age the power and influence of rulers is even more strongly expressed. Of general interest, too, is the conflict of moralities at play when the state is doing things that are obviously wrong. People want to do the 'right' thing,but so utterly basic is tribal preservation instinct that we hesitate; how can we attack 'ourselves'? We must separate the players in our minds, must create a new 'us' and relegate the government to the status of 'them', but that doesn't alter the fact that those enabling the evil are still our countrymen. The tide of fear and uncertainty has an awful strength, sweeping away all but the most strident stands.  It is a struggle not finished, and one which will never be finished;  we are never relieved from the possibility our instincts may lead us in the wrong direction. 
They Thought They Were Free strikes me a must-read for beginning to grasp the German mind and the human soul in its darkest hour. Historically it alters a bounty of insight into what Germans were enduring now, but can be applied to human travails through the centuries. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Reading on the Eve of Destruction

We know no spectacle in human history more instinct with pathos than that of these twelve million men, busy with the cares, hopes and joys of daily life, working in their fields or mills, or seated these summer evenings by their cottage doors with their wives and children about them, making their simple plans for thrift or festival, unconscious of the fate which now drew near, and which would exact from them there all. Only a signal is needed to transform these multitudes of peaceful peasants and workmen into the mighty hosts which will tear each other to pieces year after year with all the machinery of science, with all the passions of races, and all the loyalties of man.

Yet it should not be supposed by future generations that much direct compulsion was required. Of all the millions who marched to war in August 1914, only a small proportion went unwillingly away. The thrill of excitement ran through the world, and the hearts of even the simplest masses lifted to the trumpet-call. A prodigious event had happened. The monotony of toil and of the daily around was suddenly broken. Everything was strange and new. War aroused the primordial instincts of races born of strife. Adventure beckoned to her children. A larger, nobler life seemed to be about to open upon the world. But it was, in fact, only Death.

p. 93, The Unknown War. Sir Winston Churchill