Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Thing Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Next book: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

My next book blogging will be about Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard. I came across a reference to this book, while reading something about political correctness. I can no longer find the essay that I read, but the title of this book stuck with me. The reference said that this book discusses the roots of religion, and since the social concerns at the root of political correctness also sit at the root of much that maddens me in modern education, it's worth studying.

The book seems to be very focused on the theme of mimicry as the root of social strife. It's dangerous to try to fit all of human society into one single social theme, but my impression of 20th century French intellectuals is that they engaged in these over-simplifications for playful reasons. They felt that if you want to understand an idea you must take it as far as it can go and then some, and try to fit absolutely everything into it. Even if the fit is awkward, you must keep trying. They never say explicitly that the awkwardness of the fit might be telling in its own way, but instead expected you to figure that out for yourself.  So I'm reading him forgivingly. Also, his ideas about mimicry, and how it can lead to rivalry and contests, while repeated on every page, also seem to be more of an invitation to bigger questions, rather than something that he seriously intends you to fit everything into.

Mostly it has me thinking about religion in general. Abrahamic faiths seem to be particularly versatile religions, in that they provide at least 4 things:

  1. A cosmology: God made the world, and that explains it.
  2. Morality: You must do good when possible, and atone and repent by the rules of the faith when you fall short, and God will reward you.
  3. Ritual: The year is organized by a religious calendar, with rituals for different facets of life at different times of the year. This focuses our time and endeavors, provides cohesion and outlets for our communities, and provides, in the words of Ecclesiastes, a season for all things.
  4. Community: The community of believers is distinct from other tribes.
When I contrast with older polytheistic faiths, one omission that I see is morality. One reason is that in ancient mythology it isn't clear which god you should look to for morality. The universe has no undisputed moral leader, but rather a strife between deities with conflicting agendas. And many of those deities are deeply flawed (the Greek gods being particularly flawed, but not unique in having flaws). Are we to look to these murderous adulterers for morality? At least the Old Testament God, when He smites the wicked, has an uncontested claim to moral arbiter status.

Instead, polytheists appeal to different deities for different purposes.  Want victory in war? Sacrifice to the god of war. Want a bountiful harvest? Sacrifice to a harvest deity, or maybe a weather deity. And so forth. Also, while ancient polytheists were deeply concerned with tribal identity, alien tribes have deities whom some societies considered real rivals to their deities, rather than figments of alien imagination.

(Hinduism has morality, but there's also an idea that the multitude of gods reflect some deeper, higher order behind the world, something that might not be a single God like the God of Abraham, but at least brings unity.)

Political correctness offers morality and community, and increasingly ritual (e.g. land acknowledgments), but not (yet) a cosmology. I suspect that as they edge toward "noble savage" tropes we'll see a re-emergence of religious cosmology, particularly as the astronomy community struggles to reconcile their need for mountaintop observatories with traditional religious beliefs about sacred mountains, but we're not yet at the point of a PC cosmology. Maybe we'll eventually get myths about certain groups having not just more sustainable lifestyles but supernatural connections to the land, but we're not quite there (as far as I know).

Or maybe not. Ancient religions didn't check all of the boxes that Abrahamic faiths check, and much of the world gets by without all of those boxes being checked in their belief systems. Still, since PC seems to be quite Christian in its roots, being so focused on guilt and redemption, I am open to the possibility that eventually a full-scale recreation of Christianity will emerge.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Spotted in the wild: The obligatory paragraph

A while ago I blogged about the following comment by Cathy Young:
This is starting to remind me of how every Soviet essay on art or literature had the obligatory graph on Marxism-Leninism & the class struggle
She was commenting on an otherwise fine article that had an aside on how "problematic" the concept of genius is. It reminded her of the requirements placed on writers in the Soviet era.

Well, I found another example. A recent book review in the NYT starts off describing how the book's action grabbed the author, but then segues to this:
But another, different, fear had also crept in as I was reading: I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant. In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant. I was further sunk into anxiety when I discovered that, although Cummins does have a personal stake in stories of migration, she herself is neither Mexican nor a migrant.
That throat clearing out of the way, the reviewer resumes her examination of the book. It's an interesting review, and I might consider reading the book. But I wish she hadn't included that paragraph. She has every qualification needed to review a literary work: She is a human who was moved by a story.

We are a storytelling species. There's a reason why Jesus deals in parables. There's a reason why children beg their parents and other relatives to re-read the same favorite story fifty million times.  My most cherished possession from childhood is the book that my grandmother used to read to me when I was sitting on her lap. Stories move us. If a story has moved that reviewer, then she is more than qualified to comment on it.

Of course, people in this era talk about "staying in our lanes" and not commenting outside of our experiences. There's a valid point there, particularly in matters of fact, of non-fiction, but stories are about expanding our horizons. Every book ever written is a book about somebody's experiences other than my own. And even if I write a book, unless I write an autobiography free of diversions into the experiences of people whom I've encountered, it will still be a book about somebody's experiences other than my own. And literary works are about experiences that technically didn't even happen. They reflect the deeper truths of story-telling, not the surfaces truths of factual knowledge.

And even if we stop short of the narrowest construal of what stories we can and can't comment on, we can still do great mischief with this notion. What is a homework essay in literature class if not an examination of somebody else's story? Should a white student decline to write an essay on a Ralph Ellison story because that student can't comment on the black experience? Should I refuse to comment on Hamlet because I'm not bipolar? Should I have demurred from commenting on The Farewell because I'm not Chinese, even though the story of a dying grandmother resonated with my own life?

It is sad to live in an era in which the most prestigious outlets feel the need to crowd their literary commentary with these obnoxious disclaimers about identity.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Thoughts on "The Meaning of Creation"

Hyers doesn't shy away from the fact that the first two chapters of Genesis contradict each other, if read literally. This is a point that is kind of problematic for Biblical literalists. His answer is that if you read it in the original Hebrew, you see that there's a lot of metaphorical language, and some decidedly non-standard language. For instance, the sun and moon are referred to with Hebrew words meaning "the greater light" and "the lesser light" rather than by their standard Hebrew names, because their original Hebrew names share etymologies with the names of pagan deities. The purpose of each creation story, particularly the first one, is to distinguish their belief system from that of neighboring tribes.  This reading makes a lot of sense if you consider how much of the Old Testament is about conflict between Israel and neighboring peoples!

So the first chapter of Genesis has parallels with the creation stories of the pagan Babylonians, except that words for the natural world are stripped of supernatural connotations. Divinity is found not in the vast pantheons of warring deities and nature spirits that pagans worshiped, but in one creator God who stands above all of nature. The natural world is the work of a creator, not the dwelling place of numerous deities with their own domains and constant conflicts. The account of the creator is fit into the rubric of six days of work and one day of rest to make analogies with the lives of people on earth, God's children whose intellectual and emotional capacities are images of the greater intelligence and love in their intelligent creator.

The parallels with pagan accounts, and the stripping of pagan details, is deliberate, as the first chapter of Genesis dates to the Babylonian exile, and was a reminder to the people of Israel that they must resist the temptations of pagan society. Whenever they look upon the splendors of their neighbors' cities, they must remember that the world that they see is not the world of a pagan pantheon but a single God. The world is indeed a fine place, and full of wonders, but those wonders come from Yahweh.

Hyers argues that the metaphorical nature of Genesis was apparent to the audience. I don't know Hebrew, so I can't judge the validity of his claim, but I can note this: If there's anyone who's engaged in serious scholarly analysis and debate over the Book of Genesis, it's the rabbis, who have a deep literature of commentary and analysis (e.g. the Talmud). And we almost never see Jews protesting evolution at school board meetings.  Yes, it's a big country with lots of people, I'm sure that somewhere out there a rabbi is railing against biology textbooks, but you just never see as much of it. In fact, at the risk of stereotyping, Jewish families seem to prefer preparing their kids to study science rather than preparing them to protest against science textbooks. Granted, many Jewish scientists are secular, but plenty are religious, yet we rarely hear them complain about evolution and cosmology.  It's almost as though people who engage in careful study of the Old Testament in the original language, along with ages of commentary written by the society that the book was originally aimed at, are able to appreciate the metaphorical nature of the text, and find spiritual meaning and fulfillment in it because of rather than in spite of the metaphorical language.

Perhaps the most interesting point made by Hyers is this: In offering a metaphorical cosmology purged of paganism, the rabbis who compiled the Book of Genesis from older oral traditions separated the material from the divine. In many pagan traditions, spirits are everywhere in nature. But if the world was made by a creator above, then the material world is subject to a single divine plan, rather than a contest between numerous nature spirits. That mindset leaves room for a world governed by physical law, and it can be traced to the first chapters of the Bible.

Of course, reading Hyers' analysis as a persuasive rebuke to creationism requires consideration of what the focus of religious belief is. For a modern Christian, the text that they engage with is not the Hebrew original, but the English translation. And these translations didn't get printed yesterday. They have their own centuries of tradition built up around them. Expecting a Biblical literalist to prefer a theology professor's linguistic and historical arguments over the traditions of their own families and communities may be a bit much for some. Reading the King James Version is as much a tradition for many Christian families as Hebrew School is for many Jewish families. And what is the Old Testament if not an account of a people maintaining their faith and traditions in a world of challenges from alien tribes?

However, Hyers' approach does provide one possible answer, though he hasn't stated it quite as I'm about to: If we read Genesis in historical context, then we are engaging not with a timeline but with a community going through great trials, both material and spiritual. The Old Testament is a book of people holding to faith through trials of all sorts, and finding strength in their faith and community. For that matter, many of Paul's letters in the New Testament are advice to new communities going through trials in their formation. If we read Genesis in this context, as a microcosm of the Bible's great themes, we have the opportunity to encounter through words and stories the faith challenges of people who worship the same God as us. Surely there's comfort, strength, and insight in that.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

New book to (maybe) blog about: Meaning of Creation--Genesis and Modern Science

Nearly a quarter of a century ago I read a book called The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science, by theology professor Conrad Hyers. My recollection is that he looked at what the Bible meant in the original language and argued that the first two chapters of Genesis were never offered as literal timelines. I want to see if my recollection is accurate, so I will reread the book and (maybe) blog about it.

Defeated by Greek and Roman generals

I tried to read Plutarch, but his accounts of ancient generals mostly didn't do it for me. I skimmed more and more, even when reading about Alexander or the brothers Grachus. I think this book is better as a reference when I'm interested in a particular person, not as a 1200 page read-through.


Another article elsewhere

I wrote an essay that I felt deserved better circulation than this site gets, so I posted it at It's about the movie The Farewell, and how a story about culture clash winds up being a story of common humanity.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Article published in Inside Higher Ed

I have an opinion piece on the problems with land acknowledgments (opening a presentation by acknowledging that the event is happening on land that used to belong to Native Americans) at academic events at Inside Higher Ed today.