wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: March, 2015

The Boston Public Library is a howling cavernous hell.

The carpets are quite nice, as is the new coat of paint on the walls. And there’s loads of sunlight.

But the constant teeth-rattling bellow of construction equipment rather undermines the otherwise cheery vibe.

This has been one of those ‘too long for Twitter, not quite substantive enough for any other venue’ kind of posts, thanks.

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Book Review: DID JESUS EXIST? (Spoiler: Yes, he did.)

Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (Bart Ehrman)

(Personal note: I’ve used A.D. and B.C. here, rather than (B.)C.E., out of three decades’ habit, and because ‘A.D.’ looks nicer on the page to my eye than the ungainly three-letter alternative.)

I recognized Ehrman’s name from How Jesus Became Christ, which I’ve wanted to read for a while, and picked this one up last week from the remainder stacks at Harvard Book Store. The first 3/4 of the book gives the scholarly consensus answer to the titular question, which is: Yes, unquestionably. Jesus of Nazareth did exist. Ehrman deals generously but firmly with the ‘mythicists,’ those writers who insist that Jesus was a fictional (mythological) character invented by cultists a few years after his supposed death. In passing, he makes an observation which shook me: the atheist (or pan-spiritualist) insistence that the canonical Gospels be treated not as historical documents but as a kind of shared-world mythmaking project is just as ahistorical and myopic as the fundamentalist/literalist insistence that the Gospels are faultless records of a god-man’s earthly existence in first-century A.D. (C.E.) Roman Palestine. In other words, it’s wrong to hold the Gospels (and the often much weirder noncanonical lowercase-G gospels) out as exceptions to every established practice of historical documentary analysis — Ehrman points out that trained (he keeps saying ‘credentialed,’ justifiably embittered at having to write this book in the first place) scholars possess well-oiled interpretive/analytical machinery for determining which parts of the New Testament can be treated as historical accounts and which are, y’know, wish-fulfillment.

(For instance: the fact that a story appears in Mark, Luke, and Matthew doesn’t count as corroboration, since the writers of Luke and Matthew based their gospels on Mark; whereas stories that appear in just one of the gospel sources, or widely vary in their presentation, are more useful for that purpose, etc.)

This portion of the book is wholly convincing. The verdict is in. Jesus of Nazareth existed. (He almost certainly wasn’t born in Bethlehem, but what can you do.)

The final section is a quick rundown of scholarly consensus on what the historical Jesus actually said and did. This is what I was most interested in. Ehrman’s argument, in brief: Jesus was an apocalypticist preacher (a term with specific theological connotations, not just ‘guy talking about the end times’), not a proto-Marxist or proto-feminist or radical anticapitalist or proponent of military uprising. And (a bit of speculation here) he was probably executed for suggesting to the apostles, privately, that in the coming kingdom of God — where they, the twelve, would be seated as kings of the twelve tribes of Israel — Jesus himself would be capo di tutti capi. That, Ehrman suggests, was the content of Judas’s betrayal, seeing as there’s no record of Jesus ever describing himself, in his public ministry, as ‘king of the Jews.’

Ehrman runs through some of Jesus’s teachings and teases out which of the utterances ascribed to Jesus were likely later additions to the tradition, including a weirdly thrilling description of the phrase ‘Son of Man’ and its role in apocalypticist rhetoric. And he situates Jesus’s ministry within a tradition, dating back to the prophet Daniel at least, of apocalypticist contributions to theological/political debates within Jewish culture. (I’d heard of the Essenes, for instance, but had never understood that the Dead Sea Scrolls were a collection of Essene literature having nothing to do with Jesus but contemporary with him.)

The continuity between late-B.C. Jewish political/theological debates, the early Jesus cult, and the youngish Christian churches is one of those incredibly important areas that we were never ever taught about as young Catholics. But the power of Catholicism for me has always come from its intertwining of mysterious, mystical sensuality with a proud tradition of intellectual preservation — which would have been well served, I think, by a little more book-learnin’ and a lot less finger-waggin’.

But here we are, better late than never; and it’s a superb book which I heartily recommend, with just the small caveat that Ehrman’s patience for considerations of historical evidentiary standards will surely outlast your own, and you’ll skip pages as I did. No shame in that. The skipping won’t do you or the book any harm, and what you don’t skip will do you good.

Why does it matter, by the way?

The ‘Christ myth’ (that Jesus was a fiction, that the Gospels are the only ‘evidence’ of his existence, etc.) is itself a myth. Ehrman’s book takes it up as a scholarly question, or at least a pseudoscholarly one, but the book’s worth reading partly because, I suspect, the ‘Christ myth’ myth is more widely believed, or at least entertained, than we’d think. I’m guessing that a hell of a lot of people, not just Nü-Atheists and New Age goofs, are dubious about the historical fact of the preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Which is bad for our civilization. It’s one thing to be agnostic as to Jesus’s divinity or the existence of deities — or, say, psychic powers! — but it’s quite another to go on as if the existence of perhaps the single most influential human being in history were a legitimately open question. Whether or not you’re a believing Christian (or any other theist, or more generally a ‘credulous sort’), your beliefs can only be made more robust, and your sense of the world and your place in it more…sensible, by firming up your vague sense of our species’s shared past.

Indeed, the more ‘realistic’ your personal sense of the way one rabble-rousing end times prophet became the focus of an apocalypse cult, which in turn grew to remake half the human world, the better equipped (I suspect) you’ll be, we’ll be, to deal with the enormous and actually apocalyptic changes to that world which are already underway.

So that’s that, I guess. Have a read. I didn’t see it as such a big deal when I picked it up, but the more I think on it, the question of ‘what are the facts behind Western civilization’s chief myth?’ does seem, y’know, worth looking into.

Nu-albatross.

(If I haven’t #humblebragged to you about it already, here’s some data: I’m writing a book on Phish’s A Live One for Bloomsbury’s 33-1/3 series. It’s due out in October 2015.)

I got the manuscript back from the editor and her Filthy Assistant this week, and have come to an interesting stage in the project. I submitted my pitch during the open call more than a year ago, and thought about it almost nonstop from the moment they got back to me (late spring?) until I submitted the manuscript about a month ago. That’s a long time to live with a set of ideas — especially long when you have little sense of how good (or the other thing) the ideas are.

A handful of folks read some/much/all of the manuscript. Their feedback was essential, priceless, and their reward awaits them in heaven.

By the turn of the year I had gone a bit mad.

For the last month, with the manuscript on her (virtual) desk, I’ve been able to fully relax for the first time in ages: finally putting our gym membership to good use, getting back on the bike that has been shown to be essential to my happiness, and being a much more agreeable father, husband, and friend. My dad came to town; we only had the one ‘how did these two human beings ever get along?’ fight, so that was a decent visit.

Decompressing. I didn’t realize how much I’d needed it.

Then the manuscript came back, and I got the shock of my year: it’s pretty good. Or at least my editor thinks it’s pretty good, which I hadn’t doubted so much as simply dismissed as impossible. How could this book possibly make any sense? Hard as I’ve worked on it, it represents a year of obsessing over the musical love of my life, a topic I have a hard enough time making sense of when I’m in peak form, never mind staring at an outline for six months wondering where the idea to include a whole section about the Church of the SubGenius came from…

But she seems pleased.

I must say, I was genuinely surprised. I’m getting over it.

The interesting part of the project, though, is this: now I get to spend one month punching up the manuscript in a state of emotional equilibrium, something literally unimaginable to me until this week. I can never be dispassionate about it — this is my dream writing assignment — but having taken my mind off the hook for a month, making notes and outlines for the next few projects, I now get to come back to the Phish book, the albatross, as if it were just a piece of writing and not (y’know) the final revelation of my dilettantism and fraudulence.

So that’s the project for the next few weeks: implement the editor’s changes (sample: ‘your one hundred godsdamned footnotes should be moved into the main text, you pretentious DFW-aping hack’) and write a gigantic STET next to the Filthy Assistant’s suggestion that ‘freeform,’ which is a beautiful word, should probably be ‘free-form,’ which is the ten billionth hyphenate in the manuscript and that’s two billion too many.

I’ve got some essays in the works but they’re now officially on the back burner again.

There will be much to talk about in a month or so.

Love to you and yours,

wa.

Javi’s ‘LOST Will and Testament.’

Back to an old hobbyhorse, maybe/hopefully for the last time:

Javier Grillo-Marxuach has written a 17,000-word ‘Lost Will and Testament’ answering the question ‘Were you, the writers of Lost, making it up as you go along?’ If you like this sort of thing, go read it.

Lost is praised for the humanity and complexity of its characters, but it’s hard for me to take people seriously when they make such claims. I suspect a lot of the critical praise for the show comes from writers and wannabes who love its banal, too-obvious writerliness: the transparent string-pulling and hamfisted trauma-as-backstory and coincidence-as-story that passed for characterization on the show. The barely-subtextual drama of the writers’ room was more interesting (though less visually attractive) than the nonsense-in-the-jungle happening onscreen.

Its finale was embarrassingly bad.

Whatever.

It used to bother me that, beyond the initial ‘think tank,’ the writers had engaged in essentially no ‘worldbuilding’ beyond the ‘Hey here’s something cool!’ level — no systematizing, no coherence; nothing comparable to, say, the complexity of Game of Thrones, which of course would never’ve gotten to TV were it not for Lost — and were improvising nearly everything about the show. But that stopped mattering to me long ago. It’s network TV, that’s how it’s done, and the Big Brain tasks fell to Damon Lindelof, who may be ‘smarter’ than the rest of his Lost writing staff but who doesn’t seem to have had much to say for all that. My expectations lowered somewhere during the embarrassingly static Season Two and never recovered; Lost was fine as lurid pulp melodrama but as SF/F it was shallow incoherent nonsense

What’s surprising about JGM’s post is the revelation apparently he still gets a lot of such complaints. Hopefully his spirited, though subtly bet-hedging, defense of the show’s first two seasons will stop all that. There are so, so, so many ways in which Lost failed; merely being an American network TV show, subject to that ludicrous industry/format’s limitations and idiosyncrasies, shouldn’t be held against it.

The trouble.

The trouble is, now I can’t justify posting ‘Twitter-size’ ideas to the blog. Which cuts down on production, dunchano.

Three recent reads.

Born Standing Up (Steve Martin)

I read most of this in one sitting last year, and finished it this morning on a lark. A well-written memoir of Martin’s standup comedy days. Pleasant diversion.

Guards! Guards! (Terry Pratchett)

Pratchett died. It seems impossible, though we’ve known for years it would happen. I decided it was time to read more Discworld books; I’d only read the first two and Reaper Man — the latter many many times over the years. It’s one of my favourite novels.

I’m sick today. Reading a book seemed like just the thing.

I’ll say a couple of things.

The tavern brawl is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

There are passages in this book so humane, so generous, so piercingly insightful, they took my breath away and left me in tears.
When Lady Ramkin took Vimes’s hand as they faced death together, I thought my heart would burst, despite knowing that of course they’d survive.

Pratchett wrote harried-everyday-people-running-around-madly-to-accomplish-they-knew-not-what as well as anyone I know. He wrote real human beings as well as anyone I know.

He was a furiously angry man. You can tell.

Only needing to pick up Feliks at daycare is keeping me from starting the next one.

Thank you so much, Mr Pratchett. For this world you made.

Mort (Terry Pratchett)

Reaper Man is dearer to me than almost anything I’ve ever read; it’s something like Riddley Walker and Jurassic Park (or, in far different frames, Little, Big and the CLR Algorithms book) in the effect it’s had on my thinking and living. I picked up a paperback copy of Mort years and years ago at a church rummage sale on Mass Ave. The paperback probably smells a bit musty, though I’ve been sick so I can’t be sure. I grabbed it that day (paying, what, a dollar? fifty cents?) because of the title, an obvious clue to the main character: Death, my favourite of Pratchett’s creations.

The trouble is, Reaper Man (it turns out) is a kind of do-over of Mort, featuring a more complex portrayal of Death — ‘lived in,’ you might say — and a cast of extraordinarily vivid supporting characters, Renata Flitworth chief among them. Mort‘s Death is a bit chilly; the gags are at times low-hanging fruit; and Mort, Ysabell, Keli, Cutwell, and Albert are rendered sympathetically but without the full complexity that famously characterizes the later novels. What’s more, the metaphysics get more than a bit tangled here, and the characters’ motivations with them: I’ve no idea what the final ‘plan’ was (if there was one), or where Albert’s loyalties finally lay, or why Mort started changing into Death…it’s a weird feeling to be swept up in a plot, rooting for the main characters, while still having little idea what the hell’s going on. It’s not as perfectly formed as Guards! Guards!, say.

Not to say it’s a bad book. It’s a wonderful book. It just feels like a first encounter with some unusually big ideas, some surprisingly deep feelings, which Pratchett and the Discworld need to deal with and move beyond, so that the rest of the world can rush in.

This has not been a well written or incisive review, I know. Today I don’t have it in me.

I’m so grateful to have so much Discworld to look forward to. I’ve been waiting for these stories for most of my life. No more waiting.

I’ve got some nonfiction to read next, and the rest of Joy in the Morning (there’s an essay to write about Wodehouse, Pratchett, and Douglas Adams, but not today). But I think I’ll come back to the Discworld soon. And I think I’ll read them in writing order. Tour the world, or rather the evolving idea of the world, with the author.

Funny little note: I read Guards! Guards! in my non-Retina iPad Mini’s Kindle app, but read Mort on plain ol’ paper. The latter took half the time and felt indescribably better to my eyes.

legendarium/space

Fort helps invent psychogeography: space is legendarium; traversing idea-space is touring nation made of stories; the quality of thought is the trip. Your style of thinking is your thought. You only know the country by thinking through its contradictions: a nobly critical outlook.

‘All by himself?’

Captain Vimes ran up Short Street—the longest in the city, which shows the famous Morpork subtle sense of humor in a nutshell—with Sergeant Colon stumbling along behind, protesting.

Nobby was outside the Drum, hopping from one foot to another. In times of danger he had a way of propelling himself from place to place without apparently moving through the intervening space which could put any ordinary matter transporter to shame.

“’E’s fighting in there!” he stuttered, grabbing the captain’s arm.

“All by himself?” said the captain.

“No, with everyone!” shouted Nobby, hopping from one foot to the other.

“Oh.”

(Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!)

Down to Tenniel.

Yesterday we watched the Disney Alice in Wonderland. A couple of years ago I reread Carroll’s books, which are extraordinary, and I hadn’t seen the film in at least a quarter-century, so I was excited to show it to my wife and four-year-old son — it’d be their first time.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am: the movie is both absolutely wonderful in a mainline-American-animation lite-surrealist-whimsy kind of way, and a rather poor adaptation of the books overall. It comes down to John Tenniel’s canonical illustrations, really — his work defined the ‘look’ of Wonderland, which is unspeakably creepy, and the Disney film duplicates his designs without quite capturing their mood of barely-contained bedlam.

Tenniel's Cheshire cat.

The decision to interpolate all of ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ as recited by the Tweedles is explicable — the film is the Disney animators’ showcase and the sad tale of the oysters is a perfect setpiece — but it does sap the film’s momentum somewhat. Indeed, the first half of Alice feels surprisingly like Fantasia: a series of beautiful vignettes that never quite escape the family-entertainment gravity well. Once we meet the Queen, of course, the end is in sight, and momentum is restored. (Sidenote: Every climactic cinematic courtroom scene reminds me of Jumpers and The Prisoner because I am a damaged, lost human being, but in this case the link makes (non)sense.)

What’s missing, besides menace, is mathematics. There’s no chess here, no perverse hyperlogic…just the occasional bit of punnery and a parade of mildly freaky visions in grand gorgeous Technicolor that seem less (frightfully) alive than Tenniel’s black&white illustrations. Half the fun of Carroll’s tales is the fact that they’re puzzle books — the Disney adaptation’s rejection of that fun, of the possibility that kids could have a good time working through Wonderland’s very orderly brand of madness, shows a lack of faith in the audience that I didn’t find insulting until I saw it through my 4-year-old’s eyes.

He didn’t like the film, by the way. Neither did my wife. I enjoyed it well enough at the time, and am disappointed by how I feel today. Ho hum.

What is all this.

I blogged for roughly a decade at waxbanks.typepad.com (archives still online as I write, though that may change), but lost steam and put it in mothballs. Now I’m trying again. Point your browser toward blog.waxbanks.net rather than waxbanks.wordpress.com, as I may move this site to private hosting for the, as they say, schtonque of it all.