Religion

The Minding Scripture Podcast

Here's something for you to do at home if or when you are sick of reading, listening to music, and watching movies and TV. (That's meant as a joke. Personally I don't think I could ever get entirely sick of doing those things; each of them separately, maybe, if I couldn't switch to one of the others.)

"Minding Scripture" is a podcast from Notre Dame (University of, not cathedral) in which a group of scholars drawn from the Big 3 monotheistic traditions look at the various scriptures of each from the point of view of their own faith. There is a core group of four Notre Dame faculty members (see this), of whom Francesca Murphy is one, and who are joined for specific episodes by experts in the topic at hand. 

When I first heard of this I didn't think it would be my cup of tea; scripture scholarship is not high on my list of interests. Much lower on my list of interests, usually down into the realm of active avoidance, is discussion of "the historical Jesus," which I generally take as suggesting that the Jesus of the Church is, to put it bluntly, imaginary. But out of curiosity I decided to give Episode 2: The Historical Jesus a try, and found it quite interesting, though if I heard correctly, the visiting expert--John Meier, author of Jesus: A Marginal Jew--said near the end that there is almost nothing in the Gospels that we can take as being the actual words of Jesus. I emphasize "if I heard correctly," because I was listening while out for a walk and was crossing a busy street at that point. I never went back to see if he really said that, but even if he did, I don't have to (and don't) buy it, and there were a lot of interesting details about the life and language of the times.

I went from there to Episode 4: The Translation of Scripture, in part because David Bentley Hart is one of the visitors (the other is Robert Alter), and I really wanted to hear what he sounded like. Answer: exactly what I expected. That episode was completely fascinating, and I can recommend it without reservation.

I've listened to a couple of others now, and I don't know that I'll listen to all of them (there are currently seven). But the series is certainly worth checking out; the conversations are both engaging and interesting. Here's the link again.


The Eighth Day Books Catalog Is Back

I say that even though I had never seen it until a few days ago, when it arrived in the mail, announcing its return. I didn't know it had been away. I've been hearing about Eighth Day Books for years, but didn't know much more than that it is a highly regarded Christian bookseller, with an Orthodox slant. 

I think they got my name and address from one of the magazines I subscribe to. I can tell because they have my name as "Maclin," not "James M" or "Mac." Maybe it was Touchstone. Or Dappled Things. In any case, I'm glad they did, because it's a great catalog. If you're not familiar with it, but you used to get the old A Common Reader and/or Cahill and Company catalogs, this can fairly be described as a Christian version of them. I know, Cahill was/is Christian, but, as I recall, in a sort of lite way. And I seem to recall liking Common Reader more, but it's a shaky memory.

At any rate I did love the Common Reader catalog, which I think was killed by Amazon. It was a good read in itself, and although I did not order very often from it, because I didn't have much money to spare in those days, it did introduce me to some writers of whom I had not previously heard, such as Alice Thomas Ellis and Ronald Blythe. (I hope I'm not giving it credit that should go to Cahill and Company; these are decades-old memories.)

The Eighth Day catalog is just as good, just as much a good read. I've now looked through most of, and read much of, its 130 pages. I have to admit that I have no plan and not a great deal of desire to order books from several of its categories: Theology and Patristics, Ecclesiography, probably not even Spiritual Direction or Athletes of Prayer. At one time I might have coveted some of these, but at this point in my life much of it seems too specialized for me. But the literary stuff, and the more general philosophical-theological stuff--well, I've already marked several titles to be ordered.

For instance: George Steiner, known primarily as a literary critic, died recently. Many years ago (close to fifty) I read some of his reviews in The New Yorker and was impressed enough by them that his name stayed with me as a writer I might want to investigate further. I think it was one of these which included a remark which has stayed with me ever since: that The Waste Land was "a last run through the stacks before they close the library." I never have followed up on that impulse, but news of his death reminded me of him. And here's this catalog which includes two intriguing titles by him, Real Presences and In Bluebeard's Castle.

And I do intend to order them from Eighth Day, possibly even using the order form in the back of the catalog. Even if one disapproves or is suspicious of Amazon in principle, the temptation to use it is often almost irresistible, for reasons which I'm sure we all know, and which come down to "it's so convenient." For a while I tried to make myself use my local independent bookstore instead, but essentially everything I want is a special order for them, requiring two trips to the store (one to place the order, one to pick it up). Also: (a) I suspect special orders are more trouble than they're worth for the store, and (b) I don't think the store needs me. This has become a pretty affluent town over the past 25 years or so, and the store now includes a coffee shop and a music venue, and seems to be doing very well without my occasional few dollars.

Here's the Eighth Day Books web site. At a quick look I don't see a way to sign up for the catalog, but maybe if you order from them they put you on the list. Another reason for buying from them is to keep getting the catalog, though I suppose it doesn't change very much from one edition to the next.


The Rise of Skywalker

I probably wouldn't have gone to see it if I didn't have grandchildren who are very interested in it. I'm interested, too, but not all that interested; I would have waited till I could see it on Netflix or Amazon.

I haven't read many reviews, but I have the impression that most reaction, at least from people who care enough to review it or discuss it on the internet, has been on the negative side. And if you read the commentary of a true fan, you'll find all sorts of details and disputes about whether this or that aspect of it was good or bad. There seems to be a lot of discussion about whether this last trilogy is coherent, as the second film in it was directed by a different person from the one who did the first and last. And there's a lot of discussion about whether this trilogy completes or defaces the original.

(If you are not familiar with Star Wars: the main storyline is covered in three trilogies, episodes 1 through 9, which tell a story in chronological order. Discussion of these is sometimes confusing because that is not the order in which they were released, which was in sets of three: 4, 5, 6; 1, 2, 3; 7, 8, 9. Complicating the discussion are a few movies and other "product" which are not directly part of that main story.) 

I don't really care very much about all that. The Star Wars movies are not great art. I don't think they will be regarded as such a hundred years from now. And the critics who complained about all the plot devices that have been recycled from the first trilogy are right. This is at least the third time that the resolution has hinged on a desperate mission (apart from the furnishings, a reprise of World War II air combat dramas) to stop the Most Evilest People Ever from using the Most Ultimatest Weapon Ever to rule the galaxy. (If I had been one of the writers, I would have tried to sneak a muttered "Yeah, that's what you said last time" into one of those conversations.)

So are those who complain about plausibility. That's a bit like complaining about Jack and the Beanstalk because as far as we know there are no magic beans. Still, as the characters in Rise of Skywalker talked of "making the jump to lightspeed," I kept wondering if any of the writers knew what a light-year is and how many of them separate the stars from each other. If I understood the opening, most or all of the action of this movie is supposed to take place in sixteen hours. 

And the space combat sequences are tiresome. And so are the light-saber duels. And after eight movies in which the storm troopers' armor protects them from nothing, and they are able to hit nothing with their blasters, there's no reason to change now. And I really don't care about the race-'n'-gender tallying that popular art today is obliged to acknowledge.

All that said, I enjoyed it, I was even touched by it, and will probably see it again. Part of the reason for that is nostalgia. Here's what I said a few years ago, after seeing Rogue One (which is not one of the nine, but fills in the narrative immediately preceding Episode 4, i.e. the original movie):

Princess Leia appears briefly at the end, and the filmmakers somehow gave her the face of the young Carrie Fisher. I was oddly and surprisingly touched by that, as I had been by her recent death. In trying to figure out why, I concluded that it was partly because the original movie had seemed such a breath of fresh air to me. I remember very well the night my wife and I had gone to see some other movie--I have no idea what it was now--and saw the Star Wars preview. We looked at each other and said "We have to see that." And we did, and it was delightful.

The '70s had been a fairly dark time in some ways, a come-down from the crisis of the '60s and at the same time a sort of consolidation and solidification of some of the more negative things, and movies especially had grown considerably darker: the Dirty Harry movies, for instance, and more artsy works like Taxi Driver. And for me personally it had been a difficult period. Star Wars was a complete departure from all that, with its young and brave heroes and heroine and its simple (or simplistic) war of good and evil. It was also witty and imaginative, which may be hard to remember now that it's become such a part of our culture. It was simple fun, but it also celebrated virtue with no irony at all. 

And part of it is what is suggested by that last sentence: beneath all the often-silly trappings, there are profound truths at the heart of the whole saga: the power of love, renunciation, and sacrifice; the potent but self-destructive lure of hatred; the understanding that one must not do evil in the service of good. Those are the things that touched me in the movie, and if there are logical and narrative holes in the way these are worked out, I was not bothered by them. Maybe that's one advantage of not being a true fan. 

Related: also because of the grandchildren I've watched several episodes of a Star Wars spinoff series, The Mandalorian. So far it's entertaining, but I wouldn't say much more. It was mentioned in the comments here a week or two ago, and I noted that the Mandalorian is essentially the Eastwood character from a spaghetti Western, even to the point of having Eastwood's voice. It seems I'm not the only one to notice this: