Posted by: Dan | October 2, 2016

September Reviews

Before getting into my book reviews — my most highly anticipated blog series that nobody reads! — I’d like to mention that I’m doing a “Go Fund Me” to try and finish my M.A.  If anybody wants to support me in that project, you can check out the link here.  I appreciate any and all support.

Now then, on to the good stuff!  In this post I explore: 6 Books (Separate Beds; Divine Honours For The Caesars; Paul; The Time That Remains; The Roman Empire; and The Man Without Qualities, Vol. 1); 1 Movie (Ikiru); and 3 Documentaries (Weiner; Man on Wire; and Dwarvenaut).

Books

1. Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s-1980s by Maureen K. Lux.

lux

Separate Beds is an examination of segregated health care in Canada from the 1920s to the 1980s, when Indigenous people were generally refused service at public hospitals and were required to attend “Indian Hospitals.”  However, it’s a bit of a misnomer to say that this is about “health care” because much of what the Indigenous people experienced at Indian Hospitals was neither good for their health nor was it caring.  Rather, Separate Beds documents how the discourse and practices and institutions of health were used to further the national objectives a truly genocidal and brutal settler colonialism.  It is as great a betrayal of Indigenous peoples as the ways in which the Christian churches and the government betrayed Indigenous peoples with residential schools.  Lux’s book is a devastating account which, when paired with Karen Stote’s book about the sterilization of Indigenous women (reviewed last month), should make any Canadian pause and think long and hard about how health care is or is not being practiced in relation to Indigenous peoples today and what the ramifications of those practices (or the lack thereof) might be.

I strongly recommend this book to any Canadian.  It is an important and generally forgotten part of our history (I personally knew next to nothing about Indian Hospitals before reading this book).  Part of what it helps to highlight is how thoroughly all-encompassing, brutal, and unremitting the Canadian project of colonization and assimilation (or death) has been.  We really have been hitting Indigenous people hard, from every possible angle, without relenting, from the time Canada was founded until the present day.  This is why people can claim that their “existence is resistance.”  It truly is.  And it’s almost miraculous – not because Indigenous people are doomed to die out as civilization spreads (as settlers imagined) but because settlers have done everything they can to utterly decimate, annihilate, or assimilate these people.  And yet they remain.  The more Death presses down.  The more Life rises up.

2. Divine Honours to the Caesars: The First Christians’ Response by Bruce W. Winter.

winter

Bruce Winter has often been a “close but not quite” or “very good but not great” to me in terms of how he reads Paul and how the portion of the early Jesus movement associated with Paul related to the sociopolitical and economic issues of the world(s) in which they lived.  I think he’s often ahead of others but tends to shy away from “radical” conclusions and wrap things back around to a more “conservative” fit.  I feel like Divine Honours to the Caesars may represent a bit of a turning point for him.  Here, Winter continues with his style of very solid contextual work.  The topic this time is the ubiquity of the imperial cult throughout the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire in the time when the New Testament was written (focusing especially on places and times relevant to the study of Paul but also bringing in work related to Hebrews and John’s Apocalypse).  The conclusion is inescapable – venerating the Caesars, and their family members, as divine, was a central part of life, especially in the major urban centres of the Empire from Augustus onward.  Winter does a good job of drawing on a lot of the epigraphic, numismatic, and architectural source material to establish this point (it should be noted that several other scholars have already come to this conclusion years ago, but Winter’s study is useful for influencing a broader range of scholars, notably those who want to downplay or ignore the imperial cult).

Now, what’s interesting, and where Winter seems to go further than he did before, is that he doesn’t downplay how much of a fundamental conflict the ubiquity of the imperial cult creates for the early followers of Jesus (he calls them Christians but whatevs).  Here he draws on some sources that have been important for my own research but which I think have been overly neglected elsewhere (notably Justin K. Hardin’s Galatians and the Imperial Cult) which argue that the attraction to circumcision and assimilation into Diaspora Judaism was to avoid the persecution that would come from being branded as an illegal (and treasonous) gathering of people who jeopardized the well-being of the whole city if they refused to participate in the imperial cultic festivals (Jews in the Diaspora had been exempted from participation and were also given special permission to gather weekly – others who tried to exempt themselves or who tried to gather with that kind of frequency would face dire consequences and would be considered potential or probable “terror cells”).

So, I enjoyed this book.  It didn’t offer too much that can’t be found elsewhere but it does provide a helpful summation of some important themes and builds a very strong case with its extensive use of primary sources.  It’s a good go-to book for any wondering just how relevant the imperial cult was for the early Jesus movement.  However, I do feel like Winter leaves things hanging a bit.  Okay, the worship of the Caesars was everywhere, and, okay, this caused a major problem for and conflict with the early Jesus worshippers, and, okay, the Jesus worshipers stubbornly refused to compromise (I find it intriguing that Paul and his co-workers fight the route of avoiding persecution through circumcision and accepting Jewish badges of membership… why this was so important to them is really worth thinking about).  But that’s as far as we get.  It’s good to get this far, but I feel like this is only scratching the surface.  Given these things, what then?  Why did Paul and his co-workers fight so forcefully against the option of avoiding persecution via circumcision and accepting Jewish badges of membership, especially when circumcision or non-circumcision “count as nothing” at the end of the day, and especially since this kind of compromise could save a lot of lives?  What are the implications of all that Winter writes?  Not only for Paul and Co., but what might the implications be for those who find some inspiration in these letters today?

3. Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought by E. P. Sanders.

sanders

So, turning now to a book about Paul that never once mentions the imperial cult, the divine honours that were given to the Caesars, or the influence that cult had on territories conquered and controlled by Rome, we arrive at E. P. Sanders’ latest book (I had to check to the index to see if I was imagining things, but this really is the case).  Now, granted, I chose to read Sanders’ book because he has been much more focused on other matters related to Paul’s context – notably Palestinian and Diaspora Judaisms – and I wanted to read through an overview of Paul from someone coming from a different area of focus, but the utter neglect of the imperial cult seems not so much like an oversight at this point but seems most plausibly to be a deliberate omission.  Why Sanders omitted it, I don’t know, although that omission does fit with his general trend of positing what is essentially a mainstream liberal vision of Paul as a first-century (CE) Jew with socially conservative ethics.  This, it should be noted, is a point that Sanders regularly asserts but he does not work to prove it or to show that it is the most plausible reading of Paul.  This, too, is curious, because whether or not or how Paul is a conservative has been very heavily contested and debated since Sanders first made a name for himself.  His refusal to enter into that debate at all is also interesting to observe.  But, conservative or not, Sanders’ Paul is impossibly apolitical and this neglect shows up throughout his work, although it might not be obvious to the type of reader who is inclined to read this kind of introductory book on Paul.  Thus, for example, when Sanders looks at terms like “apostle” or “son of god” or “salvation” he neglects any kind of resonance that language might have in political or imperial language – as if emissaries from a son of god who has saved the world from the civil wars the devastated the East hadn’t already passed through the territory Paul and his co-workers covered — but one must already know a fair bit about Paul’s context to know these things and Sanders never mentions them.

That said, I still enjoyed the book and I deliberately chose to go back and read a basic intro.  This one looks big but it’s a quick read, both due to deliberately simple content and to curious line spacing.  However, I do question the ongoing production of intros.  They overlap in so many ways that many of them feel superfluous.  Even the points where they diverge from one another aren’t immediately obvious to the students who are coming to them.  The first year student, for example, isn’t going to know the whole debate around Sanders’ theory that Paul works “from plight to solution” or the debate around the “getting in” versus “staying in” distinction, or that Sanders refers to Paul’s “conversion” instead of his “call,” and so Sanders’ specific flavor and various nuances would be lost on the kind of reader who generally reads an intro text (and those who do pick up on the nuances have usually moved beyond reading intros) and the same applies to most intros I have seen.  Still, intros keep getting published.

I do want to pick up on a few of Sanders’ points.  First, I like how he emphasized that Paul came from low social status and education and that Acts probably is pretty unreliable on this point (I tend to use Acts the same way as Sanders does, although I also read parts of it differently).  This reading makes the most sense to me, too.  Sanders still makes Paul a little more middle-class than I think is believable than I think is believable for Paul’s context and what he tells us about himself (Sanders even uses the term “middle-class” on page 144, which is interesting because a middle-class didn’t even exist in Paul’s day).  However, I think Sanders is correct to reject the view that Paul was an highly educated Roman citizen.  Secondly, however, while I’m sympathetic with some of the motives of Pauline scholars who want to push back against contemporary anti-Semitism, especially after the long history of Christian violence directed against Jews in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust, I do think that Sanders misunderstands the conflict between Paul and some Judaean or Jewish groups in the Diaspora.  Sanders, in my opinion, overly minimizes the Jewish role in the persecutions – but I think this is a consequence of his neglect of political elements and how the early Jesus followers could jeopardize the safety of the diasporic Jewish communities.  Thirdly, despite Paul’s relatively lower socioeconomic status, Sanders still accepts what is basically Gerd Theissen’s thesis about some folks in the early assemblies having significant wealth and property.  I don’t find this as plausible as other alternatives (that posit gradations of wealth and poverty between people who are poor – and so some can still be dirt poor but comparatively richer than others) but arguing that point takes a lot of work so I’ll leave it for now.

Anyway, I won’t go on and on.  I enjoyed the book.  Reading it helped me to root myself back into the world of Paul and Pauline studies.  It wouldn’t be the intro I would suggest to others but that’s just due to my own preferences and biases, not because I think there is anything inherently or fatally wrong with it.

4. The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans by Giorgio Agamben.

agamben

I haven’t checked this out but I suspect that Agamben’s book on Romans (well, on the first ten verses of Romans, which Agamben claims “recapitulate the meaning of the text in its entirety” [p6]), is the work of contemporary Continental philosophy most cited by Pauline scholars.  I think it shows up more than Taubes or Badiou but I’m not positive.  Badiou seems to be fading and Taubes seems to be getting more notice, but I think Agamben is still out in front.  I’d put off reading it forever – in part because it is mentioned so much by others and I wasn’t sure how much more I would get out of reading it – but I finally picked it up.  I’m glad I did.  I think it’s even better than the hype and richer than one might imagine based on how other people use it.

Of course, this is primarily an eschatological work, a questioning of what it means to live in a messianic time (or what it means to live after the Messiah has come – which for Agamben focuses a lot, not on Romans, but on the “as not” mentioned in 1 Cor 7), but a lot of the richness of this text is found in the discussion that happens around and outside of that core question.  For example, I think his initial discussion of the name “Paul” itself is significant and, as I thought about it, one that doesn’t get a lot of mention in Pauline studies.  The first Saul, King Saul, Agamben reminds us, was chosen, in part, because he was taller than all the men of Israel.  Hence, by changing his name, Saul goes from being the highest to being Paul, which means small or humble or insignificant.  This, I think, is important for how we understand Paul’s whole mission and fits well with how he describes himself elsewhere (although it doesn’t fit so well with what Paulinism has done with Paul over the centuries…).  To pick a second example, from much later in the text, I also like how Agamben’s discussion of the word “gospel” fits very well with an understanding of proclamation that sees it as impossible to create a wedge between word and deed.  The entire lived life of the apostle — and, more importantly, of the apostolic community – is the proclamation of the gospel and is the gospel.  This includes words but is far from being limited to them (and I do think Agamben emphasizes the power of the word more than I would).  Lastly, his reflections on the Law are very good – this is often a strength in philosophical readings of Paul over against those in the New Testament guild.  His line that the “messianic is not the destruction but the deactivation of the law, rendering the law inexecutable” (p98) is very good.  This deactivated law is “not annulled, but conserved and held onto for its fulfillment” (ibid.).  Hence, the “law of faith” or the “law of the Spirit of life.”  Lest the language confuse us, it should be stated explicitly that this is a very anarchic approach (which may help people to understand Proudhon’s line that “anarchy is order” [from which we derive the symbol of an “A” inside an “O”]).  Over against the violence of the state of exception that founds the Law and imposes it from above, this is an extralegal expression of mutual care.  Because it is extralegal it is also thereby illegal, for the Law claims the socioeconomic and political realms in toto.  This is why Agamben can claim that “Justice without law is not the negation of the law, but the realization and fulfillment… of the law” (p107) while also saying that the messianic is characterized by “lawlessness” (p111).  All of this then leads into a very good discussion of grace (over against contractual forms of faith and gift-giving in the sense explored by Mauss), but I think I’ll not go on too long here.

However, back to the main theme: that of at the “as not” which Agamben posits against the “as if” of certain other theorists who try to engage in a form of the messianic that imagines the lost world can or will be saved.  Mostly, Agamben’s talk about this “as not” is a rethinking of what is essentially an eschatology of now-and-not-yet (tension, overlap, whatever, only now extended to incorporate a delay into its own structure), seems fairly par for the course but one passage in particular resonated very deeply with me.  This is what I’ve been trying to say to Christians for a few years now.  I could never have expressed it so well but this is where I’m at.

He [sic] who upholds himself in the messianic vocation no longer knows the as if, he no longer has similitudes at his disposal.  He knows that in messianic time the saved world coincides with the world that is irretrievably lost, and that, to use Bonhoeffer’s words, he must not really live in a world without God.  This means that he may not disguise this world’s being-without-God in any way.  The saving God is the God who abandons him, and the fact of representations (the fact of the as if) cannot pretend to save the appearance of salvation.  The messianic subject does not contemplate the world as though it were saved.  In Benjamin’s words, he contemplates salvation only to the extent that he loses himself in what cannot be saved (p42).

Recommended reading.

5. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture by Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller.

garnseysaller

This is another one of those books that gets quoted so frequently in political readings of Paul that it seems probable that you don’t actually have to read it to be familiar with most of it and certainly the most important parts of it.  However, what the heck, I said to myself, I might as well read it now that I’m diving back into my Paul project.  A refresher is always good.  I’m glad I read it.  Garnsey and Saller provide a good overview of the areas mentioned in the title and there was still further food for thought within the text.  It’s a quick read, too, which is nice and which can’t be said for other texts I’ve neglected recently (oh, hi, Tom Wright’s publications since I took a break from studying this topic… nice to see all 5000 very confidently written pages of you…).

6. The Man Without Qualities: Volume I by Robert Musil.

musil

Great book.  Really great book.  I haven’t marked this many quotes in the margins of a novel in a long time.  I also haven’t laughed out loud or chuckled or applauded the wit of an a author as much as this in years probably.  This was a really pleasant surprise, especially since I was reading this book because of the praise it has received as literature and nobody warned me that it was also funny in a very hard to accomplish clever manner.  Now, don’t misunderstand me and think that this is some hipster smart humour thing.  I get that a lot of hipsters like clever funny – it’s a bourgeois class marker, not being amused by the same things as the lowly and vulgar commoners or the degenerate and spoiled uber-rich (hence, over against the lower classes who laugh at Jeff Dunham, the bourgeois laugh at Louis C. K…. and the uber-rich laugh at everybody else) – but this doesn’t seem like hipster clever funny.  It’s just really fun clever funny, by an author whose way with words rivals Oscar Wilde, but with what feels to me like much less bitterness.  I’m really happy with the quality of the novels I’m reading these days (if I do say so myself).  I feel like I’ve been on a really good streak.  But, um, that doesn’t tell you much about the book.  Thank goodness for google.  Or just read the thing.  Because any kind of plot summary is really not going to do it justice and would probably make you think it was something like some of those classical “satirical” stories (like Vanity Fair which I remember being distinctly unfunny and just as distinctly boring as hell; see also: Don Quixote), and I wouldn’t want that to happen.

Movies

1. Ikiru (1952) directed by Akira Kurosawa.

ikiru.jpg

I’ve watched a handful of Kurosawa films, mostly the samurai ones, and so I was looking forward to sitting down and watching a Kurosawa film that takes place in a very different setting (post war Japan, following the life and death of a bureaucrat who works for City Hall).  The title, in English, means “to live” and the story itself was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s book, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Kurosawa also did a version of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot which I’m very curious to see as I enjoyed that book a great deal when I first read it).  It’s a good movie – it tends to show up in lists critics compile on the topic of “the best movie of all time” – and I enjoyed it.  However, as groundbreaking as this film may have been, the topic under consideration (how does one find meaning in the midst of a mindless job and a menial, unappreciated life where one is even alienated from those to whom one should be closest?) has certainly been done many times since.

Documentaries

1. Weiner (2016) directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg.

weiner.jpg

Anthony Weiner has a problem.  He likes to send pictures of his partially covered penis to women who are not his wife.  But he wants to be a public official in the USofA.  And he wants to stay married to his wife, Huma Abedin–who is one of the top advisors of Hillary Clinton.  Actually, that may be more than one problem.  But they’re interconnected and, really, if he didn’t keep sending pictures of his crotch to women across the country he loves, then I don’t know if he would have much of a problem with being a public figure or marrying the Clinton’s other daughter.  But he keeps sending pictures.

This documentary follows his utterly disastrous attempt at a comeback when he was briefly leading the polls for the position of Mayor of NYC.  Then yet another very fresh dirty picture scandal broke and he tanked and Bill de Blasio won and New York City was screwed and Huma Abedin was screwed and the working class people for whom Anthony Weiner really seemed to want to fight, and for whom he really seemed to do a good job of fighting, got screwed and everything went to shit in some extremely painfully awkward scenes to watch.

For a public figure, Anthony Weiner does not seem to be all that self-aware.  Not, at least, in his personal life.  Another dirty picture scandal broke this summer and Huma Abedin finally left him.  What had the possibility of being a redemption story – and one that actually may have really worked out well for some of the people very much in need of a political representative who cares about them – turned into a giant mess.

Interestingly enough, a few years before Weinergate took place in 2011, another NY politician who really seemed to be fighting for the people and against the “too big to fail” banks and other institutions of total financial corruption, went down in a sex scandal.  That person was Eliot Spitzer, who was exposed for accessing an elite escort service.  The conclusion here is that, if you want to get into politics and want to use your time there to push back against the status quo of wealth and power distributions, well, you better be squeaky clean… and maybe also raised by wolves.  Vegetarian wolves.  Yeah, maybe that would work.

2. Man on Wire (2008) directed by James Marsh.

manonwire

This doc has been on my “too watch” list for years.  Finally watched it because a friend was keen to see it (and I was going to do some reading but then got drawn in).  It’s a fun story.  The protagonist – the French high wire performer, Philippe Petit, really drives the film with his personality and his creative story-telling (the vintage film footage is pretty fun, too, and it brings a certain exotic French circus performers, law-breakers, and rebels element into the story – especially for a North America audience that might be more inclined to romanticize or exoticize such things).  It was very polished, well-edited, and all around a fun film.  I’m not sure it received the super-duper high praise it got when it first dropped, but it was still well done and enjoyable.

3. Dwarvenaut (2016) directed by Josh Bishop.

dwarvenaut

Like Man on Wire, Dwarvenaut is driven by the striking personality and strong storytelling of its protagonist.  Only this time the final cut isn’t as polished in terms of production – and the protagonist, Stefan Pokorny, makes a living by designing sets for tabletop Dungeons and Dragons gameplay.  While Philippe Petit is, first and foremost, a performer, keenly sensitive to his image and how he might be experienced by an audience, Stefan Pokorny comes across as much less concerned about what the camera sees.  When he’s in character, when he’s performing for his kickstarter campaign or as a Dungeon Master, he doesn’t seem all that polished – what he seems like is a child playing, having a ton of fun doing so, and drawing others into his game because of how much fun he has and how active his imagination is.

The film paints a pretty romantic image of geekdom – a place of fun and acceptance and creativity and camaraderie – but other documentaries that dive into subcultures that are billed in this way, tend to undercut such a simplistic picture.  Sure, pockets of great people exist and great communities can also exist (in any culture or subculture for the most part – but perhaps those things strike us more poignantly when they exist in people and communities that are shunned by the mainstream) but get involved in any scene and you’re bound to find subtle replications of dominant mainstream power hierarchies, abuses of power, bullying, and so on (Fursonas comes to mind in how it looks at the furry subculture).  However, I still found myself feeling nostalgic for that kind of communal connection free from the pressures brought to bear upon us in other environments or simply in day-to-day life.

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Responses

  1. These are great. Thanks. Man, I still can’t get into Agamben’s Paul book. I mean it has its moments but I think there might be something wrong with my brain in this regard. Glad you liked Musil. I’ve still put off Vol 2.

    • Thanks! I totally meant to give you a shout out for suggesting the Musil book and then I forgot because I rushed at the end. Thanks for recommending it. I really liked it.


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