Hell 2.1, a small update

Get out of Hell free cardI left you in my exploration of the Encyclopedia of Hell pondering which version of the Faustus story was better: with or without his final redemption. Personally, I prefer without, because it offers greater dramatic opportunities. I also don’t like the notion of redemption: it seems like a “get out of Hell free” card.

Christianity is the only religion I know of that offers this particular way out of your bad deeds: accept Jesus as your personal saviour and you’ll get diverted from Hell. So basically you can be evil until your deathbed, not take responsibility for your actions, then repent and avoid the punishment of the afterlife. Somehow to me, that’s cowardly. Take responsibility for your actions, like the Buddhists do.

Christianity’s redemption is tied into the notion of salvation (Christian belief in a deified saviour is, as far as I understand, also unique), the personal relationship with its deity, and is a lot more complex than I can get into here. But some Christian faiths believe in redemption or salvation after death, too, which lessens the whole hell thing (saying a mass for the dead, for example).

After all, if you can be pulled from the pits into heaven by living people praying for you, it makes Hell look more like a bad parking ticket than eternal damnation.

As an allegorical tale, Faust lacks the punch if he avoids damnation through some theological prestidigitation. I prefer it when he gets his just desserts. Might not be redemption, but it does bring closure.

Buddhists have a different type of Hell and redemption: you need to balance bad deeds with good: your accumulated karma determines your afterlife (and reincarnation, for those who believe in it). You redeem yourself by being good. You gotta work at it; nothing is free.

There’s another version of redemption in Judaism, but it’s not a personal one (except for the pidyon haben, which is ritualistic rather than theological), but rather a collective one to do with the diaspora.

On to the rest of the F chapter. It’s fairly short, even if I am verbose as I meander through it.

But first, for your reading pleasure, two more books: The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of my favourite theological writers and her books on the Gnostic scriptures, Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels, are a great introduction. The former is also available in audio book format at the local library. The other title is Hell: An Illustrated History of the Netherworld, by Richard Craze. It’s a fun little intro into various visions of hell in world mythology.

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Hell 2.0

Diablo or someone like himI left you last time after finishing the letter D, in Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell. I’m back in book form to take you through a few more entries in her exploration of the afterlife. But first a couple of additions to your reading material.

First on the list is Alice Turner’s 275-page The History of Hell. It’s an illustrated guide to how Westerners have come to think of Hell, It starts with the ancient influences – Egypt, Greece, Rome and Judaism – but its main focus is on the evolving Christian imagination. She has a lot to say about the popular imagination and culture, too.

A more comprehensive, and significantly longer work is Alan Segal’s 866-page tome, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Very theologically-oriented and dry, Segal’s work isn’t as much fun to read as Turner’s, but delves considerably deeper into scriptures (Jewish, Christian, and less comprehensively, Islamic).

Neither Turner nor Segal given any attention to non-Western thought. There is nothing on Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Hindu or other non-Western faiths. Nor do they go far from mainstream religious thought: nothing on any cult or fringe group like Scientology, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist afterlife.

And today’s last choice is the fun little book by Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley, The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife. A great intro to the world’s thinking about what happens after death. Just about every faith you can name, from Astaru to Zoroastrianism is covered in short, fun, illustrated descriptions. It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek in parts, it is actually quite good in describing what are often complex and arcane beliefs.

Anyway, when I left you, I had plowed through Drithelm, Drugaskan and Duat. If you have been following along in your copy, you will remember these are a 7th-century Briton whose visions of Hell made him become a monk; the lowest level of Hell in Zoroastrianism, and the landing zone in Egyptian mythology where the dead arrive to find eternal retribution or rest, respectively.

Ever wonder why we call everyone else’s idea of the afterlife and their gods “mythology” while we claim ours is the only truth, capitalizing everything, like our God but their god? Just our parochial, narrow-minded perspective I suppose. But let’s go on (and save parochialism for another post)

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What in Hell…?

DemonHades, you know, isn’t a place. It’s a guy. The Greek god of the underworld. His territory consists of a bunch of domains, including the rather unpleasant Tartarus, where souls – called shades – suffer eternal punishment. Hades wasn’t a fun god. If you weren’t getting your skin ripped off in Tartarus, life sucked in other ways. You moped about in the other domains, lethargically meandering around the afterlife without much purpose.

Sort of like former politicians or local bloggers.

That’s the sort of thing you learn when you read books. And the sort of thing that gets me labelled a “pompous ass” by local bloggers for whom reading anything more complex than a soccer jersey is an elitist act. But I haven’t been on the library board for the last two decades just for my pretty face. I have that odd notion that books – and libraries and learning – actually matter.

Reading matters. You should never stop learning. When you stop, you start to die. Learning is how we grow, how we develop,how we expand our horizons. And we learn by reading.

After my post on The Know-It-All, I looked around my bookshelves for something encyclopedic to read, not quite Britannica (which I don’t have, yet); something readable in bed. No, not the dictionary (although Dr. Johnson’s has been a nighttime companion). Something zippier. I turned to my bookshelves.

The Encyclopedia of Hell caught my eye. Three hundred pages of minutiae about the afterlife. Well, one part of it. The downside, so to speak. From Abbadon to Zoroastrianism. The author, Miriam Van Scott, also wrote The Encyclopedia of Heaven, which seems a good follow-up once I get through Hell. Get both sides of the picture (I know, odd books for a non-religious person, but they’re part of my research). The EoH will be my guide for a while.

Of course, I’ll use the internet to follow along, picking up the extra scraps of knowledge not in the book. A bit like when my dog Sophie follows behind me when I have food, vacuuming those fallen chips and salsa bits from the floor. Wikipedia will be my mental salsa picante. Not the floor bit, of course.

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The sum of all knowledge

Know it AllIn his 2004 book, The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs tells of his quest to become “the smartest person in the world” by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover.

Right away, you can see the fly in this intellectual ointment: knowledge doesn’t equal intelligence.

Jared Diamond, in his introduction to Guns, Germs, and Steel, credits the barely literate, ill-educated tribespeople of New Guinea as being the smartest people he ever met. Not because of their ability to discourse, as Jacobs says, on the intricacies of the Phoenician legal system, but rather because their daily life is such a struggle.

That struggle, combined with a hostile environment that lacks many of the natural resources like metals that propelled western civilizations’ technologies ahead, Diamond writes, forces them to think a lot about how to survive. They have to be creative in ways we never consider, or have long since taken for granted. They have to find solutions using limited tools and resources. That makes them very smart.

You want dinner? It’s a few steps away, a short journey between freezer and microwave. They want dinner, it has to be found in a challenging and dangerous world, caught, killed, cleaned, a fire made from raw materials, then cooked. They survive every day having to solve life-affecting problems. Our biggest challenge many days is whether to watch this channel or another one.

Modern civilization often relieves us of the necessity to think critically. Convenience is wonderful, but it also can make us stupid. Just look at the number of cute kitten photos on Facebook paired with sappy “inspirational” quotes attributed to the wrong person. Or the number of homeopathic sites. Convenience often makes us susceptible to marketing, advertising and propaganda because we accept rather than analyse.

And reading alone isn’t enough to alleviate it. People read all sorts of stuff online – volumes of the written word – but still believe in all sorts of superstitious, stupid claptrap like chemtrails and vaccination conspiracies. People read and give credence to wingnuts like Jenny McCarthy and Anne Coulter. There is no shortage of written material online about Bosnian pyramids, UFO abductions, religious intolerance, astrology, “psychics,” racism and political extremism.

So reading itself is not a path to intelligence. You need critical thinking and skepticism, too. Lots of skepticism.*

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Troilus and Cressida

Telegraph UKI’ve always found Troilus and Cressida a difficult play. The characters all seem jaded, cynical, opportunistic, stuffily sanctimonious, lecherous or simply underhanded. Some are merely unpleasant, others are despicable, reprehensible. All seem self-serving, more concerned with their own gains and goals than that of the greater war around them.

It’s difficult to understand why it was listed as a “comedy” (although oddly placed in the folio, between the histories and tragedies).

Even Harold Bloom calls it “difficult” and “elitist” (although he later qualifies it as Shakespeare’s “most sophisticated” and “intellectualized” play). And Joyce Carol Oates called it, “…that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays.”

UK reviewer, Charles Spencer, wrote of a 2008 production,

This is surely the bleakest, nastiest and most nihilistic of all Shakespeare’s plays… The whole drama is obsessed with disease and bad faith. The cynicism, and sense of exhausted contempt, undoubtedly makes the play seem extremely modern. It also makes it hard to sit through, and a relief to escape from.

There is no real honour among warriors as we see in Shakespeare’s history plays (Hector’s single moment of gallantry, allowing the exhausted Achilles to live, is marred by his immediate desire to kill a different, unknown Greek solider, solely for his shining armour).

There’s no redemption, either, just self-serving action, personal agendas, vengeance, adolescent lust, scheming, cynicism and politics. There seems no remorse, no guilt, no shame like you might find in Hamlet or Macbeth.* Hector, when he tells Troilus,

There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory. (2.2.180-183)

suggests that laws, not conscience, not guilt, are all that controls humanity. This is the opposite of the message in Shakespeare’s other plays, which almost always explore the effect of shame and conscience on the protagonists and their actions. Continue reading “Troilus and Cressida”

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Racism and the US Civil Rights movement retold

Civil Rights marchersAs I read through Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland, about American politics and life in the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement and the reaction to it by white Americans, the narrative astounds me. Such anger, such violence. Such sadness. It seems like such an alien place, dystopian, almost fictional, like an Orwellian novel.

I was, it seems from my reading, not really aware, not fully cognizant of just how bad it was. But then, it looks eerily familiar – some of the photos look just like those taken during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Am I merely juxtaposing my own feelings on it, conflating the two? After all, I was there. Wasn’t I?

Growing up in Canada, I never experienced the clashes that rocked America, especially in the Fifties and Sixties.* I saw the marches, the riots on the TV news, but never really felt their impact at home. Nor understood what they meant. Racism was such a bizarre, foreign concept that it didn’t make any sense.

I watched with youthful fascination at the stark black and white images of the protesters being set upon by police dogs, beaten by police batons, hosed with water cannon as they marched – mostly peacefully – for the right to sit in the front of a bus, use a washroom, to vote or have their children attend a school. Black and white, white vs black.

It simply didn’t make sense. Were people being beaten, even killed by those appointed or elected to protect them? People had to fight, often against violent reaction for the simple right to vote in a democracy? Why were others using brutality, violence and fear to prevent them? There was no logic, no sanity to any of it.

Not simply because I was young, but also because, as far as I was aware then, racism didn’t exist in our WASP neighbourhood, so there was nothing to compare it with. It certainly wasn’t in our household, in the little bungalow built in one of Toronto’s earliest east-end, post-war suburbs. Race – as a topic of animosity – didn’t exist: not because there were no people of colour, different ethnicities, religions or backgrounds, but rather because those differences simply didn’t matter.

To kids, anyway.** Continue reading “Racism and the US Civil Rights movement retold”

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Reading, Writing and Memory

Read more books than blogs“Memory,” he read the headline as he settled into the armchair, resting his elbows on the wide arms to expand the National Post paper to its fullest, “declines much slower in people who read, write throughout life.”

Ah. Interesting. He peered closer.

“Reading books, writing letters and working on crossword puzzles throughout life may help preserve the brain’s memory faculties and fend off Alzheimer’s disease and early-onset dementia, according to a recent U.S. study published in the the journal Neurology.”

Hmmm. Well, of course. We knew that, he chuffed to himself. Coming from a family of avid readers who lived long lives, and remained pin-sharp into their final years, you notice these things. His mother, for example, well into her 90s, could still remember clearly events from her youth. Names, faces, no problem recalling them.

She learned to use a computer only a few years ago. Had her own laptop, on wireless, no less. Used a cell phone, too and sent text messages to grandchildren, snapped photos for family. Sharp old lady, no flies on her.

Of course, she was still reading voraciously even today, although perhaps not as much as when she was younger. Fewer choices of books, in a nursing home. Too dependent on donations and leftovers. Castoffs, many of them, yard sale titles with bent corners and cracked spines. But still reading. Doggedly reading what was at hand.

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The Game of the Book of Thrones

GuardianNo, it’s not about that heavyweight book series by George Martin, or the TV series based on it (or even about how you really need to read the books to understand anything that is happening in the TV series). It’s about the other throne, the porcelain one. And what books are best for reading thereon.

Yes, reading on the toilet. Don’t tell me you just sit there and stare vacantly into space.

This is important time. Those few rare minutes when we really have uninterrupted time to ourselves; quality time with our bodily functions unhampered by TV, by the phone, by people wanting to see your gas bill or water heater, by the cats or the dog, by the kids or the neighbours.*

Perfect time for reading. It’s quiet, peaceful, gently lit and often fragranced by the sweet aromas of toiletries, like a garden of lilacs and roses. There you can concentrate, focus your attention on the book at hand, while your body takes care of the autonomous business of emptying itself.

So what sort of publication is perfect for that all-too-short slice of intellectual freedom? What work can you read for a few, exhilarating minutes, put down for several hours or even a whole day, and pick up again and continue reading without having lost the thread or diminished the intellectual thrill?

Clearly, for most folks, that’s a challenge. Continuity makes it difficult to read War and Peace in five-minute snippets. From one day to the next, you won’t remember who Count Whats-his-name is or why he’s out of favour, or who’s sleeping with whom or why they’re all akimbo over the French. For this sort of book, continuity matters.

I know, I’ve tried. I’ve been inching my way through Boswell’s Life of Johnson in the downstairs bathroom for the past two years. Unsuccessfully, if keeping clear all his comments, his activities and his conversations is the point. I switched to Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, and found – despite the shallow, narcissistic content – it was much easier to track through Campbell’s life than Johnson’s. But I feel somehow my bathroom experienced is cheapened.

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Review: The Life of Pi

Life of PiWe watched Life of Pi last night, a film that has garnered much critical acclaim and won four coveted Oscar awards (although it has not been without controversies). I had struggled somewhat with the book (for reasons given below), but the lavish praise for the film made me decide to try again.

I had read about the movie’s stunning camera work and CGI graphics, and these do not disappoint. It’s a beautiful film, and the CGI is amazingly lifelike. I puzzled over what was real and not in many scenes. But the story itself…

While sometimes described as a “fantasy adventure”, the novel is really an allegory about the search for meaning in religion. It’s also about the relativity of truth.

One of the delights of fiction is than an author can conjure up a situation, a landscape, an event and give his or her characters the chance to explore that imagined world and determine what it means to be human under those circumstances. That’s one reason I like science fiction: it has no boundaries to the imagination. But sometimes an author is trying not just to use this world to explore the human condition, but rather make a point, to teach, to pontificate what he or she believes is the message we readers need to absorb.

I felt Martel’s message, lumbering through the pages, was heavier-handed than his actual words. And that too often he meandered down his path rather than walked us towards it (compare the 300-plus pages of Life of Pi to  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brief little allegory, The Little Prince). Even Paul Coelho, that author of so many allegories, is briefer in his tales of self-discovery.

Martel’s writing is fairly smooth and light throughout most of the book, but I personally found it dragged, especially in the beginning. The core of the tale – Pi’s survival at sea with a tiger – doesn’t being until Chapter 37, a third of the way into the story. By then I was muttering “get on with it” to myself as I read through the pages.

The tale – when it finally began – struck me like a modernized Book of Job: a human suffering the vicissitudes of life and his hostile environment while struggling to keep faith, illogically at times, with an arbitrary, unresponsive or sometimes downright cruel deity. Again, I found it stretched on longer than necessary. Like Job, our Pi has to go through numerous challenges to test his faith. Continue reading “Review: The Life of Pi”

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What if you’re wrong?

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=beYYZRN1sEs]

Great visualization of the now-famous response from evolutionary biologist, author, and well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, when asked in 2006 about his argument that there is no god, “What if you’re wrong?”

Flying Spaghetti Monster pin“Anybody could be wrong, ” he replies. “We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.”

All of these refer to various arguments used to illustrate the weakness in faith-based statements and arguments.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism) was, according to Wikipedia, created as a satire against creationists (a group notoriously shy of a sense of humour…):

The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” was first described in a satirical open letter written by Bobby Henderson in 2005 to protest the Kansas State Board of Education decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In that letter, Henderson satirized creationist ideas by professing his belief that whenever a scientist carbon dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there “changing the results with His Noodly Appendage”. Henderson argued that his beliefs and intelligent design were equally valid, and called for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism to be allotted equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. After Henderson published the letter on his website, the Flying Spaghetti Monster rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and a symbol used against teaching intelligent design in public schools.

The FSM has its own website and a huge following. You can buy FSM pins, T-shirts and other accessories from Evolvefish.com. You could even become an ordained FSM minister for a few dollars. Continue reading “What if you’re wrong?”

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Musing on Melville’s Poetry

Herman MelvilleI came across a poem last night that I had not read in the past (always a pleasant thing to discover something new in one of your books)*. It is by Herman Melville, an author I associate with novels and short stories rather than poetry. Yet he was surprisingly prolific as a poet, mostly in his later life.

Poem Hunter lists 93 of his poems on its site (on PDF here). He wrote many more, it seems – many of them naval or related to the sea, others about the Civil War – and the collected works can be found at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the poem that pleasantly surprised me by its complexity and modernity, given its 1888 publication. It’s called The Maldive Shark:

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

It’s hard, reading that, to remember Melville was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and that both of them published rather morally-laden socially instructive books of poetry about the Civil War almost simultaneously (Whitman’s Drum Taps in 1865, Melville’s Battle Pieces in 1866).

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Little Dorrit: BBC Drama

Little Dorrit BBCWe just finished watching the 14-part BBC series of Little Dorrit. As usual with most BBC series, it was superbly cast, acted, paced and filmed. Each episode was a mere 30 minutes, and almost every one of them ended in a cliffhanger fashion that made you want to watch just one more.

You might not think of Charles Dickens that way, but much of what he wrote was for serial publication: in weekly or monthly magazines. To keep his audience hooked – and buying the magazines – he wrote cliffhangers. Not perhaps as gripping as, say, episodes of TV’s show 24, but his audience kept coming back for more.

Little Dorrit ran in 19 monthly issues, between December, 1855 and June, 1857.

Watching the series also made me want to read the book – I have read other of Dickens’ works, but not this one. Now, after watching, I can’t imagine why not. It’s a great story. I pulled it off my shelf and stared it this week.

Little Dorrit is both a social commentary and a complicated story. It has – as other Dickens’ novels have – a large cast of characters, often eccentric to the point of caricature. Mr. Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office, for example. His readers loved the characters, loved the caricatures, and understood the reality they thinly veiled.

Modern novels – your James Patterson, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell for example – are structured differently. The basic idea of a lot of popular fiction is to hit the readers over the head with a strong first page and drag them into the novel and the action right from the earliest lines.

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