Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Imagine eating like this

From George Martin's A Dance with Dragons, pp 26-28 condensed:
"They began with a broth of crab and monkfish, and cold egg lime soup as well. Then came quails in honey, a saddle of lamb, goose livers drowned in wine, buttered parsnips, and suckling pig. Tyrion had never eaten so well, even at court. Next came mushrooms kissed with garlic and bathed in butter, a heron stuffed with figs, veal cutlets blanched with almond milk, creamed herring, candied onions, foul-smelling cheeses, plates of snails and sweetbreads, and a black swan in her plumage."
A black swan in her plumage? I'd be in cardiac arrest before that point.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Embarrassing Existence of Muhammad and Jesus

I wasn't aware that the classic criteria were used outside of historical-Jesus studies, but in a debate between Robert Spencer and David Wood, Did Muhammad Exist?, they are not only used but spoken of as if a common language among historians. Neither is a professional scholar of Islam, but their debate is a good one and well informed. Spencer denies that Muhammad was a real person, per his book Did Muhammad Exist? published last year (which argues that the prophet was a fiction created in the 690s). Wood defends the mainstream view that Muhammad existed, and by relying solely on the criterion of embarrassment to make his case. That's what grabbed my attention.

Both Spencer and Wood agree that we don’t have any early sources, let alone multiple or independent ones, to make a case for Muhammad's existence. There’s no mention of Muhammad or the Qur'an by the Arabs who were supposed to have been energized by them in the first six decades. Only by the eighth and ninth centuries do we get stories of Muhammad in sudden detail. In the early expansion following the 630s, the prophet and Qur’an are unheard of, not only in surviving Arab communications, but in the writings of those they conquered. These Arabs are said to have come and destroyed, but they are not called Muslims, just Hagarenes, Ishmaelites, and Saracens.

Recognizing this wide gap, Wood turns to the criterion of embarrassment to make a case for Muhammad's existence, and note the way he introduces it. He gives the impression that the criterion is a tool used by historians at large:
"Historians have developed principles for gathering kernels of truth, even from defective and biased writings. One is the criterion of embarrassment. When someone admits something that makes their hero look bad, it's probably true, because he wouldn't invent something that's embarrassing to him. When people invent things, they invent things that make themselves and their beliefs look good. Muslims won't invent things that make Muhammad look stupid or immoral or evil."
Wood is a Christian apologist, and it may be that he is simply familiar with the methodologies of New Testament studies of the historical Jesus, and assuming they are a common historian's language; I'm not sure.

Wood commendably (and again in agreement with Spencer) advises caution with the criterion, emphasizing that what is embarrassing to modern Muslims wasn't necessarily embarrassing to Muslims 14 centuries ago. For instance, according to Muslim sources, Muhammad had sex with his nine-year old child-bride Aisha; he had sex with his slave girls; he told his followers to rape their female captives and have sex with prostitutes; he approved of men beating their wives into submission; he ordered the assassination of his critics and execution of apostates, and the violent subjugation of Christians and Jews; he supported his religion by robbing people, and had a man tortured for money. While all of this material is highly embarrassing to many modern Muslims (and indeed why these traditions are often denied, in whole or part), none of it would have been embarrassing to early Muslims. These practices were perfectly acceptable by 7th-century Arabian standards, and there's no reason why they couldn't have been invented.

Wood, however, lights on seven accounts in early Muslim sources that do seem genuinely embarrassing. I'll outline them here, followed by Spencer's rebuttals, and then Wood's counter-rebuttals.

(1) Muhammad thinks he's demon-possessed. When he began receiving revelations, his first reflection was that he was demon possessed. When he fled from the cave, he was convinced that part of the Qur'an was put into his head by a poetry demon. His wife and her cousin finally convinced him that he wasn't possessed but rather a prophet of Allah.

Spencer's rebuttal: The reason to invent this is to lay aside fears that Muhammad's revelations were demonically inspired in the first place.

Wood's counter: But you can come up with all sorts of ways to show or justify that someone isn't demon-possessed without making him look a fool (i.e. so that he can't tell the difference between holy revelations and demonic ones). You can simply have Allah pronounce him free of demons, or have him work miracles, etc.

(2) Muhammad's attempted suicide. After Muhammad's experience in the cave, he became suicidal and tried to hurl himself off a cliff. If you're manufacturing a prophet to unite the Arab people, you wouldn't describe him as history's first suicidal prophet.

Spencer's rebuttal: The reason to invent this is to lay aside fears that dark forces were influencing Muhammad. He ultimately resisted suicide and went on to fulfill his mission.

Wood's counter: As above, with demon possession. There are more attractive ways to dispel fears like this than showing your prophet to be shamefully weak.

(3) The Satanic verses. According to our earliest Muslim sources, Muhammad delivered revelations from the devil. In addition to Allah, there are three goddesses you can pray to. He and his followers bowed down before them. Then Muhammad came back and said these verses really weren't from God, they were from Satan, and he replaced them with the words we find in the Koran today. If you invent a prophet, you certainly don't invent one who is duped and tricked by Satan, and who can't tell the difference between the holy and the damned.

Spencer's rebuttal: If this religion is in a period of flux and being developed, it's going to go through stages, which will contradict earlier stages. And so there has to be some explanation as to why some things were taught but then were not taught.

Wood's counter: This is actually the strongest case of embarrassment, where the authentic momentum keeps it steamrolling through generations, despite being increasingly watered down. In the earliest verses, Muhammad was duped by Satan into delivering the revelations; in later verses, he didn't actually deliver them -- he was impersonated by Satan; in still later verses, all of this is cut out and all that's left are the pagans bowing down in honor of the revelation. (In the original story, they were bowing down because Muhammad was honoring their gods.) The historical core has been all but completely lost by the time of the Hadith collections. [As I will point out below, this trajectory is similar to what we see in the baptism of Jesus across Mark-->Matthew-->Luke-->John.] The only way such an uncomfortable story would have had the momentum to stay alive, despite the increased damage control, is if people knew it really happened.

Spencer's second rebuttal: The embarrassment is admittedly obvious, but that doesn't mean the original account couldn't have been invented. It's like telling a lie, and then you find you have to quickly tell another lie to cover it up.

(4) Muhammad falls under the power of black magic. Multiple references indicate that Muhammad was the victim of black magic, which made him delusional and gave him false beliefs. One of his enemies stole his hairbrush and cast a spell on him.

Spencer's rebuttal: The reason to invent this is to show Muhammad victorious over black magic. The story is designed to reinforce that black magic holds no sway over him.

Wood's counter: There are easier and more palatable ways to show that Muhammad isn't under the power of black magic, without portraying him as actually succumbing to black magic in order to break free of it.

(5) Muhammad's many wives. Muhammad's revelation decrees that Muslims are allowed to marry up to four women. Yet the Muslim sources say that Muhammad had many more. The defense is that he received a special revelation from Allah giving him special privilege, but this still violates his own revelation.

Spencer's rebuttal: Allah can do as he pleases, as he does all the time. Furthermore, Muhammad is portrayed as a super-virile hero -- having the sexual potency of 40 men -- not exactly an ordinary guy.

Wood's counter: Muhammad could have had loads of sex with his four wives to prove his super-potency, and then loads of sex with, say, 100 slave girls. This would have allowed him to stay consistent with his revelation.

(6) Muhammad marries the divorced wife (Zaynab) of his own adopted son (Zayd). And this, after he was the one to break up the marriage. The justification for this is so over the top that it screams embarrassment.

Spencer's rebuttal: It's true that this one (like (3) the Satanic verses) is embarrassing. The story ends with the statement, "Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, he is the father of the prophets." The sources had to emphasize that Muhammad was the final prophet, the seal of the prophets, which meant that if all the prophets were of one bloodline, then Muhammad could have no son -- natural or adopted. So this story was invented to show that Muhammad had no son, and that he had an adopted son, but that Allah ruled out the necessity for adoption, ruled out the legitimacy of adoption, and emphasized this by giving Muhammad in marriage his adopted son's ex-wife. Thus this was no violation of the laws of consanguinity, because Muhammad was not this man's father -- or indeed any man's father. It's also an indirect dig at Christianity, which has a whole theology of adopted sonship: if adoption is illegitimate, than Christianity is too.

Wood's counter: You can deny that Muhammad had sons a lot more easily than this, without leaping through tortured and self-defeating explanations.

(7) Muhammad poisoned by a Jewish woman. Muhammad is portrayed as poisoned by a Jewish woman whose family had been slaughtered by Muslims. The poisons ate away at his organs for two years before he died in shameful agony. If your prophet's greatest desire was to die gloriously in battle, you don't invent a shameful end like this for him.

Spencer's rebuttal: This account serves the political purpose of demonizing the Jews, a thread that runs through the Hadith as well as the Qur'an itself. It's a particular preoccupation of the Qur'an leaders at the time the Qur'an and Hadith were put together, to demonize the Jews whom they saw as formidable opponents.

Wood's counter: Then why not have Muhammad dying in battle fighting the Jews?

Summary: As Wood points out, Spencer adopts a "means-to-end approach" in accounting for these embarrassments. But the early Muslims could have had Spencer's ends without these embarrassing means. They could have justified doctrines or ideas without either making a fool out of Muhammad or making him look apostate. Spencer counters that we don't know enough details behind these traditions to "make sense" of how they would have been crafted or argued, and he insists that most of these accounts don't show signs of embarrassment in any case -- aside from (3) and (6). The other five examples, according to Spencer, seem to have been no more embarrassing to the early Muslims than the account of Muhammad having sex with the nine-year old Aisha.

What's fascinating to me about this debate -- besides the use of criteria which I thought to be the exclusive domain of New Testament studies, and a liability for precisely this reason -- is that it mirrors some contemporary debating about the existence of Jesus. See, for instance, Richard Carrier and Mark Goodacre, Did Jesus Exist?, which follows on the heels of Carrier's recent book, Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Carrier doubts that Jesus existed, and he's analogous to Spencer in finding the criterion of embarrassment to be especially useless. In each debate, I find myself on an odd middle ground, believing in the existence of both Muhammad and Jesus despite the limited value, as I see it, of the criterion of embarrassment.

For sake of analogy, I will list seven (as Wood does in the Muhammad debate) examples where the criterion of embarrassment has been used by New Testament scholars to argue for the authenticity of Jesus material. Let's see how these really hold up.

(1) Jesus' baptism by John. Why invent your sinless savior undergoing a rite that washed away sins?

(2) Jesus' feasting with sinners and tax collectors. Why fabricate mocking caricatures of your Lord as a bon vivant who ate and drank with low-lives?

(3) Jesus' use of spit to heal blindness and deafness. Why associate your Lord with pagan magic?

(4) Jesus' mistaken prophecy of the end. Why make your Lord incompetent?

(5) Jesus' betrayal by Judas. Why invent one of the twelve disciples turning evil?

(6) Jesus' denial by Peter. As above.

(7) Jesus' despairing cry on the cross. Why show your Lord pitifully weak at his moment of triumph?

(*) Jesus' crucifixion. Special case.

(1) is the only one on this list that I would call embarrassing in the hard-core sense. In the accounts of Jesus' baptism by John, the apologetic process from Mark-->Matthew-->Luke-->John is so obvious you'd have to be a fool not to see it. Each evangelist controls the embarrassment better than the one before. It's the closest gospel analogy to the Satanic verses example which Wood adduces for Muhammad. Just as in the final version of the Muslim sources, Muhammad is no longer offering devilish revelations at all (whether he himself or the devil's impersonations of him) -- all that's left are those bowing down in honor of his revelation -- so too by the time of the fourth gospel, John is no longer baptizing Jesus; all that's left is the epiphany. Mark admitted the baptism, Matthew defended it with protests and platitudes ("The only reason you need to be baptized," John assures his superior, "is to 'fulfill all righteousness'"), Luke censored it by putting the Baptist in jail when Jesus was baptized, and John censored the actual baptism. It's unclear as to when a baptism would have become embarrassing in the evolving Christian movement, but I subscribe to the view that there was high Christology at a very early date. I think it likely that Jesus' baptism by John can be regarded as historical on the basis of embarrassment. The tradition was kept alive all these decades, steamrolling through every single gospel ("with momentum", to use Wood's phrase) because it really happened, and had to be acknowledged in some way, despite its difficulties. That's not a certainty, by any means, but by far the most plausible explanation.

(4) seems significantly embarrassing to the three synoptic writers (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). Jesus' prediction that the end would come in his lifetime ("I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power") makes him wrong, and the synoptic writers (following Mark's lead) make lemonade out of this embarrassment with the transfiguration. For Mark, those who died before seeing the kingdom come in power are the disciples who missed the transfiguration (and also, per Stephen Carlson, those who fled the crucifixion unlike the women). But the gospels show embarrassment only because they were written after the death of all first-generation followers. The saying wouldn't have been embarrassing, say, in the mid-50s, during the first-generation church. In fact, it could well have been invented during this time to serve as an assurance for those who were getting impatient for Jesus' return, as some disciples were dying off. The message would have been, "Don't worry, Jesus is indeed coming again, and some of you will still be alive when it happens." Only at the point when everyone died off would the saying become scandalous. So this one's a draw: Jesus could have made the foolish prediction, or it could have been invented in early pre-gospel years.

(3) is embarrassing to Matthew and Luke. They censor the spit from their accounts in copying Mark. But I'm unclear as to how blasphemous this practice really was, or if Judaism was syncretic enough to accommodate it in some circles.

(7) is embarrassing to Luke and John. But neither Mark nor Matthew seem uncomfortable with Jesus' agonizing cry on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?". (Luke replaced it with a calm eulogy of Jesus' spirit, and John used the triumphant, "It is accomplished!") That's because Mark's agenda was to console and vindicate Christian believers who suffered as Jesus did (per Mark Goodacre). So this could have been invented to serve Mark's interests.

(5) and (6) aren't embarrassing, as far as I can tell. In the post-70 age of the gospels, Judas actually serves as a helpful device to show how the old ("evil") religion of Judah and its temple cult is replaced by the Christian sect. Per Donald Akenson, Judas functions as one who opposes Jesus-the-Christ in the same way Satan opposed the Almighty in late Second Temple mythology. As for Peter, his behavior squares with Mark's agenda in showing the consequences of denying Christ in times of suffering; it also functions as wonderful (anti-Peter) propaganda amidst factional battles for control of the church.

(2) isn't embarrassing at all. Regarding sinners, the Christian movement was all about the last being first, exalting the lowly, Jesus dying expressly for sinners and the ungodly rather than the righteous. This is what the Christians reveled in. Jesus' table-fellowship with low-lives could have been invented to justify their theology -- despite the fact that so many historians (conservative and liberal alike) love holding this up as a sure case of sure history. Don't misunderstand me, Jesus may well have feasted with outcasts; but the criterion of embarrassment is no help here.

(*) (*) The crucifixion is a special case. It's actually the least embarrassing doctrine of the Jesus traditions. Early Christians like Paul weren’t remotely embarrassed by the shame and scandal of the cross. They made it their badge of honor, and to hell with difficulties in converting others to their cause. (That's a common enough phenomenon in the history of religious movements.) However, there would have obviously been embarrassment in the immediate aftermath of the event, until the disciples could stop and reflect and decide to embrace the worst thing conceivable as their salvation. So in an off-kilter way, that does point to the historicity of the crucifixion. Yes, the Christians could have invented the outrage; things like that happen. But knowing it would be a stumbling block to many others (I Cor 1:22-24), that's a less likely scenario than reality having forced the outrage on them from the start.

Conclusion: What I hope these "lists of seven" demonstrate is that the criterion of embarrassment is a limited tool that while sometimes pointing us in directions of greater plausibility, is abused when not applied thoughtfully. The Qur'an is a bit outside my comfort zone, but in my own sampling of the best New Testament examples, I find that most show little if any embarrassment over the Jesus traditions. Spencer could be getting somewhat desperate in accounting for extreme cases like the Satanic verses and Muhammad's marriage to Zaynab. Yes, it's possible to "tell a lie and then tell other lies" to cover for your blunders, but that's not always the most plausible explanation for an exceedingly embarrassing account.

If anyone knows of studies outside the New Testament and the Qur'an which use the classic criteria, especially that of embarrassment, I'd like to know. I was under the impression they were used for the historical Jesus only, but the debate between Spencer and Wood indicates otherwise.

See also: My review of Robert Spencer's Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, to which he responded.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Favorite Literary Moments

By which I mean narrative scenes that have had such a dramatic impact on me I call them revelatory. Scenes that changed me, bruised me, made me the person I am. They showed me the true power of fiction in the hands of greatly inspired writers. Some are tragic, others are terrifying; some emotional, others exciting, one hilarious beyond measure. I narrowed the list down to 12 in covering the genres I read most: 4 fantasy, 3 historical, 3 science-fiction, 3 horror, 2 romance, 2 scriptural, 2 general, and 1 poem. They are ranked in descending order, best at the top. Feel free to submit your own favorites in comments.

1. The Grey Havens. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1955. This classic departure moves me in ways I never even try to describe. How did Tolkien write such magic? Sauron was defeated, but the end of the Third Age is about everyone's defeat -- the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men. Words can't do it justice apart from the text itself: "'But,' said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, 'I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire. For years and years, after all you have done.' 'So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.' Then Elrond and Galadriel rode on; for the Third Age was over, and the Days of the Rings were passed, and an end was come of the story and song of those times. With them went many Elves of the High Kindred who would no longer stay in Middle-Earth... Cirdan led them to the Havens, and there was a white ship lying, and upon the quay beside a great grey horse stood Gandalf. 'Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.' Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise."

2. The Red Wedding. A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin. 2000. The Grey Havens break my heart, and the Red Wedding slams my gut. Its effect on readers is legendary; some even stop reading the series after this chapter, it's that upsetting -- more than even Ned's beheading in the first book. I never saw it coming, I was so convinced that Robb would take back the North, despite the cues at the chapter's start: "The drums were pounding, pounding, pounding, and her head with them. Pipes wailed and flutes trilled; fiddles screeched, horns blew, the skins skirled a lively tune, but the drumming drove them all. The sounds echoes off the rafters, whilst the guests ate, drank, and shouted at one another. Outside the rain still fell, but within the Twins the air was thick and hot. Most of the heat came from the wedding guests, jammed in so thick along the benches that every man who tried to lift his cup poked his neighbor in the ribs. Even on the dais they were closer than Catelyn would have liked." Something awful is on the way, but who would guess. Robb's death is stunning; the massacre appalling; Walder Frey's violation of guest rights off the scales, even by his treacherous standards. And Catelyn's death twists in the knife, as if Martin needs to prove beyond a doubt that he's at home with nihilism. "It hurts so much, she thought. Our children, Ned, all our sweet babes. The white tears and the red ones ran together until her face was torn and tattered, the face that Ned had loved... Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold." The Red Wedding is exactly what the fantasy genre needed a decade ago, and the enema worked; more authors are taking inspiration from Martin and putting the screws to their protagonists.

3. Heaven on Earth. Shogun, James Clavell. 1975. There are too many scenes I could choose from Shogun: the ninja assault on Osaka Castle, Toranaga railroading his vassals and ordering their children put to death as a test of loyalty, Alvito's fury over a Japanese convert who took Eucharist after pillowing with a whore, Blackthorne's fury when Mariko offers him a boy for sexual pleasure. But even these have nothing on the pleasure-house scene in chapter 40, where Blackthorne makes the 180-degree turn from loathing Japanese culture to loathing his own. Few writers can pull this off like Clavell, and make us feel the same way despite ourselves. For all the merciless cruelty, honor killings and suicides, 16th-century Japan was civilized in ways the western world couldn't begin to comprehend -- certainly more advanced (and sane) on the subjects of medicine, cleanliness, sexual pleasures, and diet. Blackthorne's last bit of resistance breaks in the pleasure house, and he bursts out in rage against his English heritage, which now seems so guilt-based and gross: "What a stinking bloody waste!" And then later, drifting off to sleep with Kiku in his arms: "What was it Rodrigues had said? 'The Japans're heaven on earth, Ingeles, if you know where to look,' or 'This is paradise, Ingeles.' I don't remember. I only know it's not there, across the sea, where I thought it was. It's not there. Heaven on earth is here." This literary moment is perfectly realized; it's miraculous.

4. God "Answers" Job. Book of Job, Unknown biblical author. 6th century BCE. The most challenging book of the bible still has no answer. Even our best theologians cannot account for the appalling sufferings of the innocent without truncating God's powers, either his omniscience (he doesn't always know what's going on), his omnipotence (he's not all-powerful), or his all-loving nature (there's a dark side to God that goes beyond the romantic constraints we put on the term "love"), though that last comes closest to what the author of Job implies. Humanity, by this wisdom, can't see the big picture, indeed they're too stupid too even begin grasping it. Horrors like the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanjing, 9/11 -- and the calamities slamming our good friend Job -- evidently can't be explained in a way that our limited minds would understand. So God responds by way of non-response, with a deluge of contemptuous counter-questions: "The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements -- surely you know. Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk? Who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings? Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to whom I have given the steppe for his home, and the salt land for his dwelling place? Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high? Will you argue with the Almighty? Will you put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like mine, and can you thunder with a voice like mine? Deck yourself with majesty; clothe yourself with glory and splendor, then will I acknowledge that your own hand can give you victory.'" The Lord may not be the most rewarding conversation partner, but this is monstrously humbling.

5. House of Terror. Lost Boy, Lost Girl, Peter Straub. 2003. Straub is a genius, and Lost Boy, Lost Girl an impossibly successful blend of the haunted-house and serial-killer genres. The scene that floors me is that of Mark and Jimbo finally working up the courage to look into the front window of the abandoned house: it's evening; Jimbo creeps onto the front porch; from the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window; and what Jimbo sees causes him to leap backwards and pass out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives. We have no idea what Jimbo saw at this point, but it's still a terrifying scene. Pages later, we learn he saw this: "A guy hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. I was so scared. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me. Like ball bearings or something, silvery." The implication being that Jimbo saw the ghost of the serial killer who had customized the house to facilitate his murders (spying on captives in secret passageways, tormenting them on beds of pain, disposing of their bodies in corpse-chutes). That part-2 scene is also a terror. But it's the unexpected part-3 to this scene, at the novel's end, that goes through me like an awl: even though the house is indeed haunted by a ghost, that's not what Jimbo saw; it was the real-life Sherman Park Killer, the pedophile who has been abducting and murdering boys, and using the house as a place to meditate and get his rocks off. When in the end, from his jail cell, he casually relates that Mark and Jimbo ("the little snoops") were distracting him that night, with the flashlight and all, you relive that scene instantly and think, Christ, it was closer for Jimbo than he realized. (Mark wasn't so lucky: he paid for it later, abused and killed horribly off-stage.)

6. "A camel herder in Africa or a shepherd in Spain?" The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay. 1995. In other words, do you want to be taken over by jihadists or crusaders? Either prospect is appalling to a civilized Muslim of Ummayad Spain, where fountains, gardens, ivories, advanced medicine, and decadent festivals make a pocket-paradise in Europe. Ammar chooses the former, an interesting choice, since the desert fanatics of his own faith are more hostile to Umayyad libertinism than even Christians. But for Ammar the jihadists are the lesser of two evils, and his explanation to Rodrigo (El Cid) rings true. He chooses them not so much for common faith but for common history: "Our sages, our singers, the caliphs of the eastern world. The jihadists? They are a part of that. Every people has its zealots. They come, and change, and come again in a new guise. The jihadists are as your crusaders -- righteous, convinced, unforgiving. The desert tribes are uncivilized, but I confess I find little of value in the Christian lands of Leon and Castile either. The desert is a hard place, harder than even your northlands in winter. Allah knows, I have no bonding with the jihadists, but I share even less with those who venerate your fanatic saints. Would I rather be with the jihadists? Again, put it a little differently, and then leave it, Rodrigo, as my last words, lest we quarrel before we part. I suppose I would rather, if Spain is to be lost, herd camels in Africa than be a shepherd in Spain." I disagree with Ammar -- I would choose the Christian crusaders as the lesser of two evils -- but I respect his reasoning, and completely feel his pain for the passing of an enlightened Islam.

7. The Alleluia Victory and Pelagian Heresy. The Eagles' Brood, Jack Whyte. 1994. I knew I was going to love Germanus of Auxerre the moment Merlyn rescued him from the Saxons, at the battle which became known as the famous Alleluia Victory. Defending his vocational contradiction as a warrior-bishop, Germanus says: "Our gentle Master bade us turn the other cheek to those who would defame us, Merlyn, but he seized a whip himself when he was outraged in the Temple. Turn the other cheek to such as these [Saxon corpses], and they'll rip off your Christian ears, before they remove your head." Everything about the unlikely friendship between these two men is compelling: their mutual respect, their refusal to budge one iota on spiritual convictions. Merlyn defends free will and the teachings of Pelagius against Germanus' verdict: "Pelagius stands apostate. You, as one man, may rail against the judgment, but you must, perforce, accept it. The bishops of Britain have now been informed, by me, of how matters stand. They may choose to ignore my message, but they will proceed in sin, and ipso facto under pain of excommunication and damnation. No one, however, will stand excommunicate for how he has believed or behaved prior to this time... Merlyn, I cannot utter words of condemnation to you personally. You will live, as you must, according to your conscience. You are a good man and I see no wickedness in you. When you go to Judgment, God will know how to deal with you, and He is merciful where mercy is warranted. Bishops, however, are another matter altogether. They are the teachers, the exemplars, and their lives are subject to intense scrutiny of God and His Angels. I have decreed the establishment of schools, and the teachings of Pelagius will be heard no more in Britain's Christian instruction. That is what has been achieved here, and I believe, with all my heart and soul, that the achievement is significant and good." The King Arthur legends portray Merlin in varying degrees as a Christian, though an unorthodox one, and Jack Whyte plants the seeds for this wonderfully in The Camulod Chronicles.

8. The Merlin Sickness. Hyperion, Dan Simmons. 1989. Of the six tales shared by the Shrike pilgrims, Sol Weintraub's is the most harrowing. Think about it: your 20-year old daughter is suddenly afflicted with a ruthless time-disease; her body starts aging backwards at the same rate it should be growing forwards; every morning she loses a day's worth of memories, as well as memories of everything that had happened since the onset of the disease; this goes on for years - waking up confused by her surroundings, frightened by your old appearance, needing to start from scratch to make sense of the world she lives in and what has happened to her. Think how that affects you, as you're forced to deal with this process over two decades as your daughter regresses down to infancy. Then imagine, amidst your tears and rage, you get a frequently recurring dream, from the Jewish God you don't much care for, commanding you to take her back to the legendary monster who so afflicted her, and offer her as a sacrifice. Which you finally do (see above image) in sheer desperation. These snapshots of a girl's reverse-life are emotionally pulverizing, and I'm not exaggerating by saying that the idea of the Merlin Sickness scarred me when I first read the Hyperion series.

9. Bertran de Born. Inferno, Dante Alighieri. 1321. Canto 28 of The Divine Comedy is the only one in which Dante explicitly uses the term contrapasso, though of course all levels of his Inferno are constructed on them -- punishments made perversely to fit the crime. For instance, false prophets have their heads twisted around 180 degrees, forced to look behind themselves for eternity; suicides are turned into trees, unable to regain the bodies they mistreated in life; flatterers are buried to the nose in shit, since that's all they ever spoke. But the ninth bolgia of Hell's eighth layer presents the most graphic and quintessential example of a contrapasso and has stayed with me ever since first reading it in high school. The sinners in question are the sowers of discord, forced to walk in a circle as a sword-wielding demon hacks and slices them apart -- dividing parts of their bodies as they divided people in life. As they circle around, their wounds heal, and the demon cuts them open again. The chief sinner is Muhammad (for creating Islam, in Dante's view an off-shoot of Christianity) and his son Ali (who split Islam into the rival factions of Sunni and Shiite). But the French troubadour Bertran de Born is legendary for carrying around his decapitated head like a lantern. (His crime: sowing animosity between Henry II of England and his sons.) Bertran is famous for his lyric poems, and I prefer the more sympathetic view of him in Guy Gavriel Kay's novel, A Song for Arbonne. But whatever your opinion, his fate in Inferno is fantastic, certainly one of the most iconic images in western literature.

10. The Crucifixion of Tom Flanagan. Shadowland, Peter Straub. 1980. Why this isn't as famous as anything Stephen King ever wrote I don't know. A teenager is crucified in an evil fairyland: "The pain in his enormous hands brought him back. Sweat dripped down his nose, itching like a dozen ants. His throat had been sand-blasted. His muscles screeched; his ears pounded. At intervals a loud crump! from the outside rattled the frame on which he was suspended, and he deliriously thought that bombs were falling, that Shadowland was being shelled, and then realized that the explosions were fireworks. He was afraid to look at his hands. One of the nails kept a bone from being where it wanted to be, and the pressure, which faded in and out, made all the other pains increase. His hands sagged, the fire returned. He uttered a high, floating falsetto wail. 'Kid sounds like a female alcoholic,' Pease said. 'Kid gets on my fuckin' nerves,' Thorn said. 'Give him a break,' Pease said, 'he's in a tough spot. Ain't you, kid?' Tom passed out again. When he woke, he thought it was night. He was soaked in sweat, he was ice cold, and his hands were soaring and sobbing. The bone fought the pressure of the nail, lost, and bounced in his hand. Hundreds of nerves sang." All Tom has to do to save himself is push with all his might (this kills me just thinking about it) until the nails pop free, then watch helplessly as the magician kills his best friend by shapechanging him into a glass bird. I'm not sure why Shadowland is so often overlooked in favor of the overpraised Ghost Story; sins from the past have nothing on this fairyland of brutal horrors.

11. Father's Child/Mother's Child. The One Tree, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1982. Linden Avery is twice as depressing as Thomas Covenant. She revels in self-blame, self-pity, and a moribund refusal to move on. She represses suicidal and homicidal urges under the veneer of her medical profession. And like all Donaldson protagonists, the more compassion you give her, the more she rains fury on you. No wonder Covenant fell in love: she's misery porn personified. On the ship of Starfare's Gem, she tells how her father locked her in the attic when she was eight, and forced her to watch his suicide. It's a harrowing tale, and when Covenant doesn't react the way she wants, she gives him an avalanche of accusative bile. In the latter part of the sea-voyage, she tells the story of her mother, who got cancer seven years later, and from her hospital bed heaped guilt trips on Linden for driving her husband to suicide and herself into poverty. To which the fifteen-year old Linden responded by shoving Kleenex tissues down her mother's throat until she stopped breathing. Only in a Donaldson novel would a confession of sickening murder prompt confessions of love. When Covenant says, "I love you", Linden is poleaxed; as far as she knows, there is no such thing. "Father's Child" and "Mother's Child" are the most depressing chapters in the entire Covenant Chronicles -- and that's saying something -- but they're brilliant and perfectly pitched in a world under attack by Lord Foul, who thrives on people's inner Despite.

12. Escape from Thanatos Minor. A Dark and Hungry God Arises, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1993. Donaldson is no less depressing in a science fiction setting, and also brutally suspenseful. As one critic put it: "The essence of Donaldson's artistry is his ability to construct narrative crescendos that build and build and keep on building, unremittingly, until they have reached a pitch which no composer of texts has ever attained before." No work of his better illustrates this than the five-volume Gap Cycle; no book in this series better than A Dark and Hungry God Arises (the third); no part of this book better than the last 100 pages -- and the last 10 put me over the edge. The vilest characters break into a bootleg shipyard to rescue a tortured woman, one of the rescuers being her own rapist now transformed into a cyborg serving the covert agendas of the police. Plots and counterplots unfold, and allies turn out more lethal than enemies. The getaway is relentless: Angus (the cyborg) and Nick -- arch-enemies hell-bent on killing each other -- team up and co-pilot away from the planetoid mere seconds before it explodes: "A wail that Angus couldn't utter filled his chest -- a cry of fear which his zone implants and prewritten instructions refused to permit. He sounded as bleak as the grave as he told Nick, 'Now.' Nick slapped keys with his palms. A structural roar seemed to deafen the speakers as Trumpet's thrust leaped to full power. Scan detected targ from several sources tracking the ship, swinging guns into line. But two seconds later, a nuclear blast tore the heart out of Thanatos Minor. Impact screamed through Trumpet's hull as the shock wave struck. Rock like a maelstrom ripped the vacuum in every direction. In seconds, fractions of seconds, the stone storm would catch her, tear her shields apart like vapor, twist her to scrap in the vast dark. Already half the human ships were gone, punched to pieces by Thanatos Minor's ruin. Through his ship's screaming Angus also screamed: 'Now!' Against the brutal kick of the blast, Nick pitched at his board, slapped keys with his open hand. Scant meters ahead of the rock, Trumpet went into tach; plunged like Morn into the gap."

13. The Poisoning of the Two Trees & Theft of the Silmarils. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1977. The great turning point in Tolkien's world. What Melkor and Ungoliant do brings an end to the bliss of the gods and elves. The Age of the Two Trees become, in hindsight, a paradise which can never be re-attained, not only since the Trees can't be replicated, but even more critically because the elves fall from grace. Feanor covets his Silmarilli gems and refuse to aid the Valar, and most elves join him in rebellion, departing from Valinor and going to make hopeless war on Melkor who stole the gems even as Feanor rejected the gods' plea. John Howe's imagination (see image above) of the Two Trees is staggering: "Melkor and Ungoliant came hastening over the fields of Valinor, as the shadow of a black cloud upon the wind fleets over the sunlit earth; and they came before the green mound Ezellohar. Then the Unlight of Ungoliant rose up even to the roots of the Trees, and Melkor sprang upon the mound; and with his black spear he smote each Tree to its core, wounded them deep, and their sap poured forth as it were their blood, and was spilled upon the ground. But Ungoliant sucked it up, and going then from Tree to Tree she set her black beak to their wounds, till they were drained; and the poison of Death that was in her went into their tissues and withered them, root, branch, and leaf; and they died. And still she thirsted, and going to the Wells of Varda she drank them dry; but Ungoliant belched forth black vapours as she drank, and swelled to a shape so vast and hideous that Melkor was afraid. So the great darkness fell upon Valinor. Yet no song or tale could contain all the grief and terror that then befell. The Light failed; but the Darkness that followed was more than loss of light. In that hour was made a Darkness that seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light, and it had power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will."

14. The Green Lady. Perelandra, C.S. Lewis. 1943. The devil's strategy on Earth was simply to call God a liar (which he was, and I suppose it's no surprise that Lewis took a different approach in his re-enactment story) and entice Eve with the promise of godly knowledge that comes by eating the Forbidden Fruit. On Venus the prohibition is against dwelling on the Fixed Land, and the devil's strategy becomes more complex, involving penetrating arguments in a relentless verbal onslaught. The debate goes on for chapters and hinges on a moral paradox: to refuse something offered for the sake of something expected is inconceivable ("evil") in a world where everything is, naturally, good. "What you have made me see is as plain as the sky, but I never saw it before. Yet it has happened every day. One goes into the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one's mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit and not the fruit one thought of. One joy was expected and another is given. But this I had never noticed before -- that the very moment of the finding there is in the mind a kind of thrusting back, or setting aside. The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment, before you. And if you wished -- if it were possible to wish -- you could keep it there. You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other." The devil grinds this logic by encouraging her to think outside the box of God's plan and step on the Fixed Land. This idea, inconceivable to an unfallen person (who can't entertain, on her own, anything that goes contrary to God's will), suddenly becomes conceivable at the suggestion of an outsider, and to refuse to enact on it is to spurn offered fruit. The logic unfolds dreadfully but persuasively; the devil is like an exit counselor curing a brainwashed woman of blind obedience. I've never been fond of Lewis, but Perelandra is a brilliant sketch of the psychology of unfallen humanity.

15. The Five's Last Concert. The Five, Robert McCammon. 2011. Stephen King hasn't written a decent novel since Misery, but he still calls greatness right, and The Five is just as he says, Robert McCammon's best novel -- even better than Boy's Life, though I admit that's pushing it close. I was completely hooked by the Band That Won't Die, dirt-poor rock musicians who become famous overnight when their bass guitarist is killed by a stalking lunatic. Their battered histories, rough personalities, inner torments, and devotion to one another are fleshed out so organically that they feel 100% real; and the long segments of introspection make sudden scenes of murderous and rapist violence twice as searing. This, in turn, syncs with an unexpected horror, which could be supernatural or psychological or both. It's the kind of ambitious artistry seldom achieved by today's novels, in this sense very reminiscent of Boy's Life, and the final scene is what makes my cut: the last song played at The Five's breakup concert (by now they are three, as the keyboard player has also been killed), a collaborative effort from not only all five band members, but from the FBI agent who has been protecting them: "Welcome to the world, and everything that's in it... Write a song about it, just keep it under four minutes... Try and try, grow and thrive... Because no one here gets out alive." By this time I was actually hearing music, something that almost never happens when I read lyrics in a novel. In itself that testifies to the scene's power.

16. Peasants and Agriculture. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. 1877. It's stunning, really, how the social commentary in Anna Karenina transcends itself in the way true literature aspires, since social commentary rarely does that. The debates of Czarist Russia -- the relation of peasants to the land, education of the poor (and women), the question of zemstvo activism, the Serbian war against the Turks -- orbit bigger questions about life, death, religion, love, jealousy, ambition. In particular, Levin's reflections on the "Russian Peasant" is a part I've read too many times to count. His liberal colleague claims that peasants need to be educated and given medical care, following European practice, while his conservative interlocutor insists that serfs should have never been freed and peasants will never be efficient without the cracking of a whip. Levin has no use for either, believing that education makes peasants worse farmers, giving them ideas at odds with their station in life (he's arguably right within the context of his framework, even if it alienates us today), and that slavery is repulsive; peasants, says Levin, should instead earn profit shares even as they pay rent, to provide the incentive to work hard (essentially an agricultural version of modern business jobs that pay with stock options). As compelling as these musings are, they are never really about that, serving rather to funnel Levin's larger odyssey of self-identity, as in (my favorite) scene where he joins his peasants in the fields for a days' work, and "felt the moments of oblivion during which it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body" in an act of communal empathy.

17. Jilted at the Altar (Bertha Revealed). Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. 1847. Last minute wedding interventions are cliche, but there's no melodrama here. This is pure edge-of-your-seat suspense and gothic horror in the best romance ever penned. Jane and Rochester are finally at the altar for the marriage we want for them. A lawyer walks in and publicly announces the existence of a wife still living, which suddenly explains all the crazy happenings at Thornfield. Bertha Mason -- a homicidal pyromaniac who crawls around on all fours snarling like a beast -- has been locked away in the attic for the past decade, and Rochester, unable to deny it, takes everyone to to see her: "Mr. Rochester flung me behind him: the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek: they struggled. She was a big woman, in stature almost equaling her husband, and corpulent besides: she showed virile force in the contest -- more than once she almost throttled him, athletic as he was. At last he mastered her arms; Grace Poole gave him a cord, and he pinioned them behind her: with more rope, which was at hand, he bound her to a chair. The operation was performed amidst the fiercest yells, and the most convulsive plunges. 'That is my wife. And this (laying his hand on my shoulder) is what I wished to have; this young girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon. Compare this face with that mask, this form with that bulk; then judge me, priest of the gospel and man of the law, and remember, with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged'!" But what few realize is that Bertha is Bronte's alter-ego, almost a dark representation of Jane herself. Bertha is "a wild animal" imprisoned inside the attic, as Jane was "like a mad cat" when punished in the Red Room as a child; Bertha is insane, and Jane hears voices; both are made furious by injustices. There are mountains of disturbing subtext to the figure of Bertha Mason.

18. On the Subject of Frenchmen. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain. 1884. I'm not big on humor, but this scene is a gut-buster. When I first read it, I laughed so long and hard I cried and couldn't breathe. What makes it exponentially funnier is that it's so outrageously offensive by today's PC standards -- like almost everything in Huck Finn. Poor Jim just doesn't get the French. Huck: "S'pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy -- what would you think?" Jim: "I wouldn' think nuff'n; I'd take en bust him over de head." Huck: "Shucks, it ain't calling you anything. It's only saying, do you know how to talk French?" Jim: "Well, den, why couldn't he say it?" Huck: "That's a Frenchman's way of saying it." Jim: "Well, it's a blame ridicklous way. Dey ain' no sense in it." Huck: "Look Jim, does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?" Jim: "No, dey don't." Huck: "It's natural and right for 'em to talk different from each other, ain't it?" Jim: "Course." Huck: "Well then, ain't it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? You answer me that." Jim: "Is a cat a man?" Huck: "No." Jim: "Well, den, dey ain't no sense in a cat talkin' like a man. Is a cow a man? -- er is a cow a cat?" Huck: "No, she ain't either of them." "Well, den, she ain't got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of 'em. Is a Frenchman a man?" Huck: "Yes." Jim: "WELL, den! Dad blame it, why doan' he talk like a man? You answer me dat!" (Huck:) I see it warn't no use wasting words -- you can't learn a nigger to argue. So I quit.

19. "Who Will Rescue Me from this Body of Death?" Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul. Mid-50s. I've read Romans more times than any other piece of writing, and pondered the text of Rom 7:7-25 more than any other passage of scripture: "I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. The commandment which promised my life proved my death, because sin, seizing opportunity in the commandment, deceived me, and through it, killed me. (Rom 7:9-11)... I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I delight in the law of God, but I see in my members another law at war, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Rom 7:15-23)" On the surface, this is about the futility of obeying the law, which contradicts Paul's insistence that he had been completely blameless by the law as a practicing Pharisee (Philip 3:4b-6). On a deeper level, it's an assurance (no doubt a self-assurance as much as to the Romans) that God acted for the good in giving the law, against his earlier perverse claim (Gal 3:19-24) that the law is an active agent consigning people to sin and where God intends such a result "so that" he may save by faith instead. By taking on the role of Adam in Rom 7:7-13, Paul is able to shift the blame for disobedience onto the power sin itself (~the serpent), exonerate God, and make the law passive in its relationship to sin. Sin (~the serpent) uses the commandment as a host, as it were, and foils God's intent. Then, by taking on the role of a pagan Medea-like character in vv 14-25, Paul is able to go a step further and remove the law from sin's influence entirely. Sin now invades human flesh directly, using people as hosts, and turning them into pagans -- unable to do what they know to be right. Which do we trust? Paul's experience (Philip 3:4b-6) or his rhetoric (Rom 7:7-25)? Or is the latter as much true, but from an unfallen perspective?

20. Up the Stairs. 'Salem's Lot, Stephen King. 1975. Something I relate to: "Going up the stairs was the hardest thing Matt Burke had ever done in his life. Nothing else even came close. He mounted the steps, one by one, avoiding the sixth, which creaked. He held on to the crucifix, and his palm was sweaty and slick. He reached the top and looked soundlessly down the hall. The guest room door was ajar. He had left it shut. Walking carefully to avoid squeaks, he went down to the door and stood in front of it. The basis of all human fears, he thought. A closed door, slightly ajar. He reached out and pushed it open..." When I was 11 years old I saw The Exorcist -- the most terrifying experience of my life -- and after watching it, going up the stairs to bed was certainly the hardest thing I'd ever done. So when I read 'Salem's Lot years later, I relived the horror through Mr. Burke's eyes. In the room waits a supremely frightening vampire, with chilling eyes, delivering the hideous threat, "I will see you sleep like the dead, teacher." I'm not a Stephen King fan and revile his post-Misery work, but do appreciate some of his early books. 'Salem's Lot in particular remains the best vampire novel of all time, and it's this scene from the middle act that scorched my soul, more than even the end-game with Barlow.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Mission UK: The Top 10

Remember that gothic rock band from the '80s, who lost their talent in the '90s, and believe it or not are still cranking out the latter-day tripe? Well, I'm sticking with the golden oldies. Here are their ten best songs from the early days, ranked in descending order.

1. Beyond the Pale. 1988. Beyond censure. The band's best song.

2. Garden of Delight (Hereafter Version). 1986. This haunting version completely buries the original.

3. Wasteland. 1986. The band's most emblematic song, and the one that got me hooked.

4. Dance on Glass. 1986. Gothic to the core, evoking brutal fairy tales.

5. Tower of Strength. 1988. The band's most popular and compulsive song.

6. Grapes of Wrath. 1990. It sounds like a national anthem, and damn if it still doesn't give me chills.

7. Sacrilege. 1986. "Toss and turn on a cross to burn." I played this so much in college it was ridiculous.

8. Severina. 1986. A gift from the gods.

9. Kingdom Come. 1988. A catchy, thundering ode to eschatology.

10. Hands Across the Ocean (Palmer Version). 1990. A real earworm, and better than the grating popular version.