Impressions of “The Dark Forest,” by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest is a sequel to the Three-Body Problem, one of the best science fiction novels I ever read. Three Body starts with a bang, the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, China. Characters were well developed, and both sentimental and ghastly motivations are pained as flowing naturally from surviving the insanity of that era. Three Body also balanced two different time periods, the Cultural Revolution and the near future, as well as a virtual environment that closely connects the other two settings. It is a “hard” science fiction story, where special attention is given to explaining the plausibility and possible mechanics of future technology. And last, Three-Body carefully navigated (and even more carefully, comments upon) the censored and politically-monitored nature of speech in China.

The Dark Forest has none of these virtues. Substantial sections appear to be written by a Communist party literary committee, which they may well have been. Characters are two-dimensional tropes, and social motivation is simply bizarre. The ending is easily guessed. It is twice as long. Grudgingly, I will read the next book in the series and finish the trilogy.

So many things are radically different I wonder if The Dark Forest was originally supposed to have continuity with Three-Body at all. While Three-Body invokes hard science fiction extensively, one could substitute the aliens for Russians, Japanese, or Americans, and the story would make sense. Indeed, that may have been the problem. I’m aware of at least one other award winning science fiction where the original text of the sequel was rewritten to have continuity with the first book (Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead), so it would not surprise me the same thing happened here. While the length of The Dark Forest is about twice the length, a major theme of Three-Body (the difficulty of individuals aligning themselves with the goals of a government organization, from low-level lumberjacks to high-level politburo members) is entirely gone. Every government official appears to be basically productive and well-meaning. “Neighborhood committee” members and “political officers” receive special adulation.

In keeping with the Communist Party discipline that appears to be behind much of the book, religion is almost entirely expunged. The Catholic and Buddhist architecture of Beijing is described in Three Body, as are some contrasts between those religions. Understanding the enigmatic prayer, ‘Lord, save my Lord’ is part of the reader’s motivation to unravel the mystery, and the unique perspective of author Cixin Liu means Three-Body is neither a religious tract nor an atheist screed. That’s replaced with an almost complete absence of religion except as a dressing for basic emotions. Early in the book Osama bin Laden states that the core of all religious belief is simply hatred, while later in the book a character id described as an angel and as God himself for taking military command.

Buried in The Dark Forest is half of an excellent sequel. Three-Body ended in a moment of heightened tension for all characters. In the very last page two characters discuss the situation, and an interesting metaphor is raised. That metaphor is abandoned in Dark Forest, the tension dissipates almost completely, and all important actions are the result of deus ex machina — arbitrary events and decisions that are explained afterwards. The final communication process (for all war is communication) is interesting, but the reader only sees the end of it, as a tremendous amount just happens off-page. In Three-Body intelligent and learned individuals discuss ideas as they are using them. The shock of The Dark Forest‘s ending depends entirely on not being familiar with game theory or bargaining.

Reading The Dark Forest was fascinating, because besides the story and the writing, there is a real-life story about an original science fiction epic coming out of China. Something is happening in our real world, and both The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest are part of it. For this reason I will finish the trilogy, and hope it recovers. For now, I am not optimistic.

From the American publisher’s website, I found a link to this fan-made, impressionistic film “Waterdrop,” an homage to The Dark Forest in general and one chapter in particular. The short piece does a terrific job expressing The Dark Forest at its best, without giving away any important plot elements

I read The Dark Forest in the audible edition.

Impressions of “The Secret of Ventriloquism,” by Jon Padgett

The papers contained words, mostly filled out in a miniature, spidery longhand, that resembles neither your elegant script nor my careful cursive. These pages seem to be in the form of journal entries, though I question their nonfictional authenticity for reasons that will become obvious. I wonder if you’ll have any insight on who wrote them or how they came to be squirreled away under the mattress that I’ve slept upon for so many years. The following is a transcription of the text.
“Origami Dreams,” in The Secret of Ventriloquism

Let me begin with this: Jon Padgett deserves a place in the philosophical horror pantheon along with H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti.

By this I don’t just mean that Jon Padgett is knowledgeable about horror like S.T. Joshi, or can write an interesting story like Colin Wilson. Nor that Jon Padgett is capable of writing a competent Lovecraft or Ligotti pastiche. But rather, he can deconstruct the genre to find the essential elements, and reconstruct it in a way that combines a plausible philosophy of the universe with the horror sensibility.

Both Lovecraft and Ligotti had distinct philosophical voices. For Lovecraft it was materialism, and for Ligotti anti-natalism. Lovecraft to a great extent also pushed the idea of a coherent universe that his stories took place in, while Ligotti largely limited himself to shared elements except in certain books, such as the Nightmare Factory. Padgett combines both of these themes by embracing Realism, and then unfolding the stories that show both in their content and pattern the horror beneath Realism.

“Realism” is the philosophical idea that specific things (that dog, this sign, the person crossing the road in front of me right now) really exist. Another example: you really exist. The you you were yesterday, the you you are today, and the you yo are tomorrow are really and truly the same person.There is only one You.

The horror of Realism is an implication that is not obvious: if the real ‘you’ is continuous across time, the ‘you’ today is just a thin sheet of line of that real you that moves across space and time. Throughout The Secret of Ventriloquism, Podgett uses metaphors like “origami” (the careful unfolding-and-refolding of paper), daddy-longlegs (and their painfully thin legs) or “fog” (uncondensced matter, the phase of matter where everything is potential from one solidity to another).

“These are the remains of the transmuted dead. The tainted air feeds the infusoria, transforming vulnerable Dunnstowners into living skeletons. But the fog itself, it has so many names: the Origami, Daddy Longlegs, Snavley’s Ultimate Ventriloquist. It turns the skeletons into more of itself. That’s the punchline. It’s exponential. Every year more of the non-killed transition, every year blacker fog, and one day all the residents will change. And when that final transformation comes, the whole town — everything in it and below it — will awaken from this borrowed reality into another one.
“The Infusorium,” in The Secret of Ventriloquism

Theists can reject Lovecraft’s horror as simply wrong — materialism has become less plausible the more I live, and I suspect that has been the human experience throughout history. Ligotti is subversive — he recognizes the part of “God is good” that theists really need faith for is “good” — that the unhuman God is not an inhuman God — and his horror reflects that. But Podgett cuts to the core: the horror is an intrinsic property of existence. The unfolding of paper, the razor-sharp legs of a moving object, the fog between solid times, the not-quit-realness while we remember what we were and we hope for what we become. This is as true whether you are a Christian exponent of realism, such as St. Thomas Aquinas or C.S. Lewis, or “Solomon Kroth, Esoterician.”

The genre of The Secret of Ventriloquism is post-modern, approaching only the Bible in the variety of forms it takes. The central story — “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” — is a how-to document. The closest we get of an explanation of the document is a stage play, complete with stage direction and a one-act structure: “The Secret of Ventriloquism” The book begins with directions to guided mediation which is arguably not a story at all, and then a trope of horror, the first person confession in a timeless situation (two boys who fight). Later in the volume we gain access to a statement from a police officer where expectations are constantly subverted, a Ligottian tale of a vacation gone wrong, and a beautiful pastiche of gas station carnivals — “The Indoor Swamp.” “Escape to Thin Mountain,” which ties together several stories, is a reworking of a one-page Ligotti story, but far exceeds the original. And my favorite is “Origami Dreams,” which the more you think about it the sadder and more realistic it is.

I cannot recommend The Secret of Ventriloquism enough. I remember where I was when first seriously read Lovecraft, and where I was when I first seriously read Ligotti. Padgett has just begun publishing. I can’t wait for his career to unfold.

I read The Secret of Ventriloquism in the Kindle edition. Jon Padgett has narrated stories both by Thomas Ligotti and himself, maintains Thomas Ligotti Online, and has an  active twitter account.

Impressions of “Debating Truth: The Barcelona Disputation of 1263, A Graphic History,” by Nina Caputo and Liz Clarke

In modern terms, a Dominican monk named Paul Christiani sued for the right to preach in Jewish synagogues. This lead to a public trial, with Paul as the plaintiff, Nachmanides, a respected local rabbi as defendant, and King James I as judge. But part of the legal argument was this: Jews already accepted Jesus a Christ, synagogues were crypto-Jewish churches, and this could be proven using only Jewish religious texts! This con-texts used are fascinating, as not only excludes New Testament letters to the Jews (such as Matthew and Hebrews) and pre-Hebraic sources (Stories from Ancient Canaan, Assembly of the Gods) were excluded, the trial intentionally added texts not typically part of Christian hermeneutics — the Babylonian Talmud.

And thus, the first wrinkle: for Paul Christiani was an adult Jewish convert to Catholocism. He had a literate, adult understanding of Judaism as it was actually practiced and believed, not simply an academics understanding of the Hebrew parts of the bible. The Jewish tradition Peter and Paul learned including not only the Hebrew Bible (which makes up the bulk of the Catholic Old Testament), but also the Talmud, including oral laws not written down in the written Torah, explanations and rulings on those laws, as analysis and commentaries.

In these impressions I will describe the most fascinating part for me, wonder about the Friar’s and the Rabbi’s actual views of the Talmud, and note some arguments that I had expected to read from both Paul and Nahmanides, but which were not included in the disputation.

Possible the most fascinating paragraph is one in Nahmanides’ account, describing Paul’s use of the Talmud during the disputation.  Paul seeks Talmudic support for the notion that the Messiah was born in the first century:

Friar Paul then claimed that in the Talmud it is said that the messiah has already come.

He adduced the story in Midrash Lamentations concerning a man who was plowing and whose ox lowed. An Arab passed and said to him:

“Jew, Jew, unhitch your ox, unhitch your ploughshare, unhitch your plough for the Temple has been destroyed.”

He unhitched his ox, unhitched his ploughshare, and unhitched his plough. The ox lowed a second time.  The Arab said to him:

“Hitch up your ox, hitch up your ploughshare, hitch up your plough, for your messiah has been born.”

I responded: “I do not believe in this story at all, but it is a proof for my view.”

He then cried out: “Behold he denies their books.”

I learned a lot from this simple exchange. First, that the end of the Second Temple period was not only traumatic for Judaism, but also (for at least some Jews) led to a sustained belief that the Messiah was born… and that belief was in someone other than Jesus. I had never heard this, and it emphasizes the point that Judaism is not “just” the Judaism of Jesus’s day — it was not static.

I wonder what was Frair Paul’s view of the Talmud. Was he using it simply as a rhetorical device? Or as a Jewish convert to Christianity, did he believe that it was an authentic if culturally distinct part of the Christian religion — analogous to the view of some Christians toward Messianic Judaism. Likewise, from what I can read online, Nachmanides is famous not just for his role in the disputation, but also for his in-depth criticism of the famed Jewish scholar Maimonides, as well as his work on the Kabbalah. He also seems to have had a complicated relationship with the Talmud — one I barely am aware of. I am reminded of my experience reading The Syrio-Aramaic Reading of the Interpretation of the Koran, which page after page reminded me of the the deep linguistic/historical/cultural/religious foundations I do not have.

Both Friar Paul and Rabbi Nachmanides fail to make claims that I to me seem obvious for their positions. For example, take the part of the disputation where Friar Paul is arguing for Talmudic support to the idea that the LORD would be incarnate among men:

Again he returned [to his previous line of argument] and brought evidence from the Midrash where they said: “It is written, ‘And I will walk among you (Leviticus 26:12). They likened this [example] to one it resembles, [about] a king who went out for a walk with his laborer in his orchard, but the laborer hid himself. The king asked, ‘Why do you hide, for behold, I am like you.’ In the same manner, in the future, the Holy One, blessed is He, will walk in the Garden of Eden among the righteous, who will be afraid of Him, in the future to come. The Holy One, blessed is He, will say: ‘Why do you tremble before me? I am like you. I will be your God, and you shall be My people (Leviticus 26:12).’ Since God said, ‘I am like you,’ it shows he turned into a man, like them.”

An omission made by Friar Paul is puzzling to me. It seems significant, but neither the Latin nor Hebrew accounts of the disputation include any reference to the “Angel of the LORD,” which would appear to be an obvious place to make such a claim in the Hebrew Bible. The “Angel of the LORD” appears both anthropomorphic but also speaks as if it was the LORD Himself. But neither party makes an appeal to these references, such as

Then the Angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this?
Judges 2:1-2

And thus it would seem neither of them found these passages meaningful to this question.

Likewise, I was surprised that Nachmanides never used what is now a common argument within evangelical circles to buttress his case: that the Hebrew Bible intentionally makes it impossible to identify the Christian Messiah — in the contemporary words of the Catholic Church, that “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old ” (Dei Verbum). The best elucidation of this argument is from Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, where he argues the secrecy was to prevent those who would harm the Messiah from knowing his identifying too soon. By this logic the Transfiguration (when Moses and Elijah joined a council of Peter, James, and John) around the Messiah was a climactic revelation that could not have been predicted from Hebrew texts alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.
Matthew 17:9

The obvious implication of the New Testament being “hidden” and the identity of the Messiah being kept secret is that these cannot be proven from the old revelation alone.

Nevertheless, Friar Paul never takes what seems like an obvious swing in his direction, Rabbi Nachmanides does not take the same swing the other way.

Debating Truth is written an four sections: a comic book style close paraphrase of the disputation, a number of legal documents (including chronologies of the disputation from both sides), a historical section providing context for the disputation, and finally a historiographic analysis of how reliable the different texts actually are. This organization is brilliant. It is easy and fun to read the comic-book close translation of the debate. The original documents provide a post-modern breakdown of the event as seen from Friar Paul, Rabbi Nachmanides, King James, and the Pope, the “context” provides some background primarily on Catalonia and the Jewish community, and histiography raises serious questions about what we actually know about the original documents.

I come to this book having recently read biographies of two famous friars, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis, as well as a Madigan’s history of medieval Christianity. Both focus on the role of the friars in turning to the personal and intellectual experiences, as opposed to the sacraments-alone (at best) or simply corrupt corrupt (at worst) nature of many parishes and monasteries. I would have liked the connection between the revolt of the friars and the disputation to be more clear.  Likewise, much more biographical information on Nachmanides and King James is provided than for Friar Paul, and to me this makes for an unbalanced presentation.

Yet the book was striking, incredibly informative, rich in detail and background, and opened my eyes to much I did not know before.  What else could I ask!  I’m so glad I read this in the paperback edition.

I also recommend this terrific interview with an author.

Impressions of “St Francis of Assisi” and “St Thomas Aquinas,” by G.K. Chesterton

Before last month, I was almost completely ignorant of the Coming of the Friars. After reading about it, I read two more books on the subjects.

The coming of the Friars is the term used in Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History. It refers to the Catholic revolution in religious life against what had been left of the Monks and the Priests in the Dark Ages. Priests re-presented the Sacrifice of the Lord, monks said prayers and copied books, and there were some monks who were also priests. These were lawful and legitimate, but what was left off was the people, and, sometimes, reverence. Normal people of could would not hear the masses said in monasteries, and in the parishes priests often did not bother with homilies. Often this extended to both monks and priests either being illicitly married or at least openly keeping mistresses. Both positions became, to some extent, heritable.

Ironically, G.K. Chesterton sees one cause of this problem as an otherworldly philosophy adopted by many in the church, and based on the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine’s Confessions was so vivid as to his personality this seems odd, but I’m aware of his Neo-Platonist sympathies. Anyway, near the end of Confessions is what I had taken for a garbled pre-psychological attempt to understand the cognitive process Chesterton makes a tremendous deal out of this, and sees it as evidence of a focus on the ideal (what Lewis would call the “hygienic”) over the Creation that God called “good.”

Francis and Thomas were very different men, Chesterton says they are as unique as saints. Chesterton always describes Francis as leaping or in a hurry, and Thomas as plodding — the “dumb ox” his old school nickname. Something of the difference between these two saints can be seen in excerpts from their writings. Both are certainly Christian writings, and indeed they were both revolutionary affirmations of the actual created world ( in contrast to an excessive, disembodied spirtuality), but who could confuse Francis:

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
The Canticle of the Sun

for Thomas:

Article 1. Whether Christ should have been circumcised?

Objection 1. It would seem that Christ should not have been circumcised. For on the advent of the reality, the figure ceases. But circumcision was prescribed to Abraham as a sign of the covenant concerning his posterity, as may be seen from Genesis 17. Now this covenant was fulfilled in Christ’s birth. Therefore circumcision should have ceased at once.

Objection 2. Further, “every action of Christ is a lesson to us” [Innoc. III, Serm. xxii de Temp.; wherefore it is written (John 3:15): “I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.” But we ought not to be circumcised; according to Galatians 5:2: “If you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” Therefore it seems that neither should Christ have been circumcised.

Objection 3. Further, circumcision was prescribed as a remedy of original sin. But Christ did not contract original sin, as stated above (III:14:3; III:15:1). Therefore Christ should not have been circumcised.

On the contrary, It is written (Luke 2:21): “After eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised.”

[etc]
Summa Theologiae, III:37

Their individuality extends to the least-probable events in their respect lives. Thomas was the cousin of a Holy Roman Emperor, who when he announced his desire to be an abbot, his well-off family effectively bought him a monastery and installed him as abbot. When he became a friar and was on his first mission his brothers, so outraged at the idea of a non-corrupt monk, they kidnapped him and paid to have a harlot seduce him! Leading to perhaps the worst performance evaluation of all time, as the young saint chased the young woman out of his room with a fire poker!

Francis’s actions were on a larger scale, though perhaps to less effect. During the military campaign of the Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) Sultan traveled to Crusader-occupied Egypt, crossed enemy lines, requested and received an audience from the Sultan, and tried (though failed) to convert him to Christianity. The Fifth Crusade was odd for a number of reasons, such as including the (Muslim!) Sultanate of Rum among the Crusader-alliance, but perhaps an analogy would have been a Taoist monk from China travelling to Tokyo during World War II and personally attempting to convert the Emperor from Shintoism — and surviving.

It’s odd both, near the end of their life, had a vivid and disturbing vision. Francis saw a vision of a crucified Seraph — my immediate reaction, and apparently Chesterton’s, was surprise that an Angel could be crucified. (That is, presuming the God-who-became-Man is not also a God-who-became-Angel… the Angel of the LORD. And while Francis’s version is most disturbing only in the context of angelology, Thomas (who knew angelology forwards and backwards) never shared what caused him to remark:

all that I have written seems like straw to me”

It’s somewhat distrubing that both episodes can be specifically dated. Francis saw a six-winged angel on a cross on September 12, 1224. Whatever Thomas saw, he saw on December 6, 1273.

It’s striking how many reformers lived in this period. Francis (1181-1226) and Thomas (1225-1274) were, barely, contemporaries. The Pope who Francis begged to recognize his order, Pope Innocent III (1198-126), who transformed the Papacy into a weak plaything of stronger powers and brought two empires to heel, was too. Saint Dominic (1170-1221), who founded the Dominicans and who was vital in the Albigensian Crusade, met Francis before Francis traveled to the Arab world to attempt to personally convert the Sultan. Later all of these men would lead to a degeneration in another age of reform. But the reform of these men was continuous, it did not break Christian unity, even under the dangerous shoals of human corruption and weakness.

These two volumes are probably the best works by G.K. Chesterton I have read. They are far better than Heretics (1905) and Orthodoxy (1908). The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was very good, but it is a short spy thriller/satire — a very different genre. The closest book in terms of subject and quality is his reflection on the importance of Jesus Christ — The Everlasting Man (1925) — but Chesterton does a better job explaining the historical significance of Saint Francis (1923) and Saint Thomas (1933) than he does of the Lord.

I read both St. Francis of Assisi and St Thomas Aquinas in the audible editions.

Impressions of “The Three-Body Problem,” by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem was a landmark for me. It is the longest novel I’ve read in a half decade, since John Derbyshire’s historical fiction Fire from the Sun. I’ve been away from fiction for a long time. Three Body Problem is a great way to return.

By genre, Three-Body is hard sci-fi, with philosophy of science, history of science, and political history thrown in. It evokes both 5GW and the religion. Structurally it is a combination of mystery (the modern-day scenes, beginning in Beijing and concluding in the Chinese countryside) and drama (historical scenes, with the reverse progression). It has a third thread, a narration of experience in a computer game, that ends up being critical to understanding both main threads.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember discussions on the “5th generation of war,” or 5GW — a type of war that is fought with one side not knowing who it is fighting. The military action within Three-Body comprises all three kinds of 5GWinsurgent 5GW of a small armed group against a society, a state-within 5GW where a clique inside the host society attempts to transform it, and state-without 5GW where a government attacks a society.

The author is an engineer who was born and lives in the People’s Republic of China — an officially atheist society. So the discussion of religion were especially intriguing. Buddhism seems to be disparaged, described (unlike Christianity) as not being person-centric, and with pilgrims who appear to be in a daze. By contrast St. Joseph’s Church is one of the landmarks of Beijing held out for special admiration. The definition of ‘God’ used by characters tends to be deistic (belief in an orderly universe created by a minimally involved God). The religious feeling and looked-for purification created by certain interactions in Three Body recalls the supernatural struggle the Book of Ezekiel and other second temple literature.

Three Body problem reminds me of primarily of other books: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and John Derbyshire’s Fire from the Sun. There is also similarity to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, as well as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. That Hideous Strength is so similar to the mystery thread of Three Body Problem I wonder if it was intentional: the character known as the “the Commander” in Three Body is a composite of the Head and the Deputy Director in Strength. Like Fire from the Sun it is a beautiful and tragic look at the experience of Chinese youth who came of age during the Cultural Revolution. Rainbbow Six contributes an interesting ecological narrative, while Red Mars is a clear inspiration in hard (or technically plausible) science fiction.

It was quite the treat to discover this book, a great mix of history, science, and fiction that ties into so many of my interests. No wonder it won the 2015 Hugo Award.

Now, on to the sequel…

Impressions of “The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City,” by Jeffrey F. Meyer

The Dragons of Tiananmen was the most meaningful and emotional book in the last year. I can’t guarantee anyone else will have the experience. My visits to Beijing, including one where I attempted to visit all the Imperial Altars (not all are open to the public), and my recent attempt to understand the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, play a role here.

In short, The Dragons of Tiananman describe the life of the now-dead Chinese Imperial Religion, how the Emperors created Beijing as a Sacred City, and how the Lord of Heaven and his creatures were worshiped there.

The organization of the book is straight forward. Meyer first describes Holy Cities (cities which are religiously important because of historical events that happened in them) and Sacred Cites (those which are religiously important because they are designed to reflect heaven). He then outlines the Chinese Imperial Religion, centered on the Most-High (??), the Lord of Heaven(??). The Chinese word for Emperor (?) itself derives from characters meaning “Pole,” which is fitting because God was associated with the Pole Star, around whom all other stars revolved. In later days some Christians would find this idolatrous — future Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen famously smashed an idol of the Pole Star in his youth. Other Christians theorized a partial discovery or revelation to the Chinese in ancient days, as attested by Matteo Ricci’s The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (AD 1603) and C.H. Kang’s The Discovery of Genesis (AD 1979).

As I read The Dragons of Tiananmen I thought back to the Chronicles, that sad record of the degeneration of the Temple in the Kingdom of Israel. There are parallels, both in how the capital (whether Jerusalem or Beijing) became a “sacred city,” in the nature and style of the sacrifices, and even in some ritualistic debates. But Temple Judaism was saved through the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like) and their insistence that the law be written in the heart. The Imperial Religion was not written in the heart — at least, not in the end. Just as other gods than the LORD were worshiped in Jerusalem, other Gods than the Lord of Heaven were worshiped by Emperors. There were Buddhist Emperors and Taoist Emperors, and mayn more indifferent Emperors. When the Babylonians dragged the Jews into exile, the religion of the LORD survived in spite of the corruption of the temple in Jerusalem. When the revolutionaries dragged down the Great Qing, no one was left to mourn the end of the sacrifice.

Both Jerusalem and Beijing were “sacred cities,” in the sense the were intended to be house of a Temple and the site of an Altar. The primary worship site in Jerusalem was the Temple built by Solomon. The primary worship site was the Altar of Heaven, built by the Yongle Emperor. Both religions held that God was surrounded and assisted by a heavenly communion, comprised of both a military Host of Heaven as well as a civilian counterpart. While Judaism in general rejected worship of the Host of Heaven, the repeated condemnations of this practice in the Scriptures imply the Host was still often worshiped. The Chinese Imperial religion, by contrast, formalized the worship of lessor spirits, through such subsidiary alters as the Alter of the Moon and the Alter of the Goddess of Silkworms.

Both Temple Judaism and Chinese Imperial religion faced the same dilemma: should God be worshipped in doors? God himself presents both sides of the argument in the Hebrew bible, rejecting the House built of cedar

Now it came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies all around, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains.”

Then Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

But it happened that night that the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Would you build a house for Me to dwell in? 6 For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle.
2 Samuel 7:1-6

but later, walls of cedar were not so bad:

Then the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying:  “Concerning this temple which you are building, if you walk in My statutes, execute My judgments, keep all My commandments, and walk in them, then I will perform My word with you, which I spoke to your father David. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.”

So Solomon built the temple and finished it. And he built the inside walls of the temple with cedar boards; from the floor of the temple to the ceiling he paneled the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the temple with planks of cypress.
1 Kings 6:11-15

; likewise the Chinese held both that “when one sacrifices on an open altar, it is considered the worship of heaven, while sacrifice under a roof is considered the worship of imperial ancestors,” while later holding than an “outdoor” Altar could nonetheless be surrounded by building. To this day the Altar of Prayers for Good Harvest is made of Oregon fir. The Christian religion also finds a middle ground here, for while the Sacrifice on Cavalry was of course out-side, its re-presentation (and even pre-presentation) in Lord’s Supper is of course indoors

But being celestial and purely “priestly,” the Chinese Imperial Religion did not have a moral core. The sons of the current dynasty may be elected, as surely as Saul or David or Cyrus were, but there were no Imperial prophets who called for the law to be written on the hearts, or warned that Heaven would scourge Chinese with foreigners in the way Israel was punished. Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, may have been on worse than King Jeconiah. But the Book of Kings hopefully notes a King of Israel still lives, even if far away. Who looked to the Manchus to return?

The Chinese Imperial Religion, like Judaism, had Kings and Priests. But no prophets.

This strikes me as really important. The Gospel of Matthew is the story of what the Imperial Religion would call the “Mandate of Heaven” passing to Jesus. The relationship of the Son of Heaven and Most High is likewise a feature of the Imperial Religion. But Christianity provided other dimensions to that story, the salvation of souls and bodies, concern for the weak, and spiritual introspection. While Imperial China had similar writings, the Imperial Religion did not. And that four-fold gospel itself depended on the four-fold destruction of the Temple in books like Lamentations and Ezekiel — in the Imperial Religion the overthrow of a dynasty was always the cause of the end of the dynasty, not the stern but love care of God.

Or, as I said in my impressions of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:

Chesterton is a Catholic author, but his argument here is effectively secular: before Christianity there were mythologies in the sense of epic stories about the gods, and there were philosophies that provided an outline of the universe and a moral framework, but no mythic philosophy. Plato may have talked about Forms, in other words, while the priests sacrificed to Zeus, but no serious attempt was to combine these concepts. Thus, the New Testament is truly new, the “good news” really is news, because while dictatorship, democracy, art, puns, cosmology, and all the rest reach beyond history, the combinations of the roles of the Priest and the Philosopher have a definite beginning, in first century Palestine

While Judaism approaches this with The Wisdom Books and early rabinnical commentaries, it was not a religion with any Holy Cities, but only Sacred Cities. Meyer makes a distinction between a “Sacred City” intended to house an Altar for sacrifice, and a “Holy City” upon which divine figures trod. Beijing was only a Sacred City, but in Christianity it became a Holy City. Indeed, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ occurred in and around Jerusalem, just as the Imperial Religion sacrifices were made in and around Beijing. But there is even more to it than that.

The Dragons of Tiananmen helped framing my thinking about Beijing. Being both a sacred and planned city it had an architecture unity which was damaged over time. The Temple of the Moon is marked “NOW GONE” in a mark from before the Communist Revolution, and part of the old City Wall was knocked down for a railway line during the last days of the Emperor. In more recent days the widening of Changan Boulevard re-oriented the city along a definite east-west axis, while only recently have the old temples been respected at all. The Beijing that I first fell in love with was itself a Beijing in transition. Most of the hutongs I suspect are now gone. Jerusalem survived the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. Will the city of the Alter of Heaven and quiet neighborhoods survive this long?

I read The Dragons of Tiananmen: Beijing as a Sacred City in the hardcover edition.

Impressions of “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” and “The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,” by C.S. Lewis

The Weight of Glory (AD 1942) and Letters to Malcolm (AD 1964) are both Christian non-fiction works by CS Lewis, probably the best Christian writer of the 20th century. They are both written in his easy style — though more like one believer exchanging notes with another rather than tools for conversion — and both are relatively short. But more than a generation separate their publications, and in that time Lewis honed his craft. Yet they are the work of the same man. They are reflections — transpositions or projections — of the same mind.

The cover for Letters to Malcolm shown above contains part of the Flower of Life, one of the many shadows a hypercube onto a 2 dimensional surface.  A hypercube, when unfolded onto 3 dimensions, makes the shape of a cross. Our human brains are not evolved to understand 4-Dimensional entities, so all the graphics in this post are different ways of translating what a cube of cubes means onto a computer page.  In both of these books, C.S. Lewis tries to project man’s relationship with God, or at least the hyperdimensional nature of God’s presence, onto paper.

The Weight of Glory is a collection of nine lectures, but the central core is #4, “Transposition,” an accessible guide to an abstract theological issue. Letters to Malcolm may be the finest writing Lewis ever produced — it only appears to be straight-forward, but is as strong and subversive a defense of Christianity as St Augustine’s Confessions (AD 400).

Days of the week

The most striking line of St Augustine’s writings, to Christians who nowadays bother to read it, is probably this:

Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit

The context for the bolded section is the chief difficulty that St Augustine had in converting to Christianity: how could an educated, modern world accept the literal truth of the Bible, with its bizarre miracles (Jonah being swallowed by a whale; Christ feeding the multitude with a few fishes and loaves). Augustine’s solution was that these “names” in fact “signify” sacramental truths. While Augustine’s writing is latinate and complex, it appears he does not believe in the literal truth of either miracle.

Without getting into specific historical claims (the general pattern of Biblical literature implies to me the The Book of Jonah is written as a comedy, or at least a satire), Lewis introduces the concept of “transposition.” Lewis means by transposition what geometers mean by “projection” — the translation of an object from a higher dimension to a lower one. For instance, if you had a cube, you could project (or in Lewis’s term, “transpose”) is into a square — that is one correct way of viewing a cube on flat paper. Or you could use perspective, and show that cube as a sequence of angled rectangles. Lewis gives an example of projecting/transposing a beach onto paper by drawing it with pencils.

Thus, lines like “thrones and dominions,” or “on the right hand of the Father,” or (perhaps) “fishes” and “whales” are projects into a lower-dimensional space of higher-dimensional reality. Lewis elides the dimensionality at which this stops. For instance, is it the case that fishes and whales are 3D dimensional projections of higher-dimensionality reality, or (to follow Augustine) are the names fishes and whales themselves the lower-dimensional projection.

“Transposition” is the hermeneutic key of The Weight of Glory. But it’s also the key I think, to Letters to Malcolm, an extremely readable book on the importance of prayer. Transposition matters in thinking about the nature of time. And it matters in thinking about the nature of Scripture.

Christians are told to pray for their “daily bread.” While “thy will be done” might be translated as “… if it’s actually a good idea,” most of us have our own ideas that we are encouraged to pray for. Peace or victory, justice or forgiveness, a raise or a successful relationship. But in many cases a “successful” prayer would require not simply changing the future, but also the past. For instance, if you receive a letter from a lawyer, and you pray it is good news, the only way that pray could “work” is if the prayer succeeded in changing the the past event of composing that letter.

Atheists accuse Christians of thinking they have a a “friend in the sky.” But it is more accurate to say the sky is in Him. In the same way, urgent prayers do not hope for a friendly response in time — they hope for a response for He whom Time is within. Time is not absolute reality, God is.

Let’s put it another way. We are used to logical thinking, such that if something is a square it cannot be a triangle, or a point. But a pyramid is a square on its bottom, a triangle on its side, and a point on its top. These lower-dimensional shapes are projected (or Lewis would say, transposed) from the higher-dimensional object of a pyramid. The drawing of a pyramid on the dollar bill is just one of many projections of a pyramid, including just one of the possibly projections or transpositions of its shapes. Likewise, the hypercube when further unrolled (transposed) onto 3 dimensional space is a cross, and when projected (transposed) head-on, it appears to be composed of five squares.  Or any of the other shapes in this blog post.

So when we pray for a miracle, in the past, present or future, we are praying for the projection of time that we see to be in conformance with our request. We are praying for time to be rotated in a specific way, in the way we might rotate a model pyramid to see the triangle, or the square, or the point. And (given the trickiness in rotating all of space-time to change the plane of reality), the phrase “Thy Will be Done” might be understood as “If that’s actually a good idea.”

Which is weighty and glorious. Until He answers our prayers with “No,” or “Not yet.” Then we remember that the angels are like fire, and He is like a bull.

I read Letters to Malcom and The Weight of Glory in their Audible editions.

Impressions of “Medieval Christianity: A New History,” by Kevin Madigan

Medieval Christianity is the story of the western Church between the years of Donatus (during the late Roman Empire) and Martin Luther (who was nine years old when the New World was discovered). This comprehensive history provides a discussion of both the recent research into this period, as well as the lives and organizations that shaped it. If there is a theme it is the recurrent trend of weakness, purifying reaction, and then counter-reaction. This process involved, in different ears, both the institutional Church, her would be saviors, and her enemies.

An implication of this cycle view is that the purifying reformers are as much of a danger as the weak ones they reacted to themselves. While one corrupted the church body through inaction and frailty of will, the other corrupted the church body through overreaction and the frailty of mercy.

Donatus (and the Donatist Hersey named after him) is a good example. During the Roman persecution many bishops gave into fear, handing over precious objects and performing rights to the Emperor. A number of these bishops were ex-communicated during the persecution for this. But after the persecution ended, the wayward bishops confessed they had been fearful, and requested their posts back. Many were reinstated.

To this Donatus objected. Bishops, he claimed, had to be morally upright. Not merely were they obliged to me: a weak or sinful man by definition could not be a bishop. St Augustine, whose Confessions explored the nature of ongoing sin during a search for God, disagreed. The church, like the believer, is made perfect in the next life: weakness and corruption is a (unfortunate) part of being alive.

Along with this was an ongoing debate in the church, on the roles of the sacrament and preaching.

While the Donatists were defeated, the same trends would occur multiple times. By the end of the Dark Ages, the priesthood had degenerated into a largely illiterate family affair, where local parish priests would inherit the office from their father. Pope St. Gregory VII attacked this, including urging Christians not to attend masses said by priests living corrupt lives. While Gregory’s teachings were considered positive reforms, and not heresies, the trend of rejceting priests would continue.

Another major reaction-counterreaction were the preaching friar movements, especially the future heresiarch Peter Waldo and the future Saint Francis of Assisi. The two men died within twenty years of each other, and shared many similarities. Both were Italians from wealthy merchant families. Both had conversions of the heart after hearing the story of Jesus and the rich young man. Both gave away their possessions, and emphasized the importance of preaching the Gospel over the sacraments, both had followers who took this even farther, but both still emphasized the importance of sacraments.

That Waldo was declared a heretic, and Francis a saint, probably has more to do with the changing realization in the church that clerics and monks had been neglecting preaching (and perhaps to their personalities as well), as opposed to actual differences in their theology. For while followers of Waldo would deny purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead, it was Francis’s followers who occasionally would adopt a more extreme theology of an Age of the Holy Spirit, and that the era of obey’s Christ command to “do this in remembrance of me” had ended.

The power of the papacy itself was the site of a cycle. A weak but nonetheless highly literate Papacy was a seat of learning among the shattered remnants of the Roman Empire. The Pope often acted as Supreme Court, as feuding nobles or kings could assume the Pope both understood ancient laws and was far enough away to be able to judge honestly. Pope Innocent III would build the power of the papacy, successfully ending wars, even bringing both the Holy Roman Emperor and Byzantine Emperor to heel. But this increase in power of the Papacy, and increased its attraction for corrupt men, a new reaction formed to limit the power of the Papacy. This reaction was “Concilliarism,” the move to make councils (such as the Council of Nicea) a once-every-five years affair, a de facto legislature of the Christian world that would reduce the Pope to a sort of Prime Minister who could be removed. (Ironically, this may be closer to the sense in which Peter was himself made a Royal Steward, though this history does not make this connection). But this Concilliar move for constitutional reform would fail, both because a Council would cause immense trouble by electing an Anti-Pope, and because the now threatened Papacy rose to the occasion by successfully (if temporarily) negotiation Reunion with the Orthodox Church).

Another cycle was provoked by the Black Death, and the large number of loved ones suddenly taken away from this world. The ancient doctrine of prayers for the dead was put into focus by the mass deaths, which lead to mass inflation. The King of Spain paid for thousands upon thousands of masses for his soul, hoping the prayers of priests would lead God to grant him mercy. This could not be right, thought reformers, and so developed a theology focusing on merit (trying one’s best to do help others and serve God) to build a habit of grace. In the moments of us trying our best, we could obtain a salvation we did not deserve but which God promised us, and by repeating these we developed habits in which such service would (slowly, and almost) become second nature. Thus, salvation could be earned by faith through good works.

To which an Augustinian monk, named Martin Luther, would respond.

Medieval Christianity: A New History ends abruptly. The reformation is put in context, but the specific reasons why Luther’s attempted reforms ended in disaster, while all others kept a shared communion, are not discussed. Additionally, while the author teaches at Harvard Divinity School, his knowledge of Catholicism in particular seems lacking. He correctly tries to build empathy in the reader for the use of prayers to the saints, miracle medals, and the like, while either believing these are no longer practiced, or that no one who uses either would be reading his book. Likewise, the medieval time period is told almost entirely for western late medieval Christianity — the Dark  Ages are mostly elided, and the Orthodox and Eastern churches are all but forgotten

I listened to Medieval Christianity: A New History in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible,” by Michael Heiser

In the past two years, two scholars have changed the way I think about the Bible. Robert Alter introduced me to the idea of the Bible as literature, specifically a mosaic of literary traditions including the Epic, Dramatic, and even Comedic. And Michael Heiser’s lead me to read more of the intellectual context of the Bible, including the Old Religion of the Canaanites and Pseudoepigraphic work.

And now I dived right in to Heiser’s massive — and massively rewarding — Unseen Realm. It is an intimidating combination of great writing and academic weight. This same combination intimidated me from even bothering to post impressions of most of Alter’s translations (with the exception of the Book of Psalms). But it does no good to leave a mental record of regrettable works without recording those which changed my thinking in a good way.

Most of what follows is my summary of the world painted in The Unseen Realm. But before I do that, I want to compare it against the two works it is closest to: William Dumbrell’s Covenant and Creation, and The End of the Beginning. Heiser and Dumbrell have spent a considerable part of their life developing an expressing a novel interpretation of the Bible by carefully looking for threats in the Bible. Neither use literalism or obviously favor one set of books over the other. Both can serve to open up the Scriptures, by helping the reader see how the reader’s favorite sections understand to other which are harder to understand.

But Heiser is certainly the better scholar. For one, I never feared that Heiser was lying to me, while that is a constant worry reading Dumbrell. From inexplicable and unexplained translation choices, to the silent redefinition of well known terms, to a remarkable blindspot of the meaning of the critical term “Covenant,” Dumbrell’s work is “prophetic” at best, academic malpractice at worst. Dumbrell’s books may well be important in the history of Christian thought — he is the only Christian writer I know who looks forward to not having to follow Jesus and for the Son’s kingship to end — but his logic is so obscured that it’s impossible to tell.

Heiser is superior on every level. He is careful with translations, citing rival translations where possible, and discussing how this or that understanding of the ancient text would impact his writing. He is careful with the social context of the work, paying attention to Canaanite, Babylonian, Second Temple, and (elsewhere) Greco-Roman sources of ideas. While Heiser’s work adds a new layer to the narrative of the Scriptures, unlike Dumbrell he does not present a heretical doctrine. Dumbrell’s poor reader has no idea where any of these ideas come from. Heiser is generous in encouraging the reader to follow-up and dig deeper into the sources.

With that, I will try my best. What follows is a rough sketch of Heiser’s translation, methods and the broad strokes of his conclusions.

If the Bible would be re-written as a modern drama, where should it start? Heiser’s interpretation implies at at the foundation of the church, with Christ speaking the the words to Peter.

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter,

and on this rock
I will build My church,
and the gates of Hades
shall not prevail against it.

And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.
Matthew 16:13-20

Catholics read “this rock” as meaning Peter, that to Peter and his successors would be the charge of a church that would last to the end of the world. Protestants have tried to argue that “this rock” perhaps means pebble, implying that Peter’s leadership would die with him.

Only Heiser, as far as I know, argues in the logic of biblical parallelism. If this verse has parallelism, “this rock” is magnified into “the gates of hell” — which must be referencing Mount Ararat, on whose slopes was the city of Caesari Philipii.  Heiser also gives the first reason for the silence I’ve heard: so that those things that live on Ararat do not know either.

This is not simply the foundation of a church in Peter, or in Peter’s apostolic successors — it is a declaration of war.

In our re-written epic, the story would then flash back to the first man. Adam was intended to be King,

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so. Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
Genesis 1:17,26-31

But unlike the Only Begotten Son, the First Created Man failed in his Kingship. He listened to his wife and not to God. Corruption entered the world.

Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’:

“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life…

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life
Genesis 3:9,22-24

The cycle repeats once more with another First Born Son, the nation of Israel. Israel the man was not first born of course — he was the younger twin of his brother Esau — but the nation of Israel is adopted by God as first born. Yet when this is announced the cycle is intensified. The declaration of Israel’s first born status is immediately followed by blood. Not just the fruit of the vine, but the fruit of veins:

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”’”

And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!”—because of the circumcision.
Exodus 4:22-26

But like the man Adam, the nation Israel fails. It is corrupted. The line did not end with Adam of course — Seth continued after him — and God offered Moses a similar status as sub-father of all:

And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.”

Then Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, and said: “Lord, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?
Exodus 32:9-11

And even Moses is fallen at last.

And Moses said to them: “Have you kept all the women alive? Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately
Numbers 31:15-17

The wicked ones win again.

Now that the good guys have lost twice in a row, who are the bad guys? What is the opposition that keeps corrupting the pattern that God wants, his first-born son ruling as king of the Earth?

Here Heiser, like Dumbrell, is on weaker ground.  He seeks a novel reading with limited Scriptural support.  here the victory goes to Heiser. While Dumbrell continues on and makes claims without support or explanation, Heiser is open about his approach.

He emphasizes two New Testament verses, which describe the rebellion of the angels, and which reference the apocryphal Book of Enoch:

And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day;
Jude 1:6

and

 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment;
2 Peter 3:4

Both passages appear to reference the pseudo-Enoch’s elaboration

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’ And Semjâzâ, who was their leader, said unto them: ‘I fear ye will not indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.’ And they all answered him and said: ‘Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.’ Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended ?in the days? of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it.
Enoch 6:1-6

This and other adventures (later, in the Book of Enoch, the angels are indeed in prison, and beg Enoch for intercession to the Almighty) appear to be elaborations of the following passage in Genesis:

Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose.

And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown
Genesis 6:1-4

These same Sons of God appear to have a role similar to a consultative legislator:

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the Lord.
Job 2:1

Yet it is a faulty assembly:

God stands in the congregation of the mighty;
He judges among the gods.

How long will you judge unjustly,
And show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked.
They do not know, nor do they understand;
They walk about in darkness;
All the foundations of the earth are unstable.
I said, “You are gods,
And all of you are children of the Most High.
But you shall die like men,
And fall like one of the princes.”
Psalms 82:1-7

The Assembly of the Gods is also an aspect of the stories from ancient Canaan.

Do these and other such passages support Heiser’s argument? You should read the book and judge for yourself. What I will say though is that, unlike Dumbrell, Heiser cites his sources and provides accurate translations, allowing you to judge him on his merits, and not through his deceptions.

Now, back to our story…

It is Diablos, either the leader or a representative of these Sons of God, who offers this control to Jesus. The Devil tempts Jesus in three geographical locations: the wilderness, Mount Zion, and a an exceedingly high mountain — even today Mt Herman is so high it is called the “eyes of the nation

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”

But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written:

‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’
and,

‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’”

Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
Matthew 4:1-11

But Herman is not just an exceedingly tall mountain. It is home to Ba’al

namely, five lords of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites who dwelt in Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal Hermon to the entrance of Hamath. And they were left, that He might test Israel by them, to know whether they would obey the commandments of the Lord, which He had commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses.
Judges 3:3-4

Thus: : A Declaration of War on the slopes of Mt Herman. The promised, and foiled, rule of the first man, Adam. The promised, and foiled, rule of the firstborn Israel. And now things happen quickly. Christ promises it will happen again! This is going to be a suicide mission!

From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.

Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”

But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
Matthew 26:21-24

Immediately following this, the mission is ratified — again on a “high mountain.” Peter’s line that is it “ood” they are there is striking for the location, and in its optimism. There is but one God. And He is transfigured on top of the gateway to Hell, that rock, Hermon. They saw no evil spirits, no Ba’al, but they heard the voice of God, and beheld Jesus only:

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
Matthew 17:1-8

Michael Heiser integrates both Testaments (except the Deuterocanon), Second Temple Literature, and Canaanite and Babylonian stories to present a plausible reading of the Scriptures as they would have been understood by literate Jews of the 1st century. The establishment of the Church is a declaration of war. The Transfiguration is its endorsement. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem appears to be a retreat, the Crucifixion the decisive battle — where Christ defeated Death – or rather the rebellious Sons of God — in a stunning entrapment.

The reconcilliation and peace of the Crucifixion is not the peace between equals — it is the peace after a stunning victory over a defeated kingdom:

For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight
Colossians 1:19-22

Whether or not you agree with Michael Heiser, like The Lost World of Genesis One, Judaism and Christianity: A Contrast, and The Crucified Rabbi, it should be ready by anyone looking to critically understand the Bible.

I read The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “The Lost Book of Moses: The Quest for the World’s Oldest Bible… and the man who wrote it,” by Chanan Tigay

Recently I read The Lost Book of Moses: The Quest for the World’s Oldest Bible… and the man who wrote it by Chanan Tigay. I regret it. I boring and predictable “mystery” about a 19th century fake known to be fake at the time, The Lost Book of Moses is tied for the worst book I read this year.

The story is this: Moses Shapira was a 19th century Jewish Anglican born in the Russian Empire and mostly active around Ottoman Jerusalem. He bought, stole, and sold legitimate antiquities, and apparently helped in forging an ancient version of the Book of Deuteronomy. Specifically, he forged a version exactly what a proponent of the “Documentary Hypothesis” would suggest with the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God, absent except for the first and last verses — it was, in other words, nearly exactly the “D+” suggested in this chart.

Can one make a tale this exciting dull? Well, Tigay tries his best. A “follow the clues” narrative is created to attract Dan Brown crowd. Almost nothing about the ‘found’ version of Documentary, its differences, or the cultural context of its supposed composition are discussed. The author, an atheist, not only has a tenuous understanding of Judaism and Christianity, he does not bother to understand the places he visits, either. Weirdly, while he traveled to some locations (including Australia!) in the narrative, the most interesting locations in the middle east are entirely untouched.

Improbably, there’s one detail that I independently have knowledge of, and I was disappointed (but by that point, not surprised) to see Tigay flub it. Tigay’s travels take him to see a former librarian at Moore Theological College, the home base of William Dumbrell (whose books The End of the Beginning and Covenant and Creation I recently reviewed). Tigay is surprised that the former librarian at this Anglican school attended a Presbyterian church. What are the odds? he asked. Well, Moore has often been a hot-spot for Reformed (which more-or-less means Presbyterian) Anglicanism. So, pretty darn high.

Tigay’s task is made more difficult by his attempts to make Shapira, a deeply flawed man, heroic or even sympathetic. He stole from ancient Jewish communities, stole from his customers, stole from museums, destroyed ancient documents, and was generally a terrible person. That he destroyed his wife’s and his daughter’s lives make him more, not less, despicable. Shapira’s end — dead by his own hand after being exposed — is tragic. May God have mercy on his soul.

A last word: Chanan Tigay’s The Lost Book of Moses is as disappointing and dull as another book I read this year: Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario. Chanan Tigay lives in San Francisco. Jeff Ryan is a “games journalist.” I’ve previously written of the high cost of low wages and how its harmed popular writing. The problem may be even worse than I suspected.

I listened to The Lost Book of Moses in the Audible edition.

The tDAxp eXPerience