December 13, 2017

Book review: “Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc,” edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood

Published in 1996, Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood, is a collection of eighteen scholarly essays looking at various aspects of the life and legacy of the woman who led French armies to victories in the early 15th century, was branded a sorcerer and executed by the enemy English and, five hundred years later, was declared a Catholic saint. The idea of “fresh verdicts” is that these essays examine aspects of Joan’s story that have been ignored or confused over the many centuries since her death at the English stake as a heretic. Not that Joan’s story itself has been ignored all that time. Indeed, in an opening essay, Kelly DeVries, a historian at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, asserts: No person of the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more study than Joan of Arc. She has been portrayed as saint, heretic, religious zealot, seer, demented teenager, protofeminist, aristocratic wanna-be, savior of France, “turner-of-the-tide” of the Hundred Years War, and even Marxist liberator. Similarly, in one of the concluding essays, Kevin J. Harty, an English professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, sees a similar pattern in the […]
December 11, 2017

Book review: “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a celebration of much that is disdained and feared by mainstream American society:   The Unknown Loss Getting Lost Being Lost Hell Solitude Tragedy Melancholy Emptiness Ruins Death Sadness Wanting Captivity The Wild Heartbreak The Void Mortality Disappearance Darkness Does that list give you nightmares? Then, A Field Guide to Getting Lost is not for you.   Three recognitions Solnit looks deeply into how various people and peoples have faced all of these seemingly negative aspects of existence and how she has faced them in her own history. And she finds in them the deepest life. The deep place where life is richest, fullest. It has to do with a recognition that, first, none of these is avoidable, and that, second, each is the yin to a yang of some seemingly positive aspect of human existence. For instance, you can’t have heartbreak without having had love. You die because you’ve been alive. Darkness is part of the texture of light. Her third recognition is that these aren’t negative at all.   The Turtle Man Near the very end of her book, Solnit tells a story of having a dream one […]
December 6, 2017

Chicago History: The Brooklyn Bridge and Chicago’s elevated Loop

The Brooklyn Bridge and Chicago’s elevated Loop don’t seem to have much in common aside from being large transportation structures. From its completion in 1883, the 1,600-foot suspension bridge spanning the East River has been a dominant element on the New York scene. In his 1965 book Brooklyn Bridge: Face and Symbol, Alan Trachtenberg notes that the bridge’s designer John Roebling predicted that it would be ranked as a national monument and as “a great work of art.” Roebling’s claims [writes Trachtenberg] were far from modest, but history has borne them out. There is no more famous bridge in all the world. And in 1964, almost a hundred years later, the American government proclaimed the structure an official national monument. By contrast, the 1.8-mile elevated Loop, which turned 120 in October, rises just two stories above four Chicago streets. Although it encloses 39 downtown blocks, it is lost amid the skyscrapers that loom above it. Rare is the aerial photograph that captures more than a sliver of the rectangle of tracks. Indeed, it can only be viewed in full from directly above it (such as from a space satellite) — and even then, unless the sunlight is exactly right, the […]
December 4, 2017

Book Review: “The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago,” edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach

Fifty years ago, William Walker, a veteran muralist, proposed to a group of other black artists and photographers that they collaborate to produce a mural on the side of a two-story tavern in the impoverished South Side neighborhood of Grand Crossing. After three weeks of labor at the building on the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, the 20-foot-by-60-foot work of art, featuring dozens of African-American heroes, was completed on August 24, 1967. It was called the Wall of Respect, and it was dedicated several times over the next weeks. Sometime later, Walker came to the wall and saw a young man sitting on the sidewalk with his back resting on the art work. “How are you doing, brother?” Walker asked. “I’m getting my strength,” the man said.   Long overdue book about long overlooked milestone This story is told twice in The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago, edited by Abdul Alkalimat, Romi Crawford, and Rebecca Zorach, and it provides an insight into what the outdoor mural, created with direct community input, meant to African-Americans in the neighborhood, in Chicago and across the nation. The work of art, the first of its […]
November 30, 2017

Book review: “The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453” by Desmond Seward

Desmond Seward is adamant in The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453: No matter what the French or several generations of modern writers, such as George Bernard Shaw, have to say, he writes: In 1428 an illiterate shepherdess of seventeen decided she had been called by God to save France and expel the English. In fact, far from driving out the English, Joan of Arc merely checked the English advance by reviving Dauphinist morale, and the [English] Regent managed to halt the counter-offensive. It was not the Maid who ended English rule in France. Seward has his own perspective as an English writer, and he does a praiseworthy job of summarizing the Hundred Years War (which lasted 116 years) in 265 brisk pages in this fine 1978 history. The English of the 15th-century saw Joan as a witch since she seemed to cause things to happen that resulted in unaccountable French victories over the long-dominant English. The French saw her as a saint.   “Failed” Yet, even as Seward is trying to set the record straight as he sees it, his telling of Joan’s story over eight pages of his text is not unsympathetic. And, good historian that […]
November 28, 2017

Book Review: “The Ninth Hour” by Alice McDermott

Sister St. Saviour, a no-nonsense Catholic nun with the networking skills of Tammany Hall, stands in the near dawn at the window of a burned-out apartment in her Brooklyn neighborhood in the early 20th century. A gas explosion it was that caused the fire. One man died, Jim “Mc-something” — as he’d wanted. An Irishman who’d lost a good job as a trainman because he didn’t like bosses controlling his time. Sister St. Saviour is doing what she can to cover up the suicide, to protect his young and pregnant wife. Looking into the garbage-strewn courtyard, she is disheartened, and, then, just for a moment, she catches sight down there of what she takes to be “a man, crawling, cowering was the word, beneath the black tangle of junk and dead leaves, the new vague light just catching the perspiration on his wide brow, his shining forehead, the gleam of a tooth or an eye.”   Ghosts of actions taken, choices made Alice McDermott’s new novel The Ninth Hour is about the ghosts that haunt lives down the decades, especially in families. Ghosts, like the one in the courtyard, that seem to appear as visions, but, even more, the ghosts […]
November 21, 2017

Essay: My brother’s suicide and my “heart’s howl”

Back in 1960, my brother David was about nine-years-old when he left the Marbro Theatre near Madison Street and Pulaski Road in the middle of whatever movie we were watching and walked home. He didn’t tell the group of us siblings he was leaving. He just went out the door and walked the two miles west to our home on Leamington. A couple years later, he was goofing around downtown with his friends, and they ditched him, as boys will do. He wasn’t worried and got on an el to return to the West Side. But he soon realized he was on the wrong train, so he got off and, having no more money, walked back downtown, and then headed west on Lake Street. It was a walk of at least seven miles. Two years ago, on November 21, 2015, a few days before Thanksgiving, David took a last journey on his own. He walked out the back door of his Oak Lawn home at 3 a.m. into a frigid snow-rain and took his life.   My own journey David was born in 1951, fourteen months after me. Following him were twelve other children, two boys and ten girls. As […]
November 17, 2017

Book review: “Riding the Rap” by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard titled his 1995 novel Riding the Rap, but he might have easily called it Be Cool — a name, as it turned out, that he later gave to his 1999 sequel to Get Shorty. But it would have fit Riding the Rap well, maybe better than Riding the Rap. All through the novel, guys are saying to one another, “Be cool.” Usually because they’re not all that cool at that moment. Still, they’re guys who pride themselves on their coolness — coolness in life, and coolness in moments of stress, and coolness in the midst of violence. In the two moments of greatest violence in Leonard’s novel, there’s a character who’s been totally cool and who seems to be acting one way and then, well, goes another. This is what happens when you’re dealing with sociopaths, as colorful as they may be.   “Nothing to it” For instance, two bad guys are watching a third on a closed-circuit television screen as he walks up to a hostage they’ve taken in hopes of making a killing, financially. They think he’s going to punch the obstreperous hostage. Instead, they watch him reach under his loose shirt and pull out an […]
November 13, 2017

Meditation: Stay awake!

Most Christians know well the story of the ten virgins that Jesus told: Ten young women wait outside for the bridegroom to show up and the wedding party to start. He’s late. It’s getting dark. The women doze off. Finally, at midnight, here he is, but only five of the women have oil for their lamps to lead him to the feast. The other five had to run to get some, and, by the time they return, the door to the feast is locked. The punchline is the final sentence in which Jesus tells his disciples: “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”   Keeping our eyes open Don’t sleep away your life. Our job as human beings is to keep our eyes open to life and to other people. Our task is to show up, to be alert, to take in the world and the reality of existence in all its fullness — in all its pain and joy — and to be present to those around us. To see those around us, really see them. To listen to them with our full attention, to really hear them. And to share with them our own […]
November 10, 2017

Book review: “Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution” by Nathaniel Philbrick

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick is a mess of a book. I should have known by looking at the title and subtitle. From those, I guessed that this would be a book centering on Benedict Arnold. After all, lots of other books are out there about Washington, and Arnold was the infamous traitor of the American Revolution. Hence, the “Fate” reference. As it turns out, the book sort of centers on Arnold, a talented military leader who was self-centered in the extreme. At least, that’s how Philbrick paints him. I’m not sure I fully trust Philbrick’s reading of Arnold.   Three thirds Let me explain: In 326 pages, Valiant Ambition seems to be attempting to do too much. It covers a four-year period (1776 – 1780). About a third of the book has to do with what Arnold did during that period, and about a third with what Washington did. The other third is about other stuff going on, such as campaigns by other generals and the doings of the Continental Congress. One of the points that Philbrick seems to try to make is that Washington had many failings […]
November 6, 2017

Chicago History: Third World Press — “Strong and Black for 50 Years”

The poem was one of many recited by teenagers during the gala in October honoring the 50th anniversary of Chicago’s literary jewel, the Third World Press. In its rhythms and sharp humor, the poem, written by Haki Madhubuti, captured the spirit of the evening and of the South Side publishing house that he founded. It was written in the mid-1960s around the time when Third World Press, today the nation’s largest black publishing house, was just getting started, and when Madhubuti was still known as Don L. Lee. Titled “Gwendolyn Brooks,” it honored his mentor, and it reveled in the then-new focus of African-Americans on blackness, including more than a dozen lines like these: “…black doubleblack purpleblack blue-black beenblack was black daybeforeyesterday blackerthan ultrablack super black blackblack yellowblack….. so black we can’t even see you black on black in black by black technically black mantanblack winter black coolblack 360degreesblack….”   Chicago’s cultural treasure Most Chicagoans know of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago, but, unfortunately, few realize that Third World Press is one of the city’s cultural treasures. And all Chicagoans, no matter their color, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation or political preference, benefit from […]
November 3, 2017

Chicago History: A Dive into the “Inky Waters” of the Chicago River

Each year, through myriad government efforts, the Chicago River gets cleaner although no one would call it “clean.” Nonetheless, as polluted as its water remains, the river used to be much, much, much worse as a story from more than a century ago illustrates. It was 4 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, Labor Day, September 6, 1897, when the lumber steamer S.K. Martin, heading southwest in the South Branch of the Chicago River, signaled for the raising of the Halsted Street Bridge, just north of Archer Avenue. This bridge, designed by J.A.L. Waddell, was known as “the red bridge,” the gateway to the hardscrabble neighborhood of Bridgeport. As the tender operated the machinery, the bridge platform — a 130-foot-long, cedar-block-paved section of Halsted Street — began to rise slowly between two metal towers, like an open-air elevator. Standing on that pavement and taking the ride up were 22-year-old George William Clarke and a young woman identified by the Tribune as “his sweetheart Miss Kinzie.” Also on the platform were two policemen from the nearby Deering Street Station. Just as the platform was reaching its full height of 160 feet above the turbid river, Clarke, a professional diver, began whipping off […]
October 30, 2017

Book review: “The Sioux Spaceman” by Andre Norton

  It’s amazing, if you think of it, how the covers of science-fiction paperbacks are so often completely misleading. This is true to some extent for paperback novels in general, but it seems to be the case most often in the sci-fi genre. I have no idea why that is. Or maybe I do.   One reason: That other species One reason may have to do with the core audience of science fiction — teenage boys and young men as well as older men who, in some part of their being, remain teenage boys or young men. These are readers who tend to be bookish and more than a little shy. That may explain why, for the most part, there’s little or no sex in the regular run of futuristic novels although this has changed somewhat in recent years. Still, even today, most sci-fi gives its primary focus to the nuts and bolts of technology, ignoring those messy things like emotions and lusts. You wouldn’t know that, however, if you judged the books by their covers. This was especially true when pulp science fiction magazines regularly portrayed a hardly clothed creature from that other species…er, that other sex…on their covers. […]
October 26, 2017

Chicago History: The elevated Loop, a landmark in everything but name

The 1.8-mile-long elevated railroad Loop, which turns 120 on October 3, is not an official Chicago landmark — but it should be. Over the past 40 years, Chicago has publicly affirmed that some 200 buildings, sites, objects and districts as important to the city for historical, artistic and other reasons. Somehow, though, city leaders have overlooked the elevated Loop which, I would argue, is more important than most, if not all, of those designated landmarks. Enclosing 39 downtown blocks, the elevated Loop is lost amid the skyscrapers that loom above it. Yet, no other structure in Chicago’s history has had as important an impact on the city. Throughout much of its history, it was viewed by many as simply ugly. Indeed, even before the elevated Loop was finished and often in the decades that followed, there were calls for it to be razed. The last push to tear it down came in 1978. During those years, none of Chicago’s public officials, business leaders and promoters talked about elevated Loop as anything more than a way to get people into and out of downtown. And it’s certainly been an essential transportation system for the city.   Anchored Chicago’s downtown Yet, for […]
October 24, 2017

Book review: “The Adventures of Alyx” and “Picnic in Paradise” by Joanna Russ

Machine, the young man who has become Alyx’s lover, has disappeared into a hole in the snowscape, fallen into an ice chimney. He can be seen at the bottom, crumpled like a puppet with no strings. Machine is one of eight civilians on the planet of Paradise who need to go through a war zone to get from here to there, and the only way for them to do it is without using any technology — too easily traceable. Alyx, a Trans-Temporal Agent, has been assigned to move these pampered giants across a dangerous expanse without being spotted. She is from ancient Greece, nearly 4,000 years in the past. How she got to this moment around the year 3000 AD isn’t explained, like much about the story of Alyx. What’s clear is that Alyx is a runt compared with the eight civilians. Each is about seven or eight feet tall. She is, even for her time, short. Joanna Russ tells Alyx’s story — make that, stories — in her 1983 book The Adventures of Alyx which is made up of four short pieces from 1967-1970 and a stand-alone novel Picnic on Paradise from 1968.   A half century ago So […]
October 18, 2017

Book review: “History of Beauty,” edited by Umberto Eco

Consider the difficulty of those who pore through the dust and shards of earlier civilizations. You pick up a small sculpture which, to your Western eyes, seems to depict a deformed and twisted body. It looks ugly to you. But how did the people who made it perceive the sculpture? As Italian intellectual Humberto Eco writes in History of Beauty, the 2004 book he edited: Every culture has always accompanied its own concept of Beauty with its own idea of Ugliness, even though — in the case of archeological finds — it is hard to establish whether the thing portrayed was really considered ugly or not… Eco wrote the book’s introduction and nine of its 17 chapters. The other eight were written by Italian novelist Girolamo de Michele.   “Which canon, which tastes” Midway through the book, de Michele makes this point: For a painter portraying the Beauty of a body means responding to theoretical exigencies — what is Beauty and under what conditions is it knowable? — as well as practical ones — which canon, which tastes and social mores, allow us to describe a body as “beautiful”? How does the image of Beauty change over time, and how […]
October 16, 2017

Book review: “Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible” by Robert Alter

In this secular age, many writers striving to create literary works are uncomfortable with or antagonistic toward religion, religious faith and religious subject. For myriad reasons, faith isn’t hip. Yet, one doesn’t have to be a believer to recognize that Western literature and art have deep roots in the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible, also called the Old Testament, and the story of the life of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity in the New Testament. Every writer of the West, either directly or indirectly, creates within a cultural universe where the Bible and its ideas and its stories are major elements. Think of Adam and Eve. Think of the crucifixion. Think of Noah and the Flood. Think of the Nativity. The Bible is woven deeply into Western culture, and, when it comes to the English-speaking portion of that culture, one version — the King James Bible — has had a direct and powerful influence on some of the greatest writing in the language, particularly in the United States.   “Its clang and its flavor” As Robert Alter writes in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible: The King James Version was famously eloquent and a beautiful […]
October 13, 2017

Chicago History: Building the elevated Loop with trickery, brilliance and sheer will

Chicago’s elevated Loop, completed 120 years ago on Oct. 3, 1897, was the product of the audacious resolve of financial manipulator extraordinaire Charles Yerkes. To get the Union Loop, as it came to be called, built, Yerkes deceived, deluded and out-smarted his opposition. He played his foes off against each other. He gambled and blustered, and employed elaborately complicated money schemes that no one’s ever been able to figure out completely. Yerkes willed the Union Loop into existence, reaping huge profits and, even more important, bestowing onto Chicago a steel structure that has been a civic anchor for more than a century.   “Sure of an L Loop” The idea of a downtown terminal for the use of the city’s four elevated lines was endlessly discussed during the early 1890s, but it wasn’t until Yerkes made his move on Nov. 22, 1894, that it began to inch toward reality. That was when, backed by a crowd of ready investors, he incorporated the Union Elevated Railroad Company with the goal of erecting a union loop downtown. Triumphantly, the Tribune announced on its front page: “The Gordian knot has been cut. The question of an elevated railroad terminal is settled. There is […]
October 9, 2017

Book review: “King Arthur” by Nick Higham

First things first: Everything we think we know about King Arthur was made up out of whole cloth. There are no historical sources for a flesh-and-blood Lancelot or Merlin or Guinevere or Round Table or Camelot or Arthur. There’s no other conclusion for me after reading Nick Higham’s clear, clean, well-reasoned 2015 biography King Arthur, part of a series of short lives of great people called Pocket GIANTS from the History Press.   “No confidence” Higham spells this out in the book’s opening chapter “The Greatness of Arthur”: King Arthur’s giant presence in our culture is assured. There is, however, something distinctive and different about him. For, while we are in a position to offer a life story, with dates, for almost all the other figures featured in the Pocket GIANTS series, and to discuss their impact on their world, we can have no confidence in any particular outline of Arthur’s life, his family connections or his deeds. We do not know precisely where he lived or when. Indeed, there is doubt as to if a real ‘King Arthur’ lived at all. There may have been numerous different Arthurs whose stories have been woven together. Or perhaps the whole ‘King […]
October 6, 2017

Book review: “Ecclesiastes” from “The Wisdom Books,” translated by Robert Alter with commentary

I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere breath, and herding the wind. (1:14) When you look behind fantasy football, and binge-watching Game of Thrones on Netflix, and the morning commute to work, and CNN and Fox, and photos of grandchildren posted on Facebook, and weeding the garden, and Uber and Lyft, and the new blouse hanging in the closet, and Grandma’s recipe for spaghetti round steak, and the injured little finger needing minor surgery — well, it’s not a pretty sight. When you look behind life, you find death lurking in the wings. That’s not a new thought although much of modern American society is aimed at distracting us from that cold reality. We’re born to die, and that’s been a major or minor theme in much of world literature and art over the course of many millenniums. One of the most eloquent writers on this theme, someone who refuses to avert his eyes, is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).   “Most peculiar book” Written some twenty-two hundred years ago, Ecclesiastes is a Latinized version of the Hebrew word or name which […]
September 22, 2017

Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 2 — Book review: “The Place of the Lion” by Charles Williams

T.S. Eliot was a great admirer of the novels of Charles Williams, calling them “supernatural thrillers.” These handful of novels, written between 1931 and 1945, attracted other fans, such as C.S. Lewis, author of the seven-book Chronicles of Narnia, and J.R. R. Tolkien, creator of the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings — both of whom became friends of Williams. All three — Williams, Lewis and Tolkien — could be termed writers of fantasies — although, depending on who is using the term and what context it’s used in, this can seem a term of denigration. I don’t mean it that way. There are light, flitty sorts of fantasy novels, but these men didn’t write that sort. They were more like the sorts of fantasy novels that have come from Neil Gaiman, the late Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore. Before you jump down my throat with protests, let me say that I recognize that Gaiman, Pratchett and Moore have produced novels that are often funny and even silly. Moore’s stories have been called absurdist, but I believe that’s because he’s an American. If he were British, they’d be fantasy. Lewis can be somewhat playful, but Tolkien and Williams are […]
September 22, 2017

Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 3 — Book review: “Coyote Blue” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore has written a lot of comic novels in which supernatural — otherworldly — figures play havoc with the everyday, humdrum world we live in. These novels feature vampires and angels and lust lizards and various gods of violent mischief and death merchants and Jesus Christ. (The story of Jesus was told by his smart-aleck, somewhat randy childhood sidekick named Biff.) Three of his novels don’t have a supernatural figure, but they do involve giants from the world of literature and art — King Lear, Othello, Shylock and various hangers-on from the Shakespearian canon as well as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (who was an artistic giant, even if only 4-foot-eight.)   Absurd or fantasy Moore is an American, Ohio-born, and his novels have been called absurdist. If he were British, however, like Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, I suspect his books would be classed as fantasies. (There is a doctoral dissertation somewhere in this observation for anyone who would want to spend the drudge of doctoral research laughing.) I mention this because, while reading Coyote Blue, Moore’s second novel, published in 1994, I remembered a comment that Gaiman made about Pratchett (in an afterword for a new edition of […]
September 22, 2017

Absurdist/Fantasy novels — 1 — Book review: “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Originally published in 1990, Good Omens — the novel co-written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett when both still early in their writing careers — was reissued in 2006 by the Science Fiction Book Club. It was one of 32 important sci-fi titles that the book club reissued as part of its 50th anniversary collection. This edition includes various supplements about how the book got conceived and midwifed, notably an essay by Pratchett about writing with Gaiman, and one by Gaiman about writing with Pratchett. In that latter essay, Gaiman — who went on to produce such novels as Stardust, American Gods and Coraline — had this to say about his writing partner for Good Omens: It was the way his mind worked: the urge to take it all apart, and put it back together in different ways, to see how it all fit together. It was the engine that drove Discworld [the setting for Pratchett’s enormously popular and hilariously inventive fantasy series of 41 novels] — it’s not a “what if…” or an “if only…” or even an “if this goes on…”; it was the far more subtle and dangerous “if there was really a…..what would that mean? How […]
September 20, 2017

Essay: An understanding heart

Solomon was a kid, but he was already wise. In the first book of Kings, God appears to the boy-king, saying, “Ask something of me, and I will give it to you.” Solomon doesn’t ask for money or revenge or a long life. What he wants is “an understanding heart.” I like that. If I have an understanding heart, I open myself to those around me. I’m able to see them — really see them — and hear them. And I’m able to let them see and hear me. I’m present to them, one human to another. It’s easy to be irritated by other people. If I’m in the Loop and hurrying to a meeting, the wandering, lollygagging tourists who block the sidewalk can be annoying. But, come on, I do the same thing when I’m strolling around Manhattan on vacation. Irritation is a natural human feeling, but an understanding heart doesn’t get stuck in that bile. An understanding heart sees the world in context — sees people in context. An understanding heart expects good from people rather than bad, opts for hope rather than cynicism. And how do I rise above spitefulness and venom? I don’t do it alone. I […]
September 4, 2017

Book review: “The ‘Book of Genesis’ – a Biography” by Ronald Hendel

Martin Luther, that flawed saint, had a lot to say about the biblical book of Genesis. His 16th-century rebellion against the Roman Catholic hierarchy also involved a revolt against the long-popular approach to the Bible, particularly Genesis, of seeing it all as an allegory. Luther, who is one of the handful of major figures in the history of Christianity, came to think that the best way to look at the Scripture was to try to understand the plain sense of it. In other words, take it at face value. As bible scholar Ronald Hendel notes in his 2013 examination of the history of the Bible’s first book, The “Book of Genesis” — a Biography, Luther’s rejection of allegory was part and parcel to his repudiation of the authority of the Catholic Church. The basis of faith, Luther argued, was Scripture alone — without the mediation of theologians and church leaders. As he frequently did, the former Augustinian priest employed scatological wit in his analysis: “When I was a monk I was a master in the use of allegories. I allegorized everything…even a chamber pot.” In modern times, Bob Dylan has sung, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way […]