principalities, powers, and the technical boy

I have a suspicion that my earlier posts on idolatry — one and two — bear a significant relation to the recommendation of Pynchon’s spectral Walter Rathenau that we should simultaneously reject “secular history” and “look into the technology of these matters.” But explaining the connection won’t be easy. I’m going to take a first shot at it in this post. Also, this will be kinda weird.

One: Gods

One of the oft-noted peculiarities of the biblical depictions of “false gods” or “idols” is their ambiguous ontological status. As Gerald McDermott points out,

The idea that there are other “gods” who exist as real supernatural beings, albeit infinitely inferior to the only Creator and Redeemer, pervades the Bible. The Psalms fairly explode with evidence. “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord” (86:8); “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods” (96:4); “Our Lord is above all gods” (135:5); “Ascribe to Yahweh, [you] gods, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength” (29:1, my trans.); “He is exalted above all gods” (97:7); “For Yahweh is a great god, and a great king above all gods” (95:3, my trans.). And so on.

And yet we also hear, immediately after the passage from Psalm 96 that McDermott quotes, that “all the gods of the nations are idols; but the Lord made the heavens.” Taken out of the context that McDermott provides, this passage would seem to be saying that the gods worshipped by the nations do not exist, are made up, are nothing but pieces of carved wood or stone. But within that context we can see that they exist indeed, and have power — but power derived wholly from the one God who made the heavens.

The key to this puzzle is the extraordinary account of a cosmic council in Psalm 82:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:

“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

As Walter Wink points out in his groundbreaking book Naming the Powers — on which I rely pretty heavily, though not uncritically — there is fairly strong evidence in canonical and extracanonical books for an Israelite (and, later, Christian) belief in “angels of the nations”: angels charged with the stewardship of nations, some of whom executed that stewardship faithfully, but others of whom rebelled, seeking not stewardship but absolute rule. Thus the strong ancient tradition that Lucifer is the Angel of Rome: it is in the corruption of this role that he becomes the “ruler of this world” — the archōn tou kosmou — and the “god of this age” — the theos tou aiōnos.

(This same model of delegated authority appears at a higher level in the medieval notion of Intelligences, the governing or guardian angels of the planets who move them and thereby create the music of the spheres. This idea is, famously, central to C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, in which there is but one rebelling Intelligence, the “god of this world”: Satan there rules not just the nation of Rome but the whole planet, which alone is dark and silent and cut off from the cosmic light and music.)

The “divine council” of Psalm 82, then, narrates the decisive intervention of the One God to judge the lesser gods who have abandoned their duty and sought independent power — though, and this is surely important, the Lord does not pronounce judgment of death upon them for that rebellion as such, but rather for their “partiality to the wicked” and indifference to “the right of the lowly and the destitute.” The vision is of course an eschatological one: an event certain to occur but not yet in “this age” — in what Paul calls “this present darkness”: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers [archas], against the authorities, against the cosmic powers [kosmokratoras] of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The cosmocrats have not yet been deposed, though their ultimate ruin is sure.

Two: Ancient Unities

One of the recurrent themes in the work of that oddball genius Owen Barfield is his emphasis on linguistic — and phenomenological, and ontological — unities that have now suffered severance and consequent diminishment. So, for instance, in his first book, Poetic Diction, he notes the curious fact that in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alike the same words (respectively, ruach, pneuma, and spiritus) seem to us to mean, in different contexts, breath, wind, or spirit. But Barfield thinks we have that wrong.

We must, therefore, imagine a time when spiritus or pneuma, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallized into the three meanings specified – and no doubt into others also, for which separate words had already been found by Greek and Roman times.

Not “all three of these things” because that formulation presumes distinctions that, Barfield believes, were simply not present in the minds of those who spoke ruach, or pneuma, or spiritus: those words signified something that we are tempted to call “unified,” but even that presumes that there are separate meanings to be brought together. It is in an attempt to avoid this implication that Barfield writes so vaguely of “their own old peculiar meaning.”

I mention all this because it is, I think, immensely relevant to a discussion of those biblical “principalities and powers” (archai kai exousiai). In his preface to Naming the Powers, Wink writes quite openly about how he wanted to read such passages in the Bible: “The three volumes comprising this study are themselves the record of my own pilgrimage away from a rather naive assurance that the ‘principalities and powers’ mentioned in the New Testament could be ‘demythologized,’ that is, rendered without remainder into the categories of modem sociology, depth psychology, and general systems theory. The Powers, I thought, could be understood as institutions, social systems, and political structures.” And indeed, “Much of that proved true. But always there was this remainder, something that would not reduce to physical structures — something invisible, immaterial, spiritual, and very, very real.” And only gradually did Wink come to realize that when he asked whether, in any given case, words like archai referred to human rulers or angelic/demonic beings, that was simply the wrong question: “These Powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, spiritual and political, invisible and structural.” One might even say, by analogy to Barfield’s analysis, that Wink’s pairings here, while perhaps necessary for the modern reader, are intrinsically deceptive, presuming the existence of distinctions that only “crystallized” later on.

Let me pause for a brief note here on a very important point which I will have to develop more fully later: Wink demonstrates, compellingly I think, that the Powers were made by God and granted stewardly authority by him and are therefore, like the rest of Creation, in need of redemption. In Colossians 1:16 we are told that in the Son “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him”; and in Ephesians 3 that Paul’s appointed task is “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities [again, the archai kai exousiai] in the heavenly places.”

Wink’s later treatment of these matters, in his book Powers That Be, emphasizes that the biblical language of “principalities and powers” limns what he calls the Domination System, which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much identical to Michel Foucault’s much more famous notion of the “power-knowledge regime”: a regime in which power is diffused with infinite subtlety, concentrated in no identifiable place — rather like the Hermetic notion of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. (Surely someone has made that analogy before?) The Powers are not God, cannot be God, but in our experience are like God in that they just omnipresently are: as Bob Marley taught us, it’s a matter of “spiritual wickedness in high and low places.”

Three: New Gods

The relevance of all this to an Anthropocene theology might become a little clearer by a look at Nail Gaiman’s American Gods. What follows is pilfered with few small changes from an essay of mine.

At one point in the story Shadow, the novel’s protagonist, is watching TV in a hotel room when Lucy (the truly archetypal figures are always mononymic) begins to speak directly to him:

“I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”…

“You’re a god?” said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. “You could say that,” she said.

And Lucy seeks to win Shadow over, to bring him into the fold of her worshippers:

“We’re shopping malls — your friends are crappy roadside attractions. Hell, we’re online malls, while your friends are sitting by the side of the highway selling homegrown produce from a garden cart. No — they aren’t even fruit sellers. Buggy-whip vendors. Whalebone-corset repairers. We are now and tomorrow. Your friends aren’t even yesterday any more.”

But Shadow has heard this kind of rhetoric before, from a rather different figure of modern power, a pudgy young man in a black coat who had said to him, “You — you’re a fucking illuminated gothic black-letter manuscript. You couldn’t be hypertext if you tried. I’m … I’m synaptic, while, while you’re synoptic.” Shadow, remembering, asks Lucy, “Did you ever meet a fat kid in a limo?”

She spread her hands and rolled her eyes comically, funny Lucy Ricardo washing her hands of a disaster. “The technical boy? You met the technical boy? Look, he’s a good kid. He’s one of us. He’s just not good with people he doesn’t know. When you’re working for us, you’ll see how amazing he is.”

Lucy’s words are confident, assured, but the existence of “the technical boy” serves to remind us that, among the New Gods, television is old stuff. Later we see the technical boy again. To the claim that a “mighty battle” between the Old and New Gods is coming he sneers, “It’s not going to be a battle…. All we’re facing here is a fucking paradigm shift. It’s a shakedown. Modalities like battle are so fucking Lao Tzu.” Lucy thinks the technical boy is on her side; it’s not clear that the respect is mutual.

More important, though, is a key difference between Lucy’s language and that of the technical boy. Lucy seeks to persuade, to win over; the technical boy has nothing but contempt for Shadow or indeed for anyone else who’s not already on board with the inevitable “paradigm shift.” The technical boy is a god who doesn’t need worshippers, because he’s confident that he can make all the puppets he needs.

These New Gods are the archai kai exousiai, the rulers of this world and this age. Romanitas can be just glimpsed way back there, through our rear-view mirrors; it’s on the far side of a paradigm shift; what late in his life Foucault called “governmentality,” the body of techniques by which persons and societies are rendered governable, is differently constituted now. The Powers have shifted their ground, and we can’t understand that unless and until we follow Walter Rathenau’s advice and “look into the technology of these matters.” If we follow Wink’s intuition that such “Powers are both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, spiritual and political, invisible and structural,” we will understand precisely why Pynchon’s Rathenau can commend technological inquiry and simultaneously declare that “secular history is a diversionary tactic.”

In the long run the One True God will judge those Powers. But before that happens, it’s the task of the church to make known to them “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things … the wisdom of God in its rich variety.”

I told you this would be kinda weird.

Building 5: cunning works

Let us reflect further on the call and assignment of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur in Exodus 31: We are told that he will “devise artistic designs,” “devise plans,” or, in the irresistible formulation of King James’s translators, “devise cunning works.”

Josipovici again:

The Hebrew phrase for ‘to devise cunning works’ is lachshov machashavot, and the word chosev can have both a good and a bad meaning depending on the person involved…. Joseph says to his brothers ve’atem chashavtem ‘alai ra‘ah, ‘But as for you, ye thought evil against me’ (Gen.50:30). However, where craftsmanship is concerned the word clearly has positive overtones. ‘To make makings’ or ‘to encunning cunningnesses’ might catch the sense of ancient craftsmanship, so often conveyed in Greek by the Homeric word poikilos, which means both ‘dappled’ and ‘cunningly wrought’, and in Latin by the Lucretian word daedulus, which means ‘artificial’, ‘adorned’, but also ‘variegated’. (p. 105)

Josipovici wants the verb and object doubled because the same root (look for the ch) appears in both: thus his suggested “to make makings” or, I might say, “to design designs” — preferable, I think, because the word so often denotes planning or devising.

In any event, the really interesting thing here is the strongly opposing valences of such devising. The only other place in the Hebrew Bible where lachshov appears is Proverbs 16:30, where we are told that “One who winks the eyes plans perverse things,” or — and here again is the greater liveliness, though possibly also the lesser accuracy, of the KJV — “He shutteth his eyes to devise froward things.” Things need to be planned out, carefully devised, because they are complicated, and complication suggests, at one and the same time, deviousness and creativity. Thus the widespread feeling that highly elaborated works, baroque or rococo styles, are somehow less honest and trustworthy than simpler, more direct, less meticulously crafted design or utterance (a sense that the current American political situation ought to call into question).

Thus also the gradual pejoration of “cunning,” a word that, being ancestrally related to the German kennen, meaning simply to know, used to have a far wider range of shades and tones. (“Ken” is common in Scots English — Ken ye not that? — and has a bare survival elsewhere in “beyond our ken,” beyond our knowledge.) Bezalel’s commission to “devise cunning works” is not the only example of that earlier range: in his rendering of 1 Corinthians 2:13, Tyndale has Paul refer to “thinges also we speake, not in the connynge wordes of mannes wysdome, but with the connynge wordes of the holy goost.” King James’s translators ditched that phraseology for something that sounds to us more modern — “things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth” — but not because the word “cunning” had by then completely altered. Indeed, in Shakespeare it is largely used simply to describe those who possess a certain body of knowledge — in Taming of the Shrew we hear of men “cunning in music and the mathematics” and “cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages” — but occasionally in a strongly positive sense, as in a lovely moment in Twelfth Night when Viola speaks of Olivia’s face, “whose red and white / Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.” (Mercy, what a line that is.) And when Prince Hal, playing the role of his father, asks of Falstaff “Wherein [art thou] cunning, but in craft?” the implication is that “cunning” is a more positive, or at least more neutral, term than “craft,” which seems here to mean something like deviousness — and this in turn brings us back to devising. The whole constellation of terms gradually but inexorably falls under darker and darker clouds.

(This would be an excellent moment to tear off on a long digression about the “cunning folk” — Shakespeare’s characters refer to cunning men and cunning women — that would probably lead to an even more fanciful improvised cadenza on Robertson Davies’s last novel, The Cunning Man, which constitutes a partial and ambiguous rehabilitation of the term … but I am going to restrain myself. For now.)

What I want to suggest here is that Jews and Christians may have good theological reasons to suspect such devices. Here again Josipovici comes to our aid, via his clever linkage of choshev and daedulus, the latter of which, of course, provides the name for the legendary first artist, the deviser of, among other things, the labyrinth of the Minotaur on Crete. One could spend some time listing the cunning works attributed to Daedalus, but I am especially interested in the kind of object named for him, the daidala, and especially one subset of the daidalai, the agalmata, statues of the gods with moving limbs and eyes that opened and closed. Socrates refers to these in at least two of Plato’s dialogues, the Meno and the Euthyphro, and while he jokes about them, they seem to have freaked many people out — as did, a couple of millennia later, the automata that so fascinated Europeans from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment. (As I have mentioned earlier, in a post with strong thematic links to this one, Jessica Riskin writes about those automata in her brilliant book The Restless Clock.)

“Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth,” says Sir Philip Sidney, but there is the suspicion that Daedalus makes things that lie, for instance, mechanical gods who actually might be gods — you can never tell, given the Olympians’ habit of assuming disguises. And in general the more cleverly designed automata occupy that uncanny valley wherein we lose our ability to navigate the world of appearances so as to distinguish true from false, original from copy. (Cue Platonic concerns about mimesis, which will always haunt discussions of artful making.) Consider also, in this light, the most disturbing of Daedalus’s daidalai, the enormous cow he makes for Pasiphaë to climb into so she can present her vagina to the bull for whom she lusts. Not being a god, Daedalus cannot transform Pasiphaë into a cow — but he can, through cunning, do the next best thing. Surely this is “devising a froward thing.”

What results from this art-enabled union is the Minotaur, which Daedalus then must use yet more cunning to contain, by making the great labyrinth from which even he barely escapes. I am perhaps getting carried away with this whole linguistic/etymological thing — I’ve been spending too much time around Adam Roberts — but I can’t help noting that the Minotaur is a monster, from the Latin monstrum, which means a sign or revelation, something revealed — usually something terrible. And among the revelations here is that of devising/cunning/designing gone awry, gone awry because it has lost sight of legitimate human ends, and of legitimate means to ends.

Thinking of the cow made by Daedalus we should also remember the Golden Calf made by Aaron: each is a human-imagined, human-designed, human-made artifact that when deployed produces monsters. Those who worship and make sacrifices to objects they have made are as bereft of reason as a woman who offers herself sexually to a bull. Pasiphaë’s madness is imposed on her, whereas that of the Israelites seems to be self-imposed, though no adequate explanation is provided: they simply decide to make and worship some new “gods to go before us” when Moses doesn’t come down from the mountain when they think he should. But in any case, Pasiphaë and the Israelites alike have become the helpless thralls of disordered desires. They have in a sense become the mere instruments of their desires, they are what Ruskin called “animate tools.” And what they crave is made objects, technologies, cunningly designed to fulfill those desires, thereby extending and strengthening the chain of instrumentality. Whatever enables the fulfillment of those desires they (either implicitly or explicitly) worship.

building 4: creative fidelity

In Exodus 31 there’s a curious passage in which the Lord describes to Moses the artist, or artisan, or craftsman, whom He has chosen to oversee the building of the Tabernacle: “See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” That’s the NRSV. The ESV has something very similar: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

Here’s Robert Alter: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge and in every task, to devise plans, to work in gold and in silver and an bronze, and in stone cutting for settings and in wood carving, to do every task.”

And finally, the good old KJV: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship.”

I want here to note two points about this passage, and save a third point for another post.

First, as Alter comments, throughout the Pentateuch “‘wisdom’ and its synonyms suggest both mastery of a craft and something like insight” — we might say, both techne and phronesis.

Second, the words translated as “work,” “craft,” “task,” “worksmanship,” and so on are almost always variants of mela’khah, which, says Alter, is one of the two most common Biblical words for work, the other being ‘avodah. Alter says that the latter “usually implies subservience – in political contexts, it means to be subject or vassal to a superior power, in cultic contexts, divine service — and it also often suggests strenuous physical labor.” He notes that after the Fall Adam is cursed to work (‘avodah) the soil, and the same word is used to describe the labor of the Israelite slaves in Egypt. By contrast, mela’khah typically connotes craft and manual skill. Interestingly, and I think importantly, the closely related noun mala’kh is a messenger or agent — an angel is one kind of mala’kh. But isn’t this also “divine service”? It seems that the words mela’khah and ‘avodah are meant to distinguish levels of personal freedom in the exercise of a responsibility: the one who performs ‘avodah has virtually no such freedom, is instead forced to carry out duties mechanically and without initiative or imagination, whereas the one who performs mela’khah can put more of himself or herself into the work. The mala’kh is granted the boon of what we might call creative fidelity in carrying out his or her tasks.

I find myself thinking here of a justly famous passage in Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice about imperfection in work. I’m going to quote a big chunk of it, because it’s profound and wonderful:

But the modern English mind has this much in common with that of the Greek, that it intensely desires, in all things, the utmost completion or perfection compatible with their nature. This is a noble character in the abstract, but becomes ignoble when it causes us to forget the relative dignities of that nature itself, and to prefer the perfectness of the lower nature to the imperfection of the higher; not considering that as, judged by such a rule, all the brute animals would be preferable to man, because more perfect in their functions and kind, and yet are always held inferior to him, so also in the works of man, those which are more perfect in their kind are always inferior to those which are, in their nature, liable to more faults and shortcomings…. And therefore, while in all things that we see, or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, that we may the more surely enjoy the complacency of success. But, above all, in our dealings with the souls of other men, we are to take care how we check, by severe requirement or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to a noble issue; and, still more, how we withhold our admiration from great excellencies, because they are mingled with rough faults. Now, in the make and nature of every man, however rude or simple, whom we employ in manual labour, there are some powers for better things: some tardy imagination, torpid capacity of emotion, tottering steps of thought, there are, even at the worst; and in most cases it is all our own fault that they are tardy or torpid. But they cannot be strengthened, unless we are content to take them in their feebleness, and unless we prize and honour them in their imperfection above the best and most perfect manual skill. And this is what we have to do with all our labourers; to look for the thoughtful part of them, and get that out of them, whatever we lose for it, whatever faults and errors we are obliged to take with it. For the best that is in them cannot manifest itself, but in company with much error. Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it ; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.

Thus Ruskin rejoices when he sees the various small (and sometimes large) flaws in the execution of old Venetian ornament, and grieves when he sees the flawlessness of modern factory work. For the former are the products of mela’khah, the latter products of mere ‘avodah, the work of human beings reduced to the status of “animated tool.”

Equipped with this distinction, I remembered Josipovici’s point about Solomon’s forced labor that I cited in my previous post: “This massive deployment of a labor force to hew and cut stone is more reminiscent of the Israelites in Egypt than of the willing makers of the Tabernacle.” Surely this work is described by the narrator as a kind of ‘avodah?

But no, it turns out; no, it isn’t. What some translations call “forced labor” is hammas, “levy” or “tribute”; and when the actual labor of the workers is mentioned, the words employed are indeed versions of mela’khah, or a third word for work, ha‘ōsim, which is clearly used to refer to skilled labor or craft. The KJV speaks of these people as “those who wrought,” like wheelwrights or cartwrights: highly trained artisans. Which perhaps suggests that even those who were “levied” to work on the Temple were still granted a kind of dignity that differentiates them from those among their ancestors who had been slaves in Egypt: though required by the King to build, they had dignity in their work. They used tools, but they were not themselves mere “animated tools.” There are both kinds and degrees of independence in labor.

One might conclude from this little excursus an important point: what Wendell Berry calls “good work” is often possible in conditions of limited political freedom, perhaps even in certain forms of bondage. Berry:

Good human work honors God’s work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors Nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. And such blasphemy is not possible so long as the entire Creation is understood as holy, and so long as the works of God are understood as embodying and so revealing God’s spirit.

(If you know the amazing story of William and Ellen Craft — and if you don’t you should — you’ll remember that his skill as a carpenter, his good work, earned him a degree of personal freedom which in turn enabled his escape from slavery. And his name is Craft, for heaven’s sake.) It is often possible to work this way in conditions of bondage, but not always: when the human person is but an “animated tool” in the hands of those who dishonor Creation and its Creator, then good work may be out of reach. This is ‘avodah and conditions still worse. In our work we may count our selves blessed when we have the status of the mala’kh, the one privileged, in carrying out an assigned task, to be creative and free in faithfulness.

We might even say that technology is redeemed when, and only when, it enables this status. We should assess our technologies not only by what they do to the world — whatever it is they explicitly direct their powers towards — but also by what they do to those who employ them: Do they force us into the condition of animated tools, or extend and amplify our proper creativity? And what they do to us they will also and necessarily do to our relations with one another. This is a good deal of what Ivan Illich means when he speaks of “tools for conviviality.

building 3: practices of making

In reflecting further on the story of how and why Solomon built the Temple, I want to cite Gabriel Josipovici again, because without being cynical he is very skilled at teasing out some of the oddities of this narrative.

Like most modern readers, including myself, Josipovici is interested in human motives; but as Erich Auerbach famously taught us, this is just the sort of thing about which the narrators of the Hebrew Bible are notoriously reticent. This does not necessarily mean that they are uninterested in motive; they could, perhaps, be very interested in motive and yet aware that, as Rebecca West is said to have commented, there’s no such thing as an unmixed one.

In any case, Josipovici is quite alert to the possible distance between how Solomon describes his actions and what those actions, taken as a whole, actually amount to. I got into some of that in my previous post, when I spoke of the ways in which Solomon seems almost to be manipulating or even coercing the Lord into blessing Israel (and of course its new king).

Well, there’s another variety of coercion here. Let’s return to 1 Kings 5:

King Solomon drafted forced labor out of all Israel, and the draft numbered 30,000 men. And he sent them to Lebanon, 10,000 a month in shifts. They would be a month in Lebanon and two months at home. Adoniram was in charge of the draft. Solomon also had 70,000 burden-bearers and 80,000 stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s 3,300 chief officers who were over the work, who had charge of the people who carried on the work. At the king’s command they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones. So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the men of Gebal did the cutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house.

As Josipovici notes, “This massive deployment of a labor force to hew and cut stone is more reminiscent of the Israelites in Egypt than of the willing makers of the Tabernacle” (p. 100).

It seems to me that this point relates to one that Josipovici makes a little later:

It is important to note that the [Tabernacle] is a tent and not a stone building. It is made of poles and curtains and is only itself when in action, so to speak, as an animal cannot be adequately understood in terms of bones and skin, but needs to be studied in movement, as a living whole. So the tent is always going to be more than the kit that makes up its parts. Each time it is erected, therefore, the process of making is renewed. (p.104)

That’s a brilliant point, I think: the Tabernacle is always being made, it is new every morning. It is therefore something like the cosmos, which in a sense was constructed in six days after which its Maker rested, but in another sense is constantly undergoing making: as Chesterton famously said, “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.”

In any case, if we put those two passages from Josipovici together, we get a fairly comprehensive contrast between the Temple and the Tabernacle: the former made on the initiative of the king, built of stone, built by conscripted labor, built once, fixed and permanent; the former made at the commandment of the Lord, built of woven cloth and carved wood and a bit of metalwork, built by the artisans of the children of Israel, erected repeatedly and moved when the people moved — the people whose relationship to the Lord is repeatedly figured as walking. (Thus, as noted in my previous post, the Lord to Solomon: “If you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever.”)

It is as though in making the Temple Solomon has reversed, if not actively repudiated, the practices of making that God had commanded Moses to pursue. Whether he meant to or not, Solomon in building the Temple has encouraged the people of Israel to place their trust in technological power — technological power as a manifestation of political power. A straight line runs from the demand for a king in 1 Samuel 8 to the construction of this mighty and gorgeous edifice, a building that, God warns Solomon, may well be destroyed, thus making Israel “a proverb and byword among all peoples.” A Tabernacle is a technology that curbs idolatry; a Temple, however well-intentioned its maker and however devout the priests who serve in it, runs the risk of encouraging idolatry.

building 2

The reign of King David of Israel was highly successful, but also ceaselessly beset by conflicts. Whenever he had a break from fighting the surrounding nations, David had to reckon with internal conflict among members of his family and his court. He seems to have lurched from one crisis to another throughout the whole of his forty-year reign.

But the account in the Bible of this eventful period is interrupted, in 2 Samuel 7, by what Robert Alter calls “a major cesura in the David story.” The cesura occurs because David stops to reflect on the (to him) uncomfortable irony that he dwells in a cedar house — cedar being a luxurious import from Lebanon — while the Lord himself has but a small, portable tent. Surely the King should build a more lasting habitation for the Lord? The prophet Nathan, to whom David says this, instantly replies, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

And indeed Nathan has good reason to believe that the Lord is with David — but then he receives a surprising visitation. It seems that the Lord is not at all happy with David’s plan.

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’

Basically: I’ll let you know when I want a house. In the meantime, as Alter notes, “God will grant David a house — that is, a continuing dynasty, and then will have David’s son build Him a house — that is, a temple.” But very uncharacteristically, Alter does not have this quite right. The Lord does not say that He will have Solomon build him a house, he merely says, “He shall build a house for my name.”

I think this point deserves to be stressed. When we first hear about the plans for the Temple, in 1 Kings 5, here’s what Solomon says to Hiram, King of Tyre:

“You know that David my father could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side. There is neither adversary nor misfortune. And so I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to David my father, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’”

This is noteworthy in several ways. First, the idea that David was unable to build a Temple because of constant warfare may have been David own’s view of the matter, but that’s not what the Lord said to him — indeed, just the opposite: “I have cut off all your enemies from before you…. And I will give you rest from all your enemies.” Second, Solomon clearly believes that the Lord wants him to build the Temple, perhaps because that’s what David told him; but, again, God’s declaration in 2 Samuel 7 says nothing about a commandment to build, and here in 1 Kings 5 he has still not said to Solomon, or to anyone, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” The whole idea is Solomon’s.

And if we keep that in mind we might notice what the Lord says when, in 1 Kings 6, in the midst of the great construction project, he finally gets around to commenting on the whole endeavor:

Now the word of the Lord came to Solomon, “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my rules and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel.”

Maybe I should have said that we might notice what the Lord does not say, because though he introduces his statement by saying that it concerns the house Solomon is building, he doesn’t congratulate Solomon on the achievement or praise the beauty of the building or even express thanks. The force of the statement is to remind Solomon that that house does not matter at all. What matters is Solomon’s obedience.

On one level, Solomon seems to get this. When the Temple is completed and he utters his great prayer of dedication, he indeed emphasizes the necessity of obedience. But he also repeatedly suggests that now that the Temple is built it is time for the Lord to fulfill all his promises to David’s “house” — as though by building the Temple Solomon has asserted some kind of claim upon the God who made the whole cosmos and raised up Israel and put him, Solomon, on his throne.

If so, that claim is not acknowledged. After all the celebratory hoo-ha is over, “the Lord appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon.” And while he says, “I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time,” he then continues, at far greater length, on a different theme:

And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins.

So, again: the greatness and the beauty and the glory of the Temple are irrelevant — and indeed, when they come to an end, may even be a mark of shame to Israel. (The exchange between Solomon and the Lord is somewhat reminiscent of the moment when the children of Israel cry out for a king. Okay, says the Lord; but you’re not going to like it.)

And if Solomon were to cry out that he had spent seven years building that Temple (1 Kings 6:38), the Lord might with some justification note that the great and wise king devoted to the building of his own palace thirteen years (1 Kings 7:1). That’s a shrewd point that Gabriel Josipovici makes.

So the building of the Temple is an interesting event, in terms of the typology I laid out in my last post. Clearly Solomon does not build the Temple “in defiance of and rivalry with God,” but neither is its construction commanded by God, and God seems to view it as, at best, something neutral, neither here nor there, and Solomon’s great devotion to it looks like a case of misplaced priorities. Perhaps he should have been focusing on an altogether different project.

It seems likely to me that the Lord consents to dwell in the Temple simply because that is where the Tabernacle — the mishkan or “dwelling-place” which He had commanded to be made — now rests. When He says “My eyes and my heart will be there for all time,” this may have nothing at all to do with what Solomon has made: it could merely be a reaffirmation of the Mosaic covenant. And in that light it may be worthwhile to note that Solomon devotes a good bit of his prayer of consecration of the Temple to what sounds like instruction, not of the children of Israel but of the Lord himself:

when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.

I don’t mean to bring too much of a hermeneutics of suspicion to this party, but this looks suspiciously like an inversion of the Mosaic law: rather than God giving the law to Israel, Solomon gives the law to God. And the leverage that he hopes to bring is the promise that the Lord will be honored by the nations as God through the magnificence of “this house that I have built.” Look at what I have done for you! Aren’t you grateful?“ The Temple is a magnificent technological achievement, and Solomon insists that its purpose is to glorify God, since “this house … is called by your name”; but it certainly seems that Solomon is hardly indifferent to his own power and glory.


A book that I have returned to often over the years is Gabriel Josipovici’s The Book of God. Josipovici is an English (though born in France) novelist and critic who, at some point in the 1980s, learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read the Bible, and The Book of God is an account of what he discovered when he worked his way through that strange text.

The Book of God is a readerly book, a book about the experience of encountering Scripture by someone who did not grow up thinking of the Bible as “the book of God,” and Josipovici is especially interested in exploring those moments when the Bible seems to want to thwart readers, or at least the kind of reader that most people today tend to be. Consider, for instance, the mind-numbing detail of the account of building the Tabernacle (and associated objects) that the book of Exodus provides — twice. First the Lord tells Moses about all the parts of the Tabernacle and what they should be made of, along with similar instructions for the garments of the priests and other related matters. Then — after Moses brings this information down from the mountain only to discover that Aaron has built a golden calf for the people to worship, and after that little disaster has been dealt with — we have described for us the process by which the workmen of Israel did, quite precisely and obediently, just what the Lord instructed them to do.

It’s almost impossible, Josipovici says, to read all this; it cuts against the grain of everything we think reading is. And there’s something else odd about it: several commentators have noticed that, as long and detailed as the instructions recounted in Exodus are, you couldn’t actually build a Tabernacle from them — too much is omitted, so later attempts at reconstruction have necessarily involved a great deal of guesswork. So the whole episode, or set of episodes, is rather odd.

Josipovici therefore wonders if there isn’t some other way to make sense of it, and he decides to approach the interpretative problem in a different way. He notes that in the Tabernacle episode we have detailed accounts of the building or fabricating of complex objects. Where else in the Hebrew Bible do we see the building or fabrication of complex objects?

The answer is: in at least six other places.

  • The building of the Golden Calf itself (Exodus 32), a kind of interpolated scene in the midst of the account of building the Tabernacle;
  • The construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11);
  • The construction of the Ark by Noah (Genesis 6);
  • The building of the great Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 6);
  • Solomon’s building of his own palace (1 Kings 7);
  • The creation of the cosmos and the world by the Lord (Genesis 1-2).

As I read this section of Josipovici’s illuminating book, it occurs to me that one way to subdivide these descriptions is:

  • what the Lord himself builds,
  • what the Lord specifically instructs humans to build,
  • what the Lord does not instruct but permits humans to build, and
  • what humans build in defiance of and rivalry with the Lord.

To see these acts of making in this light is to see that each act of making is an act of glorification: something or someone is glorified, celebrated and raised up, through the making.

Those of you who have read my stuff for a while know that I am interested in thinking theologically about technology, or, to put the task in another way, incorporating reflections on technology into theological accounts of human thought and action. I might describe the recent Pynchon read-through as a subset of my larger inquiry into the technological history of modernity, which is itself a subset of a theology of technology, which is in turn a subset of a general theological anthropology. I keep thinking about these matters, and reading everything I can find that seems related to them, in the hopes that at some point I will figure out the level at which I can make an appropriate contribution. A book just on Pynchon might be a little too narrow; a theological anthropology is almost certainly too broad a project for me and beyond my scholarly competence (I am not, after all, a theologian).

But as I’m feeling my way blindly around this elephant, it occurs to me that pausing to reflect on the implications of these descriptions of building in the Hebrew Bible might be a useful way to isolate some coordinates for a theology of technology. So more on that in subsequent posts.

against tweetstorms

A few weeks ago I took to Twitter to unleash a tweetstorm against tweetstorms. (I was in an ironic mood. Also, if you’re wondering what a tweetstorm is, you can see a few by Mark Andreessen, thought by some to be the originator if not the master of the form, here.) Now I want to make that argument more properly. Hang on tight, we’re getting into the Wayback Machine for one of my geekiest posts ever!

One of the most distinctive characteristics of biblical Hebrew is parataxis, which connects clauses almost wholly by coordinating conjunctions — “and” and its cognates. Without getting too technical here, I want to acknowledge that there is disagreement among Hebrew scholars today about whether the Hebrew word waw should always be translated as “and”: some believe that it has different shades of meaning, in different contexts, that translators should strive to bring those shades out. But in the King James translation, waw is always rendered as “and,” which gives to biblical storytelling a very distinctive rhythm, and also contributes to what Erich Auerbach famously called its “reticence.”

A classic example is the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

As Kierkegaard famously showed in Fear and Trembling, the story fairly cries out for elucidation: What was Abraham thinking? What did he feel? But all we get is this unembellished, uninflected, set of steps: And … And … And…..

Parataxis is perfectly suited to the chief genres of the Hebrew Bible — narrative, law, poetry, prophecy — or, maybe better, the genres of the Hebrew Bible are what they are because of the paratactic tendencies of the Hebrew language? Hard to say. In any case, in the New Testament, as long as the genres are carried over from the Hebrew Bible, the parataxis is there also, even though now in Greek rather than Hebrew:

When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.

It’s when we get to the letters of Paul that we begin to suspect that God knew what he was doing in bringing the Christian Gospel to the world at a moment and in a place where the lingua franca was Greek. For Greek lends itself to complexities of conjunction and disjunction, all manner of relations between clause and clause, idea and idea. (Sometimes Paul gets himself tangled in those complexities: try reading Ephesians 1, for instance, in any translation, and see if you can diagram those sentences.) If instead of narrating or legislating or poetizing or prophesying you need to be engaged in dialectical exposition and argumentation, Greek is the language you want. Greek gives you parataxis if you need it, but syntaxis also. And the more complex your argument is, the more you need that syntaxis.

Hey, wasn’t this supposed to be a post about Twitter and tweetstorms? Yes. My point is: Twitter enforces parataxis. I don’t mean that in the sense that you absolutely can’t make an argument on Twitter, only that everything about the platform militates against it, and very few people have the commitment or the resourcefulness to push back. So a typical tweetstorm, even when it’s trying to make a case for something, even when it needs to be an argument and its author wants it to be an argument, isn’t an argument: it’s a series of disconnected assertions, effectively no more than And … And … And…. I think this is enforced not primarily by the 140-character limit itself, but more by the tweeter’s awareness that each tweet will be read individually, and retweeted individually, losing any context. So the tweeter tries to make each tweet as self-contained as possible, forgoing syntactic relations and complications.

Moreover, even a lengthy tweetstorm, by tweetstorm standards, isn’t long enough to develop an argument properly. (You’d need to use seven or eight tweets just for my previous paragraph, depending on your strategy for connecting the tweets. This whole post? Maybe 50 tweets. Who does 50-tweet storms?)

So what does this atomization of thought remind me of? Biblical proof-texting, that’s what. The founders of Twitter are to our discursive culture what Robert Estienne — the guy who divided the Bible up into verses — is to biblical interpretation. Is it possible, when faced with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians divided into verses, to keep clearly in mind the larger dialectical structure of his exposition? Sure. But it’s very hard, as generations of Christians who think that they can settle an argument by quoting a verse, a verse that might not even be a complete sentence, have demonstrated to us all. Becoming habituated to tweet-sized chunks of thought is damaging to one’s grasp of theology and social issues alike.

All this is why I think people who have interesting and even slightly complicated things to say should get off Twitter and get onto a blog, or Medium, or something — any venue that allows extended prose sequences and therefore full-blown syntaxis. Of course, in other contexts, Twitter — with its enforcement of linguistic and argumentative simplicity, its encouragement of unsequenced and disconnected thoughts — might be just the thing you need. If you want to be President of the United States, for example.

Stay tuned for a follow-up to this post.

a technological tale for Reformation Day

What I have been calling the technological history of modernity is in part a story about the power of recognizing how certain technologies work — and the penalties imposed on those who fail to grasp their logic.

In his early book Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt tells a story:

In 1531 a lawyer named James Bainham, son of a Gloucestershire knight, was accused of heresy, arrested, and taken from the Middle Temple to Lord Chancellor More’s house in Chelsea, where he was detained while More tried to persuade him to abjure his Protestant beliefs. The failure of this attempt called forth sterner measures until, after torture and the threat of execution, Bainham finally did abjure, paying a £20 fine to the king and standing as a penitent before the priest during the Sunday sermon at Paul’s Cross. But scarcely a month after his release, according to John Foxe, Bainham regretted his abjuration “and was never quiet in mind and conscience until the time he had uttered his fall to all his acquaintance, and asked God and all the world forgiveness, before the congregation in those days, in a warehouse in Bow lane.” On the following Sunday, Bainham came openly to Saint Austin’s church, stood up “with the New Testament in his hand in English and the Obedience of a Christian Man [by Tyndale] in his bosom,” and, weeping, declared to the congregants that he had denied God. He prayed the people to forgive him, exhorted them to beware his own weakness to die rather than to do as he had done, “for he would not feel such a hell again as he did feel, for all the world’s good.” He was, of course, signing his own death warrant, which he sealed with letters to the bishop of London and others. He was promptly arrested and, after reexamination, burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic.

When Bainham was first interrogated by More, he told the Lord Chancellor that “The truth of holy Scripture was never, these eight hundred years past, so plainly and expressly declared unto the people, as it hath been within these six years” — the six years since the printing of Tyndale’s New Testament in 1525.

The very presence of this book was, to ecclesial traditionalists, clearly the essential problem. So back in 1529 Thomas More and his friend Cuthbert Tunstall, then Bishop of London, had crossed the English Channel to Antwerp, where Tyndale’s translation was printed. (Its printing and sale were of course forbidden in England.) More and Tunstall searched high and low, bought every copy of the translation they could find, and burned them all in a great bonfire.

Tyndale gladly received this as a boon: he had already come to recognize that his first version of the New Testament had many errors, and he used the money received from More and Tunstall to hasten his work on completing and publishing a revision, which duly appeared in 1534.

the future of the codex Bible

Catching up on a topic dear to my heart: here’s a fine essay in Comment by J. Mark Bertrand on printed and digital Bibles. A key passage:

Pastors and scholars rely heavily on software like BibleWorks and Accordance, and laypeople in church are more likely to open Bible apps on their phones than to carry printed editions. The days are coming and may already be upon us when parishioners look askance at sermons not preached from an iPad. (“But aren’t you missional?”)

And yet, the printed Bible is not under threat. If anything the advent of e-books has ushered in a renaissance of sorts for the physical form of the Good Book. The fulfillment of the hypertext dream by digital Bibles has cleared the way for printed Bibles to pursue other ends. The most exciting reinvention of the printed Scriptures is the so-called reader’s Bible, a print edition designed from the ground up not as a reference work but as a book for deep, immersive reading.

Please read it all. And then turn to Bertrand’s Bible Design Blog, where he has recently reflected further on the same issues, and written a few detailed posts — one and two and three — on the new Crossway Reader’s Bible, in six beautifully printed and bound volumes. I got my copies the other day, and they really do constitute a remarkable feat of workmanship and design. You can read, and view, more about the project here.

I would love to say more about all this — and other matters dear to the heart of this ol’ blog — but I am still devoting most of my time to work on two books, one on Christian intellectual life in World War II and one called How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed. Those will be keeping my mind occupied for the next few months. When I am able to post here, the posts will likely do little more than point to interesting things elsewhere.

books on The Good Book

The Wall Street Journal commissioned this review but in the end didn’t find space for it. Which is cool, because they paid me for it anyway. I offer it here gratis, for your reading pleasure. 

One of the first attempts to account for literature in terms of evolutionary psychology was provided by Stephen Pinker, in his 1998 book How the Mind Works. There he suggested that “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.” Take Hamlet for example: “What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?”

This was perhaps a rather wooden and literal-minded example, and Pinker has received some hearty ribbing for perpetrating it, so one might expect that more recent entries in the genre have grown more sophisticated. But not so much.

The difficulties start with what ev-psych critics think a story is. They think a book is a kind of machine for solving problems of survival or flourishing, sort of like a wheel or a hammer except made with words rather than wood or rock. Thus Carel von Schaik and Kai Michel (hereafter S&M) in The Good Book of Human Nature: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible: “We know how humans evolved over the last 2 million years and how and to what degree the prehistoric environment shaped the human psyche…. We can therefore reconstruct the problems the Bible was trying to solve.” Leaving aside the rather significant question of how much “we” actually do know about human prehistory and its role in forming our brains, one might still ask whether the Bible is a problem-solving device. But this is one of the governing assumptions of S&M’s book and no alternatives to this assumption are ever considered.

The Good Book of Human Nature is governed by a few other assumptions too. One is that the turning point in human development was what Jared Diamond called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”: trading in a hunter-gatherer life for a sedentary agricultural life. Another is that humans possess three “natures” that are related to this transition: first, “innate feelings, reactions, and preferences” that predate the transition; second, a cultural nature, based on strategies for dealing with the problems that arose from assuming a sedentary life; and third, “our rational side,” which is based on consciously held beliefs.

These assumptions in turn generate a theory of religion, which is basically that religion is a complex strategy for keeping the three natures in some degree of non-disabling relation to one another. And when, equipped with these assumptions and this theory, S&M turn their attention to the Bible — again, conceived as a problem-solving device — it turns out that the Bible confirms their theory at every point. Previous interpreters of the Bible, S&M note, have never come to any agreement about what it means, but they have discovered what it’s “really about,” what its “actual subject really is”: “the adoption of a sedentary way of life.” They do not say whether they expect to put an end to interpretative disagreement. Perhaps modesty forbade.

Thus armed, S&M get to work. The patriarchal narratives illustrate and teach responses to “the problems created by patriarchal families,” and formulate an “expansion strategy” in relation to said problems. The portions of Scripture known in Judaism as the Writings — Ketuvim, including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job and so on — collectively embody an IAR (immunization against refutation) strategy. The prophets, including the New Testament’s accounts of the life of Jesus? All about CREDs (credibility-enhancing displays).

If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. To me, a little of it goes a very long way — and this Good Book offers 450 pages of it, which is like a two-finger piano exercise that lasts seven hours. My complaint is the opposite of that put forth by the Emperor in Amadeus: Too few notes, I say. Played too many times.

Is it really likely that this enormously divergent collection of writings we call the Bible has a single “subject”? That the heartfelt outpourings of the Psalms and the lamentations of Job amount to a “strategy”? Moreover, given that the conditions of production that S&M think relevant — the shift from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists — happened all over the world, the account they give here should be the same were they working on any surviving writings from the same era. Which means that their book on Homer and Hesiod and Sappho would say mostly the same things this book says.

This is what happens when you confine your reading to a few highly general principles of “human history” and “human social development”: all the particularity, and therefore all the interest, drains from the world. S&M may have encountered some interesting residual phenomena from the sedentarization of homo sapiens. What they have not encountered is the Bible.

After all this, I turned with some relief to A. N. Wilson’s The Book of the People, not because I expected to agree with it, but because I expected it to involve something clearly recognizable to me as reading. But I did not get quite what I thought I would.

The material of Wilson’s book arises largely from conversations with a person known only by the single initial “L.” Wilson unaccountably extends this peculiar naming convention to everyone else in the book, including his wife and daughters and an English journalist (“H.”) living in Washington who once wrote for a number of London periodicals, smoked and drank a lot, and ultimately died of throat cancer. (Couldn’t we at least call him Hitch?) But in the case of L. there seems to be good reason for this limited form of identification.

Wilson met L. when he was an undergraduate and she a graduate student at Oxford. Wilson very gradually discloses details about her over the course of the book: that she was very tall and wore thick glasses; that she was a Presbyterian; that she was a disciple of the great Canadian literary scholar Northrop Frye; that she had a lifelong history of mental illness, which may have contributed to an irregular work history and a preference for moving frequently; and, above all, that she planned to write a book about the Bible.

Wilson studied theology at one point, and considered enterting the priesthood, but later became thoroughly disillusioned by Christianity and by religion in general, going so far as to write a pamphlet called Against Religion (1991). But almost as soon as he had written it he began to have reservations — “I am in fact one of life’s wishy-washies,” he confesses at one point — and eventually returned to belief, as L. had prophesied he would. L. told him that he could only come to the truth about God and the Bible after rejecting falsehoods about it, chief among those falsehoods being the two varieties of fundamentalism: theistic and atheistic.

As Wilson travels through life — and travels around the world: much of this book involves descriptions of apparently delightful journeys to romantic or historic places — he keeps thinking about the Bible, and when he does he also thinks of L. They correspond; they meet from time to time. Typically she has moved to another place and has added to her notes on her Bible book, though she never gets around to writing it. Eventually we learn that she has died. Wilson manages to get to her funeral, at an Anglo-Catholic convent in Wiltshire, and receives from the nuns there a packet containing her jottings. “It is from these notes that the present book is constructed. This is L.’s book as much as mine.”

So what does Wilson learn from L. about the Bible? It is hard to say. To give one example of his method: at one point he muses that L. must have in some sense patterned herself on Simone Weil, the great French mystic who died in 1943, which reminds him that Weil had been brought to Christian faith largely by her encounter with the poetry of the 17th-century Anglican George Herbert. This leads him to quote some of Herbert’s poems, and to note their debt to the Psalms, which in turn leads him to think about how the Psalms are used in the Gospels, which, in the last link of this particular literary chain, leads him to wonder whether the story of the Crucifixion is but poetry, a “literary construct.” A question which he does not answer: instead he turns to an account of L.’s funeral.

That’s how this book goes: it consists of a series of looping anecdotal flights that occasionally touch down and look at the Bible for a moment, before being spooked by something and lifting off again. There is at least as much about traveling to Ghent to see Van Eyck’s great altarpiece, and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall in Istanbul with Hagia Sophia looming portentously in the background, and meeting L. in coffeeshops, as about the Bible itself.

If there is any definitive lesson Wilson wishes us to learn from all this, it is the aforementioned folly of fundamentalism. At several points he recalls his own forays into the “historical Jesus” quests and dismisses them as pointless: none of the rock-hard evidence believers seek will ever be found, nor will unbelievers be able to find conclusive reason to dismiss the accounts the Gospels give of this peculiar and extraordinary figure.

At this point we should reflect on that literary device of using initials rather than names. More than once Wilson calls to our attention the view widely held among biblical scholars that the texts we have are composites of earlier and unknown texts: thus the “Documentary Hypothesis” about the Pentateuch, with its four authors (J, E, D, and P), and the posited source (in German Quelle) for the synoptic Gospels, Q. In light of all this we cannot be surprised when, late in the book, Wilson confesses that L. is herself a “composite figure,” one he “felt free to mythologize.”

Is he simply saying that we’re all just storytellers, that it’s mythologizing all the way down, no firm floor of fact to be discovered? If so, then while The Book of the People may in some sense live up to its subtitle — How to Read the Bible — it certainly does not tell us, any more than S&M did, why we should bother with this strange and often infuriating book.

I find it hard not to see both The Good Book of Human Nature and The Book of the People as complicated attempts to avoid encountering the Bible on its own terms, in light of its own claims for itself and for its God. I keep thinking that what Kierkegaard said about “Christian scholarship” is relevant to these contemporary versions of reading: “We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose.”