Some Authors Should Not Read Their Own Audiobooks

I checked out an audiobook from my local library: Lafayette and the Somewhat United States, by one Sarah Vowell.

She allegedly works for radio.

She does not have a voice for radio.

I make allowances for the Northern Cities dialect, as heard by someone like myself, who speaks Midlands and hears a lot of Southern accents. I really do make allowances. There are plenty of people who are from New York or Chicago or Milwaukee who use their accent and vocal qualities pleasantly.

So trust me when I say that this woman has the whiniest, most annoying voice I have ever heard. When she’s not whining, she sounds flat, but in a whiny way.

Her voice also has that weird little girl quality, which can be a handicap to a middle-aged woman. Most people I’ve met who have that vocal quality strive to have a pleasant and perky personality.  This person is trying to sound snarky and funny. Unfortunately, she sounds like a Halloween movie about evil dolls.

The audiobook publishers really did their best. They had actors read all the quotes. They’ve got a yummy French voice for Lafayette, a Southern voice for Jefferson, etc. But the other actors are so good, or at least so reasonably pleasant, that they make Miss Whiny sound even worse.

Listen to a voice sample on Audible. (This section is actually not as bad as the beginning chapter, to which I briefly subjected myself.)

I can listen to some pretty crappy narrators. Material and storytelling ability can overcome vocal problems or awkwardness.

What makes this audiobook so special is that she calls the Fathers of Our Country “terrorists.”

In the first paragraph or so. And she is proud enough to do it in her own whiny voice. Ugggggh.

On the dark side, my taxpayer money paid for this piece of library audiobook crap. But on the bright side, it was on Overdrive; so the county library system is only renting the crap temporarily. Someday, it will be gone!

There’s a better, recent biography out there: The Marquis, by Laura Auricchio.

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By the Bones of St. Nicholas!

Back in the day, the Greek colony of Myra was a prosperous port town in Asia Minor, at the mouth of the Myros River. The town stretched along the river for quite a ways. There were some suburbs further from the sea and the river, but they were unimportant.

Somewhere around Emperor Constantine’s time, it had a bishop named “Nicholas” who was famed for generosity. Sailors made him their patron, and they made pilgrimages to his basilica in the main town, close to the harbor. There were also legends of how St. Nicholas saved young boys and maidens from terrible fates. As time went on, his feast day, December 6, became the focus of some fun things for kids in the midst of that time of pre-Christmas fasting, Advent.

In the early Middle Ages, the port silted up. Then there was a huge river flood which buried the riverside parts of the town in silt and mud. The basilica was dug out again, but most of the town was abandoned. (What remained, in the high rocks around the old harbor, was renamed Andriake.) The people who stuck around moved to the suburbs, which became the rural farming town of Myra. Another shrine church was built for St. Nicholas in the new town, and his bones were moved there.

And then… there was another flood, an earthquake with a river tsunami. The old Myra, including the basilica, was buried twenty feet deep in goo. Farmers eventually made their fields over the roofs of a great ancient city.

It was about this time that the Turks invaded. A bunch of worried sailors from Bari, Italy showed up and stole the more solid bones of St. Nicholas, taking them home to preserve them from the Muslim Turks, but leaving behind the smaller bone fragments so as not to be greedy. A new shrine church was built at Bari, but was made defensible for use as a fortress against the fleets of the Ottoman Empire. A

s is true of many Eastern saints and quite a few Western ones, St. Nicholas’ bones are said to exude a myrrh-like substance. In St. Nicholas’ case, it consists of a transparent water condensate with a sweet smell, which the Italians call “manna.” (Which is fitting, because of course that’s Hebrew for “What is it?”) On the feast day of his bones’ arrival in Bari, St. Nicholas’ casket is opened in the presence of many dignitaries, the liquid is collected, and (after dilution with normal water), it is given out in vials to the faithful who need healing.

A few years after Bari built their church, a bunch of Venetian sailors showed up in Myra and attempted to steal the bones of St. Nicholas by threatening to kill everyone, but apparently got the bones of a later Nicholas — St. Nicholas of Sion, bishop of Pinara, who was a local monk in Emperor Justinian’s time — as well as a few other sets of local bones from nice-looking sepulchres in the church, like those of St. Nicholas of Sion’s uncle. But they also took the bone fragments that they had initially rejected as obviously not St. Nicholas’ bones. Just in case. Back home in Venice, though, the local hierarchy realized that the bone fragments were indeed the most valuable of the relics, and they enshrined them. The other sets of bones seem to have been entombed honorably, but of course there’s no telling which one is who.

Venetians. What you gonna do?

So there’s a church of St. Nicholas in Venice, too — San Nicolo al Lido. It’s from this church where the Doge used to sail for Venice’s “Wedding with the Sea” ceremony. The Venetians say their bone fragments also exude “manna.”

Myra still had other, non-bone relics of their great saint, so they weren’t totally deprived while under the Ottoman Empire’s Muslim rule. But they stopped being a pilgrimage spot — not that anybody was going to travel there much during a time of Mediterranean Muslim piracy, of course. But yup, this is One Of Those Things that is a grievance between East and West.

(Although there was also a lot of relic-stealing and royal appropriation in the East by folks of various Eastern churches. But this you don’t hear much about.)

The new Myra remained a Greek Christian town until the twentieth century, when Turkey expelled all Greek Christians to Greece. A new population of Turkish farmers moved into the existing town, taking over the locals’ buildings and farms. The current name of the new Myra is “Demre.”

The Turkish government and local organizations from Demre (“The Santa Claus Peace Council,” run by local Muslim boosters such as the Muslim guy who has the keys to the church) have periodically pressured Italy and the Vatican to have the bones of St. Nicholas repatriated from Bari. But since it’s still a Muslim country, and since only a tiny number of Orthodox Christians have been allowed to move into Myra and have very occasional Masses at the shrine, nobody is very interested in depriving Bari of St. Nick.

OTOH, the rivalry between Venice and Bari came to a surprise ending in the twentieth century, when it was discovered and confirmed by various tests that the bones and bone fragments all belonged to the same guy.

Over the last decade or so, archaeologists have been digging out the buried city of Myra, focusing on the old basilica. The archaeologists recently sent out a press release, announcing that with ground-penetrating radar, they have found the area which was once St. Nicholas’ shrine. Good job!

However, they have allegedly announced that they have found St. Nicholas’ bones, which seems… unlikely.

Probably what they have is yet another set of local bones in a nice sarcophagus, probably of some local dignitary who wanted to be buried close to St. Nicholas. When the locals deconsecrated the church, they didn’t deconsecrate the crypt burial areas; so they didn’t feel the need to pull out every set of sarcophagi and bones.

In fact, Turkish archaeologists didn’t even announce what the newspeople are saying they announced. All they said was that they found a crypt under the old Byzantine basilica floor in the old Myra, and that they want to get in there carefully, without damaging the mosaics on the floor. Everything else they said was labeled as pure speculation. So once again, you can’t believe what you read without checking a lot of other sources.

The situation is complicated further, because although some Muslim sects (like the Wahhabist Sunni of Saudi Arabia) think that the graves of saintly people should be destroyed as a distraction from Islam, a lot of other Sunni and Shia Muslims believe that graves of saintly people should be visited and given honor. And mosques, because obviously anybody saintly who wasn’t a Muslim must have really been a Muslim anyway. Further, some sects are totally okay with sharing a holy site with Jews and Christians, but the general tendency is to stop Jews and Christians from getting anywhere near the graves of patriarchs and saints that are revered by Muslims.

So with the “Santa Claus Peace Council,” the locals in Demre and in their province of Antalya have a big plan to make a new development, the Santa Claus Peace Village, where people of all nationalities and religions can live in peace and honor St. Nicholas. And this is where they wanted St. Nicholas’ bones to be put. But in today’s atmosphere of Muslim radicalism and Erdogan’s anti-everything, this is an extremely idealistic plan.

The group also gives out an annual “Santa Claus Peace Prize” (actually, “Noel Baba”, which is the equivalent of the French “Papa Noel”) with a highly unusual list of recipients. (The Google Translate version of Sr. Jeanine Gramick’s speech is interesting, to say the least….)

The other dumb thing that media people are saying is that “Ooh, don’t tell the kids that Santa Claus is dead!”

Well, I admit that this is a hazard if your kids aren’t from a tradition that believes in the souls of saints being alive and active in the Body of Christ, and perfectly capable of performing infinite amounts of miracles and good deeds from beyond the grave. (Which is why the stuff about Santa being a Time Lord or a jolly elf is supposed to be a joke, not an explanation.) But most Catholic and Orthodox kids are perfectly aware that Santa has bones, and that said bones are in a specific church in Italy. Even the Orthodox celebrate the translation of his bones to Bari as a feast day. “St. Nicholas’ bones!” was a pretty common medieval way to cuss.

But since St. Nicholas never married in any of his legends, Mrs. Santa Claus is Right Out.

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Ornery Saints Vs. Ornery Popes

If you read a lot of Church history, you notice that popes were usually respected by the saints, and their maintenance of good doctrine was praised to the skies. But on temporal matters, or at times when good doctrine was in danger?

Well, let’s just say that a lot of saints quoted St. Paul, and “withstood Peter to his face.”

One of the more unusual examples of an ornery saint was St. Clare of Assisi. Sweet, gentle, kindly, and a big pope fan. When Princess Agnes of Bohemia wanted to join the Poor Clares and live their rule, the deceased St. Francis’ old friend Cardinal Ugolino had become Pope Gregory IX, and he was a friend of St. Clare, too.  So the princess consulted the pope… who told her to become a Benedictine instead.

St. Clare wrote a very nice, very pretty, very heartfelt letter to Princess Agnes… telling her not to let anyone stand in the way of her vocation to the Franciscan life. Anyone. And if you need advice from a guy, write Brother Elias — who was then the head of the Franciscan order — and obey him.

Clare never explicitly says, “Don’t obey the pope in this, because it’s none of his business,” but that was the strongly implied gist. (And heck, St. Clare had already disobeyed her parents and her entire family when they overreached their authority over her.)

Medieval Catholics had a very strong sense of obedience to superiors, as far as their right to command extended. But right after that point, they had no hesitation telling their superiors where to go.

Now, there are a lot of saints out there who did obey their superiors on matters that weren’t their superiors’ business. But it was their choice to obey, as a form of ascetic mortification. And usually it was the superiors who were being taught and tried by it.

In all times that the popes have lived in Rome, the Roman people have regarded it as their special task to let the popes know if they are messing up. Their attitude is reverential in regards to papal liturgies and processions, but they have always reserved the right to talk about the popes however they feel like, and to talk to them with great freedom, including anonymous nasty poems and drawings, and even the odd riot. He is their bishop, after all, and they know they should be able to talk freely to their spiritual father, no matter how much drama it takes.

Many of the popes have not particularly appreciated this. But Pope John Paul II acknowledged it in a sidelong way, when he ostensibly asked for them to correct his dialectal grammar, but actually talked about them correcting him. But then, he was too savvy to fight against the sensus fidelium of his own local flock.

Which brings us to the recent correctio filialis. Of course priests and bishops have a right to correct Pope Francis, or to ask for him to clarify his words and stop confusing the world on doctrinal matters. They don’t have fewer rights than laypeople on this subject.

In modern life, obeying and supporting the pope in general is still very important. But if the pope is being unfair or not doing a good job, it is — and always has been — the right and duty of good Catholics to let him know.

 

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James Cameron Vs. Patty Jenkins

Apparently there is a Hollywood hissyfit in progress.

James Cameron claimed that the Wonder Woman movie didn’t represent a step forward in the portrayal of heroines, because she was just a beautiful “sex object” wreaking havoc. He then claimed that actually, his Terminator movies were much more of a step forward in the portrayal of women.

Patty Jenkins fired back some stuff about how moody women aren’t more feminist than cheerful ones, and that boys just don’t understand Wonder Woman. She then opined that only women can judge women’s progress. Which was amusing but also pretty stupid. If you’re going to champion the right of women to have every kind of role, surely that means that both sexes of movie viewers have the right to judge said movie roles, if they feel like it.

The problem with Cameron’s self-admiration is that Linda Hamilton in the Terminator movies was essentially playing a noir woman in jeopardy, albeit one with a gun. Long before the Terminator movies, there were plenty of noir, martial arts, and blacksploitation flicks showing women in jeopardy, as well as women fighting back. And of course Linda Hamilton was at least as much of a “sex object” as Gail Gadot. It’s just that Cameron obviously has a thing for girls with guns (which is why he tried so long to make a Battle Angel Alita or Ghost in the Shell movie, and why he made the Dark Angel TV series that merrily ripped off an entire anime subgenre).

Not really caring about this.

That said, both Cameron and the Wonder Woman director, Patty Jenkins, would have done better to point out that their heroines are both part of a very long tradition of worldwide moviemaking. Spunky heroines are not anything newfangled, in either one’s preferred format.

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Our Lady of Walsingham Hymn!

EWTN televised Mass today from the Catholic cathedral at Walsingham, England’s great Marian pilgrimage site. There in 1061, a local noblewoman widow, Richeldis de Saverches, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary instructing her to build the Holy House, a replica of Mary’s childhood home with her parents.

(Yes, right before the Norman Invasion. It’s pretty common for Marian apparitions to occur during or right before wars and other bad stuff, perhaps as a sort of spiritual vitamin.)

This homely site was destroyed by the greed of Henry VIII. But the English still make pilgrimage there, and today is the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham. The Anglican shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is on approximately the site of the old shrine. The Catholic one is at the site of the old “Slipper Chapel” on the outskirts of town, where pilgrims would remove their traveling shoes, so as to approach Mary’s shrine barefoot.

The opening hymn was very striking. It’s sung to the good old hymn tune ELLACOMBE.

Hail Mary, ever blessed,
Of Walsingham the Queen!
Through vision of Richeldis,
Thy favors there were seen.
When England was thy dowry,
There pilgrims bowed the knee.
At morn and noon and even,
They knelt to honor thee.

Hail Mary, ever blessed.
Thy children still delight
To tell abroad thy praises,
Thy miracles, thy might.
Still pilgrim feet are treading
Along the holy way.
Hostess of England’s Nazareth,
Receive us home today!

Hail Mary, ever blessed.
The wells of water pure
Which mark thy holy places
Are signs that God doth cure
For sick of soul and body.
E’er since Richeldis’ day,
They spring in benediction
Beside the Pilgrims’ Way.

Hail Mary, ever blessed.
Thy name is great indeed;
For Jesus Christ our Savior
Was in thy womb conceived.
Thy name be ever prai-sed,
Increasing in this place,
And loud the angel’s greeting:
“Hail Mary, full of grace!”

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Michael Heiser Books

[Previously posted, in somewhat different format, as a comment over at Crossover Queen.]

Michael Heiser is a pretty solid Bible scholar. His POV is that he is trying to understand the Bible solely based on the text while ignoring theological tradition. (Hence the title of his podcast, The Naked Bible Podcast.) Of course, you can’t necessarily do that, so he spends most of his career trying to understand the Bible via archaeological, cultural, and historical info. As for his religious POV, I think he’s some flavor of evangelical.

I really enjoyed his podcast series on the Book of Ezekiel. It gave a very nice explication of the literal sense of the text, along with a lot of secondary cultural material that greatly helped. He also had pictures and articles to download from his site, such as pictures of various archaeological discoveries of “chariot thrones” with angel and wheel supporters, found in countries around Israel.

Anyway, the guy has a couple of books out on supernatural angel-related stuff in the Bible, and comparing it to various Phoenician, Sumerian, etc. materials about the same thing. The Unseen Realms is the first one, and it’s available for free on Kindle Unlimited. Reversing Hermon is his more recent one. I read Unseen Realms too fast and missed some of his more startling/iffy bits, until he quoted them in Reversing Hermon.

The downfall of drawing your own conclusions is that you can be led into things like “Hit the button on the astro software, and decide what must be the Star of Bethlehem!” My older brother is an astronomer, so I’ve seen huge numbers of theories about the Star of Bethlehem. I was not impressed by his “Rosh Hashanah must be the real Christmas!” theory, mostly because I’ve seen a lot of the same astronomical material used as an interesting coincidence with the Virgin Mary’s traditional (East and West agree) birthday in September. His theory is a much better grade of “just suppose,” but interesting and academic doesn’t mean closer to reality.

The basic deal with Reversing Hermon is that a lot of Near/Middle East cultures had this idea that they got civilization skills from seven minor deity/angelic sages (who came from heaven or from the ocean). The sages taught humanity all sorts of things, married human women, and had kids who were human on the outside but minor deities/angels/spirits on the inside. And the same thing was true of their grandkids and so on. All the divine-descended people were taller than regular mortals, stronger, great warriors and sorcerors, etc., and had all the awesome skills that the sages taught. Various folks like Enkidu and Gilgamesh had this background.

But they didn’t live forever, and if you killed them their deity/angel/spirit half took over and became a vengeful spirit, punishing humans and haunting various spooky places. They also had their own realm, “the Great Land,” which was underground under various sacred mountains, the Dead Sea, etc. The Canaanites were very big into this, and very big into appeasing them or getting a specific Baal “Lord of the Dead” to keep them under control, because the giant dead running back and forth from their Great Land were a lot more dangerous than normal human dead people in Sheol.

Heiser shows that a lot of the stuff in the Bible about giants is from the POV of Israel putting a different spin on their neighbors’ stories. The sages were really evil rebel angels. The skills taught by the “sages” included a lot of things that Jewish people saw as inimical to good life and civilization, not foundational to it. Giants were mostly not good guys in life, either; they are people possessed by evil spirits or allowing themselves to be used. God was in the process of defeating the rebel angels, their evil descendants, and the evil Rephaim spirits. Heiser also theorizes in Reversing Hermon that a lot of Jesus’ actions, and His Incarnation, were part of showing humans the truth about the ultimate defeat of said rebel angels, giants, and evil spirits.

I thought the thesis was pretty interesting, and the gathering of sources was, too. Obviously Jesus did have a fair number of agendas going on, and spiritual warfare was clearly one of them. What I objected to was the conclusions and uses he made from the material. There was a lot of stuff that had me rolling my eyes and looking dubious, including the Rosh Hashanah Christmas thing.

And then, when you work your whole book up to “And Catholics totally don’t understand the rock/gates of Hell speech, but my theory won’t give satisfaction as to why Peter gets called Rock,” you are going to make us Catholics start looking like an eye slot machine. (Because there’s always another theory about how we’re wrong, and they’re all different except about how we’re wrong this time.)

Also, a lot of his pointing out that various “mighty men” references could also be giant references (based on some good Septuagint translation weirdness), led up to an assertion that the “gebirah” (great woman) stuff in the history chronicles, and the “valiant woman” stuff in Ruth and Proverbs, was not about Israel and Judah’s kings having their moms act as queen mother councilors or about smart ladies doing cool things, but about giantesses with wicked skills. (Okay, he didn’t come right out and say that, but that’s what I was seeing.) Possibly this was on purpose, possibly it was a consequence of his thesis. But either way, it ended up as an indirect swipe at recent Bible scholarship (mostly by Catholics) about how queen mother gebirah imagery relates to the Virgin Mary, among other Bible ladies. I have read a lot of gebirah research stuff, and other scholars have found that there is tons to relate it to similar stuff in neighboring cultures. It is the sort of thing that Heiser would normally like, or at least want to integrate with the giant interpretation thing. I could think of several ways to do that, on my way to the refrigerator.

So yeah, several places strike me as him having a minor Catholic allergy that is getting in the way of his thinking. Disappointing, but maybe he’ll get over it and come up with some fun stuff in a few years. He does make good use of Catholic scholars like Bergsma, Pitre, Hahn, etc., so he’s not suffering from anything serious.

My real problem is that, by separating Bible studies from doctrine or interpretation, he is basically creating an interpretation that is at odds with Christianity. Pagan ideas about the nature of things like the seven (or nine, or twelve) sages are not just morally wrong; they are factually incorrect. So just because Bob and Tanith Canaanite may have believed in vengeful rephaim ghosts, and some Biblical times Jews may have also believed in them, isn’t it somewhat important to point out that demons are full of BS, and stories about them also tend to be factually incorrect? Doesn’t it seem more like Jesus was striking against the BS, rather than worrying about descendants of giants roaming the earth? The fact that all this kind of lore has become very minor and forgotten would tend to argue that the Church didn’t really want to focus people’s attention on this stuff.

I was also not happy about his podcast interviewing some people going out and doing various kinds of “deliverance ministry” and spiritual warfare based on his books. I mean, you can like a scholar’s work pretty well without being willing to trust your life or your soul to his conclusions! He’s not trying to be a cult leader and I don’t find anything creepy in his work, per se; but there are some kinds of materials that just attract… overly enthusiastic… responses. I don’t know that he’s really taking that into account enough. (To be fair, however, he’s starting some kind of anti-Bible-conspiracy-theories video series soon, so maybe he is thinking about this stuff.)

But as a sourcebook for Near/Middle East mythos material and fiction ideas, The Unseen Realms is good and so is Reversing Hermon. And it is Bible fun, which is always fun to consider. Just don’t take it as Gospel.

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Intermittent Internet Leads to Intermittent Posting

My internet connectivity has been fixed. I am hoping that I can maintain a posting schedule, too!

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