Category Archives: Recommendations

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Patristics, Recommendations

A Great Book You’ve Never Heard of

When I was growing up, my dad had a huge tome with a mysterious title stuck among the “big kids” children’s books that were just barely too old for us. Eventually I did tackle the big book, and found a whole new world opening before me.

Our edition was called Dickon of the Lenni Lenape.

(The original 1938 edition was called Dickon among the Indians. It’s now available on Kindle and in paperback, and being called The Indians of New Jersey: Dickon among the Lenape, by Professor Mark Harrington. It’s a little pricey, but the gorgeous drawings are there, and the book is otherwise unobtainium.)

Basically, it’s a fictional version of a capture narrative. It was very common for people who survived being captured by Indians to write down the story of their experience, and to include a lot of anthropological information as part of the story. Professor M.R. Harrington, an anthropology guy, just decided to present his Lenape collection of legend and lore with the capture narrative as a frame.

In this case, Dickon is a kid who gets shipwrecked in New Jersey’s wild wilderness. The Lenape (often called Delaware) capture him, mistreat him for a bit, and then decide that they should let a childless old woman adopt him, in order to provide her with a servant. But since Dickon is a kid who is brave and quick to learn, most of the tribe gradually starts treating him like a Lenape. (Which is not unrealistic, depending on the tribe.) He makes friends, gets sent on a spirit journey, and learns the skills of a Lenape man. (And since this is being written by an anthropologist, of course Dickon finds out quite a bit about the women’s way of life too, courtesy of working for his old lady “mother.”) There’s even a little touch of teenage romance.

There is a lot of survival knowledge presented in this book, too. (Albeit there may be better ways to do some of these things; but what’s presented is is the Lenape way of the period.)

Kids love this book. Some teachers in New Jersey used to read it to their fourth graders, apparently. But it’s good for adults too. You will learn a lot, and it’s great for knowing how Algonkian/Woodland tribes lived. If you read about other Woodland tribes or about the Lenape in other places and times, this will give you a wonderful foundation, so you’ll know what the heck people are talking about.

Now, here’s the amazing part. There’s a sequel! I never knew there was a sequel!

The Iroquois Trail: Dickon among the Onondagas and Seneca by Professor M. R. Harrington brings Dickon back, on a quest to find his Lenape brother, Little Bear, who has been captured and carried off by a raiding party. Yup, it’s those darned Iroquois Confederacy guys. (The seven tribes of the Confederacy basically tried to take over all the European fur trade, on the provider side, by killing or driving out all the tribes that lived in the Northeast, from the coast to Ohio and Kentucky. They tended to do a lot of long-term torture and had other unlovely attitudes toward outsiders, so you can see where they don’t have a good rep with other tribes. Having a great system of government doesn’t really show in the day to day experience of people with them.) They spoke languages that weren’t related much to Algonkian; their closest “relatives” were the Dakota/Sioux out west. They also had totally different lifeways and beliefs, but incorporated a lot of the “Mississippian” stuff that had come north from Mexico, and which was also seen in ancient Cahokia, and down south among the Creeks and other tribes.

I haven’t read this book, but I expect that it is also amazing. The Confederacy was not all bad, after all, and they were a great inspiration to early American writers. Iroquois people have done some great stuff since they accepted Christianity and gave up all the torture magic. But I suspect that just as the characters will now be older teenagers or adults, the age for reading this book will have to be older too.

Lenape, Onondaga, and Seneca stores online sell these books with pride. So it’s not just me recommending them!

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Recommendations

Space Trucker Bruce: Possibly the Best SF Movie I’ve Seen All Year

Space Trucker Bruce, an indie movie filmed mostly inside the house of a guy who lives in Juneau, is currently available on Amazon Prime. It’s also on YouTube (courtesy of the filmmaker himself).

This 2014 movie cost all of $10,000 to make.

It is awesome. It has a few pacing problems and the comedy parts could be tightened, but it is awe-inspiring all the same.

Basically, it’s a hard sf story about a space trucker (Bruce, played by Karl Sears), who rescues a space newbie (Max, played by filmmaker Anton Doiron) whose ship ran into distress. They’re both on their way to Titan Station, with about a month to go. Neither of them are entirely on an even keel, thanks to various stresses. Still, they get along okay. So  it seems like boredom will be their only problem, but the universe has some surprises in store.

But it’s also a very strange comedy. (And pretty clean comedy, all things considered. I’m not saying you should let your eight-year-old watch it, but it’s a lot more PG than most PG flicks these days.) And when I say strange, I’m looking at you, Mr. Sour Cream.

There’s some pretty darned decent sets and special effects, mostly because the filmmakers knew their limitations and worked with them. There are also some neat worldbuilding bits and hard sf moments. There are some bits that go on a bit long, but stick with it. The good bits of the movie outshine any mediocre parts.

And did I mention hard sf? There were some bits in here that really work well, but never seem to make it to the big screen in Hollywood. The worldbuilding is interesting, because it rings pretty true to human nature.

The amazing part is how you do get sucked into this future world by the end of the movie.

Although I’m still a bit worried by Mr. Sour Cream.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cartoons/Animation/Video, Recommendations

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

The time is the 1970’s. A young man is getting out of prison, with nowhere to go. But he does have a desperate plan. So he goes to the theater door of a man he saw perform only once before – at the prison – and pleads to become his apprentice in the art of rakugo.

Rakugo is usually described as a form of Japanese comedy. As this show points out early, that’s not entirely true. It’s more a blend of storytelling and acting, where the storyteller takes on all the parts. It is now regarded as high culture and performed in theaters, but it started out as just storytellers in the marketplace, sitting on mats. So the storyteller doesn’t take up much space or move around a lot, but he strives to create a whole world. Many of the stories are funny, but there’s also a tradition of scary stories.

So it’s an audacious career idea for a young man who’s totally inexperienced, but it’s not impossible. The master storyteller renames him “Yotaro” (an old-fashioned expression for “fool” that apparently shows up a lot in rakugo), but he accepts him as an apprentice. Yotaro turns out to be a hard worker and to have a good heart, and he openly supports the people around him. One of these is Konatsu, raised as a daughter of the house but actually the orphaned daughter of a famed rakugo storyteller. Although once it was just not done for women to do rakugo, Yotaro straightforwardly recognizes her skill and learns from her, while also asking the master to make her an apprentice too.

But it won’t all be that easy for Yotaro. His past follows him and causes him trouble, just as their pasts follow his master and his sempai, Konatsu. Somehow, they must reconcile the past while finding their own paths into the future. Because the problem with a traditional artform is that it has to stay enthralling to audiences in order to survive….

Visually, this show is gorgeous, albeit done in muted tones. The voice acting is also tremendous. (I’m pretty sure that the guy who plays Nyanta in Log Horizon is playing one of the small parts.) But even though it’s a “cultural” show, it’s not inaccessible to us Westerners; and it’s interesting that the anime art seems to be pointing out the debt that anime owes to traditional Japanese storytellers as well as to Japanese drama conventions. (As apparently the josei manga it’s based on was doing for manga art.) It will also be very interesting for anyone who’s ever performed in public, because it catches that feel very well. But as is fitting for a show about storytelling, it’s just a darned good story!

Episodes of this show are 47 minutes long, so you get a full drama-length TV show every week. That’s needed, because each episode apparently covers a lot of ground!

I recommend this show. Like Yotaro, it has a good heart.

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju* is available on Crunchyroll. The first ep will be available to non-subscribers (free with commercials) starting next Friday.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cartoons/Animation/Video, Recommendations

Allan Drury EBOOKS!

Thanks to Baen Books, you can now buy a $7.99 ebook of Allan Drury’s greatest novel of American politics, Advise and Consent. Based on real events in the Senate during WWII, but timeshifted into the Fifties, this is the story of men and women who love America, work hard for her, but have very different ideas about her. How far can a president go in pursuit of his goals? How far can the Legislative Branch push back? Is it fair for people to consider your past when you’re considered for a job in the present? And what do you do if you are blackmailed about your deepest secrets?

Advise and Consent. It’s been unobtainium for years! If you’ve never read it, read it now.

Here it is at Baen, and here it is on Amazon. You might also keep an eye out for the acclaimed movie. Drury’s nonfiction book Senate Diary lets you know the true-life version; though of course those people are not the same people as in the novel, and don’t live in the same world.

Keep an eye out for further ebooks. Advise and Consent is the first of a long series about these characters. It turns into sf and alternate worlds along the way, even without deserting the world of political fiction, so Baen isn’t cheating on its basic mission!

If you would like some standalone fun, Baen also has Decision (his big Supreme Court novel) and Mark Coffin, U.S.S. (a novel about a junior US senator). Those ebooks haven’t been posted on Amazon yet. They’re also $7.99. Not superduper classics, but Drury novels are always fun and interesting reads. (Here’s Decision on Amazon, and here’s Mark Coffin, U.S.S. on Amazon.)

If you know you’re going to want all three Drurys and you also want some sf, check out this month’s Wordfire Press Bundle for only $37.94. Beside the Drurys, you’ll also get some Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, and Kevin Anderson. Not my favorite writers personally, but obviously all very solid.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Recommendations

Liz Shaw from Dr Who — Audiobook Bible! Free!

Liz Shaw, the iconic no-nonsense UNIT scientific adviser who worked with the Third Doctor on Dr Who, was played by Caroline John, a very good actress with a very good voice. I’ve always been sorry we haven’t seen more of her work over here.

Now, in an amazing project for charity, Caroline John has recorded a complete audiobook version of the Gospel of Mark, and a good chunk of the Gospel of Matthew (currently, Chapters 1-11 have been posted). I think it’s the King James version; and it was professionally recorded over in London.

The Lambs Audio Bible is being put together by longtime US Dr Who fan Jeri Massi, who has been running the Conference of the Lambs, a group for documenting abuse of members of independent Fundamentalist churches (mostly a small denomination called IFB), and helping the survivors heal. The idea here is that people have sometimes been misled by selective quoting of the Gospels, and that hearing them as a whole will help people reorient themselves.

But anybody can use this. It’s free to download and may be freely distributed, too. (Details on the first chapter of Mark.)

Oh, such a lovely English voice. Even if you’re not religious or Christian, this is a real treat for any audiobook listener or Who fan. Obviously, Caroline John should be hired immediately by audiobook companies everywhere.

Here’s a Facebook page for just the Gospel of Mark.

Caroline John has also read bits of scripture previously for various series of talks on Jeri’s podcast All of Grace. (About which I don’t know much, and obviously Jeri’s theology isn’t Catholic; but there you are.)

UPDATE: See comment below from Jeri Massi. Apparently three out of the four Gospels were finished and are good, but the Gospel of John had audio problems. So posting is ongoing, but production is at the Argh! What to do?!? stage.

3 Comments

Filed under fandom, Recommendations

Review: The Honorable Marksley, by Sherry Lynn Ferguson

The first question one must answer in reviewing any book, in these benighted days, is whether the prose is readable. I am glad to tell you that Ferguson’s prose is not just acceptable, but pleasant. Since this is a historical romance, one then passes to the question of its credibility. Do these people talk and think in a way compatible with their time period, or are they making the reader’s eyes roll too much for comfortable perusal of the text? Again, I am glad to report that Ferguson’s characters are not jarring.

This taken care of, what about the novel? The Honorable Marksley is disappointing. Not because it’s a bad book; because it ought to be better.

It presents us with a hero who founded a literary journal and a heroine who writes good poetry — under a male pseudonym and a veil of mystery. It also presents us with a heroine’s family that is determined to see her wed to the man who didn’t compromise her, and a hero’s family that constantly relies on him to pull them out of the fire. Misunderstandings occur from the start and continue, and eventually there’s a happy ending. So far, pretty good.

The problem is that Ferguson seems undecided as to whether she is writing a sprightly romance to make the reader laugh, a good old Heyeresque story with plenty of comedy and angst and a few Gothic touches, a tale that focuses on the heroine’s male pseudonym and flirts with being queer in the modern or academic sense, or a serious short novel about two interesting characters. So the book constantly wriggles shapelessly and awkwardly, never totally committing to anything. There are a few scenes which are totally realized, unifying theme, characters and plot. But the others just flail about, wasting their force.

There is also a great deal of time wasted on characters thinking about their plight, which might have been spent having things happen. Many minor characters were introduced, developed, given plot hooks — and then never seen again. The heroine apparently was quite proactive before the book began, but you couldn’t tell that from what happened during the book. At least one pivotal scene (for the hero) occurred offstage. In fact, just when you thought the heroine was going to get us in on it, the writer struck the heroine unconscious. (This is not necessarily a flaw in a Regency, given the literary conventions of the 1800’s. But those literary conventions demand that the reader be let in later, and we never really are.)

Finally, the ending line was more than a tad creepy. I hate to have to point this out, but one reads a romance between two heterosexual persons with the expectation that the ending will have them engaging in heterosexual behavior together. “I didn’t show any of this in the novel, but now I want to make sure that the heroine knows that the hero would have kissed her even if she’d been a homosexual man”? No. That’s not a good ending.

On the good side, the game of quoting poetry was nicely done. The writer managed the difficult feat of providing someone who’s supposed to be a really good poet with enough solid poetic lines to make her status believable. The literary journal idea was also carried out well. The minor character Archibald Cavendish was realistically appalling in the quote scene. (Though I was disappointed in his later appearances.) Whenever the writer quit being so self-conscious or over-explanatory and let her characters speak for themselves, they were quite interesting.

What I would like to have seen was more plot, more letters from “Mr. Beecham” to help with plot structure, and revelations that didn’t require dishonorable behavior from a character supposed to be defined by honor. In fact, I’d think Ferguson would have leaned on the concept of honor in this book: fiduciary, literary, family, military. There’s a rich vein there left unmined, which might have helped plot construction no end. If both “Mr. Beecham” the poet and Hallie the lady were accused of dishonorable behavior, shouldn’t they both have been trying harder to clear their names? With a fishy poet and an impressionable poetry-loving girl around, shouldn’t plagiarism have happened, or a medieval poem been faked? And oh, it would have been awesome if “Mr. Beecham” had been called out! But I don’t insist on any specifics. The same plot could have worked better, given a little more unification or a better editor.

Finally, one minor nitpick: there was no “linguist” (in the linguistics sense) in England just after Napoleon. I don’t think there were any professors of etymology, either, although certainly it was a field of study. But the word back then was “philologist”, and etymology just one part of “philology”. (I would not make so big a point of this, had the author not named her minor character of this profession “Partridge” and based him on the author of Lavengro. If she knew that much, she should have known more. She also should have let us spend some time with the man, instead of inventing him, dangling him before us, making us wait for him to arrive — and then making us miss out on every bit of drama in which he participates! What a waste!)

None of this is crippling, oddly enough. Ferguson is still better than 80% of the Regency writers one encounters. But I do expect better from her. She is capable of it. When she provides something that’s more unified, I’m sure readers will respond with joy — and money.

A brief search reveals that Ferguson’s previous books were: Headline Romance, Raise a Tiger, and The Other Brother. The first two were contemporary romances, I believe. She doesn’t seem to have a website.

Leave a comment

Filed under Recommendations