Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Rule of Four

I really wanted to like this book, and in many ways I did.  But I still finished it somewhat disappointed, and--even worse--I felt that while I was reading it.

I think the problem is that this book tries to do too many things at once.  That is its selling point, its victory and its curse.  It screams "We're not just The Da Vinci Code!" and yet on some levels it is, with much better writing and characterization.

But it lacks Dan Brown's (albeit superficial) tension.  There are no cliffhangers.  There's really no suspense.  You don't really care who the villains are--and the characters don't seem to, either.  There's a nice relationship (in fact, the girl deserves better), but I didn't care, except that I felt bad for the girl.

But while I felt bad for her, I realized that it didn't matter, and for God's sake let's get on with it.

If you liked rich-school hijinks, a la 1983's Class (You remember, with Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Jacqueline Bissett and Cliff Robertson?), then you'll like the Princeton antics described here.

But I didn't care.  Just bring on the book, the mystery, the characters, the murders.

If you liked the almost-homoerotic tension between rich schoolboys, a la A Separate Peace, then you'll enjoy that part.  I hated A Separate Peace, and I hated that part of this book.  C'mon, bring on the book, the mystery, etc.

If you liked good writing, you'll like that part.  I do, and I did. But...Does the writing have to be that good for a book like this?  I guess you can have it both ways.  Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose and Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost come to mind. But...the sometimes great sentence seemed superfluous here.  While I was waiting for it to get back to the mystery, I often read a great sentence that shocked me out of the book.  I actually uttered "Wow" a few times, out loud.  But...

Surprisingly, this book was not quite the page-turner I'd heard about.  The word on the street was so high on this one, that maybe my expectations were unfair.  I don't know, but I'm confident that this book would have been much better with all of the Princeton kijinks taken out, as well as least half of the Separate Peace nonsense, and tighten up the mystery and the murders.

On that last point, another problem here is that you don't have time to wonder (or, to even care) who the murderer is.  I mean, there are only two options, and then one of them turns up dead.  Not much of a mystery, really.

The direction of the writing also doesn't let you think about it.  You just go along with it all and wait for it to be shown to you.  It gets buried behind the other stuff.

And so I have to say I liked it, but with reservations.  It ultimately disappointed me, but I acknowledge that it's well-written, though maybe I needed the more base of writings here.  It tries to be both The Name of the Rose and The Da Vinci Code, but somehow doesn't end up being either one--and doesn't even, somehow, fall between the two.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Terminator: Genisys

If you like action movies with great visuals and a reminder of your movie-going past, this is the summer action movie for you.  But if you're looking for a really good sequel that moves the story of the Connor family, with Reese and a cyborg and a liquid-metal thing duking it out in present-day, in 1984, and in future L.A.--well, you'll be a bit disappointed here.

Maybe it's unfair to compare, as James Cameron's first two films were almost perfect movies of their type.  Plus, this latest is more of a reboot than a sequel, and the ending practically shows you how the next one will start.  Some movie needed to veer the series off its finished course, and this was it.

But there's still a lot wrong.  Some of them include (and, yes, there may be SPOILERS here):

* Ah-nuld's Terminator (and perhaps Ah-nuld himself) should never be called "Pops."  By anyone.  Even his own kids.

* Exposition and info-dump are sometimes necessary in films like this, but such info. needs to be delivered by someone who speaks English better than Ah-nuld does.  It's not that he doesn't speak the language well; it's that he doesn't enunciate it well, and it's grating in a movie if you have to listen to him and figure it out.

* This movie tries way too hard to be as "funny" as the second one.  I never found that one as amusing as many did, either, mostly because Edward Furlong's voice sounded like someone had just stepped on a cat's tail.

* James Cameron understood that story trumps special effects.  Genisys doesn't.

* Ah-nuld's smile is more creepy than funny.  It's even creepier since it's creepy-trying-to-be-funny.

* Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor was as jacked as a movie heroine is likely to ever get, surpassing even Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.  Emilia Clarke, playing a Sarah Connor who has known since she was nine that she would grow up to be kick-ass Sarah Connor, needed to be just as buff here.  She wasn't.  Part of the problem is that Emilia Clarke couldn't get jacked because she has to be in Game of Thrones, too.  (Daenarys as a buff dragon queen simply wouldn't work at this point.)  Another problem is that she's simply too pretty in a soft-looking kind of way.  And maybe she always will be.  (Linda Hamilton was just as pretty, jacked or not.)  But she's soft, and she stays that way.

* Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, in this movie, have zero chemistry.  When they kiss and declare their love for each other (they have to, or John Connor doesn't get born), you won't believe it.  To be fair to the actors, the script gives them zero chance to actually fall in love, anyway.

* Jai Courtney was also in the last Die Hard movie, which worked as an awesome action movie, but failed miserably in its attempt to be a Die Hard movie.  This movie works the same.  A good action / special effects movie.  A bad Terminator movie.

* And Michael Biehn needs to get more credit for his role.  Jai Courtney does not measure up here.

* Emilia Clarke tries her best, but she doesn't exactly catch Linda Hamilton's grasp of the character.

* The original, 1984 Terminator and the sequel's liquid metal monster are done away in quick fashion here, to mostly good effect.  The biggest problem of the movie, though, is that the real villain is (SPOILER) John Connor, and that absolutely does not work. Sarah doesn't seem to care that it's her son killing everyone (though, of course, he kind of isn't, yet) and Reese doesn't, either.  It's a mess.

* The script also mandates that John Connor was fooling everyone all the time, including in his rare scenes from 1984.  Though he could be considered a victim of SkyNet when Reese was sent back, he just doesn't hold up in any way as a good villain.  And it's 3 (often, 4 or 5) against 1, which seems unfair.

* This is a concept movie that never unveils itself.  SkyNet is the internet, of course.  And this movie, much like the second, is a warning about letting computers run everything.  (WarGames and every other flick of this type were, too.)  This one goes the extra step and posits the dangers of being too connected, via phone, laptop, iPad, iPhone, or whatever the hell your electronic addiction is.  But it loses its own point amidst the failed attempts at humor and significance.  This movie would've been much better had it just played it straight.

* And it doesn't cover any new ground at all, since it tries to follow the first two, yet break off from them, at the same time.  (It pretends the 3rd and 4th ones never happened, which perhaps we should as well.)  Maybe you can't do both simultaneously.  (And there was a nice tip of the cap to Cameron and his famous True Lies scene, too.)

Well, you get the idea.  It's a good action flick, and I didn't feel like I'd wasted my money or time, but beware that it is what it is, and it's not what it tries to be.  Do not expect a Cameron Terminator.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman

Remarkably easy-to-read and interesting account of the accumulated (by Ehrman and many others, but mostly by Ehrman, who self-refers almost to the point of annoyance) evidence of the actual, historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. This stuff is usually very dense, very academic, and a real snooze if written badly.  But Ehrman--an intelligent person, versified in ancient Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and an acknowledged (and, truth be told, self-acknowledged) expert in ancient Christianity and Judaism, and a distinguished, award-winning professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Religious Studies--is also a gifted writer.  He has written over twenty-five books, including five NYT bestsellers.  His gift is that his prose sounds like he's talking right to you, or leaning on a lectern, facing his students.  He's right there in front of you, talking with you, not to you, and not down to you.  His writing is conversational, not pompous.

And it's thorough.  Exhaustively so.  Unlike a lot of writers of this stuff, he backs up every single assertion, all the time.  And he has the obvious knowledge to back it all up, too.  I've read a lot of this kind of thing--lots of Ehrman, but also Vermes, Eisenman, Theiring (who can get a bit hysterical and unsubstantiated), many of the Dead Sea Scrolls guys, etc.--but Ehrman is by far the most lucid, the most investigative, the most historical, the most thorough--and the easiest to read.  No small feat, that.

And he says things you can (usually) look up on your own.  Some of the things he points out have been rocking around my noggin for some time, and yet other things--sometimes head-slappingly simple--were brought to my attention here, and I feel the fool for not thinking of them myself.
Like what?  Well, among the many things:

--Did Mark, Luke, John and Matthew really write the Gospels with their names on them?  I've thought "No," for a very long time, and I've had good reasons, all of them via literary analysis (all backed up by Ehrman).  But he also throws in a little common sense, such as:

* The four Gospels were written by different people who were not followers of Jesus, scattered throughout the lands, forty to sixty years after Jesus died.

* According to the Gospels themselves, Mark was the secretary of Peter, and Luke, a physician, travelled with Paul.  So what they give us is second-hand information, at best.  They were written independently, though the later ones definitely had the earlier ones (including a few--Q, L and M--that have not survived) around, and borrowed heavily from them, sometimes verbatim.

* Most Gospel manuscripts that have survived were copied about one thousand years after the original copies.  And they are written in highly-educated, upper-class Greek.  Jesus and his disciples did not speak Greek.  His disciples certainly could not write in Greek.

* In fact, they may not have been able to read and write at all.  As Ehrman points out, many studies have shown that literacy in the ancient Middle East was about 10%, max.  And in Palestine it may have been as low as 3%.  And who would that 3% be?  The nobility.  The rich.  The people who had the money and the time to be educated.  And who were the disciples?  Fisherman.  Jesus himself was a laborer, a tekton--one who works with his hands.  (This could also mean a blacksmith or a stonemason, but the general consensus is that he was a carpenter.)  As such a person, he would've not built wooden cabinets or buildings, but simpler things for a poverty-stricken town like Nazareth--yokes for oxen, or gates.  At any rate, there would not have been much time or money for any of the disciples to read or write.  Jesus may--and only may--have been able to read a bit because he clearly knew his Old Testament, since he often quoted it verbatim.

* The Gospels are often contradictory of each other, and are often historically inaccurate.  For example, was Jesus born in Bethlehem, or Nazareth?  Constantly Jesus is referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth," or, more simply, "the Nazarene."  But according to Luke--and only Luke--Caesar Augustus imposed a tax on "all the world", and so everyone in the Roman Empire had to take part in a census so they'd be registered to pay this tax.  And so Joseph, a direct descendant of the ancient King David, and Mary had to trek to Bethlehem, and that's where Jesus was born.  In a manger, visited by the three Magi.  You know the story.  But, turns out, there is no record (and the ancient Romans kept lots of records) of Augustus imposing a tax.  Luke claims the census happened "when Quirinius was the governor of Syria," and while, of course, Herod was king.  But, turns out, Quirinius did not become governor until ten years after Herod died.  And, for all that, how logical is it that everybody in the Roman Empire had to stop what they were doing, and trek perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles to go to a place where their ancient ancestors were born over a thousand years ago?  That doesn't make any sense at all, does it?  But Luke, and only Luke, says it did.  Why?  Micah, an Old Testament prophet, said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus wasn't.  This bothered Luke, and so he fixed it.  There's a lot of that kind of thing here.

* The Gospels have obviously been altered by the many hundreds of scribes who have copied them.  One clear example is the story of the woman being stoned to death by the crowd.  Jesus tells them to knock it off, "lest he who is without sin cast the first stone."  This is one of my favorite Gospel stories, but there's a problem.  Out of all the thousands of Gospel manuscripts and fragments throughout history, it is only found in John--and only from about the Middle Ages to today.  Older manuscripts of John's Gospel do not have the story.

And there's hundreds of more examples.  But does any of that prove that Jesus didn't really exist?  Nope.  Of course not.  If I mess up a fact about JFK's life, does that mean JFK didn't exist?  The point is, though, that Ehrman argues for the historical existence of Jesus, since there's apparently a growing legion of people who do not believe Jesus ever existed--the so-called "Mythicists."  (That Jesus was just a myth, get it?)  I also believe that Jesus existed, just not in the incantation presently popular in America, especially in the South.  What I call "Joel Osteen's Jesus."  (You can look that reference up.  When you do, ask yourself, Could that be what Jesus really wanted?)

Ehrman is an agnostic, as am I, sometimes.  I think.  I sort of vary back and forth between believing and being an agnostic.  I'm never an atheist.  Anyway, this is fascinating reading.  It's set up as an argument against the Mythicists, but the real meat of the book is in his evidence of Jesus's existence, and the vast, incredible number of ways--99 % of it via literary analysis and his knowledge of ancient manuscripts and ancient Judaism and Christianity, and 1% sheer common sense--in which he proves it.

Considering our current political / educational / religious American society (and how did it get to be that our laws and our education are tied into an uneasy, un-Constitutional hybrid of these three?), this is a work that deserves--and desperately needs--to be read.

Monday, June 29, 2015

No Longer A Vet--Now I'll Pay the Toll at the Gate

If you've been reading my blog for awhile, you know I never write about my job.  Few of you know what I do for a living, and any reference to it in a comment--good, bad or neutral--makes me delete that comment.

For the most part, that won't change now.  I won't write about the job, but I do have an announcement to make.  In keeping with my policy of not writing about my job, it may seem like code to those who aren't associated with it.

This entry is for those of you who are.

It is with great regret that I have to announce that I am [see title].  This was a brutal decision to make, and I even (almost) had an emotional moment after it was said and done.  There was paperwork to sign, and a long walk back to my seat.  (And they forgot to sign something, so I had to do it again.) I'm told that I made that walk both times with my head down, and that I did not look happy.

Though the job itself remains the same, I will be at a different building, working with a different community.

(However, it seems like I will be allowed to continue with the after-work program at the first building, so stay tuned for that.  It is still on my way home, and so I can still run the program on Wednesdays, from 2:30 to 3:00, which was the plan anyway.  Stay tuned for further details on that.)

I worked for 14 years at the building I left.  I ran an after-work program there for 14 years, with good-to-great success.  I served the same building in a different capacity for 4 years a long time ago. Overall, I spent 18 years--a large percentage of my life--in that one building.

But the building will be a different type of building in two years, and I could not see myself being successful with the new job requirements.  I may have been transferred to another building anyway--quite possibly to the building I am now.  But there was a small chance that I would have been transferred to another building, or asked to stay where I was, with new workers and new requirements, where I felt I may have been less successful at my job.  The bottom line: for me, and to support my loved ones, I felt compelled to switch to a different building so I can work with the same type of workers--the same ones I've worked with for the past 14 years.

I will miss the workers I worked with, many of whom joined the after-work program I ran, as well as the other workers who stated they were very happy to be able to work with me again next year.  Some of them had to talk to people to make that happen, and it seems like they went out of their way to do so.  Now that won't happen.  I do feel, a little bit, that I have left you and that I have let you down.  I hope you don't feel the same way, and I hope you understand my explanation.

Job certainty is an important thing.  So is knowing I will be able to stay in the same type of work environment for the foreseeable future--now, and long after any current worker has moved on. Hopefully, I'll be doing this for the next 25 or so years.  We'll see.

And I may be seeing some of you again in two years, when you are sent to work at my new building.

I also look forward to the challenge of my new building.  I have already met with some of the other workers (literally, the workers) and everything seems great.  This new building also has an after-work program of the same type, so it would be cool to compete against this building's after-school program, should I be allowed to do so.  Maybe I'll be asked to anchor it.  I'd rather anchor the program of my former building, but we'll see.  I look forward to a successful year with my new fellow workers--both literal and figurative--and I look forward to every challenge this building offers.

I take my job very seriously--perhaps too much so, on occasion--and I take the responsibilities of supporting my loved ones very seriously, too.  As much as I, they deserved to know that I had job certainty, and that I was able to work in a situation where I felt I would do the most good, and to be the most successful.  If I am not successful at my job, I am not happy.  Nothing else at work matters.

I did what I could for the building, for its workers, and for the community--for 14 years.  I spoke publicly against those who wanted to shut down or transform that building.  I care for the building, its workers and its community, and don't let anyone tell you different.

I will always be a vet; I'll always be very pro-veteran.

And so I say goodbye.  Maybe just for now; maybe for good.  Even if we had our differences, I hope that you agree that I did the best I could at my job, every single day.  And that my best was good.

Be good.

Be safe.

Be happy.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jesus, Mary and Joseph (and Pantera)

Despite the title, the beginning of this blog is about the book The Lost Testament, by James Becker.

A really really really badly written book I read because of the premise and because I'm researching bestselling thriller authors.  But this was truly bad:

"Excellent," the emperor purred.  "Now summon help." (5)

"This is a private matter," he said.  "Kindly leave us."  (2)

That's Emperor Constantine, perhaps from the 60s Batman show.  But that dialogue is terrible.

Characters are always "suddenly realizing" things.  And I love this one:

"Instantly both figures froze into immobility beside the wall." (7)

If you freeze, of course you're also immobile.  And when a reader sees "instantly," he expects to see some kind of action, not a lack of action.

(And, yes, I realize I've quoted from just the first seven pages.  I did read the whole thing, and I'm tired and lazy, and it's 1:07 a.m.)

The lost testament of the title is shown only a few times in the book, and for some reason nobody seems in a hurry to translate it.  People associated with it are dying all over the place, and the flaps tell us the real document it's based on, yet we're not told what the document in the book says until the very last few pages.  I'll ruin it for you: It says what the flaps say the real thing says.  Ugh.

There's an ex-husband and ex-wife team, but they don't seem excited or scared about anything, and neither's smart enough to be another Robert Langdon.  Chris Bronson (not Charles Bronson) is an ex-cop, but he doesn't seem to know the laws of anything.  It's unclear if he's on vacation, on sabbatical, or on suspension.  He doesn't seem to know where he is much of the time.  Angela Lewis is a historian, but she hates dating things, especially old jars, and she doesn't seem terribly interested in the document, which could blow the lid off the Church and make blowhard politicians in the American South rather unhappy.  (This is actually hinted at in the book.)  The author and characters seem to be British, but you only know that because British towns are frequently mentioned, and words like "tram" and "lift" are used.  Yawn.

Though most of this book takes place in and near Vatican City and Cairo, none of that is described.  The Vatican isn't described.  Neither is Rome, or any city in Egypt, or the document itself.  Later the book takes place in Portugal and Spain, but you only know that because the characters say so.  Bleh.

The document in question, for real, is much more interesting than this book ever hopes to be. It's a document of a trial, supposedly written by a lawyer-ish guy. The trial is of a Roman soldier, a certain Panthera (or Pantera) who has raped a local woman, and impregnated her.  Raping your captives during times of military occupation or war was a crime then like it is now (though it happens all the time now, and I'm sure it also did then.)  Anyway, Panthera is on trial for this rape, and the document insinuates that he's clearly guilty, and witnesses are produced to prove it.  This would often lead to the rapists death, as the military, then and now, wants to show it's in charge of its own soldiers.  However, then as now, such things are hushed up.  In this case, he was found not guilty.

All of this refers to the Pantera Rape, which if you don't know, [if you're a severely religious Christian, you might want to bow out here] is the story that Mary was not impregnated by the Almighty, but (as alleged by a man named Jerod of Cana) by a Roman guard named Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera (or Panthera), who rapes her.  (Or it's consensual, as was the belief at the time, for those who believed this to begin with.  Scholars have complained for years how the many Marys of the Bible seem to be confused with each other--not good, if one is the mother and the other a reformed prostitute.)  At any rate, a Yusef bar Heli (Joseph) of around Tzippori (a town in Israel attacked by the Romans in 4 BCE) is upset with her (and not the Roman archer, per se) because she's pregnant, (and no longer a virgin, nor a woman first taken by her husband) and so, as she's now considered defiled, he turns her out, and she gives birth to Jesus in the middle of nowhere.  She would've been barely in her teens at this point, perhaps 11 or 12.

This is actually not a new story, as this book and my research point out.  It may even pre-date many of the Gospels.  An ancient writer / philosopher, named Celsus, was the first to fully write of this, but a great many others did soon thereafter.  Celsus and the others say this story was widely known during their day, and during the days of the Disciples.  Celsus's work, titled The True Word [or Account, Doctrine or Discourse] is lost, but much of it is quoted by Origen, about a hundred years later, so he can refute it in a book of his own, which is called Against Celsus [Contra Celsum].

Whether you accept this or not, this is already more interesting than a book written by a guy who's watched too many bad 50s beefcake gladiator epics and bad 90s cop shows, right?

A few points Celsus (who was clearly biased and anti-Christian), in about 177 A.D.(when the Christians were being persecuted in Rome, and long after Jesus and Paul and the others had died) made in defense of his belief that the original Christians were maybe a little confused:

--If Jesus is born as an infinite God, why would an angel warn Joseph and Mary and Jesus to hit the road before Herod kills Him?  Furthermore, wouldn't God, His Father, be able to protect Him from Herod, a finite human?

--How can an immortal man die, on the cross or otherwise?  If you're resurrected, you've died first.

--It's said that Joseph and Jesus were carpenters.  But Jesus is also said to have taught at a synagogue.  Would the Jewish leaders let a carpenter from a tiny backwater teach at the synagogue?

--If not, then the word in this document attributed to Jesus and Joseph being carpenters (vulgar Latin "naggar") could mean its other connotation: "craftsman." As in, a "craftsman of words," perhaps.  Like I would be a wordsmith, but not a blacksmith, today.  But, either way, a "craftsman."

--Why didn't His disciples fear Him as a God?  Instead, one betrays Him, one doubts Him, and another perjures Him.

--And why didn't they cease these actions, if they thought of Him as a God?

--And if they didn't think of Him as an infinite God, who else ever would?

--Celsus mentioned it was commonly known in his own time (and that of the previous 80-100 years of the NT) that the Bible had been "corrupted from its original integrity" and "remodeled" to try to explain discrepancies or paradoxes in the text.  I'll provide an example from the OT: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" and "Thou shalt not kill."  Can't be both, right?

--If Jesus is descended "from the first man, and from the kings of the Jews" then why are Joseph, Mary and Jesus seemingly unaware of their "illustrious descent?"  If I'm descended from Adam or from King David, I'm always going to know it, and I'm going to let it be known.  Several times.

--"After so long a period of time, then, did God now bethink himself of making men live righteous lives, but neglect to do so before?"  I've pointed this out before: Since the first man walked, why would just one Savior appear only at that one time in human history?  Why not also at any other time thousands of years before--or about 2000 years since?  The OT is at least 3,000 years old, and the NT is about 2,000 years old.  A novel-in-progress of mine now is about a small group of people who attempt to write their own Bible.  "It's overdue," one of them says.  "It's time," says another.

--Celsus is amongst the first to point out that the Bible uses the word "day" before the heavens, the sun and the Earth are fully created.  Without all three in existence already, there is no "day."

--As I've also mentioned: Why does God need to rest?  "After this...He is weary...who stands in need of rest to refresh himself..."

Lastly, one of my preferred beliefs: "One ought to first follow reason as a guide before accepting any belief, since anyone who believes without first testing a doctrine is certain to be deceived."

Indeed--How strong is an untested belief?

Anyway, whether you're with him or not, it's more interesting to research the Pantera / Mary document than it is to read this book.  So read the Bible, and read Celsus, and Origen, and ponder all this stuff, and don't waste your time reading Becker's book.

In fact, the book didn't make me want to know more about this stuff, like Dan Brown's books (not masterpieces, either) do make me want to know more about the Vatican, or the Louvre, or D.C., or Da Vinci or Michelangelo and The Last Supper, and---Yeah, I had to supply the interest with this one.

The only kudos here to Becker is that he brings up the document to begin with.