Sunday, December 30, 2007

Random Bits

Like the title says, this post will be a collection of random bits of thoughts--it seemed an appropriate way to end out the year 2007, by writing a few things which I've had on my mind recently.

First, in a previous post, I discussed the sometimes ambivalent relationship between LDS scholarship and the Song of Songs, in sort of an attempt to illustrate some of the challenges in being an LDS scholar. However, there are a number of high points to being a scholar in the Church, one of which is dealing with topics which the rest of the world doesn't care about. Book of Mormon scholarship, for example. Now I am not necessarily talking about apologetics establishing the ancientness or the uniqueness of the Book of Mormon record (neither, however, am I denigrating apologetics; they serve a valuable purpose). I am talking about social scientific readings into kingship ideology in the Book of Mosiah, or wondering what the text really means when it calls someone a Nephite or Lamanite. This is the kind of scholarship that would bore somebody not invested in the Book of Mormon to utter tears, but is really fun otherwise. I used to sort of poo-poo Book of Mormon scholarship, but being at Oxford has helped me see that I will probably try my hand at it (after I get a little better established), because I discover that I am very interested in the topic.

Second, as my wife said, we traveled to the Tower of London last week, and had a wonderful time (although schlepping my daughter up down Norman stairs in the White Tower got a little old). Ah, how I wished that I had my brother with me then. The White Tower had been used as an armory for a long time, and so currently worked as a museum of arms and armor. There was some pretty cool stuff. Swords and guns and arms and armor and any number of really nifty things. I told my wife that my brother and I used to pick out items in museums like this, with which to outfit ourselves. She, however, seemed unwilling to do the same, so I had pick a pole-arm for myself from the spear rack with nobody to consult. It was sad. I hope someday to properly train up my little daughter so they we can discuss finer points of swords. In the meantime, I had an imaginary dialogue with my brother, in order to establish the proper types of the equipment.

The rest of the Tower of London was pretty neat, too. The Crown Jewels themselves were just stones, but the real neat part was feeling the full weight of the history and the symbolism of the British Monarchy. My wife and I were discussing that often times in the United States we dismiss the Monarchy as being merely a figure-head. What we forget, I think, is the meaning that the figure-heads can have. Partially we are dismissive because we have nothing like in the States, partially because we are taught from a very young age to distrust kingship in any form, equating it with tyranny. However, watching the videos of the coronation of Elizabeth II while waiting in line to see the Jewels themselves, I was struck with the majesty of the office of the Sovereign of the United Kingdom, which, in some ways, the pageantry of coronation and the glitz of the crown jewels are but poor substitutes for. I am not talking, of course, only of the British Monarchy, which is not at all my favorite monarchy. I am only using it is an example, because these musings were inspired by feelings engendered in my breast by contact with the kings and queens of England. I felt somehow, the weight that Elizabeth must have felt when the crown was set upon her head. My close friends are aware that in my heart I am a monarchist (although not necessarily a British monarchist), and so these musings must be taken in that spirit, but suffice it to say that I felt something while waiting in line to see the Crown Jewels (by the time I actually saw the Jewels, the most moving part was over).

Once again, I feel like I've been chasing a thought around my 'blog, without being able to pin it down, but I hope you take it for what it is worth. This is why I have such difficulty writing, because what ends up on the paper is not what is chasing around my head. Neither this 'blog, nor my scholarship, nor my poor essays into fiction are ever as good as I think they ought to be, nor do they shine with the light they do when I try to grasp them at the edge of a dream. I expressed previously that one of the reasons I love Professor Tolkien is because of his belief that writing was an act of sub-creation, that we are exercising the creative power given us by our own great Creator. However, one of the things that I am realizing is how imperfect our ability to create is, when compared with His wonders. As much as I try to capture the beauty of stars, or the power of rage or the excitement I feel from history, or even the majesty I felt in the Tower of London, it all falls short, and I am left to confess that I am only His humble servant, and leave at that. And while thoughts of that sort do wonders for my relationship with my Creator, they don't always leave me wanting to write. But like Jeremiah, I have a fire pent up in my bones, and so I persevere.

I hope you all have a wonderful time these next few days, and I will write again after the turning of the year.

Until then, Excelsior!

Friday, December 28, 2007

To Samuel, My Brother, With Whom I Slept

Due to the acclaim with which my daughter's Internet debut was met, here is another video of her. This performance is dedicated to her Uncle Samuel, whom we all love dearly. For those of my readers who know Samuel (most of you, I reckon), he used to love to perform the very act which my daughter does in the video below. So watch, enjoy, and think of my daughter and her beloved Uncle.


video

Sunday, December 09, 2007

An Oxford Panegyric

Well, my daughter and my wife are asleep, and so you, faithful readers, get a post. I really ought to be writing a paper on the Jewish influences on St. Jerome, but it will wait for a little bit while I compose this update. Months ago, my sister-in-law posted on her 'blog about the books that had most affected her life. This sparked much conversation in my circles, with my wife and my brother posting concerning their books, and my mother and uncle discussing what would and wouldn't make their list. I was certainly involved in this process and spent some time thinking of a list. Ultimately, I did not end up making a list for a number of reasons. I understood the impetus behind making the list, and I even tried to do so. Abraham in Egypt, The Phantom Tollbooth, and even Scaramouche fought for their position on my list. There were, however, too many books that affected me on too many levels to be able, in the end to make any sort of coherent books. In the end I scrapped my lists, grateful for the thoughts the exercise had provoked, but still somehow unwilling to commit myself. I just chose to to content myself with a somewhat weak, "I am all that I have read" and move on with my life.

However, there was one book, one author, who continually made all my lists, whether they were books I loved as a child, books that affected the way I think, or just my favorite books. He is a large part of the reason that I am now an Oxonian, he is part of why I chose my current field and vocation, and he has a profound influence upon my life that he would likely find a little bit bemusing. Regardless, I would be remiss if I did not write something about him here, in tribute to my being at Oxford. I have been trying to write this post, or something similar, since the idea of book lists was first suggested to me. I have not done so till now, since I really have not been taking the time to update this 'blog like I ought to. However, as my post of two weeks ago and this post together will hopefully illustrate, I am returned to a more regular writing.

Enough apologia. Whenever I am asked who my favorite author is, the answer is always the same. J. R. R. Tolkien. Whenever I am asked what my favorite book is I say The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I am actually somewhat embarrassed by this fact. Others of my acquaintance, when discussing their favorite books include books that have had a profound influence on them, or books of philosophy (for example, my mother included Buber's Ich und Du, my brother included Kierkegaard and existentialism. My wife even included Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, although she also included Anne of Green Gables). All I had to show for myself were a series of fantasy books. Excellent fantasy books, but just fiction all the same. Because I am slightly embarrassed of my love and appreciation for Tolkien, I have never actually expressed in words why I love The Lord of Rings so much, and why it has had such a powerful effect upon me. So, faithful readers, you are learning of it as fast as I can articulate it.

My Uncle talks of masters and teachers, those who have gone before and instruct you, usually through their writings. You become their disciple through reading and the consideration of their writings. He and I share a master in C. S. Lewis, another Oxonian and friend of Prof. Tolkien. Yet I was brought to Jack (as Lewis was called by his friends and is often referred to by his afficiandos and disciples) by Tolkien, at least indirectly. I had read Narnia, of course, a number of times. My mother had given me Mere Christianity to read, but I had never been able to read it. She then gave me The Screwtape Letters, which I opened to discover the dedication: To J. R. R. Tolkien. I read from there, and grew to love and appreciate all that Jack has written. However, my love of Jack grew from my love of Tolkien.

When Jack reviewed The Lord of the Rings, he famously said, "Here are beauties which pierce like a sword or burn like cold iron." My soul had been pierced and burned by this book. I have read it again and again (I actually haven't read it yet this cycle, because I left my copy at home, and the local library has had all of its copies checked out for months). I have a feel for Middle Earth and visual grasp on the text and the characters (which was sometimes enhanced by Peter Jackson, but never superseded). I have strong mental images of most, if not all of the characters, and love to read this book. Every time I role-play or try my hand at fiction it is with Tolkien's theory of sub-creation in my mind. I remember when I first learned of sub-creation and the reality of fantasy and Fairy stories espoused by Prof. Tolkien, I had found a kindred soul, and I latched on to that idea, and have not to this day let it go.

I apologize, faithful reader, for I am having more difficulty writing this post than I thought I would. It turns out it is very difficult for me to articulate the influence The Lord of the Rings and Prof. Tolkien have had on me. Let me just say that I would likely not have applied to the University of Oxford if not for the influence of Jack and Tolkien. In some ways my studying here is a homage to these men. Also, in my chosen field I love Semitics and Philology. Tolkien wasn't Semiticist (not by a long shot), but he was a philologist, and so I share somewhat in his love of language. My decision to be a college professor was shaped by an early love of Prof. Tolkien, so I suppose that could be an influence also.

I am afraid I must leave you now with this post, insufficient though it may be. I had envisioned, as the title indicates, a well-written focused panegyric of a man whose writings and life have helped me become who I am today, occasioned by my time at his university. Instead you have been treated with the discursive, inarticulate ramblings of a Tolkien groupie who likes The Lord of the Rings because it helps him in his escapism. So be it. I suspect both are true. As Tolkien himself said, "The wise speak only of what they know."

Excelsior.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thoughts on the Song of Songs

It is interesting being a Latter-day Saint Biblical scholar, because so much of our scholarship is informed by our religion (other scholars are often wary of LDS scholarship and BYU scholarship in specific because of this). Of course, I think this is a good thing, since I think that religion ought to come into all parts of life. Regardless, it makes for some interesting interactions with the scholarly world. As an example to get us started, in one of my classes this term, we were discussing Jewish and Christian interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel. We examined the Midrash Rabbah, the Pirkei de R. Eliezer, Origen's Homilies on Genesis and even the Syriac Church Fathers. All of these had a number of interesting interpretations. However, as I sat there listening, I kept thinking about the Book of Moses and the story of Cain and Abel contained therein. The Book of Moses contains a number of interesting additions and interpretations to the story, from the idea that Cain wasn't the eldest child of Adam and Eve, to the whole Master Mahan principle of murdering and getting that is behind all our understanding on the character of Cain. I couldn't share these (at least not in the class) because the rest of the world doesn't recognize the antiquity of our sources.

Which brings me to the idea that prompted this post--a discussion one of my colleagues presented on Origen's interpretation of the Song of Songs, which we call the Song of Solomon (for those of you not majoring in Biblical studies, Origen was a Greek Church Father, who lived in Alexandria). This book of scripture is one of the most important in all of Jewish and Christian Biblical interpretation. Rabbi Akiva, an important Jewish sage, said that if the Writings (the non-Torah, non-Prophetic portions of the Hebrew Scriptures) were Holy, then the Song of Songs was the Holy of Holies. The Targum (Aramaic translation) on the Song of Songs is six times as long as our Biblical book, showing a desire to interpret and work with the text. Even the title of the book in Hebrew, which translates to Song of Songs (which I have been referring to it by that name) speaks of how important it was to the ancients.

Yet we don't read it. Part of this comes from the fact that all the interpretations of the Song of Songs are mystical and allegorical, and the Church doesn't have a strong mystical tradition, and the allegorical interpretation tends to be somewhat secondary in our exegesis. However, I think most of our animosity (remember the persistent legend, which may indeed be true, that this or that General Authority had stapled the Song shut in his copy of the Scriptures) comes from the manuscript to the Joseph Smith Translation, which notes, rather famously, "The Song of Solomon is not inspired scripture." And there you have it. An entire book of the Bible is removed from our collective consciousness. Perhaps unfortunately. Now, I am not suggesting that the Song is, in fact, inspired scripture. Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe in the Scriptures of the Restoration. I am perfectly willing to trade a thousand Songs for one Book of Mormon. I hold that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and claim his New Translation as inspired scripture, so if that translation says the Song isn't inspired, then it isn't inspired. End of argument.

But not, I think, end of story. The fact that numerous writers have found in the Song a powerful metaphor for Christ and God and their relationship with the divine, and that so much ink has been spilled over this book shows that perhaps I am missing something, that there may be a beauty in this book, independent of its inspirational status. After all, as one of my Jewish friends pointed out to me as I discussed this with him, Shakespeare wasn't inspired either, but we still read his sonnets and find beauty and some level of inspiration in them. In fact our own scriptures tell us that all things testify of Christ, and we go out of way to find gospel principles in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and rock and roll. We examine the relationship between God and man in Dante and Milton, and find the grandeur of God in Blake. But we don't read or study the Song of Songs. I think probably because it is in our Bible, and since it is not inspired it is somehow masquerading as scripture, so we don't read it, lest any think that we are somehow endorsing it as scripture, somehow restoring to it a validity that Joseph Smith took from it, correctly, I once again hasten to add. I don't know.

Once again, I don't think we should all go out and read the Song of Songs. These are just some thoughts I was thinking on subsequent to my class, which I wanted to share with you my faithful reader. While I am sharing things, I will share this touching quote from Origen which inspired this whole discussion:

"The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and He, as soon as she has seen Him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Song; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly He has withdrawn and I could not find Him, though I thought to do so. I long, therefore, for Him to come again, and sometimes He does so. Then, when He has appeared and I lay hold of Him, He slips away once more; and, when He has slipped away, my search for Him begins anew."

Excelsior.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A Video of my Daughter

Lydia has great taste in music. Here she is getting down to Touch Me, by the Doors.
video

Monday, September 03, 2007

Gaming and Art

I recently saw the movie Stardust, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I usually appreciate Mr. Gaimon's work, and this was no different. There were a couple of places in the movie where I was genuinely moved, which is something I look for in a movie. I know that Miss Reed had difficulties with it in places (having read the book), and I can see where she is coming from (I haven't read the book, but I have read books made into movies. Like she said, the closer to the book, the more difficult it is to recommend it. If its terrible, one can merely right it off). However, I really enjoyed it, because it gave an excellent look into Fairy, in the properly Tolkienesque sense of the word, from his famous lecture “On Fairy-Stories.” It was a movie that I pleased to be able to see in the cinema as opposed to on the small screen. Even my wife was happy that she was able to see it on the big screen. In many ways film is an art-form best appreciated in a cinema. Although I appreciate the revolution provided by the VCR and furthered by DVDs, many films are better on the big screen.


After the film was over, I turned to my wife, and observed, “That is why I role-play. The feelings this movie evokes are what I am trying to capture in the games I run.” Unfortunately, as a story-telling art-form, role-playing is a regrettably imperfect one, partially from its war-gaming roots (with attendant emphasis on combat. Even RPGs designated as “story-telling” devote an entire chapter to combat), but mostly I think from the collaborative nature of the beast. As a Gamemaster, it is not my place to tell a story, merely to provide the bones of one for my players to tell. As a player, dialogue that is moving or dramatic in a movie or book is stilted and ridiculous when said in a living room at Wymount Terrace. On the other hand, because of the participatory nature of role-playing, gamers have a chance to come closer to adventure than with books or with movies. All these genres have a vicarious thrill about them, but I think it is closest to home in role-playing. However, at the same time most of my role-playing games end up being a little bit silly, I suspect because it is so close to home. When you play, you usually don't want it to hurt. Real life has enough pain. And yet, pain is part of what makes life so sweet. A role-playing game without pain is hollow, and ends up resonating as much as a cartoon.


Perhaps I am being silly. After all, these are games. Perhaps by designating role-playing as an art-form, I am giving it too much credit, and exalting it beyond its station. The purpose of gaming is to entertain. However, other media, many of which started out primarily for the purpose of entertainment (comic books and film are two good examples here), have tackled heavier stuff and attempted loftier goals, with varied levels of success. Can role-playing be art? As a Gamemaster, I have attempted to say something, while at the same time retaining my players enjoyment, with varying levels of success. I try for grand, but usually end up with merely fun. Which is okay. I do not wish to say that my role-playing experiences were anything less than enjoyable, for the most part. I was just musing on the nature of role-playing and its place in the story-telling art. Certainly some companies which produce role-playing games would have you think so, and there is a new “indie revolution” in role-playing, which like most indie revolutions manages to combine actual innovation with the most pretentious codswallop you've ever had the bad fortune to read. Remember, playing Sorcerer will make you a better human being.


At its core, of course, none of this matters. I was, however, musing, which musing also led to the list below.


My top 5 favorite role-playing games: (In no particular order)


Legends of the Five Rings. I am actually not as into this game recently as I have been heretofore, and yet there is no denying that it was an important role-playing game in my life. I loved exploring Rokugan, and my post-marriage gaming was centered around this game. I don't need much of anything else, as long as I have bushido in my belly. L5R is no longer my favorite role-playing game, but I still find I occasionally enjoy exploring in the world where honor is a force more powerful than steel.


7th Sea. A different kind of honor. A different kind of steel. Swashbuckling role-playing at its finest. Seriously, in terms of game design this is one of my favorites. People love this game. When I was still Provo, I merely had to mention that I was thinking of running this game, and I would have people coming out of the woodwork wanting to play. People whom I never knew had the slightest interest in gaming would wonder if I was going to play, they would like to as well. People I don't even like would volunteer to play, unfortunately ruining the game for my friends (especial apologies to Pseudonymous Joe. I owe you a game). This game has everything. Fencing, fighting, revenge, true love, miracles. . . Dramatic stories of true heroes, nifty fighting styles, Renaissance politics wrapped around an extremely intuitive system. The two main rulebooks are pinnacles of the game designers art, with subsequent books of varying quality. I don't know if a role-playing game can jump the shark, but this one certainly seems to have. I am actually thinking about doing capsule reviews for all of the 7th Sea books, but that is a subject for another post.


Castle Falkenstein. A role-playing game of literary Victorian fantasy. This game has the distinction of being one of the first games I really ran in campaign, although it suffered from the problem that all my campaigns suffer from. Everybody wants to play, and I am no good at saying no. This game had 11 players before it was finally killed by the end of the semester. It is however, a tremendously fun game, with a unique card mechanic (which is unwieldy in play), and my favorite magic system in any game. Gentlemanly Masonic Wizards having literary adventures are right up my ally.


Star Wars d6. My first role-playing game. It's Star Wars. Really good Star Wars. Pre-Prequel trilogy Star Wars. There is nothing for Crunchy Star Warsy goodness like the old d6 game. There isn't a whole lot more to be said.


Ars Magica. This is the johnny-come-lately on the list, but is a fast riser. I love the combination of real world history with mighty magic. This game is different from 7th Sea or Castle Falkenstein, in that instead of having to beat off players, I had difficulty in finding players. I was almost going to start with my best players, back in Provo, but that never materialized. I've never actually played this one yet, but I have hope someday.


Honorable mentions go to GURPS, Earthdawn, Fading Suns and Mutants and Masterminds.


I apologize to my non-gaming friends, but this what I was thinking of recently.

Excelsior!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Tagged

I am, according to my custom, I am behind all my friends on the blog meme. Ah well. All things in their time.

Jobs I've Held
Dishwasher at a local pizza place (before my mission)

Cashier at said pizza place (after my mission)

Cook at the Cannon Center

Window-washer and general custodian at Deseret Towers

Research assistant

Teaching assistant

Short order cook at the same pizza place.



Movies I Can Watch Over and Over
Casablanca

The Big Sleep

Star Wars (the Real Trilogy)

The Mark of Zorro

The Great Race

Ghostbusters

Places I have lived
Quantico, Virginia

Oceanside, California

29 Palms, California

Monterey, California

Goldvein, Virginia

Battle Ground, Washington

Goldendale, Washington

Prineville, Oregon

Beaverton, Oregon

Vancouver, Washington

Provo, Utah

Goldvein, Virginia (redux)

Shows I enjoy
Alf

Star Trek (especially TOS)

Fraggle Rock

M*A*S*H*

Places I've Been On Vacation

California
Tennessee
Ohio
Florida
Arizona (for an SCA event)

Favorite Food
Pizza (has been for many years)

Websites I Visit With Some Regularity
Various blogs
Gmail
rpg.net
Gaming Report
Steve Jackson Games Daily Illuminator
irregularwebcomic.net
Giant in the Playground (specifically for Order of the Stick, although it hasn't been bringing the funny as often recently)


Body Parts I Have Injured
Toe (broken)

Finger (broken)

Nicknames
Avi

Av

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Incompetence

Have you ever done something totally new before, and discovered that you are completely and utterly incompetent at it? I had an experience of this type just yesterday.

In my current ward I am serving as a Sunday School teacher, teaching the 17 year olds. They are good kids, and it isn't as bad as it could be. I am however, often in their minds. So it was no surprise when one of the Young Men in my class called me up with a dilemma. Apparently they had planned a Priest/Laurel activity, but needed a Melchizedek Priesthood holder to make the activity properly legal in the eyes of the Church. Having heard (I don't where) that I do not work on Tuesdays (the pizza place where I work being closed on Tuesdays), this Young Man wanted to know if I would go with the Priests and Laurels in their activity. Of course I said yes. I was, at least initially, flattered to be asked, and the kids needed me to have their activity.

The activity was tubing down the Potomac. Tubing is activity where you take the inner tube of a tire, inflate it, and sit in the center of the resultant device, using it to float gently down the river. This is an activity which seems very common in many Young Men/Young Women organizations throughout the Church, but it was one which I had never experienced. That may be because of my disdain for water, and its attendant sports. It may be because I was terminally uncool as a teenager (a disposition I probably haven't changed, but which is less important now. After all, my daughter likes me). Regardless of the reasons, I had never been tubing before. I have been white-water rafting before, on numerous occasions, and I figured that tubing couldn't be too much more difficult than rafting. The parts of the river they let you tube on are certainly less dangerous, especially as dry as things have been this year (Safety tip from our bus driver: If you fall in the river and think you are drowning—stand up!), so I figured I had it covered.

It was an interesting drive up to the place where we were renting the tubes. My father and I were in the front, and my sister was in the back with two of her cronies. All I can say is that I am glad that my daughter is not yet a teenager. The conversation centered almost exclusively on boys, which is somewhat cliché, but apparently, like most clichés has some basis in life. My father sat in the front and we had interesting conversations about cryptoanalysis, and whether or not ancient languages could be used to up the security of a given code or cipher (the jury is still out—while anytime you use a language someone doesn't know you've essentially moved it out of their code, there is no indication that it would up the complexity of decipherment, except for that point. Thus a code written in Hieroglyphic would be as accessible to someone who read Hieroglyphics, as an English code is to someone who speaks English. Still, the possibilities are intriguing. This conversation was partially inspired by The Da Vinci Code since the codes in there are puerile. I was thinking on how I would step it up a bit, if I were in charge of Grail security, and my father is currently doing some work in cryptoanalysis, and the conversation just went from there.). Mostly we just ignored the conversation in the background.


Finally we got there, signed our lives away, received our life-vests and tubes (the high-tech kind with handles) and were driven to the water's edge. We got in the water, where I immediately got stuck in an eddy next to the shore. Eventually, I broke out of it, but by this time, the group, except my father, was many yards ahead of me. I spent the entire time, behind, trying my hardest to catch up. Apparently, these youth did believe that tubing was a quiet relaxing activity, to be enjoyed on the leisure of the river. No, these youth fought the river, going down as fast as they possibly could, i.e. much faster than I could. And, this is where I learned of my own latent incompetence at tubing. I never found the current, and if there was any eddy in the river, I found it. There was one spot where I was caught in a dead zone and spent twenty minutes trying to get out of it. All the while, the youth were playing African Queen, or at least I assume so. Other than at either end of the trip, I never saw them. Who knows what they were doing.


I eventually did make it to the end of the river successfully (ironically before rest of the group, since they had overshot our take-out point and were stuck on the other bank of the river) and proceeded back to my house. I was bruised, sunburned, sore in my muscles and a little bit cranky. I had spent the day trying to catch up with the Youth, never doing so, and I payed $23.00 for the privelage. However, I learned that I am terrible at tubing, and I never expect to do it again. Such are the lessons of life.


Excelsior!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

In Which Our Faithful Readers Get Another Post

I apologize to my humble readers for my absence from the world of writing in the Aether (especially to Pseudonymous Joe: I haven't forgotten you, and I while I realize the game is long since over, there are rules for what you seek. I just haven't found them yet. I wanted to wait until I had everything ready before I e-mailed you. That turned out to be a mistake), but I have been avoiding the Internet. I haven't posted on the 100 Hour Board or anything. I'm just hiding out. However, my friends are best aware of my sometimes retiring nature, and so will not, I hope, fault me my lack of writing.

Unfortunately, this isn't going to be an original post, merely a reposting of a letter I sent to the ANES crowd. However, it represents my return to online living. More later. Here it is:

I have been working since I left Provo, except for a brief stopover in Nauvoo, where my younger brother was wed to a lovely lady. That was a nice stop, because I'd never been to Nauvoo. The temple there is beautiful, although Nauvoo is a ghost-town. The Saints left, and nobody ever came back. As I planned, I got my job at M & P Restaurant, which is where I worked both before and after my mission. In fact, except for my jobs at BYU (such as cleaning toilets at DT—I'm so sad that I won't be able to see it come down) I have only ever worked at this restaurant. Which is okay. It is convenient to my house (being a mere 8 minutes bike ride), the pay is decent, and the work is not stressful. I laugh at the fact that I learned to read Hieroglyphic Egyptian, what the difference between form and rhetorical criticism, and who Naram-Sim was so that I can return home to Virginia in order to be a short-order cook. Brian can, I reckon, testify to the irony implicit in this. It isn't bad of course—I'm just in a holding pattern for Oxford anyway, but it still makes me smile. I have to work, too, since The Send Avram to Oxford Fund failed so miserably. Nobody seems to want to become my patron. Not that I'm surprised.

Actually, getting the money to go to Oxford has been one of the more difficult things occupying my attention this summer. I can get Federal Student Loans (and I need to) but they are more complicated to get attending a school in the United Kingdom than here in the States. For one thing, the much vaunted Oxford/Cambridge has its own difficulties. For those of you who are not aware, Oxford is arranged as a series of independent colleges, which come together to form the University. All well and good. However, this means that in order to get anything done, the student has to talk with the right office, whose identity isn't always readily apparent. I ran into trouble with this recently when I received an e-mail asking me where my transcript from BYU proving that I had graduated is. I had that sent out months ago, but it turns out, upon reflection, that I had it sent to the wrong place, to my department not my centre. This is a little bit frustrating. I'm hoping that I can have the department of Oriental Studies send my transcript to Yarnton Manor, otherwise I'm going to need to get BYU to send another one. Also, I've received three different costs of attendance from three different offices. It has been very frustrating in its own way. If any of my friends do go to a British school, make sure that you are aware of this lack of communication between different units.

The rest of my life continues to go well. I'm attempting to teach my sister Biblical Hebrew, which is an interesting exercise, not because I don't know, but because she is in high school, and so not real keen on studying a complicated language over the summer. It is helping me keep my hand in, but has its own difficulties. Lydia continues to grow. She can walk now, and is very busy, although she is also a very obedient child. Thora has taken to working a few hours at M & P with me, since Lydia is so well taken care of by her grandparents. Even more than me, I think that Thora feels like she is in a holding pattern, and she is looking forward to having her own house again.

Since my program at Yarnton Manor is only a year program I've been looking at schools for my doctorate, which also been interesting, because it feels like I just finished applying the first time. Some of the schools I'm applying to, such as Notre Dame and Michigan, are the same, but there a couple, like Wisconsin and Duke which are new. I am thinking about applying to Harvard, which is eating crow for me, but they have this really good Semitic Philology program, and you all know how much I love the linguistic aspects of our field. I really do love language.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Rant

Last time I posted about reading. In a moment of weakness I picked up and read The Da Vinci Code. I know that my dear friends Matt and Sarah were discussing the literary merits of this book recently, and I will not judge this book on its literary merits except to say that I, personally, did not like his writing style. However, I do have certain complaints to make from a purely historical perspective. Dan Brown made a number of errors in his description of the Bible and its history, a few of which were absolutely egregious. I do not mind someone believing that perhaps parts of our received history differ from reality (as a Latter-day Saint, I have necessarily different view on the transmission of Apostolic authority, for example). There is, however, no excuse for making factual errors that thirty seconds with a decent encyclopedia would clear up. I understand that sometimes license can be taken here and there, and I am willing to extend to the book such license (i.e. that there actually was an historical Priory of Zion, the the documents revealing its secret history were anything but the most obvious of forgeries, et cetera), but I am less comfortable with the egregious factual errors I found in this book. There are three such egregious errors that I identified in The Da Vinci Code. I realize that by posting about this topic I am playing write into Dan Brown's hands, but I couldn't help myself.


The first is the idea that Amun is ram-headed and associated with fertility. There were Egyptian gods who were associated with fertility (such as Min, who is always pictured holding his erect phallus) and there were ram-headed gods. There were even Egyptian ram-headed gods associated with fertility, such as Khnum. Khnum was occasionally associated with Amun-Ra Sonter, which I assume is Dan Brown's point, but to say that Amun is a ram-headed fertility god is wholly wrong. Amun means 'hidden', and Amun is usually depicted as a man with the the double feather crown on his head. He was worahipped as a god of hidden power and after being syncretized with Ra, the generative power of the sun, which I suppose could have some fertility issues (of course, The Da Vinci Code is about fertility in the modern sense, meaning sex, and not about pregnancy, children or any of those other ideas associated with ancient fertility). I have included a picture of Amun for my readers not as acquainted with Egyptian crowns, as well as of Khnum for comparison. Khnum, and not Amun is the god that Dan Brown's hero meant, but unfortunately Khnum doesn't anagram as prettily as Amun. The other error associated with these gods is claiming that Khnum was the consort of Isis, which he was not. Isis' consort is Osiris, which is extremely important, because there is an entire myth cycle surrounding Osiris and Isis. Incidentally, Osiris is not ram-headed either, being a mummiform figure of an Egyptian king. He was associated with fertility, since Isis rather
famously conceived Horus
after Osiris was killed by his brother.


The next concern was actually the most egregious error in the book, an error so terrible that I read it twice in disbelief. The above concern is something of a specialist problem, since iconographic representations of Egyptian gods is a somewhat esoteric field, so it would be possible to make a mistake in this regard. An important conceit of this book is the concept of a secret history of Christianity that They don't want you to have which is recorded in ancient books suppressed by the Catholic church. This is the idea that the gnostic gospels such as the gospel of Philip have primacy over the canonical ones. This isn't an egregious error since there are scholars, such as Elaine Pagels, who actually believe such things. These are the same types of people who get excited over books like the Gospel of Judas, even though it was obviously written hundreds of years after Christ's ministry. No the error was in identifying how we know about these things. When our heroes go visit the grail expert he has a fascimile copy of the Nag Hammadi codices and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which, he claims, contain the real history of Christianity that the Church doesn't want the world to know. There is nothing Christian about the Dead Sea Scrolls, since they were written before the birth of Jesus Christ. The Dead Sea Scrolls can't describe a Church that worships the 'divine feminine,' because the Dead Sea Scrolls are about a Jewish sect that certainly didn't worship anything feminine. The Community was male, celibate, and had more in common with certain later Christian priests than with any group that practices the hieros gamos. Confusing the Dead Sea Scrolls with early Christian documents and then lumping them together with the Nag Hammadi documents merely because both were archives discovered in the early Twentieth Century is an enormous mistake, and I think the worst committed by Dan Brown. There is no way around the fact that he just got his facts wrong.


Which brings us to the third error. This one actually had me out of my seat in surprise. When discussing what documents the Holy Grail contains they mention that it contains Q, the actual written words of Christ. I laughed out loud at this one, since it shows that Dan Brown was passingly acquainted with Q theory, but missed the whole point. Q is a theoretical sayings source, which scholars believe was likely oral. No Q scholar would ever expect to find the Q document, because it doesn't actually exist! Seriously, there could have been a source that Matthew and Luke used independent of Mark, but you wouldn't find it written down, because it is a theoretical reconstruction. It sounds like Dan Brown heard of Q and thought that is was supposed to be a written sayings source that was used by the gospel writers. Regardless, by suggesting it was a document, our author showed his ignorance.


I had other issues, primarily with omissions and misconstructions of obvious facts, but those three were the biggest. I am sorry if you like this book, but I cannot in good conscience recommend this book. I think it is a sensationalist attempt to cash in on the liberal scholarship of certain New Testament scholars. I appreciate your putting up with my little rant. These things are important to me.


Excelsior!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The More Things Change...

I'm back at work at M & P. It has been interesting. Not a whole lot has changed there, which is a good thing. It is not quite as stress-free as I would have hoped. When I worked there before I was a cashier, and I had the work of cashiering down pat. However, they decided to start training me on the grill, so instead of going and performing a stress-free job which I know frontwards and backwards, I am being trained on a job that has even more stress than ever before. Oh well. I guess that like President Smith, “it is deep waters that I am wont to swim in.” Not by choice mind you, but the Lord seems to want to give me deep waters in which to swim (although admittedly, these aren't particular deep, neither do I wish to appear like I have great difficulties—I am merely observing that it seems in my life, given a choice between the easy way and a more difficult way, my life seems to pick the more difficult way). It is a good job though, full of many old friends, and so forth. I reckon I've just been spoiled by working as a Research Assistant for Doctors Jackson and Seely. There is, of course, nothing of kind to do out here in the middle of nowhere, so we do what we can. My job is only a short bike ride away, so that is convenient too.


I've been taking some time to read, as well. I read this really weird commentary on Genesis 1 through 3, which essentially had Adam choosing himself. It was very weird, being written by a modern Jewish philosopher, which helps to strengthen my long held position, that you should never trust philosophers. A tricky bunch from start to finish. Admittedly theologians aren't much better, but I don't like to read their commentaries either. You all, however, know me. I am trying to find the plain meaning of the Biblical text, which is a much more difficult proposition than it sounds. In addition to the occasional Biblical commentary, I have been reading a book about Napoleon as a military commander, and a history of Jewish textual history: the Hebrew Bible, Mishna, Talmud, haggadah, et cetera. A fascinating book. I have also been reading the occasional fiction book. I'm thinking about reading through the Wheel of Time again. I've been enjoying my reading, while attempting to squeeze in the occasional Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie.

Monday, May 21, 2007

All Good Things...

Well, he's gone. Samuel and Aleatha just left to return the long road to Utah, while I remain here in Virginia to work at a Pizza place in preparation to going to Oxford. I am very sad. I am going to miss my brother. In some ways this is even sadder than when he went on his mission. I knew then when I would see him again, something I am not sure of this time. It may only be a year or two, or may be several years. I simply do not know. I understand that this is an important part of growing older—moving on, and all that jazz. It just makes me sad. I know I keep saying that, but I do not know any other way to express this emotion. I'm sure that I will soon be caught in the wonderful prospects of my future, but for now, I'm going to miss my brother.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Marriage in Old Nauvoo

Well, I am actually in Virginia as I write this. I intended to write a couple of posts concerning my ongoing thoughts on Samuel's wedding and experiencing Nauvoo, as well as moving from BYU, but that obviously did not happen. As my wife's faithful reader will note, I was sick for at least part of that time, and so was unable to really write anything. This may be mere excuses, and you, O Best Beloved, may be fairly crying at the screen at this time to stop hemming and hawing and actually get to the substance of my post. Ahh, but therein you have discovered my secret: my writing always has more fluff than crunch, at least for unimportant writings, such as this one. Not I that I mean to suggest, my beloved readers, that you or your regard are in ways unimportant to me. Nothing could be further from the truth—my concern for you is what keeps me writing. That and the enjoyment of writing. For example, I am currently attempting to see how long I can continue this introductory paragraph without actually saying anything. I am, I think, doing a decent job, not that I have any desire to praise myself. Well, I do have that desire, but hopefully no more than any man. Regardless of how much I wish to praise or not praise myself, I will proceed with the bulk of my post.

Part of my reason for hemming and hawing so much over the facts is that some of the emotions that I feel as I look back over the wedding and sealing are somewhat difficult to deal with. Not because they are sad, or even unhappy emotions. There is, however a bittersweet edge to my feelings. My brother was the closest man to me of any that ever I met. Only my wife and perhaps my parents can boast to know me better. Because of this marriages have been hard for the two of us. Samuel had difficulties dealing with Thora, and while I had no personal difficulties with Aleatha (I rather like her), still Samuel's and my relationship became strained particularly during the early part of their engagement. Things improved toward the end (we are too good of friends at the core for it not to), but it was difficult for a time. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was graduating and leaving, which of course, by now I have already done. It saddens me, but that is part of life. We move on. I intend to keep in touch with my brother now that we no longer live in the same city, and I expect that we will have many great and wonderful conversations. I just don't know how I am going to work gaming without my stalwart player. How can I play L5R? I don't even really know the rules. That is, of course, only a small concern in the larger world of my ongoing life, but Samuel and I have always had time together. I'm not sure we necessarily will any more, except at times and seasons as we grab it for ourselves. There may, however, be a positive externality to this point, since hopefully we make better use of the time given to us.

The marriage itself was very nice. Nauvoo is a beautiful temple. I actually I enjoyed Aleatha's endowment more than I did the actual sealing. There are a number of factors that led to this, I think. One, the Nauvoo temple sealing room, while beautiful, looked like every other sealing room I'd ever been in. It was a fine ceremony, and we want to wish Samuel and his new bride a hearty mahzel tov from all of us. The endowment rooms, however, were a wonderful thing. One moves from room to room in the fashion of a live endowment, and the walls have murals on them, once again, in the fashion of older temples. My wife and I were asked to serve as witnesses to the company, which was a very fun experience. The Nauvoo Temple, and the endowment therein, were the highlights of my trip to Nauvoo. The sealing was nice, but I was mostly a spectator (which is how it should be). Old Nauvoo was very interesting, but memories of our religion are not he same as living our religion right now. Some of my interactions with the Community of Christ reminded me of this point. They, like us, remember and mourn the lost of Joseph Smith. But those memories alone do no good in the grand eternal scheme of things. Only faith in Jesus Christ and membership in His Church brings salvation. A Temple in Nauvoo again. The thought of it makes me smile. As I was walking back up Parley Street, I saw it there up on the bluff. I turned to my wife, and said, "There is a finger in the mob's eye." Then I began to quote the Standard of Truth, from the Wentworth Letter. It seemed very appropriate. The Nauvoo Temple represents what the Church really is, how it is growing. It is more than just a memory of a dead prophet. It is the work of a living prophet. And without a living prophet, we are not the true Church of Jesus Christ.

Just some thoughts. Until next time:
Excelsior!

(I intended to post this days ago, but got caught up with moving into my new home. -ARS.)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A New Day Dawns


Well, that's done it. I am now officially graduated with a Bachelor in Arts from Brigham Young University. It seems somewhat surreal, but the Convocation was tremendous fun. My wife walked together (she had disdained to when she graduated all those years ago, but had always regretted it), and we walked across the stage at the same time. There were some who walked with their babies, but we decided we would rather take a chance to sit together while someone else watched her. We love our daughter, but it was still nice to be away from her for a few minutes. My mother came out from Virginia, my wife's father and stepmother were there, and my two brethren with their wife and fiancée, respectively. A respectable crowd and far larger than I expected. Thora's brother and sister came to see her yesterday (thanks again Camilla: you helped out wonderfully). The ceremony itself lasted roughly an hour and had a nice laid back feeling to it.

As I look back over my years at BYU, I must say that they were very good ones. I have had some great teachers. John Gee, Stephen Ricks and Ed Andrus spring to mind immediately as teachers who helped me see a wider world. John Gee was my Egyptian hieroglyphics professor and was, for a long time, who I aspired to be. I have since not chosen Egyptology as my path, but Doctor Gee taught me more than just languages. He showed the great organic whole that knowledge is, and although one may specialize. It is dangerous to specialize to the point where you can no longer see forest for the trees as it were. Doctor Ricks was my Hebrew professor, for many of my Hebrew classes. As I am primarily an Hebraist, I would not be going to Oxford without his good aid. Almost all of the reading which I have done in the Hebrew Bible was done under his direction and with his encouragement. תּודה Ed Andrus was my first sociocultural anthropology instructor, and he built in me a desire and a skill to examine the interconnectedness of things, and the universality of reciprocity. I am no longer an anthropologist, but his training remains with me.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention Kent Jackson, Dana Pike and David Seely, who helped show me the way, encouraged me in my scholarship, and in the case of Doctors Jackson and Seely, helped pay for my college experience. They are all of them good men and good scholars, and I don't know if I would have been as good as I am today if it weren't for their guidance. I am particular grateful that I got to know Doctor Seely, because I met him so late in my college career, but he was such a profound influence on me. A thanks to all of them. Here is a picture of me standing with Doctor Dana Pike. He was the faculty advisor both for the Ancient Near Eastern Studies major and the Students of the Ancient Near East club, the presidency of which I served in since its rebirth from the Student Society for Ancient Studies, in various capacities.

The hard part here is now that I have finished, I have a larger and more dangerous world ahead of me. Although I am going to be in school of various types for the next seven or so years, Graduate School is a different beast than undergraduate education. Sometimes it makes me a little nervous. BYU and Provo is all that I have known, essentially since my mission, and it is all my wife has known her entire adult life. It is very strange to us to be leaving it. So it goes. I am just resistent to change I guess. I don't mean to be, but I think that all of us are in some ways. A new ward, new callings, a new state for Thora and Lydia, and in due time, a new country and culture. My life is about to get very exciting. I am extremely pleased the way my life has gone thus far, and I look forward with great anticipation and some trepidation to the great and exciting world out there.

On to Oxford.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Two Years


Today marks the second year anniversary of my marriage. They have been two wonderful years, and I trust that there shall indeed be many more of them. We've a few tough times (my many hours of school, her recent miscarriage), but there have been many more good ones. Of especial note in the travel of the past two years is the birth of our beautiful daughter. Life has been good for us.

Now, at the risk of my wife's eternal embarrassment, I wish to write a few reasons why I love her so much:

-I love how good she is with Lydia.
-I love how patient she is with me.
-I love that we have such good conversations.
-I love when she smiles at me.
-I love that she is supportive of me, and my Oxford ambitions.



There are many more, but our daughter is fussy, and Thora is asleep, so I must go now. As Always:

Excelsior!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Though a Boy I May Appear...

Tuesday was my last day of classes as an undergraduate. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Graduating from college is one of things you figure will never actually happen, not because one is stupid, but because it becomes such an important of life for so long. I realise that to the outside, it may seem premature to talk about college ending. After all, I have years of graduate study ahead of me, even allowing that the Oxford program is only one year. However, there is something different about graduate study versus undergraduate work. For one thing, I'll have earned my first set of letters after my name, although the I'd look awfully silly if I started signing my name 'Avram R. Shannon, B.A." I would be authorised to do so, however. The irony of course is that the way my life is going over the next three months, my degrees gives me the ability to wash dishes, which I did with no credentials. How exciting.

In all seriousness, it is a peculiar thing to be facing down my final exam week, finally. It will be a privilege to stand and walk and do all those other nifty graduating senior things, because I earned this pomp and circumstance! The humour of it all is that I appreciate pomp and circumstance on general principle. I love ritual entirely too much for my own good, really I do, and the academic ritual is more ancient than those practised in many churches today. This is partly why I am so upset by Cheney's visit. I do not begrudge him his right to speak with us. He is the vice-president of the United States of America, and deserves some recognition on that point. I am merely upset because he is messing my opportunity for a grand processional. I've waiting for this opportunity as long as I have been in college, and now it is stolen from underneath me because of security measure. It saddens me immensely. My only consolation is to be found in the fact that Oxford is the originator of most of this pomp and circumstance, so I hope to get my fill of it there.

Until next time:

Excelsior

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In the Beginning...



I realise my title for this post is cribbing somewhat, but I say, if you are going to crib, crib from the best. I started a 'blog long before my lovely wife did, but she has in the space of a few short weeks put me to an open shame. I don't know where my misgivings about writing a web log derive from. Maybe it is the idea that some how anything I write on this 'blog could be used against, if it were ever traced to me. I am going into scholarship, and the Academy is like a very nasty trade union: one must follow their rules and standards, and no working on the side. Even the above statement is a dangerous one if things got out. It may be that I am too wary, and I simply need to relax a little bit. Another difficulty may have been in knowing what to write. I wanted to put in something more than news. However, as expressed above, I didn't want to put any of the ideas related to my scholarship here. I have decided to chuck it all and write both news and other ideas, although not necessarily related specifically to my scholarship.




For one thing, I have been accepted to study at the University of Oxford, to read for a Master of Studies degree in Jewish Studies. If going to Oxford isn't worth writing about, I don't know what is (I realise that this is the same idea that drove the creation of my wife's 'blog. I don't care. I can write if I want to. Besides, there are generally two sides to every story). I am afraid I too much appreciate the honors of men to turn down an opportunity to attend at what is likely the most prestigious university in the English speaking world. You have to wear "the black robes of the false priesthood" to even take tests! You can see on the right here the robe that I need to wear when matriculating, taking tests, and eating in the presence of the Dons in my college, which I shall have to do periodically. The Masters robe is niftier than the American equivalent as well. It isn't as nice as the other one, but you can see a picture of it here one the left. The hood is made out of silk, which why the whole ensemble costs over 200 pounds sterling. I'll have to decide whether or not it is worth it to buy it, since I am getting my doctorate anyway. I intend to buy the hood regardless, but I haven't yet convince my wife.

Anyway, this 'blog is now officially started and opened, so one may expect periodic updates lest I be shown up entirely by my wife. I do not think that I shall be able to post as often as she, since I usually have less disposable time than she, but I shall endeavor to continue to write my thoughts about studying at Oxford and life after undergraduate work. Until next time, and to crib from another author, not near so great:

Excelsior!