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.

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."


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."


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.