Did Jesus Exist?
The evidence for the actual existence of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t overwhelming or incontrovertible, though all things considered it’s pretty good. I’m not a religious person myself, but it seems to me almost certain that Jesus was a real person who lived and died at the beginning of the first century CE. And indeed this is a point that has never been much in question. As Bart Ehrman writes, “Every single source that mentions Jesus up until the eighteenth century assumed that he actually existed.” But then some fringe characters began suggesting Jesus might have been made up, a point of view adopted, for various not always complementary reasons, by today’s “mythicists.”
In this timely book Ehrman puts forward the case for believing in Jesus the man (his status as divinity or son of God lying outside the remit of a historian). I say timely because in the twenty-first century the mythicists have been enjoying a resurgence, largely online. While admitting that their position “is interesting historically and phenomenologically, as part of a wider skepticism that has infiltrated parts of the thinking world . . . that deserves a clearheaded sociological analysis in its own right,” this is another direction Ehrman avoids going in. I think that’s probably wise, but it’s still something readers will find hard not to speculate on.
What is there about our own post-truth, Internet-sourced, anti-expertise knowledge ecosystem that leads to the flourishing of so many crank theories? As I began by noting, the proof of Jesus’s existence isn’t so great that it’s irrefutable, and I even found myself resisting some of the points Ehrman makes here. So I get being skeptical of the traditional story. What I don’t understand is why the mythicists believe what they believe. The road of doubt doesn’t necessarily lead to the house of conspiracy. Or at least it shouldn’t.
Chronicles of a Liquid Society
I’m not being disparaging in saying that this collection of columns by Umberto Eco made me think of the late intellectual as a blogger. He had no remit from the weekly magazine L’Espresso aside from writing on whatever came into his head, so the resulting articles “are by definition an expression of my personal interests, curiosity, and preferences.” These range widely – from religion, race, and technology to comic books – and the essays have a tendency to be more provocative and stimulating than profound, but then Eco’s subject matter is the flotsam and jetsam of a liquid society.
Liquid because it has lost a sense of moral cohesion, social homogeneity, and intellectual guideposts. Postmodernism’s rejection of grand narratives is said to have initiated this breakdown, but I’ve never believed in this critical mythology, which strikes me as only academic dilettantism. Grand narratives have never gone out of style, and in fact are probably more important and influential today than ever.
I’m not even sure Eco would disagree with this, as the pieces here feel less like someone testing the waters and more like mineral samples chipped from the rock-face of our dominant contemporary ideologies. Which makes them all the more worth reflecting on, as our culture continues not to dissolve but to petrify.
On Fascism: Lessons from American History
Matthew C. MacWilliams
Fascism is a label that gets thrown around a lot, and while that has diminished some of its impact I think it still has some usefulness. For Matthew MacWilliams it basically means an authoritarian form of government brought about by a demagogue’s manipulation of the electorate’s fear. This fear is, in turn, directed toward a mostly racialized “other.” In the U.S. this means Native Americans, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Muslims, and any other readily identifiable groups.
MacWilliams draws on various recent polls on America’s authoritarian attitudes and concludes that his country is today facing a real threat to its ideals, particularly in relation to democracy and the rule of law. He provides a quick survey of some of the most significant lowlights of American history, but there’s little deep or connecting analysis showing how these ideas work together to constitute a clear and present danger.
“Broadsword Calling Danny Boy”: Watching Where Eagles Dare
Recent years have seen an explosion of monographs on famous (and some not-so-famous) movies, from standalones like Noah Isenberg on Casablanca, Sam Staggs on Sunset Boulevard, Sam Wasson on Chinatown, and W. K. Stratton on The Wild Bunch (these are all on the shelf beside me now) to whole series like the BFI and Soft Skull’s Deep Focus companions. “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” is a bit like one of these, and may also mark the mid-point of a trilogy of film books by Geoff Dyer, beginning with Zona (on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris) and with the possibility of a follow-up appreciation of John Boorman’s Point Blank teased at the end of this one.
I say this book is like the other books I mentioned, but it’s something quite a bit lighter: nothing scholarly about it but rather just a breezy running commentary on Where Eagles Dare, a 1968 WW2 action film that has gone on to achieve minor cult status, I think mainly for the sense of nostalgia it evokes among men of a certain age. I don’t think Dyer did much if any research into the film, instead choosing to get by with lots of smart talk and breathless run-on sentences. It’s a quick read – quicker than the movie even – and a lot of fun, but don’t be looking to get more out of it than you would re-watching Where Eagles Dare on late-night TV while half-awake. In addition to being irreverent (was Eastwood’s Lieutenant Schaffer fellating Richard Burton in the back of that sedan?) Dyer is also a deeply personal, impressionistic critic and frankly describes the book as yet another chapter in his autobiography. I thought that a welcome change of pace, but if you don’t care for such an approach you might want to take it as a warning.
When America Stopped Being Great
Another effort, this time by a Brit, to try to understand what went wrong with America in 2016 and thereafter. That is, how the Age of Trump happened. As the title indicates, the post-mortem looks for continuity, and addresses the question of how much of Trump’s rise was continuous with trends in the Republican Party and how much was a clean break. Bryant sees a through line, calling Trump’s election a revolution “decades in the making.” His was less a hostile takeover and more “a merger and acquisition, with shareholder support and buy-in from a large portion of the customer base.” This is something that had been “brewing for years,” and only came as a surprise to those who had misunderstood and downplayed “the transformative changes that had been overtaking America – politically, economically, culturally and technologically – for the past 50 years.” The roots, in other words, lay in the Reagan revolution. What’s even more disturbing than the process of how we got here, however, is that the “economic, technological and demographic trend-lines all point to politics becoming more polarised and extreme” moving forward. “I fear more American carnage,” Bryant concludes.
Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife
The concept of an afterlife that includes a judgment resulting in our eternal reward and/or punishment is so much a part of the Western cultural tradition that it’s hard to think ourselves back into its original historical context. Bart Ehrman presents that context with admirable clarity, though I think he strains a bit too hard in his insistence on some points. The afterlife was a concept that evolved over time, and the Bible, a book (or books) written over a long period shows some of that evolution, as do the writings of the early Church fathers — who were trying to forge a theology that was moral and just — in the second and third centuries CE. It should come as no surprise then that a lot of the language reflects a theology in flux, as can be seen in Ehrman’s discussion of what Paul might have meant by being raised a spiritual body.
As great a job as Ehrman does in giving order to a complicated story, it’s not possible to smooth out all the wrinkles. From my own reading I think it likely that Jesus did share in the belief, which was current at the time, of some sort of posthumous reward and punishment. I get the feeling that the notion of death as simple extinction fits better with Ehrman’s own, contemporary point of view. But as always when discussing these matters, much remains open to interpretation.
Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
At the funeral ceremonies for the “dashing” Germanicus Julius Caesar in 19 CE the mood of the Roman populace started turning ugly – something his uncle, the princeps Tiberius, couldn’t help but be aware of. “Clinging as he was to the ears of the wolf, Tiberius could feel the rising of its hackles, sense the baring of its teeth, smell the hunger on its breath. He knew that it wanted meat.”
That sort of writing is typical of Tom Holland at his worst, the sort of thing that I described in my note on Millennium as being “stuffed with overwrought scenery and repetitive rhetorical emphases.” You could argue, however, that the style suits the tabloid/soap opera subject matter. The lurid history of the Julio-Claudian line is gone over again here with lots of dash and brio but in a way that will probably leave readers wanting something more substantial.
The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal
Mary L. Trump
The election of Donald Trump gave his niece, or at least triggered in her, a case of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which eventually landed her in a treatment center in Tucson that specializes in handling such matters. If that strikes you as a bit precious then you’re in for a rough rest of the ride. Trump’s previous book about her uncle, Too Much and Never Enough, was a revealing and insightful biographical-psychological sketch that did a lot to explain the then president’s train-wreck of a personality, but this one paints outside the lines in dragging in a lot of stuff about race in America that isn’t on point. I’d be the last person to defend Donald Trump on a charge of racism – I think he exploited racism in America as much as he could for political gain – but given the enormity of his other outrages it feels off topic here. For a short book like this that lack of focus is a problem.
The Whiskey Rebellion
Shays’ Rebellion was dismissed with a whiff of grapeshot, without a musket being fired by either side. The Whiskey Rebellion, less than ten years later, was over practically before it started, with no resistance offered to the arrival of federal forces in western Pennsylvania. Some twenty men were brought to trial for treason, leading to only two convictions, one of them being of a man mentally handicapped in some way. Both were pardoned.
It was then a minor, anticlimactic incident. William Hogeland’s account of it is, nevertheless, worth attending to for both its readability and for the picture it draws of Alexander Hamilton. In recent years – meaning in the wake of Ron Chernow’s award-winning biography and the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired – Hamilton has been presented in glowingly heroic terms. Here, however, he is the villain of the piece, which makes a nice corrective.
The 1619 Project: A Critique
Phillip W. Magness
I like the idea behind the 1619 Project. Here was a new perspective on American history focusing on the Black American experience and published by the New York Times as a way of bringing history into a more public forum. I had thought, however, that a big part of its purpose was to foster, or even provoke, further discussion and debate. When that debate arrived, however, it quickly degenerated into Twitter salvos and a withdrawal into bunkers. Whether this was inevitable, or even intentional given the political slant the Project promoted, one can’t help but feel that a great opportunity was missed.
Phillip Magness’s little book only looks at a few disputed issues out of the many available: the primacy given to the idea that the Revolution was fought to preserve slavery in the colonies, the link between capitalism and slavery, and Lincoln’s plans for colonizing freed slaves. Some good points are made, several times over. I hope there will be more to come on the Project, but given the present climate I don’t know if that’s even possible. What a depressing thought that is.