25 May 2016

A Brunch Book Review: "Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed and Invented Their Stories of the Savior" By Bart Erhman

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior is the latest examination of early Christianity by Bart D. Erhman. Erhman continues in this his latest work to expand on themes he has written about in earlier books. His academic interests lie primarily in the ways the earliest manuscripts of Early Christian writings (from the gospels -canonical and non-canonical- letters etc) as well as the writings of historians contemporaneous with early Christian communities can tell modern historians about the historical Jesus. That is to say he is interested in the way these writings can tell us about the Jesus who actually lived -not the one described in the gospels or other writings  Erhman is also deeply interested the way  these early writings can inform historians about Early (and shockingly diverse) Christian communities. Erhman is deeply intrigued by the hunt for a more accurate historical Jesus.

Having read many of Erhman's lively, humane and informative books I must confess to a certain growing skepticism about the hunt for the Historical Jesus utilizing clues found in old manuscripts. The logic of the methods, a discussion of which would take us too far a field, seem defensible, and the arguments for what constitutes evidence quite clever and very seductive. This is to say that the arguments made by those using ancient texts to build a skeletal picture of what the actual Jesus was like are very convincing. The problem is that they are largely impossible to test. I can not overstate how the methods of these textual critics are incredibly plausible and logically sound, but I think an honest appraisal of what the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels, as well as other early writings, can tell us about the actual Jesus is this. The Gospels can't tell us very much about who Jesus actually was.  Mostly what these earliest writings can tell us about is who the early Christian communities thought Jesus was as well as what they thought his mission was. Interestingly, on these points not even the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), agree.

The work of scholars like Erhman with these early texts have produced -in very broad outline- the following picture of the historical Jesus. Jesus, most biblical scholars tell us, appears to have been an apocalyptic preacher, who preached that the end of the world would come with in the life times of his followers. He is thought to have ran afoul Rabbinic elders, or Roman law, or both and this led to his death. Historians like Erhman tell us that for his offenses Jesus found himself at the mercy of the rather unpleasant, and largely unmerciful Pontius Pilot, was likely unceremoniously executed and dumped in a mass grave. For a more compelling presentation of this case, as well as a deep and thoughtful examination of Erhman's argument, complete with his evidence I will direct you to the superior Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. I bring up this interpretation only to set Erhman's context. This picture of Jesus comes up a lot, and Erhman doesn't waste a great deal of text defending what is largely a consensus view among historians, the majority of which, according to Erhman, seem to think that outline is the most plausible picture of the historical Jesus given the evidence.

Erhman on Early Christian communities, and early Christian writings, indeed on the logic and conclusions of Textual Criticism is hard to beat. All of his books contain interesting insight into the history and myriad, inconsistent and often mutually exclusive understandings of Jesus held by diverse groups of early Christians. In this, Jesus Before the Gospels is no different. It is often fascinating and includes some very important rebuttals to the methods of literalists. This book exposes their hypotheses to the cruel light of history.  However, despite some very strong material this is Erhman's weakest book. The book feels like it is having arguments with several different factions, and its closing chapter is the very definition of tilting at windmills. All that said, the short version of my review is this. Flawed, and scattershot, but probably worth your time. Now to address to some particulars.

The Good

Any historical approach to Christianity is bound to be met with a strong fundamentalist objection. Erhman has never shied away from meeting these objections and in this book he addresses several hypotheses offered by biblical literalists/fundamentalist in defense of the idea that the bible represents strong historical evidence.

Are the Gospels reliable historical documents?

The canonical Gospels, and indeed the non-canonical gospels, were not written by eye witnesses to the events in question. While each gospel has a name attached, no one knows who wrote any of them. None were written by anyone who knew Jesus, or knew anyone, who knew someone who knew someone who knew Jesus. Nor can they be said to be entirely independent documents. The first gospel to be written, probably between the years 66-70, The Gospel of Mark, forms at least one source for the Matthew and Luke (both written, sometime between 80-100 AD). These three form the Synoptic Gospels, and while some startling differences and inconsistencies exist between them, they are not with out similarity. This is unsurprising. Two of them draw on Mark as a source, and seem to share another source as well. The Gospel of John, is much different than its canonical brethren, shares no sources with the Synoptics and seems to have a completely different message. It is also the last of the canonical Gospels to be written, between the years 90-110. These dates and their language of origin -decades later and Greek- strongly suggest that no one responsible for their production were eye witnesses to the events they purport to describe. Indeed, it would be hard square the actual ending of Mark, as written in the earliest and best manuscripts with an authorial witness. It will likely surprise some readers to learn that the original ending of Mark is at 16:8. The women flee the tomb and tell no one what they saw because they were afraid. Most scholars agree that this was the original ending. If that is so, and the gospel represents accurate history, how then did the author learn of the fleeing women who told no one what they saw? The author of the text clearly wasn't there. Problematic eh?

The non-canonical gospels were all written much later and also don't provide any reliable information about Jesus. In aggregate, the gospels, are not primary sources of historical data, at least not regarding the history, ministry or life and death of their central figure. One thing that gospels may help interested historians understand is the communities that produced the gospels. What did these communities think was true about Jesus? What social context helped shape these views of Jesus?

To give an example of how social context changed the Early Christian understanding of who Jesus was and what he preached, we can see, over time a dwindling of focus on an immediate end times message. From Mark to John, that preoccupation seems to dwindle as the idea of a swift return within the life time of Jesus' generation becomes less and less tenable with each passing year after Jesus death. By the time John is written it is hard to believe they can hold space as accurate representations of Jesus' message in the same book.

There is much more I could say here, but Erhman says it much better than I do.

Eye Witness reliability. The difficulties of memory and observation. 

Before we proceed take the following test. Its important, how many times do the players in white pass the ball?

Did you get the right answer? Did you see everything the first time? A statistically significant percentage of people don't see everything that occurs in the video. That fact alone should increase one's skepticism at the idea of eye witness reliability.

If you have talked about the bible at length with fundamentalists you will often be presented with the idea that the gospel accounts are produced by eye witnesses. I know I have personally heard "Eye witness testimony is the most reliable testimony there is."

Lets leave aside what we just learned about the consensus of modern biblical scholars, which holds that none of the writings of the New Testament have been produced by any eye witnesses, or even anyone who spoke to eye witnesses. The question that we need to ask is this. Is eye witness testimony reliable? Incidentally, those who like to use this defense, seem strangely uninterested in the answer to this very germane question. Rather they like to cite judicial reliance on this kind of testimony.

Erhman, citing actual research on eye witness reliability, and the accuracy of memories demonstrates that eye witness testimony is actually the least reliable form of evidence there is. Most people convicted of crimes and later exonerated via DNA evidence, for instance, were convicted wholly on the basis of eye witness testimony. Eye witnesses reliably get what they witness wrong, and their memories of actual events get worse over time.

Research demonstrates that humans are actually fairly terrible observers and that our memories are quite malleable and prone to error. Erhman, with compelling use of evidence demonstrates that even if the New Testament produced by eye witnesses -it wasn't- their writing wouldn't be reliable without external corroboration. Erhman, in this book, only briefly addresses the subject of independent corroboration, but he does note that history contemporaneous with Jesus is silent. Erhman has addressed this paucity of external corroboration in the previously mentioned Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. 

The problem though, well explored by experts in the field of memory, and observation like Elizabeth Loftus is that false memories are easy to generate, impossible to distinguish from memories of real events and that the way we remember events is often influenced by social context and social pressure. Our presentation of our memories can even be influenced by how we want to be perceived within that social context. Researchers in this fascinating and troubling field have managed to implant false memories in subjects that subjects were unable to distinguish from real memories, and have documented the way in which our memories of events, even significant and visceral events (where were you when the space shuttle Challenger exploded say, or what were you doing when you learned of the attacks on 9/11) change significantly over time. Human memory isn't like a film reel laying down a perfect record of history. Erhman citing several studies demolishes confidence in eye witness accounts.

Prior to the writing down of the Canonical Gospels, the Early Christians, being Jews would have faithfully preserved their history and understanding of Jesus because they were a part of an oral culture and oral cultures are much better at preserving history and have better memories than literate  cultures. 

Another argument from fundamentalists that Erhman addresses is the alleged reliability of oral traditional cultures vs literate cultures. Oral cultures preserve history quite well, we told. Again, this hypothesis is offered without any actual evidence in support. Erhman again produces actual academic research that demonstrates that not only is it untrue that members of oral cultures have memories superior to literate cultures (the memories are more or less equal) oral traditions change all the time at the whim of the story teller. Sometimes the gist of the cherished traditions is preserved, but just as often it is not. The reasons for the changes are myriad, but chief among them is that story tellers are also entertainers and they tell their tales under a host of constraints and pressures. Anthropological research seems to suggest that oral cultures are actually much worse at preserving sound accounts of their history than literate societies.

I don't want to give away too much of what Erhman explores here. He does a great job and you should definitely read his more compressive accounts and not my summary.

The Bad

But is memory the right word Bart?

While I found this book quite interesting, I kept arguing with its use of terminology. Specifically I found his use of the word "memory" quite problematic. How do we remember Jesus? How do we remember Lincoln? In the case of the latter, which Erhman uses by way of example, why do different groups of people remember Lincoln differently?

I was never very comfortable with this language. For instance, Erhman frames many of his accounts of Jesus in the following way, why did the author of X remember Jesus in this way? I kept asking the book, is "remember" the right word in this context? Lets imagine the author of The Gospel of John for a moment. It seems unlikely "remember" is the right way to describe the action of an author that has no actual memories of Jesus. The author is transcribing stories of other people, or stories in his community, or stories he is making up about Jesus rather than "remembering" events about Jesus witnessed by the author. No author in the New Testament was "remembering" things about Jesus they were telling stories they heard, making them up, or discussing something else entirely.

In a very early chapter of this book, Erhman pits two flawed "memories" of Jesus against each other to illustrated some of what he will be discussing in the book. One "memory" is that of Reza Aslan's as depicted in his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which holds that Jesus was a bit of radical, who like most Jews of his day detested Roman rule, but also thought he would rule the Jews once the yoke of Roman rule was cast off. The Jesus Aslan sees is one that is fairly sectarian, contradictory, with strong political ideas. Set against this "memory" of Jesus is Bill O'Reilly's "memory" of Jesus. O'Reilly's "memory" of Jesus is one who is conservative and annoyed with Roman taxation. Obviously right?

Its unclear how either author's account of Jesus can qualify as memory rather than an attempt, none too subtle it must be said, to validate ideology with a tendentious bit of history. Is it really fair to call these stories memories? Some people might, but given the grounding in the work of the scientists of memory it seems like his use of words like "remember" and "memory" are ill advised, and, ultimately, a bit confused, as well as confusing. At the very least this usage seems imprecise.

Tilting at Windmills. 
The final chapter of the book looks like nothing so much as a whine. In recent years the rise of the Nones (that demographic that choses not to affiliate with any organized, or even disorganized religion) has led to a more serious examination of the hypothesis that Jesus never existed at all. To the  Historical Jesus project we find, counter posed,  an increasingly popular Jesus Myth Project. The latter project finds Jesus to be about as probable as Hercules, and unlikely to have actually existed. The Jesus Myth faction suspects, not with out strong arguments and evidence, that Jesus is a bit of an amalgam of local, similar mythologies that were thick on the ground in first century Palestine. It has become clear that Erhman has felt a bit harried by this branch of thought (he recently wrote an entire book rebutting it). Another pressure brought on, I think, by the rise of the Nones, and certainly a rise in the percentage of out of the closet atheists, is a disinterest in the actual history of Jesus. Atheists are, Erhman thinks, by and large, are disinterested in the bible and find lengthy studies of it, and indeed studies of the Early Christian community, to be huge wastes of time. Erhman spends paragraph after paragraph justifying to this group (I think) the importance of his field. The bible and its central figure represent, Erhman argues, a gigantic influence on Western Culture. Jesus may be the most important figure in history (this claim feels incredibly parochial to me but it is true that Jesus's figure has been influential on the world stage).

It is unclear to me that Erhman is actual correct here. In the first place, atheists, especially those in the west are actually quite familiar with the Bible. Many even find its evolution quite fascinating whether they think Jesus was an actual person in history or not. This brings me to Erhman's worst argument though for taking the Bible seriously.

Erhman goes on a lengthy tirade in which he points out that the bible is interesting simply as literature and is worthy of study whether or not it is accurate history. In this he is almost certainly correct, though mileage will vary with the claim that the bible actually represents great literature. Some passages are certainly well rendered in certain translations, but I doubt anyone could make a convincing argument that the begats of Genesis could ever make for exciting reading. On the whole though, I agree with Erhman. Like all great mythology Judeo-Christian mythology certainly provides a careful reader plenty to chew on. But Erhman then makes a slew of apples to oranges comparisons that feel, to use an uncharitable description, desperate.

A sample:
Shakespeare is interesting even if Shakespeare wasn't the author or sole author.
 Does great literature have to be true contain truth?
Mythology is interesting because it contains ineffable truths about humanity.

You can fill in any such deflection you have heard probably, because Erhman's list is long and exhaustive.

Erhman though makes a claim about the figure of Jesus that can only be true if he is a real character in history who was actually who the myths say he was. Erhman argues that we should be interested in the New Testament specifically is because Jesus was one of the great moral teachers of history. Really? Certainly this cannot be said unequivocally because Jesus also said a lot of immoral things (leave your family, give no thought for the 'morrow, lest you hate your family etc) that can only be wise things to do if, in fact he is who the tales say he is. A great deal of Jesus' wise and moral counsel hinges on the question of his historical accuracy.

But consider another great moral teacher: Spider-Man. Nothing Spider-Man says or does stands or falls on his actual existence. Spider-Man's moral teachings stand on their own whether or not he actually lives in New York using his great power with great responsibility. This is not the case with Jesus. His status as a great moral teacher rises and falls with, at least in large part, on whether or not he existed and was who he, or least his writers say he was. Erhman's literary deflections can't really change that fact. The Bible is more interesting than other mythologies only because so many people believe it is the inspired word of an all powerful deity.

14 May 2016

I just recently discovered Sarah Haider. I think she is an important voice, engaged in a difficult discussion about Islam. Like many American liberals who are engaged she gets attacked from many sides.

03 May 2016

Approaching a Hillary Clinton Candidacy as a Bernie Sanders supporter.

I was a Bernie Sanders supporter. I argued for him in my state caucus. I still like the guy and think, of the two Democratic candidates, he had the better direction as well as philosophical commitments to altering the status quo. For whatever reason, the democratic powers that be (both in its elite leadership and at the grassroots level) favor Hillary Clinton for president of the United States. I could essay a great many reasons why I think she is a poor candidate. But that has been done elsewhere. I will simply say this. Her political leanings are not exactly progressive. She and her husband Bill used to describe themselves as Eisenhower Republicans and would assure center right colleagues that "there are no leftists" in the Clinton administration. Hillary herself was a Goldwater Republican and that is largely how I continue to think of her. She is as hawkish as any center-right republican. In this way she will be not very different than Obama. But she will not likely embrace even a facade of strong liberalism. In a Hillary Clinton presidency, I would predict triangulation on the Affordable Care Act, followed by a weakening of the Act itself.

Neither she, nor her husband have done especially well by the poor, or the disenfranchised. On the other hand, they haven't exactly been as bad as nominal republicans of the center or far right. There will be some lip service paid to these groups obviously, but I don't see much being done to actually advance the cause of such groups. I would love to be proven wrong, but I suspect a Hillary Clinton presidency to be long on rhetoric and short on substance. And behind it all, will be the polarizing figure of her husband. The best I feel I can say about her is that she is a smart, shrewd and fairly savvy political operator who has a wealth of ambition and resilience. I don't think she will be an especially grand champion of political causes that I find important (elevating education reducing student debt loads, creating an culture that fosters the best in science, engineering and the arts in which many more people get a chance to partake, addressing our environmental crisis, creating a renewable energy economy, and providing incentives and research dollars toward the development of safer, more reliable nuclear power, and using evidence based approaches increasing opportunity and access for disenfranchised peoples to name a few). On the other hand, I expect a continued strong economy, and at least sound, predictable domestic and foreign policy out of a Clinton White House. Aside from potential triangulation on the Affordable Care Act, I don't see too many backwards steps. So I feel comfortable voting for her in an election in which she will be opposed by Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.  If she was running against a Bush, or McCain, or a Romney I would probably feel comfortable voting for different candidate as there are few significant differences among such centrists. In fact if it were a choice between Hillary and a Bush, McCain or Romney, I would probably vote for the Republican -note to the many Republican power brokers who must be reading this blog. The main difference is that the Clintons choose to call themselves Democrats. The crucial difference in this election cycle though is that Hillary isn't running against a person with whom she has more similarity rather than difference. She will be running against two uncommonly ugly egomaniacal candidates, one  a wildly unpredictable demagogue whose self-confidence is rivaled only by his ignorance of matters both foreign and domestic (Trump) and his contempt for much of the electorate, while the other is an equally disconnected ideologue whose commitment to his father's Christian Dominionism trumps any oath to protect and respect the US constitution he has made or will make (Cruz). Cruz and Trump (though Trump is the more guilty party here) embrace a machismo, and bravado that is dangerous in world where nuclear weapons exist. Both candidates Trump and Cruz share an uncommon commitment to ignore evidence in favor of their own, uninformed views of reality. Cruz has adopted a running mate who shares this commitment. Trump and Cruz share a disdain for the overwhelming evidence of global warming. Cruz and Fiorina both continue to believe the now debunked Planned Parenthood fraud. Neither Trump, nor Cruz will be good for anything most Americans, when polled on individual issues support. The environment will suffer. The progress of minorities will suffer. Education will suffer. Given both candidates embrace of the utterly exploded theory of trickled down economics we can bet that the economy will suffer, growth will reverse and unemployment numbers will probably rise.

The goal of this election must be, I think, to prevent either of these dangerous Republican candidates out of office. At the end of the day whatever Hillary Clinton may be be, she is at least a sound, rational candidate, who may not be as progressive as some on the left would like (I'm looking at you fellow Sanders supporters).  However, her centrist, Goldwater Republican leanings also make her an ideal candidate for centrist Republicans who are looking at their own candidates in disgust right now.

My advice?
Vote Hillary in November. She isn't dangerous and the other guys clearly are.

12 April 2016

An Interesting Interview with Marty Rathbun of Scientology

If you have not seen Alex Gibey's  "Going Clear" or the book upon which it is based by Lawrence Wright you should definitely do that first. But afterwards, enjoy this interview with one of the key players in both.

The story of both Hubbard and the evolution of Scientology is a fascinating look into the growth of a religion and cult. When one examines the founders of most religions in the modern era, one is not impressed with their levels of honest self-representation. One is impressed with the plasticity of their doctrine in the face of personal desires and political pressure. The ease with which these people come up with the necessary revelations seems anything but supernatural. Modern religious people scoff and laugh at these new religious movements with out much reflection. The texts of ancient religions, sometimes subtly,  sometimes not, hint that ancient messiahs share many characteristics with their modern counterparts.

11 February 2016

Batman v Superman

If you are like me, you were there on opening night way back in 1989 to see Michael Keaton turn in a capable performance as the Batman in what was -none of us would have admitted it at the time- a not great Batman film. It wasn't bad, but on some level it missed some of the fundamentals, and disregarded completely the physicality of the character. It straddled, uneasily, the line between the camp of Adam West and Burt Ward and more straight interpretations of the character and his world. That first film was a master piece of art direction, and design and a failure, minor to be sure,  as a character piece. The design extravagance only increased with the Burton produced films and culminated in the pure camp of Joel Schumaker's final two films in that series. Burton, the producer of the Schumaker films, would later go on to blame Schumaker for killing both the Batman franchise and the unmade Superman film he had begun pre-production on. Given his status as producer that seems like a cheeky claim.  As fans we settled for the ego driven Burton/Schumaker approach until in 1997 they shat out Batman and Robin. A uniformly great cast could not save the train wreck and the franchise died a very public death.

Eight years later Christopher Nolan gave a truly worthy Batman trilogy that opted for cleverly interpreting key aspects of the Batman mythology in a more real world kind of way. There was no instagram filter for what he did, but if there was it would Batman through a crime noir lens. It worked. It really, really worked. Or maybe the filter he used was a Marvel filter. Kevin Smith wasn't hyperbolizing when he called the Dark Knight the equivalent of The Godfather II. It was better, deeper and more clever than its predecessor. But even the very physical Bale wasn't quite the Batman in terms of physicality. Average street toughs could still give him problems. Still it was an interpretation we could embrace. Nolan and Bale gave us a blend, Batman was a bit of the detective, and a bit of the martial arts master.

I have no idea what to expect from Zac Snyder's Batman v Superman. I liked Man of Steel enormously so I am prepared to be optimistic. Whether BvS lives up to MoS or not, I think, finally, after nearly 30 years of waiting, I will finally get (on the big screen) Batman as unstoppable fighting force. I am sooooo looking forward to that.  Enjoy the brutality....

16 October 2015

Brunch Review: Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Strikes Again."

In 1986 Frank Miller changed comic books forever. He (along with constant creative companions, Lynn Varely- she of the pretty colors and Klaus Janson- he of the perfectly weighted inked lines) wrote and penciled what certainly one of the most important comic books in the history of the medium. That story, contained in four mind blowing, super sized issues, was called Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It is safe to say, especially of the Batman universe, but also of comic books more generally, that everything was different after that. Everyone, including the popular press, saw that comic books offered a larger suite of story-telling possibilities than was generally assumed. It was all gloriously different.

It was Frank Miller who realized (along with a few others) that kids were probably the smallest portion of the comic book market, and that an author could tell really any story they wanted. With Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Miller didn't just throw down the gauntlet, he hurled it, like some angry god from on high. "Follow me," he seemed to say. And we readers and creators alike, continue to follow that Frank Miller, he of 1986, to this day. As Stephen King said at the time, "Probably the finest piece of comic art ever created."

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: A necessary synopsis

Miller gave us a slightly dystopian future. Bruce Wayne is, let's say 60. He has hung up his kevlar weave, and abandoned the fake gin and tonic for the real thing. In fact, all the heroes seem to have faded into the stuff of legend. In Miller's future Gotham it is a world of soft people, parent groups and a deep antipathy toward greatness. Some of the thematic elements present in Miller's world view and will later blossom and turn the once great author, and artist into a depressingly crankish character, but here, the contempt for public apathy, and faux patriotism (it was the height of the cold war was it not) seems pitch perfect. Miller has a great, and justifiable contempt for post modernism, but he would later become something of a poster boy for its general contempt for beauty in art. I get ahead of myself. 

Miller's Bruce Wayne cannot dull his obsession, his need to personally right the wrongs of his city. Even at 60, his inner locutor, (the real person?) won't let the mask that is Bruce Wayne conceal him. Batman rages, and demands justice, and in the end cannot be kept in. The dark knight returns. In Miller's hands we see plausible sides of long beloved characters that are startling. Clark Kent is a bit prone to taking orders from paternalistic nationalistic authority figures (one in this case that looks suspiciously like one Ronald Reagan). His Kansas upbringing has left him a tad to trusting of authority. Oliver Queen (the Green Arrow) is a bit of a terrorist, and a Marxist. The youth of the future crave heroes, and one them, brave Carrie Kelley, becomes one. Many of the rest turn to crime and the security of gangs. Miller doesn't shrink from the implications of a teen side kick either. Batman always dealt with the most horrific of DC's villains, and throwing a child into that thresher isn't exactly a moral act. Miller lets us deal with that. It isn't comfortable. The other important contribution, almost prophetic on Miller's part, was his depiction of the popular press reaction to a world in which gods actually do walk among us. It is in his examination and exploration of the media in which his biting critique of the America of 1986 is sharpest and most accurate. His media is an example of the Crossfire trend. Talking heads arguing as if that was information. For me, his treatment of the media and popular press,  even more than his brilliant and novel interpretations of DC icons, is maybe the most important thematic element in the whole of The Dark Knight Returns. That should be enough to get us started, -Old Man Batman, Old Man Superman (both giant larger, than life), time as a finite and moving element and media critique. Go read it if you have not. 
look at the size of them!

The Review Strikes Back!
In 2001 Frank Miller returned to his future Batman with a dismal something called Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It picks up the story of Old Batman three years after the events of the The Dark Knight Returns. Between the two endeavors though lies about 15 years of changes in the author, and, depressingly, it shows. When I read it in 2001, I honestly couldn't get through the first issue. I considered the whole endeavor, just another excuse to kick over people's favorite apple carts, even his own master work. Almost every portion of the book was ugly. Not even the subtle color palette of Lynn Varley could save any image. Gone were Miller's larger than life motifs. All the heroes looked sickly, thin, with the exception of Carrie Kelley, no longer the girl just hitting puberty, here she is built like Miller's Sin City strippers, in Catwoman's body suit. Chew on the psychology of that for a moment and see if you can look at old man Batman as favorably as you might have in the previous installment. In 2001 one, I refrained from buying the book. I thought Miller was giving us all the finger, so I gave it back and I gave up on Frank Miller.
From The Dark Knight Strikes Back

A short necessary backstory

This year (if you are reading this in the far future, it is 2015 as I write this) it was announced that Frank Miller and a new creative team would be returning to that increasingly dystopian Gotham in a book called, Batman: The Master Race. I knew that I would not be able to resist reading the new book. The tragedy of Frank Miller has become a bit hard to avoid looking at. If nothing else, it will, I thought, provide some content for the always easy to write negative review. As such, I felt I must bear witness to the book I rejected fifteen years ago. Thus, with a heavy heart I ordered it. With a heavier heart I read it and bore witness to disaster. 

A few things happened. The first was that I had to eat a little crow. While the book is still an unmitigated disaster, I realized that I was wrong in 2001, Miller didn't phone in the book. I think it represented, and honestly, his approach to comic book story telling. 

His art is pared down, and his approach is to embrace ugliness, with the notable exception of a few of the book's key women. 
Wonder Woman

The daughter of Wonder Woman
and Superman, whose skirt is always threatening to reveal her lady parts.

For Miller composition, context and organization in his panels is, he suspects, unnecessary. Whie he doesn't exactly reject the agreed upon narrative convention of the American comic book (images flow from top to bottom, left to right generally, like reading an english sentence) he doesn't organize his panels in very coherent ways, and the book has a very jumbled, disorganized feel. It is more like the impression of a narrative than the actual thing. The action rarely makes sense, and Miller's Batman has morphed into a kind of joke- unintentionally I think- about Batman rather than the considered creation he gave us in his two great Batman stories.

The basic plot, though fairly boilerplate as comic book stories go, had strong potential. Lex Luthor and Brainiac, drawn as ugly as you could ever imagine, both zit faced, warty and obese, have captured and held hostage the Bottle City of Kandor- the last remnant of Krypton, a city in miniature complete with a living populace. It is this hostage that has bought Superman's obedience. They don't make him do anything against his nature, except maybe stay out their fiendish plans. But that causes a lot of damage too. For it means he cannot rescue the Flash, who powers the world on the cheap, chained to a tread mill. The Atom too is imprisoned, though why we don't learn until much later. 

That basic skeleton of a story could have been a fun exercise in exploring the sequel. There is laced throughout the piece an Alex Jones level of conspiracy and paranoia which doesn't really fit or make sense given what has happened in this world before. Lex and Brainiac, and their corporate backers reap the rewards of being the powers behind the scenes. They control the president (a computer generated image). Miller's media critique, once brilliant, misses the mark enormously, perhaps entirely. He seems to believe that American sensibilities are distracted by sex in the media. All his female correspondents are nude, spout propaganda, and demand that people look at them during commercial breaks in which they speak in innuendos. That isn't the case of course. Popular media is an extension of the talking heads shows Miller skewered in 1986. The format has expanded to include whole ideologically motivated stations that distort facts to suit specific political narratives. Miller, distracted by sex, and still somewhat focused on point vs point "debate" shows, seems oblivious to this trend in media. His future imagines a populace distracted by news run by porn sites I think. Other troubling trends, confined to the back ground in previous work, but impossible to miss in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, present themselves. 

The most troubling of these to me, is what appears to be Miller's general contempt for intellectuals, and deeper contemplations of the just city. Those who question the morality of Batman, or Superman,  are depicted as middle or upper class, often somewhat jewish or "gay looking" are, not infrequently, from San Fransisco, whereas the supporters of our protagonists are generally salt of the earth, working class. Miller's analysis is uneven at best, but generally he is just wrong, appearing as it does, to be little more than a view through crankish  lens of an old man who more often than not doesn't grasp a world that has moved on.  And everything is just so relentlessly ugly. The ugliness isn't an accident.  Miller's work has been evolving in this direction for decades. There are always some beautiful women, often naked or mostly so, but every one else in Miller's books has become uglier. I think it is just how he sees the world as an ugly place with weak people and one that needs fascists to protect it.

Miller peaked a long time ago. Lets hope for his latest return to his dark Gotham that he has found his way back, at least a little, from the paranoia and ugliness that has characterized his work for the last twenty years.

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23 September 2015

The Intervention of Jerry Coyne.

Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist, and sharp critic of religion, saved my workout.

I was running a bit behind last night at the gym, a slightly dilapidated YMCA, in northern Maine. It closed at 8 pm, and I managed to get on the stationary bike at 6:40. If I was diligent, I'd just barely finish my workout before they closed my shitty gym. My plan was twenty minutes of cardio on the bike that doesn't move forward by way of warm-up, followed by about an hour of chest and back super-setting. It would be tight, but if I could keep flat bench moving at a reasonable pace, I would get it done.

With only five minutes left on the bike, up to me sidled the Talker. God fucking damn it was the thought that immediately exploded in my mind. This fucking guy. I have seen him vaporize half hour chunks of people's work-out time before. I've watched as horror set in on his victims, who realized, with alarm and dread that they were, in fact, cooling down. True deer in headlights behavior. The Talker, I've observed, doesn't really give his victims a clear moment to break away and get back to their work outs. People start to walk away, and then he launches in with another salvo of fucking talk. They never keep walking, but turn back in defeat. They don't realize that walking away, sans intro, sans segue way, sans any preparatory dialogue whatsoever is the key to training a Talker, or breaking one of the desire to converse with or -and this is always the more terrible danger of a Talker- monversate to you. Simply turn your back on them while they are mid-sentence and go do your fucking set. If that offends them and they don't want to bore you with whatever dumb shit they just read in Flex magazine anymore then you win. If you get them to at least respect the proper cadence of gym conversation then you win (and maybe others do too). Talk for thirty seconds or a minute, go do your fucking set. Its not fucking rocket science, and it isn't conversation hour at the fucking coffee shop. Its gym time. GYM TIME DAMN IT!
Do. The. Fucking. Work.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, up to me walks The Talker.
"Anything good?" Asked the Talker.
I looked at the time. Fuck he has me for at least five minutes. 
"I'm sorry?" I asked.
"What are you reading, anything good." He asked, fleshing out his inquiry.
"Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible."  I said.

It was kind of sad. His face transformed, going from really excited, to sad and confused. It wasn't instantaneous, there was a struggle as desire to talk fought with the turn of events. I was the only other person in the gym, the only potential victim of his chatty depredation, but here I had thrown him an unexpected and obviously unwelcome curve ball.

"Uh, do you think they are incompatible?" He asked, his voice betraying a lot less excitement than it had a moment earlier.


There was a bit of silence.

"I've known Christian scientists." He offered, but without much enthusiasm. "...I mean scientists who were Christian, not Christian Scientists."

"Yeah. So have I."  I said.

Apparently there was no where left to go for him but silence. Which was fine because I had work to do.

Who would have thought that Jerry Coyne, author of the offending book, could intervene and save a poor wretched atheist like me from the long form of the gym Talker problem? Not me. But, alas, here I am confronted with this minor miracle.

Clearly Professor Coyne moves in mysterious ways.

Thanks Jerry!

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