Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro: Critical Essays, featuring my chapter, "The Birth of Fantasy: A Nietzschean Reading of Pan's Labyrinth," is now available. Because I do philosophy sometimes.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Search for the Historical MLK

Just like clockwork, conservatives inevitably celebrate Martin Luther King Day by attempting to claim him as one of their own. (The first Google hit this year comes from Sarah Palin, who asks on her Facebook that the President stop "playing the race card" in honor of Dr. King.)

The naive argument, coming from conservatives who have never bothered to read anything Dr. King wrote beyond a few quotes from a single speech, is that since King wanted people to be judged by the "content of their character," he must have been calling for a race-blind society free of government interference based on race or economic status.

This is, of course, complete bullshit. King was a radical. He considered unfettered capitalism to be a great evil, and his primary critique of communism was over its atheism, and its subjection of the individual to the state, not with its goal of redistribution of wealth. The full name of the historic 1963 march was "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." King supported ideas like universal healthcare, affirmative action, and GI-Bill style federal programs designed specifically to provide jobs and education for black people. Conservatives mistake his pacifism for passivism, but King was not a gradualist. He didn't couch his calls for justice in terms designed to make white people comfortable; he was calling for a complete disruption of the existing, unjust order.

(If I took the time to cite evidence for these claims, I'd never get this posted, but all of these ideas are easily found in his accessible books Strength to Love and Why We Can't Wait.)

I bring this up because it is illustrative to see how, in less than 50 years, the message of an historical figure--even one who wrote lucidly and prolifically--can be distorted by the mechanisms of social memory. By elevating him to the position of a secular saint, we have in many ways defused the very things that made him dangerous. We remember that he was a man of peace, but we forget that he was using peace to fight a war that is still not won. His message was not "Can't we all just get along?" but "We refuse to 'get along' with a system of violent injustice!" I think this is pertinent to biblical studies exactly because the radical message of Jesus--as near as we can reconstruct it--has been re-written time and again by similar processes.

(This isn't just a conservative problem, BTW. Liberals [particularly white ones] are guilty of sanding down the rough edges of King's message as well, perhaps in an attempt to legitimize the middling, snails-pace gradualism that has come to characterize the Democrats' approaches to racial and economic justice. And there is also a tendency on the left to minimize the centrality of Christianity to King's activism. To be sure, there were plenty of people in the Civil Rights Movement who dedicated themselves to fighting for equality for non-religious reasons, but you can't understand Martin Luther King without understanding ideas like agape, redemptive suffering, and the immortality of the soul.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

SBL/AAR Preliminary Report

Notes so far:

The OTHER John J. Collins was on my flight out of Dulles. He seemed rather bemused when I introduced myself.

Larry Hartudo was on my shuttle from the airport, where I also met Frances Flannery from JMU, who has apparently managed to leverage her expertise in apocalyptic into a side-line in counter-terrorism. So much for my insistence that what I do had no practical applications.

The Hard Rock Hotel is just cheesy enough to enjoy ironically. The rest of the Gaslight District is a little TO cheesy. But that would be like judging Baltimore by the Inner Harbor, so I won't hold it against San Diego.

I think part of the reason I have so much trouble socializing at these things it's I can't tell the guys apart. Skinny white dudes with receding hairline, scruffy beards, black-framed glasses and tweed blazers.

Or maybe those were hipsters.

Regardless, would it hurt to get something pieced or tattooed so I can tell you guys apart? (Oh, yeah, I guess it would...) I'm missing my accustomed cultural cues.

Monday, November 17, 2014

SBL Presentations

Here are the papers I will be presenting at the SBL Annual Meeting in San Diego this weekend. Please drop in if you're interested; there's nothing sadder than playing to an empty room. Or feel free to come up and say hi if you see me. I'll be the one in black with bright red hair.

Function of Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings in Early Judaism and Early Christianity
Saturday, 11/22/2014
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 400 A (Level 4 (Sapphire)) - Hilton Bayfront (HB)
"Degraded from Their Heavenly Vigour": Fallen Angels, the Testament of Solomon, and the Demonology of the Early African Church (5:00-5:30pm)
The works of the third century Latin fathers Tertullian (Apology), Minucius Felix (Octavius), Cyprian (On the Vanity of Idols), and Lactantius (Divine Institutes) contain strikingly similar (often verbatim) accounts of the origin and nature of demons. Direct dependence between some of the sources is possible, but the overall trajectory of any influence is obscure—particularly given the uncertain dates of Felix—and to date, no scholars have undertaken to clarify the relationship. The demonology presented by these African sources draws heavily on Justin Martyr, and upon especially Athenagoras, with whom they agree in distinguishing fallen angels from demons, the latter being the spirits of the children born to fallen angels and human women. 
This paper will trace this concept of demons from its origins in 1 Enoch 15–16 and Jubilees 10, through Justin and Athenagoras, and then compare it to the demonology evident in the Testament of Solomon. This will firmly locate T. Sol. within the context of third-century Christian thought, reflecting a specific sub-stratum of the Enochic fallen-angel complex in which the giants—rather than the angels themselves—were seen as the primary tradents in forbidden heavenly knowledge. Finally, a synopsis of the relevant passages will demonstrate that the commonalities and divergences of the African authors are better explained by a shared, external Latin source than by any direct dependence between them, or by the shared influence of the Greek text of Athenagoras. This study will enrich our understanding of the vital role that demonological concerns played in the worldview of the early fathers, and how these concerns shaped—and were shaped by—pseudepigraphal works.
(NOTE: This paper has evolved significantly since I wrote the proposal.)

Sunday, 11/23/2014
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: 411 A (Level 4 (Sapphire)) - Hilton Bayfront (HB) 
Angels, Giants, and Culture Heroes in the Development and Reception of the Book of the Watchers (1:30-2:00pm)
The `Asa'el or instruction narrative in the Book of the Watchers (roughly, 1 Enoch 7:1; 8:1–3; 9:6, 8; 10:4–8) presents distinct interpretive and historical challenges in its decidedly negative reappropriation of a usually positive ancient literary motif, viz., that of supernatural culture heroes who provide humanity with essential knowledge or technology. This motif of angelic instruction figures prominently in the later reception of the BW narrative, but many of these interpretations seem to retain vestiges of more positive culture-hero traditions associated giants and with the flood. Through a diachronic survey of several key texts, this paper will demonstrate the influence of other, more positive culture-hero traditions, rooted in Gen 6:1–4, which were not derived from the negative portrayal of angelic instruction found in the Book of the Watchers
By proposing set of criteria for determining the presence of these parallel traditions, I will argue that two additional, independent complexes of tradition played a key part in Jewish and Christian interpretations of the fallen-angel myth, and contributed to some of the less negative portrayals of angelic instruction found therein. In the first of these traditions, Noah and members of his family are depicted as giants, or as the offspring of angels, and are said to be responsible for the transmission of secret, antediluvian knowledge. John C. Reeves (1993) already identified traces of these traditions in ancient birth-narratives of Noah and in the pseudo-Eupolemus fragments, but they are also evident in later traditions attributing the origins of alchemy to Ham. The other complex concerns the fallen angels’ failed divine commission as the keepers of the cosmic order. This narrative (attested in Jubilees and the “Animal Apocalypse” [1 En. 85–90]) differs from the Book of the Watchers in depicting a two-stage fall, in which the angels’ presence on earth leads them to sin, thus shifting the vector of corruption. Connected with this strand in particular are traditions associating the fallen angels with the celestial spheres (not simply the interpretation thereof), and those treating the fallen angels or the spirits of the giants as objects of human worship. 
The presence of parallel fallen-angel traditions has several important implications to the study of Enochic literature. First, it would solve the long-standing question of why the culture-hero stratum was inserted into the Book of the Watchers at all, by demonstrating that the motifs of culture heroes, the flood, and giants were readily associated in the contemporary cultural lexicon. Instead of an intrusion, the `Asa'el narrative becomes an organic extension of the themes of the book. Moreover, parallel fallen-angel traditions would also explain why motifs not attested in the Book of the Watchers appear independently in later interpretations of the Watchers myth. As certain themes and motifs became entangled in the traditions derived from 1 Enoch, the interpretive “canon” expanded beyond the text itself to include certain implicit connections drawn from outside traditions.
(NOTE: Redacted text corresponds to a section of the paper cut for time.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Neither this nor that

Many years ago, there was a Life in Hell cartoon called "Fun Science Facts," which proclaimed "Ringworm is neither ring nor is it a worm. It is a fungus," followed by, "Fishsticks are neither fish nor are they sticks. They are a fungus."

Well, as expectedSimcha Jacobovici's The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene is neither lost, nor a gospel, nor is it about Jesus and Mary Magdalene

It is a fungus.

(It isn't even decoded. The only accurate words in the title are "ancient text.")

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Some months ago, in my review of the movie Noah, I said I was aware of no direct antecedent to the film's portrayal of the fallen angels' transformation into stone after the fall. While I was going over some primary sources for an upcoming paper, I realized I had forgotten something.

The Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, a Christian work (possibly Jewish-Christian) originating before the 4th century CE, contains a version of the fallen-angels narrative in which the angels transform themselves into precious stones!

For of the spirits who inhabit the heaven, the angels who dwell in the lowest region, being grieved at the ingratitude of men to God, asked that they might come into the life of men, that, really becoming men, by more intercourse they might convict those who had acted ungratefully towards Him, and might subject every one to adequate punishment. When, therefore, their petition was granted, they metamorphosed themselves into every nature… So they became precious stones, and goodly pearl, and the most beauteous purple, and choice gold, and all matter that is held in most esteem. And they fell into the hands of some, and into the bosoms of others, and suffered themselves to be stolen by them. (Hom. 8:12–13, trans. ANF 8:272–274)
In this version of the story, the angels descend to test the righteousness of humanity, and their transformation is a voluntary one. The precious stones, gold, and purple fabric are clearly an allusion to 1 Enoch 8:1-2, wherein the Watchers teach humanity how to fashion dyes, jewelry, and cosmetics, which in turn lead to greater human wickedness, although the emphasis in the Homilies is more on greed than the temptation of female adornments implicit in 1 Enoch. In the Homilies the angels themselves are not corrupted until they later transform into human form, and take on the concomitant weaknesses and lusts.

I have no idea if Aronofsky might have had this story in mind when he imagined his stone Watchers. Most of his sources seem to have been Jewish, not Christian (and most can be found in Ginzburg's Legends of the Jews,) so I'd guess not, but it's such a strange and delightful variation on the Watchers tradition that I can't believe I didn't think to include it in my original review.

Monday, May 26, 2014

NAPS wrapup (NAPup?)

Had a lovely time in Chicago at the North American Patristics Society conference last week. Response to my paper on Enochic motifs in the Mar Saba Letter was generally positive, which was almost disappointing, since I was hoping to stir up some controversy. I met all sorts of nice and brilliant people whose names I promptly forgot because I'm a goon. But that's what business cards are for. (Special thanks to the fellow who very kindly offered me a seat at his table at the banquet when he saw me wandering with my plate like a nerdy kid in the high school cafeteria.)

Also, I may be falling in love with Chicago. Karaoke at the Blue Frog!