Thursday, November 28, 2013


Seriously, Bible Secrets Revealed? You're going to let this Kathleen McGowan person (who claims to be a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene!) talk about Enoch and not any actual Enoch scholars? Some of us are very telegenic, and even seem to use the same brand of hair color as McGowan!

I can forgive your conflating the Watchers with the Nephilim, as that confusion is historically well-attested, and Bob and Dale got the basics right (and Reza Aslan didn't say anything too absurd). But I can't McGowan's supposition that 1 Enoch was left out of the canon because it portrayed God as too merciful stand.

First of all, if you read all five books of 1 Enoch, the punishment of the wicked is a pretty thoroughgoing theme. Sure, there is absolutely a strong strand of divine mercy in all apocalyptic literature; the whole idea is that the wickedness of this world is the result of a disruption of the divine order that will be restored in the eschatological future. Apocalypticism is a message of hope. Which is exactly why the notion that Enoch was omitted from the canon for being too hopeful is garbage.

Scholars have suggested a number of factors that led to Enoch's rejection from most Christian biblical canons:¹

  1. The most important factor was perhaps a recognition that Enoch was rejected by the emerging Jewish canon, as part of a more general trend of marginalizing apocalyptic and mystical speculation by the nascent Rabbinic tradition.
  2. Its authenticity was doubted. Some Christians questioned whether the book was really written by Enoch, or how a book written before the flood could have survived at all.
  3. While 1 Enoch was accepted as an authoritative source of historical and cosmological information by many early Christian fathers, there isn't much indication that it played an important role in the liturgy (except perhaps in Egypt and Ethiopia). Books that weren't read in churches were less likely to be canonized.
  4. After the third century, proto-orthodox Christianity was less and less comfortable with apocalyptic speculations. Expectations of an imminent end of the world were fading, and eschatologically-oriented works (like the Book of Revelation) were either marginalized or allegorized by the proto-orthodoxy.
  5. At the same time, Enochic traditions were being embraced by groups outside the proto-orthodoxy, like the Manichaeans, the Montanists, and various "gnostic" groups. This made them more suspect to those in the emerging "mainstream."
  6. The story of the fallen Watchers bringing evil to earth was not compatible with the increasingly dominant idea of human sin coming from Adam's disobedience in Eden. It was easier to reinterpret the "sons of God" in Genesis 6 as the offspring of Seth corrupted by the daughters of Cain than it was to incorporate the Watchers story into the what became the doctrine of Original Sin.
This is not an exhaustive list, nor can we be sure how these various factors contributed to Enoch's rejection. But of these, only #5 evinces "political" rather than "theological" motivations, and even there, it is theological politics. It wasn't part of a power-grab meant to keep the masses in line, as McGowan suggests.

For my money, it is far more important to realize that Enoch was considered authoritative, even inspired, by many early Christians, because it demonstrates that the books that eventually formed the canon were only a fraction of the sources that were important to the early church. While the bombastic narrator of Bible Secrets Revealed seems intent on painting the formation of the canon as the suppression of "secret" or "forbidden" ideas, it was a far more complex and interesting process than that.

¹ This list draws heavily on the discussion in G.W.E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch 1: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 1-36; 81-108 (Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) 101-102.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

SBL/AAR Wrapup

One of the takeaways from this year's Biblioblogging panel at SBL is that I tend to over-think my blog posts, so I'm going to jump right in.

Overall, the weekend was a success. I had a promising interview for a job that really suits my skill-set and interdisciplinary tendencies (not to mention geographical preferences). My presentation, "Academic Busking: A New Paradigm for Distance Learning and Online Content Creation," was well received, and meshed much better than I expected it to into the lively discussion of academic blogs, self-branding, and content creation that ensued in the Blogging and Online Publications session.

I attended a number of interesting panels, especially in the Esotericism and Mysticism, Wisdom and Apocalyptic, and Pseudepigrapha groups, including a review session for Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, Volume 1, edited by Jim Davila, Richard Bauckham, and Alexander Panayotov. (This marked the first time that I've been in the same room with the real John J. Collins, but no tears in the space-time continuum have been reported...) The question of the appropriateness of perpetuating the term "Old Testament pseudepigrapha" for a rather heterogenous, polyphyletic body of works came under discussion. The only real defense anybody had was "what else are we supposed to call them?" I can say that from the perspective of the job market, it would be nice to have a catch-all term for what I do that doesn't require scare quotes, so if anybody comes up with an answer, let me know.

The most important part of the conference was getting to meet people, some new, some I'd only known electronically. I am not at my best in crowds full of unfamiliar faces, but hopefully I've now established enough of a foundation that I can overcome the Yoghurt Paradox in the future.¹ I appreciate everyone being so welcoming when I suspect I spent much of the weekend looking like a frightened mammal.

¹ "The Yoghurt Paradox" is my term for the difficulty of meeting new people if you don't already know people, much as you must already have a yoghurt starter to make yoghurt, or, according to m. Avot 5:6, you need tongs in order to forge tongs.²

² And yes, another thing that came up in the Blogging panel is that footnotes aren't really appropriate to blogging as a genre, but some things I can't give up!

Saturday, November 23, 2013


I have arrived, somewhat later than I intended, at the SBL/AAR meeting in Baltimore. If you see a guy wearing a black frock coat with unnaturally red hair, that's probably me. Feel free to say hi, but don't be offended if I stare at your badge for a minute before responding. My brain can only hold so many faces at a time, so I may be a little overwhelmed.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Position Statement: I Quite Like the Songs

It looks like this year's War of Christmas is already in full swing. (Remember the good old days, when the War on Christmas didn't start until after the War on Thanksgiving? Now they've got the War on Christmas stuff up before the War on Halloween...) So, I would like to clarify, on behalf of the International Godless Atheist Conspiracy, exactly what our position on Christmas is.

So here you go:

Cut for lyrics:

Bible Secrets Revealed revealed

I watched History Channel’s new Bible Secrets Revealed, otherwise known as “My Facebook Feed: the TV Series.” For fear of damning with faint praise, it certainly was more scholarly than you would expect from the network that brought you Ancient Aliens and Cajun Pawn Stars. It features a number of top-notch scholars (and Reza Aslan), and despite the baritone narrator’s attempt to make it sensational (“Could the Bible hide secrets of blah blah blah…?”), the experts kept things quite sensible.

But despite being basically factually, the show was all over the place. It goes from David and Goliath to the Gospels and then makes a wild, inexplicable turn to the Reformation, Thomas Jefferson, and the Book of Mormon. It seemed like something a really bright freshman might have turned in, citing lots of good sources, but without a clear thesis or structure. B-

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Religion and Doctor Who Conference Wrap-Up

I’m sorry it took so long to pull this together, but here is my rundown of the Religion and Doctor Who conference in Manchester on 11/2. It was a really good experience all around, with some excellent papers and engaging conversation. The cross-section of people was fascinating, and not just presenters but also the audience-members, some of whom had come a good distance, and really contributed to the discussion. I ended up sufficiently engrossed that I didn’t have time to do much blogging.

For the first session, Ann Matsuuchi presented a paper she wrote with Alexander Lozupone called “Birth, Rebirth and Buddhism in Classic Doctor Who,” which was a critical look at how the original program used and appropriated Buddhist themes, especially in the development of Pertwee’s Doctor. It questioned the common perception of the program during that era as anti-religious by broadening “religion” beyond Western, Judeo-Christian presuppositions, and demonstrated a broad influence of Buddhist ideas over the years.

Next up was my paper, “A Whovian Demonology: Daemons, Beasts and Destroyers,” which looked at the various approached Doctor Who has taken to the demonic, from the highly rationalistic “ancient astronauts” explanation seen in  “The Daemons” and “Pyramids of Mars” to the more supernatural and esoteric “Curse of Fenric,” to the Doctor’s post-modern agnostic reaction in “The Satan Pit.” I argued that “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” were intended to engage in direct dialogue with the earlier encounters with the demonic, and reflected a conscious effort to embrace the different epistemic frameworks evident in the different Doctors’ reactions to the supernatural.

The next paper, from Michael Spence, was entitled “Reading ‘The Daemons’,” and turned out to be a wonderful complement to mine, because he provided two alternate readings of “The Daemons,” one similar to mine, emphasizing the Doctor’s positivist, materialist denial of the supernatural  as a part of a larger anti-religion theme; and another reading that showed how the episode subverted its own rationalism, for instance, by making Jo’s irrational selflessness the key to defeating the Daemon Azal.

The questions phase turned into a lively dialogue between Michael, me, and a few audience members, about post-modernism and the differences between Moffatt and Davies, and more generally on the show’s ability to play with thematic tensions and provide multi-layered social critiques.

After a break, there was a session about using Doctor who in religious education. The first paper, by Owen Edwards, was entitled “As We See, So We Learn: Doctor Who as Religious Education Broadcasting.” It provided some interesting context about the historical perception of Doctor Who, and its rocky relationship with its status as an “educational” program, and the rather sophisticated approach the show took towards questions of cultural relativism even in early serials like “The Aztecs.” A solid argument, even if it was far enough outside my own interests not to really grab me.

Next up was yet another paper dealing with “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit.” Holly Jordan’s “The Impossible Pit: Satan, Hell and Teaching Doctor Who” specifically dealt with using those episodes to spark dialogue about Abrahamic conceptions of evil and Hell in introductory religion courses. It included some fascinating excerpts from students own response papers, and demonstrated a lot of valuable pedagogical insights that I may have to adapt.

The last paper of this session was from Matt Rawle, a Methodist minister from Louisiana, who has used Doctor Who screenings as a way of providing his congregation with a new vocabulary for approaching theological questions. But I’ve got enough of a blind spot for liturgical and pastoral matters that a lot of this one went right past me, I’m afraid. Matt was a heck of a nice guy, though.

The first paper of the third session, “The Doctor and his Iconographic Search for an Ecstatic Human Experience,” by Stacey Embert, was read in absentia, which is a shame, because I would have loved to have engaged the topic more directly. It was a meditation on the Doctor’s fascination with human fragility, and his alienation from the experience of real death, both through his regeneration process and his tendency to abandon his companions before they fall victim to age. There were some fascinating implications for Clara’s role, as the always-dying companion, in the Doctor’s self-renewal.

Jasper Peters’s presentation was something of a homily, using the experience of being the Doctor’s companion as an allegory for Christian discipleship. This is where I ended up speculating about Donna Noble and theosis, since she didn’t just follow the Doctor, she became the Doctor. I also compared her brain burning out if she were to remember the Doctor to the Talmudic warnings against being consumed by fire as a result of contemplating the mysteries of the heavenly chariot.

The third paper of the session, from the winsome Leena Vuolteenaho, was a précis of her wider research into Buddhist and Christian readings of immortality in Doctor Who. She dealt in particular with the problem of eternal life, and the show’s recurring presentation of physical immortality as more of a curse than a blessing. This was a productive foil to Embert’s paper, especially with respect to “Enlightenment,” in which the immortal Eternals have no regard for the lives of “ephemerals,” since their death is inevitable anyway.

The keynote address was, well, a little churchy for me. Caroline Symcox is an Anglican rector and former writer of Doctor Who audio dramas. I was hoping for a little more discussion of the creative and production process, but she was more interested in making some kind of point about “natural theology,” and criticizing the atheistic stance of the current show-runners. She seemed to want to argue that the current producers end up accidentally making pro-religious statements in spite of themselves, which I found a little insulting, sounding a lot like the common Christian cliché that assumes all atheists secretly long for God. (She even used the phrase “honest seeker.” Ugh.) It also seems to assume that atheists aren’t capable of consciously negotiating the positive elements of religion while still denying its factuality. I encouraged her to see “The Book of Mormon.”

Another blogger echoed an attendee’s tweet observing that “the day became more devout as it went on,” although he seems to have found that a more positive development than I did. I would have hoped for a little more straight-up critical scholarship and a little less theology, and there were definitely moments when I felt I was the sole secular voice in the room (not an unfamiliar sensation). Still, shared geekdom can be a powerful force uniting people from different backgrounds, and I had a really wonderful time talking with the other presenters at the pub and dinner afterwards. It was particularly interesting to observe the difference between the British (and Irish) presenters (for whom Doctor Who is deeply-rooted cultural phenomenon from their childhood) and the Americans (for whom it is more of a fringe/cult interest, and in some cases, only known from the revived series). I don’t know what to make of the fact that the one of us with the most encyclopedic knowledge of the original series was Finnish…

I would like to thank Andy Crome for his work arranging the conference, and for giving me the chance to speak. (You should all go buy his and James McGrath’s new book, Time and Relative Dimensions in Faith.) I only wish I had more time to spend in Manchester (which reminds me—not unfavorably—of Baltimore). Certainly the friendliest bunch of guys with shaved heads and neck-tattoos I’ve met in some time, even if I couldn’t understand a word they said.

(I will post a copy of my presentation on my page once I have a chance to clean it up a little, which may not be until after SBL/AAR.)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A fuller account of the Religion and Doctor Who conference is forthcoming, once I shake off the jet lag enough to write smart words good.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


I just used Donna Noble as an example of the dangers of theosis. So that makes my week.

Still live blogging

Well, my talk has now spoiled two other people's by saying what they were going to say. But seriously, there has been some wonderful dialog about "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit." My talk was very well received, and there are some really interesting folks.

DW Liveblog 3

My panel went swimmingly (but for a crying baby) with some wonderful contrasts to my own topic.

Live blog 2

Having arrived at the (amazing!) library, I have been ushered into a room with one of the other speakers. We discovered several others had been taken to an adjacent room, on the other side of a locked door, visible only through a small window.

I have decided it leads to another dimension.

Live Blogging Religion and Doctor Who conference

I arrived safely in soggy (but lovely) Manchester yesterday, and I'm about to head out to the Religion and Doctor Who Day Conference at the John Rylands Library. More updates during the day.