Do kids adventure anymore?

Yesterday a Facebook friend tried buying valve caps for her daughter’s bike in four different stores – including an actual bike shop – and none of the stores had any. The bike-shop owner lamented that kids “just don’t ride bikes anymore”, and that’s been true for many years now. I never see kids biking around the neighborhoods like my generation did growing up in the 70s and 80s. Helicopter parents don’t let their kids out of sight for a moment (fearing pedophiles on every corner) and keep them caged indoors. Watching a show like Stranger Things makes me feel nostalgic for my biking days as a kid, when the outdoors was a world to explore.

Another FB friend pointed out that paranoid parents are only part of the problem. In the internet age, kids themselves often prefer to spend the whole day online or texting or playing video, and need to be dragged away from their screens and gadgets. It makes me glad that I grew up in the age before internet and iPhones, or I might have had to be dragged as well. I’ll say this: I’d be a very different person today had I been hovered over as a kid and/or stayed indoors all the time — and a lot less independent minded.

I cherish my childhood memories. Between ages 8-13 I hiked (with friends, not parents) deep into the woods, played at the sand dunes, and biked around town. The most extreme example I can think of was the Halloween I went trick-or-treating with a friend in a faraway town we’d never been to. His parents drove us there, dropped us off in the dark, and then returned to pick us up much later. We joined a group of kids that my friend barely knew as we went from house to house, and at one point I got separated from my friend, which was scary because I had no idea where the hell I was. But it was fun scary, and luckily I didn’t stay lost in the dark in an unknown town. I caught up with him, and we figured out how to get back to the rendezvous where his parents came to pick us up.

That’s the sort of escapade kids don’t get to experience anymore!

Fantasy Pick List

A fantasy pick list from me is almost pointless, because aside from one obscurity it’s all the classics. So in my commentary I try to explain why these retain greatness in a genre flooded with formula and hack. I’m not biased toward any sub-genre. Represented here is mythic fantasy, portal fantasy, political fantasy, pulp fantasy, science fantasy, survivalist fantasy, and coming-of-age fantasy. But none of this is popular fantasy. If you like the Shannara series, the Wheel of Time, the Sword of Truth, the Belgariad, the Kingkiller Chronicle, the tales of Drizzt, well, then this list isn’t for you.

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1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1954-1955. What needs saying? I could go on about Tolkien’s meticulous crafting of Middle Earth, his prehistorical approach to myth and disdain for allegory, his linguistic brilliance, or his ear for the pagan epics. But it’s the long defeat theme more than anything else that sets Middle-Earth apart from feel-good fantasy. As a Catholic Tolkien thought history could only be a long defeat. Christian readers have claimed that Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo are Christ-figures, but they actually show the need for Christ as Tolkien saw it — noble and courageous, but ultimately hopeless against the forces of evil. That’s why Frodo was a failure, unable to resist the Ring when it mattered most. His quest was triumphant because of a fluke, or the intervention of fate made possible by mercy shown to Gollum. Sauron may have been defeated, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age. That’s what the Grey Havens is about, and it gets me every time. Even aside from all of this, on the strength of the narrative alone, The Lord of the Rings is the best story ever told.

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2. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1980-1983. Of the three chronicles, the first haven’t aged well and the third are a mixed bag. The second trilogy is the masterpiece and proves that sequels can be really good when authors push themselves. For all the first trilogy’s originality with the character of Thomas Covenant, it depends on a standard contest of muscle — armies fighting armies, with clear lines between good and evil. The second shows Donaldson completely on his own terms in a cross genre of fantasy-horror. I consider the Sunbane to be the most brilliant plot device after the One Ring, and it’s depressing as hell. The Wounded Land may well be the most depressing fantasy novel ever written, as we see the Land we grew to love in the first series poisoned in hideous cycles. The One Tree is even more mind-blowing, and it was an important milestone for me in my teen years. It turns the horror of The Wounded Land inward with self-scrutiny as Linden Avery relives her traumatic childhood over the course of a sea voyage. The quest’s failure at the isle of the One Tree is pure courageous tragedy, leaving Covenant no other option in White Gold Wielder than to surrender to Lord Foul in a desperate gambit so that Linden can heal the Land. This is a rare symphony in fantasy writing.

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3. A Song of Ice and Fire (Vols 1-3), George R.R. Martin. 1996-2000. Lord Lard may have lost his mojo in the recent volumes, but the first three remain the best political fantasy you’ll ever read, and the third in particular, A Storm of Swords, moves like a juggernaut. It’s famous for the Red Wedding, but the entire novel is a roller coaster of brutal twists spread over so many plots that miraculously don’t overburden the narrative. There is Jon’s story in the north, where after patient development over the previous two volumes, everything explodes, with the Others assaulting the Fist of the First Men, the wildlings assaulting the Wall, and Jon going from renegade to lord commander while nearly losing his life on both sides to get there. Dany shows her teeth in east, and I still get chills over her gambit to “give up” Drogon who roasts the slavers of Astapor. By the final pages virtually everyone important on the continent of Westeros is left dead, half-dead, or isolated. A Storm of Swords is the rare 1000-page monster that keeps landing bombshells and killing off characters you hate to love, and it pays off the developments of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings that are almost just as excellent.

Silmarillion-cover

4. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1977. The tales of the First Age are almost as good as Lord of the Rings and in some ways better. The history resonates on a level that suggests this really is how our world began. The theme is the Fall, which shows how Middle-Earth aligns with the Christian myth without containing it. The elves fall from Valinor when they keep the Silmarilli gems and refuse to help the Valar against Morgoth; this mirrors the fall of humanity from Eden. They fall a second time when they recreate paradise in Middle-Earth by the power of the Three Rings (in Rivendell, Lothlorien, and at the Grey Havens). Men also fall again, when they grow dissatisfied with their island of Numenor, and sail for the Undying Lands to make war on the Valar. In each of the four falls, there is a reach for godhood: men want immortality and elves want to be gods of their own creations. The result is all the tragic tales in The Silmarillion — cycles of hopeless war on the Enemy, destined to be replayed again and again. The battles of Beleriand are epic and I hope to see one or more of them filmed someday, especially Fingolfin’s single combat with Morgoth. His death demoralizes the elves for the rest of the age, as it does to me whenever I read it.

elric

5. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock. 1963. If you want nihilistic fantasy, you can’t get more devastating than Elric. But his final chapter (in a series of eight volumes) shares a premise with Lord of the Rings that often goes unnoticed. Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring: both will defeat evil but in the process cause the passing of gifted races (the elves, the Melniboneans) who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age, in which humanity has more of a fighting chance, without evil entities like Sauron and Arioch. The difference is that Elric’s world has to be destroyed first; the historical age won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must wipe everything out so humanity can start over. Things are so bad that a purging is required — the equivalent of Noah’s flood — meaning that Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what; it’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. There are scenes of repulsive horror in Stormbringer that left me poleaxed, like Elric’s wife changing into a huge worm from the neck down. It’s a rare fantasy that raises the stakes high and brings everything down so low without tripping over its ambitions.

6. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe. 1980-1983. Fans pour over this masterpiece like biblical exegetes do the letters of Paul. But really, I would advise not thinking about it so hard, at least not on first reading. Just take the story in. The narrative is immersive, the dialogue (which never flags) rich and organic, and Severian’s journey so phantasmagorical that you won’t want the spell broken by studying as you read. Severian ranks with anti-heroes like Covenant and Elric, a torturer exiled for the crime of showing mercy to a prisoner, and then sent to a city far north to assume the role of a public executioner. It’s a task he takes on willingly, but his ambitions are divided when he allies himself with an insurrectionist, falls in love with a young girl he accidentally resurrected (with an artifact he needs to get rid of but can’t), and wants to make peace with a woman who keeps trying to kill him. His ultimate trial is for nothing less than a new sun to save the planet. Fans keep debating if this is fantasy or science fiction. On the one hand it’s set on our planet (“Urth”) a million years in the future, with guns and spaceships; but few can access the technology, and there are also enchanted relics. The magical elements, the regressed medieval culture, and the mystical nature of Severian’s quest align with fantasy more than science fiction — like The Dying Earth (#9), it’s “science fantasy” — and spread over four volumes, it’s the best the sub-genre has ever offered.

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7. The Seven Altars of Dusarra, Lawrence Watt-Evans. 1981. Ask fantasy readers if they’ve even heard of The Lords of Dus quartet and I guarantee you’ll get a blank stare. Even in my day it was an obscurity. The second book, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, is the one I read so many times as a teenager it was ridiculous. Garth the Overman has the personality of Conan, lives in a world like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, and wields a sentient bloodthirsty sword that calls to mind Elric’s Stormbringer. Yet none of this feels like pastiche. Garth holds his own like the best of the pulp anti-heroes. He’s sent on a mission to steal whatever lies on the temple altars of seven nasty cults, and he does so with no scruples, relying on hack-and-slash, killing people, regretting it, and calling forth a citywide manhunt. I love the Dusarran pantheon, and the cults have some pretty ghastly rites. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them, etc. On rereading this book in recent years I’d forgotten how much blood Garth spills without a second thought to get what he needs. On the other hand, I remember the strong D&D overtones. Garth’s mission is classic temple robbing, and this is the quintessential novel for old-school D&D players.

dragonflight

8. Dragonflight & Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey. 1968, 1971. The Pern series devolved into a lame franchise, but the first two books are grade-A survivalist fantasy. The plotting is tight and the writing honest, by that meaning McCaffrey portrayed believable gender roles without kneeling at the feminist altar. She also took a big risk with the dragon-rider concept, as it’s so easy to go wrong with. The Dragonlance novels in the ’80s turned dragons into the functional equivalents of war steeds — an insult to the creatures whose pride would never allow for it. Dragons accept riders only by exacting a high price from them, which in Pern is a permanent telepathic link in which rider and dragon share all their feelings and sufferings. Those feelings extend to lust, which has become something of a bone of contention among the politically correct. Dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons, overcome with sexual desire for each other often against their will. Lessa’s relationship with F’lar is described in terms of rape, and that’s indeed the premise. Around these dynamics, the dragonriders work against impossible odds to solve the problem of Thread, which in Dragonflight ends in Lessa’s time-travel centuries back to bring help forward, and in Dragonquest F’nor’s even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread itself.

9. The Dying Earth, Jack Vance. 1950. I return to this classic for many reasons, not least for the way it inspired the spell casting system in Dungeons & Dragons. The wizards of far-future Earth would be right at home in Greyhawk or Mystara. They memorize lengthy formulas for spells, activate them by speaking command words, forget them once the spells are cast, and then read and memorize them again. Remember “prismatic sphere”? Artifacts and relics? All from The Dying Earth. Without Jack Vance D&D would have been a different game. But he’s a gifted writer besides, and able to evoke a dying world with incredibly haunting imagery: “Soon, when the sun goes out, men will stare into the eternal night, and all will die, and Earth will bear its history, its ruins, the mountains worn to knolls — all into the infinite dark.” There is imagery you’ll never forget, like the pyramid of screaming flesh half a thousand feet high. I’m hard to please with short stories, but these are so wonderfully written, portraying a remnant humanity who survive by searching for relics, the secrets of life, or just plain love, all of which seem in short supply.

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10. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis. 1956. I’m not a huge Narnia fan let alone enjoy kids books, but I do love The Last Battle. It might seem odd to compare it to Stormbringer (#5) but it is about the world’s destruction, and for a children’s book it certainly doesn’t soft-peddle the apocalyptic horrors. Precious Narnia is destroyed, Aslan’s cute little wayward animals are thrown into the apocalyptic incinerator, and even gentle Queen Susan gets the shaft — she is “no longer a friend of Narnia”, we are told, simply because she enjoys dating boys and having sex. If all of this seems monstrous, that’s much the point. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, apocalypses serve a hyper “justice” that redefines the word. From a dramatic point of view, The Last Battle‘s dark content is its strength, and something never seen in children’s literature on this scale. The Revelation-plotted narrative is a cracking suspense piece, as evil forces keep getting the upper hand against Narnia’s last king. The ape-ass duo (false prophet and anti-Christ) work their repulsive designs from inside a barn, which contains shifting terrors we can barely glimpse. There are no victories here, save Aslan’s at the end, which is glorious though in a very distressing way. Kids have been traumatized by this book and I’m not surprised.

On Ranking the World Religions

In Fuck it: Let’s Rank the Religions, Clickhole serves up the usual satire, ranking the world religions as follows:

1. Hinduism
2. Bahá’í
3. Judaism
4. Islam
5. Mormonism
6. Buddhism
7. Christianity
8. Sikhism
9. Shintoism
10. All the others

Here’s my more serious attempt at the exercise, though with tongue-in-cheek elements too. Sue me, I couldn’t resist.

1. Unitarian Universalism. 5 stars. I became a UU because I agree with its seven core principles: (1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; (2) justice, equity and compassion in human relations; (3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in congregations; (4) a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; (5) the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within congregations and in society at large; (6) the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; (7) respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As UUs we ground these principles in humanistic teachings, science, nature and philosophy, personal experience, and sometimes even elements of the world religions.

Cons: Some UU’s are the greatest spiritual con-artists you’ll ever meet. We pretend that we’re religious (we’re actually more a social club), feign spirituality (whatever new-agism is in vogue), and cherish all religions (or at least pretend to) as having more or less equivalent worth, even knowing that it’s bullshit and that our secular values are far superior. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that UU’s are naturally humble and open-minded. We have egos the size of mountains.

2. Buddhism. 4 ½ stars. With its emphasis on meditation and mindfulness, Buddhism is a psychology as much as a religion, and in fact some of the spirituality of Buddhism is accessible in purely secular terms. Transformation through meditation doesn’t depend on the Buddhist faith, though they can go hand in hand. Even doctrines like reincarnation and rebirth have been easily discarded by many Buddhists without being seen as damaging the integrity of the religion. Though many scriptures have been preserved (the Pali Canon), there is no single holy book, which also helps account for its less dogmatic nature.

Cons: The lure of Buddhism is its philosophical maturity and benign tolerance that makes it stand out among the world religions. The cost is that Buddhism isn’t about a neat set of principles. You don’t “believe in the Buddha” for some benefit. Buddhism is about practice much more than belief, and it takes sustained effort to bring about enlightenment — if that comes at all — and it’s not easy.

3. Christianity. 4 stars. If the Buddha showed how to avoid suffering by rising above it (through detachment from the material world), the Christ reversed the cycle of suffering by rising from the dead. Christianity is arguably the religion which most strongly takes on the problem of suffering. The disciples considered persecution a badge of honor, which they were expected to go through without retaliating in violence. Even in the book of Revelation, the faithful don’t engage in holy war and are specifically told not to; they are to conquer the the Beast through witnessing and pacifist martyrdom. The concern for suffering accounts for Christianity’s attention to social justice, strong ethic of charity, and promises of the last being first. At the apocalypse wrongs will be righted and the dead will rise, and even if that’s a fantasy, it has yielded practical theologies about justice and mercy.

Cons: For all its ethic of charity and forgiveness and loving enemies, Christianity has some toxic ideas, the most virulent being homophobia. Unlike other transgressions, sodomy is seen less as a sin and more an indication that one is a reprobate beyond the pale. There has also been a heavy strain of anti-Semitism in Christianity, thanks primarily to the gospel passion narratives, though this has been reformed.

4. Judaism. 4 stars. What intrigues me most about Judaism is its tradition of arguing with and challenging God. Abraham bargained with God for the sake of decent citizens in Sodom and Gomorrah; Job protested the sufferings God dumped on him; etc. Arguments can even get physical, as when Jacob wrestled with an angel at the Jabbok River, and got his name changed to Israel (which means “one who wrestles with God”). The other two Abrahamic faiths (Christianity and Islam) require a complete surrender to faith/God, but there’s a lot more room for push-back in Judaism. God-wrestling is quite a different idea than being a slave to Christ or wholly submissive to the will of Allah. No doubt this tradition was strengthened over the centuries as the Jewish people kept getting the shaft.

Cons: Judaism has its toxic ideas like Christianity, but also that of sacred warfare which has made Zionism possible. While holy war has never been essential to Judaism (unlike Islam), and doesn’t command warfare to be waged beyond Israel’s borders, the injunction to “keep the land pure” is an ingredient that has been taken seriously in even the most dormant periods of the faith. In the medieval period, taking back the land of Israel remained theoretically possible, and the midrash practically shouts that “if the rabbis could have, they would have”. This is unlike the Christian crusades which grew out of many improbable factors and had no basis at all in Christian thought.

5. Taoism. 4 stars. Taoism values inwardness and non-action, which at first blush seems to be a great religion for those of us who believe there is no free will. Wu-Wei is “natural action” that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort, and produces a mental state in which human action is effortlessly aligned with whatever course life is taking. On the other hand, that somewhat misunderstands free will, which has nothing to do with activity vs. passivity; the option to be passive involves just as much a “choice” as that to be strenuously active. (It’s simply that these “choices” don’t involve free will.) Taoism emphasizes health and healing as goals to long life or even immortality, and not being hostage to petty fears. Then too the yin-yang principle of polarity — good and evil being part of one and the same system — commends itself against a more dualistic view.

Cons: At its worst or misguided, Taoism implies that people can’t make a difference (which again misunderstands our lack of free will) and encourages too much passivity. Being detached from our feelings can also be a problem when taken to extremes.

6. Shintoism. 3 ½ stars. The laid-back religion is animistic and centered around kami, or sacred spirits that take the form of animals, plants, rivers, lakes, whatever. People become kami when they die and are honored as such, which is nifty. Shintoism is a highly ethnic religion rooted in Japanese culture and bases most of its beliefs on four ancient tomes: (1) the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), (2) the Shoku Nihongi and its Nihon Shoki (Continuing Chronicles of Japan), (3) the Rikkokushi (Six National Histories), and (4) the Jinnō Shōtōki (a study of Shinto and Japanese politics and history). There’s no clear-cut right or wrong in Shintoism and so things are pretty grey. Shinto rituals are designed to keep away evil kami, on which see below.

Cons: The worst thing about Shintoism is those evil kami. People who die holding a grudge strong enough to keep them attached to the physical world become vengeful spirits (as portrayed in The Grudge and other Japanese horror films), and it’s nigh impossible to escape them, or bargain with them, if they want to tear you apart. Just watching The Grudge damn near gave me a heart-attack.

7. Jainism. 3 ½ stars. A religion that teaches the supremacy of non-violence (the opposite of Islam) has a lot going for it. Whenever people tell you that all religions are equally malleable and prone to violent permutations, you can refute that claim with many examples, but Jainism is Exhibit A. It is impossible to derive violence out of Jainism, which is why it’s never happened. The swastika symbol may cause a double-take, but until Hitler perverted it, the swastika was a positive symbol. In Jainism it stands for the four states of existence: heavenly beings, human beings, hellish beings, and flora/fauna. The Five Great Vows of Jainism require the renunciation of (1) killing anything living, (2) lying, (3) greed, (4) sexual pleasure and (5) worldly attachments.

Cons: Pacifism is a huge plus, but at their extreme the Jains are pacifist to the point of dysfunction. Some of them watch where they place their feet every moment for fear of stepping on bugs, insisting on devices such as mosquito nets instead of insect repellent, smoke, or liquid traps. The stringent asceticism of Jainism is also a bit much for me. Sexual and worldly pleasures are a good part of life.

8. Hinduism. 3 stars. Hinduism is so diverse in its theoretical premises and actual expressions that I hardly know how to rank it. Yes, all religions are diverse in certain ways, but Hinduism is an extraordinary pastiche of monism, theism, monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism — all of these are built into the Hindu worldview. It doesn’t have a founder, it’s based on an impersonal Supreme Reality (Brahman), and the multiple personal manifestations of that reality as God (as Vishnu, Shiva, or Kali, etc). Basically take your theology of choice, and chances are it will find some legitimate basis in Hinduism. There has been a strong tradition of freedom of belief and practice in the religion, and that’s its greatest plus. (In this entry I would include Sikhism, the fifth largest world religion, which grew out of the Bhakti Hindu movement and has elements of Sufi Islam.)

Cons: The tradition of tolerance is great but isn’t anchored in a coherent system. And there’s the flip side: because the Hindu pantheon is so diverse, it has evil deities who demand nasty shit. Like the goddess Kali. The Thuggee (where we get the word “thug”), for example, were a brotherhood of thieves and assassins who pretended friendship with travelers in India before killing them. They were Muslim in origin, but later became associated with the Hindu death cult of Kali. Forget the cartoon portrayal of the Kali cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. For a realistic and thoroughly unpleasant portrayal of Hindu sacrifice read The Song of Kali.

9. Islam. 1 star. Muhammad wasn’t anything like the Buddha or Jesus. He was a warlord, and all the Islamic sources (the Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith) require believers to follow the jihad example. The only ambiguities in the Qur’an are the few passages advocating peace, but they are (a) all too few, (b) subordinate to the many passages which supersede them (the doctrine of abrogation), and (c) are understood to apply only when Muslims are outnumbered and have no chance of winning a war (reflecting the early time of Muhammad’s career). The precept of Islam is clear: perpetual war against all who deny the prophet, the subjugation of infidels (and women) under rule of a caliphate and oppressive sharia law. This has always been the historical norm for Islam and it remains obligatory in all schools of Sunni and Shia thought. There are obviously moderate Muslims, but no form of moderate Islam.

Cons: See above. Islam is saturated with dangerous and toxic ideas. Of all the religions it has done the most damage throughout history, yes, even in Umayyad Spain, which supposedly saw a “golden age” for Islam, but which is a myth.

10. Scientology. 1 star. How anyone takes it seriously is beyond me. It’s science fiction dressed up as religion, but a mentally abusive religion that robs you blind. The #1 goal of the church is to become filthy rich — richer than the goddamn pope. There is no top level in the religion as claimed; when you reach the top of the Bridge (OTP 8) you find out there are more levels after all, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Psychology and psychiatry are condemned, because there is no such thing as mental illness. Church leaders stop their followers from getting proper medical help, and in some cases have caused suicides because of it. Scientology teaches that the individual is responsible for everything and has the power to heal him or herself with church “technology”. Seriously.

Cons: See above. Everything about this religion is a con.

Chances of being Killed in a Jihad Attack

The Cato Institute has presented helpful data estimating the annual chance of being killed by jihadists in Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, as compared to in the United States. Though I think these analysts are a bit blasé about Islamic terrorism being a “manageable threat”, I agree that it’s important to keep perspective. Even in the highest-risk country (the UK), according to this analysis, your annual chances of being killed by a jihadist are woefully slim.

Over a year ago I explained the opposite problem, how the media downplays the jihad threat by misusing statistics and making pseudo-comparisons to other forms of terrorism to create a false impression that there is some ideological movement and threat equivalent to that of Islamic jihad. In fact there is no global “right-wing extremist,” “white male Christian”, or such equivalent threat in the same numbers or backed by a mainstream ideology. The reason why there are so many jihad terrorists is because their activities are required by Islamic law which derives in turn from very plausible readings of the Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith. And yet for all the routinely active jihadists, we should take some consolation from the following statistics from Cato, and not fall into fear-mongering.

 

Table 1: Fatalities and Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack, 1975–June 20th, 2017

Fatalities

Annual Chance of Dying

United Kingdom

2,632

1 in 964,531

Belgium

64

1 in 6,936,545

France

506

1 in 4,984,301

Sweden

20

1 in 19,001,835

Germany

148

1 in 23,234,378

United States

3568

1 in 3,241,363

 

Table 2: Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack by Period

Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack

1975–2000

2001–2017

United States

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 1,602,021

France

1 in 6,059,061

1 in 4,006,878

Belgium

1 in 9,611,873

1 in 4,373,511

United Kingdom

1 in 590,389

1 in 8,796,562

Sweden

1 in 22,145,655

1 in 15,858,016

United States (exc. 9/11)

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 19,772,468

Germany

1 in 17,338,091

1 in 47,429,484

The Handmaid’s Tale: An “Islamic” Republic of Gilead?

The New York Times has an interesting write-up on The Handmaid’s Tale. This TV series is adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel from the ’80s, about a dystopian America in which Christian fundies have taken over and turned the land into a repressive living hell. The funny thing is, this new America — called the Republic of Gilead — evokes Islamic customs more than Christian ones, even by the lights of hardcore fundamentalism. Atwood’s rule for herself when writing the novel was that everything for Gilead had to be based on a real-world antecedent. She draws on many influences, and I’ll go through some of the examples mentioned in the article, then cover additional ones which surprisingly the article ignores.

Color-Coordinated Clothing

In the Republic of Gilead men wear black, women wear colors, and the colors reflect the women’s caste: red for handmaids (fertile women who bear children for the elite), green for Marthas (the house servants of the elite), blue for wives (the spouses of elite Commanders), and brown for aunts (the high-ranking women responsible for indoctrinating the handmaids, overseeing births, and presiding over “mob justice” executions). As Atwood is quoted in the article, organizing people according to what they’re wearing dates back to the Code of Hammurabi. Often we think of the Third Reich’s yellow stars for Jews and pink triangles for gays. But aside from the color, the head-to-toe garb calls to mind the Islamic chador (which Atwood wore on a trip to Afghanistan in 1978), which is probably why the handmaid dress code struck me as Islamic more than anything else.

Some might compare the garb to the habit of a Catholic nun, but that’s a weaker analogy. Like priests, nuns take on a religious vocation and assume their dress code voluntarily. In Gilead, the handmaids are a class of women through no choice of their own, imposed on them by their fertility. They are like everyday Muslim women who are forced to wear the veil, chador, hijab, etc.

Mob Justice

Because the handmaids are so repressed, they need occasional release, which they get when they are allowed to torture and execute criminals. In the premiere episode they beat to death a rapist (read: a “low-life” rapist of elite wives, not a state-sanctioned rapist of handmaidens like themselves). The handmaidens basically stand in a circle and violently abuse the offender until he is dead. As Atwood says, the precedent goes back to the Dionysian revels of ancient Greece, in which the Maenads (female followers of the god Dionysus) tore apart sacrificial victims for their deity.

Mob justice obviously doesn’t need religion to drive it, and there are many examples throughout history that set the example. However, there is another scene of handmaid execution that comes in the season finale, and which requires the particular punishment of stoning. Stoning is not a Christian punishment but an Islamic one, and has been common in Islam throughout all its history. (See below, “Death by Stoning”.)

Declaring Women Barren

In the Republic of Gilead, it is blasphemy to suggest that a man could be sterile. The fertility problem is on women alone, and this idea derives from all three Abrahamic faiths. In the Judeo-Christian Bible and Qur’an, the male never comes under judgment for sterility. Barrenness falls on the woman’s shoulders and is a curse from God. That’s what people thought for centuries, and why Henry VIII kept changing wives, unable to credit that he might have been the problem, and not them.

Why Ofglen Does What She Does

When things look bad for Ofglen, she resorts to a final desperate act of resistance against the state of Gilead, taking out a few guards with a stolen vehicle — a stupid thing to do, but which Atwood compares to Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire. It’s a weak analogy, because Ofglen wasn’t religiously inspired. While Buddhism frowns on suicide for the most part, in some cases it can be seen as a deed of self-sacrifice, as when the 109 Tibetan Buddhists burned themselves as a sacrifice for the Tibetan people. These self-immolaters were acting similarly to the Buddha, who in one of his incarnations offered his body as food for a hungry tigress.

There is room for selfless suicide in Buddhism, just as there is an imperative for suicide bombing in Islam, and those religious differences matter since what nominally calls them forth is exactly the same: China has oppressed the Tibetans as horribly as Israel and western powers have done in the Muslim world — yet there are no Tibetan suicide bombers. Religions aren’t the same, despite what we’re often told. Buddhist suicide is purely self-sacrificial; Islamic suicide is also homicidal, and the more people killed, the greater the glory in paradise; Christian suicide is sinful in the extreme. What Ofglen does in The Handmaid’s Tale is simply a (non-religious) human response to a tyranny that cannot be defeated; a protest that will perhaps be remembered and inspire others down the line.

And what about these…?

Female Circumcision

The New York Times article fails to mention one of the most arresting scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale: Ofglen’s gentital mutilation in episode 3. There are misunderstandings about female genital mutilation (FGM) that need clearing. We are often told that FGM isn’t an Islamic problem but an African problem. While it’s true that some African countries do this, most female circumcision occurs either in Islamic countries or close to them. Moreover, Islam is the only religion that officially mandates it: “Circumcision is obligatory, for every male and female, by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr clitoris.” (Umdat al-Salik e4.3)  The problem goes well beyond Africa in any case. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization declared female genital mutilation a “human right”. Muslim clerics have defended it around the globe. It’s a huge problem in Britain, and a huge percentage of the Muslims in Britain are not from Africa. It’s common in Iraq and in the Maldives. 40 percent of Kurdish women have been victims of it. It is actually very accurate — if not politically correct — to say that FGM is an Islamic problem.

Even where Christian groups practice FGM (in Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya), it is not prescribed religiously. There is no Christian analogue to either the Muslim hadith in which Muhammad approves FGM “if the cutting is not too severe”, or to the Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveler), cited above, which is the authoritative source on Islamic law. Put simply, FGM has never been a Christian requirement. So this part of The Handmaid’s Tale evokes Islam — and mainstream Islam at that — more than fundamentalist Christianity.

The Ceremony

Even more curious is that the New York Times ignores the central plot device: the Ceremony, which we get a graphic view of in episode 4. The ritual is based on the account in Genesis 30:1-5 where Rachel is unable to have children and so she gives Jacob her handmaid Bilhah as a surrogate for him to have sex with. This story becomes the basis for the class of handmaids in Gilead, which are needed because of the declining birth rate among humanity caused by toxic environment. Fertile women are taken to become sex slaves of Gilead’s political elite, and their sole purpose to produce babies for the elite women, being shuffled from one home after another to bear children.

Now, the handmaid text of Genesis 30 has never in Christian history been interpreted as religiously prescriptive, but in The Handmaid’s Tale the Christian authorities of Gilead have run wild with it, making the basis for their Ceremony. It proceeds once a month, whereby the Commander stands in front of his bed while banging his handmaid as she lies in the lap of his wife. This is supposed to make the act an intimate affair for all three parties involved. I admit this is an ingenious idea for a dystopian setting, but in reality preposterous as a fundamentalist Christian belief that could ever become the rule of law. First of all, just because something happens in the bible doesn’t mean that it’s prescriptive. Most of the Israelite holy wars, for example, were understood to be acceptable for the Israelites alone, not later Jews and Christians — God, in other words, approved slaughtering the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Jesubites, but none after, and his commands never amounted to “marching orders” for believers. Unlike Allah in the Qur’an, Yahweh never commands his subjects to fight unbelievers as a general rule or to subjugate infidel nations. (He does command, prescriptively, that the promised land be kept pure and free from idolatry, which serves as the basis for modern Zionism.) Most warfare in the Bible is descriptive, while in the Qur’an it’s prescriptive.

Likewise, the text of Genesis 30:1-5 isn’t prescriptive, and it’s no wonder Jews and Christians have not felt compelled to do as Jacob and Rachel did. The closest thing to the handmaid ceremony in today’s world is garden-variety sex slavery and/or concubinage, which is prescribed in the Qur’an and Islamic law (Qur’an 4:3, 4:24, 33:50; 23:1-6; Umdat al-Salik O9.13). So when people say that the Ceremony of Gilead comes across as more Islamic than Judeo-Christian — even though it’s based on a text from the Bible rather than the Qur’an — they actually have a good point.

Death by Stoning

In the finale (episode 10) the handmaid Janine is found guilty of trying to harm the baby she gave birth to, and so is sentenced to death at the hands of her fellow handmaids (per “mob violence” above). In the Republic of Gilead, the punishment for trying to harm a child is death by stoning. Stoning has never been a Christian practice, though it derives from the Old Testament and was used in ancient Judaism. On the other hand, it has been a consistent Islamic practice throughout history, prescribed by the Qur’an and many hadiths.

Stoning continues to be the law in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates — especially for men and women caught in adultery, and for women who refuse to wear the veil. All versions of sharia law, in fact, require stoning for those who commit adultery, and for women don’t wear veils. There are Muslim countries that don’t implement these particular sharia punishments, but those countries are not operating according to a supposed “moderate” form of sharia; such does not exist. So this scene in the finale evokes Islam without question.

Conclusion: An “Islamic” Republic?

While it’s evident that Margaret Atwood drew on all sorts of antecedents, religious and secular, I was getting heavy Islamic vibes from the Republic of Gilead. I haven’t read the novel, and so I don’t know the source material, but I wonder if either Atwood and/or the series writers were trying to imply that religions carry an equal potential for harm — in this case that a nation under Christian fundamentalist rule can turn out just as bad as, say, a place like Saudi Arabia. Critics are also saying that The Handmaid’s Tale is a “timely warning about the Trump administration”. That too is nonsense. For all of the threats Trump presents — and he indeed presents many — he has not, and will not, come anywhere close to endorsing the notion of a government so crushing (like that of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations) that it is able to mandate repressive class divisions, state-sanctioned rape, and the obliteration of individual identity. I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale as a dystopian fantasy, but as a speculative outcome of Christian America at its worst, it’s impossible to take seriously.

The Best Scenes in Stranger Things (Prepare for Halloween)

Season 2 of Stranger Things is officially wrapped up and many of the cast have been promising it will be even better and darker than the first. This seems too good to be true, so I’m keeping my expectations modest, but one thing can be said: Halloween/my birthday can’t come soon enough. Here’s a list of what I consider the best scenes of the first season. (Click on the images for the youtube clips.) I have to say I’m still in awe of Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven. All the actors are top notch, and especially the kids, but Brown conveys more with her silences than most professional actors do by speaking. The writers scored big time by giving her a limited vocabulary, and I’m a bit worried how that aspect of her character might change in season 2.

Will’s corpse

1. Will’s corpse. Episode 3. When it’s dragged from the quarry no one has any reason to think it’s a fake body, and at this point even I wasn’t sure what was going on. For all I knew Will was dead and it was just his spirit contacting Joyce through the Christmas lights. Mike’s fury at Eleven (“What is wrong with you??”) is one of his best moments. The “Heroes” song playing over this scene is a genius piece of scoring, and the way it meshes with Joyce and Jonathan from the “Run” scene (see #10 below) adds up to what I consider the strongest and most emotional scene of the series: Mike sobs in his mother’s arms and Joyce sobs in her son’s, each helpless against the night that has brought pain and rage to them both.

“Good-bye, Mike”

2. “Good-bye, Mike.” Episode 8. No sooner does Mike declare his romantic intentions to El (see #20 below) than his plans are cruelly smashed. Using every last filament of her power, El begins to disintegrate the Demogorgon and shut the gate for good. Knowing this is enough to consume her too, she turns back and says good-bye to Mike, which of course destroys him. It is a hugely rewarding departure for the amazing character of El, obviously a tear-jerker, and you can easily make a case for it being the #1 scene, though I favor the episode 3 ending above.

Will’s rescue

3. Will’s rescue. Episode 8. The other side of the finale climax occurs in the Upside Down, where an Alien-hosted Will is barely alive. Even after many viewings I still find the resuscitation scene incredibly powerful, as Hopper replays the death of his daughter, and Joyce is about to lose her mind if her son doesn’t start breathing. It’s the moment the series has been building to, and even if it’s not clear how Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down (while Barbara and well-armed professionals from the Hawkins institute were instantly slain), his rescue pays off without feeling like a cheat.

D&D campaign

4. D&D campaign. Episode 1. The first scene of the premiere sums up my nerdy childhood and why D&D was so fun in the early ’80s. I fell in love with these kids right away: Mike the group leader (and of course the dungeon master), Lucas the skeptic, Dustin ruled by his appetites, and Will the sensitive kid whose character gets thrashed by the Demogorgon. As does Will himself, and it’s a brilliant way of introducing the Upside-Down creature, by anticipating it through the kids’ imagination of the demon-lord.

Wallpaper Will

5. Wallpaper Will. Episode 4. Everyone talks about the “Run” scene (see #10 below) but I consider this one better. It’s far more distressing and actually gave me a nightmare. Joyce rips down her wallpaper and sees Will in a flesh-encased portion of the wall, crying desperately for help. Through the whole series Winoda Ryder holds her role as the hysterical mom, but in this scene she is especially convincing. Imagine if you caught a glimpse of your child being terrorized in a hellish domain while being powerless to do anything about it. It’s one freaky scene.

Mike jumps

6. Mike jumps. Episode 6. Of course he’s saved mid-fall, but it pays off El as she deserves at this point in the story, as the boys finally accept her as one of them. The scene also contains the pivotal flashback in which El accidentally opens the gate to the Upside Down and unleashes the Demogorgon, which has fueled her guilt-trips and caused her to believe — as she says in tears to Mike — that she’s the real monster. Flipping the van (see #11) is arguably El’s grandest feat, but the cliff rescue of Mike is her most important and dramatic.

“She tried to get naked!”

7. “She tried to get naked!” Episode 2. Classic 12-year-old reactions to the intrusion of a girl. When El tries to disrobe, Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role (“That’s the bathroom — privacy, get it?”), while the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are hilarious (“She tried to get naked!”, indignantly mimics her taking off her shirt). After the D&D campaign (see #4), this is the best character moment of the series, and can be watched on replay. Poor El doesn’t even want the bathroom door closed, she’s so terrified of closed spaces, and Mike’s halfway measure is precious.

Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve against the Demogorgon

8. Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve against the Demogorgon. Episode 8. This scene could have failed in so many ways, and I was expecting it to. Steve turns up at just the wrong moment, and so of course he would be the convenient throw-away. The Demogorgon would kill this asshole, leaving Nancy and Jonathan to survive, and of course Jonathan would replace Steve as Nancy’s boyfriend. Instead we end up cheering Steve for the first time as he proceeds to unload a can of whup-ass on the Demogorgon, switching from villain to protagonist in a completely believable way. The showdown is a ballbuster and the Christmas strobe-lights make it twice as intense.

The Vale of Shadows explained

9. The Vale of Shadows (the Upside Down) explained. Episode 5. Any D&D moment in this series is a treat, and I love the homage to The Expert Rulebook from the ’80s, which yes I still have, and for that matter even an earlier edition. The subsequent scene at Will’s funeral is a particular favorite of mine, where Mr. Clarke — by far the best adult character in Stranger Things — explains the logistics of traveling to a hypothetical shadow realm. It’s morbidly ironic, as the kids discuss the issue at the funeral of their friend they know is alive.

“Run”

10. “Run.” Episode 3. This is a fan favorite and I expected to rate it higher, especially since the ouija board idea hits close to home (I had an unpleasant experience with one in my college years). But as I said, the Wallpaper-Will scene (#5) is superior. The idea here is that Will communicates from the Upside Down via electricity, whether by inaudible phone calls that roast the handsets, or in this case lamps and lights that flicker frantically. In the Wallpaper-Will scene, by contrast, it’s more than communication going in, since El is channeling a window to the Upside Down, so that Joyce can see and hear her son directly. But “Run” is still a great and scary scene.

Road chase

11. Road chase. Episode 7. This prologue sequence to episode 7 reminds me of the scene of Arwen being chased on horseback by the Nazgul in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that intense. The Hawkins goons tear up the road in vans, which the kids evade by cutting through neighbors’ lawns over narrow paths. When they’re finally cornered, El flips the van barreling towards them. As if that weren’t sweet enough, it ends on reconciliation, as Lucas repents of distrusting Eleven so much and shakes with Mike.

Jonathan wastes Steve

12. Jonathan wastes Steve. Episode 6. I was expecting Jonathan to get the shit kicked out of him, and this is one of many instances in which the Jonathan-Nancy-Steve triangle subverted my expectations (see #8 for another example). The Asshole vs. the Nice Guy is cliche, but Stranger Things gives that formula the finger. Jonathan may be nice and sensitive, but he has a psychotic side, being a stalker and all, and the way he lets loose here is pretty alarming. Steve may be an asshole, but he’s a believable one with a redeemable side, and it made sense that Nancy stayed with him in the end; the bond she shared with Jonathan was a different kind.

Barbara’s death

13. Barbara’s death. Episode 3. If the series has one liability, it’s that none of the main characters die. Benny Hammond was a nice guy but so minor that we hardly noticed when he got shot. Barbara was a minor character too, and yet her death really upset people, probably because she’s a genuinely decent person and the best friend of Nancy who we are so invested in. I’m not sure what the writers intended, but Barbara’s fate turned out to be the much needed tragedy to make us feel the threat of the Upside Down. Her death runs parallel to Nancy and Steve fucking in bed — a brilliant juxtaposition.

El flips the gaming board (no video clip)

14. El flips the gaming board. Episode 2. The Upside Down is telegraphed in this early scene without naming it, as El tries to convey the fact that Will is trapped alone somewhere dark. She says he is “hiding”, but not from the “bad men” she is avoiding, rather from a nightmare creature which she represents on the bottom side of the gaming board by the D&D figurine of the Demogorgon. It’s a creepy foreshadowing of the Upside Down, and makes clear that Will is in serious shit. (Unfortunately I can’t find a youtube clip of this scene.)

Castle Byers

15. Castle Byers. Episode 7. When we finally see where Will is hiding in the Upside Down, we’ve come a long way with El since she flipped the gaming board. The shadow version of Will’s tree fort is one of the most atmospheric set pieces in Stranger Things and a literal living nightmare. It’s not the most reliable hiding place either, as the Demogorgon finds him at the end of the episode — and whisks him away to be cocooned and impregnated Alien-style.

Will’s slug

16. Will’s slug. Episode 8. The beauty to this scene is that it teases the next season but can just as easily be taken as a dark ending to a single season that leaves Will’s fate to our imaginations. And it’s entirely appropriate, because the show has asked a lot of us to believe that Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down, while Barbara and militant goons from the Hawkins institute were killed right away. This is the payoff: Will was transformed in his prolonged captivity, and is now part of the Upside Down, as he seems to live in both dimensions simultaneously.

Dress up

17. Dress up. Episode 4. I think El is prettier without the wig and dress, and I’m pretty sure Mike does too. But they do catalyze his feelings for her. It’s an homage to E.T. (Gertie dressing up the alien), but as with many of the homages in this series they are given weight in their seriousness. The E.T. scene is pure comedy, and while there’s some levity here as well, the boys are dazzled by her transformation, especially Mike who calls her “pretty” before catching himself and following the compliment with “good”. We know what he means.

Nancy in the Upside Down

18. Nancy in the Upside Down. Episode 6. Nancy has the best story arc of the series, because she begins annoying and ends solid, and her journey between these points is completely organic and believable. Her best moment is against the Demogorgon in the finale (see #8 above), but this is a great scene too. She and Jonathan are stalking the beast late at night, and when it snatches a bloody deer from under their noses everything goes to hell. Nancy wanders into the Upside Down and gets lost there and it’s pretty unnerving as she hides behind trees from the Demogorgon running wild.

The cat

19. The cat. Episode 3. Aside from her calamitous opening of the gate (see #6), this flashback is El’s most intense. She tries to make a cat’s head explode, ultimately refuses to go through with it and is dragged off to solitary confinement for her misbehavior. It’s a genuinely upsetting scene that puts the Hawkins institute into perspective for the first time. It’s nice to see El thrash her abusers, and “Papa’s” reaction says it all, as he marvels in awe over her powers no matter what it does to people. (In the youtube clip, the scene starts at 3:21.)

Mike and El kiss

20. Mike and El kiss. Episode 8. How can I possibly omit this one? Mike promises that his parents will adopt El and take care of her, and that he will be her boyfriend and take her to the school dance. Then he gives her a proper smooch. It’s simple and sweet — though a rather cruel set up, as only minutes later El will be sacrificing herself and leaving poor Mike devastated and bereaved.

“If You Call Yourself a Jew”

I love the way RBL reviews come so after the fact. Philip Esler has reviewed Rafael Rodriguez’s work on Romans, which was published back in 2014. It’s a good excuse to revisit the book, which follows the Stowers school that Romans is addressed primarily to Gentiles, rather than (as I believe) a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. Why then does Romans sound so Jewish-oriented unlike the rest of Paul’s letters? Rodriguez’s solution is to view the interlocutor (conversation partner) of Rom 2:17 as a gentile proselyte to Judaism — in other words, as Rodriguez claims, someone of Gentile ethnicity but of Jewish religiosity, and who teaches Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes like himself.

As Esler points out in his review, this allows Rodriguez to have his cake and eat it, for the person addressed in Rom 2:17 is both a Gentile and a Jew: “Paul still imagines a gentile in vv. 17 ff., only now this gentile has taken on the yoke of Torah — an individual of gentile origin who wants to call himself a Jew”. But how is this person a transgressor of the Torah, even to the point that his circumcision breaks the law? Rodriguez’s answer is that the circumcision wasn’t performed on the eighth day as required by Lev. 12:3. Esler asks for “some evidence for the idea that a law requiring adult Israelites to circumcise their sons on the eighth day could be, or ever was, invoked as a bar, or indeed have any relevance, to adult non-Israelites wishing to join Israel and willing to be circumcised to do so.” Indeed, I can’t imagine that being an obstacle at all. Not only were there probably Jewish sons circumcised on days other than the eighth, Abraham himself (Paul’s hero) wasn’t understood to be in the Old Testament or intertestamental literature.

Esler also warns about false distinctions between “ethnic” and “religious” Jews, saying that “becoming a Jew/Judean through circumcision and adoption of Jewish/Judean customs meant adoption of Jewish/Judean ethnic identity, not the adoption of a separable and separate Jewish religious identity, which was nonexistent in the first century.” Then there are the Jewish addresses of Rom 16, which Rodriguez (following Stowers) sees as third-party greetings rather than greetings to the actual recipients of the letter — which I agree with Esler asks a bit much.

I admire Rodríguez’s argument as much as I see problems with it. As someone who has spent years on Romans, I’m continually intrigued by various solutions to the audience puzzle. For Rodríguez, Rom 1:18–1:31 addresses the depraved immoral pagan, 2:1–16 the elitist moralizing pagan, and 2:17–29 the gentile proselyte to Judaism. That last allows him creativity at the point of Rom 7:9 which says, “I once lived apart from the law.”

The more plausible outline, as I see it, is to look at the overarching argument of Rom 1:18-3:20, where Paul takes down Gentiles and Jews, but in different ways, so as to put them on the same playing field while underscoring differences so as to reduce competition between the two ethnic factions. One of the key points of Esler’s 2003 book is that in Romans Paul avoids saying, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). He’s more enlightened than he was in I Corinthians and Galatians, and learning from his failures now understands that there should indeed be “Jew and Greek in Christ”, at least to a significant degree, so that differences can be respected rather than erased. On that understanding, the outline of Rom 1:18-3:20 would look like this:

Both groups are judged (1:18-3:20)

1. Gentiles are judged apart from the law (1:18-2:5)

2. Gentiles are subject to a “natural” law written on their pagan hearts, as much as Jews are to the Torah (2:6-16)

1′. Jews are judged by the law (2:17-2:29)

2′. Jews under the law are dominated by the power of sin as much as Gentiles under ungodliness, though in a completely different way: the law accentuates sin when transgression occurs (3:1-20)

The equal attention paid to both Gentile and Jewish factions in Rome is then repeated in Rom 6:1-7:25, this time from the standpoint of baptism and death.

Both groups die (6:1-7:25)

— Both die to the power of sin (6:1-15)

1. Gentiles die to sin and become slaves of God (6:16-23)

2. Jews die to the law and become slaves of the spirit (7:1-25)

Again, both groups are seen to be on the same footing but in different ways. And “dying to the law” in Rom 7 is run parallel to the Eden story in Genesis. Rodriguez’s view that Rom 7:9 — “I once lived apart from the law” — refers to a Gentile proselyte is too superficial for Paul’s overarching purpose.

For reasons that escape me, many persist in denying the focus of the Genesis story. Esler himself is guilty of this, but to me it’s rather clear that Adam looms over the section of Rom 5-8, and comes to particular focus in the parallels of Rom 7:7-13, where “alive” and newly created, he is placed in Eden (Gen. 2:7-9) and “commanded” by God not to eat of the tree of life (Gen. 2:16-17), whereafter the serpent “seizes opportunity” to further its own ends (Gen. 3:1-5) and Eve complains that she was “deceived” (Gen. 3:13). God then kills humanity, punishing it with mortality (Gen. 3:19,22-23). As much as I’ve tried in the past, I can’t escape the conclusion that Paul has deliberately assumed the role of Adam in order to “prove” that life under the Torah replicates Adam/Eve’s failure under the commandment in Eden. His argument is an exegetical one, in effect urging that the traps and snares of the Torah trace back to the horror of the fall, which in turn fulfills his ambitious desire to prove that Jews are no better under the law (7:1-25), than Gentiles are under ungodliness (6:16-23), each requiring the dramatic rescue operation of 8:1-17.

At the very least, Esler’s review is good cause to revisit Rodriguez’s stimulating explanation as to why Paul’s interlocutor “calls himself a Jew”. I have to admit it’s one of the better efforts from the Stowers camp.