The Beast Below (AKA: The Last of the Starwhales)

It’s fair to say I’ve been in a foul mood over Doctor Who for a long time now. After enduring the shower of piss that was The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and then the tedious dross meant to tide us over until the arrival of season five (the “special” episodes spread out over 2009), I was wondering if I would ever feel the magic again. I’ve been feeling it this season, and as magic is supposed to be received: like a child (cf. Mk 10:15/Mt 18:3/Lk 18:17). Steven Moffat knows children, how to cast them, and what buttons to push to make their fears become ours. The season is shaping up to be a dark fairy-tale like Alice’s Adventures in the TARDIS. At the same time, I was somewhat let down by The Beast Below for failing to deliver the goods promised in the opening sequence of the story.

And what an opening sequence it is. Moffat immerses us right away in the unsettling world of the Starship U.K. from a classroom child’s perspective. Timmy gets a bad grade and is banished from using the elevators to get home, but he takes one anyway. What happens inside is horrifying: a video starts playing of a young girl reciting ominous poetry, warning to “expect no love from the beast below”; the Smiler on the opposite wall spins its head 180 degrees, facing out a hideous contortion of demonic rage (see upper right photo); and the elevator floor slides open to reveal a hellish pit below. As he falls, Timmy’s screams are reminiscent of those of the victims in Gridlock and Planet of the Ood — perfect segues into the sting and thundering Doctor Who music, promising a roller-coaster ride of terror ahead.

That ride doesn’t come, however. The Smilers may be scary looking, but it never goes beyond looks. They don’t kill anyone and are way too easily disposed of by Her Majesty, the cavalierly pistol-slinging Liz Ten. In fact, in this story — and in what is becoming an alarming trope in Moffat scripts — “everyone lives”. For all of Moffat’s brilliance in serving up the scares, he has as an astounding aversion to killing off significant characters. This is something classic Who was never squeamish about. Moffat did give us tragedy in two stories, The Girl and the Fireplace (Madame de Pompadour) and Blink (Kathy Nightingale and Billy Shipton), naturally his best to date. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead would have been as good if not for the afterlife scenario which trivialized River Song’s sacrifice. In The Beast Below no one comes to any harm at all, and frankly, after the opening sequence, we never feel like anyone is in much jeopardy.

Though to be fair, that is somewhat the point, because the Smilers ultimately serve the Queen without her knowing why or how. The beast below is the true victim, a starwhale held captive and tormented so that it will keep ferrying the ship through space. The British people are victims of their own decisions more than anything, made every five years in the voting booths. Videotapes explain that Starship U.K. runs not on engines but by harnessing the power of a tortured starwhale, and each person votes either to forget this horrible truth and live on in ignorance, or protest the truth — which, with enough votes, will supposedly put an end to the beast’s suffering (and leave Britain stranded among the stars), but in fact gets the voter fed to the whale below. (The Doctor and Amy landing in the beast’s mouth, drenched in putrid feculence, is a priceless scene.) But the brilliant twist comes at the end, when it is revealed that the beast doesn’t even need to be tortured to carry the starship. It began doing so voluntarily, as the last of its kind unable to bear the screaming of Earth’s children dying from the solar flares. It loves children and refuses to harm them, meaning that all children who have fallen into the pit are still alive. That’s a cop-out, mind you, but at least feeds into a certain theme of the story.

For The Beast Below works on two levels, one as a political fable about society kept in ignorance, if democratically by their own choice, and two as a metaphorical commentary on the Doctor’s nature. The last of the starwhales allows Amy to understand the Doctor better, and more polysemously, than previous companions. The way Moffat milks a philosophical purpose out of the whale like this will undoubtedly offend some viewers as crass, but I actually think it works well; the end revelation plays authentically.

And the best part of this revelation is that it is indeed Amy, not the Doctor, who ends up saving the day. She sees the similarities between Time Lord and beast — both the last of their kind, both committed to helping others out of an alien compassion — while the Doctor is caught up in helpless fury as he works to destroy the whale on humanity’s behalf. Smith conveys contemptuous arrogance remarkably well, as he lambastes Amy for trying to spare him making the difficult choice, culminating in his frustrated holler of rage, “Nobody talk to me! Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” This puts us immediately in mind of the brusk and ineffectual Ninth Doctor, who so often (70% of the time) was more a problem than a solution. This flawed aspect of the Time Lord is something we haven’t seen in a while; the Tenth Doctor was more a self-mythologizing superhero (we got an exceptional dose of his fallibility in Midnight). If the opening sequence is the best part of the story, the epilogue is a close second: the Doctor tells Amy, “You could have killed everyone on this ship,” and she replies, on near equal footing, “And you could have killed a starwhale.” Welcome Amy Pond.

It should be noted how much this story mirrors Full Circle, which was unique in the Tom Baker years for having no villains (as in this story, people are their own worst enemy), and the same plot ingredients: cyclic patterns of a society going nowhere, unethical treatment of other species, and collectively willful ignorance. Both involve plot twists and surprising revelations, and while The Beast Below lacks the layered complexity of the E-Space classic, and refuses to show us the beast killing anyone (unlike Full Circle’s marshmen), it is daringly impressive nonetheless.

In sum, The Beast Below marks a successful movement into a season which is taking us down the rabbit hole. Provided we start seeing some actual body counts, and soon, I have confidence in where we’re going.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

The Ultimate Doctor Who Quiz

I created a Doctor Who quiz for Facebook, but Doug Chaplin suggested that I also blog it for benefit of those who are averse to installing Facebook applications. If you want to take the test on Facebook and see your grade right away, go to The Ultimate Doctor Who Quiz. If not, see below. Answers will be forthcoming sometime next week.

1. Which Doctor never worked with UNIT?

A. The sixth
B. The seventh
C. The ninth
D. The tenth

2. In which of the following does the Fourth Doctor not help a planet’s natives by leading a revolution?

A. The Sun Makers
B. The Androids of Tara
C. The Power of Kroll
D. State of Decay

3. Who was the most ineffectual Doctor — that is, the most unable to save the day in so many stories?

A. The second
B. The fifth
C. The sixth
D. The ninth

4. Complete the analogy for the afflictions suffered by the Doctor immediately following a regeneration.

Multiple Personality Disorder: Hypermania: Homicidal Mania: Coma::

A. Sixth: Fifth: Fourth: Third
B. Fifth: Fourth: Sixth: Third
C. Third: Fourth: Sixth: Fifth
D. Fourth: Third: Sixth: Fifth

5. Which stories are renowned for, and received protests over, scenes of graphic torture?

A. The Sontaran Experiment and Revelation of the Daleks
B. The Deadly Assassin and Revelation of the Daleks
C. The Deadly Assassin and Vengeance on Varos
D. The Sontaran Experiment and Vengeance on Varos

6. In the case of two Doctors, their last season is renowned for re-attaining greatness over the mediocrity of immediately previous seasons. Who are they?

A. The third and fourth
B. The fifth and sixth
C. The fourth and seventh
D. The fifth and tenth

7. Which of the following contains an anomaly?

A. Rose, Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime
B. The End of the World, New Earth, Utopia
C. The Unquiet Dead, Tooth and Claw, The Shakespeare Code
D. Love and Monsters, Blink, Midnight/Turn Left

8. Which TARDIS companion never saw Gallifrey?

A. Sarah
B. Leela
C. Romana
D. Adric

9. Which Doctor went against the Daleks more than once?

A. The fourth
B. The fifth
C. The sixth
D. The seventh

10. Who was producer of the TV program over the course of four Doctors?

A. Philip Hinchcliffe
B. Graham Williams
C. John Nathan-Turner
D. Russell Davies

11. Which Doctor commented as follows, in regards to kids stealing food from the rich? “I’m not sure if it’s Marxism in action or a west end musical.”

A. The fourth
B. The seventh
C. The ninth
D. The tenth

12. Complete the analogy.

Frankenstein: Dracula::

A. The Brain of Morbius: State of Decay
B. The Sontaran Experiment: State of Decay
C. The Sontaran Experiment: The Face of Evil
D. The Brain of Morbius: The Face of Evil

13. In the new series (seasons 1-4), which is the only season to have no stories set on a planet other than Earth?

A. One
B. Two
C. Three
D. Four

14. Which of the following stories does not involve a time-traveling paradox?

A. Father’s Day
B. The Girl in the Fireplace
C. Blink
D. Turn Left

15. In The Eleventh Hour the Doctor tells Amy, “Do everything I tell you, don’t ask stupid questions, and don’t wander off.” Which Doctor says something similar to which companion?

A. The fourth to Leela in The Face of Evil
B. The fourth to Romana in The Ribos Operation
C. The fourth to Adric in Full Circle
D. The fifth to Peri in Planet of Fire

16. Complete the analogy. These are the reasons for departures of TARDIS companions.

Stranded in parallel universe: Marriage: Death::

A. Rose: Leela: Adric
B. Rose: Peri: Adric
C. Donna: Romana: Adric
D. Rose: Peri: Turlough

17. Which of the following both involve parallel universes?

A. Inferno, New Earth
B. Inferno, The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel
C. The Android Invasion, New Earth
D. The Android Invasion, The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel

18. Complete the analogy involving a mythologically evil foe.

Egyptian: Norse: Judeo-Christian::

A. Pyramids of Mars: The Key to Time: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
B. Image of the Fendahl: The Key to Time: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
C. Pyramids of Mars: The Curse of Fenric: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit
D. Image of the Fendahl: The Curse of Fenric: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit

19. Who said the following, in response to a flattering comment about being witty? “Slightly witty, perhaps. I shall contain my wit, in case I do you further injury.”

A. Charles Dickens
B. Queen Victoria
C. William Shakespeare
D. Agatha Christie

20. If you had to bet on four Daleks or millions of Cybermen going to battle against each other, who’s going to win?

A. Daleks kick ass! They could wipe out the Cybermen with a single Dalek, let alone four.
B. Cybermen rule! With such numbers on their side, how could they lose?

Old Ideas Meme

Doug Chaplin didn’t tag me, but I like his old ideas meme:

“Name one idea that used to be seen as a key Christian theme, but is nowadays regarded as either irrelevant or outdated, although you think it still has a lot to offer. In two sentences say something about why you selected this, and why it should be recovered or renewed.”

For me it’s the doctrine of atonement. In even its most brutally medieval manifestation, we learn positively from the way in which satisfaction, penal substitution, and ransom redemption interweave and take us into the eye of a paradox where wrath and mercy become one. While I believe this doctrine deserves to be transcended (the highest form of forgiveness is free forgiveness that doesn’t require any give-and-take in between), it involves a truth about the human condition that can’t be overcome so easily. People care deeply about issues of honor and justice, even if true enlightenment demands that we check them at the door. The doctrine of atonement is a blanket of security which affirms our need to do the right or honorable thing, while beckoning us to higher wisdom.

The Eleventh Hour

I was hoping that Steven Moffat would do away with these invasion-of-earth season openers, but aside from regenerations, it doesn’t look like miracles happen overnight. That being said, The Eleventh Hour blows away the stories by Russell Davies which introduced a new companion — even Smith and Jones whose plot it copies: an illegal alien disguised as a human, pursued to Earth by other alien authorities, around a hospital setting. We get shades of the atrocious Runaway Bride (the opening scene with the Doctor hanging outside the TARDIS as it careens uncontrollably over the London skyline), and the classic Christmas Invasion (the end confrontation, about planet Earth being “defended” before the Doctor sends off the Atraxi). Homage is felt everywhere. But where Davies used Rose, Smith and Jones, and Partners in Crime to dumb down to the lowest common denominator, Moffat respects our intelligence, and, astoundingly, manages to deliver a crowd-pleasing masterpiece.

Let’s discuss the new Doctor himself. Matt Smith assumes the eccentric role with ease, and I’ve no doubts he’ll be as good as Tennant if not better. I felt I was in good hands the moment he emerged from the crashed TARDIS all frazzled and said to Amy, “Do everything I tell you, don’t ask stupid questions, and don’t wander off.” That’s more bite than we’re used to with Tennant, and reminiscent of Tom Baker who routinely barked condescension at everyone. Tennant was very good, of course, but by the end of his stint had become too domesticated for my liking. The eleventh incarnation is unsettling even at his most homey. Some of the best scenes are at the beginning when he ungratefully spits out every piece of food given to him by the seven-year old Amy, and then tries solving the mystery of the crack in her bedroom wall — the crack, of course, being a rift to an alien jail cell — by ordering her this way and that. It’s great stuff.

And the character of Amy Pond shows promise in a way that previous companions did not. Unlike Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Donna Noble, she doesn’t come with dysfunctional family in tow. This is such a relief I can hardly convey it in words. While I certainly acknowledge that Rose’s family was ultimately put to good use, especially with the dramatic involvement of Pete Tyler, the Jones and Noble families were more extraneous, and by the end of their respective seasons had become irritating. Moffat gives us Amy sans parental baggage, breaking with at least a significant part of the Davies formula.

In place of kitchen sink soap opera, Moffat substitutes tempus fugit drama for which he has become renowned in stories like The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink. As in the former, the Doctor establishes a close connection with a young girl, leaves suddenly thinking he’ll be “right back”, but returns many years later to a grown woman who believes she had imagined him as a child. Amy, as a result, has baggage, to be sure — she’s seen plenty of shrinks to help cope with her “imaginings” — but it doesn’t need the watered down supplements of family melodrama.

On the face of it, The Eleventh Hour is an invasion of earth story in which the Doctor saves the entire planet in the space of twenty minutes, and by (of all things) using a laptop to spread a global virus. But it’s an incredibly fun ride that draws us back for repeated viewings. And the ending is pure magic, as we see the new TARDIS interior through the eyes of Amy Pond, and are left just as awed. Moffat made a masterpiece almost by accident it seems.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Doctor Who: Season Five

Readers may recall back in the spring of 2008 I tried predicting my ratings of the fourth season episodes of Doctor Who. I didn’t do too badly, though got a few surprises; see Goodacre and Rosson at Doctor Who. I’m going to have a go at it again, but this time in a single rolling post, supplanting my predictions with brief reviews as the episodes air. I will also provide longer reviews of each story in separate blogposts.

1. The Eleventh Hour. 3 ½ stars. Feeling like a leftover of the Davies era, this season opener fares significantly better than previous ones which introduced a new companion, even Smith and Jones whose plot it copies: an illegal alien disguised as a human, pursued to Earth by other alien authorities, around a hospital setting. There is enough Moffat influence to offset the Davies feel, such as the Doctor returning to a much older Amy (shades of The Girl in the Fireplace), and Prisoner Zero being a more fearsome creature than the Autons, Plasmavore, and Adipose combined. It remains what it is — an invasion-of-earth story in which the Doctor saves the entire planet in the space of twenty minutes — yet an incredibly fun ride demanding repeated viewings.

2. The Beast Below. 3 stars. Here are smiles that would give your grandmother a heart attack, the entire British kingdom crammed on a starship searching for a new home, and a beast lurking beneath to eat protesting citizens. This story works on two levels, one as a political fable about society kept in ignorance, albeit democratically by their own choice, and two as a metaphorical commentary on the Doctor’s nature. The “Last of the Starwhales” allows Amy to understand the Doctor better, and more polysemously, than previous companions. And she gets to save the day, as the Doctor is caught up in helpless fury as he works to destroy the whale on humanity’s behalf. We haven’t seen Time Lord fallibility like this since Eccleston, and it’s refreshing.

3. Victory of the Daleks. 3 stars. A rushed episode that needed another to breathe, but a fun World War II story that sees Britain training an army of Daleks to be thrown against the Third Reich. Churchill gets a nasty surprise when they show their true colors, and quite literally: the new and improved Daleks have an intricate caste system (red = drones, blue = strategists, orange = scientists, yellow = eternals, and white = supremes), which will surely be fleshed out later in the season. The space battle between Britain’s Spitfires and the Dalek ship is ludicrous but thrilling, and the Doctor’s fury as he assaults a Dalek with a spanner surpasses even the Ninth Doctor’s rage in Dalek. Not a stellar achievement, by any means, but a fun ride.

4. The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. 5 stars. This two-parter is to Blink as Aliens is to Alien: bigger, longer, more. The weeping angels are back in droves, faced off by an army of priestly soldiers who aren’t nearly as equipped as they think. Like Ripley, the Doctor understands the menace better than anyone, though not always quite enough, and the angels have some alarming new tricks, like breaking peoples’ heads open in order to reanimate their consciousness. In terms of suspense, I haven’t been kept on the edge of my seat so much since the Ood closed in on the space crew back in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit — and as in that story the body count is high. Amy is in deep trouble, and when on death’s door she cries out in a pitifully broken voice, “I’m scared, Doctor,” our Time Lord hero callously retorts, “Of course you’re scared, you’re dying, shut up.” Amusingly, when all is said and done, she wants to jump in the sack with the Doctor and fuck his brains out. Not quite as good as Blink, but as close as can be expected, and a crown jewel of the new series.

5. Vampires of Venice. 3 stars. Vampires return to Doctor Who in a gothic period piece, and the result, while hardly groundbreaking, is fun. The plot is distinctly linear, from the opening as the school of Calvieri welcomes innocent ladies into its monstrous breeding (feeding) program, to the climax which involves an apocalyptic storm of tidal waves, concluding rather lazily with the Doctor saving the day by climbing a tower and pushing a few buttons. Amy’s fiance Rory joins as a TARDIS companion, and the love triangle between the three characters reminds of how effectively Sarah was used in School Reunion by putting Rose’s relationship to the Doctor into perspective, and calling into the question the way the Time Lord eventually discards his companions.

6. Amy’s Choice. 5 stars. Feeling like Doctor-lite, this story struts with determination to ignore the rules and throw something bizarre at us, only this time with the Doctor getting his usual screen time. By far the weirdest story of the new series, and in a good way, as if David Lynch had penned it. It finds the Doctor, Amy, and Rory flicking back and forth between two scenarios, one of which they are told is a dream they are sharing, the other reality. To die in the dream will cause them to wake up in reality for good, and to die in reality will cause them to really die; so they must choose wisely. The choice, however — Amy’s choice — ultimately boils down to a choice between the Doctor and Rory, and it comes together splendidly. A work of art.

7. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. 4 stars. Feeling like classic Who more than anything seen before in the new series, this story taps into how everyone remembers the Pertwee era to be, but with shades of Colin Baker too — protracted torture scenes and luminescent underground sets. It takes a tired cliché and turns it on its head. The alien (Silurian) invaders aren’t really aliens but “Earthlians” who have as much claim to the planet as humanity. “From their point of view, you’re the invaders,” the Doctor lectures his human friends, and actually manages to get the two races to begin negotiating for terms of coexistence before foul play kills hope for a shared planet. The death of Rory is a shocker, and Amy’s memory wipe tragic, the most emotionally powerful scene of the season up to this point.

8. Vincent and the Doctor. 4 ½ stars. A character piece about a tormented genius who has visual acuity beyond the norm. It represents the final year of Van Gogh’s life quite well, recreating various sites painted by the artist, the paintings themselves in arresting color, and his disturbing fits of manic depression. The theme of vision permeates every frame, as we learn that Van Gogh can see things others are blind to. On the literal level this plays out in the attack of the Krafayis, an invisible giant bird-reptile that Vincent fends off entertainingly with long wooden poles and armchairs, while the Doctor gets slammed against walls by its tail. On the deeper level, Van Gogh sees things in nature’s midst and people’s souls. The scoring at the end is a bit rubbish, but aside from that this is a powerfully affective story.

9. The Lodger. 1 star. Worse than pedestrian, playing like a garden variety sitcom, about a monster luring innocent victims up the stairs of a flat complex. The Doctor moves in to investigate and becomes far more involved with the personal affairs of his flatmate than the alien threat above, and it’s never clear why he can’t go up the stairs right away to deal with the problem other than to satisfy the demands of an empty script. The direction is barely adequate, the design uninspiring; the cast struggle bravely to deliver what is essentially a trivial love story. The set up of the staircase is promisingly sinister, but it delivers manure. The best thing about the story is the sight of Matt Smith naked from the waist up.

10. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. 4 stars. Like The Eleventh Hour, a guilty pleasure which effectively gives Moffat’s predecessor the finger whilst feigning homage. The subtext essentially is, if you’re going to raise the stakes to extreme heights, Mr. Davies, this is how you do it. The crack in Amy’s bedroom wall proves to be the most successful seasonal story arc in the new series, and while there are certainly resets to be found here, they’re not cheap, they come at a fair price, and there’s solid emotional payoff. The Doctor’s farewell to Amy as he prepares to sacrifice himself — “You don’t need your imaginary friend anymore” — got me a bit choked up. Well done, Mr. Moffat; bring on season six.

Outside the Agitating Box of Galatians

Richard Fellows has a A New Theory on the Background of Galatians, which he calls “potentially the most important blog post that I have ever written”, followed by Whose side were the pillars on? He argues that (A) Paul and the pillars both believed that Gentiles should not be circumcised, but (B) the agitators in Galatia thought Paul was really on their side — that he had spoken against circumcision only out of loyalty to the pillars with whom he disagreed.

I should note that while I disagree with Richard’s thoroughly argued proposal, my view is actually closer to (A) than most, in the sense that I think Paul and the pillars were at least initially on the same page regarding Gentile liberty. Including Gentiles in the people of God without converting them into proseltyes cohered with apocalyptic hope, and that’s what was preached from the get-go in the Christian movement. But that formula wasn’t going to work forever — not with increasing numbers of Gentiles joining the church, and in a world where the apocalypse kept getting postponed; not in the face of increased pressure from wider Judaism on account of this. That’s why Christianity started to mainstream around the year 49. In order to survive. (That’s typical of millenarian movements, of course: they evole and change/update beliefs when the end fails to come.) So while there was an uneasy agreement between Paul and the pillars in Jerusalem (Gal 2:7-9), I maintain that the pillars broke the agreement (Gal 2:11-14), largely as a survivalist strategy.

And I emphasize that while Paul was rightly furious for being so humiliated, the pillars’ about-face was an understandable move. I think of them as realists who were trying to keep Christianity viable within Judaism. Centuries of theologians and scholars have turned Paul into a lone, gun-slinging hero at Antioch, but perhaps there are no easy heroes here. Both Paul and James (via-Peter) acted out of legitimate concerns.

My reading can account for all the Pauline data as much as Richard’s, though of course I don’t see Acts as squaring so neatly with Galatians like he does. It accounts for the initial agreement at Gal 2:7-9 as much as the fallout in Gal 2:11-14. I’m not terribly impressed with Richard’s claim that the Antioch incident “tells us nothing about the relationship between Paul and Peter, since even the best of friends can have a heated argument at least once”. In the honor-shame world, one does not call attention to “whatever events prove one’s case”, certainly not a shameful confrontation like this between friends. Antioch was about treachery more than mere “hypocrisy”, and it turned Peter and Paul into rival apostles.

I encourage people to read Richard’s posts. They paint an opposite picture of the one I take to be accurate, but they show serious thinking outside the box, which of course is what we should always be doing as readers of the bible.

Biblical Cranks: A Review

(A Guest Review by Leonard Ridge.)

Before I describe my own vital contribution to the achievement, simple modesty requires me to point out that Biblical Cranks, by Loren Rosson, for all its flaws, merits more attention than would normally be granted to a scholar-wannabe’s attempt to prove himself in the middle of a mid-life crisis. My own role in the book’s creation simply owed to being in the right place at the right time.

In the summer of 2008 I arrived unannounced at Loren’s apartment, passing through New Hampshire and wanting to catch up on arthouse flicks, not having seen my friend in months. Three full minutes after ringing the bell I looked in on a stranger: a bleary-eyed, emaciated skeleton out of Edgar Allen’s Poetry. More stunning was the phantom’s speech, incorporating obscenities every other phrase, as in, “Fuck, Leonard, like where the fuck you been, man, shit, man, thought you’d blown me off for good.” I squinted; yes, this was Loren — hideously distorted under bloodshot eyes, puffed cheeks, four-day stubble, and unkept hair that bore a passing resemblance to the mophead used on my kitchen floor.

Scarcely able to contain my shock, I allowed myself to be pulled through the doorway and pounded jovially on the back, when came the overpowering reek from his breath, the odor of which I judged to be gasohol. “Sit the fuck down, man, I’ll get you some.” I fell into a sofa stained by pizza sauce and various bodily fluids, and as Loren proceeded to mix a ghastly concoction of liquors (the “gasohol”), I wondered how in the nine hells he’d reached this state of affairs.

Serving me the gasohol in a filthy glass — and knocking back what must have been his own eighth or ninth shot of the poison — Loren confided that his latest project was a treatise on scholarly cranks of the bible. The unfamiliar names of Yuri Kuchinsky, Andrew Tempelman, Geoff Hudson, Eric Zuesse, Leon Zitzer, Robert Conner, James Tabor, and Ben Witherington III floated from his slurred speech, barely comprehensible around his bitter grievances against a world that failed to appreciate his talents. At the time I had only a vague notion of the scholarly crimes which could be laid at the feet of these people, not only because I don’t read much in the field, but because Loren wasn’t putting two sentences together around his self-pity: “Lenny, man, I can hardly blow my horn anymore, ya know, like shit man, just wanna get something done, man, but like, can’t find my fuckin’ voice, ya know…” He wasn’t working on this book, just dreaming about it while his liver put in the overtime.

After tolerating forty-five minutes of this “speech”, I gave it to him both barrels. What I said to Loren must remain forever confidential, but suffice to say that from that day to this he has managed to conduct himself like a responsible citizen and not a denizen of seedy brothels. Nor does he drench his conversation with vulgarity. He respects his liver. I only wish I had succeeded in deterring him from writing a tediously cheap diatribe against “scholars” who merit little if any attention. The world would be better served by Loren’s ideas on the New Perspective instead of knocking down straw men. But at least he applied himself in front of the keyboard, and this book is the end result.

And despite its haughty tone and frequent lapses into ad hominems, ad hoc arguments, and ad nauseum exaltations of the Context Group, Biblical Cranks manages to keep its head above water at least some of the time. The sour vindictive chapter about Leon Zitzer should have been edited out of the book completely. No one has the right to treat another human being that way in print. That accepted, Loren’s effort to show the dangers of a little knowledge is sobering: with “scholars” such as these, the world is in no short supply of conspiracy theories and apologetics — and comic relief.